If our Cistercian Way project is going to get west of Penrhys and down to Margam in time for 2015 we need to get a move on. Fortunately, we have some good ideas about pilgrimage routes. One of the most famous of the poets who wrote about the shrine at Penrhys was Gwilym Tew (my friend Anne Clynnog who did her Ph D thesis on him says he wasn’t actually a particularly good poet, but that’s another story). His poetry is full of natural imagery about the shrine and its surroundings, and he has a particularly nice image about the jewels on the statue being as numerous as the pebbles in the river ford he would have crossed to get there.
But where was that ford? He came from Tir Iarll, the area around Llangynwyd and modern Maesteg. There would have been an established pilgrimage route between Penrhys and Llangynwyd, where the Holy Rood of Llangynwyd was another popular shrine (Gwilym Tew wrote about that one as well). Locals could have gone from one to the other but it would also have attracted pilgrims from outside the area, heading for St David’s but keen to take in a couple of lesser shrines on the way.
There’s a well-evidenced medieval trackway leading from Llandyfodwg (Glyn Ogwr) over Mynydd William Meyrick to Ton Pentre (where you would have crossed the Rhondda), and you could join that to Llangynwyd going through Margam’s Llangeinor Grange. That may well have been the way Gwilym Tew went: he was old and heavy, and would have been glad of somewhere to break his journey.
But there is another route, possibly even older and a spectacularly exciting walk, along the ridge between the Afan and the Ogwr. I’ve walked this several times . In 1998 we celebrated the 900th aniversary of the foundation of the Cistercian order with our first pilgrimage round the Welsh houses. I walked from Llantarnam to Tenby with the late and much-missed Derek Thomas. He had just retired from a lifetime working for a company that made industrial-sized concrete pipes, and he could talk with amazing fascination about different kinds of piping and their manufacturing techniques. We looked at just about every culvert pipe on the route and I learned how to tell spun from cast pipes and how to identify different kinds of metal reinforcement.
We had a big group walking to Penrhys but from there we were on our own. We walked down the rough moorland from Penrhys and up the road to Ton Pentre then took the green lane behind the magistrates’ court up over Mynydd Maendy to Bwlch-y-Clawdd. (The name comes from the early medieval boundary bank near the bottom of the track over Mynydd Maendy.) From here the ridge sweeps above the Ogwr and Garw valleys and down into Maesteg. We did it again in 2005 but this time we went straight down to Pont Rhyd-y-cyff and up the road to Llangynwyd. There were some problems getting down the hill to Pont Rhydy-cyff and I’ve tried various ways round, but I haven’t been along the whole route since 2005. (More about all this at http://cistercian-way.newport.ac.uk/apath.asp?RouteID=route02a )
Now that we are trying to revive the project, it seemed like the time to rewalk the ridge and see how it was looking. It was a fine day in Cardiff …
Steve dropped me off at the top of the Bwlch (I’m still not back to walking 15 miles +) and I headed up the stony track along the cliffs of Craig Ogwr. It was spitting with rain and the mist was coming in. The track is well marked to start (it clearly gets a lot of use from scrambler motorbikes), but it fades after about a mile. You have to dip down to cross a little tributary valley, walk across the corner of a field then back over moorland towards Bwlch yr Afan. You should be able to see the Werfa radio mast and head slightly to the right of it, but by this time the mist was down and I could barely see more than two sheep ahead. Eventually I got to the track to the mast. The footpath should go straight across here but it’s easier to turn left on the track, then when it divides to bear right. About half way along there was a lot of heavy digging equipment and one solitary surveyor with his GPS pole. Apparently they are putting up new Met Office masts (the weather up there is different, after all).
There should be a footpath up th the left, but it’s simpler to stay on the track then when it runs out bear up to the left and walk along the fence. This goes downhill to another saddle, Bwlch Garw. Once through the gate the track bears right but you have to go up the steep bank ahead of you and across another of those early medieval boundary banks. There’s a third near the Werfa masts and several Bronze age burial mounds along the track. All this suggests an ancient ridge route, much older than the pilgrimage, but one pilgrims could have used.
There isn’t much of a path going up the hill: just keep plodding upwards, with the remains of a fence to your left and the awesome cliffs of Blaen Garw below it. Eventually you get to a forest plantation. Keep right of this and walk along the forest edge. On a clear day it’s worth heading right to the trig point – the views all along the ridge are spectacular but from the trig point you feel you can see the whole world. I couldn’t see more than 20’ in any direction so I stuck with the forest edge. In about half a mile the forest to your left meets another plantation coming up from the right. Two tracks go through the gap – take the left track but keep going straight ahead, through a gate and straight on, walking parallel with the forest edge to your right. Walk under the power lines then go through a gate ahead of you. Bear a little to the left away from the fence to your right and continue on the same direction towards the far corner of the cleared field. Here there is a gate and stile leading back into the forest.
Take the second forest road to your left and follow it downhill for about a mile. At 883 923 take the track which goes sharply downhill to your right
(photo taken when Cara and I walked it earlier this year) and follow it down to the right through the stumps of trees which were being cleared when I walked there.
At this point we came out of the mist and the rain stopped (briefly). The bridleway cuts across the track but the tree clearance has pretty much obliterated it – follow the track down as it bends sharply to the left then look for a waymarked footpath to the right (it should be a bridleway but it has several stiles).
This takes you down an old green lane
to a stile and a stony track.
Here the problems started. You should be able to turn left and walk above a small coal tip then follow a footpath across the field and down to Cwmducanol farm. The footpath isn’t visible on the ground and it’s a scramble down the far corner of the field. I worked this route out following Gordon Hindess’s book Family Walks around Cardiff and the Valleys. Gordon and his wife Liz were walking with me on 2005 and we were a bit disconcerted to find some very aggressive dogs running free where the footpath crosses the farmyard at Cwmducanol. We took discretion as the better part of valour and found another way round. When we got to Pont Rhyd-y-cyff we stopped for a drink in the Tyler’s Arms (now no longer open, alas) and the landlady told us that the farmer at Cwmducanol was in the habit of threatening walkers with a gun. When Cara and I were walking there earlier in the year we found that the farm had gone in for a bit of agricultural diversification and we wondered whether they might be happeir about walkers –
but the footpath is clearly quite impassable.
It’s overgrown but clearly walked further down the little valley where it meets the track from Fosse farm.
So – what to do. I need to walk this path up from the track to Fosse and see how far I can get. It might be possible to bypass Cwmducanol and follow the track past Cwmdefaid to the forest. Alternatively you could turn right instead of left at the coal tip and follow the track round to the left. It becomes a very minor road and you can take the restricted byway past Fosse farm and down the Cwmdu. I clearly found another way down the valley in 2006 – see http://cistercian-way.newport.ac.uk/apath.asp?RouteID=route02a. Or you could stay on the forest road (not a good option this as it’s recently been resurfaced and the stones are very uneven and difficult to walk on), cut down another bridleway and across the moors to the track past Cwmdu-isaf.
But really the path past Cwmducanol looks the best – we will have to persevere. The track down the valley is very pretty and winds through the woods, eventually becoming a metalled road just above Pont Rhyd-y-cyff. It was a surprisingly enjoyable and even exhilarating day’s walking in spite of the awful weather. Rain is offputting but once you get out there with proper waterproofs it’s OK – I remember some epic field visits with Cardiff extramural students in snow and sleet so heavy that we couldn’t really see what we were supposed to be looking at.