Powys was recently ranked the happiest place in the UK – with rugged hills, tasty food and bookshops galore – and Brecon Beacons National Park makes it easy to see why
The Brecon Beacons National Park is the place to get your heart pumping. The relatively compact nature of the region, the profusion of narrow lanes and the many opportunities to get off-road make it great for cycling. Bike rental is available at The Bike Base (Abergavenny), run by a team of cycling enthusiasts who can deliver bikes throughout the area. Horse riding is popular and well run, and Mountain and Water offers boating, caving, climbing, orienteering and other mountain activities.
Stride out amid sweeping hills, isolated villages and, allegedly, some very chipper people with these Brecon Beacons highlights.
Few walkers visiting the Brecon Beacons for the first time can resist making an ascent of the two highest peaks in south Wales: Pen y Fan and Corn Du. Although neither reaches 1,000m, the terrain is dramatically mountainous: classic old red sandstone country with peaks rising out of glacially carved land.
The most direct route is a comparatively easy 8km round trip from the A470 south of Brecon, but connoisseurs prefer the longer and more rewarding circular four- to five-hour ‘Gap’ trail, starting at the Neuadd reservoirs. You’ll be in good company: wind-whipped ponies and SAS soldiers also ply the route.
The quaint border town of Hay-on-Wye is synonymous with secondhand books. There are over 30 bookshops in town, plus an increasing number of antique shops and fine food haunts. Hay bursts at the seams in late May, when fashionable literati decamp here for the annual Hay Festival.
After perusing shelves of ancient books and whiling away time in old fashioned tea shops, there’s wonderful walking in the surrounding countryside, not to mention prime paddling in the gentle River Wye. Rent a boat for around £15 from Wye Valley Canoes (Apr-Oct).
The Black Mountain area in the south-west Brecons (not to be confused with the Black Mountains in the east) provides the most challenging and exhilarating hiking in south Wales. One of the best walks runs from Llanddeusant along the wooded gulches and moorland bluffs to the twin glacial lakes of Llyn y Fan Fach and Llyn y Fan Fawr.
The bleak and lonely 16km route weaves through classic glacial scenery: valleys slashed with tumbling streams, cut between purple hills, while occasional mounds of rock debris indicate the force of the ice pushing through the valleys. Deserted and dramatic, according to folklore Llyn y Fan Fach is home to the ‘Lady of the Lake’. In the 13th century a fairy rose from the waters and married a local farmer. Their offspring went on to become famed physicians.
Abergavenny is Wales’ culinary mecca. Its combination of urban amenities and bucolic setting make it an ideal jumping-off point for forays into the Beacons – and a great place to relax and refuel when you’re walked out.
Visit the market, dine on locally sourced cuisine from some of the country’s finest chefs or hit town for its prestigious food festival (Sep). Team it with a trip to nearby Crickhowell; set against spectacular Table Mountain, its centre is lined with an intriguing jumble of shops. It also plays host to a Walking Festival (Feb/Mar) and Wales’s Glastonbury: the Green Man Festival (Aug).
By train: Abergavenny is the only town in the national park with a railway station. Frequent trains from Cardiff arrive here. From London the journey takes around 2.5hours; returns from £30 (www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk). Merthyr Tydfil, on the southern flank of the park, has good rail links to Cardiff.
By bus: National Express buses connect Cardiff with major UK cities including London, Birmingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh. The earlier you book, the cheaper your fare will be. See www.nationalexpress.com for details.
Getting around the largely rural areas can be difficult without your own wheels. Buses are better than trains, with relatively frequent bus services (between four and six daily)
along major routes. Detailed listings of services are in the free Discover the Brecon Beacons leaflet, available from tourist offices and bus companies. In summer you can also hop on the Beacons Bus (May-Sep; all day £7), which loops around various routes within the park.
Old Black Lion (Hay-on-Wye) The best-known place in town, with excellent rooms in a candlelit 13th-century inn.
Llangoed Hall (Brecon) Exquisite accommodation in an ancient castle. A real taste of luxury.
Felin Fach Griffin (nr Brecon) Jovial, firelight-and-leather-sofa gastropub with rooms from £120.
Radnors End campsite (Hay-on-Wye) Five minutes’ walk from town, in a beautiful setting overlooking Hay. Has on-site showers and laundry facilities. £5 pppn.
The Fox Hunter (Abergavenny) Award-winning modern cuisine by TV chef Matt Tebbutt, served in a lovingly restored former stationmaster’s house. The restaurant can organise a range of ‘wild food foraging’, hunting, gathering and fishing trips on request.
The Hardwick (Abergavenny) Another jewel in Abergavenny’s culinary crown, the Hardwick is headed up by TV chef Stephen Terry. The menu features creative modern twists on British classics.
Nantyffin Cider Mill (Crickhowelll) This renowned eatery serves up innovative dishes, such as beer-battered wild mushrooms, at reasonable prices.
This article was adapted with permission from the Rough Guide to Wales (£12.99), which provides comprehensive information on the whole of Wales, including Powys and the Brecon Beacons National Park