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