(Well, in all honesty, 27 miles of it!)
We’re sad to say that our thru-hike literally fell through due to extreme weather conditions – that’s what the UK is famous for, right?! The English love to talk about the weather, not least because on this little island of ours we can often experience four seasons in a day. From sunshine, to rain, to hail, to snow – there is always a strong possibility of experiencing poor weather conditions at some stage during any hike, so knowing our home country well, we prepared for the worst.
We knew on higher ground the conditions would be harsh and challenging. We considered the real likelihood of lingering snow on the higher mountains – such as Pen y Fan, the highest peak in the Brecon Beacons National Park at 886 metres (2,907 ft) – and the increased risks associated with this, debating the need to carry an ice axe and crampons. But what we didn’t foresee was ‘Storm Katie’ passing right through our intended path, forcing us to abandon our plans altogether.
The 11th storm to be named by the UK Met Office, Katie wreaked havoc across Britain over the Easter weekend. Bringing a deluge of rain that prompted more than 20 flood warnings and gale-force winds of more than 70mph, Storm Katie battered parts of England and southern Wales leaving flights cancelled, property damaged, and thousands of people without power.
Up until then, we had been eager to sleep in our new lightweight backpacking tent and put its performance to the test under wet weather conditions; but no tent (or sane person) would stand up to that!
Setting off on the Beacons Way, our first thru-hike in Wales.
So after sunny skies and an optimistic start to the trail on Day 1, (yes, we actually had the chance to get our shades out), we were in high spirits for a successful thru-hike, despite the poor weather forecast given for the rest of the week.
Day 2 however, was a completely different experience. With a gruelling uphill trudge in winds that would have knocked us sideways had it not been for our walking poles keeping us upright, and driving rain that was lashing down and stinging our faces as though hail bullets were being fired repeatedly in our direction – to put it simply, the walk was torturous. And that’s not what a hike should be. We were doing this for fun, for pure enjoyment of the outdoors. We were doing this for a holiday! So we weighed up our options and decided on a ‘Plan B’. (But more of that in our next post.)
Before it was engulfed in white-out, what little we did see of the Welsh countryside rolling out before us was wonderful, and we were looking forward to the ‘fans’ being particularly spectacular. So just to whet you appetite, as it did ours, here is a round up of our 2 days walking the Beacons Way.
Friday 25th March 2016 – Day 1 – Abergavenny to Llanthony Priory (13.9 miles) – ‘Holy Mountain Gives Hope For Good Weather’
All packed and prepared to set off after parking at the train station in Abergavenny.
It was a 3 hour drive from where we live in the Midlands to Abergavenny, the start point of the trail, in south Wales. If you are arriving by car, a week’s parking at the NCP car park, located next to the train station, only costs £12.80. There is also a backpacker’s hostel/ bar located across from the station should you need a night’s accommodation before you start your hike (e.g. if your journey time is longer and you don’t have sufficient time to set off on the trail on your day of arrival.)
Wayne checks our route through Abergavenny town centre. There is also parking available at the bus station car park, located right in the centre of town.
The ‘official’ start point of the Beacons Way trail is Holy Mountain. However we started tracking our route immediately after leaving the car, so our mileage on Day 1 also includes walking from the outskirts of Abergavenny, which adds an extra 3 miles or so onto the total distance to Llanthony Priory – our end point of section 1.
So why the Beacons Way? Having thru-hiked the most well-known long distance paths in England and Scotland, we decided we’d like to explore more of the mountainous scenery in Wales. Developed as recently as 2005, The Beacons Way was conceived by the Brecon Beacons Park Society and local walkers, particularly the Society’s Secretary John Sansom, Arwel Michael and Chris Barber, as a means of introducing walkers to the stunning landscapes of southern Wales. Running approximately 100 miles (161 km) east to west through the Brecon Beacons National Park, it is a linear high-level route for confident walkers, preferably with some experience of basic navigation, which passes many of the most important landmarks and peaks in the mountain range. Combining Roman ruins, castles and a Norman abbey with glaciated landscapes, red sandstone cliffs and the highest mountain in the national park, whilst also alluding to sites of religious significance with the trail starting at Holy Mountain and finishing in the village of Bethlehem – the walk can be tackled in sections or completed in its entirety in around 8 days. With so much on offer, we needed little convincing that the Beacons Way should be our next thru-hike.
Heading for Holy Mountain and the ‘official’ start of the Beacons Way.
Happy to know Bethlehem is only 152 kilometres away!
Heading through woodland.
It’s all uphill from here!
Wayne makes his way up our first big hill of the day.
Expansive views across the Brecon Beacons National Park.
Despite the ominous looking clouds, the rain holds off for now!
Continuing up to the top of Skirrid Fawr.
Looking back across the ridge to fantastic views of the countryside.
This is a popular day walk from Abergavenny, so we were surprised having such good weather that it wasn’t crowded on the ridge, especially with it being Easter Friday and a bank holiday.
Continuing to the trig point at the far end to bag ourselves a peak!
At the top of Skirrid Fawr (Ysgyryd Fawr) at 486 metres!
What great views from the top!
Looking across to where we were heading next. From the ridge it is also possible to see the Sugarloaf and the Blorenge mountains. Day 1 was just a warm up with a total of 697 metres of ascent!
Putting the pack down for a breather and relishing the sunshine! (Cue, sunglasses out!)
Spring was most definitely in the air and lambing season was in full swing.
It’s a pity we didn’t count them as there were a fair amount of stiles to climb over so far on the Beacons Way.
Gates, stiles, signposting and bridges all looked as though they’d been replaced recently.
Thankful to be on the flat and now able to pick up the pace after a steep descent from the Skirrid mountain in the background.
We spotted what we thought would be an interesting barn conversion for a ‘Grand Designs’ project!
Passing through Llanvihangel Crucorney before heading over Hatterrall Hill.
So near, yet so far – we still had at least another hour of walking to reach the Llanthony Priory.
The Beacons Way runs alongside Offa’s Dyke Path as it winds its way up Hatterrall Hill.
The trig point on Hatterrall Hill is at 531m metres – the highest point of the day.
It’s a long, old pathway up… But the scenery was stunning in the golden hours of early evening.
The National Park has the largest area of open hill common in Wales, spanning about 20 miles.
The Brecon Beacons is one of the last outposts for Welsh Mountain Ponies to breed, live and run wild across the rugged and remote uplands. It was fantastic to see them!
Wayne promised we’d be able to see Llanthony down in the valley once we rounded the corner!
We were treated to a beautiful sunset, and we could just about make out the village in the distance.
The descent wasn’t as bad as it looks as the trail follows the wall boundary and steadily snakes downhill.
Walking to Llanthony village surrounded by a gorgeous glow.
Almost at the village…
On the final section downhill, the priory comes into view. It looked quite eerie at dusk!
Our intention on reaching Llanthony was to pitch our tent at the Llanthony Treats Riverside Campsite. But having rounded the corner after the priory, we spotted a campsite right next to it. Basically, it is a farmer’s field – but having fresh water and a toilet block in the car park next to the priory, we decided to pitch our tent here for £3 p/p for the night. What a bargain! There were several other campers/ campervanners and a large group of students undertaking their Duke of Edinburgh Award who were already pitched on the field, so it was obviously the best value camp spot in the village. (Who needs a shower on Day 1 anyway!)
Having carried a whole lot of rations from Abergavenny, we were happy to finally tuck into some! We began with our usual cuppa soup starter, then had goat’s cheese filled pasta as a rare treat! (We were saving the instant noodles for later in the hike when there is a section without any villages to resupply. At this point you need to carry food for 4 days.) Then it was time for lights out. We were both knackered from the day’s efforts – obviously we are not as trail fit as we once were – and carrying a fully loaded backpack on the first day always takes its toll!
It wasn’t quite the restful sleep I was hoping for however. One, because our new tent is so ultra thin that the material was making a crinkling noise in the wind and keeping me awake – cue problem solved with a trusty set of ear plugs! (Wayne told me in the morning that he hadn’t pegged out the storm guys, so it wouldn’t be as noisy next time). And two, because my blow up sleep pad had unsealed itself inside, thereby creating a huge sausage down the middle where the air was no longer evenly distributed. Try balancing on one of those for the night in your mummy sleeping bag, and you’ll quickly realise that it’s very difficult to balance on a sausage and that for all of my grumbles about the Thermarest Z-lites – those trusty egg box type pads we used on the John Muir Trail that are only about 2 cm thick – they are actually really comfortable after all and never let us down! Anyway, lesson learned once again about blow-up pads (Wayne having had exactly the same problem on the Pennine Way with a different make of pad) – I’d just have to learn to sleep without moving for the foreseeable future, as on Easter Bank Holiday weekend, in the middle of the Welsh mountains, we were unlikely to find anywhere we could get a replacement.
Saturday 26th March 2016 – Day 2 – Llanthony Priory to Crickhowell (13 miles) – ‘Table Mountain Avoided, Thru-Hike Abandoned’
We knew today was going to be touch and go as far as the weather was concerned. Fortunately, it hadn’t rained in the night as the weather forecast had predicted, so we were able to pack away a dry tent. (Always a bonus when every gram matters!) However we knew rain was imminent, particularly as the hills that our route would take us up were shrouded in low cloud and looking very miserable indeed. So in readiness for the downpour, we got all of our waterproof gear on – and rightly so. But after 4 hours of walking in wet, windy conditions, and getting battered from all sides, not even the best gear would have been able to keep us 100% dry. That’s when we decided to assess the current situation, check the weather forecasts again for the next few days, and do the most sensible thing which was to get down off the mountain and rethink our plans.
Our new backpacking tent in all its glory! The Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3 – direct from the USA.
No views today! Just a wet and windy day ahead.
Our first uphill climb of the day – to Bal-Bach at 520 metres. Taking refuge at the top in a makeshift wind shelter.
This large cairn – or beacon – guides the way! All wrapped up and donning waterproofs in readiness for the rain.
Heading across the moors, then downhill to cross the river Grwyne Fawr.
Taking shelter in the entrance of the 11th century church at Partrishow, (Patricio) situated on the southern slopes of the Gader Range.
The church is named after St Issui, an early Celtic saint who is thought to have built a cell there. The site became a place of pilgrimage after he was murdered. Among the church’s treasures are an exquisite rood screen, carved out of Irish oak, and some interesting medieval wall paintings. We signed the guest book just inside the entrance.
A dry spell when we left the church… The calm before the storm.
After following the road steeply uphill, our next high point was to be Crug Mawr (hill) at 550 metres.
It was a tough uphill struggle against battering winds. We both would have been blown over several times had it not been for our walking poles keeping us upright.
Moody skies… Our final picture before the heavens opened. We decided against our final summit which was to be Crug Hywel (called the Table Mountain in English) because of its flat top. Instead, we opted to descend as rapidly but as safely as we could and seek refuge in the village of Crickhowell.
On reaching Crickhowell and discovering that our car was parked only 6 miles away in Abergavenny, (I couldn’t quite comprehend this fact after 2 days of hiking that added up to 27 miles) we quickly decided to take the bus back to Abergavenny, get the car and book some accommodation for the night just so we could warm up and dry everything out. After finding out about ‘Storm Katie’s’ imminency, we agreed that we’d be mad to continue – if not reckless and plain stupid – in such horrendous conditions.
When it stops being fun – it’s time to stop the hike.
If you’ve read any of our other posts, you’ll realise that we don’t like to give up and we’re certainly not ones to end a hike lightly. We have tried and tested gear and we have faced tough conditions in the past – whether it be the terrain, extremes of temperature or indeed unpredictable weather. However this was not a passing shower, or gusting wind on top of a ridge. These, we could have taken in our stride. We had already persevered for four hours in incessant heavy wind and rain, without realising this was the beginnings of Storm Katie making her presence known. Even the best waterproof gear would have reached saturation point. Even the toughest, most experienced hiker would have seen sense at that point – and come down off the mountain. So we did. And there ended our Beacons Way adventure! (But for the moment, as we have every intention to return at a later date to complete what we started – hopefully, in better weather.)