I grew up mostly in the Cotswolds and my dad would occasionally drag us kids, possibly kicking and screaming, across the River Severn to the huge yellow walls of the Brecon Beacons National Park. After ignoring the area for much of my adult life, I’ve totally fallen in love with trail running there over the past couple of years as the hills have become my training ground for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB).
The 500 square miles of the Brecon Beacons may seem like a soft touch to those lucky souls who live in the Lake District or Highlands, but to anyone who lives below Birmingham (ie. more than half of us), they’re the largest lumps around. The SAS train in the Brecon Beacons. It’s no Telly Tubby Land.
The Lure of the Beacons
I love that nowhere else looks quite like the Brecon Beacons, the sheer, north-facing escarpment resembling huge natural battlements, striking fear into would-be invaders from the north. I love that in the week – and even at weekends, if you know the right places – you can still have the hills all to yourself. I love that it almost always starts off being hostile – foggy and rainy, testing your mettle – but almost always bequeaths a rewarding wow moment, as clouds part to reveal the great walls, covered in frost, or splashed by late-afternoon sun.
"My favourite panorama is from Fan y Big, looking west along the ridge, seeing the three big lumps ahead of me, sheer drops to my right and endless green and lumpy countryside stretching north below..."
I love the huge green views, stretching for miles. The sense of wildness in the weather. I’m in awe of the stoic ponies and sheep who survive in all temperatures here – and it really can get a bit Arctic. And who doesn’t fall in love with a place with hill names such as Fan y Big (stop it) and Lord Hereford’s Knob?
Trail Running in the Brecon Beacons: The Park in a Nutshell
The confusing thing about the Brecon Beacons is that the national park is made up of four, unhelpfully named, yet distinctive, areas. The western region is Mynydd Du or Black Mountain (not to be confused with Black Mountains). More moorish and lesser visited, it has less dramatic summits but you’ll hardly see anyone about. East of there is Fforest Fawr, a windswept clutch of grassy peaks – good, again for crowd dodging at weekends.
Next is the Hollywood section – where all the photos are from and all the crowds flock to – the Brecon Beacons themselves. It’s most easily accessed via car parks on A470 from Merthyr Tydfil (a decent base for a weekend in practical terms, less so in aesthetic terms), or on the northern side via handsome Brecon. The Black Mountains, the second most appealing section, is the eastern quarter, with some testing climbs and inviting trails. The classic route there is the Waun Fach Horseshoe. While further west, the Offa’s Dyke Path allows excellent trail running.
Crickhowell is another appealing base, as is nearby Abergavenny, especially if reliant on public transport (it has a train station).
The Best Hill Climb
Start from either of the A470 car parks (opposite the Storey Arms activity centre, or 1 mile south at the Pont ar Daf car park – both get crammed at weekends) and head straight up to tag the park’s highest two summits, Corn Du (873m/2,864ft) – a climb of around 460m/1,500ft, likely the biggest you’ll find in the southern half of England and Wales – and on to neighbouring Pen y Fan (886m/2,907ft). If you’ve come all this way, you may as well head on to Cribyn (795m/2,608ft) too, via the notorious (you’ll see why on the way back) Jacob’s Ladder. And it’d be a shame to do all that work and not complete the Horseshoe – the four main peaks in the Brecon Beacons – by summiting Fan y Big (719m/2,359ft).
The Best Views
Up on the Horseshoe, you’re totally spoilt for views (in, um, good weather).
My favourite panorama is from Fan y Big, looking west along the ridge, seeing the three big lumps ahead of me, sheer drops to my right and endless green and lumpy countryside stretching north below; undulating, wilder, darker terrain to my left. It usually means I’ve got to summit the big three again to get back to my car. News that’s equally good and bad.
The Best Long Distance Route
The South Wales Traverse is the region’s ultimate long-distance route. It’s an approximate 118km/73-mile linear challenge, taking in 31 summits (all peaks over 610m/2,000ft) with around 5,000m/16,000ft of ascent, to be completed in under 24 hours.
The 152km/95-mile Beacons Way is another long, very scenic trail that gives a full taste of the region’s drama – loosely following the same concept of a west-east traverse.
My favourite UTMB training runs usually involved 2-3 ascents of Pen y Fan, then some exhilarating ridge-running beyond Fan y Big to loop round to the Blaen Glyn Uchaf car park and waterfalls; then back up towards Cribyn via the Roman Road, with perhaps an optional extra loop or two thrown in here and there (see my Strava for examples).
The Best Low Level Route
A trip for trail running in the Beacons shouldn't be underestimated. When the wind is up, it can be bitterly cold on the tops. Throw in some rain, sleet or snow, perhaps a touch of topographical befuddlement, and even experienced hill types could get into trouble quickly.
The Taff Trail offers a signposted, low-level alternative route which sticks to valley bottoms, from Merthyr Tydfil to Brecon, cutting between the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains. Another bad weather option is following the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, which passes through some pretty scenery and villages, as well as Brecon, Talybont, Crickhowell, Abergavenny.