travels to Wales with Ed
The country of Wales forms a more rural and rugged western limb of Great Britain, bordering England. Here the pace of life is slower, the mountain streams are clearer, the legendry coal mines are all but gone, and beauty abounds nearly everywhere - although it takes time for grass to grow through the slag heaps of the long defunct spills in the mining areas to the south. There are three distinct areas of Wales: the rugged north, containing the country's highest mountain, Snowdon (3560 ft); the more industrial south, where you will find Newport, Cardiff and Swansea, bordering on the old coal mining areas north of Cardiff up to Merthyr Tydfil, and the picturesque coast that is south and west of Haverfordwest; then there is mid-wales, the subject of this adventure, north of Merthyr and incorporating Brecon and the Brecon Beacons, Builth Wells and up to Rhayader, gateway to the spectacular Elan Valley and its glorious reservoirs.
H and I stayed this time in what claims to be the smallest town in Great Britain: little Llanwrtyd Wells. According to one local leaflet this is pronounced Clan-oor-tid. According to another, it is pronounced lan-oor-tid. So if they're not even sure, you can't go far wrong whatever you say. The population is 600, a remarkably round number when numbers must be so critical, especially given the difference between a village and a town is mainly a matter of numbers (although life is rarely that simple). (So don't move there and increase the population or their fame will be gone.) We stayed in a local hotel whose bar was, I think, the hub of the village. The owners, a very friendly couple, made us - and our dog - very welcome. It was, should we say, very basic accommodation, in the 'old style' (but not quite 'olde'). After the initial shock of this, complete with an en-suite not big enough for a dog to turn, we finally adjusted and felt this was well balanced against the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of it all given that our choice with a dog was rather limited. Although dogs were not allowed in the restaurant - as the law rightly demands - they were welcomed in the bar and other areas of the hotel, and the host hotel doggies made our Meg feel quite welcome; although, I think, she decided to take care after she saw them see-off an aggressive black labrador who had the nerve to show his teeth when his struggling owner tried to bring him into the bar to join the doggy party; respect! (One evening, dogs just about outnumbered humans for a while.)
This little town is typically rural, with only a couple of busses a day to nearby Builth; although, this does not count the Post Bus, which enables those in outlying areas to get into town. Since the Royal Mail only offer one delivery these days, I am left wondering whether they have to wait until the following day to return - and whether they can travel first- or second-class; given unpredictable journey times, I strongly suspect the latter. (We won't even get into where they stick the stamp.)
This part of Wales, based somewhere near the pleasant and friendly town of Builth Wells, has quite a strong English influence because it is near to the border and within striking distance of the city of Birmingham. There are areas of Wales where the locals are less friendly to visitors I am told, particularly in rural areas of North Wales, but I can only say how friendly I find the people of Mid-Wales; why, they stopped snapping off rural signposts to confuse the tourists years ago. And as for the old, fat, sheep-farmer who stopped his pick-up on the mountain road and waited a while until we approached before he strategically opened his door to block our car and then take his leisurely time to get out, contemplate the scenery in the middle of the narrow road, and eventually reluctantly step aside to stare and watch us pass... well that is most unrepresentative. It was the mountain road to his farm, after all, so what rights did we have on it? (I'd like to drop him off on the middle of a busy, city dual carriageway.)
Tourism is, of course, a major source of income in this area although, it has to be said, all things are relative. Wales is not noted as a holiday destination, but more fool those who have never been to Wales - and that goes for a lot of the English. If you like beautiful countryside, breathtaking mountains, valleys and streams, and if you like Nature in the raw, vigorous sports or just peaceful relaxation, then here is the place to come. And it is big enough for you to walk without even seeing others matching your enjoyment. I go a lot, for it is the nearest truly wild and open countryside to where I live on the south coast of England.
It is here that the red kite has been rescued from the very brink - a majestic endangered species. You can see them soar effortlessly overhead - almost floating - and then you will realize just how they got their name. If you're lucky, you might also see a peregrine falcon plummet like a missile at 100 miles-an-hour, watch a merlin on the hunt or see the colourful flash of a kingfisher. This, as you will gather, is a bird-watcher's paradise. Although commercialized, Gigrin Farm, just outside Rhayader, is the place to drop in at lunch time to see red kites being fed; this happens at 2pm GMT or 3pm Summer-time; kites don't change their clocks in Summer even if the British do. There are now some 300 breeding pairs in this area.
Rhayader is only a small town, but it has the basic shops, a good choice of places to eat or drink, and it is the gateway to the Elan Valley - which you must not miss. Before you get into the valley proper, you will have the opportunity to drop into the Elan Valley Visitor Centre. Do so, have a coffee or a snack, see the exhibitions or video show, and learn about what you are about to see in order to best appreciate it. There could not be a more lovely place to take a picnic, so if you prefer to eat al-fresco, perch yourself on the edge of a mountain stream, let the kids scramble across the rocks, and enjoy some peace and enjoyment beneath the huge dam that holds back the waters of the Caban-coch Reservoir. This, like many other reservoirs, supplies water to England and the big cities such as Birmingham. Some Welsh didn't like the thought of that in the early days, but where would then have been without supplies from England?
It was next to the stream by the visitor centre that we met one of the more colourful characters of Wales - and there are many. He arrived to picnic next to us on the grass. Like us, he opened his car door to let out his dog, but we were surprised by what followed: his pet cockerel! You think I make these things up? Proof is in the picture (of the cockerel, its new owner, our Meg and his dog)! It fell off the back of a lorry - so much does, these days - and he rescued the poor, practically featherless, bird; it still has some tail-feathers to regrow. He had photographs to prove its progress. In fact, he had two photograph albums full, both depicting his ever more handsome cockerel and his patient - but wary - dog. Meg, like us, was wary of this brown, shiny bird, and so she should have been. Apparently, when someone taunted the cockerel with seed and kept pulling it away, the said cockerel attacked. Guess who won? It did seem a placid creature when we saw it, however, and it was happy to strut around its relaxing owner, sometimes perched on his reclining form, now and then crowing about its delight in life. The interior condition of its owner's car might make you politely refuse a lift, even in an emergency - if not for the passengers - but you had to admire this man's determination to save that bird, and the devotion he showed to his two pets. Clearly the trio went everywhere together and his photo albums had some splendid pictures showing them in all kinds of scenarios from bluebell woods and daisy meadows to romping in the snow. If you see him, ask to see his album - but don't feed the cock.
From the visitor centre it is possible to take several walks, one of which, after a severe ascent up a slope, leads right along this and the adjoining Garreg-ddu Reservoir. If you have the legs - or the bike - you might even reach Penygarreg Reservoir - not to mention Craig Goch Reservoir. Yes, there's a lot of water here although, these dry Summer days of global warming, there is far more mud at the sides than is ideal. I can remember, however, a drought some 20 years or so ago when these reservoirs were entirely empty and looked like craters on the moon, so this is not an entirely new sight for me.
Farms and even the odd church were sacrificed to these reservoirs. (Tales of church bells ringing from beneath the still waters still abound.) An opportunist set up a shop in a wooden shed to serve those weary workers who built these reservoirs so long ago, and it, too, was finally sacrificed to the waters. But years later it bobbed back up to the surface, quite intact, and it was fished out and re-sisted on a raised path above Penygarreg Reservoir, more or less opposite the small island within the reservoir. A plaque provides details near the actual site. It was taken over by a local church as a mission hut for many years, and you will see a picture of it on the plaque, including one of it bobbing up in the water. It is, sad to say, no longer there. The elements finally defeated it. Another reservoir, too big to be overlooked, and with a dam too dramatic to not be mentioned, is Claerwen Reservoir. After the visitor centre you need to turn left across a narrow bridge, past a tiny church, in order to reach this reservoir on a no-through-road; you can drive to the bottom or the top of this dam. Fighter jets frequently train in this area, so do not be surprised if a black object suddenly skims over your head, shortly followed by the noise it its wake! Such military visits are not new, for it was in this area that the 'dam buster's bouncing bomb was tested out during WW2.
Higher up, the Elan Valley becomes more intimate, less watery, and here you find a few isolated farms, sheep, and the ruins of old mining townships. Take this road to Devil's Bridge for a dramatic waterfall and three superimposed bridges - although you will have to pay to visit the waterfall itself (via lots of steps). If you are returning to Rhayader, I would recommend the same route to return: to see the stunning scenery from a different aspect!
My favourite road in these parts is reached from either Beulah or Llanwrtyd Wells, via the hamlet of Abergwesyn, and it is signposted to Tregaron. But, be warned, this is a mountain road and it is definitely not for the faint-hearted. There are places where the front of the car seems to point momentarily into space before plopping down just in time for you to hopefully see the hairpin bend just over the brow. And you have to be prepared to reverse here and there if you meet a driver more nervous than yourself going in the opposite direction. Apart from these little concerns, I can assure you that the ride is well worth the excitement. And in case you're thinking of coming up with lame excuses such as 'the car's not really up to mountain roads', let me show you that this run is frequently taken by a squadron of classic cars! (Mind you, their visibility is better and their speed usually more sensible than modern cars in these parts.)
The valley begins with the beautiful Irfon Common (or Gorge), and then passes through valleys and hairpins, up over the mountain, to offer you two forks, each giving you the same option instead of progressing on to Tregaron. Rather than visit Tregaron which, in the middle of nowhere, does not have a lot to offer other than the excitement and achievement of actually getting there, as a round trip, I would suggest you forgo the first option left to Llyn Brianne Reservoir and take the second one to the same, just before an isolated, red telephone box in the middle of a lonesome valley. (I've twice had a picnic here, and twice the phone in the box has rung; twice I have gotten there too late to answer it! Is there a practical joker around these parts?) This reservoir is beautiful, there are several picnic spots, and if you follow the long road around it, eventually you will get the chance to visit its dam (and long-awaited 'facilities'). For the return trip in the same direction, towards Abergwesyn, take the first fork to the right; but be warned, this is the road on which I met the 'unrepresentative' sheep farmer.
It should be noted that whilst the road from Llanwrtyd to Llyn Brianne is long and torturous, it is perfectly possible for walkers to get to the reservoir on foot, right over the summit of Mynydd Trawsnant. (I know, because I've seen the path on the map.) And this is a place for walkers, make no mistake. Mein host assured me that you get a tremendous view as you do it. Think I'll take his word on that!
By the way, make sure you fill your car up on petrol before you do these trips, for you would not enjoy breaking down in these isolated locations; that lonesome phone box is there for a reason, and don't expect your mobile phones to work out here.
Builth Wells is as bigger township as you'll find around these parts. It has a lovely park next to the river and a reasonable selection of shops. There is also a large, hidden supermarket, which you will only find if you ask a local. There are plenty of pubs and cafés to choose from if you want to eat here. South of this is the little town of Brecon, which boasts a more obviously located supermarket next to the central car park, plus a knotty-collections of triangular squares (if there can be any such thing) and a small range of shops. Brecon is the gateway to the Brecon Beacons, where you can find more mountains to climb - or little old Brecon Mountain Railway, if you prefer the thought of a steam train doing the climbing for you; find this just north of Merthyr Tydfil, after following the brown signs. Don't, however, regard Merthyr as a tourist destination in itself!
The little town where we stayed, Llanwrtyd Wells, is located very centrally to visit all the places here mentioned. It even has a reputation for gourmet food. It started life as a spa, but people are more interested in beer these days, as the Saturnalia Beer Festival proves. This was just one of the bright ideas the locals came up with to put the place on the map after its spa era finished long ago and the visitors stopped coming. A group of townspeople sat down one evening in a pub to discuss how to find a way to bring back the tourists. One said he couldn't help much. All he had was a digger. Another said he couldn't help much. All he had was a bog. Another said he couldn't help much, all he had was a snorkel. And so was born, from beer, no doubt, the concept of what is now billed as the 'World Bog Snorkelling Championship'. (Why do people think I make these things up? Here's pictorial proof once again!) Believe it or not, this has been going on for around 20 years. [Picture provided by bogsnorkelling.com]
If you don't have the flippers for that one, how about the Man v Horse Marathon - with a prize worth thousands of pounds! Think a man can't beat a horse? It happens here, for there are places where man is better than a horse on this course. You've heard them say 'horses for courses'? Well, try this one. It's a toughie! Run over 22 miles, through 'some of the finest scenery in Wales' - although I don't imagine you'll be taking in too much of the scenery - and ascending 3,000 feet (not to mention descending), the course uses farm tracks, footpaths, forestry roads open moorland and, for a special treat, short distances over tarmac. You'll be sad to know that, because it passes through private land, it is an offence to practice the course beforehand. You'll just have to settle for the real thing. But it could be worth it if you are FIT. Did I mention the prize is around £25,000, thanks to bookmakers William Hill? There, it is serious stuff, you see.
Then there are walks, folk 'n' ale weekends, the World Mountain Bike Bog Snorkelling Championship (would I make it up?), the Mid-Wales Beer Festival, Drovers Walks, carriage driving, the Real Ale Wobble (don't ask, just imagine) and, quite possibly, much more. So it's your choice really: a quiet vacation or some real action? You can tell what people have been doing by how much mud or ale they are wearing!
So, the smallest town in Great Britain's a quiet little place then.