Escaping the Crowds in the Western Brecon Beacons

I was lucky enough to get up to the the Brecon Beacons last weekend, where I spent Friday night through to Sunday afternoon on a backpacking trip backpacking with a good Welsh friend of mine, Mr Dan Bryan. Two others were due to join us, but sadly had to pull out; something which they’ll no doubt be gutted about when they see the photos…

View from near Llanddeusant, looking up at the 'Carmarthenshire Fans'
View from near Llanddeusant, looking up at the Carmarthenshire Fans

Dan, being a local lad, picked out a route for us which roughly followed a stretch of the Beacons Way, a 152km national walking route, generally completed over 8 days. It starts near Abergavenny in the East, and ends at the village of Bethlehem in the far West of the National Park (que ‘hilarious’ geographically-themed jokes). Our chosen segment, which neither of us had explored so far, went from the Storey Arms Outdoor Education Centre to the village of Llanddeusant, and it proved to be the most scenic, varied and all-round enjoyable walk I’ve done in years (arguably ever, though I need to give that more thought)! It’s certainly one I’d recommend to anyone with a love of fine views, varied terrain, and importantly; piece and quiet. We must have passed about 10 people on the trail over the entire weekend, 80% of them on the Sunday afternoon when walking down towards civilization. On the same weekend in the Pen y Fan massif, we would have had hundreds for company.

To find out more about the Beacons Way, head to the Brecon Beacons Park Society website for a description of the route, maps of each leg, and highlights along the way. As I’ve said, the bits we did are days 5 & 6, from the Storey Arms to LLanddeusant: www.breconbeaconsparksociety.org/national-park/the-beacons-way/the-route-2

 

The Route

Leaving the car at the Storey Arms at 9:30PM on Friday night, we walked the 3km or so to the top of a hill opposite the Pen y Fan massif, illuminated  by the light of the full moon. It was a beautifully clear night, and calm enough to camp in an exposed hilltop spot just SW of the ridge of Craig Cerrig Glesiad. We awoke the next morning to a mist-free view on a crisp, bright spring day.

Always nice to wake up to a view having pitched in darkness! East towards Pen y Fan
Always nice to wake up to a view having pitched in darkness! East towards Pen y Fan
Dan fires up the Jetboil for some hot choc
Dan fires up the Jetboil for some hot choc

Over the course of the morning we followed the Beacons Way up and along the fine, gentle ridge of Fan Llia as the temperature rose into the teens, and down the Southern side to the bridge over the River Llia, where we took the opportunity to dunk our clammy feet in the ice-cold water and enjoy some instant porridge. This came courtesy of Dan’s Jetboil Flash cooking system, which boils water faster than any stove I’ve ever used, as well as packing small and (importantly) looking stunning. The Jetboil ‘flame’ logo on the outside of the cooking pot even turns yellow when the water has boiled… awesome. Ever since returning from the Beacons I’ve been left with some serious stove envy!

Next we continued onwards to the South West along the Roman Road known today as Sarn Helen, through some commercial pine woodland which still bore the scars of the savage winter storms. Large trees were uprooted, bent and tangled together in their dozens: never before had I seen such massive and widespread devastation in a forested area.

Large trees resembling a game of 'pick up sticks' after winter storms
Large trees resembling a game of ‘pick up sticks’ after winter storms
Maen Madoc standing stone
Maen Madoc

A couple meters from the edge of the Roman Road we passed the curious standing stone, marked on maps as Maen Madoc. Of uncertain age and origin (being a history grad I’ve done my research), this impressive, 10ft high slab of red sandstone may have been erected as a burial monument to a 5th or 6th century Romano-British man known as “Dervacus, Son of Justus”, who lies buried there, according to the weathered Latin inscription on its surface. Alternatively, it may date from the Bronze Age, when other standing stones in the area (Maen Llia, Maen Mawr) were likely erected, with the inscription and burial taking place later. As with so many standing stones, we will never know, and its precise purpose will forever remain mysterious! Historical side-track over.

Having crossed the River Mellte on the Roman Road, we carried on through the bizarre landscape of the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu Nature Reserve, pock-marked with ‘shake holes’ that are evidence of the UK’s deepest cave system beneath. By now we were slogging in the full heat of the afternoon sun, and the rolling, exposed terrain posed the most challenging part of the day so far. It was however fascinating to see the ‘limestone pavements’, and abandoned quarry works as we began descending into the Abertawe Valley.

'Limestone Pavement' above the Abertawe valley
‘Limestone Pavement’ above the Abertawe (Swansea) valley
The view from campsite number 2
The view from campsite number 2

When we reached the little village of Callwen, we headed straight for the pub (which we’d been aiming for the past 2 hours) for a bit of refreshment. It was Murphy’s Law that when we got there, we discovered that the pub marked on our map was derelict! Luckily there was another in the village where we succumbed well-and-truly to the temptation of 6 Nations rugby, food and relaxation. By the time we’d watched Ireland clinch the 6 Nations trophy, two hours had passed, and it had gone 7pm! Now in complete darkness, we headed out of Callwen and cross-country up headed straight up the steep end of the ridge leading up to Fan Hir (a detour from the route of the Beacons Way to take in this impressive ridge), and pitched camp at about 450 metres overlooking the valley – ready for the final day.

After a surprisingly windy night which threatened to blow the tent away, we woke up on Sunday to an even better view than the day before. We ate some porridge and headed on up the ridge of Fan Hir. After an initial steep pull up to 600m, the ridge made for some of the finest walking I’ve experienced in the UK. With the skies clear, we could see all the way across to Pen y Fan over 10 miles distant, with even greater visibility in all other directions. The ridge dropped away very steeply to our right, making for some very spectacular photos, and although the wind picked up significantly, this was easily the highlight  of the route so far; both scenically, and because I love a gentle, high-level ridge walk. Who doesn’t?

Ridge vanity shot on Fan Hir, Black Mountain
Shameless vanity shot on the ridge of Fan Hir
Looking out over the Abertawe (Swansea) Valley
Looking out over the Abertawe (Swansea) Valley

Dropping off the Northern end of the ridge into a small col, we took advantage of the shelter from the wind to eat a couple of Ginsters pasties (quality nutrition is important on a backpacking trip). We next ascended to the highest point of the entire walk and eastern Beacons: Fan Brycheiniog, at 802 metres above sea level. Yet again the views were some of the most spectacular I’ve seen in years, unbroken into Mid Wales, and South into the Welsh Valleys. The small, circular dry-stone shelter on the summit gave us yet another excuse to fire up the Jetboil stove, this time for a pot noodle. We may have walked a fair way… but a healthy weekend this was not.

From Fan Brycheiniog we continued around the ridge to Picws Du; a magnificent mountain with a dramatic North face that plunges downwards near-vertically into the valley 200 metres below. It was now practically scorching in the midday sun. I had though the views couldn’t get much better – I was wrong. Walking onwards around the ridge, we were able to look back at the path we’d taken, winding its way above stunning slopes that plunge downwards into the waters of the lake, Llyn y Fan Fach.

The majestic North face of Picws Du
The majestic North face of Picws Du
Throwing a stone on the cairn at Picws Du. Unbelievably, this wasn't staged
Throwing a stone on the cairn at Picws Du. Unbelievably, this wasn’t staged

Descending off the end of the ridge along the Beacons Way, still enjoying beautiful views of the Camarthenshire Fans we picked up a rocky track into the valley, where we were followed by some hungry horses. Finally we joined a minor road to our walk’s end point in the tiny village of Llanddeusant. Though extremely picturesque, Llanddeusant is composed of no more than a church, new and old vicarages, and a YHA Hostel: the latter occupying what had previously been a pub. Yet again we were taunted by a pub on the map that turned out to not to be a pub in reality!

Walking off the hill
Walking off the hill

In Llanddeusant we were kindly picked up by Dan’s girlfriend, Nia, who dropped me back at my car at the Storey Arms for a hot, dull 2.5 hour drive back to Somerset. Though somewhat sore, very tired and more than a little sunburnt (who’d have thought I’d need sun cream for a Welsh weekend in March?), I was thoroughly satisfied.

Now back at Webtogs HQ, I can’t believe I never once visited the Black Mountain, or Fforest Fawr areas of the Beacons before, despite having lived in Wales for 6 years. Having finally walked them, I can say this with some certainty: if you’ve only got one weekend, or even just a single day to spend in the Beacons, don’t trudge up Pen y Fan with hundreds of others. Head further West and experience one of the most scenic, varied and all-round enjoyable landscapes in the UK.

Looking back the way we came, towards the 'Carmarthenshire Fans'. Nr. LLanddeusant
Looking back the way we came, towards the ‘Carmarthenshire Fans’. Nr. LLanddeusant

 

Favourite Kit of the Trip:

1. Jetboil Flash Cooking System – boils a litre of water in less than 2 minutes. If you’ve not seen one in action before you’re guaranteed to be impressed:

www.webtogs.co.uk/jetboil-flash-cooking-system

2. Montane Fireball Smock – I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s so lightweight and versatile that I hardly took it off. Perfect for cool, windy weather:

www.webtogs.co.uk/montane-men-s-fireball-smock

3. Montane Terra Pants – Extremely lightweight, impressively resistant to the elements, and with HUGE pockets, what’s not to love? Again, I wore these for the whole trip, and carried a full-size map in the right pocket for most of it:

www.webtogs.co.uk/montane-men-s-terra-pants

4. Smartwool Hiking Medium Crew Socks – I wore a pair of these for the entire trip, from the drive to wales on Friday afternoon, to Sunday night. I didn’t get a single blister, hot spot or rub anywhere on my feet. That result speaks for itself!

www.webtogs.co.uk/smartwool-hiking-medium-crew-socks Also available for women: www.webtogs.co.uk/smartwool-women-s-hiking-medium-crew-socks

5. Light My Fire Spork – this one may seem like an odd choice and I don’t even own one; but Dan used his Spork to eat at every mealtime, to saw open packaging, to stir; and it slotted into neatly into an opening on the outside of the Jetboil Flash (not an advertized/official feature!). It’s light and tough, and made my stainless steel clip-together cutlery set look rather excessive. A nice piece of design which proves that sometimes it’s the little things that make the greatest impression!

www.webtogs.co.uk/light-my-fire-spork

View down towards Glyntawe - the only people on the hill. Look at this and tell me you'd rather be up Pen y Fan
View down towards Glyntawe – the only people on the hill. Look at this and tell me you’d rather be up Pen y Fan?

 

Thanks for enduring my reminiscence. And if you’re in South Wales in the future and have a spare day or two, get out on the Beacons Way and find out what all the fuss is about!

Phil

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