In August, I walked the Glyndwr’s Way, the most challenging walking experience I’ve undertaken. The path is a semi-circular loop, which runs clockwise NW from Knighton to Machynlleth and then a jiggly NE to Welshpool. The 210k walk is generally undertaken over 9-days, based on average hiking days of 24k’s running between conveniently located villages. Occasionally there are stops along the route if you want to break a few of the legs into shorter days, but that’s not always possible.
The hike is through and across a series of valleys, so climbs and descents are constant – but rarely greater than 500 metres. Some ascents are a little steep – but more often than not the rises and drops are gentle. I found walking along the anti-erosion contour paths, where one foot necessarily steps higher than the other, the most challenging, but the need to do this was blessedly rare.
Whilst the path is mostly pasture, it also travels through forests, along minor roads and beside rivers and streams. It is incredibly comfortable underfoot – notwithstanding the occasional river crossing, swamp and cow pat. Gates and stiles abound. I became quite adept with tricky mechanisms – but on many occasions had to hoist me and my backpack over gates.
The scenery on Glyndwr’s Way is simply beautiful – endless valleys, rolling hills, natural oak forests and pine plantations - minor scarring of wind generators (greatly preferable to power poles) and small, rare and abandoned open-cut mines. The hills are dotted with sheep and cows, purple and yellow heather, and multi-coloured bracken.
The quiet is so very, very quiet: stillness broken occasionally by baa’ing sheep, rustling leaves and bubbling streams. Oh yeah! There was also some British Airforce jet training (apparently the fly over from Scotland) and so for about an hour over a couple of days I got to see (and hear) Tornadoes navigating the valleys at incredible speeds. Anyway, speaking of overhead action, I saw a number of flocks of Peregrine Falcons, strong beautiful birds, gliding with thermal lifts. They must have already eaten, as they were all grace and no sign of predatory diving.
Travelling in August 2014, the temperature was ideal between 10 and 18C. Whilst often overcast, and with daily precipitation predictions – I only saw rain for 2 days – it was quite heavy but not really a biggie as I was dressed for it.
I was on the trail most mornings by 8:45, and rarely at my night’s accommodation before 5:00, a couple of times after 6.:00. Whilst I never finished a leg exhausted – I was often exasperated (have mentioned I tended to go off path, a lot!) and my feet and calves were weary. That said I was totally enthusiastic to get going again each morning.
I did the entire walk in tshirt, sleeveless fleece and waterproof pants, which was comfortable, but could have easily travelled most of the walk in short. I need a long sleeve layer in the mornings and late afternoon, and when it got particularly windy popped a beanie under my cap. I also almost always wore gaiters as there’s lots of walking through damp grass and bracken.
Food and Breaks
I arranged for my accommodation to prepare a packed lunch for me each day. Whilst there was occasionally a place to grab something along the way, most days that wasn’t the case. I also took a small burner stove to make coffee. Morning coffee became a daily highlight, primarily because I felt very intrepid getting my little stove going, and it was wonderful to stop and enjoy the stillness and beauty over a morning cuppa. Whilst I have the endurance, I’m not a particularly speedy walker (possibly influence by my propensity to head off track), I more often than not ate as I walked and made my comfort stops little breaks.
My one big boo-boo was thinking I was up for carrying an 11kg pack. I’d got a quote from baggage services beforehand, which was in the vicinity of $600 – this seems over the top, but makes sense when you appreciate the remoteness of some of the legs. As I’ve walked plenty of times with 6kg, didn’t think the heavier pack would be a problem – but it was. I know lots of people are quite comfortable with much heavier packs – but the fact is I don’t have that kind of strength. Apart from two feet full of blisters (which I’ve never suffered from before), I found the going really miserable late in the day – and so from day 4, I offloaded 6kg and organised baggage transfers. It’s not cheap (between $20 and $80 per day), but I think if I hadn’t been able to arrange it, I would have given the walk away. My feet began healing virtually straight away (what did people do before Compeed) and the walking became much more enjoyable.
To assist with blister healing, I had a day off and visited Aberystwth (a place I’ve always had a fascination with due to My Friend the Chocolate Cake’s great song. Small diversion, but the slow, dark, moodiness of the song totally reflected slow, dark, moodiness of my mood that day. I felt a bit of a failure, but misery was quickly replaced with joy when I got back on track.
I booked all my accommodation in Sydney before I left. There was a little bit of to’ing and fro’ing as I lined up the nine nights – but the effort was totally worth it not only in savings, but in getting to chat to the hosts before I travelled over. They were universally kind and helpful and I couldn’t fault any of them in terms of service. I’ve listed accommodations below, and have expanded info on Trip Advisor. I am happy to recommend them all, they all had individual strengths – but for me, what they all had in common was a sincere sense of welcome, greeting me (often with cake) at every arrival.
Back to the Walking
The Glyndwr’s Way is visually magnificent and generally pretty easy going if you have reasonably good fitness and the right gear. For the first day or two, as I was adjusting to the landscape, I don’t think I really noticed the subtle changes in the valleys – but as I travelled further into the walk the changes in vistas were more apparent. For me the most striking stop was Lake Vyrnwy, but to be honest, if a helicopter dropped me at any point on Glyndwr’s Way, I would have been in awe – it is the most beautiful trail.
This all sounds so terribly gentle (and genteel) – so you might ask - where is the challenge?
- Over a period of 7 days, I saw just three other (male) hikers – two walked together, and the third yelled at me across a river - he was lost and trying to find his way back on track (a small aside, whilst I don’t wish anyone the misery of getting lost, it was a relief that it did happen to other people on this path – it is apparently very common). Anyhow, I chose to walk this trip on my own – but really, I was not prepared for extreme solitude of this walk. Whilst I love solo walking – I also like the occasional chat with fellow walkers – it’s a nice break and lovely to get info about what’s ahead. The entire walk yielded one conversation with two walkers lasting 10 minutes on day 3. Whilst I was never concerned for my safety, I definitely missed the camaraderie of other hikers. Also, I didn’t meet any Glyndwr’s Way walkers at any of my accommodations.
- The lack of regular walkers introduced a second challenge. Whilst there are minor roads and tracks to follow – for much of Glyndwr’s Way there are literally no paths - I was completely dependent on guideposts and maps. Given the size of fields I walked through, maps were not helpful and many, many times I had to walk two-three sides of a field in order to find the gate or stile to the next leg. This walk required constant vigilance – as you already know what happens when I dropped my guard (goodbye to 45 – 70 minutes). Seriously, the sign of a guiding accord brought tears of relief to my eyes on more than one occasion.
- Which introduces challenge three. Signposting and signage on this trail is more regular and consistent than almost any walk I’ve done – however, at a number of significant junctions signage was either missing or invisible: because they’d been removed and not replaced (I’m looking right at you Dolwar Fach); had fallen over and actually needed to be found; or not in plain view because they were buried in overgrown hedgerows (apparently they can’t be pruned till September due to the dear little birds nesting). If you go off trail, as I did at least once or twice a day, you can add many kilometres onto your trip regrouping and picking your way back to the correct path.
- Finally, with the absence of regular contact, it was essential to manage my emotions (including the aforementioned tears of relief). When I did get lost or go off trail a cool head and definitely a sense of humour were required as I got back on track; along with the constant reminder that I was actually doing this ‘for fun’.
Due my increasingly slowness towards the end of the hike, I didn’t walk the last day – I’d booked a train to London at 3:00 and wasn’t confident I’d finish the day’s hike into Welshpool on time. On reflection, it sounds a bit sad not to have walked the last day, but according to my journal entry that day, seems I was actually quite joyous to give the walk a miss (I expect dark forces, beyond the fear of missing the train, were at work).
Despite the challenges, I loved this walk and, with a few days rest and expanded knowledge, almost wish I could start it all over again. My map reading skills are significantly better, also I’m very clear on my capacity for carrying weight (and renewed appreciation for baggage services). Emotionally I’m much better prepared for the implications of solitude and much more forgiving of myself for making mistakes. I definitely need to learn how to use a compass properly and look forward to my next hike in New Zealand over Christmas.
Paddy Dillon’s ‘Glyndwr’s Way’ is a recent publication and provides a current, detailed narration of most of the path. To keep weight down, I took it along on my phone, but think I would have found the actual book much more useful. However, don’t become too dependent on Paddy, as he also skips a few steps on a few of the legs and the guide is most helpful to read in conjunction with maps and signposts.
Speaking of maps, as the path runs across a number of large maps, I downloaded mine here – double sided print and laminate onto A4 pages.
The National Trail's site provides excellent information, not just for this walk, but for many of the UK’s wonderful walks.
Finally, here’s a list of accommodation I used:
Knighton - Whytcwm Cottage
Felindre - Brandy House Farm
Abbey-cwm-hir - Mill Cottage
Llanidloes - Rock Villa*
Dylife - Star Inn**
Machynlleth - Wynnstay Hotel
Llanbrynmair - Wynnstay House
Llandwddyn - The Oaks
Meiford - Tan y Graig
* I actually made a very fortuitous booking to stay at Rock Villa (it's right on the trail, but a distance from Llanidloes). The wonderful host Helen Menzies collected me from Llanidloes and she and Jason own the very gorgeous, beautifully decorated Rock Villa, and Jason is an amazing cook - serving the best meal of the hike.
** Ignore the old reviews of Star Inn - it has recently been taken over, and the accomodation and service are both wonderful.