Random notes on the travels of a Welshman who has been allowed out to play after finishing his chores. OK so I don't travel with my Aunt, but I am usually under the adult supervision of my long suffering wife.
Brecon town nestles in the shadow of the iconic Pen-y-Fan, the highest point in South Wales. The Welsh name is Aberhonddu, and is the meeting point of the rivers Honddu and Usk. Now it’s not a large town by many standard with a population of just over 8000 worthy souls. But it is an old town, and like many old towns it is full of surprises. Recognising it’s strategic position the Romans built a fort near here. Then the Normans followed almost a 1000 years later and continued to dominate the area with a castle.
Not only does it have history, a fantastic view of the Brecon Beacons, a canal but also a cathedral. One thing we do. well in Wales is having Hugh cathedrals in small towns hidden from the world. But we weren’t here for teh history this time but to sample Brecon Jazz Festival. This has been a long time coming, as we’ve been saying for the past 25 plus years “We must go the the festival this year”, but never made it. We stayed just outside Brecon, and the walk along the canal into the town set the scene well.
Now I do have a small confession to make. We were too tight to pay the almost £100 for the festival tickets themselves, especially as we are not big fans of jazz. Yes, I know it may be a difficult to thing for some to confess, but at least I do have a couple of Miles Davis albums, including A Kind of Blue (which I do like). The festival started in 1984 when Jed Williams, owner of The Four Bars Inn organised a series of gigs. George Melly, who had a house close by, performed on the first weekend. After that it took off big time, and many of the biggest names have played in this small, out of the way town. And despite funding challenges a couple of years ago in the depression it continues to attract large audiences.
So, if we didn’t attend the main festival what did we do? Well, the whole town is given over to music for the weekend, and there is a whole fringe element going on. There is a main stage in the centre of the town where jazz ensembles share the stage with local choirs. But more importantly all the pubs have a full program of groups and solo artists to singing everything from folk, rock, pop and wells as jazz. A perfect excuse for visitin a few drinking houses. I like that idea!
The pubs weren’t the only places where you could hear and feel the vibe. Around every corner you’d come across another surprise.
Not to be outdone the cathedral choir were also sing their hearts out, though this was a practice for a formal service performance.
But outside in the priory gardens the jazz performances continued. It was difficult to avoid music, but why would you. The eclectic mix meant that it would be difficult not to find something you’d like.
I like Breacon as a town, and there is always something that surprises me around one of the corners. The small group of houses, just below the cathedral, seems to have been left behind in time almost.
And of course, we have to remember that Brecon is a country town, surrounded by rich farmland. Therefore is obligatory to have a tractor driving down the street. Not only one but two.
If you ever have the chance, visit Brecon, but try to do it during the Festival weekend. We be going back to the festival.
The weekend weather was glorious, a cloudless sky, temperatures in the mid 20s. What else could we do except spend the day at the seaside? And there are fewer beaches better than that at Llansteffan. And there’s a castle, what else could we need? There have been people living at LLansteffan for 1000s of years. The present castle, well what’s left of it at least, was built on the the site of a bivallate Iron Age promontory fort towering over the River Tywi. The original castle made use of the older earthwork ditches. In many ways this is a perfect place for a castle, with an approach only possible from the landward side, there other three sides protected. by steep slopes and cliffs.
The first Norman castle was built sometime in the 1100s. The date is uncertain as there are no written records that detail it’s construction. The secluded beach soon became a shipping haven and a borough grew up in the shadow of the castle. It was captured in 1146 by the grandsons of Rhys ap Tewdwr (d1093), the last prince of South West Wales. They managed to defend it from an attempt by the Normans to recapture it, but then abandoned the castle. The castle was then granted to the de Camille family, but was again attacked and taken by Lord Rhys in 1189 (one of the earlier successful attackers in 1146). Then again in 1215 Llewelyn Fawr attacked. Each time the castle was restored to the de Camille family who repaired and improved the castle. But obviously not well enough, as in 1257 Rhys Fechan, Lord Rhys’s grandson, attacked the castle. It seems to be a family tradition.
The castle was attacked for the last time in 1405-6 by Owain Glyndwr. It eventually reverted back to the crown, and was possessed for a while by Jasper Tudor, Henry IV’s uncle. But over the years the castle was neglected and fell into ruin. By the 18th century, the structure had survived as a part of a private farm. But don’t let the fact that it is a ruin put you off from climbing up the steep hill to visit. The nearest carpark is either on the sea shore or in the town itself, but the 3/4 mile walk is worth it. And because it requires a little effort you are likely to find the place deserted and all to yourself.
For a while Llansteffan remained a small village, dependent upon fishing and cockles, but the the advent of Romanticism in the early 18th century, the village had a new lease of life. With a fantasic scenery, a ruined castle, and easy access by ferry, Llansteffan began to attract antiquaries and artists. Turner may be one of the most prominent.
As fashion for sea-bathing spread throughout Wales along with the advent of trains to Ferryside on the opposite bank of the Tawe, the number of visitors increased. Ferry boats would meet the trains at Ferryside, bringing them across the river to the wide sandy beach. Summer visitors increased further with miners holidays in August. Entertainment was provided by concerts, eisteddfodau and dances. The highlight of the holiday was the Mock Mayor ceremony, held in the woodland known as the Sticks, where a platform was erected and basic seating provided.
The village is charming, though the shops have almost all gone now, not surprising today. The village Pound, once used to house stray animals is now a gallery, there’s still a village store that doubles as the post office and restaurant. But if you fancy lunch you could follow us into the ‘Inn at the Sticks”, go on you know you’re hungry.
After climbing mountains with Paul S during our holiday recently in North Wales it was time for something a little more relaxing. And what better place to visit than a welsh castle, and we have a lot to choose from here in Wales. Castle Dolbadarn stands proud on a small hill overlooking Llyn Padarn and Llyn Peris, but the whole area is dominated now by the remains of one of the largest slate mines in Wales. But this just add to the overall ambiance of the place. The severe juxtaposition of the beauty of Llanberis, nestling under the shadow of Snowdon with the severrity of the industrial exploitation of natural resources and the romantic mystery of castles (although they were built for real reasons of defence and violence) is striking. This tripartite conflict of concepts makes this place important. Add to this that it was built by Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, one the hero’s Wales makes it a place to visit.
Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, Prince of Gwynedd, had spent a great deal of his reign in consolidating his control not only over North Wales, but also of the rest of Wales. As if this was not enough Llewelyn was also in conflict with both King John and King Henry III of England. Once he had united most of Wales under his rule and resisted pressure from England there was a need to strengthen the defences and Castell Dolbadarn was an integral part of this effort to consolidate and protect his lands. Dolbadarn, along with similar castles at Dolwyddelen and Castell-y-Bere protected the main land access points into the stronghold of Gwynedd. Built sometime before 1230, Dolbadarn protected the Llanberis Pass, control access into Snowdonia and the valuable livestock pasture of the valleys below. Llewelyn’s ability to build a series of castles was an outward sign of security of his tenure and growing wealth. Building stone castles were expensive undertakings, and required not only money but skills and manpower to do so.
Dolbadarn was built over a period with different design features, and the tower or main keep is a rare example of a multi-storey round tower built by a Welsh Prince and uniquely it has been fitted with a portcullis. Documentation relating to the building of Dolbadarn is no longer available, if it ever was. Therefore architectural historians are not sure about the sequence of building. But it has been suggested that the keep may have been the last addition to the castle. As well as series of external walls and buildings there are two further ‘towers’, but these were much lower in height compared with the main keep. Another quirk within the castle design is the complex stairway within the keep in which the spiral reverses direction at the halfway point. Compared with the castles built by the English, it is not as large, robust or impressive, and even though it would not have survived a prolonged and determined siege, Dolbarn would still have presented a barrier to anyone entering the pass.
The Welsh were able to hold out against their much stronger and more populous neighbours in England for a considerable time following the invasion in 1066 by Norman the Conquerer. They were helped by multiple civil wars, power struggles and wars with the French over this time. Wales was also a small and poor country and didn’t really represent a major threat to the English Kings. Perhaps would should also remember that the concept of Nationhood as we understand today didn’t really exist then. The King did not “own” the country as such, and all the barons ruled their own areas on behalf of the King. To a certain extent this view was also replicated in Wales, and the Welsh Princes were allowed to rule, but only if they acknowledged the stronger English King as overlord. Throughout this time the Welsh sided with various Barons in the disputes with either the king or other neighbours. Likewise the English allied themselves with the Welsh princes when they fought amongst themselves to gain control. It was all about gaining more land and power. Either by battle or by alliances arranged through marriage. Llewelyn was married to King John’s illegitimate daughter, Joan. And two of their children were likewise married to powerful Marcher lords on the Welsh-English border.
However, the unification of Was under Llewelyn was shorted lived. After his death in 1240 Wales was broken up into the smaller kingdoms of previous years. The Welsh inheritance laws prevented the passing of all titles and power to a single heir, and areas were divided amongst his sons, with Llewelyn ap Gruffudd controlling Gwynedd. Henry III took advantage of this weekend state and at the Treaty of Woodstock (1247) stripped Gwynedd of control of all lands to the east of Conwy. By 1255 though, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (the Last) had defeated his opponents and at the Treaty of Montgomery (1267) was recognised by English and Welsh alike as overlord of Wales. During this period he imprisoned his elder brother, Owain ap Gruffudd, in Dolbadarn Castle; he would spend nearly 20 years incarcerated there living in the top floor of the Keep.
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd came into conflict with Edward I in 1276 after the Welsh Prince failed to perform homage on multiple occasions. The English King invaded the following year and overran the eastern portion of the Principality although Dolbadarn itself, in the central heart of Snowdonia, was far removed from this conflict and saw little action. Nevertheless Llywelyn was defeated and in the Treaty of Aberconwy (1277) accepted the permanent loss of all lands east of the River Conwy. He was also required to release Owain ap Gruffudd from Dolbadarn Castle.
The Second War of Welsh Independence started in 1282 initiated by Dafydd ap Gruffudd, Llewelyn’s younger brother. The Prince had little choice but to support this folly and this time Edward I was determined to conqueror Wales in its entirety. Llywelyn was killed in December 1282 at the Battle of Orewin Bridge whilst Dafydd fled first to Dolwyddelen then onto Castle y Beer and finally to Dolbadarn Castle. One by one the English took these strongholds and Dafydd was eventually captured on 21 June 1283. He was taken to Rhuddlan and subsequent hanged, drawn and quartered at Shrewsbury.
Following the conquest of 1283, Dolbadarn Castle was plundered for building materials in support of the construction of Caernarfon. Nevertheless it remained the administrative centre for the Royal manor with some repairs being made in the early fourteenth century and the east building was added at this time. The castle may have been reactivated and used as a prison during the 1400 rebellion led by Owain Glyndŵr for it has been suggested that Lord Grey, captured at Ruthin Castle, was held at the site. Little is known about the castle after this but the external stone stairway was added no later than the mid-eighteenth century by which time Dolbadarn had become a picturesque ruin, and was soon to be painted by Turner.
Everyone knows Tryfan don’t they. Ask anyone who has experience of the hills and mountains of Wales has either climbed it or have it on their list to climb. And yes, there is some climbing to do. It may not be very high, but it is more of a challenge than many of the higher peaks in Wales. The name Tryfan is derived from Tri Faen – Three Rocks. Referring to the three humps on the ridge of this iconic mountain. With the sunshining and Cader Idris already ticked of our summit list for the week, the 2 Pauls hit the rocks.
Tryfan soars over the Ogwen valley, and forms part of the Gyderau, Glydyr Fact and Glydyr Fawr, though both are taller than Tryfan itself. At 3010 feet (or for the more modern – 917 meters) above sea level, it is the 15th highest peak in Wales. And what a peak!
The approach is relatively easy from Llyn Ogwen top to Llyn Bochlwyd. Then there is another easy section around the lake before you are confronted with the seemingly impregnable jagged rock field towering above.
The challenge of scrambling over the sharp rocks was worth the effort for the views alone down the Ogwen Valley taking in Llyn Bochlwyd, Llyn Idwal and Llyn Ogwen down towards Angelsey in the distance.
At the top are two pillars named Adam and Eve. The tradition is to jump from one to the other. After the fight through the boulder fields and the climb to the top either of us fancied this at all. I did try to persuade Paul S – ‘Man of Action’ to attempt it, but he wasn’t having anything of it.
It took up 4 hours to go up and down. The map said we had only covered 3.8 miles, but that didn’t take into account the grunt needed for a couple of middle aged men to get tot eh top. It seemed so much harder and more difficult than it was 17 years ago the last time I climbed to the top. Maybe I’ll leave Everest for a few more years!
This week the weather has been fantastic. OK a little cold in the morning, but the sun has shine throughout the week. Although Aunty and I didn’t have a great deal of luck with the weather when we went up Cader Idris last year (see here), this year its different when the 2 Pauls attempted the ascent. Again this is mainly more photos than text as I’ve covered Cader previously. But I hope you like the photos and excuse the repeated blog.
Hidden in a hollow in the landscape behind Tyn-y-Coed Farm is Capel Garmon Burial Chamber. This is of the Cotswold- Severn type of chamber, an unusual design for this area of Wales, and has created some debate on why it so far north.
The first excavation was undertaken by the then Ministry of Works in 1924. Late for such a monument as the antiquarians usually had a go in the 18th and 19th centuries. But something had to be done as trees were growing out of the mound, and damage caused in the 19th century by the tomb having been used as a stable. Following excavation the outline of the tomb was marked with stones showing the size of the mound.
The size of the cairn that covered the tomb would have measured 27m long and 13 m wide, and narrows towards it’s western end. The wider eastern end is thought to have had a false entrance, and the two arms would have created a forecourt that could have been used for ceremonies. It is this forecourt area that makes it similar to the Severn-Cotswold group of chambers further south.
Most of the burial mounds in Wales are aligned north-south, but Capel Garmon is orientated east-west. This suggests that migration of people or ideas from further south along with local practices may have influenced the design and siting of the cairn here.
The passage into the tomb leads to a divided space from which branches of to two other chambers. Excavations did not reveal many findings, probably because the chamber had been cleared to allow it’s use as a stable. A single piece of Ebbsfleet pottery was found in the passage, unworked flints and a a human bone were also excavated. The monument could have been in used for over 1500 years as two late Neolithic/early Bronze Age beakers were also found.
There is only one capstone remaining, but this is impressive in it’s size. I have no idea how they would have moved these massive rocks into place. The organisation and effort would have been tremendous. Despite the time since it was built, and the deprivations it has been exposed to, it is still possible to see the quality of original dry stone walling of the main chambers.
Very little text today, but a few photos from a along a road between Ysbyty Ifan and Ffestiniog on North Wales. This short stretch of 12 miles will provide you with a fantastic drive along an empty road with panoramic views over heathland that provides very tough farming lands. The empty skies are reflected in the the almost empty landscape. But if you look carefully there is so. such to see.
Last weekend we completed another short section along the coastal path. This did not include the sweeping views of the last section we completed in Cardigan, but involved marshland and the industrial dock are of Newport. I should perhaps explain to those of you who do not know Wales, and add a word of caution, please don’t mistake our walks along the coast as an end to end endeavour. Aunty and I are completing it as and when we can, and wherever we happen to be.
We started this time where we left off a few weeks back, at Newport Wetlands. The ironic part of this stage of the walk, as in other areas where we need to cross or rather navigate ourselves around wide estuaries, was that we could see clearly from where we started where we would end up – less than a mile from where we stood. In fact we ended up walking 9 miles to get there. This involved walking over areas of the Gwent Levels, up along the banks of the Usk River, right through the docks and some of the more deprived areas for Newport before picking up the West Bank of the Usk back to the Severn Estuary and our eventual destination – West Usk Lighthouse.
The contrast between the green fields of the wetlands and the industrial landscape of the docks can be difficult to process. The two landscapes lie so close together, yet seem to be direct contrasts. This contrast must have been even greater a few years ago. Newport docks are no longer the force they once were. the decline of the coal and steel industries have left many of the quays derelict along the Use River.
Despite the sometimes depressing nature of industry it is always possible too appreciate the beauty that nature confronts us with. Although the spring has been cold this year, the Dandelions are flowering already setting seed. We see Danelions everyday, and as kids I was always fascinated by the symmetry of the seed heads. It is always worth taking a few seconds to appreciate these common sights.
Continuing up river we came to the Newport Transporter Bridge, which is now open to both cars and pedestrians. I’ve posted before on this iconic construction (Newport Transporter Bridge), and it’s great to see it open again and in use. Without this we would have had to made a further detour up river to cross. So we duly paid our £2 and crossed the river.
Before we got back to the country we still had some urban walking to do, and as we passed through some of more deprived areas of Newport there were still surprises waiting for us. Among dumps of rubbish, broken TVs and general detritus of life beauty still continues to survive. Orange Tip butterflies are difficult to miss, but in my experience difficult to photograph. They never stay still for very long, but I finally nailed a photo today.
We finally left the urban sprawl of Newport behind and rejoined the banks of the Use River as it meets the Severn Estuary. Though Newport and the docks still maintain a brooding presence in the background.
We were now approaching the end of the walk as we neared West Usk Lighthouse. Built in 1821 as a partner to the East Uk Lighthouse to guide shipping into Newport Docks until it was finally decommissioned in 1922. It is now a Bed and Breakfast, a great use for an iconic building.
This may not have been the most picturesque stretch of Coastal Path, but it was an interesting one. The contrasts between the Newport Wetlands, the docks and the arrival at the East Usk Lighthouse shouldn’t be missed. It’s all part of Wales, it’s history and the people to made that history and continue to make it. We finished less than a mile from where we started as the crow flies, but had to walk over 9 miles to get there. Don’t miss out this part of the walk, it’s important.
The weather during Easter Weekend in the UK can be pretty unpredictable and variable. It is not unusual to snow during this time, but this is more likely when Easter is early. This year it’s late, and so it’s reasonable to hope that it wold be warm and sunny. Well sunny it was. Warm it was not. Aunty and I spent the weekend just outside Cardigan on the west coast. Here the coast is rugged and isolated with heavy seas from the Atlantic crashing into the hard cliffs. Over a couple of days we managed to walk from Newport Sands up to St Dogmaels, just short of 20 miles.
Saturday the sun was glorious, blazing down all day. But there was a bitterly cold wind and I doubt that the temperature got above 9C, but it felt much colder. But it didn’t matter too much the spectacular views made up for it. This time were were organised and parked in Moylegrove, and caught the Poppit Rocket bus down to Newport Sands. This meant that we were able to complete a full stretch of the coastal path in one direction only as we walked back to Moylegrove.
This is a wild and remote coastline with sea cliffs over 100m high and some spectacular geology. The temperature was a challenge until we had warmed up, but with hats, gloves and coats it was a great days walking. Starting at Newport Sands we quickly climbed up from the beach to the cliff tops and were greeted with sweeping views south towards Dinas Head and northwards to Cardiganshire.
The geology is confusing on this stretch, and with the inaccessibility of the shore coupled with a paucity of fossil records, it has taken the geologists to fully understand what has happened here in the past. But recent work has solved this mystery, and it seems that this stretch of rocks were deposited during a relatively short period 444-446 million years ago. It appears that during the Upper Ordovician this small section of coast was sinking quickly in relation to the surrounding areas, creating a trough into which deep marine deposits were laid. This may have been helped by faults to the south, and possible volcanic activity. The forces involved can be creaky seen in the rock formations along the cliffs at Ceibwr Bay and Cemaes Head.
The weather on Sunday was a bit of a disappointment, no sun, heavy clouds and a strong wind that at times took your breath away as we rounded the headlands. Like yesterday, we hardly met anyone along the length of the walk.
One surprise that we came across was a deserted chapel in the middle of nowhere. The only access is via a green lane. A little research identifies this as Capel Bryn Salem. Built in 1850, it was a daughter chapel of Bethel Congregational Chapel, Moylegrove. With a falling congregation by the late 1970s and early 1980s it closed it’s doors to worship and was offered for sale. Although it was bought, the neighbouring farmers refused access over their land for roads and cesspit and it was never developed. By 2002 the building was delapidated, and continues its decline today.
A couple of weekends ago the sun gave a brilliant display all day, and coupled with a light South easterly breeze it made a fantastic day for a walk. This expedition was along the Coastal Path between Redwick to the Newport Wetlands. This time we had bribed Number One Daughter to pick us up and take us back to Redwick to pick up our car. That way we were able to walk 10 miles in one direction, instead of our usual 5 miles there and 5 miles back.
It has to be said that walking along this section of the path is not the most exciting in providing breathtaking views, but with Spring now firmly ailing a hold there was plenty of interest to distract me and increase Aunties’s exasperation as I would stop and stare before taking a photograph of something. After walking about a kilometre down a muddy lane we arrived at the sea wall with a great view of the Severn Crossing to the east. But it was westward we were heading today. The church in Redwick has a reminder of a major flood on the 30th January, 1607, a mark is scratched on the porch wall. The flood affected the whole of the Severn Estuary and large areas of Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Soth Wales were flooded. South Wales was particularly badly affected, from Laugharne to Chepstow. It is estimated more than 2000 people were drowned, badly affecting the local economy.
The first 5 miles of the walk is along the sea wall, and so is easy going. We saw very few people along this section before reaching Goldcliff, and those we did see were 3 fishermen. With the tide in they were able to fish from the sea wall without venturing out onto the mud flats. All along the shore there are parallel lines of posts sticking up out of the mud still visible above the water as they point out into the estuary. These are the remains of an ancient fishing method called putcher fishing. This technique used the baskets called the “putcher” traditionally made from hazel rods and with (willow) plait, set out against the tides in huge wooden “ranks”. Salmon were trapped in the baskets as the tide receded.
If you want confirmation of Spring we came across one very soon. At one point along the walk just before Goldcliff we followed a pair of Wheatears, who stay just ahead of as we walked along. They would wait until we came within a few meters, then fly ahead and watch us approach. This process was repeated for more than 400m.
As the tide was fully in there was no foreshore or mud exposure to speak of. Consequently there were few shore birds around – a situation that did not upset Karen too much as it meant I didn’t keep on stopping to have a look. But there was a flock of Turnstones among the rocks and seaweed almost underfoot before I saw them. And they were following their job description perfectly. Turning over small stones and seaweed, before scampering forward hunting for the next titbit under a near by stone.
Along the entire 10 miles I counted 14 separate singing Chiffchaff males. I can’t say that I saw them all, but their song is unmistakable. But I did manage to get a few reasonable photos.
We stopped for lunch at the Goldcliff Lagoons. A set of man made lagoons as a tradeoff for the local wildlife due to the habitat loss when the Cardiff Bay Barrage was built. I still have mixed feelings about the barrage. On one side saddened by the loss of mudflats and habitat for wading birds. However, it is now a fantastic leisure resource, and so much more attractive than it was as a set of derelict docks and smelly mud. Because the tide was in the lagoons were full, include a large flock of flighty Black-tailed Godwits. Lunch over we pushed on towards RSPB Newport Wetlands Reserve. I’m glad we did as we discovered a few more bird hides along the way hidden in the fields that I didn’t know about. These were empty, and didn’t appear to be used anywhere near as much as those at Goldcliff. Hidden gems and I’ll have to go back.
So now we walked all the way from Chepstow to Newport. Next will be the Newport to Cardiff section, then we’ll be able to join up with those sections we’ve already completed in an almost continuous progression all the way to Llanelli. Slowly we’re completing the path – a bit disorganised in our approach, but it’s being done.