In which The Author walks for miles
without getting anywhere
One evening in the week I was in the pub with a few friends, and we noticed a painting on the wall. It was executed by Alwyn Isaac, a pal of ours, and is one of a series of prints he’s selling. It depicts the old church of St Gwynno in Llanwynno, high on the mountainside between Mountain Ash and the Rhondda valleys. The only problem was, we weren’t convinced that Alwyn’s perspective was very accurate. I haven’t been there for ages, but last time I photographed it I was sure the bell-tower was taller, and the chancel isn’t as long in relation to the nave.
By coincidence, this week’s episode of Doctor Who (the two-part story ‘The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood’) was filmed partly in and around the church, so on Saturday morning I decided to take a wander with the camera and investigate for myself. I originally intended to do the same as I did last time: catch the train to Mountain Ash, either walk or take the bus to Perthcelyn, then walk along the minor roads until I got to the village. (Actually, ‘village’ is a bit of misnomer – it’s a pub, a church, and a couple of scattered farmhouses on a very minor road between Perthcelyn and Blaunllechau, near Ferndale.)
I think I’ve only been in the Brynfynnon twice. The second time was on my last visit to Llanwynno a few years ago. The time before that was a Sunday night quiz several years before, when I was playing for the late Colin Jones’s team. Other than those, I hadn’t been to Llanwynno at all since the Cynon Valley Profile days, back in 1986–7. I could have a couple of drinks, maybe grab something to eat, and get back home in good time. Anyway, that was the plan.
I called into the bakery around the corner from my house to pick up some supplies for the expedition. While I was there, Mike the owner and I were chatting about the weather. I told him my agenda for the day, and he made the fatal error.
‘Why don’t you go up from Cwmaman? It’s easy!’
I knew it was possible in theory. I didn’t have the map of the area, but Mike told me that the path up through the forestry was easy enough to follow, and would bring me out right beside the church. It seemed like a good idea. By coincidence, Kristy M. texted me when I was walking into town, suggesting that I caught the bus to Cwmaman and took a walk with her along the Sculpture Trail. So, without any real idea of where I was going to end up, I had a plan.
Famous last words …
When we reached the end of the Sculpture Trail, Kristy pointed me up Llanwonno Road. (The spelling varies according to whether you’re using the Welsh or Anglicised version.) It disappears behind a row of cottages and up into the Forestry Commission land which occupies most of the mountainside. I’d only gone a short distance when I came to a big Forestry Commission sign. It told me that I was in an area known as Old Llanwonno Road. It sounded promising, so I carried on walking uphill. The forestry track was wide and obviously frequently used, but a couple of smaller paths branched off. I guessed that they were used by walkers, and would skirt around the village before dropping down towards Abercwmboi. I was sure that I needed to follow the forestry track.
I carried on climbing until I encountered a felled tree which completely blocked the track. There were signs nearby advising that it was private property, and there was no obvious way past. I’d have had to climb up the steep slope to my left, over the tree roots, and back down the other side – probably incurring the wrath of the Forestry Commission – in order to carry on. A bit disheartened, I turned back to the last junction I’d passed.
A smaller path led off here, more level and much less worn than the woodland road I’d originally taken. I tried that instead. Sure enough, after a few minutes it widened out and the surface became much easier underfoot. You could probably drive a vehicle along here with room to spare – although it would have to be a 4×4 or something similar to cope with some of the more uneven stretches. I found myself walking between two immense walls of fir (to borrow a phrase from the Very Things), with only occasional glimpses of the valley below.
Pretty soon I was overlooking Abercwmboi, heading for the steep mountain above Mountain Ash. Since Kristy and I had parted company I hadn’t seen another soul, and I found it rather disconcerting. After all, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and it was a Saturday afternoon. I hadn’t crossed any fences or climbed any stiles. As far as I could tell, I hadn’t strayed onto a top-secret military installation. (There used to be a Royal Observer Corps station near Perthcelyn Reservoir, but that’s another story!) I couldn’t fathom out why the whole place was so quiet.
I must have walked for another twenty minutes or so when I came to a fork in the ‘road’ – one headed off to my right, and the other sloped steeply straight down. Here, I got my first clue that I was actually on some sort of right of way – a column of stone at the side of the road was painted with yellow arrows. Attached to the stone was a small circular plaque bearing the words ‘Loops and Links’ and a logo of a flying bird. It rang a vague bell. I sort-of remembered reading about an initiative to open the mountains up to leisure activities. Using my rusty knowledge of the area, I figured that the left-hand path would probably take me down into Mountain Ash. Llanwynno was on the mountainside, so I decided to go right instead.
I carried on climbing for some time, following the gently curving path ever higher until the northern half of the valley opened up to my left. I decided to take a photo from my vantage point.
And that, gentle reader, is the last time I saw any sign of human habitation for another two hours …
The Loops and Links initiative (like most local ‘tourism’ schemes) must have sounded like a very fine proposal when it was first mooted. A series of interconnected, waymarked, off-road trails through some of the most spectacular scenery south of the Brecon Beacons was probably greeted with enthusiasm and approved within a very short time. Cyclists, horse-riders, quad-bikers, and walkers would be able to take full advantage of free, healthy exercise in the great outdoors.
Instead, what actually came into existence was a sadistic behavioural psychologist’s wank-fantasy. The powers that be have constructed a seemingly endless maze of almost indistinguishable paths, bifurcating (or even trifurcating) at random, with only the occasional yellow arrows to reassure the poor laboratory subject that s/he is in fact still involved in the experiment.
I wandered around in this labyrinth for ages. At one point I came to a section of the path which ran parallel to a row of telegraph poles. I had it in the back of my mind that the telegraph poles cut through the forestry and crossed Llanwynno village before continuing towards Pontypridd. I even sat down on a tree stump and tried connecting to Google Earth in order to verify this hypothesis. Needless to say, I was outside mobile signal range.
Even so, I followed the telegraph poles until I found another stone column pointing me to the left. In the distance, the path continued into the conifers. There was a red and white portal-like structure about thirty yards into the trees, like the sort of checkpoints one sees outside army bases.
As well as a yellow arrow pointing to the left, this particular stone had a red arrow pointing towards the trees. Since I had no way of knowing what the yellow arrows represented, I decided that the red arrow must represent something different. I took the left-hand path, heading roughly due east. (Incidentally, if you’re wondering how I knew I was heading roughly due east, it’s easy. By this time, the bloody moon was hanging mockingly in the afternoon sky!)
After about another ten minutes or so, I spotted a different type of sign. It was the sort of sign I’m used to seeing in the Dare Valley Country Park – a little wooden post with arrows pointing to various footpaths. That was a relief. Or so I thought …
However, when I actually got up close enough to read it, I found that it was actually much use as the proverbial chocolate teapot.
Note to the tourism authorities: three arrows, none with any obvious destination, pointing in random directions (one of which doesn’t seem to be a footpath at all) is not a useful navigational tool.
By this time I think the slow descent into madness had begun. I shouted at this signpost, my voice echoing off the mountain slopes beyond.
‘What’s the point of you? You’re not pointing at anywhere! You’re no fucking use to anyone!’
It was a good thing that the nearest people were at least twenty minutes away!
By now, I’d abandoned any idea of getting to Llanwynno. I decided to cut my losses, figuring that I’d descend into Penrhiwceiber, Abercynon, or Pontypridd at the worst. I could catch a train from any of those places. There were more yellow arrows, tempting me away from my eastward trajectory, but I ignored them. I decided that if I stumbled across a main road (or even a minor road) I’d call it a day and head for home. I can’t remember how far I’d gone when I found probably the least useful signpost so far:
This is straight from the ‘No Shit, Sherlock’ school of navigation. There is only one path, and it goes straight ahead. Like, d’oh – thanks for that!
A bit further on, out of the corner of my left eye, I saw ripples on water through the trees. I peered through the foliage and saw a wide stretch of water. For a moment I thought I was going to drop down onto the Taff north of Pontypridd, on the opposite bank to the Taff Trail. Then I realised that – of course – it wasn’t the river. I’d have had to descend into Carnetown or Glyncoch long before I reached the Taff. It crossed my mind that it was a reservoir. I could only think of Perthcelyn Reservoir in this vicinity, and it certainly wasn’t that one.
Totally confused, I followed the slope down and found myself looking at one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen. A few guys were larking about in the water on my side of the reservoir, and two couples were picnicking on the far side. How they’d got there was completely beyond me. They were the first people I’d seen since Kristy and I had parted company hours before. I was tempted to take a couple of photos, but by now I was too tired and too fed up to bother.
I struck out on the track again, and soon heard running water on my left. I guessed that it was the stream that drained the reservoir, but I couldn’t possibly imagine which stream it was. Even so, I followed the sound and found a fantastic little waterfall in a clearing. The place smelled of moss and greenery, and I sat there for a couple of minutes, wondering where the hell I was. Again, I didn’t take any photos, My primary aim was to get back to civilisation while the sun was still high in the sky.
The path eventually led steeply downhill to a junction. To the left was a high fence and a Private Property sign. To the right was a steep tarmac track leading up into the trees. Crossing it at an angle was a forest trail. I think it was called Pistyll Goleu, but I can’t be sure.
I took the tarmac road. It curved up and around, and in the distance I saw a man walking a dog. It crossed my mind to ask him where the hell I was, but it seemed like such a stupid question I couldn’t bring myself to ask it. About another fifty yards on, a locked barrier blocked the road. A blue estate car was parked just beyond it. Presumably it belonged to the guy with the dog. At long last I was approaching some semblance of human habitation.
Another two minutes’ walk led me to a proper road – one with tarmac, and white lines down the middle, and even the occasional car travelling along it. Now I had a problem. Was I west of Llanwynno – that is, on the Blaenllechau side – or to the east? If I was nearer Blaenllechau, then heading east would lead me to Llanwynno. If not, then I’d missed it entirely.
By then it was nearly five o’clock. I thought ‘Sod this for a game of soldiers!’ and continued in the direction of the moon.
A short while later I came to a wooden finger post pointing off across a field. It said Ynysybwl 2. While it was marginally more use than the previous signs, it left some unanswered questions. Was that distance measured in miles or kilometres? More to the point, would the trail continue to be marked, or would it just dissolve into another meaningless morass of yellow arrows?
I knew that if I stayed on the road, sooner or later I’d come to a junction. I wasn’t sure which one, but any one would do at this stage. I’d either end up in Ynysybwl, Abercynon, or Mountain Ash.
It turned out to be the last option – a good two miles further on, up several steep hills and around several tricky bends. Bear in mind that these country lanes don’t have pavements. In spite of following the Highway Code and walking on the right in order to face oncoming traffic, I felt that at any minute some boy racer would come hurtling around the next bend and send me flying to my certain death.
Just when I was on the point of giving up, I passed Perthcelyn Reservoir, and I was on the home straight. I’d barely left Perthcelyn and was beginning the long downhill trek to Mountain Ash when a bus passed me on the brow of the hill. It was going to Aberdare. So was I. I didn’t bother to flag it down. What was the point?
I eventually arrived in Mountain Ash just after 6pm. I never thought I’d be pleased to see Mountain Ash, but I was. I caught the 6.30 train back to Aberdare, hobbled to the Pickled Pepper and collapsed onto a bar stool. Sam B. was there, and asked me what I’d been up to.
When I told her about my adventure, she said, ‘I know the way from Cwmaman – it’s easy!’
Which was almost exactly what Mike had earlier that day, sparking off the entire wild goose chase.
Yes, I daresay it is easy – if you decide to climb over deliberately felled trees and pay no heed to the NO ENTRY signs. It would be even easier if the yellow arrows were marked with six-figure grid references – or even just given some sort of code numbers – so that you could locate them on a map. It would be child’s play if paths were properly waymarked, instead of just pointing vaguely into the distance. It would be an absolute piece of piss if the local authority, the Groundwork Trust, the Communities First people, or even the bloody Scouts, were to take the initiative and make proper provision for tourists. Having failed to find Llanwynno altogether yesterday, I can assure you it isn’t easy!
(The very fact that the TARDIS landed there when the Doctor and his friends were supposed to be heading for Rio de Janeiro is evidence of that …)