Sunday, 12 April 2015

The lovely view that nearly vanished


It's one of the loveliest views in Britain, yet it might have disappeared. In 1923 Warrington Corporation proposed flooding a huge area of the Ceiriog Valley to create two reservoirs. Objectors complained that the purpose of this act of what now seems wanton vandalism, was to provide water for Warrington's brewing industry. A slogan of the time ran: “The English want to take the W out of Wales to make ales”.

Protest, led in Parliament by Lloyd George, prevailed. Reference to the Prime Minister nicknamed the Welsh Goat because of his womanising still arouses contradictory passions, not least because of his admiration of Hitler in the 1930s,. But there is no belittling the achievements that offset his pecadillos. As those successes went, doing down the brewers might not have ranked with the introduction of old age pensions or winning the Great War, but to those who take the tortuous road to Llanarmon it may seem a major reason to wipe off the black marks.


It is so much not the buildings of  Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog (or Llanarmon  DC – to use the commonly applied, part abbreviation) that appeal, though the opposition of its two inns,  at a big open crossroads beyond a bridge over the river, is attractive enough. It's the setting that keeping drawing me you back. The village sits in an amphitheatre of soft green, sheep loud  hills at the foot of the Berwyn mountains. It lies on an old route used by drovers to take livestock from Anglesey to markets in the Borders and further, to London. Though its church was rebuilt in the Victorian era it replaced a much older one, constructed in the ninth century and perhaps founded 400 years before than. In the churchyard there are great yew trees, one over 1000 years old. The poet John Ceiriog Hughes, sometimes called the Welsh Robert Burns, was born at Penybryn farm, overlooking the village and the place has long attracted other writers, and artists. 

This is wonderful walking country, its footpaths generally less crowded than the mountains of neighbouring Snowdonia. In late summer you may find bilberries (more usually called whinberries in these parts) on the higher ground. 

If you are unfortunate you might encounter an inclement blast which sometimes chills the marrow on these uplands. It is known in Welsh as Gwynt Traed y Meirw – the wind from the feet of the dead. While walking here once in midsummer I  wished I had brought gloves. Henry II suffered such weather when leading his troops here in a campaign against the uppity inhabitants. Among his ranks were Gascons, more used to the balmy weather of southern France. One can only imagine their reaction as they trudged away from  ignominious defeat in the teeth of this bitter wind.

This time, however, we were greeted by a perfect morning. Our spirits soared as we climbed from our hotel, passing close to traces of what may have been a hafod, a summer residence where sheep farmers would live after driving their le herds to higher grassland in summer in the same transhumance now more readily associated with the European mountains of the European mainland. The uphill grind was made worthwhile by the long walk along the grassy ridge of Cefn-Hir-fynydd that followed, with marvellous views of green hillsides across the Ceiriog Valley, knowing that while we walked in sweet solitude, the town of Llangollen, rarely free of the tourist throng, lay just beyond the far skyline.

Another interesting route saw us climb steeply from the village of Pontfadog, a short drive east. A small waiting room survives there, relic of the narrow gauge railway which once ran along the valley to carry slate and dolerite to Chirk, first in horse drawn wagons to the canal, then by steam hauled train to meet the Great Western Railway. A group of enthusiasts is attempting to revive it.

Llanarmon's two inns, are the The Hand and the West Arms, in a comfortable, sprucely decorated room looking out onto the hillside. The cooking at both is good. When I last stayed at the Hand I was told the only dish not entirely home made was the steak and ale pie. This came from McCardle's, a butcher's shop in Chirk. Must be some pie, I thought as I picked it from the menu, And so it was. Desperate Dan would have struggled to finish it. We headed of he shop on the way home and bought a couple - along with some Welsh lamb. You'll probably find Welsh lamb - unrivalled to my taste - at the West Arms, perhaps accompanied  by figs glazed with local honey.

Many travellers, I suspect, make it only as far as Chirk Castle, 700 years old marcher fortress from the reign of Edward I with its stunning gardens and parkland and astonishingly intricate, seventeenth century wrought iron gates. The road further west to Llanarmon may seem a road to nowhere in particular. Mistake. During the campaign to save the Ceiriog Valleyit from the brewing magnates Lloyd George described it “a little bit of heaven on earth”. It still is.

Tip: Kittiwake Books publishes excellent guides to walking in Wales, including Walks around the Berwyn Mountains and the Ceiriog Valley (£4.95)

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