ystwyth (Welsh) adjective: supple, flexible, pliable
The harbour at Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales holds the confluence of two rivers. One of these, the Rheidol, is probably best known for the narrow-gauge steam railway that plies its length, once used to transport ore from mines in the valley but latterly employed in taking holiday makers on pleasure trips. The other, the marginally longer Ystwyth, is the one that gifts the town its name. The Ystwyth valley is now sparsely populated but once many people were drawn to it because of its mineral wealth. Lead, zinc and silver were all mined here in the past, particularly in the late 18th and early 19th century, although mining was a tradition that had started back in the Bronze Age and continued into the Roman era.
Having walked over a high forested ridge from Llangurig in Powys, I joined the Ystwyth valley in its upper reaches close to its source where a number of streams fed down from the lower slopes of Plynlimon. The river that met a single-lane tarmac road at this point was little more than a rock-strewn mountain stream flowing in the cleft of a steeply sloped valley. This same upland area was also the limit of the watershed of the River Elan, and a signboard at the roadside provided a map of the Elan River catchment area and the wildlife that visitors might see. A little further along were signs that announced the Powys/Ceredigion border together with another that warned against Rhew – Ice.
I started walking west, downstream towards the coast. It was some minutes before a car passed, its passengers waving at the novelty of a pedestrian on this desolate road to nowhere. But it came as a surprise to see anyone at all here – the road seemed like an intruder in the landscape, a mere afterthought in an expanse of wild moorland that possessed few trees other than wind-gnarled rowan.
Soon I passed a roadside grave – a traffic accident victim or a landscape-loyal local I could not tell – a simple affair with a carved wooden cross stuck into a pile of rocks. A little further, more signs flanking the road announced that I was leaving the Elan Valley catchment area behind me. Continuing west, following the winding road downhill, I came to an isolated farm that looked to be in good order but was completely deserted – no cars or tractors, no sign of life – a holiday home perhaps, or a property investment project? This was an outlier of the loose sprawl of habitation that was Cwmystwyth, once the epicentre of mining in the valley.
The old mine workings soon became visible a little further on: a large fenced-off area with piles of stone and skeletal buildings. The unrelenting grey sky and cool wind blowing down the valley from the east enhanced the dreariness of this grim industrial wasteland; the sudden scream of RAF fighters flying low overhead completing the image of a landscape that seemed almost post-apocalyptic.
Although entry was discouraged, a detailed information board provided background on what it referred to as the Central Wales Orefield. Each significant ore – breccia, galena (for lead), sphalerite (for zinc), chalcopyrite (for copper) – was illustrated and described in detail in English and Welsh. Standing amid the low cairns of grey rock were the remains of the buildings, now roofless and with broken walls, that once would have provided accommodation for the mine workers. Seen from afar, with no awareness of location or even continent, the buildings might have been a ruined caravanserai or desert palace; close-up, any such romance quickly evaporated. The bleakness of days spent toiling in a dangerous and hostile environment, nights in a cold cheerless dormitory, was all too tangible. And a bleak life it was: because of the inevitable lead poisoning that blighted the health of those who worked in this industry the average life expectancy of Cwmystwyth mine workers back in the 18th and 19th century was reputed to be just 32 years.
Further down the road a short length of rail track led directly to the river. Water from the Ystwyth was used for working the ore and the degree of pollution would once have been extremely high. Now the river had largely recovered from centuries of abuse but analysis suggested that continuing seepage was still contributing to elevated levels of toxic metals in the water.
Cwmystwyth, its ruined mine now a scheduled ancient monument, has more than one claim to fame. The oldest gold artifact ever found in Wales, the Banc Tynndol sun disc, an early Bronze Age object of great beauty, was unearthed in the area in 1992. The wider settlement is also of geographical significance, standing as it does close to the dead centre of Wales. The precise centre is calculated to lie on a hillside just 2.5km south of the river. The very heart of Wales, its Celtic centre of gravity: what could symbolise the Welsh spirit better than ancient gold, tough miners and green, steep-sloped valleys?
Beyond the mine the valley narrowed and started to cheer up a little, the landscape softened by more trees, ash and oak. A cuckoo (this was May) called repeatedly from across the river; further on, another distant two-note call indicated a separate territory – each bird to its own bespoke stretch of valley for its piratical breeding.
At Pentre Farm I crossed the river by an old stone bridge to follow the Borth to Devil’s Bridge to Pontryhydfendigaid Trail, a trail that must qualify as the country’s longest in name even though it is relatively modest in miles. The trail climbed a little way up the southern side of the valley to skirt woods and follow farm tracks above the river below. I emerged close to the village of Pont-rhyd-y-groes where, appropriately perhaps, I stayed for the night at the Miners’ Arms pub.
The following day I took my leave of the Borth to Devil’s Bridge to Pontryhydfendigaid Trail to follow a minor road west through beech woods close to the south bank of the River Ystwyth. At the edge of the village stood a large water wheel that once would have driven machinery for the village’s former Lisburne Mine. The gloomy weather of the previous day had by now transformed into a light drizzle, although paradoxically this seemed to make everything seem a little brighter, the fresh green leaves of the trees seemingly glowing with life. Wayside bluebells scented the damp air.
At a footbridge I left the woodland to cross to the river’s north bank where the workings of another disused mine had been tidied up and repurposed as a nature reserve. A thick stand of gorse bushes stretched away towards the riverbank. Very soon I passed more ruined mine buildings beside the path. With just thick walls of shale left standing, the buildings were hard to interpret as to their original function – more than anything they reminded me of the rectangular stone huts found at the base of Machu Picchu, although I knew that Incas were not thick on the ground in this part of Wales.
I followed a forest road away from the river towards Llanafan. Emboldened by the damp conditions, large black slugs crossed the track in front of me pursuing a gastropod pilgrimage to pastures new. From somewhere deep in the woods below came the strains of a saw mill: an oddly musical metallic whine that sounded like electric violins playing variations around a drone, serendipitous harmonics adding high-pitched counterpoint. A percussive element was added by the periodic crash of a sawed-through trunk onto a metal base. Further musical detail was provided by birdsong in the trees – the local blackbirds seemed to be familiar with this strange aural backdrop and piped defiantly above it in the same way that birds that sing close to a busy road always seem to rise to the challenge and sing louder.
From Llanafan – a tidy cluster of church, village hall and cottages – I was forced to follow a murderously busy road for a short distance. Lorries and white vans rattled past me too close for comfort as I hugged the road edge (no footpath) and occasionally mounted the narrow verge to keep out of their way. It came as a relief to leave the road and return to the river at Trawsgoed, where a bridge crossed the water and I joined the route of the Ystwyth Trail, a walking and cycle path between Aberystwyth and Tregaron that traced the track-bed of the former Great Western Railway route for much of its way.
The final nine miles into Aberystwyth were a soothing amble through dappled green light – the track partially shaded by overhanging branches of lime and oak, the river close enough to be audible through the trees to the right. At the village of Llanilar a raised brick bank indicated where a railway platform would once have stood, while the surrounding greenery, Station Wood, also commemorating this ghost station in name.
Aberystwyth finally announced its proximity with the sight of a steep hill with what looked like a tall chimney on top – Pen Dinas with its monument to Wellington. The hill, overlooking Cardigan Bay and located between the Rheidol and Ystwyth rivers, had long served as a strategic defensive location and a Celtic Iron Age fort had once topped its summit. As with the mine workings of the upper Ystwyth valley, history ran deep here: a continuity of settlement that spanned millennia – the valley’s cultural capital was as rich as its ore deposits.
Although Cardigan Bay lay not far ahead the sea refused to reveal itself until the very last minute. There had been clues though: a change of light, a water-reflected translucent sky, the gentlest whiff of iodine on the breeze. Quite abruptly, the path had become busier too – with runners, dog-walkers, grandparents with children wobbling on scooters – and it was clear that, sight-unseen, I had fallen into Aberystwyth’s benign orbit. A glimpse of silhouetted figures walking the sea wall next to Tanybwlch Beach ahead in the distance confirmed this.
On reaching the coast the Ystwyth refuses to play the estuary game – the river merely winds around the base of Pen Dinas hill to merge with the waters of the Rheidol in Aberystwyth harbour. The combined river that flows out of the harbour into the Irish Sea takes just a few metres to reach its destination – confluence and river mouth are within a pebble’s throw of one another.
From the harbour – tucked away from the rest of the town as if some sort of secret – I crossed the Trefechan Bridge and climbed up to the castle mound from where all of Aberystwyth was revealed below. Just beneath the mound were the brownstone turreted buildings of Old College; beyond that, a parade of fine Victorian guesthouses, tastefully rendered in pastel shades, that curved around a beachside promenade pinched by a pier and the rocky bluff of Constitution Hill to the north. The modest, supple river that gave the town its name had already vanished from view.