A short but steep walk, in the stunning but seemingly hidden depths; of the Brecon Beacons in Wales. Taking in the heights and views of the mountain of Waun Fach and then descending the aptly named: Dragon’s Back.
Finding the start
As a Englishman; Wales can sometimes feel inaccessible to me. Having to cross the River Severn, then spend a long time on M4 motorway or spend ages winding through narrow country lanes. Aberystwyth for example, may as well be in Ireland; protected by hills, mountains and long and winding roads.
However, this walk is just an hours drive from the motorway bridge over the River Severn. At first taking the A449 north, then heading west on the A40. I forked off right shortly after the town of Crickhowell; towards Talgarth on the A479. Shortly after this the road begins to climb over a pass in the Black Mountains. As you near the top of the pass; the hedgerow on the right, gives way to views of what looks like a big green dragon fast asleep! Look again and you will see a ridge line rising up in a series of bluffs to the summit of Waun Fach. This ridge is therefore called the Dragon’s Back!
I watched for the sign telling me I was in the hamlet of Pengenffordd; then looked out for a car park on the right side of the road. Parking here costs all of £2 so if you are short of money; there are a few spots you can park further up the main road. However, the £2 goes to charity; so park safely and know your money is going to a good place!
A choice of direction
After parking the car; I headed uphill to the end of the car park nearest Talgarth. Here you will find a map of the Black Mountains and a sign pointing down to a Holloway behind the car park.
Here, you must decide which way round you want to do this walk. Turn left or right to the first stile on the left and you will have to climb up the Dragon’s Back. Turn right and keep descending the smooth Holloway and you will climb first to the summit of Waun Fach; via a long track in a side valley.
It is tempting to head straight for the majesty of the Dragon’s Back; yet by turning right and slowly ascending to Waun Fach, you will be rewarded with views from below. What is more, you will gently achieve the altitude of the summit; instead of going up and down several times on the Dragon’s Back.
Choosing the more relaxing option; I followed the Holloway down until it met a metalled road by a ford. Turning left on the road, I slowly began to climb; past open fields full of sheep, stables and farmhouses and descending tired walkers that had chosen the other route.
After a gentle climb, the road reaches a T-junction. Looking to the right; a bridleway sign points up a tree-lined stony track. Here the real ascent begins; from the gentle road, the track climbs gradually to open moorland.
The climb to Waun Fach
The tree line soon ends; with the last few clinging on for dear life against the cold wind and steep rocky hillside. Although I had been walking for less than a hour; looking back, the main road and car park were now far below. Across the valley stands the mountain of Mynydd Troed; with its flat-topped silhouette standing out against the brilliant winter sun.
As I climbed, the view to the south opened up more and more. I could soon see over the near hills and valley; with distant hills seeming to roll away like great waves on a ocean. Down below the River Rhiangoll reflected in the sunlight and the distant cars on the road looked like horses running in a distant field.
Here I passed a couple descending from the ridge above me. After bidding them a good day; I asked them of the conditions on the summit. Whilst warning me of strong winds and frozen ground; they looked quizzically at my attire of shorts and T-shirt. Realising their concern; I burst out laughing as I explained I had packed warm clothes in my rucksack. After leaving them to descend, I climbed upwards; kept warm by my determination to do this walk as well as the exertion of the gradient.
Cresting a false ridge, I spied a cairn on the real horizon about 400 metres in front of me. Apart from a worn track; there are no other landmarks, so take care in poor visibility and be prepared to turn around. Reaching the cairn; the summit ridge opened up to the left. Here the wind picked up to almost a gale; as I was exposed from all directions.
Following the path here was easy; over lush long grass and the odd stream. In places, the ground was uneven or boggy; yet the gradient was gentile now. However, the cold northerly wind made me put on every piece of clothing I had packed in my rucksack. With the wind chill clawing at my fingers through thick mittens and bringing tears to my cold exposed eyes.
Descending the Dragons Back
A small stone monument and triangulation point mark the summit of Waun Fach. The immediate foreground is featureless moorland that stretches away and down in every direction. Beyond this however, views to the north and south are far reaching and spectacular under the winter sun. The fields, hedgerows and farms stretch far away to the horizon like a giant patchwork quilt.
After taking a few photos on my phone and storing a few mental images in my memory bank. A strong gust reminded me this is no place for man nor beast. So I began my descent along a long grassy ridgeline to the north. Here I passed wild horses grazing in the long grass. They looked at me nonchalantly through their thick shaggy manes as if I was the one out of place and carried on with their four course meal.
When I reached the end of this ridgeline; the ground fell away to the north as well as west towards the Dragon’s Back. On the Ordinance Survey map; the path continues north for some distance before turning almost back on itself to head west. Seeing that there were no cliffs or sharp rocks; I cut the corner and almost ran down over the long green grass in the now evening sun.
At one point, the wind dropped as I passed behind a small hummock. So I laid out my coat and finally enjoyed my picnic. Without the wind chill; I could pick up my ham and cheese sandwiches with ease, as well as enjoying a small can of Spanish beer. I rested a short while to digest my food; then continued my descent.
In places the Dragon’s Back can be fairly steep; especially after each hump or bluff. If you prefer a smoother descent; stay to the south side of the ridge and avoid the steepest sections. Whilst carefully making my way down; it was reassuring to know I had chosen a safer ascent on the far hillside.
Between the steep sections around the bluffs; the ground was flat and covered with lush grass. I could run these plateaus with ease; stopping only occasionally to navigate around boggy areas. Two scramblers passed me as I was high on the Dragon’s Back. I mistook the sound of their approaching engines for aircraft in distress and scanned the skies. So when their two silhouettes appeared over the ridge in front of me I laughed at my own confusion. Some people would disapprove of motorbikes in this area; yet who am I to judge? So I waved at them and they waved back; three humans enjoying the great outdoors under a brilliant winter sun.
Dinas Castle and home
When I thought I had finally returned to the valley floor. One last, vast great hill stood between me and the road. Looking up the steep 45 degree slopes; I understood why this hill was chosen as the sight of a castle. ‘Castell Dinas’ was built to defend the Rhiangoll pass, and at 450 metres altitude; it is the highest in England and Wales. Originally a Iron age hillfort dating from 600BC; this castle was built and ruined a number of times. Although only a few stones remain; being there made me think of the hardy folk that had lived in these parts over the centuries.
The sun now began to dip behind the hulk of Mynydd Troed; so I quickened my pace down from the Castle ruins. After crossing a stile; I could see my car only a few hundred metres below me. The smooth meadows were as soft as a carpet to my now weary feet; as I descended the final furlong.
Arriving at the Holloway directly below the car park; I had avoided the need to walk beside the busy main road, which has recommended by other blogs. Changing into soft trainers; I drank the last of my water and stopped the all important Strava clock. I slipped into the drivers seat of my car, which felt like my favourite armchair; then gently began the drive home.
It was dark now and I had almost hundred miles to drive home. Yet, I was happy, warm from the exercise and relaxed. I had made the most of a beautiful sunny winter’s day.
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