Tor y Foel
Throughout National Walking Month we will be sharing some of our Brecon Beacons National Park Ambassadors’ favourite walks. Who knows, they might well become your new favourite walk too!
This week’s walk is by Ambassador Dorian Thomas from TrigPoint Adventures and his favourite hike from Talybont-on-Usk to Tor y Foel. A walk that combines a decent hill, a canal path, and the Taff Trail.
Distance – 14.2 km
Approx time – 5.45 hours
As a Mountain Guide in the Brecon Beacons, I often get asked what my favourite hike in the area, a tough question to answer as every hike I do has its special qualities. However, a hike up Tor y Foel has a special place in my heart, it may not be the highest peak in the area but the views from the top are second to none and the history along this route makes it one of my favourite guided walks.
The Hike starts in the iconic Talybont-on-Usk a hub for the eastern part of the Brecon Beacons and popular with mountain bikers. In Talybont there are three fantastic pubs and an excellent tea shop for the non-active members of your group to enjoy whilst you take on the route. There are even options for the active but less energetic to walk along the canal path to meet you after your descent from Tor y Foel!
We leave Talybont via the Brinore tramroad, before we get engrossed in the history of the tramroad let us take a small diversion into the Henry Vaughan Garden. The garden can be found on the right-hand side of the Brinore tramroad just after the old railway bridge.
Henry Vaughan was a Welsh poet, author and physician who lived in and around Talybont between 1621 – 1695. He has published four volumes of poems that are mainly of a religious theme. Also educated in medicine, he started practicing around 1640s and became well known for successfully healing people.
Returning to the Brinore tramroad, opened in 1815 it linked the Tredegar coalfields and Trefil limestone quarries with the canal at Talybont. The rails are long gone but there is still evidence of its existence at your feet, look out for stones that have been shaped by either the sleepers or the rail, there are plenty to see so keep a look out. An information board halfway up gives you the history which also lists the price to carry various items along it. In the 1860s its use declined with the arrival of steam powered rail.
The tram road gradually takes us into the mountains at a relaxed gradient giving us spectacular views of Talybont Reservoir, the largest still water reservoir in Mid Wales at 318 acres, and the eastern edge of the Central Brecon Beacons which includes Carn Pica, an impressive but relatively modern stone beehive cairn.
Before we tackle Tor y Foel there is an excellent stone circle picnic area where you can rest, take in refreshments, and enjoy the views. There is one more push to reach the top, walking from this direction is by far the easiest way to summit Tor y Foel!
The top of Tor y Foel is marked with a stone cairn – the hard work is all done, the remainder of the route is downhill then along the canal path back to Talybont. At the top take a moment to take in the panoramic view, on a good day you will be able to see the Central Beacons stretching out in front of you including the iconic Pen y Fan and to the east the Black Mountains including Pen Cerrig-calch and Sugar Loaf straight ahead.
As you descend down you may see people making their way up, walking to one false summit to the next on this much steeper side of Tor y Foel! – I always feel an element of smugness as our route is much easier!
Arriving at the canal there is an option to take a small detour to the Coach and Horses pub for some refreshments before returning to Talybont. To visit the Coach and Horses turn right when you reach the canal otherwise turn left to head back to Talybont. The route now is flat as you follow the Brecon and Monmouth Canal back to Talybont.
The Brecon and Monmouth Canal is approximately 35 miles long, connecting Brecon to Abergavenny and is popular for narrow boats. Constructed over 8 years between 1792 and 1800, it was predominately used to move raw materials to Newport where the canals originally terminated.
As I touched on earlier there was a network of tramlines which brought raw materials like limestone down to the canal. The canals were very busy up until 1850s when the railways were built. The railway companies bought the canals and encouraged trade onto their railway lines by charging more money to transport materials on the canals than those on the railway lines. The canals then went into decline until the mid-1960s when work started to restore the canal as part of the National Park as it was seen as a valuable amenity in an area of natural beauty.
As we walk back to Talybont take a moment to look at the engineering marvel of the five operational locks, the stone bridges that crosses the canal and the canal balancing pond with an information board providing history of the canal. We will eventually reach the Ashford Tunnel, a 375-yard-long tunnel with just 5 foot 6 inches of head room! The tunnel was so narrow that men were employed to “leg” the boats through whilst the horses were disconnected and led around the tunnel. There is again an information board which provides information on the tunnel for you to read.
In addition to the industrial side of the canal look out for the wildlife that have now made this habitat their home. Will you see Moorhens, Cormorant, Kingfishers or any other wildlife as you travel back to Talybont?
As we near Talybont look out for the limekilns on the other side of the canal, the reason for the canal and tramroad’s existence. Here you will find another information board next to an example of a tram cart so you can visualise what the area may have looked like in the height of industrial Wales!
After a few more steps you will be entering back into Talybont, where you will find the White Hart Inn or the Star Inn where you may wish to visit for a well-earned drink after completing your 14km or 9-mile hike!
For detailed route information for this hike please visit – https://trigpointadventures.co.uk/brecon-beacons-walking-guides/, here you will also find other route ideas which you may want to try whilst in the area.
Dorian Thomas, May 2021
When out walking please remember to follow Welsh Government Social distancing rules and visit the Brecon Beacons National Park safely.
We recommend using an OS map of the area in conjunction with this blog.
The Brecon Beacons National Park Authority takes no responsibility for any accident or injury that may occur while following the route.