How to spend a weekend in the Brecon Beacons

Take it slow through South Wales and discover endless trails over moor and mountain, coaching inns creaking with history, ghostly goings-on and moody landscapes to make the heart sing.

By Kerry Walker
Published 23 Jul 2020, 08:00 BST, Updated 6 Nov 2020, 14:24 GMT
Usk Bridge and The Bridge End Inn, Crickhowell, with Table Mountain in the background. It may not ...

Usk Bridge and The Bridge End Inn, Crickhowell, with Table Mountain in the background. It may not be in the same league as its Cape Town namesake, but this flat-topped, 1,480ft red sandstone outcrop is still a challenging climb — a rite of passage for local hikers. 

Photograph by Alamy

Wales makes quite an entrance. As rolling, chequered fields fade in the rearview mirror, the Brecon Beacons begin to loom on the horizon: a clear reminder you’ve reached a wilder, more mountainous land. Snowdonia to the north may have the upper hand height-wise, but these peaks are just as dramatic, rippling across 520sq miles of national park. Rising like the prows of great ships, they hoist their sails above moors misted with purple heather and glacier-carved valleys, the ramparts of Iron Age hill forts and the dark skeletons of ruined castles. And whether they’re seen in the gilded light of a late-summer afternoon, cloud-wreathed in the rain, or frosted with snow, their beauty is entirely their own. This weekend-long journey heads off the beaten track — or igam ogam, as the Welsh say — from the eastern Black Mountains and their secluded valleys through to the central Brecons, where lofty summits, hiking trails and dark night skies await, before dipping south to waterfalls hidden in ferny woodlands ripe for a fairytale. Pack sturdy boots and clothes that can handle mud, and look forward to getting stuck behind that pootling tractor or stray sheep. This is one journey not to be rushed. 

Day one: Skirrid to Crickhowell

There are higher peaks in Wales, but few have the pop-up effect of the 1,594ft Skirrid on the eastern fringes of the Black Mountains. Sweeping above a fretwork of hedgerowed fields, the Skirrid takes its Welsh name, Ysgyryd Fawr (‘great shattered mountain’) from the massive landslide that shook its northwestern flank during the last Ice Age.  

Rambling up through broadleaf woods carpeted with ferns and wildflowers, the path emerges onto a wind-beaten ridge. When the Welsh weather behaves itself, the views from the trig point are unbeatable, reaching west to the conical Sugar Loaf and the Brecon Beacons, east to the borderlands and south to the Severn Estuary. Ospreys, buzzards and red kites often glide on stiff breezes above the exposed outcrop. And if history grabs you more than birdlife, look out for the ruins of a medieval chapel and the mound-and-ditch ramparts of an Iron Age hill fort near the summit.

After a bracing hike, The Skirrid Mountain Inn beckons for lunch. With 900 years of history, it claims to be Wales’ oldest and most haunted boozer. It sure looks the part, with sagging, woodsmoke-blackened beams and an inglenook fireplace where Shakespeare supposedly once enjoyed a pint and came up with the impish character of Puck for his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The hangman’s noose above the stairwell nods to the pub’s darker past as a courthouse. 

Road trips are two-a-penny in Wales, but few can rival the one through the remote, steep-sided Vale of Ewyas, which unfurls just north of the inn. The halfway point is Llanthony, where the ruins of an Augustinian priory are so wildly romantic that they inspired Turner to commit the scene to canvas in 1794. Further north, a single-track lane ribbons through windswept moorland and up the 1,800ft Gospel Pass, Wales’ highest road. Near the top, astonishing views of Hay Bluff to the east and Twmpa open up. 

As the late-afternoon light slants over the hills, head south on the A479, where the views of the Black Mountains — including the highest peak, 2,660ft Waun Fach — prove distractingly lovely. Your base for the evening is Crickhowell, a picturesque Georgian market town that straddles the River Usk. The 18th-century stone bridge here is well worth admiring for its mismatched arches (12 upstream, 13 downstream).

Crickhowell’s showpiece is The Bear Hotel, a 600-year-old former coaching inn that was once an overnight stop for travellers heading from London to West Wales. Now a delightfully old-school gastro pub and hotel, it brims with low oak beams, log fires and cosy nooks. In summer, the hanging baskets are something else. If it’s warm, grab a pre-dinner drink in the rear courtyard. The menu plays up seasonality and traceability in dishes like Black Mountain smoked salmon with crostini and lemon oil, and braised lamb shank with spring-onion mash.

Behind-the-scenes tour at Penderyn Distillery, where you can try its single malt whiskies and juniper-based gins. 

Photograph by Alamy

Day two: Crickhowell to Penderyn

Crickhowell is capped off by its very own Table Mountain, and that’s where you’re headed after a bright and early start. It may not be in the same league as its Cape Town namesake, but this flat-topped, 1,480ft red sandstone outcrop is still a challenging climb — a rite of passage for local hikers. Once the site of an Iron Age hill fort, it stands sentinel above countryside ribbed with hedgerows and dry-stone walls. Beginning on the Llanbedr Road above Crickhowell, the trail picks its way through a wooded dingle and shadows a brook to reach a sheepfold. From here, it’s an easy climb up and over stile and field to the top and back. The summit rewards your efforts with uplifting views of the Brecons and Black Mountains.

A half-hour drive west takes you along a beautiful stretch of the A40. Were this not an A road, it would be tempting to drive at 30mph the whole way to your next stop near Sennybridge and admire the views. But if you’re lucky, a tractor will appear. Pause in Defynnog for lunch at The International Welsh Rarebit Centre, a former a schoolhouse that’s now a cafe, art gallery and cultural hub. Accompanied by salads prepared from garden-grown produce, a number of the delicious rarebits on offer deviate from the traditional recipe. These include the likes of Guinness-laced Stout Irish and Summer Rarebit, made with Welsh goat’s cheese, honey, walnuts and lemon zest. It’s as good as cheese on toast gets.

Post lunch, the road beckons for a short but scenic drive south through the wild heart of the Brecons. Allow sufficient time for gawping at the views of the sweeping peaks, including South Wales’ highest, Pen y Fan, to the east. After 20 minutes or so, you’ll arrive at Penderyn, just in time to catch a distillery tour. Or make straight for the bar for a tasting of its single malt whiskies and traditional juniper-based gins. Should this whet your appetite for the good life, treat yourself to an overnight stay at Gliffaes hotel, an Italianate Victorian manor on the banks of the River Usk that offers a dash of old-school class. The restaurant menu is weighted towards dishes created using local produce, like supreme of guinea fowl with spring vegetable broth.

Scwd Ddwli falls, near Ystradfellte, a stop on the Four Falls loop, which can easily be tied in with a visit to the nearby Penderyn Distillery. 

Photograph by AWL Images

The Brecons’ three best food experiences

Felin Fach Griffin
With log fires in the inglenook, low beams, flagstone floors and Chesterfields worn smooth by decades of shuffling bums, this pub between the Brecons and the Black Mountains is the country dream. Garden-grown and locally sourced ingredients are elevated to gastro heights in simple-but-punchy dishes like smoked duck with feta and pickled garden berries. 

Welsh Venison Centre
Watch deer, sheep and cattle graze as you dig into a local- and season-driven lunch at this terrific farm shop and café between Crickhowell and Brecon. Outdoor fires and blankets keep you warm while you enjoy rural views over Black Mountain Roast Coffee, homemade cake, and farm-to-fork snacks like gourmet venison burger topped with Welsh cheddar, bacon and fried onions. 

The Walnut Tree
Shaun Hill heads up this Michelin-starred restaurant in the rolling borderlands. ‘Shaking the pans’ for 50 years plus, Shaun’s menu is a love affair between Wales and France, with occasional whispers of India and North Africa. The vibe is unpretentious, the price surprisingly modest (3-course lunch £32), and the flavours simple and bright in dishes like squab pigeon with petits pois. 

Top 5: outdoor activities 

Sheep Trekking 
What could be more Welsh than a walk with a sheep? At Aberhyddnant Farm in Crai, near Brecon, you can do just that with its flock of sheep, which include Jacob, Valais Blacknose and Ouessant (the world’s smallest breed). Bring sturdy footwear for mud and wet weather. From £25 per person. 

Passionate forager Adele Nozedar, author of The Hedgerow Handbook, runs half-day, kid-friendly foraging courses, which give the inside scoop on wild food in the Brecons (from £35 per person). Botanical gin workshops are also available (£40 per person). 

Wilderness Survival 
Bear Grylls Survival Academy has 24-hour courses covering everything from building an emergency shelter to fire lighting. £349 per person.

The Brecon Beacons National Park is an International Dark Sky Reserve. Among the best spots are the Crai and Usk Reservoirs, Llanthony Priory, Hay Bluff and Sugar Loaf Mountain.

Adventure Sports
Brecon-based Black Mountain offers canoe, kayak and mountain bike hire, whitewater rafting, caving, gorge adventures and much more. From £26. 

More info

A car is a must for exploring the remote reaches of the Brecon Beacons, but if you’re coming by train, Abergavenny is a good gateway, with trains to London (via Cardiff) and Manchester. The A40 is the main road through the Brecons. In Crickhowell, simple doubles at The Bear start at £117, while Gliffaes has double rooms from £149 in low season. 

Published in the July/Aug 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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