The Heart of Wales is a venerable line. A two-carriage (often one) trundler that just escaped Beeching’s axe, the train has courteous guards and frequent request stops, while trees sometimes tap on the windows – a branch line in more than one sense.
The passengers, chatting in English or Welsh, aren’t in a hurry. They’ve been shopping, walking or watching the rugby. Kerry and Wendy from Llandybie are enjoying free winter travel offered to Welsh bus-pass holders. And hikers George and Dave are doing the Heart of Wales Line Trail.
The trail was conceived in a 2015 pub meeting between rail folk and ramblers, and after crowdfunding and a lot of volunteer labour, it was born in 2019. A 141-mile waymarked footpath now connects stations between Craven Arms and Llanelli, allowing you to combine train travel with hiking. “And drinking,” Dave reminds me. “We’ve had a warm welcome in the pubs, it’s all been really good.” The Heart of Wales Brewery, incidentally, can be found at the Neuadd Arms in Llanwrtyd Wells.
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An 11km moderate-level walking route from Cynghordy to Llandovery in Mid Wales.
Trail of plenty
Hills rise around Craven Arms, while across the border in Powys they crowd in and pile up. Following the rail only loosely, the trail sometimes climbs these mounts, or takes farmland and forest instead. While the train ploughs through Sugar Loaf Tunnel and straddles Cynghordy Viaduct, the equally exhilarating trail scales brackened uplands around Sugar Loaf, grants views of the Brecon Beacons from Carmarthenshire’s beef and dairy pasture, and imbibes wooded cwms, fast-flowing rivers and brackish Loughor salt marsh.
And the welcome is warm (or at least characterful) in Shropshire’s brick railway settlements, the Victorian spa resorts of Powys, and Carmarthenshire’s old droving towns. Economically, the railway just survives. By using it to access this superb trail, you’re contributing to and participating in the communities it nourishes and unites.
It’s difficult to choose just one of the 16 sections. I plumped for Cynghordy to Llandovery, seven miles at the heart of the trail.
1. Viaduct start
The train crosses the viaduct, startles a heron, and deposits me at the village of Cynghordy where birdsong replaces its rhythmic chunter, and a drinking-water sign on a garden fence is as reassuring as the waymarks: walking country.
Follow the road towards Cynghordy then duck right under the railway bridge, continuing uphill between hedges and trees where the mossy central stripe indicates the lack of traffic. Turn left, into a field.
2. Vales and pasture
Turn left on to a track, crossing Nant Bargoed and climbing a lane past farms; the lane makes up for its lack of trees with views of the Carmarthen Fans (Black Mountain Range) rising beyond an undulating landscape of wooded valleys and green pasture. Fertile Carmarthenshire is renowned for its hedgerows and dairy pasture. Keep on the road until Cefnllan and a junction of tracks. Turn right into fields.
3. Beacons views
Take a south-west trajectory over the next three fields of wet tussocky rush pasture, then crossing a stile by a stream, go in a similar direction keeping an overgrown hedge on your right, the low branches of which shelter an old track. Follow it to Rhandirberthog Farm, then to and through Pantglas Farm by road. Keep on it until the junction, with spectacular views of the Brecon Beacons.
4. Sheep spotting
Turn left, and head downhill, passing Maes-y-Gwandde Farm before turning right down a farm road. Descend into Nant Bawddwr valley, sweeping round it before rising to Cefnrickett Farm. You’ll encounter various breeds of sheep on your walk, including Kerry Hill, Beulah Speckled Face and Hill Radnor.
5. Oaks and creepers
Turn left into the field and bear immediately right on a green lane beneath graceful oaks and bushy crab apples. Wrens dart from hedges bearing a neat browse line. The Brecon Beacons are bewitching from here. Cross two field boundaries before bearing right on to an old track in a coppiced woodland pasture of spreading oaks, in which tree creepers spiral. Follow it to the end, then across a field of Welsh Black cattle to the road.
6. Path by the Tywi
Turn left and then right to Dolauhirion Bridge – don’t cross it, but look for a path on your left. Designed by Methodist Reverend Edwards of Pontypridd in 1773, the bridge spans the dashing Tywi, and bountiful trees such as oak, ash and horse chestnut crowd in from the banks. The path follows the river along the edge of sheep-grazed fields. Keep to the bank, looking out for dippers and grey wagtails. The Tywi, awesome in spate, is renowned for sewin (sea trout) and salmon, but poor water quality from pollution is causing concern. Follow the curve of the field up a tributary, then cross it at llys Cerrig.
The last stretch through several kissing gates is across low-lying parkland graced with large isolated trees in the Tywi floodplain. Turn left on to the A40 to enter Llandovery.
Droving lands Llandovery is a drovers’ town, where 30,000 animals a year were once walked from the Carmarthenshire pastures to English markets. The land remembers their passing – there are black cattle and sheep, roads with wide verges for grazing, stands of Scots pines planted by farmers able to offer accommodation, an old drovers’ bank, The Drovers guesthouse and Drovers Diner.
Head left down the road to Llandovery Railway Station Gallery and Café, a great place to wait, with old railway photos, homemade cakes and a wood stove. Run by volunteers, it is a spirited hub typical of this trail, where everything from public toilets to flower-bedecked stations have been adopted and maintained by the community.