In search of a wild winter walk, we trace the Beacons Way through the western Black Mountain range of the Brecon Beacons National Park, discovering expansive views by day and star-studded skies by night
WORDS Mark Rowe | PHOTOGRAPHY Steve Morgan
A flock of goldfinches flits above the rowan trees that overhang the Afon Tawe, a river that clatters rather than babbles its way over the limestone rocks. Together with the freeze-frame heron on the riverbank and moss draped over the drystone walls, this is a deceptively bucolic beginning to one of the more arduous hikes a rambler can make along the Brecon Beacons Way. A clue as to what lies ahead emerges as I gaze up from the river to the distant mountain ledges and flanks. We are pulling ourselves steadily, unrelentingly up into the high ranges of the western Brecon Beacons.
The Brecon Beacons National Park sprawls across much of lower mid-Wales. It’s broad in the beam with a girth of 44 miles/71km, and bumps up against the English border before making a dash through Carmarthenshire. Many hikers are familiar with the Bank Holiday honeypot summit of Sugar Loaf and the sometimes cosy eastern valleys. Yet the Brecon Beacons is a park of two halves: that more accessible east and a remoter west. ‘The western Beacons are wild in spirit,’ Anne Pritchard, walks secretary of the Brecon Beacons Park Society, had told me before departure. ‘They are not like the eastern Beacons. They have a beauty, but it’s an awesome beauty, not a pretty beauty. You don’t see any human habitation or roads.’
The Beacons Way was devised 10 years ago by the Society’s late John Sampson and the 95 mile/152km linear walk from Skirrid, near Abergavenny to the village of Bethlehem is now the official trail of the Brecon Beacons National Park. ‘The eastern half of the way is reasonably do-able for somebody wanting to walk in the mountains and who can read a map,’ says Anne. ‘But when you cross the beacons themselves, it changes character.’ Gazing up at the distant ridge of Fan Hir as it pulls away to an unseen vanishing point, I feel that familiar tingle of excitement that comes with walking into a big landscape.
I’m in the company of two other devotees of the western ranges, Dilys Harlow and Richard Davies, both members of the Society. We’re walking day six of the way, from Craig-y-Nos to Llanddeusant, a 10 mile/16km stretch that takes in one of the most dramatic escarpments in the British Isles.
We pass beneath Fan Hir, whose remote crenelated ridges resemble castle turrets and arrow slits, while solitary trees tilt at improbable angles from the uppermost reaches. We continue past waterfalls and a ruined hafod, or summer dwelling, and for what seems an age – a pleasant age – we follow a delightful raised embankment of tussock-covered glacial moraine. Ice ages, explains Dilys, have everything to do with the landscape we are looking at. To a large extent this has justified the park’s status locally as the Fforest Fawr geopark, which seeks to emphasise and highlight the park’s extraordinary geological heritage. The smooth, rounded tops of tough red sandstone have weathered best to give the Beacons their characteristic spirit-level flat appearance.
Geoparks are not just about rocks though: human geography underpins their status as much as geology. This would become apparent the following day when I followed a shorter, less demanding stretch of the Beacons way through the near-deserted industrial landscape of Penwyllt (see Ramblers Route no. 5).
Suddenly we spring upon a delectable lake, Llyn y Fan Fawr, at 600m the highest natural lake in south Wales and edged by sandy shores of ground-down sandstone. ‘The highest beach in Wales,’ laughs Richard. We pause here and, in a triangle of sky between mountains, pick out a hovering kestrel.
Next comes the heartbeat of this walk, a traverse along an escarpment 200m above the lake. At the top lies an undulating plateau, a series of summits and edges that slice through thin air. The highest point is Fan Brycheiniog but other eye-catchers include Fan Foel and Tro’r Fan Foel, an outlier of striking geometry, where the lip of the mountain falls away at the angle of repose, the point at which slope merges into cliff. The geological symmetry is breath-taking.
To the east are the snooker-table flat summits of Pen-y-Fan and Corn Du. The Cambrian mountains stretch away to the north and away to our west we pick out the Gower peninsula; to the south open sea leads across the Bristol Channel to Devon. Just south of our route (grid ref SN 792186) lies the most isolated spot in all of Wales, if you judge such an accolade as being the furthest point from the nearest road, which is 3.4 miles/5.4km away.
The sightlines established, we try and establish the identity of what we are standing upon. The massif is known as Y Mynydd Du, the Black Mountain, but it’s more of an elevated moorland plateau. ‘The Black Mountain is fascinating, it’s a huge bulk but so varied, so you don’t feel hemmed in here’, says Dilys. There is actually no peak called the Black Mountain on the Black Mountain range. Just to confuse things, there is a summit called the Black Mountain (Twyn Llech) in the national park, but you’ll have to trudge across to the Black Mountains (note the plural) in the east to find it. I’m left wondering whether a regional byelaw has banned the use of primary colours in summit-naming. ‘The names may reflect the colour of the peat or the brooding atmosphere, particularly in clouds,’ Alan Bowring, Fforest Fawr Geopark Development Officer, tells me later.
We continue west along the escarpment, ascending steeply to the summit of Bannau Sir Gaer, circumnavigating a second stirring lake, Llyn y Fan Fach. Precipitous cliffs wrap around it, so we get no more than snatched, shadowy glimpses of its chilled waters. In winter there are deep-frozen hollows here filled with ice ruins.
We witness a dizzying aerial battle between a kestrel and two red kites and pass above another scoured and sculptured landscape. It’s as though an immense lump of putty has been raked and gouged by a young child – a child who has then sat on their creation, adding extra folds and creases.
We descend from the ridge, euphoric, as the light starts to fade, revealing another breath-taking feature of the park. On a clear night in urban areas, I’m told you can see perhaps 200 stars. In the Brecon Beacons, that figure is closer to 3,000, a consequence of the profound absence of light pollution that led to the national park being designated an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2013, the only such example in Wales.
As I wander along the paths of the Craig-y-Nos country park an hour after sunset I understand just how magical this makes things for a walker. I’ve seen five shooting stars, lost count of the satellites overhead, even the contrails of aircraft take on a milky fluorescent form.
‘We had protection for everything in the national park, the landscape, heritage buildings, ancient monuments, but nothing for the night sky, our visual environment’, says Ruth Coulthard, the park’s dark skies officer. ‘I’ve been here 13 years and if you look up and see the Milky Way it can all seem priceless,’ says Ruth. No prize money comes with Dark Skies status; instead the park has used the accolade as a lever to fund preservation measures, such as motion sensor lights and advising homeowners on angling exterior lights to be less intrusive.
Late autumn and winter can be the best months for night-time walking, partly because the Beacons are less visited. The most accessible location is the commons behind the national park headquarters outside Brecon. Sugar Loaf mountain is another accessible choice, particularly the car park positioned by the path that coils up to the summit. Ruth opts for Llanthony Priory, though she cautions this involves a scramble onto the ridge. ‘It depends how energetic you want to be at night,’ she laughs.
Which way forward?
In bad weather parts of the Beacons Way become a serious undertaking, and the isolation of the route is not to everyone’s liking. In an age of austerity, where seemingly everything has its price, the national park is under pressure from Natural Resources Wales, the environmental regulator and principal adviser to the Welsh Government, to make the way more accessible. The government also wants all routes it funds to be waymarked.
Alterations are likely, though the major change is likely to be the terminus of the route in the west, redirecting walkers into Llandovery rather than Bethlehem, tying in with accommodation and the Heart of Wales train line. ‘There have been conversations between pro- and anti-waymarkers,’ says Alan Bowring. ‘It’s about ease and access for the many people who don't have the navigational skills to walk there confidently. There are others who say the walk is taking people into a wilderness, so you don't want to intrude by putting furniture in there. The west is more remote, there are fewer settlements and the climate is wetter. It can be more difficult to get into. That makes it very attractive to a certain kind of person.’
Even if the official route changes, supporters say the original trail will be maintained as a legacy route. The national park authorities insist the route will not be dumbed down and that it will remain a substantial challenge. Drawing on the continental format, Dilys Harlow anticipates a ‘haute route’ and a ‘normal route’. ‘There would be an insurrection if the original route was discontinued,’ she says, her eyes narrowing.
TIME/DISTANCE Recommended walking time for the Beacons Way is eight days.
Day six, described here is 10.4 miles/16.8 km and takes between five and eight hours.
BOOKS & MAPS OS OL12 Western Area and OL 13 Eastern Area; Landranger 160 Brecon Beacons. The definitive guidebook is The Beacons Way: The Holy Mountain to Bethlehem by John Sansom and Arwel Michael, while Dilys Harlow’s book The Land of the Beacons Way is a great introduction to the geology and landscape of the park.
ACCOMMODATION Mark Rowe stayed at Craig Y Nos Castle (01639 730725; www.craigynoscastle.com), where double rooms and breakfast start from £123. Also visit www.showmewales.co.uk/destination/Brecon-Beacons-Wales-UK.aspx for other options.
FURTHER INFO www.breconbeacons.org/beacons-way; www.breconbeaconsparksociety.org; www.fforestfawrgeopark.org.uk. Find a list of 10 recommended night walks at www.breconbeacons.org/stargazing.