by Ben Haworth
Hard (click map for full-res map)
Distance: 37 km
Ascent: 1244 m
Duration: 4 – 6 hrs
Medium (click map for full-res map)
Distance: 32.8 km
Ascent: 975 m
Duration: 3 -5 hrs
Photos: Rich Seipp and James Lyons.
Mention South Wales and mountain biking in the same sentence and most people will assume you’re heading off to one of the trail centres that have sprung up here in the last few years. But the rich industrial heritage of Cardiff and its surrounding areas has left a landscape pock-marked with a bizarre mix of quarries, mines, castles, industrial estates and woodland. This sits right in between the biking Meccas of Afan and Cwmcarn, in fact the long route featured passes within a few miles of the southern edge of Cwmcarn making it a viable alternative start point for those after something a bit more adventurous than the usual trail centre riding experience.
For me, this route was a trip down Memory Lane since I’d been at university in Cardiff and this used to be my local riding and training area. Further along the coast towards Swansea, Afan was used as the venue for one of the rounds of the Welsh National MTB race series long before it became a trail centre and was brought to the attention of mountain bikers outside of Wales. Unfortunately my knowledge of the geography and trail network had faded somewhat in the eight years since I’d left so I’d recruited an old friend and local boy Mark to remind me of the way around.
Our ride started in the little village of Tongwynlais just north of Cardiff but it’s easy to get here from Cardiff via the Taff Trail, a 55-mile cycle path connecting the city with the Brecon Beacons. It’s mostly a mix of disused railway line and canal towpath with various bits of quiet road riding through towns and villages en route. And if nothing else, it provides a scenic warm-up to the ride. The weather was a most un-Welsh like sunny winter’s day, the temperature hovering around freezing as we met up. After the obligatory faffing, this time with Mark’s misbehaving rear shock, we were off and climbing the frozen trails towards Castell Coch. Known locally as the fairytale castle, its picture-book turret peeks above the tree canopy on the steep-sided hill and is a useful, not to mention charming, landmark for navigating. The woods surrounding the castle are stuffed with quality singletrack and some of the steeper sections have had jumps built on them by the local baggy-jeaned riding crew. In other areas, the natural bombholes and winding singletrack provide enough entertainment on their own. The beauty of this area is that it can be explored for as long as you want. I remembered a trail from my distant past of riding round here but Mark had never seen it before, proof that there’s always something new to be riding even in your own backyard. We played in the woods for a while longer until Mark pinch-flatted after an unintentional nose-heavy landing off one of the jumps. Deciding not to risk such daredevil behaviour again we dropped down to the valley floor and, after a short section of playing chicken with the traffic on the busy roads through town, we were up and away on the other side of the valley, climbing through crusty frozen leaf litter. In just a few short months I knew that this would be transformed from the frostbitten orange and brown hues of winter into a carpet of bluebells.
Our destination was The Garth, a 1068ft summit on the other side of the valley to Castell Coch. It’s actually the original setting of the story which later became the film The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain, which rather bizarrely was written by a dentist who lived in Taff ’s Well, a village at the foot of the hill (or mountain). Unfortunately, when climbing it, it feels more like a mountain!
We popped out of the woodland and into a field then out onto the road for more climbing and finally a sharp right turn on narrow road which turned to stony doubletrack. Most paths around here are labelled as footpaths but it’s all common land and mountain bikers are certainly tolerated even if not explicitly allowed. The track was hemmed in by gorse bushes but soon opened out and the summit cairn sneaked into view. This hill is also the location of a large number of Bronze Age burial mounds and the summit is surrounded by a series of lesser tumuli. We paused to catch our breath and take in the view behind us although Castell Coch was almost obscured by lingering trails of mist in the valley below. To the north was a different panorama altogether, industrial estates marking the start of The Valleys area, which stretches up to Merthyr Tydfil. This former mining town marks the southern edge of the other popular mountain biking destination in the area, the Brecon Beacons.
The descent off The Garth started innocently enough via wide rutted grassy tracks over the lumpy plateau before the trail simply disappeared over the edge of the hill into a 1-in-3 descent over sheep-cropped grass. It arrived at the edge of the common land, passed through a gate and into Forestry land and the track turned nasty. This part of the descent is named Scaphoid Hill by Mark and his riding mates since at least three of them have incurred broken scaphoid bones on it. Should be a good spot for some photos then… After a few goes for the camera on the rooty dropoffs we continued down the hill through the deforested zones, bikes bouncing over the frozen ruts of enormous tractor tyres. We picked up the Taff Trail again and enjoyed a gentle two-mile spin along the old railway track into Caerphilly, our lunch stop for the day.
Caerphilly is famed for two things; its cheese (still produced locally) and the colossal castle, the second biggest in Britain. The semi-derelict monument is an impressive feat of 13th Century engineering and it still towers over the town. The huge moat and artificial lakes were frozen, ducks and geese stood round forlornly on the ice. From here the routes split, the long route heading north to the fantastically named Ynysddu before picking up the ridgeline and heading back to Rudry. It helps to know where you’re going round here as asking for directions can be confusing!
this point, pleading family duties to return to while we headed west directly towards Rudry following the Medium Route on a mix of off-road and road and once again mostly uphill. The main attraction of Rudry is its pub, the Maenllwyd Inn but we passed on by and headed into the trails again this time around Coed Coesau Whips; Coed being Welsh for Forest. As at Castell Coch it’s almost impossible to describe a route round here as there’s singletrack everywhere and a host of interconnecting forest access roads if you fancy a slightly easier climb back up for another run. For those who started the ride in Cardiff itself it’s an easy spin back along urban off-road and quiet roads back to town from here but we used the forest fireroad to take us back in the direction of Castell Coch. It eventually emerged at Caerphilly Common but, unlike the common land of The Garth, this one is strictly off limits to mountain bikers, a ban that the local riders are more than willing to observe given the quantity of great riding nearby.
We soon found ourselves up above Caerphilly at the Mountain Top Café. This wooden hut claims to be the longest-serving greasy spoon café in Wales; a proud boast if ever there was one. True to form it supplied us with a decent cup of coffee (we’ll save the full Welsh breakfast for next time) and some nice views and we headed on our way back into the woods of Castell Coch refreshed. From here the descent is as long as you want to make it. There are plenty of singletrack choices both through the Castell woods and the woods on the opposite side of the road within Coed y Wenallt on offer and as ever the chance to climb back up to do it all again. With the winter light fast fading we made the most of the dying rays to get a few last pictures and a just-one-more-time run of one of the descents. Looking back from the road home, the sunset hued glow of Castell Coch above the woodland marked the trails hidden from those driving past on their way to a trail centre.