Monday, 25 April 2016

A470: Part 7: Caersws to Rhyader

world-map llangelynin


Following on from my comments last week, I’ve now booked my trip to Iceland, the Faroe Isles and Denmark for November. Can’t wait to explore the Far North! Until then though, the equally wild Green Desert of Wales…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Llandudno

Part 3: Llandudno to Dolwyddelan

Part 4: Dolwyddelan to Blaenau Ffestiniog

Part 5: Blaenau Ffestiniog to Dolgellau

Part 6: Dolgellau to Caersws

Part 7: Caersws to Rhyader

Also check out my other Welsh travelogues:

The Sacred Heart of Wales

Across the Sound

V-log: Llangelynin

V-log: Barmouth Cliff Walk

V-log: Walking Pilgrimage to Bardsey Island


Part 7: Caersws to Rhyader

We left the A470 at Caersws and took a detour to Newtown, the very English-sounding largest town in Mid Wales. Newtown sounds rather un-Welsh because it is; it was founded by Edward I as a new town to be settled in by his people near to where Dolforwyn Castle, a seat of the Prince of Wales, had stood before Edward besieged it and gave all the lands thereabouts to the Mortimers. Even today, it still has a very English look about it and, only ten miles from the border, like Wrexham to the north, it looks far more to the English border towns than it does those places lying to its west.

Newtown's most famous son is Robert Owen, the famous socialist reformer who advocated giving workers decent conditions and housing and helped to found the co-operative movement. He was born where the HSBC bank now stands and the town has both a statue and museum dedicated to him although his greatest legacy is not in Wales nor even England, but instead the model workers' town of New Lanark in Scotland. The socialist legacy however, remained strong in the town; in 1838 it saw Wales' first Chartist demonstration.

However, it was not to explore the socialist heritage of the area that we made the detour, but instead to get the charger for the iPad that had proved so elusive in Dolgellau. This time we were luckier, and after purchasing what we needed, ogling the rather fine Victorian brick parish church and then buying a coffee, we headed back into the Green Desert to the A470.

We left the road again at Llanidloes, another of those Welsh settlements named after an obscure early Christian hermit saint. Although a pretty place and unusual in being one of the few places to elect a Conservative MP regularly, we had turned off not to go to the town but instead a spot several miles on that I'd read about in a newspaper article which praised the virtues of touring the A470. The writer, a Welsh tourist chief, had commented how he liked to take detours off the A470 and one such detour led from Llanidloes to the nearby Llyn Clywedog, which is not actually a Llyn (lake), but instead a reservoir (cronlyn). It was formed in 1967 when a dam was built across the Afon Clywedog, a tributary of the Severn, the aim being to provide drinking water for the English Midlands, a little electric power and also to help limit winter flooding of the Severn, although judging by the incredible flooding of that waterway that I witnessed several months earlier whilst travelling by train from Shrewsbury to Newport, the latter aim does not seem to have been totally successful.

I love a good dam; nothing speaks so vividly of human progress and the harnessing of nature, (that's why the communists were so enamoured with them in all their propaganda), and over the years I've seen a fair few around the world, my favourites being the immense Light of the Party Dam in Northern Albania, (if only for the name), and the staggering Tateyama Dam near to where I used to live in Japan. British dams however, tend to be a bit of a disappointment; generally earthworks rather than concrete cliffs, they might do the job but they don't look the part. Clywedog however, is the exception and it took our breath away. This was a sight worth driving to Wales for, let alone taking a short detour off the A470 and the ironic fact is that if it were only a few miles north, it would be a stop on a lot of tourist itineraries. In the Green Desert however, it is virtually unknown, a pleasant surprise for us intrepid Welsh wanderers. We stood and looked across the placid waters to the mighty wall that holds them at bay and decided that we both rather liked it.

14485659418_3d4fc5cf17_z Clywedog Dam

Not all would agree though and when it was built in the 1960s there was much local opposition to the fact that a lush valley of fertile Welsh farmland was being flooded to water English homes. There were numerous disruptions and protests which culminated in the detonation of a bomb which set work back by two months. This was thought to be the work of Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (Movement for the Defence of Wales), an ultra-nationalist Welsh paramilitary organisation which organised a series of bombs throughout the 1960s and 70s, many directed at disrupting the construction of dams destroying the Welsh countryside for English benefit.

One does not usually think of the Welsh as a people who resort to violence to achieve their nationalistic ends, perhaps because a majority do not want independence, but during the 1960s both Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru and the Free Welsh Army campaigned actively for Welsh independence drawing on the tactics of their Celtic brethren across the Irish Sea. It was not just those organisations either; during the 1970s and 80s another group, Mebion Glyndŵr (The Sons of Glyndŵr) torched English-owned holiday homes in the north and locals also suffered prison sentences for refusing to pay their TV fines because there were no Welsh-language programmes; a campaign that led to the introduction of S4C, the first Welsh-language TV channel.

Just below the dam we saw signs leading to a lead mine and decided to take a look. This nineteenth century ruin stands at the foot of the concrete wall, forever in its shadow and is a pleasant place to spend half an hour or so, admiring the views and learning a little about the region's industrial heritage. For me though, there was another good reason to go: I have been constructing a model railway with my son based on a fictional Mid-Wales town, Caertomos (the fortress of Thomas – my son's name is Thomas), and high on the hill above the campsite, it has a little disused lead mine. I headed for the old slag heap and picked up a few handfuls of stones in order to make my own slag heap that bit more realistic. Then, after taking that little bit of Wales in my pocket, we got back in the car and continued on our way again.

The area that we then passed through, hugging the banks of the River Wye, is known as Red Kite Country. This is nothing to do with those contraptions of wood, string and material that always fail to fly properly when you head up to a windy spot, but instead a particular type of bird of prey that has a most remarkable story. Relatives of the eagle, Red Kites live on carrion but as society became more modernised, there were less rotting animals around for them to feed on and their numbers began to dwindle, a process only accelerated by the fact that they were shot and poisoned by gamekeepers who did not want them on their reserves. This led to what has become one of the oldest conservation projects in the world. It began in the 1880s when one E. Cambridge Philips lobbied landowners and offered bounty payments for the protection of nests but these efforts were unsuccessful and by the turn of the 20th century only a couple of breeding pairs were left in all Wales. That led to Dr. J. H. Salter, Professor of Botany at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth persuading the British Ornithologists Club to set up a 'Kite Committee' to organise the protection of the few remaining kites in the upper Tywi Valley. Progress was slow but the process was reversed and slowly the population recovered. Today there are an estimated thousand pairs across Wales making it one of the biggest red kite populations in the world with the county of Ceredigion having the highest concentration of the birds in the world. As we drove along we watched them soar and swoop above us, proof that not all is gloomy and without hope in ecological matters. What is all the more heartening is that the repopulation of Wales is not the end of the story either, for now Welsh birds are being used to reintroduce kites into Ireland and other parts of the British Isles, thereby guaranteeing a healthy future for these once threatened creatures.

Rhyader is the mid-point of the A470, the town at the heart of Wales. That makes it sound oh-so-grand, yet it is not. It is, in fact, barely big enough to be called a town – the village where Rob and I went to high school is far bigger – instead it is a collection of dwellings and shops radiating out from a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, a minute oasis of urbanity in the vastness of the Green Desert.

Yet it is precisely this which makes Rhyader so very Welsh. The Welsh never were an urban people you see. Prior to the English incursions they had no towns save of course for the Roman barracks town at Caerleon which was nonetheless abandoned pretty soon after they left. Their cathedral cities were tiny villages clustered around a monastery church and their royal strongholds lonely wind-buffeted towers in the mountain fastness. And whilst the English did bring with them city-living, the Welsh, I suspect, have never really taken to it. Only Newport, Swansea and Cardiff are cities of any great size and when the referendum on devolution came in 1997, all three were lukewarm in their support of it. No, to me it seems that the Welsh, when not on their farms, seem happiest in small towns like Rhyader. After all, was not the greatest work of Welsh literature in modern times a play for voices chronicling a day in the life of one such town, the fictional Llaregub,[1] the guidebook description of which could well fit Rhyader, Dolgellau, Llandeilo, Lanrwst, Denbigh, Cardigan, Machynlleth and a score more Welsh towns in addition to the Pembrokeshire fishing town of Laugharne which inspired it:

'Less than five hundred souls inhabit the three quaint streets and the few narrow by-lanes and scattered farmsteads that constitute this small, decaying watering-place which may, indeed, be called a 'backwater of life' without disrespect to its natives who possess, to this day, a salty individuality of their own. The main street, Coronation Street, consists, for the most part, of humble, two-storied houses many of which attempt to achieve some measure of gaiety by prinking themselves out in crude colours and by the liberal use of pinkwash, though there are remaining a few eighteenth-century houses of more pretension, if, on the whole, in a sad state of disrepair. Though there is little to attract the hillclimber, the healthseeker, the sportsman, or the weekending motorist, the contemplative may, if sufficiently attracted to spare it some leisurely hours, find, in its cobbled streets and its little fishing harbour, in its several curious customs, and in the conversation of its local 'characters,' some of that picturesque sense of the past so frequently lacking in towns and villages which have kept more abreast of the times. The River Dewi is said to abound in trout, but is much poached. The one place of worship, with its neglected graveyard, is of no architectural interest.'[2]

Guidebooks though, talk down the charms of the Llaregubs, Laugharnes and Rhyaders of this world for such towns offer little to traveller passing through in haste. Beyond its handsome Victorian clocktower at the heart of the crossroads, there was little to arrest our fickle attentions in Rhyader, but the beauty of these small places lies not in the fleeting visit, but in the longer sojourns during which one can begin to get a sense of place... and people. Again, it is a creation of Dylan Thomas, a resident of sleepy Llaregub that puts it best. Rev. Eli Jenkins, the poetic minister, recites his hymn in praise of the non-descript backwater town that he knows and loves so well each morning as he wakes and so, as we passed a similar such place, we too marked his words:

'Dear Gwalia! I know there are

Towns lovelier than ours,

And fairer hills and loftier far,

And groves more full of flowers,

And boskier woods more blithe with spring

And bright with birds' adorning,

And sweeter bards than I to sing

Their praise this beauteous morning.

By Cader Idris, tempest-torn,

Or Moel yr Wyddfa's glory,

Carnedd Llewelyn beauty born,

Plinlimmon old in story,

By mountains where King Arthur dreams,

By Penmaenmawr defiant,

Llaregyb Hill a molehill seems,

A pygmy to a giant.

By Sawdde, Senny, Dovey, Dee,

Edw, Eden, Aled, all,

Taff and Towy broad and free,

Llyfnant with its waterfall,

Claerwen, Cleddau, Dulais, Daw,

Ely, Gwili, Ogwr, Nedd,

Small is our River Dewi, Lord,

A baby on a rushy bed.

By Carreg Cennen, King of time,

Our Heron Head is only

A bit of stone with seaweed spread

Where gulls come to be lonely.

A tiny dingle is Milk Wood

By Golden Grove 'neath Grongar,

But let me choose and oh! I should

Love all my life and longer

To stroll among our trees and stray

In Goosegog Lane, on Donkey Down,

And hear the Dewi sing all day,

And never, never leave the town.'[3]


[1] Read it backwards...

[2] Under Milk Wood, p.23

[3] Under Milk Wood, p. 24-5

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