Possibly the Brecon Beacons is the least known mountainous national park in England and Wales, but as Brian Spencer discovered on a recent visit, it is easy to reach and the scenery is superb.
The irregular oval of the Brecon Beacons National Park stretches from the long arrow-straight ridges of the eastern Black Mountains. Barren and wind-blown, they climb between Abergavenny and Hay-on-Wye, in sharp contrast to the more rounded hills of the western Black Mountains. Rising to 2906 feet high Pen y Van at its central point, the region is cut in two by the River Usk, one of South Wales’ major trout and salmon rivers. Resting on red sandstone and gritstone except for a large area of limestone towards the west, the mountains are deeply cut by narrow coal-bearing south running valleys beyond the southern boundary of the national park. High wild moorland stretches north between the A40 and A483, but this area, especially around Mynydd Eppynt is very much the preserve of the armed forces and tends to be out of bounds to the rest of us.
Arriving by way of the A40, visitors reach the first and only major town in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Abergavenny is a busy market town, often referred to as the ‘Gateway to the Vale of Usk’. Surrounded by green hills, including the symmetrical cone of the Sugar Loaf, the town is almost like something out of a picture book. The castle of which little remains, was built on the site of a Roman fort. Originally erected by the conquering Normans, for centuries it was a bastion against the Welsh. Today, the ruins sit as an attractive background to an attractive small garden. The town is renowned for its selection of antique shops, and makes an ideal base for visitors to the Beacons
South west from Abergavenny and high on the moors sheltering the first of the colliery valleys, Blaenavon is the home of the Big Pit Visitor Centre where you can go underground to experience what it was like to work far from the light of day. The pit in its hey-day was part of an industrial complex that included an ironworks.
Traveling upstream following the Usk as it flows alongside the A40, the next place along the way is Crickhowell. The name of this attractive little market town is derived from the Iron Age fort on top of a hill to the north of the town; Craig Hywel (Howell’s Cairn) is set on the summit of 1481 foot high Table Mountain. The ancient stronghold protected the town from the north and is said to have been the home of 9th century King Hywel Dda, who laid down the first Welsh laws. People have lived in and around Crickhowell since Neolithic times, but its most memorable son was Sir George Everest, who as director general of the survey of India gave his name to the highest mountain in the world, even though he never saw it.
The Abergavenny branch of the Monmouthshire Canal passes close by, following the contours of the Usk Valley. Built to carry limestone and iron ore to the industrial regions to the south, by bringing coal back it halved the cost of fuel for the inhabitants of the Vale of Usk. The canal has been restored and nowadays used by holidaymakers enjoying the sylvan tranquility of gentle travel.
A side road leads north from Brecon, climbing along a narrow route once used by drovers slowly moving cattle and sheep to markets serving the industrial south. All that is left of this once essential activity is the Drovers’ Arms pub about half way between Brecon and Llanelwedd.
Brecon (Aberhonddu) is a market town with a history going back to the 12th century, but it is its cathedral which holds most of the town’s history. Built in the 13th and 14th centuries, as the Priory of St John the Evangelist, it became Brecon Cathedral in 1923. A base for salmon fishing, it is also the home of the South Wales Borderers’ Regimental Museum, commemorating amongst other events the regiment’s epic stand at Rourke’s Drift during the Zulu War. The town uniquely also has a distillery making Welsh Whiskey (Chwisgi); if you want to try it you must buy a glass or two in a local pub, as there are no ‘free-taster’ trips on offer at this distillery!
Although there are many reservoirs in valleys within the Brecon Beacons, there is only one true lake. Llangorse Lake (Llyn Syfadan) was created when the retreating ice sheet left behind a clay-lined hole. Today it is the haunt of sailing enthusiasts, anglers, bird watchers and walkers, but in prehistoric times, a group of people built their homes on the protection of a man-made island created by patiently piled up stones. Legend speaks of a town which, destroyed by an earthquake, now lies deep beneath the lake; the tolling of its church bells can still be heard, or so they say, when the water is rough.
The A470 climbs away from Brecon, on its way to the coal mining valleys. In about five miles, a right turn in the tiny village of Libanus and you will come to the Brecon Beacons National Park Mountain Centre. Standing at 1100ft on the slopes of Mynydd Illtud, It covers almost every aspect of the 519 square miles of the national park. Offering excellent views of the surrounding hills, it is an ideal starting point for guided or self-led walks.
More or less at the highest point of the A470, a footpath climbs steadily to the twin summits of Pen y Fan and Corn Du. These two mountains are the highest in the Brecon Beacons National Park, offering wide ranging views, especially to the north over the Vale of Usk. Although Pen y Fan is flat topped, Corn Du has a more pointed summit, the variance being caused by slightly differing strata. As a warning to anyone considering something foolhardy, such as wandering ill-equipped in mist or heavy rain, a column on the approach to Corn Du should suffice. This is where 5-year-old little Tommy Jones was found after losing his way in bad weather in 1900.
There is a forest centre on the way down into the valley with picnic sites and short waymarked walks, but for something more adventurous take the A4067 from Sennybridge, over the headwaters of the River Tawe, to Dan-yr-Ogof Caves. Discovered by the Morgan brothers, Jeff and Ashwell in 1912, the caves are considered, even now, to be only partly explored. Starting at around 800ft above sea level, the public section of the caves takes in features such as the Frozen Waterfall, Wolf’s Head and Flitch of Bacon before the easy to follow path leads into Dagger Chamber. All now part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a visit to the caves is completed by wandering past life-sized models of dinosaurs. There is also an artificial ski slope and a well-stocked fishing lake; but for those preferring more leisurely pursuits, there is a museum, restaurant and a picnic site.
The Brecon Beacons National Park is an area of truly unspoilt countryside that is teeming with wildlife, much of it rare even for this remote corner of Wales. Semi-alpine flowers such as purple saxifrage and roseroot, a member of the stonecrop family and even the pretty yellow globe flowers, can be found blooming in sheltered rocky corners high up on places like Pen y Fan. Ravens nest in the wild woods and inaccessible crags, while birds of prey such a hen harriers, merlins and short eared owls can be spotted silently quartering the hillsides. Buzzards are plentiful and red kites, a bird once thought to be extinct in Wales are finding their way south from their traditional grounds near Plynlimon in mid-Wales, searching for carrion.
The national park is waterfall country. Alternating layers of sandstones and millstone grit have created a ‘stepped’ land form where rivers and streams if they are not disappearing underground into caves and potholes, cascade on their way down the hillside. The best place to find some of the finest waterfalls is just to the south of the village of Ystradfellte (off the A4059 beyond the start of the Pen y Fan path). The best is on the Hepste stream where it splashes over aptly named Sgwd yr Eira (The Spout of Snow). Another called Cwm Pwll-y-Rhyd is near the headwaters of the River Neath. Here the River Hepste tiring of flowing next to the A4059 Hirwaun road, simply disappears down a huge hole.
Accommodation in the area is usually reasonably priced and ranges from camp sites, B&Bs to Guest Houses and cosy hotels.