Back in March, Matt and I spent a wonderful weekend in the Brecon Beacons with my sister Rosie and her husband Luke. The trip was a long overdue present to us for our 30th birthdays, and we knew it would involve lots of games and good food. Luke found a fantastic airbnb in a little village called Pontsticill, and we drove across the country from London for a welcome break and some brisk welsh air.
Staying in Pontsticill
If you’re looking for a base camp to explore the Brecon Beacons from, you can’t go wrong with Walkers Cottage in Pontsticill. This little stone cottage has been recently renovated to a great standard, with a fully equipped kitchen and free standing bath tub. Handily, it’s within a few steps of not just one but two pubs.
The village of Pontsticill (from the Welsh words pont and sticill meaning ‘a bridge near a stile’) is a stone’s throw from Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales, on the southern edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park in the Taf Fechan valley. Two key tourist attractions of Pontsticill are the Reservoir and the Mountain Railway. In the summer, this vintage steam railway runs along the former Brecon and Merthyr Railway line, hugging the reservoir as it goes from Pant Station to Dolygaer and on to the line’s summit at Torpantau.
Climbing Pen Y Fan in the Brecon Beacons
To climb Pen Y Fan, your best bet is to start from the Pont ar Daf Car Park on the A470. Not only can you leave your car here for free (for now), you can also fuel up on tea and coffee, welsh cakes, flapjacks, hot dogs, and all manner of refreshments from the food trucks installed in the car park.
Setting off from the car park, you’ll cross a bridge before climbing. Check out the route here. Be warned – the peak you’re climbing towards is not Pen Y Fan. It is in fact the slightly less high sibling of Pen Y Fan (2,907 ft), Corn Du (2,864 ft). Don’t worry though, fellow walkophobes, it is worth the double climb as the view is truly spectacular from both peaks. Plus, once you’re up, the walk back down is a breeze.
There are six main summits in the Brecon Beacons, Corn Du, Pen y Fan (the highest peak), Cribyn (2,608 ft), Fan y Bîg (2,359 ft), Bwlch y Ddwyallt (2,474 ft), and Waun Rydd (2,523 ft). These peaks make a long ridge, with the first four forming a horseshoe around the head of the Taf Fechan river, which flows away to the southeast, through Pontsticill. The name Brecon Beacons is said to come from the ancient practice of lighting signal fires (aka, beacons) on mountaintops to warn of invaders (Gondor calls for aid!).
We were so lucky to have amazing weather for our climb. Blue sky, and the shining sun meant sunglasses and sun cream all round – but the temperature at the top was still freezing and we were grateful for our hats and hoods. If you’re planning a climb, make sure you bring plenty of water, layers and good walking boots.
Once you’ve climbed the main bulk of the mountain, you’ll get to the ridge that connects Corn Du with Craig-Gwaun-Taf. From here you can see the horseshoe of peaks aheads, and the Taf Fechan valley rolling down towards Lower Neuadd Reservoir.
Corn Du is the second highest peak in South Wales after Pen Y Fan. Both summits have a central Bronze Age burial cist and a well-preserved cairn fitted with a series of concentric stone kerbs to protect the central mound from slippage. The cists could have originally held the ashes of lots of people – multiple burials together were common in the British Bronze Age. It also would have held grave goods like flint tools, urns, or even flowers.
Don’t be put off by the double peak – make sure you climb Corn Du before Pen Y Fan. I think it might have been my favourite part of the walk, with its distinctive rocky table top surface and the abrupt drop on the other side. This is so dramatic that the grass on the other side was still crystalised with frost, being totally hidden from the sun. As we stood there the wind whipped up the frost into the air, and it glittered against the blue sky as it floated around us.
Because of the sudden height above the moorlands around, the two summits are visible from far and wide, and the views from the peaks are 360 panoramic, from the Black Mountain in the west and Mynydd Epynt in the north, to other parts of the escarpment in the east. The town you see dead ahead is, what else, Brecon.
Once you’re at the top of Corn Du there isn’t much of a dip back down and up to Pen Y Fan, 300m away. As you can see on your walk, this entire route is extremely popular with walkers (and even the occasional ambitious BMXer), with hundreds of thousands enjoying the route every year. The area is owned by the National Trust, who send work parties to try to combat the erosion caused by all the foot traffic.
The name Pen y Fan comes from the Welsh words pen (‘top, head, peak, summit’, etc.), y (‘the’) and fan, a mutated form of ban (‘summit, crest, peak, beacon, hill, mountain’, etc.). There isn’t a single agreed translation of Pen y Fan into English, but it basically means ‘the mountain’s peak’ or ‘the beacon’s summit’. Or maybe less poetically, ‘top of the hill’.
So how far can you see from the highest point in South Wales? From the summit, on a clear day, you can see as far as the Bristol Channel (including the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm), Carmarthen Bay, Swansea Bay, the Gower Peninsula, the Cambrian Mountains, Exmoor, and much of Mid Wales and the South Wales Valleys. Towards the north-east you can see the Clee Hills in South Shropshire. Crazy!
As you walk back down Corn Du you can see Llyn Cwm Llwch (who needs vowels anyway), one of the few natural lakes in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Amazingly, this is a glacial lake, formed during the last ice age by ice scouring out hollows below the peaks, before the water was partly dammed by moraines of rock debris carried down by frost shattering. Geology rocks, ammiright?
When we got back down to the car park we were all famished, and thoroughly enjoyed some freshly baked welsh cakes from the Proper Coffi van, still warm. I was pretty pleased with myself, as this is the first time I’ve climbed a mountain. On our trip to Sicily we hiked around Mt Etna, but we couldn’t go to the summit because it’s an active volcano. This time I’d actually climbed all the way to the top! Chuffed.
The village of Pontsticill was a great HQ for the Kon-Lain clan this weekend. We ate at both pubs, The Red Cow Inn and The Butchers Arms, both of which had amazingly friendly service and very generous portions, perfect for a brisk day and a hard climb. We had wonderful evenings at both, toasting our holiday, people (and dog) watching, and even chatting to some locals.
Before leaving Pontsticill on Sunday we wanted to explore the reservoir just north of the village. Completed in 1927 and originally called Taff Fechan Reservoir, the 110 ft high embankment holds 15,400 megalitres of water. It was opened in 1927 to supply much of the South Wales Valleys, and today is popular for fishing and picnicking. Merthyr Tydfil sailing club is based on the eastern bank, where the previously-mentioned Brecon Mountain Railway also runs parallel to the footpath, up the eastern side of the reservoir.
Look familiar? You might recognise the reservoir tower and spillway from the opening scenes and final episode of 2021 BBC drama The Pact. And it’s not the first time Pontsticill’s seen a film crew – part of the 2011 film Submarine was filmed on the reservoir walkway.
Starting from the Red Cow Inn, a walk around the reservoir comes to 4.6 miles (see the route here). It’s pretty even terrain so it’s not too challenging, and a great way to stretch your legs before a long drive home.
On the north shore of the reservoir lie Abercriban Quarries, two small disused quarries that expose some interesting rock formations (grey grit and old red sandstone) from 360 million years ago. It’s officially a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Well done Rosie and Luke for organising such a fantastic trip. Obviously I don’t need to tell you that the Brecon Beacons are beautiful, but I think it says something that a reluctant walker like me enjoyed it so much! Definitely worth the drive, 5 stars would climb again.