Despite the indignity of now having a twee stone National Trust tablet - bearing the name of the peak - placed upon its summit, the excavated, and subsequently reconstructed, Bronze Age cairn of Pen y Fan still occupies the same spot it has for millennia. The setting, here upon the summit plateau of this, the highest mountain south of Cadair Idris, is 'otherworldly' in the extreme, a desolate area of disintegrating sandstone slabs so uniform it would appear to have had its crown sliced clean off by a gigantic cleaver. Or similar instrument. Indeed, I have a profound sense of being upon something akin to Conan Doyle's 'Lost World', the effect accentuated by the restricted downward views due to the regularity of elevation of the immediate environment. Ha! A natural altar, if ever there was one, just like Corn Du across the way.
The downside to a visit here centres upon the seemingly endless procession of walkers determined to be able to say - in the immortal words of local comedian Max Boyce - 'I was there!' And good luck to 'em, I say, for it is some achievement. And who knows, a glimpse of that cairn may perhaps begin to germinate the seed that may one day flower into another stonehead? Perhaps. As for myself, though, a perch upon the protruding sandstone slabs below to the north is the order of the day. For here the natural world once more takes precedence, a striking panaroma rendered upon the broadest of canvas... the flamboyant sweep of the brush... as in the ridge Cefn Cwm Llwch boldly thrusting towards a Brecon sparkling white in the sunshine, the hillfort Pen y Crug rising to its left, itself illuminated by a passing shaft of light...the elegant skyline formed by The Black Mountains ending abruptly at the English border.... and the little, deft strokes to highlight detail.... a wild foal prancing and skipping far below, much to the apparent annoyance of its mother.. the site of a small defended enclosure upon the lower flanks..... Llyn Cwm Llwch shining like a precious stone beneath a monument to the death of a lost, frightened little boy. Yeah, that is what these mountains are all about. Contrasts.... Grieg's 'Morning' one moment, Holst's 'Mars' the next, but never, ever indifference. They insist you explore the full range and diversity of a sensory perception which, although perhaps fully utilised by our forebearers in the ongoing struggle to survive, is sadly under used by the majority of us nowadays in a society seemingly designed to anaesthetise. In short they make you feel ALIVE!! A primeval injection of reality into the bloodstream. Ha! More please....
Returning to the summit several hours later, all is virtually silent, the plateau almost deserted. Unlike virtually every other summit I've been on, it's almost eerie like this. The contrast, I guess. Hell, it just doesn't look like a mountain top! To be frank, Pen y Fan and Corn Du are very nearly unique in these Isles (the only other comparable pairing I know of are the much smaller Macleod's Tables on The Isle of Skye). Is this what attracted our ancestors so? Hmmm. Slowly I make my way back to the also virtually deserted Corn Du. After the crowds have gone, as they say.....
To be honest I don't know if I'll be back. If not, so be it, since I'm glad I came again. Besides, people will continue to make the pilgrimage to the cairns. Just as they always used to do.
Next stop on a tour of the central Beacons peaks, coming from Corn Du (22.5.2010). Arrived just after 11:30, already blazing hot under a cloudless sky.
Despite the hordes of people up here, the enormous flat summit gives enough room to find a spot overlooking the escarpment and Cwm Llwch, falling away dramatically to the north. The cairn itself is a modern construct and it's not easy to know if anything visible is original. To be honest, it doesn't really matter: the key to this site is the location rather than the monument itself. Just awesome.
Pen-y-Fan and its companion, Corn Du, are the summit peaks of the Brecon Beacons at 2,907ft and 2,863ft respectively.
By far the most recognisable mountains in South Wales because of their enigmatic 'flat tops' - the result of a layer of hard 'plateau bed' rock upon the soft Old Red Sandstone - it's hardly surprising these high places were venerated by the ancient cairn builders.
Not a great deal remains of Pen-y-Fan's summit cairn nowadays - the monument having been reconstructed, following excavation in 1991 - but what does exist only adds to the 'other worldliness' of this magnificent viewpoint. To be buried here must have been the Bronze Age equivalent of a spot in Westminster Abbey.... only many times more relevant being 'up here'.
The summit of Pen-y-Fan is not a quiet spot by any means, the eroded footpath scars testament to the many thousands of visitors who make the pilgrimage, for one reason or another, every year, a high percentage from the Storey Arms to the west. But find yourself a perch upon the crags a little below the summit to the north, gaze down into beautiful Cwm Llwch with its circular tarn, a cwm resplendent with ancient tales, and Pen-y-Fan remains an awesome place to be indeed. Just make sure you don't forget the sandwiches the Mam Cymru had lovingly prepared. Doh!
This country is well sheltered on every side (except the northern) by high mountains; on the western by those of cantref Bachan; on the southern, by that range, of which the principal is Cadair Arthur, or the chair of Arthur, so called from two peaks rising up in the form of a chair, and which, from its lofty situation, is vulgarly ascribed to Arthur, the most distinguished king of the Britons. A spring of water rises on the summit of this mountain, deep, but of a square shape, like a well, and although no stream runs from it, trout are said to be sometimes found in it.
This mountain is now called, by way of eminence, the Van, or the height, but more commonly, by country people, Bannau Brycheinog, or the Brecknock heights, alluding to its two peaks. Our author, Giraldus, seems to have taken his account of the spring, on the summit of this mountain, from report, rather than from ocular testimony. I (Sir R. Colt Hoare) examined the summits of each peak very attentively, and could discern no spring whatever. The soil is peaty and very boggy. On the declivity of the southern side of the mountain, and at no considerable distance from the summit, is a spring of very fine water, which my guide assured me never failed. On the north-west side of the mountain is a round pool [.. from which] issues a small brook [..] I am rather inclined to think, that Giraldus confounded in his account the spring and the pool together.
Cwm Llwch, the great glacial valley below and to the north west of Pen-y-Fan is rich with folklore regarding the Tylwyth Teg, 'the little people'.
Below is an extract regarding the valley's circular lake taken from 'The Welsh Fairy Book', W Jenkyn Thomas (1907):
'..In very ancient times there was a door in a rock hard by, which opened once in each year — on May Day — and disclosed a passage leading to a small island in the centre of the lake. This island was, however, invisible to those who stood upon the shore. Those who ventured down the secret passage on May Day were most graciously received by the fairies inhabiting the island, whose beauty was only equalled by their courtesy to their guests. They entertained them with delicious fruits and exquisite music. and disclosed to them many events of the future. They laid down one condition only, and that was that none of the produce of the island was to be carried away, because the island was sacred...'
On my ascent of the Vann mountain in Brecon, there often came a mass of limestone rolling down the precipice. "Ah sure," said the old shepherd, who was watching his fold on the mountain-side, "the fairies are at their gambols, master, for they sometimes do play at bowls with these chalk stones."
Such was his explanation; but, on gaining another ridge of the Brecon Beacon, I starteled a whole herd of these fairies, who scudded off as fast as their legs could carry them, having first changed themselves into a flock of sheep.
From 'The Philosophy of Mystery' by Walter Cooper Dendy (1841). Such cynicism from a man writing a book about apparitions.