1. Go to Hay market
Hay-on-Wye is beloved as Wales’s famous “Town of Books”, having earned its famous reputation as the second-hand book capital of the world. But Hay is also home to a 700-year-old market that takes place every Thursday, making that the perfect day to stop by this Welsh border town. Stalls sell everything from fresh fish to Welsh wool, the perfect opportunity to get a start on your Christmas shopping (although I don’t recommend the fresh fish for that). If all that shopping has you famished, there are stands with local produce and goods from butchers, bakers, and farmers. Be sure to meander around the town’s streets, as stalls set up at a variety of points in addition to the main location around the clock tower.
2. Trek through the mountains on a Welsh pony
There are a number of outfitters in the Brecon Beacons offering guided and self-led rides through the Welsh countryside. I had an excellent time with Tregoyd Mountain Riders, whose guide Holly led us on a pony trek through the Black Mountains and down into the valley for lunch at a country pub. After sandwiches and a pint, we followed a trail through the forest, ablaze in autumn colours, before returning to the yard. Tregoyd Mountain Riders offers trips of multiple lengths, ranging from two-hour to full-day rides, as well as of varying difficulties. Pony trekking is perfect for novices (like me) but there is also the option to engage in horseback riding, for more seasoned types. It is a wonderful way to see the mountains of the Brecon Beacons.
3. Cosy up in a pub
There’s something about autumn that just makes you want to sidle up to the fire and enjoy a warming, hearty meal inside a pub. There are plenty of these pubs to put in at during a drive through the Brecon Beacons, and you would be remiss if you didn’t stop in at least one of them. The Old Barn Inn, located in Three Cocks, is the perfect blend of contemporary and traditional, with a bright, airy atmosphere and unfussy, flavourful British favourites. (I loved my bangers with bubble and squeak). It is the sort of place that invites you to stay awhile to enjoy a wholesome, homecooked meal.
For a really special treat, make your way to the Old Black Lion after your day at the market in Hay-on-Wye. Dating from the 17th century (and possibly with parts of the building as old as the 1300s), The Old Black Lion is a wonderfully cosy, timber beamed-ceiling, watch-your-head-on-the-low-doorway pub. Their food is consistently well-reviewed and always features heavily on the local, seasonal produce. I never knew butter could be quite so amazing as it was when I ordered a crock of theirs with my home-baked bread. And for the best Welsh lamb, the Old Black Lion rivals no one.
4. Take a hike
The Brecon Beacons are an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and what better way to see them than by your own two feet? There are a number of trails maintained by the National Trust, as well as common grazing areas open to hikers and walkers. The most famous walk is up Pen-y-Fan, South Wales’s highest peak. While there are a number of routes to the top, the most popular and arguably easiest one is from the car park off the motorway (in an area the locals call Storey Arms). Don’t expect a simple stroll up; while it only takes forty minutes to an hour to reach the top, be prepared to huff and puff a little. The breathtaking views of the sweeping mountains is well worth it in good weather (although this is often not the case). Bring plenty of water and dress appropriately, and stay away from the edge in heavy fog! (It was so thick when I went that I could barely see two paces in front of me.)
5. Sip on Welsh whisky
Take a scenic drive up to the village of Penderyn, where access to fresh spring water in the southern Brecon Beacons inspired a uniquely Welsh product. Penderyn Distillery is home to Wales’s most famous single malt whisky of the same name. The distillery is open for guided tours, which give visitors a chance to see the single copper-pot Penderyn stills up close a learn a bit more about the scientific process of whisky production. They naturally conclude with a sampling of some of Penderyn’s most popular products, which are as fiery as the Welsh dragon their bottles bear. The gift shop sells all of their whiskies, as well as the distillery’s other spirits (try the Merlyn Welsh Cream Liqueur) and giftware. You’ll be tempted to leave with a bottle or two.
6. Bonus! Visit Hereford
While not in the Brecon Beacons, Hereford is an easy daytrip and worth a look around. Located on the Wye river, the city of Hereford, like so many other border towns, has switched hands between the Welsh and English over the centuries. Now it is a vibrant English cathedral city with roots as a market centre, and it still retains its connections to the agricultural industries from the surrounding countryside.
Hereford Cathedral‘s most lauded treasure is the mappa mundi, a 13th century map (and the largest of its kind) detailing the world as people knew it in the medieval period. It is fascinating to see what the cartographer Richard of Holdingham got right, and what stretched his imagination. It is also revealing of the beliefs and ideas people held at the time, and how science and faith blended together in sometimes surprising ways. Of course, the cathedral itself is also beautiful; even without the mappa mundi, its architecture merits a look.
Be sure to visit Hereford’s Cider Museum as well, located a ten-minute walk from the city centre. With hands-on and interactive activities and exhibits, the museum explores the process of cider making through the ages. As well, it hosts its own distillery, King Offa Distillery, and has an extensive gift shop for those who want to sample the final product. The museum can also provide information on walks of area orchards for those who want to get even closer to the process. Apples and autumn go hand in hand, making the cider museum an intuitive inclusion on a bucket list of fall activities!