Thursday, 28 October 2010

A Weekend in South Wales

I hadn't intended to go to South Wales last weekend. I thought we might go to the Dales but on Thursday night my son rang me to say he'd just bought a kayak on eBay and would I go and collect it for him.

"OK. Great. Where is it?"

"Cwmbran. Is that far from Sheffield, Dad?"

"God, I wish you were doing geography A-Level!"

So I rang Christine....

"You know this weekend?" and so it went on.

We got down to the Usk valley late on Friday night with the campervan and parked up at The Chain Bridge Inn which seems to be run by folk who are a totally barking.

"Oh we're all a bit mad down here", they said.

The next morning dawned gray and cold. Don't you just hate it when the weather forecast is right? So not so much seizing the day as gently tickling it, we started with a cup of tea in bed followed by a large cooked breakfast and looked at the maps.

"Crickhowell must have a tea shop" , I said.

"And gear shops!", said Christine

So we drove to Crickhowell where SatNav girl, in one of her premenstrual outbursts, led us up a hill into a housing estate on the edge of town. I switched her off and we went 'old skool' to get to the car park. Then we set off to look for a coffee shop. So it was 1.30 before we set off up the road to Table Mountain.

"I think it's that way", said Christine, pointing up at the flat topped hill behind the car park. "I remember from the map that it had a bit of a lip on it"

"What, you mean it's sarcastic and answers back? The Basil Fawlty of mountains."

Our route took us back up the road that SatNav girl had led us on the way in, which was slightly scary. Did she actually know better than me after all?

Table Mountain

We'd just started to settle into the walk when we arrived at a field of young bullocks. I sent Christine out in front because she used to go out with a cowboy (err, herdsman). Impressively, she got the one with the most menacing look to back off and that left the rest of the group with an expression of uncertainty and wonder at this fearless woman and they just watched us as we walked between them.

It was cold on Table Mountain and the views were intermittent as the cloud, at around 650m, came and went. We had no definite objective but this seemed a bit early to stop, given there were sandwiches and pork pies to be eaten, so we headed up into the 'death zone' for Pen Cerrig-calch at 701.

Summit of Pen Cerrig-calch

After consuming the said sarnies in the imperfect shelter offered by a pile of rocks just below the summit, we walked to the trig point, took some photos in the mist and turned round. As we came back down to Table Mountain, the clouds cleared and we got some better views across Crickhowell to Mynydd Llangatwg, a region of limestone honeycombed with some of the UK's longest cave systems, and across to the south-east to a fine looking mountain called Sugar Loaf.

Sugar Loaf

Back in Crickhowell, we went the pub for a shandy and Christine got out the two 1:25,000 maps she'd bought earlier in the day, only to find she got two the same. Doh! Let's face it -it hadn't been an easy day.

Back at the Chain Bridge Inn, there was a choice of various endangered species on the menu, which included ostrich, bison, kangaroo, crocodile and zebra. I went for bison as I'd seen some in a field on the way to Betws-y-Coed last year, so I thought there was half a chance that it hadn't come from Bristol Zoo. Christine had Sea Bass, her first two choices having run out (or run off).

Stats: About 5miles and 2000' of ascent


On Sunday, after picking up the kayak, we went down Big Pit at Blaenavon.

Big Pit

This was a working coal mine until it closed in 1980, re-opening 3 years later as a visitor centre. The main levels and shaft are 300' deep and the winding gear and cages as well as around 2000' of walking and stooping passage are maintained in good working order for guided trips. It is a proper coalmine and although I suspect the risk of explosive gasses is minimal, you have to leave anything with a battery in up top, including cameras, mobile phones and even car key fobs. You're provided with a hard hat and miners electric lamp as well as an emergency rebreather, developed for use in U-Boats apparently.

Pit head winding gear

The descent takes a couple of minutes - it's slower than the GG winch - and the guided tour lasts about 45 minutes, in which you learn how there used to be kids as young as 6, doing 12 hour shifts without a light, opening doors, that horses were used to drag trucks underground until 1972 and the place used to be plagued by rats as a result of the horse poo, feed and miners butties. There is plenty of industrial archaeology in the form of trucks (they have a special name I can't remember now), conveyor belts and a massive chain saw known as the 'window maker'! Imagine getting that job on your first day. "Now then boy-o, you're single. 'av a go on that thing but mind your fingers, look you". 

They still use canaries to test for bad air. They have two, called Maggie and Arthur.

There's a lot of interesting exhibits above ground also. It's well worth a visit if you're down that way and it's free to go down.

From there we drove down the road to the old ironworks dating from the 18'th century. Of the 6 original furnaces, only one is any real state of preservation and the most striking feature of the place is probably the Balance Tower, which was used to lift trucks full of ore to the top of the furnaces.

Blast Furnaces

The Balance Tower