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Brecon Beacons Redux

14 May, 2009

Wales again!  We love Wales.

Betting against the weather, we planned a trip and booked accommodation in the Brecon Beacons and a hire car for the beginning of March, i.e. Spring.  Alas, we lost this round against the world.  Having just come out of one of the coldest winters England had seen in decades, the beginning of March was still pretty nippy.  The weather forecast for our weekend was (in summary): wet and really, really cold.

Our nicest forecast day was Friday, so we made a mad dash* to climb Pen Y Fan – the tallest mountain in southern Britain at 886m.  We reached the car park at the base of the climb as dark clouds closed in from all sides.  There were still occasional patches of clear skies, so, ever hopeful and optimistic, we set off up the mountain. Despite the approaching weather, the views were quite stunning, as the surrounding mountains were still covered in a layer of snow. Fortunately the path was quite well marked, so we weren’t too concerned about getting lost.

Pen Y Fan was almost entirely still covered in snow.  We got to the summit about the same time the clouds did but, not to be deterred, we ascended anyway and found ourselves enshrouded in freezing mist with no views.  Fun as that was, we thought we’d get down from the summit and find somewhere to eat a bite of lunch.  This was actually quite difficult as, being on a ridge, it was very challenging to find a sheltered spot out of the icy wind.  Every so often the clouds would part momentarily revealing the massive U-shaped glacial valleys for which the Brecon Beacons are renowned. (Last time Nic was here, he had a similarly foggy experience… he hopes to one day actually see the Brecon Beacons).

* In case you’re wondering, we actually drove very sedately across England and into Wales, even stopping for not one but two service station breaks.

Fan Fawr, from the side of Pen Y Fan

Fan Fawr, from the side of Pen Y Fan

Nic on the path to Pen Y Fan: no danger of getting lost here

Nic on the path to Pen Y Fan: no danger of getting lost here

A rare view down into Gwaun Taf as the clouds part.  The U-shape of the valleys is caused by them having been carved out by glaciers.

A rare view down into Gwaun Taf as the clouds part. The U-shape of the valleys is caused by them having been carved out by glaciers.

Descending via a rather interesting cross country route that involved much reference to map and compass, we warmed up back in the car and continued down the road to the Llwyn Y Celyn youth hostel. The driveway into the hostel was narrow and very steep and Oanh was nervous of encountering another vehicle and having to reverse back up the hill.  Luckily, this never happened, but it did not mean Oanh was not nervous every single time she drove up or down the driveway. The hostel was quite pleasant as most rural YHAs tend to be, although our room was remarkably small. Width, height and length, it was barely larger than Nic in any dimension. By the time we had strewn our stuff everywhere, one person had to sit on a bunk before the other person was able to turn around. Cosy and warm though.

That evening, we went into Brecon (nearest big town) for dinner.  We looped the city centre twice hoping to find a nice pub but failed, settling for an okay – but touristy – pub (named something like the Lemon Tree?  Bay Tree? I’ll discover it was actually called something like Kingfisher) and had decent pub grub for dinner.  On reflection, we probably should have eaten at the Chinese on the corner (named something unusual like The Imperial Dragon), because it was full of people.

Having checked the weather report the previous evening, we knew that the next morning was likely to bring clear skies, but that they would not last – it was predicted to turn about mid-morning into serious showers.  Nic thought it would be a fantastic idea to set the alarm for 6am and set off up a nearby mountain to catch the early morning beautiful skies and Oanh managed to be persuaded to join him (and was very glad she did).  Thus, we found ourselves ascending Fan Frynych before breakfast (Oh yeah! We know how to take a holiday alright!)  The light was beautiful and the views fabulous.  We could even see that some of the snow had melted off Pen Y Fan. Fortunately we returned to copious cereal and toast and a decent fry-up.

Oanh, map in hand, clambers up the steep side of Fan Frynych.

Oanh, map in hand, clambers up the steep side of Fan Frynych.

Glyn Tarell, looking towards the town of Brecon.  Arguably, the views were worth the early rise.

Glyn Tarell, looking towards the town of Brecon. Arguably, the views were worth the early rise.

Pen Y Fan, clear at last.

Pen Y Fan, clear at last.

Knowing we would not have much by way of views for the rest of the day, and that it would be quite unpleasant to be climbing mountains in the wild weather predicted, we decided to do some lowland walking and chose a lengthy path of many waterfalls.  This turned out to be a surprisingly challenging walk, with many ascents and descents through narrow gorges to view various waterfalls, and with one very exciting (for Nic; nerve-wracking for Oanh) crossing behind a waterfall.  We ended our day with a quick visit to the caves below where we had parked the car and listened to the roar of the water, before driving back to the hostel through thick, thick fog.

The extremely impressive Sgwd Clun-Gwyn waterfall.  Nic was a bit worried that British waterfalls would turn out to be a bit like British beaches (ie, not that impressive after you have seen their Australian counterparts).  He was wrong!

The extremely impressive Sgwd Clun-Gwyn waterfall. Nic was a bit worried that British waterfalls would turn out to be a bit like British beaches (ie, not that impressive after you have seen their Australian counterparts). He was wrong!

For dinner, we drove through heavy, almost impenetrable mist into Brecon (nearest big town), picked up pasta, chicken, mushrooms and zucchini, and went back to the hostel to cook up a carbohydrates-loaded feast (lesson learned: if we can cook for ourselves, we really ought to).

On our last day, the weather was again pretty dismal – grey and drizzly – so we decided to do car-touring (i.e. leisurely drive home with many stops to visit two castles and one Roman ruin), rather than another hike somewhere and then drive home. Also, between the pre-breakfast mountain and the waterfall loop the day before, it had ended up being a pretty exhausting day, so we were keen for something a bit more relaxing.

Our first destination was Raglan Castle, built in the 15th century by Sir William ap Thomas and his son William Herbert (and then by Willim Somerset, after William Herbert’s beheading; you got all those Williams straight?) It was raining intermittently as we drove up to the castle, but nonetheless it was a massively impressive and imposing site. Unfortunately, the track we were on appeared to take us slightly to the right of the castle and into what appeared to be a farm courtyard. Cheered by a sign advertising a cafe, Oanh parallel parked beside a tractor and we ventured in to see what we could see. A cafe there was — a fairly homely affair, with the (I presume) owner sat reading the paper at one table, with a not-particularly-enthusiastic waitress (his daughter?), who occasionally arose to serve a customer. We were informed that the castle would probably be open in another hour or two, so decided to while away the time over coffee; a decision which faced us with the choice: “filter, black or milky”. Too confused to ask for clarification, we opted for filter, which turned out to be white, yet not too bad regardless.

Eventually, we decided to give the castle another shot, and doubled back too discover that a gate, hitherto closed, had been opened, and the castle was ours to explore. Raglan was easily one of the most impressive castles we have visited (have we said this before?), its crowning glory being the Great Tower, also known as the Yellow Tower of Gwent; a massive four-storey six-sided tower with two metre thick walls, surrounded by a moat. A large section of the tower had been destroyed by Parliamentarians during the English Civil War; however, it was still possible to ascend to the top for marvellous views across the rest of the castle and surrounding countryside.

The Great Tower, slighted by Parliamentarians, at Raglan Castle.

The Great Tower, slighted by Parliamentarians, at Raglan Castle.

The ornate Tudor towers of Raglan Castle, backed by damp Welsh hills.

The ornate Tudor towers of Raglan Castle, backed by damp Welsh hills.

Eventually tearing ourselves away, we meandered on to Chepstow, a town on the River Wye right on the border of England and Wales. Our path from the carpark took us to the rear of Chepstow Castle first, where we admired a pair of very large, and very closed doors, before making our way around to the main entrance on the south side of the castle. Chepstow Castle was (like many castles) constructed in several stages, and in it’s current form, it is only 50 metres or so wide, but stretches around 200 metres along the cliff top overlooking the river. This made for some great views, but unfortunately we were still getting hit by occasional rain squalls, requiring much ducking into the nearest shelter. At one point, we entered a large tower to the ghostly strains of a flute emanating from somewhere above us. Ascending the stairs we expected to find a cassette player accompanying a historical exhibition, but were instead somewhat startled to discover a real live flute player, attired in medieval garb. Actually, he was a bit of a multi-instrumentalist, as he switched to a lute (? or some other medieval stringed instrument) soon after we arrived.

The imposing north entrance to Chepstow Castle, currently closed.

The imposing north entrance to Chepstow Castle, currently closed.

Chepstow Castle overlooks the mouth of the River Wye in a rather dramatic fashion.

Chepstow Castle overlooks the mouth of the River Wye in a rather dramatic fashion.

A row of pastel terraces from Chepstow Castle.

A row of pastel terraces from Chepstow Castle.

After thoroughly exploring Chepstow Castle, we ventured out into the town itself, taking a quick detour across the River Wye to invade England. Once again, our hopes for an appealing pub lunch were dashed, and we were a bit disheartened to see just how many closed pubs, restaurants and shops there appeared to be in town. I’m not sure if this is credit crunch hitting, or just a general decline in regional Britain, but it’s a bit sad. We settled for a picnic consisting of all our remaining bits and pieces of food in a park by our car, and then hit the road again.

Our final destination for the day (besides home) was Caerwent, a small village built within the remains of a much larger Roman town. The rain had stopped by now, but the wind was still pretty intense. Locating the beginning of a self-guided walk, we set off at some pace around the former city walls, standing still only long enough to read the information signs. Once again, we were struck by just how unpleasant British climate must have seemed to someone accustomed to the Mediterranean.

Eventually, we realised that we were shortly due to lose extremities to the cold, and returned to the car, back over the Severn Bridge, which for some reason is free in this direction (Wales to England), despite costing £5 or so in tolls traveling the other direction (England to Wales). A canny Welsh plot to keep the English out perhaps?

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