Up Around the Bend

In which The Author ropes in a friend

I’m well aware that I’m tempting fate here, but the last few bank holidays in the UK have been accompanied by decent weather. It’s almost a year since Gaz and I had our Pleasant Valley Monday in the Garw Valley, when the sun shone all day. Whitsun and August passed relatively nicely. Even Xmas and New Year weren’t too bad, apart from a very heavy downpour late in the afternoon of New Year’s Day.
Yesterday, Easter Monday, was a good start to the flurry of bank holidays over the next couple of months. Unfortunately I was too skint to do anything much. I listened to the radio for a while in the morning, while I made my mind up what to do with the rest of the day. There was a ‘Family Fun Day’ (the horror! the horror!) in Aberdare Park, so I knew I could look forward to someone else’s taste in music blasting through my front windows all afternoon. I decided that a bit of fresh air and exercise would be just the thing to challenge the depression which has been lurking around for a while (since London, in fact). I texted Rhian to see what she had planned, since I knew she needed cheering up as well.
About an hour later I was sitting in the courtyard of the Visitors’ Centre at Dare Valley Country Park, waiting for Rhian to walk up from Aberaman. It was already really busy, with lots of families taking advantage of the unusual weather conditions, and dogs everywhere. When Rhian arrived, she asked me why I hadn’t brought Stella, the Mad Labrador, with me. Luckily for Stella, Kath M. has been on holiday. I expect the crazy hound has become really unfit since I’ve stopped taking her out regularly, and yesterday’s unexpected marathon might have killed her.
While Rhian and I were chatting, I suggested that we could walk around the ‘Horseshoe’ at the end of the Dare Valley. I haven’t done that trail since I took Stella to swim in the  Lluest-wen Reservoir a couple of years ago. Rhian hadn’t done it since she was in school, and it formed part of their annual sponsored walk. She bought a bottle of water from the café and we set off.
The start of the trail is only a short walk from the Visitors’ Centre, marked by a stile at the side of the road. I call it ‘the trail’ but it actually forms part of the Coed Morgannwg Way, a long-distance path across the uplands of Glamorgan. Some years ago, friends of mine did the whole walk, from Merthyr Tydfil to Margam Park near Port Talbot. They spread it over a few days, camping overnight to break the journey. (I don’t think I could handle it, personally – I had my fill of camping in the Forest of Dean in July 2013, and my back probably wouldn’t cope with such a long trek.)
The track leads steeply uphill and then curves around to the right, threading its way through thick woodland as it rises. Before too long you’re treated to superb views of the country park and the village of Cwmdare, as well as a broadening panorama of the valley to the east. The trees peter out as you rise steadily, and the remains of drystone sheepfolds line the hillside beside the narrow path. On the other side there’s a very steep drop to the floor of the Dare Valley, and I could tell Rhian wasn’t too happy about being so high above ground level.
The empty moorland at the top of the trail is punctuated only with some ragged mountain ash trees and gorse bushes, with thick conifer plantations in the distance. Last time Stella and I were there, we were able to walk directly across the moor to the reservoir; this time, though, there was something in the way:

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This is part of the Pen y Cymoedd Wind Energy Project, which is set to comprise 78 turbines on high ground in Rhondda Cynon Taf and Neath Port Talbot. When it’s completed, it’s projected to supply the electricity for up to 140,000 houses. That’s not bad going, is it?
I’ve passed turbines like these several times on my travels over the past few years. There’s a small wind farm on the summit between Tonyrefail and Pencoed, and it’s visible from both sides. Geoff E. and I skirted another one near Banwen when we drove to Dinewfr Press last September. I’ve seen the access road to the Pen y Cymoedd site a few times – it’s clearly visible from the Heads of the Valleys Road as you cross from Merthyr into Aberdare – but I hadn’t managed to get up close and personal with it until yesterday. These photos don’t give you an idea of the scale of the things, though. There was a lorry parked underneath one of the turbines, and it looked like a Tonka toy in comparison to the giant structure beside it.
The whole subject of wind farms is a controversial one, especially when they’re being built in beautiful areas like ours. Vattenfall, the company responsible, have been extremely proactive in keeping people informed about the scheme from the outset. Only a couple of weeks ago, their latest newsletter came through my letterbox. They’ve held public meetings and met with objectors, and have behaved very responsibly throughout.
As I told you in OMNIscience, I was converted to the wind energy cause in my teens, and I’ve been an advocate of renewables for as long as I can remember. The UK Green Party has been experiencing a remarkable surge in support currently. It’s quite sobering to remember their early days as the Ecology Party, when they were the extreme fringe of the lunatic fringe as far as mainstream political commentators were concerned. Isn’t it funny how things have turned out now that we’re approaching Peak Oil, and suddenly nobody wants fossil fuels dirtying the place?

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The turbines are fenced off in two large enclosures, but the path to the reservoir is still clearly visible between them. Rhian and I have pencilled in a picnic if the weather stays settled for the next couple of weeks, and maybe a small expedition to the reservoir if time allows. From there it’s possible to strike out into the forestry, and eventually emerge on the Treherbert mountain road above Tower Colliery. I did it many years ago, and dropped in unannounced on Mother just as she was making lunch. I really miss being able to do those huge impromptu Sunday morning walks, as you can probably imagine.
As we followed the curve around, a pair of ravens were tumbling and soaring in the sky above us. Their harsh croaking is a distinctive and familiar sound when you’re walking around the Darren; I think they must have a nest on the cliff face itself, as they’ve been there as long as I can remember. The occasional call of a green woodpecker rang up from the trees below, too. That’s another sign that the countryside is coming back to life – although, having said that, the trees don’t seem to be springing into Spring at the moment. Maybe our mild winter has confused their internal mechanisms. Who knows?
At the top of the Horseshoe we found a nice flat boulder and sat down to take some photos. The Dare Valley itself is a true cwm, formed by glacial action during the last Ice Age. The River Dare has its source somewhere on the moorland, but there’s hardly anything to see unless we’ve had a prolonged spell of heavy rain. The first of these photos dates from December 2011, and you can see the river cascading down the face of the cliff. I took the second photo last June, and it shows the distinctive scooped-out profile of the terrain and the smooth curve of the upper edge. The sheer cliff at the far end is known as The Darren. I once climbed it freehand when I was in my mid-twenties (what the hell was I thinking at the time?) and emerged onto the top in some shape of other. I wouldn’t dream of doing something that crazy these days!

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From the top of the Horseshoe you can see right across into the Brecon Beacons, east as far as the Merthyr Mountain, and halfway down the Cynon Valley. As I’m currently between tripods, I couldn’t take a decent panoramic shot, but these will give you a taste of what the views are like from the top of the Darren.
Rhian uploading her own photo to Facebook
Rhian uploading her own photo to Facebook
You can see the divide between 'old' and 'new' Cwmdare quite clearly here
You can see the divide between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Cwmdare quite clearly here
Looking north-east, with the Dynevor Arms gas tank on the far right
Looking roughly north-east, with the Dynevor Arms gas tank on the far right
The southern edge of the Brecon Beacons
The southern edge of the Brecon Beacons
While we were looking across to the Brecon Beacons, I told Rhian about the dream I had a couple of weeks ago (see An Interesting Dream). Try and imagine a signal fire lit on one of those peaks, and you can see that it would be visible for miles in all directions. Is it any wonder I found myself dreaming about a chain of beacon fires across the high ground of South Wales, when we have views like that?
There were a surprising number of people undertaking the Horseshoe Trail yesterday, and quite a few of them had dogs with them. The first time I took Stella to the top, she managed to give me the slip and chased some sheep for a while before giving up. It occurred to me as we were making our way around the perimeter that there weren’t any lambs running around. There were plenty of sheep roaming free on the rugged terrain, but we couldn’t see or hear any lambs. Considering that it’s early April, I thought there’d have been a few around.
From the summit the path leads steeply downhill past more abandoned drystone sheepfolds, edged with a sheer drop towards the river far below. It also gets quite boggy underfoot, and it was a bit of a challenge to find the best route through some of the larger pools of mud. It’s apparently possible to stay on high ground and emerge near Trenant, just south of Hirwaun. I’ve always been tempted to try and find the route for myself. However, considering that my last venture into the unknown ended in ignominious failure (see Frustrations of a Solitary Walker), I’d probably be better off starting from the Hirwaun end and making my way towards the Country Park. Maybe one day…
There’s a fairly decent vantage point on the way down to get a shot of the cliff itself. I looked at it yesterday and again I wondered just what was going on in my head the day I decided to scale it, untutored, unaccompanied, and with no climbing proper gear.

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One of many drystone walls on the high ground above Cwmdare
One of the many drystone walls on the high ground above Cwmdare
The last time Stella and I descended from the Horseshoe, we followed a path downhill and emerged near the farm at the end of Bwllfa Dare. Yesterday, Rhian and I took a slightly easier path downhill and dropped onto the riverbank instead. From there we walked past the reservoir and the Top Lake, skirted the Visitors’ Centre, and took the lower path back towards Aberdare.
We arrived in town just in time to catch Happy Hour in The Lighthouse. My pint went down a treat. Rhian decided she couldn’t face any more beer and had a can of Coke instead. Just before we parted company she posted a photo of her drink on Facebook, because she knew nobody would believe it without hard evidence.
Rather surprisingly, my back hasn’t been screaming objections at all today. Maybe the mild weather and yesterday’s unexpected hill-walking have done it some good. Or, maybe, I’ll wake up tomorrow unable to walk. It’s usually Kill or Cure when it comes to exercise, after all.
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