The Brecon Beacons: our Welsh Apennines

It’s now been four months since we moved back to London, and in all that time we’d not been out into the UK hills. If we’d still been in Rome, then we would have been out to the Apennines many times in that period.

Edita was missing those Roman hills. This yearning was heightened acutely a couple of weeks ago when we nipped over to Rome for the Six Nations rugby international. On the morning of the match we walked up the Gianicolo, a hill rising above the Tiber, from where we could see a panorama of snow-capped mountains.

Unlike most native Romans, we could name almost all of them because we’d climbed them. Monte Terminillo (2,216m), Monte Gennaro (1,275m) and Monte Guadagnolo (1,218m) are peaks that I knew I could see from Rome, but from the Gianicolo I could see beyond them, to the flat top of Cima di Vallevona (1,818m) in Simbruini, and even as far as Monte Velino (2,486m), a favourite of ours 80km away.

Edita ascends the Gist Wen ridge to the Pen y Fan escarpment
Edita ascends the Gist Wen ridge to the Pen y Fan escarpment

You don’t get views like that in London, and it’s one of the reasons we’ve not been to the hills yet. From Rome you can reach the highest peaks of the Apennines in less than two hours. From London it’s a five or six hour drive to Snowdonia or the Lake District. This makes weekend trips feasible, but you have to make sure they are going to be worth it.

Which brings me onto another reason: the weather. I probably don’t need to tell you that there are many more sunny days in Italy. If you’re going to drive six hours for a walk, you don’t want to be heading out into a godforsaken piss-fest. You need to be patient and wait for pleasant conditions.

There are a few online resources to help with this. One is the Mountain Weather Information System for a general overview; better still is the Met Office mountain weather forecast which provides the likely conditions throughout the day on specific UK mountaintops.

More recently I’ve been following the excellent Facebook group Ground Conditions in UK Mountain Areas, where people (often mountain guides) post information and photos about the current snow conditions on peaks they’ve just been climbing.

On the Waun Rydd plateau
On the Waun Rydd plateau

From this latter resource I learned that most hills over 800m were plastered in a good covering of snow. We bided our time, and last weekend our opportunity came.

The weather wasn’t fantastic in the higher mountain ranges, but in the Brecon Beacons it was looking OK. This area of mountains in South Wales has the additional advantage of being less than four hours’ drive from London. We packed our ice axes and crampons and left London at 5.30 on Saturday morning.

We chose to tackle the Pen y Fan horseshoe from the north side, starting from the village of Llynfrynach. We would ascend the Gist Wen ridge to reach the main Brecon Beacons escarpment, then follow the escarpment over a number of summits, culminating at Pen y Fan. Measuring in at a whopping 886m, this is South Wales’s highest mountain. Then we would drop down Pen y Fan’s northern ridge to the lowland pastures again.

I walked this route the opposite way round seven years ago, and even wrote a blog post about it, one of the very first trip reports I published here on the blog. But I’d not walked it in winter conditions, and I had already taken Edita up the other route from the south side in 2015.

These distinctive hills are instantly recognisable for their grassy topped, red sandstone summits, that fall away gently to the south, but drop abruptly on the north side. It’s somewhere between a ridge and a plateau, and the best views can be had by walking along the crest of the escarpment.

Scattered snow patches on the crest of the escarpment
Scattered snow patches on the crest of the escarpment

We ascended into the moorlands from the village and the farms. As the clouds rose off the summits, it became clear that whatever snow there may have been a week or two ago was quickly thawing. There were a few stubborn patches of white clinging to the steep, north-facing slopes, but otherwise there wasn’t much at all.

By the time we reached the escarpment after two hours of walking up gentle moorland, our boots had touched little more than grass and mud, quite a lot of mud in fact.

Before turning right to follow the escarpment edge, I decided to lead Edita on a short diversion up Waun Rydd, a boggy plateau a short distance to the east. I believed there would be little reason to climb this indistinct peak but for the fact that its 769m summit is one of the high points of England and Wales.

I expected it to be a soggy wade, a bit like crossing a Scottish peat bog, but we were surprised to find a firm gravel path of the sort you might expect to find lining someone’s suburban driveway. I didn’t know whether to like this or not, but it made our diversion much quicker than I expected it to be.

We were soon across a ridge and looking north-east to the Black Mountains, a lower extension of the Brecon Beacons on the Welsh-English border. The summit of Waun Rydd was a huge grassy plateau. You could pick any number of patches and call it the summit. We chose the place where there was a small pile of stones, and posed for summit photos.

Me at the pile of stones marking the "summit" of Bwlch y Ddwyallt
Me at the pile of stones marking the “summit” of Bwlch y Ddwyallt

Waun Rydd falls into one of those obscure British hill lists, the Nuttalls, the Marilyns and the Hewitts, of no interest to anyone except the most obsessive of peak baggers.

Oh, go on then, I’ll try and interest you.

A Nuttall is a mountain (perhaps you’d prefer to call it a hill) in England in Wales at least 2,000ft (610m) in height. It doesn’t have to be very distinct. In fact, it only needs to have a relative height, or prominence, of 15m (see my old blog post about topographic prominence for an explanation of what this means). There are 254 Nuttalls.

A Hewitt, on the other hand, is very different from a Nuttall. This is a hill in England and Wales over 2,000ft in height, but with a prominence of at least 30m. OK then, it’s not very different from a Nuttall, but there are only 179 Hewitts, which makes them that little bit more special.

Then there are the Marilyns. These are the hills in England and Wales that are 2,000ft in height, but have a prominence of 150m or more. This makes them super special. This makes them look like actual hills, instead of just indistinct bumps on a ridge. There are only 51 Marilyns.

The view from Fan y Big, with Corn Du, Pen y Fan and Cribyn in a line
The view from Fan y Big, with Corn Du, Pen y Fan and Cribyn in a line

Waun Rydd, sadly, was only a Hewitt, but its broad football field made it a different type of summit from the others we were to climb that day, which all sat on the escarpment edge.

We retraced our steps to the escarpment and started to follow it round. There was more snow here, probably because the trail was less trodden. We met a few walkers, but the crowds were further over. We passed another pile of stones at an innocuous location on the ridge.

‘Here’s another summit,’ said Edita. ‘Let’s take some pics.’

I laughed. ‘Summit, my arse. You can see quite clearly it’s the same height as the rest of the escarpment.’

We took some photos anyway, and Edita turned out to be right. At 754m this, I learned later, was a Nuttall called Bwlch y Ddwyallt. Bwlch, by the way, is the Welsh word for gap or col, which tells you everything you need to know about Nuttalls as summits. Nuttalls are silly summits. They’re not even summits.

The only thing sillier than a Nuttall is the word Ddwyallt. Is there a sillier name for a mountain than Bwlch y Ddwyallt?

Figures seen through mist on Pen y Fan's summit plateau
Figures seen through mist on Pen y Fan’s summit plateau

Anyway, we continued around the escarpment to the next summit, which was … er, Fan y Big (719m). Fan y Big is another Hewitt, one that remains in the memory for much longer than Bwlch y Ddwyallt. The less said about its name, the better, but I’ll just say that it translates as Peak of the Beak, presumably because of the mountain’s resemblance to a bird’s pecker. It also has one of the Brecon Beacons’ most memorable views, across the top end of a deep valley to the three highest summits: Cribyn (795m), Pen y Fan (886m) and Corn Du (873m) peering up in a line behind one another.

A steep descent took us down to the lowest part of the escarpment and back up the other side to Cribyn. There were now so many hikers that we stopped greeting each other. The summit was busy, so we stopped just short to eat our sandwiches on a grassy bank sheltered from the wind, looking over the edge across the U-shaped valley that divided the two peaks.

This was the last peaceful moment. On the summit of Cribyn the clouds overtook us, and we suddenly found ourselves in a sharp rain shower. We hurriedly put on raincoats, Gore-Tex trousers and rucksack rain covers. I even put on Gore-Tex mitts and was lovely and warm as we overtook other hikers in less appropriate attire.

The journeys between Fan y Big and Cribyn, then Cribyn and Pen y Fan, are almost identical: a steep drop to where the U-shape valley terminates at a trough in the escarpment, then back up to the next peak. The haul up to Pen y Fan is longer, but much of it follows a stone staircase.

My fourth ascent of a misty Pen y Fan
My fourth ascent of a misty Pen y Fan

We learned later that while we were climbing this section, there was a 4.4-magnitude earthquake 20 miles away in the Welsh valleys near Swansea. Edita and I consider ourselves earthquake veterans, she more than me. This time we felt nothing but the wind and rain against our cheeks. With these minor ones I think you have to be sitting down watching the telly, and even then you just feel moderately drunk. If you’re being active then they pass unnoticed.

The clouds cleared, then washed over again. By the time we reached Pen y Fan’s wide summit plateau, an eerie mist had descended and black silhouettes took it in turns to have their summit photos taken. We joined the queue and snapped a couple of quick ones. But it was too unpleasant up there to stop for the rest of our lunch.

We dropped down off the summit on a path that was very steep initially, but soon flattened out to follow Pen y Fan’s northern ridge. The clouds and rain followed us down, but only intermittently. In between the showers we could look north across farmland and pasture. There was nothing to hinder the view and we could see for miles.

To the east we could see the Brecon Beacons’ four parallel ridges enclosing three U-shaped valleys. Each had a trail that led to a summit, ours to Pen y Fan, the next to Cribyn, the third to Fan y Big, and the most easterly ridge that we’d ascended to Waun Rydd. It was a simple, attractive geography that could have been formed by a sculptor.

Edita descends Pen y Fan's northern ridge, with the three parallel ridges behind her
Edita descends Pen y Fan’s northern ridge, with the three parallel ridges behind her

We stopped again to try and finish our lunch. We even had a couple of tins of Elvis Juice that I’d been looking forward to for hours. But as soon as we sat down and cracked open the cans, it started raining again. We finished them hurriedly (you can’t pour away good beer) and continued down to the farmland, where we followed lanes back to Llanfrynach.

It hadn’t been the winter walk we’d been hoping for, and these peaks didn’t measure up to the Apennines that we’ve come to love. But all things are relative and it makes no sense to compare mountain with mountain. Any mountain walk is a grand day out that takes your mind off life’s uncertainties and frustrations.

It takes effort to get out of London for a weekend of hill walking, but the effort is always worth it, and the Brecon Beacons are not so far away.

There was one final twist in store when we checked into our B&B in Brecon, and discovered that the rooms were named after Welsh mountains. No prizes for guessing which one we’d been given.

Fan y Big Suite
It’s not always a good idea to name hotel rooms after Welsh mountains

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One thought on “The Brecon Beacons: our Welsh Apennines

  • February 23, 2018 at 7:55 am

    A great read as always, I usually approach The Pen Y Fan Horseshoe from the Neuadd Reservoirs forestry car park to avoid the hordes of people (mainly English like me!) coming up from The Storey Arms, so it’s nice to hear of a similar route from a different start point. Maybe I too have bagged a Nuttall or two without knowing it on my travels?! Cheers Mark

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