I’m not sure today’s dismal six miles count as a stroll, let alone a hike. And the reason for cutting our day’s walking so short… at some point this afternoon and for no fathomable reason, I experienced a meltdown.
Let me backtrack a little. We’d received a friendly enough welcome at the campsite last night but hadn’t been able to pay due to the peculiarities of the electronic till system. It meant we had no choice but to linger this morning until reception reopened at 9am (okay, not exactly mid morning but far later than we’d have set off otherwise on this perfect summer morning).
From the outset I felt completely drained, devoid of even an ounce of energy. The short but steep climb from the valley bottom to the lane above just seemed endless. My rucksack felt so much heavier too (I almost checked to see if someone had slipped a dead sheep inside while I was sleeping); I kept trying to shift the weight around but couldn’t get comfortable at all.
It didn’t help that the bridleway that was so solid underfoot when we first joined it had rapidly turned into one giant elongated puddle. North and Mid Wales must have had some significant rainfall while we were enjoying sunshine on Anglesey!
Tearful and exhausted, I announced that I was fed up of walking through Wales, clearly not the words Harri wanted to hear at this advanced stage of our journey. The terrain was too tough, I grumbled; the bridleways had been transformed into canals by selfish four-wheel vehicle drivers, the footpaths into bogs by mindless cows. There were too many mountains, too many streams, too much mud… on and on I moaned while Harri remained silent.
As if mocking my human frailty, the Carmarthen Fans – our first glimpse of the Brecon Beacons – suddenly loomed large in the distance, looking impossibly high.
‘I can’t climb those,’ I whimpered.
‘Do you want to go home?’ Harri asked gently. I shook my head.
‘Right then,’ announced my lovely, easy-going other half (who obviously knows me better than I know myself). ‘This is what we’ll do. When we reach Llandovery, we’re going to call it a day. You’re obviously exhausted. You need a good rest and a proper meal.’
Of course, the mood I was in, there was no pleasing me. Instead of just agreeing and being thankful that my partner was so understanding, I insisted I wanted to keep going, rationalising that the more miles I packed in each day, the quicker my ordeal (for my muddled mind truly believed it had become that) would be over.
Still in disagreement over whether we were stopping at Llandovery or pushing ahead to goodness knows where, we paused briefly to look around the graveyard at Llanfair-ar-y-bryn where Wales’s most famous hymn writer Pantycelyn William Williams is buried. Williams (1717-1791) is responsible for writing the words of the ever-popular ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer’, sung at Princess Diana’s funeral and Prince William’s wedding. The song, colloquially known as ‘Bread of Heaven’, is also a favourite at rugby matches in Wales (Michael Ball’s version is amazing here).
Looking back, what amuses me is that despite thinking I had the weight of the world – a dead sheep at the very least – on my shoulders, I carried on snapping photographs in the graveyard. Undoubtedly, the mark of a true professional!
At Llandovery, I was too tired to argue any more so I agreed to look for food, then accommodation. The hunt for food not going too well (apparently Llandovery’s pubs simultaneously stop serving lunch at 2.30pm), we turned our attention to finding a room and thankfully, we were luckier on that front. We’d popped into Llandovery’s rather nice tourist information centre (Harri always gets envious when he sees how nice most other TICs are – his own in Caerleon is cramped and rather unappealing). By chance, someone from The Level Crossing had popped in and it seemed there was a double room available for the night. Music to our ears!
Our bed for the night sorted, we renewed our search for food. By now we were ravenous (there had been no cooked breakfast this morning). The Level Crossing lady recommended the nearby West End Cafe so we decided to leave our rucksacks in our room and go for a meal and a little look around.
But before we could get going, something very strange happened. I popped into the bathroom and suddenly, I was sitting on the loo sobbing my heart out. Poor Harri. He had no idea what was wrong… bizarrely, neither did I. With Llandovery railway station just across the road; if I’d wanted to abandon the hike, there would never be a better opportunity.
The thing was I really did want to walk the length of Wales. I wanted to walk between my country’s traditional ends, see everything Wales had to offer between Anglesey and Monmouthshire. It’s just that exhaustion does strange things to people and the accumulative effect of walking so many miles day after day had finally caught up with me.
Again, Harri was incredibly sweet and understanding and eventually I calmed down and we headed out to eat.
After enjoying a delicious meal of Thai fishcakes (me) and curry (Harri) at the very pleasant West End Cafe plus a good-sized pot of strong tea, I felt 100% more cheerful. We had a little stroll around and were newly impressed by Llandovery.
The town is located at the very western edge of the Brecon Beacons (it was perhaps this perceived proximity to home that initiated my meltdown). In Wild Wales, George Borrow writes, ‘I have no hesitation in saying [it] is about the pleasantest little town in which I have halted in the course of my wanderings’.
Sadly, there’s not much left of the Norman castle that stands on a hilltop close to town centre. Its history has been chequered; over three centuries it changed hands between Norman and Welsh forces several times before finally falling into decline.
An impressive stainless steel statue towers over passersby. It was created in 2001 by St Clears sculptors Toby and Gideon Peterson to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the death of local landowner and Welsh resistance hero, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd Fychan . The headless helmet reflects the brutality of his execution, ordered by Henry IV, and the high price he paid for his allegiance to Owain Glyndŵr.
Despite its rather gruesome history, Llandovery is one of those places that’s brimming with charm, quirkiness and lots of independent shops; outside one, pairs of old jeans had been put to good use and transformed into unusual planters. There was a fabulous health food shop called Iechyd Da, overflowing with so many appetising-looking goodies that Harri had to remind me we were hiking.
By the time we returned to The Level Crossing, I think Harri was feeling slightly more relaxed about its location
We nibbled, drank cider and rested for the remainder of the evening; in one way, perhaps we were wasting a beautiful balmy summer evening and yet, just this once, it felt wonderful just to do nothing for a few hours.
‘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 priced at £2.99.