Walking trails of Wales resound with myth, magic and folklore
So into Wales, filled with dragons, rugby and song that can lift any heart. It sounded the perfect way to wind down. Like all good journeys, this one was to involve train travel
With its forests, woodlands and quaint towns that have stood for centuries, Cymru — better known as Wales — is pioneering new paths for those who want to slow down, savour the landscape and drink in pubs where the vats predate Wales’s legendary warrior, Owen Glendower.
The poet Edward Thomas described ancient Welsh paths as “potent, magic things” on which you can “make time as nothing” while “meandering over many centuries”. For me, walking is both necessity and pleasure — even at home. With no car, I trace paths through Durban to work and back, rain or shine.
So into Wales, filled with dragons, rugby and song that can lift any heart. It sounded the perfect way to wind down. Like all good journeys, this one was to involve train travel.
My brother and I set off from Craven Arms station in Shropshire, England, with detailed instructions in hand, walking boots bristling with anticipation. My mind raced ahead as we tucked into thick slices of mum’s fruitcake that was more sherry than flour. I could see in the distance ancient woods with roots running deep as Welsh identity and after the second slice, four-legged woolly beasts practising drop goals on well laid-out rugby fields.
As we trundled over the Cynghordy viaduct, our request stop loomed. We planned to walk to the small town of Llandovery following the new trail, a distance of 12km. We passed by Sugar Loaf mountain and dropped down into the Brân valley, with views of the Brecon Beacons in the distance.
Walking has a way of calming things down; to look inside yourself and all around. We laughed, us two natives of Nottingham, as we walked shoulder to shoulder, like Robin Hood and his merry band, fighting back shadows that became the king’s army, as we defended the Free Republic of Sherwood Forest.
It was the end of summer and the landscape was astonishingly verdant. We wandered through fields — the swish-swash of grass around the ankles, so squashy you could fall into its comforting embrace, only to be swallowed up by an ancient lake. Here, myth and folklore cling to your boots like Duduzane and Atul.
Jan Morris, in her love-song to Wales, writes “the truest Welsh places offer experiences as much tactile as visual”. Even the medieval plants along the path took on a rhythm of their own: madder, birth-wort, woodruff, crake berry and com cockle.
The land of Braveheart
We were staying at the Castle Inn in Llandovery, which has its own splendid local history museum. The floors creaked reassuringly and in the car park outside, I spied Darth Vader staring down at me from a nearby hill, surrounded by craggy remnants of castle walls.
At dusk, I went to find out: the steely hulk was no sci-fi figure but a refulgent monument to a real Welsh “Braveheart”, Llewelyn, executed by Henry IV for supporting Glendower’s resistance against the English.
The following day, we sloped out of Llandovery to face a more daunting prospect of 24km to our next stop, Llangadog. Leaving the road and over the stile, the gentle climb began to lift the spirits. It felt like we were entering the welcoming arms of a mythical beast.
Find your own path. Look around. Head to Wales. Yesterday. Before Brexit and hard borders dot the landscape
As Roger Deakin reminds us: “To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed. It is no accident that in the comedies of Shakespeare, people go into the greenwood to grow, learn and change. It is where you travel to find yourself, often paradoxically by getting lost.”
Blackberry hedges provided breakfast as we passed through an ancient wood, wormwood in fact, its bitter essence — absinthe — infamous for its ruinous effects. As oaks, hazel and horse chestnuts escorted us along the path, their scattered seeds abundant and the air heavy, a fungi paradise began to appear in the soggy woodland surrounds.
At first, they lay undetected, their colours blending in, but soon our eyes began to home in as we discovered more and more: puffballs, penny buns, saffron milkcaps, red toadstools, parasols. The chanterelles were humdrum in comparison. I was getting into this fungi feast, dreaming up scrumptious pasta dishes.
Dragging ourselves away and onwards past the Duchy of Cornwall’s vast estate, we bumped into a local — a wild-haired, modern-day Caractacus Potts mowing his lawn. He was off the grid — and the wall, it turned out — as he explained the crazy system of pipes, solar panels and wind turbines providing him with electricity. If only we could offer him a job at Eskom.
In his workshop, an anarchic mass of old Morris Minor parts were to be reassembled and sold onto wealthy southerners. With wings?
Rugby’s liberation heroes
We descended into the village of Myddfai, where its community café serves up herbal brews and hearty lunches. The area is steeped in the lore and legend of natural-medicine wizardry. It is here that the physicians of Myddfai suggested: “For the soothing or encouragement of the brain, the following recommended methods: smelling musk, drinking wine moderately, keeping the head warm … listening to music, smelling roses and washing the eyebrows with rose-water”, or why not cure your whooping cough with the juice of sugared slugs.
It is more fact than folklore that sheep outnumber humans in Wales — prone to stubbornness, they looked at us at every turn. “Four legs good, two legs bad”, I could hear them baa-ing as we passed.
As 20km turned into 23km, tempers frayed. “Columbus!” I screamed at my brother. “Get lost, Cassandra!” he screamed back. After a looping detour through muddy coppices, we came to the medieval Dolauhirion Bridge, the idyllic Twyi River bringing us back on track. Soon we were babbling and giggling again, the water accompanying us. Llangadog — one street, four pubs! Could there possibly be enough inhabitants? A signpost at the crossroads pointed to Bethlehem, but there was no sign of the three kings.
My boots were leaden and my feet sore as we finally approached The Red Lion, rest for the night. I was given the key to my room — Elizabeth 1. My brother was next door in the tower. It was 6pm on a Friday, and the pub was packed with locals watching rugby on the TV.
I mentioned I had travelled from SA. A bearded man in his late 60s said, “Ah, South Africans will never forget Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett. They helped end apartheid.” I admitted I hadn’t heard of these two liberation fighters. With all the Welsh scorn he could muster, he said, “The half-back pairing of the 1974 Lions that slaughtered the Springboks on South African home turf.”
I realised that the Welsh are not known for their modesty. Especially when it comes to rugby.
There are many unpronounceable words in Welsh, but one in particular resonates. “Hiraeth” is a sense of longing, a yearning. It is felt often in Wales and away from it. As the poet RS Thom wrote, “In Wales here are jewels to gather, but with the eye only. ... You can witness the extent of the spectrum and grow rich with looking.”
Find your own path. Look around. Head to Wales. Yesterday. Before Brexit and hard borders dot the landscape. And make sure you take a fruitcake for company.