|An illustrated guide to fishing, walking, wildlife conservation and other attractions in and around the Brecon Beacons National Park, South Wales, the country of the Red Kite|
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The Mountains of Kite Country
The Principality of Wales undoubtedly owes much of its separate national identity to the protection and difficulties offered in the past by its mountains. This was certainly the case in Kite Country, most of which equates to the magnificent terrain now described by the Brecon Beacons National Park. Whilst not quite as high or spectacular as the peaks of Snowdonia in the North of Wales, the Beacons have a grandeur and an appeal of their own and can often be just as dangerous. The mountains of Kite Country sustain a largely agricultural community and are a most significant recreational resource, attracting significant incomes from tourism.
The rocks in Kite Country are all sedimentary and comprise three main kinds: Devonian Old Red Sandstone, Carboniferous Limestone and Millstone Grit. The former gives the National Park its essential character of rolling grassy moorland with steep North-facing scarps and sharp ridges. The Sandstone landforms were carved during the last Ice Age as recently as 10,000 years ago. The summit of Pen y Fan, at 2907 feet, is the highest mountain in Southern Britain and is also the highest Old Red Sandstone summit in England and Wales. The National Park can be divided into four main Sandstone blocks: the Black Mountains to the East, the central Brecon Beacons, Fforest Fawr and the Black Mountain to the far West, abutting the Towy valley.
The Millstone Grit and Limestone found in the South of the National Park have created a completely different landscape, with fast flowing rivers carving out spectacular waterfalls over the hard, rocky ledges, wearing away the softer rock beneath. The areas of limestone contain numerous cave systems, underground rivers and "shake holes" - collapsed caves. Another characteristic is the "limestone pavement" at the tops of cliffs, where flat areas of rock have had grooves cut away by rainwater. See my page on Nature Reserves for more information on where to view some of these features.
At first sight the landscape of Kite Country can seem wild and untamed with its rocky peaks, vast moorland, hidden gorges and fast rivers. In truth, almost everywhere has been altered in some form by Man (and his sheep) since the first settlers began to arrive some 5000-10000 years go. The fertile valleys with their red soils washed down during the last Ice Age have been cultivated for centuries. The field patterns bordered by ancient hedges beloved by wildlife were largely set out during Norman times, or even earlier. Much of the high moorland above the field boundaries, some 36% of the whole area of the National Park, is used by neighbouring farmers as common grazing land under ancient rights dating from medieval times, the original forests having been cleared away long ago. This unfenced land clearly benefits the walker also, although you have to be a bit careful to avoid the sheep if you take your car onto one of the many high mountain roads. Nearly half of all this land is now managed by the National Park Authority.
Over the last few centuries industry has taken its toll and more recently some 19 reservoirs and 9000 hectares of softwood forestry have totally altered large areas of land. Thankfully, the lessons of these earlier mistakes have been learned in part and new areas of broadleaved forest are now being planted in their place.
The Brecon Beacons were designated as a National Park in 1957 and are now administered by the National Park Authority in Brecon. The Authority is responsible for the sensitive management of planning applications and the development of the Park for the benefit of inhabitants and visitors. It has a very significant role in conservation and related education, managing a number of study and interpretative centres. There is occasionally conflict between the Authority and some local residents, whose interests are not always best served in this delicate balancing act. On the one hand the Authority must do all it can to attract visitors to the area, even though this might actually endanger some of the treasures it is appointed to protect. There is concern over the extent of erosion on the mountains caused by the numbers of visitors and a great deal of work is done by volunteers to repair this damage, whether on behalf of the Authority or of the other main conservationist landowner, the National Trust. If you wish, you can join one of these groups and do your bit to repair trails or stone walls, they will be only too happy to welcome you.
Much lasting damage is caused to ancient trails across the mountains by some highly irresponsible drivers of 4x4 vehicles who view the existence of certain byways as a personal challenge to their ability. Whilst I have no particular objection to their hobby, there are better places for them to practice their techniques without destroying valuable habitat and everybody else's pleasure. Please report any illegal off-roading to the Police on 101 or to the National Park. Alternatively, you can fill in a form online and send it to Powys Council or call them direct on 01597 827465.
Although some visitors seem to be under the assumption that it is possible to roam at will across these vast areas of open land, you should realise that practically the whole of the National Park is privately owned. In some areas access is only permitted at certain times of year and in others rights of access exist provided that walkers keep to the marked trails. The Black Mountain is a true wilderness area with few obvious trails. What is most important is to show sensitivity for the countryside and to take care not to offend local inhabitants, especially farmers, whose livelihoods are under enough stress already. It is also vitally important for you to obtain one of the large-scale Ordnance Survey maps before you set out for the hills. These will not only show you the right trails to take but also indicate the locations of interesting and ancient sites such as Stone Age burial chambers and Roman roads. The Ordnance Survey also publishes excellent walking and touring guides to the area, all of which are easily available locally.
Don't forget also that one of the most significant long-distance footpaths in the British Isles - Offa's Dyke - also passes through the Eastern part of Kite Country, along the ridges of the Black Mountains. Constructed in the late 8th century under the orders of Offa, the King of Mercia, this was originally a vast earthwork up to 8 metres high stretching along the entire English/Welsh border from North to South coasts. Today you can follow it for over 170 miles, although it is much collapsed and hard to track in places. You can find a lot more information from the Offa's Dyke Association and visit the Association's interactive exhibition in Knighton, Powys. Maps and guide books are easily obtained from most local bookshops and tourist offices. The Offa's Dyke path is one of the recognised UK National Trails.
For a really good introduction to the beauty of the mountains and also some excellent practical advice on walking in the Brecon Beacons I can thoroughly recommend the various books by Chris Barber, and also Nick Jenkins, who is a superb photographer as well as an excellent authority on the history and the environment of the National Park.
Beginners and those who need some sort of introduction to mountain walking in the area would be well advised to take part in one of the many, excellent, guided walks organised throughout the year by the Brecon Beacons Park Society. This is also a very good way for single walkers to take part in safety and meet new friends.
A good map may also save your life if the weather turns bad and you are forced to navigate using your compass and/or GPS - you were going to carry one, weren't you? Whilst it is always advisable to keep off the hills in bad weather, the clouds could come down quite quickly and surprise you. At these times the indistinct summits, featureless ridges and unexpected bogs and shake holes of the mountains can be extremely dangerous, testing even the most experienced and best-equipped special forces soldiers who train here regularly. If you get into trouble the local volunteers from the Brecon Mountain Rescue Team, police officers and Royal Air Force pilots will try to help you at their own risk - and at no cost, unlike some countries. However, the best protection is to avoid trouble in the first place. Get a good weather forecast. Never walk alone. Take good protective clothing and enough food and make sure somebody knows where you are going.
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