Brecon offers so many fabulous walks and bike rides and is less than an hour’s drive from Swansea. This month Ian Bateman takes us on a tour of an enchanted lake with a cautionary tale.
Walking in a group is undoubtedly a laugh; the banter, the jokes, the stories. At the same time there’s a lot to be said for walking on your own. In fact, I quite like it. No offence to friends or family of course, but I feel that the benefits of doing so are numerous. For a start,you can go wherever you want, take whichever path you fancy and just be generally left to the surroundings and your own thoughts. You don’t feel pressurised to make conversation, forcing yourself to think of something to say, purely for the sake of it, and you can let your mind drift in any direction you wish. And it’s perfect for trying to come up with mildly humorous things to say for this column (don’t bother mate, I can hear you say, I’d go with your pals if I were you). Also it doesn’t really matter if you take the wrong path, a scenario which tends to incur the wrath of your fellow walkers if you do so. The reason I mention this, is that this month’s walk reminds me of such an occasion when I was guiding a bunch of mates on a training walk in preparation for one of our charity challenges, a few years ago. It was by far the lowest point of my guide-walking career. A nadir. A bit like David Cameron indirectly guiding us into Brexit. Ok, nothing like it, but I was struggling for a metaphor there.
The walk in question was a circular trek around the Carmarthen Fans, taking in Llyn a Fan Fach and Llyn y Fan Fawr. There were about ten of us and none of the others had any knowledge of the area or indeed how to read a map, so it was entrusted to me, the geography graduate, seasoned walker, and map geek, to guide us. I must admit that I adopted a bit of a superior attitude, even a tad arrogant to be honest. I was going to be the leader, the one they looked up to, I was out in front – a safe pair of hands. I was going to be their Monty, their Churchill, their Shackleton. As it turned out, I ended up being their David Brent.
To put it bluntly, and to my eternal shame, I took the wrong turning walking out of the car park. I’d taken us the wrong way after less than a dozen steps. My pathetic attempt at trying to cover this up with a I-know-exactly-what-I’m-doing look on my face claiming I was trying to find a Tesco Express in case we ran out of Mars bars, was given deserved short shrift (on account that we were in the middle of nowhere for a start). My cover was blown and my reputation as mapmeister general , leader of men, was in tatters. Deservedly, I’ve never been allowed to forget it. So if there is a lesson to be learnt from this sorry episode dear reader, is plan the walk carefully, and be sure to take a map with you ! Or go on your own.
Ok , onto the walk itself then. If there’s only one walk you do in this series of mine, then do yourself a favour and make sure it’s this one. For exhilarating beauty, breathtaking scenery, views to die for then this bad boy, in my opinion takes some beating. It is simply stunning. Again to be filed under “Beautiful Walks Within Easy Access of Swansea That Surprisingly Few People Know About and Should be Undertaken at the Earliest Opportunity”. Basically, it’s a ridge walk along Bannau Sir Gaer, the peaks of Picws Du and Fan Foel with the added bonus of the enchanting Arthurian like lake of Llyn y Fan Fach as part of the deal. In fact, it is one of about half a dozen lakes where it is thought to be the location of THE lake of Avalon, Excalibur and all that. So it’s really well worth a trip.
One of the most difficult things about this one, is finding the start in the first place. You need to head for Llanddeusant, go straight through the village, past the Youth Hostel (and the car park previously referred to – ouch ) down the hill and follow a DIY sign directing you to the lake. You’ll pass a farmhouse and find the car park beside the stream a little further on.
Facing the stream and looking to your right, you’ll see a path traversing the hill and that’s where you need to head. Now, I couldn’t find an obvious place to cross the stream here so you have to hope that the water is shallow. There are a number of places where there are strategically placed rocks and boulders, so you’ll have to be nimble of foot to use them as stepping stones. Failing that, go back up the road you’ve just come down and turn left down the first turning which leads you to a bridge at the bottom. Cross the bridge and turn immediate left and you can pick up the path from here. I think. Better check that though. Anyway, if you’ve braved the stream crossing task then follow the aforementioned path which leads you eventually around to the left, and once it opens out you’ll be faced with a hill ahead. Looking straight up, you’ll see a series of black pock marks in the earth – these are your markers . The climb is quite steep and you need to be fit, but it’s not too far and I believe eminently do-able for most . There is an easier way up and I’ll touch on that later.
Once you reach the pock marks , you’ll soon realise why this is my favourite route up here, because a little further on, the full beauty of the lake suddenly reveals itself in all its glory. The sparkling, glistening surface of the water sits there in perfect and magical harmony with the steep precipitous green flanks of Bannau Sir Gaer, in an armchair-like hollow. It knocks your senses like a smack to the head. A proverbial jaw dropping moment. Actually, it’s a shame that I have to describe it here because you now know what to expect, because this particular route is all about the surprise. Anyway, you’ll have to pretend you haven’t read this.
The whole area has a mystical and mythical quality about it, and as well as the King Arthur link, it will come as no surprise to learn that a famous Welsh myth is also associated with the place : The Lady of the Lake, part of the Mabinogion. The story goes that Gwyn, a local farmer, fell in love with the Lady named Nelgerch when she magically emerged from the lake one day when he was there grazing his cattle. To cut a long story short, she later agreed to marry him (after a short courtship I’m assuming) but on the condition that he treat her well. Crucially, and here’s the rub, there was a covenant in their mediavel pre-nup that, should he strike her three times without cause, then she’d return to the lake and be gone forever.
Anyway (you can see what’s coming here can’t you?) predictably Gwyn did strike her three times and return she did and to make things worse, she took the cattle with her! (I don’t think Gwyn read the small print). However, when you read the circumstances surrounding the three incidents, I think the boy was a tad unlucky. Now I’m not condoning domestic violence or indeed trying to trivialise it, but by all accounts the ‘strikes’ were but ‘gentle admonishments’ and not fully blown smacks to the chops. Merely a flick of a glove and a hand on the shoulder. You see a lot worse in Game of Thrones to be honest. Hardly a yellow card, but I suppose rules are rules and that’s what you’re letting yourself in for if you get involved with fanciful Ladies of the Lake .
Ok, so you’re on the ridge overlooking the lake – just pause here for a while and drink it all in. Turn to look behind you and you can actually see Swansea Bay, Mumbles and Gower in the distance, and even the DVLA, which seems to be a common sight on my walks. I swear you can see the damn thing from space! Sweeping round, Port Talbot the Neath Valley and the mountains forming the South Wales valleys. It’s like Google Earth up there! To the west, are the mean, moody and imposing escarpments of Bannua Sir Gaer, and the peaks of Picws Du and Fan Foel in which direction you are now going to head.
Geologically, the ridge comprises of the sedimentary rocks Old Red Sandstone, which were laid down in the Devonian period over 400 million years ago. More recently, they were significantly shaped by glaciers in the last ice age which gouged out the valleys and escarpments. The lake itself is a perfect example of a corrie or cirque lake, the hollow being formed by the erosional forces of the glacier which then filled with melted water when the glacier retreated. A bit like a big puddle.
Now, once you settle yourself down after all this excitement, carry on walking following the ridge line. This steep sided escarpment requires some care, as there are some scary drops – so don’t go too close to the edge. There are also some steep climbs along the way and some similarly steep descents so it’s not that easy going. Eventually you’ll come to Fan Foel and you’ll come across a circular cairn comprising of series of rocks embedded in the earth. The path darts sharp right here but ignore it as you look out for a faint track to the left which is your route down and off the ridge. However, it’s worth pausing here and looking to the right you will see the other famous lake in the area, Llyn y Fan Fawr. You can, if you feel so inclined, make a detour here to have a better look or even descend to the shore of the lake itself and track back but it’s not the chosen route of this particular walk. Also in view at this point, will be the twin peaks of Corn Ddu and Pen y Fan a few miles away to the east.
Once down, you’ll be on open grassland but the paths around here are pretty faint and indistinct, so you may have to go off-piste and wing it a bit.The general idea is to keep the infant stream of Nant Melyn and its tiny tributaries to your left and head for a path that emerges in the middle distance at about 10 o’ clock. Pick this up and follow it until you come to the stream known as Sychnant and then turn sharp left, also keeping it to your left – its course should guide you back to the car park.
Now as I mentioned earlier, there are numerous routes open to you. Most challenging is the one from just opposite the Tafarn y Garreg pub in Glyntawe, near Craig y Nos, taking you along Fan Hir and Fan Brycheiniog, but if you just fancy a straight up and down, then there’s a well defined track from the car park which leads you to the edge of the lake. This is fine for children and those with limited fitness, it’s not as exciting, granted, but it’ll do the job.
So , there you go. A truly inspiring walk around an enchanting and stunning part of South Wales. One piece of advice I would have though boys, if you happen to see a mythical looking nymph emerging from the lake giving you the glad-eye, then leave well alone. Trust me.
OS Map: Explorer OL12
Start and finish: Car park beside Afon Sawdde Map ref SN79868 23792
Distance approx. 7 miles
Child Friendly: The easier route suitable for young children
Dog Friendly: Yes but to be kept on a lead
Pubs/Cafes: None in the immediate vicinity
Time: Approx 3 hours
I Can See For Miles – The Who
Big Yellow Taxi – Joni Mitchell
Misty Mountain Hop – Led Zeppelin
The Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach – Claire Hamilton
Avalon Sunset – Van Morrison
Rocky Mountain Way – Joe Walsh
The Myths and Legends of Arthur and the Round Table – Rick Wakeman
Walk This Way – Aerosmith
Knights in White Satin – Moody Blues
Ridge Rider – Judee Sill