A short history of the Brecon Beacons National Park

The Brecon Beacons National Park was established in 1957. It was one of the first ten national parks to be created in Britain. The intention was to safeguard our beautiful, rough and dramatic landscapes, considered a priceless national asset.

Prehistoric beginnings

Like much of Wales, our landscapes are truly ancient, shaped by the Ice Age. The iconic northern scarp was deeply incised by glaciers and Llyn Cwm Llwch, a Geological Conservation Review Site, is the best preserved glacial lake in South Wales. There are also some well preserved glacial screes and moraines. A number of old quarry sites along the northern flanks of the Beacons contain fossil ferns.

Nearly eight millennia of human activity have also moulded our landscapes. There are traces of early inhabitants in the remains of prehistoric stone circles and burial chambers, Iron Age hillforts and Roman camps, particularly in the hills in the west of the park. One of our churches, St Catwg’s, Llangattock, founded in the 6th century, is considered one of the oldest in Britain, although it has been largely rebuilt over the years – its relatively recent additions include a 14th century nave, 16th century tower and two incredibly old yew trees.

During the Norman conquest, the hills were peppered with castles. The ruins of Carreg Cennen are probably the best known remaining fortifications. Llanthony Priory was founded around 1100, and medieval farmhouses followed. Land which wasn’t used by the Norman barons was used by villagers as a source of firewood, turf, peat and gravel, and as grazing for sheep, cattle and pigs.

The industrial years

Huge changes took place during the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century. Limestone, silica sand and ironstone were quarried on the fringes of the Park to feed demand from the furnaces of the South Wales Valleys.

The Monmouthshire Canal and the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal, founded in the 1790s, completed in 1812 and linked to a network of tramroads and railways, became important corridors for the transport of limestone, coal and iron. Its current incarnation is known as the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal.

As well as industrial structures, the Georgian and Victorian age brought some fine urban and rural buildings to the area, some of which still retain their original features.

Military training ground

Centuries after its use by the Romans as a cavalry base, the central Brecon Beacons became an important place for the British army and has remained so for more than 100 years. Rifle butts found in Cwm Llwch provide evidence of military activity as far back as the late 19th century.

Until 1984, Cwm Gwdi was a training camp and live firing range. Allt Ddu hill was used for mortar practice. Today the Beacons are used by the MoD as the selection ground for the SAS. There are military establishments at Brecon and Sennybridge.

Conservation and restoration

Established in 1957, the Brecon Beacons National Park is the youngest of the three national parks in Wales. The other two Welsh national parks, Snowdonia and the Pembrokeshire Coast, were created earlier in the 1950s, along with important English national parks such as the Peak District, the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales.

In 1965, the National Trust became the landowner of much of the common land in the Central Beacons, paving the way for the park’s development as a conservation area and tourist destination. The National Park Authority later acquired other important tracts of land.

The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal had suffered more than a century of decline the 19th and 20th centuries, but restoration eventurally got underway in the 1970s and has been an ongoing project ever since. Over 400 privately owned boats and over 40 hire boats now operate on the stretch between Brecon and Pontnewydd, south of the Park.

Recent times

Today, tourism and services have taken over from industry and agriculture as the mainstays of the local economy.

In 2000, the area around Blaenavon was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its significance in the production of iron and coal in the 19th century. In 2005, Fforest Fawr became the first UNESCO European Geopark in Wales and in 2013, the night sky above the Brecon Beacons was granted special protection when the park was designated an International Dark Sky Reserve.

© Brecon Beacons National Park Authority • Contributing editor: Emma Gregg