Whenever I am heading towards Wales there is always a point in the journey when everything seems better – after days on end of sitting in front of my computer working, my shoulders loosen, my mind clears and my mood lightens. It is the point in the journey when, after cresting yet another nondescript English hill, you suddenly see the hills and mountains of Wales laid out before you.
In this case I was driving down the A438 heading towards Brecon, on the edge of Brecon Beacons. It was the weekend of the annual Brecon Jazz festival which, in my younger days, I used to attend fairly regularly. This year I was combining spending some quality time with some old friends (and drinking the best homebrew brewed by my friend’s dad), with some much need quality time on the hills.
To kick things off I decided to do a route I was already familiar with – Corn Du, Pen y Fan, Cribyn and Fan y Big (it could be argued I was jumping straight into the deep end by starting off with the highest peak in Southern UK.. but still!). Back in March last year, whilst I was training for Offa’s Dyke 4 MS, I came to the Brecon Beacons with Justin (@justinfleming) and we completed this walk on a miserable cold and windy day with low cloud obscuring any views from the peaks (view the Social Hiking map). Hopefully this time would be better!
The walk starts from the car park at the end of the tiny lane that follows the banks of Nant Cwm Llwch to the North of Pen y Fan (unbelievably the lane, despite it’s small stature, is on Google Street View). The car park was quite busy, and there were a number of campers along the banks of the river as the path gently climbed up from the valley. There were a group of hikers behind me, so I decided to pickup the pace to put some distance between us. Unfortunately this was a mistake – weeks of running myself down whilst working too hard had triggered a flare up of my condition and this weakness, combined with an already lower than usual level of fitness, left me in pieces. My lungs were burning, my legs were in agony, and I could feel my blood pressure rising too high. It was all I could do to drag myself up to Llyn Cwm Llwch, the lake at the top of the river.
I sat on a rock on the lake’s shore and soaked up the tranquilty as my body calmed down again. To be honest I contemplated turning around, giving up, and heading back down to the car, but that was not an option. I took it more slowly as I climbed up onto the cliffs above the lake, past the memorial of 5 year old Tommy Jones whose body was found after losing his way, and step by agonising step up to Corn Du. It was a bit depressing to discover my body has new lower limits, but I am glad I pushed on – sadly the weather was not really on my side either and as I reached Corn Du and crossed to Pen y Fan the low cloud obscured any hope of a view.
Pen y Fan is a busy peak – I counted about 40 people. Certainly the busiest peak I have visited (I refuse to climb Snowdon…. a restaurant on a peak… really!) I loited a little while in the hope of a break in the clouds, but eventually gave up and followed the path off the peak towards Cribyn. Hiking has traditionally been a white middle class activity, and it was great to be passed by a group of very pleasant hikers who do not fit into that category clearly enjoying their surroundings. As if to taunt my earlier impatience I noticed behind me (on one of my many pauses climbing up to Cribyn) that the cloud had broken and those currently on Pen y Fan would be having amazing views. The cloud was back by the time I reached the top of Cribyn, so I put a brew on and settled down for some lunch in the hope the cloud would break again.
This time I was rewarded, and the clouds briefly broke giving me a fleeting view across towards Brecon and beyond. The cloud quickly returned, and I was joined on Cribyn by a couple, about the same age as me, who immediately went into my good books when they offered me a Jaffa Cake. With hindsight I hope they were not expecting me to reciprocate and offer them tea! Jaffa Cake munched my dog, who had previously been curled up recovering, suddenly leaped up in alert mode. I turned expecting to see another dog walker, or perhaps a sheep, but instead I unbelievably saw the tiny head of a squirrel poking up from above rocks – the nearest trees being at least a mile away!
The wind picked up and it began to rain as I left Cribyn to drop down to Bwlch ar y Fan. I did not mind though – I was sufficiently recovered from my previous issues early on the ascent and I felt elated to be back on the hills again. The final part down was steep and slippy from the rain, but I managed to negotiate the path down safely without the dog speeding up my descent! Although my ultimate route back to the car follows the path heading north between the two peaks, I felt like I had sufficient energy reserves to make the slight detour up Fan y Big and back. At the top we took shelter from the wind and rain in the stone shelter just off from the peak and made another cup of tea.
By and large I am a responsible dog owner. I know my dog chases stuff and so in most cases she stays on the lead (I tend to let her off in crop fields or empty pastures when I walk locally, but in National Parks, or anywhere where sheep or other livestock roam free she is definitely on a lead). To my horror, as I followed the track heading down along the Cwm Cynwyn valley, I watched a dog ahead of me leaving it’s owners to chase sheep down to the river – the owners made a half-hearted effort to call it back but it paid no attention. More shockingly though was when it did finally return the owners made no effort to put it on a lead and they just carried on walking, dog loose, up the path. I gave them the dirtiest look I could as I past them!
Eventually the track meets the road and the remainder of the route was a rather dull, fly infested trudge following the quiet meandering lanes back to the car park. I was amused at reaching various landmarks I remembered from the previous year where I was equally uninspired at the return journey. I arrived back at the car to discover I had left the rear window completely open although my suitcase (containing non-camping clothes) was untouched, so no harm done!
Overall a great first day on the Brecon Beacons! To be continued….