As usual I felt much more positive and energetic after a good night’s sleep in a proper bed. Breakfast was a rather strange affair (we were the only guests eating and wonder if breakfast is perhaps optional at The Markets Tavern… they did say they were full last night). We were served by the chef, who kept disappearing and reappearing with extra portions of mushrooms or sausages. Harri was halfway through his full English before we were asked if we wanted cereals (he did). They’re very friendly, nice people at this establishment but they do have a rather haphazard approach to catering.
Fortunately this morning’s bus was running on time and we were soon pulling up outside the Storey Arms. It wasn’t yet ten but already the place was swarming with hikers, including several large groups of charity walkers, all aiming to reach the flattened, eroded summit of Pen y Fan.
While you have to admire people’s motivation (and altruism), we were astonished at how inadequately equipped many of them seemed to be. Women wearing insubstantial fashion sandals and leggings (even jeans) and carrying nothing except a 500 ml water bottle, teenagers apparently carrying nothing at all. They’d get away with their insouciance on this lovely warm day, but it’s scary to think so many people set off to conquer the highest peak in south Wales (and southern England) with no more thought than they’d give to a half hour shopping trip. Week after week you see reports of people being injured or lost on mountains, yet hundreds still set out with no training, no maps, no compass and insufficient clothing and supplies. It’s at times like this, you realise what Brecon Mountain Rescue and all those other courageous mountain rescue volunteers are up against.
After weeks of relative wilderness, it felt very strange to take our place in the flow of human traffic heading uphill. Harri, who hates crowds at the best of times, was confident that we’d soon be able to overtake these occasional walkers but some were surprisingly speedy (at the beginning at least).
The first summit reached is not Pen y Fan but its twin peak Corn Du and there were people everywhere – hugging, taking photographs, eating sandwiches, drinking from flasks (it occurred to us that some may have mistaken this summit for Pen y Fan).
As ‘old-timers’ we didn’t pause for breath on Corn Du but bounded off to the real mountain next door. It was only when we reached Pen y Fan that Harri realised that, despite our heavy packs – we’d walked from base camp (the Storey Arms) to the summit of the highest mountain in South Wales and Southern England without stopping once, proof – if we needed it – of our vastly improved fitness levels.
We still had a long walk ahead of us so we decided not to hang about despite the perfect conditions. Anyway, Harri’s far too cool to risk being mistaken for a tourist! We carried on, anticipating that the footpath around the base of Cribyn and back up to the summit of Fan y Big would be somewhat quieter (because when it comes down to it, no-one’s really interested in the lesser peaks are they?).
How wrong could we be? Our timing was perfectly awful. Not only had we chosen to climb the Beacons’ most iconic mountain on a gloriously hot, sunny and clear Saturday morning in June but our visit coincided with the annual WAAT4 Challenge, a team navigation challenge event in its fifth year.
For the next hour or so we passed a relentless stream of hikers, frequently red-faced and panting, many (most?) of whom looked like they’d already had enough. WAAT4 gives participants a choice of distance – 30km or 40km – but when you consider the shorter distance is nearly 19 miles, it’s hardly surprising so many participants looked ready to drop as they filed past us on the steep eastern slope of Pen y Fan.
We later learned that 97 teams signed up for this annual fund-raising event and, despite the heat, only five teams failed to record a finish time (and who knows if they even crossed the start line?).
We reached the base of Fan y Big and I psyched myself up for the steep uphill clamber (keep this to yourself but it’s a much nicer summit than Pen y Fan.., for a start it still has grass growing on it and secondly, the views are second to none). Fan y Big (2359 feet) is best-known for its spectacular ‘diving board’ (one of the most photographed rocks in the Brecon Beacons). It’s amusing to watch people step cautiously onto the dramatic outcrop for that obligatory photograph and then see the relief on their faces when they return to solid ground.
It was so clear that Harri could just about make out the distinctive shape of our very own Twmbarlwm – the mountain we can see from just about anywhere in Newport and Cwmbran. There, the mountain dominates the skyline; from here it looked like a tiny distant hill and of no significance whatsoever.
Still, I was impressed Harri had been able to pick it out at all; as usual, I was completely disorientated. My beloved laughed his head off when, on taking stock of the landscape, I declared a nearby mountain must surely be Hay Buff. It was no such thing, of course – I was pointing at the opposite end of the Black Mountains.
The tranquillity of O Fôn i Fynwy restored, we meandered along the high ridge enjoying spectacular views. Eventually, it was time to descend alongside a mountain stream to the pass at Torpantau, where we came upon a bizarrely-located burger van seemingly doing very brisk trade (we’d probably have stopped ourselves had it been an ice-cream van).
Harri often has a quick dip here but it was so busy he decided against sharing his usual favourite spot with the six young lads who’d got there first and were already cavorting in the shallow waters. (I’ve realised there’s a theme developing here… Harri and I do rather like the mountains to ourselves!).
We joined the Taff Trail and for several miles, I had nothing to complain about in terms of hilliness, crowds or burger vans. This stretch certainly wasn’t the most exciting walking of the day and the views were limited to the track ahead and occasional glimpses of Talybont Reservoir glittering in the sunlight in the distance but after the morning’s climbing, the easy terrain at least gave us the opportunity to get some miles under our belts.
At Llangynidr, we stopped for a quick cider at the Coach and Horses, for once choosing the cool shade of the (empty) lounge over the sunny beer garden. It would have been so easy to settle ourselves into those leather sofas and stay there all evening.
But this duo is nothing if not determined so after half an hour, we heaved our rucksacks onto our backs and braced ourselves for more dazzling sunshine. Our route took us through the pretty little hillside village of Bwlch where it would have been so easy to stop and enjoy the barbecue that was in full swing at the New Inn pub (what is it with hot weather and burgers?). Looking back, I’m not sure how we found the resolve to turn our backs on food, cider and comfort on that glorious summer evening and head off to climb another mountain. Pen y Fan and Corn Du were already receding into the distance and it was hard to believe that we’d started the day on the far side of those towering peaks.
Over the past few days, we’d conquered all the high peaks of the Brecon Beacons; now all that remained were the Black Mountains. It was hard not to feel a sense of achievement in what we’d achieved.
‘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 Garrod Roberts is published by Vertebrate.