In the footsteps of the Physicians of Myddfai

In the footsteps of the Physicians of Myddfai, looking across to Llyn y Fan Fach ©Luke Waterson

Walk length: 8km.

What do a succession of medieval medics often attributed with being the forerunners of the NHS, Prince Charles and a boutique range of Welsh toiletries have in common? The unlikely answer lies in  – or, rather, scattered around – the sleepy hamlet of Myddfai on the northwestern fringes of the Brecon Beacons.

A history of herbalists hereabouts…

Sleepy today, perhaps. But back in the 12th century Myddfai was one of the places that flourished under the patronage of the legendary Welsh ruler Lord Rhys of Deheubarth – a ruler that rose to control much of South Wales and all modern-day Carmarthenshire, with a style of rule that greatly differed from his contemporaries and focused more on cultural development, rather than brutality, to add kudos to the territory he held. The Physicians of Myddfai were one aspect of this multifaceted development. These prominent herbalists, originating in the Myddfai area, came to be highly regarded by the Lord Rhys himself and one, Rhiwallan, was appointed personal physician to Rhys because of his healing skills. His sons likewise became royal physicians, and this began a link between the Physicians of Myddfai and Welsh royalty that would last for six centuries and for generation upon generation of Myddfai healers from the same family.

But it was not for their prestige or the longevity of their prominence that the Physicians made their mark on history. It was for the way they did it – using holistic methods, and using herbs and plants sourced in the lush surrounds of Myddfai as the basis. They were successful medics, too. One of Lord Rhys’ landmark new monasteries in the later 12th century (as part of his realm’s cultural advancements Rhys began a trend of Welsh rulers patronising religious institutions), Strata Florida Abbey in modern-day Ceredigion, became known far and wide as much as a place of healing as a place of holiness (the abbey’s name means bed of flowers or leaves), and the Physicians of Myddfai were almost certainly to thank for this. They didn’t just heal the rich either: the printed text of their favoured remedies aimed at the commonalty survives from the 14th century, and shows that they treated a diverse range of patients with a diverse range of remedies. They were, in many senses, a localised early version of the NHS, with holistic medicine as their ethos.

There is another reason why the Physicians of Myddfai may have become so famous. One of the major local myths here is that of the nearby dramatic mountain-backed lake Llyn y Fan Fach, of the farmer who sat tending his animals there and of the lady that arose from the lake and ended up marrying the farmer. She supposedly consented to be the man’s wife after he had satisfied her he was worthy (by baking the perfect loaf of bread and distinguishing her from her identical sister) on the condition that if he struck her three times, she would return whence she came. Of course the farmer ended up doing just that over the course of many years and return to the lake she did, but not before the couple had produced three children, of which one was the original Physician of Myddfai, Rhiwallan. How to enhance your reputation as a respected medic in a deeply superstitious medieval Wales? Being descended from a magical being that arose from a lake would certainly have helped…

What to do

Myddfai’s holistic legacy today

And how, in answer to the question posed in the intro, do the Physicians of Myddfai relate to Myddfai today, and to Prince Charles, and to that Welsh fragrance and toiletry line Myddfai Trading Company? Well, some of the Physicians being buried in the churchyard, and many people in the local area claiming direct lineage from the original family of healers. But the healing history of the area has been preserved in an especially poignant way at the village community hall as a mini museum and visitor centre on the Physicians and their holistic cures, a cafe which serves tea concocted from herbs they mention in their original remedies and a gift shop (where you can buy the tea in take-home packs, and also the Myddfai Trading Company’s range of ‘Myddfai Apothecary’ bathing products). The community centre was officially opened in 2011 by Prince Charles, whose estate in Wales, Llwynywermod, borders Myddfai parish, thereby preserving the pride of the Physicians’ legacy in the village.

And it is at the visitor centre that this walk begins… taking you along lanes and pathways where some of the Physicians’ lauded herbal remedies grow, within sight of Llyn y Fan Fach where the legend of this healing family has its origins, and to a healing spring once used by the good doctors in their work. It may just be the most healing hike you could go on in Wales. And even if you have your doubts about the effectiveness of holistic medicine, the walk remains one of the prettiest in the Brecon Beacons National Park, with a lush mix of country lanes, woodland paths, open moor and meadows.

The route 

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Pretty sheep pastures open up as you climb…

From the Myddfai Community Centre car park entrance, turn right, passing the entrance to the shop, before reaching the crossroads at the centre of the village with the St Michael’s Church (in the churchyard of which some of the Physicians of Myddfai are buried) on the left. Turn right at the crossroads and walk past a few houses to the edge of the village (this is a very small village!) by a left-hand turn. Take this lane which you now follow for the next couple of miles. This lane passes a couple of houses, crosses a stream by a water treatment works and begins to climb steadily uphill. You pass a farm on the left with wood-fringed meadows dropping away to the right. After a while you meet a farm track coming from the left and continue on the lane to a complex of two houses, one on either side of the lane (Point A). Just beyond here, where the lane twists sharp right, you leave the lane to continue straight on up a waymarked path.

Something between a sunken track and a path is what you now follow up along the tree-lined edges of fields and then over a patch of scrubland to ascend to a small wood, the line of which you have been approaching for some minutes. At this wood your route swings sharp left (northeast) to emerge onto open moor, where there are good views across to Llyn y Fan Fach and the Black Mountain, the westernmost area of the Brecon Beacons. Essentially, follow a faint path now to continue northeast with a valley opening up below to your right and aim for the fenceline separating the semi-moor over which you are walking from the wilder moor on the other side. A stile lets you cross this fence, on the other side of which a distinct path runs right, and more or less parallel to the fence, to a gully where the healing spring once used by the Physicians of Myddfai can be seen (although one imagines in days of yore it might have appeared more impressive!)

Backtrack to the stile and now aim north-north east across the moor from here, where you soon pick up a faint path on the top of the rise which leads over and lets you look back north to Myddfai soon enough. Over this lovely steep slope of bracken-coated moorland, where wild ponies often graze, you will see looking northeast a distinct track descending down to meet a more defined farm track running parallel with the foot of the hill in a southeast-northwest direction. Once you are on the farm track, turn left and follow the track along the base of the moor, passing through several field gates. This verdant transition between uncultivated moorland and sheep pasture is the Brecon Beacons at their most photogenic. With a farm visible down to your right, reach the second of two thick lines of trees to see a well-enclosed triangular-shaped meadow and the lane-straddling house (Point A) you walked by on your outward route. The path leads onto the lane via the back of this house: turn right and follow the lane back down into Myddfai. If you don’t feel totally healed by this healer’s walk of old, then hopefully you will at least feel slightly reinvigorated!

At a glance

How to get there: 3.5 miles south of Llandovery. From the High Street along which the A40 runs the road to Myddfai heads due south (right, if approaching the town centre from Llandovery station) crossing the Afon Bran river on a small sone bridge. This lane is called Waterloo Street. Continue half a mile to take the first right hand turn that isn’t a dead end (technically the third right hand turn) at a house on a lane that is signed Myddfai. Keep on this lane, ignoring two right-hand turns, three left-hand turns then a right-hand turn and a crossroads to descend into Myddfai village. In the village, look for the church. Pass the church and then turn immediately right to arrive at the community centre car park.

Parking: The community centre car park is a sizeable gravelled area and on each of our visits has had more than enough room for a normal car.

Refreshments: The afore-mentioned community centre cafe! Try a Llyn y Fan-tastic cup of herbal tea!

Best time to visit: There’s nothing like spring, when the hedgerows which secrete a lot of those healing herbs begin to bloom (say mid-April or May).

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