Making the journey north from Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, a distinct change takes place in the landscape. The county’s fertile lowlands, main towns and main roads are now behind you. The hills get bigger, the valleys deeper; communities more scattered. You are entering Mid Wales: the wildest tract of the country. Cwmdu village is about the most paradisal initiation to this region you could imagine, and the inviting inn-cum-shop that is its heart and soul the best possible introduction to eating, drinking and merrymaking hereabouts.
But to truly understand this hostelry you need to zoom out a little. Mid Wales, it should be noted, can be hard work for the first-timer (trust us, we live here!) – the afore-mentioned paucity of large towns, main roads or facilities of any kind make it so, together with the fact that this is not an area set up for tourists like the national parks of Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons to the north and south. So it is for making everything that bit easier (for offering that pint, that meal, that shop, that conviviality and that blazing open fire in the middle of nowhere) that Cwmdu and its inn get most plaudits. In an area widely referred to as the ‘desert of Wales’ for its scarcity of settlements, Cwmdu and its inn shine all the more as a treasure: not the kind that sparkles ostentatiously, but rather the kind you can depend upon to keep glowing snugly no matter how many times you return there.
Mid Wales was a region much prized by the picturesque movement of the 18th century which set out to bring visitors up close to stark, lonely scenery whilst letting them enjoy it from gentler, more charming environs and Cwmdu does something similar today: it perches within a wild valley (Cwm, in Welsh) but is itself, in its dozen or so houses scattered around an Afon Dulais river bend, utterly beguiling. And the Cwmdu Inn, epicentre of the village, is the star of the show: whilst nature feels closer here than at most other taverns in Wales, it is also kept at bay by cosiness, hearty sustenance and, most importantly of all, good cheer. All outdoor lovers will be familiar with that glorious sensation of being out in the elements in remote countryside for the day, then descending come evening on a pub to warm up and linger over a drink and dinner and feel you have earned it. The Cwmdu Inn is the finest embodiment of that feeling.
So to get the most from coming here, spend the day out hiking or cycling in the nearby hills and forests. And then hit the pub…
Why we love it…
Picture a lovely but lonesome valley, and snaking through it on a maze of narrow, rutted single-track lanes. You have had a great day out in the countryside but now it’s evening and it’s getting chillier at the same rate that you are getting hungrier. In a tiny out-of-the-way village like Cwmdu you simply do not expect such a pub to appear out of the blue, but appear Cwmdu Inn does and not only that, but it manages to fill pretty much every vision of a country inn you could conjure up from blazing open fire to bewitching beer garden, a great range of local beers and ciders, bundles of community spirit and regular folk nights full of locals jamming together.
In the 19th-century terrace building comprising the pub, as well as the shop and post office, is firmly yesteryear. First impressions are of somewhere that has changed little this century or in the last one. Flagstone floors, beams, an inglenook fireplace, walls that curve in preference to following any 180° line, lined with curios depicting 200 years of life in the tavern and in its surrounds (see if you can spy the photograph of a certain Prince Charles, who favours the joint, looking a couple of pints to the good). This is a place where rich tradition is championed and cherished.
But to tell only of unchanged-by-time decor is to bely the fact that time has changed the pub – and very much for the better – in terms of how it is run. Backtrack to the early 1990s, and it actually seemed like the whole village was closing down, with the pub, shop and school shut up. This was when the National Trust took over the running of the Cwmdu Inn building to preserve its special heritage which led in 2000 to a Cwmdu community project forming a partnership to safeguard the premises as a place that would protect vital village facilities from ever closing again. And the community run the place today – it is locals you’ll find serving behind the bar, locals in the kitchens on Saturdays cooking dinner and locals behind all the pub’s events from live music sessions to quiz nights to debates on climate change. And this is Cwmdu Inn’s especially special feature: it is one of the best examples in Wales of a place that has been taken over by the community, and hugely benefitted as a result.
On the busy Saturday nights when food is served and when most people show up, the system is defined: file in to the room on the left of the hallway, the bar where the locals congregate, to order your drinks (you might be able to practice your Welsh here!), then wait to the shown through to your table in the room to the right. Remember that it is people from the village and around serving you, and so slick service is not the point so much as having a memorable encounter with whichever couple, family or group of people are cooking and serving that evening.
First things first: Cwmdu Inn is CASH ONLY! Do not arrive here and then find you need to backtrack to Llandeilo where the nearest cashpoint is.
The menu is also on offer only on Saturday evenings from 7-9pm; the rest of the time it is just drinks and nibbles. Cwmdu Inn might not see huge volumes of people passing by, but it is very popular locally and table space is limited, so order in advance either on Facebook or by calling (see At A Glance section below for details) to ensure you’ll get to eat. Even if you only want a drink, just bear in mind the bar area is small and can also get crowded. You will not be guaranteed a table (the only way to guarantee a table downstairs where it is most atmospheric is to reserve one for dinner).
Speaking of drinks and nibbles, it is the range of ciders which is most stunning. Ales on offer include those from the local Left Bank Brewery at Llangorse Lake near Brecon. Wines are more limited: there is normally a choice of three or four.
As for the food, it typically amounts to £16 for three courses, or £12 for two courses. Food varies greatly, as a different person or group of people are responsible for cooking each week. Of course, if you go there enough times you develop a favourite and for Undiscovered Wales it is the lovely couple that prepare the best Indian food this side of Swansea. The occasional mouthwatering Moroccan food (tagines, lamb laden with apricots and almonds) also deserves special mention. Other themes that pervade are thick, mouthwatering vegetable soups and belly-grumblingly good pies with crusts to make farmhouse loaves feel insecure. It has been known, more than once, for pies to constitute the whole menu! But in truth you never know what you are getting, and unlike almost all rural pubs, where a few visits will have you worked through everything on the menu, there is always a new culinary surprise here – every single Saturday.
COVID-19 UPDATE: We are informed that the bar and restaurant will remain closed until restrictions allow sale of alcohol indoors. Damn you, Covid!
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Cwmdu Inn, it’s 8 miles north to the arboreal wonders of Caio Forest
At a glance
Welcome: 10 As memorable as it gets.
Food & drink: 8 The menu is never the same any two Saturdays, but there is always quality and a lot of variety for a small community-run enterprise. With the booze, we rate the ciders especially highly.
Location: 9 In a tiny village surrounded by big hills, steep-sided cwms and several horizons’ worth of forest. The beer garden abuts a stream and is a pretty place to nurse a pint in good weather.
Cost: Low. Mention in Cardiff or London that you can get a three-course homecooked meal in a beautiful rural pub for £16 and you would be laughed at. But it’s true.
Opening hours: 7-11pm Wed-Sat (bar) as well as 7-9pm Saturday for dinner and noon-2pm for Sunday lunch.
Address/telephone number: Cwmdu, Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire SA19 7DY; 01558-685156