A walk from Fuente Dé, Picos de Europa, Spain

Looking for a (mostly) downhill walk in the Picos de Europa with incredible views? Then this circular walk, which makes use of the Fuente Dé cable car, is probably perfect for you. Just as long as you don’t mind the odd car interrupting your mountain walk!

The route, taken from the excellent Sunflower guide to the Picos de Europa, is approximately 9.5 miles long. Choose a clear day to make the most of the views but be aware weather conditions can change rapidly in the Picos.

Fuente Dé cable car

The cable car from Fuente Dé is the quickest way to get into the high Picos. It transports walkers, climbers and sightseers up to 1850 metres and is the longest single-span aerial lift in Europe.

Fuente Dé cable car
Fuente Dé cable car

I’d read advice on various forums about arriving at the cable car before its 9am August opening time. So had everyone else. At 8.45am our ticket numbers showed there were already more than 200 people in front of us! Fortunately the ride takes less than four minutes so the queue moved relatively quickly.

As we set off I noted the ladder hanging above us, presumably for mid air rescues. Scenes from James Bond films flitted through my mind, along with the Italy cable car disaster. Sometimes my brain isn’t helpful!

View from Horcadina de Covarrobres
View from Horcadina de Covarrobres

There’s a dramatic change in scenery, and air temperature, when you disembark. The first few minutes were spent taking photographs of the view from the overhanging platform only to realise it gets even better when you walk away from the cable car.

There is only one exit route, a wide stone path. We, and everyone else, followed it around to a junction where it splits off. Those equipped for a more challenging mountain walk could choose the PR-PNPE 23. It looked relatively straightforward but we were walking in trainers and I didn’t want to risk it.

Track beside Peña Vieja
Track beside Peña Vieja

Instead we followed the signposted PR-PNPE 24 for much of our walk. It’s not a difficult walk in good weather, but is long and downhill. And, as we discovered later in the day, had a sting (or rather a bark) in the tail.

The track ran alongside the jagged rocks of Peña Vieja. This is a peak that can be summited by walkers, rather than climbers, but only if you’re comfortable with exposure and scree slopes. It’s firmly off my itinerary.

Track to Refugio de Aliva
Track to Refugio de Aliva

Instead our broad stony track wound down the hill towards Chalet Real, previously a royal hunting lodge. We soon discovered why the track was so wide. Jeeps were using them to transport people and goods from the valley floor to the chalet and nearby refuge. These were joined later on by 4WD tours and, rather incredulously, sightseers in everyday cars. So much for a quiet mountain walk!

Refugio de Áliva

It took an hour or so of gentle downhill walking from the cable car to reach the refuge at Áliva. We sat outside in the sun, drinking coffee, and watching choughs just above our heads. A little further away a griffon vulture circled on a thermal. Mesmerising.

Refugio de Áliva
Refugio de Áliva

From the refuge we walked through the Puertos de Áliva, summer meadows grazed by cattle. These were huge, but seemingly docile, beasts with big horns and tinkling cow bells.

Cow grazing on Puertos de Aliva
Cow grazing on Puertos de Aliva

We ate our lunch sitting on large rocks beside the path. Ignoring the occasional cloud dust thrown up by passing vehicles. This is where we saw our first everyday car. How it had managed to negotiate the mountain track without a puncture is beyond me!

Following the GR-202
Following the GR-202

Gates of Aliva

After walking beside a small stream we crossed a cattle grid which rather bizarrely had small fish swimming under it. Whilst the kids spotted fish I was distracted by a kaleidoscope of blue butterflies. Most of them, I think, were chalk hill blue butterflies but there were other blues in the group too.

Chalk hill blue butterflies, Picos de Europa
Chalk hill blue butterflies, Picos de Europa

Columns on either side of the road indicated we’d reached the ‘Gates of Aliva’. The view opened up with a stupendous panorama of the Cordilla Cantábrica, and the extent of our descent which was still to come.

This is where the PR-PNPE 24 splits off and returns to Fuente Dé. In hindsight, this is the route we should have taken. Instead we took the steep road zigzagging down to Espinama. At Espinama we refreshed ourselves with ice cream, crossed the road and started our return to Fuente Dé.

View from Invernales de Igüedri
View from Invernales de Igüedri

Our return route, on the opposite side of the valley, was undulating and mostly along quiet roads. We passed through Pido and then, on a bridge with just three or so kilometres to go we were faced with five large mountain dogs growling and barking at us. Now, I love dogs and am not generally afraid of them. However these ones meant business. After retreating for a while, looking for alternative routes and big sticks to protect ourselves with, we made the difficult decision to turn back.

Fuente Dé glacial cirque
Fuente Dé glacial cirque

Back to Pido and down onto the twisty main road running through the valley. Our scenic ramble turned into a forced march to Fuente Dé, walking in the gutter edging as there was no path. Cars whizzing by every minute or so. It wasn’t pleasant.

It was a relief to finally reach Fuente Dé. To look back up again at the cable car and mountains we’d walked down from. The route is spectacular, and well worth it. But if I was doing it again I’d stay on the PR-PNPE 24 route the whole way. And hopefully avoid the dogs!

Two days exploring the Dorset coast from Bridport to Charmouth

There are more than 80 miles of Dorset coastline, much of it with World Heritage Status. We spent a couple of days exploring the eight mile section between Charmouth and West Bay, an area packed full of fossils, great walks and spectacular views.

West Bay

Cliffs at Bridport, Dorset coast
Cliffs at Bridport, Dorset coast

Our first stop was West Bay, the village made famous by the TV drama, Broadchurch.

We visited out of season, early on a grey Monday morning. Although many places were open the village felt a little ‘closed for winter’. We mooched around the harbour, got buffeted by the wind on the pier and then lost ourselves in a huge building full of crafts and antiques.

However, it’s the cliffs which West Bay is famous for so, once we’d seen the village, we headed towards the beach and its towering golden sandstone cliffs.

Cliff walk near Bridport, Dorset coast
Cliff walk near Bridport, Dorset coast

Our walk started, as expected,with a steep uphill climb to blow the cobwebs away. Once up top we enjoyed a fabulous walk along a stretch of the rollercoaster Dorset coast. This area isn’t without its dangers. A short while after we visited a huge rockfall temporarily closed both the beach and the cliff path. After seeing the photographs it’s a sobering thought that we were walking beside the collapsed cliff section. Do visit, but abide by all warning notices.

Walking back down to West Bay
Walking back down to West Bay

We didn’t walk far. The weather wasn’t conducive to staying on the cliffs and we had a longer walk planned for the afternoon so we soon retraced our steps to the village to find a cafe for lunch. If it’s a nice day, and you fancy seafood for lunch, I’d suggest checking out the kiosks by the harbour. However it was too cold for us to mill around outside and most were still closed for winter so we opted for indoor comfort at West Bay Tea Rooms. This was a great choice with friendly service and good size portions.

Golden Cap walk

After lunch we drove over to Seatown, our starting point for a walk to the summit of Golden Cap. This is a flat topped hill that looked distinctly un-golden when we arrived at Seatown car park. Obscured by heavy rain I decided it best to shelter in the car whilst we waited for the rain to blow over. If you’re without a car and looking for shelter the alternative is a quick half in the Anchor Inn. Although you might be tempted to stay longer than strictly necessary…

Looking back from Seatown, start of Golden Cap walk
Looking back from Seatown, start of Golden Cap walk

At 191 metres Golden Cap is the highest point on the south coast. We followed the 4 mile AA Golden Cap in Trust route. As per our morning walk it started with a steep schlep up to the summit. The heavy rain had made it much muddier and slippier than I’d envisaged. Although when the sun came out a few minutes later all was forgiven. The route to the top took us around half an hour or so; by then we’d jettisoned our outer layers as spring appeared!

Muddy route up Golden Cap
Muddy route up Golden Cap

On a clear day it is evidently possible to see as far as Dartmoor from the summit. Whenever facts like this are pointed out to me I’m always disappointed as I can never see as far as some people obviously can. I could certainly see Portland Bill and, in the opposite direction, Lyme Regis. But not Dartmoor.

Route to Golden Cap summit
Route to Golden Cap summit

Our route continued down the far side, passing the ruins of St Gabriel’s Church. There are some fabulously located National Trust holiday cottages here if you fancy getting away from it all (or as much as you can in Dorset). These buildings are all that remain of Stanton St Gabriel, a village deserted in the 18th Century after residents moved to nearby towns for work.

Golden Cap trig point
Golden Cap trig point

The rest of the route took us on a tour of green and quiet lanes. We cut back beneath Langdon Hill, which is still part of the National Trust estate and offers an alternative starting point for the Golden Cap ascent. As you return to Seatown the views of the Dorset coast return too, it’s even more beautiful when the sun is shining!

Charmouth fossil hunt

The following day saw us in Charmouth, exploring a stretch of Dorset coastline marketed as the Jurassic Coast. The cliffs and beaches are full of fossils that reveal the Earth’s history, from prehistoric Triassic deserts to tropical Jurassic sea. Fossil hunting in Charmouth has long featured on my UK bucket list so I was looking forward to our next activity, a walk with a fossil expert.

We’d booked a walk with fossilwalks.com; at just £5 per head it was excellent value. They run most days during the school holidays or alternatively you can book a rather more expensive private walk. Whatever you choose, book early.

Fossil hunting on Charmouth beach
Fossil hunting on Charmouth beach

The walk starts with a half hour introductory talk about where to find the fossils, what to look out for and what you might find. Chris, our guide, passed around samples of the different fossils for us to handle. We also learnt how to use our hammers correctly (additional cost, book in advance through the guide).

After our briefing we set off to find fossils on the beach. This is a key safety point. Fossil hunting takes place on the beach, not the cliffs! I was sceptical at first to think that fossils would just be lying around on the beach. That was until I found my first ammonite on the sandy shore. Followed by further ammonites, belemnites and, what I’ll call, stones with fossils in. Perhaps not exciting finds in geological terms but I was happy with my haul.

View from Charmouth beach
View from Charmouth beach

Charmouth Heritage Centre

After the walk we visited Charmouth Heritage Centre which houses some larger fossil finds information about the area’s history and geology. Entrance is free (although do leave a donation) and highly recommended; they also offer guided walks and hammer hire.

If you haven’t managed to find any fossils on the beach there’s also a fossil shop next door. Shush, no-one need ever know you’ve bought one.

So, there you have it. Two days exploring the Dorset coast. I now need a few more months to explore the rest of it!

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Twixmas walking in Keswick, Lake District

I love the days between Christmas and New Year. Not for the Christmas TV, piles of chocolate or Boxing Day sales. Instead it’s the call of the mountains.

As in previous years I’d booked a short walking holiday with Country Adventures. This year the destination was Keswick in the Lake District.

Keswick YHA

Our base was Keswick YHA. At the welcome meeting on the first evening it was great to see familiar faces from previous trips and meet new ones. Joe, the leader, talked through the walk options and the format of the break.

I shared a dorm room with three other ladies from the trip. However if youth hostels aren’t for you, Keswick is packed with hotels and B&Bs. It definitely has the feel of a holiday town about it. We ate out in town both nights; there’s plenty of options to choose from and I can recommend the Fellpack.

Day 1 – High Seat

Our first walk was a 10 mile route via Walla Crag, Bleaberry Fell and High Seat.

En route to Bleaberry Fell
En route to Bleaberry Fell

For me, the weather can make or break a walk. Purists might roll out the ‘no such thing as bad weather only unsuitable clothing’ saying but I beg to differ. I’ve been soaked enough times (in suitable clothing) to know I don’t like walking in rain.

I was therefore relieved when the drizzly stuff that accompanied our walk out of Keswick towards Walla Crag eased off.

View from Bleaberry Fell
View from Bleaberry Fell

Once up on Walla Crag the weather started to improve and we were treated to views back over Derwentwater, its islands and the surrounding fells.

En route to High Seat
En route to High Seat

We met another group of walkers at the stile which crosses the stone wall. With typical English politeness each urged the other to go first so it took twice as long as it needed to.

At Bleaberry summit we stopped in the small sheltered area for lunch number one (one of the benefits of walking). Another couple, fully kitted out in walking gear, surprised us by asking which fell they were on. Closely followed by another couple asking the same question!

The boggy bit between Bleaberry and High Seat - about to get boggier!
The boggy bit between Bleaberry and High Seat – about to get boggier!

Between Bleaberry and High Seat the ground gets boggier. Over the years I like to think I’ve perfected my bog walking technique. Move quick, step lightly and when you need to make landfall choose the brown reedy sections. It’s not always successful but I’m pleased to say it worked well on this walk.

Descent from High Seat
Descent from High Seat

I thought we’d escaped any further rain but the presence of a rainbow behind us suggested otherwise. Sure enough the rain clouds caught up with us as we reached the summit of High Seat. Fortunately a rocky platform provided some shelter and the opportunity for lunch number two.

The shower blew through quickly and we started a lovely descent from High Seat. The sun even made an appearance.

Ashness Bridge
Ashness Bridge

At the foot of the hill we reached Ashness Bridge. This is evidently the most photographed bridge in the Lake District. Probably something to do with it being next to a car park! Cynicism aside the backdrop of Skiddaw makes for a great photograph, particularly with the fading afternoon light.

Derwentwater at sunset
Derwentwater at sunset

Our route home took us under Falcon Crag and down and around the shore of Derwentwater. Dusk fell quickly and it was dark by the time we reached Keswick.

Day 2 – Causey Pike

Joe offered two walking options for the second day. An 11 mile walk with 3400ft of ascent  taking us over Sail & Causey Pike, or a slightly shorter lower level option.  As I hail from the flatlands of Oxfordshire there was no hesitation, I chose the higher option.

View back towards Coledale Valley
View back towards Coledale Valley

Setting out from Braithwaite, the first couple of miles took us along a well made track into the Coledale Valley. Our path was an access route for Force Crag Mine, whose abandoned buildings sit at the head of the valley. Lead, barites and zinc were mined here until its closure in 1990.

Descent off of Crag Hill
Descent off of Crag Hill

We diverted off the mine track to cross stepping stones across a ford and started our climb uphill. Looking back down to the mine we could see two large pools which I’ve since discovered were for water treatment. It turns out the environmental impact from the mine was one of the worst in the UK as metal polluted water used to flow into Coledale Beck and onwards. It’s hard to take this in when you’re surrounded by the grandeur of the mountains; somehow you always think of pollution as a city problem.

Into the mist on Crag Hill
Into the mist on Crag Hill

Onwards and upwards. Climbing into the mist. And the wind. In equal measure of hating rain I love walking in the wind! There’s nothing that makes you feel more alive than wind whipping across your face. It was a day to blow the cobwebs away.

Crag Hill
Crag Hill

The first summit, of Crag Hill, arrived in a blur of mist and cairns. We stood beside the trig point for the obligatory group shot. Although the barren plateau could have been anywhere!

From Crag Hill we picked our way down the rocky path, on towards Sail. As we descended the mist slowly cleared and we were able to glimpse the valley below. It’s a fabulous section of the walk, even if the wind was doing its best to take us off  our feet.

Sail to Causey Pike
Sail to Causey Pike

From Sail we followed the relatively new zigzag path down and on towards Causey Pike. Many walkers call this an eyesore; I rather like it.

On to Causey Pike
On to Causey Pike

There’s a short scrambly section to get off the summit of Causey Pike. It’s a straightforward scramble if you’re walking up the fell although a little more interesting descending it on wet rock.

Descent from Causey Pike
Descent from Causey Pike

The only downside to this walk was the 4 mile traipse back into Keswick. It was a perfectly good route but for me the walk is finished once you get off the hill. There was one saving grace, a cafe, serving Rolo brownies. It was dark once more by the time we left the cafe; I so look forward to long summer days again.

Day 3

Joe offers a third shorter day of walking but unless the trip is closer to home I leave early to beat the traffic. Although I’d much prefer to be in the mountains than on the M6!

More info

I walked with Country Adventures. The trip cost £235 including YHA accommodation and breakfast but excluding packed lunches and evening meals.

Joe gets a lot of repeat business (almost everyone on the Twixmas trip was a previous customer) which is a testament to his professionalism. If you enjoy mountain walking in a small group without the hassle of map reading check out his trips for the coming year.

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Suitcases and Sandcastles

Four scenic walks around the Brecon Beacons National Park

My first holiday away from family was a pony trekking trip in the Brecon Beacons in South Wales. I remember eating cowboy pie, incessant rain, singing along to Karma Chameleon on the school bus (yes, it was that long ago) and plenty of red mud. I loved it. It was also the first time I saw mountains in real life. Since then I’ve climbed plenty of hills but I’ve still got a soft spot for the Brecon Beacons. These four walks from our recent holiday show all that’s great about the area:

1. Hay Bluff and Lord Hereford’s knob (Twmpa)

Hay Bluff, near Hay-on-Wye
Hay Bluff, near Hay-on-Wye

This is a popular route close to Hay-on-Wye. You could easily walk to Hay Bluff from Hay-on-Wye but we cheated and drove to the car park at the foot of the hill. From there it’s a steep walk to the 2221 ft summit of Hay Bluff. You won’t be alone. You won’t get lost either as the path is easily visible from the car park. Up top we discovered our first trig point of the week emblazoned with a red dragon. Oh, and a great view of the Wye Valley.

Film buffs might know that scenes from ‘An American werewolf in London’ were shot around Hay Bluff; we saw plenty of moorland ponies but fortunately no werewolves.

Walking the escarpment towards Twmpa
Walking the escarpment towards Twmpa

A lot of people conquer Hay Bluff and return to the car park. If you’ve time it’s worth extending your walk to include a nearby peak, Twmpa. It’s a lovely walk along the escarpment before you temporarily lose height to cross the Gospel Pass Road, the highest road pass in Wales. Once across the road it’s back up the hill to reach the summit of Twmpa, also known as Lord Hereford’s knob. This name was, as expected, the subject of much hilarity with the teens.

The mist descended on us, seemingly from nowhere, as we took a break on the summit. A sunny autumn day quickly turned into a chilly pea souper. And did we imagine the sound of werewolves?

Descent off of Twmpa, Brecon Beacons
Descent off of Twmpa, Brecon Beacons

From Twmpa we headed downhill towards the next peak, Rhos Dirian. We emerged from the mist and passed an unhappy girl trailing behind a Duke of Edinburgh group. Shortly afterwards we took the steep path down the side of the edge and started our return to the car park. Although it’s easy to see where you need to be (the car park is visible from quite a distance) do bring a map to ensure you take the right tracks.

2. Walk around Craig Cerrig-gleisiad Nature Reserve

View from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad nature reserve
View from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad nature reserve

Although a relatively short walk (4 miles) the AA route around Craig Cerrig-gleisiad Nature Reserve is full of interest. The route takes you to the summit of Fan Frynych and around the cliff edges of Craig Cerrig-gleisiad. Alternatively if you want to stay low you could simply explore the reserve’s large amphitheatre carved out by ice and landslides.

After entering the reserve we turned north and followed an undulating dry stone wall for a mile or so through dying bracken. An uphill stretch followed which took us to to a bumpy plateau and another dragon trig point.

Summit of Fan Frynych
Summit of Fan Frynych, Brecon Beacons

Craig Cerrig-Gleisiad nature reserve is famous for its arctic-alpine plants and birds such as ring ouzel and peregrine falcons. In time honoured tradition we didn’t see any of these but we played hide and seek with a couple of grouse near the summit trig.

View from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad
View from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad

The summits of Pen y Fan and Corn Du can be seen from many walks in the Brecon Beacons including this one. We were the only people on Fan Frynych but wondered how many were on top of these rather more popular peaks.  Certainly I recall a steady stream of walkers when we climbed Pen y Fan.

Start of descent from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad
Start of descent from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad

After lunch we circled the top of the cliffs before tackling the downhill section. This was extremely steep and quite slippy in places. If, like me, you’ve got ageing knees you might be better off exploring alternative descents!

Craig Cerrig-gleisiad nature reserve
Craig Cerrig-gleisiad nature reserve, Brecon Beacons

3. Caerfanell Valley and Carn Pica

This was another AA walk, following the extended version of the Skyline Walking above the Caerfanell Valley route (only available in the AA book, not online). The first section, up on to and along the edge of Craig y Fan Ddu, was pretty hard going due to the bitter wind. Not pleasant at all despite the views. It was a relief to turn out of the wind.

View from Waun Rydd
View from Waun Rydd

With the wind behind us, we followed the well marked path across the moorland of Waun Rydd. It took us a while to decide on a picnic spot as most of the area is exposed and marshy but we finally found one with a view over to Pen-y-Fan. Only to discover that neither of us were carrying the sandwiches. Whoops. Thankfully we had some snacks to tide us over.

View from Carn Pica
View from Carn Pica, Brecon Beacons

Lunch, of sorts, over we walked on to experience one of my favourite sections of the walk. The views from the beehive Carn Pica and down to Talybont Reservoir and across to the Black Mountains were stunning, possibly my favourite in the Brecon Beacons. With one eye on the view we continued along the edge of the escarpment, passing the tempting ridge route to Allt Lwyd and then traversing cliffs to reach another smaller cairn (in feature photo). From here it was possible to take a short diversion to visit the wreckage and memorial of a Canadian plane crash. In hindsight I wish we had. But we had a hangry teen, about to die of starvation, with us.

View from near Carn Pica
View from near Carn Pica

Instead we walked downhill to the second scenic treat of this walk, a series of waterfalls. The Brecon Beacons are well known for their waterfalls, particularly those at Ystradfellte. The ones on this route are a quieter alternative although given the size of the Blaen-y-Glyn car parks I’m guessing this is not always the case. The path follows the Caerfanell River, with some added diversions around fallen trees or particularly boggy bits.

At the largest waterfall we turned into the woodland where we discovered the walk had a sting in its tail. It was a very steep trek up through a section of felled forest back to the car park!

Caerfanell waterfall, near Talybont-on-Usk
Caerfanell waterfall, near Talybont-on-Usk, Brecon Beacons

If, after the walk, you’re looking to appease hungry children (or adults) I recommend the Old Barn Tea rooms. Follow the signs from the car park; it’s bigger and busier than you expect given their apparent remoteness. Oh, and they have great coffee.

4. Climbing the Cat’s Back up Black Hill

For our last walk we drove back to England. This walk is in Herefordshire and just outside the Brecon Beacons boundary but as it was recommended to us by the National Park visitor centre I’m including it here. Particularly as it was my favourite walk of the week.

We reached the start after a long, mostly single track, drive from Hay-on -Wye to the picnic site signposted near Llanveynoe. As we hardly saw another car on the journey it was a surprise to arrive and find the small parking area full. Fortunately another walker was just returning so we were able to use his space.

Climbing the Cat’s Back, Black Hill
Climbing the Cat’s Back, Black Hill

Once out of the car there’s a short, but steep, uphill section to the ridge. The path is clear and up top the vista is wide ranging. Flat green English countryside, aside from the Malverns, on one side of the ridge. The harsh moorland of the Black Mountains on the other. And dark storm clouds in front of us. Can you guess how this walk ended?

View from Black Hill
View from Black Hill

I’ve seen this route described as Herefordshire’s Striding Edge. As someone who isn’t too keen on exposure this worried me a little. Fortunately this is infinitely easier than Striding Edge. It’s a fun ridge route without the fear of death that, for me, spoils Striding Edge.

Walking the Cat’s Back up Black Hill
Walking the Cat’s Back up Black Hill

The route is called the Cat’s Back as it evidently looks like one of these from afar. We checked this out on the drive home but I’m not convinced. At the end of the ridge we found a huge cairn, just look at its scale compared to my teenage son!

Cairn on Black Hill
Cairn on Black Hill

Black Hill summit trig is a little further on. A good photo stop as always but on this route it’s the ridge that’s the star of the walk.

Summit of Black Hill
Summit of Black Hill

Our return was hastened by the ominous storm clouds blowing our way. With a forecast of possible thunderstorms, I decided to get off the summit sharpish so we galloped across moorland to reach our descent route. This took us down through the Olchon Valley which, on a fine day, would have been a great place to explore. A pity our descent was marred by hailstones.

Walking down Olchon Valley
Walking down Olchon Valley

We reached the bottom just as the hail eased off. The final part of the route runs along a road with derelict stone buildings on either side. Despite our soaking we’d had a great walk and I was almost tempted to head up the ridge for a second go!

Do you have a favourite walk in the Brecon Beacons?

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