We’re obviously getting the bug for long-distance hiking because over breakfast we started thinking about other routes we’d like to tackle in the future: perhaps an end to end through Madeira (a gorgeous island that makes Wales look flat) or the Galician coast path. Or maybe a long-distance walk through Portugal… relishing in our vastly improved fitness levels and our new-found ability to swing a rucksack onto our shoulders without too much flinching, there was nowhere, no country or trail, that was too daunting to tackle.
But it was time to stop dreaming and start walking. Harri had made the momentous decision to do a detour past the ever-popular Devil’s Bridge. Instead we would be crossing the Rheidol and its deep gorge at Parson’s Bridge.
The footbridge hasn’t always been as substantial as it is today. In Wild Wales, George Borrow describes it as consisting ‘of a couple of planks and a pole flung over a chasm about ten feet wide’. Below, he writes, was a ‘tortuous’ chasm which was ‘like a cauldron… the pot was boiling and roaring, and everything looked wild and savage.’
Fortunately for today’s hikers, the current footbridge feels distinctively solid compared with its Victorian predecessor – although if you suffer from vertigo you should probably avoid looking down!.
Today’s plan was to follow various sections of the Borth-Pontrhydfendigaid Linear Trail. Sadly, we were going nowhere near Borth ( a lovely seaside resort immortalised in RIchard Collins’ wonderful debut novel The Land as Viewed from the Sea). Pontrhydfendigaid, on the other hand, was mostly definitely en route, being our destination for the day..
The morning’s scenery was absolutely delightful but unfortunately almost the entire length of the riverside footpath was under water which distracted me somewhat from my photography duties (ultimately the very poor standard of walking resulted in Harri changing the route substantially to avoid this boggy area).
One of the highlights of the day was Cwmystwyth, which despite its diminutive size holds a very significant title. This village, the Ordnance Survey has calculated, is the geographic centre point of Wales. It might seem a little strange that the centre of the nation can be somewhere so close to the coast, but the calculations (which include Wales’s islands) were made using the most preferred method and denote the point at which a cardboard cut-out of Wales could be perfectly balanced on the tip of a pencil.
Centre of Wales or not, Cwmystwyth was hardly bustling with activity; we saw no-one at all as we passed through on this deliciously warm Monday afternoon.
Historically, Cwmystwyth has been an important mining site since the Bronze Age, with silver, lead and zinc excavated at various times. The village itself probably grew up during the 18th and 19th centuries when metal mining was at its height; however, there has been no mining activity for the past century.
In 2002, a 4,000 year old gold ornament was discovered on the site of Roman and Medieval lead smelting hearths. The small funerary ornament known as the Banc Ty’nddôl sun-disc is the earliest gold artefact found in Wales.
Had we stuck to the waymarked linear trail, we’d have witnessed first-hand the ruinous effect centuries of mining workings have had on the natural landscape. The Spirit of the Miners’ excellent website provides lots of information as well as a photo gallery.
After leaving Cwmystwyth, it wasn’t long before we were back in woodland, this time following a footpath alongside the River Ystwyth through the wonderful Hafod estate. The estate occupies about 200 hectares of the Ystwyth Valley and was once home of Thomas Johnes (1748-1816) who laid out its considerable grounds in adherence to the ‘Picturesque principles’ which were so popular at the time, i.e. careful planting to contrast light and shaded areas and paths, obscuring certain areas from view to keep the observer guessing and connecting the different elements of the landscape to achieve a harmonious whole.
From the little we saw of the restored estate, the creative Johnes seems to have achieved his aims.
Harri wasn’t sure if Johnes’ rebuilt manor house was still standing so I left him enjoying the sunshine (and guarding the rucksacks) and set off on a brief solitary expedition of my own. There was nothing obvious to see, except a railed viewpoint so I concluded (rightly, as I later learned) that the house was no more.
We arrived at Pont-rhyd-yr-groes in the twilight zone – too early for the pub, too late for the shop.
There is no denying the scenery was beautiful – and the village had that hickledy-pickledy, lack of any kind of planning type layout that I’ve always loved, with houses sprouting up all over the place and little lanes meandering between them. It just would have been ever nicer if we’d been able to stop for a cold lager, or an ice-cream… even a tiptop. I don’t know why we keep getting our hopes up… we should be used to the vagaries of Welsh hospitality by now.
The last ‘leg’ of our journey was about 7-8 miles across rolling moorland to Pontrhydfendigaid where we were planning to spend the night at the Black Lion.
After a slight disagreement with Harri over what constituted a mountain, I resigned myself to climbing another hill, silently cursing my other half for devising such an undulating route. As we came over the crest of the hill, however, I was pleased we’d come this way because the industrial landscape, with its remnants of the lead and zinc mining industry, was well worth seeing. In fact, the abandoned mine workings and bleak landscape of Esgair Mwyn very much reminded me of a California ghost town I once visited (Bodie) but without the houses (or maybe it was just the unusually cloudless sky!).
This area has long been known for its rich deposits of ore and it’s likely that mining dates back to medieval times. When Esgair Mwyn was re-discovered again in 1746, a thousand tonnes of ore was raised in one year. The resuming mining activity wasn’t without its problems though – a dispute between its ‘discoverer’ Lewis Morris (working the mine on behalf of the Crown) and local people (including two magistrates, the sheriff, his deputy and many miners) escalated to the point where bloodshed was only narrowly avoided. Ultimately, the king kept the land, but the ringleaders of the opposition were not prosecuted.
Looking at the dilapidated shacks clinging to the mountainside today, it’s hard to imagine the surrounding land once evoked such passion… or produced such fortunes.
We were feeling very weary when passed through the little village of Ffair Rhos so-called because it was once the location of local fairs but at least the day’s end was in sight.
Determined not to find ourselves without accommodation again, Harri had rung ahead and booked a room at the Black Lion Hotel.
After 19 miles our first priority was a drink and we soon struck up a conversation with a lone traveller, a man in his 70s who had moved to Ruthin in North Wales as a boy and had decided it was time he explored mid Wales. Like Harri, he was someone who’d learned Welsh as an adult. He was stopping for a meal so we joined him at his table… with a few bags of crisps to munch.
Our new friend (we never think to ask people’s names) was a fascinating character, an academic who’d studied Latin and Green at Oxford and had maintained a strong interest in language and semantics. As he regaled us with stories past and present, one drink led to another while we grew hungrier and hungrier.
It’s evenings like this, talking with people and hearing their stories, that we’ll remember long after the memories of waterlogged footpaths and tough climbs have faded.
UPDATE: Being something of a perfectionist, Harri spent a lot of time planning O Fôn i Fynwy; however, the route was never set in stone and we always anticipated it was likely to change as we walked it and checked out the possibilities.
Harri was never really happy with the footpaths along the Borth-Pontrhydfendigaid Linear Trail and so he made the decision to return to Mid Wales and change today’s route so that it avoids these boggy sections.
On a happier note, the revised route means O Fôn i Fynwy walkers now get to visit Devil’s Bridge and will see a lot more of the wonderful Hafod Estate.
‘O Fôn i Fynwy: Walking Wales from end to end’ by Harri Garrod Roberts is available as a Kindle ebook from Amazon, in Made for iBooks format from Apple’s iTunes and in other digital formats from Smashwords.
‘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.