It’s no good, no matter how exhausted I am when I crawl into my sleeping bag, I just can’t get a good night’s sleep in our tiny little tent. The combination of hard ground, cold feet and cramped legs had me tossing and turning all night with the result I was wide awake well before six.
Camping’s definitely gone upmarket since my Girl Guide bell tent days; no-one seems prepared to slum it anymore. I hate hearing televisions blaring as we weave our way through the various top-of-the-market recreational vehicles and super-sized tents which now dominate most campsites, particularly those with decent facilities.
To be fair, Dan yr Ogof had more than its fair share of real campers, though as they were mostly Duke of Edinburgh participants they probably weren’t given the option of doing anything but sleep under canvas.
As soon as we poked our heads outside the tent, it was clear the entire mosquito population of the Tawe Valley was still out in force (we’ve since learnt that various species feed at different times, some being dusk/night nibblers and others morning munchers). There was nothing for it but to escape… and fast.
By 8.30am we were sitting under the lakeside picnic hut at Craig y Nos Country Park enjoying our Frosties breakfast alongside a sord of sleeping mallards. The upper Tawe valley looked glorious in the early morning sunshine, though unfortunately the cloudless night meant plenty of dew; my feet were wet from the outset.
Just a few hundred yards away from our peaceful breakfast table was the Victorian neo-gothic castle of Craig y Nos, a popular wedding venue and ‘the most haunted house in Wales’ (on just one staircase, the castle’s website promises, there are ‘ghosts in abundance’). The long-time home of the late Adelaine Patti is said to be haunted by the opera singer herself, her suitors and children who died of tuberculosis during the castle’s spell as a TB hospital.
We were in familiar territory again today. We enjoyed coming to this area when we hiked purely for pleasure; Harri also included two walks in the valley in his book Day Walks in the Brecon Beacons (published by Vertebrate).
Unsurprisingly, the hills were alive with Duke of Edinburgh participants. I reprimanded Harri when he saw them and groaned. These were our future customers, I reminded him. Young people who ventured into the wilderness for the first time while still in their teens, thus igniting a lifelong love affair with hiking. Outdoor types who would brush aside fusty old guidebooks and instead embrace the new generation of ebooks and apps.
He might have believed me had this lot not looked so miserable under the weight of those huge rucksacks; worse, despite having barely left their valley campsite, they were huddling together in that all-too-familiar way. Surely they couldn’t be lost already? Harri was incredulous.
We passed the distinctive stone terraced cottages of the South Wales Caving Centre which provides bunkhouse accommodation for divers wishing to explore the extensive cave systems underneath. Ogof Ffynnon Ddu – one of the deepest and the third longest cave systems in Britain – lies just a few feet beneath these cottages although you’ll have to walk to one of three nearby entrances if you actually want to investigate the 30 miles of passages, chambers, formations and chasms that lie below.
While it’s fascinating to think about what’s going on below our feet, I’m afraid I’m too claustrophobic to attempt caving. I actually declined an opportunity to go underground way back in August 1993 when my sister married a member of the South & Mid Wales Cave Rescue Team. After tying the knot legally at Newport register office, the happy couple and friends conducted a second mock wedding in Ogof Agen Allwedd.
We overtook several more Duke of Edinburgh walkers – an all-girl group this time – and climbed steadily through the nature reserve studiously avoiding a number of very obvious shake holes. At the same time we were walking the Beacons Way above ground, we were following the line of the cave system below. This is probably not the place to let your dog off the lead or allow a small child to go running ahead alone. Understanding the danger, I stuck close to Harri’s side, occasionally noting a particularly shaky looking shake hole or one that had collapsed to such an extent that it had been covered with boards.
We passed an outcrop where two young men appeared to be frantically surveying the landscape. It transpired they were Duke of Edinburgh leaders and despite the early hour, they had already managed to ‘mislay’ their young charges. (If any readers have teenage children about to embark upon the DoE qualification, we strongly advise the cake-making option. The requisite ‘kit’ won’t break the bank and no-one ever got lost en route to the oven!)
As we approached the Afon Llia there were suddenly people everywhere, again proving Harri’s ten-minutes-from-a-car-park theory. Few were venturing far from the river, however, so we had the neighbouring mountainside pretty much to ourselves.
Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I actually dislike walking across Fan Llia. There are two reasons for this. First, the lower slopes are generally quite boggy (and anyone who knows me or reads this blog will know by now how much I hate getting wet feet). Secondly, the upward slog just goes on and on with little reward in terms of views, except for sheep, grass and frequent false summits.
Yesterday’s high spirits had gone AWOL as I grumbled my way across uneven moorland, convinced Harri had mislaid the Beacons Way… of course he would never admit it if he had!
Despite its name, the sprawling upland area of Fforest Fawr was never forested but was an ancient hunting ground. In 1819, this Welsh mountainside was sold by the Crown (which had owned it since 1521) to help pay for the huge cost of the Napoleonic War (£831 million).
In 1984, the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority purchased 9300 hectares of common land, including much of the Black Mountain and Fforest Fawr. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act (launched in May 2005) gave people the right to walk across registered common land, mountain, moor, heath and down.
Finally we were heading downhill again. Far below us was Craig Cerrig-Gleisiad, an impressive natural amphitheatre (or cirque) created during the last Ice Age around 20,000 years ago. The snowfield which collected on the north-facing slopes eventually turned into a glacier which eventually carved the landscape – high cliffs and escarpments – we see today.
Harri included a walk through Craig Cerrig-Gleisiad in Day Walks in the Brecon Beacons and though the climb through the nature reserve is quite steep and little sunshine seeps into the cirque, it’s a stunningly beautiful spot with several rare arctic-alpine species clinging to the ledges and crags. One – the purple saxifrage – does not reappear again in southern Europe until the Alps themselves.
After a long downhill section (with fantastic views of the ever-busy A470 far below), we finally arrived at the Storey Arms, which despite its prominence as a Brecon Beacons landmark provides zero facilities for hikers (it’s owned by Cardiff City Council who use it as an outdoor centre).
The car park opposite was packed as one would expect on a sunny Friday afternoon in June. Nearby Pen y Fan is the highest peak in South Wales and so is the obvious choice for every tourist/charity walker who fancies a scenic stroll in the hills (and yes, I am being facetious).
We settled ourselves alongside the bus stop, belatedly ate our lunch and waited. And waited. And waited.
The bus did eventually turn up but not before we’d checked with Traveline Cymru and Harri’s mother. Apparently there were ‘nightmare’ roadworks in nearby Merthyr.
We arrived in Brecon at roughly the same time as if we’d walked (only joking) and headed straight for the Markets Tavern a stone’s throw away from the bus station. Fortunately, there was a twin room available; unfortunately, it wasn’t en suite. Beggars can’t be choosers. We took it.
The Markets Tavern is one of those huge old public houses with a massive bar that looks like it was built in the times when public houses were packed every night and people celebrated each and every life event surrounded by mates at their local (just like in Coronation Street). Their vast size – the Markets Tavern is three storeys high – means maintenance and redecorating is a costly affair and so many large old pubs end up stuck in a time warp of anaglypta wallpaper and dodgy sash windows.
To be fair, despite several flights of stairs our bedroom, when we reached it, was extremely comfortable; the bathroom along the corridor had undoubtedly seen better times (and would have benefited from a lock on the door); however, it was clean and… cavernous… despite the dodgy sash window.
Brecon felt positively tropical after Fforest Fawr; however, our room’s open (dodgy sash) windows, meant we were forced to take full advantage of the pub’s entertainment. To be fair, most of the karaoke was quite tuneful and we enjoyed a pleasant evening of live music without having to leave our room.
We must have been well and truly worn out because we fell asleep long before the revelries below came to an end.
We needed plenty of sleep – tomorrow we’d be tackling our highest mountain yet – the towering 2,907 foot Pen y Fan.
‘Never too old to backpack: O Fôn i Fynwy: a 364-mile walk through Wales’ by Tracy Burton is available from Amazon’s Kindle Store and other online bookstores priced at £2.99.
Day Walks in the Brecon Beacons by Harri Roberts is published by Vertebrate.