Scaling Mid Wales’ highest summit, Pen Pumlumon Fawr

Walk length: 8km.

All around us is yellow – rise upon rise of unpeopled yellowness, save for a tiny oasis of green, our start point, far below and insignificant on the horizon. Sun beats down out of an absolute blue sky. We turn and head on into the wilderness, heads bent into the driving wind…not a snippet from one of our trips to the Sahara, but from our last traipse up Pumlumon, the topmost point in Mid Wales and in the Cambrian Mountains.

The blue sky and the sun on the day in question (in February) are flukes, for this part of the Cambrians is not renowned for its bright weather. The wind is one of the bitterest we’ve ever been buffeted by, and the yellow is no sand but the billowing ochre moorland grass so typical of the Mid Wales massif. But nevertheless it is easy to understand, ascending Pumlumon, why this part of the country is dubbed ‘the Desert of Wales’. There is simply very, very little here.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Unlike Snowdon, the high point of North Wales, or Pen y Fan, South Wales’ loftiest peak, Pen Pumlumon Fawr sees no crowds. To an extent it even evades monikers themselves, for it is often known as Plynlimon in English and just Pumlumon if one is referring to the entire swathe of highland which in fact rises into five separate summits of which Pem Pumlumon Fawr is but one. To most that know of it, it is associated with the whole of the hilly no-man’s-land north and east of Aberystwyth and fanning out to the fringes of Snowdonia, and thus occupies its own zone of elusiveness: more a presence, perhaps, than a place. It has no signpost indicating it from the nearest road; it has no official car park. In fact, it represents absence on almost all levels, absence of information online notwithstanding.

©Luke Waterson

Stark start

So naturally, this absence of information aroused our curiosity. A comb of the scant online resources told us the hamlet of Eisteddfa Gurig was the best point from which to access Pumlumon, although heading east from Aberystwyth on the A44 we drove all the way through the place without realising, because it constitutes literally just a farm (Ok, there is a second house in the distance). Etymologically Eisteddfa Gurig translates as ‘Seat of Gurig’ – so legend would have it, the 7th century warrior-saint Curig travelled inland from Aberystwyth, clambered to the top of a high mountain overlooking the watershed of the River Wye, and sat down to survey the surrounding terrain to see where he would wish to found a settlement. However, Saint Curig chose present-day Llangurig, a greener spot significantly further to the east, so presumably Eisteddfa Gurig was too barren even for this notoriously rough, tough figure!

Barren, as we leave the car park and search for the start of the path, is an apt word. The track up is challenging enough to locate (it’s behind Eisteddfa Gurig farm and follows the course of the Afon Tarrenig burn to begin with; a signless post beside one of the farm buildings on the A44 signals the way through the farmyard to join the more distinct route beyond). Just before the track we are electing to follow swings north, another track to the left branches off, also ascending, eventually, to the forest later mentioned and on to the top. The dirty blonde of the hills enfolds us almost immediately; the greenery of the trees huddled around the farm soon banished. North from here, the direction our track is soon ushering us in, there is nothing in a straight line for 15 miles or more. This is beauty of the starkest sort: comprised of the track (which soon dwindles), the stream (which soon dwindles too) and then that yellow moor, blasted by an icy wind. Arid it seems from many angles, yet Pumlumon is Wales’ largest and most important watershed: it is the source of the River Severn, River Wye and River Rheidol, but much of this water is soaked deep under the soil.

The early part of the path is a good example of the ecosystem zone the Welsh term ffridd, meaning the transition between valley and high hills, but soon enough our track is one lonely traipse. Small streams are frozen solid in mid-flow today. The sub-zero wind bites through our layers. We cannot hear each other speak. The remnants of abandoned mining buildings when we encounter them after a couple of miles, intensify the feeling of isolation.

The mining ruins straddle the upper echelons of the Afon Tarrenig burn. Now a much fainter sheep path twists up on the same side of the burn we have approached from, soon pulling away to ascend in northwest. Almost another mile of up and we hit a wind-blasted fenceline, a ladder stile and a scattering of rocks marking the broad, bald Pen Pumlumon Fawr summit cairn on the other side.

The writer at the top ©Kerry Walker

At the top

Frozen by now, we were relieved to find a rudimentary shelter, a circular rock wall a couple of feet high, to huddle within the heaps of summit stones and take thankful swigs from our thermos. 752m of elevation might not seem so much, but Pen Pumlumon Fawr has a wilder feel than Snowdon, Pen y Fan and even much of the Alps which with their many signs of mankind and well-trodden trails seem relatively civilised in comparison. If one is seeking a wide open space, it is a mystery to us why one would head to those afore-mentioned Welsh peaks when on Pen Pumlumon Fawr there is nothing and nobody. The only geographical feature in the panorama to lend any sort of scale are the tendrils of the Nant-y-Moch Reservoir below west, although there is some legendary back country and wild camping opportunities in the moors and forest pockets to the north.

So spartan is this landscape, in fact, that, on the circular walk we are following, the next notable point of reference becomes the fence we just crossed over. With no one to observe us save a couple of wheeling red kites, we trace the grassy path which descends with this fence on our left towards an expanse of forest far ahead.  As far as the forest, the path is obvious, staying above a deep depression on the right. Forest reached, we bear left to advance downhill along the treeline. But because the forest curves it is hard to gauge the exact point at which to fork left/east away from it and down into to the valley track besides the Afon Tarrenig up which we began the hike. Nevertheless the necessary descent to rejoin this outward path is still evident (following a combo of the grassier land and a fence which, along with the marker line of another burn, Nant Rhudd, and basic compass skills are sufficient to zigzag back down to the Afon Tarrenig track.

For an intense immersion in the ‘Desert of Wales’, nowhere surpasses poignant Pumlumon. And when one contemplates that ‘downriver’ from here are sizeable cities such as Hereford, Shrewsbury, Gloucester, Worcester and the Bristol conurbations around the Severn Estuary that owe their lifeblood to this barren spot, it is a thought-provoking place too. Absence has the power to be that, on occasion, more than anything else.

©Luke Waterson

At a glance

How to get there: Eisteddfa Gurig is 17 miles east of Aberystwyth on the A44 towards Llangurig, or 8 miles northwest of Llangurig on the A44 towards Aberystwyth. Tiny it may be but it’s still one of the main settlements on this lonely tract of highway – coming from Aberystwyth, if you pass the welcome to Powys sign you’ve gone too far. Coming from Llangurig, the welcome to Ceredigion sign is just before you enter the hamlet.

Parking: The afore-mentioned car park in Eisteddfa Gurig. Plenty of space.

Refreshments: You’re kidding, right?

Best time to visit: We last visited, as mentioned, in February, and a bright winter’s day certainly enhances that feel of wildness. Try and pick a clear day regardless of season, or at least one with some visibility to make any necessary navigation much easier.

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