O Fôn i Fynwy – Day 16 (Pontrhydfendigaid to Rhandirmwyn)

Off for an early morning shopping trip in Bont
Off for an early morning shopping trip in Bont

Pontrhydfendigaid is one of those Welsh place names that we monoglots struggle to get our tongues around… thus many of us take the lead from locals who just call it Bont.

I’ve rather warmed to Bont over the years. We’ve passed through on several occasions, while walking the central section of Tony Drake’s Cambrian Way and doing commissioned work for the AA. It’s not a wildly lively place but with two pubs and a decent village shop, it’s big enough to make it feel like you’ve actually arrived somewhere.

It was Bont’s proximity to the old Cisterian abbey at Strata Florida that placed it firmly on the Victorian tourist map; people flocked inland from Aberystwyth on the Manchester-Milford railway line, disembarking at Strata Florida railway station.

Sadly, the railway is no more; however, Bont remains popular with visitors who mostly arrive by car – or like us, on foot.

Strata Florida interpretation
An artist’s impression of how Strata Florida once looked
 Pontrhydfendigaid found itself the centre of media attention in 1981 when the ‘beast of Bont’ was blamed for the death of twelve sheep. The beast, believed to be a large cat, struck again in the mid-1990s when more sheep were killed. At the time, vets from the Ministry of Agriculture examined a sheep carcass and pronounced that its killer was far more more powerful than a dog or a fox.

Then in 2012, a couple came across two large groups of slaughtered sheep, about two miles apart, in hills near (nearby) Devil’s Bridge. It’s all very mysterious – and unsettling for local farmers. Police have searched the surrounding area extensively but have never found anything to indicate a large cat – or indeed several – might be living in the vicinity.

Whatever the truth, the ongoing speculation about whether there’s a savage predator on the loose near Bont has resulted in plenty of media coverage for this out-in-the-sticks village.

Bont’s other claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace and childhood home of Caradog Jones, the first Welshman to reach the summit of Mount Everest on May 23, 1995 at the age of 33. Caradog has spoken of being inspired by the exploits of early Everest pioneers who trained in Snowdonia.

One of the glorious meadows near Strata Florida

Our previous walking in the area around Strata Florida meant we were aware of its propensity for bogginess (and we all know how much I love getting wet feet!).

With this in mind, Harri called an emergency breakfast meeting and set out the options. There was a higher level route on a forest track; however, he was concerned that the views might be obscured by trees. Alternatively, we could stick to a footpath we had walked on previous occasions where the ground might be wetter.

It took me all of a nano-second to plump for the non-boggy track. While my Brooks Glycerin running shoes hadn’t let me down on the blister front until now, a girl can never be too careful.

The entry fee for Strata Florida comes into force on April 1 (and runs until October 31) so it was quite fortuitous that our last visit was on March 31 when we could wander around the ruins of the former Cistercian Abbey free of charge. Please believe me when I say we’re not tight – and I understand historic sites are expensive to maintain – it’s just that when we’re hiking, we encounter many similar sites and places of interest and it would cost us a small fortune to explore them all.

Back to Strata Florida… the abbey was founded in 1164 under the patronage of the Lord Rhys, a native prince of Deheubarth (the most southerly kingdom of Wales during the Norman period). Strata Florida was catapulted into significance in the 12th century when St David’s Abbey in Pembrokeshire was lost to the Normans. The Welsh princes of Deheubarth consequently transferred their patronage to the new abbey at Strata Florida, transforming it into their spiritual centre.

Strata Florida
Strata Florida’s impressive archway i
 Over 800 years later and little of the abbey’s towering structure remains except the impressive entrance archway to the abbey church. Some excellent interpretation boards help visitors imagine what this place would have looked like in mediaeval times but all that’s really left are low-level walls. It’s a beautiful setting and one can imagine why it was chosen by the monks; however, Harri and I agree that the abbey ruins at Llanthony and Tintern (both en route) are far more impressive because in those places, much more of the stonework has survived.

Next to the abbey, and on the site of church consecrated in 1201, is St Mary’s Church. Dafydd ap Gwilym, one of Wales’s greatest medieval poets, is said to be buried here and there is a memorial (in Welsh) to him under a yew tree.

The grave of the medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym
 Despite our initial concerns, we needn’t have worried about the route. The scenery and views were lovely throughout the Towy Forest. We followed a rough stony track that climbed gradually and (mostly) ran parallel to the newer forestry track. It was potholed and in places looked close to collapse but the views it afforded were far better than we’d expected. We eventually emerged on open moorland and, after what felt like hours of climbing, I was delighted to be heading downhill again.
Forestry track
It’s good to know someone’s working while we’re enjoying the scenery

Around two o’clock we flopped onto a grassy outcrop overlooking the pretty (but smallish) waterfall at Nantymaen for elevensies.

One of the most enjoyable things about this trip is how little clock-watching we’ve done – or indeed needed to do. Apart from turning up for breakfast at a roughly agreed time when we’ve stayed at B&Bs, we’ve had no reason to be anywhere at any particular time. For someone who’s not a great time-keeper, it’s been wonderfully liberating to be able to just go with the flow… waking up naturally, eating only when we’re hungry, pausing to rest when we’re tired. We are really relishing this simpler and healthier way of life without constant demands on our time and energy.

Jonathan Mead sums up why we should abandon our obsessive time-keeping (or ‘time management’) in his compelling blog post, How to Live Without the Clock.

Phone box
A familiar red phone box (no longer working) with its sidekick – the postbox

At the crossroads we were back in previously-walked territory and so we amused ourselves by noting familiar landmarks in this isolated landscape – the red telephone box and postbox, a small unnamed lake nestling alongside the track, the towering lines of conifers spilling almost onto the road below and eventually Soar y Mynydd Chapel, built in 1822 by Tregaron’s minister, Ebenezer Richard, when the road to Llandovery was still runnng past.

We’ve been here before but decided to pop in for old time’s sake. There’s nothing ornate or grand about Soar y Mynydd, frequently referred to as the most remote place of worship in Wales. It remains, however, a popular stopping off place for motorists, cyclists and hikers (somewhere to shelter when the mountain weather is doing its worst) – there was a car outside when we approached and we spotted a couple looking around.

Soar y Mynydd
In the middle of nowhere but Soar y Mynydd still pulls in the tourists

Another hill climbed, we were soon descending into the Doethie valley, one of the most scenic in mid Wales and a favourite of ours.

Doethe valley
The Doethie valley is popular with mountain bikers

Harri was surprised how marshy and eroded the footpath seemed to be throughout the length of the valley. Last time, we walked this way it had been very firm underfoot and neither us recalls quite so much erosion. I pondered whether it might due to the valley’s popularity with mountain bikers (it’s frequently named among the top biking trails in Wales); however Harri said it’s a misconception that mountain biking causes erosion. Scientific research has demonstrated that mountain biking actually compacts the ground so is more likely to prevent erosion than cause it. So that’s me (and you) told!

Despite the boggy sections, the inclusion of this beautiful valley on O Fôn i Fynwy was never in question; the scenery along the undulating footpath is simply stunning. The Doethie is unusually steep-sided, even by Wales’s standards, and there’s no track or anything running through it which means it’s blissfully peaceful.

Towy Bridge (Custom)
Enjoying a well-earning rest at the Towy Bridge
 We eventually emerged onto the lane which would lead us into Rhandirmywn and arrived at our campsite just as the sun was setting. After two nights of B & B it was time to toughen up and put our tent up again. The excellent campsite here is run by the Camping and Caravanning Club. It’s set in a really gorgeous location alongside the river but unfortunately for me, this meant more exhausting battles with the midges.
The beautiful late evening sky
The beautiful late evening sky at Rhandirmwyn

Finally, after a long, hard day in which we’d ‘clocked’ up around 18 miles, our bodies told us it was ‘time’ for sleep and these two exhausted hikers crawled into their sleeping bags and were soon fast asleep.

‘O Fôn i FynwyWalking 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.

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