CRAIG Y CILAU
Here’s a Walk Wednesday from famous Brecon Beacons based author, mountain leader and teacher Kevin Walker. This week’s walk offers a variety of unique scenery and history that includes: Tramways, abandoned quarries, stunning views of the Usk Valley and some interesting caves.
A spectacular walk by any standard, using an old tramway to give easy access into what would otherwise be very difficult terrain.
DISTANCE – 4kms (2½ miles).
HEIGHT GAIN – Negligible.
START POINT – National Park car park on Llangattock Hillside.
GRID REFERENCE – SO/209154.
MAPS – OS Explorer OL13. OS Landranger 161.
I know I have written about this area before, but the last walk I described here was fairly adventurous! This route is far more straightforward and accessible. Indeed, some people may find getting to the start the most adventurous part!
The National Park car park on Llangattock Hillside is best reached from Crickhowell by taking the A4077 over Crickhowell Bridge towards Gilwern. Soon after leaving the town, the road straightens and begins to climb, passing a car showroom set well back on the right. Shortly past this, and almost at the crest of the hill, turn right onto a lane (following the brown “bunkhouse” signs), and soon cross the canal via a humpback bridge. Take the next right then the first left (sudden and over a narrow bridge), and follow the very narrow lane steeply up via a number of very sharp bends. You eventually cross a cattle grid by the Wern Riding Centre and soon reach open common. At the T junction by a gas pumping station (a local eyesore!), turn right and follow the road (once a tramway) for just under 1km to where a concrete track on the left leads up to the car park.
Once at the car park, the whole of this fascinating area is readily accessible, and you can easily spend a couple of interesting hours exploring the old quarries above the car park. The simplest way to reach these is by following the grassy track that heads uphill from the car park entrance, soon reaching a junction just before the ruins of an old limekiln. If you follow the track ahead, around to the right of the ruins, and then back left, you can then walk for some distance, first alongside the large Darren Quarry, then past smaller bays, almost always on a level, grassy track with spectacular views over the Usk Valley. Alternatively, by turning right at the junction, you can follow a slightly more rocky (but equally easy) path that leads via a steep-sided cutting into “Pinnacle Bay”, part of the huge Pant-y-rhiw Quarry, often frequented by rock climbers. At the far end of this bay, the cliffs get bigger and more spectacular, then deteriorate into a large amphitheatre of loose rock. Although the original landslide occurred in 1948, rocks still fall on a regular basis, and huge blocks litter the ground. The lighter the colour of the rock, the more recently it has moved. Stay well back!
The best and most stunning walking is to be had further west, along the old tramway. Starting from the car park, descend to the lane, turn left, and continue until you come to a collection of buildings. Although your onward route lies straight ahead along the track, there is no right of way past the first house, so bear right down the lane for a short distance, then bear left and up (waymarked) to rejoin the track beyond the house. Your route is now obvious – simply follow the wide, level, grassy tramway into increasingly spectacular surroundings.
After about 500 metres you reach a wide, level area, beyond which the tramway narrows. If you look back and to the left you will notice a small quarried bay with a narrow cave entrance. This is “Fell Swoop”, and is a “dig”, where local cavers have removed the rock and mud that filled the passage at the end of the last Ice Age, in the hope that they might find open passage beyond. So far they have only gone about 300 metres. On the opposite side of the tramway is a path leading steeply down. This is the site of a tramway incline, along which the limestone-laden trams descended on their way to the limekilns at Llangattock Wharf. If you look carefully at the lip of the incline, you can still see the marks made by the chains that controlled the descending trams, and the large circular depression is where the brake-wheel used to sit. The sparse masonry is all that is left of the brakeman’s hut.
Beyond this point, the tramway becomes a little rougher for a short section, but it is worth persevering as it soon improves and becomes a level path again – an easily followed shelf across the steep hillside. Shortly after a sweeping left-hand bend, you enter the Craig y Cilau National Nature Reserve, and the scenery becomes stupendous! There is an excellent information board here.
Continue more easily along the tramway, looking out for lines of foundation stones bearing the marks of the “spreader bars”, soon reaching a sweeping right hand bend where a large rock buttress almost touches the path. There are several cave entrances here – all associated with Eglwys Faen, which literally translated means “stone church”. The main chamber of this cave was reputedly used as a place of worship during times of religious persecution. To visit the chamber, avoid the obvious entrance in the cliff (this has a sudden, unexpected and deep drop just inside), and make your way, instead, up the zigzag path on the far side of the buttress. The entrance to is obvious. Although there is little objection to you going in a short way, the rocks are very slippery and there are deep gaps in between the boulders. Do not go beyond the limit of daylight unless you are correctly equipped for caving – having a hand-held torch does not mean you are correctly equipped!
Back on the tramway, the route continues for another kilometre or so, the scenery staying spectacular throughout. Just beyond another short, rougher section, the tramway ends at a small quarry, and low down at the far end (not obvious until you are quite close) is a gated cave entrance. This is Ogof Agen Allwedd (known to cavers as “Aggy”), one of the longest caves in Britain, with a current explored length of well over 30 kilometres!
The easiest way back is to retrace your steps. However, you might like to visit the quarries on route, thus returning to the car park from above. To do this, follow the narrow path that heads up and right, away from the tramway, shortly after the information board at the entrance to the Nature Reserve. After about 300 metres, just where the path loses itself, follow the obvious rocky path around the steep knoll to the right, to emerge below the area of rockfall mentioned earlier. Either continue straight ahead on grassy tramways to reach the ruined limekiln above the car park, or trend right towards the quarry (but not too close to the rockfall area!) to enter Pinnacle Bay, then exit via the cutting at the far end to reach the same point. From the limekiln, follow the obvious track downhill to the car park.
This is a regular haunt for Kevin on his astonishing walking breaks. Check out what he has to offer at www.mountainacts.co.uk