We met up with Richard Smith on a pretty overcast day in Aberystwyth, ready to embark on something quite unusual - adventures with Cambrian Safaris, a guided tour of the Ceredigion area, taking in a range of sights in and around the county and venturing forth into Central Wales. The tours are the brainchild of Richard and Hester Smith, a couple who have lived in the area for 20 years, having met at the Dolaucothi Gold Mines in 1995. Visitors to the area get to choose what tour they undertake: the Mountain tour, which takes you through the Irfon Valley and skirts Llyn Brianne; or an Elan Valley tour which encompasses the five reservoirs of the "Welsh Lake District". We undertook the Picturesque tour: which encompasses the old country estates of Ceredigion: in our case the old Hafod Estate, which is 12 miles south-east of Aberystwyth, and has been described as one of the finest examples of a Picturesque landscape in Europe.
The tour for us starts in Aberystwyth, and Richard explains some of the routes he would ordinarily take, depending on the choice of tour made by the visitor. One of the first points on the map would be Aberystwyth Marina, where the rivers Rheidol and Ystwyth intersect. Richard also discusses the history of the Vale of Rheidol railway, a tourist attraction in Aberystwyth that attracts thousands of visitors a year: he explains some of the history of Devil's Bridge (a place we visit later in the tour) and explains some of the work that has been done there over the years, and its potential as a portal for further adventure.
Most visitors tend to want to experience the areas that they have heard of and are most familiar with, but the Ystwyth Valley, being a less obvious destination, is no less magical. We're leaving Aberystwyth now and heading out on the road to Pontrhydfendigaid, and bluebells crowd the roadside as we pass. The rain is lifting, and the sun is beginning to shine. The fields, lush and green, bear witness to our conversation - how Wales and the countryside of Central Wales evokes a strong sense of place, coupled with dramatic changes of scenery as we pass through. This is the Wales of myth and legend: of the Nanteos Cup, of Cantre'r Gwaelod, of the Mabinogion. This is the land in which Taliesin would have recited his poetry, or Twm Sion Cati might have ridden.
Richard covers a great swathe of Wales in his driving and his conversation, providing tailored tours to fit particular accommodation & guests. The day isn't scheduled: it's dependent upon you, the visitor, and doesn't adhere to a designated time-frame. Today we have all afternoon, and plenty of time to take pictures and chat. As we drive, we pass the old Nanteos estate, home to a grand Georgian house and grounds and now a hotel and wedding venue. It is a beautiful place, but it is not part of our tour today. Nor is the Trawscoed mansion, owned by the Vaughan family since the 13th century, and one of the few estates to remain in the hands of the original family to the present day. Despite Trawscoed not being part of today's tour, Richard provides us with a wealth of information about the area, directing us to the Roman villa in Abermagwr, which was occupied during the third and fourth centuries, and discussing the infinite range of greens that the area often presents to visitors in the area.
The weather has once again turned ominous now, as the clouds roll in. Ceredigion is the least-known part of Wales, with tremendous diversity of landscape and fairly distinct areas, with rolling hills and deep valleys to the south of the county. Richard recommends exploring the back roads, and following the road: something we're less likely to do now in a world designated by technology and GPS. But the area rewards the adventurer greatly: we are now experiencing another dramatic change of scenery, entering what in geological terms is described as a rift valley. The valley bottom is rough area, and somewhat wild: it is here that we experience a sense of the old Wales here, the places of magic, with willow and hawthorn coming to leaf around us. This is Tolkien's Wales. (Tolkien once said of the Welsh language: “For many of us it rings a bell, or rather it stirs deep harp-strings in our linguistic nature. It is the native language to which in unexplored desire we would still go home.”).
Richard tells us that pine martens have been introduced to the Cambrian Mountains as part of "an inspirational scheme to boost populations" and their presence will no doubt assist in managing the population of grey squirrels in the area (with a consequent effect on the red squirrel). Whilst we don't get to see any on our journey, it is wonderful to think that we might encounter one at some point.
Pontrhydygroes now. There we see the school for miners, where boys could be schooled before entering the mines. This area is sometimes known as "Little Switzerland" by the locals, and it's not difficult to see why: The wooded valleys, waterfalls and rivers of this area are awe-inspiring. The rain is rolling in now, which is a shame as the view from the road is stunning. We see the Count House, where the miners were paid and the balcony from which the owners would discuss issues, on a monthly basis. There is a long tunnel underneath the road which you can walk down for around three quarters of a mile, before you meet a rockfall, which is unusual for the area because of its length. It was started in 1785, and it took 9 years to get the first three quarters of a mile. The tunnel would have helped with drainage and ventilation and access for the ore to be removed for processing.
We are about to embark upon the Hafod estate proper, and Richard now provides us with an astonishing depth of information on the area. The estate's most celebrated owner was Thomas Johnes (1748-1816), who built a new house and laid out its grounds in the Picturesque fashion of the time, in contradiction with the sort of style which had previously been made famous by Capability Brown, with routes around the area for visitors to enjoy and to discover the extraordinary landscape within the confines of a designated route. The land was simultaneously used for farming, forestry and and gardening, and these areas allowed for Johnes to experiment with a range of methods, until the Hafod estate became an essential destination for tourists in Wales. Today the estate occupies some 200 hectares of the Ystwyth valley and surrounding hills. Most is owned by Natural Resources Wales who, in partnership with the Hafod Trust, is managing a conservation and restoration project with public and private funding. Johnes' story is told in the book Peacocks in Paradise, by Elisabeth Inglis-Jones, and the title is derived from the way Johnes described his life.
As we talk, a buzzard arches by lazily. Richard has permission to drive along the forestry tracks, which isn't usual, but it means we get to see parts of the estate that we wouldn't ordinarily. It's quiet, and it feels undiscovered. The mansion itself is, however, no more: the Government blew it up in the 1950s, and Johnes' vision was finally lost. Today, all that remains is some rubble and the sheep who watch us without curiosity as we pass by. It is a somewhat poignant counterpoint to our journey.
We saw much during our inspiring travels through this corner of Central Wales that we haven't covered here: our impromptu trip along a track above the lakes at Bwlch Nant yr Arian, where Red Kites scored the sky with their numbers: or when we reached Devil's Bridge (which was once part of the Hafod Estate, and visited by the poet William Wordsworth), where Richard told us the story of the day the Devil was tricked by a Welsh woman. The area we passed through was dramatic, peppered with holiday cottages, encompassing the highlands of Aberystwyth, an Iron Age fort, Elizabethan and Victorian mine works, and Richard proved to be a knowledgeable and amiable guide. It was, without exaggeration, epic, and we reflected on our return that we had begun to get a glimpse of the spirit of Wales, rich in history and wild in nature, in a way which we had never done before.
Cambrian Safaris can be contacted via Richard Smith:
Tel: (01974) 261 425
Photographs taken by Keri Thomas for Discover Your Wales. All rights reserved. ©