Pen Y Fan, 21 Jul 2010

How’s this for something different? A hike from the UK, and a real one at that! My brother, Ewan, had suggested that we go to the Brecon Beacons during our visit. After a little bit of research we had worked out a decent little horseshoe hike to the highest peak in the Brecons, Pen Y Fan at 886 m. With a favourable weather forecast we decided to go for it.

The itinerary was a bit like that for our recent Gott Peak hike: early start, 3.5-hour drive and endless photography. We reached our designated trailhead and were ready to hike by 11 am. We set off up the road, passing numerous squished frogs along the way. We made a slight navigation error within minutes as we took a small side-road (which had parking we could have used, saving us 2 km of road walking), but soon recovered. We passed through a gate and briefly confused someone driving out who tried to direct us a different way up to the summit. We convinced him we knew where we were going and, though a little skeptical, he agreed that it was an equally good route. I guess the folks round here are used to people not knowing where they’re going and getting lost.

The clouds were looking a little ominous and within moments we found ourselves in a cold, drenching shower. We hastily donned our raingear and continued on the understanding that the weather would improve. The rain only lasted 5 minutes or so (enough to get us sopping wet) and, to our amazement, was the only rain we saw that day. We were looking for our turnoff to cross the outlet creek from the Neuadd reservoir, but were puzzled to reach a reservoir which was not on the OS map we were carrying. We could see where we wanted to be and found that it was possible to walk across the dam to reach it. By now the sun had come out and bathed the bright green hills in dappled light.

We passed through a gate and headed into an open area with open access rights so we could walk anywhere. We picked a line straight up the hillside which followed the edge of a forestry plantation. It was pretty boggy and wet, and our light hiking shoes were not really up to the task. We picked our way from rock to rock, tussock to tussock, avoiding the worst of the water, mud and sheep poo. The initial ascent was quite easy but the last part was steep and loose and needed a little care to pick a good route.

Less than an hour after leaving the car, we had done most of the ascent as we topped out onto the broad level top of Twyn Mwyalchod. We spotted a trig point about 100 m off to our left and headed for it. The OS map had our elevation as 642 m. A small tent was pitched nearby and we wondered if someone had camped out overnight. On reaching the tent, we found it occupied by two soldiers out on exercise. A third soon approached in full kit (including rifle), checked in with the guys in the tent and promptly turned around and headed back the way he had come.

We turned around and began our high country walking. The going was still pretty damp and I soon had wet toes. But it was easy walking and of course we had endless views all around. The treeline was barely 500 m, and we were hiking through peaty moorland, covered with grass and heather. The heather was beginning to bloom adding a subtle purple colour in some directions. The biggest obstacle was the aforementioned sheep leftovers – walking while admiring the scenery pretty much guaranteed unwanted shoe decoration.

The path followed the eastern edge of the plateau, treating us to spectacular grassy drop offs to our right. We gained a little more elevation so gradually we didn’t notice it and came to what had appeared to be a narrow ridge on the OS map, Rhyw yr Ysgyfarnog. In reality it was 10-20 m across and even though the ground dropped away quite steeply on either side there was no danger. We admired the view into the next valley with the Blaen Crew headwaters and watched a pair of red kites swoop and soar down the hillside.

A short distance further along we crested a rise and the path dropped down a few metres, joining the main trail in from the west (the shorter route) before climbing back up again to the summit of Corn Du. An alternative path cut along the contour lines towards Pen Y Fan. Ewan referred to it as the `Chicken Run’, from a mountain-biking term meaning the easy route. As we reached higher ground the westerly wind became more of a feature of the day and was now quite strong. We had been sheltered on the eastern edge of the plateau but we now felt the full force of the wind. And I was instantly reminded of the downside of hiking in open terrain with no trees or any other features to break up the flow. At least it wasn’t too cold a wind, unlike that we’d experienced on Gott Peak a week or two earlier which was bitterly cold (but then we were at 2500 m among snow-covered peaks).

We dropped down and headed up Corn Du to reach its somewhat femininely-shaped cairn. Ewan took a `tweaking’ photo. Despite the wind we set up the camera on our tripod and took a group photo. We explored the sheer northern edge of the summit which fell away into a large bowl bounded by Pen Y Fan to the east. By now it was lunchtime but there was nowhere to sit out of the wind. We opted to carry on and see if we could find somewhere along the way to Pen Y Fan. We walked down from the summit, passing a couple of workmen upgrading the trail with rocks and followed a sheep track down the northerly slope a few metres and sat on a small rock outcrop. It was just enough to get us out of the worst of the wind, and we sat back and enjoyed our lunch with a huge sweeping vista at our feet.

We spotted another kite, this time below us. At first we were content to watch it coast along the slope, and we could make out the forked tail and gorgeous colouring on the top of the bird. I risked changing the lens on the camera to try and get a closer view but of course was too late and only got a couple of distant shots. Lunch over, we returned to the trail and headed up to the summit of Pen Y Fan itself.

Barely 10 minutes later we were at the summit and the large crowds we’d seen earlier had all vanished and we had it mostly to ourselves. Apart from a sheep or two of course. We took more photos and admired the views in every directions, but the wind prevented us from hanging around for long. Ewan had just enough time to jog around the summit area for a different kind of video experience. We set off down the slope again and dropped about 200 m to a saddle before our third and final climb to the summit of Cribyn at 795 m.

We had a great view looking back at the north-east face of Pen Y Fan, an even steeper drop than Corn Du. The geology of the area shows mostly horizontally bedded layers, which explains why this part of south Wales was famous historically for coal mining. But that’s all gone now. We added our own stones to the summit cairn and headed for home. The route off the summit was quite gentle to being with, steepening only for the last couple of hundred metres down into the next saddle. We had contemplated taking in Fan Y Big (I dare you to say that out loud…) but we decided we’d had enough and began our long gentle descent back to the car.

From here we turned south and joined an old road (bridleway). Over the next 2.5 km the road dropped about 150 m of elevation. It was only when we crossed a small creek that the trail steepened again as it descended into a gulley. Though obviously a clean upland creek, it was quite brown from the peaty soil, quite unlike the blue-green creeks we’re now used to. The road came alongside a forestry plantation, which is not very interesting in itself, but between the ditch and the trees were banks of blaeberry bushes, full of ripe berries. We sampled a few and they were damn good! Forty-five minutes or so later, we were back at the car. We all agreed it had been an excellent hike, surpassing all our expectations.

We headed for Stratford, Ewan deciding to take a different road out than the one we’d come in on, to show us some of the area he’d been mountain-biking in. We passed the Talybont reservoir, through the village of Talybont-on-Usk, then Bwlch (sounds just like that) Crickhowell to Abergavenny. From there we enjoyed a sunny and scenic drive back to Stratford via the Cotswolds. We dropped our stuff at Ewan’s place and went out for tasty pizza! An excellent day out :-)

Distance: 16 km
Elevation gain: 660 m
Photos to come
(Ewan’s photos)

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