Brecon Beacons

The Brecon Beacons National Park covers 520 square miles, a high proportion being upland; two-thirds of this area is comprised of old red sandstone rocks. The sandstone forms four distinct blocks of hills which are cut through by major river valleys. In the east of the Park, towards its Herefordshire border, are the Black Mountains with a high point of 811m at Waun Fach. Afon Honddu rises along the flanks of Darren Llwyd and then flows through the beautiful Vale of Ewyas to join the River Monnow, near Pandy on the Park boundary. In the centre of the Park, dominating the skyline beyond the town of Brecon, are the Brecon Beacons proper. A distinctive north-facing escarpment rises to 886m at Pen y fan, the highest point in southern Britain. Skirting the Beacons is the Usk Valley where the neatly hedged green fields contrast with the windswept moorland of the hills above.

To the west of the Beacons lies the third sandstone massif – Forest Fawr. This area sweeps from Afon Taf Fawr across to Afon Tawe as a series of hills – Fan Fawr, Fan Dringarth, Fan Nedd, Fan Fraith and Fan Gyhirych. Between these hills rise the headwaters of the River Neath. Pretty streams and rivers dash southward, plunging over spectacular waterfalls as they go.

The most westerly block of sandstone is Y Mynydd Du, the Black Mountain. A fine escarpment rises from the floor of the Tawe Valley reaching a height of 802m at Fan Brycheiniog. Two enchanting glacial lakes – Llyn y Fan Fach and Llyn y Fan Fawr – are evidence that ice shaped this dramatic landscape. The old red sandstone rock exposures vary in colour from red to a light grey-green. The predominant colour, however, is the dark burgundy red which not only colours the escarpment but also the very soils which overlie the rocks.

Along the southern edge of the National Park the geology alters, and outcrops of limestone and millstone grit occur. The limestone scenery is very different from that of the old red sandstone. At the surface there are ridges and screes, and in some areas the land is pockmarked with hollows known as shakeholes or swallow holes. Beneath the surface there are magnificent caves and passages often adorned with stalagmites and stalactites. The Upper Swansea Valley and the Llangattock hillside are famous for their cave systems and cavers come from all over Britain to explore them. The millstone grit produces a tough, rather sombre landscape which is often waterlogged. It is in this gritstone scenery that the splendid waterfalls are found.

The landscape of the Brecon Beacons National Park is not a wilderness; it is best referred to as a “cultural” landscape because it is the product of human intervention stretching back over many thousands of years. Around 5500BC in Middle Stone Age times, huntergatherers cut down scrub and burned the aftermath in an attempt to create small grassland areas to encourage the grazing animals which they hunted.

In the New Stone Age farming was introduced to the area and, by the close of the Bronze Age, significant forest clearances had occurred. During the Iron Age, Celtic peoples settled in the area bringing increased sophistication to the farming processes. They erected hill-forts of which impressive banks and ditches remain today. The area was conquered by the Romans and Normans: the former would seem to have had little lasting effect, but Norman land-use produced patterns which are still evident.

The Middle Ages saw the consolidation of the Norman manorial system, but there were cataclysmic episodes such as the Black Death and the Glyndwr Revolt. From the end of the fifteenth century onwards industries began to be set up in and around the Park area – industries such as ironmaking, charcoal burning, limestone extraction and coal mining. There is a rich industrial archaeology to be found to the south and east of the Park. Some hillsides, such as those above the Clydach Gorge and Cribarth Hill, have been considerably altered by industrial operations which continued into the twentieth century. More recently there have been many profound changes: urban expansion, road building, construction of reservoirs, erection of power lines, planting of large conifer plantations and changes to agricultural practices are some examples. Thus there is no true wilderness left in the Brecon Beacons nor has there been for many hundreds of years.

Below are a selection of photographs from my visit there.