First steps in participant observation: Brecon Beacons National Park

Brecon Beacons National Park. Source:

By Catia Rebelo

Brecon Beacons is one of the fourteen of the National Parks in Britain and was established in 1957. Located in South Wales the National Park comprises an area of 1,344 km2 and its landscape is a ‘protected area’ according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Part of the park, the Fforest Fawr, is a UNESCO Global Geopark and the entire National Park achieved the status of International Dark Sky Reserve in 2013.

It is in this idyllic landscape that the majority of my project entitled ‘Place Ambassadors’ is going to be developed. In fact, having a background in sustainable tourism I could not have thought of a better place! In a nutshell, the project aims to analyse how community networks (mainly tourism-based) can assist in the promotion of sustainable development of the territory. Therefore, in Brecon Beacons (one of the project case studies) I am currently analysing the Brecon Beacons National Park Ambassador Schemes.

Currently, there are five different types of schemes and I intend to be a participant observer in each one of them. Between September and October 2016 I had the opportunity to participate and be part of one of the schemes: the Core Ambassador. To achieve the Core Ambassador status and receive a certificate as well as a badge the participants (and I) needed to undertake three different courses (free of charge) in three days from 10 am to 5 pm.

The trip – Where everything started

I am based in Cardiff University and live in the city of Cardiff, so every time that I participated in the courses I left home early in the morning to take the T4 bus.The bus is advertised as an affordable and comfortable way for locals and visitors to go to Brecon Beacons. My role as a participant observer/researcher started as soon as I stepped on the bus in St Mary Street. During each one of my trips, I kept an eye on the passengers to try to identify them. Were they locals or visitors? Was the bus full or almost empty? I recorded all this information and also special events such as: tourists getting on the bus unaware that they cannot pay with a card, but kindly being helped by the driver that allowed them to get on the bus (there’s only one bus every 2 hours) and pay later. Or: seeing the despair of an American tourist (in Storey Arms – one remote part of the National Park) who was waiting already more than 40 minutes for the bus that should have passed 20 minutes ago! Indeed, the same happened to me on a different day and the bus never came. I also felt that the expectation created by the T4 website was not  fulfilled as I never (in more than eight trips) got a bus with Wi-Fi. In addition, the bus takes two hours to get to Brecon Beacons from Cardiff, while by car the journey is just 45 minutes. By watching the promotional video, one cannot tell the journey will be so long. I also talked with local people on the bus and they are clearly not happy with the service.

One of the immediate conclusions that I drew from these experiences is that participant observation can really help the researcher to check the reality and to see which problems, but also which positive events, can occur. And even in a setting that before I was not considering as a ‘research site’. These and other rich experiences (further explained below) were useful in my understanding that there is still room for improvement regarding the Park’s accessibility, both for locals and visitors.

1st day – Sense of Place

The participants of the Brecon Beacons Ambassador Scheme. Source: Carol Williams

The first day of the course was called ‘Sense of Place’ and took place  in the Brecon Beacons National Park Visitor Centre  – a place with breath-taking views. After almost two hours on the bus I got to the closest bus stop to the Park Visitor Centre. I had to call a taxi that came from Brecon Beacons town (which took approximately 20 minutes) and took me to the Visitor Centre through a very narrow street (otherwise it is 30 minutes walking up a hill without a sidewalk) Finally, I reached the Visitor Centre 10 minutes late for the course. Thankfully, Carol Williams (Park Authority worker) had already presented me and everyone knew why I was there for!

During this first day of the Core Ambassador scheme many activities were developed to boost interaction between the 15 participants. The majority of the group is somehow related to tourism-based activities and few of them were already acquainted with each other. In the majority of the activities I was just an observer taking notes as the day was linked to the park’s sense of place and, at my stage, I am just getting acquainted with the park. Nevertheless, during the lunch time I had the opportunity to get to know the participants better and initiate the trust process.

After lunch we learnt about the local heritage and participants shared between them their own knowledge about the Park. The park covers a big area and many of the participants do not know it entirely. Indeed, many of them are not original from the Brecon Beacons area. There is a lot of English people who decided to move there due to varied motives such as: a better place to raise their children, be connected with nature, seek a better quality of life, etc.

Even though this was only the first day, due to its intensity – subject, time, activities – I already noticed the beginning of ‘networks’ between some of the participants.

2nd and 3rd days – Park in your heart and Customer Service

The participant’s favourite spots in the park. Source: Catia Rebelo

The second day also took place in the Visitor Centre This time, as well, I arrived late …Still, everyone was very supportive and some said that I should be very committed to go through all this process to be part of their group – which made me feel good and added meaning to what I am doing. In this training the established connections were much more obvious and a more informal setting (with some good laughs and cakes brought from one of the participants) took place. Similar to the first course, this one was also charged with emotions. People not only learnt about the nature (fauna, flora, geology, etc.) and local assets of the park, but also shared their favourite area in the park (or one of their favourites – as some were not very keen to share their places with others). This was a really intense and emotional part of the training as many of the participants shared their emotions and their life with others. One example, which really moved me was a place linked to death. One of the participants referred to a specific point in the park where she left their kin’s ashes. One day, her son saw a rainbow in this place and said “it looks like grandpa’s smiling”.

The last day, focused on Customer service, took place in the Information Centre in Brecon Beacons town. This area is easier to access by bus, so for the first time I was not late. The last day was much more business-oriented, aiming to train and improve the participants’ customer care skills, as well as provide them with a certification. In fact, many of the participants already have a lot of experience, so the training is based on their own experiences and tries to engage people – reinforcing the networks established and consolidated in the previous days. Similar to the other encounters, this was a very insightful day as I could participate in informal conversations and understand that ambassadors feel that much more could be done to promote the National Park.

The Ambassador certificates. Source: Catia Rebelo

Finally, the three day course concluded with the certification process (I also received a badge!) and all the new ambassadors are expected to meet once again (at least formally) in the annual meeting of ambassadors. I can’ wait to go there as well – I am sure it will bring me new rich insights!