As much as I love the Peak District, I find myself in the Brecon Beacons at least once or twice a year. The landscape is altogether different from the Peaks and, to my eyes, sits somewhere between the grandeur of the Lake District and the rolling hills I’m more familiar with back home.
It’s like the Peak District’s more rugged sibling. It doesn’t have quite the grandeur of the Lake District, but the terrain is often more imposing than the Peaks. As if the spectacular scenery wasn’t enough, you also get the most wonderful night skies in the Brecon Beacons thanks to it being an International Dark Sky Place.
This walk takes us to Pen y Fan, the highest peak in south Wales. At 886 metres (2,907ft) above sea-level, it is also the highest British peak south of Cadair Idris in Snowdonia. The twin summits of Pen y Fan and Corn Du at 873m (2,864ft) were formerly referred to as Cadair Arthur or ‘Arthur’s Seat’.
There are several ways to approach Pen y Fan. There’s a gentle walk from the Storey Arms or Pont ar Daf, known locally as ‘the motorway’, which is manageable for the vast majority of people – even small children – given that it starts at an altitude of around 400m. For a more challenging approach from the Storey Arms, an 11-mile circuit will also take in neighbouring peaks, Corn Du and Cribyn. If you’re going to Pen y Fan, it would be a crime to not also summit Corn Du, which I think has the better views.
If the tourist route isn’t for you – and I wouldn’t blame you for not wanting to walk up a hill surrounded by people complaining about the climb while attempting it in skinny jeans and Converse – a challenging 7.5-mile route from Cwm Gwdi car park (310m) starts just north of Pen y Fan, with stunning views east over the River Nant Sere and west over Llyn Cwm Llwch.
And then there’s the tough one; the epic 10-mile horseshoe walk. This is the route that I took and, as it turns out, it’s also one of the training routes that the British Army uses. Passing several groups of officers decked out in full camo gear on the way to the summit, it’s fun to imagine that your little hobby is what the British Army is doing for training.
As always, links to the route I took can be found at the end of this post.
Taf Fechan Forest and Upper Neuadd Reservoir
There are several free car parks to choose from in Taf Fechan Forest. If you take a look at the OS Map I’ve linked to at the end of this post, you’ll see the exact one where this route begins. From here, you’ll walk north along the lane to the Filter House and head west across the lower banks of the Upper Neuadd Reservoir.
This walk is impressive right from the start, with views across the reservoir and up the valley to Pen y Fan.
Craig Fan Ddu
After leaving the reservoir, you’ll need your camera. Not because the views are particularly spectacular (though they are expansive and beautiful) as you climb to the Craig Fan Ddu ridge, but because the steep clamber will have you gasping for breath and looking for any excuse to pause and ‘take in the view’ while your heart rate returns to a slightly-less-than-alarming level.
The wonderful glacial valley you see as you climb reminds me a lot of the Kinder Plateau, although the red sandstone provides a pleasing change to the gritstone of the Peaks. If you’re lucky, you might see red kites cruising overhead.
Some miles later, you’ll arrive at the approach to the anvil-shaped Corn Du. It’s not quite as tall as its close neighbour, but the views are spectacular. I urge you, don’t be tempted to take the lower path and head straight for the big summit – take the time to walk over Corn Du and you won’t be disappointed.
While you won’t find any trig pillars at the top of these Welsh hills, you will find the summit marked by a Bronze Age cairn with a central burial cist, similar to the one you’ll see shortly on nearby Pen y Fan.
This was probably my favourite part of the whole walk as you get panoramic views down into Cwm Llwch and across the Usk valley to Brecon as well as east towards the Sugar Loaf, Monmouthshire above Abergavenny.
Pen y Fan
While crossing the saddle between Corn Du and Pen y Fan, there are spectacular views to the south, down the Neuadd Valley to the reservoirs that are above Merthyr Tydfil. Like Corn Du, the summit of Pen y Fan is marked by a Bronze Age burial chamber. When it was excavated in 1991 a bronze brooch and spearhead were found inside.
I read before I planned this walk that if you stand on Pen y Fan and look northwest, you can see all the way to Snowdonia. The view was indeed spectacular, but the visit to the summit was short-lived because I don’t enjoy sharing my well-earned summits with people who strolled up from the nearest car park in Nikes with their selfie sticks.
From Pen y Fan, you’ll continue along the escarpment edge to Cribyn. From the plateau of Pen y Fan, Cribyn looks like a mere hill, but I found the path up to it every bit as tiring as the first climb up to the Craig Fan Ddu ridge… I blame tired legs.
Once off Cribyn, a clear path heading south takes you the whole length of the opposite side of the horseshoe back to where you parked at Taf Fechan Forest.