Will Renwick seeks out a curious little shelter in the depths of the Black Mountains of Wales

My friends haven’t quite got the hiking bug I have and it’s hard to persuade them to join me on a trip at the best of times, let alone an overnight one in midwinter. To snare them this time I needed to pull out all the stops.
I promised masses of food, some form of alcohol to warm their bellies – normally works – and the clincher, a stay in a bothy. With two recruited we headed to the Black Mountains, a range on the eastern edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, but split from it by the River Usk.
Setting off from the valley-tucked village of Llanbedr, we rose through the fields and woodland above until we reached a dry stone wall marking the end of green cultivated land and the beginning of heather topped wilderness.
Following the Beacons Way to the cairn on Crug Mawr, the range was revealed in its entirety; four long mountains laid out ahead like the fingers on a hand, their tops running for miles on end.
The valleys below were so deep that, without a map, what lay in-between the mountains was left to the imagination. Hidden in the first valley we plunged into we found Partrishow’s little church.
We poked our heads through the door only to be drawn in by its dramatic interior. A rood screen seemed to take up the whole inside and at the back loomed a terrifying depiction of Doom – an eight foot skeleton with an evil grin and a sickle in hand.
It was then back uphill onto the next ridge and we began to feel the weight of our supplies, our bags filled with logs, mulled wine, potatoes and tins of beans. Vital kit for a bothy.

Grwyne Fawr bothy

Image by Martin Elliott

As the sun fell over our shoulders  The Beacons Way abandoned us, heading down to Llanthony Priory and its pub. We were left to push on along a less walked path into deeper wilderness until we finally found our bothy.
The tiny, dark stoned building blends into the heather on the steep banks of Grwyne Fawr Reservoir and a sharp eye was needed to spot it. We squeezed ourselves in one by one (three people is almost all it can take), the stove was lit, potatoes thrown in and the night passed by board games and moments outside to appreciate the Dark Sky Reserve.
Full with mulled wine, we climbed the ladder to sleep on the boards above. The bothy had spared us from what had been one of the coldest nights of the year so far.
When we emerged in the morning we were met by a frost-covered landscape. The cold proved a blessing for our journey back as the usually sticky, peat layered hilltop was frozen solid. With easy walking, we were free to take in our surroundings. To the west the Brecon Beacons, to the south the witch’s hat of Sugar Loaf, the sliced in half Skirrid and Wales’ very own Table Mountain, all part of the mix matched hills of Monmouthshire.
Running out of ridge to walk, we dropped down into the mist-pooled valley to arrive back in Llanbedr, completing what might prove to become a winter tradition for us all.
Photography: Martin Elliott

Route description

Church in Llanbedr
GR: SO239203

  1. Facing church turn R following road to footpath on R. Cross bridge, go over stile and uphill keeping L when path forks. Cross road and follow path through fields. Bend L uphill behind house and follow track L eventually crossing gateway into upland.
  2. Path joins Beacons Way (you can follow signposting until stage 3). Follow path R uphill to cairn on Crug Mawr. Descend on path E. Follow signposting to Partrishow church and continue behind it going through fields and the hamlet. Follow road over bridge and continue L uphill on track N. When reaching upland continue N between woodland and enclosure. Follow Beacons Way N for 2.5km to pile of stones on Bal Bach. Ignore Beacons Way path R and turn L on path downhill W.
  3. Descend with path NW around Bal Mawr. Follow edge of woodland. When path wheels uphill climb stile into forestry. Join track and zigzag with it downhill until joining a rocky path. Continue R with it, heading N uphill through valley to reservoir.
  4. Bothy is located on the N end of reservoir, low on E bank.
  5. Leaving bothy, head back to reservoir dam and cross it. Head SW between fence posts and sharply uphill to path on ridge top. On it turn L. Follow S on hilltop roughly 7km until rejoining the path from stage 1, below Crug Mawr.
  6. Retrace stage 1 route from Crug Mawr back to Llanbedr.