Friday, 25 March 2016

The Gap Road - Brecon Beacons

The house feels like an oven, I’m down to a T-shirt but the rest of the family seem happy enough in jumpers. Just too hot. Of course the reason for feeling too hot is that I have been out in the cold for the last two days; it certainly makes you realise how our bodies get used to the temperature. But more on that trip in a minute….

The blog has been quiet for several months now; mainly because when you spend all day in front of a computer, sometimes the last thing you want to do is more of the same when you get home. No excuse really, but it’s mine and I’m sticking to it.

Before I try to catch us up on all the happenings since the last post (and there is lots to write about); here is an update from this weekend #microadventure to the Brecon Beacons.

Following completion of a full year of microadventures, this years plan was to build on what we did last year and try for bigger trips each time we head out. Last year saw some truly memorable trips, ‘The gravel dash’, the shipwrights way, Snowdon and many more smaller trips born of the necessity of being time crunched, all these had fuelled the fire for more ‘epic‘ adventures.

a picturesque start

We started off the year with a South downs way trip (another one for a later post) and February was a chance to re-introduce some people to the delights of outdoor living. So for March we planned a trip along the gap road which leads up to the saddle between  Fan-y-Big and Cribyn in the Brecon Beacons. The walking route continues onto Pen-y-Fan, the highest point in south Wales, but the cycle route turns downhill in an epic descent. I’ve done the route before, several years ago, but we threw in some additional miles along the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal as we had plenty of time to get to our planned overnight spot. Constructed in the 1790’s the 35 miles of navigable section (by boat) and 55 miles by foot or bike (The Taff Trail) is predominantly the old Monmouthshire canal; the original being two separate canals, the Brecknock & Abergavenny Canal and the Monmouthshire Canal. Mainly used to bring coal, limestone and iron ore from the hillsides; the canal played a significant part in our industrial heritage, connecting Hill’s tramroads to the iron works in Blaenavon and the forges at Garnddyrys. The route was packed with wildlife and history so the early part of the ride was conducted at a leisurely pace giving us a chance to take in the scenery and abundant bird life.

Plenty of stops along the way
Detailed planning took place on the Wednesday evening before we set off and I was still fettling the bike on Friday after I discovered a seized jockey wheel. With travel time only 3 hours to get down to Abergavenny, we had a good 9 hours of daylight to play with.

We found suitable parking in Llanfoist and fully loaded up, were straight into a steep but short climb to the canal. Obligatory starting photos completed we set off at a leisurely pace towards Talybont-on-Usk, some 15 miles away. We held a steady pace with plenty of stops along the way as we spotted various wildlife and interesting historic lime kilns and bridges; the sedate pace and wide paths allowed us to ride side by side and point out the many buzzard and crow battles being fought. Although, conditions weren’t favourable for Lee to spot his beloved Dipper.

At Talybont-on-Usk we turned off the canal and began the climb past the reservoir to the saddle leading down to Pontsticill. At this point my lack of fitness was beginning to show and bouncing off the rocks while cycling a fully laden bike was taking its toll on my energy reserves. The pace reduced further as we teetered our way over two logs masquerading as a bridge (no easy task carrying a heavy bike) and paused for photos of the stunning scenery.

Diabetic coma anyone?
Descending towards Pontsticill we passed some bemused mountain bikers who clearly weren’t expecting to see two mountain bikes loaded with gear come flying past. Lee picked up a puncture on the rocky descent and I took the opportunity to enjoy a brief burst of sunlight and chat to a passing walker before we headed on down to the reservoir. We had to clamber past an abandoned landrover that had got itself wedged on a fallen tree and I found myself wondering how much he wished he had packed an axe or a chainsaw. Judging by the holes dug and the scrubbed tyres, I suspect a lot.

Onwards toward a late lunch at ‘the old barn tea rooms’ at Pontsticill, skirting the reservoirs and passing several groups of walkers. I think I managed to induce a diabetic coma through the massive lunch and cream tea we consumed or perhaps having to climb the steep hill straight after pushed me over the edge. A short bimble later, and we were in the vicinity of our selected camping zone. Somewhat worryingly there were several tents already setup, with rubbish and used gas canisters scattering the area. An abandoned tent completed the scene and we decided it was just too close to potential trouble sources. The amount of rubbish and damaged trees angered me greatly as part of my ethos is to try and leave no trace. The dense forest left few options for campsites and we followed the river in both directions before settling on a semi secluded spot well away from everyone else. Although not perfect due to its closeness to the water (think flash flood) a small fire pit was already established so I rearranged it to protect the ground more and we setup the tarps, using the now familiar tent configuration. I added an additional ridge line to see if this kept the back from sagging so much and was soon well established for the night.

Tranquil camping spot
There was plenty of dead standing wood in the area and we gathered a pile of different sized twigs, branches and logs to keep us going through the night. For those interested in what to gather, you need wood that isn’t on the ground, and it should be dead, though some woods will burn when green. Dead standing wood should be easy to spot in the summer and ideally you want woods like ash and oak that burns with low smoke if dry. Size wise, for tinder, gather something the size of the end of a pencil, about the length of your outstretched hand and enough to fill a circle made by your hands. Kindling wise, something no thicker than your thumb, about as long as your forearm and enough for a generous armful. Finally for the main fuel wood about as thick as your wrist, about as long as your arm and a stack as high as your knee. That should keep you going through the night depending on the wood type.

Lee on fire duties
I was feeling quite tired by then and lazily left the fire tending duties to Lee as I warmed my feet and watched natures TV. Despite the monumental lunch we decided to eat again rather than risk running out of energy the next day but it wasn’t long before I was climbing into my sleeping bag for the night. A fitful night lay ahead as the normal night sounds were obscured by the sound of the river and I kept imagining people trying to steal the bikes. One reason why being well out of sight is my preference. Still, a beautiful spot.

The following morning we breakfasted on the usual porridge pot and packed up. On the road before the other campers we started the climb toward the summit pausing only to admire a pair of crossbills that Lee announced as the highlight of the birds spotted this trip. For me it was watching Lee’s face as he rode down the steep cutting near the start of the climb. Snowboard style he slid down the hill looking highly relieved to have survived the experience.

Summit time
The wind was howling as we turned out from the protection of the hill and crested the saddle between Cribyn and Fan-y-Big. Snow was visible as we took some photos before beginning the descent; and what a descent. Approx 2.5 km of trail that starts with rock gardens and small drops before finally smoothing out and eventually becoming a grass track, the last part really allows you to gather speed and I took advantage of the natural terrain to the side to go off piste, arriving at the gate with a big grin on my face.

Following a short stop to take on some food, we followed the three rivers ride along a twisting set of roads to Llanfrynach and then on to Pencelli where we re-joined the canal path and set off towards the car. By now we both wearing most of our spare clothing as the temperature had dropped and neither of us wanted a repeat of the previous days chills. Less stops on the way home as we were keen to keep warm and I for one was flagging in energy terms. We passed more people than on the Saturday and in the summer progress must be slow as many people enjoy the canal and its many sights. I insisted on stopping off for the pigs we had passed on the way out, and the bird spotting continued as we were treated to close encounters with a heron and a buzzard. 

As the finish hove into view I breathed a sigh of relief which just shows how unfit I have let myself become. Compared to last year my fitness is nowhere near where it needs to be, I’ll need to sort that out pretty sharpish.

Tired but happy
With 53 miles covered we loaded the car and set off for home already discussing the highlights of the trip.