Discover Wales’ Wild West

On the far frontier of the Brecon Beacons - and just a few hours' drive from major cities - lies one of our last great wildernesses. Dan Aspel celebrates the open skies, dramatic peaks and rugged charms of the Black Mountain. 

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The Black Mountain is a darkly suggestive name. It hints at venemous crags and seething folds of inhospitable upland, the colour of bruises and coal. But that’s just not how it is. And such thoughts miss the true nature of this expanse entirely. The only blackness to be seen is in the earthy peat hags that sprout from the moorland’s dampest parts like crumbling toadstools. If a colour could define the Black Mountain, it would be green. Swathes of golden green grass draped over a vast open space, and furnishing a quiet, breezy wilderness. Catching its smooth angles in early or late light can be a heart-stopping experience. 

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There are more prosaic interests in that name, too. The 1,344km (519 sq miles) of the Brecon Beacons National Park are divided into four distinct regions. From the centre rise the tall peaks of Pen y Fan and its siblings, their tips cresting the horizon like the fins of manta rays from a calm sea. Immediately to their west are the waterfall-riven gorges of Fforest Fawr, and to the east are the milder hills of the Black Mountains (plural) that dissolve into the rolling bumps of the West Country. No wonder that the sweeping, uncluttered Black Mountain range of the far west is often referred to by its Welsh name: Mynydd Du. 

Extraordinary space

Travel into the Mynydd Du on the single track road between Trecastle and Llangadog and you instantly get a unique impression of space and emptiness, quite at odds with your proximity to Swansea, Cardiff or even Brecon. Trundling past rolling plains bordered by patches of dark trees, you’ll be far from the urban world – flanked by little but sun and silence. 

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That is, until you reach the woody hamlet of Llanddeusant. That’s because looming above Llanddeusant is a monster. In the same way that the Cumbrian villages of Dufton and Threlkeld live in the shadows of Cross Fell and Blencathra, this tiny settlement is dwarfed by the geology that soars above it. Rising to the south-east, 600m higher in the sky, is the slabby beauty of Fan Brycheiniog and the Black Mountain’s principal peaks.

The specifics of that geology are easy enough to research, but suffice to say that the Carmarthen Fans (as they’re also known) owe their stunning forms to glacial carving. The great curving arms that give this massif’s north face the appearance of an arena were scooped from these sandstone lands by the power of retreating ice. What remains is a towering punchbowl of rock.

Enclosed beneath it are waters of mythical significance, bordered in three directions by Jurassic-looking faces, banded and crumbling with age and glowing in the right light with a rich farrago of texture. If you were to try and pick this range’s mountain twin from anywhere across the globe, you might just land on South America’s Mount Roraima – that steep-walled table seen busting clouds in so many desktop wallpapers. It’s just a little smaller.

Park up on the rough and winding lane in front of this northern face and you’re all set for a simple 2km along and 250m up past a weir and waterbeds to the shores of Llyn y Fan Fach. Do this late in the day and watch the sun sink into the horizon, the colours deepen and the relief and contours of the mountain face draw out immediately to the south. Bring a tent and the pleasure can last even longer. And you’d be wise to. 

Spending the night beneath the stars here is more than just a great way to see the mountains in their finest hours, it’s a way to celebrate one of their most inspiring characteristics: this entire area became Planet Earth’s fifth International Dark Sky Reserve in 2013. And, although that designation applies to the entire National Park, this is its remotest section within it and arguably the most impressive for the undisturbed quality of its inky skies.

Turn your eyes from the stars to the blue waters of the llyn, and it’s time to get mythological. It was here, in what must rank as one of the strangest in a sea of unfailingly strange British folk tales, that a young, local man fell in love with a mysterious Lady of the Lake who arose one day from its waters. Love and marriage blossomed between them, overshadowed by the condition that the husband should not strike his new wife three times, lest she return to the lake and take the cattle of her dowry with her. I’m sure you can guess how it ends. Some versions say that before she sank back beneath the surface, the mother raised the sons of the marriage to be physicians of rare and celebrated powers (so some good came of the saga).

Onwards and upwards

It being a perfectly natural human instinct to climb upwards, let’s do that. Preferably the next morning, work your way west around and up Waun Lefrith. You’ll be heading onto the massif’s back. You’ll also be joining the Beacon’s Way, albeit in the ‘wrong’ direction (this 95-mile, eight-day walk traverses the park and enjoys its penultimate section upon these peaks). Glancing at an OS map of the hill also reveals a feast of bridleways, marking this out as a place to explore from the saddle as well as on foot. As you curve eastwards and connect with this clean and impressive ridgeline, you’ll work your way along a series of named tops and sections, including Bannau Sir Gaer/Picws Du (749m, which comprises most of the geology we’ve been admiring), Fan Foel (781m, which offers the best viewpoint of the bunch) and Fan Brycheiniog (802m, which bears the area’s highest trig point). Look back westward from the second of those three and the landscape looks like the crest of a frozen wave, paused in mid-break above the waters and forests stranded beneath. It’s spectacular beneath a blanket of snow, naturally, but its spring coat lacks no glory.

From any of these tops you’ll be privy to the finest views of the Black Mountain going. You’ll see east to the River Tawe, which separates the region from Fforest Fawr, and south-west across the sprawling bulk of the range, as it melts away into a sink-hole land of slopes and encroaching waterways. You may see as far as the Cambrian Mountains to the north and the broad Bristol Channel to the south. If you were able to view the world beneath the ground, you’d marvel at strata of old red sandstone and mudstone, tougher bands of limestone and millstone grit and – directly beneath your feet – a series of Bronze Age barrows (some excavated, some not) containing the tools, possessions and remains of people buried over 4,000 years ago. Remnants of stone circles can be found beneath the sharp edge of Fan Hir to the south, and strewn upon the hillsides lie the still-vivid remains of Second World War air crash sites that remain here as tributes to lives lost.

Bursting with life

But this isn’t a place lost in its past. The Black Mountain’s story is still being told. The communities that call this place home represent a stronghold for the resurgent Welsh language in the national park, while the flora and fauna that live alongside them is rare, unusual and abundant. Dotterels pause to feed here on their way to the Arctic tundra and the golden plovers that nest here are Europe’s most southerly, returning to the same scrapes every year. Peregrines, hen harriers, kestrels, nightjars, noctule bats and the magnificent red kite dance above a landscape of whitebeam trees, lichen, mosses and purple saxifrage. Otters twist and swim in the Rivers Usk and Tawe, which find their origins on these slopes. For non-human life, all of this natural wonder links the isolated moors of south-west England to the mountainous bastion of Snowdonia in North Wales. 

The appeal of this place is mostly in that very wildness. But descend from the domed summits to the warm world and the lowland charms are as impressive as they are unexpected. That limestone landscape has allowed the incredible caverns of Dan yr Ogof to form, which you can access via the National Showcaves Centre in the Tawe valley, next to which you’ll find the queer architectural charms (and ghosts, but I can’t guarantee that) of Craig y Nos Castle.

For the real experience, head west to Trapp and the imposing brute that is Carreg Cennen Castle, a genuine medieval relic that – thanks to its cliff-top location – may be the most impressively situated 13th-century fort anywhere. The outdoors has its accessible side, too, thanks to the low, riverside approach to the roaring waters of Henrhyd Falls (near which is the Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary) and the daily feeds to be enjoyed at Llandeusant’s Red Kite Feeding Centre. Gentle charms can be found at the Aberglasney house and gardens, and there’s great joy in the pubs and inns of Llangadog and the tea-rooms of charming Llandovery, both sitting to the north of the Black Mountain by the sides of the A40. 

There are plenty of reasons to go west. But chief amongst them are the following words: wind, light, space. If just one of those three sends shivers of interest down your spine, then the Black Mountain is calling. Answer that call this spring.  

Dan Aspel is a writer and photographer who specialises in the wild and vertical parts of the outdoors. He spends most of his hill time in Wales where he works as a mountain leader. Find him in Snowdonia or at danaspel.com

Images by kind permission of James Osmond Photography and ©iStockphoto.com

www.jamesosmond.co.uk

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