One of the great joys for me of living in an area has always been the thrill of exploring all the hidden corners and less well-known places scattered around. It seems very often to be the case that people generate a certain set of ideas about an area and then act accordingly. So it is that Snowdonia has certain areas that are overwhelmed with tourists and visitors every year (Snowdon, the Ogwen Valley area, Cadair Idris) and others, sometimes mere miles away, that see virtually no footfall whatsoever, such as the Arans, Rhinogs and Berwyns.
As I make my hour long drive to work every morning I see roads leading off enticingly into high moorland, and narrow little one track lanes leading off the main trunk roads towards hillsides, forests and lakes, and I try to take note and promise myself I’ll get around to exploring them when I have the time.
Travelling south out of Aberystwyth on the main highway towards Llangurig and Rhyader, you sweep around the flanks of the Plylimon massif, a region of territory in which, as is the case with its larger neighbours to the north, finds itself beset by crowds tackling its namesake peak, but which features vast swathes of wilderness largely unkwon to the casual tourist. Long before you reach the convenient lay by near Eisteddfa Gurig from which the most direct ascent of Plynlimon can be made, you sweep through Ponterwyd, a hamlet a few miles from Devil’s Bridge (home of the famous waterfalls) and itself a place with secrets hidden away, like the mountain bothy tucked into the forests over the ridgeline.
Take the road north out of Aberystwyth towards Machynlleth and distant Snowdonia, and you pass through a chain of hamlets whose names have become etched in my memory as gatekeepers along the road back towards my university town and the many friends I made there down the years; Tre’er Ddol, Tre Taliesin, Glandyfi, Bow Street, Talybont.
Between Ponterwyd, to the south of Aberystwyth, in the heart of the Plynlimons, and Talybont to the north, stretches a fifteen mile long road which climbs steeply up from Talybont, hugging the side of Cwm Ceulan with precipitous drops into the valley below, before reaching a high mountain pass and turning in a series of sweeping corners towards mighty Nant y Moch reservoir. From here the road bowls along through the high, wild moorland plateau before eventually crossing the reservoir and dropping down towards sleepy Ponterwyd far below.
The terrain crossed by this gem of a road is every bit as ancient, windswept, wild and remote as the moorland that cloaks Plynlimon’s subsidiary peaks, where last year I wandered for hours without seeing a soul on my way to the source of the River Severn and the River Wye. It is a land of heather, boggy upland and forest where the wind rushes freely and where you can easily stop and listen to absolute silence.
Having recently discovered this wilderness playground, I drove out a few weeks ago and climbed up to the pass from the Ponterwyd side, making mental notes of likely good points for photography and stargazing as I went. Parking my car at the pass, I crossed the infant Afon Ceulan and hiked up to the summit of a small rocky prominence to take in the full sweep of the mountain road plunging into the valley below. From here, nestled among the crags, I could see for miles down into Ceredigion’s coastal plain, and far out to sea. I lingered, taking photographs and playing with perspectives, admiring the stunning view and savouring the solitude.
Turning back, I wandered back to the car and left it behind as I struck off ahead onto the minor track that led away from the mountain road, into the hills beyond. The trackway led to some long-abandoned mining works, traces of a long dead industry that now, as they crumbled slowly away year by year, were being reclaimed by nature, and rebeautified by her. Moving on in the bright sunlight of early afternoon with a sky of intensely deep blue throwing a lovely contrast with the gold of the moorland slopes and the deep greens of the evergreen forests, every view that caught my eye lifted my spirits, and the solitude of my sojourn was refreshing.
Distantly on the map was marked a point which intrigued me, a ‘Plas Y Mynach’ marked as an angler’s retreat by the side of a huge lake apparently generated through the construction of the reservoirs that throng the area. As readers will know I’m always ready to go on a mission to find a secluded cabin in the wilderness, and so I pressed on, wondering what I’d find, and whether it’d be open when I got there. The trudge there was warm in the clear heat of a mid spring day, the year reaching that lovely tipping point where you know that warm days have once again become the norm, and the promise of summer is just around the corner.
I made my way along side trails, crossing, and criss-crossing the main track just to see what lay around each corner, part of my process of exploration, of getting to know the land and of taking the time to uncover its secrets. Gradually, I reached a vantage point from where I could see the hut nestled below, and worked my way down to the trail which led over boggy ground towards its back gate.
Here, unfortunately, I found the gate padlocked, and the whole building sadly locked up, although the carefully mown lawn outside the front door by the path leading down to the small jetty and boathouse showed that someone clearly looked in on the place on a regular basis. It was definitely a secluded spot, and I knew just from a cursory view of the skyline that this would be an incredible place for astronomy on a clear night. I vowed to come back.
After a placid half hour just taking in the peace and tranquility, I made a gradual way back along the tracks and pathways towards the road over the pass. It had been an excellent afternoon of hiking and general exploration, and underpinning it all was the knowledge that this entire vast landscape was mine to explore freely, whenever I had the chance. I will never be a rich man in worldly goods, but I have the freedom of the hills, which give riches beyond measure, and fill my life with treasures of peace and fulfilment which money could never buy. Not for the first time, as I drove back down towards civilisation, I left the hills feeling incredibly lucky, already planning my return.