Mount Snowdon 1085 m
Pen-y-Fan 886 m
Hay Bluffs 677 m
Sugarloaf Mountain 596 m
A 4000-year old language, the most castles per capita in Europe, beautiful and often remote mountain scenery, lush and brooding valleys; Wales has much to offer for the independent traveller. It therefore comes as a surprise that the country is by far the least visited of Britain’s nations. Ten million annual visitors (and a relatively few 1 million from abroad) make the trip to the principality; a mere sixth of the number of people visiting Scotland. Maybe it’s the rain, with the small village of Capel Curig in Snowdonia being the wettest place in the UK with an annual rainfall of a sopping 2600 mm.
Wales is the poorest region in the UK, with a GDP per capita that is only 72% of that of England. For centuries, the profits of its natural resources, such as coal and slate, ended up in the pockets of mine and quarry owners who were often based outside of the principality. The UK government too has a rather shady record when it comes to managing the local economy. In 1966, and despite heavy protests, the Welsh Tryweryn valley was flooded to provide water for the city of Liverpool. A year later, the community of Aberfan was devastated, when a colliery spoil tip, managed by the National Coal Board came gushing down a mountain slope above the village, burying the local school and resulting in the tragic loss of 144 lives.
But independence from the UK is, at least for now, not on the cards. Admittedly, the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru (which translates straightforwardly as Party of Wales) is a significant political force. Brexit has hit the country hard with an agricultural economy that has lost its Brussels subsidies and subsequently also a large chunk of its customer base, while the English-nationalist rhetoric and actions of the Conservative administration undermine unionist bonds all across the UK, not just in Wales. But you will find a gentle form of cultural nationalism here, in particular in Welsh-speaking communities that are very prominent in the northern part of the country. No independence-seeking, constitutional sledgehammer just yet; But if the Tory government continues to do what they are doing ….
Gwynant Valley, Snowdonia
Given that you will be travelling through often remote areas, having your own mode of transportation is certainly a bonus. Yet, reaching the starting points of the individual hikes by public transport is (just about) possible, although locally you might have to rely on Uber rides or taxis. There is a very handy direct train link from London Paddington to Abergavenny, taking about 2½ hours. If you head north first, there are trains from Liverpool and Manchester (both via Chester, 3-4 hours depending on connections) to Bangor, from where Bus #S2 drops you off in Llanberis. Bangor and Abergavenny have a direct link that takes about 4 hours. For detailed prices and times you might want to consult Rome2Rio.
Amongst the hiking fraternity, the country of 3 million is probably most famous for the monumental, long distance Welsh Coastal Path. Completed in 2012, it runs for 870 miles (1400 km); from the north near the English town of Chester to the south around Chepstow, with a total rise and fall of a whopping 29,000 m. Tempted? You might need three month to complete the path. Not long enough for you? The path also links up with Offa’s Dyke National Trail along Wales’s eastern border with England and it is therefore possible to circumnavigate the entire principality on foot for 1050 miles (or 1680 km).
But Wales also has some stunning mountain scenery, and I have chosen four one-day hikes which will offer a taste of the beauty of one of Britain’s more far-flung corners. The list must include the country’s highest mountain Snowdon (1085 m), but also integrates southern Wales’s top destination Pen-y-Fan (886 m). Higher-altitude enthusiasts might scoff at these elevations, but Alpine snobs might be reminded that the start of each hike is close to sea level, so you might still want to prepare yourself for a full-day workout. Two gentler hikes in southern Wales, chosen for their glorious vistas also make the list, namely Sugarloaf (596 m) as well as Hay Bluff (677 m).
Accommodation. To tackle Mount Snowden, you could base yourself in the nearby town of Llanberis, which has the most efficient tourist infrastructure in the area. Further afield, pretty, and bustling Betws-y-Coed is also a feasible option, as is the beautifully located village of Bedgellert which is nestled deep in the gorgeous Gwynant valley. But if you prefer to spend the night right at the start of my chosen hike, then you might want to opt for the hamlet of Rhyd Ddu, situated on a high plain at the southern foot of the mountain with a proper end-of-the-world feel to it.
Youth Hostels are dotted around the area in Rhyd Ddu, Llanberis, Bryn Gwynant and Pen-y-Pass (see www.yha.org.uk). As always, Booking.com lists plenty of accommodation options.
For the other three hikes in southern Wales the most obvious base is Abergavenny (with comprehensive listings on booking.com) from where you can walk straight up Sugar Loaf Mountain, while Pen-y-Fan and Hay Bluff are both around 25 miles (or 1 hour) away. Again, there are some cheap (ish) youth hostel options at Brecon Beacons Danywehallt and Libanus.
Hike #1: Mount Snowdon
Rhyd Ddu Path: 4-5 hours
Start/Finish: Rhyd Ddu Car Park
There are many routes leading to the top of Wales’s highest mountain. Sedentary types can just catch the mountain railway in Llanberis (with the Diesel journey slightly cheaper than the steam counterpart) which will drop you off after about a one-hour ascent. You can book a return ticket or walk the 2 hours or so back into town. The railway follows Snowdon’s most popular path (rather descriptively referred to as the Llanberis path) and on a sunny day, hordes of day trippers, whether on the train or on foot do precisely that. There are a further five tracks with differing elevation gains, distances, and difficulty levels (for more detailed information you might want to check out this article by the Snowdonia tourist board). Yet at least for me, the Rhyd Ddu Path is by far the most attractive one, because it is frequented by the least amount of people. But is is also a little more challenging to get to. From Llanberis head east along the A4086 and across the mountain pass of Pen-y-Pass. Shortly after, turn right into the A498, past beautiful Lake Gwynant. In the photogenic village of Bedgellert turn right once more onto the A4085 towards Rhyd Ddu. You can’t miss the car park in this tiny hamlet.
Hike #2: Pen-y-Fan
Trails ranging from 3 to 6 hours
Start/Finish: Pont at Daf car park A 470, 10 miles south of Brecon.
This hike starts at the National Trust’s Pont at Daf car park (free), just south of the town of Brecon, on the A 470, which dissects the Brecon Beacons National Park in a north-south direction. The car park is just a mile south of the Storey Arms pub. At the entrance to the trail, you will find a handy sign that maps out all the hiking options on offer. Most people just go straight up to Pen-y-Fan (whilst also taking in its sister peak Corn Du) and back down to the car park which should take you between 2 ½ and 3 hours. Not surprisingly at 886 m and 873 m it can get a little windy at the top, so come prepared. Alternatively, just before you reach the summit of Corn Du, you can follow a track to the right which takes you across a ridge and around the Upper Neuadd reservoir down into a valley. From there, you will climb back up to the three peaks of Cribyn, Pen-y-Fan and Corn Du, before taking the track back down to the car park. That trail should take you around 6 hours, with the extra time spent in the area well worth your while, as you will hike away from the crowds. This is certainly not the case on the main route up Pen-y- Fan, which has almost become a rite of passage in these parts. Both hikes are visually stunning with lakes and the odd small wood accentuating a rugged and harsh landscape that provides spectacular 360 degree vistas.
View from the top of Pen-y-fan
Hay Bluff and Lord Hereford’s Knob
3 or 6 hours
Start/Finish: Car Park Hay Bluff
This sheepishly termed circular walk of 9.2 km is featured on All Trails and should take you around 3 hours to complete. Hay Bluff Cark Park is just 5 miles south of the English book town of Hay-on-Wye (from its town centre, simply follow ‘Forest Road’ until you reach the parking area). From there it is straight up to the flat-topped mountain (a prominent launching spot for paragliders) and south-west along a ridge (and to the Lord’s knob) before descending back down to the car park. On a clear day, you will be rewarded with beautiful vistas over the Black Mountains to the south and west, the Wye Valley and mid Wales to the north, and the pastoral landscape of England in the east. If three hours is just too short for you, alternatively, you can hike up to flat-topped Hay Bluff, then continue along the east facing ridge on Offa’s Dyke Trail for about 2 hours. There is a very small path leading from Offa’s Dyke down a steep descent to the village of Capel-y-ffin. Once there, simply follow the road back up the River Honddu Valley for another two hours or so, until you reach the car park.
Speaking of the Honddu Valley: This is a stunning, almost mystical place. The valley is steep and densely wooded with some farms dotted alongside the river. It feels very remote and seems a million miles away from the crowds that one can encounter at Pen Y Fan or at Hay Bluffs. This is probably down to the fact that the valley is rather inaccessible, with just a single track road leading through it. You can take that road all the way from Abergavenny: In that town, head north on the A465. In the small village of Llanvihangel Crucorney turn left towards Llanthony and Capel-y-ffin. Continue down the narrow single-track road and across Gospel Pass until you reach the Hay Bluffs car park at the top of the ridge. The 20 mile journey will take you a good hour by car.
Hike #4: Sugarloaf Mountain
The easiest of my featured walks. Just a gentle 3-4 hour stroll through a pastoral landscape of fields and farms with a short, sharp, and windy ascent to the top. But the views back down into the valley are sublime. In Abergavenny walk (or drive if you must) along the A40 westward. Just past the Station Hotel, turn right into Chapel Road. Follow it. Chapel Road becomes Pentre Road. Keep going up the hill until you reach Parc Lodge Car Park, which is the start of your trail.