9 days’ walking from Conwy at the top of Wales to Carmarthen more or less at the bottom.
The holiday was wet and set back by poor footpath maintenance, but very satisfying.
Here are some of the highlights.
The Hafod Hotel at Devil’s Bridge. Up in the eves of this enormous but very homey old coaching inn our large room had a window which looked out onto the gently steaming tree-filled gorge and the hills beyond. The room itself was very atmospheric, I can’t quite describe how – something to do with the dark, honest, old furnishings, floral prints of the curtains, wallpaper and bedspread, soft, gentle odours of the place, the light of a grey dusk, and the sound of the rain outside and the far off river crashing down over the rocks. I loved it. The staff were not only friendly, they were kind to the vegan and to the wet walkers. The owner made space available in the cupboard with the boiler and we dried our clothes. His daughter had shopped for me, and I had a number of sandwich fillings to choose from. They gave me the sandwich filling to take to the next place. I am deeply grateful. In the sitting room I read a 2003 farming notebook and Matt sat with three ancient books – British flowers, British moths and British birds. I would love to go back to the Hafod Hotel.
At Llangeitho we stayed at the Glanafon Guest House, one of two well turned-out en-suite dormer rooms in the immaculate home our proprietors built. Again, they were very friendly and welcoming and made us tea which we drank in their kitchen. They asked whether we liked dogs and when we said that we did, they let two out of the sitting room – they were lovely big dogs, full of comedy. One wanted to play with a rubber ring he refused to release; he and the other one conducted fierce playfights through the ground floor as long as somebody was looking. That night we could hear the river nearby. The food was good and attentive to the vegan, and the breakfast table was arranged for guests to look at the bird feeders, which were very busy.
Also a special mention for the warm and comfortable village pub in Llangeitho, the Three Horse Shoe. It was really good of the landlady to get in nut loaf especially. That was one of my favourite evening meals.
I really enjoyed our stay at Ivy House at Dolgellau. Again, they looked after the vegan, and the place was nostalgic, clean, deeply comfortable and honest. That morning a knowledgeable and understatedly humourous woman I presume was the owner came out of her kitchen and told us about some of the things we would encounter on our route.
It was too wet to use the camera much. This happens and you have to just shrug. But one time I was walking on a footbridge on what was supposed to be a bit of wet ground in a watermeadow by the Teifi, and it was half a metre under water. Another time one leg went down to the knee in a hidden bog, the other was sinking fast and if I had been on my own I’d have lost my sandals trying to get out. I’m not entirely confident I could have got out on my own. One sad lunch in the Ceredigion village of Bronant the pub was shut and the church locked – we ate our sandwiches huddled like sheep on the concrete under the rusted and leaking corrugated iron roof of the local shop. Another day the only shelter we could find was a remote sheep shearing shed on the slopes of Plynlimon, the massif which seems to stand between us and anywhere we want to go in Wales and which – source of the Wye and Severn – always soaks us. It soaked us again; this time we found the Rheidol ford near an abandoned farm where we ate lunch last time, but it was flowing forcefully, perishing cold and up to my behind.
Climbing Cader Idris from Dolgellau, ragged fingers of cloud threw out rain in front of us and behind us but not upon us. 200 metres from the top of Cader, which was out of our way, we met a man and his son who told us that the summit was “like being in a white bubble”. Not peak baggers, we decided to come down.
This all sounds dreadful, but it isn’t. Not that we planned for this, but I recommend making a long journey in remote places on foot in bad weather to fill you with appreciation for human achievement and a strong sense of your own wellbeing. You remember that roads – from Sarn Helen to the M1 – were created because of the need to make connections over wet ground. Made roads were some of our earliest networks. You remember that humans are very resourceful and enterprising creatures, and you love, and even marvel at, your waterproofs, OS maps, the bridges, your bed and the roof over your head. You feel fortunate about your food, and your beer. You feel practically joyful when you reach your destination each night. Matt and I are fortunate – we have more than we need. It’s good to confront yourself once in a while with the needs you have surpassed.
A few last things.
This time Wales felt like a foreign country. The language is formalised – my Machynlleth English friend’s daughter is on the Welsh track at school – she is taught in Welsh. Many young people from Conwy to Carmarthen were speaking in Welsh. Although we were obviously not Welsh (backpacking hikers in Wales are almost always not, and the English have always used Wales as their playground) some local people on the road addressed us initially in Welsh. I took this as gently making a point. Welsh is first and foremost a political and nationalist matter, I think. Thought maybe it is less rather than more archane to spell, phonetically, ‘ambiwlans’ instead of ‘ambulance’ and ‘egsost’ instead of ‘exhaust’. At any rate it has come to the stage now where next time I’m in Wales I think I will learn some courtesy phrases, and certainly greetings, in the language of the land as formalised by the democratically-elected Welsh Assembly.
I was afraid of the animals. I couldn’t read the dogs. A lot of the cats fled when I came near. A field of curious horses approached us at speed and followed us for a few hundred metres and I was nervous. Matt and I fought over a herd of cows with calves. Matt insisted on approaching them when they were in our way. They lurched, showed the whites of their eyes and looked poised to do something rapid – in the end they moved aside. This happened twice. On the second occasion I was so intent on creeping along the hedge that I stopped just short myself of trampling a dead new-born calf. Filled with horror and walking quickly for the end of that field I was close to the stile when a massive pale rock nearby twitched and flicked its tail. It raised a head with a gold-ringed nose. I was over the stile with some speed, noticing only when I got down that the gate between that field and the one I’d just left was open. It was fine. I think we were in some danger when the cows with calves were on our path and that we should have avoided them according to the countryside code, although Matt doesn’t. A few days later in Lampeter we read of the death of a poor woman, Anita Hinchey, charged and trampled by cows, the third such death in that month – these attacks are not such rare phenomena, although Matt is probably right when he points out that the people died because the cows reacted badly to the dogs. I’m glad, at least, that more are permitted to suckle their calves on pasture. This used to be a rare sight – the fact that it is less rare means there is a market for veal again. I wonder how they separate the calf and its mother before the death. Probably with dogs.
I buttoned my lip when one host (unmentioned above) held forth on the violence that wind turbines do to the landscape. When I look at the hills I see enclosed common land making prisons for animals and trespassers of people. It has only been this way since the industrial revolution. Almost everywhere in Wales human activity has carved up the hills. I think wind turbines are majestic, triumphant.