The Brecon Beacons are at the heart of the national park that bears their name, but they are by no means the whole story in an area that stretches 40 miles from east to west.

It’s best to think of four hill groups not one. From the west, these are: The Black Mountain (Mynydd Du); Fforest Fawr, always referred to by its Welsh name, not the English Big Forest; then the Brecon Beacons (Bannau Brycheiniog); and finally the Black Mountains (Y Mynyddeodd Duon).

Be prepared for a little more toponymic confusion though. Highest in the Black Mountain is Fan Brycheiniog, literally Brecon Peak; highest in the Black Mountains is Black Mountain, also high point of Offa’s Dyke Path.

It’s best just to enjoy the walking. I’ve had some lovely days in these hills, partly on through-walks, but mostly by dedicated expeditions, as you will see below – in summer 2021 I completed all 23 of the national park’s Hewitts.

The view from Fan Brycheiniog, looking past Fan Gyhyrich to Pen y Fan

Jump quickly past the Black Mountain to:
Fforest Fawr
The Central Beacons
The Black Mountains

The Black Mountain

It’s an interesting area this, below ground as much as above, with complex cave systems entered by pot holes reminiscent of the Yorkshire Dales.

Hill-wise, there are five Hewitts in a western group of two (the Garregs – Garreggau?) and a higher, more easterly group of three, centred on the highest of the group, Fan Brycheiniog.

A bit perversely, I took them in three trips not two. A one-day, linear trek from west to east would however be a fine day out.

The view from Garreg Las towards Fan Brycheiniog

Monday 17 May 2021: Garreg Lwys and Garreg Las from the A4069, nine miles

A 1500ft starter for a 2000ft hill: a bit of a cheat, or what? But it would be a bit perverse to walk up the road from Brynamman, especially when there’s a big car park in the former Black Mountain quarry just for people like me (and the couple in the SUV next door who ran their diesel engine lest they get a bit nippy eating their sandwiches).

It’s 30 minutes to the top of Garreg Lwyd (2021ft, aka Moel Gornach), says Welsh hills maestro Peter Hermon, but a 70 year old with dodgy hip can do it in 23, so not the hardest hill ever. Not a big hill, but a big cairn that I gingerly ventured up to touch its top point. A track then leads confidently over the subsidiary hill of Foel Fraith before dropping down to a bwlch at Blaenllynfell through which an old north-south bridleway passes.

Cairn and trig point, Garreg Lwyd

Not far from here, I saw a walker in army fatigues making swifter progress than me (as you would hope service people on their day off, just guessing, might be able to do). I presumed he was on the Beacons Way, but my path took me a little more southerly of him and then, after a quarter-circle took me northwards, a little to his east. He had long gone before I came to Garreg Las (2083ft), just about the senior of the two hills. Its cairn has a crater in the middle that served as a wind shelter for a few minutes.

For the return, I’d planned to keep to the Beacons Way, and you’ll see from the trace that I did, for a while. I lost it to keep to a slightly drier line through a marshy section, then again where the path I was following skirted south by the pretty upper stretches of the Afon Clydach. The final section takes you through the abandoned quarries and a chance to reflect on the hard labour that marked the working lives of the locals for so many years.

Upper reaches of the Afon Clydach

The quarries at the car park

Wednesday 2 January 2008. Bannau Sir Gaer from Llandeusant, six miles.

We were staying in a nearby self-catering for a New Year break and I was allowed out for one short quick hill walk. The plan was to climb this hill and its neighbour Fan Brycheiniog, but that didn’t work out, just as well as you’ll see from the next entry. There was neither rain in the forecast nor snow on the tops, just a biting wind and a touch of cloud cover to the actual summit.

It’s quite a quick march up the reservoir road to Llyn y Fan Fach and all the while I was looking for a quick way up through the northern ramparts of the hill. I identified a fissure and wondered if it was a proper way up. I still don’t know. I found it steep, but while I would not have fancied reversing it, never felt at particular risk – and it was sheltered from the wind.

Bang. That stopped on top, when the buffeting gale came in. It took all my energy to touch the cairn at the summit (2458ft), aka Picws Du – no place to linger. I was certainly not going to Fan Brycheiniog today, so I let myself be pursued by the wind back down the broad Waun Lefrith path, finding time to enjoy the retrospective when more sheltered near the end (pictured right). Car to summit to car in two-and-a-half hours; not bad for a 56-year-old in freezing January, I thought at the time.

Wednesday 19 May 2021: Fan Bycheiniog and Fan Hir from Tafarn-y-Garreg, nine miles

One of those walks that make all the duff, ho-hum days (cf the day before in Fforest Fawr, below) worthwhile. A sunny oasis in a gloomy month, a classic circular, and a pub at the end. Probably. It looked a bit shut up as I parked the car.

There’s a pretty start by the Afon Tawe, where ahead of me I could see a walker brave enough to have shed his top. As the path climbed the hillside, he was a little further ahead, but by now it was unmistakable – no top, but no bottoms either, and no rucksack to stash anything. Well, each to their own, but it was a nippy wind, limbering up to dump an Atlantic storm and keep me off the hills the next day.

Just beyond a little waterfall, the path takes a little promontory and sticks to it nearly all the way to Llyn y Fan Fawr, the impressive western wall of Fan Hir coming ever closer. The llyn itself is hidden almost to the last moment, and a sudden thrill it gives. It was a busy place, with a couple of parties coming down from Bwlch Giedd, a bivvy tent hidden from the wind by a rare outcrop, and one or two others who might just have been there to visit the llyn. Was a now-clothed naked rambler guy one of them, I wondered.

The path to Llyn y Fan Fawr goes over the little mini ridge, below the main ridge of Fan Hir

Llyn y Fan Fawr

I didn’t have the shelter of the bivvy but found a quiet enough place to rest awhile before making my way to the north of the escarpment. Here I met a 20-something couple who had just come down from the tops. They were on my route in reverse; essentially, it’s formed by grafting on the low-level alternative to the Beacons Way on to the high-level version, by way of a steep path that heads by Tro’r Fan Foel to the cairn of Tŵr y Fan Foel (2633ft) – allegedly the high point of Fan Brychieniog.

Visibility was excellent, across the Bristol Channel to Exmoor, north to Plynlimon (probably), maybe the Malverns, certainly the Preseli Hills one way and the northern escarpment of the Black Mountains the other. There’s a trig point not far from the cairn, which might be the hill’s high point too – it bore a Free Cymru slogan – and a super little wind-shelter pointing east. Among my chats was one to a walker who had always thought about walking the Essex coast. Well why not I said, passing him a card.

From the Tŵr it’s two miles of ridge-walking, picking up the flattish summit of Fan Hir (2493ft) on the way – the longest ridge in Britain, I’ve heard. (Aonach Eagach is a mere 2km, for comparison, though to be fair it’s got a steep drop on both sides rather than just the one.) It’s a wonderful way down on easy grass, inches from the near-vertical drop to the Nant Tawe Fechan, the ascent path just a few hundred metres away but in another world. I was in such a good mood that even the final steepish drop to the valley floor did not disturb me. And by then the pub was open for a welcome pint of Rev James. Plus, the young couple I’d met just before the Tro’r Fan Foel climb came in a few moments later and did a double take as to how I was there first. “Some things you get better at when you’re older,” was my only reply.

The two high points of Fan Brycheiniog

The ridge of Fan Hir


Fforest Fawr

Six Hewitts nestle between the A4067 and A470, the area itself split into two by the Roman road of Sarn Helen and a modern minor road on roughly the same N – S orientation. 

Somewhat perversely, it’s the two closest to the A-roads that are the highest: Fan Gyhirych in the west and Fan Fawr in the east. The Sarn Helen split gives the former only one companion but the latter three.

One of those three, Fan Llia, is a bit isolated so I took it as a quick up-and-down. But Fan Fawr and its two other companions make a nice short round.

The cairn on Fan Llia, with Fan Nedd behind

Tuesday 18 May 2021: Fan Nedd and Fan Gyhirych from the Devil’s Elbow, eight miles; Fan Llia from Blaen Llia, three miles.

A two-parter; first that day, the simple up-and-down to the summit of Fan Llia (2073ft) from the car park at the bottom of its south ridge. I’d feared bogginess all the way, but it’s nothing like that.

In ascent, I took the forest-side track to its high point, where a stile gives access to the ridge. From here there was not, in this wet May, a puddle in sight. It’s an easy indeed rather refreshing climb; the only thing to remember is that the cairn is not the summit, for which to continue another quarter-mile or so.

For the return, I decided to veer right onto the broader track that carries the Beacons Way; it leads into some marshy stuff, and I can’t imagine why anyone would prefer it.

There and back to Fan Llia in 90 minutes, I moved the car up to the summit of the minor road through the Afon Llia valley, where there is a good off-road space for one car. It’s a near-1500ft start for Fan Nedd (2175ft), just a mile away – again, the cairn is not the summit, but this time there is a clearer marker by means of a trig point. A bee-line for Fan Gyhirych (2379ft) would involve too much descent, and into untracked ground, so walkers return to the Fan Nedd cairn for a path towards the Bwlch y Duwynt.

Just before the bwlch, a fence-side path leads to a 4WD track which makes for a half-mile of easy walking before veering right near a cairn for Fan Gyhirych’s summit ridge. On the flat top, I took a path veering left to the trig point (a rather forlorn thing in the middle of a puddle), turning right to the nearby summit cairn, then returning direct from there. Below the bwlch, there’s a choice; contour beneath the cairn on Fan Nedd, or rise back up to it. It seemed to me the direct path might have been affected by a landslip, and with very steep ground below, didn’t fancy it at all – not least as I was now in the middle of an hour’s rain. So, back up to the cairn. Well, helps the lung function.

The wind shelter on Fan Nedd, looking past Fan Gyhirych to Fan Brycheiniog

Looking east over Fan Nedd, showing the ‘path’ that contours below the summit plateau

Thursday 17 June 2021. Fan Fawr and its northern outliers, six miles.

This is how you do it, aged 70.

Your wife is off to Devon to see our elder son.

Get her to drive you from Essex to Reading so she can catch a train.

Then you drive non-stop to your Valleys hotel, do a quick change, and drive on to Storey Arms.

Climb three Hewitts starting at half-four. Get down by 7.15. Back to the hotel, shower, eat.

Fan Fawr (2408ft) is only a mile from Storey Arms, the high point of the A470, but there’s a thousand feet to be climbed in that mile so it’s a bit of a lung-buster right at the start. The clear path helps – though the beeline to the next peak, Craig Cerrig-gleisiad (2064ft), is less clear, and I lost it briefly in the initial descent over steep ground and chose wrongly in the bwlch later on, though soon re-orientating myself; I wanted to avoid hitting the homeward path on the edges for as long as possible. The boggy bits were dry, which helped, and indeed I only joined the edge path shortly after the peak.

From here to the third of the three hills, Fan Frynych (2064ft), you’re in a national nature reserve, courtesy of the rare arctic and alpine plants which still hang on here. For the walker though, the peak is a superb viewpoint, perhaps the best for the whole of the sharp-edged hills of the National Park all the way from Fan Brecheiniog in the west to Pen y Fan in the east.

Briefly retracing my steps, the homeward path swept round in a quarter-circle above dramatic cliffs before turning south on a lovely path dropping consistently down towards the start point. Great exhilaration, and a fine way to end the evening.

Storey Arms and the central Beacons from Fan Fawr

The path descending to Storey Arms

The central Beacons

South of the small cathedral town of Brecon soars Pen y Fan, highest point of southern Britain. Surrounded, perhaps, by a dozen or so mighty protuberances in a wide and lofty area of mountain ground? Rather surprisingly – and this is not to damn it – not.

There’s only one other Hewitt nearby, Cribyn, and it’s the best part of three miles to the rather prosaic outlier of Waun Fach. Even further is Merthyr Common. Indeed, the highest part of the National Park has the fewest distinct summits. (Fan y Big, between Cribyn and Waun Fach, was once a Hewitt but has been downgraded owing to, beware weak pun approaching, it not being big enough.)

Pen y Fan and Merthyr Common featured on my cross-Wales walk, so check there for details. Cribyn and Waun Fach appear below.

Friday 18 June 2021: Cribyn and Waun Rydd from Pont ar Daf, 12 miles.

It’s a popular car park on the A470, Pont ar Daf. So many use it to climb Pen y Fan that the path is now loose-surfaced all the way. There were dozens on it as I set off; I was probably the only one who did not have it as an objective.

I was going to Cribyn (2608ft). It’s simply a case of ploughing up the path until you’re below Pen y Fan’s neighbour Corn Du, then veering right on a less-engineered path that roughly contours the main peak until it reaches its SE ridge. Drop down a little, and you’re soon onto the SW ridge of Cribyn.

It’s three miles to Waun Rydd (2524ft), but with barely 800ft of ascent – you’re on the edge of the Beacons escarpment, so there are good long and distant views northward the whole time. Two southward valleys take the eye too, and I kept trying to work out why a dam clearly visible in the first of the valleys was not holding back water despite there having been quite a lot of rain this year. Purposely drained, I later found out, as the dam (a listed structure) was not capable of holding the water any longer.

Waun Rydd is not one of the great hills of Wales. It’s a lump of moorland with a broad and flattish top that has no obvious high point marked by cairn, trig point or even a couple of stones – perhaps because no-one has bothered to lug a theodolite and surveyor’s pole up here to work out where it is, at least since OS marked a 769 spot height (or then its imperial equivalent) many moons ago. There is though a path used for ascents of the Beacons for the east. I used it for a bit, then branched off over what seemed the highest point on a quad bike track. There is a small cairn, a little lower down, and I spent a few minutes there before heading more directly back to the edges track and the six-mile walk back.

I like to think that the routes I use to climb hills use their topology to good effect; economy of distance and no unnecessary up-and-down. Not today though. Why I didn’t start from Torpantau, as I had nearly 20 years earlier on my cross-Wales walk, I’m not really sure at all.

Cribyn has a nice pointy summit

The cairn on Waun Rydd, looking back to Pen y Fan

The Black Mountains

This compact range is quite distinct from the three areas above, separated not by high mountain passes but by the pastoral River Usk. It abuts, indeed tips beyond, the English border.

Offa’s Dyke Path crosses the range by means of this border, which rises to 2306ft at the easternmost Hewitt, Black Mountain. I crossed it when I walked the path back in 1990.

I so liked what I saw that I came back a few years later on a walking tour of the region, picking up four of the remaining Hewitts on the single day described next; the other three had to wait more than thirty years!

The Black Mountains are full of long striding paths like this one, between Waun Fach and Pen y Gadair Fawr

Friday 30 August 1996: Llwynbrain to Crickhowell, 17 miles.

I had come up two days before. On the first day, I walked from Pandy to the Olchon Valley mostly on Offa’s Dyke Path; on the second, I took the excellent Cat’s Back ridge to Hay Bluff and, out of the hills, Offa’s Dyke path to Hay-on-Wye, followed by a late afternoon stroll to Llwynbrain Farm, which then did B&B.

A big day, with ten continuous miles over 2000ft (nearly) and four Hewitts to boot (though I wasn’t counting them then). It was a steep climb up through fields to the bottom of the scarp slope. I passed the Llwynbrain farmer on the way – I was out before 9, a near record for me, but he had been, um, rather earlier.

With cloud on the tops I felt pretty good to arrive with a bull’s eye at the trig point on Pen Rhos Dirion. From here, there’s barely a steep slope for miles along the tops, and if like me you like the sensation of striding out high in the sky with not a soul around, this is great countryside. Keep an eye on the map though, because you don’t want to end up on the wrong ridge. Presumably there were problems in ancient times too, though what I took to be gravestones commemorating an MP (and his mistress?) were I found later boundary markers marking their lands.

Boundary markers

The boundary markers, Sugar Loaf to the right

Looking south

Looking south over Mynydd Llysiau

Waun Fach (2660ft) is the high point of the entire range, after which follow Mynydd Llysiau (2173ft) and Pentwynglas (2115ft), but the nicest hill – because a limestone outcrop, totally unexpected after many a long mile with no hint of the white stuff – is Pen Cerrig-calch (2300ft). You’re near the end now, down steeply through bracken past the distinctive table of Crug Hywel after which Crickhowell is named. In the village, I stayed at the Bear; must have been splashing out. I remember a poor night though as the lorries rumbled past on the A40; this was in the years before I discovered ear plugs.

The following day was a simple stroll over the Sugar Loaf / Mynydd Pen-y-fal: its distinctive nipple-shaped summit had been in view throughout much of the previous day. There’s a long lane that gives a pleasant approach to Abergavenny, a sizeable place with a good market hall and plenty of reasons to stop if you have the time.

Saturday 19 June 2021. Chwarel y Fan, Twmpa and Pen y Gadair Fawr from Blaen-y-cwm, 13 miles.

In my mid-2021 excursions to the hills of south Wales, I had got quite used to high start points and short sharp climbs to the first summit.

Today was no exception, but differed in not being able to see my first target on account of all the trees. Indeed it’s a long trap up forestry tracks before the open hillside is reached, and even then the actual summit of Chwarel y Fan (2228ft) is set back and not immediately in view.

Chwarel means ‘quarry’ and indeed stone was once hewn here, though the workplace is not quite as evident as I had expected. It’s rather a nice summit ridge though.

From here on it’s a long track north-west, passing over the higher top of Twyn Talycefn. It’s one of those oddities of hill classification that, although the highest point on the ridge, it’s not the Hewitt. It’s all to do with the drop in height of the relative points.

Shortly after, I veered north towards the obvious prominence of Twmpa (2264ft). It’s so obvious that it has a more literal English name, Lord Hereford’s Knob. The path towards it petered out a little but I found smaller tracks heading in the right direction before joining the main groove up the hill’s short SW ridge. The grassy summit, with its long (though today rather hazy) views north, was a great place to sit awhile for lunch.

The final rise to Twmpa

The view north from Twmpa

On Waun Fach

Dropping back the same way but soon sticking to the path above the escarpment, it wasn’t very long before I rejoined my route of 1990. This took me past the trig point on Pen Rhos Dirion – higher than Twyn Talycefn, higher than Twmpa, but again not a Hewitt. The reason lurks nearby, or at least nearby in Black Mountains term (2½ miles): the lurking presence of Waun Fach, high point of the range, and drawing Hewitt classifications away from local high points like a magnet.

Thirty years before, I had branched right on Waun Fach for the ridge leading to the excellent Pen Cerrig-calch. Today though I was keeping ahead, to my final hill of the day, Pen y Gadair Fawr. It’s a far more shapely hill than Waun Fach but at 2625ft it’s 35ft lower. It boasts a super easy graded thin path down through the bracken and bilberry too, not a big hulking manufactured path like many I’d been on today, easy graded that is until the very end where a bit of care is needed for the drop to a side-stream of Gwryne Fawr.

But oh what a shame at the end. There are plenty of no camping signs around, but they hadn’t deterred a party from erecting four big tourer-style tents in the woods. I gave them a cheery wave as I passed, but a few yards beyond came past their used loo paper, no attempt to take out or even bury. It’s people like them who turn authorities and land owners against solo wild campers who take responsibility and leave no trace. Ugh.