Brecon Beacons

Memories of Wales.

I remember visiting Wales as a teenager with my parents and brother. My father's family live in central Wales, and most years we would drive three to four hours from our home in Southern England to visit them. We'd stay in campsites or small cottages and do a lot of driving around and walking, often in Snowdonia or Northern Wales.

The last time we visited was quite some time ago now, probably eight years ago or so. We visited the Elan Valley just after I'd bought my first camera, and my new hobby made an interesting place even more fascinating. I can vividly remember asking my dad to pull the car over for a few minutes so that I could poke the lens of my camera out of the window to take a photo. The road twisted through the hills like a snake slithering between trees on a forest floor. On the left was a hillside covered in pieces of slate, with the obscure remains of a small building buried deep within, the roof fell in decades ago and it was now no more than a reminder of Welsh history in the area. A small river cut through the grassland down below, trailing off far into the distance, with an even larger hill on the opposite side of the valley from where we'd stopped. The entire hillside was covered from bottom to top with a forest of tall thin trees that poked up out of the ground like the bristles of a hairbrush. Their deep green colour contrasted heavily with the fluffy white clouds which partially obscured the hill top. The cloud moved quickly, with the winds carrying it through the valley at speed, along with the fresh scent of open woodland.

Back then two minutes was plenty for me to snap a photo out of the car window. Nowadays I'm sure I'd get left behind for wanting to spend too long taking photos.

Part of the reason that I bought a van last year was to relive these memories. I want to make the place my own and spend time there with Angi, showing her all of the amazing places that I visited before we met. My van was nothing more than an unreliable empty metal box when I bought it, but a year later after spending a lot of money and hours fixing it up, I've almost made it into a mobile home away from home. The bed's not *quite* finished yet, but a temporary airbed is all it needs for the next month or so. Eventually I'd like to travel up to Snowdonia in it, but given its questionable history for reliability, I decided somewhere closer would be a good "tester".

Friday - Traffic Jams and Rain.

We planned to leave town straight after work on the Friday, some time between 1-2pm. We actually ended up leaving a little later as packing all the camping gear in the van takes a surprising amount of time, but we were on the road by about 2.15. Our route took us west towards Taunton, and then north up the motorway to Bristol. From there we would cross over the Severn bridge into wales, pass Newport and Cardiff, and then head up north to the Brecon Beacons via Merthyr Tydfill which sits on the outskirts of the national park. Google Maps tells me that the journey should take a little over two hours, so I figured driving a van might take me closer to three. I tend to drive my van pretty leisurely and poodle along at 60mph in the slow lane of the motorway, only occasionally taking a bus or truck of they slow down going up a hill.

By the time we finally got to the Brecon Beacons, it was around 7.15pm and the journey took us around five hours in total, mostly down to typical Friday traffic problems on the motorways. We had hoped to visit the town of Pontneddfechan on the southern edge of the national park, and walk up a short river path to the Sgŵd Gwladus (Ladys Fall) waterfall, but because we got there much later than we'd planned, we'd have to leave that for another day.

We drove northwards from Merthyr Tydfil along the A470, planning on stopping at the Storey Arms car park on the south west side of Pen Y Fan, the highest peak in the Brecon Beacons. As we got within a few miles the clouds above us opened and it began to rain quite heavily. We pulled into the car park and parked opposite the main gate leading up the mountain, and waited for a few minutes for the rain to stop before we got out and put on our wellies. Opposite us was a gate, with the path leading up into the distance towards the summit. On the left of the path was a dense woodland separated from the path by a river at the bottom of a small ravine. On the right hand side of the path was a small wooden hut with information on the area.

Incredibly, as the rain began to stop, bright sunlight pierced through the clouds and lit up the side of the mountain, turning it's dull grass to a bright shade of green. A rainbow then appeared, shining out from down by the river and disappearing into the sky. Unfortunately my camera was not loaded with film and the rainbow disappeared within a few seconds. I was lucky enough to grab a photo on my phone though.

We set off through the gate, crossing a small bridge that led us over the river, and began walking up hill. We stopped quite a few times to take some photos of the river, with the trees and mountainside in the background. We only got around a sixth of the way up the mountainside before it began to spit again. We were unsure about whether to carry on, as the sky was beginning to turn quite grey and we weren't too keen on getting soaked within minute of arriving, but the rain began to fall and our hoods were soon up to try and keep us dry. We walked back down to the van, and happy that we'd at least gone for a bit of a walk and taken some photos, we set off to find somewhere to stay for the night.

Excited about sleeping in the van for the first time, we drove back south to a lay-by that we'd spotted on the way up an hour or so earlier. The lay-by was on the edge of the Beacons Reservoir, with great views of the trees and hills on the opposite side. We set up the bed and watched half an episode of Gotham on the iPad before going to sleep.

The view over the river, taken part way up the southern side of Pen Y Fan, after walking up from the Storey Arms car park.

Saturday - Long Walks and Waterfalls.

The next morning we woke up early to the quiet drum of the occasional passing car. The sunlight peeped through the cracks in the poorly painted black rear windows, hinting at a sunny morning waiting for us outside. We quickly got dressed and opened the rear doors of the van and were greeted by the crisp air and blinding sun light. The cool air entered our lungs and removed any remaining hint of tiredness, fully awakening us instantly. The sky was much clearer than the previous evening, with just a few white clouds hanging over the top of the hill on the other side of the reservoir. The high pitched hum of motorbikes tearing along the smooth Welsh roads was the only human made sound that we could hear over the buzzards calling overhead.

We packed the bed away and headed off for a drive to find somewhere more sheltered from the wind so that we could cook our breakfast. We passed the Storey Arms car park again and soon after we spotted a huge lay-by that could easily hold 30 cars, situated quite far away from the roadside. The entire lay-by was clear so we stopped near the front end and got the gas cooker on the go. A few minutes later our bacon was crispy, and we packed them into our rolls with a splash of ketchup. A cup of tea and a bacon roll with a view of the Brecon Beacons is definitely one of the best ways to start a Saturday morning! We sorted ourselves out and planned where we were going to go that day, hoping to go on a walk to the top of Pen Y Fan from the northern side.

Looking back towards Storey Arms from the lay-by where we cooked our bacon in the morning.

Looking northwards from the lay-by. On the right hand side of this photo is the slope up towards Y Gyrn, one of the tops of Pen Y Fan.

We drove to a National Trust run car park a mile or two south of Brecon. The roads were windy with pretty much no visibility of what was coming round the corners in front of you, so the only option was to drive slowly and cross your fingers. After parking the van we walked back down the road out of the car park and walked west along a tarmac lane. I was expecting to have to keep jumping in the hedge to avoid cars, but in the twenty or so minutes we were walking we only saw one car, an old red Landrover that clearly belonged to someone living in the area. After crossing a small stone bridge we turned off south down another lane, this one more picturesque than the last. Instead of tall hedges on both sides of us, there was now a beautiful woodland to our left, and a short hedge on our right, with views of fields that went on for miles. After a quick ten minute stop under a tree to have a drink and avoid a light shower from clouds that seemed determined to ruin our day, we carried on through a gate, where the tarmac road turned to a well worn track across grassland.

We walked along this track for another mile or so, crossing a small bridge over a river on the way. Eventually the trees began to thin out and in the distance we could see the mountains looming in the distance before us. We saw a herd of wild ponies in a field, with two or three young foals among them, cheerily bouncing about and running around in the sun. As we neared, one of the foals stood up on the edge of the small stone wall that ran alongside the path. He looked at us curiously, trying to figure out if we were friendly. We walked along the path and the foal soon retreated back to the safety of his heard, and we carried on along the path, taking a short detour over a stile to avoid walking though someones farm. 

A wild pony curiously watches us on the northern side on Pen Y Fan, shortly after this photo the path began it's climb up the mountain.

The rain returned now, harder than we'd seen it all weekend. We took refuge on the outskirts of the farm, next to a tall stone wall with a large tree beside it. We managed to stay fairly dry here, with only a few large drops falling on us as they trickled down over the tree's leaves. The sky turned a dark shade of grey and the warm summer air soon became chilly, with the clear June weekend now seeming more like a gloomy day in November. We looked back across the path where we'd come from, and the horses were visibly soaked, with the cheery foals now looking depressed that their morning play in the sun had been stopped so suddenly.

After half an hour, the sky became lighter, and the sound of raindrops battering the tree above became quieter. Eventually there were a few patches of blue shining through the clouds, and the rain stopped completely. Thankful to still be dry, we left the safety of the farm and carried on our original path, with our walking boots now sloshing through muddy puddles instead of crunchin on the dry stones underfoot. As we rounded the side of the farm, we saw where our path led us. It began to rise now, heading up towards the side of the mountain.

The views even from this low level were superb, with small stone walls and rivers dividing the mountainside to the east like the lines in the cracks in the old wall we took cover behind a few minutes earlier. We carried on walking up the path, soon becoming out of breath. I took each opportunity to stop and take a photo as an excuse to stop and catch my breath. After about a mile we came within a stones throw of Llyn Cwm Llwch lake, which sits protected and hidden near the peak of Pen Y Fan mountain, which we could now see very clearly in front. 

I stopped once more to take a photo of the peak, watching the light dance around on the side of the mountain as the low clouds passed quickly. I waited a few minutes for the peak to be illuminated by sunlight, but it slowly became obscured by clouds. Not more than 3-4 minutes later the entire peak was hidden in a thick blanket of white, which slowly began to darken. In front to our right was a nameless hill that was now totally covered in a thick dark grey cloud. Worried that we'd soon see similar rainy conditions that we had by the farm at the bottom of the track, we turned around and began walking downhill. We wanted to get to the top of Pen Y Fan, but we didn't want to get totally soaked in the process and be faced with the prospect of walking the three to four miles back to the van completely sodden and pissed off.

Looking up at Pen Y Fan and Corn Du. This photo was taken minutes before the tops became covered in thick cloud and the rain started.

Quickly we hurried down the track, with the cloud behind us seeming to give chase. As we reached the farm again we hopped over the stile and looked behind, to see that the clouds were still covering the mountain and now seemed to be raining heavily in the distance. We retraced our steps and walked back to the van, happy that we'd been for a walk and taken a lot of photos, but managed to stay dry. At the van we changed back into our trainers and quenched our thirst by sharing an ice cold can of cider in the sunshine.

We rested for a while before getting back in the van and heading north back to Brecon to get some supplies and snacks from the local supermarket. As we had finished our walk earlier than we'd planned, we decided to drive the 25 miles back down to Pontneddfechan so that we could see Sgwd Gwladys. The drive was only about 45 minutes and it went by very quickly as you look at the scenery as you pass. Looking on Google Maps a few days before, I wasn't sure where I would be able to park in the town, as the biggest car park belongs to the nearby pub and is for customers only. I was happy to see that people had just parked up at the side of the road out of the way, and that there was plenty of space left for me to park the van. We climbed out the van and put our wellies on again, before crossing the small bridge and walking upstream on the left hand side of the river.

The area was thick with trees, which covered the river from both sides, only leaving a small amount of room for the sunlight to enter and light up the river below. The path we walked on was a mixture of stones and mud, which was soggy and wet underfoot from the rain only an couple of hours before. Our wellies squelched through the mud and we strolled northwards following the river for a mile or so. The river wasn't very large, certainly not wide or deep enough to kayak down, but it flowed very fast past a number of rocky cliffs that overhung over the river a couple of metres below. 

We approached a fork in the river, and a handy sign post pointed us to the direction of the waterfall. We crossed a bridge over the fork that led to the left, so that we were now on the northern side of the river following it west. Only five minutes or so passed, and the river began to quieten down and level out, at which point the path dropped down and joined with the river bank. We were now within earshot of the waterfall and soon saw it as we rounded a corner. The whole area was a pool of water about 30 metres in diameter, which was shallow enough in most parts for you to be able to walk around it in your wellies. The woodland trees surrounded the entire area like a fence, the only gaps being the waterfall itself and the river we had just followed. The waterfall was at the far side of the pool and flowed gracefully over the top of a large flat ledge which overhung the pool slightly, pouring down into the pool nearly ten metres below, the force from the drop made this end of the pool deeper, and the crystal clear water became dark and rust coloured, certainly too deep to walk casually through in our wellies.

The dry summer months had made the water level drop slightly, and in the centre of the pool sat a small island of stones and pebbles. We walked across to it and took a few photos of the fall. I'd decided not to bring my tripod on the walk as it was quite sunny and I was using 400 speed film, but under the cover of the trees in the evening sun, I was forced to use a larger pebble as a rock to rest my camera on when taking my photos.

Sgwd Gwladys waterfall, taken from the small island from the centre of the pool of water.

After ten minutes or so at the fall, we walked back out of the pool area following the path we'd come in on. When we arrived at the fork we crossed over both bridges and walked back down towards the car on the eastern bank, curiously following a sign we'd seen for a old silica mine. This side of the path was much muddier than the other, and we passed a couple of creepy looking caves, which were full of water and went back further than the evening light could show us. The mines were only five minutes walk further and we soon found them. To say that they were in ruins would be an understatement, all that remained were parts of the inner and outer walls, with many of the arches missing or laying on the floor below. There was a sign next to us that warned people not to go inside as the ruins were unstable, but their state was much more of a warning than any sign could have been. I'd love to have taken some photos of the mines, but the light was fading fast and without a tripod I would have had no chance of a sharp image, so we made a mental note to go back one day, and carried on our path back to the car.

In all honesty, we couldn't be bothered with cooking food on our little gas cooker, and we were parked metres away from a great looking pub that advertised all sorts of delicious food on their boards outside. It didn't take much thought for us to both want to go in! I went for what anyone who was hungry and tired in the middle of nowhere would have gone for- a large mixed grill and a pint of cider. Angi went for the more civilized chicken wrapped in bacon, which also looked delicious. Usually we don't go for puddings, but the presence of a Malteasers cheesecake changed our minds. And it was pretty good too. We left the pub feeling fat, warm and happy, and drove back to the quiet lay-by where we'd had breakfast that morning. It wasn't long after we'd put the bed together and pumped the air bed up, and we were both fast asleep.

Sunday - A Short Drive and Frequent Stops

The next morning we woke up and were still pretty full from our pub meal the night before, so we decided to skip breakfast and head out for a drive after we packed the bed away and got dressed. We only had one day left before going home, and we wanted to see more of the Brecon Beacons as we'd only seen a small part of it so far, so we planned out a drive to take in some of the scenery. We'd leave the lay-by travelling north, and then turned left on the A4215 after a couple of minutes, from there we'd drive to Defynnog, before going South to Abercraf on the A4067. We planned to stop off regularly and go for short walks, then head on home later in the afternoon.

We stopped more frequently than I was intending to, because the whole area is picturesque and there are fantastic photo opportunities every few hundred metres. It took us a couple of hours to drive about twenty miles, as we stopped half a dozen times or more each time we saw a waterfall, a reservoir or a distant view of mountains.

Small streams like this are found all over the Brecon Beacons, stopping at each one soon makes a quick drive much longer!

I spent a couple days thinking this was called the Crazy Reservoir after misreading the name on a map, only to find our later its actually the Cray Reservoir...

Parked in a lay-by for a few minutes to eat some snacks and take some photos.

We retraced our route back north and then to the east, and then took a scenic route across to Crickhowell on the eastern side of the Brecon Beacons. It was just after lunch now and the weather forecast told us that it was due to rain soon, so we thought we'd head on home after looking around the town for a bit. The town is beautiful and there are many great photo opportunities to be found, even on a small ten min walk around the main streets. Not long after our walk it began to rain again, so we planned our route home through Abergavenny, then south to Newport, before crossing back over the bridge into England. As we drove through Abergavenny we saw a sign outside of a pub that advertised carveries, and seeing as it was around 1.30 pm on a Sunday, a carvery was just what we needed before our drive home! Fat and happy (again), we set off for home and drove for a couple hours in heavy rain, and arrived home safely.

Crickhowell is a wonderful place, and scenes like this make is a superb location for photos.

An old diesel pump and a phone box next to each other, a typical scene in rural British town

Camera Choice and Carmencita Lab

As we planned to do a lot of walking, I didn't want to bring a camera that was heavy as I'd have to lug it up and down hills for hours. That pretty much ruled out the RB67 from the start. My Hasselblad 500c/m with 80mm f/2.8 Planar T* would be perfect as it's lightweight, easy to use, reliable and gives fantastic results. The only trouble is that the focus is off on the 'blad for some reason, and the focus on the screen and film don't match up. This means that photos that I take wide open often miss focus, with the actual focus plane being a few feet behind the subject. Usually this is a pretty big issue, but for landscapes shot at f/16 and higher, it was not a problem, as I would just focus the lens at infinity and stop down, and then use the deep depth of field to bring any foreground subjects into focus as well.

I have been using Kodak Ektar 100 for landscapes for some time now, but lately I have started to prefer the paler tones of some other films to the rich and vibrant colours of Ektar. I decided to take a roll of Kodak Portra 400 and Fuji Pro 400H with me, but also took a few rolls of Ilford FP4+ along, just in case I came across anything that screamed to be shot in black and white.

My usual lab lately has been UK Film Lab, who provide fantastic scans at great prices, even if their turnaround time is a bit slow. Unfortunately for me, UK Film Lab's owners, Christian and Erica Ward, have decided to move to Canada and are taking their lab with them, becoming Canadian Film Lab. It's unfortunate for me but I'm incredibly jealous of them for moving to such a wonderful place and wish them luck in the future. I've heard a lot of great things about Carmencita Lab in Valencia, Spain, and they operate a similar business to UKFL, so they seemed like a good choice to me. Thanks to extra postage and the recent Brexit vote causing a change in the pound/euro conversion rate, it worked out to be about 20% more expensive to use Carmencita over UKFL, and turnaround times were about the same. I'm very pleased with the scans that I received and will use Carmencita again for anything important.

I really enjoyed my trip to the Brecon Beacons, and it wouldn't be Wales without a little bit of rain. I found a few locations which were fantastic photo opportunities, so I will definitely be visiting again soon. In fact I've planned another trip for two weeks time, so come back soon to see how it went.

Thanks for reading, as usual, comments and questions are really appreciated :)

 

-Carl-