West Wales is an exciting place to explore. Orchid Meadows is ideally placed between the Cambrian Mountains and Cardigan Bay and there is so much to see and do that the hardest part is deciding what to leave out. Here are some of our own suggestions for memorable days out.
OM Orchid Meadows. 1 Tregaron. 2 Aberystwyth. 3 Aberaeron. 4 New Quay. 5 Cwmtydu. 6 Llangrannog.
Tregaron is an ancient market town that sits astride the River Brenig, a tributary of the renowned Teifi. Strictly speaking we should be saying “Mae Tregaron yn dref farchnad hynafol sy'n eistedd ar hyd Afon Brenig, un o lednentydd y Teifi enwog” because most people in the town speak Welsh and the simple, almost Spartan but nevertheless attractive layout of buildings around the central square somehow seems to ooze Welsh tradition and history. If you don’t speak Welsh though, don’t worry: people here are extremely friendly and will happily speak English to you all day.
The square is dominated by a statue of Henry Richard, a congregational minister and Welsh Member of Parliament between 1868 and 1888. He was a strong voice for peace, international arbitration and the end of slavery and was known as the Apostle of Peace.
To call Tregaron a town is technically correct but it has more of a size and feel of a village. In some ways it is a step back in time to when everything was much more local. Very few places of its size today can boast what it has: a hospital, a secondary school, a doctor’s surgery, two mini-markets, three butchers, a chemist, a baker’s, a large hotel, two major agricultural suppliers, a builder’s merchant, an auction mart and a leisure centre. Oh, and there is an annual rock festival and in 2022 the national Welsh music, arts and culture festival - the Eisteddfod - took place here.
There is also a small community museum - the Red Kite Centre - and a must-visit is the Welsh Gold Centre where Rhiannon makes fine, and very expensive, gold jewellery. You can watch her working, browse the gold rings or take in the broader arts centre behind. Gold has been mined in Wales since Roman times and most recently in the 1980s. Rhiannon holds much of the remaining stock of true Welsh gold.
Just outside the town is the Riverbank Café with a great menu and a Welsh produce shop attached.
It might be officially only a town but to the people of Ceredigion, Aberystwyth is the big city. As the only sizeable settlement in this part of western Wales, it contains everything. There is a rare railway terminus here, some banks – an equally unusual find in West Wales – supermarkets, an A&E hospital, a university, the National Library of Wales and lots of shops selling all the things you need to survive in the modern world.
It is also a tourist destination with two beaches – North Beach and South Beach – a long promenade, a pier, a castle, a marina, fish and chip shops and so on. Sitting high above it all is Constitution Hill, scaled by the Aberystwyth Cliff Railway. At the top there are panoramic views and other attractions, including a camera obscura. For those who do not know what one of these is, which included ourselves when we moved here, a camera obscura derives from the Latin for “dark chamber” and means “a darkened room with a small hole or lens at one side through which an image is projected onto a wall or table opposite the hole”. Aberystwyth is also the starting point of the Vale of Rheidol Steam Railway, which runs to Devil’s Bridge.
And let us not forget the Aberystwyth Arts Centre, frequented by top tribute bands including Darkside (Any guesses? Actually, it is a Pink Floyd tribute act, reference Dark Side of the Moon), What’s Love Got To Do With It (Obviously Tina Turner), Buddy Holly and the Cricketers (No need to give the answer to that one), Jive Talking (Yes, the Bee Gees) and the Illegal Eagles (Obvious again). Real bands might be thin on the ground, although Tom McGuire and the Brassholes performed in 2022. Now you know.
Aberaeron has achieved the status of administrative centre of the county of Ceredigion, being the home of the county council offices. This is quite an achievement for a seaside town of only around 1400 inhabitants. Its history does not go far back either: in 1800 there was no significant settlement here at all. The town was planned and developed from 1805 by the Rev Alban Thomas Jones Gwynne. He built a harbour, which operated as a port and supported a ship-building industry in the 19th century.
The main thing about Aberaeron is its stunning architecture. Unusually for this part of Wales, this consists of rows and squares of elegant Regency-style buildings, often painted in a range of bright colours. This was largely the influence of Edward Haycock, an architect from Shrewsbury. There are 248 Listed Buildings in the Aberaeron community, most in the town itself.
The beach here is largely shingle but there are good facilities in the town and you can buy fresh fish from the quayside.
New Quay was once a flourishing ship-building centre and fishing port. The miles of secluded coves around the town also provided ideal hiding places in the less salubrious, but probably more profitable, trade of smuggling spirits and tobacco. Today small local fishing and pleasure craft still come and go in the sheltered bay.
New Quay is not to be confused with its rather noisier Cornish cousin, Newquay. But if the number of static caravans sited near here is anything to go by, it is a top destination for summer holidays and it is easy to see why. New Quay’s beaches extend in a golden arc around the bay, the quay is often the perfect spot for dolphin watching, there is a marine life centre and lifeboat station and the choice of eateries is broad. At the head of the quay, the Lime Crab offers huge portions of the best fish and chips you’re likely to find in Wales and you can enjoy them watching the world go by from seats at the far end of the quay.
You can buy seaside postcards, buckets and spades and everything in between. You can take a boat trip for wildlife watching. But there are some surprises too: see if you can find the basement guitar shop with its retro metal band T-shirt collection!
If you want to see the Ceredigion coastline at its best, then you should head for Cwmtydu. It is a tiny village but surrounded by big scenery. The ups and downs of the coastal path offer breath-taking, literally too, walking with unsurpassed views and a chance to see sea life, birds such as choughs and a fine array of wild flowers.
To the north is the quaint old church of St Tysilio, steep woodland-lined ravines carrying pathways and splashing streams and the little-known cove of Cwm Silio with its sheltered beach and sea caves. To the south the coast path rises to dizzying heights and leads towards Llangrannog, all the way with sky-high views of Cardigan Bay.
The village itself has a car park, toilets and a café.
Llangrannog is approached along a narrow valley – sometimes more a ravine – through which the River Hawen hurls itself on its way to the sea. The sandy Blue Flag beach here draws many in the summer months and in terms of a pretty seaside village with all the facilities you might need, you would struggle to do better. It is picture-postcard, although you only get the best views of it from the sea or high on the cliff path. In the village you will find two pubs - the Ship Inn and the Pentre Arms - plus cafés and a general store.
From the coast path you might spot bottlenose dolphins putting on a display out in Cardigan Bay and a short walk brings you to the Ynys Lochtyn headland. Much photographed, this rocky, grass-topped headland jutting out into the bay is an extraordinary spot from which to enjoy the full sweep of the Cardigan Bay coastline. Overlooking the headland is the rounded hill of Pen Dinas Llochtyn, which was occupied in the Iron Age around 500BC. Pen Dinas Lloctyn was a well-defended fort and an important settlement, underlined by the name dinas (city) rather than caer (fort).
OM Orchid Meadows. 1 Strata Florida. 2 Dolaucothi Gold Mines. 3 National Wool Museum.
It might sound like the name of a nightclub in Ibiza but Strata Florida was once the most famous church in Wales after St David’s, a place of pilgrimage and a linchpin of Welsh culture.
Strata Florida – Latin for Vale of Flowers – has stood on meadows beside the banks of the infant River Teifi since 1201. It was founded by the Norman Robert Fitz Stephen and then hugely developed by Lord Rhys, ruler of the kingdom of Deheubarth. It became a major centre for Cistercian monks as part of a movement that spread across western Europe in the early Middle Ages.
It was far from an easy life for the monks at Strata Florida. The day began with a church service at 2am, followed by others at 3.30am, 6am, 8am, 11.30am, 2.30pm, 6pm and 8pm, punctuated by work and the occasional meal. Bedtime was at quarter past eight.
When Llywelyn ap Lorwerth decided to summon all the Welsh princes to swear allegiance to his son Dafydd in 1238, Strata Florida was the obvious choice as the centre of Welsh culture. But its importance in this respect came at a price: the enmity of the English crown. It was damaged by the wars of King Edward I, weakened by the Black Death and occupied by English troops during the rising of Owain Glyndŵr. The heyday of Strata Florida was long gone by the time Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. It was partly dismantled in 1539, starting with 10 tons of lead from the roof, and gradually allowed to fall into ruin.
Today a visit to the abbey is a time for quiet contemplation and appreciation of the Cambrian scenery at this high point in the Teifi valley. Not least when you learn it is the final resting place for generations of Mediaeval Welsh princes.
Dolaucothi Gold Mines
Dolaucothi Gold Mines are the only known Roman gold mines in Britain and incorporated both underground and surface workings. They may even have found their origin in the Bronze Age, when washing gravel from the River Cothi probably began.
The site offers a fascinating window onto Roman mining methods, which revolved around hydraulic techniques using aqueducts and leats to bring in water. The longest ran for 7 miles. There is also evidence that water-powered trip hammers were used to crush gold ore.
When the Romans left Britain in the 5th century, the mines were abandoned for centuries until a revival in the 19th century. This finally came to an end in the 1930s when a new shaft was sunk 430 feet in an unsuccessful attempt to find profitable new seams. The mines fell into disrepair and became unsafe at lower levels due to flooding and finally closed in 1938.
Today you can take a guided tour of the mines and there is the 1930s mine yard to explore with its period machinery, equipment and tools. You can also explore the 2500-acre Dolaucothi Estate using - now owned by the National Trust - miles of pathways.
National Wool Museum
It is an hour’s drive away but the National Wool Museum at Drefach Felindre near Newcastle Emlyn provides an absorbing experience.
Historically and into the 19th century, the woollen industry in Wales, including spinning and weaving, surpassed even coal as the most important industry in Wales. The Teifi Valley was the centre of the West Wales woollen industry, earning itself the nickname The Huddersfield of Wales.
The National Wool Museum is located in the former Cambrian Mills. David Lewis erected the mills on the site of a former small water-powered weaving workshop in 1902. The new mill was to supply the need for woollen cloth for working men in the coal and steel industries. In 1915, 100 people were employed here and flannel was produced for military uniforms for the First World War. Over the years, shirts and shawls, blankets and bedcovers, and woollen stockings and socks were all made here. The mills were still working in 1965, when they were put up for sale with 30 people still employed, but they became a museum in 1976.
The National Wool Museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-5pm, and is free to enter. You can see the sympathetically restored listed mill buildings and historical machinery and follow the whole process from fleece to fabric. If you did not fully know what was involved in shearing, harvesting, sorting, willowing, scouring, dyeing, carding, spinning, winding, warping, weaving and finishing, you will come away from your visit an enlightened person. A raised walkway also gives a unique view of textiles in production at Melin Teifi, today’s commercial woollen mill at the site.
OM Orchid Meadows. 1 Cambrian Mountains route. 2 Hafod Estate. 3 Devil's Bridge.
4 Bryn Nant yr Arian Forest Visitor Centre. 5 Elan Valley.
Cambrian Mountains route
Cambrian Mountains route. Hafod Estate. Devil's Bridge.
Bwlch Nant yr Arian Forest Visitor Centre. Elan Valley.
The Cambrian Mountains are definitely the unsung hero of Wales. The scenery is dramatic and austere but is over-shadowed in terms of popularity by Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons National Parks. Think of this upland area as the neglected child sandwiched between two more admired siblings. The Cambrians were actually proposed as a National Park themselves in the 1960s but it came to nothing.
What all this does mean is that few people bother to visit this part of mid-Wales and as a result you can find what perhaps you cannot easily find today in Snowdonia or the Brecon Beacons: peace and solitude.
The only slight nods towards visitor attractions here are the Elan Valley and, somewhat surprisingly, a phone box and a postbox. It is true. On the road up into the mountains from Tregaron, there is a lonely spot where at some point in the past someone decided it was just the right place for some communications facilities. The slightly bizarre sight of a bright red phone box and postbox in a wide, deserted green landscape attracts the attention of people who come to take pictures of themselves at this far-flung place. You could hardly call the visitors thrill-seekers but nevertheless this location has a fan club and has become iconic. Perhaps you had better go there is see what all the fuss is about.
For the notebook, the Cambrian Mountains include the sources of the River Severn and River Wye - actually surprisingly close to each other - and the highest point is Plynlimon at 2467 feet (752 metres).
The Hafod Estate, also known as Hafod Uchtryd (uchtryd meaning summer mansion) is a stunning forested landscape in the Ystwych Valley. It was originally the site of a hunting lodge for Welsh chieftains and was once part of the Strata Florida Cistercian Abbey estate before becoming home to landed gentry.
In the late 18th century a celebrated designer landscape was created under the ownership of Thomas Johnes and a huge Gothic mansion was built in 1785. It was rebuilt in 1810 after being destroyed by fire.
Johnes was an innovative landowner and during his time on the estate oversaw the planting of 3 million trees. His plantations won awards from the Society of Silviculture for their design. He also set up an experimental farm, which became a successful dairy business despite the limitations placed by climate and soil. In 1800 4 tons of cheese was produced and half a ton of butter.
By the middle of the 20tth century, however, the mansion had become derelict and it was demolished in 1958. Today only the stables and isolated buildings remains. But the estate is the perfect place for a walk in fine scenery covering 500 acres. There are a number of routes to explore, including the Gentleman’s Walk and the Alpine Bridge Walk.
Devil’s Bridge is a well known tourist attraction north of Orchid Meadows. The waterfalls here have attracted many thousands of visitors since the 18th century, including William Wordsworth who wrote about “the torrent at the Devil’s Bridge”. Today the Falls Nature Trail provides a great opportunity to see this impressive natural feature in the Rheidol Gorge. And you can arrive in style by taking the Vale of Rheidol Steam Railway from Aberystwyth to the very place itself.
There are actually three bridges at Devil’s Bridge, more or less built in a stack. It is thought that the first or lowest of the three bridges was built by the monks of Strata Florida to shave a few minutes off the journey time to their abbey in Pontrhyfendigaid.
But there is another theory.
Around the time of the 11th century, the Devil visited Wales as he had never been there before and had heard that the scenery was breath-taking. He came across an old lady who seemed upset. “What’s the matter?” he asked but only out of curiosity because obviously he was not known to be nice to old ladies.
“Oh, I’m in such a terrible muddle and I don’t know what to do!” she replied. “My cow has wandered across the river and I can’t get her back.”
“Ah!” said the Devil, “What you need, My Dear, is a bridge and I am just the man to build you one! Why don’t you go home and in the morning there will be a bridge waiting for you. All I ask in return is to keep the first living thing to cross the bridge!”
“Okay then,” she said. “It’s a bargain. I’ll see you in the morning. Nos da (goodnight).” That night she wondered about this stranger who would build her a bridge. “What a strange request! Why should I cross the bridge to get my cow back if he gets to keep me in exchange? Mind you, I won't say it's not a tempting offer.”
The next day she got up and called for her faithful dog. Together they went down to the river. She could not believe her eyes. In front of her was the best bridge that she had ever seen!
“I told you I would build you a bridge,” said the Devil, appearing from nowhere. “Now it’s your turn to keep your side of the bargain.”
She replied: “I know, you get to keep the first living thing to cross the bridge.” She started to walk towards the bridge. But just when she got to the start of it, she stopped, took out a loaf of bread from her apron pocket and hurled it across the bridge. As quick as a flash and before the Devil could stop it, the dog chased after it.
“Aaaaaaagh!” screeched the Devil. “You stupid old woman. I don’t believe it! Your smelly, hairy farm dog has become the first living thing to cross my bridge. A dog’s no good to me.” With that, he vanished and was never seen in Wales again as he was so embarrassed at being outwitted by the old lady.
This all seems entirely plausible until you learn that this legend is very similar to another in Switzerland where the Devil built a bridge so that a lost goat could safely cross the ravine. Maybe it is not true at all and simply a marketing stunt. What is true is that the Devil has not been seen in Wales since but only because he was driven out by the Manic Street Preachers.
Cambrian Mountains route. Hafod Estate. Devil's Bridge.
Bwlch Nant yr Arian Forest Visitor Centre. Elan Valley.
At the western edge of the Cambrian Mountains, just off the A44, is the Bwlch Nant yr Arian Visitor Centre. It is well-known for its long-established tradition of feeding red kites daily.
By the mid-1980s, the red kite population had crashed to a handful of pairs in southern and mid-Wales, the result of a long history of pointless persecution. In 1989 a re-introduction programme was set up by the RSPB and the Nature Conservancy Council due to concerns about the slow rate of population expansion in Wales, and the improbability of natural re-colonisation of other suitable parts of the UK by red kites from Wales or the continent. Red kites were re-introduced to four areas in England: the Chilterns, the East Midlands, Yorkshire and the North-east. And in 1999, Bwlch Nant yr Arian became a red kite feeding station as part of a programme to protect the small number of red kites in the area at that time.
Since then the red kite has become an unparalleled conservation success story. Fast forward to 2022 and the bird is a familiar site in many parts of Britain, including nearly all Wales. At Orchid Meadows, we see red kites most days.
At Bwlch Nant yr Arian daily feeding nevertheless continues at 3pm during the summer months and 2pm in winter. As many as 150 come in to feed from a radius of 10 miles. Here you can also find a range of waymarked trails for walkers, mountain bikers and runners.
The Elan Valley is a beautiful area, striking in terms of its scenery, rich in wildlife and given an additional focus by the engineering wonder of the Victorian dams and reservoirs. Elan is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of the Cambrian Mountains.
The 70 square miles of moorland, bog, woodland, river and reservoir are of national importance for their diversity of lower plants (mosses, liverworts and lichens) in particular and the Elan Estate is said to be the most important area for land birds in Wales.
To date, 180 species of bird have been recorded here. These include meadow pipet, linnet, skylark, stonechat, reed bunting, whinchat, golden plover, dunlin, hen harrier, merlin, short-eared owl, dipper and grey wagtail. Other animals include badgers, otters, polecats, stoats and weasels, glow worms and nine species of bat.
And that is not all. Ten species of orchid have been recorded growing here: fragrant orchid, early marsh orchid, lesser twayblade, common spotted orchid, heath spotted orchid, early purple orchid, bog orchid, lesser and greater butterfly orchid and recently a new record of a single small white orchid. At Orchid Meadows we are very jealous!
A visit might seem essential and a good place to start is the visitor centre below Caban Coch Dam. There you can find out about the building of the dams and all the ways to explore this remarkable place. There is a gift shop and a café.
OM Orchid Meadows. 1 Rhos Fullbrook. 2 Cors Caron.
3 Llyn Eiddwen and Llyn Fanod.
Just a short hop, skip and a jump from Orchid Meadows is the Rhos Fullbrook Nature Reserve. A Site of Special Scientific Interest, it is managed by the South and West Wales Wildlife Trust. The reserve comprises an area of flower-rich unimproved grassland including numerous flushes which, unusually for this area, are slightly base rich adding an extra dimension to the conservation interest. There is an area of alluvial marsh some woodland and species-rich shrub thicket.
The reserve supports at least 100 flowering plants including betony, bog asphodel, devil’s bit scabious, dyer’s greenweed, heath spotted orchid, heath wood-rush, lesser butterfly orchid, marsh lousewort, petty whin, pignut, sharp-flowered rush, and tormentil. The wet flushes are dominated by sedges: notably carnation sedge, common yellow sedge, flea sedge, star sedge and tawny sedge in association with bog mosses. There is also cross-leaved heath, marsh arrowgrass and the insectivorous species round-leaved sundew and butterwort on the reserve.
An abundance of butterflies, including painted lady and green-veined white, and frequent dragonflies along the stream add interest and both grassland and woodland fungi are well represented in autumn. Water voles use the vegetated stream.
You can easily walk to the reserve from Orchid Meadows and compare notes with what you have found around your yurt, glampavan or cottage here.
Cors Caron National Nature Reserve is a vast area of wetland filling the broad valley of the River Teifi literally just over the road from Orchid Meadows. It is underlain by three areas of raised bog with millions of cubic metres of peat up to 10 metres deep. They are some of the most intact examples of raised peat bog in Britain, having built up over the past 12,000 years.
The list of wildlife species to be found here is extensive. Among birdlife are peregrine falcon, merlin, sparrowhawk, hen harrier, Montagu’s harrier, red kite, buzzard, teal, curlew and grasshopper warbler. Of the 170 or so bird species that have been recorded at Cors Caron, more than 40 breed there. Otters, polecats and adders are rare but rewarding sights and the plant community includes bog asphodel, bog rosemary, heather, heath spotted orchids, bogbean and sundew.
The raised boardwalk provides a great opportunity to experience the most interesting part of the reserve and there are also the longer riverside walk and old railway line trail to explore. There are parking, toilet and information facilities.
Also not far from Orchid Meadows is the Llyn Eiddwen Nature Reserve near Bronnant. A natural upland lake, it is surrounded by moorland and mire and managed by the South and West Wales Wildlife Trust. It is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The reserve is known for its flora with the lake supporting abundant stands of water lobelia with carpets of shoreweed, spring quillwort and awlwort, here at one of its southernmost locations in the UK. At the southern end, there are extensive beds of bottle sedge and water horsetail which grade into bog vegetation dominated by cotton grass and Sphagnum moss.
The lake is important locally for wintering wildfowl, including coot, mallard, pochard, teal, and wigeon together with whooper swans. Water voles inhabit the shoreline, beyond which are brown trout, pike, minnow and three-spined stickleback.
The surrounding area of upland heathland and acidic grassland is typical of this part of mid-Wales and includes mat grass, bilberry, heath bedstraw, sheep’s fescue, tormentil and heather. North of the lake is small mire with a good cover of bog mosses with cotton grass, bog asphodel, cranberry and round-leaved sundew.
The smaller Llyn Fanod nearby is a sister upland lake and also a nature reserve. A range of aquatic plants occur, including water lobelia, quillwort, shoreweed and awlwort. In high summer there is a spectacular display of white water lily and yellow water lily and the lake is particularly good for dragonflies, damselflies and caddis flies.