The spectacular solitude of the ‘Desert of Wales’
Twenty years ago, archaeologists digging in the mines of Cwmystwyth unearthed a gold object, roughly the dimensions of a milk-bottle top. The Banc Tynddol sun-disc has been dated to around 2000 BCE, and is believed to be a funerary ornament, buried alongside a person whose remains are lost. Its meaning may never be known, but it has been speculated that the disc is a representation of the sun: perhaps a solar deity whose blessing was sought as the first farms were being established on the Welsh hills. Perhaps its wearer hoped to carry some of the sun’s life-giving radiance into the next world.
This disc was found in an upland area known to some as the “Desert of Wales” on account of its emptiness. I had come walking here at the end of a summer of record-breaking heat: a powerful sun had baked the landscape, so now — possibly more than ever — parts of it resembled a true desert. The moor grasses were bronzed. The streams that coursed through the crevices of the hills ran slow and feeble. I felt it too in my tent pegs — I had expected them to sink easily into Welsh soil but when I camped the ground was stony dry and unyielding.
A drought had been declared. I walked east from Cwmystwyth to where the hills open out on to the reservoirs of the Elan Valley. The waters here had dropped, exposing the remains of Nantgwyllt House — a mansion where Percy Bysshe Shelley and his young bride Harriet Westbrook had lived together “embosomed in the solitude of mountains”, as the poet wrote. Both later died by drowning: Harriet by suicide in London’s Serpentine, heartbroken after Percy abandoned her; Shelley perished when his boat sank in a Mediterranean storm. Nantgwyllt, meanwhile, had been drowned by reservoir-builders to supply drinking water to Birmingham. Its ghostly outline appeared on a beach of cracked mud in this summer’s drought, the stones warmed by the unfamiliar sun.
Climbing the plateau west of the Elan Valley, the expanse of this so-called desert revealed itself: sheep-speckled hills whose twilit profiles recalled Arabian dunes in the gentle rise and fall of their contours. Much of this region is treeless: broadleaf forests are said to have been cleared by farmers in the Neolithic and Bronze Age — perhaps at the same time as mourners heaped soil on the bearer of the sun-disc. On a hot day it can be hard to find shade. But there are few travellers here who might need to seek it.
The first use of the term “Desert of Wales” is attributed to the English writer Joseph Downes: “All is lifeless and silent — as in dead of night, or the deepest of winter wild,” he wrote of his travels here in 1836. “No woods are there to reverberate to the axe, to entice the birds to sing . . . Even the sun . . . warms but barrenness, a waste, as of a sea in dead calm.”
The extent of this “desert” is undefined, though it is very roughly equivalent to the Cambrian Mountains, the range known in Welsh as Elenydd. In the north, it might reach the A44 or the hill of Pumlumon Fawr. In the south it runs to Llandovery. Throughout history, it has been a frontier country between the traditional power centres of north and south Wales: a sometime haunt of outlaws. Similarly, holidaymakers and hikers today gravitate to the grandeur of Snowdonia or the Brecon Beacons. There is little for summit-hungry souls in these pathless expanses that lie in between them.
Over a week of walking, I found that the appeal of this “desert” is the solitude Shelley described, and also a communion with the elements. In the long sightlines of the uplands you witness approaching winds in the flailing of the moor grass and heather. You enjoy the company of the slow-marching clouds.
Wilfred Thesiger left the Empty Quarter of Arabia carrying what he called “the imprint of the desert”, and though this is no ordinary desert, it leaves an impression: a stilling of the mind. Without distractions on the bare plateau, I found my eyes wandering upwards to the heavens — to red kites soaring, to the first flush of evening stars. And long after the heatwave relented, the sky cracked and rain fell in torrents, my abiding memory of those uplands was of that almighty August sun.
In the 21st century, the term “Desert of Wales” has become charged with a new meaning — of an ecological wasteland, bereft of biodiversity. It looms large in George Monbiot’s 2013 book Feral, in which the author seeks out a wilder life in Mid Wales but instead finds hills where livestock grazing has stunted new growth. “Whenever I venture into the Cambrian Desert I almost lose the will to live.” Monbiot writes. “It looks like a land in perpetual winter.” Feral makes an impassioned, persuasive case for rewilding — for allowing habitats to restore themselves and repopulate with vanished species.
I had wanted to visit the Desert of Wales after watching it become a subject of bitter battles on social media. To supporters of rewilding it is an example of an upland space where farming is uneconomical, where new growth might be permitted to thrive. To Elenydd’s farming community, rewilding is akin to an eviction order to assuage the conscience of outsiders — an expulsion from soil worked on by generations, in which ancestors are buried.
“Rewilding is a toxic word,” says Elwyn Vaughan, Plaid Cymru councillor for Powys. “It’s a colonialist, imperialist mindset . . . in total ignorance of heritage, language and culture.”
Vaughan argues that the English term “the Desert of Wales” reveals a gaze in which Elenydd’s rural Welsh-speaking communities are invisible. He notes, too, that rewilding is only the latest of many incursions made by outsiders on these hills.
Leaving the Elan Valley, I get in my car and drive south along single-track roads, beyond the reservoirs and wind farms, to where treeless landscapes turn to Sitka spruce forests planted in the decades after the second world war. In these woods stands a lone landmark: a whitewashed Methodist chapel, set at a confluence of two streams.
Soar-y-Mynydd (“Zoar of the Mountain”) is said to be the most remote chapel in Wales — remoteness has no metric, but to step inside is to be at one remove from the rest of the world. There is no electricity or heating. Sunlight streams through arched windows on to a Persian rug; a vase of cow parsley; a pulpit where reading glasses are propped on a Welsh bible.
Soar-y-Mynydd was built by farmers in the 19th century: congregations rode on donkeys from across Elenydd to attend services. Sheepdogs sat under the pews. It is the spiritual heart of these hills, and perhaps of Wales too. Mystical accounts describe “a heath fire” that sparked here — a conflagration that blazed for four years and travelled to far corners of the country, spreading fervent Christian faith. But Soar’s fire faltered. A harsh winter saw some farms abandoned in the 1940s. By the 1960s, some preachers arrived to find there was no congregation. The Zoar of the Old Testament was an oasis and refuge in the desert. Today its Welsh namesake still holds summer services for people who make the pilgrimage to its mountain sanctuary. The doors are always unlocked for passers-by.
Among them is Helena Hunt, a council worker from Abergavenny I meet outside. She is driving across Wales in a vintage Citroën Acadiane — to spend some time alone, to write poetry by night and to document the lives of the deceased. She explains that she has come to Soar-y-Mynydd to collect names from the little graveyard and upload them to an online database.
“There’s a draw, an energy that brought me here,” she tells me. “I wonder if there’s something in my DNA, or if my ancestors passed by. I can’t articulate it, but I feel it. How, for instance, do birds know how to migrate?”
That night I hike alone through planted forests to spend the night in Nant Syddion bothy: a simple shelter adapted from a farmhouse abandoned around the 1940s. Bothies are rare outside the Scottish Highlands, but in Elenydd there is a cluster, set in lonely places beside logging roads and sheep tracks. They are free to use, containing hearths, firewood, candles, mice and little else. They are unstaffed, but you might read about the previous owners in a booklet before bedtime. I wished I hadn’t read the booklet in Nant Syddion.
In 1856 a local paper reported Margaret Hughes of Nant Syddion had miraculously given birth to quadruplets. But within 11 days all four had died, along with Margaret’s husband Isaac and their two elder children. Margaret took her own life and was buried outside the walls of a local churchyard. The circumstances of the deaths went unrecorded in these hills (influenza outbreaks are suspected) but a gravestone for the quadruplets survives:
“From the same womb the same day we came . . . In the same tomb we lie, and the same day we will rise.”
That night I lie in my sleeping bag alone in the bothy, listening to the call of owls, the fluting of the wind in the gaps in the windows, thinking how travel in this Desert of Wales has acquainted me with so many past lives.
For some, though, it might truly be a place of rebirth. The highest point of the Cambrian Mountains is Pumlumon Fawr: the rivers Severn and Wye begin as springs close by, meeting again among the shipping lanes and lighthouses of the Bristol Channel. And amid Pumlumon’s northern foothills is Bwlch Corog — a plot of land where charity Coetir Anian hopes to restore habitats across a 350-acre site: expanding native tree cover, resurrecting blanket bog and upland heath, allowing wild horses to roam and fertilise the land. The project carefully does not use the word “rewilding” after similar endeavours have seen furious opposition. The approach is more sensitive: laying the seed of an idea for people to make space for nature, and speaking (in a literal sense) the same language as locals and farmers. A recent visitor apparently told staff that he had conversed with the Tylwyth Teg — the fair-haired fairies of Welsh folklore — who said they approved of the work here.
One of the three staff, Nia Huw, shows me Bwlch Corog’s fragment of Celtic rainforest. Mosses and lichens luxuriant and long as a sorcerer’s beard drape from Sessile oaks. Curtains of spray lift from the banks of a tumbling stream. Birds sing above. It is as far as possible from a desert: the tangle of branch and thicket is unrecognisable from the regimented, right-angled plantations of Elenydd. This habitat once fringed the Atlantic edge of the British Isles: it is a window into a past before the strike of the first settler’s axe. In a present of climate change and biodiversity loss, it may have answers for the future.
“It’s about taking baby steps towards something that is more alive,” says Huw. “For the majority of people here the landscape is just as it’s always been. It is only when you spend time [at Bwlch Corog] that you begin to understand what’s missing.”
Her words stay with me as I drive home across the empty expanse of Elenydd. For some, the solitude of these hills also means an estrangement from biodiversity. But then in the cluttered landscapes of southern Britain, others find something precious in these open spaces. Stopping in a small car park to stretch my legs, I meet Alicia Cooper from Wiltshire, making tea in a blue camper van. She explains she was recently diagnosed with cancer, and the long-term prognosis isn’t good. Instead of taking out a mortgage, she spent her savings on the van, and has made four trips to this same corner of Elenydd this year.
“I headed to the greenest, emptiest place I could find on the map,” she tells me. “There’s peace. Nobody bothers you. I keep expecting the car park to fill up. But it never does.”
The Mountain Bothy Association (mountainbothies.org.uk) operates four bothies in the Cambrian Mountains — Nant Syddion, Nant Rhys, Moel Prysgau and Lluest Cwmbach. Those looking for more comfort could try Ynyshir, a two-Michelin starred restaurant with rooms (ynyshir.co.uk; dinner, bed and breakfast from £495 per head), or the Hafod hotel at Devil’s Bridge (thehafod.co.uk; doubles from £165). For more details on the area see the tourist board website, thecambrianmountains.co.uk
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