‘Taking a Trip up to Abergavenny’: Seven Days in South-East Wales

25 Jun

This 60s pop song is nonsense but so catchy it settled deep into my amygdala only to reemerge on the realisation that our Welsh farm cottage is three miles from Abergavenny! The song stayed on a loop in my head all week. I mean who lets a red dog run free? That’s animal neglect today.

So here we are at Gwen and Cidris’ Pen-y-dre Farm living in the old Cow Byre. Massive, old timber and wooden peg beams support the two-storey stone cottage much like our chalet in St Marcel. The difference is when I look out the kitchen window I see farm animals in the paddock just a few metres away rather than snowy mountains. Two horses, three donkeys, two huge pigs, several goats and sheep, countless ducks and geese, a handful of bantam chickens, two rabbits, a bantam cock and two large standard, plumed cockrels provide endless entertainment and a soundtrack. I can’t figure out why they don’t smell, well the pigs do if you get right up close, but here in the cottage it’s just fresh air sweeping over the pasture. The ginger pig is such a Penelope with her haughty nose in the air manner. We replaced some stolen kit in Stratford and I am excited to be hiking in proper shoes rather than my leather boots.

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Day One: Iron Forts and Jet Planes
First order of business is supplies and local information in Abergavenny to map some walks and cycle rides. We settle on Ordnance Survey map OL13 covering the South-East section of the World Heritage Brecon Beacons National Park and the detailed circuit walks in Alistair Ross’ ‘Walking in the Black Mountains’. The next couple of days will be the best weather of the week. First up is walk number 14 from the Queens Head Pub on the Llanthony Rd to the summit of Twyn-y-Gaer. A five mile ramble turns into seven and a half when we lose the trail down from the top and cut back towards a road on a forest track that becomes a deeply muddy, nettled path then a shallow stream. However the views from the ruins of the Iron Age fort (250BC) at 427 metres are breathtaking and you can see similar peaks all around. Three large valleys and a patchwork of fields and forest run in all directions. Picnicking on the summit two air force jets buzz us.

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Day Two: Teeth, Tramways and Hanging Judges
Stuart had a dental emergency. In his own words, his ‘annual floss went wrong’. A piece lodged between his teeth and wouldn’t budge for days. A dental practice in Brecon fitted him in so I went for a coffee, free wifi session and listened in on the local goss at the charming George Hotel while he was at the surgery. Brecon is a sweet town even when the weather is inclement. Buying a replacement compass in a mountain gear store we asked the owner to recommend a walk for the afternoon. He joked he would cancel the rain for the rest of the day then sketched out the seven mile circuit to Tor y Foel from The Star pub by the Monmouthshire Brecon Canal at Talybont-on-Usk. We consumed our picnic lunch with a fine ale while watching a couple of narrow boats navigate the arched bridge on the corner with only centimetres each side then set off up the trail. It picks up the old Brinore Tramroad that operated from 1815 linking the coal mine of Tredegar and the limestone quarry at Trefil with the canal at Talybont. Horses hauled the goods in trucks/trams up the tracks and gravity brought them down with only a piece of wood for a brake. Imgagine it! The arrival of steam trains in the 1860s ended that era.

The rain stayed away as promised and we had a gentle climb until the final steep ascent to the cairn at 551 metres through the springy peat and heather. The views from the beacon are wonderful. We took the time on the descent to enjoy the flowers and animals opting for the minor road instead of the trail as the hedgerows were amazing. Pink and white wild roses and tiny, red strawberries were favourites but there were countless flowers and vines a metre higher than Stuart’s head. Sad to think so many English hedgerows with this beauty and bounty have been removed.

This evening we walked to our closest pub, the Skirrid Inn. Turns out it has a strong claim to being the oldest public house in Wales and possibly in Great Britain. The stone inn dates from 1110 and was a public meeting house and troop rallying point, as well as an alehouse, and courts were held here regularly. Between 1110 and 1485 Manorial Courts were in session and later the Church Courts, Assize Courts and possibly Skenfrith Petty Sessions. A beam on the stairs behind the public rooms was used for hanging offenders. Sheep stealing seems to have been the most common crime and around 180 felons met their end here. Sobering.

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Day Three: Cycling and Canals
Time for a change of pace. This is the best weather of the week so today we get on our bikes. Hopyard Farm Cycles at Glanbaiden near Govilon supplied the bicycles and the owner drew a mud map of his recommended 24 mile circuit. The route started via Govilon then climbed up onto the old single train track that runs to Brynmawr. This is part of National Cycle Route Number 46 so most of it is sealed. No.46 passes ironworks, quarries, caves, waterfalls and a national nature reserve. We dropped down into Brynmawr for the now standard home-made cheese and pickle sandwiches with a pint in strong sunshine at Bridge End Pub then carried on up the other side of the Clydach River valley to skirt round Twyr Pen-cyrn before descending to the canal tow path back to Glanbaiden. If you stay on the main carriageways in this part of Wales you will have no idea of the beauty and tranquility of the waterways as they’re seldom seen from the road. Vice versa. On our ride we rarely heard or saw cars but enjoyed playing hare and tortoise with slow canal boats.

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Day Four: Ugly Urban Blight and Steam Trains
The rainy weather is settling in and the forecast is bad for the rest of the week. A quick coffee and internet hookup in Merthyr Tidfil proves more difficult than anticipated as a coffee shop with wifi is elusive. After so many attractive Welsh towns and villages Merthyr Tidfil is a rude shock. There seems to be a significant Polish community as two of the stores in the pedestrian shopping area cater to Polish people. I try to find something appealing about the place. There is one attractive small Victorian black wrought iron pergola with gold trim. The old red brick town hall is being restored so maybe that will prove a focal point in future.

I thought it would be fun to sample the steam trains that saw off the haulage trams so we’re taking the Brecon Mountain Railway a whole 5.25 miles from Pant to Dolygaer alongside the Taf Fechan Reservoir on the disused Brecon and Merthyr Railway. This project started thirty years ago to boost tourism and seems to have succeeded. On this very wet afternoon there are people in every carriage for the 1:30pm departure. Our engine is the 47 ton No. 2 built by Baldwin of Philadelphia in 1930. It started working life hauling limestone near Port Elizabeth, South Africa, but in 1974 it had had enough and ran away driverless. After a few miles it ran off the track and was so badly damaged the insurers wrote it off. That made for an attractive purchase price and following a massive rebuild it became No.2 on the Brecon Mountain Railway. I think it’s happier here. I had been on a steam train before but not in a carriage so close to the engine. It’s eerily atmospheric when the steam billows around the carriage, so much so that at times we were in a complete white out. Stuart’s recollection of catching the steam train back to boarding school as a young boy is not so romantic. On one occasion a speck of cinder lodged in his eye and temporarily blinded him. He’s been peculiar about his eyes ever since.

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Day Five: The Joys of Staying Put
Strong buffeting winds have joined the rain driving down at a forty-five degree angle but we’re snug in our cottage and only venture out to cosy Pandy Inn for lunch and wifi. Stuart works on his laptop at one end of the table while I occupy the other. The farm animals have retreated to their huts except for the horses that stand unperturbed in their coats and continue to munch grass. This is where yoga is a life saver for me. All you need is floor space as long and wide as your body and you can work every muscle including your heart.

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Day Six: Over the Border
Less rain for our final full day in Wales. Stuart’s keen to try canoeing on the River Wye so we head to the old market town of Ross-On-Wye over the border. Tragically two local men drowned in separate accidents on the rivers around here this week and the waters are still high and running fast so we leave it for another time. The rain holds off for our easy walk along the Wye and over the suspension footbridge and then up to the Yat with its 180 degree view over the meandering river.

Home for tea and the thrill of watching unbeaten Australian mare and race favourite Black Caviar, win the Diamond Jubilee event at Royal Ascot by a nose. How good is that horse and the team around her!

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‘Taking a Trip up to Abergavenny’ (Jack Geller & Frere Manston) sung by Marty Wilde (1968)

Taking a trip up to Abergavenny
Hoping the weather is fine
If you you should see a red dog running free
Well, you know he’s mine….

http://lyricsplayground.com/alpha/songs/a/abergavenny.shtml

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2 Responses to “‘Taking a Trip up to Abergavenny’: Seven Days in South-East Wales”

  1. Gwen Jones June 29, 2012 at 9:44 pm #

    Hi Sharon & Stuart, Love the pictures and wonderful write up, enjoy your time in London.

    • Sharon Tickle June 29, 2012 at 10:00 pm #

      Lovely to hear from you Gwen.

      London is always surprising but there is no homemade sponge-cream-jam cake with our tea here ;-))

      Hope you have great weather and a busy summer season.

      Sharon and Stuart

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