For me as a (non-native) Cardiffian the river Taff is omnipresent. I live very close to it and walk up and down its banks when I move through the city. That means that I felt somewhat naturally drawn to this trail as my first multiple day section hike.
The Taff Trail is part of the British National Cycle Network and one section of their Route 8 from Cardiff all the way through Wales up to Anglesey. It is 88 kilometres long and runs through Cardiff, Pontypridd, Merthyr Tydfil, Pontsicill and the Brecon Beacons. A really scenic route with lots of interesting stops. I spent 5 days on the Taff Trail, each one of them special and full of good memories and valuable lessons.
Day one: Enthusiasm and these songs in my head
Cardiff Bay to Rhydyfelin
I set out in the early morning on a Tuesday in October. The weather was pleasant, I was dropped off at the trailhead in Cardiff Bay and I took a few obligatory pictures of the trail marker. Then, I started to walk. The stretch was a bit odd since I walked exactly how I would walk home from the bay, passing my house about 30 minutes after I had started.
But obviously, I didn’t stop there. I continued past the stadium and into Bute Park were the damages of a recent storm were clearly visible. I met a few dogwalkers as I made my way through Llandaff and with great enthusiasm reached Castle Coch at lunchtime. There was a bit of road walking, even along the motorway, but the trail mostly lead through parks, residential areas and long forested stretches. I was in high spirits but for some reason couldn’t stop singing Christmas Songs in my head. This had to stop, so I played an audiobook which I listened to through headphones (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by the way). Audiobooks are such a great way to entertain or educate oneself on trail. I made it through two Potter books that week and in the future, I will definitely make sure to download a variety of books and podcasts for hikes.
Whilst Harry was learning the ropes of the magical world and got lost in the endless corridors of Hogwarts, I got lost somewhere in a residential area of Taffs Well where I went off trail for a little bit. I eventually found the trail again and continued to the town of Rydyfeln where I ended my first day of walking. Admittedly 3 kilometres shy of what I had planned for the day but still feeling good about the progress.
Day two: Rain and hiker hunger
Rydyfelin to Pentrebach
It had been raining on and off on day one so I had the pleasure of putting on damp hiking clothes when I set off on Wednesday morning. It was drizzling again so I would have been damp very soon anyway, but starting out in wet and cold attire was still not the most motivating start. It didn’t help either that I got lost right away and climbed a hill that turned out to be a dead end. Back to my starting point I went.
It took me an hour to get my rhythm going that morning. I briefly stopped in Pontypridd for breakfast but by then it was so windy and wet that my solid fuel cooking system failed me and my oats had to stay uncooked. I made a mental note to compare different cooking systems for different weather conditions and hiked on. (That mental note will soon turn into an article of its own – I’ll insert a link when it’s ready.)
The rest of the day was good, yet exhausting. It kept raining the entire day. I hiked in the rain, I had lunch in the rain, I sat down for breaks in the rain. My goal for that day was to reach the train station in Pentrebach from where I wanted to get a train home. There are some train stations along the trail before the Brecon Beacons where hikers can enter or leave the trail. Cardiff, Pontypridd, Pentrebach or Merthyr are pretty convenient. After Merthyr it becomes a little more difficult for those who do not wish to spend the nights on the trail.
The last three kilometres or so before Pentrebach was a mind over matter game and by the time I got there, the hotspot on my foot had turned into a full-on blister and I was happy to be done for the day. After a shower (yes!) and putting on dry clothes (OH YES!), we went out for pub food and I ate my bodyweight in Lasagna and chips. Back home I treated my blisters, massaged my feet, chucked my hiking clothes in the tumble dryer and went to bed.
Day three: Flipflopping
Brecon to Aber
As soon as one reaches the Brecon Beacons good points to enter or exit the trail become much rarer and so does accommodation, both in hostels and in terms of campsites. After my super wet day from before, I was craving a shorter and more playful day, so I decided to flipflop and take a bus from Cardiff to Brecon and hike the rest of the trail backwards.
That allowed me to have a later start and a scenic bus trip before I hit the trail again. It was only a 12-kilometre walk to Aber Farm, where I booked one of their Shepard’s Huts to spend the night. I love Aber Farm and I have stayed there since, also with my own tent pitched in their fields and I highly recommend that place to anyone who is looking for accommodation in the Brecon Beacons (check them out here).
Since I didn’t have to walk too far that day, I took a lot more time on trail to stop, take pictures and stretch out every once in a while. I reached Aber Farm in the early afternoon, had a lovely post-hike yoga session in front of an epic backdrop of mountains and fields and then retreated to my hut for an early dinner. The day had been dry, but another storm hit during the night.
Day Four: Welcome to Jurassic Park
Aber to Pontsicill
Refreshed from a short day and a long night, I sat out before dawn the next morning. In the beam of my headlamp, I left Aber and continued to Talybont Reservoir. The sun was beginning to rise as I made my way through the thicket along the banks of the lake. The ground was so boggy from all the rain the night before and I was once again thankful for my water-resistant hiking boots, my trekking poles for stability and particularly the mud baskets on them that helped with not sinking into the ground so much.
I was in constant awe during this stretch of the Taff Trail. I would have been quicker had I chosen the paved cycle track a little further up instead of the overgrown paths directly at the waterline. But moving past (or sometimes through) the thick bushes, countless ferns and walls of reed made me feel like I was part of a prehistoric landscape and at times I was almost expecting a herd of Parasaurolophuses breaking through the vegetation. It was surreal. Towards the end of the reservoir, I reached more open terrain (better-suited habitat for Gallimimus?) and I sat down in a bird hide for breakfast. I had made a good choice with nuts and dates, which are easy to pack and calorie dense – a good combination for us hikers. To drink: An Aber Farm homemade apple juice.
There was a lot of walking up and down hills that day and I avoided concrete surfaces wherever I could to make it easier on the joints. Even when that meant I walked the little grass strip next to the actual trail. I chose the higher route past Pontsicill Reservoir and was rewarded with amazing views. I met the nicest couple in the woods who were trying to get some good action shots of their dogs. We all know how well photoshoots with pets go so needless to say that everyone was covered in mud but no good pictures were taken. I walked into Pontsicill in the early afternoon and during a long lunch break debated with myself whether or not to push for Pentrebach and finish the hike. I did not push for it and instead ended my day just after the centre of Pontsicill.
Day Five: No signal anywhere
Pontsicill to Pentrebach
This left me with another 11 kilometres to walk on my next day. Another short one. I was in a pretty bad mood when I hiked out due to some heavy miscommunications on my part backfiring and with absolutely no signal to fix it. Take it from someone who really wanted to make a call: In wide areas of the Brecon Beacons and the Valleys there is no mobile signal or internet connection and if you feel like you rely on either your mobile device or some form of communication to others – think of a different way and think of it ahead of time. But what was done was done and the only way to go was onwards. So onwards I went through the woods and along the stream once more. Soon after – I was halfway through Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – I hit Merthyr. Fueled by my last energy bar my feet carried me the remaining 4 kilometres to the train station in Pentrebach.
This rush in the end…
As I plonked down on a seat in that train back to Cardiff, wet, dirty and probably a little smelly, I felt such a rush of energy and accomplishment. I disembarked the train and on my way home from Cardiff Central, I wore my hiking gear (which looks properly out of place in the city centre) as a badge. It was only about 100 kilometres that I walked and I even had the added comfort of sleeping in my own home for many nights, but I felt like I have truly achieved something. My body, my very own legs, have carried me all that distance. And I was and still am so sure they will continue to carry me.