Llanllwyda Farm looked just as pretty first thing in the morning sunshine as it had done at dusk. The sounds of nature were all around us … sheep in the field to our left, cows on a nearby slope, birds singing in the trees which dotted the campsite.
We’d strayed one mile off route to reach it and Harri was keen not to waste any time in setting off to Abergynolwyn.
After settling up with the farmer’s wife, we rejoined the pretty lane we’d walked last night. Before long, we passed the early childhood home of Dr William Owen Pughe (1759-1835), author of the Welsh and English Dictionary, published in 1803, and other grammar books.
After two days of tough terrain and long distances, Harri thought we should aim to reach Machynlleth, about 12 miles away, and stop there for the night. Today, he declared, we were taking things easy.
The first hour or so of this beautiful morning saw us joining a grassy bridle track snaking across the slope of a steep, narrow valley above the Dysynni River; we walked this path in the opposite direction back in March when we did a circular walk from Abergynolwyn (with a memorably steep climb). In Victorian times, this pretty village had a thriving slate quarrying industry; the Bryn Eglwys quarry employed 300 men and produced 300,000 tons of slate and slabs. Today’s villagers earn their living from farming, forestry and tourism, however stone terraces – built for the quarry men – still line the river and mountain sides.
Apart from the lovely scenery, the village’s main pull is the narrow-gauge steam-operated Talyllyn Railway which runs for 7.25 miles through the Fatthew valley. Originally constructed to carry slate from the Bryn Eglwys quarries to Towyn (where it joined the main transportation network), the railway is now a major tourist attraction.
It’s frightening to learn that the defunct railway would have been scrapped in the 1950s had it not been for the foresight of a group of enthusiasts who determined to save it (and the generosity of the owner’s widow who allowed them to take over the running of the deteriorating line).
Fast forward sixty years, and the Talyllyn Railway now enthrals thousands of passengers as makes its unhurried journey through the beautiful scenery of Mid Wales. Surprisingly, (and this might be of particular interest to the romantics among you) you can get married in the tea room at Abergynolwyn Station and even hire a steam-hauled trail to carry you and your guests there. What a lovely idea.
Sadly, our early start meant we passed through Abergynolwyn long before the first train of the day arrived. Perhaps next time…
From the station, we climbed through the lush woodland of the Nant Gwernol valley. We were nearing the top when we encountered something every hiker dreads – a Footpath Temporarily Closed sign. Experience has taught us that generally most paths are passable despite the signage. Unfortunately, this turned out to be one instance when it wasn’t; a landslide had brought down several large trees, completely destroying the footpath.
Returning to Abergynolwyn wasn’t an option (well, technically it was but we were adamant we weren’t backtracking that far… not after all the climbing!) so we followed the diversion sign and were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves on a wide, woodland track that was really rather pleasant and took us exactly where we needed to be.
Unfortunately, our feeling of euphoria didn’t last long because by the time we reached the aforementioned abandoned quarry it was anything but clear where we needed to go.
As is so often the case, tree felling operations had all but eradicated any footpaths, so for a good hour we were left wandering around trying to match what was outlined on our OS map with what we could actually see on the ground. It’s incredibly frustrating to follow a footpath for a while only to find it suddenly blocked by fallen trees.
Harri kept parking me places while he checked out various options, even climbing a slate ‘mountain’ in his attempt to establish a decent vantage point.
The quarry finally behind us, I breathed a sigh of relief and walked straight into a bog. Some days you just get the feeling you should have stayed in bed (or a sleeping bag). Neither were things about to improve.
It was hot and sticky as we skirted the summit of Tarren y Gesail but at least the ground was firmer and we were feeling more cheerful as we began our descent. Machynlleth wasn’t far now and we were looking forward to wandering round the town, perhaps browse in some of the independent shops (resisting the temptation to buy anything that might add to the weight of our rucksacks, of course).
Unfortunately, our afternoon of leisure failed to materialise because once again the nightmare the forestry footpaths resumed their disappearing act. There were plenty of waymarks directing us this way or that, but frequently we’d set out on what looked like a reasonably decent track to find come to an abrupt end due to felling.
Disorientated and tired, we followed one downhill footpath for a fair distance before Harri realised it was curving around the valley away from Machynlleth. It was about turn and back up the hill. The heat and endless backtracking was starting to get both of us down. Our destination – with its promised cold pint – was down there somewhere, even if we couldn’t see it. We just needed to work out how to reach it.
We did eventually reach Machynlleth, but not before the shops had closed for the day. Thankfully, British publicans keep different hours to retailers and we stopped for a much-needed drink at the Skinners Arms where the landlord recommended the Maenllwyd B&B.
Machynlleth is a pretty enough market town but its real claim to fame – the reason the tourists flock here– is its association with Owain Glyndŵr. Not that Glyndŵr was born in the town, neither did he die here. Machynlleth happens to be the location of his famous parliament of 1404 when he was crowned Prince of Wales (the Owain Glyndŵr Centre was built on the site). Suffice to say, Machynlleth has embraced its Welsh Prince in the way Bath has adopted Jane Austen and the Lake District, Beatrix Potter.
Too tired for an evening stroll (joke!), we instead opted for a fish and chip supper from the award-winning Hennighans. The food was good (if you’re a fan of these deep-fried offerings) but you will never again find me queuing on a pavement for 40 minutes for a takeaway (incredibly, when I did finally reach the serving counter, I was asked ‘have you pre-ordered?’).
Harri spent the evening writing up notes on his (now) beloved iPad mini, while I pottered around our rather nice room.
We were halfway through our journey and while I was covered in midge bites, I was so far blister-free. I was also getting fitter every day and the exposed bits of my body were gradually turning a golden colour. Yet, for some reasons I couldn’t quite work out, I felt rather glum this evening, even a little homesick.
‘Never too old to backpack: O Fôn i Fynwy: a 364-mile walk through Wales’ by Tracy Burton is available from Amazon’s Kindle Store and other online bookstores priced at £2.99.