They’ll keep a rifle in the hillside: going for a stupid walk for my stupid mental health


Slow Ways’ stories editor, Tom, ventures out for a not-so-meditative walk from Ystrad Mynach to Caerphilly

I’ve been editing Slow Ways stories throughout winter this year. Despite this, I have barely been out myself. I dug myself a great big hole and jumped right in, a pit of despair, if you will. I resolved to at least try something new this week, and finally about two years after I first heard of the concept — got off my arse and walked a Slow Way! I picked Ystcae one, as I currently reside in Ystrad Mynach (I hesitate to say “live”), and Caerphilly has great bus and train connections back, even on a Sunday. Seven miles? Even at a leisurely pace I thought I’d be home in two hours. How wrong I was!

1:30pm: setting out

I must admit that I didn’t begin the walk at the specified start of the route, as I’ve seen that part of the village plenty of times before. To give you a summary of what you’d see there: walk from the railway station either right around on the road as suggested or simply take the small, dingy pedestrian tunnel linking the Tredomen estate and the station. Walk past maybe one or two streets of Tredomen, you’ll then be able to follow a track through the trees, recently designated a right of way but fought over bitterly for twenty years prior. 

The track will lead you to the ridge at the mountain top, apparently used in days gone by as a path to push prisoners along between Brecon Assizes and Cardiff Prison (some 40 miles). Of course, many of the prisoners were hanged long before they reached the modern-day capital.

Instead, I hoped to connect to the route by heading straight up the hill from Twyn Road. I was using my Beeline, a small compass-looking gadget that’s really meant for bike handlebars, rather than a walker’s pocket, but it was the best way I had of utilising the GPX file provided by Slow Ways.

I read recently about spending 20 minutes at the start of a walk not thinking about anything except that which you can see, hear or smell. It’s a meditative practice, which I decided to try at the start of this walk. Unfortunately I also had to navigate, as I’d made things a lot harder for myself. If you’re thinking about skipping the first part of a Slow Way: don’t! They’re drawn as they are for a reason!

Just a few minutes later, I was back fiddling with the Recorder dictation app, because I just couldn’t stop… thinking about things! I kept thinking about what shape this article would take, and I kept thinking about how I shouldn’t be thinking. It was brisk, so my nose was running; I couldn’t smell anything, and I wished I’d packed a handkerchief. The main thing I felt was uncomfortable, both too hot and too cold in my sub-standard outfit. I was sweating heading uphill, while getting buffeted by the wind. I tried 15 minutes instead, using the alarm clock app. But I couldn’t even manage that.

2pm: hesitations

I stopped for a sip of coffee by a tree. I was still overthinking things, and was still nowhere near the route. I did admire a holloway at the top of a field, though, where someone has left a mug out in the grass. As I was trespassing through a farm, I was a bit anxious there might be complaints from the human or, worse, animal inhabitants. Compounding these fears was my need to take an asthma pump hit. God, how did I get so unfit recently?

Just fifteen minutes later I stopped for a coffee again, next to a mobile phone tower and gave thanks to it, naming it Poster’s God, enabling us prolific internet addicts to send each other “He’s just like me for real” hundreds of times every day under photos of macho dudes. 

Loud cracks were suddenly audible, ringing out and rippling over the hillside: not the welcome you expected? To my far left were coal heaps which look like miniature mountains. Under them a few cars were parked, mostly black Range Rovers, with a large red flag flying among each cluster of cars. On top of the coal tips, there was also an unidentifiable floating thing, possibly more flags. 

I was now worried that they might be shooting in my direction. And I still wasn’t on the path. This made me consider turning back, which I would have hated: I once set out to cycle to Bristol; I don’t think I even made it past Blackwood. The memory of that shameful day rang in my head. Just another thing for me to screw-up, along with everything else. Time to phone a friend?

Looking out from Poster’s God at the coal heaps from which guns roar.

3pm: getting on track

I phoned my uncle, the authority on all things walking (he once did the Three Peaks of Scotland, England and Wales just because he couldn’t sleep that night). He said I was right to be concerned about the red flag; it’s a private shooting club. But, he said, I shouldn’t worry as they were some distance away (location sharing came in useful). He advised me to continue across the field in front of me. 

I’ve since Googled the club, and it’s all very legitimate. There was a shooting range there in the 1980s (probably when the coal heaps were still “growing”!) and recently a Llandbradach businessman decided to open a new one in the same place. Several prominent local people, it turns out, are members. 

When I realised the field in front of me contained sheep as well as a massive phone mast, I felt much safer; it probably wasn’t on the firing range. After getting over a large barbed wire fence, I celebrated by enjoying my Creme Egg. 

Creme egg time, and relax.
The path, at last

Finally, I was on Ystcae one, literally on track. A few rally bikes passed me, engines ticking over as they sluiced through muddy patches. First I could see the red flags up close and I soon passed the actual shooting range. After passing the riflemen, their guns were still in earshot, and would be for some time thereafter. 

It turns out I had nothing to worry about. The rifle owners stand across the valley from the spoil heap and shoot towards it, so the projectiles are nowhere near where I was. I then met three guys on mountain bikes who were disappointed to see the shooting, as they had planned to go have MTB fun on the coal heaps. 

3.20pm: on the straight and hollow

I should have been finished by this time of day had I done things right. I was now walking on a very straight, sunken holloway, gravel, sand. Stone walls, hacked into the grass, well used by vehicles. Looking at how straight it is, it seemed dull, so I once again tried to only think about what I could see, hear or smell for the next 15 minutes. I’ve tried all sorts of meditation over the years: recently my friend practised EMDR on me, and he said to go to a safe place. I replied that a totally safe place is a totally secure place, which is neither accessible or realistic. And I can’t go there if it’s not real. So getting any mental health intervention through to an overthinker like me is impossible. I tried for another 15 minutes.

The smells of a farmyard interested me, but they weren’t the usual smells of cows. Peeking through the fence, there are huge piles of stuff in there. What is it? Clothes? I think about those “charity bags” my mam puts out on the kerb. Do they all end up here? As for sight; little metal canisters on the ground: a sure sign of locals coming up here to sample laughing gas.

3:35pm: meditation is not for me

The 15 minutes were done and I felt like I failed again. I did notice a lot of smells and sounds, but then I was thinking about what they meant. Combined with miscellaneous song snippets, I’m always having this constant blather. I did take antidepressants last year and they did stop me thinking like this, but they also seemed to make me stop thinking at all. I felt completely dumb. So I stopped taking them recently, and now the anxious, constant low level thinking has returned.

The downhill descent was quite steep. I came out on a pavement by a road, on the edge of Caerphilly. In the streets, the Beeline wants me to diverge slightly from the Slow Ways GPX file. Hoping to wrap up in the next half hour, I followed the shorter Slow Ways route.

Passed a few nice houses. A jeep passed me going up the hill and honked at me as if to say hello. Didn’t see who it was, why do people do this? No doubt some ne’erdowell I associate with. This walk was a test of my new insoles, cheap ones – at this point the ball of my foot was a bit painful. I approached a cross roads, and needed to check the map for the first time in a while. On Court Road, I passed through an old school modal filter. 

I then found out why Beeline wanted me to go around. A lovely green pedestrian bridge over the road. Difficult to get through on a bike – one side has a slalom of fences and the other a series of steps.

4pm: past the allotted time

Ystcae provided a slight detour towards Energlyn and Churchill Park railway station. I considered getting the train home but it being a Sunday there was a half-hour wait. So I kept walking in the direction of Aber and Caerphilly stations- they’re very close together in this neck of the woods. I wasn’t worried about getting back, as it was still early in the day and I had many options. 

Approaching the park I passed the community allotments. “Everyone welcome,” says the children’s sign, but underneath it on the same planter lies a stern council warning that “access to the allotments is only permitted for supervised signed up volunteers”. 

At quarter past I arrived in Morgan Jones park. A dog went straight for me. The dog’s owner says “no, don’t jump on people with white trousers!” A game ensued of me darting behind the owner as they tried to wrangle the excited dog. 

4:25pm: bus stop

After exiting the park, I broke Ystcae once again in order to catch a bus. The rest of the walk loops around Caerphilly Castle, which I’ve done plenty of times. If you’re not from around here, it’s a terrific building, which is well worth a good look round. If you’re a local, though, it’s just part of the furniture. The bus shows up around 4.30, so I’m back home again by around 4.45. It’s nice to sit down in the warm! 

I got back, wrote a short review and rating here and started planning another one for next week. But lesson learned, go to the designated start point, or at least link up with a decent road or path you know well. 

Have you been on a Slow Ways walk yet?

Thomas Morris
Irish-Welshman. Passionate about active travel.