I have been walking in the Brecon Beacons since the early 1990s and, now that we no longer live halfway up a mountain, a trip to see friends in the area is not complete without at least one decent length walk involving a significant hill.
Despite the erosion, the crowds and the sheer familiarity of the area around Pen y Fan, the highest peak in southern Britain, still exerts a magnetic pull. I have climbed ‘The Fan’ in sun, rain, snow and gale force winds, in uniform and in civilian clothes, carrying big weights and no weight, on a tight schedule and with all the time in the world to stand and stare. I have friends for whom Snowdon or Kinder Scout are their spiritual hilltop homes: for me it’s Pen y Fan.
On this occasion I had the chance to be dropped off anywhere along the A470 as Nicola was off to Cardiff for the day, which saved me the perennial hillwalker’s dilemma over where to leave the car and gave me the rare opportunity to take a route up into the Central Beacons that I had not walked before. After that it would be over the top and down the other side by any number of possible routes, depending on the weather and how many miles were left in the legs, to get back to the caravan site at Brynich.
The first mile or so from the roadside to the hill gate was a steady uphill plod through an unremarkable conifer plantation but with the familiar sense of anticipation as the road fell away below and the big skies beckoned.
So many of the routes in the Central Beacons are either badly eroded scars or have been repaired so as to be paved highways so the prospect of picking a route up the shoulder of Cefn Crew without an obvious path to follow was a refreshing one.
The Beacons, in common with most of the upland areas of Britain, have been so heavily grazed by sheep for so many years that until 2001 little vegetation survived other than close-cropped grass and the ubiquitous and inedible bracken pursuing its relentless march across hillsides where the natural process of succession to scrub and woodland that would shade out the fern were held in check by the heavily subsidised ‘woolly maggots’.
What changed in 2001 was the outbreak of Foot & Mouth Disease. As the infection spread across the country, aided and abetted by the practice of transporting livestock for hundreds of miles by road often as a result of the closure of local markets and abattoirs, ironically caused by the imposition of new food safety standards. As a result, the night skies in these parts of rural Wales were lit up by the flames from enormous funeral pyres as the carcasses of tens of thousands of sheep and cattle, killed not by the disease but by the cull that was imposed by the government in an attempt to halt its spread, were burned .
Although the government compensated farmers for their losses, some were so traumatised by the experience of the pyres that they retired from farming altogether. Others took the opportunity of the enforced conversion of their livestock into cash to restructure their farm businesses and diversify. Either way, the numbers of sheep grazing the hills were decimated and did not recover to their pre-2001 levels. In ecological terms, this is the best thing to happen to these mountains in many a long year, although as a result of the predominance of farmers among the membership of National Park Authorities and the pressure on National Park staff to never or say or do anything that might be construed as being critical of the farming lobby, this is a truth that no-one dare speak.
As I continued up towards Blaen Crew and the first of several false summits, the air was full of the song of skylarks and the occasional screech of a buzzard or red kite soaring overhead. The red kite has been one of the great success stories of recent reintroductions of previously native species that had been driven to extinction in the UK by the hand of man, in this case by gamekeepers on sporting estate seeking to stop these raptors taking game bird chicks. When I first lived in Wales, red kites were still so rare that the Army mounted a round-the-clock guard of known nesting sites in Mid Wales. Twenty years later we can see these wonderful birds in the skies over Leicestershire.
Cresting the ridge, I followed the well-worn path around to Bwlch Du Wynt – ‘Pass of the Dark Wind’ – where the wind really does hit you on a winter’s day, but on this occasion the sun was shining and the air was still. From here, the path joins the tourist motorway coming up from Pont ar Daf car park – the shortest, easiest and dullest route up Pen y Fan. I skirted around Corn Du and, after the short final pull up to the top, I was once again standing on the summit of South Wales’ highest mountain, standing a few tantalising feet short of the magical 3,000 foot mark. Avoiding the excited family group posing with a Union Jack on the summit cairn, I took a moment to recall some of the previous times I had stood in this place – with old and bold paratroopers recounting tales of the ‘Fan Dance’, part of SAS Selection and the time I had a soldier collapse with exhaustion and hypothermia and the quickest way to get him off the hill was to kick him over the top and down the other side to the shelter of Cwm Gwdi Training Camp, now long since demolished and the site returned to nature. I have trudged up that hill with 40lbs on my back dripping with sweat despite the freezing fog and have run up it on a summer’s day in T-shirt and fell shoes. This time, thinking about everything that has happened since I last climbed The Fan the over-riding feeling was “I’m back and I’m still alive”.
The problem with climbing mountains is that sooner or later you have to go back down again. The words of Alfred Wainwright “you may not pass this way again” are always in my mind whenever I turn my back on the view from any summit and start the downward, homeward trek. Picking my way over the scree, my knees and thigh muscles wasted no time in informing me that they were not getting any younger and that, after seven years living back in the lowlands of the East Midlands, Cribyn on this occasion would be a hill too far. I heeded their advice and bypassed the next peak to arrive at the pass where the old Gap Road crosses between Cribyn and Fan y Big. I always think of Windy Gap as a place to shelter briefly from a gale or driving rain and take on some high-calorie sustenance before once again braving the elements to tackle the next summit. I have never before had to seek shade from the relentless sunshine and strongly suspect this to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will never be repeated.
All that now remained was to negotiate the loose, stony surface of the Gap Road- painful on tired legs – and to trudge the final few hot tarmac miles back down to the real world.