06 Mar Welsh wonders: A shepherd’s hut weekend in the Brecon Beacons
The Brecon Beacons are amongst the most majestic of all the Welsh mountains, and ripe for adventuring at any time of the year. Here’s our twist on the traditional stay – a wintry shepherd’s hut weekend on a hill farm, with a good measure of walking thrown in.
This Christmas, we decided that instead of a traditional gift, Ben and I would each book a weekend away for one another. Aside from agreeing dates beforehand, the rest would be top secret until we opened our envelopes on Christmas morning. We knew that staying in the UK made sense, and that we’d stick to a modest budget.
So come Christmas morning, here was my surprise. A weekend in the Brecon Beacons. The boy done good.
We would be heading off to the Welsh wilderness for a long weekend, staying in a hand-built shepherd’s hut on a little mountain farm. It sounded idyllic, especially if you pretended that it wasn’t going to be in February.
So here’s our story of a weekend getaway that made us feel a million miles from home, without having to go that far. And the best Christmas present.
Getting to the Brecon Beacons, Wales
You can get to the town of Abergavenny, on the southern edge of the Brecons, easily by mainline train. But for this trip, there’s a lot of reasons to do it by road.
For starters, it’s cheaper and faster, but you’ll also want to be able to get around once you’re there. The farm we called home for the weekend was about a mile outside of the village of Talybont. It is possible to get there by public transport, but it’s much easier to do so on your own timetable in the car.
It was the best part of a three hour drive heading up from the south coast, but a lot more fun than sitting in airports.
Our accommodation: Aber Farm Shepherd’s Huts
Ben stumbled across Aber Farm on Airbnb, and I’m glad he did. It’s a charming sort of place, a proper little working hill farm, with a handful of shepherd’s huts dotted around the field running next to the tiny road. Having the other huts around meant that you never felt too alone in the Welsh wilderness, but equally they were well-spaced enough to feel like we had some privacy.
Our shepherd’s hut had been handmade by our hosts and it showed. Although it didn’t look quite so much like some of the vintage huts we’d seen before, the beautifully crafted details more that made up for it. A large cabin bed/sleeping platform, made up with clean sheets, stretched the width of the hut. A old pine kitchen table and sturdy metal chairs gave us somewhere comfy to sit and eat breakfast, and the little wooden cubbies were perfect for storing away our supplies for the weekend. A smart little woodburner sat in one corner, and the small kitchen unit was full of (immaculately clean) utensils and crockery, ready for us to use with the efficient little gas stove.
Our hut, like the others, is technically off-grid, but there’s a thoughtfully installed LED lighting system and USB charging points. You can enjoy the log-burner and lanterns, but there’s a little helpful tech for when you just want to find your socks in the middle of the night.
Had the weather been warmer, we’d have been able to enjoy sitting on the little terrace and taking advantage of the campfire area.
Down on the farmyard you can find the washhouse, shared between the three huts but warm and equipped with everything you’d need in the shower room. There’s also a fridge and a large washing up sink here too. (There was a beautiful little stone sink in our hut. But for proper dishes, it suited us best to walk down here). This is where you leave your car parked too, so I was glad I’d packed my wellies.
You can find our little hut on Airbnb from as little as £52 a night (if you stay out of season like we did).
Day one: Settling in and walking Carn Pica
We arrived and checked in at our shepherd’s hut around noon. Knowing that we still had a few hours of daylight left for exploring, we decided to tackle nearby Carn Pica. Rising up behind the little village of Aber, this peak is an imposing climb but we knew would be a perfect way to get our bearings in the landscape.
We borrowed most of our route from this walk we found online (thanks, Countryfile!), and made our way first to the smooth waters of Talybont reservoir and then up a steep bridlepath up onto the moorland. The climb became shallower as we headed further up, plateauing in places until we were high enough to see Carn Pica in ahead and the reservoir, ever shrinking, below.
Carn Pica is less a mountain, and more a plateau. After a scramble up the last stretch of path to reach the top, we turned around to take in the view that had been growing on the horizon behind our backs. It felt like all of South Wales was spread beneath our feet (An outrageous exaggeration, but we did feel on top of the world).
A pretty, tumbledown stone cairn greets you at the top, and on a cold February day so do patches of snow and ice. It was beautifully other-worldly up there, crisp and cold and clear. Thankfully we were roasting from our climb, but we pilled on more layers as we took in the panorama around us.
From the top of Carn Pica, a path takes you across the plateau and along a narrow ridge. The wind blustered and blew as we made our way along, but the sweeping views more than made up for it as we approached Allt Lywd – the hill top towering over Talybont reservoir. The path tracks in a horseshoe shape, gently undulating as it cuts deep into the heather around you. To your left and right the mountainside drops steeply away, forming barren but beautiful glacial valleys.
The geographer in me was delighted.
By now we were pretty chilly, and were glad when the path started to dip down back towards the water. From Allt Lywd, the path heads arrow-like straight down through the moorland until it reaches the woods and fields below. You descend quickly (if not very gracefully) into a different world.
Back down in the meadows, we watched a fox eye us up curiously as we made our way onto an old farm trail and back onto the valley road. He was the only creature we’d encountered in the past hour and a half or so, and it was a little while longer before we met another man or beast.
We meandered back towards Aber Farm just as dusk was starting to fall. Starving, a quick wash and brush up was in order before we hopped in the car and into Talybont to find some sustenance. The White Hart Inn answered our call by thankfully having a) a roaring fire, b) no need to wait for a tables and c) beef and ale pie on the menu. I was happy. We comfortably installed ourselves for the remainder of the evening.
Day two: Talybont reservoir, Fan-y-big and all the waterfalls
After a surprisingly cosy night in our shepherd’s hut, we woke to the patter of raindrops on our roof. Determined not to be put off by a little rain we cracked on brewing coffee on the stove and tucking into breakfast.
Our patience was rewarded, as the cloud slowly started to lift. So we packed up our waterproofs (I’ve learned not to trust the weather in this part of the world) and hit the road.
Had we been coming from further afield, we would have skipped out the first part of our walk and headed straight to one of the car parks near Torpantau on the far side of the reservoir. But it seemed a shame to jump in the car, so we took the chance to skirt along the edge of the reservoir and the gracefully meandering Caerfanell river in the valley bottom. The sky brightened all the while whilst we walked, calling us up onto the mountains.
At Blaen-y-glyn we left the road and followed the river a short way along the footpaths. It cascades down off the hillside in a series of dramatic little waterfalls, each crashing with water at this time of year. Veering a little away from the river on a smaller path led us to the foot of Nant Bwrefwr, another torrent of water we wanted to follow to make our way up on to the mountain.
We paused by these falls to tuck into our lunch, along with several other clusters of walkers who’d also realised this was a darned good view to enjoy with a sandwich. Suitably refreshed we threw ourselves into the biggest climb of the day, up on to Craig-y-Fan Ddu and on to Fan-y-Big.
Craig-y-Fan Ddu is another plateau, similar to (and a near neighbour of) Carn Pica. It’s a moon-like landscape of deep heather, shallow pools and occasional rugged, angular rocks. In between the scudding clouds each pool and puddle gleamed a deep blue, reflecting the skies above.
Higher up, snow crunched underfoot and lay in rivulets running down from the peaks ahead. Cribyn and Pen-y-Fan loomed large in front of us. It was at this point that the cloud finally descended and we found ourselves struggling at speed into our waterproofs as the heavens opened.
We’d reached Bwlch l-y-Fan, a col between two peaks. From here we could continue up into the cloud and attempt Pen-y-Fan, or head down off the mountain to enjoy the slightly brighter weather below. We chose the second option, we’re not gluttons for punishment. I’ve enjoyed Pen-y-Fan before, but it’s still there for us to enjoy again on another, better day.
It’s a beautiful walk down off the ridge and the Brecon Way carves a sweeping route down into the valley. The views are so enticing that you have to remember from time to time to turn around and remind yourself of the ochre peaks studding the skyline behind you.
The rain didn’t last long, and before we knew it we’d struck the edge of the woodland below and were heading towards Torpantau at the watershed between two valleys. This route brought us back almost to the waterfalls we’d explored earlier in the day.
But with the late afternoon sun behind us we peeled off onto the Taff Trail to take high road around the southern edge of the Talybont reservoir.
It’s a completely different landscape up on this path. Tall fir trees line the route and break occasionally to give panoramic views over the lake and Carn Pica beyond. To our delight, a rainbow appeared and arched across the trail at one point. But by this time my legs were done in, my snacks all devoured and I was mostly glad that the trail led gently downs the valley floor and home.
Shattered but happy, we had good intentions of exploring another of Talybont’s eating and drinking establishments on Saturday evening. But it turns out the locals know best and the Star was fully booked by the time we popped our head in the bar at 6.30. The menu looked great – proper home-cooked Welsh dinners – and cosy little rooms warmed by coal fires with old red quarry tiles underfoot. I’d go out of my way to book ahead on a future visit.
Fortunately, there was a table near the fire waiting in the White Hart, and we were quite content to settle in for a carbs and Scrabble marathon.
Day three: The Brecon Canal and Tor-y-Foel
And now for something completely different.
After two days exploring the mountains, it was time to spend our last day in the valleys. This part of the world might be best-known for it’s peaks, but it’s also home to some pretty waterways.
So for the full Brecons experience, we followed the Brecon canal from Talybont into the nearby village of Llangynidr. The canal loops it way through the gentle hills of the Usk valley from village to village, skirting little hill farms and shady woodlands. The towpath trail felt blissful on the legs after two days of climbing (it’s worth defending myself as I’d been back from punishing my knees in La Plagne for just six days at this point).
But I’m lulling you into a false sense of security. Flat walking all day? You know me well enough to know that’s unlikely.
From Llangynidr you can either head back to Talybont along the valley bottom, or you can take high road up and over the mountain – Tor-y-Foel to be precise. A footpath creeps out of woodland alongside the canal and up into lowland farmland. The path becomes a old road, lined with crumbling stone walls and tumbled with tree roots under foot. It climbs slowly but steadily, and by the time you reach the upper section of the path on the open moorland it rolls up and down until you eventually reach a tiny cairn that marks the peak.
Having had fantastic luck with the weather all weekend, we were a little lucked out by this point. Tor-y-Foel remained stubbornly in cloud all day, and when we reached the top there was nothing for it but to take hilarious (at the time) photos of the lack of view. In compensation though, it was wonderfully atmospheric. Emerging from the cloud on the far side of the peak brought us out high above Talybont reservoir, where we could down on the paths we’d walked for the past few days.
Once your adventures are over, if you’re heading back down to the M4 from the Brecon Beacons like us, stop in the little town of Crickhowell. The Court Room cafe is a little gem that serves good coffee and homemade cakes in the sympathetically restored courtroom above the Georgian market hall. You’ve earned it, after all.
If you’re interested in more Welsh adventures, you can check out some of my other favourite delights in this part of the world in 3 unmissable stops on a road trip in Wales.