A Journey to the source of the Severn and back…

Mountain Bike Trails with Kim Jones

On a wet, miserable day, Kim and Tracey followed the trail up to the source of the Severn

This month Kim and his partner Tracey travel to the Cambrian Mountains to the source of the river Severn, encountering the native wildlife along the way.

Pumlumon (Plynlimon in English) and the area around it is without doubt my favourite part of Wales, a place where the history of this wild Welsh land is almost palpable, a place from which grew the tenacious Welsh pride and character, and often out of necessity the sense of community that was once and, in some places still is prevalent amongst the Welsh people.

Standing atop its summit on a clear day you are blessed with perhaps one of the finest views in the whole of this country; gaze to the west and there lies Cardigan Bay where the seas relentlessly pummel our western seaboard. Look to the north and if the air is clear you might spot Cadair Idris (chair of Idris). Legend has it that Idris Gawr or Idris the Giant would sit here and study the stars.

Further north again lies the tallest and mightiest mountain of them all, Y Wyddfa, whilst behind you to the south, on the distant horizon are the less sculptured, more crumpled summits of the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains.

An area of lakes, bogs, and secluded valleys, this is not a contained, synthetic landscape, not pretty or orderly like a quaint cottage garden, but wild and random like chaotic clapotis against a sea cliff on a deranged winter’s day. There is an awareness of something here, something that is almost too much for the senses to bear, a feeling of spirituality, it oozes from the ground, seeps down from the hills and fills your lungs as you breathe in the pure air. A place so connected, so immersed in nature that if you let it, it becomes part of you.

From here flows Wales’ longest river, indeed the longest in the UK, the Afon Hafren (River Severn), the Wye also has its source here, but unlike the Severn it is not easily accessible on a bicycle.

Looking south across Caban-coch reservoir

Leaving the Landy in Rhaeadr, we thought we’d take a few days out and staying off road as much as possible would ride in a moochapottamble sort of way to where the Severn begins its journey to the sea. Loaded with food for five days and all the necessaries for some time in the hills, the bike initially felt heavy and unwieldy, but it always surprises me how quickly I settle into it and we are in the Elan visitor centre in seemingly no time at all, the pungent scent of late bluebells still in our nostrils. At this point whilst I had a vague idea in my head of the route we would take we weren’t committed to anything, so we stopped for a coffee and to study the map. I love maps, their feel, their texture, even their smell and an old one serves as a reminder of trips, a dirty fingerprint here, a coffee stain there and here now looking at this one the possibilities for the week ahead are endless.

On a hot June day we choose to sit outside, beneath the Caban Coch dam which provides a rather dramatic backdrop to the cafe especially when the water is cascading over the stone. I know a lady who works here and one day when leaving for home she was stopped by a tourist and asked: ‘When will they be turning the water on?’ Slightly perplexed Sue replied ‘Sorry?’ The gentleman repeated the question and it dawned on her what he meant. ‘If you hang on for ten minutes I’ll turn it on for you when I get back to the farm!’

The tap was off when we rode past the dam on the cycle path but it is nevertheless still an impressive sight.

It’s impossible to miss the ‘Cofiwch Cwm Elan’ spray-painted on the rock adjacent to the sign indicating the Aberystwyth mountain road (pic left), which translates as ‘Remember the Elan Valley’. Whilst this area is unquestionably beautiful and attracts visitors in their thousands, these waters hide a dark secret of empty farms and forced evictions.

Late afternoon sun on the Clarwen

With the route now in our heads progress is swift and we are soon making our way around the Clarwen reservoir with its numerous inlets; guided by a rather loud, whistling red kite, glorious in her summer plumage. The view west, over Esgair Garthen over which crosses the old carriage road to Pontrhydfendigaid is a view to sooth the soul, especially as it is today, in the late afternoon sun. A later than planned start has meant today’s ride is rather short and we are soon settled in the bothy. MBA bothies are still closed but Claerddu is owned and managed by the Elan Trust and I had checked with them the day before we stayed. If maps are a bible to the wayfarer, then a bothy is surely his sanctuary. Offering a certain pleasure in their simplicity, they are a haven, a refuge from the outside world; a place where tales of bothy nights past, and nights to come abound, where friendships are formed and whiskey drunk. And where usually, all is well with the world, for no matter what the weather is doing outside, once inside and the fire is alight, there is nowhere that feels more comfortably safe.

Home for the night

Unfortunately, this bothy is easily accessible and attracts the type of person you might not invite into your home for a cuppa. Saddened by the mess we spend half an hour sweeping, tidying and bagging the rubbish before taking the table outside and eating our supper beneath an ever darkening sky. Despite many places in Wales being granted ‘dark sky status’ this is one of only a few places I know where you get to see the splendour of the Milky Way. The encroaching night brings an end to the bird song which is replaced by the random bleating of the odd sheep and we return inside.

Waking to a somewhat grey day which carries an underlying threat of rain, we spend the morning travelling through the area south of Pontarfynach (Devil’s bridge), an area littered with old lead and some zinc mines. Unlike the South Wales valleys, the mining legacy seems long forgotten here, shamelessly perhaps. It wasn’t only the people of the local community that toiled underground here but also miners from Cornwall and even Italy. Nobody seems to know how on earth the Italian miners ended up here in this relatively remote part of Wales, but many of them did, enough in fact for them to build their own catholic church which for some odd reason was named Capel Saesneg (English Church) by the people of Pont-rhyd-y-groes. And whilst the Cornish miners who were mainly Methodists had their own place of worship, it seems the farmers and the Welsh miners attended St John the Baptist Church which rather unusually has a fire place.

Clockwise from top left: The old mine at Banc Esgair-mwn, Single-track in the Rheidol gorge, In the hills above Nantyarian, Track across Cae’r Genfen. St John the Baptist Church

The rest of the day and the next are spent wandering around here before we head north of the A44 into what I always think of as Wales’s empty quarter. Once away from the road this area is sparsely populated, less visited and certainly feels ‘wilder’ and more remote than the North and South. One night blessed with a warm breeze we camped beside one of the many lakes and were soothed into a deep sleep by the sound of wind driven waves blown onto the shore sounding very much like a dog lapping water from a bowl.  There is, and there always seems to be, a sense of atmosphere and serenity around these lone, remote lakes, particularly here in the hills. Together they create an interesting dichotomy; do you visit here to find your peace or does the place itself bring out the peace that is already present within you? Perhaps it is both, for while peace must come from within, it is kindled and nourished by your surroundings and this place is rather special for that.

It is easy to lose yourself here, especially on a bike as the area is littered with tracks and paths, many of them unmapped and it soon becomes evident to us that five days food will not be enough and we are forced to get a little enterprising with our cooking, wild garlic leaves and spaghetti make a surprisingly tasty and nourishing meal.

Without us noticing, the weather has rather sneakily crept up on us from the west and we are forced into a quick pitch beneath ever darkening skies and increasingly heavy rain. A tent, providing it doesn’t leak is a fun place to be in a storm. Whilst the wind does its best to uproot the pegs and the fly sheet threatens to part com-pany with the inner at any moment, there is a surprising sense of calm within and once again sleep comes easily.

We awake to a dry day and head east towards Lyn Glaslyn. Last night’s rain seems a long distant memory as we sit on the now warm dry grass drinking coffee and gazing down into Cwm Llechwedd some three hundred metres below me. Here at the northern end of the wild Pumlumon watershed, the land falls away in ridiculously steep cliffs and corries, and bottoms out onto tame pastured farm land below before rising again north of the Dyfi valley. Not now for it is too early in the year, but in late summer these slopes wear a bohemian tunic of amethyst coloured heather, providing a sharp contrast to the yellow grasses of the valley today.

With only enough food for one more night we agree to stop wandering and get to the Hafren forest tonight and onto Llangurig tomorrow where there is a shop. After a short spell on the road we join Glyndwr’s way on a wonderful double-track which takes us down into Staylittle. Looking at Glyndwr’s way on a map, it would seem that, like his mate Illtyd, his wanderings were possibly fuelled by ale rather than a sense of purpose as they seem not to follow any sort of direct route.

We reach the forest just as the heavens open again, perhaps I offended Glyndwr with my thoughts earlier, which prompted him to have a word with headquarters and we are both now serving my penance. Unlike yesterday, there is no respite in the overnight rain and we pack up a wet tent and take the long climb to the source of the Severn. On a clear day, I would imagine the views here to be quite spectacular but not today, with visibility down to 50mts and a wind that takes no prisoners, it is no place to hang around so we cut our losses and head back towards the shelter of the trees.

Once on the forest road we cheekily take the Severn way back down to the valley bottom which was a blast. Do you remember as a child (or possibly an adult) playing with a Scalextric track, when there was a point of near nirvana that had your hand on the control squeezed tightly enough so your cars wheels were sliding, but not leaving the track on the corners? Well this is exactly what that was like, front wheel drifts, rear wheel drifts, I was even briefly airborne at one point, and all on a loaded bike, absolutely fantastic!

Skidding to a stop outside a forest pergola, we pull over for a cuppa. It’s still raining so we boldly declare an admin day and take the afternoon to hang our kit to dry, (pic left) replace some brake pads and sew some damaged tops. The evening brings some sun and a grateful breeze which keeps the midges away.

Breakfast is tea and a couple of oatcakes which I imagine taste no different to the packaging they came in, later though we shall feast in both the cafe and the shop in Llangurig. This seems to be a pattern on many trips, once back in civilisation the opportunity of fresh cakes and pasties is just too good to miss; first though we must get out of the forest.

Forestry navigation can be somewhat of a dark art, as often there are tracks on the map that are no longer on the ground having been long since planted over. Or more often, as is the case here, there are newly created roads yet to be charted; this all adds to a potential state of chaos when travelling, particularly through a large plantation like this, and I find myself relying on my gut feeling or a compass.

Guided by a meadow pipit that swoops and swerves in front of me, teasing me with her aerial grace, we follow the stream out of the forest. This short piece of single-track is a welcome respite from the confines of the trees, as we swoop towards the village beneath an ever brightening day where to our joy we find both the cafe and the shop are open. Two flat whites, a toasted sandwich and cake later, we reluctantly drag ourselves from our seat in the sun over to the shop.

It is closed.

What shop closes at one o’clock on a Saturday?!

This one.

We could, but I know we won’t make Rhaeadr tonight, so we both search our frame bags for food. Tracey finds what appears to be a Mars bar, the wrapping has been wet and dried so many times it is difficult to tell; and I find our emergency couscous which is only two months out of date. It would seem that weight loss and bike touring seem to go hand in hand.

The grassy climb over Esgair Perfedd from Craig Goch reservoir

We leave on the quiet back road following the Wye south, before turning onto Esgair y Llwyn where we will spend the night. Whilst the track up is a push in places the sheep track across Cefn Bach always puts a smile on my face. Stopping at the double-track we start to prepare for what might well be a hungry night under the stars. I walk up stream a little, as I always do, to check before filling the pan and am saddened to find a dead sheep lying in the water, and then lifting my head I spot what is obviously her lamb pitifully bleating on the rise above. There’s is absolutely nothing we can do but hopefully she is now old enough to survive without her mother’s milk. Something has been taken from the day and we choose to move on and find another place to camp.

Morning brings empty tummies, skies empty of clouds and a big grassy climb over Esgair Perfedd. Fuelled only on tea we both surprise ourselves by ‘cleaning’ this climb and feeling rather pleased with ourselves. Instead of taking the bridleway alongside Craig Ddu, we opt to climb again up to Penrhiw-wen so we can enjoy the rather excellent track back down to Cwmdeuddwr. Interestingly this track takes you through what was once a nine hole golf course designed by none other than the eminent Dr Alister Mackenzie himself, the man behind the famous Augusta National course, who’d have thought?!

Back in Rhaeadr we gorge ourselves on freshly made sandwiches and coffee. Like any trip, however short, I never want to return home, the nomadic lifestyle and chance encounters sit well with me, and seems to suit my spirit. Blessed with the luxury of not having to return to the cottage, we opt to stay out another night and with a supper of salmon, cream cheese and pitta bread to look forward to, we head back into the hills. Of late I have found that I now sleep equally well on a Thermarest in the tent as I do in any bed and am increasingly enjoying ‘tent time’.

Our last night brings a sunset that would sit well in a Thomas Moran painting, and calm waters that reflect the night sky. Tonight, the sun seems to hang around a little longer than it should and a buzzard seemingly using the last of the days light to find a perch swoops low over us and into the old oak behind me. Suddenly there is an explosion in the undergrowth below and a duck hotly pursued by her eight offspring come charg-ing towards the tent, the duck does a neat side step that Shane Williams would have been proud of and disappears down the steep bank into the lake. The ducklings however don’t, instead they run around us seem-ingly looking for their mum. We do our best to herd them into the lake and eventually succeed except for one who does an about turn and heads back towards the tent.

Now, have you ever tried to catch a panicked live duckling?

Frustrating, hopeless, and outwitted are words that come to mind. Eventually he seeks cover in the under-growth which gives us both a chance to catch our breath – that’s me and the duckling. Then, rather boldly I leap into the bracken and despite falling over a log manage to capture him, by which time mum and the rest of the family are some some fifty metres away and half way across the lake. Rather foolishly I think mum might do a quick head count and realising she is one family member short will come back and search for him, but she doesn’t. There is no way this little fellow will survive a night off the water without his mum, so my only hope is to get him into the water.

Gingerly I start my way down the bank only to slip and fall onto my back, now with my left arm held high in the air, safely clutching the duck, and my right trying to arrest what looks like an inevitable descent into the water, we tumble down the bank as one. Having managed to stop us both, we arrive at the water’s edge a lot sooner than planned. Rather pleased with myself at preventing a rather untimely dip, I gently put the young fellow into the water and without even a nod of thanks; he shoots off to join his mum. Even now he isn’t safe as mum is a good way away, as several minutes have passed since she took to the lake. I climb back up to watch what proves to be a happy reunion. I was surprised at his speed, although it still took a good thirty seconds before mum sensed his approach and turned around to bring him back into the fold. Interestingly, neither the young duckling nor his mum made any attempt at calling each other; she must just have sensed his approach and turned to come back.

It is a lovely way to end our trip and once again we stay up long after dark indulging ourselves in what is the most beautiful and clearest of skies.

We came across relatively few people during our week away, but we spent a lot of time in conversation with those that we did. Chats with a fly-fishing mercenary, a farmer who loves Jethro, and another with a gay ram who he couldn’t bring himself to part with “My grandson loves the useless old bugger” and two proprietors of a fishing hut built from the offices of the now long defunct Birmingham City Corporation, who oversaw the building of all the dams in the Elan Valley. They kindly let us spend the night there though we are both now sworn to secrecy as to its location.

This route is 150 km and takes you through some of the lesser visited parts of Wales. If you are particularly fit and masochistic it could be ridden in one go, but that would be a shame for there are some rather fine views and bits of trail that should be savoured and not rushed. It is quite possible just to ride sections of it making a return loop but if you have the time and inclination, I would recommend taking some time out and committing to the whole ride.

Maps needed: Os 1:50000 135 and 147. A Gpx file of this route is available.

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