Through Hiking the Beacons Way
THROUGH HIKING THE BRECON BEACONS WAY
Both of us here at OP are young dads. Your free time becomes a premium when you have a tiny human to nurture. So when we saw a friend of OP (and dad) Adam Ferris stick up some photos of a last minute trip to through hike a portion of the Beacons Way we knew it would make for an inspiring Rambling.
Words and images by Adam Ferris
DAY ONE - Llandeuasent TO CARREG CADNO
The planned last minute weather check wasn’t possible. No service. We were deep in the National Park already. The good forecast of an earlier check gave me the confidence to leave my rain jacket and bivvy where we were. We hastily donned our face masks and jumped in the taxi for the hour long journey to the start of our hike.
Travelling along a dual carriageway, as I peered through the plastic sheet separating us from the driver to check the speed of the taxi, 90mph, I realised just how far away we were from the finish and wondered if we’d been too optimistic with our plans. We soon pulled up to our start point and our first Beacons Way waymarker. No sooner had we left the taxi had each of us confessed our afflictions we’d been hiding up to now, but not wanted to admit earlier, for fear of triggering the cancellation of the trip.
We were heading to Llandeuasent in the North East of the Brecon Beacons, South Wales, where we would start our walk back to the van where we had just left it in Llangynidr. It was late September 2020, covid social restrictions were briefly relaxed, Wales was open to visitors and virus cases were low. The three of us, each a dad of two, get together a few times a year for a multi-day hike with wild camping. We had 3 days available for this trip so we were keen to get into dramatic scenery and having long wanted to walk the length of the Beacons Way we settled for an A to B hike covering its most dramatic section.
We were to walk the middle 39 miles of the 99 mile waymarked path covering its highest peaks and most remote spaces. Designated long after the establishment of the National Park in 1957, the Beacons Way is a relatively new trail having been developed in 2005. Choosing the middle section meant we’d cross mountain ridges, pass natural lakes, cross a UNESCO Global Geopark, spot rare wildlife, see waterfalls, and more, all in near-perfect weather. The same year that the Beacons Way was developed the Western half of the National Park was designated a Geopark - the first in Wales. We’d spend most of our weekend in the park from right now until the morning of day 3, our final day.
The first 300m of our route followed the River Sawdde before heading up steeply to the 667m peak of Waun Lefrith overlooking Llyn y Fan Fach lake. As the strong winds threatened to topple us we walked around the top sneaking views over the edge whenever there was a gap in the gusts.
We continued on the ridge of Bannau Sir Gaer, the shelter from an occasional nearby peak bringing some respite from the winds. As we walked further from the road other visitors began to thin out, an experience we’d get to know well.
We had no plan as to where we were going to set up camp in the evening but knew from scoping OS maps in the pub a few weeks back that once we’d left the peak of Fan Hir at the end of the ridgeline there was no flat ground until the village of Glyntawe. We’d want to get a considerable distance past the village before setting up camp so we kept moving. As we turned south and the lake of Llyn y Fan Fawr came into view, the wind began to slow and we enjoyed the leisurely descent into the village.
A quick bowl of chips and a pint of local ale in the pub garden and we were back on our feet. After negotiating several kissing gates built with no thought toward those carrying 45 litre packs we briefly found ourselves alongside the River Tawe before turning away and heading East through farm fields and following the well-constructed path. As the sun was going down, we were heading up and it wasn’t long before we passed a former limestone quarry and entered the moorland of Ogof Ffynnon Du Nature Reserve. We’d see the expanse tomorrow but right now needed somewhere to set up camp.
We settled into a recess in the limestone a few hundred metres off the trail. Looking back toward the ridge we’d walked earlier that day we enjoyed rehydrated chilli con carne watching as the darkness enveloped the mountains, twice being disturbed by Brad’s setup collapsing due to the wind we weren’t able to hide from, an issue with camping on rocky ground and not being able to secure pegs in to the ground. Soon after eating we each climbed into our tarp tents.
DAY TWO - CARREG CADNO TO PEN Y FAN
The next morning and keen to collapse camp we agreed to get moving and to breakfast after walking a short distance. The sun was shining down as we enjoyed the peaceful, beautiful and easy walk through the nature reserve. All above one of Europe’s biggest cave systems rare plants thrive in the cracks of the limestone, heather and lichens cover the acidic peat and the reserve’s industrial past can be seen by the way of brickwork remains and perfectly straight dismantled tramways dissecting the natural environment.
As we continued on leisurely strolling in the morning heat and feeling as remote as we would on the whole trip it wasn’t long before we could see the peaks of Pen y Fan and Corn Du in the distance and were reminded of the distance we needed to cover today.
We left the reserve mid-morning and shortly before running out of water we arrived at a small river where we brewed coffee, made porridge, filtered water to fill bottles and soaked our feet in the cool gentle flow of clear water. We needed to move before getting too comfortable, this was a big day - we were aiming to be atop Horseshoe ridge by nightfall.
Following a roman road, we headed north east and after several kilometres skirted the edge of Blaen Lila Forest spotting a Goshawk in the small valley. We headed through and up the edge of the valley picking one of several trails which all led the same way, up toward the summit of Fan Llia at 632m. Broad open views are the reward for getting here with the peaks of Pen y Fan and Corn du still visible and seemingly getting no closer. We also afforded ourselves the second reward of a brief sit down and removal of boots but were soon back on the trail heading north following the undulating and broad ridge before turning North East happy to learn we were to stay on the ridge a while longer rather than dropping steeply down and back up again as we momentarily thought.
It was bittersweet as we approached the ridge of Craig y Fro and the A470 came into view. We were happy to be approaching the base of the biggest peak of our trip but were not so happy to be amongst people again, especially in the current climate. Back to now and we were still at 600 metres with a couple of hundred to drop before we arrived at the main road and could start climbing again. We followed the narrow path as it hugged the steep grass hill and slowly dropped towards the road. With a steep drop to the left Steve had to take a moment to steady himself after a hint of vertigo but aside from the brief stop, we were soon down to the layby and the Storey Arms. Crossing the main road felt strange but I notice that I really embrace being away from people so it doesn’t take long before I feel the shock upon return.
Once a pub but now an adventure centre, at the Storey Arms we were hoping to find a tap to fill our bladders and bottles for the night but instead found a locked gate and signs that said ‘Private’ and ‘No public access’. We hopped around the gate anyway keen to avoid filling up at the nearby stream as light was soon to be fading and every squeeze bottle we had with our mini water filters was leaking and pushing through 6 litres of water while pinching the leaks took time. The second tap we found worked and with freshly sanitised hands we filled up and moved on to take advantage of the facilities in the main car park. I’ll not talk too much about how that went, safe to say the portaloos weren’t pretty and we’d be digging a hole later. The bins were full which meant our rubbish stayed in our bags and we moved on, heading for Horseshoe ridge.
As we climbed the wide path in the heat and out of a breeze, we took a brief moment to cool off and look back from where we’d walked. We continued up the path at a steady pace but still passing the late casual walkers on their way to the summit. Upon reaching the ridge it’s possible to see much of it which, as the name suggests, is U-shaped.
The easiest path along the ridge to Pen y Fan bypasses around the 28m rise to the 873m peak of Corn Du but not wanting to skip any section of the Beacons Way we clambered up and over and down to the last rise to Pen y Fan. At 886m it’s the highest peak in The Brecon Beacons and South Wales. Regular walkers had thinned out by now so we dropped 50m down on the East slope, or Jacob’s Ladder, aiming for the fold where the contours were wide to set up camp. We’d have loved to be atop Fan y Big, the next peak on our route, but light was fading quickly and we had accomplished our goal and had already walked 16 miles that day.
We set up on the gradual slope, my roofing felt groundsheet and sleeping bag nestling between bumps in the soft ground to avoid the dreaded slide in the middle of the night. After a failed attempt to top up water from a nearby stream running dry we shared out what we had and settled down for dinner.
Being an International Dark Sky Reserve I knew we’d stand a good chance of seeing some stars, as long as it was clear. Without a cloud in the sky we lay on our backs and witnessed the shape of the Milky Way, several satellites and a handful of shooting stars. A good night’s sleep was had soon after, there not being a hint of a breeze and not a flap of polyester could be heard.
DAY THREE - PEN Y FAN TO Llangynidr.
We decided to have a similar morning as the previous day and were soon packed up and heading back on the trail. We were rewarded for our quick start by witnessing the fog leaving Cwm Cynwyn as we emerged from the trail around Cribyn, joined by several wild Welsh mountain ponies.
We left Fforest Fawr Geopark, ten minutes and a steep scramble later and we were atop Fan y Big, noting the ease the sheep negotiated the steeper rise. No longer a mountain since its declassification in 2018, it's still an impressive hill. We took a while to enjoy the clear views and perfectly still air in the morning sun before moving on in search of water so we could brew a coffee and make some porridge. We followed the trail as it bypassed Fan y Big’s parent peak of Waun Rydd, an actual mountain, and were joined only by sheep as we made our way around more of the horseshoe ridge. This section of the walk was stunning, benefitting from Pen y Fan pulling the crowds it silently sits beside offering a quiet beauty and a real feeling of isolation. It’s not just about the elevation or peak bagging but in this moment I was glad that, for some, it was.
The easy to follow rocky path led us around the ridge before heading South East where we soon settled beside Blaen Caerfanell, the source of the River Caerfanell. We filtered the brown water and enjoyed a fresh coffee and double portions of porridge and dried fruit.
As we continued on, the East Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains came into view. We could see for miles and could easily distinguish Sugar Loaf mountain, the Skirrid, Wach Faun and Hay Bluff. The Beacons Way does continue into the Black Mountains but we would be ending our walk just before entering them.
It was now time to drop down from the beauty, silence and altitude. We followed the steep steps down occasionally having to rest our knees. We passed friendly walkers on their way up while keeping to the edges of the path in an attempt to socially distance. As we approached the last of the steps we passed some waterfalls which were frustratingly out of reach - we were desperate for the coolness they held having been descending due south with no escape from the sun and heat. Luckily for us, the waterfalls ran into an easily accessible stream.
Splashing water over our heads to cool off, perhaps in hindsight, we should have taken more time and filled our bottles again but we carried on our way and on to a gravel road perched on the hill. We kept a good pace checking the OS map for a water source as we were getting through a lot in the heat. Squeezing water into our bottles and the last of life from the bottle bags from a stream destined for the reservoir we were back on our way, freshly hydrated. The reservoir we were approaching was Talybont, the largest in the Brecon Beacons. We continued on the gravel path but no sooner had we reached the reservoir the Beacons Way turned up and away. Now following a steep rocky path, the beauty and distance of view increased as we climbed. We walked on, our knees still sore from the earlier descent and the miles we’d put in. As we approached the base of the 551m Tor y Foel directly in front of us I delivered the news that the route went around rather than over the peak. This relief was in contrast with the disappointment of not getting to take in the view of the Black Mountains and the Usk Valley from above but we turned right and stuck to our task.
As we cut through farmland and an apparent Land Rover graveyard the sense that we were nearing Llangynidr and our finish was apparent. An hour or so of gradual downhill and we emerged on the canal in the town. Half an hour later and we were back at the van, almost exactly 48 hours since we’d left it.
The bin in my kitchen was the first chance I had to throw away the rubbish I had produced from the trip, I brought home every piece. And every piece went in the bin at home, except for the Outdoor Provisions wrappers - they went in the compost.
The Brecon Beacons are an incredible place. I’ve spent many hours enjoying its offerings from gravel rides to Gwyn Fawr bothy in the East to exploring waterfalls and walking the lower peaks with the family in the West. Without doubt, the best way to see an outdoor space is by spending a few days amongst it on foot, walking from point to point and camping wild.