WHEN I read that the weather forecast for my latest excursion would be enough heavy rain on the Friday to ensure ankle-deep mud all weekend plus recurring heavy showers just to make certain, I was not in any way deterred. Nor was the Lemming, who joined me again, although it did prompt him to purchase some rather more waterproof footwear.
As it turned out, it was mostly sunny but hazy with only the occasional shower… of hailstones.
They make a nice crunch when you walk.
Plans and Preparations
Since we had the use of the Lemming’s car, we hatched a cunning plan whereby we drove to Machynlleth and then caught the train back to Borth. This meant that the car was waiting for us at our destination and that we didn’t therefore have to worry about making the last bus or train.
It was a good plan and was only nearly scuppered by our need to get to Machynlleth in good time in the first place. Some unexpectedly proximal parking by the other guests required a billion point turn to get out of the hotel car park, which caused a bit of a delay. Fortunately we had allowed a generous margin and made it to the station with whole minutes to spare.
A short while later we found ourselves alighting on Borth station, noting that what had taken fifteen minutes on the train was going to take all day on foot. But it would be all the more interesting for it.
We wandered down to the seafront to find the sea grey and heaving and discovered that to look upon it was to have one’s face frozen into a terrible rictus grin by the power of an icy wind. This seemed like a foolish idea and so, grinning helplessly, I turned my back upon it and looked at Borth.
Borth is a bit of an odd place; its buildings are a mishmash of styles and it is very linear. Wandering down to the seafront had mostly comprised stepping out of the station and saying ‘oh there it is’. There was some evidence of storm damage and I recalled reading about the evacuation of residents from the houses right next to the beach.
Over the Line
Having purchased some snacks from a small shop, we headed off down an alley between two buildings and over a level crossing. Borth ended at the railway line and an open vista spread out before us inhabited only by donkeys and sheep.
The metalled path that ran past the donkeys ran out to a church that loomed above the fields on a small hill that prompted us to talk of an island amid the marshes that the fields would once have been. Indeed the map shows this hump as Ynysfergi (‘ynys’ means ‘island’) and I conjured romantic visions of an ancient church perched above a treacherous bog. It was perfect. Too perfect.
The Church of St Matthew only dates to 1874 when it was erected for the then princely sum of £2,000. It was perched on its ‘island’ because nowhere else in Borth could have borne the weight of the building.
The metalled path ended at the church and a muddy trail led off across fields, conveying us to a small bridge over the River Lerry (Afon Leri). The Lerry is a smallish river, rising at Llyn Craig-y-Pistyll about ten miles to the south-west. It used to flow directly into Cardigan Bay but, thanks to an 1824 project to create a better harbour for a rather brief shipbuilding industry, it was canalised and now runs straight into the Dovey.
While the view north from the Lerry footbridge showed the above scene stretching off towards the Dovey, the view south had only a few metres visibility on account of the massive tangle of tree branches that reached out from its banks to snare anything trying to float downstream.
The Biggest of Bogs
Once we had crossed the Lerry we found ourselves squelching along the southern edge of Borth Bog (Cors Fochno) which is apparently the largest expanse of primary natural estuarine bog in the UK.
The terminology is insistent: a bog is a raised peat mire, while a fen is low-lying and a marsh is subject to tidal immersion.
This was most definitely a bog and it looked deceptively harmless, as if one could just walk directly across it to the hills lying to the north. This led the Lemming and I to discuss the perils of navigating across the countryside in the days before good roads. Certainly if you didn’t know better — or recognise a bog for what it was — you could easily set out across it and find yourself up to your knees in soft peat in next to no time. And if you did manage to struggle your way across it then the Dovey would be a bit of a surprise.
Not What It Was
Borth Bog used to be a lot larger but a series of enclosures and drainage between 1803 and 1847 saw its upstream half and the band downstream of the now-canalised Lerry reclaimed for agricultural use. Mostly this just involved recutting and deepening ancient drainage ditches and then using the Enclosures Acts to stick a fence around what had once been common land and claim it as lush but squelchy private property.
The Burning Bog
Like many of the low-lying parts of the western coast, the Dovey Estuary saw some damage from the recent storms but, in the case of Borth Bog, this took a rather unexpected form when, despite being waterlogged and pelted with rain, a swathe of it managed to catch fire in mid-February and burned for five hours due to electricity arcing from storm damaged cables.
The flames were around four metres high at one point — not large by the wildfire standards of other parts of the world but not at all bad for a patch of ground so wet that you can almost pour it.
Insufficiently an Inferno
Not only was the bog not on fire some five weeks later as the Lemming and I traipsed through it but we saw no sign that it ever had been. We did see a variety of small birds such as chaffinches and tits but none of those were on fire either.
And then, after a mere three miles or so of terrain that squished underfoot, we found ourselves approaching the village of Tre-Taliesin where we vaguely hoped to find a cup of tea. Our hopes were cruelly dashed.
The Bard Taliesin
Tre-Taliesin is another village strung out along a road, in this case the A487. It rather optimistically takes its name from the association of a nearby hilltop tumulus with the grave of the sixth century bard Taliesin.
Unfortunately for the village the only ‘proof’ of an association with Taliesin comes via the (in)famous nineteenth century Welsh antiquarian and literary forger Iolo Morganwg, who unashamedly manufactured his own ‘ancient’ manuscripts.
Prior to the 1820s, the village was named rather less romantically as Tafarn Fach (‘little tavern’) since a pub and a couple of cottages were pretty much its full extent. The modern village, which is still not large by any measure, was created by enclosing and selling off common land and using the proceeds to fund the further drainage of Borth Bog.
A History of Mining
In the 1860s, mining took off and the village expanded to house the miners, who prised copper, silver and lead from under the hills. A helpful sign in the middle of the village told us all about this and we read it as a sudden heavy shower dumped quite a lot of water on our heads. But the water wasn’t hail, so we didn’t mind too much.
The Welsh Accent
A half mile or so up the A487 the rain stopped as we entered an even smaller village named Tre’r Ddôl (‘settlement of the meadow’).
Unfortunately, when Jock Kinnear and Margaret Calvert devised the Transport font in 1957, they neglected to add any accented characters since English doesn’t need them. But Welsh does. Someone had clearly objected to the village being labelled ‘Tre’r Ddol’ (‘settlement of the doll’) and had corrected the situation with the aid of a large black marker pen.
We noted this with some amusement but quickly pressed on; we had far more important things on our minds…
Café and Village Shop
To our inexpressible joy, Tre’r Ddôl did indeed have a café, which was also a village shop and staffed by local volunteers. The café furnished us with tea and bacon sandwiches and a nice sit-down. It could also have sold us groceries and second-hand books had we wished to purchase them.
I was very impressed by this community project to reopen what had been Cletwr Services, a petrol station and café opened in the 1960s but which closed as a business in 2010. Having passed through several villages in Cornwall where the shop had simply vanished, I thought the determination of Tre’r Ddôl’s villagers to keep their shop open come-what-may was a wonderful example of resilience. Or possibly stubbornness. But wonderful all the same.
Tre’r Ddôl was of course once another mining village, with mines nearby producing copper, silver and lead. Indeed copper was mined in the area as far back as four thousand years ago. The village was also, in the early nineteenth century, noted for its hat-making. These days it is small and quiet, with even the traffic of A487 carried past the village by a bypass.
Into the Woods
Pant Glas Mawr
Our path onwards appeared to take us north along the A487, a prospect that hardly delighted, but the path quickly veered off up a hill through a wood of mostly silver birch trees under the shade of which, in a handful of places, unmelted hailstones still nestled. After a short while amid the trees, we crossed a country lane and emerged into a field with a view across the estuary to where the hills of Snowdonia were mostly hidden by mist.
At this point the waymarking largely failed — what the Lemming thought might be a white-painted waymark post turned out to be a fencepost made from silver birch.
The actual way onwards appeared to involve crossing a fast-running stream (The Afon Ddu, ‘ Black River’) that was just a bit too deep to ford and a slightly too wide to jump. We messed about for a bit trying to find the best place to cross and then I managed to get the inside of my boot wet anyway. The damage done, I simply splashed across.
A View of Aberdovey
With my damp sock squeaking annoyingly we continued through more woods until we were rewarded with a view across the river to Aberdovey (Aberdyfi), where our next walk would end.
After a while we emerged from the woods and traversed some fields above and behind the village of Furnace (Ffwrnais), named for an eighteenth century furnace that was used to smelt pig iron. As Furnace was below us and still hidden by trees, we never actually saw it and that confused me because I was rather expecting to. Since I remained unaware that I had been outwitted by the hiding skills of a Welsh hamlet, I therefore thought that we making much slower going than we were.
Taking a Rest
One reason I thought we might be going slowly was that we were now definitely making our way up and down hills, the effort of which made scenery stops all the more appealing as a bit of a sneaky rest, possibly even leaning on a handy wall.
The path led us to a country lane, which in turn led us back into the woods. We now entered the picturesque Artist’s Valley (Cwm Einion), which takes its English name from its popularity with nineteenth century water-colourists.
We picked our way down muddy steps to the fast-flowing stream that is the Einion and crossed it by means of a footbridge.
Once across the Einion, steps led back up the hillside until we reached another country lane. This was in fact the road between Furnace and the farm of Bwlch Einion (‘Einion pass’). The road snaked along the southern flank of Foel Fawr (‘large bare hill’) and from it we could look down Cwm Einion and along the Dovey to the sea.
Foel fawr & Craig Caerhedyn
Foel Fawr lived up to its name by being covered with low gorse and no trees, which simply meant that it continued to afford some excellent views, including those of red kites wheeling overhead. There was about a mile of this, which was about enough — though there was a joyous absence of rain or hail, the exposed face of Foel Fawr meant that the grimace-freezing wind that I had stared into at Borth could now whistle right up the valley and strike our own exposed faces. Dropping back down onto a road at the hamlet of Cymerau was not entirely unwelcome.
Cymerau sits at the meeting point of two streams and its name is Welsh for ‘confluences’. The road followed one of them upstream for a while and it was just as splashy as the Einion, cascading over rocks and waterfalls.
As we went I made a foolish comment about a road being easy going because it could only be so steep, which the Lemming rightly dismissed as optimistic nonsense where unclassified country lanes were concerned. I was having none of it — a road too steep for vehicles would not remain a road I maintained — although I didn’t specify what sort of vehicles. As it turned out I’d have cause to reconsider my words the very next morning.
For now though it was easy going although the road quickly became little more than a track with some alarmingly low power lines beside it.
Looking back down this valley, we could see plantations of conifers on its hillsides which contained random patches of destruction where downbursts from the recent the winter storms had snapped the trees as if matches. It was a shocking thing to behold — huge trees smashed in their hundreds — and brought home the power of nature even in Britain’s benign climate.
Shortly afterwards the path left the track and curved its way round the open flanks of the hill named Craig Caerhedyn. This was also mostly open but the wind had died down somewhat and we took the opportunity to stop and eat our lunch.
Dovey Junction Station
A little bit further on we found ourselves descending into the Llyfnant Valley along a path strewn with fallen trees. As we picked our way past these, we glanced out over the Dovey and espied the railway bridge next to Dovey Junction, the only railway station in Britain to have no direct road access (a footpath leads to the hamlet of Glandyfi, a about a mile away, which lost its own station in the 1960s).
At the valley bottom we rejoined quiet country lanes to cross the Llyfnant on a road bridge and thus left Ceredigion (or Cardiganshire) and entered Powys. This principal government area is named for the ancient Kingdom of Powys that existed from about the fifth century until 1160 when it split into two. Modern Powys was formed in 1974 from the historic counties of Montgomeryshire, Radnorshire and most of Brecknockshire; the part we were now in would have once been Montgomeryshire.
A Lonely Farmhouse
Having crossed the river we allowed a narrow lane to take us to a lonely farmhouse where the Lemming congratulated its slightly bemused owner on his dwelling’s splendid isolation.
The farmhouse was surrounded by quite the most curious sheep I’ve ever seen. Not in the sense that they were odd — although I suppose they were a bit odd — but in the sense that instead of ignoring us or running away the whole flock came over to take a good look and then followed us at twenty paces. I can only assume they were hoping for some sort of tasty treats. If so they were sadly disappointed.
Dark and Menacing Forest
Having passed through a gate and thus left behind the sheepish shadow, we now found ourselves on a Forestry Commission track flanked by the sort of dense conifer plantation that conjures such phrases as ‘dark and menacing forest’ and ‘never came out alive’.
The path climbed steeply, leaving the Llyfnant far below and the world beyond the trees was quickly lost to us.
Since this wood was a Forestry Commission plantation and what they had planted was conifers, we again got to see what a serious stormy downblast can do to a tree that isn’t shaped like an oak. There were a great many trees that had snapped and shattered and such was the density of planting that often they leant against other trees that were still standing. Or sometimes not standing — an arboreal domino topple having occurred.
Eventually we found a point where fallen trees no longer blocked our progress on account of a man with a chainsaw who was clearing them away. He told us that three hundred trees had fallen in the valley but that another five thousand had fallen somewhere nearby. That’s a lot of fallen trees.
Our progress sped up considerably now that the path was not strewn with timber and we fairly bombed along towards the end of the track and the hamlet of Garthgwynion, where three excited and friendly dogs decided to imitate the sheep and follow our progress. We mostly ignored them and they quickly got bored of it.
The Road to Machynlleth
Rejoining the Road
Soon enough, the path rejoined the road network and we found ourselves walking on a properly metalled surface once again. With just two brief exceptions (such as climbing a hill as a short cut) it would now be roads all the way to Machynlleth.
The roads were tiny and twisty with interesting doglegs and virtually no vehicles. And then we cleared the brow of a hill and suddenly Machynlleth appeared.
The road snaked down towards it but the path cut the corners and soon enough we found ourselves in this little market town.
Machynlleth was the seat of Owain Glyndŵr’s Welsh parliament during his rebellion in 1404 and on this basis it claims to be an historic capital of Wales, a claim politely but firmly ignored by everywhere that isn’t Machynlleth.
Collecting the Car
Feeling somewhat pleased with ourselves, we made our way back to the station car park and retrieved the Lemming’s car, which whisked us back to Aberystwyth and a well-deserved gin and tonic.
This time: 15 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,490 miles