Start: Neuadd Arms Hotel
Distance: 8 miles
Time 3.5 hours
Total ascent 290 metres
As everyone knows, the Roman empire’s water supplies were tainted with a hidden substance that crept in from the pipes. Nero’s response was to devise epic chariot races and take part in the ancient Olympics; his cousin Caligula also concocted several new sports and began to wonder who was better, humans or horses; and their Uncle Claudius could not think of any new games so invaded Wales instead. Wacky water, you see. Imbibe with care.
Which brings us to the spa town of Llanwrtyd Wells, or as the late Screaming Lord Sutch, founder of the Official Monster Raving Loony party and a regular visitor, memorably described it as “the belly button of Wales”, an appellation that neatly captures both its centrality and eccentricity. (The pub is still the party’s headquarters.)
In Victorian times, the spa was based around Ffynon Drewllyd, “the smelly well”, a sulphur-reeking spring that previous generations had sensibly regarded as pure poison, locating their settlement well above its outfall. Not so the Victorians, who bathed in the bubbling brew while sipping glasses of the neighbouring “chalybeate” spring water, a source that was noticeably green. They claimed it did them good, but ever since then all kinds of eccentricity have blossomed and become part of the Llanwrtyd Wells experience, none more curious than the Man versus Horse race, an annual competition for which all our Roman emperors would happily take credit.
The town is on the quiet, middle section of the A483, where the tarmac snakes down into the aforementioned navel from the north-east, then swings across the River Irfon and powers off towards Llandovery. The passage over the bridge, in particular, is slightly tricky, with a good chance of meeting a horse-rider coming in the opposite direction, so most motorists do not even clock the Neuadd Arms Hotel, sitting proudly to their right, presiding over the entire settlement.
However, before we enter this fine watering hole, some exercise must be taken and there are plenty of walking options in the hills and valleys all around. The town happens to be on one of the UK’s greatest railway lines – the Heart of Wales – which heads south-west from Shrewsbury to Swansea, cutting through some of the most secluded and beautiful parts of Wales. Llanwrtyd Wells is one of around two dozen stations in the central section, many of them request stops. Stitching all of these places together is the Heart of Wales footpath, which loops through the countryside, making it easy to devise an outward walk, followed by a train ride back. For example, from Llanwrtyd Wells take the path out to the impressive Cynghordy viaduct (a nine-mile hike), then ride back.
Best of all, though, is this circular walk. Take the lane upriver from the Neuadd Arms to the old Dol-y-Coed Hotel (now an electronics company) and admire the former spa pump. Down by the river you can still get a pungent whiff and take a mouthful for your “health”, but be warned, there will be consequences – as will become clear later.
There are many footpaths to follow further up the valley, with several bridges. Press on to old Llanwrtyd with its fine early medieval country church, St David’s. One of its vicars, Theophilus Evans, conveniently discovered the health-giving properties of the stinky spring on his arrival here in 1732, thus transforming the economic prospects of his parish and his own reputation. The story goes that Evans spotted a very healthy frog living in the sulphurous spring, and after being inspired to taste a mouthful, was promptly cured of scurvy.
A little further on, at Pen-y-Ddinas, stepping stones take you across the Irfon, but they are not always passable when the river is high. Another mile and you start to encounter a series of beautiful waterfalls, eventually finding some benches and picnic tables on the west bank. Bathers will love the deep pools, and trout and salmon are occasionally spotted leaping the falls. From here a number of forest tracks can be taken east up into the forest on the slopes of the Garn Goch (the red cairn). Curling back south and leaving the woods, you will see ancient lava flows before descending to Gilfach where the trail becomes a tarmac lane. The last section is on the A483 (there’s a footpath alongside) before you complete the eight-mile circuit back to the Neuadd Arms.
By this time, assuming you have taken the waters at the old hotel, you will be as mad as a Roman emperor, hatching hare-brained ideas for new gladiatorial sports. What could be better than a chariot race, powered with mountain bikes? The wagons could be constructed from beer barrels. Maybe they could dress up in togas? Caligula versus Nero? Then maybe a November beer festival, soon followed by a New Year’s Eve parade with flaming torches, a horse’s skull and a samba band. And has anyone ever thought of snorkelling through one of the local bogs? You rush into the bar, stepping over the sleeping dogs, and order a pint of Welsh Black (made in the brewery next door), then turn to address the expectant crowd of locals.
But, hang on a minute, what’s that on the wall? A series of large polished wooden display boards record the victors in the Bog Snorkelling Championships, the Man Versus Horse race, and the annual Mountain Bike Chariot race. Lindsay Ketteringham, the landlord, steps forward in his habitual Hawaiian shirt. “Have you been sampling the waters?” He chuckles. “I’ve got the Roman chariots outside, if you’d like to see them.”
The locals smile knowingly and one of them adds, “The November beer festival is fantastic … and New Year’s Mari Lwyd – that’s where we parade the skull of the grey mare, reciting Welsh poetry.”
Previous landlord Gordon Green, you see, has got there first, devising so many festivals and championships that Llanwrtyd Wells has transformed its economic outlook and become a crackpot sporting hotspot. What could be termed “the brown riband event” is the World Bog Snorkelling championships. Lindsay says: “There’s a ditch filled with peaty water and mud. You swim with face mask, snorkel and fins for about 60 metres.”
His own favourite event, however, is the Man Versus Horse race, a 22-mile cross-country epic. “We’ve only ever had two runners win,” he says. “But that might be because it gets pretty wild in here the night before.”
He gently prises the empty glass from your hand. “Another pint for you?”
A handsome Georgian pile that has stood in the centre of Llanwrtyd Wells for over 145 years, the Neuadd Arms Hotel is an active volcano of idiosyncrasy and peculiar festive invention. Landlords Catherine and Lindsay Ketteringham keep it friendly and quirky – there is no standing on ceremony here. Younger members of the party can be dispatched to the pool room (armed with an old 50p piece for the juke box) while the rest enjoy either of two very comfortable bars, each with an open fire, and a straightforward unfussy dining room.
The hotel part has 20 spacious and comfortable rooms with full-length sash windows overlooking the bridge across the Irfon. Given that a decent soaking is highly probable while out walking or cycling, the plentiful hot water and baths are a fine addition, worth a bit of worn decor here and there. Wet kit can be dried in the boiler room – next to the crates of bog snorkelling equipment.
• The caption on the second photo in this article was amended on 25 October 2021. The picture is of rosehips, not crab apples as an earlier version said.