Caerphilly Challenge 2019: interview with Brian Begg.

This month, the Nikwax Caerphilly Challenge Series returns on 9th May. Sponsored by Nikwax, this non-for-profit walking event welcomes around 500 entrants every year and has been running since 2012. But, in fact, its origins go back to 2005, when the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board (ABUHB) of South Wales and the Countryside Service of Caerphilly County Borough Council (CCBC) wanted to start encouraging people of all abilities to get out walking in their local natural environment.

The walk is organised by a small group of committed volunteers, with another 70 volunteers helping out on the day. Geographically the challenge moves around the county every year, giving entrants a chance to see everything that Caerphilly’s countryside has to offer. And participants can choose between different lengths of route and whether to navigate themselves or walk with a guide.

This year’s Challenge is entitled ‘The Forge’, which comes courtesy of a section of the route that takes in a local shorter walk called the Machen Forge Trail. It’s the perfect time of year for a challenge event, with nature waking back up and everything starting to bloom.

What are the origins of the Caerphilly Challenge Series?
“Caerphilly County Borough is made up of 80 per cent countryside, yet, just like the rest of the UK, has poor physical activity levels. So it was a nice fit to potentially improve activity levels and health whilst encouraging people to get out in the countryside.

Caerphilly has a history of heavy industry relating to coal. At one stage the outdoor environment was coal mines and slag heaps. Since the mining has stopped, nature has made a comeback. In fact, the old mine sites are all now country parks.

Over a number of years we have set up numerous walking groups that cater for all levels of ability. On the back of this walking development we created the Challenge Series, with a view to having an event that caters for all abilities and fitness levels. Lots of the bigger challenge events cater purely for longer walks, which excludes a lot of people.

 The Caerphilly Challenge Series was created with a view to being more inclusive with regards fitness levels and ability, hence having walks of 1 mile up to 21 miles. The longer, more challenging, walks still tend to be the most popular, but people now have an option.”

This year’s event is described as ‘better than ever’. What gives 2019 this honour?
“Year on year the challenge event improves. We constantly try to improve the entrant experience and the routes we plan. We have done the ‘The Forge’ once before in 2016 and its an absolutely beauty. It has a mix of hilltop, riverside, bluebell-filled ancient woodlands, remnants of the industrial heritage of the area (including a Forge!)…and castles! Not to mention the views of the Brecon Beacons to the north and views of Cardiff, Newport and even Bristol on a clear day.”

Why do you think challenges of this nature are so popular at the moment?
“I feel these challenges are growing in popularity as people like a ‘challenge’, whether you’re 12 (our youngest entrant to date) or 90 years of age (our oldest entrant to date). The sense of achievement that is gained from setting yourself a personal challenge and then succeeding is unmeasurable. I feel these events are more than just a physical and mental challenge. They hopefully give people memorable positive outdoor experiences and help break down barriers to getting out into the countryside that is on your doorstep. If people get out more then the event is a success!

The Caerphilly Challenge Series in particular offers a ‘managed challenge’, where people can book on, have routes planned for them (in an area they may not be familiar with) and a safety net of volunteers should they run into trouble. Although we have self-led options on the challenge, we also have some led walks, where people with no experience of reading maps can still get involved and have a great day out.”

What level of training would you recommend people reach in order to enjoy the challenge?
“For all the challenge walks, entrants should undertake an appropriate level of training that aligns with the distance they are planning on doing on the day. If you are aiming for the 21 mile challenge then you should be regularly walking longer distances….with some hills. Year-on-year people get caught out by walking a lot, but not going off road or up/down hills. The longer routes can be punishing on the legs and feet! The running joke at the end of the challenge is that the entrants finish, sit down, eat some cake and then head off home doing the ‘Caerphilly Challenge shuffle’ due to their sore feet!”

Map reading is a big focus of the event. Why do you believe navigation and map reading is so important nowadays?
“Map reading is a ‘big big’ part of the event. We deliberately kept the navigational element to the fore. The temptation is to signpost the entire route, but where’s the challenge in that! We give entrants a basic map (for reference) and a route description. They then have to find their way from checkpoint to checkpoint where they have their ‘Racetek’ wrist bands scanned, so we can check where they are on route.

We organise map reading courses leading up to the challenge, so entrants can brush up or learn from scratch how to read a map and navigate. Luckily we have a ‘Caerphilly Adventure Group’ on our doorstep who run these courses for us. Map reading is unbelievably important, and a skill that currently seems to be deemed as less important of late, with people using smart phones and GPS devices. Using a map properly can really open the doors to the countryside, and the ability to find your way from place to place without relying on a device is an art to be proud of.”

You warn people that this is a wet, muddy challenge. What do you recommend people to wear and how should they treat their gear beforehand?
“NIKWAX, NIKWAX, NIKWAX! Lol! We tell our entrants to wear appropriate waterproof clothing and footwear for the challenge they are taking part in and recommend using Nikwax products to endure the water and mud doesn’t penetrate whatever fabric they are wearing.”

What benefit does Nikwax give the event? And why do they make such good partners?
“Nikwax and the Caerphilly challenge series are a nice fit. We both seem to be on the same page when it comes to environmental beliefs and the great outdoors. Nikwax was created by outdoor people, who know the value of the outdoors from a physical, mental, social and environmental perspective.

We are a community-run challenge event that aims to get people of all backgrounds walking more whilst accessing the countryside. Caerphilly also has a track record of investing in its countryside and biodiversity, with a view to having a natural environment that people can access, enjoy and be proud of. The ethos of Nikwax producing environmentally friendly and sustainable products aligns perfectly with our interests.

We are not a big corporate event whose sole objective is to make money. The challenge was created with people and the environment in mind. Get more people active, get more people in the countryside!”

Photos courtesy of Joanne Burgess.