Tarquin's cycling pages

16 December 2006 - Taff Trail from Cardiff to Brecon and back

WhereTaff Trail from Cardiff to Brecon and back
(Brecon Beacons and South Wales)
Date16 December 2006
Duration13 hours 45 minutes
Distance111 miles (~179 km)
WeatherCold sunlight with a few clouds on day 1, clouds with occasional light rain on day 2
Trail conditionsDamp roads and track, after several days of rain
Mark 'Tarquin' Wilton-Jones 26 GT LTS 2000 (TWJ)
Peter Wilton-Jones 28 Specialized Stumpjumper FSR Comp

Trip report

Description by Mark 'Tarquin' Wilton-Jones

This was the trip that had been planned for a long time. After multiple preparatory trips, the time had come. I have covered most of the trail itself in parts, and most (but not all) of the pictures in this report come from those trips, allowing us to concentrate on the trip without repeated stops for pictures - see those reports for more details of the route:

  1. Cardiff to Treharris and Pontypridd
  2. Treharris to Merthyr
  3. Merthyr to Ponsticill
  4. Most of the Pontsticill Loop
  5. (A tiny fragment of the Pen y Fan Loop)
  6. The second half of the Talybont Reservoir forestry circuit

The Taff Trail is often scorned by serious mountain bikers, because it requires little skill, and is not challenging enough. While it may be true that it does not require much skill, doing the full end to end ride is very definitely challenging. What it lacks in technical difficulties, it makes up for with sheer duration, and this itself is something worth trying, at least once. It also gives some beautiful views, as it passes through one of the classic, rugged, South Wales valleys, nature reserves, and of course, the breathtaking Brecon Beacons National Park.

Originally Chris Poole and I had planned this trip, but family commitments meant that unfortunately, Chris was not able to do the trip itself, and after several delays, Peter and I made the trip instead. Peter had not followed much of the trail before, so at least it was mostly new to him. The weather forecast had been consistently wrong for the last few weeks, so we picked a weekend, and went with it, and it seems we made a good choice.

We started at 09:15 on both mornings, supposedly early, but perhaps not early enough on the first day because of the winter daylight hours. The trip was done over two days, taking 7 hours 15 minutes on the first day, and 6 hours 30 minutes on the second, with a total end-to-end time of 30 hours and 30 minutes. We stayed with some very accommodating friends in Brecon overnight, where we received good company, beds, and a pub dinner (if you wish to do this trip, you may want to use some of the bunk houses in Brecon).

This route description is designed to be printed. Choose the 'Print route' style from the style dropdown on the right (needs a good browser; Opera, Firefox, Safari/Chrome, Konqueror, iCab, Internet Explorer 7), then use your browser's normal print function.

Since originally writing this route guide, there have been some improvements to the route, which are included below, marked in the same way as this paragraph. The original route (the one we used) is also included, marked as deleted text.

See pictureSee pictureStarting at the Celtic Ring on the lower board walk in Cardiff Bay, at the end of the Oval Basin (aka Roald Dahl Plas - who cares, stop renaming stuff). Head up one of the ramps (some may be guarded by 'dismount' signs) and make for the road in front of Techniquest. Directly in front of Techniquest, turn right into Adelaide Street, then left at its end into the main James Street, and cross the Clarence Bridge over the River Taff.

See pictureSee pictureImmediately turn right onto the cycle path running along the edge of the river. Follow the edge of the river along cycle paths and quiet roads, crossing several larger roads, until a final crossing enters the end of Bute Park after passing the stadium. (Ignore the occasional signs that point to other cycle routes or claim the route has ended, and stay on the paths that run as close to the left edge of the river as possible.)

See pictureSee pictureStay on the path running along the edge of the river, until you reach Blackweir, and a narrow suspension bridge with a single support tower. Cross the bridge, then immediately turn left and follow the trail on the other side of the river. Stay with it for a couple of miles, passing far too many dog walkers (seriously, watch out for the owners who do not control their dogs properly, particularly the one with a dog called "Tug" [I think] - the dog has already run in front of several bikes, and been hit by them as a result, and the owner gets violent if the person on the bike is you).

See pictureSee pictureAt the end of a sports field, the trail turns right (ignore the narrow track ahead) and for the first time since Clarence Bridge, it leaves the edge of the river. It then splits, and the way on follows the left branch. It joins a road then runs along a path to the left of it.

See pictureSee pictureThe path runs beside houses for a while, then after passing a water wheel, it heads back to the river again. It then picks up some roads and tarmac sections (some of which can be bypassed using a dirt track running a little to the left along the edge of the river) until it reaches the M4 motorway bridge which passes overhead.

(At Cardiff Bay, our transport had left before I realised that I was wearing a thick [arctic] jacket which needed to be put back in the car, so our kind driver met us at the M4 bridge to retrieve it - thankyou.)

See pictureHead under the bridge and pick up the single lane road on the other side (with a nice view of Castell Coch from a bridge to the left of the trail), and follow the road under the A470 bridge, into Tongwynlais. Turn left on the main Tongwynlais road. As the road dips down, a road to the right is the older alternative route:

See pictureSee pictureThis heads up a gentle slope, then left onto the extremely steep driveway up to Castell Coch, followed by a steep slope to the right up into Fforest Fawr. It turns left at a junction, then down a fast downhill, followed by a long level section, which joins the main route later on. This route is much more difficult than the normal route, so for such a long ride, it may not really be appropriate.

See pictureSee pictureThe main route stays with the main Tongwynlais road until it leaves the village, then picks up a cycle lane to the right of the road. This then splits from the road, and stays on pavements around a roundabout, before dropping and rising. At an 'end (of cycle lane)' sign in a side road, cross the road, and head the opposite way to rejoin the main road, then drop down to the right towards Taff's Well station. After a short downhill, the Taff Trail heads off on the right side of the road, just before a roundabout.

See pictureSee pictureThe route climbs steadily (and is the only proper downhill section that can be freewheeled on the way back from Merthyr). The alternative older route rejoins from the right part way along here. Just after an overhead bridge, the narrow path to the left is the way on, and climbs up to a crossing over a major road. On the other side it enters a housing estate, and takes a road to the right before a small climb upto the continuation of the trail, along a dismantled railway line.

See pictureSee pictureThere are several annoying hurdles along this long section, but it is nicely secluded, with occasional good views back down the valley to Cardiff. At one point it crosses a small road and continues on the other side as a cross between a cycle route and a back alley between houses. It is often badly littered with broken glass and is always strewn with other litter.

See pictureSee pictureFinally, near a cemetery, it drops down and becomes very narrow before joining a road it joins a road, with the way on being to the left at a mini-roundabout immediately afterwards. Follow the road to the left. It then swings hard left to join a larger road where there is a pedestrian crossing to allow cyclists to cross it if needed. Turn right onto that road and try to relax while the cars speed past you. The road climbs up a short hill, and the trail then takes a smaller street to the left. This is blocked to cars (but not bikes) part way along it. At the end of the street, turn right onto a larger road and prepare for the worst part of the Taff Trail. You are faced with a roundabout, which is one of the major junctions of the A470. Cross your fingers, and head out onto the roundabout. Try to ignore the idiotic, ignorant drivers, who do not realise that bikes are allowed on roads. Take the third turnoff, which heads over to the right, after the main turnoff into Pontypridd. Just before the roundabout, take the pedestrian pavement to the left, following it around the roundabout over a number of crossings, to head along the left side of the road into Pontypridd. Before reaching the river, cross the road at a crossing, and head back up the other side of the road, and turn left into the housing estate when you reach the roundabout again.

See pictureJust in case you thought it was over, prepare for Pontypridd itself. The route follows the one way system through a housing estate, and there is usually only just enough room for one car, in between rows of parked cars. Stay in the middle of the road, and make sure cars do not attempt to overtake you until you are good and ready to allow them to. Keep your eyes open for the Taff Trail signs which guide you through the estate, until you get to the end of the one way street - on the way back, just after the one way system starts, the trail doubles back hard down a street to the right and then follows the edge of the river, returning you to the roundabout where you want the third turnoff. An alley to the right then reaches the Pontypridd road crossing, near the roundabout. The hard turn to the right does have a sign, but it is easily missed.

See pictureSee pictureShortly after the one way system ends, turn left onto the final road, and turn left at its end just before it becomes a private driveway. It then drops down and swings right, back into countryside, and finally, the edge of the river again.

See pictureSee pictureThe trail in this section is liable to flooding, but it is usually dry. Even in flood, the path can usually be followed with care.

See pictureSee pictureAfter crossing a small bridge, the path heads away from the river, but it can still flood (as on this trip) thanks to small streams.

See pictureTurn right at a junction with another cycle route, and follow a road round to the left and over a bridge, to join a very unpleasant road, where cars generally do not stick to the speed limit. You may wish to use the pavement on the other side of the road. Follow the road to the left to some traffic lights, and turn left. At a junction with another cycle route, cross it into playing fields, and follow a path that makes its way along the edge of the industrial estate, and beside a sewage works. Cross the works road, and continue to eventually reach Abercynon. Turn left onto the road in front of the terraced houses, to reach the main Abercynon road.

See pictureSee pictureYou are rewarded with a view over Abercynon, at some more traffic lights where you must turn right. Note that these traffic lights cannot see bicycles, and will not change in your favour unless a car is also waiting. You may need to jump the lights if they refuse to change. The road heads downhill, and turns left. Turn left onto the main Abercynon road, which immediately turns left. Immediately after the corner, turn right onto a narrow lane between some workyards - this lane is easy to miss.

See pictureSee pictureThe lane follows the edge of the river Taff (you did remember that this is the Taff Trail, right?) and becomes a path after a few hundred metres, before crossing the river on a narrow bridge. It then crosses a road at Quakers Yard, and enters some woodland.

See pictureSee pictureThis is the Pont-y-gwaith nature reserve. The trail passes over a bridge, and under a viaduct.

See pictureSee pictureIt breaks out into the open, with the Craig-yr-Efail crags to the left. After several more remnants of railway lines (including remains of the supporting stones for the World's first steam railway), the nature reserve finally ends at a junction with a road.

See pictureSee pictureTurn left and head downhill to a ridiculously steep hump-backed bridge. Cross the bridge, and swing right, climbing up to a stepped section. Stay on your bike if you can (yes, that means ignoring the stupid 'dismount' signs), by using the narrow ramp beside the steps, and make your way up to a path on the other side of the A470 - a good time to stop for lunch.

See pictureSee pictureTurn right, and follow the path. It occasionally climbs, before swinging suddenly downhill to the right, back under the A470. It swings right again and continues downhill, heading the wrong way along the valley. Take the path that doubles back to the left. This is the start of one of the easiest parts of the Taff Trail.

See pictureSee pictureFollow the path through Aberfan, remaining as level as possible.

See pictureSee pictureFollow it through the next town. And the one after that, and the one after that, etc. Several times, it crosses roads and continues on the other side of them. A couple of times, it joins the roads for a moment, but always breaks free again when the roads attempt to turn a corner.

See pictureSee pictureFinally, it passes under an old, multiple-arched, stone bridge to enter Merthyr Tydfil. After that, it swings to the right around some sports fields, passes under a bridge, over another smaller bridge, then arrives at a car park. Ignore the signs that say to use the road to the left, and instead follow the path by the river. Cross the river on the road bridge, then take the path that heads along the edge of the river on the other side of it (you will need to cross the road that crosses the bridge - the lights will change in your favour if you press the button, but they may take a long time to do so).

See pictureFollow the path until it joins a road. Follow the road until it swings left, then take the cycle path to the right. Cross the main road, and take the cycle path that heads ahead-right. Turn left onto a smaller road. Take the cycle path to the left just before some houses, and follow the edge of the river, before climbing up to a road (see if you can stay on your bike). Turn left, staying on the pavement, and cross the river again. When you reach some traffic lights, cross the road you were following, and head to the right along the right side of a much larger road.

See pictureSee pictureThe trail then turns right into a side road, and passes the remains of the Cyfarthfa Iron Works. Stay on the path as it weaves and slowly climbs (watch out for one of the hairpin bends on the return...).

See pictureSee pictureAt the top of the path is the Cefn Coed Viaduct, and apparently the "other" branch of the Taff Trail leaves somewhere off to the left, although I am not sure where.

See pictureSee pictureCross the viaduct (with a nice view over Merthyr and Cyfarthfa Castle), and follow the path past some houses and down a twisting ramp to a road. Turn right, then immediately left, towards a church. Take the steep, narrow alley to the left of the church, and follow it to the next section of dismantled railway line.

See pictureSee pictureStay on the railway line, and follow it along the edge of the Taff Fechan gorge.

See pictureSee pictureWhen you are about level with the Morlais quarry, the trail reaches the Pontsarn viaduct (a good place for lunch on the return journey).

See pictureSee pictureAfter the viaduct, the trail continues as dirt track, until it finally meets up with the roads on the right. Turn left onto the road. It descends for about 500 metres, but unfortunately all the speed you build up is wasted in a few moments, as you must turn to the right, and climb up to the Ponsticill reservoir, just below the Brecon Mountain Railway (which does not go to Brecon).

See pictureSee pictureFollow the road across the dam, and climb gently up to the village of Ponststicill.

See pictureSee pictureAt the junction with the main Pontsticill road, turn right. Follow the road up to the forest, then turn left onto the forestry track.

See pictureThe trail climbs and falls with some reasonable but short downhills. At some points you are rewarded with views over the Brecon Beacons, and Ponsticill reservoir.

See pictureSee pictureAt one point, the trail suddenly narrows and drops steeply to the right down to a narrow bridge. Engage a low gear, and try to stay on your bike as the Taff Trail climbs at its steepest up to a more normal section of path.

See pictureSee pictureTurn left at a junction then climb a little more before descending abruptly to the road at the edge of the reservoir.

See pictureSee pictureTurn left, then immediately turn left again, and follow the edge of the Pentwyn reservoir, with the road climbing and descending. At the end of the reservoir, a short climb leads to a junction with the main road leaving to the right. Continue ahead, and slowly drop down to a bridge.

See pictureSee pictureNow begins the main climb. Stay with the road as it climbs steadily beside Craig Fan Ddu, heading towards Pen y Fan. That is your reward, so enjoy it.

See pictureSee pictureAt the crest of the road, take the path that doubles back hard on the right. Follow it through several gates, to reach a carpark at a junction with the main road (a single lane B road).

See pictureTurn left, and begin the final climb up to Torpantau, the highest point of the Taff Trail; 440 metres. From here on, there are no climbs of any real significance, so the hardest parts are over.

See pictureSee pictureThe views from this point are particularly impressive, with Craig y Fan Ddu (not Craig Fan Ddu) up to the left, various ridges ahead, and Talybont reservoir tucked into the valley to the right.

See pictureSee pictureBegin downhill, then turn right onto the forestry track. Early on, this is very steep, but then levels out to become a steady downhill (not quite enough for good freewheeling, but enough to feel it on the return), with some stunning views across the valley.

See pictureSee pictureAfter 6 miles, the Talybont reservoir dam is reached. Turn left, and cross the dam.

See pictureAt the other end of the dam, turn right, and follow the road. Although fairly simple, the route now becomes less obvious, and you will have to rely on the Taff Trail signs. In general, you want to keep turning left. The first left you want to take is after 1.25 miles, and is about the sixth left along the road (if you miss it, don't worry, just stay on the road until it reaches a T-junction with another road, and turn left there instead).

See pictureSee pictureFollow the road until it joins a larger road (the alternative [corrected mistake] road joins from the right). Turn left, and follow the road, running alongside the edge of the canal (resist the temptation to join the canal towpath - cyclists are not allowed on this part). Turn left at Pencelli, and follow the road to Llanfrynach. Turn left at the church in Llanfrynach - take a note of where you came from, it is easy to miss this turning on the way back. Turn left at the junction with a larger road, and follow it down to a narrow bridge over the river Usk (where cars coming from ahead have priority).

See pictureSee pictureImmediately after the bridge, turn left onto a canal towpath. Follow the towpath under two bridges. Whenever the towpath gets narrow (except under the first two bridges), use the road to the left, running parallel to the canal.

See pictureSee pictureFollow the edge of the canal until it suddenly ends. The end of the Taff Trail is marked by a lonely post, and is fairly easy to miss if you are not paying attention - especially if you get there at late dusk like we did.

If you are looking for somewhere to eat, there is a cafe and chip shop on the square just up the road, where you can chain your bike to a park bench, and they were kind enough to let us sit there in our mud spattered cycling wear.

See pictureSee pictureThe way back the next day was generally the same in reverse. We failed to see the junction in Llanfrynach, adding an extra mile to our journey. However, the journey gave us some good views towards the Brecon Beacons to make up for the wasted time. After that, the main ascent passed in good time without too much effort, and most of the rest of the way to Merthyr was an enjoyable downhill where we made up for the slow time the day before.

See pictureThe pain of sitting on the saddle after the day before was underestimated, and we both took a couple of miles before we had moulded back into the required shape. The rain was unfortunate, but certainly not bad. We both wore wet weather gear, although that served more as a windbreak than a shelter from the rain.

Upto Merthyr, the return was fun, and we both managed both directions without ever having to push the bikes (except perhaps where forced by the authorities). Considering the gradients and distances involved, this is something I feel proud of. This is the first ride that was strenuous enough to aggrivate my knee injury - so much for the idea that it is too easy. But after Merthyr, the paths are very flat and monotonous, without much reward for the effort required.

See pictureStill, there is a very good feeling of satisfaction at having completed it. Definitely worth doing. Possibly worth doing again. Maybe not worth doing a third time.

In case you are interested, this is what we took with us:

We also sent this in advance to where we would be staying:

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