Even to regular visitors, the Brecon Beacons always shock a little. Pen y Fan is always that bit steeper than you remember, the visage of its range from the north that bit more commanding. The mighty Black Mountain always surprises with its remoteness and bulk; Sugar Loaf with its perkiness, and Fan Fawr with the fact that such a muscular yet little-trodden and little-known summit is there at all. Perhaps this happens because the Beacons are often thought of as the ‘soft touches’ of the Welsh hills, being less abrupt, less angry than Snowdonia’s ballistic peaks. But it’s folly to compare the mountains of this National Park to their northern cousins. It’s like comparing a golden eagle to an otter: just appreciate that both are cool for their own reasons, and enjoy the fact they both exist.
But then, the Brecon Beacons do warrant special attention; they are just so odd. Resembling a smooth-edged mountain range that’s been painted green then decapitated, they are that rare and cherishable thing: totally, charismatically unmistakeable in every physical measure, from shape, to feel, to colour.
In many ways they also fulfil the brief of the National Parks particularly perfectly, insofar as they offer a wide-open escape from the claustrophobia of city life with seductive convenience. Much like the Peak District provides for the north of England, the industrial cities of south Wales and the west Midlands find their fresh air on the Beacons’ high ridgelines and battered moors. This affords them a special place in the hearts and minds of field-trip schoolkids, DofE participants, first-time hillwalkers and those who need a rugged training ground for whatever pursuit occupies them – from mountain bikers and white-water canoeists to rookie squaddies and the SAS.
That they are used so much by so many shouldn’t put you off; it should underline just how unmissable this landscape is for so many reasons. At 519 square miles it’s smaller than Snowdonia by almost a third; but its permanent population is a mere 8 per cent of its north Wales counterpart, making it one of the least peopled National Parks in the UK.
The Brecon Beacons’ name harks back to the deep past, when fires were lit on the summits of the mountains to warn of approaching English. Times have changed in this respect (thankfully), but appraised with such knowledge the mountains still possess the aura of mystique such a history bestows – more so for the fact that they are so notably commanding. Smack-bang in the middle of the park lies the tallest and most striking of all, Pen y Fan – a justly famous, elegant yet burly centrepiece, and approachable from just about any direction via a series of spurs of varying difficulty. This really is a mountain with the lot: from a high-slung start at the Storey Arms to the west, to a tough horseshoe from the south, to the notorious ‘Fan Dance’, which traverses the mountain from west to east, then back again. It’s a remarkable peak, and a classic example of the flat-topped geology so distinctive and prolific in this part of south Wales. The reason for this is the hard, quartz-rich bed of erosion-resistant sandstone that caps these mountains in a near-horizontal orientation, protecting the Old Red Sandstone beneath. The latter appears a deep red when weathered by paths or when poking through the grass covering that these mountains possess, giving the region a distinctive green-and-red palette.
To the west is the quieter, wilder massif of the Black Mountain, with its high summits and deep northern scoops, the ideal place to head for if you need reminding not all of this National Park is a playground: some of it feels as remote as you can imagine remote gets, certainly in Britain. You could say the Brecon Beacons are rather dichotomous. Rugged, but in a gentle sort of way. Tall, but approachable. Popular, yet empty. Famous, yet packed with places you’ve never heard of.
But whichever way you cut it, the Brecon Beacons has one quality which nobody can contradict: they are utterly and completely awesome. If you haven’t been, it’s time to get going. If you have been, it’s time you went again. Because, like all contradictory things, they’re never quite the same twice.
BRECON BEACONS HIGHLIGHTS
WALK BEHIND A WATERFALL
The magnificent Sgwd yr Eira (SN928099) near Ystradfellte (above) is one of the few waterfalls in the UK hills it is possible to walk behind and gaze into from a truly novel perspective. It is the centrepiece of what is known as the ‘Waterfall Country’ of south Wales, and the source of its cascades is the river of Afon Hepste, which sits entirely within the National Park.
Visit ‘Wales’ most romantic ruin’
A favourite of painter JMW Turner, the hilltop setting of ruinous Carreg Cennen Castle (above)(SN667191) – originally a medieval hill-fort – truly makes it a magnificent and stirring prospect from any direction.
See the Beacons ponies
A rare breed of hardy, short horses, Welsh Mountain Ponies aren’t really wild – but are instead owned by breeders who keep them on the hills as part of the upkeep of the upland. The ponies wander and keep the grassland modestly grazed, and can often be found on the western slopes of Pen y Fan.
Soak up the stars
In 2013 the Brecon Beacons National Park was ordained as a Dark Sky Reserve, which means the clarity of its night skies are of internationally recognised clarity. This is good news for wild campers who enjoy a bit of star spotting – especially around 12 August, when the Perseids meteor shower will light up the darkest skies with their annual display.
Get confused over darkness
Two highly worthwhile but geographically polarised objectives in the Brecon Beacons sadly are often confused. The Black Mountains (Y Mynyddoedd Duon) lie to the east, and the Black Mountain (Y Mynydd Ddu) lies to the west. If it helps in translation the latter also bears the name Carmarthen Fan, though this is rarely used these days and does not appear on OS maps; being the more obviously mountainous of the two might help you think of it as a ‘singular’.
Walk the most infamous moors in Cinema
“Beware the moon, lads. Keep clear of the moors.” Any film fan will recognise these lines from the classic 1981 horror comedy An American Werewolf in London, wherein two luckless Yankee backpackers stumble out of the most notorious pub in cinema and into a nightmare. The movie’s ‘Yorkshire’ moors are in the east of the Brecon Beacons, in the Black Mountains – and at one point recognisably beneath 677m Hay Bluff, near Hay-on-Wye (SO244366).
Visit ‘Britain’s Greatest Natural Wonder’
In 2005 readers of the Radio Times gave this auspicious title to the cave system Dan-yr-Ogof (above), which stretches for 17km beneath the hills of Glyntawe near the Black Mountain. The show caves themselves are spectacular, but the innards of the tunnels and caverns that run from the entrance are the realm of potholers, who continue to extend the known reach of the system. Inside lie several subterranean lakes, and the remains of humans and animals have been excavated by archaeologists here.
This article originally appeared in Trail Magazine