My first holiday away from family was a pony trekking trip in the Brecon Beacons in South Wales. 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)
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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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