Day Out: Cwm Rheidol, Ceredigion

Journey on a steam train through the coppery autumn hues of a narrow valley amid hissing steam and blasting whistles on the Vale of Rheidol Railway, spotting rare mammals and lively falls

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The Vale of Rheidol Railway was opened in 1902 to export lead and timber, and to import passengers into the valley’s densely wooded heart.

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These days, a journey on the steam train from Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge is still the best way to appreciate the extent of Cwm Rheidol’s woodiness.

Single railway track, UK narrow gauge, Vale of Rheidol Railway, Ceredigion, Wales, United Kingdom, Europe.
The single track lines of the Vale of Rheidol Railway runs though Cwm Rheidol in Wales ©Getty

From the moment you set off in a billow of cinders and steam, goat-willow, hazel and ash flash by in a smashed-orange blur. You travel east, ever-higher, climbing through precipitous slopes of old-gold beech, oak, birch and spiky green conifers, until the valley narrows and enfolds you into its flickering coppery canopy. 

Wooded tree lined valley of river Afon Rheidol,  Pontarfynach, Hafod estate, Ceredigion, Wales, United Kingdom, Europe.
Vale of Rheidol, Wales ©Getty

On arrival, passengers are still smitten by the Mynach Falls crashing into the gorge beneath the gloriously Gothic Devil’s Bridge. The woodland is, save the odd rhododendron, little changed since the retreat of the glaciers. It’s a land preserved by the vertiginous slopes, slender birch and lichen-fissured sessile-oaks. Epiphytes still reach for the light, just as they did 10,000 years ago when pine martens, another woodland wonder, were abundant. 

Mynach Falls or Rhaeadr Mynach a waterfall in Autumn or Fall. Devil?€™s Bridge, Pontarfynach, Hafod estate, Ceredigion, Wales, United Kingdom, Europe.
Mynach Falls drop 90m into the wooded valley  below ©Getty
Rare mammals return

Pine marten populations plummeted to unsustainable levels in the 19th and 20th centuries due to habitat loss and predator control by game-keepers. But they are thriving again, thanks to the Vincent Wildlife Trust and to careful woodland management elsewhere in the valley.

Like us passengers, pine martens also appreciate this sylvan vale, which is more arboreal in reality than a map suggests. On a map, the woody-green area around Devil’s Bridge extends west then dwindles and disperses so that Aberystwyth appears to be swaddled by paper-white fields. But many of the 59 pine martens brought to Cwm Rheidol from Scotland over the past three years have migrated west, rounded Aberystwyth, and travelled north to Snowdonia along the un-mapped woody corridors of railway track, field margins and river banks. 

Beautiful pine martin martes martes on branch in tree
The Vincent Wildlife Trust have helped pine marten populations grow in the valley ©Getty
Pensive passage home

On your return journey from Devil’s Bridge, bewitched by steamy whistles and rocked by the rattle and shunt of rhythmic wheels, look over the river for a patch of ring-barked conifers by a lead-spoil tip above Cwm Rheidol Reservoir. It was just here, in this brilliant, gold wood, that, as if in approval of woodland regeneration, the first kit to the newly translocated pine martens was born. 

The Vale of Rheidol Railway are running Autumn Colour  specials on weekends throughout November.

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Main Image ©John R Jones