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.
Limestone from he quarry was transported along the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal ©Getty
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.
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.
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.
Craig y Cilau National Nature Reserve in the Brecon Beacons ©Richard Greenwood
1. Towards the ridge
Leave the car park to the west, climbing gently towards the enscapment.
2. Through the quarry
When you’re ready, take the path down to a track – the tramway that once served the quarry here. Follow this west.
3. Mountain views
With the cliffs above you, there are stunning views to the north and west. 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.
4. Woodland wander
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. In spring, look out for redstarts, nuthatches and even pied flycatchers.
Lesser spotted woodpeckers can be seen in the hazel and oak woodland ©Getty
5. Delightful dippers
A delightful stream trickles between your path and the woodland. Look out for dippers.
6. Wildflower way
Eventually the wood opens up into a patch of rare, wildflower-rich bog – wellies are advised. Look for the small bogland wildflowers. There will also be butterflies and dragonflies here. Scan the cliff above for ravens and peregrines.
Peregrine falcon ©Getty
7. About turn
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.
8. Over the stiles
Some of the stiles can be a bit lost in the overgrown hedgerow. Watch out also for livestock in these fields.
9. Over water
Cross the stream to regain the path back up to the tramway.
10. Lane to the end
On your return, don’t take the path (right) back up to the quarry. Contine ahead to the houses and you’ll find yourself on a lane. Follow this lane back to the carpark (admiring the smallholdings along the way).
Discover more great walks in the countryside.
Find out more about the Craig y Cilau National Nature Reserve.
Main image ©Getty