It’s only when I turn onto the A40 and find myself heading all points west that I know I’ve arrived. There are the lopped-off walls of an old castle on a small hill. There are proper mountains, their sharp summits and ribbed ridges smeared with snow. I cross a silver-black river — the Usk — on an ancient stone bridge. The road talks to me: Araf. (‘Slow Down’). I do as it says and scan the horizon. Through the skeletal oaks, I see, for the first time, the anvil-shaped summit of Pen y Fan, the highest peak in the Brecon Beacons. For anyone from Cardiff, or indeed Bristol or London, this is their closest mountain range — ideal for a long weekend.
But it’s not only about hiking or mountain biking. The England-Wales border may be open, fluid, and downright confusing at times — but there’s no doubt at all that what I see through my windscreen confirms I’m in another country. A sign tells me I’m in Powys — with the symbol of that large county, a red kite, clearly silhouetted. Then a red dragon on a flag confirms this is a nation. But I’m more interested in the border as an idea and a liminal zone — and in the way the landscape speaks to me about its human and geological past.
My first stop, after a long drive, is Hay-on-Wye. The welcome sign tells me I’m in the ‘town of books’, twinned with Timbuktu. Affluent and full of incomers — many introduced to the place via the annual festival — Hay is picturesque to the point of tweeness and has more delis, cafes, independent boutiques and bric-a-brac shops than its 1,500 residents could ever need. Built in a sheltered dip beside the River Wye, its streets and alleyways are lined by old buildings of stone — bare or limewashed — with little sun-lit patios popping up here and there.
I pop into the Hay Cinema Bookshop for a rummage, and pick up a few novels I don’t really need, and then sit inside the Shepherd’s Ice Cream Parlour, where they also do good, strong cappuccino and toasties. Each bookshop has a personality, and most have a specialism. Richard Booth’s Bookshop — founded by Richard George William Pitt Booth, the wealthy landowner who helped turn Hay into a bookselling nirvana — looks like a grand old university library, while Murder and Mayhem is packed with crime and mysteries. Addyman Books is a treasure trove of rare and out-of-print volumes, its facade sporting a banner proclaiming that ‘Kindles are banned from the Kingdom of Hay’ — this town does tend to see itself as neither England nor Wales. On the edge of town is the Black Mountains Bindery, the front window full of curious machinery and scraps of exotic cardboard and expensive paper.
I do a lovely hour’s walk along the Wye, which is wide and fast-flowing. I see a group of canoeists pass — their paddles parrying the currents — and a local chap standing midstream in waders casting for trout. I stroll as far as the Warren, a patch of grassland at a sharp bend in the river. I can see hills again from here, climbing in the west. When I go to collect my car, back in Hay, I see the sign for Offa’s Dyke, which passes through the village. It’s all about borders and barriers, ditches and dikes in these parts.
It’s a clear, sunny day — perfect for a climb to the top of Pen y Fan. The highest mountain in Britain south of Snowdonia lies on a long ridge featuring several other imposing peaks. I do the frontal walk from Cwmgwdi to the north (car-bound tourists come in from the west via the Storey Arms pub). It’s a tiring approach but it gives me the most dramatic view of the mountain and the three miles is soon over. I collapse on the summit and eat my lunch.
Glaciation has created huge curved cliffs on the north side of this massif and when you stand at the top it’s easy to get a rush of vertigo. I’ve seen mini paragliders — using the smaller, faster wings — jump off Pen y Fan, spiralling down to the valley below, and struggling to cope with the vortices that the colliding winds create on the slopes. But the eye-level views — across to the neighbouring hulk of Cribyn to the west and Fan y Big to the east, and back towards the former industrial towns of the valleys — are some of the best in Wales.
I’m spending the night at the Felin Fach Griffin, which is in Talachddu — just a few miles east of the town of Brecon. On the drive, I see a red kite — just like the one on the Powys welcome sign — hovering over the fields, scouting for roadkill.
Before sitting down for my first ale, I go for a stroll around the hamlet. It’s small, sleepy, nondescript. But I do what I always do in Wales and just follow a sign for a church and soon the road climbs — there are few level lanes in this lumpy land. I don’t find the church, but on the way back I have a big view over to the Black Mountains, which are orangey in the falling sun.
After breakfast, I drive along good roads through the shapely, stepped border peaks of the Black Mountains range — Hay Bluff, Waun Fach, Mynydd Troed, Pen Cerrig-calch, Crug Hywel, Pen Allt-mawr, Sugar Loaf, Lord Hereford’s Knob — as far as Abergavenny. It’s a murky day, with thick fog and snow on the high ground, but from time to time the cloud clears and I catch the shoulder of a mountain glowing in the sun. I pass vineyards, cider orchards, organic farms, cheesemakers and rare breeds pastures; in recent times, Abergavenny has become a foodie town (hosting Wales’ biggest food festival every September) and the whole region is known for its fine local produce and innovative gastronomy.
I climb — by car — only as far as Llanthony Priory. Built by the Augustinians in around 1100 in the steep-sided Vale of Ewyas — once at the heart of the ancient kingdom of Ewyas — it’s a remote ruin that fits the day perfectly. It’s quite buried away and for half an hour I’m alone among the Gothic towers and archways, with only the chattering jackdaws and a buzzard for company.
Just above the site is Offa’s Dyke, which follows a ridge through the Black Mountains; the earthwork defences and ditches of the ancient dyke, combined with these mountaintops, must have presented a formidable barrier — symbolic as well as literal — to the Welsh men who wanted to enter the Anglian kingdom of Mercia in the eighth century. With the snow and ice, it presents a considerable barrier to me relaxing — heading out alone into the Brecon Beacons in poor weather is foolhardy — and so I decide I’ll have to come back in summer to do the dyke properly.
I spend the afternoon at Whitebrook, a tiny hamlet deep in a cleft dense with mixed forests of conifers and native deciduous trees. It’s humid and much milder down here but I’m still deeply aware I’m in a border area — the valleys are too steep even for sheep. Once a site of water-powered wireworks and, later, paperworks (the brook of its name is a fast-flowing tributary of the Wye), this is now an ultra-tranquil spot. I follow a bridleway through the woodlands for an hour.
I see the Wye again, and England across the valley, and there’s a main road throbbing with traffic. The river is as much a frontier as the mountains, of course, and you often have to drive miles to find a crossing.
I make my exit via Tintern Abbey, which looks spooky in the mist. Though ostensibly a religious site, it was built by Anglo-Norman potentate Walter de Clare and, like so many sites in Wales, was a symbol of English rule. I cross the Bristol Channel on the original Severn Bridge near Chepstow — the first time I’ve ever used it. The weather is weird, and the cloud very white and low. When I look upriver, the horizon has completely disappeared, or merged with the sky.
There are good rail links to Abergavenny from Manchester and Cardiff. From Newport there are fast trains to Bristol, Cardiff and London.
A car is ideal for exploring the Welsh Borders and the Brecon Beacons National Park. Public transport is a slower, cheaper option and taxis in rural Wales are pricey. From Abergavenny station, buses depart for Hay-on-Way, Monmouth and Brecon. A Day Rover ticket costs just £8 and allows use of local buses. traveline-cymru.info
When to go
The climate is hiker-friendly from late April-October. Although winter can be lovely on the peaks, snow and ice can make driving treacherous on Black Mountain back roads.
Where to stay
The Felin Fach Griffin: Great pub grub is served at this cosy inn near Brecon, just off the A470. Dinner for two, using the finest local produce, starts at £55. Doubles from £130, B&B.
Crown at Whitebrook: Bedrooms are chic, if small, but people travel to this isolated hotel near Monmouth to eat at the restaurant — one of only five Michelin-starred establishments in Wales. The seven-course taster menu is £67 per person. Doubles from £170 B&B.
How to do it
One night plus dinner and breakfast in each of the hotels above, plus fuel, and entrance to Tintern Abbey, costs from £545 for two people.
Alternatively, Black Mountain Activities organises canoeing, cycling and hiking breaks, with accommodation and food at its own lodge in Glasbury on Wye, from £199 per person for a day trip.
Published in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)