Rhys David finds solitude and interesting signs of a new vitality on a trek through the middle of Wales
“Of all the beautiful sights in the world, I am not sure if there is anything more lovely than the Welsh hills. It is as if the character of the nation – its under-rated strength and vitality – is contained and channelled in those meadows and rolling slopes.” These comments by Matthew Syed, sports columnist and diarist, writing just a few weeks back, had a particular resonance for those like myself walking those very hills in June – fortunately in the best weather window in months.
There is something magical and even reassuring about being a short distance from a sizeable settlement, such as Shrewsbury and the neighbouring West Midlands, and yet in countryside so remote the number of people to be seen during the day can be counted in single figures, with possibly even fewer cars. Instead, one’s constant companions almost everywhere on the horizon and sometimes much closer in this part of the world are sheep in their thousands.
This is the evocatively-named Glyndwr’s Way, a 135-mile long wishbone shaped trail from Knighton to Machynlleth, with a return leg back to Welshpool, the 80 mile first section of which my party of two men and three women covered. Opened in 2000 Glyndwr’s Way purports to follow the route taken by the legendary Welsh hero Owain Glyndwr. Supported at one stage by French forces who marched to within eight miles of Worcester, Glyndwr inflicted several crushing defeats on his English opponents in the early 15th century – notably at the Battle of Pilleth near Knighton in 1402 – before mysteriously disappearing without trace in 1413 but not from Welsh people’s memory.
Today’s route is just a convenient fiction for although Wales’s Braveheart controlled the area for long periods there is more to connect him with the various towns – notably Machynlleth, which he made his capital and seat of his Parliament in 1404 – than with the trail that bears his name. The linking of various UK national trails to historical figures has been a shrewd marketing initiative, however, and one that can probably claim some credit for the growing popularity of long distance walks. Our group walked another such route – St. Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose in the Scottish Borders to Holy Island off Northumberland last year and there are plenty more to choose from, including Wales’s other eponymous trail, Offa’s Dyke. After all, who wants to walk just from A -B, struggling to follow footpaths through remote fields, even for one’s health’s sake, when you can retrace the (supposed) steps of a hero along a scrupulously waymarked route, pointing you in the right direction at every unclear fork or open vista.
But it is not just walkers who have cause to rejoice at the spread of new national trails. Walkers have brought trade and led to facilities being put in place along the routes in towns, villages and other smaller settlements where there was previously not a lot on offer to the outsider (or even the insiders sometimes). Abbey Cwm Hir, one of our stops, is about as remote as it gets yet now boasts a splendid B&B, and walkers are a new potential market for the owners of a quirky country house, Abbey Cwm Hir Hall, built for London lawyer, Thomas Wilson on the site of a Tudor house in in 1833 and purchased four years later by Francis Phillips, a Lancashire landowner and businessman.
Renowned as a roadbuilder (on which subject he published) Phillips is assured of a minor place in history for catching Spencer Percival, the only British Prime Minister ever to be assassinated, as he fell to his knees dying from shotgun wounds in the House of Commons in 1812. The hall’s latest owners have opened it to the public for viewing the series of eclectic collections they have put together. The nearby ruins of Wales’s biggest abbey, are getting more visitors, too, and educating new generations in Welsh history. Wales’s last native Prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, is reputedly buried here – minus his head which stayed in London where it had been on grisly display following his defeat at Cilmeri in Breconshire in 1282. There are signs of new business in other points along the route. Restaurants have sprung up to serve a growing market in Knighton; a pub has re-opened in another tiny place, Llangunllo; the community shop and café at Llanbadarn Fynydd is getting a few more customers; and there is more business, too, for the teashops, restaurants and mini-markets in Llanidloes and Machynlleth.
Knighton, in particular – once one of the biggest sheep markets in Britain – has gained a new lease of life. It benefits from being not just the starting point for Glyndwr’s Way, accessible from the Swansea or Shrewsbury directions on the very scenic Heart of Wales railway line, but from its position near the centre of the much older Offa’s Dyke path. It hosts the visitor centre for this trail. Traditionally very much a border town of divided loyalties, its main street now vies to be the most patriotic in Wales, bedecked with the flag of Glyndwr (four lions passant guardant, red and gold quartered and counter-changed). Having besieged the town’s castle in 1402 and then destroyed it and much of the town, Glyndwr would no doubt now have been giving a wry smile of satisfaction.
These and other developments form part of a more general welcoming feel throughout the area, or so it seemed from our admittedly brief observations. At Llangunllo the Greyhound Inn opened up specially mid-morning to serve us coffee. At Velindre, our first stop, the owner of the holiday accommodation we stayed in drove us several miles to the nearest pub serving food and picked us up later. Our host at the Lion Hotel in Llanbister, (who proudly claimed his family had farmed the area for 1,000 years and had the records to prove it!) picked us up from several miles away on the route at the end of one day and took us back the next morning. (His was the nearest accommodation.)
At remote, remote Cwm Biga Farm, near the Clywedog reservoir and now self-catering accommodation, the owner had taken over an historic Welsh mixed farm, owned successively by the Welsh prince Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn, the monks of nearby Abbey Cwm Hir, and (after the dissolution) Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Chancellor of Oxford University, he passed it on his death in 1588 to University College, which held it until 1920. After a short period in private ownership the land was requisitioned by the Forestry Commission in 1939 on the outbreak of World War Two and its 1,300 acres largely planted with conifers. Having semi-retired the new owner like many in the area now has a portfolio career, providing financial, environmental and IT advice to local businesses and groups as well as cooking for guests if required
There are other signs of a new entrepreneurialism. Public road transport was never plentiful in this area and has now largely disappeared but a small network of taxi companies will ferry people about – and just as importantly take walkers’ luggage from one night’s stay to the next. This was a service we used. (We did meet more hardy walkers, such as Elvira, a Swiss living in the south east who was walking the full 135 miles stretch in nine days with what looked like a 30lbs-40lbs backpack.) The same minibus taxis take children to school helping people to stay in the area, as does another relatively new service, the Post Office Travelling Shop. We came across the familiar red livery in Llangunllo, a van equipped inside to sell stationery, greeting cards and other similar items, as well as offering bank cash withdrawals and, of course, selling stamps and taking parcels. The van travels around to different small communities, parking for an hour or so in each on set days each week, providing services which in some cases, such as simple banking, will have never been seen in the village or settlement before.
Other services are not so available. Mobile phone coverage is patchy, though the extent differs from provider to provider, depending on the area. I did receive one call on the roof of Wales between Llanidloes and Machynlleth where there was not a settlement in sight. “Hi, I’m ‘Alex’”, an Indian voice announced, “and I’m calling you from Windows Technical Department about your computer”. The scammer, to paraphrase Stanley Baldwin’s famous comment in 1932 will always get through, I suppose.
It barely does justice to mid Wales to say the scenery is breath-taking and the weather on our walk was ideal – 20-25 degrees with a slight breeze. After you have ascended from the valley towns at the start of each day most of the walk is at between 1,000 – 1,500 feet over rich green hills just asking to be climbed over, or around at a lower contour level, if you are lucky. The odd farm or other building has to be passed through and there are short stretches of stone track or even road but overwhelmingly the terrain is grass or narrow trackway.
The sights, too, were magnificent and accompanied by a constant chorus of birds, with cuckoos particularly prominent throughout the area. Kites have, of course, remained native to this region even when they had been driven out elsewhere and are relatively common alongside buzzards, and plenty of other smaller birds – curlew, dipper, skylark, meadow pipit, wheatear and redstart to name a few.
There are occasional small rocky gashes in the hills where stone has been taken, probably to build the nearby farmhouse, but the main sign of former industrial activity is at the huge Clywedog dam, near the walls of which is an old lead processing works, one of several dating back to the 19th century in this area. In the tributaries that run into this giant reservoir with its 235-ft high concrete buttress, river trout dart about, their presence one of the reasons for the re-establishment of the osprey in the area. A pair can be viewed from a hide alongside the 11 billion-gallon reservoir where Natural Resources Wales have set up a special telescope to enable visitors to see the female on the nest and her partner nearby.
How tough is the walk? The ground everywhere apart from a few very small, somewhat boggy patches, is good and firm, and clear of obstruction. There are some steep climbs but most of the inclines are relatively gentle, if rather frequent. Weather is, however, all-important. Over much of the area there is relatively little cover once up in the hills. The walk can, of course, be taken in stages – one long walk for the fittest, and section by section, if this is more appropriate.
The growth of interest in this type of get-away-from-it-all holidays has led to the emergence of a number of companies that will make all the necessary bookings. We used The Walking Company, based in Monmouth, which took our proposed itinerary and booked the various hotels and B&Bs, and the taxi luggage transport, as well as providing a comprehensive guidance kit consisting of the excellent Harvey map and Cicerone booklet, and other valuable advice and information.
There is perhaps one other invaluable companion on such a trip, George Borrow, the nineteenth century East Anglian author of Lavengro and The Romany Rye was devoted to Wales and in 1854 tramped over most of Wales with his wife and daughter, wondering at the scenery, talking to local people, and learning about the country’s myths and history, all faithfully recorded in his masterly tome, Wild Wales.