A friend once sent me a text message from the top of Pen y Fan in South Wales. Mostly he just wanted to show off about his new phone, which he called a “video-enabled hypertrinket”, but I remember how excited he was by the famous walk that rises from the Neuadd reservoirs near Talybont and follows ridges round the summits of Corn Du, Pen y Fan, Cribyn and Fan y Big before dropping back to the dam and the Taf Fechan conifer plantations. I’ve wanted to walk the Brecon Horseshoe ever since.
A December morning: dense, low cloud, and a misty rain that seemed to hover rather than fall, as if water were simply a facet of the air. In waterproofs, hood up, I climbed to the ridge called Craig Fan Ddu behind a squad of soldiers on a training exercise, day-glo yellow and orange panels shining on top of their backpacks. The soldiers peeled away to the west as the sky cleared. Peat and moss underfoot put a spring in the step. There were no birds. Wind tore across the ridge from the east. Ahead, one cloud hid the tops of Pen y Fan and Corn Du like a shower-cap.
That cloud soon dispersed, revealing the billiard-table summits. More than 250,000 walkers come here each year, which means you can read the line of the path far ahead, the horseshoe arcing back along the ridge to the east, across the valley. To prevent erosion, the National Trust has built a stone-pitched path up and down the hills, and in the sensation and sound of my boots on that rough, stepped pavement was the week I spent as a conservation volunteer at 18, building a path just like this one up the flank of Ingleborough in the Yorkshire Dales. I thought of camp beds in the village hall in Horton-in-Ribblesdale, Sarah from Leeds doing her Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, Ryan from Connecticut in his mullet and Guns N’ Roses T-shirt, the older couples, the way we took it in turns to ride with the park wardens on the Kawasaki ATV, or walked each morning up Ingleborough to dig the path tray, find stones for pitching and fit them snug against each other, using the biggest for anchors and edges.
So for a while I was half on Pen y Fan and half on Ingleborough, feeling the worlds inside and outside my head as corresponding pressures. Then a raven croaked, a birdwatcher sitting among tussocks bit into a pasty. The ground fell away north from Cribyn and Fan y Big in sheer scarps, the U-shaped valleys of Cwm Sere and Cwm Cynwyn so neatly contoured in their glacial scoopings that they resembled relief maps of themselves. I looked west across Forest Fawr to the Camarthen Fans, and east to the Black Mountains, the steep drop of Hay Bluff like a graph someone had given up on. To the north, beyond the white-flanked houses of Brecon, cloud shadows moved across mid-Wales like the pages of an atlas turning.
The horseshoe curved back towards the reservoirs, down off the summits along Craig Cwmoer-gwm. A snipe detonated itself out of the moorland, flying away from me behind its hypodermic bill. At three o’clock, the sun eased behind the ridge: a shadow encroached across the valley like a book closing. Coming back to the car in the near-dark, I was thinking about arriving, driving on the A40 towards Talybont — how, near Scethrog, a pair of swans had risen from the River Usk in incandescent whiteness among soggy December greens and browns, a broad-winged candlepower that lit up the whole morning.