Adventure in the Brecon Beacons
With summer a very distant memory and spring long overdue, I’d decided to brighten up another wet and gloomy month with a mini adventure in the great outdoors and optimistically set my screensaver to the brightest, greenest and hilliest image a quick Google search turned up: the Brecon Beacons. A few days later and I’d found my brave co-adventurer and driver, arriving all the way from France to join me on a four hour drive up from the far corner of Kent to the Welsh national park. After failing to mention the predictions of snow and overnight temperatures in the minus figures, we settled on the May bank holiday weekend and I started to gather supplies. My camping gear is a fairly sparse collection comprised of a hand-me-down tent and a sleeping bag better suited to a summer in the Med. After a quickly scouting round the office I was kindly lent two down sleeping bags, two inflatable camping mats, a lantern and a pouch full of minty lamb casserole and rice. Spurred on by the thought of a hot dinner I scoured around for a stove before eventually splashing out a tenner on a compact little one from the store. With everything rolled up and strapped to my trusty 12-year old rucksack, me and my borrowed kit were ready to go. My friend arrived on the Friday evening and suggested a quick pint at the local pub to experience some typical English culture. When I finally crawled out of bed the next morning it was nearly 11 and we had long road ahead of us, made longer by last night’s plans to skip the bridge and take the scenic route around the Severn Estuary. When we finally saw signposts for Abergavenny it was a full six hours later. A hangover and a map are not a great combination when your navigator doesn’t drive and half the sign is in Welsh. The landscape changed as we approached the border and glorious sunlight was bouncing off rolling green hills and thick forests and generally making everything look like an advert from the Welsh Tourism Board. The Brecon Beacons National Park spans over 43 miles from east to west, impossible to cover in a weekend. We turned off the main road, took a country lane barely wider than a car and zigzagged our way up and down, across the vast mountain ranges. It felt like cheating, yes, but it offered us the best possible views in such a short space of time. And really, what a view. If you haven’t been to the Brecon Beacons then go there, now. What are you doing next weekend? There’s wild mountains and fierce waterfalls to explore. Caves and deep woodland paths. Sheep as far as the eye can see. Wales, a country so beautiful it could kill you. After much sightseeing and pointing at signs helpfully listing the many ways you can choose to die (drowning, falling, crushing, wearing flat soled shoes), we picked the most unpronounceable sounding village and drove off in search of a secluded spot for some wild camping. After bouncing across the fifth cattle grid we decided we were deep enough into sheep country and shut off the engine, with only the distant gleam of headlights beyond the hills for company. One lamb stew and a can of lager later and we were fast asleep, cocooned in feathery beds. I woke up around 1am, realising we must have stupidly pitched the tent on a frozen lake, and spent the next five hours wriggling about until dawn lit up the inside of my yellow tent like a beacon and I passed out from exhaustion. My co-adventurer, a couple of inches higher off the ground on the generously offered thicker camping mat, slept on oblivious. At around 8am I hauled myself outside wearing everything in the tent that could be used as clothing and made a beeline for a dense patch of conifers. A flash woodpecker sighting and some rabbits made for a more interesting experience than expected, coming in at second on my list of most scenic calls of nature. As I climbed back up the hill towards the tent a wizened and grey bearded old man alarmingly emerged from some nearby bushes and shuffled slowly towards me. He paused in slow-motion, raised a hand and barked a muffled greeting at me through thick facial hair, at which point I realised it was my slightly grubby looking friend wrapped in several layers of scarf. Feeling surprisingly human and energetic again after a panful of coffee (I made a vow to take my new stove everywhere with me) and with the weather set to a suitable level of moist, we set off hunting for waterfalls. The local town Ystradfellte is at the very heart of Welsh waterfall country. As we reached civilisation once more (two pubs, a WC and a warning sign) I leapt out of the still-moving car and barricaded myself in the only public toilet to scrub away the several layers of dirt that had somehow appeared overnight. Leering at myself in the reflection of the stainless steel sink the conclusion was clear: blog or no blog, photos would have to be taken from a distance. Back out in the car park my friend was already investigating the iron gates of the very Lord of the Rings sounding Elidir Trail, entrance to waterfalls, mines and fairy kingdoms, apparently. The woodland trail was marked as being ‘moderate’ and apart from some quicksand-style patches of bog and lattices of thick tree roots the going was easy throughout. Waterfalls big and small are peppered along on either side of the route, which can be kicked up a notch if you decide to go off-piste and end up scrambling uphill over logs and rocks to get back to the path, much to the amusement of other hikers. The route manages to live up to its idyllic, fairy-tale name even in the drizzliest drizzle, and we ran along excitedly looking for the next beautiful water feature. At the other end we left the steadily growing collection of waterfall tourists in the picnic area and about-turned back along the now quiet path, a ewe and her lamb leading us the way. Arriving at the car park and lured in by signs claiming ‘Best Sunday Lunch’, we gorged ourselves on cockles, lava bread and Welsh lamb (not all together), before the waitress approached us to ask if we’d seen the ‘best’ waterfalls yet. Eyebrows were raised. With the mist rolling in, and armed with a colourful laminated map, we set off to find Sgwd-yr-Eira: THE waterfall. This path took us through a very different landscape of autumn colours: red ferns, yellow lichen and green moss heaped on piles of grey rock. At the top of a hill our route was blocked by a mud and timber obstacle course complete with slip ‘n’ slide, which gave us an interesting side mission to tackle. As we reached a wooded area, and the tinkle of water became a steady rumble, this ‘energetic’ grade path suddenly disappeared and we practically had to climb down a sheer cliff of rocks and tangled roots. The drop was about two foot. I braved it with closed eyes. When I opened them again a giant monster waterfall was only a few feet away from me. My friend was already in there, actually behind the wall of water, where it juts out enough from the cliff top for you to walk right behind it and out the other side. No need to go abroad for wild landscapes, they’re right in our back garden. As I stood in awe at the sight, my own lack of balance more than Wales’ desire to kill me landed me in the thickest sludge of mud, which is why I look so glum and sheepish, standing in the middle of this fantastic waterfall. The perfect weekend adventure! Have you ever been to the Brecon Beacons?