It’s Sunday 10th December, the first of my two consecutive days off from the day job. I lie reading in my bedroom, watching snowflakes flutter down onto the front gardens and carefully manicured lawns in my cul-de-sac. It’s a snow day. Having planned to travel out on both my days off, as the snow turns to sleet, and the sleet turns to rain from gloomy grey skies, I decide not to go out. My ‘should monster’ starts barking, and I feel guilt for a while, but then figure it’s okay not to go out, there will be other days.
Browsing the news and Instagram later that day, I see that whilst a brief, light dusting of snow in Llandybie is about the extent of my local, Welsh winter wonderland, other parts of the country are experiencing much more — indeed deliveries are cancelled, schools are closed, and trees are down on several ‘A’ roads. I feel like I’ve missed out.
Monday morning brings a big change. Temperatures have plummeted, and the low sun journeys alone in a clear blue sky. I am going to get out today. I’d considered a trip down to Rhossili. I love the expanse of the beach there, the feeling of solitude that 8 miles of pristine sand can bring. But I change my mind and stick to my original plan — I want to return to Halfway Forest after a brief first visit back in September and explore some more. There’s snow on the Black Mountains, so I decide to make my way to Halfway via Upper Brynamman and Herbert’s Quarry. It’s a road I enjoy driving, and I’m keen to see it in the snow.
Passing through Brynamman with the snow-covered Beacons in the distance, it strikes me that I’ve never actually seen epic scenery like this in the snow. Indeed, all of my snowy experiences have been in Sussex, and then those have been mostly well-managed farmland or suburban areas. My excitement steps up a gear as I rumble over the cattle grid that marks the entrance to the Beacons from Upper Brynamman. The A4069, also known as the ‘Black Mountain Pass’ is a popular road that Top Gear have used several times. I’ve driven it a handful of times now myself, and it always impresses me, but in the snow — wow! The white coating on the mountains, combined with the low winter sunlight seems to bring out every contour, showing just how rugged the Brecon Beacons are.
With barely another car on the road, and my eyes taking in the wonder around me, I narrowly miss a snowdrift blocking half the road. I swerve around it with no problem, probably helped by the fact that I’m doing less than the 40 mph speed limit in order to drink in the stunning vista.
The Herbert’s Quarry car park is actually more full than I’ve seen it before. Snow is such a rare occurrence that it’s obvious people want to make the most of it. After a fair bit of wheel-spinning in the churned up snow on the car park’s threshold, I manage to gain some traction and pull into a space. I briefly wonder how I’m actually going to get out again, but try to ignore it and concentrate on what I’m going to see when I venture out on foot.
I step out the car and change into my walking gear. I thought I was being a little overzealous when it came to packing my various layers, but that’s clearly not the case — it’s bitterly cold, not just from the ambient temperature at this altitude, but also the unforgiving wind chill. As I add another two layers of fleece and softshell to the two I’m already wearing, and step into my walking boots, I notice the couple who’ve just pulled up next to me. He’s wearing a jumper, jeans and trainers, and is wrapping some sort of baby wrap-sling-thing around his pregnant wife who is in jeans and a long-sleeve top. I wonder if she’s naive about how cold it actually is if you spend more than a few minutes outside, or whether I’m just soft from years of being raised in Sussex? I put my hands into my gloves, pop my iPod earbuds in, and head off towards the familiar quarry trail with the sounds of my latest new music discovery in my ears — Muffler — a Scandinavian drum and bass producer. The track playing is aptly titled ‘Snowfall’.
I’ve walked the quarry so many times over the last two years, and know it fairly well. My last visit was on a balmy afternoon in August, but the uniform white of the deep snow around me today, blurring the difference between the limestone, grass, and gravel is disorienting. I’m trudging up what I think is the trail towards the quarry through snow that is at least six inches deep.
The quarry itself is in shade as usual at this time of day, and the snow on the rock wall creates an almost chequerboard effect. Looking out to the east, towards the hidden waterfall, and the rocky outcrops beyond, it’s hard to see the detail and texture that can be seen in normal weather. I snap a few shots and consider heading down into the valley. Yes, it would be epic to go trudging through the Beacons in conditions like this, but I’m not sure how great the photos would be — being swathes of white under a blue sky. I also can’t help but feel a little anxiety about getting my non-4WD Mazda 6 out of the snowy car park, and besides, I really did want to check out Halfway Forest. I wonder if too will be dusted with snow.
Back at the car park, I chat with a guy from Swansea. He’s telling me his concerns about his dress-shoes not being the ideal footwear for these conditions, as well as how Rachael (I find it a little odd that he says her name rather than ‘my partner’) is 6 months pregnant and gallivanting about in the snow like a six-year-old. Looking down at the damp-darkened suede of his shoes only reinforces my plans to keep a pair of waterproof walking boots in the car at all times.
Back in the car, I’m pleased to find it’s still fairly warm, and it’s only seconds before hot air flows from the blowers, causing my cold-numbed fingers to sting with their rapid warming. I do a couple of wheel spins in reverse before I’m out of my space, and heading back out onto the road. I bask in the relief that I’m not stuck.
The 30-minute drive to Halfway, save for the gorgeous scenery, is uneventful, and the roads are snow-free. With very little traffic on the road, I slow down as I approach the turning that leads to the forest car park. It’s covered with snow and ice. There are vehicle tracks, but I can only assume these are made by 4x4s. I’m not about to risk getting stuck in the snow. On the Beacons, I could probably find some help to push me out of a drift, but there is no-one else here. I’m pretty sure I’m on my own. Thankfully about 100 yards from the turning to the forest car park there is a lay-by. It’s fairly clear of snow, so it’s a no-brainer that it’s the best place for me to park. I step out of the car and see the tree-lined, snow-covered hillside basking in golden, winter light and don’t feel the slightest bit self-conscious when I exclaim “Oh yes!” out loud.
I know I’ve made the right decision not to bring the car into the forest car park. I have trouble enough trying to gain traction on foot. The vehicle tracks are obviously quite old as they have turned to ice. I fight off visions of me hobbling back to the car with a broken ankle as I start up the main track that leads uphill.
I’m in my element. I’ve seen plenty of snowy forests in movies and imagined them while reading certain novels, but to finally be walking in one myself, for real is a whole other experience. On snow days back in Sussex, I ventured out to local beauty spots on foot, and whilst they did look pretty in the snow, they can’t compare to the scene that plays out before me. My ‘inner child’ is wandering through Narnia, and my adult self with an overactive imagination is looking into the deeper areas of the forest for ‘wildlings’ and ‘white-walkers’ from George R. R. Martin’s ‘A Tale of Ice and Fire’ series.
There is a grove of deciduous trees that overhang the track. I stop to watch it ‘snowing’ underneath the branches as the afternoon thaws the snow that has gathered on them. It’s another moment, just like in Caio Forest a few weeks ago, where video captures the scene better than still photography does. I want to wander deep into the woods amongst the trees, but as soon as I deviate from the forestry tracks, the snow is deep enough to rise over the top of my boots, dampening my socks. Frustrated at the limitations of my walking gear, I continue up the track.
The views here are stunning. The snow in the valley below seems to highlight every drooping branch and needle, and emphasises the contours of the hills beyond. The combination of walking in the sunshine and the physical exertion of walking uphill means I’m actually pretty warm. I unzip my fleece layers to cool down. However, as the track curves around into the shade, I have to zip up again, and put on a beanie hat as it becomes apparent just how cold it is.
At the top of the forest, I stop for coffee. I approach a bench to relax and photograph the view of the surrounding Carmarthenshire countryside. I’m surprised by the depth of the snow here. It’s knee deep, and my socks get a little wetter. Looking to the west, the countryside seems sprawling and still except for large clouds drifting across the horizon like cruise ships.
After my second cup of coffee, I see another walker approaching. It seems that when I’m walking somewhere that’s easily accessible and I see others, they’re reluctant to talk — indeed, often a simple ‘Hello’ is too much for some. But when I’m out in the middle of nowhere, and I meet another, it feels like a meeting of kindred spirits and the conversation flows. I don’t actually get his name, but he’s a contract manager for Natural Resources Wales. We chat for some time about all sorts of subjects — the forests, other beauty spots in Wales. The overriding theme is getting away from it all — especially at this time of year with the Christmas chaos. He mentions Cil-y-Cwm and a waterfall to me. I take note of the name on my phone with the intent of visiting it at some point in the new year. I tell him that I’m not sure whether to wait around, and then head back down the way I came, or whether to find another route back. Studying my OS map, he suggests a route, but says it may be difficult due to the heavy snowfall further into the forest. We say our goodbyes and I head further north in an attempt to find an alternate route.
After walking about half a mile, I see that the light is fading, and I don’t really know where I’m going. If I carry on down this route, I’ll be walking in sub-zero temperatures by torchlight! I decide to double back and head back down the way I came. I stop at the bench for another warming coffee, and manage to drop my Nikon in the snowdrifts. It’s allegedly weather-sealed, but I haven’t got the rubber covers on a couple of the exposed ports. I decide it’s best to remove the battery, dust off the snow, and pop it in my bag for the rest of the trip. I’m going to have to use my Lumix for the return.
On the descent, it’s clear that the temperature is dropping rapidly. The partially thawed snow on the forestry track that leads back downhill is now turning to ice. I’m awed by the scenery in the dusky light, but also very aware that I need to watch my footing as I slip several times on the fresh ice.
I pass the copse of deciduous trees that were thawing earlier. The golden-hour light is drenching them. It’s a great contrast with the blue of the snow in the shade. However, the best scene appears as I’m nearly at the forest entrance. The sun is setting like fire in the sky. It’s hidden by the hillside, but its light spills out over the majestic firs in the valley, and even reflects in the ice-covered vehicle tracks. I’m pretty sure my Lumix can handle the dynamic range of the scene, even if the final shot comes out a bit noisy, and snap away.
Back at the car, I find that the chap I was talking to has left a couple of Natural Resources Wales guides under my windscreen wipers. I’m grateful as they’re actually really good leaflets about the forests that populate this part of Carmarthenshire. Heading home at sunset, defrosting in the warm air from the blowers, I reflect on what a rare adventure today has been. This has been my first time exploring such a location in the snow, and I hope it’s not going to be my last. I want to make sure that next time, I’m fully prepared to make the most of it with regards to gear, timings, and knowledge of the location.