A magic area needing protection

Ann West says the Cambrian Mountains should become an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

If the National Park that was proposed for the Cambrian Mountains had been designated in 1979 it would have brought a special planning authority, centrally supported funding, and a high tourism profile. However, designation was unpopular amongst farmers and other land owners who worried about planning interference. Local authorities, too, were opposed because they felt a National Park might encroach on their functions.

A compromise today would be to make the Cambrian Mountains an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). This would integrate the needs of the land users, mainly farmers and foresters, with the landscape, biodiversity, culture and the economy. It would reflect the interests of local people and help meet the objectives of the local authorities and the Welsh Government. It would provide a framework for long term co-operation with minimal disruption to existing local authority structures.

It is now accepted that the Cambrian Mountains cover an area which includes the uplands of Pumlumon, Elenydd and Mynydd Mallaen. However, the Cambrian Mountains have an identity problem. Without designation as an AONB they have no clear, recognisable boundaries, no signs announcing you are entering or leaving them. The people who live in and around them, let alone visitors and tourists, have no clear idea where they are.

The primary purpose of an AONB designation is to conserve and enhance natural beauty as defined by the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. This stresses that account should be taken of rural industries and the economic and social needs of local communities, and promoting sustainable forms of social and economic development that in themselves conserve and enhance the environment.

The natural beauty of the plateaux and gorges of the Cambrian Mountains is equal to and often greater than that of many of our national parks. Although distributed among the three counties of Powys, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, geographically they are one area. The rivers Severn, Wye, Elan, Irfon, Tywi, Cothi, Teifi, Ystwyth, Rheidol and Twymyn all have their sources here.

From the high ground endless vistas can be seen across the plateaux, sprinkled with small lakes and streams. Here one can experience the sense of wilderness and utter solitude that is becoming so rare in the United Kingdom. The living landscape and its beauty are maintained by the local communities, the landowners, farmers, and estate managers who look after them. They contribute to the essence that brings visitors and their bank balances to the ring of villages and towns surrounding the Cambrian uplands.

Walkers stay in the hotels, bed and breakfast houses, and Youth Hostels, eating in the ever improving restaurants, stopping in campsites where farmers have decided to diversify into tourism. Pony trekkers ride across Wales staying on farms. Together they generate millions of pounds for the economy of mid-Wales. But everything depends upon the tranquillity and peace of the incomparable landscape.

The mountains provide rare examples of largely intact prehistoric cairns, megaliths, stone rows and circles dating from the Bronze Age, unchanged since their creation. Peat bogs are an important archive documenting human activity but they are a diminishing resource with many hectares having been lost recently during the construction of Cefn Croes windpower station to the east of Aberystwyth, near Devil’s Bridge.

Where off-roading is unchecked, where motor bikes and 4 x 4s romp through bogs and drive on to areas without tracks, immense damage is done to fragile surfaces which are then seen as no longer worthy of protection. Monitoring and policing of these activities are slowly improving but there are not enough rangers to contain the large numbers of bikers arriving from the Midlands.

Regardless of your views on wind power, erecting 64 wind turbines 475 feet high at Nant y Moch, the latest area to be targeted, near Ponterwyd east of Aberystwyth, cannot be justified. Wide hard roads would also be needed to access each of the turbines. If this proposal is accepted the precious isolation and wilderness will be lost. The view from Pumlumon will be even more cluttered with industrial giants and the jewel in the crown of the Elenydd gone for ever. The fevered imagination of H.G. Wells in his dystopian 1899 novel When the Sleeper Wakes would come to pass in 21st Century upland Wales:

“And all over the countryside he knew, on every crest and hill where once the hedges had interlaced, and cottages, churches, inns, and farmhouses had nestled amongst their trees, wind wheels similar to those he saw and bearing like vast advertisements, gaunt and distinctive symbols of the new age, cast their whirling shadows… To the east and south the great circular shapes of complaining wind-wheels blotted out the heavens.”

The establishment of an AONB would be an important step towards achieving our vision of self-reliant communities making critical decisions about their own futures, and maintaining themselves through their own sustainable economic activities, rooted in the beauty of their landscape.

Members of the National Assembly who decide our future seem a long way away when you are walking the hills surrounding the field of the Battle of Hyddgen in 1401, site of Owain Glyndŵr’s first iconic victory, or resting by the lakes and streams. We are exposed to consultants working in offices with little or no feel for the magic of Nant y Moch and we need protection from hungry developers or the motor industry who care nothing for the quiet skies where kites and skylarks are the only sounds  heard. Could an AONB achieve this? We hope so.

Ann West is Chair of the Cambrian Mountains Society.

Also within Politics and Policy