Pen Y Garn, an accidental epic

It started, as these things sometimes do, with idly browsing the web on my phone one morning and stumbling across an article called ‘100 things to do in Ceredigion before you die’. It’s probably no surprise having lived here for most of the last deacde that I’ve done quite a few of the things on the list but one that I hadn’t was camping at Claerddu bothy. Claerddu bothy? A bothy, in Ceredigion of all places? Yes, it turned out that the Elan Valley Estate manages a bothy at Claerddu and that it’s open for use by the public.

Well this got me thinking. Mountain bothies are traditionally associated with Scotland and while I knew there were a few in England scattered here and there, I didn’t realise that there were a good number in Wales as well. In fact as it turned out there are several others, maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association not all that far from home, and one, set in the middle of some forestry just down the road near Ponterwyd, just on my doorstep. That settled it then, I’d have to make a visit.

While planning my hike and poring over my maps of the area I spotted the trig point of Pen Y Garn, a mountain rising to just about 2000 feet a good distance from Nantsyddion, not far from Cwmystwyth. I filed it under ‘looks good for a trip at some point’ and more or less forgot about it for the rest of the day.

The following morning I set off down the road, driving over some one lane roads around Trisant and past some former mines, through Devil’s Bridge and then on to a tiny hamlet just outside Ponterywd called Ysbyty Cynfelin. Off to the side of the road an unassuming bridleway snaked off towards a small farmhouse, and it was down this track that I set off with my pack, making my way gradually uphill.

The path continued onwards through a farmyard before eventually breaking out onto the open hillside beyond. Up ahead, high on the crest of the hill I spotted the forestry line, and plodded up, stopping to look back from the head of the small valley I’d climbed. It was a reasonably warm day though rain threatened and it looked as though there’d be a fair bit of mist and murk around at higher elevations. This wasn’t much of a problem for me, I thought to myself, as I’d be sticking to the forestry anyway.

I approached the stile leading over to the forestry land at the crest of the hill and spotted a bright yellow sign. Reading it, my heart sank, as it turned out that just for today, the entire forestry area would be being used for an off-road rally. So much for a quiet bimble, I thought, but on the other hand it would surely be possible to avoid the rally just by using side trails? As I plodded down the track that would lead me to the bothy, my heart sank again as I ran into the first of several rally checkpoints I’d find that day. The folks at the checkpoint were initially reticent to let me pass through, concerned that I might for some unknown reason take leave of my senses and involuntarily hurl myself at the nearest car I found rather than just placidly bimbling along minding my own business as hikers are wont to do, but eventually they let me pass so that I could walk all of the 500 metres or so that separated me from the bothy.

Despite nearly being thwarted within reach of my goal, I got inside the bothy and took a look around.It was HUGE. Nantsyddion easily has enough space for twenty or so people and is blessed with an incredibly peaceful set of surroundings. There were sheep grazing the grass in the clearing in front of the building and all around there was the forestry. This would be an extremely peaceful spot, I knew, and I would definitely be coming back to visit again.

The rally then started to pass through on the tracks both behind the bothy and on the other side of the river, giving me a ringside seat. I knew a lot of my friends would have loved to have had such a vantage point for an off-road rally and had it been the purpose of my trip I probably wouldn’t have minded at all, but given that I’d headed out to this place specifically to enjoy peace and quiet, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit cheated.

Eventually the rally passed through and I took stock. I’d got here much faster than I’d originallly thought I would do, and had plenty of time on my hands. The unexpected encounter with a rally had left me craving peace and quiet, so I took another look at the map, and that’s when I decided, more or less on the spur of the moment, to hike Pen Y Garn from here. The only problem was that with the forestry land out of commission until 6 PM due to the rally the most direct and logical routes of ascent were off limits….but improvised route finding is all part of the fun, right?

So I headed out from the bothy and bimbled along a forestry path that I knew on the map would not be in use for the rally this morning. The plan was to use this path to connect to a bridleway which ran alongside the infant Afon Rheidol and then to climb steeply up to the head of the valley. This would take me clear of the forestry and put me onto the moorland high above, from where, I reasoned, I could work my way around and approach Pen Y Garn from the far side, bag my summit and retreat.

I got to the Afon Rheidol via another checkpoint (which fortunately was closing up shop) and found it was too wide to leap across, so I forded it, soaking my new boots on their inaugural expedition. The path up the other side of the river was steep, and became steeper still as I neared the head of the valley and finally broke free from the trees onto the high moorland. I was now at the heart of a huge wind farm, and I followed the service tracks connecting the mighty turbines through the murk and mist that had inevitably closed in.

It was a weird feeling wandering through the murk with the wind turbines around. I heard the turbines for a good distance before I actually saw them, with their blades chopping down with a loud, steady ‘SWOOOSH-SWOOOSH-SWOOOSH’ noise and slicing through the mist above. Although I knew that the blades were obviously well above my head, perhaps because of the thick clag all around there was that strange feeling of slight doubt, as though part of my mind wasn’t quite convinced that the blades weren’t going to suddenly lop off my head as I walked near to them.

I continued my hike, stopping to glance through the murk every now and again as the mist cleared to show lakes that almost certainly had very few visitors, so secluded was the spot they were set in. That’s when I heard them powering towards me. Not cars this time, but bikes. It turned out that climbing out of the forestry had solved one problem only to put me in the path of another, since while there were no cars belting along up here, this area above the forestry was apparently being used for the motorbikes in the event. Despite the noise of the bikes rattling by, I wasn’t overly bothered by them; the riders all seemed cheerful and were clearly thoroughly enjoying being up there, as was I. I waved as a group passed by.

I was by now nearing the point of my walk where, having traversed around to the far side of the valley I’d started in, I could strike off and head towards Pen Y Garn. I only needed to follow my current route for a few hundred metres before breaking off….and that’s when I ran into yet another checkpoint, and was asked to wait while the bikes came through. Some of the bikes came through pretty quickly, but there had apparently been some mechanical failures and time began to drag on. Knowing how close I was to my objective and after having been held up and diverted a good number of times today due to the rally I was starting to feel a bit frustrated, especially given that I’d already wandered past dozens of bikes without incident earlier on. Still, the rally marshalls had a job to do and I couldn’t begrudge them wanting to have a safe event, after all. Eventually the last bike came through and I was off again. In just a few short minutes I’d cleared the last possible area where I could have met rally traffic and was off on the trail that would take me to within spitting distance of Pen Y Garn’s summit.

Some twenty minutes later, I trudged up the grassy slopes and got to the summit cairn at last. As is typical on a day like this, and as you can see from the picture above, there was no view whatsoever. Pen Y Garn is only just a 2000 footer, but given the lengths I’d had to go to in order to get to the summit, I felt very pleased to have finally made it. I didn’t linger there long as all the delays and diversions had now put me well behind time and I started to hot foot it home. My one consolation was that it was now past 6 PM so I was able to return from Pen Y Garn via the more logical route I would have taken had there not been a rally to contend with. I was by now pretty tired out though and while the return leg was interesting, taking in part of the Borth-Devils Bridge-Pontarfendigaid Trail, I was ready for getting home and didn’t take much of the scenery in.

I had quite a memorable final slog on a steep forestry track from the footbridge over my final river of the day. The path went straight up the side of the valley and came out to meet the trail I’d hiked into the forestry on that morning. It really felt as though the hike was taking one final payment as I finally crested the top and stood at the head of the valley that would bring me, at last, back to Ysbyty Cynfelin again.

Pen Y Garn can be hiked from Cwmystwyth in just a few simple kilometres of walking, with a gentle elevation gain. The route I’d taken, with all its diversions and circuitous trails to circumvent the rally stages, had taken over twenty kilometres and had involved an elevation gain roughly equivalent to hiking Snowdon from sea level.

Overkill? Yep. Worth it? Definitely.