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The Upper Wye Hills 3 days / 33 miles (41km)

OS Route Map → Map GPX Route file →

Date: 21 Jun 2010
Start / Finish: Llangurig. Free car park (the public toilets in the village are now closed).
Maps: Explorer 214 Llanidloes & Newtown.

Day 1Esgair y Llwyn to Cerrig Gwaun-y-llan12.9miles / 2877 feet (20.8km / 876m)
Day 2Llechwedd Ddu to Y Foel11.3miles / 2107 feet (18.2km / 642m)
Day 3Esgair y Maesnant SE Top and the Wye Valley8.5miles / 627 feet (13.7km / 191m)
View from Y Foel

A circuit of the hills of the upper Wye Valley between the Pumlumon range and the Elan Valley, taking in a total of nine new 500m tops.

On the south west side of the Wye Valley, a line of hills stretches from Moelfryn near Rhayader to Llechwedd Llwyd above the confluence of the Wye and the Afon Tarrenig. The south-eastern end was covered in our Elan Valley #4 backpack, this trip traverses the rest of the chain and crosses to the north eastern side of the Wye to visit the two hills bordering the Hafren Forest. The outward leg follows line of the Wye Valley Walk as it traverses the hill country south of Llangurig to Dernol and the return uses forest trails and the path along the Afon Bidno valley.

The route planning technique of linking new little known tops has been satisfying, often producing fine walking in solitude and a few real gems, but it must be said that this route was less successful. Every backpack is enjoyable and it's always great to be in the hills walking and pitching the tent, but in this case the rewards were pretty thin relative to the effort required and occasional cursing involved. There are good general views from the high ground over this part of Wales but no intrinsically memorable highlights among these summits, although a few of them will linger in the mind for their oddity value if nothing else. I was quite nonplussed by the area on the east side of Pumlumon near the source of the Wye, little did I suspect such land usage in these hills from our previous walks among the high tops further north.

Some of the description will be of value only to peakbaggers and those planning more sensible routes in the area. Not quite perfect solitude on this one, I met two girls backpacking en route through the forest on the west side of the Wye.

Day 1 - Esgair y Llwyn to Cerrig Gwaun-y-llan

The outward leg was straightforward: I followed the Wye Valley Walk (WVW) southward over the river, climbing the shoulder of a hill to cross the Nant y Clochfaen valley, a typical pastoral scene of mid Wales. The WVW then climbs Nant-yr-hendy Hill to the 470m contour, copiously indicated by waymark posts on the broad top that gives pleasing views, and descends into Blaen-y-cwm and the valley road to Dernol.

The Wye at Llangurig
The Wye at Llangurig (21 Jun 2010__09:27:21)
View west from the Wye Valley Walk above Llangurig
View west from the Wye Valley Walk above Llangurig (21 Jun 2010__11:10:08)
View from the Wye Valley Walk
View from the Wye Valley Walk (21 Jun 2010__11:29:36)

I crossed the Nant y Dernol footbridge and walked the now untraceable line of the footpath to Pen-yr-ochr farm and onto the excellent bridleway track that zigzags aloft to a saddle in the hills with a good retrospective view of the valley and Esgair Dernol. A short trackless climb westwards arrives at the ancient cairn designated Carn-wen, giving a good view towards Craig Goch reservoir.

The first top Esgair y Llwyn is a broad flat tussocky affair and unmarked as far as I could see, though the spacious views were clear. Walking northwards towards the minor rise of Gwar y Ty and veering left for the next summit Pen Lan-fawr, I picked up a decent path at the bwlch for an easy climb to the top overlooking the Nant Helffin valley.

Esgair Dernol across the Dernol valley
Esgair Dernol across the Dernol valley (21 Jun 2010__12:29:02)
Carn-wen and Craig Goch reservoir
Carn-wen and Craig Goch reservoir (21 Jun 2010__12:56:39)
Nant Helffin valley from Pen Lan-fawr
Nant Helffin valley from Pen Lan-fawr (21 Jun 2010__13:58:04)

A usable rough quadbike track runs alongside the ridge fence, westwards around Cwm Rhydderch and Cwm Ysgyryd and climbing northwards along the edge of Coed-y-trafelgwyn forest, passing a prominent cairn to arrive at the next forest corner. The 526m summit of Esgair Ganol lies a short distance inside the trees and I took a chance on a forest ride heading in directly from the corner. Forests always worry me, constantly changing and prone to giving me the feeling of Theseus in the labyrinth: I kept a careful note of the turns, surprisingly taking me in the right direction overall, until I reached the approximate mapped spot and there it was: the highest ground, marked by a boundary stone in the middle of a firebreak. No views from this tomb of sitka spruce of course, but an oddball top to be sure.

Forested summit of Esgair Ganol
Forested summit of Esgair Ganol (21 Jun 2010__15:29:44)

The map shows a track meandering around northwards, but it's a bit vague at first and nothing more than another firebreak, however its course was true and the going was quite easy, finally descending a grassy ride NE to meet a major forest road.

Easy walking now westwards on the forest track to meet the bridleway track at a forest multi-road junction, where the angles need care to ensure the correct continuation track SW. Further along the bridleway departs the main open track at a waymark, becoming a woodland path that faithfully emerges from the trees at the expected point. Here I traversed a shallow hump west alongside the forest edge and down to the valley floor stream.

The valley terrain around this western arm of the forest is simply vile: large, densely matted tussocks requiring careful placement of every step and occasionally hiding deep water filled holes between them. After much lurching around I cleared the worst of it, but the ascent back eastwards on boggy tussocky ground near the Nant Ffos-casaf was no joke and the terrain was very slow to relent. The 'normal' rough moor near the last summit of the day, Cerrig Gwaun-y-llan, seemed like a lawn in comparison but was still carpeted in cotton grass to remind me of its normally boggy nature as I hauled myself up the final slopes. The distant views were very clear though and I felt I'd earned them after that, a pleasant vista to gaze at from the comfort of the tent on an excellent patch of soft dry grass.

View from Cerrig Gwaun-y-llan
View from Cerrig Gwaun-y-llan (21 Jun 2010__17:35:01)

Day 2 - Llechwedd Ddu to Y Foel

At dawn the scene was grey windblown mist and a shallow bank of sad looking cotton grass for a morning view, but the solstice sun would soon get to work and disperse it. The long wet grass of the spongey moor saw the gaiters come out for a rare appearance as I descended NW to the infant Nant Troedyresgair and the forest boundary, where I spied a rough but reasonable line through the felled area up to the minor road leading to the summit of the pass.

Mist clears the nearby hills from Cerrig Gwaun-y-llan
Mist clears the nearby hills from Cerrig Gwaun-y-llan (22 Jun 2010__08:44:26)

There is an access track up to the mast near the summit of Llechwedd Ddu, but I took a thin path up through the trees directly from the road access point. Once again I was lucky, this followed a firebreak around to the summit from the opposite direction, crossing a working firebreak littered with tree brash and arriving at the trig point, enveloped by bracken and the remains of a large cairn and now with a total absence of views due to the sitka - another oddity.

The firebreak continued NE a short way to the mast and its surfaced access track, but immediately before the track there was a brief but horrible anaerobic woodland bog where I plunged calf-deep: fortunately I was still wearing the gaiters. I hacked my way along the edge of the bog through the low side branches to the track and descended back to the road covered in bits of spruce.

The open narrow road descending into the valley gives pleasing views, notwithstanding the windmills of Bryn Diliw wind farm, one of many that litter the hills of mid Wales.

Summit trig point of Llechwedd Ddu
Summit trig point of Llechwedd Ddu (22 Jun 2010__09:34:04)
Windmills on Bryn Diliw
Windmills on Bryn Diliw (22 Jun 2010__09:54:52)
View SW from descent of Llechwedd Ddu
View SW from descent of Llechwedd Ddu (22 Jun 2010__09:59:45)

On the banks of the Afon Diliw a couple of cars were parked, accompanied by a tent and deck chairs laid out for a barbecue picnic. Over the river footbridge, the bridleway northwards is signposted, fording the Diliw-Fechan stream to ascend onto the main forest road where I met the two girls backpacking. No problem with route finding for a while: just follow the wide forest road through to the northern end, ignoring the theoretical right-of-way that has long been abandoned on the ground.

Passing a small disused quarry scar and emerging at SN 842801, a little further on a side track departs on the right, the only point I could see to access the top of Bryn Du. I walked along this for a few minutes but could see no sign of the fence/wall leading to the top and no entry point to the impenetrable conifers. I returned to the start of the track where a firebreak departs left and ascends in roughly the right direction - this starts quite easy but higher up the terrain is abominable, deep matted tussocks and hidden holes just like those of yesterday. The firebreak levels out on the large ring contour enclosing the top: I could see no evidence of higher ground and I counted this one as bagged!.

Returning to the main forest road I walked northwards and scanned the open area to the west for an approach to Llechwedd Llwyd. On the map this is not forestry land, but the shallow slopes are dotted with sparse small conifers at varying stages of growth. Soon I saw an unsigned stile in the fence and another in the fence beyond, I assumed this was an attempt to maintain a slight resemblance to the bridleway line shown on the map that crosses the area but has vanished on the ground. I crossed the spongey moor of cotton grass via the stiles and picked up a vague track over the intervening shallow rise (spot height 526m), but it later petered out and I ascended rough trackless ground to the flat summit contour, a frankly scruffy top and one for the statisticians only!.

The plan was to descend eastwards to pick up the bridleway, and hopes were raised as a distinct path appeared descending towards the forest, emphasized by one of several notices I would encounter today saying 'No unauthorized persons beyond this point'. However the young trees quickly became denser and larger and the path disappeared, eventually leaving me with a solid wall of conifers and a long arduous traverse back southwards to the point where the original road entered the forest proper.

The forest road felt pleasant and speedy after all that effort and I passed more warning notices on the way down. The trees on the very edge of a cutting seemed to be clinging in particularly precarious fashion.

Precarious conifers at the edge of the workings
Precarious conifers at the edge of the workings (22 Jun 2010__12:52:01)

Arriving in the valley the forest road meets the WVW, indicated by its own logo on the signpost. Further along where the WVW has two alternative lines, the forest line that I was walking is signposted but has a 'No unauthorized persons...' notice higher up. The WVW has a brief glimpse of a nice bit of the River Wye and meets the A44 at Pont Rhydgaled, continuing on the far side.

The Wye
The Wye (22 Jun 2010__13:19:22)

"Mountain Lambs Are Sweet" proclaimed the large sign as I crossed the A44 and continued the WVW through the farm. The excellent Welsh lamb is well promoted locally as we have observed in the shops and supermarkets, but this sign heralded something unsuspected: I was entering the Sweet Lamb complex, a 5000 acre motorsport testing facility and rally event venue in the eastern foothills of the Pumlumon range. Miles of offroad motor track have been laid in this area, sweeping around the hills in an interconnected network that is regularly maintained for its activities, and patrolled for safety reasons whenever an event is in progress. A notice advises that the offroad tracks be used in the Access Land areas, which would provide much easier and more pleasant walking than the rough moorland actually, but we would need a map of them:- the OS map shows only a few fragments.

A couple of small trucks passed me on the dusty track as I walked along to Pont Cefn-brwyn, an attractive spot by the Wye and a chance to survey an approach to the next objective Y Foel on the north side of the river, looking formidably steep from here.

The Wye from Pont Cefn-brwyn
The Wye from Pont Cefn-brwyn (22 Jun 2010__14:33:20)
Y Foel from Pont Cefn-brwyn
Y Foel from Pont Cefn-brwyn (22 Jun 2010__14:33:44)

The map shows a track entering the Access Land around Y Foel at SN 832837. The plan was to climb up directly from there and sure enough, I spotted a stile at that very point with a vaguely clear line above it (just right of centre in the previous photo). I walked around and the ascent looked even steeper from its foot, but I knuckled down for a slow climb. The terrain is rough but not difficult up to the next fence, but above that, the patches of dark green which I had assumed to be bilberry were in fact stunted spiky gorse, making for a prickly experience at times. The stiff breeze helped a lot and eventually the angle levelled off for a plod across the rough moor to the summit, another curious top adorned by a long collapsed metal pole and a couple of shorter survivors sticking up, but with good clear views.

I then discovered that one of the tracks passed within a short distance of the summit on the northern side, but the ascent would have been a lot longer. I had observed earlier on the notice that shooting activities also take place here, and I heard the occasional sound of gunfire in the valley to the west housing the heart of the complex (I don't know what they were shooting) and a couple of vans were parked at strategic points on the tracks below.

Summit of Y Foel
Summit of Y Foel (22 Jun 2010__15:31:39)
View NW from Y Foel
View NW from Y Foel (22 Jun 2010__16:27:36)

Day 3 - Esgair y Maesnant SE Top and the Wye Valley

History repeated itself in the morning and the view consisted of dank grey mist and cotton grass, but it soon cleared and I set off with a new approach to the last summit Esgair y Maesnant SE Top via the offroad track, a very pleasant and easy morning walk albeit a longer circuitous one. The clouds were just clearing the Pumlumon hills as the track crossed the head of the infant Afon Bidno and slanted up the flank of the hill to leave a short trackless walk to the nondescript summit area.

Approaching Esgair y Maesnant SE Top
Approaching Esgair y Maesnant SE Top (23 Jun 2010__09:00:36)
Pool near the hill track
Pool near the hill track (23 Jun 2010__09:13:50)
Y Foel from the hill track
Y Foel from the hill track (23 Jun 2010__09:20:48)

I headed eastwards to pick up the line of the footpath entering the forest at a corner. Inside the trees the cleared line is overhung with side branches and I was covered with itchy bits of conifer again, but the path quickly reaches a forest road which I followed around to a major junction, a better and more open walk than continuing on the footpath through the gloomy prickly trees.

From the junction the forest road SE is a bridleway and provides a rapid descent to the forest edge, continuing along the attractive open valley of the Afon Bidno and on through farmland to the roadhead at Glanbidno Isaf.

The Afon Bidno valley
The Afon Bidno valley (23 Jun 2010__11:10:35)

For a speedy return I walked down the lane to the A44 and along the road to Llangurig:- there is a verge for part of the way and there was only occasional traffic, I found it far preferable to battling with poor or nonexistent Welsh lowland footpaths.