This month Kim and Tracey take us on their first bike ride post lockdown. Ancient paths and tracks are still visible if you look carefully and read the lie of the land, and they make perfect cycle routes.
On a personal level, the fact that we were not permitted to drive during the recent lockdown proved somewhat of a blessing as my thoughts turned to what was within a day’s ride of our cottage. In particular, the old long disused tracks, some of which weren’t initially obvious certainly on the ground, but study a map and take that knowledge out on the hill with you, pause for a minute or two then look at the lie of the land and the clues are there to see; sunken paths, tree lines, overgrown banks, clear tracks amongst the bracken. These are all pointers to what are often called the ‘old ways’.
I have experienced a real joy of late, riding my bike slowly through these empty hills searching out these tracks, on some days it felt almost meditational. The old ways that span this land can do that to a person for they embody a sense of purity and whilst any track has or had a purpose, travelling along these timeless paths evokes different thoughts and feelings. The ground wasn’t quarried for its stone, its surface not skimmed by machine; these ways were laid by the passage of animals and man. And that is why they feel different, they seem to have a symbiotic relationship with the land, there is no sense of the ground being displaced to create them, they evoke a feeling of belonging, belonging to the land. Perhaps it is this sense of history that has made my recent explorations such an absolute joy.
One day in particular stands out; I came across an old track and intrigued, I followed it, although it was overgrown in places I rode it until it petered out. Unsure of exactly where I was, I pulled out the map and retraced my route. I knew Brecon to be a market town and was aware of some of the old routes that were used to take the cattle into the town and looking at the map, it seemed that this is what I had stumbled upon. Later back at the cottage I dug out my old maps some of which show the area as it was hundreds of years ago and looking at one of those, the track I had ridden was clearly marked; having started higher up the valley from a now long abandoned farm, it went on to link with many others and would have been used for the movement of animals to the market in the town. Wales is littered with these old roads, lined with moss covered stones and though perhaps not aware of it at that moment, the seed had been sown and my lock-down adventures had begun.
Restrictions are now eased and we’re allowed to travel again, so with thoughts of old roads still in my head, here’s a ride that starts and finishes on the now heavily forested Mynydd Pen-y-cae above the village of Rhigos. And as a bonus, if you’re lucky with your parking, you will barely even have to touch any of that hard, nasty smelling tarmac as this ride can be almost entirely ‘off road’. For convenience I have started this ride at the top of Rhigos mountain, but it would work equally well if you were to start in Glyncorrwg.
Currently these hills are blanketed with a huge chunk of planted forest and are once again utilising a wonder-ful naturally occurring resource, this time from above, wind; but not that long ago they were bare, except perhaps for the odd farmstead; and way back, long before the farms were built, the Romans tentatively mooched about here, though not for long. They seemed to think it was better to settle slightly further west and built a camp above Melin Court. Perhaps the views were better there or maybe they just got fed up with their chariots being stolen then set on fire I don’t know, but whatever the reason they didn’t hang around.
Before the Italians, both Bronze and Iron age man could be seen wandering around here (though rather than wearing sandals they instead choose fur boots); this is evidenced by the half dozen or so cairns dotted within the forest. I think though that perhaps this area is most famous for the coal that was extracted here, the major-ity of which was used to fuel the multitude of steamships that travelled the world’s waters. The clues to this raping of the land are plain to see and indeed are marked on the OS map, Mine (disused), Tip (disused), Air shaft (disused). In fact, this area resembles a huge lump of Maasdam cheese just waiting to collapse in on itself.
All that aside, for the purpose of this article it is the old Celtic ways that exist within this forest that are of interest. The Coed Morgannwg Way does a rather good job of following some of them, but there are many others, some of which date back over a thousand or more years. Many of these tracks drop off the tops down to the valley floors and provide some exciting riding, unfortunately though many of those softer tracks have been ruined by the motorbikes, but there are still plenty that are tempting to an inquisitive mind and fit body.
Starting with a steady climb, and after initially heading west you gradually turn around to the north and climb towards the old track which traverses the edge of the hill. Personally, I think this section of trail offers what is perhaps the best panoramic view in South Wales; from the Carmarthen Fans in the west, right across the central Beacons to Pen y Fan and beyond in the east. Unfortunately, due to the recent storms, this track is blocked by fallen trees in two places, which isn’t a big issue as it is easy to walk around them, but if you find that a hassle, backtrack a hundred or so metres and ride the old Skyline trail (which parallels the track you were on) until you pass through the exit gate where you pick up the old track again and head downhill towards Llyn Fach the smaller of the two glacial lakes nestled beneath the escarpment of Craig y Llyn. This section of trail is a delight to ride; stony in places, muddy in others, sometimes steep with loose corners, it is nevertheless always a joy.
It is worth taking a slight detour to the lake which lies in a spectacular location. Currently loosely managed by the Welsh Wildlife Trust this lake plays host not only to the usual water borne culprits but also to voles and otters.
Although now there are no obvious signs of habitation, it is hard not to imagine there were once several dwellings here. If the sun is shining and the weather warm, it’s worth taking some time to sit, watch and listen here for a while and if you have the place to your-self and all is quiet I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Having left the lake, you start to climb in earnest back up to the top on a well laid forest road. Don’t rush this, just settle into it and enjoy the views to your right as you head up towards Mynydd Pen-y-Cae. As the climb tops out you’ll see the Coed Morgannwg Way on your right which is currently marked with a Skyline trail sign as that loop is currently diverted along this old route. The irony of anyone choosing to ride an electric powered full suspension mountain bike on a trail which was created over a thousand years ago isn’t lost on me here. On that note, I was rather annoyed to find a discarded inner tube dumped at the side of the trail which was clearly left by a mountain biker. At a time when the Welsh Government is looking at changing legislation to improve access for cyclists within the countryside, actions like this certainly don’t help our cause.
This next 3km is an absolute blast to ride and if you enjoy it as much as I think you may, you might want to double back on the waymarked route 47 and ride it again.
Wherever you pedal in this forest it is nigh on impossible to escape the sight of the wind turbines, all seventy six of them. Good clean green energy? Yes, apparently so, but at what cost? For these 76 turbines alone; 104km of new roads, 2 million tonnes of stone, 101,488 HGV movements and 267km of plastic enclosed cables, not to mention the tonnes and tonnes of cement used in the construction of the bases. Cement is a particularly evil substance, one tonne producing almost its equivalent weight in Co2 during the manufacturing process. Why oh why, when we live on an island don’t we utilise what surrounds us? Unlike wind the tide is predictable, cyclic, it flows, rests then flows again, yet as I write this, the Swansea Bay barrage has once again been put on hold and I am surrounded by wind turbines that haven’t moved in the last four days.
Sorry, I’m ranting again, back to the ride. Having popped out onto a busy forest road junction you are looking for the bridleway, again rather conveniently marked with another Skyline sign, don’t deviate onto the way-marked trail though, instead stay on the bridleway until you come to a junction where you turn right onto another old way. This leads onto a forest road which you follow for a kilometre before again taking another bridleway which leads to a field. One thing to note here, if you are riding this when the brambles are well established, leave this section out and stay on the forest road to make your way down to the village.
Now there are two llamas in this field which can be a little tempera-mental; if they seem to have taken to you then follow the old road through the field and down into Glyncorrwg. If not, stay on the bridleway making your way through the field and then a short section of woodland single track which pops you out by the old chapel. This was built in 1519 by the local monks for the benefit of the sheep farming community and whilst there is no doubt that this was a kind altruistic act, I think the farmers if left to their own devices might well have built a pub instead, preferring a pint to a prayer after a day on the hill.
You now find yourself in the village of Glyncorrwg having either had a Zen like encounter with two immigrant llamas or out of breath and covered in spittle, either way it makes sense to head for the cafe above the bike shop for some R & R before you climb once again. Hopefully by now they will once again be offering a full menu, but at the time of writing there was a limited take away service available. I think it is fair to say that the centre here has suffered at the expense of Bike Park Wales but hopefully the reopening and addition of the new sections to the Skyline trail will breathe some much-needed life into what, was once a bustling hub.
Leave the village taking the old railway line alongside the Afan Corrwg before crossing the river on a bridge below the reed beds which takes you towards the beginning of what is a tough climb out of the valley. Before you start your ascent it’s worth having a quick explore of Cwm Corrwg. The gate is locked (to stop the motor bikes) but walking and cycling are permitted. Glyncorrwg though perhaps best known for its mountain bike trails, was once a bustling, prosperous village, particularly during the heyday of the mining industry in Wales. Here in this small side valley were two pits which operated for nigh on sixty years employing almost a thousand men between them; now the valley lies empty with only some disused tips and an ugly concrete block built over one of the mine entrances as a legacy of its past. However, the evidence of what once occurred here is plain to see in the omnipresent and rather unpleasant iron rich ‘orange water’ that still flows out of the ground in several places. Here the polluted water is channelled away from the stream and guided through a series of planted reed beds before emerging clear and fed back into the main watercourse. These reed beds are a natural, ecologically friendly way of filtering the mine water trapping the ferric hydroxide in both the roots and the reed bed itself.
Having satisfied your curiosity it is time to climb again; this one itself isn’t particularly long, though it can feel it especially with legs that have had time to relax as it’s loose all the way to the forest road, and I’m never sure whether to attack it in a high gear or cruise up in a lower gear. Either way there’s a certain pleasure in ‘cleaning’ this one.
Once you hit the junction of the forest road, things ease a little and you now have a pleasurable dilemma; you can extend the route a little by turning right for a short distance and re-joining the road by taking one of the old Skyline trails (which I would recommend) or stay with the route and continue the climb.
There’s a feeling of familiarity here which has been nagging me throughout this ride but I have been unable to pinpoint the reason as to why when suddenly on the forest climb up towards Garn Goch it comes to me; this feels like an eastern European forest, I think that is simply down to the size, and perhaps the sense of remoteness that is felt when I’m unable to see a turbine for any length of time. Though it must be said that the danger here isn’t an attack from a brown bear but more the threat posed by a twenty something on a motorcrosser.
The climbing is nearly done as you ride pass the memorial to the tragic loss of young Willy Llewellyn who was only five years old when his life was taken from him. This loss not only impacted on his immediate family but on the community as a whole. At the time he went missing work was stopped at all the local pits, so the miners could all voluntarily help with the search.
It is difficult not to draw parallels with the death of Tommy Jones two years earlier who was also five and found on the ridge above Cwm Llwch in the Brecon Beacons having disappeared in equally tragic circumstances.
Straight on at the crossroads and a final chance to look down into Lyn Fach before turning right onto a great stony track which bumps you past the top of the zip wire launch station before turning right onto another forest road and then backtracking the first few hundred metres of the ride.
This loop can be ridden in all weathers as the trails are predominantly stone; we were lucky and spent a few days up here during that glorious spell of weather in early April which found us shredding layers like a dancer in a Soho club. I have since ridden it in slightly less favourable conditions and apart from some particularly damp moments on the first descent it was fine. I would recommend using the OS Explorer 166 map over OS map 170 for this ride simply because the larger scale double sided 166 shows all of the tracks within the forest. This loop is only 24km long (though it seems further when you ride it) with nearly 800mts of climbing and is fine for a few hours of riding. However, if you choose to ride it you will notice a few additions to the new Skyline trail which with a little thought can be added to this loop to increase the length of your ride, and if you decide to drop down towards the Neath valley or over into the Dare valley the possibilities are endless.