WHEN I take my dog Dexter away for a race weekend, I like to take him for a big walk to tire him out before we hop back in the motor and make the long trip back to the Peak District.
Some friends kindly put me up while I was in Cardiff for the Men’s Health Survival of the Fittest race last month, and the last time I’d seen them was when I did the Fan Dance last year. So, come Sunday evening, I told Ian I was thinking of going up Pen-y-Fan again, if only to actually see the view. Due to the weather, I could see virtually nothing when I did the Fan Dance.
“Why don’t you do these as well,” Ian suggested, rattling off a load of Welsh words. “Sorry?” I replied with a puzzled look on my face, having barely got a word of it. With a slight roll of his eyes, as if to say ‘you bloody English’, Ian told me the route’s called the Brecon Beacons Horseshoe.
Then, a little more attentively, I listened as he repeated the names of the three peaks that the route scales and pointed out the route on Google Earth. At 886m (2,907ft), Pen-y-Fan is the highest peak in southern Britain, although Corn Du (873m/2,864ft) and Cribyn (795m/2,608ft) aren’t far behind. And just for good measure, Ian suggested throwing in Fan-y-Big (719m/2,359ft), which is just off the traditional horseshoe route.
I then discovered the said route on the National Trust website, including a map and a description of each stage. It says the route is ‘Challenging’, 9 miles long (14.4km) and should take 4-5 hours to complete. That’ll do for me!
After a lazy morning and a bacon butty (I had to rest and refuel after Survival of the Fittest, you understand), I finally packed Dex and my gear into the car and headed towards Taf Fechan valley. Leaving the A465 (the Head of the Valleys Road) at Pant you take the last exit off the roundabout, heading towards the Brecon Mountain Railway, then the first left. All you can see is an industrial estate, then it looks like you’re heading for a dead end, but take a sharp right at Aberglais and eventually you pass through the village of Pontsticill. I spot two pubs that may be suitable for some post-walk refreshment before driving alongside Pontsticill Reservoir.
From the map, it looks like the route starts near the midway point of the Fan Dance, when you turn and head back up the Roman Road. The marshals had parked there so obviously you can drive that far. A couple of times I had a pretty good idea I’d taken a wrong turn but didn’t mind because it gave me a chance to explore. I ended up at Parkwood Outdoors centre in Dolygaer and then drove past the Old Barn Tea Room as far as the Taf Fechan Forest car park. I hear the ‘toot’ of the Mountain Railway steam train, just as I did when I reached halfway in the Fan Dance, so I know I must be close.
But I decided to head back and go straight on at the point I turned off towards the Tea Room. I now know that had I carried on 300m past the Taf Fechan Forest car park I would have found the Fan Dance checkpoint, which is just near the Torpantau terminus of the Mountain Railway. However, I headed up that other road till I reached the Neuadd car park. I recognised the valley ahead and knew the Upper and Lower Neuadd Reservoirs weren’t far away. I’d manage from here.
Just after Dex and I set off, we passed the spot where the Roman Road skirts the tarmac then curves through the forest for maybe 1km before reaching the Fan Dance midway point. I hadn’t found exactly the parking spot I wanted but this was good enough and, most importantly, I now knew where I was.
Staying off the Roman Road for now, I did the route in a clockwise direction, heading along the tarmac to the old pumphouse next to the Lower Neuadd Reservoir. The sun was out and was sparkling off the water as Dex and I walked along its edge. Looking up the valley towards Pen-y-Fan, already shrouded in cloud, and to the Craig Fan Ddu ridge to our left, I was beginning to wonder what I’d let myself in for. It was nearly 2pm and if this did take me 5 hours it’d be getting dark and I’d be getting home pretty damn late. All the more reason to get my head down and power up the hill.
I passed two locals on the way and we chatted about each other’s intended route. I said I’d been up Pen-y-Fan before but from the other side. “From the Storey Arms?” he asked. “Oh, that’s the tourist route! This is the proper way to do Pen-y-Fan.” Good to know. I had a couple of moments to enjoy the view and had got a sweat on by the time we reached the summit. Little did I know but this climb towards the Craig Fan Ddu ridge would be the most challenging section of the walk.
The ridge was nice and flat, allowing Dex and I to march north, looking back down the Taf Fechan valley to the south, not just at the Upper and Lower Neuadd Reservoirs but Pontsticill Reservoir beyond that. As we approached Corn Du, I looked to the west and could make out the A470, upon which is the starting point for the Fan Dance. This time I could enjoy a view of Fan Fawr beyond that, and Y Gryn in the foreground.
To the east, I could see the summit of Corn Du although Pen-y-Fan was still hidden. The path dips down from the Craig Fan Ddu ridge then you can walk either up or around Corn Du. We went up and the route Dex chose wasn’t exactly the safest, it was a bit of a scramble, but it was fun nonetheless. I could hear a rescue helicopter down in the Cwm Llwch valley while continuing onto the Pen-y-Fan summit. We couldn’t see a thing but hey ho, we’ll just have to do it yet again! There were plenty of others up there, including a school group (good on ’em!), so at least Dex and I could get our picture taken. Given the cloud, I could just about find our way off the summit, down the arduous Jacob’s Ladder, and with every step I was thankful I didn’t have to come back up it this time.
I passed a guy who was training for the Fan Dance with someone who looked and talked like an Army veteran. I felt like offering him a few pointers but I think his personal trainer had it covered! They continued along the Fan Dance route, a more direct path towards the Roman Road which bypasses the Cribyn summit, but I headed up. There were no other people up there so all I could hear was the whisper of the wind and I could see the cloud moving along the valley, adding to the eerie atmosphere.
Having made a careful descent from Cribyn I found myself at the top of the Roman Road, faced with the choice of walking along it back down the valley or making one last climb to the Fan-y-Big summit. Although it wasn’t far off, it looked a fairly steep hike, but I was doing well for time so thought ‘what the heck!’
Halfway up I heard the rescue helicopter again and figured it must have been doing some training exercises as it kept flying up and down the Cwm Cynwyn valley, then hovering above a certain stop (I hope it was only training anyway!) Dex and I watched for a few minutes before reaching the Fan-y-Big summit, where there were clear paths to the north and south. We went south along the ridge, parallel with the Roman Road, before a path brought us down onto it.
It was all downhill now as I retraced my steps from the Fan Dance, thinking about all the things that were going through my mind last time I was here. Today was a much nicer day. While it was cloudy up high, the sun shone below, and Dex bounded through the grass and sipped from the spring water, while I had a clear view of the Neuadd Reservoirs to my right. And on reaching the Nant-y-Gloesydd ford, I could even wash the mud off Dex before we got back in the car.
We did it in 3½ hours, with the extra bit over Fan-y-Big stretching the route to 15km. The sun was still shining but it was too late for a pint and some pub grub in Pontsticill. However, at least we didn’t get home at stupid o’clock and, most importantly, Dex slept like a baby on the drive back. Mission accomplished – and what a great way to do it.