Until a few years ago, Talgarth was one of those places you avoided like the plague. Not that it was easy to avoid if you were travelling through the middle of Wales.
This small market town with a population of around 1650 was positioned smack bang in the middle of the A479, one of the main thoroughfares from south to north Wales.
Each day, lorries heading from Chepstow to Flint, Newport to Rhayader and Abergavenny to Rhyl hurtled through the Rhiangoll Valley on narrow country roads that were never intended for 21st century traffic. Past Tretower Court they thundered, roaring past the stone cottages of Cwmddu and beyond, past grazing sheep, high hedgerows and shadowy mountains until they finally reached Talgarth – and frequently got stuck!
It was a sight local people were well used to – the lorry driver who, misjudging the tight angle of the corner of Bell Street, succeeded in manoeuvring his vehicle into a spot of bother. Soon cars were queuing the length of Talgarth as amateur traffic police did their best to assist the beleaguered driver. Local legend has it that the Bridge End Inn was hit on an almost daily basis in recent years.
Rather than being a pleasant place to live deep in the beautiful and generally tranquil Black Mountains, Talgarth became infamous for its ability to bring Wales’s traffic to a standstill. And then, in 2007, everything changed with the completion of the Talgarth Relief Road.
The odd thing is that once a bypass opens the majority of people who’ve spent years driving through a place never pull off the main road to visit it again; I know this because I was the same with Talgarth.
In my previous life as a public sector worker I travelled to Llandrindod Wells regularly for almost a decade (as a colleague helpfully pointed out, the spa town is equally inaccessible to those travelling from any part of Wales, hence it remains a popular all-Wales meeting place!). As a result, I was well used to sitting in queues of traffic in Talgarth while yet another lorry found itself wedged between the centuries old buildings of Bell Street.
When the relief road opened, I was still travelling to Llandrindod regularly but the existence of the new dual carriageway meant we now whizzed past Talgarth. With my memories overwhelmingly of delay and traffic jams, I’d probably never have ventured into Talgarth ever again had it not been for some work Harri and I are doing for the Brecon Beacons National Parks Authority (more about that in a later blog).
Talgarth is one of the park’s four Walkers are Welcome towns and local people are hoping that this status will help the small market town gradually regain its popularity with tourists and outdoor enthusiasts.
I hope so too because, as I found out last week, Talgarth is a really lovely little place, with some of the friendliest people you could hope to meet. Standing at the bus stop in Talgarth is not a lonely affair, as we quickly discovered, and the town also boasts a great Chinese takeaway. a well-stocked Co-op and an award-winning butcher.
The setting is perfect for walkers too, with the Black Mountains just a stone’s throw away and plenty of lower level walks to enjoy if you’re not feeling energetic.
Our landlady at the Bell Hotel (no website) was one of the liveliest septuagenarians I’ve met in a long while. Not content with running a bed and breakfast establishment (formerly a public house with two bars) single-handed, Sydna is widely travelled, practices pilates, is a published poet and regularly opens the doors of her 500-year-old-home to locals for a variety of uses, including the annual vegetable show.
Her irrepressible spirit was evident from the many tales she recounted, including the time she was arrrested for pushing a neighbour who was interfering with her centuries-old cobblestones off her property with a mop! The incident was recorded for posterity by cartoonist, Brian Platt, a local resident and good friend of Sydna’s and his cartoon now has pride of place in the former bar.
Sydna’s desire to see the Terracotta Army for herself resulted in her travelling to China in 1988 and she was keen to share with us her dog-eared souvenir brochure. She recalled how the Chinese people had treated her ‘like royalty’ throughout her trip, although all the fussing and fawning had made this ‘very ordinary’ lady feel a little uncomfortable.
Sydna also told us how her unusual name came about. She was born during the war and her father had his heart set on a son who would be named Sydney. He was away fighting when she was born and her mother, though keen to carry out her husband’s wishes, hesitated in registering her baby daughter with a boy’s name. With the days ticking away, the new mother’s eyes were drawn to a death notice in the South Wales Echo – the dead woman’s name was Sydna.
The Bell Hotel is situated on what was once the main thoroughfare through Talgarth and Sydna recalled the daily chaos as lorry after lorry got itself stuck in the narrow street. Now children play in the quiet street unhindered by traffic and it’s hard to imagine how people found the courage to walk along the narrow pavements with little ones with an endless line of vehicles speeding past.
One of Sydna’s favorite places is the nearby Pwll-y-Wrach Nature Reserve which features in one of her poems. Our own route took us through this pretty valley where ancient woodlands slope down to the River Enid and there’s an impressive waterfall.
In the town itself, the eighteenth century flour mill Melin Talgarth Mill has been recently restored and is now open to visitors. Sadly, our busy walking schedule meant we were unable to visit the mill (opening hours are between 10am and 4pm) but it looked pretty special from the outside. There are also volunteer guides who provide visitors with an insight into the history of milling in Talgarth.
After two nights at the Bell Hotel we had to say farewell to our new friend Sydna and her corgi, Trixie Bell. Harri is not usually a sentimental type but he felt he’d like to leave Sydna something to remember us by so he gave her a signed copy of his book Day Walks in the Brecon Beacons. He joked he was lightening the load in his ruck sack but you could see Sydna was really touched by the gift and I suspect she’ll be regaling future visitors with tales of time the great Harri Roberts stayed at the pub and how his partner managed to lock them both out of their bedroom early one morning (yes, that was me!).