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Elan Valley #4 / 3 days / 29 miles (47km)

OS Route Map → Map GPX Route file →

Date: 19 Mar 2009
Start / Finish: Rhayader. Free car park, toilets SN 967678.
Maps: Explorer OL200 Llandrindod Wells & Elan Valley.

Day 1Penrhiw-wen & Moelfryn5.0 miles / 1520 feet (8.1km / 463m)
Day 2Sychnentydd, Blaen Rhestr & Claerwen14.1 miles / 2140 feet (22.7km / 652m)
Day 3Craig Dyfnant, Craig Fawr & Garreg-ddu9.6 miles / 1190 feet (15.5km / 362m)

Another remote and secluded backpack in the wilds of the Elan Valley, a hurriedly improvised walk based on a group of hills from the Dewey 500m list.

Circumstances found us in mid Wales with our backpacking kit and three days to walk, but no plan or suitable map. The quickest option was to park in Rhayader and buy a copy of Explorer 200 from the small local gear shop, which would give us plenty of variations for an adaptable circuit, and the unexplored Dewey tops in the area would ensure new territory to explore. The whole upland region undulates around the 500m mark and there are many high spots that rise above that contour, and I had to recall which were Dewey tops from memory. The result was a highly enjoyable circuit in constant sunshine, although the views were the thickest and haziest we have seen outside summer.

Day 1 - Penrhiw-wen & Moelfryn

By the time we had parked and drafted a quick plan it was lunchtime, leaving a half day that was just right for the first two tops. We took our familiar route NW out of Rhayader via Dderw Bridge and the RUPP track that ascends easily to Esgair Dderw, accompanied as usual by red kites soaring above - they really are a reliable sight these days and clearly thriving. The grassy top just off the path has a single standing stone named Maen-serth.

Maen-serth standing stone on Esgair Dderw
Maen-serth standing stone on Esgair Dderw (19 Mar 2009__13:16:41)

The main track gradually ascends around the flanks of the first 500m top of Penrhiw-wen which would be the quickest way to access the summit, but this time we diverged R up the obvious grassy track onto the plateau and aimed directly for the highest ground, an easy walk with hazy views eastwards. We saw no cairns on the contenders for the highest point, each spot looking highest when seen from others, which is often the case on a typical hummocky plateau of this region.

We descended northwards towards the Nant y Sarn, spying an easy grassy line through the reedy and tussocky terrain lower down near the stream.

View from Penrhiw-wen
View from Penrhiw-wen (19 Mar 2009__13:51:10)
Descending from Penrhiw-wen
Descending from Penrhiw-wen (19 Mar 2009__14:27:48)
Crossing the Nant y Sarn
Crossing the Nant y Sarn (19 Mar 2009__14:43:10)

The lower slopes of Moelfryn are easy grass and we took a gradually ascending line to the R of the highest ground, passing an enclosure bounded by upright stones and crossing the head of a tiny stream. The hill is crowned with a cap of the common mixture of small tussocks and heather, though very tame compared to some parts of Wales, and the walk to the small summit cairn presented no difficulty. A nearby level patch of soft mossy grass made an excellent comfortable pitch for the first night.

Pitch on Moelfryn
Pitch on Moelfryn (19 Mar 2009__16:06:45)

Day 2 - Sychnentydd, Blaen Rhestr & Claerwen

In the morning the mist was just clearing and the low sun already had some welcome warmth as we set off westwards, soon clearing the heathery dome and reaching easier grass. There are occasional fragments of vague tractor track in this pathless expanse that assist progress a little, and approaching the northern end of the elongated plateau of Sychnentydd we veered R for a very hazy view of the cwm of Nant Gwnog. Far below is the line of the Wye Valley Walk, tarmac-bound for this long stretch of its route. The plateau has a line of boundary stones and once again we found two points that each looked higher from the other.

The Nant Gwnog valley from Sychnentydd
The Nant Gwnog valley from Sychnentydd (20 Mar 2009__10:01:02)

We walked along the broad plateau SW and descended steeply to Pont ar Elan where there are information boards describing the importance of this wild upland as an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). The descent gives an aerial view of Craig Goch reservoir ahead, but despite walking by it both early and late in the day several times, we have never managed to get a decent photo and today was no exception. The sinuous Afon Elan always manages to produce a fine view up the valley.

The Afon Elan from Pont ar Elan
The Afon Elan from Pont ar Elan (20 Mar 2009__10:47:07)
The Afon Elan
The Afon Elan (20 Mar 2009__10:53:31)

A short walk up the road is the notice indicating the point to join the RUPP that traverses Carn Ricet above the shallow valley of the Nant Cormwg, a track of gentle gradient that is mostly very easy walking with a few ill-defined and wet bits to circumvent. The many ruts adjoining the track were partly filled with water and every available spot was solid with frogspawn. The track marches on for over 4 miles, eventually swinging R towards the prominent rocky top of Blaen Rhestr, one of the very few significant outcrops of naked rock in the region. A short walk beyond are the remote Llynnau Cerrigllwydion, a pair of lakes nestling below the rocky ribs in their beds of tussocks.

Blaen Rhestr summit
Blaen Rhestr summit (20 Mar 2009__13:30:26)
Llynnau Cerrigllwydion from Blaen Rhestr
Llynnau Cerrigllwydion from Blaen Rhestr (20 Mar 2009__14:26:32)

Rejoining the track and curving around the head of the Ddwynant, we left it to follow a less defined grassy path that traverses Esgair Cywion and descends to the northern tip of Claerwen and its reservoir track. I suspected that the 533m spot-height in the very heartland above the reservoir was a Dewey top, and have since confirmed that it is, but there was no way we would have the time (or inclination today!) to reach it, and we decided to walk the reservoir track to the foot of the next definite top Craig Dyfnant.

Claerwen (20 Mar 2009__16:44:20)

Rounding Cerrig y Gadair into the inlet, the slopes of Craig Dyfnant are very steep here, but the map shows a track continuing up the side valley of the Nant y Gadair and it is a good one: it doesn't gain much height itself but it took us around to the somewhat less steep slopes where we began our ascent. The lower slopes are easy short grass, but higher up the terrain once again turns to dense tussocks and makes progress slow and arduous despite the shallower angle.

The sun was sinking and our thoughts were concentrated on a pitch: it is impossible to set up the tent satisfactorily in this tussocky stuff, but knowing the types of grasses on these very rough moorlands from experience, we spotted a small area over to the south that looked promising and it turned out fine - level, no tussocks, just short rough vegetation that proved very comfortable. As the last tent peg was pushed home, the sun was touching the thick band of pale colour on the horizon and reflected in Claerwen, giving us a pleasing finale to the day.

Sun sinking towards Claerwen from the pitch on Craig Dyfnant
Sun sinking towards Claerwen from the pitch on Craig Dyfnant (20 Mar 2009__17:46:22)

Day 3 - Craig Dyfnant, Craig Fawr & Garreg-ddu

A cold night left a thick frost on the tent but again the low emerging sun quickly brought warmth to the crisp air as we started the final ascent of the rough moor to the summit of Craig Dyfnant. The distance is short on the map but seems a lot longer, passing through areas of damp bare peat and tussocky hags, and eventually the silhouette of the cairn of white quartz comes into view, looking initially like a boundary stone on the skyline.

Craig Dyfnant summit
Craig Dyfnant summit (21 Mar 2009__07:51:55)

For the last top of Craig Fawr we aimed SE to cross the head of the Dyfnant stream, making use of an easy discernible tractor track a short way from the top. Lower down this becomes a broad peaty track but it is very soft and wet, threatening to sink us up to our calves, and it was better (or certainly drier) to negotiate the tussocks on one side. The best strategy is to aim for the top of the distinct cleft rather than trying to circumnavigate the wide reedy head of the stream, and we found little difficulty picking our way across. Progress is again rather slow and arduous for a while on the ascent of Craig Fawr, but here the upper slopes are easier and soon we were walking to the various hummocks trying to decide which was highest.

Walking eastwards to the rim of the broad summit area, a distinct edge can be seen ahead with a central rise indicated on the map by a 500m ring contour. We made an easy descent aiming to the L of the rise and walked across to the edge of the rocks, joining a good tractor track that follows the edge down and turns sharp R by a ruin to lead easily down to the surfaced bridleway coming up from Claerwen.

Craig Fawr from Cefn Llanerchi
Craig Fawr from Cefn Llanerchi (21 Mar 2009__10:20:01)

The bridleway passes the mast and enclosure on Cefn Llanerchi and descends through the forest to the bridge between Garreg-ddu and Caban-coch reservoirs. Across the bridge is the start of a track below the road that hugs the lake, an easy pleasant walk northwards with the colourful heathery cliffs of Mynydd Dolfolau looking impressive ahead.

Garreg-ddu (21 Mar 2009__11:19:13)
Approaching Mynydd Dolfolau
Approaching Mynydd Dolfolau (21 Mar 2009__11:31:52)

We left the track via a gate onto the road a short way before the start of the bridleway that climbs steeply eastwards near the Nant Dolfolau, a very good path that emerges onto the saddle in the hills near some old workings. Forking L at the junction, the path soon approaches a broad boggy expanse of reeds at the head of the Nant Madog:- before the reedy area, a grassy path branches off R that cuts off the boggy section and joins the stream a bit lower down. The path leads down directly to the road head and we took the narrow lane to the B4518.

From the B road the dismantled railway route makes a pleasant return to Rhayader. This passes over the old Rhayader tunnel which has an information board showing the species of bats recorded there, and various other notes.