Above pontypool
The Cambrian Way above Pontypool

Walking the Cambrian Way in day trips and weekends

By Mark Charlton
6 minute read

Always lacking three weeks to tackle the full route from Cardiff to Conwy in one go, Mark Charlton was surprised to discover how much of the Cambrian Way he had walked in day trips and weekends over thirty years of living in Wales. Here he reflects on family days out on this mountainous walking route and the gaps he still has to fill.

It was 1988 when I first came to Wales for a job opportunity. I was wary of moving, but the people and place felt similar to my home in the North East of England. The mountains would feel familiar too; I could backpack at weekends, bag the famous peaks and maybe venture on a long-distance walk along the little-known Cambrian Way. If I liked it enough, I might even stay for a couple of years.

Three decades later and I’m still here, with the peaks all ticked and the people and place as near to home as they’ll ever be. As for the Cambrian Way: well, that’s still work in progress, though nearer to completion since my interest was rekindled by the new Cicerone guide.

I would have finished this coast to coast route years ago had it not been for our boys. Having children never stopped us walking or me taking time out to climb, but three weeks away tramping the spine of Wales from Cardiff to Conwy would test even the most tolerant of partners. And then there was all the talk of it being a mountain connoisseur’s route and the lonely sections of tough terrain, long days and limited accommodation.

Instead we did the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and the Usk Valley Walk, the mountain ranges of Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons and the Mid Wales bothies. There are precious few parts of Wales that aren’t lodged in the boots of the Charlton family.

Recently I mapped the sections of the Cambrian Way that we had already walked in day trips and weekends and was surprised to see how much of the route we had covered in all those years of unstructured wandering.

In order for us to finish the route (in the sense of walking it all rather than in one continuous push), it is only a case of filling in a few gaps. Admittedly, some are quite significant – the Rhinogs are still to be tackled – but the majority could be completed in a day or a weekend, just as we had inadvertently done with the rest.

Last month I walked from Pontypool to Abergavenny for the first time. It’s almost embarrassing to admit this, given how close the ridge is to our house. What a delight it was to rise to the folly above the town and stride out on the broad-backed ridge of Mynydd Garn Wen, Garn Clochdy and Garn Fawr.

During the recent lockdown this was the only upland section of the Brecon Beacons National Park to remain open. Almost anywhere else the path would be lauded as walking of the highest rank but in the shadow of its better-known neighbours, this little spur on the National Park is unjustly overlooked.

At the end of the ridge – and the third stage of the Cambrian Way – is Blorenge Mountain. It’s one of Abergavenny’s three peaks, though more easily approached from the world heritage site of Blaenavon. Here were families from the two towns, taking some air after the easing of restrictions on local movement. We sat in distanced groups on the summit and watched a kestrel scour the hillside, with clouds billowing over Pen y Fan and the Central Beacons on the western horizon.

What struck me, as I reflected on completing one of my few remaining gaps, was just how much of the Cambrian Way is accessible if you’re prepared to tackle it in smaller and slower steps.

The guide says the next stage towards the Black Mountains takes eight hours, detailing two long climbs before the descent to Capel Y Ffin. But who says it has to be done in one push? Why not split it in two? The traverse of Sugar Loaf is a wonderful summit in itself and a fabulous first mountain for a youngster to climb.

Indeed, it’s a great peak for oldies too, much loftier than its modest height might suggest. And there’s another thought about the Cambrian Way: although it’s a high-level route, many of the best bits aren’t actually that high.

‘Have you ever walked the Doethie valley?’ my friend the outdoor writer Jim Perrin once asked me years ago, ‘It’s a high contender for the most beautiful in Wales’.

I went there with my boys, meandering our way from Rhandirmwyn and stopping overnight in the remote Ty’n-y-cornel Hostel, which was another adventure in itself. Jim was right; I know of no lovelier valley in this remarkable country. Or a nicer chapel than the one at Soar y Mynydd, or frankly anywhere quite like the Teifi pools to the north.

On that trip we overnighted at the Claerddu bothy. It’s flush loo and gas stove earned it five-star status in the Charlton book! Originally a hill cottage, it was renovated so that walkers on the Cambrian Way could avoid the long detour to LLanddewi Brefi for accommodation. Some years ago on a return visit, a notice warned that the bothy was ‘reserved’ that coming weekend for a party of American travel writers. I sometimes wonder what they made of it and what they would have done if we had have turned up unannounced!

I bet they’d be impressed by the new Cicerone guide to the Cambrian Way. Splitting the route into 21 daily sections, with clear OS maps and supporting information, it’s a superb companion to a route which deserves more traffic. Every praise is due to the team that’s compiled it. And hats off to those at the Ramblers Cymru and the Cambrian Way Trust who completed the recent waymarking project too.

Guidebooks like this are labours of love and I hope their efforts transform the popularity of a trail they clearly care for. If I’d had it to hand thirty years ago, might I have completed this high-level route more quickly? Perhaps, but then again, its pages are so packed with highlights that there’s an argument for savouring each peak and passage.

Of course, as the new guide makes clear, there are sections of the route which aren’t for the inexperienced or faint hearted, especially in Snowdonia and Elenydd in the Cambrian Mountains. I know there’s a special satisfaction too in completing a long-distance trail in a single journey.

Ultimately, the Cambrian Way is only a name we give to a path that someone chose and then chose to write down. It no more ‘exists’ in a truly tangible sense than it did before that idea came to mind. For all the checkpoints, signposts and, dare I say it, guidebooks, it’s just a walk over the mountains of Wales. They will still be there, long after us and our trails are forgotten.

On which philosophical note, I’m rather glad that I didn't rushed its completion. In taking so long, it’s become a memory map of my years in Wales. For me it traces the journey of a young man through marriage and fatherhood, friends and adventures. The route is not so much a path from Cardiff to Conwy but a path of people, place, discovery and becoming. They say the Cambrian Way is a walker’s walk and I’d agree. But like all the best of those walking routes, it’s the steps we make and not the time they take which matter the most.

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