The Battle of Bracken Hill (and other stories)

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The story of the walk I took in Wales, in June, 2017.

Preface

This is about a walk I took during midsummer, 2017. The walk was inspired by a book I read many years ago, Wild Wales, by George Borrow, in which this Victorian farmer describes a holiday he took with his family in north Wales in 1854, finishing with a 290 mile walk he made by himself from Llangollen to Chepstow.

Ever since reading the book, I’ve always fancied doing a walk of a similar length myself. In the 1990s I attempted following his route in reverse, but managed to hurt my knee and had to stop after 100 miles.

This year I devised a 220 mile route, visiting some of the places that he did. I planned the daily distances to be within my capabilities, booked the train tickets and accommodation, and on the 27th June, set off with backpack, spare clothes, umbrella, food, water, things necessary for hygiene, camera, maps and my GPS, a sort of sat-nav for walkers.

It was interesting and enjoyable, but did not go exactly as planned …

Day 1 – Barry to Llantrisant

The journey began with a lift, courtesy of my sister, to Leamington Spa railway station, catching the 20:09 to Birmingham. There was a tight, twelve minute gap between connections, but fortunately everything ran on time and I caught the 20:30 to Cardiff Central, then the more basic-looking 23:31 locomotive to the town of Barry on the south Wales coast, arriving just six minutes before midnight.

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My idea had been to take the first step of my walk precisely at midnight at the beginning of the 28th June, but Barry Station did not feel like a place to hang around.

I had been sharing the carriage with a group of intoxicated frozen food warehouse workers. At the footbridge leading out of the station, one of them, reeking of spirits, quickly decided that he was my best friend and several times offered me a place to stay and to buy me a drink.

Walking over the footbridge he stumbled and I caught him by the arm, breaking his fall. Declining further offers of accommodation, I persuaded him that I had an appointment at the other end of town and briskly headed off for the coast path. The last I saw of the man was him wobbling along the street in the distance behind me, heading for Barry town centre.

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I was soon through the suburbs and reached my first proper bit of path on the outskirts of a place called The Knap. Now in complete darkness, I was walking by torchlight. On the woodland track behind Bull Cliff, with the waves rumbling invisibly below, there was a hedgehog shuffling about in the dark. It froze in my torchlight, then scampered off into the darkness. In places there were steep slopes with steps cut into them, sometimes with helpful handrails. Passing through an open area past Bull Cliff Woods, the Porthkerry Viaduct, built in the 1890s, was visible, silhouetted against the glow cast in the sky by the lights of Barry.

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I walked down to the pebbly beach and sat on a washed-up tree trunk on the shore and had my first drink and snack of the walk. From here I could see the lights of Western-super-Mare and Hinkley Point Power Station across the Bristol Channel. Somewhere in the blackness between these two places was the point where I finished a walk across part of southern England last year.

Just after one in the morning. I noted a rise in the ground and guessed I was walking over the ramparts of a cliff-edge prehistoric fort marked on the map. I lost my way in a caravan park for a while, wandering backwards and for-wards, trying to find the way out. Not a sound came from any of the caravans in spite of my torch beam lighting many of them up. Eventually I came across another hedgehog wandering about in the dark. I took this as a good omen and following in its lead found myself back on the coast path. Thank you, hedgehog no. 2.

An hour later I was approaching the place I’d studied on the map for so long, Rhoose Point, the southern tip of Wales. I was now walking on the beach again, taking great care with the placing of my feet on the wobbly, cobble-sized pebbles. In places these gave way to flat rock beds covered in places with slippery seaweed.

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In the dark it was difficult to work out exactly where the actual tip of Wales was. I could have used the GPS, but I was too busy concentrating on not falling over or stepping into a rock pool. Studying the GPS data later, as best as I could make out, the southern tip of Wales is at Ordnance Survey grid reference ST 06687 65540, or 52°22’52” north, 3°20’32” west.

The rocks along this part of the coast are Jurassic limestone, about 200 million-year-old – the Porthkerry Member of the Blue Lias Formation, much the same age as the rocks around my home town in Warwickshire. I broke a piece off to take home as a souvenir.

I had felt some sprinkles of rain walking along the shore, and as if on cue as I passed Rhoose Point, a steady downpour began. Up went the umbrella. It was now two-twenty in the morning and I turned inland, passing through Rhoose village at three.

My route took me around the perimeter of Cardiff Airport, the incredibly bright lights of which were reflected so effectively by the clouds that I didn’t need the torch much of the time, as good as walking under a bright full moon. After about 3:45 a.m. the daylight came on rapidly and away went the torch.

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A little anxious to make good progress on my first day, I marched steadily on, rapidly passing through various little villages and farms. Shortly before Bonvilston, I reached ‘Random Point 0570’, Castell Moel … this will take a bit of explaining:

For many years, myself and some friends have studied the characteristics and distribution of Ordnance Survey triangulation pillars – those funny little square concrete things one finds scattered around the countryside, usually on hill tops. There are about 6,500 of them. Many of these friends are also keen hillwalkers and work their way through long lists of hills and mountains, all classified according to how much ascent is needed to get to the top. There are the ‘Munros’ (the tallest Scottish mountains), the ‘Marilyns’ (hills with at least 150 metres of ascent), ‘Humps’ (100 metres), ‘Tumps’ (30 metres), and so on, about 20,000 of them in the British Isles alone.

As an antidote to these lists which focus on one particular kind of feature, I created a list of 1000 points randomly scattered across the country. Castell Moel is one of them. It turned out to be a vague, grassy knoll, the site of an ancient dwelling, on top of a small rise. The view from the top was unspectacular, but it felt a little bit of an achievement getting there and turning what had been a theoretical point on a map into a real life experience.

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Back to the walk … It was now about nine in the morning, and after seven solid hours the rain ceased, except for a few minor sprinkles, and away went the umbrella, strapping to the side of my backpack.

 

The paths by the River Ely near Pendoylan were very pleasant. This was a conservation area, with wooden walkways over the marshier bits and a bench to sit on at one spot. The river had high banks of soft mud, with Sand Martin nests burrowed into them. I wondered if otters were ever seen in the area and asked a lady who was walking her large, fluffy, off-white poodle if she’d ever seen any. No, she said, only mink.

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Soon I was passing through the town of Miskin and approaching Llantrisant, a town built partly on a hillside and my final destination for the day. I’d walked twenty-one miles by now and decided give the hill a miss and head straight for my hotel. By the magic of the internet on my mobile phone, I’d discovered my room would be available from 2 p.m. onwards. I’d also spotted a Tesco Extra in the distance in that direction.

I descended a lengthy slope to get to an underpass under the main road, from which it would be an easy twenty minute walk to the hotel. However, at the bottom I found myself faced with a tall mesh fence with a small sign tied to it, ‘Footpath Closed Until Mid-July’.

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I studied my maps carefully – there was no other obvious way through. The road itself was up a high bank and also fenced off. How nice it would have been if someone had taken the trouble to put a sign at the top of the hill saying the path was closed, saving myself and anybody else quite a bit of trouble.

Borrow carried a prayer book with him on his travels. I was carrying a book called Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, by Maya Angelou, and consciously made use of her recommendation that if you can’t change a situation, change your mind. I reminded myself that I wasn’t doing this walk because it was easy – that would be a bore – it was deliberately difficult, and it was in overcoming diverse difficulties, or even failing to do so at times, that I got the most enjoyment.

I had a snack and a drink, examined the local scenery which included a derelict chimney, a relic of the industrial past of the area, then started back up the slope – the legs were admittedly very reluctant to move at first – and found my way around the roads. It took two-and-a-half hours. In Tesco I treated myself to some salami, two Costa coffees and a handy-looking travel towel. At 2:45 p.m. I reached the hotel, a Premier Inn, showered, ate again, watched some TV and – I have no idea what time – fell asleep.

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An enjoyable, wet, interesting – even with the ‘closed footpath’ experience – fourteen-and-three-quarter hour day. I had no notion yet that there might be difficulty completing my planned walk, but looking back I think there was some little red light flashing somewhere in the back of my head. My feet were good, but the inefficiency of my boots at keeping the water out was slight concern.

Day 2 – Llantrisant to Coed Owen

I had intended to be out of the door before daybreak but managed set my alarm incorrectly and was not off until after five. The umbrella, as useful as it had been, was rather weighty and awkward to carry, so I gave it to one of the night porters at the hotel. I also discarded a few other odds and ends – it’s amazing how ‘absolute essentials’ become ‘surplus to requirement’ when one has to carry them mile after mile on one’s back.

I was very pleased with the backpack itself. It was the kind that anchors itself only over the shoulders and across the hips, leaving an air-space across the back and so avoiding creating a large sweaty patch – although I did find this space useful for stuffing my raincoat, fleece or drink bottles while walking along. I’d bought it expecting a continuation of our June heat wave, but we had returned to a typical British summer – cloud and rain.

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At Treferig Isaf farm there was an unusually well-built bridge over the stream, and the path north-west was a well-constructed with elaborate but ancient-looking stone drains. I read later that the farmhouse was built in the early 1600s by a wealthy landowner, the descendents of whom converted to the Quaker cause in the 1660s and had to flee to America. None of these structures along the track are recorded in the area’s archaeological record. There are some very interesting curiosities tucked away in the countryside not on any map or in any guidebook.

The next farm proved the opposite in terms of ease of access. The public footpath clearly marked on the map was untraceable on the ground, with no signposts or any breaks in the tall, ‘don’t-even-think-of-climbing-over-me’ fences surrounding the fields. I did climb over and crossed one rather water-logged field, but had to turn back when the next one turned into a mixture of swamp and impenetrable bramble.

I had to use instead a rather busy back road, added two miles to my day. As I rounded one of the corners, a white van steaming along in one direction encountered a small lorry coming in the other and had to bury its nose in the hedgerow to avoid a collision, and all this about ten yards away from me.

I didn’t feel too much in danger because I’m a cautious walker on roads, standing well back or burying myself in the hedgerow when I hear vehicles approaching, but of all the roads I had to walk along, even a bit of duel carriageway I used later, this was the most unpleasant. The one bonus was that this road took me past a little shop in the suburb of Tonyrefail, where I bought some fresh food and a hot coffee.

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I then had some entertainment trying to find my next bit of path. Passing some heavy green railings which I took to be a security fence, I ended up in a back alley behind some houses, walking across a discarded mattress, abandoned car parts and miscellaneous items of household rubbish, as well as battling the omnipresent bramble. The track I wanted to reach was only yards beyond, but I had to give it up as a bad job.

Going back to the green railings I suddenly noticed there was an obvious entrance through them – duh! – and I soon found myself ascending the hillside. A red-face, pouty-looking man walked past with a nervous-looking pit-bull following him, which summed up the impression I’d developed of the place, possibly unfairly, but I was glad to leave it behind.

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From the top of the ridge I had my first proper view of ‘the Welsh valleys’. I’d anticipated some route-finding difficulties here, but it was not too bad. I see from my GPS logs that I did zig-zag about a bit, but this was because in dense vegetation one has no option but to follow whatever paths had been cut through it by other walkers or grazing animals. By 10:30 I was over the hill and back amongst urban surroundings, this time the town of Porth, which lies between Rhonda and Pontypridd – this was now the Rhondda Valley proper.

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One noted the typical little square houses of the region everywhere, often with each one painted a slightly different colour to its neighbour. I also passed and elderly man here who was clutching a two-litre bottle of cider to his chest and who had the complexion of someone who had consumed the contents of many such bottles. I said ‘morning’ to him, and his eyes opened wide as if I’d appeared out of nowhere and he gave a big, toothy grin.

After passing through a few streets, I was climbing up the forested ridge that separated Porth from the next town, Aberdare. Walking through these trees was a great plea-sure, a place to meditate and relax, only marred by the sight of a remarkable mountain of bottles, cans and other fly-tipped refuse dumped in the trees above Aberaman.

I passed St. Gwynno’s chapel, but it was locked. My main memory here is of a large tourist information sign which rather spoils any attempt to take a good photo of the church building.

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I did learn from the sign the story of Griffith Morgan, a legendary athlete of the eighteenth century who could allegedly run fast enough to catch a hare. After retiring, Morgan agreed to one final race against an upcoming champion. He won the race but died in his sweetheart’s arms immediately afterwards, aged 37. Wreaths are still laid at his grave by visiting athletes.

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I struggled at times to find a good route through the trees, but by 3:30 in the afternoon I’d passed through Aberaman and found myself on the top of Mynydd Aberdar, a mountain just twelve inches short of 1,500 feet. On top was one of those triangulation pillars that I used to be so fascinated by. It was a good feeling to be so high up and behind me I could see virtually the whole distance that I had walked the previous two days and a good deal of the way ahead as well. And then …

Coming down the side of the hill towards the A465, I was aware of some difficulty – blistering and weakening of the skin on the sole of my right foot due to the dampness of my boots in the wet conditions. Suddenly the skin split under the ball of my big toe with a painful sting, and I could feel that the left foot was developing a similar situation.

I’d had blisters plenty of times before, never big, and in dry boots they never became a serious issue. These boots just weren’t doing the job, or perhaps I was asking too much of their relatively lightweight construction, having walked so far in them in such testing conditions.

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Sitting on a rock which, mentally, I named ‘the rock of despondency’, I aired my feet, changed into fresh, dry socks and decided how I was going to deal with this new circumstance – I would change socks and air my feet regularly, and hopefully dry my boots out at the next accommodation. However, the day’s surprises were not over.

I should say here how much I enjoy encountering these difficulties – the brambles, blocked paths, swamps, fords, cliffs and other obstacles. Travelling like this, using infrequently-trodden and often neglected paths, one inevitably encounters such eventualities. This walk just seemed to be having far more than its fair share of them.

On a walk last year, after failing to find accommodation and almost hallucinating through lack of sleep, I had stumbled into Bridgewater town centre at three o’clock in the morning, my feet aching more than I’ve ever known, wanting nothing more than to STOP walking, find a 24-hour fuel station with a coffee machine and to get on the train home.

At the same time it was an excellent feeling to be there – I’d walked right across the south-west peninsula isthmus, survived two nights in dark, walked forty miles in one unbroken stretch, seen many remarkable and curious things (including a spectacular sunset over the Steart Peninsula), determined exactly where the termini of the isthmus were, as well as indulged various personal interests in things such as geology, history and wildlife.

Reaching this particular road today was a special mo-ment. It was the first time I had actually crossed Borrow’s 1854 route. He had been going west-to-east. I was trav-elling south-to-north. The bit of land the other side of the duel carriageway was a decommissioned fuel storage facility that I believed was now owned by the Forestry Commission so would be easily walk-throughable.

I was wrong. It was now a private hotel development with stern no entry signs and CCTV cameras. Another time I might have quietly crept through anyway, but I suspected there would be a stout security fence at the back and didn’t want to waste the time and effort. There were paths to the west, but they were excessively long. I had no option but to follow a section of duel carriageway eastwards and then another northwards, adding another three-and-a-half miles to my day.

This was 4:30 in the afternoon and the road was very busy. The majority of vehicles made no effort to avoid me, even when they had ample space pull across the carriageway, but I’m sensible and observant of traffic, getting myself well across the verge whenever necessary. After an hour-and-a-half I was back on countryside paths. This experience just confirmed to me my personal rule about ‘A’ road walking – avoid, avoid, avoid!

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I briefly clipped the edge of Merthyr Tydfil, passing through a few back streets, but was out on the hillsides yet again very quickly and now following something called ‘The Taff Trail’, which led me up into another forest.

In spite of being an official National Trail, it was not as well signposted as it might be. One turn I missed added yet another two-thirds of a mile to my day. With the foot problems and what had been planned as a twenty-four mile day now approaching thirty, I was seriously looking forward to putting my feet up at my next destination, a travellers’ hostel at a farm called Coed Owen.

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I now had my first views of the reservoirs which line the upper part of the Taff valley – the Llwyn-on, Cantref and Beacons reservoirs. My destination lay between the first two of these and on the way a sign told me that I was entering that great, central, modern region of Wales, Powys.

The lady at the farm was most welcoming, saying because they had a stag party group in the building they use as the hostel, I could the spare room in the farmhouse instead. At the pub opposite I had a meal of garlic mushrooms and chips with a local beer, then back to the farmhouse for a shower and an excellent night’s sleep.

I had walked 32 miles and climbed almost 5,000 feet in 15½ hours, considerably more than I had ever intended to do in a single day.

Day 3 – Coed Owen to Llandeusant

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I can’t praise Coed Owen enough. As this was a sponsored walk, the lady refused to take any money and in the morning I found a note on the kitchen table telling me to make myself toast or cereal and to take the bananas and biscuits she’d left out with me. I left the house at 5:40 in the morning, no one else having yet risen (or perhaps they were already out).

My plan for the day was either a 21½ mile tramp over the Brecon Beacons or a gentler 23½ miles through the villages on the northern side of the mountains. To be kinder to my feet I chose the latter.

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One comes across various incidental puzzles on a walk such as this. Yesterday, at the foot of the first reservoir was a breezeblock box, quite large, with a concrete slab on top. No wires or pipes going into it and no marks or writing. The function mystified me, but this morning I saw another and noticed steps on one side. It was a mounting block for horse riders. Mystery solved.

 

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Another puzzle was a section of much decayed Victorian-looking railings lying half-buried in woodland high up on the hillside above one of the reservoirs. I wondered how and why someone had taken the trouble to carry them all the way up there. They were too heavy to have been transported on a whim, but looked impractical for use as farm fence. They lie at the foot of a tree, grid reference SN 98450 18440, if anyone else wants to go up and have a ponder over them.

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I enjoyed the ever-changing scenery as I topped one rise after another and dipped in and out of various sections of forest, but things became awkward again in the Glasfynydd and Mynydd Wysg forests. Although there were clear tracks marked on the map, they did not always relate closely to anything on the ground, and I just had to follow the forest tracks as I found them.

Thankfully this worked out reasonably well in Glasfynydd, staying close to my planned route. Mynydd Wysg Forest was another matter. Getting to it was another exercise in attempting to walk on water, the ground being so waterlogged, and on entering the forest the only followable forest road twisted wildly, doubling back on itself at times.

I tried to force a way through the trees, but they were so densely planted that it was pitch black underneath them and the ground was deep-furrowed and covered in dense, water-saturated moss. The branches were so intertwined that it was impossible to go through without being scratched to bits. More by luck than judgement I eventually reached a minor road running east-west which would take me to my destination.

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I had emerged on to classic Beacons moorland. I have to admit that I did try thumbing a life from a couple of cars that went past, feeling I’d done my bit for the day, but after neither responded I was glad, chiding myself for a moment of weakness.

When I’d had eight miles to go, I’d picked up eight little stones, discarding one every as I walked each mile, a psychological trick to make the distance seem less – nothing more than a handful of small stones. I still have the final stone as reminder of that moorland road.

Reaching Talsarn, a woman arriving at a house nearby waved and shouted down the road, asking if I needed any help with directions. I indicated my intended direction of travel and she nodded.

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That night I was at Llandeusant Youth Hostel. It was a great pleasure to be there. There were once many hundreds of such hostels across the country, used by people of all ages. There are now only 180 left with many threatened with closure. Of these 180, a lot have been poshed-up and remind me more and more of motorway hotels. They are filled with posters advertising their own facilities and tend to house trendy types, school groups, families who book whole rooms or individuals who indeed treat them as substitutes for motorway hotels.

Others hostels are manned by volunteers and are far more appealing. They are more sociable places altogether and each has its individual character. Llandeusant is one of these, although sadly I was told it up for sale to be run as a franchise, or will simply close within a few years. The body which runs the YHA now is very business-orientated and doesn’t seem interested in the founding ethos of the Youth Hostel Association – affordable accommodation for people who otherwise would never get to experience the countryside.

I knew by now that this was probably going to be the end of my walk. The skin on my feet was broken and degraded, which I can only blame on my own lack of preparation. I had vague notions carrying on a little further, but decided against this, worried that I might do long-term damage.

I was pleased, at least, that I’d managed the best part of a hundred miles in three days. Today had been twenty-five miles, not desperately over the 23½ I had intended, with the total now at 84 miles.

Llyn-y-Fan-Fach

I rested completely for a day at the hostel, boots off and snoozing on a bench in front of the hostel in the sunshine. Later I explored the little church next to the hostel. Llandeusant is one of those Welsh villages which only consists of about three houses, yet still had a church and a pub, although the pub is now the building functioning as the Youth Hostel.

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On Sunday the 2nd of July, I took a walk up to Llyn-y-Fan-Fach, one of the small lakes at the foot of the Black Mountain ridge. It was a day of perfect weather for walking.

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The lake is the setting of a famous legend about a mysterious woman who appeared at the lake and married a local man. They became wealthy farmers, but after a disagreement she returned to the lake, taking all the cattle with her, disappearing with them under the water. She reappeared just once more to let the farmer know that their children would become famous healers, and in a nearby village there was a succession of so-called doctors for many centuries, ‘the physicians of Myddfai’, although their ‘cures’ were rather medieval and drastic in nature. That last of these doctors died in 1739.

Another interesting fact is that the lake it was converted into a reservoir during the First World War, the work being carried out by a 200-strong team of conscientious objectors – teachers, accountants, servicemen who refused to fight, people of faith, even a concert pianist. It was hard work, the ‘conscies’ being effectively used as slave labour, but they completed the job and the reservoir remained in service until 1967.

Llyn-y-Fan-Fach is a beautiful place, listed by Lonely Planet as one of the one-thousand best places to visit in the world. I’m not sure how they calculate that, but it is a nice spot. I’d walked the three miles from the hostel to the lake and sat there for some time, listening to the sheep bleats echoing off cliffs that surround it like a natural amphitheatre. The geology here is 400-million-year-old Devonian ‘brownstone’, which gives the whole area an attractive reddish colour, unlike the austere greys characteristic of much of Wales. I walked around the lake, looking at this stone and that, before returning to the hostel.

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There was a nice mixture of people at the hostel – a woman walking the Beacons Way, a couple exploring the local hills, and a man from Northumberland who’d also read Wild Wales, and a garlic-eating vegan man who was reading a book about aliens secretly taking over the world, as well as the two very sociable volunteer hostel wardens.

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The following day I walked the seven miles to Llangadog railway station and took the little train that runs diagonally across Wales, ending up in Shrewsbury. Seventy miles in three-and-a-half hours. It was a delight and I got to see quite a bit of the countryside that I’d intended to walk through. From there I train-hopped to Leamington Spa, walking a final two miles to reach a bus stop in Radford Semele, and then I was home.

When I totalled everything up, I found I’d walked one-hundred miles exactly. Funnily enough, exactly the same distance I walked both last year and on my previous attempt to walk the length of Wales in the 1990s.

The Battle of Bracken Hill

After a day’s rest at home and picking up a different pair of boots, I took the car back to Wales to make use of the accommodation I’d pre-arranged. I visited some of the places mentioned in the book, Wild Wales. It was an unexpectedly moving moment crouching down by the grave of a Welsh poet that Borrow had admired, knowing that Borrow himself had knelt at that very same spot and kissed the monument 163 years earlier.

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I decided to go for one last walk to the top of one of the hills of the area. I parked a few miles away and walked to the foot of a bridleway which led towards the summit.

In spite of the path being reassuringly printed very solidly on the map, there was once again absolutely no hint of it on the ground, only a steep slope, sixty-degrees to the vertical in places and densely blanketed with tall bracken. I went to knock on a nearby farmhouse door to ask for advice, but a pair of very large, fierce and loudly barking dogs in the forecourt made me abandon the idea.

I started the climb. It was a bit like trying to swim vertically upwards through dense jungle vegetation. I delved into and parted the bracken before me with my arms then took a couple of short steps, sometimes gaining only inches at a time.

There was no sign of anyone else ever having come this way, not even the little ponies or sheep of the area. It was slow, methodical business. After two hours I emerged onto open slopes 500 feet higher up, with only another 250 feet of easier walking to get to the summit. Not the most sensible route I’ve ever taken, but the alternative would have meant retracing my steps for several miles to find another path, something no walker likes to do.

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I reached the top, then by a relatively easy ramble, returned to the car via a series of upland lakes and pools.

I then drove to Llangollen, the town busy with pre-parations for an annual music festival, bought a very tasty kebab, and drove home to Warwickshire.

It had all be very enjoyable. Slightly disappointed that I didn’t get at least a day or two further, but valuable lessons learned. I look forward to attempting a walk of a similar scale to my original plan next year and break that 100 mile barrier – in better boots.

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