Grade C+. 7 miles.
Date: Wednesday 18 November 2015. Weather: Heavy rain, high winds.
Under normal conditions, this medium-level walk could be expected to exercise but not enervate keen walkers. It could also be expected to provide a stunning view over the Cwm Nedd (Neath Valley), Afon Nedd (River Neath), Sgiwen (Skewen) and Neath Abbey. In the event, this wasn’t quite our experience! Abigail, the fierce storm blustering its way across the Northern Britain, during recent days, dictated otherwise. Atop the Myndd Drumau (Drummau Mountain) rain and wind combined to form a stinging, lashing force, propelling us forward in the hope of relief!
Our venture began with what, to the quiet, residential estate of Brookfield, must have felt like an invasion by a flock of “suited-and-booted” walkers—with more Gore-Tex and gaters on display than a typical Go-Outdoors store!
Yet within two minutes of setting out, we had left residential streets behind, entered the Cwmfelin Valley and began exploring the Cwm-Clydach Pond. This reservoir was constructed in 1840 to produce a steady supply for the water-wheels of Neath Abbey Iron Works.
Leaving the pond behind, a gradual climb ensued, past Swiss Cottage and along a woodland path with Stanley Wood on our left. Through Dyffren Woods, the path became rocky, muddy and root-strewn, producing a short but demanding ascent, as we turned right and began to climb more steeply. After levelling out, the walk crossed the forestry road and up some steps that were rather steep and in poor condition.
By the time we reached the two-mile mark, break for coffee was taken in Bater’s Quarry . At the time it seemed to offer us scant shelter from the rain which had become more serious, signalling its intent to accompany us across the summit of the Myndd. Yet, in comparison to what was about to come, we discovered, it represented the quiet before the storm!
Turning right and passing through a farm gate, we ascended onto the top of the Myndd Drumau (“Mountain of the Ridges,” 272m / 892ft high) and began following the ridge line. At this point, the full impact of a tumultuous wind combined to produce a driving rain. With hoods raised and tightened, the route drew us on to the Careg Bica (a 13′ tall maen bredwan, or hoat stone), around which we futilely sought some relief from the wind.
The stone is apparently referenced in a charter to King John, dated 1203, making the boundary between Gower and Neath. According to legend, it bathes in the River Neath on Easter Monday. For some years, also around Easter time, it shared the limelight with a large cross, raised each year by a local branch of the Apostolic Church. This celebration apparently ended after a confrontation with the landowner, who locked the celebrants on the mountain, until forced to reopen the gate by an off-duty policeman!
As we continued across the ridge, the wind rocked us and the rain became stinging. Reaching the trig point, we were rewarded with a brooding, panoramic view of the river valley below us.
From the trig point, we passed by the derelict remains of Coed Maesmelin (Farm), once run by the Kirkhouse family, who were also civil and mining engineers. Shortly afterwards, once off the ridge and sheltered by woodland, there was opportunity to recuperate and enjoy lunch. We then descended via a rocky path to Penshannel, following Dram Road and taking in a visit to the thatched Glynfelin Lodge, apparently dated to the 17th century.
The walk then continued on to Coed Bach, descending into a steep wooded gorge, revealing a narrow, dramatic waterfall, swollen in its power by recent rainfall. Following the River Clydach brought us to another powerful, broader waterfall, which once fed a derelict woollen mill.
In 1929 the dam forming the Cwm-Clydach Pond (start of the walk) collapsed after heavy rain, pouring into the valley and completely flooding the mill and 15 occupied houses. Iron workers and their families needed to be rescued, from the steep-sided valley, using ropes and planks.
From here, we walked beneath a ~15m high railway viaduct, dating from c.1850 and built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The five arches of the viaduct were formed by four skewed piers, uniquely and skilfully constructed in sympathy with the obscure angles formed by the courses of the river below and railway above.
From the viaduct, it was a short walk to the remains of the Neath Abbey Iron Co. blast furnaces, dating from 1785, which once produced engines, cylinders and parts for Cornish steam engines and locomotives. At its zenith, two 60′ high blast furnaces once produced 75–80 tons of iron each week.
The works were the initiative of the Quaker families, Fox and Price. Sir Benjamin Baker, the architect of the Forth Bridge, served his time as a mechanical engineering apprentice. In 1854, the first iron vessel, the Ellen Bates was built here. In 1876 a clipper built iron steamer was launched from the building yard. Closure of the works came just nine years later.