Tuesday 30 October 2012

A walk on the Mynd - and a view to the Urals -honest!

Having gawped at my old haunts in the Shropshire Hills from the Berwyn Mountains (see previous blog) in mid-Wales a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity, and a good excuse, to get out on them last Tuesday.  I had the car booked in for a service in the dealers in Shrewsbury.  The garage being 20 miles from home, and having a few hours to kill, I went off in the courtesy car to Church Stretton, that unspoilt lovely large village, or a small town if you are an optimist, at the foot of the Long Mynd.  Stretton is well worth a mooch if you get the chance.

The weather was pretty dire. Mild - good. No wind - good. Clag, clag, clag, clag - not good. But after wandering round the fabulous antiques markety - shopy type thing, and after finding the most brilliantest cafe hidden down an alleyway, for coffee and cake, I headed off to the closest thing that the area has to a honeypot attraction, Carding Mill Valley, to park the car and start my walk.

If you don't know it, and you have children and you are in the area, Carding Mill Valley is the place to go. It's brilliant for children in wellies. A gentle mountain stream to splash about in; sheep; a ford to wade through; the Lightspout waterfall just up the valley; and a good National Trust tea shop. And it is the start of a range of walks in great countryside which can be made as gentle and short as you like or, as much as the geography will allow, as challenging as you could want with children.

Carding Mill Valley above the touristy bits

So I set off in the clag up this lovely V shaped valley, following the good path, towards the moorland plateau that makes the top of the Long Mynd. I stopped to watch a couple of parties of school students doing fieldwork, measuring the stream and valley sides. Which took me back a bit to my very distant days as a geography student and to my almost as distant days as a geography teacher.  One of the most memorable fieldwork sessions I ever led, in about 1981 I think, saw one of my O level students, Alison Hall, disappear backwards into a five foot pot hole in the stream bed on a bitterly cold Easter day.  Oh how we all laughed, including Alison herself, who took the mishap in excellent heart.  These days I suspect the responsible teacher would have ended up with a writ for damages at worst; and a thump from an angry father at best.  And possibly both.

After just 40 minutes of gentle climbing I reached the top of the valley and emerged onto the plateau; 5 minutes later I reached the ancient Portway, a pre-historic track that runs across the top.

I photographed these sheep on the summit plateau as I couldn't see anything else

Following the Portway for 25 minutes saw me at Pole Bank, the summit of the Long Mynd. 516m above seal level if you are interested. The "seal level" bit in that last sentence was a typo, but I actually rather like it as a descriptor, so I am going to leave it in rather than correct it. Indeed, from now on " above seal level" will be my wording of choice when referring to the heights of mountains and hills. So much more poetic and accurate too.  The clag was even thicker on the summit, and there was nothing to see except the trig point. The views from here can be superb. On a clear day to the north you can see across the Shropshire - Cheshire Plain, right to the Pennines in Lancashire; the whole of mid-Wales is also on view, beyond the Stiperstones and Corndon Hill, as far as Cader Idris on a good day. Cader must be 40 miles away.  One day I  may blog about a walk up Cader I did at the age of 13 led, if I remember correctly, by one Chris Woodhead, who later became the notorious Chief Inspector of Schools, and scourge of teachers across the land.  Chris taught me at the Priory in Shrewsbury when he was a young and trendy English teacher.  That trip wouldn't have passed today's Health and Safety regimes either!  And to the east?   Well beyond the Shropshire Hills of Caradoc, Ragleth, Lawley, Wenlock Edge, the Wrekin and the Clee Hills you can, I have often been told, see the Urals in Russia.

Pole Bank, the top of the Long Mynd - not a seal in sight, for they are 516m lower down.  Of course they could be hiding in the heather.

Now there is the tiniest bit of poetic licence in this claim. But apparantly if you travel east from the Long Mynd there is no higher ground until you reach the Urals as you pass over the English Midlands, Eastern England, the North Sea and the North European Plain. So if it wasn't for the curvature of the earth, and weak eye sight, you could indeed see the Urals from this lovely little summit in Shropshire. And as a Salopian I am sticking to that story whatever anyone tells me. It's one to bore the kids with after they have walked up to the top. And goodness knows, I bored my two boys with that tale often enough when they were little.

Trying to spot the Urals through the clag at Pole Bank

The return was even quicker. I went down by the same route, although there are so many possible variations, the east side of the Mynd being bisected by a number of delightfully pretty valleys, separated by broad, heather and winberry covered ridges.  But today I had to get back to pick up the car and this was enough for me.  What better way to spend a couple of hours in the fog and drizzle if some fresh air is needed?  None that I can think of.  If you haven't visited Church Stretton and the surrounding area of South Shropshire do so.  You will not have any epics, but will not be disappointed.


Sunday 21 October 2012

What were those blue remembered hills?

The Top of Pistyll Rhaedr

Into my heart on air that kills

From yon far country blows
What are those blue remembered hills
What spire, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

From A Shropshire Lad by AE Housman 

Shropshire is one of the loveliest and most unspoilt counties in England.  Some will dispute that but it is my home county, if a nomad who has lived all over the country can claim to have a home county.  I was brought up for much of my childhood and teenage years in Shrewsbury, only leaving when I went away to university in Wales, and so it would be hard to convince me otherwise.  It was the beautiful Shropshire hills where I broke in my first walking boots.  The Shropshire Hills rise to about 1800 feet.  This is no great height but it does not detract from their beauty, and there is still relative solitude to be found.
A short distance beyond the county lies much higher ground.  When as a schoolboy I was able to travel further afield I would occasionally walk in Wales.  A favourite range of hills just outside Shropshire was the Berwyns.  I last walked there as a youngster on 19 October 1975 with my old school friend Rob, just a couple of weeks after we had started at university.
Last week saw me back in the Berwyns, almost 37 years to the day since I had last walked there.  In the intervening years most of my walking has been done in Snowdonia and in the Lakes.   Now, a relocation to the Shropshire – Welsh border area has moved the hills of mid-Wales back into my line of sight, both literally and metaphorically.
Memories flooded back as I drove up the valley to Tan y Pistyll, and one of the “Seven Wonders of Wales”, the waterfall of Pistyll Rhaedr.  And in case you speak Welsh I hasten to add that I know that what I have just written is tautologous, ‘pistyll’ being Welsh for waterfall.  What I had half forgotten, though, was just how lovely the scenery is in this part of Wales and how wild and remote some of it can feel.  Parts still have something of the wilderness about them.  The Lake District it is not.
My original plan was just to have a wander up to Llyn Lluncaws at about 600m above sea level, a corrie lake just below Moel Sych (827m).  I was interested in checking out whether the lake would make a good site for a wild camp at some stage in the future.  However, for the first time in ages the weather was not only dry but there was also more than a hint of sun, and the air was sharp and clear, if quite breezy.  So instead of going straight to the lake, I headed up the path to have a look at the top of the waterfall, and after which I could head up the south “ridge” of Moel Sych and on to the tops.  The waterfall is pretty spectacular and is well worth a visit.  It is best seen from below.  Indeed, from the top you cannot see the fall itself, as the stream plunges over a vertical cliff.  But just standing near the top and seeing the stream disappear so thunderously over the edge is breath taking.
Looking back to those Blue Remembered Hills
So I headed up the broad grassy ridge of the hill.  The long forgotten scenery triggered my memories.  This strange mixture of distant familiarity and seeming newness was heightened by the gear I was wearing and carrying.  Most of my current hill walking stuff was up in Cumbria, so I was kitted out mainly with things I had not worn or carried for quite some time.  The Berghaus Freeflow rucksack I had not used for 6 or 7 years; a pair of old walking poles, replaced by my Pacer Poles two years ago; a pair of Inov8 Roclite 400 lightweight boots, almost forgotten in the back of a cupboard, discounted in favour of some rather sturdier Scarpa boots and some rather thinner Inov8 trail shoes; and my “Smelly Helly” base layer, not worn since I realised you could buy base layers that fit properly, were comfortable and didn’t offend the rest of the family on arrival home.  And the oldest bit of kit was a Karrimor windshirt, bought in the mid-1990s and probably not worn this century.   It was interesting using this stuff again.   What had I abandoned for unnecessary new gear that still stood the test of time?  Well certainly not the rucksack which felt awkward and poorly balanced.  Not the old Brasher poles – nothing can beat the handle design of Pacer Poles for walking efficiency.  And certainly not the ill-fitting, too tight, too scratchy Helly base layer.  But the windshirt was just great.  Very light weight, minimalist and functional.  And the boots, which I had stopped using because they seemed to be ruining my heels and ankles were also good – they were advertised as the lightest leather boots in the world when they came out and are, I think, lighter than my trail shoes by a fair margin.

But that’s enough about gear.  We don’t go out in the hills because of the gear.  Do we? No we do not.  It is a means to an end.  And today the end was fabulous.  As was the beginning. And the middle. And all parts in between.

The fence to the summit

The south ridge is very broad, and marshy in places.  Half way you pick up a fence that runs arrow straight to the top.  Gradients are mainly kind.  The bogs were a minor inconvenience.  I did that self-questioning bit, wondering which side of the fence it would be driest.  It was the other side, of course.  It always is, isn’t it?   I am tall and have long legs.  I could, with a clear conscience, step across the fence with no risk of damage.  Or so I thought.  The fence, indeed, remained undamaged. But as I stepped across I caught my foot in wire at the bottom and slipped as I was half over.  So damage was done.  Not to the fence, but to what I can only politely describe as “my person”.  Male readers will know what I mean.  Of course, on the new side of the fence it was just as boggy; it’s just that the bog was better at hiding itself under a lurid green camouflage.  But it was not a proper bog.  Not the sort of thing you get in the peat of the Pennines or the Scottish Highlands. It was a Welsh excuse of a bog.
Summit of Moel Sych
I was soon at the top of Moel Sych, and including my gawp at the top of the falls, several gawps at the views, and a chat with a couple from Lancashire and a solo walker from Shropshire, it had only taken 1 hour and 5 minutes.  The views were absolutely magnificent from the top.  It was a perfect day to be there.  My frustration was the failings of my own memory about the views.  That was certainly Llyn Tegid.  But was that Cadair Idris?  Were those the Rhinogs?  I could not sort out Welsh mountain from Welsh mountain. Even more surprising to me was that my old acquaintances over the Shropshire border appeared unfamiliar today.  “Those blue remembered hills…That land of lost content…The happy highways where I went”.  The Stiperstones?  The Long Mynd?  That guy from Shropshire had pointed out Caradoc and the Lawley but surely they would be behind the Mynd?  Corndon Hill?  Pontesford Hill?  They all had to be there but which was which?   No matter really.  It was magnificent.  Even the flat Shropshire and Cheshire Plain.  And the bright white water tower near my parents’ house in Shrewsbury, a pin prick landmark also visible from so many of the hills of Shropshire and the borders.

The Aran Mountains in Mid Wales

The wind was biting cold.  That was ok with me for it gave me the chance try out the one new bit of kit I was carrying without looking a complete poseur.  My new PhD Dryshell Minimus down jacket.  Brilliant piece of kit in the weather of today.
From Moel Sych to Cadair Berwyn

And then it was onwards along the edge of the magnificent corrie headwall to Cadair Berwyn, also 827 metres high.  I passed the mother of all cairn wind shelters above the headwall and the views down the very steep cliffs to the lake were stunning.  The short 15 minutes between the two hills was a delight.
Llyn Lluncaws from the cliffs
Then I retraced my steps back towards Moel Sych, cutting off down the sidewall of the corrie on a steep, but easy grassy path towards Llyn Lluncaws.  The lake seemed to have a covering of some form of algae and the ground here-abouts did not look promising for wild camps – either marshy or very hummocky and uneven.  And then on along the valley side above the Afon Iwrch and back to the car park at Tan y Pistyll.
Above the Afon Iwrch

Retrospective view of the walk
The whole walk took me 3 hours 10 minutes.  Short, but highly enjoyable and recommended.

Pistyll Rhaedr