Discover the Brecon Beacons

This Welsh national park came up time and time again in your votes for your favourite rural escape. Abigail Whyte went to find out why...

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I see the eastern fringe of the Brecon Beacons every day on my drive home from Bristol to Hereford. I come up over the brow of Callow Hill and can see Lord Hereford’s Knob and the flat top of the Hatterall Ridge rise from the soft sweep of pasture like a dark blue wave, rumbling and foreboding, yet calling to be climbed.
 
One spring weekend I set off in my grumbling tin can of a car to explore beyond that ridge, and get to know a place I’ve been arrogant enough to call my stomping ground, when in truth, I’d barely explored a smidgen of it.
 

The Brecon Beacons National Park extends for 40 miles from east to west, and is divided into three distinct areas: the Black Mountains in the east, the Brecon Beacons and Fforest Fawr in the centre, and the Black Mountain region (formerly called the Camarthen Fans) in the largely Welsh-speaking west.

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I took the A465 from Hereford towards Crickhowell, where I would be spending my first night. The wizard’s hat of Skirrid Fawr was unmistakable, even though I think it looks like a reclining snooty man’s face with a protruding bottom lip. I’ve gazed over Abergavenny from the tip of his large beak-nose many times.

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I had only ever been to Crickhowell once, when it was crowded with revellers from a nearby festival, so I relished getting to know this affluent little town in the Usk Valley, with its famous bridge over the River Usk, butcher-baker-and-candlestick-maker shops and art galleries, backdropped by the Llangattock escarpment.
The Bear is a Crickhowell institution – a 15th-century coaching inn, watched over by an attentive landlady in her 80s, who swapped the glamour of BBC make-up artistry for pulling pints of real ale and serving Welsh grub. The pub is always bustling, but there’s a table in the bar reserved for regulars. That’s a sure sign of a good boozer.

After a restful night’s sleep on a belly full of Welsh lamb, I set out on a pilgrimage to the Ewyas Valley. Here, there is a trio of churches within a couple of miles of each other that are unique and memorable, but are barely visited compared to the ruins of Llanthony Priory nearby.

Partishow is the most beautifully situated church I have ever seen, deep in the hills above Crickhowell. Inside, its thick whitewashed walls and musty smell are reminiscent of rustic chapels in dusty Mediterranean towns. There is a mural of a skeleton on one of the walls, depicting death – it has been painted over many times by squeamish parishioners, but it always re-emerges, baring a defiant grimace.

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Nearby, in the shadow of Hatterall Hill, is the Church of St Martin in Cwmyoy. Because of subsidence in the foundations of the church, the building has twisted, resulting in the curved roof, off-kilter windows and wonky arches. It’s a wonder that the higgledy-piggledy church hasn’t tumbled down the hillside, but it’s just as defiant as Partishow’s skeleton.

The meeker Church of St Mary in Capel-y-ffin almost succeeds in hiding from inquisitive eyes. From the outside it looks like a tumbledown cottage, shrouded by yew trees. Inside, there’s barely room for 20 parishioners, although the front pew is taken up by teddy bears mysteriously left by well wishers. Beyond this beautiful hamlet, the Ewyas Valley continues on to the Gospel Pass, the second highest road in Wales and a memorable drive to the famous book town of Hay-on-Wye.

It was time for me to plough on west. I headed to Brecon to meet Kevin Walker, a local author who excitedly rubbed his sandpaper-like hands, knowing he had so much to show me in the wilderness of the central Beacons.

We took the A470 to Craig Cerrig Gleisiad, a nature reserve that is home to more than 500 different species of plants, including rare Arctic alpines that have survived since the Ice Age. The reserve attracts around 80 different bird species, including the secretive merlin and the ring ouzel.

As soon as I saw the gloomy escarpment, I knew I’d been here before – I had walked a circular route called the Lorna Doone a year ago. It’s so named because the wild moorlands of the central Beacons provided an apt double for Exmoor in the BBC adaptation of the famous RD Blackmore novel in 2000. From the reserve’s winding paths, I could see the famous summits of Pen y Fan and Corn Du fringed with cloud, and Lord Hereford’s Knob (Twmpa) back east. It looked so far away.

Going underground

Ravens and red kites swirled overhead as we drove from the reserve past the Storey Arms (a very popular starting point for walkers climbing Pen y Fan) and continued up the A4059 towards Penderyn. It is a stunning mountain road that the locals have coined Meat Street, because of the number of road accidents involving sheep.

Along this road we left the gentler, arable landscape of old red sandstone back east, and encountered the starker contours of limestone and green felt moorland, dusted with cotton grass, crisscrossed with dry stone walls, and pockmarked with shake holes (craters formed by rain water seeping through limestone).

It is the carboniferous limestone that forms the bedrock for waterfall country around the village of Ystradfellte. I’ve heard the Beacons dismissed as barren moorland, but this forested terrain of gushing water, deep gorges and cave networks certainly contradicts this snap judgement.

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Porth yr Ogof is the largest cave entrance in Wales, near the southern boundary of the national park. Kevin led me into the cool breath of its gaping mouth and pointed out a white calcite image of a horse, glowing on a rock above a black pool of water. Crouching in the dark amid flocks of young cavers, he told me the legendary story of the woman who rode her white steed into the cave and was drowned by a giant flood that she had caused as she tried to kill her pursuing enemies. The glowing effigy shows where the mythical horse had crashed into the cave wall.

We walked a network of paths to see the other cave entrances, dripping with ferns, mosses and lichens. I bellowed “hello” down one of the tunnels and was swiftly scolded for spooking the cavers below. Whoops.

From Porth yr Ogof you can walk downstream to see the spectacular waterfalls, even walk behind a curtain of water at Sgwyd yr Eira. Mind your step though – a friend of mine slipped while posing for a photo and got his bottom half completely soaked.

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We left the rushing waters behind and climbed back into Fforest Fawr territory, a windswept landscape scarred with Ice Age fissures and studded with prehistoric standing stones, such as Maen Llia. It is a 3.6m (12ft) monolith at the head of the Llia Valley, next to a Roman road, and it looks like the top of a spear. As well as 19th-century graffiti, it is also scored with runes that have not yet been deciphered. It’s said that the mystic monolith controls the swing of a pendulum, that birds never fly over it, and that it doesn’t cast a shadow. I’m pretty sure I saw a shadow, but I didn’t say anything to Kevin.

We continued along the old Welsh mountain road and traversed hairpin bends into the Senni Valley – a pastoral, oil-painting landscape scattered with ruined farmhouses and horses sharpening their teeth on fence posts. I looked behind me, and Pen y Fan sloped back into view, as did a lapwing, twirling low over a bog.

This was as far as I had ever come on previous escapes to the national park, and I could feel the barely trodden western end beckoning.

My third day in the Brecon Beacons began in Myddfai, a village in the Tywi Valley, close to the ancient droving town of Llandovery. The entire village turned out to enjoy a rainy barbecue and a traditional dance, and to hear the large-lunged male voice choir, to mark the opening of their new community centre (read about this in the Village SOS feature in the July 2011 issue).

Here, I truly felt I was in a different country, where locals spoke a language I didn’t understand, danced dances I didn’t know, and sang songs that go back centuries.

Isolated farmsteads and hamlets vanish from view after a minute’s drive down dappled lanes, and you feel completely cut off from the rest of the world. Walkers here have to be more self sufficient, as you won’t often find a tearoom or a pub open, as you would on the eastern side of the national park.

Steeped in folklore

Legend has it that the first physicians of Myddfai were the children of the Lady of the Lake, whose legendary resting place is in the inky waters of Llyn y Fan Fach, in the shadow of the wild Black Mountain. I stood on its shores, my toes touching the icy water, and watched cloud reflections flow across the surface like a film in fast-forward. The hills looked like the humped backs of dormant whales, about to dive underground.

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Ten miles south-west of the lake, the haunting castle of Carreg Cennen clings to a craggy hilltop like the fortress of Edoras in The Lord of the Rings. It was originally a native Welsh stronghold, but in 1277 it was surrendered to the English and rebuilt in the stone it is today. I crossed its wooden bridges, peered down into rain-filled chambers and gazed up at a 13th-century toilet (a hole in a stone precipice) and wondered when the last bare bottom had sat on it.

The most fascinating part of the castle is the limestone cave in its foundations. Prehistoric remains of two adults and two children have been found there and, strangely, three human teeth in a stalagmite. Young men and women from the surrounding villages used to visit the cave’s well and cast pins into the water for luck or to make wishes.

Clutching a jar of courgette chutney I’d just bought at a nearby farm, I reached journey’s end atop Carn Goch, the largest Iron Age hillfort in Wales. I absorbed views of Llandeilo (the most westerly town in the national park), Llangadoc and Bethlehem, a village with a post office in demand at Christmas for its unique franking stamp. From my vantage point I could see unforgiving ridges of the Black Mountain rise from a hilly quilt of green, much like I had seen the Hatterall Ridge loom over gentle Herefordshire back east, only two days before. I felt my exploration of the Brecon Beacons had only just begun.

USEFUL INFORMATION

EAT

High Street, Crickhowell NP8 1BD
01873 810337
www.black-mountain.co.uk
Café by day, brasserie by night, this
lively new establishment grows many of its own ingredients.

The Bell
Glangrwyney NP8 1EH
01873 811115
www.bellinnglangrwyney.co.uk
 

The Farmyard Tearoom
Bleanau Farm, Llanddeusant SA19 9UN
01550 740277
Open weekends only, Easter to October, this working farm tearoom offers tasty fare.

SLEEP

Ty Gwyn
Brecon Road, Crickhowell NP8 1DG
01873 811625
www.tygwyn.com
Charming bed and breakfast with a stream running through the garden and beautiful views of the Llangattock escarpment.

Dan yr Parc Farmhouse
Cynghordy, Llandovery SA20 0LD
01550 720401
www.danyparc.co.uk
Has its own woodland with a natural waterfall, and rooms overlooking roaming chickens.

Capel-Y-Ffin Monastery
01873 890144
www.capelmonastery.co.uk
Self-catering accommodation in a 19th- century monastery high up in the Llanthony Valley. Sleeps 2-14.

WALK

Four Waterfalls trail
This walk heads along the River Mellte
and boasts four spectacular waterfalls, including one you can walk behind. You can join this enjoyable trail at several places, but most walkers start at Porth yr Ogof car park near Ystradfellte.

Physician’s walk
Start this three-mile walk at Glasfynydd picnic site to see the Physician’s Well. It is claimed that the physicians of Myddfai used the spring water from this well in their remedies.

MUST SEE

Standing on the Diving Board on Fan y Big
This image has adorned many a Brecon Beacons guidebook and postcard, but to stand on this naturally occurring rock slab over Cwm Cynwyn takes a lot of nerve.

National Park Visitor Centre in Linabus
This visitor centre has beautiful views of
Pen y Fan and fascinating information about the national park. It’s the perfect starting point for new visitors.

Cawl
This traditional Welsh stew has a recipe that varies from family to family, but it usually contains lamb, cabbage and leeks. The perfect remedy after a wet mountain walk – you’ll find it on the menu in many pubs and cafés in the Brecon Beacons.

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Abigail Whyte is editorial assistant of Countryfile Magazine and is now considering moving to Crickhowell.