It is a truth universally acknowledged that it’s all too easy to neglect what lies on our doorstep in pursuit of adventures abroad.
I’ve been living in Wales for four years now (four!) and while I have made it into the green-black Brecon Beacons park, I’m too embarrassed to admit when that last was.
So, when the Lonely Planet team commissioned me to cover the place as part of their #epicDrives project , it was just the walking boot up the backside I needed to hop in the car and drive the (ahem) less than an hour from Cardiff up to the Libanus Visitor’s Centre.
And what a drive it was. What a drive it is.
Just north of Merthyr, the road swerves like a snake and enters the 519 square mile Brecon Beacons National Park. There’s no entrance fee, no queuing, and no gate but the moment you are inside, the landscape impresses and presses upon you.
Old red sandstone rises up to the right. Lakes brood on the left, breaking into a glitter if the sunshine plays along.
And craggy, folding, pleated hillsides crowd in wearing colours of too-deep green, scaled gold and the violet sheen of heather.
It’s something of a national pastime in Britain to rubbish what we have and to complain about the weather. And, as a British citizen myself, naturally I join in.
But every now and again, my international eyes peer through. My travelling appreciation stirs.
For the truth is that parts of this country are amazing.
And the Brecon Beacons are one of those parts.
Four mountain ranges link up to form a chain across the park – and they wear surprisingly unimaginative names. To the west is the Black Mountain. Confusingly, to the east are the Black Mountains (note the S.) Then there’s the Fforest Fawr (Big Forest) and the Brecon Beacons proper.
These are coal mining rocks (literally,) wild spaces where the military continue to train and where even experienced survival experts perish every year.
Yet I don’t want to frighten you off.
Plenty of spaces are accessible for children and for the outdoorsy-inept.
What surprised me on my last trip was that the Brecons weren’t all about barren and brooding landscapes. People have been active here for thousands of years, as evidenced by the remains of an Iron Age fort and Bronze Age burial grounds just around Myndd Illtud itself.
Roman remains exist at Sarn Helen and a crumbling 50 foot tower stands in Motte: it’s said to be 13th Century castle remains from the last true Prince of Wales, grandson of Llywelyn the Great.
You can even literally (literally) walk along relics from feudal history given that both grazing and walking rights date back from the laws made at that time.
Yet, as ever, it’s the big peaks that stir the imagination the most: the inverted flat V of Wales’ own Sugar Loaf, the nubbin of Corn Du and the curiously angular curve of Pen y Fan, the highest point in southern Britain. (Don’t laugh, dear mountain climbers. It’s a not-quite-dizzying 886 metres and can be climbed up and back in a day. By children. But it still looks mean and forboding.)
But possibly my favourite factoid from this foray into one of Europe’s most fascinating national parks?
That tourism in Britain itself started not far from here, with an organised trip to Tintern Abbey just southeast of the park’s border.
So put that in your pipe and smoke it, English seaside towns like Torquay.
The Welsh mountains got there first.