It’s a grey Monday. After a photographically disappointing previous week of foul weather and indecisiveness (including a drive up to Carn Goch hill-fort before deciding that I just couldn’t be bothered that day), around lunchtime, I’m parked up at Pen Arthur forest putting my walking boots on.
Compared to some of last week’s low temperatures, it’s a relatively mild 10°c. The forecast says there’s a 1% chance of precipitation and the skies are set to be mostly cloudy with sunny intervals. Aside from not having made any excursions over the last few days, one of the biggest drivers to getting out today is me not wanting to see the afternoon sun come out when I’m sitting at home after deciding not to go out. It’s a positive result of FOMO (fear of missing out).
To be honest, January is getting me down somewhat. Several trips this month that have been a bit disappointing combined with cloudy days, storms, and with the general cold and murk that is typical of January, I’m finding my photographic inspiration waning. I’m pretty sure that when it gets closer to spring, my spirits will lift. But right now, I’m feeling apathetic.
I decide to approach today more as a training and exploration exercise than anything else. I don’t feel I’ll get any particularly good photo opportunities today, so I lighten my pack, leaving most of my lenses and tripod behind. I’ve packed my Nikon, but it’s staying in the bag unless there’s a really good reason for it to come out. I’ll use my Lumix compact instead. It’s a day to just enjoy walking and being out in nature, and a recce to explore somewhere new. Whilst I’ve been to Pen Arthur before, today I’m going to carry on out of the top of the forest and across to the neighbouring hill, Trichrig, where the OS shows a cairn and a trig-point. It also overlooks Carn Goch hillfort, so maybe I’ll get a better idea of the location from a distance.
I’ve only bought a few clothing layers today. I’m wearing a long-sleeved Karrimor cycling top as a base layer and my Karrimor Elite fleece/soft-shell hybrid on top. My dark brown Trespass fleece is in my bag along with my waterproof which will be worn only if I really need it. I’ve also bought a new flask — a Thermocafe 0.7l. This time of year when it’s cold and miserable, a hot drink can be a real comfort when out and about, and previous flasks I’ve had are just too bulky to carry in a rucksack. I decide to carry just one 750ml bottle of water as opposed to my usual two to make room for the flask.
Last time I was in Pen Arthur it was my first visit. I suppose it marked the end of a four-month hiking hiatus where I didn’t go out exploring and photographing at all. It was a gorgeous afternoon in late August and was a successful return to something I enjoyed so much. The ferns were dying off, the heather was in bloom, and Rowans were covered in berries — it made me realise just how close autumn was and how I’d missed much of the summer, and bolstered my resolve to get out more.
Today the forest is missing much of its previous vibrancy in the dim, grey light. I set off up through the woodland trail above the car park and already my walking poles are showing their worth, saving me from several slips in the mud on the ascent up to the main forestry road. I don’t really need my poles once I’m there. It’s a relatively compacted gravel track. The only struggle is the gradient. The information board in the car park suggests going from there to the top of Pen Arthur is an ascent of 270m/900ft. I’m certainly not in peak condition. Whilst I can walk and scramble over some fair distances, it does take effort — especially with a heavy pack on my back. I’m hoping with enough regular walking this year, it will become easier and I’ll be able to travel further.
It’s not long before I have to stop. I’m overheating. My Karimoor Elite fleece is a lot warmer than I’d realised, and I’m sweating buckets. This means I’m losing water unnecessarily, and the last thing I want to do is dehydrate. I stop in a clearing overlooking the Towy Valley and swap my Karrimor for my Trespass fleece. Setting off again, it feels much better. It’s keeping the chill off, but allowing more ventilation than the Karrimor. If I was wandering enclosed forestry trails, I could be okay wearing just my base layer, but as I round a bend in the track and emerge onto open hillside I know I’ve made the right choice. The wind chill here is fierce, and without a fleece, my damp base layer would chill me to the bone.
I reach the top of the forest where there is a large circular turning area and I head down the reverse of the route that is signposted, and into the ‘deep forest’. It will take me through the woods and up onto the hill so I can carry on to Trigrun. This stretch of woodland is the reward for the gruelling uphill hike. It’s a short track through dense woodland and it’s absolutely sublime. The trail is a rusty carpet of Larch needles bordered by thick moss and lichen. It’s a natural tunnel shape and the canopy is so thick that there are only a few pools of soft light hitting the forest floor. The silence here is incredible, broken only by the white-noise rush of wind in the needles, the occasional raven…. and then an RAF Hercules soaring over the Beacons. It’s a common sight in these parts and whilst it’s an unwelcome break in the velvet silence of the forest, after years of living under the Gatwick flight path, I’m grateful that aeronautical noise is generally very sparse and unobtrusive here in this part of Wales.
Halfway down the trail, the trees clear and across the farmland in the valley there are expansive views of the Brecon Beacons with the distinctive peaks of the Carmarthen Fans to the east, Herbert’s Quarry to the south, and the hills overlooking Carreg Cennen to the west. As I lean against a field gate with the sheep beyond eyeing me warily, despite the vista looking extremely moody, it still bestows a certain sense of peace. I drink it in but don’t stop for long. I want to get going and reach my goal for today — the cairn and trig-point at the top of Trichrug.
Heading uphill again through eerily quiet and dark woodland, it’s not long before I reach the edge of the forest and pass through a footpath gate onto the hills below Trichrug. It’s not looking good. Despite the occasional patch of sunlight bleeding through the breaks in the cloud to the distant north, it’s looking like the weather is getting worse. I can’t see there being any sunny intervals where I am. To the west, I can see a thick haze creeping in. It’s raining in the distance of the Towy valley and it looks like it’s heading this way.
At this point I’m facing a decision. Do I carry on and risk the cold and wet, or do I head back? A glance at the OS shows I’m two-thirds of the way. I’ve come all this way. I still have enough daylight to make it, and if I turn back now, I’ll only regret it. With resolve, I head out onto the windswept fields below Trichrug. I deviate from the main footpath (a loose term at this point) and head uphill to the drystone wall. Whilst the wind up here is strong, the views are great. I decide to stop for a coffee between the wall and the rocks — an effective windbreak. I can see Carn Goch clearly from here, and despite it being the largest hill-fort in Wales, I don’t actually find it that visually impressive compared to others such as Foel Drygaran and Carn Ingli over in Pembrokeshire. My decision not to bother walking it several days ago is vindicated.
The wind is biting up here and I swap fleeces once again. The Trespass fleece provides no wind protection, but the Karrimor is ideal and keeps out much of the chill. The addition of one of my Oxford Comfys worn bandanna style on my head provides extra warmth in these conditions. I’m good to go.
Further along, following the wall, I’m forced to head back down to the main path. The fields are divided by walls and barbed wire fences. The only way I’m reaching the summit of Trichrug is by following the public footpath. This continues over a few rickety stiles. After my third, I reach another one that passes through yet another drystone wall. I’m trying to guess where the trig-point is. If I head uphill now, there’s the possibility of it being on the other side of the wall and unreachable, and if I cross the stile I could be in the same situation. I see what I believe to be the cairn on this side of the wall, and decide to forego going over the stile and instead decide to climb the hill on this side.
The hillside is uneven underfoot, covered in heather, rocks, and marsh grass. My walking poles once again prove themselves to be essentials on a trip like this, and with them, I make a good pace up the hillside, though it’s a still a struggle. At the top, I see the cairn. Remembering the layout on the OS map, I look east, over the wall to find the trig-point. There it is only 50 metres away, separated from me to the south by the wall and a barbed wire fence! It seems it can’t be approached from the northern side of the hill at all. Oh well, I guess it’s just not to be. At least I’ve made it to the cairn — a large pile of rocks with a hollowed, bowl-like centre. I climb the cairn and snap a few selfies (spending most of my life behind the lens, it’s good to get in front of it once in a while and prove my existence). The rain is coming in now and I know it’s time to go.
Heading back to Pen Arthur, thankfully, I seem to be keeping abreast of the worst of the rain. Following the fields back down between the trees to the main forestry track, I take refuge in the thick growth of conifers — if the canopy keeps out most of the light, it will keep out most of the water too right? I have another coffee, sheltered from the rain, and simply enjoy being there for a while.
On the way back down the track to the car park the rain eases off. I make a mental note of a couple of offshoots to the track. Judging by what I’ve seen of the forest from the main track, there’s probably a lot to be gained by exploring the ‘road less travelled’. I’ve done it in Brechfa Forest before with great results. It’s probably something best left for the longer days of summer. I make a mental note to add it to the plans.
So whilst today hasn’t been remarkable photographically, it’s been another learning experience. I’m getting to know my clothing better and how to choose layers effectively based on conditions. It’s reinforced that on second visits to locations, I notice the alternate tracks and routes. But perhaps more than anything, after feeling like the walk really took it out of me, I feel like I need to keep walking with the pack as regular as possible if I’m going to be comfortable on longer hikes.
You can see more of my forest photography here.