Brecon Beacons National Park

After a few weeks of planning, we were starting a 2-week tour of Wales concentrating our time mainly on the country’s three National Parks. First up was the Brecon Beacons, situated in the middle of South Wales. The park was one I’d driven along the outskirts of many a time, bypassing it on an A-road at least once a year for the last 25 years as we headed on family holidays to South West Wales and I’d visited the town of Brecon as a ‘halfway to our destination’ stopping off point many times over. But I had never crossed that busy A-road to see what lay on the other side!

At the trail head to climb Pen y Fan

We arrived at our motel for the next three nights early evening on a Wednesday. We were staying in the town of Merthyr Tydfil just outside the southern end of the park as prices were a lot cheaper here than to stay in the National Park itself but in just a 5 minute drive, we were across the park boundaries.

After settling in to our room, we went out in search of dinner thinking that we’d have no problem getting a table anywhere on a Wednesday evening.

As restaurant after restaurant told us they were full though, we began to realise we were once again going to have to plan ahead for our meals this trip, pre-booking and making sure we were back in time rather than seeing where the day took us and grabbing something wherever we ended up. Finally finding a Pizza place that could squeeze us in, we had dinner a little later than we’d hoped but still found time to fit in a walk around town after our meal.

Sheep near the top of the mountain

Our itinerary for our stay in the park was more a list of ideas and suggestions than a definite plan. A walk up Pen-y-Fan, the highest mountain in Southern Britain, was top of that list and we were keeping an eye on the weather to decide which day was looking best for it. The weather looking to be ok and expecting the National Park to be pretty full with the August summer holidays in full swing, we were up early for our included breakfast at our motel the next day, aiming to be at the car park for the main path to the top of Pen-y-Fan by 9am to beat the crowds.

While the car park was by no means empty when we arrives, we did comfortably find a space and when we returned later to find cars parked everywhere in the main car park, along the road and in lay-bys within a mile or so either way, were glad we made the effort for an early-ish start.

View from the top

The weather was pretty clear for the most part, the sun shining as we set out. The path was easy to follow and the instructions I’d downloaded from a National Trust circular walking route helped us work out which of the two peak we were aiming for when the path split – and it’s a good job it did, We reached a very windy peak of Pen-y-Fan just as the cloud started to move in, some kind of view still visible to us from the top but just minutes later, we made our way across to the peak of Corn Du, the second peak to find ourselves completely immersed in fog and cloud and unable to see Pen-y-Fan, or anything else, anymore!

On top of Corn Du in a cloud!

From Corn Du, we retraced our steps back down the path we had walked up rather than taking the circular route down an alternative path to the road. Exhausted, but feeling a sense of accomplishment, we collapsed into the car feeling grateful that we had a space so close to the path entrance so that we didn’t have to walk any further, and treated ourselves to our packed lunch and a nice hot cup of tea from a flask!

Lunch over, we drove north and seeing the National Park Visitor Centre signposted, decided to use the facilities, get some more park information and buy some souvenirs. There were a number of walks signposted from the visitor centre of varying lengths and difficulties but deciding we’d done enough walking for the time being, we moved on to do a circular scenic drive through the east side of the park.

Above, and below, Gospel Pass drive

Driving up towards Brecon, we turned off back into the park and followed an extremely narrow, steeps, twisting and turning track which, judging from the grass growing up the middle of the road, is rarely used. Thankfully, we didn’t meet any oncoming traffic and just as we were wondering where the sat nav was taking us, the road opened out to reveal Gospel Pass, the road we were aiming for, in front of us.

This mountain pass is seen as a ‘must-do’ drive in the Brecon Beacons for it’s stunning views and we made our way along it past pretty countryside and wild horses roaming the hills. We pulled up at Hay Bluff, a parking area from where we could admire the views.

Llanthony Abbey ruins

After taking in the scenery, we continued along gospel pass, the road again narrowing and heading through woodland. Eventually, we reached Llanthony Abbey. The abbey ruins are free to visit and there was a cafe on site run by neighbouring Llanthony Priory Hotel for refreshments.

From here the road continued to a main A-road which we then followed west back to our Merthyr Tydfil Hotel giving us a few hours to relax and freshen up before our dinner reservation in town that evening.

The next day we were once again up early, this time to drive out to the car park at the start of the Four Waterfalls walk. As the name suggests, here there is a circular path with paths leading off it at various intervals to see four waterfalls!

Above, and below, on the Four Waterfalls walk

Finding the car park almost empty at around 9am, we chatted to the car park attendant who explained to us that none of the waterfalls are visible from the main circular trail and that the paths leading down to each of the falls were quite strenuous. He recommended we did the loop in reverse to see the most impressive waterfall first so if we were to decide we’d had enough at that point, we could just retrace our steps back still having seen a pretty good waterfall!

Although we were pretty sure we’d not give up after one waterfall, we decided to take his advice so we could at least get the waterfall with the most steps up and down out of the way first!

The main path to the waterfall exit was easy but we could straight away see why we were warned over the path to the waterfall itself. The steps down were often uneven, made of slippy blue stone and way too deep for our short legs to manage easily without grabbing onto something for support as we lowered ourselves down – and often there was nothing to grab on to! But it was worth it once the waterfall was revealed. It was possible to scramble across some rocks to go behind the waterfall but seeing as we’d had a tough time just getting down to that point, we stayed to admire it from the base of the steps before climbing back up to the path again – surprisingly, it was easier going up than down!

We continued along the path which narrowed, had frequent unpaved sections and rocky sections and was in itself, not an easy walk anymore, until we reached the next branch off to another waterfall. Again, we found a steep path with loose gravel sections, muddy areas and even a few boulder sections! It certainly made the walk more interesting though. It took us about 3 hours to complete the full walk with stops for a bite to eat along the way and taking our time across trickier sections of the path and we made it back onto the main paved section of the path back to the (now packed) car park just as it started to rain, grateful that it hadn’t rained while we were scrambling over already slippery rocks to see the falls!

Pretty views from the lay-by opposite Crai Reservoir

After a lay-by late lunch stop, we looked at a map and consulted our list of itinerary ideas deciding to loop around to the centre of the park and visit one of the park’s many reservoirs. We decided on Crai Reservoir which would put us back on a road heading towards Merthyr Tydfil again rather than taking us out of the way. We had read that there was a path you could walk there towards the reservoir dam with great views across but upon pulling up at the car park across from the reservoir, we couldn’t actually find this path!

There was a bridge across a valley stream leading off from the car park which offered a pretty view of the hills and some footpaths signposted up into the hills but across the road, we walked along the grass verge alongside where we could barely even see the reservoir peeping out from behind dense hedgerow, never mind find a path to access it.

Carreg Cennen Castle

Giving up and returning back in the other direction, we walked a bit further south of the car park to a driveway down to a house where there was a public footpath sign which seemed to be pointing along the side of the house’s grounds but a path was barely visible and overgrown with nettles to the point that we weren’t completely sure if it was even there or if the sign was pointing along the road we had just walked along instead.

Not wanting to end up walking across private property, we instead returned to the car and, as it was now nearing 3pm anyway, took a scenic way back to the southern end of the park looping background to our Merthyr Tydfil motel.

Nearing the castle

With no rush to get to our Pembrokeshire National Park destination the next day, we had planned to spend the majority of the day still in the Brecon Beacons but checking the weather, we saw there was heavy rain forecast the next morning. We checked to see if there was any availability at the Dan yr Ogof Welsh National Showcaves but fond all the timed slots already sold out so decided to see what the weather was like the next day and take it from there.

We did indeed wake up to heavy rain and cloud and decided our original loose plans to hill walk to a view of a glacial lake Llyn y Fan Fach or to drive along Black Mountain Pass at the west side of the park were probably not worth it as the views wold be obscured by cloud.

Exploring the castle ruins

Instead, we decided to begin our drive to Pembrokeshire making a stop at Carreg Cennan Castle on the edge of the Brecon Beacons along the way.We had downloaded instructions for a circular walk around the castle providing views it without having to pay to go in but once there, the weather still not great, we decided to pay the small fee to visit the ruins instead. Luckily, the weather started to clear just as we were about to leave so we got to see a bit more of a view from the top!

It was great to finally see what lay on the other side of the busy A-road bypassing Brecon that I’d driven down so many times in the past and as it turned out, our 3 nights in the Beacons was nowhere near enough time to see anywhere near all the park has to offer but it was a start. I was glad I had the chance to visit and definitely plan to return sometime!

A Wales National Parks Road Trip

Who’d have thought when our US National Parks Road Trip planned for last summer had to be cancelled that we’d be unable to reschedule it for 2021 either?! But with Covid still dominating new headlines around the World, the US still not allowing UK visitors and strict rules on entering and exiting the UK still in force over a year on, we realised pretty early into the year that making any plans to travel out of the UK was not a good idea. Despite some travel being allowed out of the UK to the few ‘green/amber list’ countries who will have us, with all the uncertainties over how long countries will remain on these lists for and all the complicated – not to mention expensive – testing rules to travel, we decided we were best to make summer travel plans a bit closer to home again.

In the beautiful Brecon Beacons

We had a few early discussions about possibly travelling to Ireland, a country I’ve seen very little of, for a road trip around the coast but not being sure if we’d both be fully vaccinated in time to go there, that idea was soon put hold for the future and our thoughts returned to the UK National Parks.

After a successful 2-week trip to the National Parks of Northern England last summer, we narrowed this year’s options down to the parks in Southern England, a trip up to Scotland for a mixture of National Parks, isles, highlands and cities or heading west into Wales. We eventually settled on visiting the 3 National Parks of Wales, a country I am very familiar with having holidayed there at least once a year for the last 27 years. In fact, my annual family holiday is usually taken in Tenby, a seaside town in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park but as this is mainly spent as a beach holiday with the occasional trip out to other nearby beaches, there was plenty of the National Park I’d not seen as well as some activities and attractions I’d not visited since going as a teenager which I wanted the opportunity to relive. I figured I could then play tour guide on the day we planned to spend in the southern end of the park which I know and love.

Regularly visiting Snowdonia National Park too with a friend having a holiday home at the southern end of it as well as often taking out of season trips there with the dog meant I was somewhat familiar with this area too although once we started looking into what to do there, I soon realised I’d actually seen very little away from the southernmost tip where the seaside town of Barmouth is located.

One of the many waterfalls in the Brecon Beacons

The Brecon Beacons was a National Park I was totally unfamiliar with outside of the town of Brecon itself where my family would often make a pitstop at en route to Tenby so I decided to concentrate my initial research here.

Looking at a range of websites, blogs etc on each of the parks, we eventually came up with a plan to split our time with 3 nights un the Brecon Beacons and 5 nights at Pembrokeshire Coast National Park and Snowdonia National Park respectively during which time we’d tackle some of the big hikes including Pen-y-Fan and the Four Waterfalls Walk in the Brecon Beacons and, of course, Mount Snowdon in Snowdonia National Park.

On Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire National Park

Despite pretty much having our trip all planned out, we put off booking longer than we usually would as we waited to see what restrictions would or wouldn’t be eased. Then, just as we were starting to think about booking hotels for our stay, our plans had to be briefly put on hold as my friend suffered an injury which could have put an end to any hiking and long days driving followed by a death in the family.

When we finally came to book some places to stay we found very limited availability and extremely high prices, especially as we’d decided to book fully cancellable options just in case things changed before we went.

Walking an alpaca

We eventually settled for a pub/motel room in the town of Merthyr Tydfil, a few miles south of the Brecon Beacons National Park and just a short drive from some of the walks we planned to do. The motel was within our budget and included breakfast and its location was also convenient for eating out in the evenings as there were plenty of cheap and cheerful chain restaurants just a short drive from the town centre.

For Pembrokeshire National Park we had to stay quite a way out of the park in a roadside motel near the town of Narberth. The motel cost us a lot more than we’d wanted to pay but was still the cheapest place we could find. It did include breakfast though and although being a bit out of the park, was at least pretty centrally located meaning we never had more than a 40 minute drive to the north or south end of the National Park from there.

Snowdonia proved to be the most difficult and expensive park to find accommodation for and we ended up having to split our stay between 2 places, choosing a small farm guesthouse just outside the south-west end of the park for the first 2 nights and a chain motel in Bangor, a seaside town north of the park for the final 3 nights.

Visiting Snowdonia National Park

With our accommodation finally sorted, we moved on to the activities. Whereas many of the activities and attractions in the park are usually turn up and go, many of them currently had pre-book only rules which can be difficult when you’re going somewhere with very unpredictable weather! We had the National Welsh Showcaves at Dan-yr-Ogof pencilled in as a rainy day activity for the day we left the Brecon Beacons in case it was too wet to hike but decided to hold off booking in case the weather did turn out to be ok.

As soon as we realised it was almost certainly going to pour down that morning, we went to book only to find we were too late and it had sold out. That wasn’t our only booking failure – we also left booking activities at the popular ZipWorld attractions in Snowdonia way too late, finding the Velocity 2 zipline and the mountain coaster we really wanted to do both sold out until the autumn (we did eventually manage to get a cancellation slot on the ziplines at a later date!)

We did manage to pre-book a boat trip to Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire National Park – something I’d wanted to do for years – but pre-booking weeks in advance meant it was pot luck with the weather and, of course (spoiler alert!), it ended up absolutely pouring down that day.

About to zipline over an old quarry in Snowdonia

We were luckier with the date we picked to walk Alpacas or that would have been miserable too. Other activities such as visits to Heatherton World of Activities and Oakwood Theme Park both in Pembrokeshire, we decided to leave til the last minute and check on the weather and luckily, when we did decide to attend Heatherton, there were plenty of tickets left booking the day before we attended.

Despite everyone staycationing leading to accommodation prices shooting up and activities selling out way in advance, our trip was, overall, a success and while it still wasn’t quite up there with our US adventures, we were grateful to be able to get away at all and had a pretty great time.