Heart Of The Dragon: The Brecon Beacons
Being born and raised in Wales, where the national religion is rugby and our fickle god the Welsh rugby team, the Rugby World Cup always gladdens my heart, and particularly so this year. For this autumn, Wales will take its traditional presence in the tournament to new heights, wresting a little of the glory from its neighbour and main rival by being the only non-English location to host some of the games.
Welsh-born Yolanda Zappaterra is an expert on Wales and Italy, where most of her family still live. She lives in London and writes about art, design, architecture and travel for a range of print and online publications, including Time Out, the Independent, Blueprint and Communication Arts.
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All eyes will be firmly focused on the magnificent Millennium Stadium in cosmopolitan Cardiff, but just a couple of hours’ drive away from the action, the principality has a wealth of other stunning attractions, including Dylan Thomas’s home town of Laugharne on the ethereal Carmarthen Coast, the beautiful Pembrokeshire coast, the surreal Italianate gardens of Portmerion, and, perhaps best of all, the Brecon Beacons National Park.
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From the moody wilderness of the Black Mountain in the west to the rugged uplands of the Black Mountains range in the east, via the woodlands of Fforest Fawr, the spectacular waterfalls south of them, and the Brecon Beacons central massif to the east of them, this broad strip across south Wales houses mountain ranges, moorlands and forests filled with natural wonders like waterfalls, gorges, caves, ancient plateaux and arresting ridges.
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Combined with manmade sites stretching back millennia – among them more than 30 stone circles, burial chambers, early-medieval priories and the 18th century Brecon and Monmouthshire Canal – the result is a landscape that feels like it could easily be the setting for a mini-version of Lord of the Rings. It offers 519 square miles of glorious scenery, wildlife, adventure activities and, of course, walking, with 620 miles of public footpath criss-crossing the area.
And perhaps best of all, with the possible exception of the Scottish Highlands (and as a Welsh-born lass, I concede that point through gritted teeth), it also offers the most glorious driving in Britain. Ok, I’m biased, but it honestly does; it’s an exhilarating, ever-changing landscape that is beguiling in its uniqueness. And, with just 33,000 inhabitants, it acts as a rare swathe of peace and quiet in the southern part of our crowded islands, while also being the proud bearer of an a International Dark Sky Reserve accreditation – one of just five in the world.
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The Black Mountain
The variety of terrain and landscapes begins in the west with the rugged wilderness of the Black Mountain, or Y Mynydd Du, where clefts and ridges in sandstone cliffs and peaks were carved out by glacial waters during the Ice Age that are still visible in spectacular lakes like Llyn y Fan Fach and Llyn y Fan Fawr, steeped in folklore and lovely legends that are brought to life evocatively at Llandovery’s Heritage Centre.
Here, in this appealing market town, a series of startling talking statues narrate the story of the Lady of the Lake, about a maiden appeared out of the water to surprise a young shepherd. Back at the lake, looking down on it from the 2,458ft Bannau Sir Gaer (a great four-mile circular trail climbs up past the lake to the ridge’s top), it’s easy to imagine such a scene – but in such a landscape, it’s just one of many such magical stories that feature maids transformed into silver fish, fiends rising out of bottomless black lakes and treasure-hoarding serpents.
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Fforest Fawr and Central Beacons
The Black Mountain range gives way in the south to the showstopping Dan-yr-Ogof showcaves, but unless it’s raining cats and dogs you’re best off heading east to the sandstone massif of Fforest Fawr, where the barren terrain made up of gigantic rolling peaks and razor-like ridges known as ‘fans’, including the towering 2,633ft-high Fan Brycheiniog, gives way to steep river valleys featuring a range of spectacular waterfalls and caves in the “Waterfall country’.
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The Pontneddfechan Waterfalls Centre on the park’s southern border near Merthyr Tydfil is the starting point from which to explore its stand-outs – among them Ystradfellte, Sgwd Einion, Sgwd Gwladys and Sgwd Y Eira – but the southern borders of the park are otherwise its least appealing.
Really, the park is so well served by gorgeous little roads winding through picturesque villages and over babbling streams – that can sometimes turn into raging red rivers – that a much better base lies on the northern border market town of Brecon, where the hilltop Brecon Cathedral and castle above it, and the Usk river running through it, make for some pleasant walks.
But the real walking in the Central Beacons area are the five-mile ascent of Pen-y-Fan (south Wales’s highest mountain at 2,907ft) and the high-level ridge walk the Beacons Horseshoe, a seven-mile trail with views north towards Snowdonia, south towards the slashed mining valleys of south Wales, and east to the Black Mountains.
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The Black Mountains
This easternmost range of the park takes in a section of the 150-mile long Offa’s Dyke Path and the secluded hamlet of Capel-y-Ffin, home over the years to numerous religious communities (including one led by sculptor and writer Eric Gill).
The rolling red sandstone highlands here seem to stretch on forever – as evidenced by views from its high point of 2,661ft at Waun Fach – and Abergavenny offers an appealing base for driving, walking and even climbing – the 1,955ft-high Sugar Loaf mountain is within easy striking distance.
From here, a ribbon of road winds up through the Gospel Pass to Hay Bluff before descending towards the border town of Hay-on-Wye (delightfully, twinned with Timbuktu) where castle remains and olde worlde streets are a delight to wander round as you sample sheep’s milk ice-cream while browsing the 30 or so second-hand bookshops.
On these eastern borders, the equally picturesque Crickhowell deserves a visit too, not least for the 17th century bridge over the river Usk, which has 13 arches visible from one side and only 12 from the other.
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A pretty high street is filled with enjoyably browseable shops and two diminutive department stores, where, as in the rest of the Brecon Beacons, locals go out of their way to engage, inform and entertain visitors… even if you’re English.
Though if, perhaps, they’re not quite so welcoming this autumn, you’ll just have to forgive them. For just like the peaks and troughs, grandeur and glory of their country, the Welsh people’s passion for rugby is probably the most magnificent in the world.