A mini-Welsh adventure

The first thing – and it really is the very, very first thing – you notice when you return to London from cycling pretty much anywhere in the UK that is not a city or large town, are traffic lights. Hideous, everywhere-you-turn, always-on-red traffic lights. I once counted 60 sets of traffic lights on an eight-mile journey between Streatham and Euston; I’d have had to spend another week pedalling through Wales to tot up that many. Still, there is one consolation to being back in London. Every male cyclist will empathise. No cattle grids.

So, three days in Wales, cycling from Swansea to Chester via Aberystwyth, 170 miles in all. It rained only slightly on day one, a day I’ll remember for a formidably tough climb north of Trefilan. On the evening of day two – after a visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth, we found ourselves thundering along dark, windy roads (in a car, mercifully) to attend a two-hour public meeting about wind turbines in Newtown. These are the perils of travelling with an environmentalist. We returned to a hostel dormitory full of hot air and, later, the detestable, infuriating sound of snoring.

Rolling north from Corris on a crisp, almost wintry start to day three, Cadair Idris loomed ahead. The mountain was shouting to be climbed. It was a straightforward affair along the Minffordd path. Ascents of the Nuttalls, Craig Cwm Amarch (791m) and Mynydd Moel (863m), sandwiched the real business of the day, the Penygadair summit of Cadair Idris (893m). What a lovely view from this top, the blue and yellow glow of the Barmouth estuary and the striking outline of the Lleyn peninsula in particular. Llyn Cau was a pane of glass. The summit hut was a surprise too; I didn’t know it was there. A welcome retreat on bad days.

I broke into a trot off Myndd Moel as I contemplated the hours it would yet take me to cycle to Chester. I was fine until I hit midway point on the ever-rising Dolgellau-Bala road. I had avoided Dolgellau to shave off miles, but was paying with the bonk. Then a gear cable snapped, leaving a bonking man with just three gears in his armoury. I ate to excess in Bala, then again in Rug 10 miles up the road. A food-induced recovery did not transpire, however, and I spent 15 or 20 miles of up and down feeling sorry for myself. I can’t remember exactly where – shortly after Rhydtalog perhaps – the view ahead altered very suddenly. Ahead and below were the seething tentacles of civilisation – houses, cities, factories, shopping centres. No hills, no lakes, no sheep, no cattle grids. And then, also quite suddenly, there was a long, gradual (and, as it turned out, extremely welcome) escape route to England.

 Preparing to depart Brechfa

 Aberystwyth beach

 Llyn Cau

 Craig Cwm Amarch

 Llyn Cau from Craig Cwm Amarch

 Looking east from Cadair Idris

Reviews for The UK’s County Tops

Reviews continue to come in for The UK’s County Tops. Good ones, I hasten to add. The most noteable is from Grough‘s Bob Smith, who calls the guide a ‘fascinating little book’. Meanwhile, there is a write-up on a walking blog, My Pennines. And there’s also an extract of one of the featured walks (Cornwall’s Brown Willy) on the website of St Christopher’s Inn, a global travel company. The book is available now on Amazon.

A 5-hammer review!

Another positive review for The UK’s County Tops, this time from GearWeAre.com, a relatively new site established ‘to tell people what’s good – and what’s rubbish – in the world of the outdoors’. Fortunately, the people there have deemed the book ‘good’ in this review. This lot don’t have a zero-to-five star system for books; they use hammers instead, and the County Tops has got five.

Here it is.

There’s something quite intriguing about people’s lust to climb up to highest points. Whether it be Mallory uttering the famous answer to the question “Why do you want to climb Everest?” with “Because it’s there”, or the thousands who climb Snowdon each year, people seem to want to reach the peak to say they’ve done it.

So Jonny Muir’s new book about how to get to the highest point in 91 of the UK’s counties seems to have struck a chord. It starts with the following words: It would make a perplexing quiz question. What do the tundra plateau of the Cairngorms, a back garden on the southeast fringe of London and a military firing zone in the Pennines have in common? Answer: they are the locations of three of the UK’s historic ‘county tops’. No hill list is quite like this one. No other is as diverse or, frankly, as wonderfully ridiculous. And so I was hooked.

Each county features at least a double-page spread of information on the highest point, and in most cases a map and walking guide of how to get there. As usual with Cicerone, the maps are OS (and thus excellent), and the information is laid out in a simple to read block format.

I live within walking distance of Leith Hill, Surrey’s highest point, but had never been there. (I don’t count myself amongst the ‘Because it’s there’ brigade) I set off with the book one day and, starting from the area which the map covers, trotted up the hill to see how accurate the book was. Well, it was spot on. So, what more can I say?

If bagging Munros or just great views are your thing then this book would make a great bedside read. And at £11.96 it won’t break the bank.

SUMMARY: Cicerone’s excellent County Tops is a good read, and very informative if you actually want to visit each site. I have no plans to visit many of the sites, but still found it very interesting. The maps and descriptions are great, and the layout very easy to read.

Book number 3 – The UK’s County Tops

It is always exciting to get books through the post, even when they are ordered and expected. I never tire of pulling open those brown card envelopes from Amazon. But when it’s your own book – a pre-release – inside that envelope, and you hold it, cradle it, for the first time, reflecting on the months and years (of toil) it took to reach this stage, well, there is an edge to the frisson.

The book was The UK County Tops: 82 walks to reach the top of 91 historic counties, to give the tome its full title. It arrived earlier, winging its way southwards from the Cumbrian headquarters of Cicerone Press.

According to the blurb on Cicerone’s website, the book is an ‘inspiring guide’ (let’s hope so) to the county summits of the UK, ranging from 80-metre Boring Field in Huntingdonshire to 1343-metre Ben Nevis in Inverness-shire. It goes on: ‘Wherever you find yourself in the UK – among the Munros of Scotland, the fens of East Anglia, the rolling moors of the west-country or the suburban sprawl of a big city, there’s a county top on your doorstep waiting to be discovered.’ Quite!

The charm, I think, of the book is the diversity and peculiarity of its subject matter. The highest point in Kent is located in a back garden; the summit of Yorkshire rises on a live military firing zone, the zenith of Cornwall is the naughtily-named Brown Willy. What else? Cumberland’s Scafell Pike, ‘the Mecca of all weary pilgrims in Lakeland’; the barren, windswept Kinder Scout of Derbyshire, the scene of the Mass Trespass in 1932; Wiltshire’s Milk Hill, notable for its UFO sightings and crop circles; Aberdeenshire’s Ben Macdui, the haunt of the fearsome Grey Old Man of Macdui; the Table Mountain-esque landscape of County Fermanagh’s Cuilcagh.

And there’s more: the ‘four peaks’ of the UK – Slieve Donard (Northern Ireland), Ben Nevis (Scotland), Scafell Pike (England) and Snowdon (Wales); nine Munros, including Ben Lawers and Ben More Assynt; the honeypot summits of Dunkery Beacon (Somerset), Leith Hill (Surrey), Pen y Fan (Brecknockshire) and Silverhill (Nottinghamshire).

I’ll write more as publication approaches (September 15). The book is, however, already available on Amazon.

Botley Hill

I’ve no desire to climb all the Marilyns – UK hills and mountains with a drop of at least 150 metres on all sides, meaning summits of the ilk of Cairn Gorm, Sca Fell and Carnedd Dafydd are excluded. Besides, there’s more than 1500 of them. It is a list for the super-devoted and the ultra-motivated only. Two of the Marilyns are perilous sea stacks located among the isles of the St Kilda archipelago, making the accomplishment of climbing them all a colossal undertaking.

Munro-tagging has a degree of coolness associated with the pursuit. Scotland’s 3000ft mountains are, after all, at times challenging and cruel, but always immensely rewarding. The Marilyns, despite many Munros and numerous other entrants on the more glamorous hill lists of the UK being among their ranks, lack the same prestige. I’m a fine one to talk, however. At least the Marilyns are ‘proper’ hills, unlike some of the obscure molehills I conquered in pursuit of the UK’s historic county tops.

So the odd Marilyn won’t hurt. Botley Hill is my nearest such peak, rising on a ridge of land on London’s southernmost fringe. Being the only Marilyn inside the concrete ring of the M25, the hill has heightened kudos. I found the hill south of Woldingham, set among green and pleasant land punctuated by transmitting paraphernalia, after cycling 15 miles from inner London, most of it, naturally, uphill.

So what of 270-metre Botley Hill? Not a lot, unfortunately. The hill was crowned by a circular water tower, surrounded by three further transmitters. Pretty, this summit is not. Listen hard and the drone of the M25 is just audible. There was no view to the south, trees obscuring the vista. To the north, London nestled in its river-split bowl, the arch of Wembley stadium the most prominent landmark. Still, I had reason to be glad. The sky was blue and cloudless, and I had made it to the zenith of the inner-M25. I could go no higher (until next year that is, when the newly-constructed Shard – and obviously unnatural – will stand 40 metres loftier).