Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Overall comments on Usk Valley Walk

In all I walked 112 miles along the Usk Valley Walk including the distance to and from railway and bus stations. I stayed one night on route, heading back home on the other nights, however I could easily have stayed at Newport, Usk, Abergavenny and Brecon to make a continuous trip.
This distance was for starting at Newport and following the recently waymarked link from the Wales Coast Path to where the original Usk Valley Walk began. I would recommend doing this extra distance as it brings in extra history in the shape of the Transporter bridge, old wharfs, Newport Castle and the Roman remains at Caerleon. Newport stills has a feel of industry that would have dominated the Usk Valley and its canal during its heyday in the Industrial revolution.
Outside Newport the route is very pastoral and it does not have the dramatic scenery of other walks in the area such as the Beacons Way, Offas Dyke or, in a wide open sort of way, the nearby Wales Coast path. Nevertheless it is a very pleasant and gentle walk, and would be more gentle and pleasant still if you keep to the canal between Crickhowell and Llangynidr, instead of deviating uphill. The towns on route, including the nearby towns of Abergavenny and Crickhowell are also worth a visit, if only for lunch or a cup of coffee, Usk and Brecon are directly on route, and a pleasure to visit.
If you have the time you could do a circle, combining the Usk Valley Walk with the Taff trail, maybe a section of the Beacons Way over the popular Pen-y-fan mountain and the Wales Coast path between Cardiff and Newport. This would result in a very varied walk giving an insight into the varied scenery and history of South Wales.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Danywenallt YHA to Brecon

Having stayed the night at the Youth Hostel, today should have been a pleasant, walk, unfortunately, the long walk yesterday and the problems with my boots made it rather less so.
It started well with a cooked breakfast, before climbing back up to the Usk Valley Walk which briefly follows an old tramline used by horse drawn trams in the Industrial Revolution to bring coal and limestone down to the canal. The sandstone sleepers still remain in places and there are informative signs. The Walk then heads into the valley and up the other side through woodland and farmland, fortunately a clearer and better marked path than yesterday with more considerate farmers. One of the reasons for the Walk deviating away from the canal and river is so that you can see sweeping views of the valley from the hillside, plus the more distant mountains.
View over Usk Valley

Eventually the Walk rejoins the canal, and from there it was a steady trudge to Brecon, passing many cyclists, walkers, children, dogs, canoes and narrow boats. The crossing of the River Usk on an one of the original aqueducts was both impressive and a navigation point, indicating that Brecon was now close.
The canal, and the Usk Valley Walk ends in the Brecon canal basin with its ducks, flowers and food offerings, but I had to go a bit further to the Visitor information office, to find out where my bus left from. Then it was cake and a very refreshing cup of tea, and a visit to Boots for some change (and some batteries I needed) for the bus. I had a fear that it would be a "correct change only" bus, and with only £20 notes I would be left to walk home, however it was a very nice bus driver, so maybe he would have let me off.
I covered 16 km today, although it felt more with my sore feet.
Brecon Canal Basin

Abergavenny to Danywenallt YHA

I had thought this section would be mainly a long, flat walk along the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal, however the Usk Valley Walk deviates up the hillside into farmland above the canal making it a much more interesting, and difficult walk.
However the first part was easy, a walk from Abergavenny railway station through the grassy meadows beside the River Usk, where they were packing up after the National Eisteddfod, then up the road to the Canal. There followed many kilometres of canal, where I was shaded from the sun by the trees that line the canal, creating dappled sunlight on myself and other users of the canal. These included several narrowboats rented by people for their holiday, numerous cyclists, which I carefully stepped aside to avoid, lots of ducks and occasional swans, two groups of children learning how to canoe in their holidays and other people walking like myself. Wild flowers made the path more pleasant, the Cow Parsley had now gone to seed, but the Meadowsweet was showing its final, fluffy cream blooms and the Codlins and Cream (Great Willowherb) was still in full bloom. In places there were also informative signs as to the history of the canal and its surroundings, and the remains of lime kilns and wharfs, monuments to the industrial history of the area.

Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal

Codlins and Cream

I was doing well apart from my new Brasher (aka Berghaus) boots, a make I had previously found very comfortable, I felt a distinct bump beneath the ball of my foot, which was causing me some discomfort, so I turned off to Crickhowell a mile or so from the canal. After a ham sandwich, cake and coffee, I stopped at the "Adventure" shop and purchased an alternative insole. Not sure it made much difference. Worrying for a longer 500 mile walk I was planning across Austria.
Shortly after the difficulties began as the Usk Valley Walk heads uphill into farmland and trees. It did not seem a well used route and waymarking, largely absent along the canal (perhaps because there are no turn offs) was poor on this diversion through farmers fields and woodland overrun with bracken. On one section I disturbed a large number of pheasants among ferns surrounding a ruined barn. One tries to minimise the disturbance one makes, but the squawking of the pheasants as they took to the air, wings flapping madly or ran off along the path I was taking, highlighted my presence. Rather stupid birds, the ones I disturbed will make easy shots for gentleman on the estate.
One field I had to cross was planted with maize. One tries to avoid damage to farmers crops, but planting across the footpath, even though it was at the edge of the field, makes this difficult. I thought maybe I had missed the path but I found waymarks and stiles at both ends of the field confirming the I was on the correct route. Some missing waymarks may also suggest that walkers were not so welcome. Evidently not many take this route as where the my Ordnance Survey map and gps route, indicate the path exited a narrow road, there were only head, high bracken mixed with brambles. By precision navigation I determined the path must be at a certain spot and after beating back the undergrowth (or rather overgrowth) I found a hidden stile, crossing it gave me a few scratches and stings but at least put me on the right route.
I was glad to rejoin the canal for a while following the well managed towpath, but later there was another section where the path climbs the hillside above the towpath. It helps to have an Explorer Ordnance Survey map on these farmland sections as on entering a field, it is not always clear where the exit is, and even with a map I had to follow the edge of the field around to find the exit on a few occasions.
The final section to the Danywenallt Youth Hostel was downhill. Unfortunately it crossed a field planted with cabbages. Rather than following the correct route and damaging the crop I worked my way around the edge of the field, around fallen trees and other obstacles until I found the gate leading out. Then it was a short but steep walk down to the Youth hostel.
Cabbages blocking route
Including the deviation to Crickhowell I covered just over 32 kilometres on a warm August day, so I was thankful that YHAs now serve beer, a bottle of "Brecon Three" was a welcome reward.

The Brecon Beacons are advertised as a dark sky reserve, so I stayed up to 11 pm in the hope of identifying some constellations and seeing the Milky Way, climbing up to the dam across a reservoir to get a better view, and disturbing two badgers on my way. It was a clear night although the daylight took some time to leave the western skies. I spotted a few constellations although was disturbed by a the bright headlights of a number of cars driving around the dam, not sure what they were doing....
Moon over Talybont Reservoir

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Usk to Abergavenny

The town of Usk was in bloom as I walked out of it, with brightly coloured flower baskets and flower displays on the bridge and many of the houses, looking exceedingly cheerful in the morning sun, with their red geraniums and yellow marigolds. Having crossed the river on the old bridge the path took me through a municipal park with dog walkers and then into farmland through fields of maize (some of it taller than me), across the stubble of wheat and by areas of peas. There were a few houses, a little road walking and some stretches of woodland by the river before reaching grassy fields with a distant view of the Skirrid to the north.

More fields and woodland walks beside the river followed one side of the river or the other, until I reached a pleasant section of National Trust riverside with areas especially designated for swimming dogs! Himalayan Balsam, a plant I had never seen 10 years ago, seemed to be everywhere displacing native wild plants (although replacing the stinging nettles which were attacking my bare legs, or the brambles grabbing my tee shirt, may not be such a bad thing).

Himalayan Balsam by the Usk Valley Walk

After the National Trust riverside (keep following the path along the bank in this section) the Usk Valley Way changes direction from north to west, with bits of road walking, followed by long stretches through pastoral fields, often along the river side. There was a curious bridge with "holes" through it in this stretch. I diverted into "The Bryn" hoping for a shop with lunch supplies but with no success, so I walked onto Llanellen where a shop supplied me with a sandwich and ginger beer. There was then a steep slope up to the Monmouth & Brecon canal. Looking back gave expansive views of the edge of the Brecon Beacon mountains.

After eating my sandwich on a handy bench, my final section today of the Usk Valley Walk was along the canal, I passed a few barges, I seemed to be walking faster than them, with the trees shading me from the occasional sunlight. Reaching Llanfoist and the sign for the Blaenavon World Heritage site (an old industrial area), I turned off the canal and headed into Abergavenny, where they were setting up for the Eisteddfod, that national celebration of Welsh culture. As my train did not go for another hour I wondered around Abergavenny, and although too late for the market, I had a pleasant coffee and Bakewell tart at a cafe. I caught the train to Tenby, I doubt if any on the train were actually going to Tenby, most got off at Newport or Cardiff.

In all I walked 29.4 km. Waymarking was generally good but in places an Ordnance Survey Explorer map was needed where signs were absent or where it was not clear where the path exited a large field. Paths were generally clear but in a few cases brambles were encroaching.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Newport to Usk on the Usk Valley Walk

Although all the documents I could find report that the Usk Valley Walk starts at Caerleon, it is now waymarked from the Wales Coast path in Newport as part of the Usk Valley Walk Link. This adds about 10 kms to the 77 km length of the original Walk, but 10 kilometres filled with history, which is very different from later parts of the walk, and also more convenient for rail and bus links.
So I started from Newport railway station and walked down to the Newport Transporter bridge, a magnificent feat of engineering finished in 1906 which still transports people and cars across the river in a "gondola" suspended beneath a high walkway. It was designed so that tall ships could travel up the river to the then docks, important at the time as Newport was a large port exporting coal and iron ore.
Heading back towards the centre of Newport from the transporter bridge there is a short walk alongside the road on the Wales Coast Path before joining the Usk Valley Walk at the next bridge. The Wales Coast Path heads off east across the bridge while the Usk Valley Walk continues alongside the river along a tarmaced path and cycleway. The area up to Newport Castle has been redeveloped, where once there was docks and railways there are now modern flats with occasional sculptures and memorials to soldiers and seamen. A mixture of wild flowers, garden flowers and a mowed strip around the path made for an enjoyable walk.

Riverside with Sculpture at Newport
Newport castle consists of the 14th century ruins, maybe less interesting than the mosaic murals of past Newport life on the walls that you pass. I missed the path along the river beside the abandoned Sainsburys store and had to retrace my steps. A contrast to the rest of the riverside walk there was rubbish and bits of ceiling where the Supermarket and its car park were being taken over by nature. A park and roads followed until I joined a tarmaced path surrounded by green vegetation taking me to Caerleon. The path passes the Roman fort and amphitheatre for which Caerleon is famous and which can be freely accessed, with no tickets or anything. I have seen more complete amphitheatres around the world but none in Wales. The ice cream van was also welcome as I agreed with its owner that it was going to be a very hot day.
Crossing the Usk I reached the start of the original Usk Valley Walk and was soon climbing through trees to the Celtic Manor Golf course (famous for its pouring rain during an "Open" held there). Here I lost the trail for a while, plowing through tall grass outside the entrance to the resort until I found some waymarks. Some road walking followed before I turned off on what the Ordnance Survey indicated was the correct route, going past Woodwards farm. The farm was in the process of being torn down or rebuilt and the man with the hammer said the footpath did not go through here. I had downloaded a gps file of the route for my Garmin Satnav which indeed suggested a routing through the woods to the south east, so retracing my steps for a kilometre I found an alternative path through the woods, and although there was no Usk Valley sign at the entrance (the waymarks have a picture of an otter), they appeared a little later.
However this second attempt to find the way also failed, after 500 metres I came across a sign saying forestry operations, no entry. No deviation was indicated. One is tempted to ignore such signs as they inevitably add distance and force one down less pleasant routes, maybe I would have if it had been in Europe and I could claim not to understand the language, but two printed signs with symbols, and some Welsh and a hand painted sign in English meant I was obliged to make a detour along a quiet road with distant views of the Severn estuary before re-entering the woods, where there were more warning signs, but none that I took to prohibit my passage.

View over Usk Valley

Waiting through fields on the flood plan

After leaving the wood (and finishing my supply of water on a day that was hotter than I anticipated), there was another long section of road walking based on my gps route. I later noticed on the Ordnance survey map that the Usk Valley Walk was marked through some fields rather than the road but it was too late to go back and find this path. I did not recall seeing it but at the key point I was distracted by a van driver kindly stopping to ask if I wanted a lift.
More fields and road walking followed along the flat flood plain of the River Usk and as the sun's heat increased I was glad of the shade from an occasional tree. The town of Usk looked very pleasant with old pubs, coffee shops and a rural museum, but I did not have time to tarry as my bus would soon be leaving and I needed to find a cold can of something to quench my thirst. The bus driver made it clear that notes were not allowed nor could change be expected. Fortunately I had the exact £4.35 for the ticket on the number 60 bus back to Newport, even if it did involve six 20p pieces, several 5p's and a few 50p's, otherwise I would still be at Usk.

The gps file I used from Caerleon was from here, A gps file of the Usk Valley Walk Link can be found here. In all I covered 35 km, and although it was a river path, there was a cumulative ascent of 557m.