Posts tagged ‘Brecon Beacons’

September 8, 2010

A fond farewell in the Black Mountains

by backpackingbongos

For the past three years I have had the pleasure and privilege of using a beautiful and remote old farmhouse in the Black Mountains.  A rare place of solitude, isolation and retreat in a hectic world.  I arrived there for probably the last time last weekend for a final farewell as it has been sold by the current owners.  Driving from Nottingham the modern world slowly drifts away as you drive the final seven miles of narrow twisting lanes into a dead end valley surrounded by mountains and forest.  The keys to a locked barrier soon see you climbing up a muddy forestry track to a signpost pointing along a bridleway.  A decision has to be made here, park up and carry the tons of gear accumulated in the van or risk the steep, bumpy bridleway though a tunnel of deciduous trees.  Laziness always wins in the end and you duck as the branches of the trees scrape the roof of the van and the wheels slide over wet rock.  Suddenly sky dominates once again as a clearing is entered and the final rocky steps of the track brings you safely into the walled enclosure of a special place.

A journey I have made many times but this time was a little more special.  Just before reaching the farmhouse a flash of white caught my eye, behind the barn I spotted two fell ponies watching me nervously whilst grazing on the lush green grass.  Pure wild magic.

I had a day to myself before a couple of friends from Nottingham joined me for the weekend.  Many of the footpaths in the vicinity of the Farmhouse had felt the tread of my boots over the past three years, so I braved the track once more and headed for Cwmyoy.  Its crooked old church that twists like a corkscrew has a splendid backdrop of Hatterrall hill with its massive landslip, which reminded me of Alport Castles in the Peak District.  I will let some photos tell the story of the day:

A sunken path through a canopy of gnarled twisted old trees.

Looking up the lush green Vale of Ewyas from the top of the landslip.

Returning along the Offa’s Dyke path and the final trig point before descending.  The ridge gives a clear boundary between the mountains of Wales and the rolling hills of England.

The ridge snakes down terminating in a hill fort.

The scenery turned pastoral as I crossed the fields heading for the small wooded nature reserve above Strawberry cottage.

Back at the farmhouse I embraced the solitude whilst I had the place to myself, a comfy chair being dragged out into the garden.  A sweat was later worked up as I attempted to cut wood with a bow saw to light a fire for when it got dark and the night would push me inside.  A distant motor signaled the arrival of Steve and Tash who also embraced the magic of the surroundings and our accommodation for the weekend.  A convivial evening and night was spent burning wood, drinking beer and putting the world to right.  My pile of musty mattresses were pure luxury as I sank into them for the best nights sleep I have had for weeks.

The following morning was leisurely, spent just being in the forest and in and out of the ancient building full of character.  Exploring with my camera I started to notice things that had previously passed me by.

Ferns growing out of almost every single wall like mini hanging baskets.

An old drain pipe that nature is slowly turning the same colour as the surrounding stone.

The rusty old loo!

The dreamy porch inviting you into the house.

The old garden wall that is being reclaimed by nature.

A retreat deep in the woods hidden in a fold on the mountainside.

The afternoon was spent walking up the local mountain behind the farmhouse, the 800 metre peak Pen y Gadair Fawr.  Unfortunately the approach is less than attractive being along a rather dull forestry track.  However this means that the miles are quickly eaten up and open countryside is soon reached, just before the final moorland rise to its summit cairn.  Unfortunately the surrounding countryside was eaten up by pretty murky conditions and the views were less than extensive.  The surrounding hills simply being grey outlines on the horizon.  The returning ridge line however is a joy to walk, high above two valleys and free from the conifer plantations.  The weather conditions meant that it was not really worth getting the camera out, except for the two below.  These will simply be labelled, “Ex punks turn last of the summer wine”.

Achy legs were amply rewarded on return to our accommodation later than afternoon, the two fell ponies had taken up residence in the garden.  Tiny nervous things they were too, although one did square up to an interested looking Jack Russell.  Does anyone know the origins of the Black Mountain Fell ponies?

Another wildlife spectacle revealed itself later that evening when Steve excitedly called us outside.  There was a steady stream of bad flying between the barns, darting through gaps with surprising speed and agility.  Movement on the rafters of the porch above our heads caught our eye.  Our torch beam picked out two bats hanging upside down just a couple of feet above us.  A wonderful sight although they quickly moved on to join the others feeding between the barns.

The excesses of the night before and tired bodies from the walk meant that we were all dozing in from of the fire not that long after it got dark.  Nights are atmospheric there with the combination of a huge open fire and gas lights.  Outside there is no noise apart from the owls and a distinct lack of light pollution.  The stars really get to shine!

The good old Met Office once again showed us how inaccurate their forecasts are.  We were promised sunshine, we got heavy rain and low cloud the following morning.  Our walk before leaving for home was high on atmosphere but low on views!

Farewell my forest and mountain retreat…………………

August 22, 2010

Backpacking the Black Mountain and Fan Gyhirych

by backpackingbongos

I have been looking at the area to the south of the Black Mountain escarpment for a while now as it is an area which has held a fascination for me.  Miles and miles of nothing with large areas of limestone breaking through the earths surface.  I have tramped the high hills of Fan Brycheiniog and Bannau Sir Gaer in the past, but the sheer bleakness of the land that rises up to their lofty heights has been untrodden by my or many others footsteps.  Add into the mix the mountain Fan Gyhirych which eluded me on my last trip to the area due to bad weather and a cracking backpacking route evolved from the comfort of my armchair.

For once we were blessed with a good weather forecast, we seemed to be heading for the sunniest spot in the whole of the UK that weekend.  In reality that turned out to be another tall tale spun by the Met Office.

Day 1 – 8.3 miles with 710 metres ascent

I did not really know where to leave the van to start this walk, in the end I parked up at the campsite next to the Dan-yr-Ogof caves.  £3 per day gave me piece of mind, it also gave us the spectacle of Dan-yr-Ogof in Augsut.  The place was absolutely heaving, I mean really heaving.  Surely it must be good to attract such crowds, many of whom were clutching toy dinosaurs.  We felt out of place in our hiking gear and backpacks as we made a hasty exit.  Now the plan was to access the Beacons way via Craig-y-nos Country park, instead we got on the wrong path which was not marked on my map.  I then tried in vain to make what I was seeing match the map, until it was glaringly obvious that things were not working out.  Some crashing through trees and a hop over a barbed wired fence got us back on track.  A pleasant overgrown path soon had us climbing, it was nice to gain height surrounded by trees to then get a sudden view.

A large quarry was passed and we started ascending the pleasant grassy track across Ogaf-Ffynon-Ddu Pant Mawr National nature reserve (I think that they need to work on the title of that).  A large area of limestone pavements with apparently one of the deepest cave networks in the UK underneath.  The detour to the summit of Cerreg Cadno was hard work through the jumble of limestone blocks but the views were well worth the effort.  For me wild limestone uplands are atmospheric places and make a change from the usual peat and rough grassland we normally get when up high.

The plan had been to camp somewhere between here and the summit of Fan Gyhirych, the wind and what looked like gathering clouds meant we dismissed a summit camp.  There was a good area of nice looking green grass to the north of us but that was occupied by a herd of cows, never the best camping buddies.  A quick visit to a nice looking cairn and we descended to the track that skirts the bottom of the high valley.

The valley bottom is a sea of bog with a lazy stream running through it, it disappears underground into Pwll Byfre which looks like it is probably an old quarry.  We soon found a large area of short cropped grass near a sheepfold and got the tents up, I was excited because it was the first time I had put my brand new Scarp1 up.  Things were not all well with my new tent, if you wish to read about it click here.  As it was only 6.00pm we decided to head to the summits of Fan Gyhirych and Fan Fraith before settling down for the night.  There was more of a spring to our steps as we headed off up the track without the weight of our packs.  Approaching the top of Fan Gyhirych we noticed that the sky to the north had turned a rather ominous shade of black.

Although to the south it looked like the perfect summers day.

Suddenly the world was at our feet and we found ourselves sandwiched between the sun behind and the approaching storm.  As we watched we saw the distant Pen y Fan disappear into the clouds.  We had initially hoped that the clouds were drifting to the east, although it became apparent that they were heading straight for us.

A yomp up to the trig point and then back to the track was followed by a short pull to the summit of Fan Fraith, here the rain finally caught up with us.  We dropped down to the Byfre Fechan before the track took us quickly back to the tents.  Encased in our own nylon worlds we cooked our dinners and swatted at the odd rogue midge that came out to play.

It was during the night that it became apparent that we were on a fair old slope, I spent half of the night retrieving myself from the bottom of the tent.  As I constantly shuffled my way back up again I could hear the heavy persistent rain drumming on the flysheet.

Day 2 – 10.6 miles with 855 metres ascent

It rained pretty much all night with a heavy persistence that makes you wonder if it is ever going to stop.  There was still light rain falling when I started cooking breakfast.  It was a grey dull start to the day.

Wet tents were packed away and we started easily enough by following the track west into the forest.  Here I discovered that having your map in your rucksack does not help on the navigation front and we missed our turn.  I discovered the error when I realised that we were heading too far downhill, a consult of the map showed that we could head for the disused railway track instead of heading back uphill.  Out of the forest we would see the long escarpment of the Black Mountain ahead, the way being blocked by the low bulk of Waun Leuci.

The railway track turned out to be a good route north to the head of the valley, allowing us to cover some distance without much effort.  We stood for a while watching a pair of Goldfinches in the thistles whilst a cow watched us.

At the head of the valley we reached an old stone tower and started the ascent of Waun Leuci, keen to get it out of the way so we could explore the Black Mountain.  A retrospective view back showed just how steep the upper slopes of Fan Gyhirych are, we would have come down that way today if we had not climbed the hill the night before.

As we descended towards the River Tawe a heavy passing shower got us reaching for our waterproofs, no sooner than we were all kitted out than the rain stopped and the sun came out.  Luckily the river was easy to cross without getting feet wet and we climbed up to the standing stone of Maen Mawr and a tiny little stone circle.

The outflow from Llyn y Fan Fawr cuts a deep course through the hillside, something that is not that obvious by looking at the map.  This gives an easy and pleasant ascent on short grass beside a series of waterfalls.  If it had have been hot there were several tempting looking pools for a spot of skinny dipping beneath some of the falls.

The ground soon levelled off as we approached the lake under the cliffs, once again in the distance the clouds were beginning to brew up.  It became a race against time to get to the top before the mists rolled in.  Half way up the rocky staircase  the rain won, sweeping quickly in before passing and leaving us with a great view from the summit.

From here is one of the most spectacular escarpment walks in Wales, to the right broken cliffs swoop down to deep lakes whilst to the left bleak moorland gently descends into a wilderness of deep valleys and limestone peaks.  We were looking forward to the walk over Bannau Sir Gaer for the views down to Lynn y Fan Fach.

The weather had other ideas for us as once again the sky went black to the north.  But this time the rain came in like a solid wall, enveloping us immediately in a dark grey swirling world.  It was like a light switch had been turned off.  Mist dramatically shot over the summit lowering with dramatic speed, the rain hit us hard like little bullets.  I only had a t-shirt under my thin summer waterproofs and I could feel every single drop pummel my skin.  For a good hour it absolutely chucked it down taking away the pleasure of the views we had been looking forward to.  It took a little pacing to work out the exact summit on Waun Lefrith before taking a compass bearing into the mist.  We were now heading off into the wilds and I could only see one hundred metres ahead, I had been hoping for sun and clear visibility for this bit!  Half way down the mist cleared and the sun put in an appearance once again.  We branched off and followed the rough line of a bridleway towards the upper Afon Twrch where we found a good sheltered flat pitch near to the ford.  We got our tents up just in time before another heavy shower passed over head.

Day 3 – 4.7 miles with 235 metres ascent

I slept well that night and was thankful not to be sliding to the bottom of the tent every five minutes.  It remained dry but the wind managed to really pick up in the middle of the night, my tent shedding it well with hardly a flap.  Warm sun woke me up in the morning and combination of that and high mist made our campsite appear rather atmospheric.

It was one of those relaxing wild camping mornings that I wish could go on forever, some days you just fancy staying in the same spot and lapping up the scenery.  A good dose of warm sun and a cooling breeze certainly helped the relaxed feel.

However I had nearly finished packing up when it went a little wrong.  I suddenly found my breakfast noodles back up on the grass in all their undigested glory.  I felt flushed and giddy with a needle filled belly, just what I did not want when backpacking.  This was one of the first trips for years where I had been really good at filtering all my water so it shouldn’t be that.  The sickness did pass but I had lost the initial joy of spring feeling that had woken me up.

Fording the river we took the narrow bridleway up into the hills where we met our first group, it was not even 10am so they must have been up and away early to walk the few miles in from the road.  The path descended to the Pwll y Cig, a stream with steep banks and lots of very inviting looking wild camping spots.  One of which looked so inviting that I may have to go back in winter just so that I can use it!

We noticed that the river flows into a swallow hole so decided to follow it, high up on the steep bank.  Being limestone the river disappeared before reaching it but the remote area was well worth exploring.  There is a beautiful wild remote feeling to this area, something that I could not put a finger on.  All that I can say is that it held a weird magical spell over me.  I want to go back and explore slowly taking in the atmosphere.

A short ascent brought the rocky summit of Disgwylfa with its views of the bleak hinterland.

And towards the next minor peak on the ridge, Carreg Goch with its outcrops of limestone.

An easy descent east towards the track back down into the valley took us past massive shake holes that were perfectly circular, looking all the world like giant bomb craters.  The track was a perfect grassy delight as it led downhill through an increasingly green landscape, limestone outcrops reminding me of the Yorkshire Dales.

We braced ourselves for the chaos of the showcaves car park but strangely it was almost deserted and calm prevailed.  Even the campsite looked rather attractive now that it was not surrounded by a sea of vehicles.  A hot and sunny finish to a great weekend among some pretty special hills.

April 26, 2010

A backpack of two halves

by backpackingbongos

I returned last night after a superb weekend backpack around the Fforest Fawr area of the Brecon Beacons national park.  Saturday was a scorcher and I got around what would normally be pretty boggy hills without even a hint of mud on my boots.  The day finished with a wild camp high on a hillside just under the 600 metre contour.  That for me is what backpacking is all about.  Sunday was altogether a different proposition.  Persistent rain with low cloud draping the hills meant that almost no views were had.  I decided to cut my losses and shortened my route, finally coming out of the mist which was down to around 400 metres.  I had also forgotten to take my Thyroid meds with me which combined with the weather did not help my mood and energy levels that day!  A return will be in order to complete the circuit.   A write-up after I have finished my Borders ramblings and planned a backpack for this coming bank holiday.  I got to test some great new kit this weekend in the rain too, so some gear based ramblings will also be on its way.  Plenty to keep me busy.  Sometimes the hills get in the way of this blogging lark!

For now a photo of a great wild camp spot.

March 7, 2009

Solitude in the Black Mountains

by backpackingbongos

Last weekend I did a 4 day solo trip to stay in a remote farmhouse in the Black Mountains.  I waited for the rush hour traffic to die down on Friday evening before the drive from Nottingham to Wales.  I was turning off the main road at Llanvihangel Crucorney at about 10pm to drive the few miles into the Grwyne Fawr valley.  I soon arrived at the locked forestry gates, unlocked them and drove the mile to the farmhouse, first along a forestry track before bumping my way along a steep muddy bridleway.  When I got out of the van it was pitch black and to welcome me an owl hooted in the forest.

I was soon unloading the van and establishing myself in the farmhouse, lighting the gas lanterns (no electricity) and making some food as I was starving after the drive.  It was too late to light a fire so it was off to bed in fairly spooky surroundings for a good nights sleep.

Mac the owner met me the following morning for a days walking in the surrounding hills.  We were soon off climbing steeply through the forest to the col below Crug Mawr.  We immediately headed down a path following Nant y Ffin into the Grwyne fechan valley.


Although cloudy and overcast there was a definite feeling of spring in the air and as we followed the minor road north there were large patches of snow drops along the road side.


We turned off the road at the Hermitage and forded the Grwyne Fechan river to follow the watercourse of Gargwy fawr through the forest.  We soon emerged from the forest into a beautiful spot of open country, a place that I would like to return to pitch my tent one night by the river.  We continued following the watercourse onwards and upwards as it twisted though areas of hawthorn, scrambling up steep banks or splashing through the river to avoid getting tangled up in the thorny branches.  We soon reached the higher part of the river as it turned into the Gargwy Fach for the final steep pull onto the slopes of Pen y Gadair Fawr.


The temperature had dropped with height and there was a chill wind blowing as we plodded up to the summit of Pen y Gadair Fawr, past the last few remaining patches of snow.  This is one of the best summits in the Black Mountains with far reaching views in all direction.  We watched as the first people we had seen all day were walking up the final slopes from the direction of Waun Fach.


After a brief chat we headed south for a long stomp along the ridge via Pen Twyn Mawr to pick up a path down into Cwm Ffrwd to get back to the farmhouse.

Mac soon left me to my own devises and I spent the rest of the daylight hours collecting dead fall out of the forest and sawing up logs for the night ahead.  I would be on my own now for the following three days.

I spent the rest of the evening sitting by a roaring fire eating curry, reading and planning my route for the following day.  I decided that I would go a little further afield and climb the hills above Llangorse lake.

The next morning I was driving down narrow twisting lanes with high hedges, praying that I did not meet any oncoming traffic.  Often there was not any passing places for a mile or so on some of the roads.  I parked up by the village hall in Cwmdu and headed up the ridge of Pen Tir in warm spring sunshine.  A lovely grassy track takes you easily along the ridge and it was here that I heard my first Sky lark of the year.  A sound to lift the spirits and draw thoughts to long sunny days ahead (if we have long sunny days this year!).  Another easy grassy track led to the summit of Mynydd Llangorse with views back to Pen Allt-mawr.


I wondered around for about 10 minutes trying to decide what was the actual summit as it was not marked by a cairn, after deciding on a spot I rejoined the path as it headed north down a narrowing ridge to the summit of the road through Cwm Sorgwm.  The sunny weather had brought a few people out and there were several cars parked alongside the highest part of the road.

Mynydd Troed looked formidable as it towered steeply nearly 300 metres above me.  It was grit the teeth time and steadily pod upwards to its summit trig with wide reaching views.


A narrow path leads along the full length of the hill before steeply dropping into a minor Cwm before hitting the road through Cwm Sorgwm.  Here I found a concessionary path through fields that ran parallel to the road, a donkey entertained itself by following a foot behind me and stopping whenever I stopped!  Made me a little bit nervous to be honest.  A short stretch of lane brought me back to Cwmdu.

Another night was spent along in the woods with not another person for miles.  The usual routine of collecting and chopping wood then setting it on fire!

I decided the next morning to head to the Brecon Beacons to hit the high hills whilst the weather was nice, also being a Monday hopefully the hills should be quiet.  I was lucky to get a parking spot at the start of the roman road just south of Upper Neuadd Reservoir.  I headed up the roman road to the col between Fan y Big and Cribyn, a nice easy gradient to start the day.  There were good views of the main hills from this track.


It was a steep pull to the summit of Cribyn which was the main reason for this walk, being the only hill I had not climbed in this part of the Brecon Beacons.  I particularly enjoyed the view back to Fan y Big, the hills here have a very distinctive shape.


As I left the summit, there were a few spots of rain and the cloud started to lower onto Pen Y Fan ahead of me.  I decided against putting on my waterproof trousers as hoped it would be a brief shower.  I was wrong and as I climbed Pen Y Fan the clag dropped lower, the wind picked up and it started raining heavily.  On with the waterproof then to stop my trousers getting any wetter!

Due to the mist I decided to contour round Pen Y Fan and Corn Du and climbed onto the ridge of Craig Gwaun Taf.  By now it was freezing with the rain turning icing with flakes of snow mixed in.  I was disappointed with the lack of view as I had been looking forward to this section.  The ridge narrowed but still no views on either side until suddenly the mist to my right cleared leaving cloud hanging in the valley below.


The cloud soon swept back so it was hood up, head down until I could descend from the ridge and walk back to the van.

My fourth and final night in the farmhouse alone followed a familiar pattern of preparing and lighting a fire before relaxing in its glow.  Tomorrow I would have to face the world again……………………

Getting the Bongo out along the farmhouse track


February 4, 2009

A weekend in the Black Mountains

by backpackingbongos

Got back on Sunday night from a cracking weekend in the Black Mountains (eastern side of the Brecon Beacons national park).  Got picked up after work and driven to a friends remote cottage in the Grwyne Fawr valley.  Its nice to be able to relax and not concentrate on driving.

Turned off the A465 at about 9.00pm for a few miles drive along deserted country lanes, then a mile up a bumpy track to the cottage.  The contrast from inner city Nottingham to the silence and darkness of the Black Mountains was startling.  The fact that the cottage is without electricity and a mile off of the road only adds to that contrast.  We were soon sitting in front of the roaring fire, eating soup and catching up with friends.

I was the last one up in the morning, really in the mood for a lie in but there are hills out there to be climbed!  I also had some new boots to break in (Salomon Elios mid xcr).  After a good cooked breakfast we are following Mac down the hill to the road through the Grwyne Fawr valley.  This is only the second time ever that I have been led on a walk (the first time was also with Mac the year before) so it was nice not to have to concentrate on the map, or even really know where we were headed!  We were soon heading up a path alongside Nant y Gwerydd onto open country.  The weather was dry but pretty cloudy and hazy, at least the clouds were off the tops.  No sooner as we had ascended the ridge line just below the summit of Bal-mawr, Mac was leading us straight downhill into Cwm Bwchel.

Descending into Cwm Bwchel


A lovely valley with a steep twisting path that  gave a great view of LLanthony priory before dropping to the floor of the Vale of Ewyas.  There would be no level walking today as we were soon heading up the other side of the valley onto the Hatterrall ridge.  A quick peek over the ridge gave a great view of the English countryside before we retreated out of the wind and found a great scenic lunch spot.

Lunch stop on the edge of the Hatterrall ridge.


It was straight back down on a contouring line to have a look at the Cwmyoy landslip.  A good mile or so of difficult walking through a boulder strewn landscape with trees dripping with moss.  A stretch that I would recomend to anyone (follow the fence line at the border of open country).  We soon reached Cwmyoy church for a quick breather and a coffee.

We still had loads of climbing to do before getting back to the cottage.  Up onto the ridge on the other side of the valley from cwmyoy gave us great veiws before we once again headed downhill to the valley floor of Grwyne Fawr.  For the last stretch it was up hill yet again, but in the dark and through forestry to reach the cottage.

8 hours we were out but only covering 11.5 miles.  Maybe it was the 1000 metres of ascent that slowed us down!  Oh and my new boots did not give me blisters.  Which was nice!

Map of the days walk (click for full size)


The next morning dawned colder, much colder.  The wind was roaring through the trees and there was the threat of snow in the air.  The ground yesterday was really muddy, today it was as hard as iron.  It was a stiff climb up to the suumit of Crug Mawr, a fantastic view point of the ridges leading north.  However the wind was so strong that you could lean into it without falling over.  The wind chill pretty much paralysed my face and I had to shelter my eyes for fear that my eyeballs would freeze!

The summit of Crug Mawr – almost too windy to stand!


We all staggered off of the hill down into Partishrow where we got some relief from the wind then headed up the other side of the valley to the summit of Gaer, which from the map appears to be an old fort of some kind.  For a small hill it offers extensive views in all directions and gives a good indication of the layout of the Black mountains.

Mac and myself on the summit of Gaer


Looking north from Gaer


The ridge north is a joy to walk and a couple of miles passed quickly before we found ourselves descending back into the valley and back to the cottage.  Snow just started to fall as we were packing the car for the drive home.

Map of the days walk (click for full size)


Snow just begins to fall outside the cottage as we leave on Sunday afternoon……..



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