Tales from the Big Trails, in print on 2nd September 2021, available now for pre-order from Vertebrate Publishing. Featuring all 15 National Trails in England and Wales, and the 4 designated long-distance Scotland’s Great Trails. This is the story of the people I meet, the landscapes and coastal scenery and the sheer joy of walking these iconic long-distance routes in the UK. Click on a link below for a copy.
Perhaps one of the quietest National Trails. Travel in the footsteps of Owain Glyndŵr through the sparsely populated and remote hills and moorlands of central Wales. The going at times can be tough, but the path has excellent waymarks and signposts. There is a real sense of walking through a landscape that belongs to a different era, steeped in Welsh culture, tradition and legend.
Time of year
Other than the depths of winter, the path could be walked at any time of year. Spring, Summer and Autumn each have their usual characteristics, highlighted by the lambing season and the wonderful autumnal colours respectively. I abandoned the journey at Machynlleth due to heavy rain and flood warnings for North Wales in late September 2012. I continued in Spring 2013 as soon as the horrendous snowfalls that winter had cleared.
Length of walk
132 miles from Knighton to Welshpool, with an additional 28 miles if you want to follow Offa’s Dyke between the start and finish to turn this into a circular walk (recommended). I walked GW with Offa’s Dyke. The first trip from Chepstow to Machynlleth in late September 2012, then to Welshpool and finally to Prestatyn in Spring 2013. I completed the GW section in 8½ days.
I backpacked from Chepstow with my tradition heavy and indestructible gear, camping each night at recognised campsites. In the spring I switched to B&B as campsites were more difficult to find on the later sections of GW and Offa’s Dyke. Some of the B&B’s were the best I have ever stayed in, selected from the Offa’s Dyke Association list I picked up at the ODA office in Knighton. The first section campsites are very basic, with the exception of Llanidloes.
I had already spent 6 days on Offa’s Dyke, walking from Chepstow, when I arrived at the Offa’s Dyke Association office in Knighton. The warden was very helpful in providing information on GW and setting some expectations for accommodation. Jim asked if I would submit a couple of articles for their newsletter, for which I was happy to oblige a few weeks later. Part 1 and Part 2 are of those articles.
Waking early after a freezing night I had to defrost my MacPac tent before leaving as it would stand up on its own after the tent pegs had been removed. A group of university students had also camped overnight and were up early too, shivering. I departed as soon as I could to get some warmth going and marched into a landscape that on one hand felt similar to Offa’s Dyke, but on the other, was perhaps 100-200 years older. You could immediately sense the drove roads and farm buildings, untouched by time. Without modern life as a frame of reference, you really felt you were travelling in a different era. Perhaps I would meet Owain Glyndwr?
This is Teletubbies land, complete with rolling green hills, rainbows, fluorescently marked sheep and a smiling sunshine. A succession of showers created dramatic skyscapes, filled with Buzzards and perhaps a Kite or two. I was in no hurry with a heavy backpack, full of provisions for a few days, but was pleased to arrive at a wonderful farmhouse in Felindre mid-afternoon. I was greeted with a nice cuppa and cake, served on a porcelain tea set. Very civilised indeed, as was the offer of a meal for the evening, or an option of a lift to the local pub with a B&B staying guest. I chose the later and spent an evening exchanging life stories with a GP from Durham, fuelled by a few more pints than usual.
Up early and back into the ancient landscape to be caught later in the day by my new friend powered by an FWB (Full Welsh Breakfast) and travelling light. We hiked to Abbey-Cwm-Hir, where he caught a taxi to his B&B, never to be seen again. I waited in vain for the Post Office to open, before meeting a local who confirmed I could camp on the grounds of the Abbey. I selected a pitch next to where the Prince of Wales, Llewellyn the Last, is buried in the ruins, minus his head, which is in London. Walking back to the PO, I realised that it also run by the pub landlord, who opens up so I can buy some basic provisions. After a simple meal, I return to a wonderful pub for a long chat and a few pints of ‘surge’ Guinness. The landlord is a sheep farmer, school bus driver, PO owner, gamekeeper and a few other things no doubt. A passion for Rugby is very much in evidence and he looks like a fly half.
I peer out of my tent door the next morning to be told, in no uncertain terms, by the farm dog that I am late. I pack quickly and set out into the mist for a pleasant eerie walk until the going gets tougher into Llanidloes. I stop for a long chat with a sheep farmer, perhaps both of us have not seen a soul that day. His stories of sheep farming are humbling, his life made easier with a quad bike. I catch a glimpse of either a Red or Black Kite as I arrive in the town for a lovely meal at an organic theme cafe. I dawdle about and take a look at the timber-framed buildings and local quaint shops. The local campsite is superb with wonderful views over the River Severn. I settle down for a good nights sleep only to spend the next 3 hours wide awake as I listen to a Lady Gaga tribute band playing for a wedding party at the local Rugby club. They are so good I get up to dance about a bit. In protest or joy, I am not sure.
Heavy mist doesn’t clear until mid-morning as I arrive at a Llyn Clywedog reservoir. The sun comes out and I stop for a while, beginning to feel weary after 9 nights under canvas. My spirits are lifted when I see an Osprey swoop down to catch a fish, just behind some fishermen in a boat, oblivious to the poacher behind them. I stay a while and chat with a forest ranger who witnessed the same scene, both of us thrilled. The walk to Dylife is hard going through the forest tracks. I arrive at the Star Inn to be told bluntly they are closed. I am offered a pitch in the filthy paddock and can’t argue as they are the only prospect of food that evening. The steak and chips are nicely served by a chef who would make a better living as a stand-up comedian. I am glad to leave early the next day. The only other guests must be masochists as the place falling apart. The writing was on the wall, so it was no surprise to learn that it is now under new management, drastically better, I am told.
The weather forecast over the next few days is appalling. So I make a decision to finish the walk for this year at Machynlleth. I march past Glaslyn and descend by the fastest route to the station in “Mach” to catch the earliest train home. This was a good call as the subsequent flooding in North Wales was very serious and I had learnt from experience that to proceed would be foolish. I was to see evidence of the flooding the following year.
That winter, North Wales experienced some of the worst snowfalls in recent memory, trapping many sheep under several metres of snow. So it was a joy to see the spring lambs bouncing around as I started the spring campaign from Knighton along Offa’s Dyke to Welshpool, where I caught a train back to Mach, to complete GW.
Machynlleth was still recovering from the murder of April Jones and pink ribbons adorned every gate, door knock and tree in the area. Stern notices warned the Press to keep away. I headed for Llanbrynmair over a series of hills and back into central Wales. The mist made navigation interesting, but a new Smartphone App worked wonders at getting me back on the path. The B&B was cosy and a nice pub meal set me up for the next day, but I had strangely acquired a nasty heel blister. Suitably taped up and Compeed applied, I set off into excellent scenery past Cerig-Y-Tan. The weather was hail, rain, sun, mist, wind, rainbow – the full menu. I met the trail officer en route burying waymark posts across a moorland. No doubt to be very handy for future walkers. It was a long day before I saw Lake Vyrnwy and fell into a wonderful B&B, a former Foreman’s cottage from the construction of the dam. The Welsh hospitality and natter over a lovely set tea was heartwarming. The FWB the next morning was beyond compare, no debate about that.
My blister had stopped complaining as I approached Dolanog and the Ann Griffiths walk. The walking landscape was blending back into the Welsh Marches scenery familiar to Offa’s Dyke walkers as it progressed along the River Vyrnwy. Arriving at a pub, in Meifod, I woofed down a meal and chatted to the local farmers, catching up on the days sporting results. As I walked to the B&B the blister flamed up and I hobbled into my room to check the damage. The burst blister didn’t smell that good, so a full clean and soak in alcohol plus fresh dressings were needed. It is best that I do not go into detail, but this is the worse case of foot damage I have had. I am desperate to know why.
WARNING – Ugly picture of my Blister – not for the squeamish!
I am pleased it is only 10 miles to Welshpool. The last glimpse of GW from the spectacular vista at Y-Golfa back into the heartland of Wales. Cadair Idris can be seen in the distance. Concerned about the blister I bail out, catching the train home, but having completed what has been a wonderful walk and in my view, the unsung gem in the National Trail repertoire.
Two weeks later, blister repaired. I noted the new footbeds I had used in my Meindl boots, they had raised my heel too high. Removing them cured the problem.
For Day 1 – 6 see Offa’s Dyke sections from Chepstow to Knighton.
- Day 7 – 16m – from Offa’s Dyke – Knighton to Felindre – camp
- Day 8 – 16m – Abbey-Cwm-Hir – camp (with the Prince of Wales no less!)
- Day 9 – 15m – Llanidloes – camp
- Day 10 – 14m – Dylife – camp
- Day 11 – 13m – Machynlleth, train home
For Day 1 – 2 see Offa’s Dyke sections from Knighton to Welshpool, the section that makes GW a loop.
- Day 3 – 16m – Train from Welshpool, walk to Llanbrynmair – B&B
- Day 4 – 19m – Llanwddyn – B&B
- Day 5 – 16m – Meiford – B&B
- Day 6 – 10m – Welshpool, train home to recover