Great Drives: Far from the herd on the Black Mountain Pass

The Black Mountain Pass is the perfect place to leave the daily grind behind. Nick Rufford climbs behind the wheel and explores the Welsh wonder


THERE’S an antidote to spending too long at your desk. It’s a 20-mile section of road in Wales — not a long drive but enough to blow all thoughts of the daily grind from your mind. If you live in the southeast or the Midlands, it will take three hours to reach the start of the route, but that’s a price worth paying for a driving experience that comes as close as it gets to a rollercoaster ride on tarmac. The Black Mountain Pass, or A4069, cuts across the western corner of the Brecon Beacons, passing through Lower and Upper Brynamman, in the south, to peak at 1,600ft before dropping down to Llandovery.

It sweeps through valleys, between high hedges, with more twists and turns than an aerobatic display team, and then rises through pasture, threading between stone walls and over narrow bridges spanning foaming mountain rivers before crossing a lone cattle grid into high moorland. The Brecons may not boast the scale of the Alps but the scenery rivals the best in Europe.

This is mining country, where for centuries quarrymen extracted limestone for use in the production of fertiliser, building materials and iron. Now it’s largely deserted except for sheep clinging to rocky outcrops. A word of caution: the sheep wander around tamely, so you need to keep your eyes on the road, not on the magnificent views towards the Severn estuary. Along many of the steepest sections, there are no guard rails to protect the unwary. A collision could launch you over a sheer drop.

The best way to herd sheep off the road is to wind down your windows and turn up the volume on the car stereo to warn of your approach. Tom Jones or Welsh choirs work best

The area was deserted on the days we visited. Rush hour along the road consisted of about four vans, one motorbike and a couple of cars. In a layby against a mountain vista that could have been a backdrop from The Lord of the Rings, a lone ice cream van sat. In the hour we spent filming at the spot, there were no customers. An elderly man in a parked car, sipping tea from a flask, was the only visitor we encountered. From his favourite vantage point, he had watched Jeremy Clarkson tearing up the road in a Mercedes sports car for Top Gear. “I’ll tell you one thing about Clarkson,” he said. “He’s a hell of a driver.” He explained that the way to herd sheep off the road is to wind down your windows and turn up the volume on the car stereo to warn of your approach. Tom Jones or Welsh choirs work best.

The engineers who designed our Mazda6 Tourer probably didn’t have the Black Mountain Pass at the front of their minds when tuning the chassis and suspension but somehow this landscape turns every car into a sports car. From the high point of the pass, you descend in a steep succession of hairpins. Did the men who dug limestone from the ground ever race the wagons to the valley below? Surely they wouldn’t have missed an opportunity to have this much fun.

At the end of your drive, the chances are you’ll be in no hurry to rush back to the city to rejoin Groundhog Day. If you decide to stay in the Black Mountains, there’s a smattering of B&Bs along the route, or the Castle Hotel in Llandovery. Or, just four miles down the road is West Range, a converted barn on the Llwynywermod estate, bought by Prince Charles and Camilla in 2006 for £1.2m. Drivers who want to rest their weary heads and dream of the future king and his wife living next door can rent West Range for £500 a week in winter and twice that in peak season — if there is such a thing in this unspoilt part of Wales.

The route

  • When to go: Summer
  • Stay: Castle Hotel, Llandovery
  • Pack: Binoculars for the views
  • Listen to: Bruce Springsteen
  • Bring home: Photos, Brecon gin
  • More information: ,

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