St Briavels and the Border

It’s that time of year, when one day the night suddenly jumps out and spooks you at 6pm, then stumbling in shock you’re accosted for candy by ghouls and goblins.

After a Nos Calan Gaeaf (Halloween) spent binging on leftover treats and episodes of Stranger Things we heard the spirit of adventure beckoning us to revisit a walk from 4 years ago – it’s hard to believe it’s so long since that summer night by the campfire, gazing across the Wye river to the hills of Cymru on the other side.

So we booked bunkbeds at St Briavels Castle YHA and caught a train to Chepstow just after lunch, optimistically hoping to hike the whole 17km to St Briavels by nightfall.

The route goes right along the Offa’s Dyke path, which seems to take you up then down and everywhere around, winding through wilderness and small historic towns.  The Offa’s Dyke once formed the border between England and Cymru and walking along it now you can’t help but feel somehow caught between two worlds – caught between the past and the present, between dramatic clifftop vistas like The Devil’s Pulpit and cosy cottages nestled amongst rolling hills.

As the sun began to set, an hour’s walk still lay ahead of us and, realising it would be a dark walk either way, we made a small detour for Brockweir – a small town right on the river with the kind of old buildings that make you think of magic and folk tales.  After the daylight (and opportunities for photography) had disappeared almost completely, a short walk up the hill led us to a pretty amazing community shop & cafe. Walking up a road flanked mostly by traditional country houses, the light from the windows of this eco-building was like a beacon, and we left filled with optimism (and a delicious cheese and tomato bake).

Brockweir at dusk

The final stretch to St Briavels was a real treat.  We opted for the most direct route, along  small country lane, and were led most the way by the full moon, fixed in the sky in front of us.  By the time we arrived to the (supposedly haunted) castle, the walls between the worlds were feeling very thin indeed.

Are you hoping for some story about a scary night in the castle?  We’ll have to disappoint you.  St Briavels Castle actually just felt like a very family friendly YHA – when we arrived the staff were playing dress up in mock historic garb and laying on their monthly Medieval feast, and we hadn’t heard any of the ghost stories, so we even managed to brave the night alone – having to sleep separately in girl/boy dorm rooms.

After a good night’s sleep, undisturbed by ghosts, we had a hearty breakfast of homemade granola and set off on our journey back down the Wye.  The path took us past incredibly old chestnut trees, back through Brockweir, across the bridge to Cymru and down the old railway line towards the ruins of Tintern Abbey.

From Tintern we caught a bus back to Chepstow, waving goodbye to another memorable Wye valley adventure.

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North East for Easter

Brecon Beacons National Park – looking across toward Blaen-y-Glyn waterfalls

Easter weekend drew nearer and nearer and all we had were vague plans to “go West”, but when Easter suddenly arrived, it was North East that we went.

Those West Wales plans fell apart on the Saturday.  Struggling to find inspiration on the map, and determined to avoid the car, our eggshell minds cracked and we heard a little chick cluck out  “Middle Ninfa Campsite”, and that was that.  We’d read about this campsite a while ago, made a note, and here was an opportunity to explore – the route just laid itself out for us:

A train to Merthyr and then cycling the rest of the way; Taff Trail to Talybont-on-Usk, along the Canal to Llanfoist and just 1km up to the Campsite.  Google maps told us to expect 3.5 hrs in the saddle, we figured 6 to allow for slowness (and enjoyment).

I checked my watch, 1.30pm. Rain tapped at the glass of the train doors as they slid open, letting us out into a cold and dreary Easter Sunday in Merthyr.  All shops were shut, and our short wet cycle through the town centre would have been silent were it not for the hubbub from the pubs.

The Taff Trail threaded us through the old streets of Merthyr and eventually took us up to the reservoirs.  The rain was capricious: occasionally merciful, stopping to let us dry off, and moments later cruel and juvenile, bursting down upon us when we were enjoying some magical moment – pausing to take a photo of the steam train running along the hillside or savouring our picnic beside the waterfalls.

Pontsticill Reservoir

The downpours and the uphill cycle had almost broken our spirits by the time we were gazing across at Blaen y Glyn.  The magic that came next will be known to those of you who’ve done this part of the Taff Trail: a downhill track for what seems like an impossible time, at the end of which you find yourself not deep below the earth’s crust as you might expect but in Talybont-on-Usk.

It was there the rain nearly caught us again, but this time we had a cosy pub to hide inside – with a hot cup of tea, two complementary chocolate eggs (and no questions asked).

From Talybont (and for the rest of the trip) the canal took centre stage.  Dog walkers, canal boaters, slow travellers, wild pheasants, inquisitive cattle and the quiet of the canal.

Cycling along the canal
The canal
The idyll by the canal
A boat-house
A pheasant feeling uneasy upon seeing the dog

 Perhaps it was basking in all this enchantment or pausing for photos with the giant redwood that slowed us down, or maybe google maps was just fantasising when it said “3.5hrs”, but somehow we found ourselves at 10pm in the dark, pushing our bikes up (and up and up) the 2km from Llanfoist to Middle Ninfa Campsite.

The Giant Redwood

It was most definitely worth it.  The family who owns Middle Ninfa are extremely hospitable, their farm is incredibly charming and the view from that hill is one of the best things you can wake up to.

It was Easter Monday morning and the sun shone brightly as we made our way back to the Canal.  The yellow fields of rapeseed lit up the valley below and the muddy brown waters of the canal lead us on like a mini mississippi snaking around the hillsides.

Camping at Middle Ninfa
All in one: a composting toilet, a shower, sinks, powered by sun energy
View from Middle Ninfa campsite
Rapeseed in bloom

We arrived in Pontypool just in time for the train back to Cardiff, bringing us in at 1.30pm, our little Easter adventure complete.

Budget: £46.25

Total Time: 25 hrs

Distance: 50 miles on the train + 45 miles cycling (approx.)

Some inspiration to live a good life found by the canal