Perhaps because it was my first ever mountain climb, The Black Mountain Range has always held a special place in my heart. It's a landscape of dramatic, windswept cliff faces, their flanks wounded with deep-red scars. Underfoot, otherworldly fiery grasses dominate. Small pools dot the hilltops and the colourful rocks that decorate are arranged brilliantly, as if just for you. All this minute detail is in contrast to the stretching desolation of the marshes. Broken sheep carcass’ and moulding skulls warn of the boggy plain’s hidden dangers.
Navigating said marshes proved difficult for Hollie and me, as there are no paths for a good portion of the journey and this was our first attempt at using a map and compass in the field. Following our compass south found us the one distinguishing feature amongst the vast wet grassland - a snaking river. The bridge was out, or there had never been one. The Black Mountain began to feel increasingly remote. Finding a suitable crossing took us wayward and after fording with a few careful hops we strayed into the depths of a rocky hill maze. Unable to distinguish our whereabouts on the map we made painful progress in the wrong direction. Marshland stretched to the horizon in all directions. It appeared as if we were on a large plateau, but whenever we tried to reach the edge of the plateau another stretched on to the new horizon. Our only course of action was to trust the compass and walk south.
We tiptoed along a thread of drier, yellow grass, trusting it to lead us, like a hidden tightrope, through the wetlands. The bogs in between the hill’s loose boulders seemed deep and hungry. One false move, stray from the dry grass, and it felt as if we would have been swallowed whole. We were also losing light. I was becoming tense, worried we were going to be stranded in an endless mire after dark with no torches (a lesson learned!). Did Welsh marshes have snakes? This seemed a valid concern at the time. I imagined muddy snakes nibbling at my defenceless limbs, whilst I floated, suspended, waist-deep in a bog. No one around to hear my screams. On the upside, I might be fossiled. That could be cool. If it were a film, at this point the camera would have craned skyward slowly before tilting up and resting on the tranquil, dusky Black Mountain. My hapless cries would then fade to silence...
Best not to indulge these thoughts whilst in the thick of it. So we pressed on and finally caught sight of an unlikely saviour, the A4067. Overjoyed, we frolicked through the ensuing valley of ferns and returned to the car. We had been thrown in at the deep end of navigation (luckily not a bog) and consequently, learnt a lot. I wouldn't recommend it, but it was quite the adventure.
Oh, and after thorough research, I can confidently confirm there is in fact no such thing as a Welsh Marsh Snake.
Words & Photography: Scott Norris (@_scott_norris) // summer 2014
The walk starts from the village of Glyntawe near the Craig-y-nos country park.
From the trail head opposite the Tafarn-y-Garreg public house you will see a footpath. Head north from the road and cross a footbridge over the River Tawe.
Over the bridge turn right along the fence line of the field, keeping the fence on your left and river on your right.
When you reach the corner of the field fence head left (west) passing the far end of the farm to a gateway onto open moorland.
Pass through the gateway here and head up a steep path through bracken in a NW direction.
The path will eventually ease off and turns into a ridge walk, Fan Hir.
From the high point on the northern end of Fan Hir drop down before ascending Fan Brycheiniog.
Follow the cliffside path to the main summits of The Black Mountain: Fan Foel, Bannau Sir Gaer and finally Waun Lefrith.
From Waun Lefrith head south for approximately one and a half kilometres down pathless and boggy terrain heading towards the River Twrch. The bridleway noted on the map is very faint so pay careful attention to your compass. You will reach this so-called bridleway before you reach the river. When you reach it head left, or east south-east, along it.
Eventually the bridleway path will reach a ford over the River Twrch. The crossing here isn't always easy, especially when in spate, so cross where possible then head along the riverbank and pick up the bridleway again on the south side of the river.
Continue heading south on the bridleway. After half a kilometre the bridleway splits into two. Take the left bridleway and continue along it in a south easterly direction, crossing the river Giedd, and ascending slightly as it rounds Sinc Giedd (a summit roughly only 40m higher than the bridleway).
After a while the bridleway descends into more of a proper track. You eventually reach a grassy descent through gates and the campsite at Glyntawe.
Head for the entrance of the campsite then left to the main road.
Head left again down the main road for another kilometre to reach the start of the walk.