Talgarth – not a town to bypass

posted in: Mid Wales, Wales | 7
Evening sunlight on the northern escarpment of the Black Mountain
Evening sunlight on the northern escarpment of the Black Mountain

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!

 

Lorries once thundered down Bell Street, then part of the A470 through Wales
Lorries once thundered down Bell Street, then part of the A470 through Wales

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.

 

The articulated lorries may be gone but the sign remains
The articulated lorries may be gone but the sign remains

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.

 

School Lane and St Gwendoline's Church
School Lane and St Gwendoline’s Church

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.

 

Brook Lane is just one of several pretty lanes
Brook Lane is just one of several pretty almost traffic-free places to stroll

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.

 

The town hall at twilight
The town hall at twilight

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.

 

The impressive waterfalls
The impressive waterfalls

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.

 

Sydna with Harri outside The Bell Hotel
Sydna with Harri outside The Bell Hotel

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!).

 

7 Responses

  1. Valkrye Brumby

    Hello , I have been subscribed to your blog for a few weeks now and just wanted to let you know how much I have enjoyed all your recent posts~ and your wonderful ,atmospheric photos. Lovely to feel I am traveling vicariously through your words and photos, in all these lovely and interesting places in the landscape. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. thewalkerswife

    Thank you so much for your kind comments, Valkrye. Harri and I love exploring Wales together and it’s great to know that readers like you are getting to know our little country better as a result of my blog. My posts have been a bit sparse lately simply because we’ve been out and about more but there’s plenty more to come… watch this space! Thanks again.

    • Valkrye Brumby

      Hello again. I have been to Wales several times, but not nearly as much as I would like. I have a friend who lives in “border country’,re: Shropshire , so have dipped in and out of Wales ~ one of your previous posts really resonated with me ,since I had been to same spots, but you also visited others nearby that I was not familiar with, so it was a double treat to both revisit as well as see places new to me. I will certainly continue to watch this space with keen anticipation!

      • thewalkerswife

        I’m so pleased that my blog is bringing back happy memories for you. Since I’ve known Harri (nearly seven years now), we’ve really enjoyed exploring the beautiful landscapes on our doorstep as well as those farther afield. There are so many lovely places in Wales, many of which you only really see on foot, and although I’m Welsh through and through, I regularly find myself in stunning new landscapes. We’re lucky in that we live on the outskirts of town so we can walk out of our garden and be on a mountainside within minutes. Our immediate (hiking/blog) plans are another trip to the Black Mountains and then, weather permitting, we’re off to New Quay in Pembrokeshire for a few days. I’m sure I’ll find plenty to say about both!

  3. Valkrye Brumby

    Thanks for responding to my last comment~ I so envy the fact you are able to walk out of your garden and be in the countryside and on a mountain within minutes! That is a long time dream of mine ~ I have to content myself however with rare visits to my friend in Shropshire~ I then try to spend every minute I can walking out in the countryside, visiting old churches, ruins, ancient houses and gorgeous woodland and hills. I am so looking forward to your upcoming trip posts~hope the weather will cooperate ! I know it has been raining in that area lately~ but hopefully more days ahead of sun~ it looks so radiant this time of year when the sun deigns to appear~ Love that gilded and golden amber light . I want to comment on your latest post which I just got in my email box so will do so as soon as I have finished reading the entire post.

    • thewalkerswife

      We’ve got the end of next week earmarked for our next hiking trip… fingers crossed the weather will be kind to us. Yes, I completely agree about light; the main photograph was taken at about 6.30pm as we were coming off the mountains and into Talgarth. We were going through photographs last night and the sky/light conditions make such a huge difference to whether an image looks great or mediocre. I don’t have Photoshop so I can’t manipulate images to the extent that many photographs do nowadays. I took some amazing snowy coastal photographs for Harri’s Top Ten Walks in Carmarthen Bay and Gower book but, for some unfathomable reason, the publisher didn’t use any of them. Presumably they think we’re the only ones who go out walking in the snow (so not true!).

      • Valkrye Brumby

        Yes, fingers crossed re: your hiking trip~ Although I know Photoshop can do some amazing things , I really prefer photos that have not been manipulated apart from perhaps a little light added or tweaked if it needs to be darkened to provide some more definition ect~ I find that a lot of the HD photos look so unreal~ if the photographer is going for an ‘art-y” look rather than the reality the camera captured at that moment , then that is fine but they can look so over the top. I am sure photographing in snow conditions must require different camera settings to capture accurately what you are seeing~ Interesting that the publishers did not use the snow photos ~ I know they must have been beautiful and real walkers do walk in all sorts of weathers! Which reminds me , have you read any of Robert MacFarlane’s books? If not, think you would really enjoy them.

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