Film-star looks in wild Wales
From Batman to period pieces, the high country of the Brecon Beacons has a starring role, writes Vicky Roach.
ITH real ale, cosy 15th-century coaching inns and a Michelin-starred restaurant or two, Welsh national parks have more creature comforts than their Australian counterparts, but that doesn’t mean they have been entirely domesticated.
While well-heeled gentlefolk might associate the Brecon Beacons with seasonal sports such as trout fishing or pheasant shooting, the region’s high country is so isolated the UK special forces use it for military training.
Covering 1344sq km, the Brecon Beacons National Park spans heart-pumping mountain ridge walks, moody windswept moors and, unsurprisingly, given the high annual rainfall, an abundance of spectacular water features.
Henrhyd Waterfall in the Neath Valley, which doubled as the bat cave in The Dark Knight Rises, is a particular favourite with travellers because of a path that takes walkers behind a 27m curtain of water.
In recognition of the lack of light pollution, in 2013 the national park was accredited as one of only nine Dark Sky Reserves in the world.
Astronomer Martin Griffiths’ dream observatory – a small green dome that looks to the untrained eye a lot like a stargazer’s version of a backyard shed – recently opened at the park’s visitor centre in Libanus. Optimum viewing conditions occur in winter, when the temperatures fall below -10C. Since this part of the world averages just 80 clear days a year, the senior lecturer at Cardiff’s South Wales University pores over his weather charts as avidly as any swell-obsessed surfer.
When the clouds part, he packs his trusty Thermos and heads up the hill to reflect on what can only be described as a full cream version of the Milky Way.
The Brecon Beacons get their name from the ancient practice of lighting signal fires on mountain ridges to warn of invaders, and visitors still get a powerful sense of the country’s bloody and turbulent history from the ruins that dot the weathered landscape.
Impressive examples include lonely Carreg Cennen Castle at Llandeilo and the 13th-century Tretower Castle, which sits on the north bank of the River Usk.
The adjacent Tretower Court, a medieval mansion just a few kilometres from the village of Crickhowell, played a starring role in Restoration, with Robert Downey Jr and Meg Ryan, and The Libertine, opposite Johnny Depp. While he was filming, Depp was a regular at the Bear Hotel, a well-preserved 15th-century coaching inn that features in the Welsh Rarebits collection of boutique, one-ofa-kind hotels. Rising steeply to the north, the dark ridges of the Black Mountains provide a dramatic natural backdrop.
Many of the secondary roads in the Brecon Beacons are onecar wide – with tall hedges each side. But those who take Robert Frost’s road less travelled are almost certain to stumble upon a solitary chapel or a ruined Norman keep for their trouble.
Outdoor types and thrillseekers are well served; hang- gliding, whitewater rafting and rock climbing are three of the more extreme activities available in the national park. Speleologists are also in their element – the park has an extensive system of limestone caves. Most are accessible only to experienced cavers with local knowledge, or with an expert local guide.
But day trippers can visit Dan-yr-Ogof in the Upper Swansea Valley, where walkways and lighting allow easy access to some impressive caverns.
Kilometre upon kilometre of walking paths cater for all levels across a variety of terrain.
Carved by ice millennia ago, the high country is certainly no place for the faint-hearted.
The north-facing cliffs of Craig Cerrig-Gleisiad Nature Reserve rarely see the sun, offering a sympathetic habitat for rare arctic-alpine plants. But the Brecon Beacons National Park website also has a handpicked list of short walks – none longer than 5km – that take in ravines, waterfalls and valleys.
Sedentary souls and comfort lovers need not fear. Pick the current right on a canoe trip down the Wye River and the paddles will barely be wet when it’s time to stop for lunch at one of the ubiquitous country pubs along the way.
In March, the fields along the way are full of daffodils, which are harvested and processed for medication to treat Alzheimer’s disease. A good place to drop anchor is Hay-on-Wye, a booklover’s paradise and home to a popular annual literary festival for 10 days in May and June, attended by 85,000 people. Be sure to stop at the town’s Old Electric Shop, which has an eclectic mix of vintage clothing, industrial furniture and contemporary designer commissions. Just around the corner is Murder and Mayhem, a bookshop that specialises in detective fiction, true crime and horror. Hay Castle, in the middle of town, was recently awarded a £500,000 British Lottery grant to reimagine itself as an arts hub.
Two other festivals on the national parks calendar are the prestigious 30-year-old Brecon Jazz Festival, on August 7-9 this year, and the Green Man alternative music festival on August 20-23 at Glanusk, the country estate owned by the well-connected Honourable Shan Legge-Bourke and her family. The impressive line-up includes Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit, Australian band Boy & Bear and US singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten. Be sure to visit the 4000-year-old druid stone on the property.
Backing on to Glanusk, and attracting a very different clientele, is Gliffaes Country House Hotel, a textbook example of old-school charm with a flower-filled conservatory, log-fired reading rooms, a menu that offers classics such as fennel soup and venison, and a handsome garden with its own tree map, set on 13ha of landscaped grounds. Owner James Suter describes Gliffaes as one of the last real fishing hotels (a claim backed by The Good Hotel Guide, which awarded Gliffaes its Editor’s Choice Award for Fishing Hotel of 2015.)
Fly fishing courses are run annually. Although, according to Suter, atlantic salmon stocks are a bit low at present, there is an abundance of wild brown trout – and plenty of otters. The writer was a guest of Visit Britain and Visit Wales.