View of the Brecon Beacons
View of the Brecon Beacons

Beacons Walking

Article on Brecon Beacons Walks by Travel Writer Sue Bland

We should all be ashamed of ourselves. It’s always the tourists who are the know-it-alls about Britain. Answer this: how few of the UK’s iconic tourist destinations have you seen? Have you climbed the highest mountain or know where the deepest lake is? Have you traversed from the country’s tip at John O’Groats to the toe – Land’s End? What about in Wales?

It is tourists who tick all the boxes – they’ve seen all the natural and man-made wonders, visited all the museums, the sites of special scientific interest, tramped through the national parks, eaten all the local specialities and spotted all the birds. Meanwhile we, the inhabitants of this island are satisfied with the annual foray to the beach on the hottest day of the year, and after spending hours stuck in a traffic jam, vow never again, and spend the rest of the summer indoors watching cricket on TV, moaning that it always rains.

I am no different. I’ve lived in Cardiff for six years and have never stepped foot inside the castle, despite passing it on my way to work, and then again on my way back – that’s everyday, for years. Nor have I been to the UNESCO World Heritage site, The Big Pit, or visited Britain’s only coastal National Park in Pembrokeshire, with its scenic sea view footpath running along its edge. Bank holiday looming, I was determined to do something about my shameful cultural laziness, and besides, if you can’t join the tourists, so you might as well try and beat them – to the top of Pen y Fan.

The highest peak in South Wales is in the Brecon Beacons National park. It has protected status, though you’d swear the Welsh thought that meant that you can’t visit it except on a bank holiday, or even that it’s kept just for tourists, for the only languages I heard were Dutch, Spanish, even, (never!) English accents.

Arriving in the National Park from the South after a gradual ascent, suddenly unmasked hills are all around you, without their shroud of clustered terraced housing typical of the South Wales valleys. Past the first reservoir and it feels like a place deserving of its capital lettered status. On a bank holiday or sunny weekend, the road is lined with parked cars, a firm hint you are close to walker territory. A glance to the left or right will confirm this – the steadily moving dots on the landscape, which aren’t white and fluffy, are the ”˜serious’ walkers. You will know them by their ski pole sticks, outsize rucksacks, waterproofed maps laced round necks and trousers tucked into socks. Close up, they possess a slightly demonic look of steely determination. Follow the countryside code – soft city types give way to walkers with ski poles (they could turn nasty and attack).

Further north, the appropriately named Brecon Beacons Mountain Centre houses a small mountain of information and merchandise on its well-stocked shelves with a condensed guide to everything you ever wanted to know about Wales, from walking, to cookery and flora and fauna. The staff will diplomatically hint at the disadvantages of starting an eight-hour trek at three in the afternoon, and instead offer robust practical advice on alternative routes.

The centre is a short drive away from the most popular route, leading straight to the top of Pen Y Fan. At 886m it is the 18th highest in Wales. In the UK there are over two hundred higher peaks and in the world, well, let’s move on. After all, perhaps a country’s mountains reflect the national character. For most Brits, mountain climbing sounds just a bit too stressful. We prefer a lounge on the couch to crampons, and as a nation we collectively threw in the towel after centuries of pillaging, colonising and empire building. We no longer have anything to prove so are happy instead to colonise in a meeker manner – buying studios in the Costas instead. Our mountains reflect this. They are small and easy to climb. Ben Nevis, tiny on a world scale, and Snowdonia -the serious mountaineer’s joke – and we built a train to the top.

To scale Pen y Fan we parked in the main car park and followed the hordes of bank holiday walkers up the hill. For some reason walkers only have Labradors or Jack Russell dogs. There is no flag on the summit, no signpost and no marker noting height above sea level. Just an amazing panoramic view. Someone has troubled to arrange a tiny cairn-like peak from stones, so standing on top of the world (in South Wales) involves a precarious balancing act.

The next peak, Pen y Fan, is spectacular for its precipitous sheer drop – over 46m, and a perfect ledge for daring to peer over. One moment you can be trying to identify an odd green-tailed bird, the next minute over the edge of the cliff. There is always one show off. A man pretending to sleep, hat over face, balanced on a near vertical piece of cliff edge. A tourist board plant, or a dummy, for no one could sleep so calmly in an area of outstanding natural danger.

Pen Y Fan is obligingly seated next door to the other two other tall peaks, Corn Du (873m) and Cribyn (795m) so you can tick off all three in the same walk. The last of the three is deceptively distant from its cousin peak, so pace yourself. Nothing more humiliating than ending up red-faced, dehydrated and hyperventilating at the top of one of the world’s smallest mountains. But don’t panic, you don’t need mountain rescue on speed dial, or to be a trained member of the SAS to reach Pen y Fan’s summit. It is a casually easy walk on a well worn path. If well paced, it can still give you the same pleasing frisson of smugness after all, you’ve just climbed your local Everest. It’s not your fault Pen y Fan happens to be so low.

Brecon Beacons Holiday Cottages

Swansea Valley Holiday Cottages are ideally placed for a walking holiday in Brecon Beacons National Park.  The southern boundary of Brecon Beacons National Park lies 10 miles up-valley from our self catering cottages. Head north to the remarkable barren landscape that is the Black Mountain. Spend the morning at Henrhyd Falls, Coelbren in the famous ‘Waterfall Country’ region. It is possible to walk right behind the falls and enjoy the sensation of a roaring torrent of water falling a few feet from one’s face. Next stop Castell Carreg Cennen, one of the most spectacularly sited castles in Europe (14 miles). Constructed in 1248, the castle sits on a fearsome rocky outcrop, 300ft above a sheer drop down to the spectacular surrounding countryside. Take a torch for the secret cave-dungeon and visit the little farmhouse café near the car park for tea and Welsh cakes! Return to your cottage in the evening and put your feet up in front of the fire.