Measured by footfall, the central group of the Brecon Beacons must be amongst the most popular mountains in Britain. More specifically, Pen y Fan approached via the tourist route from Storey Arms must be one of the most popular mountain hikes in Britain. I cannot think of another hill or range where it is possible to step out of the car and barely leave tarmac or heavily engineered footpaths to make your way to a principal summit (Pen y Fan) and on to another fine peak (Cribin). Muddy boots can be a thing of the past.
I am not a seasoned veteran of the Brekky Beaks, but I have walked these hills before, and despite the possible cynicism of my introduction, I love them and feel they are a grand advertisement for walking in Wales. They have loyal fans who walk there on a weekly basis and I wish I could too. For some time I had studied the map to devise a longer walk of the main peaks, returning to a car at the starting point. An approach from the north is possible but routes have to be contrived around narrow lanes and fields down at lower levels. This is a pity as Cribin and Fan y Big in particular, offer elegant routes of ascent, up well defined ridges. An approach from the south offers several possibilities for a less contrived circuit and I resolved to follow such a route. The opportunity arose for a mid-week strike but an overnight drive and a few stolen hours of sleep in the car were necessary.
A 7.45 a.m. start from one of the Taf Fechan Forest car parks on a warm still July morning may sound good but the midges are out with all the ferocity of those in the Glen Brittle, Glen Nevis or Glen Coe camp sites. The track heading NE through the forest follows a wide clearing and the midges can be left behind. A minor mountain road is reached quite soon and is followed steeply uphill. When it levels out, at a point where a vehicle track heads off to the right (east), a faint footpath can been taken on the left. The path effectively cuts a corner but it is crossed by several streams as it contours the slopes and is quite boggy. Little height gain is achieved and in wet conditions it would be better to follow the road to the hairpin bend where a good hill path up Craig y Fan Ddu starts.
At the point where my path met the main track, a curious gorge of the Nant Bwrefwr curves round to the north, and a delightful little waterfall drops into a rocky cauldron below.
This is an early highlight on the walk and I am sure it must be a popular Sunday afternoon picnic destination. A little further up the track a larger waterfall drops into the head of the aforementioned gorge.
The track is very steep but well constructed and it levels out onto the plateau very quickly. Time from the car to this point was 35 minutes including photo breaks.
The route for the next five hours or so is nearly all classic Brecon Beacons: wide ranging views from crag rimmed escarpments, steep ridges and summit plateaux.
It is very easy going along the edge of Craig y Fan Ddu to the head of Cerrig Edmwnt where a much poorer path weaves through the peat hags to the dull summit of Waun Rydd, the first Hewitt of the day. The same path is followed back to the crags near point 754 where views of the main Beacons really start to open up.
The walking now is fast (I probably averaged 4mph all the way to Fan y Big) and the red rock of Graig Fan Las and Graig Cwmoergwm across the Cwm stand out.
Fan y Big is an excellent view point, the summit being quite small by Beacons standards with the slopes falling away in most directions. The Gap is prominent in the view west. In the Lake District it would be regarded as a hause. It carries a substantial rough road from the lanes south of Brecon right through the heart of the mountains to the valleys on the south of the range. This route had been a popular and very tough challenge for 4x4 drivers until quite recently, but a locked gate at the top of the pass has put a stop to that.
The drop to The Gap provides the first encounter with what I call engineered paths. I do not like them, especially in descent as it is impossible to land a foot safely in anything other than an unnaturally short stride. I recognise that without them, popular ranges such as these would suffer terrible erosion and environmental degradation matched by loose rock and mud, making walking even less pleasurable. Such paths over the Beacons have been around for a while now and the NT were undertaking repairs on the upper slopes of Pen y Fan during my visit.
I reached the summit of Cribin in 3.5 hours from the car and was feeling a little tired so I stopped for an early lunch and enjoyed the view.
On now to Pen y Fan with a knee jarring descent from Cribin followed by a very steep climb. By this time I had passed my second school party and several D of E Award groups who had been doing bivvy traverses of the range. Pen y Fan can too easily be associated with group exercises and Sunday afternoon jaunts but along with the rest of the Brecon Beacons it is an important training ground for our troops. On my last visit, in the middle of winter, I got to the summit by 8.00 a.m., only to find a large group of SAS had beaten me to it.
Fast walking resumes from here, over the small rise of Corn Du and along Craig Gwaun Taf and Graig Fan Ddu as the crowds are left behind. The south western horizon was hazy but I could just make out Mumbles on the Gower down the valley of the Neath. For the descent to the Upper Neuadd Reservoir a choice must be made: take the steep and horribly loose route down from the large marker cairn or carry on along the escarpment almost to the trig point to follow a slightly better line. I chose the former. By now, my heavily strapped left knee was very painful but within minutes of hitting the springy turf before the reservoir it felt much better. A short stretch of road marching leads back to the car park.
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