The Plynlimons: lumpy, soggy, bog-strewn moorland rising somewhere between Aberystwyth and Rhayader. A desolate region, to be humoured for the summit of the highest peak Pen Pumlumon Fawr at the most, but otherwise to be shunned, especially in foul weather. This is the general tone taken by most of the mountain literature on this fine range of hills, and it couldn’t be more wrong.
The Plynlimons, to give the anglicised version of their proper Welsh name, the Pumlumon range, are the key peaks of the Cambrian Mountain chain. They rise out of the wild country traversed by the A44 Aberystwyth-Rhyader road as it wends its way towards the Welsh border, situated in an area of upland moorland close to the great Nant-y-Moch reservoir complex.
They’re a curious bunch, these mountains, for while the country around them is indeed sparsely populated and largely untamed by major development, the key peak of the range is accessible from a layby just off the A44 and can be climbed within an hour of leaving the car. On a fine day there can be few lovelier walks in this area of Wales but the overridingly dour characterisation of these hills probably has much to do with the atmosphere surrounding them when the weather turns foul, which, let’s be honest, it frequently does in west Wales!
For there are indeed pitfalls for the unwary on these mountains. When the weather closes in, the terrain becomes unnervingly uniform, distinguishing features can be all but blotted out, and navigation can prove to be a real challenge. Perhaps a more insidious danger lies in the small mountain streams and rivers, many of which are unbridged in the more remote areas of the range. As the rain falls even the smallest stream can become a raging torrent within hours, blocking off what had previously been considered a safe line of retreat.
But to mull on these considerations too long would be to do these mountains a great disservice. All too often we hear in the context of the British mountains that favoured haunts are becoming too crowded or that certain peaks become, effectively, no-go areas in summer for those seeking solitude in the hills. For the seeker of peaceful, quiet mountain days the Plynlymons are the perfect answer. For while the summit of Pen Pumlumon Fawr itself may prove a draw for crowds on a clear day, partly due to the ease of its ascent from the A44, the rest of the range offers year-round solitude. I can vouch for this, because these are my local mountains, and come rain, snow or sunshine there’s always a quiet place to escape to, as my trip reports will attest.
Besides the obvious charms of the peaks themselves of course, the whole area bristles with interest. Few know that there is a Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) bothy hidden in the forestry near Ponterwyd, a few mere miles from Plynlymon itself. These forests themselves are home to numerous trails including the scenic Borth-Devils Bridge-Pontarfendigaid Trail, and cloak traces of former industry including quarrying and lead mining. You can hike day in, day out in this forestry without seeing another soul, and at the end of the day relax in comfort in a quiet home-from-home.
As part of my mission to bag all of the Welsh 2000 footers, I’ve explored this range from end to end and I can’t help feeling a growing affection for it. People have strong opinions about the Plynlimons; most hikers I know have spent more than one rainy afternoon hiking to the summit to find no view when they got there, and wondered why they’d bothered! Yet I feel that for all that they certainly can give strong impressions on those foul weather days, these really are hills that few really bother to explore, and it is in this exploration that an entirely different light is shone on the whole area.
In recent visits I’ve seen the summit blanketed in snow, fence posts wind-blasted and frozen by huge icicles; I’ve seen hidden lakes near the source of the River Severn; ancient, all but forgotten Bronze Age burial cairns standing sentry over almost unvisited moorlands, and wandered for hours at a time with merlins for company. If this post and my trip reports can whet your appetite to visit these secluded mountains either for the first time or with fresh eyes, then in some small way I’ll have done these charming peaks justice.