I wish I could say we awoke refreshed and raring to go but it wouldn’t be true; the combination of humidity, endlessly itching midge bites and passing traffic did not result in the most restful of nights.
We breakfasted early, Harri hoping we’d be able to make up some of the miles we’d ‘lost’ yesterday. From our table in The Level Crossing’s bistro, there was an unbroken view of the railway station; I think – I hope – Harri was feeling more relaxed about its proximity this morning.
Over breakfast, it transpired that our chef and waitress was none other than the Deputy Mayor of Llandovery, Councillor Gillian Wright who was helping out for a few days while her daughter, the hostel’s manager, took a much-earned break.
In the morning sunshine, my spirits began to soar. Llandovery looked absolutely perfect, the kind of charming small town that remains so pleasant to wander around on foot.
Harri had definitely made the right call when he’d insisted we stop there overnight. This morning’s hiking has involved some of the steepest on-lane climbs we’ve encountered so far and I wouldn’t have had the physical or mental energy to tackle them yesterday. As we walked, the splendour of the Carmarthen Fans beckoned ever closer, our first summits in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Yesterday their towering heights had terrified me, now I couldn’t wait to climb to the summits which command such magnificent panoramic views.
Myddfai is as pretty as a picture and boasts a fantastic new visitor centre and gift shop; however, despite an alleged population of 400, the village seemed strangely deserted. Not so many years ago, Myddfai had a pub, a post office and a school. Now most of the properties are second homes and/or rented out to holiday-makers, a sad reflection of what’s happening in many of the prettiest parts of Wales.
For centuries, this delightful place was home to the legendary physicians of Myddfai, famed for their healing powers. It’s hard to disentangle the truth from the fanciful; however, in a nutshell it seems that the physicians – known far and wide for their herbal medicinal remedies – existed as far back as the twelfth century and continued to practise their progressive form of healing until the first half of the eighteenth century.
It’s a shame one of those celebrated herbal healers didn’t discover a remedy for midge bites – mine were driving me to distraction.
Of course, one can’t really talk about Myddfai without mentioning its most famous resident. The Prince of Wales bought the nearby 192-acre Llwynywermod estate in 2007 for a reported £1 million. Prince Charles’s Welsh home is very modest by royal standards – he and Camilla have refurbished the three-bedroomed coach house and not the ruined mansion house. They are reported to have sourced local materials and craftspeople wherever possible. If you’re interested, historian Mark Baker details the history of the estate and its subsequent restoration in A Royal Home in Wales: Llwynywermod.
The scenery in these parts is so pretty that it’s impossible to do it justice in photographs. The narrow lanes are almost traffic-free and the fields undulating and full of cows and sheep. In fact, the only ‘traffic’ we encountered was a large flock of sheep being transferred from one field to another. If you have never watched a sheepdog at work, you have definitely missed a treat; it’s fascinating to see these canine experts weaving to and fro, making absolutely certain that every sheep is moving in the right direction and none wanders off or gets left behind. We stood back and observed this smoothest of operations in complete awe.
Too soon, it was time to say our goodbyes and head into the mountains. Harri had chosen to follow the Beacons Way for this section of our route, chiefly because so much of it is waymarked and thus (one would certainly hope anyway), would be well-maintained.
Created by the late John Sansom in conjunction with Arwel Michael and (one of my former Gwent Mountaineering Club walking companions) the Abergavenny-based writer and publisher Chris Barber, the 95-mile Beacons Way was conceived during the height of the UK’s foot and mouth crisis in 2001 when the value of tourism to the rural economy became glaringly apparent. Now it’s a popular eight-day hike and a route which Harri and I have previously walked (and for which we plan to publish a guidebook in digital format… watch this space!).
We’d first determined the distinctive shape of the Carmarthen Fans against the skyline yesterday morning; a day later and we were climbing the first of those high peaks. There’s no denying the ascent is steep; however, the incredible (and at times vertiginous) views from the ridge more than make up for the hard work.
The dark expanse of water below is Llyn y Fan Fach, described by the travel publisher Lonely Planet in 2011 as one of the 1000 must-see sights in the world. ‘This isolated drop of blue, beneath a cirque of raw Welsh hills, is enchanting – and enchanted,’ their writer raves, though it’s a wonder that he/she ever stumbled upon this remote speck of water in the first place.
The word ‘fan’ is Welsh for Beacon and the Carmarthen Fans is a term used to describe the peaks along the northern escarpment of the Black Mountain range in the Brecon Beacons (not to be confused with the Black Mountains in the south of the National Park area). Sadly, the increasingly popularity of the area has resulted in the path along the ridge becoming badly eroded and repair work is currently being undertaken.
Don’t relax too much at this point – the Carmarthen Fans have a real sting in their tail. At 2,631 feet, the final fan – Fan Brycheiniog –is the highest peak in the Black Mountain region. I found it hard to believe considering our walk has taken us through Snowdonia, the Rhinogs and Pumlumon, but Fan Brycheiniog is actually the highest summit we have scaled so far on this entire walk (for comparison, the Cadair Idris pass only reaches 1,842 feet). Of course, there will be optional summits on the O Fôn i Fynwy route (Snowdon, Cadair Idris, etc) but as we’ve done them before we let ourselves off this time!
After the thrill of the Fans, the descent felt a little tame – and endless. The steep, rocky track requires a lot of concentration, which made me wonder if coming off a mountain is actually harder than climbing one!
Eventually we reached the Tawe Valley (also known as the Swansea Valley) and solid flat ground. Harri hates walking on hard surfaces but sometimes… often… when we’re clambering over rock, stream, field and mud, I really do yearn for the kind of walking where it’s possible to mindlessly place one foot in front of the other and be confident of remaining upright.
We finished a hard day’s hiking with a pint (or two) at the nearby Gwyn Arms where we sipped the extraordinarily good Green Goblin cider and enjoyed the in-house entertainment: the landlady’s determined (but futile) battle against shoe-less customers and her husband’s undisguised delight at the England football team’s imminent slaughter (by Uruguay) in the World Cup.
It was after nine when we finally reached our campsite at Dan yr Ogof, another stunning location which was spoilt by the zillions of midges which seemed intent on attacking our heads, necks, legs, arms… any slither of flesh on show or easy to access. For once, Harri seemed as much under siege as me; as he was putting up the tent, they were buzzing relentlessly around his nose, ears and eyes and driving him crazy in the process. We had no choice but to eat inside our tent – it was that or be eaten!
There’s always a price to pay for a warm, dry spell in Wales, you see. Always.
‘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.