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(with Brent Lynam in the driving seat)
At 02:41 the immaculate white Raw Head trig shows up in the torch light, right on cue. After the early-evening rain it's a perfect starlit night. Then I miss the descent route - one hill down, seven minutes behind schedule. We'd already managed to lose our way en route to the start. Just early nerves, hopefully. Thirty minutes later I'm blundering about on Hope Mountain in the darkness - all gorse and cowpats. Third up, after a worryingly snowy drive, is Gyrn Moelfre, last done in 1997 by the notorious Fron path, and a late entry into the schedule. Tonight, keeping the torch off, tripping over a few branches and wondering where the route goes, the summit is pure magic by starlight with a sprinkling of snow. The concrete road to Mynydd-y-Briw is icy, but the grass makes for a swift easy descent.
By Allt y Main it's 05:30 and there's a monochrome view; enough light for a torch-less descent but no chance of being seen. Y Golfa, at 06:00, produces the first proper view, and the first snow squall. By Upper Park it's 06:30 and fully light - not at all the plan. However, there's more snow falling, and no-one about. At the top a half-sun glows orange above a grey cloud bank. Such variety of hills, lighting and weather - it's great to be out. And it's good to be on safer ground with Stingwern Hill, a two-minute wonder and another nice view. Moel y Golfa is frosty, and superb, and I make an accidental time-saving short-cut. Long Mountain makes for an interesting snowy ascent - and we're still in the car. The level track suits my running ability not at all, but is soon over, and the first ten hills are in the bag in 5:25.
Caeliber Isaf kicks off the second ten, with a sprinkling of snow making the best of its sometimes prosaic view. In return for gate duty, Brent drops me at the base of Corndon Hill. The descent is into a biting wind, eyes streaming. Heath Mynd has nothing left of its bracken resistance, and less of its heather after some recent burning. Then it's the superb Stiperstones tor. At 09:45 a single runner appears, the first sign of life since we started - other than a brown hare, a grey squirrel, countless rabbits and pheasants, a few fieldfares, the odd buzzard and sundry other creatures. Brent somehow manages to miss them all - not a single roadkill in 32 hours of driving. At Long Mynd Brent visits Boiling Well to replenish the two litres of water I've got though already. By Caer Caradoc, uphill is suddenly hard work - need to slow down and dig in. I turn into more stinging wind-driven snow and thankfully trot down. For Callow Hill we take a chance on the ford at Strefford - no problem after a few dry days. View Edge still has the same weird contouring semi-path between the trees, but the open deciduous woodland makes a nice change. I get a welcome rest on the 29-minute drive to Brown Clee, but the legs still don't have much to offer. Quickly giving up on the churned-up track, a short-cut makes a nice line across short grass, the feet just stay dry to the trig and then the heathery highpoint. More squally snow, and a grey view of sorts. The beeline descent doesn't take me quite to the car but repays the risk. At Titterstone Clee Hill the same snow squall catches me again. Twenty down, 10:26 elapsed - so far so good. Brent is regaining on the road the time I'm losing on the hills.
High Vinnalls is closed! Forest Enterprise have gone to a lot of trouble cordoning off paths and covering up waymarkers. All to no avail really. A slow ascent of Shobdon Hill, while Brent begs some more water for me. At Wapley Hill I manage to run a bit, then go astray a bit on the way down. The Bradnor Hill golf course crossing is simple enough. Hergest Ridge has a biting wind and a fine view - such a great day to be on these hills. As usual I don't quite find the best way down though the gorse. Fourteen hours in, Brent finally manages to miss a turning, en route to Burton Hill. The damage is less than five minutes. After the late-night bramble nightmare of our previous attempt, Burton Hill by daylight, with its comprehensive waymarking and summit track, puts up little resistance, and I'm soon back at the waiting car. At Hegdon Hill I somehow make the one-metre ascent of the hedge bank to get my head above the reservoir. By Worcestershire Beacon my legs have finally woken up again: I catch a colourful afterglow, and the usual icy wind. The Hereford chippy is an essential two-minute diversion, then Aconbury Hill is an easy jog, thankfully avoiding the one-mile detour of our previous visit. At Garway Hill last time we had difficulty locating the top stile in the dark. This time Brent follows me up and lights the spot, although the bracken and gorse have gone. He outruns me on the way back to the car - next time we're swapping places. That's thirty down, in 17:09. But a lot of driving to come.
Graig Syfyrddin is easier to climb than to spell (the OS name for the trig is spelt Serrerthin). By 20:20 the tiny sliver of moon is nearly down already. Ysgyryd Fawr is another unreccied late addition. We spend a few minutes finding the stile (amazingly, a farmer comes out and shows us). A bit more time is lost on the arable approach and the nose-bruisingly steep ascent, but it's a superb summit. Then it's on to the land of long drives and short hills - Ruardean Hill, May Hill, Wentwood. Now behind schedule, we sneak the car up the first steep part of the Mynydd Machen track. Brent reckons that descending the steep zigzag road above the lights of Ebbw Vale feels like bringing a plane into land, but he manages to avoid becoming airborne. Finding the little road up to Mynydd-y-Lan proves tricky - the first of several little errors on these contorted roads. By now we're both tired. We've an idea to drive the first bit of the masts road, but there's a car parked... best not ask them to move. Reaching the masts I take the quad track south for the summit. Soon I realise it's the wrong track, and after too much tussock-hopping I find the summit, nearly ten minutes later than intended. Descending the track I see the headlights of the Corsa heading up to meet me: 37 hills down, 70 minutes left, so no chance now of 40 Marilyns inside the 24 hours. We place the two easiest hills next: Craig yr Allt and Garth Hill. The wind has dropped, the stars are out, and there's more than enough sodium light to dispel the darkness. I'm on Garth Hill just 23:45 after leaving Raw Head.
We decide to finish the planned 40 hills, in the wilder setting of Cefn Eglwysilan. This one's less easy than it was, as the 1:25000 map has the nearby Mynydd Twyn-glas as a twin summit. Arranging (or so I thought) to meet Brent down at the track junction, I visit the trig then cross the (miraculously dry) col to reach the masts - 40 Marilyns in 24:23. Descending to the rendezvous, I'm not greatly surprised to find there's no sign of the car. An easy walk back up the hill finds the car where I'd left it, with Brent sleeping soundly. So he does need sleep after all.
With luck, and fewer errors, the 40 ought to go inside 24 hours. It was a great day out, with many highlights. But overall, the chips at Hereford probably had the edge.
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