Brecon BeaconsThese Empty Hills
he first time I came up to these empty hills, I fondly imagined them unchanged through the ages, since the days a Neolithic sun rose over them.
There is an invisible line drawn around the hills of the Brecon Beacons National Park at an altitude of about 1,000 feet. We cross it as we reach the ridge, panting slightly from the ascent. The wind is fierce enough to make my camera tremble in my hands. I brace my left wrist with my right palm, and pan across the patchwork of hills and fields spread out before us. I try to fit as much colour as I can into the frame; eye-aching green scattered with puffball grey-white sheep, the acid yellow of rapeseed, the windburnt dun of turned soil, and everywhere on the highlands, the brownish sage of sheep-clipped grass, so short it looks like suede. There are soot black cattle ahead of us, silhouetted against the chalky sky, and water runs in channels over earth and boots alike, carrying away the chocolate brown mud that sucked at our feet as we slipped and slid our way up the footpath. I peer into the viewfinder, shading it from the watery glare of the sun with my hand, and frown at the imperfect simulacrum shoe-horned into two square inches. I delete it, and instead scan the horizon, committing each line, colour and texture to memory. Below the boundary line we have just crossed, villages and hamlets are scattered among sheltered valleys and enclosed fields. They echo a pattern of settlement imposed by invading Norman armies flooding in from the east over a millennium ago, each cluster of dwellings sprouting up on the site of a manor house and its attendant cottages and outbuildings. Above the line, the lonely hilltops are inhabited only by sheep and a few cattle, free to wander at will. I am revisiting the Brecon Beacons for the first time in a few years, and here, up under the wide open skies, I feel like we have finally arrived. After passing picture postcard farms, bubbling brooks and winding country lanes, this is it. This is the place I remember.
These hills are not only divided along contour lines, geology is also in on the act. The peaks around us, smoothed by the ever-present wind and rain funnelling in from the Atlantic are formed from soft red sandstone. Flanking them is a band of jagged limestone crags and hills. This much harder stone has been fractured and split by the same elemental forces into vertiginous gorges and waterfalls as the rainwater makes its way back down to sea level. These idiosyncratic patterns of erosion give the park its split personality. I scan the map, noting that what it boasts in scenery, it lacks in toponymic imagination. The Black Mountain – Y Mynydd Du – is a range of hills dominating the west, while in the east, the almost entirely identically named, yet totally distinct Black Mountains – Y Mynyddoed Duon – rumple the horizon. To complicate things further, a low hill straddling the border with England is also called Black Mountain – translated as Twyn Llech in Welsh. Directly to the south of the green outline of the park on my map lies the post-industrial huddle of the South Wales Valleys, narrow and cluttered with crowded terraced towns. To its west are the fertile, rain soaked hills of Carmarthenshire, Wales’s cow country. To the north, the verdant wastes of Powys roll until they eventually collide with the Tolkienesque splendour of Snowdonia, which was designated as the first national park of Wales in 1951. The Pembrokeshire Coast followed a year later, and then five years after that in 1957, the Beacons became the final member in the Welsh trio of protected areas.
At the eastern edge of the park, where we are standing, windwhipped into silence, there is another line we can draw with our imaginations from our blustery vantage point. The border with England, however, is intermittently more tangible than a red-dotted line on a map. The footpath we are following – with varying success, as an earlier, unnecessary jaunt round a large field proved – is named for Offa’s Dyke. The story goes that this massive linear earthwork was thrown up by a poorly documented king of Mercia to protect his lands from marauding Celts, with a ditch to the west and a bank to the east. Recent findings suggest that digging may have begun in the immediate aftermath of the departure of Roman garrisons, some three centuries earlier. Whatever its true provenance, the endeavour was enormous, and the remains of the dyke are occasionally visible, swelling below the turf like a breaker. The footpath links them, forming an unbroken trail along the Welsh Marches from south to north.
I finger my cheekbones and the bridge of my nose gingerly, scorched by sun and burnt by wind in almost equal measure. In need of some respite from all that moving, tumbling air, I gesticulate at a deep, circular hollow off the path to our left, a place for us to escape the bellows blast from the west. We huddle down, unpack our sandwiches and eat hungrily, appetites boosted by the gallons of oxygen in our sails and the pints of blood pumped around bodies on the hike up. Once my body is satisfied, I look more closely around us. Squared-off stones poke like teeth through the mattress-thick cushion of crew-cut grass, and scraps of greasy wool flutter in the breeze, reminding us our shelter is only relative. Is this makeshift dining room man-made? Are we picknicking in the remains of someone’s home, or sheep-pen perhaps? Or even their grave? History pokes out from under the grass everywhere around here. The Celts left their mark with earthworks, firepits and burial mounds, but by 1066, the Normans had pushed them back as far west as Golden Valley. During the two centuries of warfare that followed, the invaders littered the hills with castles, ranging from great brooding piles to temporary fortifications. A motte could be thrown up in just over a week, and crowned with a wooden palisade. This might later be clad with stone and metalwork, or allowed to sink back from where it came. Remains of walls and tumbled towers lurk under every second hummock, and plenty more stand proud, yet to be covered with soil or chewed at by grasses. Later, rustier remains bear witness to the mighty role this region played in the Industrial Revolution; mines, mills, and pits cluster, railway lines lead to nowhere. I look at the list of attractions dotting my map. We will leave a more varied and surprising detritus behind us. In the 21st century, the park has left agriculture, warfare and industry behind it, and busies itself instead with tourism. Within striking distance of large centres of population on both sides of the border, it is very much the weekenders’ playground. The mud splattered glories of wading, climbing, jumping, biking and hiking might be lost to the archaeologists of the future, but who knows what they will make of the more lurid remains; the monkey sanctuary, the boutique distillery, the cave system at Dan-yr-Ogof, haunted inside with caveman dioramas, and outside with life-size fibreglass dinosaurs.
Fortified, we clamber, blinking, out of our hollow and turn to begin our descent, back the way we came. The promise of warmth and the dread of slipping back through the mud, downhill this time, ahead of us. Before dipping back down into the limestone fissures, I look over my shoulder. The first time I came up to these empty hills, I fondly imagined them unchanged through the ages, since the days a Neolithic sun rose over them. Their stark, empty beauty is far from timeless, however, and is largely man-made – or more accurately, sheep-made. George Monbiot calls this land a ‘sheep-wreck’ in Feral, his paean to rewilding, and longs for a reversal of overgrazing and the return of beaver, wolves, bison and even bear to the reborn wild wood. He recalls a time when these islands were so fecund, a man could walk from one bank of a river to another on the backs of the fish. I see the weathered peaks through different eyes now; scoured by the elements, their protection uprooted by tireless ovine mowing, their ecosystems reduced to a sketch of those few hardy plants that can survive without shelter. I squint to the wide open sky and see the light transformed into a dapple by leaves as trees barrel their way up from the soil, the whistle of the wind replaced by birdsong and the padding of murderous feet. Eyes on the ground to ensure my footing, I wonder, beyond castles and factories, tombs and plastic pterodactyls, what lies beneath it, what wonders it might yet hold.