A solo sojourn in Wales

Pen y Fan – Brecon Beacons

My mind eludes me as to how and why I got the mental itch to travel to the Brecon Beacons and hike up Pen y Fan Mountain, but at some point, in the last 6 months I had become fascinated, enthralled, and obsessed. Possibly I was inspired by my brother’s whirlwind 24-hour escapade of climbing the 3 peaks starting with a long haul from Folkestone to Ben Nevis and then working his way back through the verdant valleys and umbilical express ways that join the United Kingdom to ascend the remaining 2. Or it may have been that my cousin Tam who is a resident of the welsh metropolitan city Cardiff, which in a motor is only a short jaunt away had mentioned and suggested it. Either way, I was hooked.

After a fraction of research (I’m far too lazy and lackadaisical to spend hours searching and comparing and too easily pleased to live with what presents itself as a sufficient reliable and dependable solution, life really is too short)I found a website with a guide on how to climb, navigate and hike around the Pen y Fan Horseshoe with details on where to park and best times to do it etc. That was enough for me, book the Airbnb and let’s go.

My first attempt had been on the 9th of December 2021 when my partner Marie and I, for the second time had had to change plans at the last minute due to the unpredictable fluctuating nature of the Government’s COVID policies that seem to change as quickly as politicians broke the policies. This was our postponed postponed trip to Paris to be again, you guessed it! Postponed. So eager to be away, we opted for Abergavenny and headed for the Brecon Beacons. Without delving too much into this sojourn, the mountain was alluringly dressed in snow and by the time I reached the summit I was lucky if I could see 5 foot in front as the stratus clouds descended swiftly entombing me in their cold smoky sarcophagus with a hint of cryogenics. With no idea of where or how to venture forward I had to unfortunately abandon the Horseshoe hike…

Fast forward 3 months. On a weekly basis I had been eyeballing the weather report, eager, excited, impatient to be presented with a clear weekend. The 5th and 6th of March presented me with a green light. A little snow and perhaps a touch of rain, but yes, there was sun shining on the forecast and that was enough for me to drive up on the Friday afternoon, rise at 6am Saturday morning to hike and ascend! But then what? Drive home? Why not drive to Snowdonia too the thought hit me. I could feel the pull of the peregrination, my little exploration was now taking an expansive form.

Marie doesn’t do cold. Winter is not her friend. Snow is not something she gets excited about. The British inclement weather doesn’t thrill her in the slightest and so this suddenly became a solo sojourn. Although of course I would miss her, I too was interested to spend a few days with myself. It wasn’t my weekend with the kids either, so I was free and at liberty to be nowhere at any unspecified time with no one to entertain but myself. In an existence that is beholden, measured and disciplined by the ticking of a timepiece this type of freedom can be rare.

With a loving osculating parting exchange, I got behind the wheel, pulled off the drive and with one final valedictory wave headed for Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. Where was I leaving? Seabrook, just up the road from Folkestone on the south coast. Google maps informed me of the distance and time: 5 hours and 22 minutes to cover 199 miles. With no sense of urgency to sit in my Airbnb abode that night I quietly navigated the motorways that led me to the simply furnished tranquil utilitarian one-bedroom flat in a converted church. 

Driving long distances without demand to be at the destination until you naturally arrive, sans pressure, puts the mind in a different place. The journey isn’t simply a journey anymore, less the unpleasant haste to arrive, the constant clock watching, the angst, the anxiety, the disquietude, it instead becomes a pleasurable experience where the mind instead itself in parallel tandem fashion is free to roam and remain relaxed. And it is here where I find creativity can reveal itself, indicated by the constant need to reach for my phone to record ideas for songs, novels, articles, paintings, and comedy pieces. I have always found a good stroll gets the brain working, the cogs grinding in cogitation and routinely return home with songs or far too many ideas to ever complete. As I drove my mind exploded with even more plans, intentions to create, ideas and concepts than usual. Was this flourishing of thoughts related to the speed I was travelling at?

I didn’t see enough of Merthyr Tydfil to test the veracity of the constant jibes and insults that it received from those I spoke with on my diminutive expedition to determine whether it was snobbery or mere persiflage. But a quick trip to the local Tesco gave me the impression it was no different to most other small towns dotted around the UK playing host to the corporations we all know and can’t get away from. Where Welsh towns were once built around the mining industry, now it almost seemed they existed to provide manpower for the corps, but that could be said about many towns outside of Wales across the UK.

Saturday morning, I awoke at 6.27. I immediately looked to the window and saw the azure sky. Excitement shot through my system. I wanted to cheer and howl. I shot out of bed, showered, meditated and then with haste pulled together my possessions and bolted out the door. The sky was free of cloud. The air had that matutinal chill that wakes you up, that embraces you, that grips you tightly with its frigid fingers. The church looked beautiful set against the cerulean firmament and the mountains in the distance beckoned. I got behind the wheel and headed for Neuadd car park positioned perfectly to hike the Brecon Beacons Horseshoe.

As I pulled into the car park, I noticed instantly how greater the number of vehicles were compared to my last visit. The drive here through the countryside revealed campervans jutting out from under nature’s verdurous bivouacs and considering the early hour, the car park was filling up swiftly. I immediately filled the first empty spot, leapt from the car, arranged my bag: chocolate, of course; plant-based sausage rolls which turned out to be vile; water, highly important; a wet jacket; two apples; dry socks; portable power bank for my phone. Above me the empyreal sky remained cloudless apart from a few wisps surrounding the peak of Pen y Fan. I felt joyous, full of vigour and elated. I briefly exchanged a few words with three lads who were donning their hiking accoutrements in the car adjacent to mine and then set off alone. The Horseshoe, this time, would be mine!

The Welsh countryside is breathtakingly beautiful, as is my current home the Kentish countryside with its pulchritudinous patchwork landscapes, but Kent lacks the behemothic towering bluffs of Wales that have the ability to dwarf the backpacker, the hiker, the wanderer. The minute I am within and surrounded by such an environment there is a stirring in me. A spiritual feeling? I’m not sure. But something truly overwhelming. Perhaps it is the freedom to freely stroll without the need to be at some place at an appointed time to perform a duty or role or task. The fear of being trapped started at an early age for me, and so perhaps this is the perfect example of freedom. It brings me close to tears. I want to yell from the bottom of my lungs. Yes, I believe this is about freedom. As I walk, I sink into reveries and fanciful musings of selling everything I own, moving to the Welsh mountains and becoming an anchorite who freely roams the landscape writing about love, life, religion, mankind, philosophy, psychology and exclaiming after I have spoken “Thus spoke Zaramotta!” in the market square where I also claim God is dead.

As I approach the foot of Corn Du the mountain juxtaposed to Pen y Fan, I am aware the clouds are beginning to gather but I feel no apprehension as I am walking a path, I traversed only 3 months ago. It’s a bit of climb but nothing too strenuous. To my left is the Cwm Llwch valley and to my right, a huge drop! But it’s not hard to remain on a safe part of the mountain. On my last visit I made the error of calling it a hill to a local hiker who swiftly remarked in a rather agitated and infuriated manner ‘It’s a mountain!’. But the clouds are getting thicker and although I’m ambling along, there is a smidgen of fear working its way into my mind. I try to ignore it, but it’s becoming more and more evident by the minute that I could be adrift. That I could be lost. It’s interesting when one becomes disorientated. How expeditiously we are put into a position of insecurity. One minute you’re confidently strolling along not a care in the world, the next minute your mind starts racing, your breath quickens and everything you ever took for granted suddenly becomes incredibly important. It’s a keen reminder of the fragility of life. The mountain bare, without cloud, stands tall and dominant, yet is still inviting, but now the foggy curtains have been drawn, it’s almost a completely different environment.

I spot three shadowy figures in the distance and head towards them. I have to be honest a sense of relief does wash over me. Yes, I do like to be alone, I’m quite happy unaccompanied most of the time, but right now a few friendly faces are most welcome. And friendly, they are. It is something I have observed about the hiking/walking/climbing community, there is a real sense of camaraderie and bonhomie. We exchange a few words most notably about the weather, not necessarily to break the ice but simply because the ‘weather’ is perhaps the most important talking point and affecting all of us at that moment. I tell them I’m climbing Pen y Fan and point to my right. They laugh in an amicable manner and reply, ‘Do you mean Pen y Fan?’ and point to my left in completely the opposite direction. Oops! I laugh at my discombobulation, and they join in affably. They point to the track and tell me to head for the big patch of water at the foot of the climb which I instantly recognise and recall from the last time I was here. After a few more words are exchanged, a thankful wave, I head back to the path, re-orientate myself and try to shake off the small amount of worry and unease that had worked its way into my system.

Now let’s be honest, Pen y Fan isn’t a gargantuan climb, it isn’t Everest, K2 or even as high as Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain. But for the neophyte it’s a good place to begin and there is a sense of achievement when you reach the peak, albeit you maybe straggling the precarious rocks at the top in line with a ten-year-old as you go from hiker to cragsman on the last hurdle. The path to the peak is a man-made construction of concrete blocks placed well enough to enable city dwellers and denizens to make their way to the top without fear of drifting but depending on the time of year, you may find it easier to hike just off the side of the path. This is due to the ice and snow that can transform it into a toboggan run leading you back to the nethermost part of the Pen. When I reach the summit, which I feel could be best described as a plateau, I can see people from the other side emerging from the white fog like the aliens from the final scenes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Much like the extraterrestrials in Spielberg’s magnum opus, who, unlike in most science fiction movies, are amiable, welcoming and without threat, the hiking community are quick to engage in pleasantries as did the couple with their canine on their early morning jaunt who helped me find my way to the ridge and pointed in a completely different direction as to the one I was heading. I clearly needed to buy a compass!

The ridge, which can be seen to your left cutting through the skyscape as you ramble your way up from Neuadd car park completes the Horseshoe hike. As I walked along the ridge, now into my 4th hour of hiking, the clouds had dispersed and the valley below revealed all its flourishing verdant wonder as the wind cut across like a scythe, but it didn’t matter, the beauty of the undulating landscapes far outweighed the extreme low temperatures. I turned around to look back at Pen to see the crown of the mountain cloudless and naked with a slight melancholic feeling at having missed my opportunity to witness the peak so exposed and denuded. But the sombre feeling was short-lived as I swivelled back round on my heels and carried on moving forward greeting each new hiker that I passed until I reached the final downhill path back to the car. The car park was now swelling and impregnated with vehicles to the point of creating difficulties for me to exit, such was the attraction and appeal of Pen y Fan. In the summer this place would be unbearable. I took one last look at Pen, bit a fresh hearty bite out of my apple and began my next part of the journey to Snowdonia.

The Horseshoe Ridge – Brecon Beacons
The Horseshoe Ridge – Brecon Beacons
Pen y Fan – Brecon Beacons

I wanted to visit the west coast, the coastline, the beaches of Cardigan Bay, as I journeyed up to Snowdonia. I wanted to explore the sea caves. I had been told about ‘The Witches Cauldron’, a collapsed cave near Ceiwbr Bay replete with greeny-blue water, but I also wanted to reach Betws-y-Coed, check-in to my hotel, stroll about, eat, and relax for my climb up Snowdon the next day. The caves would have to wait until my next visit. 

Driving up through the centre of Wales provides the automobilist with breath-taking views as one cuts through the verdant sloping valleys, passing through small towns, across rivers and streams, fighting the inclination, the urge to stop and take it all in. 

It takes around four hours, unrushed, to reach Betws-y-Coed, a small village which acts as a gateway to Snowdonia and other neighbouring towns and villages. There is definitely a hint of the Swiss as you walk around Betws, it’s very much a village for backpackers, tourists, families and climbers. Restaurants, bars, hotels and climbing shops are juxtaposed into the small high street which I imagine in the heat of the summer is overflowing. But all is easily escapable within a 10 minute stroll to find yourself amongst the elements again. I found I constantly heard voices, accents, the argot of the north as I walked about, waited for food, and stood in the reception of my hotel. It definitely wasn’t Welsh accents, just a choir of Liverpudlians, Brummies and Mancunians. This reason for this, I later came to be informed from a fellow hiker, was due to the Northern city’s proximity to Snowdonia. This was the Londoner’s Cornwall apparently, with it being only a 1.5 hour journey from Liverpool.

The next morning, I arose again at 6am, made my way to my car, to find it encased in ice. Everywhere had that algid white sheen that exists before the sun touches it, but the welkin was cerulean. The mountain Gods were looking down on me favourably. To climb Snowdon there are 6 walking routes to the summit. I decided to do the easy one given that I was on my own and this was my first attempt. This would enable me to gain an understand the landscape for my return, where I could then traverse the much harder routes. I found this website to be incredibly informative https://www.visitsnowdonia.info/snowdon-walking-routes.

The Llanberis Path is the easiest and most straightforward. You can’t go wrong. Just find a parking spot in Llanberis, there were many free ones if you drive into the village. Then head for the Snowdon railway station along the A4086. On the other side of the road, about a 2-minute walk in the opposite direction of the town is the Royal Victoria hotel, it will feel like you are heading out into the sticks. Across the road you will see Victoria Terrace, it’s quite narrow and leads to the opening of the Snowdonia National Park where the Llanberis Path begins.

The Llanberis Path begins after you cross the cattle grid, leading straight into a 15-minute hike up a simple road but at a very steep gradient. I wouldn’t say it was tough, but you will undeniably feel it on your calf muscles. It actually sets you up quite nicely for the next 4 miles as some parts are a lot easier on the legs. On a clear day, as I was lucky enough to witness, given the vagaries of the British weather, the landscape unfurled in front of me revealing mountain sets towering above surrounded by endless fields and towns knitted together with a disorganized repetition until they touched the horizon.

The path is clearly laid out, you can’t go wrong, it’s a very friendly hike, or so I thought until I was nearing the top and passed through a small archway which the train travelled over and was suddenly unbalanced with a huge gust of wind and could feel the snow crunching beneath my feet. Within 5 minutes the environment had completely changed from a somewhat cold brisk sunny hike into a freezing nubilous struggle. The path was still apparent, but I could barely see in front of me and could just make out silhouetted figures in the barren white distance. It was exciting and enthralling, with a hint of danger. My steps had become measured, this was no longer a jaunt in the sun and each one now landed with a need for precision. As I neared the peak, myself and the people around me danced on the ice trying to find a footing so as not to fall. The sun burned somewhat obscured by the almost opaque film of cloud that enveloped us giving the effect of a desolate apocalyptic end of the world scenario. It felt very cinematic. And then suddenly I was above the clouds, watching them race along below with the sun high above freely radiating and providing a semblance of warmth. I had reached the peak. 

And so began the descent. Given that I had left very early to hike up Snowdon, it was now about 11am and those climbing up were in their multitudes. I do suggest if you want an unaccompanied excursion, the earlier the better.

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