It was, I’ll admit, not the most auspicious of starts to our WiFi-free Welsh holiday. Autumn colds had been making the rounds of the office, and this plus work stress meant that my immune system decided to pack it in. In turn this caused a chronic infection to flare up, necessitating a trip to the dentist the morning we were due to leave. But with antibiotics in hand and the sun shining, we were able to set off on the three-hour journey to mid-Wales.
Once off the main motorways, we found ourselves immersed in rolling green hillsides dotted with sheep, and began to catch sight of signs with seemingly unpronounceable words in need of a vowel or two. J.R.R. Tolkien was inspired by both the Welsh landscape and language when writing Lord of the Rings, and it was easy to see how both shaped his epic adventure.
Whether due to the incredible sunny weather or the reality of finally getting away, the miles flew by and we were soon in the tiny, wonderfully named hamlet of Staylittle. There were still a few hours of daylight left, and our host, Helen, recommended that we pay a visit to Hafren Forest. Hafren is the Welsh name of the River Severn; measuring 220 miles, it’s the longest river in the UK and its source lies nearby.
We were a bit hesitant: MrElaineous and I are rubbish walkers, not the type to be out in all weathers or terrains. But Hafren was ideal for us. The first half mile was a level, wooden trail that took visitors of all abilities along the River Severn, and beyond that the path was a gentle, easily walkable boundary between river and forest. The sun was setting so we headed back around a mile in, but we made plans to return.
Which we did first thing the next morning, tackling the rather violently named Severn-Break-Its-Neck walk. The walk itself was less scenic than the previous evening, but with the payoff of the eponymous Severn-Break-Its-Neck waterfall that cascaded around us. After sharing a celebratory flask of tea, we headed out to explore the scenery around Clynwedog, a large lake formed when the area was dammed in the 1960s.
Having this second day of beautiful weather made the trip around Clynwedog quite magical. In many ways, it reminded me of the Lake District—well, there is just the one lake, but it is quite large and lovely—yet without the hordes of tourists. As we stopped at incredible viewpoint after incredible viewpoint, we more or less had the place to ourselves (if you don’t count a few hundred nearby sheep, of course). We took in views of the lake itself, the dam, and finished off at the Bryntail Lead Mine, the remains of a 19th century lead processing plant. As someone with an archaeological background, any day I can have a poke around old ruins is a good one in my book!
Finally, we headed into the nearest town: Llanidloes. This town variously reminded me of Tetbury, Malmesbury, and Bristol. A large number of cafes and antique stores hinted at a potential tourist influx at some point, but when we visited it was quiet, a town at the start of its winter season. It boasts an early 17th century market hall that is the only surviving example of its type in Wales, and this adds its own special flair to the centre of town.
We stopped off at the Great Oak Café, a vegetarian café that gave off a Bristol/Stokes Croft vibe and was a great place to refresh ourselves with more tea and a slice of cake. From there we explored a local used bookstore. As a recovering book collector, I find it difficult to go into such shops because I want to buy everything that catches my eye: Lab Girl – sounds interesting and I vaguely remember reading a positive review of it. A 19th century leather-bound edition of Charles Dickens’s Christmas stories for only £20? Yes, please! Coffee table books about wildlife … and nature … and architecture … and so on. But I don’t have the space to store them or the time to read them, so I left empty-handed but uplifted after a thorough look around.
The weather was still gorgeous and it was only mid-afternoon, so we decided to take another one of Helen’s recommendations and head over to Machynlleth on the mountain road. The only word I can think of to describe this journey is stunning. The hills in autumn colours, the ever-present sheep, and the distant views made this truly a picturesque drive, with a beautiful new vista around every corner. We stopped at a viewing point dedicated to Wynford Vaughn-Thomas, a Welsh author, broadcaster, and traveller. His effigy points to Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales, and other peaks are highlighted for perusal.
From Machynlleth, we travelled to the Centre for Alternative Technologies. I had heard about CAT from former co-workers who had studied there and was curious to see the place for myself. It was started 40 years ago in a disused slate quarry to showcase sustainable building practices, and it continues to inspire new generations to rethink how their homes can be more energy efficient and their lifestyles more environmentally friendly. From greywater gardens to sheep’s wool insulation and solar panels to wind generation, there is a lot to take in over the site’s seven acres.
We returned to Machynlleth for a spot of exploration (and maybe a little shopping) before heading back along the mountain road to enjoy a delicious homecooked dinner with Helen. For the remainder of our time in Wales, no matter where we travelled it seemed that every road sign pointed to Machynlleth. I still can’t pronounce it properly, but it felt like the very heart of Wales … and I certainly left a bit of mine in the surrounding forests, fields, and hillsides.