Skip to content

Brecon Beacons

11 November, 2007

On the last bank holiday weekend in August, Nic and I did our first overnight walk in England. Well, actually we did an overnight walk in England AND Wales. Yes, over the space of a mere three days, we covered two countries!

Truth be told, the walk we did was a mixture of Offa’s Dyke Path (which runs the length of the border between England and Wales) and the Brecon Beacons Way, which traverses the similarly named national park in the south of Wales. The route we chose covered approximately 45km, over two days, from Abergavenny to Hay on Wye. For much of our walk, England was on the right and Wales on the left. The contrast was astounding: England was a mess of farms and fields, covered in smoggy haze emanating from distant cities; Wales, by contrast, was wild mountains and clear blue sky. You could almost see the line where the smog ended. To be fair, the patch of Wales we were seeing was mostly national park. As we got closer to Hay on Wye, England and Wales started looking more similar: squared off fields, bales of hay and lots of sheep.

Bales of Hay

Neat bales of hay. Clearly, you are looking at England.

On our first day we took a train from Southampton to Abergavenny, with a plan to spend the night camping in Llanthony, about 20km up the Vale of Ewyas. Oanh was very excited by the Welsh sing-song accent when she purchased two cups of coffee at the train station. So excited that she wanted to go back and order more coffee, just to hear the accent again.

It took us longer to get out of Abergavenny than expected (navigating towns is frequently much more difficult than navigating the countryside), but eventually we encountered a sign directing us off the road and into what seemed a dense wood. Much to our own, and some punters’ surprise, we emerged moments later from a mess of nettle onto a pristine golf course. Consulting our map, the right of way did indeed cut clear across the fairways – walk markers indicated that we were on route. However, being a Saturday morning, there were lots of golfers out and about and we thought it was safest to walk nervously around the edge. The prospect of being hit by a hard little golf ball on the first day of our holiday was not a welcome one. At one stage, we stood inside a thicket of trees watching some golfers driving the ball quite a distance. We then darted across the fairway to get ourselves safely to the other side before anyone else did any driving. [Oanh: I know all the golf lingo now, having played golf on a Wii.]

The next stage was an ascent of Yskyryd Fawr (got to love the Welsh language) for magnificent views all around. Already it was becoming clear that we were going to be blessed with stunning (and atypical) Bank Holiday Weekend weather. Unfortunately, as loathe as we are to complain about fine weather in this country, the beating sun did make walking (and pack carrying) a rather hot and sweaty challenge. No sooner had we taken in the summit views, then we learned that we faced an alarmingly steep descent to try to get to the Llanvihangel Crucorney pub in time for lunch (we had been warned by a local that they stopped serving food at 2pm). Much striding ensued, as the minutes ticked closer and we clambered over yet another poorly maintained stile. Alas, we we arrived at three minutes past two. British pubs not being known for their customer service or entrepreneurial initiative (at least when it comes to food), we were unsurprised (though grumpily disappointed) to be greeted with a brusque “We’ve stopped serving food” almost as soon as we got through the door. Standing outside and wondering what to do about our grumbling tummies and how much further our walk would be that day, we met another walking couple with whom to commiserate about British pub hospitality. Unfortunately, we were short of alternatives and we parted ways to pursue our separate routes up the valley.

Yskirrid Fawr - summit

Summit of Yskyryd Fawr.

Yskirrid Fawr

The Sugar Loaf, as viewed from Yskyryd Fawr.

In the end we lunched (on nuts, dry crackers and tinned tuna) in a shady cowfield, at which point exhaustion and sheer, utter misery about lunch (the crackers really were very dry. Note to self: never buy that brand again) descended upon Oanh. Finally, after yet another much-too-high stile, Oanh wanted to give up. We stood in the shade for a while to discuss whether to turn back, or at least aim for a closer campsite: It was the moment of crisis. Eventually, a compromise was negotiated: Nic took almost all of Oanh’s share of the camping gear and we pushed on.

Thankfully, the next mountain, Hatterrall Hill, was a beautiful one, with gambolling lambs and a cooling breeze. Our persistence (Nic’s, much more than Oanh’s) was then well rewarded when we descended the mountain side to see Llanthony Priory – a beautiful ruin with adjoining pub (serving food for many more hours to come), and our campsite no more than 100 metres from it.

Llanthony Priory was established around the year 1100, although much of what remains was built in the thirteenth century. For the last 200 years it has been a picturesque ruin, and is now partially converted into a hotel. It occupies a most idyllic setting: having acquired your pint of ale, you are free to wander through the grassy ruins and perch or sprawl as you so choose.

View of Llanthony Priory

Llanthony Prior, from Loxidge Tump.

Llanthony Priory

Llanthony Priory, up close and monochrome.

We met up with the lovely couple again here (who, having taken the low road through the valley, were very impressed that we had taken the high road over the hill), and had drinks, a delicious dinner (eaten using the base of a ruined pillar for a table) and just generally lay about the sweet soft Welsh grass. We then headed over to a more earthy pub (for local people), to catch the nights entertainment: a man, his guitar and the whole pub singing along. Even though we sat out in the beer garden and did not sing along, we were moved by the local, prosaic nature of that night’s festivities.

Day II

We woke early at our campsite, and looked up at the slightly overcast sky, worrying about whether it would rain. The hilltops were invisible, covered in cloud. After we had performed our morning ablutions at the communal tap, we followed the signs to “Hill Walks.” This was rather amusing, given that the ‘hills’ in Wales, to our Southampton-accustomed eyes, were very much mountains. The mental image painted by ‘hill walks’ involves calm, comfortable strolls over pleasantly undulating green grass. No. The Hill Walk that we were pointed towards was a steep ascent of about 400 metres – at about 45 degrees – straight up the side of the ‘hill’. We trudged our way up, glad for the solar protection afforded by the clouds; but watching with pleasure nonetheless as, upon attaining the top of the ridge, the clouds cleared away and yesterday’s views returned.

Behind us were a man and two dogs: the man walked a measured pace upwards while the dogs rushed about back and forth. The poor man was exhausting more of his energy yelling at the dogs and trying to keep them under control (especially when sheep started attracting the dogs’ attention), than he spent on walking that darn Welsh hill. As he explained: they (the dogs) didn’t yet realise just how far they were going to walking that day…

Once we had reached the ridge line, walking became much easier, as we strolled along the almost flat terrain with panoramic views to either side. As we approached Hay Bluff, the northernmost point of Hatterrall Hill, we ate lunch perched on a rock jutting out the side of the hill. Here we were entertained by a dozen or so paragliders riding the thermal winds. After lunch we walked closer to the paragliders and continued to watch them for the next half hour or so. Every time one took off, Oanh wanted to cheer – it was such a magnificent sight – to see people take to the wind and then spiral higher and higher. On our way down the mountain side we passed a number of paragliders labouring upwards, their sails stuffed into enormous paragliding backpacks. We knew that the gliding had to be worth it for the effort expended to get that glider up the ‘hill’.

Path to Hay Bluff

The path to Hay Bluff: view from our lunch spot.

At the bottom of the hill was a great sight for walkers: an ice cream van!

Walkers with ice-cream

The best reward.

Lord Hereford’s Knob

Lord Hereford’s Knob (or as the Welsh prefer, Lord Hereford’s Twmpa): view from our ice cream spot.

Our final journey to our campsite for the night – the Hollybush Inn – was a bit more difficult than that day’s walking (at least as far as navigation was concerned). At one stage, we were in a field with an angry bull (Oanh’s back pack is red!) and had to cross quietly through that part of the field furthest from angry bull. We also required directions of some local Welsh farming family sitting on a tractor. After being given some very convoluted directions by road to the next village by the father, the eldest son turned and said, “But Da, they’re walking!” and proceeded to describe for us a more direct route across the fields. As we walked off the father said, with a tone of great bemusement: “Aye, it looks like they are…”

The Hollybush Inn was an interesting place. I have a suspicion that it’s current owners may have arrived back in 1969 and had never quite got around to moving on. The establishment occupied sprawling grounds alongside the River Wye and encompassed a pub, restaurant, campground, caravan park, canoe rental and other services and had something of the air of being a cross between a festival, a commune, a holiday camp and a backpackers’ hostel.


Our last day involved a brief early morning jaunt through Hay on Wye before most of the shops were open (being a bank holiday did not help), then catching a bus back to Abergavenny via Brecon, and then on home. Hay on Wye’s famed secondhand bookshops did not disappoint: There were bookshops aplenty, including one open-air, honesty system shop in the grounds of Hay Castle. A bold initiative, one would think, given the variable weather…

Open air bookshop

Hay on Wye Bookshop.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: