The Brecon Beacons: majestic, dramatic, unique

Situated in an unspoilt area of South Wales, just north of the former coal-mining valleys, the Brecon Beacons National Park is a place of beautiful and diverse landscapes

The Brecon Beacons National Park is one of three national parks in Wales, more than half of its 519 square miles are over 1000ft above sea level and it boasts a rich mixture of majestic valleys, dramatic waterfalls and high mountain peaks and ridges.

A striking feature of the park is the number of rich and varied walks that can be found in a relatively small area, so you don’t have to travel great distances by car to sample the multitude of different landscapes and varied terrain on offer.

The highest summit is Pen y Fan, with an easy path to its summit from the west that is extremely popular. It attracts the vast majority of first-timers wishing to have their first mountain experience but all the other high parts of the park are less frequented. There are plenty of wooded gorges and upland valleys that even the locals may be unaware of.

Craig Cerrig Gleisiad National Nature Reserve
View east along the cliffs of Craig Cerrig Gleisiad National Nature Reserve to Corn Du and Pen y Fan

The park falls naturally into four geographic areas. These are (from west to east): Mynydd Du (the Black Mountain), Fforest Fawr, the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains (Y Mynyddoedd Duon). These all have different characters, making the park unique in offering such varied walking experiences.

Mynydd Du has some of the remotest upland wilderness in England and Wales. This is the area to choose when you really want to get away from it all.

The most impressive summits of Bannau Sir Gaer are found in the northern part of the upland massif. The peaks of Picws Du, Fan Foel and Fan Brycheiniog tower majestically above the glacial lakes of Llyn y Fan Fach and Llyn y Fan Fawr.

To the south is a featureless wilderness incised by the beginnings of the Afon Twrch, Gwys Fawr, Afon Giedd and Afon Haffes. Ancient bridleways run from south to north and are known as the coffin routes as they were used to transport the bodies of men back from the industrial towns of the Twrch and Tawe valleys to their rural homes around Llanddeusant.

In contrast, Fforest Fawr (the Great Forest), a former royal hunting ground, has both friendly upland walks and deeply incised river gorges and waterfalls to rival any in the UK. Sgwd is Welsh for waterfall and comes from the verb ysgwd, which means to toss or fling.

This is the clue you need for discovering just how many waterfalls are concentrated into this compact geographical area allowing them to be all visited in one good day on foot.

This is widely recognised as the finest waterfall walk in Britain and, although it is not strenuous in terms of ascents or descents, the distance covered at 18km is considerable and the ground may be rough and slippery so that progress is slow.

There are at least 15 falls in all along the rivers of the Mellte, Hepste and Nedd Fechan with the largest, Henrhyd, lying just to the west on a tributary of the River Tawe.

waterfall
Upper Scwd Ddwli waterfall on the Afon Nedd Fechan in the Waterfall Country

Waterfall country

The Brecon Beacons National Park Authority have created a number of way-marked trails with different colour codes for the waymarking signs making this area is a walker’s paradise. There are options for out and back routes such as the 5.5 miles Four Falls Trail that takes in Sgwd Clun-Gwyn  Sgwd Isaf Clun-Gwyn, Sgwd y Pannwr and Sgwd-yr-Eira in the heart of Waterfall Country.

The Elidir audio trail on the banks of the Nedd is an easy route that visits the waterfalls of Sgwd Gwladus (Lady Falls), Sgwd-y-Bedol (the Horseshoe Falls), Sgwd Ddwli Isaf and Sgwd Ddwli Uchaf (the Lower and Upper Gushing Falls), which after heavy rain, truly live up to their name.

A good first port of call for exploring the area is The Waterfalls Centre at Pontneddfechan, which houses an interactive exhibition telling the story of the Fforest Fawr Geopark. The village and the car park at Dinas Rock nearby are ideal starting points for many of the walks that lead up the deep river gorges of the Mellte and Nedd, whose rivers have their confluence here.

An added bonus is that there are three pubs, quite remarkable for such a small population but perhaps a clue to the past.

My favourite is the Tafarn yr Hen Geffyl Gwyn – The Old White Horse Inn, which has a lovely log fire and serves a great pint of Felinfoel Double Dragon ale, jokingly pronounced 'Feeling Foul' beer.

The easiest fall to get to is Sgwd Gwladus, or the Lady’s Fall on the Elidir Trail, which leaves the village along a flat path on the right bank of the Nedd Fechan and then turns to follow the Afon Pyrddin to the falls.

The Welsh name comes from Gwladys, a daughter of the fifth-century King Brychan of Brycheiniog who had 24 daughters and 12 sons! Brychan was, unusually for his time, of Goidelic or Irish descent.

This is a wonderful place to visit at any time of the year with the possibility of frozen waterfalls in the winter, beautiful woodland flowers in the spring, refreshing pools for a dip on hot summer days and a colourful tapestry of leaves in the autumn. Once visited, this special, magical part of the UK will remain as happy memories forever.

northern flank of the Brecon Beacons
View of the northern flank of the Brecon Beacons with Pen y Fan and Corn Du the highest peaks

The Brecon Beacons are the highest summits in the park, with Pen y Fan falling just short of the 3000ft threshold. Although this area lacks the challenges of the narrow rocky ridges of the Lake District and Snowdonia, it does provide opportunities for a real mountain expedition in exciting winter conditions.

The high summits are best approached from the north via the four glacial-cut valleys and their five ridges. The most impressive of these is Cwm Sere, the valley that leads into the amphitheatre created by the north-east face of Pen y Fan and the north-west face of Cribyn.

Finally, the Black Mountains, on the English border, have a softer feel to them, without the coarse and rugged Welshness of Mynydd Du. Llanthony Abbey in the Vale of Ewyas is a great starting point for the walk that takes in the ridges on either side of the valley and has the bonus of an inn within the Abbey buildings.

There is a plethora of things to see and activities for visitors of all ages and tastes, making the park a great place for families to visit. Favourite attractions for children include the Dan-yr-Ogof Show Caves in the Swansea Valley, the Brecon Mountain Railway at Penderyn and the Big Pit National Coal Museum near Blaenavon.

Picturesque market towns lie on the edges of the park, such as Llandovery, Brecon, Crickhowell and Abergavenny, and are also great places to explore.

The Brecon Beacons National Park is a day trip from Swansea, Cardiff, Bristol and the Midlands and an ideal short-break destination from London, only 200km (120 miles) away. There are excellent rail and motorway links with the rest of the UK and Cardiff International Airport is just over an hour from the park.

The park has accommodation to suit all pockets, from grand country hotels to secluded campsites. Tourist information can be found at Brecon Beacons Our National Park. The main towns that are good bases for walking holidays are Brecon, Crickhowell and Abergavenny, which all lie in the picturesque Usk Valley.

Useful addresses

Brecon Beacons National Park
Waterfalls Centre
Pontneathvaughan Road
Pontneddfechan
Nr Glynneath
SA11 5NR
tel 01639 721795

Brecon Beacons National Park

Walking guide

Walking in the Brecon Beacons, Cicerone Press

Campsites

Bishops Meadow Camping and Caravan Park

Hay Road
Brecon
LD3 9SW
tel (01874) 610 000
info@bishops-meadow.co.uk
www.bishops-meadow.co.uk/

Pencelli Castle Caravan & Camping Park

Pencelli
Brecon
LD3 7LX
tel 01874 665451
pencelli.castle@virgin.net
www.pencelli-castle.com

Lakeside Caravan Park

Llangorse Lake
Brecon
LD3 7TR
tel 01874 658226
holidays@llangorselake.co.uk 
www.llangorselake.co.uk

Pubs

The Old White Horse Inn, Pontneddfechan, 12 High Street, Pontneddfechan, Neath Port Talbot SA11 5NP. tel 01639 721219.

The Red Lion, Church Rd, Penderyn, Rhondda Cynon Taff CF44 9JR. tel 01685 811914
info@redlionpenderyn.com
www.redlionpenderyn.com

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