Twmbarlwm-Machen (or not)

After all that fun in Ceredigion it’s back to tweaking the SE Wales route so we can get it waymarked for next summer. Walking to Penrhys as our annual pilgrimage we’ve tended to stick as closely as we can to our best guess at the medieval route – though we have in recent years taken to walking along the canal in Cwmbran rather than plodding up the old main road to Old Cwmbran. We also give in to temptation and walk to the summit of Twmbarlwm in fine weather. I don’t think medieval pilgrims would have bothered with this – the line of the medieval route is probably the modern byway that runs along the top of the forest, though there’s an even lower track through the forest and the farmyard at Pant-yr-yrfa.

I’ve been discussing these routes with Dave Standing, who has done some excellent work surveying grange boundaries on Mynydd Maen (as a backup to his main work on monastic water management systems – on which he will be publishing Any Day Soon!). He’s tracked grange boundaries through the forest and we’ve been discussing whether roads would go through granges. I think they would have gone through grange farmland but not through the inner enclosure round the farm yards and domestic buildings. There are actually examples of roads being diverted round grange precincts – the Ffordd y Gyfraith at Llangewydd north of Bridgend is a striking example, and the documented diversion of another major road round Dore’s Llanfair Cilgoed grange between Monmouth and Abergavenny.

Our discussion has been triggered by a debate over 4×4 access to the Mynydd Maen ridge. This one is always a problem. On the one hand people have the right to use roads for their legal purpose, and if a track is classified as a byway for all vehicles they have a right to go there. These tracks are also part of the historical evidence of the landscape and they often indicate where the old roads went. On the other hand, what 4×4 drivers really seem to like is ploughing along up steep climbs and through the mud, which is exciting but causes huge damage. There’s also the problem that some (not all) use the legal byway as an access route for some illegal off-roading along the ridge. There’s another RUPP (Road Used as Public Path) crossing the ridge but I think that’s been reclassified. The main problem is the very eroded track along the line of the ridge, which isn’t on any map.

Torfaen Council could reclassify the legal route as a restricted byway but it would be expensive as they’d be challenged. They could try to fence and gate it to stop illegal off-roading but that again would be expensive and might make difficulties for the commoners who need to move stock around. The commoners don’t like the off-roading as it damages the grazing and scares animals.

There’s also the problem of how you accommodate horse riders. Restricted byways are effectively bridleways, open to horses and pedal bicycles but not motorbikes (not sure about the legal status of those battery-assisted pedal bikes, though). 4x4s can’t get through horse gates but I’ve yet to see a gate that will allow a horse through but block a scrambler motorbike. I’ve been looking a bit more carefully at horse-riding routes because of Robin Hanbury Tenison’s idea to ride part of the Cistercian Way next year. Most of the paths I’ve been walking in Ceredigion are actually bridleways or restricted byways – there’s a wonderful Ceredigion on Horseback project (more on that at ). Ceredigion doesn’t seem to have the same problem with scrambler bikes. I do remember a very imaginative proposal for a wheelchair-friendly trail round the Llyn Alwen reservoir in north Wales with gates you could open with radar keys (those are the keys you use to get into disabled toilets) but I can see that if we tried that round here you’d have old ladies being mugged for their radar keys!

Anyway, back to the footpaths off Twmbarlwm. As far as we can tell the medieval route ran down through what is now the Ty-Sign housing estate, along Mill Road (which ultimately gets its name from Llantarnam Abbey’s Maes-tir mill) and across the Ebbw at the actual Pont of Pontymister. Pontymister Farm, on the far side of the river, is on the site of Llantarnam’s Maes-tir Grange. All very interesting, but a long plod on main roads and through the houses. We’ll put it on the web site for purists but people walking mainly for pleasure would probably want more footpaths and less busy roads. Last year we trialled a new route over Mynydd Machen but that still left us with a long walk through the suburbs of Caerphilly. I’ve been discussing this with Caerphilly CBC and they would obviously like the route to go through the middle of Caerphilly (regeneration reasons) so I’ve been looking at ways to do this going via Machen and past the Van (see the blog at and links). The alternative is to use the Ridgeway and bypass Caerphilly to the south – a longer walk and would probably mean an extra day getting from Llantarnam to Penrhys, but it’s a lovely route.

Whichever one we go for, we need a route down Twmbarlwm and over the saddle south-east of Mynydd Machen to pick up the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway into Machen. Plenty of footpaths and bridleways marked on the map, so Cara and I set off with our sandwiches. We did some zigzagging up the Risca side of Mynydd Maen. The best route off Twmbarlwm is still the one we used last year – over the twmp, down to Pegwn-y-bwlch and down the lane that eventually becomes the Darren Road. When this crosses the canal, you can turn left (instead of right, which we did last year) and walk along the towpath for a couple of hundred yards then turn right down Temperance Hill.


This is a VERY steep road which becomes an even steeper metalled lane heading towards the spire of St Mary’s Church. When you reach the railway line turn left down steps and right on the road under the railway bridge. Go to the right of St Mary’s churchyard, turn left on the main road through Risca and right almost immediately along Exchange Road (named after the Exchange pub on the main road – still there, but for how much longer?). Cross the Ebbw by a new footbridge straight ahead of you. Turn left on a metalled footpath and walk under the dual carriageway.

Here the problems started. You can walk up the steps from the underpass to a minor road through an industrial area. Turn right past the factory then immediately left through the brickworks yard and up to where the road is blocked by large stones.


This becomes the path through the Dan-y-graig nature reserve. When the paths divide, bear right


and climb steadily to a stile at the top right corner of the reserve.


There has clearly been a path from here up towards Mynydd Machen but it’s heavily overgrown. It would be passable in winter with a stick to beat back the brambles – in summer (with shorts) it really isn’t. We went back to the bottom of the nature reserve and walked along the road past the cemetery. This has a lot of new housing (we were clearly in the posh end of Risca!) which has put paid to the bridleway but the road continues and becomes a track above the new part of the cemetery and along Mynydd Machen.

This track really goes too far back to the south-east but at least it eventually joins our best guess at the original pilgrimage route, the minor road from the old bridge through Lower Ochrwyth and up to Castle Farm. After Castle Farm it becomes a track – and in about 100 yards this was completely blocked by a huge fallen tree.


We got part way through this but it really wasn’t safe.

Back to the map. Back down the track towards the cemetery and over a stile. Footpath across fields. Blocked by barbed wire and a vehicle yard – and we could see that it wouldn’t bypass the blockage on the lane. Back down the fields. Up and down the hedges looking for gates and scrambling places. Eventually we worked our way back to the route from the nature reserve and managed to follow it up the slope. It’s heavily overgrown once you get to the mountain but just about passable (we did go into the fields at one point and had to scramble out over a barbed wire fence). The council has put nice new gates in but if the track isn’t walked it will disappear.


At this point I found myself wishing for some scrambler bikes to bash down the undergrowth!

We walked along the roughly metalled road to the saddle (this is our original pilgrimage route in reverse), and a little way up the very eroded track over Mynydd Machen itself. You don’t have to go up to the summit: a waymarking post takes the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway to the left and into the forest then downhill to Machen. There are tracks going to the right at the waymarking post and one of those might give us a better way up from Risca – that will need another day’s walking. The Raven Walk route is a possibility but that would take us all the way up river to the bridge by Crosskeys College that we used last year.

Watch this space. Again.


Cistercian Way: Machen to Caerphilly

I feel I’ve spent Easter as a martyr to the wider impact agenda. The Cambrians’ conference at Llangollen was brilliant (, … but I caught a cold. Colds always settle on my chest … so I went up Twmbarlwm with Cymdeithas Twmbarlwm, the Anclent Cwmbran Society and a few hundred others (, and got the father and mother of all chest infections that flattened me for a fortnight.

It’s over now – but it put paid to a lot of plans for fieldwork over the Easter break. Before Easter I had a series of very positive meetings with local footpaths and tourism officers about resurrecting the Cistercian Way. The plan now is to try to get Llantarnam to Margam clear and waymarked in time to provide a flagship project for the Valleys Festival of Walking in 2015. (Rhondda Cynon Taf were really gung-ho about doing it for this year but we concluded that really wasn’t workable!)

We still need a few tweaks to the route. When we walk from Llantarnam to Penrhys as a pilgrimage we try to keep as close as possible to the medieval route, but this results in a lot of walking through built-up areas, down through the Ty-Sign housing estate from Twmbarlwm and through the industrial estates around Caerphilly. Last year we bypassed Ty-Sign and walked from Twmbarlwm to Pegwn-y-bwlch, down the Darren road and up through Coed Waun-fawr to join the Mynydd Machen ridge just above Ynys Hywel. I’m now trying to find a better route into Caerphilly. The Caerphilly footpaths officer suggested the new cycle route along the north bank of the Rhymney but I don’t like walking on cycle paths (too many speed merchants in dayglo Lycra shorts!).

There’s a lane down from Twmbarlwm that leads to Moriah Chapel in Risca then up past the Danygraig cemetery (where so many of Steve’s family are buried), east of Mynydd Machen and down into Machen. I remember walking that one twenty years ago: there are some good hollow trails on the north slope of Mynydd Machen, suggesting it’s an old trackway. Then you can pick up the Machen Forge trail to Waterloo. But how to get from there to Caerphilly? Time to put the boots on …

There are a couple of possible paths from Waterloo to the Van, on the outskirts of Caerphilly. When the Machen Forge trail gets to the main road through Waterloo,


go straight across and along the path between the houses, then turn left and walk along a stony lane past some pretty cottages. Ignore the footpath turning left: but when you get to the end of the lane, go through the gate into the field


and continue along the same line with the house to your right. Go through another gate


into the woods. There were bluebells and wood anemones, and I picked wild garlic leaves to cook for supper. When the paths divide,


turn right and walk along a very muddy path


along a stream with lots of evidence of iron working.


At the end of the wood, go over a bridge and stile


and follow the waymark to the left along the edge of the woods. The footpath is stiled and waymarked, though some of the stiles could do with a bit of attention.


Look out for another redundant stile.


Cross to the left and keep going on the same line, over several more stiles


and up to the drive of Pentwyn-gwyn a lovely old farmhouse with an eighteenth-century datestone.


Walk up the drive and turn right on a minor road. In about ¼ mile, when the road bends sharp right, turn sharp left and walk up the stony lane. It goes virtually parallel with the road for the first hundred yards then gradually bears to the right and emerges on Rudry Common.


Here you turn right and walk along a track across the common. The route across the fields from Waterloo is a good walk but was very wet underfoot. We have had a very wet winter and I need to walk it again in dry weather. Meanwhile, in wet weather it might be better to use more of the minor roads. Where the paths divide just past Waterloo, take the track to the left


and walk along the stream


then over a bridge.


Bear right to walk under the pylons and up to the top right corner of the field.  Turn right on a minor road. Cross the main road in the middle of Garth Place village and walk up Garth Lane.


Keep to the right of the houses at the top of the lane, which becomes the track over Rudry Common.  When the tracks divide,


take the right fork and walk down hill through a substantial gate


and over a new bridge.


The next bit is very wet and boggy –


we may need to do some work here –


then you go through a gap in the hedge to the right


and bear left to walk diagonally up the slope.


At the top go right then left through the gaps



and continue on the same line. Follow the track to the right of the knoll ahead of you, with Gwern-y-domen farm to your right,


and walk down to join the stony track to the farm. Turn left and follow the track round the hill. It becomes a muddy path, then goes through a double gate,


and eventually becomes a metalled lane leading down to the Van. The Van (Welsh Y Fan, The Place) was one of the most impressive mansions in the valleys, built by Thomas Lewis in the late sixteenth century. The interpretation board outside says there was an earlier castle on the site and points to twelfth-century masons’ marks on the stone.


But there is a bit of a trap here: much of the stone to build the house came from Caerphilly Castle (lots more on this in the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales inventories for Glamorgan, a lot of it online at ) . The Lewis family moved on in the early seventeenth century and built an even bigger and better house along the same lines at St Fagan’s  (it’s now the National History Museum). By the end of the 20th century, the Van was a ruin, roofless and crumbling. Then in the 1990s it was bought by a restorer who virtually rebuilt it and made three substantial houses out of the mansion and outbuildings.


There was some criticism of the restoration techniques but it did preserve the fabric and re-create the appearance of this grand gentry mansion. This is an unsolvable problem for historians: do we stick out for the highest standards of conservation practice or do we go for something that’s commercially viable and will actually happen? And do we conserve as found, undertake limited restoration (which can involve  replacing a lot of the fabric – how much of the tracery in Tintern’s windows is original) or go for a complete rebuild? No easy answers. But we think we do have the answer for this bit of the Cistercian Way – it’s a lovely walk, with lots of interest, and from the lane below the Van it’s a short walk along the road into Caerphilly itself and the real castle.

Who would true valour see?

On Saturday a small but happy band of pilgrims set off from Llantarnam – with me were my daughter and her long-suffering boyfriend, one of my MA students, three women from the Ancient Cwmbran Society and of course Cara the pilgrim dog. We had a good send-off from Sister Ann Larkins of the Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy including a blessing with holy water from a medieval stoup found in the abbey ruins.

Over the years our route has diverged from the medieval trackway. The old maps suggest this went across the fields, down the lane behind the church, and along the main Llantarnam Road towards Cwmbran. You can’t now walk across the fields (there’s a dual carriageway across the route) and the road  makes pretty boring walking. So we go down the Abbey drive, along Ty Coch Lane, and head for the canal towpath. Less authentic but a better walk.

We reclaim the old road in Old Cwmbran and plod over St Dial’s Hill. The women from the Ancient Cwmbran society remembered playing there as children and might even have seen the ruins of St Dial’s farmhouse before it was demolished to build the police college. It could have been on the site of the medieval shrine chapel, but unless we could get in to look at the ruins we could never know.


Here we are on top of the hill. Down the other side and past Greenmeadow Community Farm, a classic hollow way with outgrown beech hedges takes us across the modern roads and up to Thornhill. The Ancient Cwmbran Society gave us tea and we debated whether to try the top route up Mynydd Maen (virtually a stream in places  but the original route the monks would have taken to their granges at the Rhyswg and Cil-lonydd) or to cut through Greenmeadow Woods. The top route has the better views, and we all had good boots, so up we went.


The waymark actually says ‘Pilgrims’ Way’. The blackberries were at their best, we had lunch above the ruins, and Dave Standing found some grange boundaries. There is still so much archaeology to explore up there.

I have always felt that the medieval pilgrims wouldn’t have gone over the top of Twmbarlwm – why go all that way up just to come down again?? The track through the woods towards Pant-yr-yrfa is now pretty clear but the farmyard is well blocked so we had to go up the ridge in the end.But there were some magnificent bank and ditch features under the trees – this is all part of the Dorallt grange and has evidence of early mining.

Then we diverted again from the original route, which would have gone down the road through Ty-Sign and across the Stony Bridge in Pontymister. But that makes for a long road walk through the houses – so we headed across Twmbarlwm to Pegwn-y-bwlch, down the Darran road, along the canal and down to the Blackvein bridge.

Dave Standing’s photos of the day are at

Sunday started well but by the time we crossed the ridge above Pen-heol-bedwas the rain was setting in. Cara did some very pathetic shivering over lunch, though we think this may have been a ploy to get extra cake. The afternoon was just the two of us, my daughter Rachel and myself – even Cara had gone home in the minibus. We had a wonderful welcome from the ladies at Groeswen, but once we stopped we couldn’t get going again.

So we propose doing the final section – Groeswen to Eglwysilan and on  to Pontypridd – on Wednesday, when the weather looks a little more promising. Saturday is also looking good so far. We set off from the green by the White Bridge, on the Ynysybwl road out of Pontypridd, at 10 am on Saturday and aim to be in Penrhys in time for tea. There will be transport back to the start.