Why not just wander, ‘lonely as a cloud’?
It seems that there is a current fashion for unplanned wanderings… it sounds romantic, but in this area it will inevitably lead to an unpleasant time… apart from getting lost, we can add falling into bogs, negotiating hugely tussocky hillsides, meeting barbed wire fences, at very least missing the best views and experiences, and at worst putting yourself in situations with serious difficulties or even dangers. I hope the rather prescriptive walk guidance will give you a sense of security and confidence, but can gradually be seen as adaptable to your requirements. All the routes are on Public Rights of Way and/or ‘Access Land’ (See ‘What’s the walking like?’).
So why come to this part of Wales to walk?
Increasing numbers are doing so, currently almost all for the wonderful Wales Coastal Path… but I wonder how many know what they are missing inland as they wend their way through the holiday crowds on Aberystwyth’s promenade? Those who do try it are amazed at the superb and (so far) unspoiled scenery and utter wildness to be found within a short travelling distance of the town, only barely glimpsed from the train, or even as you drive through it to the coast on the A44. The proximity of the National Parks to both north and south mean you can leave the crowds behind here… you will very rarely encounter any other walkers on your adventures… which also means you can have lovely chats when you do!
What’s the walking like?
Few walker visitors means that mountain paths are as they used to be in other areas years ago… faint, narrow, and sometimes tenuous, with great scope for encountering the biological diversity of the area, and getting a real sense of adventure. There is a true sense of ‘wildness’ and huge open spaces, with some resemblance to parts of the Pennines. Most of the land is designated ‘Access Land’, thanks to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000), and outlined in an orangey colour on Ordnance Survey maps. Within the Access Lands you can legally go anywhere, it is uncultivated and largely open… used only for the rough grazing of a few sheep and the odd Highland cow. This is serious hill country, but summit altitudes are only around 4-600m (except for those of the Pumlumon range, peaking at 752m). Large areas have almost no habitation in modern times, but the remaining foundations of ruined farm and lead/silver mining buildings, and numerous iron age hill forts are indications of a more populated past. And everywhere there is water… falling magnificently here, lying about squelchingly underfoot there, but mainly draining off in an amazing multitude of streams and small rivers, with only the occasional footbridge for crossing… so you need to know where these are!
Is this real wilderness?
Although it looks like it, this is not quite ‘wilderness’. The WILD Foundation defines wilderness areas as: The most intact, undisturbed wild natural areas left on our planet – those last truly wild places that humans do not control and have not developed with roads, pipelines or other industrial infrastructure. Here you will find ancient rolling high grazing lands; in some places (eg Rheidol Valley) there are large areas of remnants of the original deciduous forests that once covered most of the land, dominated by the small and hardy sessile oak. But also you will see planted forest, ‘artificial’ (but beautiful) lakes (from the lead mining era, and also modern hydro-electric), and here and there the odd cluster of wind turbines. (This last is creating a current tension over land use and amenity… while we applaud efforts to generate using renewables, the ‘quick-buck’ approach of dumping ever larger and numerous turbines on the best remaining parts of our countryside is surely to be resisted, and the more expensive but far-sighted offshore systems promoted.)
How is the area protected?
There have been very great efforts over the years to protect this area for future generations, including attempts to make a new National Park in the Elenydd. But amazingly, there is currently next to no official protection, even though, in my very biased opinion, this area is better in so many ways to other places in the UK long designated with at least an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). Is this because mid-Wales is to be kept available for despoiling? A few years ago I witnessed a sub-contractor for Natural Resources Wales felling larches and churning up and destroying the long-distance Borth-Pontrhydfendigaid path with huge-wheeled vehicles, causing it to be almost impassable, and desperately unpleasant to negotiate. When asked about it, the reply was that ‘nobody walks this path, anyway’! So it seems that protection lies in getting people to USE the footpaths, VISIT the area, and generally take an active interest, and of course the paths get easier to follow the more people use them… it’s definitely a case of ‘use it or lose it’. It pays to complain, too… maybe in response to my emails, NRW forced the contractor to go back and reinstate the path properly. The Cambrian Mountains Society is well worth supporting.
What do I need?
The maps herein are indicative only. For copyright reasons, I have not been able to use the fully detailed OS 1:25,000 ‘Explorer’ mapping, so I recommend you acquire the OS Explorer map 213 (Aberystwyth & Cwm Rheidol). You may also need OL23 (Cadair Idris and Llyn Tegid) for some walks coming up. Better still, acquire the OS app for your phone; you can avoid buying folding maps and can also check your progress as you go! Phone signal is often good up on the hills, but it's a good idea to have the information available offline, both the OS Maps route (instructions here) and the description from this website (general instructions for making web pages available offline here).
You need to have a little bit of day-walking experience, so you will know that good waterproof walking boots are essential (it is always wet underfoot in some places), also waterproof jacket and over-trousers (it does rain sometimes!), appropriate other clothing according to time of year (erring on the side of pessimism, and definitely excluding denim), sunscreen and hat (in summer!), drinking water, food, compass (unless you are sure of the gps on your phone), small LED torch, and first aid kit. Don’t go on your own, unless you are very experienced, and even then always leave an ETA and rough route with someone else.
Useful other stuff...
If you are still unsure about finding your way around the area, despite these route descriptions, Aberystwyth Ramblers welcome visitors to their group walks on a ‘guest’ basis. Other organisations that offer occasional group walks in the area are the Cambrian Mountains Society (worth joining for other reasons, too), and Ceredigion County Council. Other groups promoting tourism are Mynyddoedd Cambrian Mountains and Twristiaeth Pumlumon Tourism. A free monthly glossy with loads of features about Aberystwyth and environs is Ego magazine.
For a brilliant candid commentary and gorgeous photographs of other walks throughout the UK, we also recommend this website: Walking Englishman