What to do on August Bank Holiday weekend when the forecast was for a fine weekend? My natural instinct is to head for the coast whenever it’s warm and sunny; however, after a recent ‘gridlock’ experience in Weston-Super-Mare (when my family was forced to seek car parking in nearby Kewstoke), I reckoned the world and his dog would be doing exactly the same today. As queuing on the M4 motorway isn’t our idea of fun, we decided to head to the mountains instead, where – judging from the parked cars lining the grass verge of the A470 – avoiding the the madding crowds was going to be just as difficult.
Fortunately, there were still a few £2.50 parking spaces available at the Brecon Beacons National Park Visitor Centre, though had we arrived just ten minutes later we might have been unlucky. Unknown to us, a three-day arts and crafts festival was taking place all weekend and it was clearly going to be popular on such a glorious Bank Holiday Sunday. Leaving Harri in the car, I set off to swap my new pound coins for old pound coins (frustratingly the car park machine won’t accept the new ones) and almost immediately, bumped into a fellow Lliswerry Runner, enjoying a day out with his family.
We had left Rhiwderin under glorious blue skies under an hour ago, so it was a little disappointing that the weather up here in the Brecon Beacons was decidedly grey with thick cloud cover. Admittedly the air was warm, but there was little sign of that promised Bank Holiday sunshine.
For many, many years, the visitor centre has had on display a raised-relief map of the whole Brecon Beacons National Park. Harri feels sure it was in situ when he was a child and I think he might be right. In these days of Google Earth, when you can look down on landscapes worldwide from your own home, it’s hard to understand how a three-dimensional, mostly green and white model of the mountains could ever have excited people, but Harri and I always loved that relief map. Even today, people were gathered around it, pointing out the various mountains and valleys, the rivers, roads and towns.
There were more thrills to come when Harri spotted a visitor looking at a copy of his hiking guidebook Day Walks in the Brecon Beacons. He knows the book is popular from its sales figures, but nevertheless it was still nice to see someone thumbing through the pages, perhaps opting to buy his guidebook rather than another on the shelf.
We were planning a shorter walk than usual today. In fact, our proposed two-summit loop was little more than 12 miles (or that’s what it said on the tin … my Tom Tom watch recorded exactly 14 miles). If you love the mountains, but are pushed for time or are unable to walk any distance there is no better place to come than the Brecon Beacons National Park Visitor Centre at Libanus. From here, you can meander across Mynydd Illtud Common on level grassy tracks and enjoy panoramic views across to Pen y Fan (886 metres) and its twin peak Corn Du (873 metres). The two mountains are overly popular with day trippers, probably because there is an easy, paved trail to the summits; however, if you’re not inclined to queue for parking before jostling uphill with hundred of other hikers, you could just stand up here on the opposite side of the valley and gaze across at the highest mountains in South Wales.
Our first summit was a minnow in comparison. Fan Frynych stands at just 629 metres, but it’s all relative and the mountain still qualified as our major climb of the day. The track to the top was stony and edged with bracken and purple heather; for once the gradient wasn’t impossibly steep. In the valley below, the old coach road which once linked Merthyr and Brecon (the Storey Arms was the stopping-off point where the horses – and their owners – would get watered. We paused briefly to watch a couple of red kites hovering above us as they searched for food (they are easy to distinguish from other birds of prey thanks to their reddish-brown colour and the distinctive fork in their tail.
As we climbed higher, the ever-lengthening line of parks cars become visible and we could hear the distant roar of motorcyclists tearing along the A470 below. We ambled along, feeling slightly smug that we were not heading up Pen y Fan like everyone else. Fan Frynych is part of the Fforest Fawr Geopark, a status which recognises the geological heritage of the area among other things. We have walked in this area on many occasions, including when we walked the length of Wales; however, we have never previously approached the mountain from this direction. Far below us, just off the A470, was Craig Cerrig-gleisiad and Fan Frynych National Nature Reserve, the starting point for one of the walks featured in Harri’s Brecon Beacons book.
As we neared the summit, we came upon two large boulders – the perfect spot to stop for elevenses (though by now it was nearly 1pm). Within minutes of us sitting down, a large hiking group came tramping over the nearest rise. We felt a tad guilty when we realised they had probably intended to stop at the boulders themselves; now they were obliged to sit a little way further down the hill on grass.
After passing no-one since leaving the level grassy track, we now found ourselves passing and greeting several groups of hikers. Harri thought a larger group we could see walking on a nearby slope were probably following the Beacons Way.
Sadly, there was still little sign of sun; in fact, while we were climbing Fan Frynych, nearby Corn Du had become engulfed in slow-moving cloud. Elsewhere there was plenty of cloud and very few patches of blue sky. Experience has taught us that it can get very boggy underfoot up here on Fforest Fawr, so we weren’t at all surprised when we had to veer off the visible path to cross a section of marshy land. One of the disadvantages of wearing lightweight trail shoes for hiking is that you always get wet feet … the pay-off is being able to feel the ground beneath your feet and the decreased likelihood of getting blisters. Whenever we see people walking in those huge, ankle-high leather boots, we visibly shudder and wonder why? Our feet might get wetter at times, but our breathable footwear dries off very quickly and we rarely get blisters.
Anyway wet feet are a small price to pay for the incredible views from this high moorland: Pen y Fan, Corn Du, Mynydd Epynt, the Carmarthen Fans, the ‘fingers’ of the Black Mountains and many other mountains that I couldn’t identify. It was so peaceful up here and it looked as though the weather might be brightening up at last … I’m sure I wasn’t imagining Harri’s very faint shadow.
Coming off the mountain on the far side of Fan Frynych, we could now see a distinctive section of the Roman road of Sarn Helen weaving its way along the bottom of the Afon Senny valley before climbing again to disappear into the next valley. Sarn Helen, of course, is no longer one continuous track through Wales but several separate sections (much of the original route was transformed into roads). Apparently, the Roman soldiers hiked for three days solid carrying a lot of heavy kit before being granted a rest day … and there’s me complaining about Harri’s punishing schedules!
We meandered along a downhill track, passing wind-bent trees, more hikers and a lot of sheep. Eventually, we joined Sarn Helen and enjoyed a mile or two of relatively easy, level walking. We recrossed the A4215 and soon found ourselves in a vast field which was being used as a ‘pop-up’ campsite. This is when a landowner opens up their land as a campsite for tents for 28 days without the need for planning permission. The telltale sign is the lack of a shower block or any discernible amenities (there was just one toilet cubicle here that we could see). The lack of warm water certainly didn’t seem to be putting people off, though the unobstructed views towards Pen y Fan and Corn Du might have had something to do with this particular field’s popularity.
Earlier, when we’d been standing on higher ground, Harri had pointed out our second summit of the day and I’d commented how it didn’t look like a hillock let alone a fully fledged hill. Now, as we crossed more common land, I found myself wondering where the next summit even was because there didn’t seem to be anything of any height in front of us.
We joined an ancient grassy lane with wide stone walls either side. The lane itself was particularly wide and Harri explained that as the drovers moved cattle across the country they would have needed places for the animals to graze en route. We were soon heading uphill again; however, the two small valleys between us and Cefn Llechid meant some steep downhill sections followed by the inevitable uphills. Of course, having hankered for sunshine all day, it chose the ten minutes we were climbing the steepest sections of metalled lane to finally appear. With most of the climbing done, we joined the sunken lane that would take us almost all the way to the summit.
When you’re in the Brecon Beacons the high summits dominate the landscape and it was easy to overlook the fact that the diminutive, bracken-covered Cefn Llechid was itself 400 metres, higher in fact than our local mountain Mynydd Machen. It was so, so pretty up here too, with the bracken, the pools, the purple heather and those glorious views. As Harri pointed out, sometimes it can be nice to stand on the lower hills and gaze up at the high summits rather than standing up there looking down on what always appears to be a flattened patchwork landscape of fields. Because those views back towards Pen y Fan, Corn Du and Fan Frynych were really something.
But you never know what life has in store for you and within minutes of me standing there waxing lyrically about magnificent mountain landscapes, I was lying flat on my face on a steep, stony field edge having slipped on a fresh cow pat! There are no photographs – I would probably have killed Harri if he had even suggested taking one of ‘Lady Muckbeth’ sitting on a stone weeping. It was everywhere … on both legs, my shorts, my long-sleeved top, my rucksack, my hands, my arms … Worse, I’d landed on my right shoulder and couldn’t move my arm. Harri went into Boy Scout mode and quickly found a grassy verge where I could sit while he expertly cleaned me up with copious amounts of wet wipes. Realising I’d be unable to carry my rucksack, he delved into his own, found a large plastic bag and put all my smelly belongings inside. The poor man then proceeded to carry everything for the last two or three miles … except me!
If you’d like to follow our 22.1 km route (which Harri ‘borrowed’ from the Long Distance Walkers Association), visit Viewranger.
UPDATE: Upper arm still painful and movement severely restricted but I’ll live! Trust me to end up skiing on a cow pat!