Little known and seldom celebrated, these towering rocky crags are within an hour’s drive of Cardiff and Bristol – yet people insist on travelling further in search of such mountainous drama.
This was once a huge quarry in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here, limestone was hewn from the ridge and taken by tram to the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal in the valley below. It was then burnt in kilns for use as fertilizer, whitewash on cottages, and as a vital part of the iron-making process when the southern Welsh valleys were awash with pits and furnaces.
Now the area is peaceful – the mews of buzzards, croaks of ravens and bleat of sheep having replaced the noisy toil of quarrymen. Occasionally you may hear the clink of harnesses and thud of heavy boots as cavers emerge from secret passages deep in the hill. The limestone is riddled with – frankly terrifying – tunnels both man-made and natural.
A different world
The best way to explore the exterior of the hill is to walk along the old tramline from the car park above Llanelly. You’ll find yourself in a strange landscape of conical spoil heaps, fallen boulders and ruins of old quarry buildings, though most of these have long been weathered into nothingness.
Wheatears, pied wagtails and willow warblers (below) sing here from April to July, while frogs breed in the pathside pools.
The views are just wonderful. To the north, you’ll be tantalized by a series of wild-looking peaks and ridges of the northern Brecon Beacons, while Crickhowell lies comfortingly below in the Usk Valley. Behind you lies Abergavenny and its guardian mountain: Sugar Loaf.
The gentle, level tramway winds its way around the ridge into Craig y Cilau National Nature Reserve, with the drops below becoming ever more precipitous. Take the signed footpath down.
The path hereon is littered with stones and tree roots but leads you into mossy hazel and oak woodland, where in spring you may very possibly find a lesser spotted woodpecker. The mood change from stark rock to cool, soft green is astonishing, though the crags still frown through the canopy, appearing to overhang the land below.
Eventually the wood opens up into a patch of rare, wildflower-rich bog – wellies are advised. At the western edge of the reserve, 50 yards beyond the information sign, you can loop back to the woods following a footpath through farmland.
HOW TO GET THERE
From Gilwern on the A4077, take the turning signed to Llanelly, opposite the Corn Exchange pub. At Llanelly, take the road opposite the red phone box. After about a mile there’s a very sharp right turn. Follow this lane until you come to the car park on the left.
Crickhowell, Powys NP8 1BW
An ideal country pub an in ideal country town.
Brecon Road, Crickhowell,
Powys NP8 1DG
This friendly hotel is Grade-II listed, and only minutes from shops, pubs and cafés.
Big Pit Coal Museum
029 2057 3650
Discover the hardships and heroics of Wales’ recently
lost mining industry.