The Brecon Beacons National Park has the lowest profile of Wales’s three national parks, but it is nonetheless the destination of thousands of walkers. Rounded, spongy hills of grass and rock tumble and climb around river valleys that lie between sandstone and limestone uplands, peppered with glass-like lakes and villages that seem to have been hewn from one rock. The park straddles three Welsh counties: Carmarthenshire, Powys and Monmouthshire, covering 520 square miles. Most remote is the far western side, where the vast, open terrain of the Black Mountain (singular) is punctuated by craggy peaks and hidden upland lakes. The southern flanks bare bony limestone ribs, beneath which are the chasms of the Dan-yr-ogof caves. East of this wilderness Fforest Fawr forms miles of tufted moorland tumbling down to a rocky terrain of rivers, deep caves and spluttering waterfalls around the village of Ystradfellte. The heart of the national park comprises the Brecon Beacons themselves, a pair of 2900ft hills and their satellites. East of Brecon, the Black Mountains (plural – not to be confused with Black Mountain) stretch over the English border, and offer the region’s most varied scenery, from rolling upland wilderness to the gentler Vale of Ewyas. The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal defines the eastern limit of the Beacons and forges a passage along the Usk Valley between them and the Black Mountains. This is where you’re likely to end up staying, in towns such as the county seat of Brecon, the charming village of Crickhowell, or sprightly Abergavenny, nestled below the Black Mountains.
Flanking the Brecon Beacons National Park, ABERGAVENNY (Y Fenni), seven miles southeast of Crickhowell, is a busy and breezy market town which people flock to primarily for its outstanding cuisine – this reaches its zenith during the September Food Festival. The town is also a useful base for walkers bound for the local mountains: Sugar Loaf, the Blorenge, and the legend-infused Skirrid Mountain (Ysgyryd Fawr). Stretching north from town, the Vale of Ewyas runs along the foot of the Black Mountains, where the astounding churches at Partrishow and Cwmyoy are lost in rural isolation.
Abergavenny also makes a good base for visiting Monmouthshire’s “Three Castles”, set in the pastoral border country to the east.
The easternmost section of the national park centres on the Black Mountains, far quieter than the central belt of the Brecon Beacons and skirted by the wide valley of the River Usk to the south and the Wye to the north. The only exception to the Black Mountains’ unremitting sandstone is an isolated outcrop of limestone, long divorced from the southern belt, that peaks north of Crickhowell at Pen Cerrig-calch (2302ft). The Black Mountains have the feel of a landscape only partly tamed by human habitation: tiny villages, isolated churches and delightful lanes are folded into an undulating green landscape that levels out to the south around the village of Crickhowell.
BRECON (Aberhonddu) is a handsome county town at the northern edge of the central Beacons. The proliferation of Georgian buildings and its proximity to the hills and lakes of the national park make it a popular stopping-off place and a good base for day-walks in the well-waymarked hills to the south.
Popular for walking and pony trekking, the central Brecon Beacons, grouped around the two highest peaks in the national park, are easily accessible from Brecon, which lies just six miles to the north. The panorama fans out from the Brecon Beacons Mountain Centre, on a windy ridge just off the A470 turn-off at Libanus, six miles southwest of Brecon. As well as a fantastic café, there are displays on the area and a well-stocked shop. Pen y Fan (2907ft) is the highest peak in the Beacons. Together with Corn Du (2863ft), half a mile to the west, they form the most popular ascents in the park.
Straddling the Anglo-Welsh border some twenty miles west of Hereford, the hilly little town of HAY-ON-WYE has an attractive riverside setting and narrow, winding streets lined with an engaging assortment of old stone houses, but is known to most people for one thing – books. Hay saw its first bookshop open in 1961; today just about every inch of the town is given over to the trade, including the old cinema and the ramshackle stone castle. The prestigious Hay Festival of literature and the arts, is held over ten days at the end of May, when London’s literary world decamps here en masse.