Following on from Stonehenge, and high up on the list of places that I deeply regretted missing from our Euro Road Trip, I was back in Wales. I’ve visited a few times now, but previous visits were more about riding around on a mountain bike, with sight seeing a low secondary priority. Don’t get me wrong, the mountain biking I did here was fantastic, with several days riding in different areas, like Coed y Brenin, Betws-y-Coed and Afan Forest.
While the cold of winter wasn’t the only thing stopping me from mountain biking this time (though it was certainly a key factor), I was more than content to just do some walking and sight seeing in the amazing Brecon Beacons National Park.
The downside of travelling during winter, other than the cold weather and short days, is the lack of accommodation options. Most of the campsites had shut for the season, though thankfully I found one that was still open in a fantastic location – Cwmnanthir Camping. I would normally just free camp, but when it’s only £6/night for a hot shower and a flushing toilet, it seems a little tight of me not to.
The bonus of this campsite is that it is walking distance to Sgwd Henrhyd. And, the walk from the campsite to the waterfalls was beautiful, passing by mossy forest, green paddocks, countless streams, and filthy sheep grazing in muddy pastures.
The weather didn’t quite cooperate, and by the time I’d made it to the bottom of the falls, there was moderate rain falling. I really wanted to get some nice photos of the waterfall, but with the rain and the spray from falls, I couldn’t keep the lens dry…
One of the amazing things about this waterfall is the ability to walk right behind the waterfalls. If it looks a tiny familiar, it’s because it was the filming location of the Bat Cave from the Dark Knight trilogy. As you can expect, standing this close to a waterfall, even if partially sheltered, was very wet – and quite exciting.
It was possible to continue along a trail that followed the river downstream, with several more small rapids along the way, as well as countless small tributaries dropping down into the steeply carved valley floor. The trail was a messy, muddy excursion, and a good test of the waterproofing of my boots – they passed.
The weather had cleared somewhat after walking back to Gunter, but it was still not a particularly pleasant day to be a tourist. So, instead of climbing some of the amazing peaks in this area, I opted to visit one of the castles in the far western reaches of the park. I caught a glimpse of this castle in a tourist brochure, and I knew that one day I would have to visit.
While it wasn’t far between these two sites, due to the narrow winding lanes in rural Wales, it took considerable time to get there, and was already starting to get quite dark. I was surprised to see an almost lack of signage to get here, which had me questioning the guidance of my TomTom. But, sure enough, I caught the briefest of glimpses of it perched high on a rocky bluff in the small gaps in the tall and dense hedges that line the roads here.
From below, it looked exactly like a prop from a fantasy movie. The rugged ruins of a castle attacked by dragons. The entrance fee was minimal, though there didn’t appear to be anyone to actually collect the tickets. Once inside the castle grounds, the trail turned into a wild and muddy mess. It was hilarious watching some other couples attempt to make their way down, progressing into something resembling a penguin attempting to surf.
As could have been predicted, there wasn’t a great deal to see inside the ruins. They were just that, ruins. Some of the upper areas were accessible still, with modern steps and railings installed to both protect the ruins, as well as avoid visitors breaking their bodies horribly.
The views of the surrounding countryside were beautiful, with rolling patchwork hills in various shades of green, dotted with white tufts of sheep, and small streams that lazily cut their way through the valleys below. It felt like everything I imagine Wales to look like.
I saw that the signs for flashlight rentals at the ticket office. It mentioned a cave that could be explored, so I grabbed the small flashlight I have in the van before I climbed up the hill to explore the castle. I eventually found the entrance to the cave and made my way down the dark and slippery steps. Soon the steps ceased, and it was just a natural opening in the rock that slowly descended and narrowed at the same time. The cave itself wasn’t scaring me, but walking down the slippery rock did. Plus, bats – I’m assuming this little guy wasn’t alone. And yes, I’m sure he wasn’t too happy about having a torch shone in his face.
The sun made a last attempt at breaking through the clouds before setting for the day. Like many brief events, it was stunning. And then the weather settled in for the evening. I successfully made my way down the muddy trail without slipping and soiling the only pair of pants that I brought on the trip.
I’d really wanted to see the castle from afar, to really get a perspective of the perilous precipice it presided upon. But, even jumping fences and climbing through muddy fields, I couldn’t quite get the views that I was searching for.
I had hoped to get some more glimpses on the return journey, but by the time I’d made it to a small clearing upon a hill, it was nearly as dark as it had been in the cave.
It was a little surprising that a group of four guys came and camped at the same site last night. They were walking around rather uncomfortably this morning, with the warming effects of their campfire and alcohol well and truly finished. There was a tiny part of me that felt bad making them wait while I had a nice warm shower this morning. At least it was an instant hot water system, and they weren’t going to run out of hot water.
This was a bit of a failure on my behalf. I knew that there were several more amazing waterfalls in the area, however I didn’t know that they were actually quite a hike from the car park – or at least the signs at the car park made it out to be quite a walk. I’m not opposed to a longer (90-minute) hike, however, I had bigger plans for this sunny day, and didn’t want to miss out on them in order to see a few more waterfalls.
Pen y Fan
This is probably the most popular (and one of the most accessible) hike in Brecon Beacons. It was a beautiful sunny Sunday, but the sunshine was a lie, and the temperatures were still (literally) freezing. As I drove through the middle of the national park, I started to see white dusting on the tops of the mountains. I laughed that it’d be funny if Pen-y-Fan was covered in snow. Well, knowing that it’s the highest peak in this district, I should have known that it would certainly be covered in snow.
I wasn’t alone in wanting to climb Pen-y-Fan today, and even though it was now well after lunch, and most climbers were finished for the day, the car parks were still more-or-less full. I got lucky and found a park, which was a relief, as I worried about parking along the muddy shoulder of the main highway.
Anyway, as you can see, the peaks of the mountain were well and truly covered in a layer of fresh snow. It made for a beautiful sight, but I was slightly concerned – mostly due to the trail also being under a fresh layer of snow.
I set off from near the Storey Arms, and followed the crowds along the clearly cut trail. The air was burning my lungs and it was impossible to stop my nose running, but the views were spectacular. It was an easy but steady climb along a well-made path. I mean, there were children and fluffy dogs also making easy progress up the mountain.
Slowly but surely, the patches of snow on the ground got larger and more frequent. The little grass that remained was now partly encrusted in ice and the gusts became colder, stronger and more frequent.
The trail summited Corn Du before continuing on a little further to the highest point at Pen y Fan. It wasn’t quite so easy climbing the last 200m, as the ground was now entirely covered in snow and ice. The main trail was treacherous at best, foolish at worst. Instead of following up the same icy steps, I cut my own trail off to the side, where the ankle deep fresh snow was able to provide much better grip and traction. It was like climbing up an exponential curve, with the gradient continuing to increase the closer I got to the top, forcing me to use my (bare) hands to help balance up the icy and rocky trail.
But, like most difficult events that are survived, once at the top the difficulties were forgotten and the only thoughts were on the views that expanded all around.
The wind was howling, whipping up shard icy shards that stung the flesh and chilled the body. But, amongst all of this was a silent glider, diving aggressively, and then gracefully soaring higher and higher. The wings were bending and shaking violently, however, the pilot continued to loop, dive and climb. It was like watching a (enormous) bird playing.
From the top of Corn Du there was a short icy descent followed by a gentle climb to the top of Pen y Fan. At 886m it hardly felt like a mountain, and with the groups with children and small dogs, it felt even less of an achievement. But, this wasn’t done as a challenge; it was done for the rewards of the views. And, of course, it was celebrated with a Slavic Squat – I would have jumped, but I didn’t like my chances of avoiding injury.
And, the views… My words can’t do the views justice. It was phenomenal, breathtaking, amazing. These valleys scared from glaciers stretched away out of view, with patches of light dramatically lighting the snowy slopes in front. The gentle shift in colour from bright white, to faded brown and down to dark green was special, and made every fear of a misstep on the ascent worthwhile.
The skies were no longer pleasant, and the threat of more snow and ice was definitely real. It was now a long and constant descent back to where Gunter was patiently waiting. I had been worried about slipping on the way up, but of course it was always going to be the descent that I needed to be concerned about. The path almost felt polished, and it reminded me of the terrible fear I had every time I faced the icy streets of Niseko. Thankfully I didn’t fall today (nor did I ever seriously fall in Niseko) and I was happy once back below the snow line, letting my pace return to a natural gait, instead of the semi-anticipatory penguin shuffle.
As the trail got closer to the base of the mountain, the small valleys started having water flowing in them, until finally at the base a small stream was flowing.
The sleet and hail didn’t start until I was back in Gunter and on my way back to London. I know all too well how fickle the weather can be in the mountains, and as the heavens opened up, I was once again thankful for the short window of fantastic weather when it really counted.
Visits like this always fill me with a sense of regret. I had no excuse for not visiting Wales more frequently of a weekend. It was stunningly beautiful, and amazing to escape the concrete and noise of London for a couple of days.