Walking 36 Miles Through the Wales Countryside

Walking 36 Miles Through the Wales Countryside

Nine hundred years ago, the Lord Rhys, ruler of the ancient Deheubarth kingdom, established a great seat of religious learning in the heart of mid-Wales. The abbey was called Ystrad Fflur (Strata Florida in the Latin spoken by the Cistercian monks who ran it). It means Vale of the Flowers in English.

Today, much of Ystrad Fflur is just a memory save for a grand stone Romanesque arch nearly 25 feet tall, the foundation outline of the abbey and the graves of 11 Welsh princes laid to rest next to one another. Nevertheless, when you stand in the grounds of the abbey and cast your eye around the wide, beautiful Tywi River valley that envelops it, it is easy to imagine just how influential this place once was.

It was here, sometime around 1350, that the monks received a commission from a wealthy local man to create a written record of the Welsh legends and folklore that had been passed down by poets, going back perhaps as far as the sixth century.

The stories that the monks wrote down conjured up a magical post-Roman age where mythical kings, noblemen, magicians, witches and giants came together in a land that is unmistakably Wales. Today, these stories are known globally because of a 19th-century English translation of the ancient text. The characters, including Arthur, Merlin, Pryderi, Gwydion and Rhiannon, have become mainstays in modern literature even as their stories have been adapted to suit many different narratives.

By the time I reached Ystrad Fflur, situated on the edge of what now is the village of Pontrhydfendigaid, I was nearly halfway through a 300-mile walking journey and, I guess, meditation through Wales. Ostensibly, I was exploring a potential trail for the new National Forest for Wales, an ambitious Welsh government plan to tackle climate change, boost biodiversity and promote nature tourism. But I also had a greater motivation — I wanted to understand how the National Forest might help us reconnect and restore balance with nature.

I’d started walking a couple of months before — partly to alleviate the anxiety I (and so many of us) felt during the pandemic. The more I walked in the woodlands of Wales, the more at peace I felt in this uncertain world. Now, I’d made it to the region of Ceredigion. For the next two days, I’d be following the 36-mile Borth-to-Pontrhydfendigaid Trail through the mountains to the coast at Cardigan Bay. The trail had been devised by a storied local walker named Mal Evans. His route ran from north to south, but I intended to walk it in reverse and to cover the distance in just two days — an ambitious but achievable undertaking.

I had an ear worm of Fleetwood Mac’s own homage to Rhiannon playing in my head as I left Ystrad Fflur and started walking north through the Cambrian Mountains. It was a cool summer morning, and a light mist hung low over the surrounding hills.

I trekked up a rough stone and mud track over the northern fringe of the Elenydd — the most desolate part of the Cambrian Mountains. So much water from the hillsides ran down the path that it resembled a minor torrent. Still, my only real obstacle was a large flock of sheep. There must have been more than 200 of them ambling in front of me, their legs and long white tails stained muddy brown.

At last, a thick tract of woodland came into view in the valley below. At points, sunlight broke through the cloud cover, casting light on sections of conifer and creating what looked like a grand green patchwork quilt from afar. I followed the track past a herd of reddish brown, shaggy longhorn cows. They looked very overdressed for what was turning into an unseasonably warm day.

I had arrived at the Hafod Estate. Five hundred years before, this had been the summer grange farmland of the Ystrad Fflur abbey. In the late 18th century, Hafod was inherited by a young nobleman named Thomas Johnes. He fell in love with its rugged beauty and, inspired by the English priest and travel writer William Gilpin, saw the potential to create something special.

Gilpin was a champion of what he termed the “picturesque,” an aesthetic expansion of the Romantic Movement that encouraged people to discover beauty created solely by nature. He was particularly enamored with Wales, and inspired by his philosophy, many wealthy English tourists started to venture here for the first time.

Johnes set about modeling Hafod on Gilpin’s philosophy. Gilpin featured the estate in his travel writing, and by the end of the 18th century, Hafod’s picturesque charms were attracting hundreds of well-to-do visitors each year. It’s been claimed that the composer George Frideric Handel was inspired to write the Hallelujah Chorus after visiting Hafod. And at least one academic has claimed the estate was the muse for Samuel Coleridge’s celebrated Romantic poem “Kubla Khan.”

Today, the mansion is gone, but the 494-acre Hafod Estate remains a mix of wild and nurtured spaces that are open to the public. I followed the Gentleman’s Walk, a six-mile trail that rises high into the thick, steep woodland hillsides running along the valley. I climbed into the tall forest and wandered the tight dirt trail as it hugged the mountainside, past a series of mini waterfalls and through tunnels carved out of the side of the rock. At some points I had a bird’s-eye view of the Hafod Estate, while at other times it was as if I’d been swallowed up by the forest.

The trail headed east out of Hafod on the south side of the Ystwyth River and wove north through Coed yr Arch and Coed y Ceuleth woodlands. It looked like a great walk, but it was nearly 3 p.m. and I had to make up time if I was going to make it to Devil’s Bridge, a village a few miles north. After consulting my map, I decided to take a more direct route by following a road that led from Hafod up toward the Arch, a stone structure built in 1810 that had served as the northern gateway to the Hafod Estate.

As I walked up the side of the road, a convoy of cars racing past me, I decided I’d be best sticking to established walking paths in the future rather than making up my route. Luckily, I reached another marked walking trail unscathed. To my relief, it led directly into Devil’s Bridge.

There’s a reason this village in the heart of mid-Wales has such an eye-catching English name: good old-fashioned marketing. Its original Welsh name, Pontarfynach, means Bridge on the River Mynach (Monk). It’s thought that the monks of Ystrad Fflur were the first to construct a stone bridge that connected both sides of the deep gorge that runs through the village.

In the 18th century, as increasing numbers of wealthy English tourists started to visit the Hafod Estate, Johnes decided to build a hunting lodge for visitors overlooking the gorge and the spectacular waterfalls that cascade into it. Today, that lodge has been reimagined as the sleek, boutique Hafod Hotel, which would make a good stop for the night in Devil’s Bridge.

To add to the allure and mystique of his new lodge, Johnes resurrected a local legend about how the bridge across the Mynach was constructed. It recounted how the Devil had made a pact with a local woman, promising to build a great bridge in just one night so she could get across. In return he demanded the soul of the first living thing to cross the bridge. In the morning the woman arrived at the bridge with her dog and was met by the Devil. He expected her to walk across and forfeit her soul, but instead, she threw a loaf of bread she was carrying across the bridge and her dog sprinted after it. Outwitted, the Devil disappeared in a huff.

The next part of the trail would take me on a 17-mile walk from Devil’s Bridge to the seaside town of Borth. It first crossed the Vale of Rheidol tourist steam railway, opened in 1902, that ran from nearby Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge. From there the trail hugged the side of the valley until it reached Coed Rheidol, a relatively young forest; the original trees were felled in the First World War to provide timber for the South Wales coal mines. The woodland was a jumbled, contorted playground of young sessile oaks, their trunks and branches spread at all angles as if the entire forest were taking part in a game of Twister.

It was a cool, overcast morning, and I was determined to make good time. The weather forecast suggested (you can never be certain of any Welsh weather prediction) that heavy rain was approaching from the Celtic Sea. Above me, four elegant red kites circled on the hunt for breakfast.

The trail climbed toward Bwlch Nant yr Arian Forest, which is a core part of the planned National Forest for Wales. The forest park is already well known for its biking and walking trails. On one, the Elenydd Trail, wooden sculptures celebrate local folklore and legends including the Knockers of Cwmsymlog — the name given to the fairies who were said to help miners locate seams of lead by making knocking noises.

Half a mile into Bwlch Nant yr Arian, I reached an oversize wooden chair looking out toward Cardigan Bay and the Irish Sea in the distance. As I paused, I thought about the Romantic writers, poets and artists like William Wordsworth, J.M.W. Turner and Coleridge who had been lured to Wales and how their travels through beautiful landscapes had shaped their appreciation of the importance of connecting with nature — and how their creative expression of that connection continues to influence millions all over the world.

I stopped in the village of Talybont for a swift pint of beer and a ham-and-cheese sandwich at the White Lion pub on the main square. Inside the bar area, a young couple snacked on a bowl of chips while their golden retriever sprawled across the wooden floor.

Refreshed, I started out on the last part of the trail, walking slowly but steadily through the woods on the north side of the River Leri until it emerged into an open field full not just of sheep but also of herring gulls. A good sign! I had reached the coastline of Cardigan Bay and could see Borth off in the distance. I skipped my way down through the fields and onto the lane that would lead to the final footpath of the day — a straight, flat shot across the coastal plain into town.

At first glance, Borth might appear a strange destination for a walking route exploring the woodlands of Wales. But this nondescript, slightly downtrodden tourist town has a secret history — a petrified forest buried in the beach sands that shows itself only at very low tides. Hard-nosed, unromantic scientists will tell you it’s part of a series of Mesolithic-era forests located off the coast of Wales but, in Welsh mythology, it’s evidence of our own Atlantis known as Cantre’r Gwaelod — the Sunken Hundred.

Here’s how the story goes. A long time ago, there was a rich and fertile kingdom so valued that one acre there was worth four elsewhere. It was ruled by King Gwyddno Garanhir. The land lay below sea level but was protected by a complex system of sea walls. The guardian of these defenses was a friend of the king, a prince named Seithennyn. Every night he shut the gates to keep the sea from flooding into Cantre’r Gwaelod. But one night, Seithennyn got drunk at a feast and forgot to close the gates. It was a stormy evening, and the spring high tides flooded the land and the 16 villages within it. Cantre’r Gwaelod was lost.

My trail came to an end near the train line in Borth. I crossed the tracks and walked the short distance to the seafront. The tide was in, so there was no chance of seeing the remnants of the ancient forest. Over the course of my tramping during the previous two days, I had encountered slices of history, legend and natural beauty that reinforced in my mind just how important it is for our society and we as individuals to respect and reconnect with nature. None more so, though, than here at the beach in Borth — an embodiment of the belief (whether or not you believe the legend) that nature always has the final say.

Matthew Yeomans is the author of “Return to My Trees — Notes From the Welsh Woodlands.”

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