The underrated corner of Wales with its ‘green deserts’ and breathtaking secrets
But we loved it from the first moment we saw its red stable door and bright yellow ceilings in the grainy photos of its details online. You couldn’t express its appeal in words, and its owner knew that. The purchase therefore took place in a special way. The mother was abroad at the time, so we were invited for the weekend, with two young children in tow, and we were gently but emphatically interviewed for the cabin keeper position.
First step: a hike. We stumbled into a dark cave with a thundering waterfall at its back. We climbed hills, stumbled over tree roots and emerged, breathless, into the walled garden of a stately home that once stood proudly somewhere nearby but had long been engulfed by some form of unknown, awesome and supercharged nature.
Have we been shown the area, or have our worth been tested? In this corner of Ceredigion, farmers work hard on the hillside, while hippies practice ecstatic dancing in the village hall. We spotted a photo of a smiling Indian guru pinned to a notice board in the otherwise ascetic cottage. So, just in case, we decided to project our most positive vibes. Every time we parked at a new point on our host’s mystery tour, we would turn to the kids (then ages six and three) sitting in the back and bribe them: ice creams for good vibes and good legs for walking.
This is how two years of long car journeys began – to the chalet every school vacation, half-term and bank holiday weekend. Have we kept these good vibrations, this first amazed reaction to the landscape? I like to think so. But it wasn’t until last year, when the pandemic hit and travel restrictions were imposed, that I realized how deeply it had taken hold in me.
It was a strange feeling – finally feeling a sense of kinship with a landscape just when I was left out. But talking to friends who found themselves dreaming of the Yorkshire Dales from terraces in Surbiton, or the Cornish coastline from skyscrapers, was one a surprising number of people shared. Hiraeth had us all within reach.
I wanted the mountains. I even wanted rain. I longed for how the ailments and quirks of the cottage made us all work together to heal it – the kids painting the bottom half of a peeling wall, me on a ladder above. But I also wanted something older than those relatively fresh memories.
Ceredigion’s natural fortifications made up of mountains, rivers and seas made it a separate kingdom, sealed off in the 5th century. Even today, it remains the second least populated region in Wales and one of the most rural.
There are so few landscapes left in the UK where you can feel this thrilling loneliness, a sensation I thirsted for while in lockdown, while homeschooling and working within the same four walls. Still, it can be scary. The Victorians called the Cambrian mountains “the green desert of Wales”. The longest three minutes of my life have been spent on their western slopes, where a narrow road winds through a series of vast, windswept lakes like craters mirroring a lunar landscape. There is no telephone reception in the Teifi pools, no homes for miles. It’s a terrible place to play hide and seek with a crafty four year old.