Four scenic walks around the Brecon Beacons National Park

My first holiday away from family was a pony trekking trip in the Brecon Beacons. I remember eating cowboy pie, incessant rain, singing along to Karma Chameleon on the school bus (yes, it was that long ago) and plenty of red mud. I loved it. It was also the first time I saw mountains in real life. Since then I’ve climbed plenty of hills but I’ve still got a soft spot for the Brecon Beacons. These four walks from our recent holiday show all that’s great about the area:

1. Hay Bluff and Lord Hereford’s knob (Twmpa)

Hay Bluff, near Hay-on-Wye
Hay Bluff, near Hay-on-Wye

This is a popular route close to Hay-on-Wye. You could easily walk to Hay Bluff from Hay-on-Wye but we cheated and drove to the car park at the foot of the hill. From there it’s a steep walk to the 2221 ft summit of Hay Bluff. You won’t be alone. You won’t get lost either as the path is easily visible from the car park. Up top we discovered our first trig point of the week emblazoned with a red dragon. Oh, and a great view of the Wye Valley.

Film buffs might know that scenes from ‘An American werewolf in London’ were shot around Hay Bluff; we saw plenty of moorland ponies but fortunately no werewolves.

Walking the escarpment towards Twmpa
Walking the escarpment towards Twmpa

A lot of people conquer Hay Bluff and return to the car park. If you’ve time it’s worth extending your walk to include a nearby peak, Twmpa. It’s a lovely walk along the escarpment before you temporarily lose height to cross the Gospel Pass Road, the highest road pass in Wales. Once across the road it’s back up the hill to reach the summit of Twmpa, also known as Lord Hereford’s knob. This name was, as expected, the subject of much hilarity with the teens.

The mist descended on us, seemingly from nowhere, as we took a break on the summit. A sunny autumn day quickly turned into a chilly pea souper. And did we imagine the sound of werewolves?

Descent off of Twmpa, Brecon Beacons
Descent off of Twmpa, Brecon Beacons

From Twmpa we headed downhill towards the next peak, Rhos Dirian. We emerged from the mist and passed an unhappy girl trailing behind a Duke of Edinburgh group. Shortly afterwards we took the steep path down the side of the edge and started our return to the car park. Although it’s easy to see where you need to be (the car park is visible from quite a distance) do bring a map to ensure you take the right tracks.

2. Walk around Craig Cerrig-gleisiad Nature Reserve

View from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad nature reserve
View from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad nature reserve

Although a relatively short walk (4 miles) the AA route around Craig Cerrig-gleisiad Nature Reserve is full of interest. The route takes you to the summit of Fan Frynych and around the cliff edges of Craig Cerrig-gleisiad. Alternatively if you want to stay low you could simply explore the reserve’s large amphitheatre carved out by ice and landslides.

After entering the reserve we turned north and followed an undulating dry stone wall for a mile or so through dying bracken. An uphill stretch followed which took us to to a bumpy plateau and another dragon trig point.

Summit of Fan Frynych
Summit of Fan Frynych, Brecon Beacons

Craig Cerrig-Gleisiad nature reserve is famous for its arctic-alpine plants and birds such as ring ouzel and peregrine falcons. In time honoured tradition we didn’t see any of these but we played hide and seek with a couple of grouse near the summit trig.

View from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad
View from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad

The summits of Pen y Fan and Corn Du can be seen from many walks in the Brecon Beacons including this one. We were the only people on Fan Frynych but wondered how many were on top of these rather more popular peaks.  Certainly I recall a steady stream of walkers when we climbed Pen y Fan.

Start of descent from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad
Start of descent from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad

After lunch we circled the top of the cliffs before tackling the downhill section. This was extremely steep and quite slippy in places. If, like me, you’ve got ageing knees you might be better off exploring alternative descents!

Craig Cerrig-gleisiad nature reserve
Craig Cerrig-gleisiad nature reserve, Brecon Beacons

3. Caerfanell Valley and Carn Pica

This was another AA walk, following the extended version of the Skyline Walking above the Caerfanell Valley route (only available in the AA book, not online). The first section, up on to and along the edge of Craig y Fan Ddu, was pretty hard going due to the bitter wind. Not pleasant at all despite the views. It was a relief to turn out of the wind.

View from Waun Rydd
View from Waun Rydd

With the wind behind us, we followed the well marked path across the moorland of Waun Rydd. It took us a while to decide on a picnic spot as most of the area is exposed and marshy but we finally found one with a view over to Pen-y-Fan. Only to discover that neither of us were carrying the sandwiches. Whoops. Thankfully we had some snacks to tide us over.

View from Carn Pica
View from Carn Pica, Brecon Beacons

Lunch, of sorts, over we walked on to experience one of my favourite sections of the walk. The views from the beehive Carn Pica and down to Talybont Reservoir and across to the Black Mountains were stunning, possibly my favourite in the Brecon Beacons. With one eye on the view we continued along the edge of the escarpment, passing the tempting ridge route to Allt Lwyd and then traversing cliffs to reach another smaller cairn (in feature photo). From here it was possible to take a short diversion to visit the wreckage and memorial of a Canadian plane crash. In hindsight I wish we had. But we had a hangry teen, about to die of starvation, with us.

View from near Carn Pica
View from near Carn Pica

Instead we walked downhill to the second scenic treat of this walk, a series of waterfalls. The Brecon Beacons are well known for their waterfalls, particularly those at Ystradfellte. The ones on this route are a quieter alternative although given the size of the Blaen-y-Glyn car parks I’m guessing this is not always the case. The path follows the Caerfanell River, with some added diversions around fallen trees or particularly boggy bits.

At the largest waterfall we turned into the woodland where we discovered the walk had a sting in its tail. It was a very steep trek up through a section of felled forest back to the car park!

Caerfanell waterfall, near Talybont-on-Usk
Caerfanell waterfall, near Talybont-on-Usk, Brecon Beacons

If, after the walk, you’re looking to appease hungry children (or adults) I recommend the Old Barn Tea rooms. Follow the signs from the car park; it’s bigger and busier than you expect given their apparent remoteness. Oh, and they have great coffee.

4. Climbing the Cat’s Back up Black Hill

For our last walk we drove back to England. This walk is in Herefordshire and just outside the Brecon Beacons boundary but as it was recommended to us by the National Park visitor centre I’m including it here. Particularly as it was my favourite walk of the week.

We reached the start after a long, mostly single track, drive from Hay-on -Wye to the picnic site signposted near Llanveynoe. As we hardly saw another car on the journey it was a surprise to arrive and find the small parking area full. Fortunately another walker was just returning so we were able to use his space.

Climbing the Cat’s Back, Black Hill
Climbing the Cat’s Back, Black Hill

Once out of the car there’s a short, but steep, uphill section to the ridge. The path is clear and up top the vista is wide ranging. Flat green English countryside, aside from the Malverns, on one side of the ridge. The harsh moorland of the Black Mountains on the other. And dark storm clouds in front of us. Can you guess how this walk ended?

View from Black Hill
View from Black Hill

I’ve seen this route described as Herefordshire’s Striding Edge. As someone who isn’t too keen on exposure this worried me a little. Fortunately this is infinitely easier than Striding Edge. It’s a fun ridge route without the fear of death that, for me, spoils Striding Edge.

Walking the Cat’s Back up Black Hill
Walking the Cat’s Back up Black Hill

The route is called the Cat’s Back as it evidently looks like one of these from afar. We checked this out on the drive home but I’m not convinced. At the end of the ridge we found a huge cairn, just look at its scale compared to my teenage son!

Cairn on Black Hill
Cairn on Black Hill

Black Hill summit trig is a little further on. A good photo stop as always but on this route it’s the ridge that’s the star of the walk.

Summit of Black Hill
Summit of Black Hill

Our return was hastened by the ominous storm clouds blowing our way. With a forecast of possible thunderstorms, I decided to get off the summit sharpish so we galloped across moorland to reach our descent route. This took us down through the Olchon Valley which, on a fine day, would have been a great place to explore. A pity our descent was marred by hailstones.

Walking down Olchon Valley
Walking down Olchon Valley

We reached the bottom just as the hail eased off. The final part of the route runs along a road with derelict stone buildings on either side. Despite our soaking we’d had a great walk and I was almost tempted to head up the ridge for a second go!

Do you have a favourite walk in the Brecon Beacons?

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Five things to do with teens around Coniston, Cumbria

It can be hard work holidaying with teens. Even more so when your destination is a soggy Lake District rather than the Instagram perfect beach of their dreams. Fear not, if you’re in the Lakes, and you’ve managed to lure them out of bed before noon, why not try one of the following:

Walk up a mountain

Looking back towards Old Man of Coniston
Looking back towards Old Man of Coniston

Climbing to the summit of any mountain gives a great sense of achievement, even if there are a few grumbles along the way. From Coniston, the 2634 ft Old Man of Coniston is the obvious target. The tourist trail paths are well marked and there’s plenty of legacy mining activity to add interest.

We booked on to a guided walk with Lake District volunteer leaders. Our route was originally designed to summit both the Old Man and Dow Crag. However the incessant rain put paid to this and our leader suggested an alternative descent instead of Dow Crag. Although slightly disappointing we were all soaked through and it was the right decision. Of course the rain eased off not long afterwards!

Route down from Old Man of Coniston
Route down from Old Man of Coniston

Walking with a guide offered us the opportunity to learn more about the area and its industrial history, which I wouldn’t always appreciate if walking alone. The National Park offers a variety of walks for all abilities which generally cost £10 or less per person (many are free). Highly recommended.

Quarry on descent route from Old Man of Coniston
Quarry on descent route from Old Man of Coniston

Go gorge scrambling

If there’s one thing that gets teens animated it’s the chance of an adventure. Something completely different from their day to day routines. Gorge scrambling definitely offers this.

We booked a half day gorge scrambling and canyoning trip with Adventure 21. This was a somewhat unusual activity for me as, unlike the rest of the family, I do not like water. I can hardly swim and I hate getting my face wet. I was way out of my comfort zone.

Gorge scrambling - photos courtesy of Adventure 21
Gorge scrambling – photos courtesy of Adventure 21

After manoeuvring ourselves into wetsuits, waterproofs and helmets we walked from Coniston Water up through the village to Church Beck. Here we entered the fast flowing water and I was relieved not to be immediately swept downstream. Despite my fears an almost enjoyable two hours ensued. Gorge scrambling is as it sounds; we climbed up through small waterfalls and negotiated the rocky river bed. If you’re used to scrambling on dry land, this is technically easier but the water makes it ‘interesting’.

At the end of the scramble there’s a chance to try canyoning. Better known as scary big jumps into water. The non-swimmer in me opted out. There was no way I was going to put my head under water.

Despite my reservations everyone survived. And, as predicted, the teens declared this the best day of the holiday.

Take a boat trip on Coniston Water

Coniston boat trip
Coniston boat trip

I’d been looking forward to a boat trip in the Lake District (particularly as it’s one of my UK bucket list items). Truth be told, this was one of our less enjoyable days. It didn’t help that I’d read the wrong timetable and arrived just as the steam gondola I’d planned to catch left the jetty. Or that it was raining. Again.

We took an alternative boat which, although perfectly serviceable, wasn’t what I’d envisaged. Our 60 minute cruise took us up to Wildcat Island, of Swallows and Amazons fame, before returning via Brantwood. This was the home of John Ruskin and makes for an interesting stopover. There’s a cafe, museum and, on dry days, gardens to explore.

Brantwood House
Brantwood House

For a little more excitement we could have hired a canoe, kayak or rowing boat from the Coniston Boating Centre. But I’d had enough of water over the previous couple of days. And at least our boat trip was weather proof.

Go on a road trip

I was running out of ideas to occupy another wet day. Sitting in a car for much of the day wouldn’t normally feature on my list of activities. But when your drive includes a route over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes it’s a lot more exciting!

View from Hardknott Roman fort
View from Hardknott Roman fort

We drove a circular route via Coniston to Broughton-in-Furness, up to Duddon Bridge and Ulpha, onto Eskdale then over the passes to Little Langdale.

We stretched our legs in Eskdale with a walk to Stanley Ghyll Force waterfall and again at Hardknott Roman Fort. The fort is in an incredible setting but I didn’t envy its inhabitants. The winters would have been so harsh; no amount of Roman plumbing could convince me to live there.

View across Wrynose Pass
View across Wrynose Pass

From the fort a single track road zigzags up and over Hardknott and then Wrynose Pass. It’s one of the steepest roads in the UK so you’ll be lucky to get out of second gear. My advice? Give way to drivers coming uphill (and locals), concentrate on the road and don’t be scared by the TripAdvisor reviews. If you’re a confident driver in a decent vehicle you’ll be absolutely fine. Believe me, it’s one of the best drives in the UK. Even the teens stayed awake for it!

Explore caves

There are lots of abandoned quarries, mine workings and caves in this area. Many are dangerous and shouldn’t be entered. However Cathedral Quarry, a short walk from Little Langdale, offers you the opportunity to explore a man made quarry and tunnels in a relatively safe environment.

Cathedral cave, near Little Langdale
Cathedral cave, near Little Langdale

Cathedral Quarry is, rather surprisingly, owned by the National Trust. It is not your usual NT property. It’s free to visit and always open but there are no facilities or cafe. You’ll need to bring a torch for the tunnels and waterproof footwear for clambering over rocks and wading through puddles. Great fun for an hour or two. Oh, and watch out for the goldfish!

Important

All of the above suggestions are at your own risk. As in, they might be dangerous. But how boring would life be it was perfectly safe?

We visited in summer (I use this term loosely); a winter visit is a completely different undertaking.

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A walk beside the Purton hulks, Gloucestershire

If you’re looking for a short quirky walk in Gloucestershire how about visiting a ship’s graveyard? We spent an hour discovering the Purton hulks, one of my British bucket list items, on the way home from an overnight stay at St Briavels Castle YHA.

Gloucester and Sharpness Canal

After parking opposite the church in Purton, we crossed the bridge and followed a sign directing us to the Purton hulks. This took us along a towpath, bordered on one side by the Gloucester and Sharpness canal and the River Severn on the other.

Gloucester and Sharpness canal
Gloucester and Sharpness canal

The 16.5 mile canal runs, as you’d expect, between Gloucester and Sharpness. Built to bypass a dangerous stretch of the River Severn it was once the deepest and broadest canal in the world. Nowadays it’s mainly used by pleasure craft and kayakers. In the not too distant past oil tankers and even submarines have navigated its waters!

Purton Hulks

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

After 15 minutes or so we reached the first few boats. Between 1909 and the 1970s vessels were deliberately beached along the River Severn to shore up the banks and protect the land between the river and canal.

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

Today there are over 80 vessels in the ship graveyard. Many are hidden under grass or silt. Some are in an advanced state of decay with just the rotting timbers and huge bolts remaining. You certainly need to keep your eyes on the ground, partly so you don’t miss anything but also to avoid the trip hazards.

Purton Hulks, Gloucestershire
Purton Hulks, Gloucestershire

There’s a huge variety of boats here, from schooners to concrete barges. The Friends of Purton group have investigated and published in-depth histories of each of the vessels on their website. Each ship has a name plaque which you can look up online.

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

In the same way that I loved learning about the residents of Highgate Cemetery on our recent visit, I enjoyed finding out about the vessels at Purton.

The ship below is Harriett, the last known example of a Kennet built barge. She spent her life in the Bristol docks area, carrying grain and wood pulp.

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

This is Edith, a Chepstow trow. She used to transport coal between Bristol and the Forest of Dean. Edith has an eventful past, with several collisions and groundings. She was finally beached in the 1960s.

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

There’s not a lot left of Sally, also known as King. Beached during a snowstorm in 1951 much of her history is a mystery although she may have originated in the Caribbean. Sadly she has suffered at the hands of arsonists who have burnt her timbers in order to extract metals from them.

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

Photographers will have a field day exploring the hulks. Historians and boat lovers too. I don’t particularly class myself as any of these but they’re well worth a visit. Just don’t leave it too long. They won’t be here forever!

Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire
Purton ships graveyard, Gloucestershire

After you reach the last of the accessible boats the path leads back up to the canal. From here you can return along the towpath. Or, if you fancy a longer walk, head into Sharpness in the opposite direction.

More info

  • The Friends of Purton website is a mine of information with copious detail on the ships and their histories.
  • Wear wellies or boots after rain. It will be very muddy!
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Exploring the northern Gower Peninsula, Swansea

Think of the Gower peninsula and you probably imagine holidaymakers enjoying its golden sandy beaches. But whilst the area is home to some of the most celebrated beaches in Wales, spare a thought for its quiet northern neighbour. On a recent trip we left the busier southern beaches behind and spent a day discovering just how different the northern Gower is.

Weobley Castle

We started with a visit to Weobley Castle, or more accurately, the remains of a 14th Century fortified manor house. It’s a low key attraction with most of the inside area open to the elements. One room has been restored and this houses panels detailing the history of the area and the de la Bere family who lived here.

Weobley Castle
Weobley Castle

But it’s the positioning of Weobley Castle that’s most impressive. Standing high above the coastline a window provides a perfectly framed view of the salt marshes and mud flats that typify the north Gower coastline. Admittedly not to everyone’s taste but it’s my kind of place. The salt marsh is grazed by ponies and sheep whose diet of samphire, sorrel and sea lavender contribute to its unique flavour. If you fancy trying the resulting salt marsh lamb you can often buy it from the farmhouse where you pay your castle entrance fee.

View from Weobley Castle over Llanrhidian salt marshes
View from Weobley Castle over Llanrhidian salt marshes

Llanrhidian marsh is a great bird watching spot, particularly during the winter months when it’s home to a large population of waders and wildfowl. We asked permission at the farmhouse and walked down to see what bird life we could spot. Despite a lack of binoculars we saw a couple of little egrets wading in one of the muddy channels and a fledgling nuthatch hopping along the ground. However we didn’t walk far as the ponies were having fun cantering around the marsh and we decided it best to watch them from afar.

Whiteford beach

It’s a ten minute drive from Weobley Castle to the small village of Llandmadoc. After a refreshment break in the community shop and a spot of hanging around in the car waiting for the rain to clear we headed out towards Whiteford Sands. This is the most northerly beach on the Gower peninsula and, thanks to the lack of a car park, one of the least visited.

After a 20 minute walk we reached the beach and were greeted with a sign warning visitors not to pick up unusual items. The area was used as a firing range in World War II and unexploded shells still turn up occasionally.

Tide’s out at Whiteford Sands
Tide’s out at Whiteford Sands

Whiteford beach stretches for about two miles, and is backed by sand dunes and trees. We visited at low tide and the waters were too far out for a paddle. Instead we walked along the tideline checking what treasures high tide had bought. We found several sea potatoes, whelk egg cases and lots of crab legs. There were a couple of small jellyfish, but nothing like the huge barrel jellyfish we’d seen on the southern beaches.

As we walked we heard our first, and only, cuckoo of the year. It was somewhere in the trees but despite it reminding us of its presence every few minutes we couldn’t spot it.

Whiteford Sands, Gower Peninsula
Whiteford Sands, Gower Peninsula

Given the earlier rain it wasn’t surprising we were the only ones on the beach. This was also fortunate as I subsequently discovered that Whiteford Sands is a well known naturist beach. I can only imagine how embarrassed the teens would have been if we’d come across some au naturel visitors.

Whiteford beach, Gower peninsula
Whiteford beach, Gower peninsula

Later a couple of quad bikes passed us and we realised the beach wasn’t entirely empty. Far out we could see a couple of groups of people who I guess were harvesting cockles or mussels. A backbreaking job perhaps better left to the oystercatchers!

Whiteford lighthouse

At the far end of Whiteford beach there’s a cast iron lighthouse which was built in 1865. Over 30 shipwrecks have been recorded in this area, including 16 ships sailing out of Llanelli which were wrecked in just one night.

Whiteford Lighthouse, Gower Peninsula
Whiteford Lighthouse, Gower Peninsula

The lighthouse is accessible on foot at low tide, providing the ultimate goal for my beach walk. Although I underestimated just how far out it was. The rest of the family sensibly decided to sit it out on the beach whilst I seemingly walked several miles out to it (OK, perhaps half a mile).

Whiteford Burrows Nature Reserve

Leaving the lighthouse behind we walked past the sand dunes that make up Whiteford Burrows. The path gradually turned from sand to mud as we moved inland. Yellow irises flanked our route, indicative of the marsh that lay just off our route.

Whiteford Sands, Gower Peninsula
Whiteford Sands, Gower Peninsula

We arrived at a path junction and I was immediately drawn to the sea wall that heads out across the marsh. The wall was breached in 2014, resulting in sea water flowing into the freshwater marsh. Rather than repair it the National Trust have left nature to take its own course. This has resulted in the area previously behind the sea wall turning into salt marsh. Good news for wildlife although not so good if you wanted to take the footpath along the sea wall!

Sea wall across the marsh, Whiteford
Sea wall across the marsh, Whiteford

A little later we stopped in a bird hide overlooking the marsh. Our lack of binoculars once again put paid to any serious bird spotting so we didn’t linger. There was also the small matter of reaching Cwm Ivy cafe before closing time.

Whiteford nature reserve, Gower
Whiteford nature reserve, Gower

Sitting in the cafe a short time later we reflected on our northern Gower day out.  The area has a stunning coastline, nature reserves and historical attractions. Yet we‘d seen less than 30 other visitors all day; it’s definitely the place to visit if you’re looking for a quiet day out (particularly in the rain)!

Exploring the Gower Peninsula was one of my UK bucket list challenges. As well as the above day out you might also like to read about the fun we had tackling the Worm’s Head at Rhossili.

More info:

  • Weobley Castle is open daily between 1 April and 31 October. It’s free for Cadw members, alternatively pay in the farmhouse before entering.
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