Wild Weekender - Brecon Beacons
In Britain we’re tremendously lucky to have beautiful wild spaces that are protected and accessible to everyone on our doorsteps. Most of us live within an hour of a National Park, so even if you live in a city, like me, you can quickly escape to breathe in the fresh air of an iconic landscape. When I need to escape for a weekend I always head to the Brecon Beacons National Park in South Wales, 520 square miles of craggy mountains to summit, cold, clear pools to swim in and hidden campsites to bed down in after an adventure.
My recipe for the perfect Welsh weekend starts at Cwm Llwch campsite, near Brecon. It’s a wonderful place to pitch your tent if you’ve ever wanted to try out wild camping, as there are zero facilities on offer - just a beautiful little glade by a brook where you can camp, light a fire (campfires are permitted) and spend a night in the great outdoors. I like getting here on a Friday night, pitching my trusty MSR Hubba Hubba tent by the stream and waking up with the view of Pen y Fan’s distant peak on the horizon.
Pen y Fan. It may not be Wales’ tallest or toughest mountain, but it’s one of its best-loved, and I think the perfect way to climb it is from this side of the mountain, rather than the traditional route beginning at the Storey Arms. Here the trail is far less crowded and rewards the hiker with the chance to catch a breather on the shores of Llyn Cwm Llwch, the deep lake hidden under the summit in the valley that the campsite is named for.
When you set off from your tent you’ll follow a wide, stony track through shady trees. Here there are wildflowers in spring and summer and golden leaves littering the path in autumn.
I love how the landscape changes as you climb, leaving behind gentler countryside, the path getting narrower and steeper as you hike above the treeline. The tall ferns next to the path are home to curious wild ponies and indifferent sheep, and every step you take, the view behind you opens up – a patchwork of fields, towns and far-off mountains spread below like a map.
Halfway up to the summit, you’ll stumble across the lake. I always stop here and make coffee in my Jetboil stove, sitting under the brooding peaks of Corn Du and Pen y Fan and watching tiny hikers slog up to stand triumphant on their summits. The scoop of land between the two peaks is known as Cadair Arthur or Arthur’s Seat, and it’s the perfect perch for a king, looking down on their domain below. I’ve swum in Llyn Cwm Llwch a few times, too - the water can be icy cold (this is a glacial lake, after all) but it feels deliciously cool when you’re hot and sweaty after the climb up. I wouldn’t swim here on May Day though – legend has it that on the 1st May each year the barrier between the human and the magical worlds come down, and you can accidentally pass into a fairy realm by walking on the lake’s stony shore.
From the lake it’s a steep walk up to the ridge, then a bimble all the way to stand proud on Pen y Fan’s 886-metre summit, where on fine days you’ll have views all around you of far-off peaks and gentler rolling countryside. That said, I’ve been here plenty of times when you can’t see a thing, just grey swirling fog enveloping the summit. Pen y Fan means ‘the mountain’s peak’ or ‘top of the place’ in Welsh, a fitting name for the tallest point in South Wales, where you feel like you’re standing with all of the country mapped out below you. If your legs haven’t gone to jelly by this point, you can carry on to the top of Corn Du at 873 metres, where you can stand by the Bronze Age burial chamber and try to spot the summit of far-off Cadair Idris before turning back.
There’s something very satisfying about hiking back down the flank of the mountain and spotting your tent through the trees in the valley below, and once night begins to fall, Cwm Llwch is one of the cosiest camping spots I’ve ever stayed in. Paddle in the river, cook dinner over a campfire and then see how many stars you can spot in the sky – the National Park is an International Dark Sky Reserve with little light pollution, and you might see the Milky Way glimmering above your tent.
Ready to refuel? Head to Abergavenny, South Wales’ foodie capital. The streets are lined with tempting cafes, delis and independent suppliers, and if you’re exploring the Brecon Beacons in autumn you might catch the town’s annual food festival when the streets explode with stalls, demos and tasty things to eat. I like to grab a coffee at Fig Tree Espresso or a pint at the Hen and Chickens, then buy locally made goodies at Marches Deli – the perfect place to stock up for a hiking picnic or slap-up camping dinner.
Before heading back to reality, cool off from a weekend of adventures in the Punchbowl, a lovely little lake tucked under The Blorenge mountain, close to Abergavenny. Walking here the long way round over seven miles is a great leg stretcher after Pen y Fan, with views of the peaks you conquered the day before in the distance. The pool itself is hidden by a ring of trees and feels like a secret spot, with a small island in the centre. A local once told me it’s actually called the Devil’s Punchbowl, but it’s such an idyllic spot that that doesn’t bother me – it’s the perfect swimming hole, with still water that in late summer and autumn is delightfully warm. I always keep my eyes peeled for the peregrine falcons that have been spotted in the 200-year-old trees on the shore.
I may only get to spend a few days in Wales’ wild landscapes, but driving home to Bristol with hair wet from a wild swim, knackered legs from a hefty hill climb and wood smoke still clinging to my clothes, I feel like I’ve really escaped. A weekend in a place as magical as the Brecon Beacons is a true breath of fresh air.
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