The 122-mile Heart of Wales Line Trail traces a much-loved railway through magnificent countryside, taking in a forgotten wonder of the industrial age
On the station platform at Craven Arms, a helpful elderly lady asks where I’m going.
“I’m looking for the Heart of Wales?”
She points to a railway track, rather rusty and overgrown, which disappears into the bushes at the foot of some nearby hills. It doesn’t look much like an aortic trunk connection to the pulsating centre of anything. “It’ll be along soon,” she says. “Don’t worry: they won’t go without you.”
She makes it sound like the train knows I am waiting. At that second, a sparrowhawk comes clean through the railings at ankle height, twists in the air next to my kneecaps, and streaks away down platform two.
There is, it seems, a little bit of magic about the Heart of Wales railway line, which starts in Shrewsbury, leaves the main Cardiff line at Craven Arms, then sets out on a courageously spectacular journey across the mountains to Swansea. The 121-mile route was built in the 1860s and has survived government cuts, bridge and tunnel collapses, and even the theft of rails – always managing, somehow, to stay open. The tales about it are legion: how a fox, pursued by hounds, leapt to its death from one viaduct; how the German Kaiser used it, incognito, in 1912; and how much it is loved by the locals. Now the love extends to a footpath, the Heart of Wales Line Trail, fully open for springtime adventures from 28 March. The trail loosely stitches the various stations together into a long-distance path that can be used in conjunction with the railway: perfect for day walks or for multi-day, short-break adventures, like the one I’m about to embark on.Advertisement
A single diesel wagon pulls in. The conductor sees me aboard. We leave the main line and enter the hills at a gentle, unhurried pace, bashing branches aside and battering through the inter-rail grass before emerging in an emerald landscape of rolling hills with magnificent views. The Heart of Wales route, I quickly realise, is a gem.
The conductor comes along, checking for request stops. “All the stations are cared for by the locals,” he tells me. “Flower boxes, handmade cushions on seats… that kind of thing.” My plan is to get off at a request stop called Cynghordy, walk to Llandovery, stay in a pub, walk a day to Llangadog, then catch the train back to my car in Craven Arms – but it would be easy to tailor a break to however long you have free.
At Cynghordy, I get down and there is a cat waiting on the platform. There are several more lining the footpath. In fact, as far as I can see, Cynghordy is occupied only by cats. My first human encounter is with a farmer on a quad bike. His dog has driven a large flock of sheep up a steep hill, but one highly aggressive ewe is refusing to move. It chases the dog around the bike. The farmer grabs the sheep, throws it on the bike, and sits on it. The suddenly compliant sheep gets a lift up the hill. As they go past me, I swear it gives me a wink.
Not for the first time on this walk I wonder if I’m absorbing mind-altering substances through my boots: after all, the hill pastures are sometimes seasoned with magic mushrooms (the only mushroom that is illegal to pick). I’m a little early for the spring flowers, but in the weeks to come there will be wild ramsons, vetches, orchids and bluebells – around half of the world’s bluebells are in Britain and many are found here.
I head south-west with the brooding purple shadow of the Brecon Beacons always on the horizon to my left. Eventually, I drop down into the valley of the River Towy and spot the bridge at Dolauhirion, once a wonder of engineering, now a forgotten by-way. It was built in 1773, with a 30-metre single span over the raging river below.
A few hours’ tramping brings me into Llandovery, the kind of town that manages to appear, simultaneously, to be booming and going bust: there are smart cafes and empty shops, there is both fresh and peeling paint, empty windows and those full of notices of events. Everywhere you can spot signs of former agricultural prosperity: the huge barn near the centre of town marked, memorably, “manure dealers”; the market square with its fine clock tower, and the sturdy classical lines of the Castle Hotel – which thankfully is still in business, as I am staying in it tonight. The room is comfortable, the food excellent: Welsh lamb, naturally.
After breakfast, I stride out of town into the hills. The oak and beech woods are full of springtime promise, branches stippled with green buds about to burst open. A few miles up the path there is a cafe at Myddfai, where there is more conversation and very good food, too. There is plenty of information here about the plants you might spot on your walk: Myddfai has a great tradition of herbalist healers dating back to the middle ages.
At the end of the day, I reach my destination, the Red Lion in Llangadog, where they revive me with a pint of a delicious beer called Jemima’s Pitchfork. I eat well at the pub next door, the Goose and Cuckoo, which is opposite another pub. Llangadog does well for a tiny village and is a place you could linger, and savour being away from the rest of the world.Advertisement
Next morning, I make my way to the station and wave down the train. The guard greets me like an old friend. I ride back to Craven Arms with a heavy heart. How am I to explain to my family? – I have fallen in love with a railway. Not only that, a railway without sexy steam locos or cuddly nostalgia, just a plain modern railway operated – for heaven’s sake! – by Arriva trains.
My car is where I left it, in Craven Arms. A perfect walking weekend is over, but I’m planning the next instalment: maybe the loop around the castles of Stokesay, Hopton and Hopesay, starting from Craven Arms itself and jumping on the train back at Bucknell? Or perhaps do the Sugar Loaf hill from Llanwrtyd Wells? My love affair is definitely set to continue.
The trip was provided by Discover Carmarthenshire and the Heart of Wales Line. Go to heart-of-wales.co.uk, where you can find further information on walking and tickets, and plan an itinerary. Doubles at The Castle Hotel, Llandovery from £70 B&B; doubles at The Red Lion, Llangadog, from £50 B&B (on Facebook)