Film-star looks in wild Wales

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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