Here’s another great Walking Wednesday from the man with encyclopedic knowledge of the Brecon Beacon’s National Park, Kevin Walker.
If you haven’t planned anything for the weekend, than how about walking the Brynoer Circuit, near Talybont-on-Usk? It’s a lengthy but straightforward scenic walk across the cultural divide between mid and south Wales.
DISTANCE – 21kms (13 miles)
HEIGHT GAIN – 500 metres (1600 feet).
START POINT – Parking area near canal drawbridge in Talybont on Usk.
GRID REFERENCE – SO/112227.
MAPS – The walk is inconveniently situated on the split between OS Explorer OL12 and OL13, and OS Landranger 160 and 161. However, it is covered in its entirety by the BMC/Harvey British Mountain Map of the Brecon Beacons, and by Harvey Superwalker Brecon Beacons East.
An amazingly atmospheric walk through widely contrasting landscapes. With panoramic views, industrial heritage and ancient history, there is something here for everyone.
Talybont on Usk is easily reached from the A40 between Brecon and Abergavenny. The parking area is on the far side of the canal drawbridge, an iconic feature as you drive through the village.
From the parking area, cross the drawbridge, turn right onto the canal towpath, and follow this as far as the first bridge. Leave the canal and cross the bridge, then go straight on up the lane until it curves left across a bridge and deteriorates into a rough track. Cross the bridge and turn right.
You are now on the Brynoer Tramroad, your route for the next 9kms. The tramroad was built around 1815 by George Overton, who also built the Stockton & Darlington Railway, generally considered to be the first railway in Britain (although pre-dated by the Brynoer Tramroad by ten years). It was built to link the Trefil Limestone Quarries and the Brynoer coal mines with the canal. It had fallen into disuse by the 1870s.
The route is really obvious – just keep straight on at all junctions, and ignore the modern forestry track that you meet part way along. Keep your eyes open for remains of the sleeper stones all the way along, if you can drag them away from the views, which get better as you climb. After 5kms you emerge from the woods at Pen Rhiw-calch where you meet a rough track (along which you will return). There is a stone sign here – follow the arrow towards Trefil, crossing the track and negotiating a cattle-grid.
The tramroad in this section has been used by a modern forestry track, but keep your eyes open because as soon as this track starts to descend, you need to keep level along a much narrower and initially less well-defined path that veers off slightly right. You are now back on the original tramroad, and your route is obvious again for a further 4kms. Having crossed a boggy hillside, you enter a spooky wood where the tramroad crosses very steep ground on a shelf hewn across the slopes – impressive stuff. Immediately after a rocky gully (where the original track has been swept away by winter storms), the tramroad makes its unlikely route across the precipitous headwall of Cwm Crawnon. Take your time on this section – there are steep drops below you and the path is quite “interesting” in places! It is fine if taken steadily, the difficulties soon ease, and you shortly reach a wooden footbridge across a stream, beyond which is another world! You have left the agricultural splendour of mid Wales and entered the industrial splendour of south Wales.
Continue along the tramroad, awkward and muddy in places, until you reach the remains of an old limekiln on the right, just beyond which you should climb the bank on the right to reach a quarry track. There is a stone picnic table and a memorial stone here – a great place to stop for a break and a gaze, for the views are truly spectacular.
Once you have rested, face the memorial stone and the views, turn to the left, walk along the quarry track, and enter the ravaged landscape of Hendre Quarry, beloved of film makers, most recently used for Dr Who, the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, and Clash of the Titans 2. Follow the main quarry track for another 1500 metres, passing various ruins, to where a tarmac track comes down from some brick buildings on the left. At this point there is a muddy, rutted track on your right – your onward path. Before following this, however, you might like to walk up left into the quarry and explore, for it is a surreal place. Beware, though, of unexpected drops and loose rock. If you lose your bearings, head for the strange “hopper” structure (visible from most parts of the quarry) as it is easy to regain the junction from here.
Exploration over, follow the muddy, rutted track towards the distant Brecon Beacons. It soon starts to descend and gets easier to follow, then curves to the right around the edge of a large bog – once a lake and presumed site of an iron age village. Continue along the increasingly obvious path to reach a junction with another rough track that comes in from the left, then carry straight on down a rocky section to reach Pen Bwlch Glasgwm. Your view now changes yet again, as you go from one side of the ridge to the other, and back into mid Wales. The Talybont Reservoir soon appears almost at your feet – a sudden and unexpected view that stops most people in their tracks!
Continue along the track – the route of a very ancient track over the Beacons – until (after just under 2kms) you reach Pen Rhiw-calch where you meet your outward route. Instead of retracing your steps along the tramroad, continue along the level modern forestry track, but after a short climb, and just where the modern track starts to descend, bear slightly right onto a grassy track, go through a broken iron gate, and continue to a surfaced lane at the base of Tor y Foel. Follow the lane down into the valley.
When you eventually reach the canal, cross the bridge, then turn left onto the towpath. On the opposite side of the canal is Overton’s Wharf and a long line of limekilns, built to turn the limestone from the quarries into lime for use on local fields (please note that the limekilns are on private land). Follow the towpath along the right side of the canal to return to the drawbridge – passing two very convenient pub gardens on the way!
You can find more detailed information about this walk and the landscape through which it travels, in Kevin Walker’s book, “Undiscovered Wales”, published by Frances Lincoln.