THE DRAGON’S BACK
In today’s Walk Wednesday the most knowledgable Kevin Walker talks us through a very Welsh walk.
Whenever I think of Wales, I think of Dragons! So here’s a stunning walk involving the exploration of a sleeping dragon in the Black Mountains.
DISTANCE – 14kms (9 miles)
HEIGHT GAIN – 750 metres (2500 feet).
START POINT – End of No Through Road to Castell Dinas.
GRID REFERENCE – SO/175303.
MAPS – OS Explorer OL13, OS Landranger 161.
This is one of the classic hillwalks of the Black Mountains, with a stepped ascent up a fine and surprisingly narrow spur with superb views, ending up on Waun Fach, the highest point in the Black Mountains. There is an optional visit to Castell Dinas (a Medieval castle built on an earlier Iron Age Hill fort) at the start walk, and an optional visit to The Castle Inn to rehydrate at the end!
Cars can be parked at the end of the narrow No Through Road leading to Dinas Farm, at Pengenffordd, on the A479 between Crickhowell and Talgarth. Please park carefully so as not to cause any obstruction.
From the parking area, take the rough track that leads around to the right of the farm buildings, and follow this gently uphill to reach a gate leading to the open hillside. Go through the gate and turn right. The start of the Dragon’s Back is obvious above, the path climbing steeply up the front of the first step, but before starting up the spur itself, it is worth taking a small detour to visit the remains of Castell Dinas. This is reached by following the field boundary to the right to reach a gate and stile, then climbing steeply to the summit. Reputed to be the highest Norman castle in Wales and England, little now remains of this 11th century fortress apart from the ruins of the gatehouse, and it is difficult to tell whether the ditches and ramparts are part of the earlier Iron Age hill fort or earthworks done by the Normans. In truth, they are most likely a mix of the two, with a large dollop of later work thrown in for good measure! Although undoubtedly impressively situated, and with great views of the Dragon’s Back, it is a strange place, sad and forlorn, with huge piles of grass-covered rubble and at atmosphere of neglect.
Exploration over, retrace your steps to the stile, then steel yourself for the steep climb ahead. It is not too bad if taken steadily, and you will be amazed at how quickly the views open out. The spur soon levels out, then descends into a saddle before rearing up again – oscillating up and down, just like a Dragon’s Back! The route is always obvious, and whilst there are often small side paths that take a slightly easier route, the best way is always to keep to the crest. This may be fractionally harder, but the extra views more than compensate for the additional effort! Eventually you reach a small but tall cairn with a small memorial plaque on the ground nearby.
The spur now levels and you soon reach a fork. Ignore the path that hugs the side of the valley to the left, and follow instead the slightly wider, grassy path to the right, giving easy walking along the crest of the now broad ridge, often with the wonderfully evocative sound of skylarks all around you. It is along this section, too, that you may have gliders for company, soaring backwards and forwards along the ridge looking for up draughts. On a good day, the views from here are nothing less than awesome – way out past Mynydd Troed to the central Brecon Beacons, then on to Fan Gihirych and Fan Hir, with the stunning Carmarthen Fan in the far distance.
Keep trending right on the main path and you will soon reach a low rocky cairn. Two hundred metres beyond this, take the right fork, and climb a series of short, sometimes steep steps to reach the top of the main ridge at Pen y Manllwyn, where there is another low rocky cairn. The eastern horizon, hitherto hidden by the mountainside, now makes its presence felt as the views open out even more. Turn right, and follow the wide, peaty path along the top of the broad ridge, climbing onto the increasingly boggy dome of Waun Fach, the highest point of the Black Mountains. Highest point it may be, but it is too broad to be a good viewpoint, and few people will want to visit the large concrete “boulder” (the remains of an old trig point) that marks the summit, as in all but the driest weather, it lies in the middle of a small pool in the centre of a bog! Waun Fach means “little moor” – a better name would be Mignen Fawr – “big bog”! (You can, in fact, by-pass the summit, which is not a bad idea during or after wet weather! To do this, look for the faint quad-bike trail that veers of to the right on the approach to the summit, and follow this around the hillside to reach the broad part of the Pen Trumau spur.)
On reaching the summit (or as near as you dare!), turn hard right, walk across the boggy plateau and make your way onto a reasonable path which descends a broad ridge before dropping more steeply to an obvious saddle. It is easy to get disorientated here, particularly in misty conditions, so make sure you are heading just south of west. Follow the path as it curves to the left along Pen Trumau, then drop steeply into the saddle between Pen Trumau and Mynydd Llysiau, with great views down the Grwyne Fechan with Macnamara’s Road obvious along its right side. At the cairn in the saddle, turn hard right, and follow the well-defined track down the hillside, soon bearing left along Rhiw Trumau and descending relatively easily to a sunken lane which leads to tarmac. Turn right down the lane.
The direct route back to the car follows the lane straight ahead to a farm, then swings left and up a muddy track to reach the saddle below Castell Dinas, from where it is a simple matter to retrace your steps to your car. However, if you take the first turning to the left, go past the Cwmfforest Riding Centre, then follow the bridleway to the right, you will reach The Castle Inn, a great place to relax over a well-earned pint. On leaving the inn, head to the right alongside the road to reach the lane to Castell Dinas.