The next part of the journey was going to be tricky.
When I first started planning a walking route connecting the woodlands and forest of Wales one issue kept leaping out at me from the map. How was I going to get across the Elenydd, the sparse and barely populated upland region that lay between the two market towns of Llandovery and Tregaron?
Most of it sat above 400 meters and was sliced by a series of steep valleys that helped the upland tributaries feed into the river Tywi. On the OS map, the part of the Elenydd I needed to cross was an intimidating squash of orange lines signifying a very significant hike. This was Twm Sion Cati’s stomping ground. The famed local outlaw would have walked or ridden by horse across the Elenydd as he travelled from his home in Tregaron to his hiding place cave in what is now Gwenffrwd/Dinas Nature Reserve as he evaded his arch-nemesis the Sherriff of Carmarthen.
At a loss to come up with a satisfactory route myself I started researching long distance walking paths across what looked like an impressive yet inhospitable part of the Cambrian mountains. That’s how I stumbled upon the Cambrian Way, an ambitious and very challenging 288-mile hike across the major mountains of Wales running from Cardiff in the south to Conwy in the North. It was the creation of Tony Drake, a former department store owner who ultimately sold the family business so that he could pursue it true calling – walking. In 1968 Drake convinced both the Ramblers Association and the Youth Hostel Association to back the creation of The Cambrian Way so that it would be clearly marked on OS maps and have official markers positioned along the trail to guide the type of walker adventurous and hardy enough to undertake it.
It just so happened that one section of the route connected the village of Rhandirmwyn with the ancient Cistercian abbey of Strata Florida near the village of Pontrhydfendigaid. By consulting the Cambrian Way guidebook and cross referencing against the OS Map I could see that, if I started near Rhandirmwyn, I could follow the Cambrian Way up the Doethie Valley until I reached a remote hostel called Ty’n y Cornel.
I’d visited Ty’n y Cornel the day before as part of my reconnaissance for the Doethie valley walk – driving up the very steep, single track mountain road that led east out of Llanddewi Brefi (named after the St. David, the patron saint of Wales). Outside the hostel’s front door there was a plaque dedicated to Tony Drake. On it was an inscription which read: “He worked tirelessly in Wales and England for the RA (Rambler’s Association) for 60 years but his greatest love was always the wild beauty of his creation, The Cambrian Way.”
The next morning, late summer morning I set out on this remote stretch of The Cambrian Way just north of Twm Sion Cati’s cave. I knew that it was highly unlikely I’d meet many other walkers in the Doethie valley – it was that far off the beaten track. Suddenly I was overcome with a feeling both of exhilaration and trepidation at being out here alone.
I was also very wet. It was a dry, sunny morning so I’d worn light, breathable trousers for the walk. Normally I’d have been in shorts but the reputation of the Cambrian Way suggested I’d be picking my way through brambles and God only know what else along the way. Now, 30 minutes up the trail, the mist had lifted above the valley but I was soaked – my distinctly un-waterproof trousers being in constant contact with the dew-laden bracken that reached up to my waist.
But what a sight lay before me. Ahead lay miles of meandering river valley walled in by steep Fridd-dominated hillsides – a patchwork blanket of red, brown and green flora – and it was topped off by the bare, exposed ridge on either side. In the distance I could see the tall Sitka spruce trees of the Tywi Forest plantation standing to attention like a military guard….