Tarquin's cycling pages

12 November 2006 - Honddu and Grwyne Fawr Loop

WhereHonddu and Grwyne Fawr Loop
(Brecon Beacons and South Wales)
Date12 November 2006
Duration5 hours
Distance21 miles (~34 km)
WeatherOvercast with cold wind and drizzle on the ridge
Trail conditionsDamp and muddy tracks
Chris Poole 34 Orange Sub5
Mark 'Tarquin' Wilton-Jones 26 GT LTS 2000 (TWJ)

Trip report

Description by Mark 'Tarquin' Wilton-Jones

This ride followed route 17 described in 'The Brecon Beacons National Park & the Black Mountains (mountain bike guide)'.

Well, I was supposed to be spending time with the family, but getting a chance to go cycling with Chris is (unfortunately) a rare thing, so I was told by said family to go anyway. Nice to know where I am, or am not wanted ;)

This route is known for its ability to become unnavigable in even slightly inclement weather, and Chris had been forced to abandon it once before. The forecast was just about good enough so we gave it a try anyway.

My bike was carrying a little more weight than Chris' (and I do not mean me, although that would also be accurate). Having got fed up of the shoulder discomfort from wearing a heavy backpack while cycling, I had bought a pannier that is designed to clamp to the seatpost, and is specially for bikes with suspension. The only thing I dislike about the design is the catch that clips it on, which is a little inconvenient. It is from Hallfords, if you want one for yourself, but is not available from their website. This was to be its first test, ready for the Taff Trail ride, and it was suitably loaded with food, drink, camera, and repair tools.

See pictureSee pictureWe started at the Queens Head car park in Stanton. The road climbed steeply beside the beechwoods - too steeply. It is unusual to see Chris push his bike. Maybe we should put it down to lack of recent practice.

See pictureSee pictureThe route takes the first right turn into the forest, where we were greeted by a large buzzard, who kept us company for a while. The forest track climbs and falls, with occasional good views across the Honddu valley to Hatterall Hill.

See pictureSee pictureThe main forest descent is fairly sustained, and makes up for all of the climbing, but sadly it is followed by yet another climb before the final descent to the road. For large parts of this, I lost sight of Chris, as I was taking too long with my camera. It's my obsession, sorry.

See pictureSee pictureThe forest track seems to end at a barrier, where it joins another track. Turn right to reach the real road, and then turn left onto it. The route then passes through Llanthony, where we stopped to have a look at the remains of the priory; undoubtedly an impressive building when it was complete.

See pictureSee pictureImmediately after Llanthony, the road splits, with the left branch passing over a bridge. We took the wrong road; to the left. After realising our mistake, we turned back and took the other branch, with a reasonable view of Chwarel y Fan and Bâl-Mawr. The route then follows a track, entered through a gate ahead, on a sharp right bend. This is an excellent little track, requiring a little work, but a lot of fun.

See pictureSee pictureThe track rejoins the road, and at last we got a view of the ridge we would be climbing up. Unfortunately, the top of it was enveloped by the cloudbase, which did not look promising at all. Crossing the ridge inside a cloud did not sound like fun, and it was similar conditions that forced Chris to abandon his previous attempt, but after discussing whether or not we were tough (*cough*) enough, we decided there was not much point turning around, since the distances would be about the same either way. So we took the track that headed through a gate down towards the river.

See pictureSee pictureDespite a nice rocky start, the track quickly became clogged with deep mud. Riding was impossible, and we sludged through it, with our bikes occasionally sinking upto their frames in the mud. Urgh. Back on rocks, my bike was getting really bad chain suck, and virtually every push of the pedals caused the chain to tangle around the cogs. At the bottom, I rode across the river to wash off the wheels and chain, which worked very well, but I lost my balance after hitting a rock, and so my shoes got a good wash as well. A push up a steep rocky slope then brought us up to the road, where we turned right.

See pictureSee pictureWe were greeted with the sight of Lord Hereford's Knob (yeah, the mountain) - or at least the Darren Lwyd ridge that extends off it. We turned left at a small village, then left again up a steep road to a monastery. At the top of steep section the road forks, with the way on to the right.

See pictureSee pictureThe way on soon reaches a rocky, stepped path up to a gate. There is no point trying to ride it, so we pushed our bikes up. Or at least, Chris did. The pannier makes it very difficult to carry due to the uneven load. Once through the gate, we ignored the obvious rocky path, and took the easier path up the edge of the trees. Again, the pannier makes pushing hard, since the weight is on the bike, not your back, and the bags get in the way of your legs. They are better suited to long rides, without pushing. At the top of the trees, we turned left, and crossed a stream gully.

See pictureSee pictureWe should have gone ahead instead of turning left, but we did not see the path. Instead, we had to cross the bracken, but the view of the Honddu valley was rewarding enough. Then began the steep climb up Tarren yr Esgob. There is no chance of cycling here - even a horse would find this path extremely difficult, with its bizarrely placed stone slabs, and slippery, loose rock.

See pictureSee pictureAfter a few zig-zags, we were quite fed up of this climb, but the worst was to come. The cloudbase dropped quickly, and the valley disappeared. Stereotypical British drizzle, and plenty of it. As we got to the top of the climb, there was no end in sight. The wind was blowing quite strongly, and the ground was boggy from prolonged rain, so most of it could not be ridden.

See pictureSee pictureThe visibility was reduced to about 100 metres - enough to see the path, but after half a mile of bog, we reached the cairn at the top of the ridge - 620 metres altitude. Attempting to shelter behind it, we had some food before ignoring the ridge path, and taking the path opposite, down the other side. By now we were quite cold, but in good spirits as we bombed through the fog to emerge below the clouds in the Grwyne Fawr valley. The path swung left to reach the nearby forest at a small gate.

See pictureSee pictureThe forest path is quite overgrown, so expect to become a pine needle pincushion. Soon it is joined by a stream, and becomes very difficult to ride, as it runs in a narrow gully with large, loose rocks. A final dry section then reaches a proper forest track, with the way on being downslope ahead-right. This is the start of the 2 KM long downhill. All of that climbing up the ridge was finally rewarded, as we sped down - watch out for that sharp bend early on (oh yes, panniers make the back end of the bike swing wide in skids). With a top speed of only 27 MPH, I guess we were taking it gently, but enjoying it too much to take pictures.

See pictureSee pictureAt the bottom, ignore the inviting track to the right, and continue uphill ahead. This plateaus out after about a mile (yep, you can learn to work in miles and kilometres too), and offers good views of the lower Grwyne Fawr valley, before starting the next descent. When this starts to climb, take the grassy slope to the right. We didn't, and ended up at a dead end after nearly a mile, having passed through some farmland, and broken gates.

The grassy slope quickly becomes a rocky descent, with the rocks big enough to get the adrenalin going, but not so bad as to throw you off. It is about a kilometre long, and was just too good for taking pictures. At the bottom is a parking area, where we ate the rest of our lunch, before crossing the river, and continuing on road to the left.

See pictureSee pictureAfter chasing a landrover at 28 MPH down the road (and why not, eh?), we dutifully turned left at the phone box, and then began the final rocky climb. My bike was getting chain suck again, so I was unable to use my bottom gears. We both pushed up the 100 metres climb to the top, and turning around, were rewarded with a great view of the Grwyne Fawr valley, with the Sugar Loaf to the left, Crug Mawr ahead (Descent from Heaven and Killer Loop routes), and the ridge to Waun Fach to the right.

See pictureSee pictureAt the top of the ridge, we turned right, joining the ridge path. To our left was a beautiful view across Hatterall Hill, and to our right, the Sugar Loaf was silhouetted by the brightening sky. The path climbed gently, then forked left to avoid climbing Twyn y Gaer. Occasional deep puddles kept us alert.

See pictureAfter a gate, we joined the road, which drops steeply from 370 metres to 170 metres, over about a mile. Top speed of the day; 35 miles per hour, on a single lane road, with blind bends. Hmm. As we passed the way into the forest we had taken earlier, our friendly buzzard decided to try to race me, or at least to fly along just a couple of metres in front of my head. I was forced to slow down to avoid hitting it - still, at least I know what the back end of a buzzard looks like, now. At the bottom of the hill, was the car park, and the end of the trip - certainly worth repeating.

In case you were wondering, the pannier coped admirably, and had no problems with the terrain or the weight it was carrying. And my shoulders were still comfortable too. A good investment, it seems.

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