Brecon Beacons: ‘Going it alone’

Trip dates: 11th – 13th September 2020

Location: Brecon Beacons, Wales

“Adventure is worthwhile in itself.” – Amelia Earhart

Earlier this year I took a little solo trip to the Brecon Beacons in Wales for a long weekend of walking about and climbing some big hills. I didn’t intend to write anything about it, but have been thinking about the experience ever since and thought it would actually be good to do something about it, especially for those individuals who may want to take solo trips themselves but can’t quite pluck up the courage to do so. So here we go… this shouldn’t take long.

Our return to Sweden, for our usual annual wild camping trip, was cancelled thanks to COVID, and due to trying to stick to lockdown measures and social distancing rules etc. etc. we couldn’t all meet up for a bit of adventuring together. So, after the first lockdown I thought it was a pretty good opportunity to get out and do some solo exploring and the Beacons were beckoning.

For months before I had a circular route planned out which would incorporate Corn Du, Pen y Fan, Cribyn and Fan y Big – starting and finishing at Garwnant on the beautiful Llyn-onn Reservoir. It was a route of about 33km (20 miles). I would have a big trek, tick off those peaks, camp nearby and then return to the car the next day then drive to the Black Mountains for a little bit more exploring.  Things didn’t exactly go to plan and that’s why I thought it would be good to share this little trip with you.

It was an early start, leaving home at about 05.30am on a Friday morning to make the long drive over to the Llyn-onn Reservoir. I arrived early enough to fit in a quick bit of breakfast before getting my pack sorted and leaving the car looking lonely in the vast, empty car park. Not far along the track (going north), emerging from the pine trees are the Cantrel and Beacons Reservoirs, two beautiful stretches of water completely dwarfed by the huge mass of Cefn Crew leading up to Corn Du above it and gradually becoming more and more veiled in cloud. On a side note, I haven’t yet been fortunate to see the spectacular views from Snowdon’s summit on a clear day, so I was really hoping the cloud would clear by the time I made it to the summit of Pen y Fan, just short of 1km above me, giving me something other than the usual view of a thick grey screen – but it already wasn’t looking likely.

A very grey start (looking across Cantrel Reservoir)

I spent the whole first section of the walk totally alone, not seeing anybody until I made it to Pont ar Daf car park which seems to be one of the most popular starting places to make the ascent. It was still early and the car park was packed and overflowing onto the verges already. Anyway, I weaved through the various people walking up in sandals and flip flips and as I got higher, the views surrounding me became more and more impressive until I eventually hit the clouds and was plunged into that all too familiar grey abyss. The long line of people seemed to stop and turn around at the cairn I could only presume marked the first little summit of Bwlch Duwynt, just below Corn Du and for good reason. The wind had picked up and seemed to be trying to blow everybody off the top of the ridge. With a fully packed rucksack on my back acting like a sail, it made the ascent to the summits of Corn Du and Pen y Fan that much more interesting, but no less enjoyable. Reaching Pen y Fan I wasn’t surprised to be surrounded by cloud, so I didn’t hang about and celebrate making it, but as soon as I took my first step down towards Cribyn, the cloud vanished completely and I was greeted with unbelievable views all around, including that of the incredibly picturesque Horseshoe Path and the Upper Neuadd Reservoir below.

Possibly the most challenging section of the route is actually the steep climb up to Cribyn but, personally, I think the view is far more rewarding looking back towards Pen y Fan. I was fortunate to be the only person on the small summit of Cribyn so I took the opportunity to have a bit of a rest and take some pictures before being joined by a young couple. I felt I was possibly interrupting something that could have been quite special, so hit the path once more and let them have the summit to themselves.

Horseshoe Path

Because I’m sure there is nothing worse than being woken up and told to ‘jog on’ by a disgruntled farmer or the police at 2am, I always try to do a lot of research into areas to wild camp before I start planning any route. Being a popular route for hikers and campers alike,  I knew there must have been some good camping spots that people often took advantage of in the area. I had previously watched a video by the excellent Outdoor Intrigue (love their stuff and Ben and Megan seem like super nice people) of when they hammock camped at the Upper Neuadd Reservoir – an old dried up reservoir bordered entirely by woodland with a little island of trees in the middle.

I decided to skip Fan y Big and instead followed the route all the way down to the entrance of the reservoir to claim my camping spot for the night. It was still fairly early, about 16:30, but I figured it was best to use the last remaining light for making camp. As I made my way through the trees, I came across a couple of other campers who had already settled in for the night but, fortunately, the spot I had my eye on whilst planning the route was still available – the island would be mine! Traversing across the reservoir, I discovered it wasn’t quite as dried up as I thought, jumping across streams and unintentionally walking through a number of bogs was worth it to have my own “island” for the night – I’m not sure if it’s technically an island if there’s no substantial body of water, but still…it was mine.

The island is mine

The strong winds returned and were blowing straight up the length of the reservoir, so I set up my tarp against it to make some shelter for my hammock then got some dinner on the go (sitting in a hammock surrounded by mountains is possibly the only way to make packet rice enjoyable). I changed out of my wet and cold clothes and climbed into the hammock to get cosy. It was the first time I had used an underquilt on my hammock, something I was quite sceptical about at first but would now absolutely recommend to anybody who enjoys sleeping in their hammock all year round as it kept the wind and the cold off all night. As soon as I settled in for the night, the wind completely changed direction and started blowing straight down the length of my tarp and over the top of me. Then it turned into a bit of storm. But thanks to the underquilt (and a cheeky bit of whisky) doing its job I was too cosy to do anything about it and slept right through.

The view from my hammock of Pen y Fan in the clouds

Whether it was because of the beautifully clear weather the next day or not, I found the second half of the walk far more impressive than the first. The route back to the car took me south through Taf Fechan Forest, along the incredibly scenic Pentywn Reservoir and up onto the southern hills of the Brecon Beacons with views stretching over Vaynor to the south and Pen y Fan to the north. A huge wide-open area of nothing but little rivers, rolling hills and sheep. I felt relaxed, rested and peaceful as I descended back down to Garwnant, my car and some homemade apple cake I had left especially for my return.

Grabbing a coffee from the café at Garwnant and sitting on the ground next to the car, I starting to make plans for what I needed to do next. As I mentioned earlier, I needed to get across to the Black Mountains for another route I had planned for the day, then camp again and head home the next day. But returning to the car after such a great day and a half of walking, I didn’t fancy doing it again straight away. I was still feeling relaxed and the effort I put into getting up and over those hills that morning left me feeling pretty lifted. I had achieved what I wanted to do. So…I made new plans.

South Wales is home to one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the UK, in particular, the Gower Peninsular, home to Rhossili Bay. It was turning into quite a beautiful day, blue skies and warm sun – the beach was calling. Instead of making the 2 hour drive from Garwnant to the Black Mountains (in the direction of home) I made the 2 hour drive from Garwnant to Rhossili instead (away from home). This turned out to be a brilliant decision.

You don’t have to put yourself through hell to experience the great outdoors

I arrived at about lunchtime and somehow had the beach to myself with the exception of a handful of surfers. I emptied my rucksack of all the camping and hiking kit and replaced it with a blanket and a warm jacket, then made the beach my home for the day, staying until the sun had dropped below the horizon in front of me.

I wasn’t going to write about this trip because, as you can tell, it wasn’t particularly exciting or adventurous but for that reason, I thought I probably should. Reading through lots of different blogs, watching various videos on YouTube etc. there seems to be a lot of pressure to go fairly ‘hardcore’ when it comes to having a bit of an adventure and wild camping. Yes, usually I would just go out with a tarp and hammock and spend days on end camping and walking about, but that isn’t the only way to do these things. You don’t have to expose yourself to the elements, get cold, muddy and miserable to have adventures. I left home with a list of things in mind for what I wanted to achieve: a big trek,  some of the main peaks in the Beacons and an overnight camp on a little island. With everything on the list achieved, I didn’t need to go and spend another day and a half walking about the mountains and camping. Instead, I hit the beach, relaxed, took some quiet time to myself and ate a massive pizza for dinner. Reflecting back, having that time alone to go where I wanted, to go at my own pace and to be quiet and stress free, it was one of my favourite experiences of 2020 – granted that’s not saying much for 2020, but I would say that’s pretty good…wouldn’t you?

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