I mentioned in my last post that there’d been a higher than average number of callouts this summer of the wonderful, fantastic, heroic Mountain Rescue service. They’re on hand to retrieve unfortunate souls from remote areas all over the UK, and the incidents they get called to vary from the tragic to the plain ridiculous. I’m very glad to say that we didn’t need to ask for their help a few days ago when we walked part of the mid-Wales medieval path known as the Monks’ Trod, even though there were several falls (mostly by me), a fair amount of bad weather and one heck of a lot of mud.
I’d signed us up for this entertainment back in the spring, attracted by the (very) brief description: a high-level six mile walk which covered part of the route taken by medieval monks to and from the Cistercian Abbeys of Abaty Cwm Hir (just north of Llandrindod Wells) and Ystrad Fflur (Strata Florida if you prefer Latin to Welsh..?) near Tregaron, twenty-four miles to the west. Now how hard could that be? If monks had walked the path, driving sheep along with them (apparently), then it had to be fairly easy. The ascent was only 150 metres, and even we could manage that!
What it didn’t say in the booklet (just one of the things it didn’t say, as it turned out) was that although we’d meet at the Elan Valley Visitor Centre, the walk would begin just over six miles away and that we’d get to that point in a Landrover via the most decrepit apology for a road I’ve ever come across. It took forty-five minutes to travel six and a half miles, sitting in side-facing seats with a bunch of other battered bodies. By the time we got there I felt as though I’d spent an hour inside a food mixer.This is one of the better sections of the track!
There were seven of us on this escapade as well as Fiona, the ranger from the Centre who was there to show us the way and lead us safely to the other end. Apart from us, our happy band of victims comprised one single older woman who does a lot of walking and didn’t fall, slip or slither once; a jolly pair who were out for a bit of a stroll, dressed in jeans and trainers (though to be fair they didn’t end the day in any worse condition than me) and then another couple, who were way ahead of the game. Not only were they very fit and well-equipped but he was an ex-army instructor who now works in some sort of outdoor centre, leading walks and other energetic pursuits. Ringers, in other words.
The ninth member of the pack, Harry (you know the type – looks like he’s on a gap year and spends all his time climbing, surfing or hanging out in the pub with his mates, planning their next expedition), had been at the wheel of the Landrover from hell. He deposited us at the start of the climb up to the Trod, then drove off to the finishing point where he would park before walking back to meet us. He was much too cheerful for my liking, but we consoled ourselves with the thought that at least we were out of the truck, off the track and out in the fresh air. I wish I could say out in the sunshine but as we set off the sky looked like this – though it was quite breezy and the clouds were moving fairly rapidly, and hopefully unlikely to empty over us.
The first part of the walk was easy and we didn’t encounter any problems…the first part of the walk lasted ten minutes. At that point, I stepped on a clump of grass only to freeze as my foot sank and continued quickly downwards until my right leg had almost totally disappeared from view. The natural consequence of this was that my whole body then lurched over to the right; luckily I was holding a stout walking-stick in my right hand (I know, old lady) which propped me up and also luckily (as I was at the end of the line) there were no witnesses apart from Mr B. By the time everyone else realized that I’d sunk like a stone, I’d more or less regained control. And in a way it was quite liberating to learn that cold, muddy water wasn’t the end of the world. Knowledge that would be quite reassuring as the afternoon wore on.
By the time we’d climbed our 150 metres and passed fifteen or so youngsters on a trek for their gold Duke of Edinburgh award, two other members of our party had been partially submerged so I didn’t feel quite such a plonker. We paused at the top to admire the view and the medieval monks’ path, which we’d now arrived on, and then set off again. Time passed…I’m not sure how much…there were more streams and swamps, none of it helped by the fact that the area is unfortunately used by citizens who like tearing up our remote areas in their 4x4s and off road motorbikes. It’s impossible to police, and the cost of repairs runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds, so sadly the authorities have washed their hands of it all. This means that parts of the Trod are irretrievably damaged and cratered with deep puddles, some of them yards across. It’s never dry up here anyway, and so avoiding the flooded pathway means tramping through waterlogged moorland which is criss-crossed by streams. Think of the ‘Dead Marshes’ in The Lord of the Rings and you’ll begin to get the idea. I lost count of the number of times I mis-stepped and was in water up to my knees.
Whenever I look at a map of Wales, or when I hear a description, one of the adjectives that comes to mind (other than ‘wet’) is ‘small’. It is, by any measure, not a large country. But standing on this exposed, boggy moorland, looking all around and seeing nothing but empty hills as far as the horizon on all sides, it didn’t seem small. It seemed…endless.
We stopped for fifteen minutes or so and wolfed down some sandwiches, admiring the wilderness. As we started off again we noticed that although the wind was now blowing strongly enough to almost knock us over, it had brought us some heavier clouds and we soon felt the first drops of rain.
Although it lasted long enough to get us all thoroughly wet nobody seemed to be too bothered by it – after all we sort of expected it, given where we were – and then we perked up a bit when we spotted Harry coming towards us in the distance. Not because it meant we didn’t have too far to go (we did) but because there are times when any distraction is a good thing. By now some of the Duke of Ed guys had caught up a little and so were only about twenty yards behind us when I heard one of them shrieking. I turned to see a teenager flat on her face in the bog. Now, my first instinct was to help – I was actually about to step towards her; but then I stopped and thought about it. She was surrounded by mates – there was plenty of help (if not much sympathy) – and she didn’t need a stranger to add to her embarrassment. Also, the Duke of Ed gold award is supposed to challenge people and climbing out of a bogland is a reasonably easy challenge. So I left them to it and caught up to my own lot.
A little further on we’d all separated a little, each of us trying to find a sure-footed way through yet another waterlogged area when I encountered a challenge of my own. As I lifted my right foot to step across a stream, my left foot slid forward in the mud and I slithered fairly gracefully but irrevocably onto my backside, then further so that I was lying almost completely flat. This time there were plenty of witnesses, and astonishingly none of them laughed – I think. I did, though – it was impossible not to. I refused offers of help to get me up again (I imagine that would have added to the casualty rate) and flopped over onto my hands and knees in order to get up. It’s very difficult to do anything at all when the ground beneath you isn’t…well, ground.
It had finally stopped raining but was still windy and so I hoped I might blow dry by the time we reached the end of the trek – I didn’t. And I’d got used to it while I was on the move but climbing into the Landrover and sitting down was a completely new unpleasant sensation. So much so that, when we arrived at the Visitor Centre I was quite relieved that Mr B banished me to the back of the car because it meant I could shimmy out of my trousers. I’m sorry to have to report that I travelled home in my underwear, and really sorry for planting that image with you. I managed to get from the car to the house with a car blanket wrapped around me and headed straight for the shower, despite the suggestion from my other half that he should hose me down in the garden.
I’m not complaining, because actually we had a great day. As much as we love it when the sun shines and the sky is blue, a day spent out on the hills in what can only be described as blustery conditions is very satisfying – as are the hot shower and cup of tea afterwards!
Walking is man’s best medicine
Hippocrates 460-377 BCE