For big climbs, vast views and unspoilt wilderness, try this two-day hostel-to-hostel walk in the Brecon Beacons. By Daniel Neilson
Nothing quite prepares you for the drama of the Brecon Beacons; not the photographs and not the guidebooks. Snowdonia and the Lake District might win in terms of mountain height, but the Brecons have an aspect utterly distinguished from anything else in Britain. The range rises slowly from the south then falls alarmingly into the valleys below, carved out over millennia by a geological tumult of glaciation and landfall.
Walking along the edges of the highest peaks in the park makes for an exhilarating experience. On a clear day, when the views open up across Wales, it stirs the heart. The route below leads between three of the four YHA hostels based within the National Park. The end result is two unforgettable but very different days of hiking. Heading east to west, the route begins at YHA Llangattock Mountain Bunkhouse and spends most of the first day following the Usk Valley Walk, allowing for a fairly easy day-hike as far as the wonderful YHA Brecon Beacons Danywenallt. The second day is more gruelling, crossing all the highest peaks in the park to finish at YHA Brecon Beacons.
There are few more beautiful locations than that of YHA Llangattock Mountain Bunkhouse. It may be called a bunkhouse, but it’s a five-star one (literally, according to Visit Wales). It’s a cleverly converted barn with 30 single bunks in seven en-suite rooms, plus a lovely kitchen and dining area. It also takes its eco-credentials seriously, having been graded Gold by the Green Tourism Business Scheme and voted the Greenest Hostel/Bunkhouse in the UK in 2013. It’s an impressive building, but that’s nothing compared to the setting. It sits high on the hillside below the mass of Mynydd Llangatwg and the Llangattock escarpment, with huge views over the valley below and the Black Mountains.
On leaving the bunkhouse, you’ll need to head first to the village of Llangattock to pick up the Usk Valley Walk. There are different ways of doing this. We walked west along the footpath that passes in front of the bunkhouse, before hitting a track and descending briefly onto a lane and then down a little further to hit the Usk Valley Walk and the footbridge that crosses the canal. Then it was simply a matter of following the Usk Valley Walk. It’s a reasonably straightforward 13-kilometre (eight miles) hike all the way to YHA Brecon Beacons Danywenallt, often following the meandering canal towpath as it makes its way into Llangynidr.
It’s an incredibly peaceful walk to the soundtrack of birdsong and the occasional putter of a barge passing along the canal. When we visited, autumn was just taking bite, the leaves were beginning to change colour, sun dappled through the trees and ripples in the canal reflected on the arches of the low bridges. At bridge number 138, a couple of kilometres after Llangynidr, the Usk Valley Walk leaves the serenity of the canal and climbs over the spur of Tor y Foel, before a final descent to YHA Brecon Beacons Danywenallt.
High and (probably not) dry
Now here’s breakfast with a view. Nab the best seat in the hostel dining room for a fry-up before the very long slog up onto the central Beacons. This is a long and arduous day of 18.6 kilometres (11.5 miles) and 1,196 metres of ascent, so start early and wrap up. It’s worth saying that this is a serious walk, and the ability to use a map and compass, plus mountain skills, is required to undertake it.
The weather can turn from glorious sunshine to can’t-see-my-hands-in-front-of-my-face in seconds… as it did on our walk. The compass got plenty of use.
The route starts by heading out of the hostel and crossing in front of Talybont Reservoir, then turning right towards Aber before turning left onto a lane and onto the footpath you’ll see marked ‘Twyn Du’ – the first destination of the (long) hike. It soon opens into a slightly flatter boggy area, but keep following the path roughly west and continue climbing. The path levels off briefly at a cairn, and in good weather you can see the daunting path ahead of you that zig zags up Craig y Fan. Take a breather at the summit and get your bearings, literally.
The path now gets easier to follow, but the hazards get greater, namely the enormous drop off to the right, there almost until the end of the walk but offering thrilling views. Follow the clear path around to the summit of Fan y Big (being careful not to walk down the ridge at the end), instead continuing west to Cribyn before reaching the high point of the day – indeed all of southern Britain – Pen y Fan. Chances are, no matter the weather, there will be people here taking pics (or, in our case, 20 DofE participants eating sandwiches) and admiring the kind of vast views that make you whoop with joy.
From Pen y Fan, the main route heads directly southwest down the hill to the footbridge and the A470. The hostel from here is along the Taff Trail – head north alongside the road for a couple of kilometres until you see a sign to YHA Brecon Beacons, a 19th-century farmhouse that today does a mean hot chocolate and has mercifully comfy beds.
Access all ages
Fifty-somethings Katherine Dixson and husband Ian rejoined YHA after a long gap and toured South Wales
“At YHA Brecon Beacons Danywenallt, we soak up the view through the picture window, swallows darting in the dusk, as we eat our fish and chip supper and quaff Brecon Gold beer – unthinkable in the dry hostelling days of our own youth!
Afterwards in the cosy beamed lounge of the former farmhouse we chat to a couple of French lads about our respective adventures. The easy cross-generational, international camaraderie reminds me of exchanging stories and advice in self-catering kitchens decades ago. Some things don’t change.
But some things do. After a short stroll by nearby Talybont reservoir, the gently rounded summits of the Brecon Beacons reflected in still water, birdsong the only soundtrack, we head for bed. Dormitory days are a distant memory for us: the privacy of a room of our own has become an essential. At Danywenallt, this comes with an en-suite to boot.
Our private room at YHA Poppit Sands, with a million dollar vista over Cardigan Bay, rejoices in a double bed. At Pwll Deri comes the challenge of conquering the top bunk; a successful ascent surely proves hostelling’s rejuvenating powers.”