This is my love letter to Wales. I am fascinated with it's rich history and rugged landscape. Within 50 miles I can travel over 5000 years. The Bronze and Iron Ages, the Middle Ages, and the not so distant Industrial Revolution all huddle beside each other amongst the verdant Southeast Valleys. This is where I ride and this is why I write.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Grywne Fawr Reservoir

As part of my goals for 2018, I'm trying to catch up on reporting rides from 2017 that never made it to the blog. The following is my first installment...

Saturday, October 28, 2017 - The plan; Bike & Hike Grwyne Fawr Reservoir. A fabulously remote spot high up in the Black Mountains which features a secluded reservoir and mountain bothy. (Check out: Mountain Bothies for more info.)

It was chilly and just coming on daybreak when Deano and I met in Pontypool to begin our adventure. We headed north along NCN Route 492 for the first 10 miles under grey skies, creaking tree branches, and quiet trepidation.

It's a lovely route, but it's also a slow steady slog and on this late Autumn morning it felt rather gloomy as we reached the forgotten town of Brynmawr. If you ask anyone in the Valleys they will tell you; "it's always windy and colder up there." And despite our enthusiasm, the day looked rather dire.

However, much to our relief and excitement; the day began to brighten as we left Brynmawr, turned east and headed out across Hafod Farm Road.

This short five mile ride ends just above Llangattock and is popular as a starting point for exploring some of the UK's most extensive cave systems. (Check out: Eglwys Faen for more interesting details.)

Additional Features
The route is popular for walkers and cyclists alike for it offers spectacular views across to Clydach Gorge, as well as stunning overlooks to the Heads of the Valleys, Abergavenny, and the Blorenge. It is a must ride for any cyclist. You can check out my report "Mad Explore & Discovery" to see more on this fabulous route.

Clydach Gorge

Left to right: The Skirrid, Abergavenny, and the Blorenge

Also found along this route is the legendary Lonely Shepherd. You can see my report on that ride here: "Bike & Hike: The Lonely Shepherd".

The Lonely Shepherd

We rejoin our story with the two happy boys having found sunshine on Hafod Road along the Llangattock Escarpment...

Deano and yours truly standing before the Black Mountains...

It's a crazy steep ride down from Hafod Road to the village of Llangattock two miles below... I'm talking white knuckle, wrist-cramping steep and not for the feint of heart (22% grade in places!) But once down there are some lovely views as you snake your way up the opposite valley through Crickhowell.

I know this shot of Table Mountain would have benefitted from a better camera.

Here's a great shot of the valley we're about to head up... I don't normally include other folks photos, but this is such a good one, I thought it would be nice to give you a better view.

Sugar Loaf Mountain, Wales. 24 Dec 2003. Photo: Hugh McCann

A few miles up the road from Crickhowell in the village of Llanbedr, is the lovely Saint Peter's Church. It's well worth stopping to explore. We found this tree in the cemetery and surmised that anyone misbehaving would be told to "go sit in the yew tree!" And so I did.

"Get thee unto thy tree
young hooligan.."
"I'll be good Deano... I promise."

We left the village of Llanbedr and continued up the road to discover even less traffic and more wilderness. This is what I love about cycling in Wales; it doesn't take long to get away from civilisation. These fabulous little un-named backroads are everywhere.

Hang on Deano! Wait for me!!!! or as the Welsh say; "I'll catch you up now in a minute."

And it was quite surprising to still see so much colour on the trees this late. Autumn 2017 was the most colourful I've seen since being in Wales. It's a fall feature that I've missed, so it was especially nice to see one this year.

You might be wondering where we are... so here is the overall map. If you select "View Full Version", you'll launch a second tab with a larger map displayed. This makes it much easier to view, especially if you're using a proper computer.

We followed the Llangenny River heading toward Forest Coal Pit. The river itself is a tiny thing tucked deep in the bottom of the valley... you hardly ever see it, but when you do, it's fast-flowing and sparkling.

What should have been some nice photos turned into fuzzy nightmares, but we're going back and I know where to stop!

I didn't know it at the time, but from the look on his face... I think Dean is beginning to suffer a bit. Unfortunately for Deano... this would prove to be true. :(

Canon IXUS 285
My Photography
Back in early October of 2017 I fell off my bike and broke the lovely little Canon camera I had been using for the majority of my photographs used in this blog.

Now I've had to resort to using the camera on my Samsung J3 smartphone. Clearly you can see that there are some significant differences. Most notably of which is focus. The smartphone camera certainly does okay in bright light, but under low-light, the sensor is just too small and I lose detail.

Another benefit with the Canon was better image stabilisation. It's a crucial feature to have when straddling a bike in the wind. This leads to a second cause of poor focus.

If you're interested to read about some of my considerations for purchasing a new camera, check out my article: "A Camera for A Cyclist".

And one more try for the river shot - still a bit blurry. Oh well. Then at Forest Coal Pit, we had a choice of roads to cycle up. Most of the mountain bikers choose the forest road; we chose the paved for obvious reasons. (I'm not quite ready for logging roads not on a map!)

Regardless of which path you chose, this is where it started to get interesting... as in steep climbing/interesting. You can easily spot our location from the elevation profile above... we're about to climb that big pointy bit.

It's a soul-crushing climb of varying degrees (between 4% - 10%) for six steady miles to the Black Mountain Car park. (You can just make it out in the photo above.) Needless to say, it's a good place to stop. Plus, it's crazy beautiful.

Across from the car park on the opposite side of the river is a pine forest. I'm not sure if it's natural because they plant a lot of trees in this part of Wales for various uses (paper, fuel, etc), but it's a knock out to walk through.

Once we had composed ourselves and I had snapped a few dozen images we began the hike. There's little cycling to be made from this point - it's leave the bike behind or push her up with ya. There were a few bikes locked up, but we weren't too confident about leaving ours, so on they came. (And of course my images are blurry!)

Word to the wise; when yer cycling buddy stops talking, they may be suffering. Deano pushed on despite having some serious back pain. He hates to give up; so we continued.

Yes, we were heading into the clouds. The temperature really started to drop and the wind was picking up as well. Note, the tops of the mountains were no longer visible!

I feel awful looking back on this photo. Deano was truly struggling and I was most probably hopping about, snapping photos, and jabbering away with little concern. I'm sorry Deano. I should have been more sensitive and had us turn back sooner.

The weather was getting more severe and we were just about to leave the protection of the trees when we spoke with a young family coming down the trail to discover that we had yet another two miles to the top. So we stopped. Dean had enough. He was in serious pain.

We were just at the edge of the tree-line and if we continued on we would be completely exposed. You can see the clouds rolling in over the mountains ahead of us. The wind was beginning to howl. It was a smart decision.

I had planned on making coffee once we reached the bothy, but we had some decent shelter under the trees yet, so I pulled out my faithful Primus stove and made us both a much needed hot cuppa. A couple of sandwiches and a good rest revitalised us for the return.

The ride back down to Forest Coal Pit was fast and fun. We had a strong tail-wind with zero traffic. We owned the road for six glorious miles.... zooooooom!

And then after another rolling five miles we were back in Crickhowell, just like that. In what had taken hours to climb; we sailed back in minutes. Dean called for a pick-up from his wife and we parted ways. I made my way to Abergavenny to find the lazy M&B canal path. I wanted an easy ride home, even if it was longer. (This boy was plum-tuckered out.)

It had been a glorious day - full of dramatic landscapes and weather as well as physical tests of endurance. We spent 10 hours cycling and hiking 56 miles. It was awesome. Were we defeated? No! We will return. YES!! We shall conquer the Grwyne Fawr!

I left Dean in Crickhowell around 5/5:30 and took my time getting back to Abergavenny. I too, was pretty tired and ready to be home, but I hadn't the energy to push myself. I was wanting a relaxed ride home. I had 25 miles to cycle which I envisioned to take about 2 1/2 hours. Easy-peasy.

Thirty minutes after I got onto the canal path it was dark, but no worries; I had a head light. Fifteen minutes later, my "no worries" head light suddenly went out. No click. No warning. Just dark. I was stunned. I thought I had checked the light before I left home?!?! Fumbling; could it be just a bad connection?!?! Nope. Nothing.

Now it was dark. In fact, it was pitch black. I was under a thick canopy of trees along a very dark canal. There were no roads with street lights nearby. No houses. Nothing. It was so dark in fact, that I could not distinguish the path from the canal.

It was simply impossible to ride any further... I could hardly see to walk. Yet, I had no other choice. So after a few moments trying to get acclimated (cussing profusely...), I began to slowly push my bike along. I could just barely make out some spots along the way, but only barely.

And thus began my very long walk from just above Goytre Wharf to Pontymoile Boat Basin; a distance of approximately six miles.

At 10:30 pm I stumbled into the petrol station just outside Pontypool City Park, so relieved to find it still open. (Many places close at 9:30 pm and I had been worried for hours that I'd not make it...) My hips ached as if raw bones were grinding at every step. My feet burned like needles were pressing into my souls. My back hunched and stiff drew deep moans from within my chest as I bent to unlace my shoes.

I ditched the bike carelessly against the outside wall and stumbled into the shop. I spent at least five minutes or more trying to read the instructions on the coffee machine for I could not get my eyes to focus. It was so friggin' bright and all the colours burned. I couldn't stop blinking.

I was panting like a dog as I then selected a mountain of heart-attack-inducing snacks and most importantly - the biggest flashlight they had in the shop. I made a fist-pump with a loud YESSSSSSSSSS!!!!! (Emphasising the "s" like Kaa from Jungle Book.)

I'm sure I looked a-fright as I approached the counter. The poor woman behind the bullet-proof glass did not look at all comfortable serving me. As I tried to explain my predicament, her wide-eyes only got wider and she mumbled something to the effect of "uh-huh" as she slid my change back under the window.

And she didn't take her eyes off of me as I gorged myself with sugar and dried beef products, hunched like Quasimodo in the fuelling bay, grinning like an idiot as I lashed my £10 flashlight to the handlebars with four feet of bungie-cord. I heard myself say loudly; "Who says men can't multitask?" and I chuckled with glee as coffee and crumbs went flying with my self-declared wisdom. She didn't smile.

But then... then I was magically on my bike again and it was as if I had never felt smoothness before. The world was transformed.

The road was like butter. I was gliding silently through the air. I was night-flying. And I could see. Glorious, glorious light illuminated my ebony path with silver radiance. No, no, Mr. Pothole... You'll not jar my bones! Step aside Mr. Twig. You'll not trip me tonight. I can see you all coming! Ha! Ha! Ha! Wheeeeeeeeee!

To be perfectly honest, I don't remember much after getting on the road again. Clearly, I was out of my gourd. But my wife informed me that I arrived home sometime after midnight.

What a crazy day. What a fabulous adventure. When are we going again, Deano?

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