Woke up refreshed in Knighton, ready for the drive down to Cwmbran with Rebecca and Phil, my mid-Wales walking supporters. The main and most upsetting thing that happened, immediately upon my arrival in Cwmbran was the idiotic leaving of my phone on the bonnet of their van. I put my rucksack on, we said our goodbyes, I waved them off, walked away.....and ten minutes later searched for my phone. It was a horrible feeling, I knew straight away it was gone, I'd left it on the bonnet, they'd driven away. I walked back and searched the ground around the dropping point. Nothing. I walked into the shopping centre that makes up the centre of Cwmbran, found a phone shop, demanded that they let me use their phone and internet, phoned Rebecca. There was nothing on the bonnet of the van, they pulled over, searched the engine, there was no phone there. Tears were streaming from me, I was closing my eyes, pinching the bridge of my nose, trying not to break down in the middle of the shop. I've been talking to people over the last few weeks, or rather, they've been talking to me, telling me I should secure the phone, be careful not to lose it, back up my photos. I did none of these things. All my photos from the first four months of the walk are gone. All those memories of little corners, rest breaks on the sides of hills, stiles filled with nettles, inscrutable looks from curious animals, all the silly little things that weren't worth uploading for other people. Gone. It was a real real blow. It was so hard, but I also knew I had to swallow it - I don't believe in feeling sad about things you can't affect. The phone was gone, get over it. It took me all day mind you, I had a little cry, a little mourn, a little sob on the phone to my brother. I sorted out a temporary number, did my admin things in the town, new maps, post office and carried on. Nothing to do but walk.
It wasn't much of a distance that day, only down the canal, across a hill to Risca and then another hillside and down to Machen where a woman called Samantha Minas had offered me a bed. I walked it slowly and steadily, taking a short nap by the side of the road until I was rudely awoken by a shouting motorist. I stopped in at a pub on the way for some water, it was hot and sunny, as it has been all week and I need to keep topping up. I met the woman behind the bar, early 60s with beautiful big eyes and nicely cut blonde hair. She gave me a jug of water to guzzle and somehow we started talking about good and evil; she told me what she felt about the different facets of evil and how it can be hidden behind beautiful faces. I suddenly felt that she was a witch - in the traditional wise woman sense. It was a real surprise to meet her behind a bar in a rural pub; but then all ordinary people have sparks of greatness within them, it just flashes more brightly in certain people.
Anyway, I walked on, up the final steep climb and down past the quarry into Machen. A man stopped me on the road and asked to take my picture, turned out he was the photographer for the South Wales Argus, the Newport area paper. He showed me the way to Samantha's house and we had a short chat - he told me about the man he'd met a few months back, 67 years old and walking around the world, pushing his belongings in a buggy in front of him. Slow but steady, slow but steady.
Samantha was lovely, a very calm, beautiful woman, riding the waves of her particular life with a trancendent strength and spirit. She provided good food, a shower, a washing machine, a comfy bed, a packed lunch and a small glimpse into her life. Just another example of the multitude of amazing strangers I've met during this tangled journey.
I had the idea, as we were having breakfast, that I should phone the Argus and ask if they wanted to do a story about me. I did and they did. They wanted to send a photographer to meet me at Caerphilly Castle, another 5 miles along the road. What time? they said. I, in my eager to please manner, named a time that was just a bit too early. Damm, now I would have to rush. I gulped my coffee, hugged Samantha (no camera for a photo, dammit but I hope to meet her again in Pembrokeshire) and set off along the long straight main road to Caerphilly. I'd have to walk fast, I was almost definitely going to be late. Well, things happened, I stopped to pat a dog, cars beeped and waved at me (the flags were a great decision by the way) and finally, a silver car pulled up beside me. "I own an ice cream parlour about 100 yards down the road, go in there and tell them that Richard said you could have a free icecream."
When, in life, did you ever dream that such a thing would happen????
I rushed into the parlour, ran through my story to the giggling girls behind the counter, met Richard's wife, had my photo taken, gave out some cards and rushed out again....no time to stop properly. The icecream was bloody lovely too.
The phone rang as I was on the outskirts of Caerphilly - the photographer. I jumped on a bus, met him at the castle, had a few photos taken and got him to drop me back at the same bus stop on his way back to Newport so I could finish the walk into Caerphilly. An hour at a cafe (it was a fast walk and I needed a rest!), an hour in the library and I was ready to head on. All I had to do for the rest of the day was walk up to the high hills to the north west and curl around on a long road towards Pontypridd. There was no point walking all the way down into Ponty as it would be getting towards bedtime and would be too late to find a nice, safe, quiet bed on the other side of town. Better to walk a slightly shorter day and make myself a nice bed somewhere up in the hills.
I walked along a quiet country road, waving my flag at cars as they came around corners to make sure they slowed down for me in plenty of time. There were two pubs on the way, I called in at both of them of course. The first one just for water and a nice chat with the locals; it was obviously a very friendly, well loved kind of pub where everyone knows each other, the kind of pub I really enjoy finding in quiet country places. I chatted a bit, filled my water bottle up, received a few donations, set off again. Another hour or so brought me to the common land where sheep were wandering across the roads. I made it to another pub, a pint this time and another chat with the locals and the landlord, more donations, more good wishes.
I left close to sundown, only wanting to find a bed. Unfortunately it seemed that I was wandering into the Pontypridd young couple's prime sunset watching spot. There were cars every quarter of a mile or so and litter covered the cropped grass. I carefully avoided looking too closely at any of the parked vehicles and carried on, hoping to find somewhere quieter. The road started to curve down towards the town and I started to worry. There would have been a good spot in the woods but first there were fences and then there was another family camping in the woods, children's shouting filled the air and i moved on. Finally I discovered a gap in the fence and found myself on the edge of the Pontypridd golf course; perfect. I wasn't on the course itself but at the edge of an adjacent field, the grass had been cropped for silage and I found a level, sheltered spot. A few drops of rain and some threatening murky clouds made me experiement with putting my shelter up; I'm still trying to find a good design that I can put up alone without struggling as one pole falls over before I can get the other one taught enough. If only I was friends with Ray Mears....
Woken by people walking their dogs and it wasn't even 6am....what?? I rolled over and slept again until 7 then packed up and walked down the hill to breakfast on a park bench in Pontypridd. It sounds silly and very obvious but the big difference between this part of Wales and the rest of the country is the number of people tucked down in the valleys. As I walked across the hill tops I could see the Wales I was familiar with, miles of hills, sheep, wind turbines, beautiful views. But the valley bottoms were different; instead of scattered farmhouses, maybe a small village they were full with rows of houses, terraced houses all looking the same and creeping in lines, high up the sides of the valley, each settlement with a fast, dual carriageway splitting it in two, filling the air with the noise of traffic. It was a real shock to see how heavily populated each valley was, all the towns running into one another along the long, thin valley floors.
It was meant to be a short forest walk over the hill to Ynysybwl but somehow what started as a path turned into a steep sided river bed and I found myself crawling under fallen trees and scrambling through brambles. I've followed many paths on this journey, human paths, sheep tracks, badger paths through steep woods and now the paths that water makes across a landscape. I found a human path again and set to following the right direction over to the next town, the woods were crisscrossed with options and I kept randomly choosing left or right, just trying to head in the right direction. Eventually I came to a thin trail between fences which came out at a layby. The shocking thing about this layby was that there was a bed in it. The bed was on fire.
It was a fresh fire, licking over the surface of the plastic based fabrics covering the bed base; the bed had been carefully piled up, the drawers pulled out and placed on top, along with some empty beer cans. The fire wasn't really catching, probably thanks to modern fire restistant fabrics but just licked along the surfaces of the bed, it was a slow trickle of burning rather than a blaze. I watched the fire and thought about the person, there so recently, who had pulled up, unloaded a bed by the side of the road in the countryside, set fire to it, imagining that this was a great way to destroy what you didn't want and just driven away. So much ugliness and stupidity, it was shocking to see such an aberation in the peace of the quietly growing countryside. The plastics of the bed dripped fire onto the ground, it wasn't hot enough for the wood to catch fire so I just let it smoulder away. It's also a surprise, in our carefully controlled country to come across an unsupervised fire. It felt dangerous.
I carried on into Ynysybwl, a woman called to me from her front garden "What are you doing? Do you need anything?" Yes! I grabbed the chance to refill my water bottle and have a wee! We had a nice little chat and I moved on again, through the village. I stopped at the furthest edge, a short rest before moving up into the forestry. It's been so hot all week, I'm sweating and sweating and need to stop to keep drinking water. My feet are also unused to walking; just a week's break means I need to break them in all over again. It's a certain kind of pain, the tendons and ligaments are complaining as I force them to stretch out again in a regular walking motion - they forgot what this was like, life at full stretch and have creased and cramped back into their usual, strolling positions.
People kept getting off the bus at the stop nearby and enquiring about what I was doing; they'd all seen me walking through the village and were curious about me. I gave out more cards, received more donations.
Up into the forestry of St Gwynno Forest where I rescued another sheep - this time with its head stuck in the entrance to a water trough which makes a total of three sheep rescued from getting stuck somewhere, I'm starting to think they might be stupid - I also got told off, mildly, by a farmer for going through the wrong field. He was young, about 17 and looked incredibly pleased with himself as he showily pulled up beside me on his massive shiny red steed, I mean, quad bike. Direction corrected, I proceeded into the forest where there is, surrounded by trees, where two roads meet, a small collection of five houses, a church and a thriving pub called the Brynffynon Hotel. I spent a happy hour there filling up on water and beer, I was bought a dangerous (for 3pm) second pint by the owner and received a lovely 20 pound donation from the same. I left, slightly slurry, met more friendly people outside and headed out of the forest and down towards Tylorstown.
It was....still hot, the sun beating down endlessly. It makes me tired very quickly in the heat, I sweat buckets and keep wanting to stop for rests. I got lost on the way down the steep hillside and found myself on the wrong side of a spur, almost in Wattstown, another clinging, hillside estate. I would have gone along the road but was directed back up the hill by a friendly farm worker. He, Jeff, also invited me to stay at his house, because of all the hospitality he received when he was travelling in New Zealand but I had another couple of miles I wanted to do that day so it was too soon to stop. I came down into Tylorstown, stopped to pick up some food and icecream and headed out again, up yet another steep valleyside towards Penrhys. Now, since I met a biker couple from the Rhondda over in Monmouth, people had been warning me about the Penrhys estate - apparently a notorious place about 20 years ago people didn't have much good to say about it. "If you want to buy drugs, just ask any 8 year old." "Don't take your donation tin in there, it'll get ripped off in minutes." "It'll be alright during the day but don't go in there after dark." Well, guess what. I emptied the notes out of the tin, shoved them in my bra, headed on up the steep steep hill into the estate and around the edge.....and was totally ignored. Well that's not even true actually, I paused for a rest half way up, it really was a very steep road running round the edge of the estate, turned round to look behind at the view of the two valleys running either side of the Mynydd Troed-Y-Rhiw dead ahead and noticed a group of people sitting in their back garden staring at me, about 50m away. I temporarily forgot that I was in the deadliest, most drug ridden and violent estate ever in the whole of Wales, lifted my flag and waved at them. They waved back. I carried on, unmolested.
I came up out of the back of the settlement, past a small pine plantation and out into the long grass of the open, high hillside. The sun was starting to set far away and nearby, tall wind turbines continued their slow powerful circuits. I walked about a half mile away from the houses, turned away from the path carved by motorbikes, people and vehicles and into the long grass to find a bed. The grass waved gently in the wind and the sky turned slowly into the pale gold and lilac of a summer evening. I heard voices behind me and realised that a family were making their way home after a walk. Would they see me? I really hoped they wouldn't, if anyone sees where I'm camping I have to move; if they were going to come back and bother me later on they'd only find a flattened patch of grass. I lay flat, with my head turned towards the path. First came the sound of the dog, hurrying and panting, then the high calls of the son, excited. Then came the father, I could just see his head and shoulders, slow and ponderous. Then came two women talking together in their singsong south Wales accents. None of them turned their heads or saw me and their voices faded away down the hillside towards home.
Much later, when the sky was a deep dark blue, a jeep came roaring up through the grass and I lay flat again, hoping they wouldn't turn their heads. They didn't, each way and I nestled down into my comfortable sleeping spot. It was a beautiful night, I remember waking up as I turned over and deciding to lie on my back for a while and look at the stars. It only lasted a few seconds before I faded down into the darkness again but I remember thinking about the deep peace of simply being a body lying on the earth. The grass waved over me, rustling quietly, all night.
I had a big day that day, my brother was coming to meet me, park his car and walk with me for a few days. Maesteg would be the best place to park up so I had to walk right over there to meet him by 5pm. So, down into Pentre in the Rhondda Valley, into a cafe for a breakfast cup of tea that turned into half an hour of chats and donations with the owner and the customers, people kept coming in and being told about me and they kept giving money. Just a few coins or even the occasional fiver but it all adds up, and it means a lot, when you're in one of the poorer areas of the country. A pot of tea was 80p in that cafe and was bigger than the $2.50 mug I got served in an unfriendly upmarket gastropub near Chester where everyone ignored me. It's a small thing perhaps but, to me, meant a great deal.
I hurried on through the town; only waylaid by one man who wanted to tell me how much he loved the Rhondda - he'd been working away for years, no jobs here, forced to go over the bridge but finally, at the age of 50 he'd gone self employed and was finding work in the valley, being recommended to people, installing windows. He felt great about it and seeing as I wasn't from round here he thought he'd stop and ask what I was doing. I crossed the railway into Ton Pentre and set off up the steep hillside, headed for a bridleway which would take me over the Mynydd Mendy and across the Bwlch. It was hot, so hot and my steps slowed up the steep pavement. It wa a relief when someone called over to me - "What are you doing? Do you want a cup of tea?" It was the Cherry's; Mr, Mrs and two daughter Cherrys. I went inside for a quick glass of squash and a chat; they were lovely, trying to force more water or snack bars into my rucksack. I had to force myself to leave but I had to get on, somehow it had become half eleven already. I trudged up the steep hillside, onto the tops, I could see for miles across the hill tops, turbines waving in the distance, just pine plantations and sheep covering the land, with houses nestled into the crevices of the land below - the opposite of how we used to live, no longer do we need lookouts or the safety of the height advantage. I walked a few miles over to where the mountain road from the Rhondda came up and met up with the Bridgend county boundary. The views were spectacular, I had no idea that what I thought was such a downtrodden, post-industrial area was so gorgeous. I had a great chat with the jolly man running the icecream van at the top - he used to inspect sewers, now he sells icecream and couldn't be happier. Hah.
On I went, across the road and up another sharp climb to walk along a cliff edge, the land dropping away down to the Ogmore valley below, the road winding in Alpine curves below me. I was making good time, another couple of miles along a stony track brought me past a collection of radio masts and over to the head of the Pontycymer valley. The land swelled gently downwards and there ahead was another set of cliffs, I had to climb up the side of them at a really steep angle and walk along the top into a forestry plantation - this day was really taking it out of me and I was only about two thirds of the way through it. Coming down through the forestry I got lost, the trees had been felled, leaving a confusing and difficult mess of stumps, branches, ankle rolling dips and baby brambles; there was supposed to be a footpath winding its way through this but I couldn't find it. I looped around on the forestry roads, always making my way downwards and trying to orientate myself with the houses I could see in the farmland just below me. My brother called, he'd arrived at the village of Llangynwyd where I'd suggested he park the car and would come walking towards me. "Slowly" I said, knowing it would take me a while to get to the road where we could easily find each other. I came down through the bracken to the highest farm on the hillside, now there was just a funny little trapezoid of footpaths before I could get to the straight road and the final 3 miles to Llangynwyd. I came down across a stony, somehow industrial clearing and down to the corner of a field. The map said there should be a path there but all I could see was a rusty gate and on the other side of it, head high brambles. No Way. I searched around for another way through, on one side there was a stream, on the other a high barbed wire fence, the land rising so I'd have to climb a bank before starting on the fence. I decided to cross the stream, maybe the path was on the other side. The steep bank started out being covered by Himalayan Balsam, not too bad but eventually, as I climbed higher, thrashing my way forward, the brambles came creeping in until I was struggling in a morass of thorns and scratches. "I'm going back!" I suddenly shouted, at the end of my tether and started crying as I picked my way back down the bank. "This is stupid! I hate everything!" I blubbered like a child having a tantrum. I was back at the gate again, there was no way I could cross it, it was pure brambles on the other side. I fought through the trees, branches catching my hair and realised I could pull my way up the bank and climb onto a cleared patch, leading to barns and a house. "You're going the wrong way" a woman called to me. "I know, I'm sorry" I called as I came closer. If you're trespassing, always apologise, even if it was the stupid brambles fault. I wiped away the tears as I came closer but the couple sitting outside having an evening drink could still tell I was in a bit of a state - sweaty, wild hair, scratches all over my hands and arms.
I'd started the day at 400m altitude, dropped to 150, climbed again to 500, another few drops and climbs of 100 metres meant I'd climbed a bloody mountain that day, as well as walking 17 miles in the high summer sun and getting caught in a nest of brambles.
"Let me get you a drink" she said and I had a quick glass of squash and a chat, mostly about footpath permissions and angry farmers. I hurried on, just a half mile away from my brother. Finally I came to the road and there he was, my bro. Come to meet me in his summer holidays, complete with new phone and a great fund of stupid jokes. We covered the last few miles to Llangynwyd, I was really tired by that point; if I hadn't been coming to meet him I would have camped up on the hills. The pub more than made up for all the effort though. The oldest pub in Wales! There's been a pub on that site in Llangynwyd since 1147. "Who's this now with the flags?" they were saying as I walked in. "Long distance walk for charity!" I carolled, my magic words. "I've walked over from Penrhys and I've been thinking about drinking a pint in this pub for hours!" I really had, the hot sun drying out my mouth and I imagined that first sip of cold lager, sitting down with my feet up. Oh yeah.
Well, within 2 minutes came a wonderful wave of friendship and generosity. Have a drink, on my tab, said Lee. Have a shower at my house across the road, said Karen. There's a caravan in the garden, you can sleep in it if you want, said the landlord. I sat there a bit stunned, trying to keep up with all the quips and conversation coming my way. There was a really funny man in the corner who just got it; when I explained what I was doing and how I was travelling. "Freedom!" he said. "Exactly mate" and I toasted him.
"Is it always like this?" said my brother. "Of course!" I lied, "all the time!"
It is, in a way, just not as concentrated as in that particular pub on that particular night.
I had my shower, we had our pints, Karen and Lee invited us over for breakfast the following morning and we were the last to leave the pub, the poor barmaids sitting and texting as we chatted unthinkingly, not realising that everyone else had gone home.
Fuzzy headed, we dragged ourselves out of bed early, popped in for a quick cuppa and headed out. We only had to go down to Margam Park, see the abbey and stately home before almost turning back on ourselves to head up into the forestry to the west of Maesteg and over towards Neath. We were sorry and slow, heads throbbing a little, at least mine was anyway. We came over the hill and found a glorious view of the Bristol Channel and the Port Talbot steelworks, smoke and fire belching into the air. Unfortunately, Margam Park turned out to be a bit frustrating, we'd come into it through the back way and couldn't find the way out! There were only paths and gardens, an ornamental fishpond and a fairytale children's enclosure. We wondered aimlessly, not really able to reach a decision about which direction to go in, surrounded by families on nice days out, staring at the travellers in their midst. Eventually we escaped into a car park, at least half a mile away from where we wanted to be. It was a long, slow walk back to the path and unfortunately the next bit of the path was a steep climb through difficult, tiring long reeds and grass at the end of a farm track, up to the forestry above Margam. The path disappeared and we fought through long bracken before collapsing in the welcome shade of the pine trees to have lunch.
There followed a trek through the forestry until about 5pm. We could have continued up and over one more hill and further north but decided to cut left and down to the ex-colliery village of Bryn. There was one pub, full of about 10 older gentlemen who had clearly been coming and sitting in the same seats for years upon years. The pub didn't do food but were preparing a meal for the cricket team who'd been playing away and the barman took pity on us and bought a very welcome bowl of chips into the back room for us. Another few hours passed, feet up, comparing aches and pains, Owen had a blister coming and I have a small hole in the side of my foot where a thorn got into my shoe. We came out of the pub earlier that night and walked up into a nature reserve, fresh grown grass covering over the old slag heaps, the faded remnants of the mining industry that used to employ all the men sitting up in the pub on the hillside. We bedded down in the heather as a mist came over the valley. The air was still hot and close but it was good to get some water into the ground.
A frustrating morning. Another day of disappearing paths and bramble fighting. We were trying to cut around the hillside to join the other side of the forestry at Afan Argoed but the paths were non-existent. I wanted to give up and go around, finding myself sick and tired of energy sapping undergrowth thrashing but my brother was fresh to the fight and we tried to find pathways, my bro forging ahead through brambles and bracken. Eventually we found our way to a bridleway and a route between the hills to the next valley, Cwm Afan. There was a choice between another hillside thrash or a road walk. We chose the road walk, both of us a bit knackered. Me from the unexpected extra booze and my bro from the unexpected toll that long distance walking takes on your feet.
I've been writing this for hours now and can't keep staring at this tiny screen. I'll only say that.....Neath is a bit smelly and lots of men keep staring at my chest. But, the cafe this morning was lovely, the Tea Cosy, where I was met by a photographer from the local paper. He had me posing for a photo pretending to walk away, holding a cup that the cafe owner was pouring tea into. My bro has gone back to Derbyshire, I've had a great couple of days with him; he's sorted me out with another phone so I can carry on taking photos and............my body feels.....knackered but ok. My feet ache a bit, my back feels fine, my rucksack is too heavy, as ever and it really bloody smells. Honestly, the next time I find myself in a house with a bath I MUST, I really must soak it with a tub of bicarbonate of soda. Seriously.