Cambrian Way – almost but not quite

Those of you have been following my progress along the Cambrian Way may have noticed that it came to an abrupt stop at Barmouth on Tuesday (Share Your Adventure – Track).

After 377km (237 miles) over 11 days, three quarters of the way to the end at Conway only 4 days trek north, I decided to hop on a train home. So why ?

Cambrian Way progress part 1

It was a spur of the moment decision. On any other day, having reached Barmouth I’d have known that I’d as good as made it, having walked the last stretch over Snowdonia on so many occasions in the past. Home territory so to say.

But as I arrived in Barmouth in the torrential rain I could feel there was something not quite right with my feet. I walked uncomfortably to the Post Office to collect a Post Restante parcel, then hobbled to a pub to see if I could get a much needed room for the night. I really needed to dry out and clean up. The landlord glanced at me, announced they were full and suggested I check the B&B’s along the sea front.

So a little dejected I limped back out into the rain and down to the front. Down there amongst the arcades I inspected the row of B&B’s, but then noticed the Railway Station alongside. Before booking in for the night, I thought I’d check train times in the event my feet were still bad the next morning. A train was leaving in 10 minutes. For a reason which I can’t really explain, but glad I did, I hopped on that train and headed away from the Cambrian Way.

 

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I’ve been back home now for a couple of days, dried and cleaned up my kit, been to see my GP, and reflected on my second try along the Cambrian Way. And if I’m really honest I’d admit that I never enjoyed much of this backpack. There were odd times and sections which brought a smile, but too few. For the most part it was simply arduous and uncomfortable. As I remarked to somebody as I left Barmouth, sometimes we have to remind ourselves we do this for enjoyment.

So why did I retire from the trek ? Ultimately it was down to a pain in my feet, something I’ll save for my next blog post. But behind that there were four things which lead to me retiring, and I’ll mention these in order of severity.

Ground Conditions

During the couple of weeks before I set out from Cardiff there were a number of thunder storms in mid and South Wales. And this along with the unusually wet start to summer meant that conditions under foot almost the entire way were, quite frankly, appalling.

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I’ve never known ground so utterly waterlogged for such long stretches. Miles and miles of ankle deep water over sphagnum moss, between tussocks of deer grass and along paths (where one existed).

In places there was so much water, the ground was simply spewing it back out.

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My feet first got soaked early in the morning of Day 2. After that my trail shoes and socks were never dry again during the next 10 days. And my feet remained wet for 10 hours a day.

Each day started, not unusually, putting on wet socks and trail shoes, sloshing through a few miles of stagnant bog, then taking my shoes off and wringing the muddy water out of my socks. This became the daily routine to the point where merely wet socks (as apposed to sopping wet socks) became luxurious by comparison.

Needless to say that having sopping wet feet, 10 hours a day every day for 10 days, plays havoc with your skin.

The Weather

It rained on 10 of the 11 days, quite something of a record for June. Even in Wales.

On 3 of those days it rained non-stop all day. On at least four other days there was thick hill fog, the sort that soaks you through, like walking through a fine spray. Most days started will hill mist, progressed into a damp morning, and ended with afternoon rain. Too often the weather left me soaked at the point of camping.

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Through the Brecon Beacons visibility was down to less than 20m at times. And through most of the high level sections it was bitterly cold, wet and void of almost any view at all. I quite literally could have been anywhere.

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The constant rain every day meant the ground never had a chance to drain, and streams and rivers were full.

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It also meant that even when the rain occasionally abated, the vegetation was so laden with water that you continued to get soaked from the waist down. The weather this summer means that bracken in places is at head height.

When I planned this walk earlier in the year, I spent a weekend around the Plynlimon hills. leaving a re-supply cache to pick up  a couple of months later. And in anticipation of the glorious June weather it included some cans of real ale to cool off with. When I reached Plynlimon, the reality of drinking beer in the cold wind and rain didn’t really live up to expectation.

Footwear

My normal boots (Salomon X Ultra) suffered a split across the toe box a week or so before setting out, and after a replacement pair (X Ultra 2) caused a hot spot on my heel after a short walk, I decided not to risk using them.

Instead I broke a cardinal rule of backpacking and set out in footwear I’ve never used on an extended trek before.  Trail shoes, Berghaus Vapour Claw to be exact. To be fair they are extremely comfortable normally, nice and wide at the front for my broad foot. But the combination of ground conditions, bad weather and choice of footwear left my feet in a bit of a state. Extremely sore, battered and bruised.

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The Vapour Claws also started to wear badly after only 100 miles, requiring several first aid applications of epoxy glue along the way to stop them from failing catastrophically. I’ll mention more about this experience with trail shoes in a separate post, but in summary I really believe they have their limits in conditions where they never have a chance to dry out. Or should I say rather, that your feet have limits in such conditions.

The Route

There’s no doubt that the Cambrian Way has the potential to be a great walk, and in better conditions I may well think differently of it.

But I can’t help thinking that for all the praise it gets from the very few that complete it,  the route is flawed in places. For me the route tries too hard to be tough. And in places it really doesn’t need to do so. The route sometimes eschews a well trodden line to take you bog trotting or teetering over miles of grass tussocks and sphagnum moss. This happens most often in the mid section from Llandovery onwards. But also at times in the Brecon Beacons where the scenic line of e.g. the Beacons Way is ignored in places to take you in a beeline across pointless and featureless open ground, devoid of any special interest.

I will save an overall account of the route for later, but my initial thoughts are that the whole mid section from Llandovery to Barmouth follows a much better line in John Gillham’s route ‘Snowdonia to the Gower’ than it does for the Cambrian Way. I think that the original intention with the Cambrian Way back in the 1970’s of avoiding the forestry to the east around the Elan Valley is no longer valid. Those forested areas which were newly planted back in the 70’s are now well established and my own experience of mid Wales is that taking the mid section via the Elan reservoirs and Machynlech instead would provide wider interest and potentially better conditions under foot.

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So ground conditions, weather, feet and sometimes the route itself meant that for much of the 11 days I was quite frankly not a very happy bunny. Indeed beyond Llandovery the main reason I kept telling myself I needed to complete the route is so that I never had to return to it again. Too many times I found myself wading through bog, deep vegetation or mud and glad that impressionable youngsters weren’t within earshot. The air was blue with foul language, I don’t think I’ve ever sworn so much.

I will return to complete the Cambrian Way, that last four days, possibly sometime towards the back end of summer when my feet have recovered. But I have no desire to start it again for the sake of a an end to end hike. This one will have to go down as the only route I’ve split into sections.

It wasn’t all so bad through, there was at least that one day where the sun came out and it didn’t rain. And when the weather was kind it did remind me why I do normally enjoy these treks so much, and why I will be back soon on a sunny weekend to finish off the last 70 odd miles.

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30 thoughts on “Cambrian Way – almost but not quite

  1. Wow! Mega tough! I’ve done quite a lot of planning and research on the CW and came to the conclusion that section hiking it would be more enjoyable. Then I started fiddling around with the middle section. Like you, I think there are more attractive routes. I’ve even constructed a two week walk from near Builth Wells to near Wrexham, which, on paper, looks a good walk. Unfortunately at the moment, circumstances aren’t allowing me to explore these possibilities. The Barmouth to Conwy section looks great. On longer walks, the weather plays such a part. At least on the Challenge, there’s more opportunity to change the route on the fly and to get overnight accommodation at short notice. Look forward to your trip report. Hope your foot gets better. I’ve still got problems with my left foot. Age!

    • Thanks Robin. I certainly think it would make a much better section hike than and end to end. The ability to pick and chose to get the best out of the weather and scenery would certainly improve it a great deal. The CW suffers from a couple of fundamental problems apart from the (at times) odd route choice. The first is that no FWA’s are built in, indeed not many are possible because of the basic line of the route. Only one FWA is presented in the official guide and that’s for the Rhinogs section. It’s really asking a lot to get a good 2-3 weeks window of reasonable weather that means you would never have to head low or head away from exposed ground. The second problem is that the author encourages true mountain connoisseurs to at least pass through 41 check points along the route, but feel free to tinker with the route between. However almost all these check points are located at the high points of each hill/mountain area. So that rather encourages you to stay high when the weather really suggests otherwise. That mid section as it happens doesn’t present much scope for FWA’s by staying to the west.

      The Barmouth to Conway section is as you say great, so a good weekends weather for that will at least recover some enjoyment from the route. I’ve done that route so often I probably don’t need a map. Be great to do it again.

  2. I think you did awesome John. When your feet are so bad you need to let them recover which means a couple of days off. Obviously when time is important you can’t always afford to do that. Such a shame that you didn’t get much of a break in conditions that let you to dry out as you went. Well done all the same.

    • Hi Alan, that as the original plan when reaching Barmouth. I was a day ahead of my sketch plan, and was going to book into a B&B and recoup. But the long range forecast was for another day of torrential rain, followed by three days of further showers. As it happens, when I got home I went to the GP it turns out that I may have done some serious long term damage by carrying on. I’m now on antibiotics trying to clear a foot infection as a result of continually wet feet in stagnant water. Had I not returned it would have been a further week until that had been diagnosed. Doesn’t bear thinking about.

  3. Respect for soldiering on for so long in those conditions. I too have struggled with the CW – on both previous attempts (firstly Cardiff to Storey Arms, then Merthyr to Llandovery), I’ve bailed early although those were more to do with my head – I struggle with the drive necessary to walk beyond a week in one go. Part of me now thinks this is simply the curse of the path, especially reading your thoughts here. This truly is one of the hardest walks in the country, and I certainly consider there is no shame in not being able to do it in one go. Best case it’s going to take me 5 separate trips to complete it.

    And thanks for doing the recce for me, as I set out to do the middle bit from Llandovery to Devil’s Bridge this coming Sunday., the plan being to then return later in the month to continue. Hoping your socks have absorbed most of the moisture so I have an easier time with it! I’ve actually been looking forward to the remoteness and loneliness of this section and you’ve still not killed that off for me! Hope your feet improve. I’m still recovering from ankle damage sustained earlier this year, so will be wearing full height boots on this jaunt. I’m hoping this will make it a little less unpleasant than you found it.

    How comfortable were your camps in the SMD under those conditions ? I’m still trying to decide which shelter to take – Lunar Solo, Scarp or Hexpeak, but will probably be one of the latter two.

    • The SMD Lunar Solo was stellar, I really loved using it. Must admit that I modified it with some stabilising guy lines and a couple of extra tie-outs, which made it very stable. I loved the space and simplicity. I don’t think any other shelter would have made the evenings much different. In fact the nights overall were very comfortable.

      Don’t let me paint too bad a picture of the mid section, when the weather is good it’s a delight. Look out for the Towey Bridge Inn just north of Rhandirwmyn, reopened two weeks ago after being closed for years. Dead on the route, lovely pub with great beer. The route from there up the Doethie valley is an absolute delight, and if you get the chance stay at Ty’n-y-cornel hostel. The voluntary wardens there are great. If it’s shut, the bike shed opposite the hostel has free coffee and tea making facilities for passing walker. Just pop in and help yourself.

      I hope the ground has dried out a bit for you, and brush up on your micro navigation, some of those mid sections are a bit featureless and void of any path at all……..or maybe I just kept loosing it.

      Have a great trip. The boots will help.

      • Thanks. Was due to stay at Ty’n-y-cornel last time but never made it that far. And the Doethie Valley is probably the most looked-forward to part of the entire walk for me. I’m actually looking forward to the micro navigation bit, at least if I can see at least a bit of where I’m going! Spending time on Dartmoor’s great for increasing one’s confidence in that area. I’ll let you know how I get on.

      • Well, I’m back from doing the section between Llandovery and Ponterwyd. Reasonable weather for first 3 days and just fine misty rain all day on day 4. Ground didn’t seem too bad overall, although there were some nasty patches and as you said all of the streams are really full. I’m guessing your trail shoes did a good job of diverting water away from the route!!

        I ended up taking the Scarp and didn’t regret it. Night 3 was a bit wild, but that’s largely my own fault for camping on top of Domen Milwyn when I could have had shelter a mere 10m away. I stopped off at the Towy Bridge Inn too, but Ty’n-y-cornel didn’t fit my schedule for a stay – made a good lunch stop though.

        Didn’t go too wrong with the navigation – massively helped by having visibility most of the time. I did end up knee deep in a swamp SW of Domen Milwyn though. Too eager to get to planned camp spot on that occasion!! I nearly stayed at Claerddu Bothy (saw your entry in the visitors book) but glad I didn’t given how wet the next day was.

        Doethie Valley was great, but my favourite bit turned out to be Garn Gron and the Teifi Pools.

        Hope you manage to kill the rest of the path off. I’m probably going to finish Ponterwyd to Barmouth in a few weeks and then leave the rest for next year.

      • Looks from the photographs like you hade some half decent weather, certainly the night on Garn Gron looked superb.

        That whole section from Ty’n-y-cornel to the forest above Strata Florida was incredibly wet under foot when I was there couple of weeks back. Raining so hard that it had nowhere to go. And yes that crossing from Llyn Fyrddon Fawr to Dome Milwyn is like a swamp. I was also a bit too eager to get across and paid the price of a knee deep soaking.

        I’d have enjoyed the Doethie valley more if it the vegetation hadn’t been so wet, but I could still see that in good weather it would be a delight.

        I’m now firmly of the belief that the Cambrian Way is ideally suited to being split into sections, and tackled over a period of time. It allows you enjoy a next section, even if the previous one ended on a low note. Helps to ensure that overall it’s a memorable experience. It’s asking rather a lot for the weather and conditions to be kind enough for an enjoyable through hike. In hindsight I’m rather glad I pulled out at Barmouth, leaving the last few days stretch for better weather.

        By the way I’m in full agreement, the refreshments (?) at Strata Florida were a grave disappointment after the soggy trek across. I sat outside by that table, soaked to the skin, wringing my socks out in the pouring rain, drinking a paper cup of instant tea. It won’t go down as a top backpacking moment.

  4. Sometimes, decisions just have to be made. I gave up after only 4 days on a 6 day trip I’d planned, a couple of years ago, because my feet were hurting so much. New boots sorted all that in the end, but your feet are so crucial and need looking after! And, as you say, you’re out there to enjoy yourself. It’ll all still be there if you want to finish it – but equally, you might well find something you fancy more….. 🙂

    • Too true Chrissie. I’ll go back in August to finish just because I don’t like unfinished business. I don’t really need to, I’ve walked through Snowdonia so many times, but I have a mind that wont settle unless I’ve squared things off. I’ll be having a trip over to Blackburn’s in Huddersfield about footwear. I’m convinced more than ever that Trail Shoes are not for me or my style of backpacking, and I really need to find something again that works for my feet.

      • Everybody’s different, but no matter how many people try and extol the virtues of Trail Shoes, they don’t work for me. I like them for wandering around the village etc, but for anything else I’m a boots person through and through. I’ve always had ‘problem feet’ but have found boots that suit me, so I stick with them.
        I remember Blackburn’s in Huddersfield – is it still Steve Ward there? Used to see him regularly years ago. He had a search dog called Dru, at the time when my hubby Geoff was training his Border Collie, Ragga, for Search and Rescue.
        We lived over that way for quite a while….

      • Out of interest how did you discover your perfect boot in the end ? My problem, as with so many others, is that as soon as I find a design that works for me, the people with itchy design pens tinker with it and change the design so a replacement pair doesn’t fit in the same way. I wish they would learn that for outdoors people, function is more important than fashion and they should just leave something alone if it works.

  5. You’re not alone in the impulsive journey home from Barmouth. In 2012, we were making our way down from Cadair Idris on our Length of Wales trip (I won’t call it the Cambrian Way as I couldn’t be doing with all the wandering around taken by that route in the Black Mountains, so we started from Swansea and I modified the whole route to something more appealling to me) when it occurred to me that a train home from Barmouth would be a good idea. We’d had a lot of wet weather, the forecast for the following two days was dreadful, we’d battled a north wind the whole way to that point and, the real deciding factors: 1) we’d agreed the sale of our house whilst standing in a bog somewhere further south, and nipping home to sort out some of the legal paperwork looked more appealing than walking in the rain; and 2) the cost of the train home was cheaper than the price of our intended B&B. So, we nipped to the Post Office for our Post Restante parcel, then went and got on a train. We did return a few days later, but to Conwy to walk south, in view of the persisting northerly wind.

    • Yes, I must admit that the long range forecast of a further four days of rain played a large part. Even after a night in a B&B or even a rest day, the thought of hobbling over the Rhinogs in poor weather didn’t sound like a lot of fun. It may sound extreme, but I was so gutted that I contemplated heading back to Barmouth after a night at home….but when I stood up out of bed I realised there really was something badly wrong with my feet.

  6. I’m amazed you stuck it for so long, John. Pushing yourself in such tough conditions is always a challenge. On some occasions you know that you will look back on the experience with pleasure even if the fun isn’t apparent whilst you are knackered amd feeling awful. At other times you know you’ll never feel like that. As you said there has to be enjoyment or at least the prospect of it. I think it was a more than sensible decision to stop. Well done old friend.

    • Thanks David. Sometimes the most detailed planning can easily be turned on its head by weather. On this occassion I think if I’d carried on, two things would have happened. Firstly it would have been that rare backpacking trip that I didn’t look back on with some enjoyment. But more importantly, as it transpires, I could have done some lasting damage to my feet. They’ve already thanked me for a couple of dry days since I got home.

  7. Wow. That was an epic. I sympathise, massively John.

    I went over to the dark side and wore trail shoes on the Challenge for three years: 2010 – 2102. In 2012 we had f***ing dreadful weather and I was wading shin deep for hours on end, days on end. I ended up with something approaching trench foot and an incredibly painful blister under the ball of my foot. I had not had a single blister for something like fifteen years prior to this, and so ever since I’ve been back in boots. Wet feet, day after day, is a recipe for disaster.

    However… (isn’t there always a ‘However’?), *this* year I was back in trail shoes, albeit Ecco Yak leather Ulterras – like a boot without an upper. But this was only because the weather in Scotland had been bone dry for the preceding two weeks and the forecast was pretty dry as well. And, like you say, there are plenty of opportunities on the Challenge to get inside, and dry out properly if it does all go tits-up. They were wonderful but I will only wear them on the next Challenge if the ground and weather looks to be favourable.

    As I see it, the other problem with the Cambrian Way is that it stays in the west of Britain all the time, sticking to the high ground. This virtually guarantees a pretty wet time. I’ve looked at doing it a few times, but each time, looking at the expected weather, I decided against it.

    I hope your feet recover – I’ve had fungal infections (from a Buffalo Big Six shirt on a Challenge in 1998) all over my body, and it is not funny! It took lots of pills and creams to finally get rid of it (it kept coming back!

    All the best Sir
    Alan

    • Like you I’ve managed for years without foot problems overall, but thought I must be missing something with so many people moving over to trail Shoes, and seemingly pushing the boundary of what conditions they use them in. For weekend overnighters or the odd few days your feet can put up with most things. But not being completely soaked for endless days without a break. I’m now on antibiotics for infection in my feet, which have five black toe nails and feel very bruised and swollen on the forefoot. The theory of getting your feet wet but then drying quickly is great on paper, but in practice only works for the odd shower or river crossing in clean water.

    • No fun at all, you can tell you’re mind has just switched into the daily grind when you stop taking photos (when it was safe to get the camera out). I’d started recording some audio along the way, possibly for a few short podcasts, but after a few days I stopped that too. I was beginning to depress myself talking about the weather all the time.

  8. Sounds like you had a real grueller. I think you’re wise to stop – once your feet are in trouble it’s best to avoid further injury.

    I did the Anglesey CP last week. On the first day it chucked it down and my mate and got soaked. We dived into a b&b as the campsite looked like a lake. After that, glorious weather.

    I hope that your feet heal quickly.

    • Ah, wonderful Anglesey, has a micro climate all of it’s own. I spent three years at Bangor University back in the mid 80’s, and if it was ever crummy weather over on the mainland, Anglesey was certain to be better.

  9. I’ve had the same trouble – you find something that suits then they change the design. However, my last few pairs have been Altbergs. Not cheap, very traditional stuff, made in Richmond and they come in 5 different widths. The styles don’t change, either. For my last pair – which I got just a few weeks ago – we actually went over to Richmond and after they’d fitted me up, they also stretched the leather for me in the left boot toe box, as I have a toe there which is too long. Very pleased with them yet again, but everyone is different…..

  10. Sounds absolutely terrible. As a fair-weather walker myself, who hates the slightest hint of drizzle, I think it was tremendous that you persevered for so long. As you mentioned above, Anglesey certainly has a microclimate of its own. I spent the first two weeks of June walking (slowly) along the coast of Anglesey and North Wales. Weather was pretty good. But the mountains of Snowdonia never lost their shroud of cloud.

    • It was all so different when I was at University in Bangor in the mid 80’s, in digs with a great view of Snowdon. I could have sworn that every day I woke to look out on a clear view…..or is that just the rose tinted specs of middle age I seem to have aquired? Mind you, we did seem to spend a lot of weekends at Newborough camping in the sand dunes.

    • Aye, plenty of tbe summer left, if it ever really starts! I’ll get this route squared off as soon as the feet have recovered, then what? Quite often do a bit of a coastal walk during the back end of summer, just for a change of scenery.

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