Walk length: 4km.
In almost all countries, it seems, there is a Robin Hood figure, usually treading that hazy space between fact and fiction in history: someone who takes from the rich, gives to the poor and then gets heroised in popular culture. In Wales, it is Twm Siôn Cati: a canny 16th-century Mid Wales outlaw about whom reams of stories have been written but who, whilst he did plenty of taking from the rich according to legend, did precious little giving to the poor – yet is still treated with near reverence. The other week, we decided to explore the notorious lair of Wales’ most infamous rogue, up in the Upper Tywi Valley in Carmarthenshire, for ourselves.
It was not out of any great love for Twm specifically that we went. Whilst it captures the imagination to picture the brigand tricking unwitting wealthy folks out of their property and lighting up the rugged hinterland of Mid Wales with all manner of fabulous tales, it is not quite so romantic to imagine that, rather than share any of his riches with the desperately poor, he preferred to hoard his loot in a remote cave above the Carmarthenshire village of Rhandirmwym near today’s Llyn Brianne reservoir. All said and done, the outlaw appears no worse – but certainly no better – than any of the others on the heads of which the Robin Hood legend was placed. But then again, notorious hideaways are often extremely undiscovered places, and mainly, for us, reconnoitring Twm’s cave provided a good incentive to get out for a devastatingly beautiful hike.
If legend is to be countenanced, Twm chose his hideaway well. Dinas Hill, where his cave is located, is a sheer wooded rise bounded by rivers on three sides and beyond, by the stark, precipitous majesty of Mid Wales no-man’s-land: moor and more moor for miles and miles. The sessile oak woodland which dominates the surroundings here secretes a myriad riven crags, any one of which could conceal spots for a bandit to bolt-hole. This was about as far removed from Twm’s notorious enemy, the Sheriff of Carmarthen, as could be whilst still remaining close enough to the well-trodden routes and centres of population that provided Twm with his ill-gotten income. Even today, his cave is not precisely marked on any map – and nor is it on this walk either.
The wood is steep, spectacularly bluebell-carpeted, exuding ancientnness. Cuckoos and the roaring gush of the rivers Pysgotwr and Tywi at their meeting point on the wood’s peripherally are the only sounds. The oak woods here are seriously old: some of the only pockets of original sessile oak left in Wales, in fact – and this largely because they always occupied terrain too ridiculously steep to consider cultivating. With all the cragginess, tree roots fan out in fantastical serpentine shapes along the surface of the ground rather than below it. Lichen encrusted rocks add to the show of strange and wondrous shapes this woodland contorts itself into. The Pysgotwr and Tywi are white, boulder-strewn, foaming, rapid, uncrossable – accentuating the feel that Dinas Hill is almost more island than mainland.
The area is a protected RSPB reserve, too, known amongst twitchers as being one of the best places in Wales to spot the pied flycatcher, and so despite the wild feel, boardwalks, well-maintained paths and way-mark posts allow you to enjoy it at your ease. Even so, some tricky, slippery rocky sections along by the river mean this is no sedate Sunday stroll, but a testing leg-stretch in parts.
To the cave
From the car park, the easiest section of the walk leads along boardwalk to the actual Dinas Hill. At the point where the boardwalk ends, and where the bluebell carpets are at their duskiest best, paths lead left and right encircling the base of the hill. We recommend doing the hike clockwise (loving theatre and climax as we do) to save the cave and the most striking section of riverside walk for the end.
Heading clockwise, a compacted earth path arcs around the side of the wood closest to the lane up from Rhandirmwym. After edging along a field you pass a style and gate on the left and here is a hidden and surprisingly deep stream gully studded by oak and beech. Still more touchingly, on the right a separate fenced-off oak grove remembers a local boy who died aged just 13. After this comes one of the only points where you could really go wrong on the walk: be sure to follow the path well to the right of the field ahead to curve on deeper into the woods, with the crags amongst which Twm chose to hide away from the law ever more prominent on the right. The path skitters delightfully through increasingly steep-sided woods with the River Tywi crashing below to the left. Passing a gate, your route climbs on steps to a way-mark post and the branch-off path (unsigned, but with wooden steps demarcating the way) to Twm’s cave.
The cave itself is not the highlight of the walk(that comes just afterwards). It is not really even a cave but two slanting rock faces which narrow into a fissure. Here, by a fenced viewpoint, you can already spy much of the graffiti from those travellers attracted to the cave over the last two centuries. One of the most interesting things about the Twm Siôn Cati legend is how it resonated down the centuries and the Victorians, as the names and dates etched here corroborate, were far more gripped by it than we are today. This was largely the result of two works: T J Llewelyn Prichard’s The Adventures and Vagaries of Twm Shon Catti, Descriptive of Life in Wales (1828) and George Borrow’s 1854 book Wild Wales. The first paints a colourful, romantic picture of Twm as a man entrusted to take a large sum of money to England who evades many dangerous characters along the way through quick-wittedness, and later becomes a . The second is a more scathing critique in which Borrow, who travelled extensively through Wales researching his book, claims that from stories he heard around Twm’s birthplace, Tregaron, Llewelyn Prichard’s work tries to ‘invest’ Twm with ‘a character of honesty’ when he was in fact just a clever thief. Several other writings on Twm also appeared during the 19th century. So standing outside the cave, your mind turns just as much to the people who have journeyed here, from 1814 (the earliest date we found) to last week; to how one man’s story, however far-fetched, can intrigue people over such a long period of time.
You then have to get down on your hands and knees to slither through the fissure up and in to the inner cave (roofless, these days). It’s a small space, inside: commodious enough for one bandit but with no space to gain perspective for a picture. Still, if this was once Twm’s refuge, you can’t help but admire the set-up: the opening fissure entrance perhaps enough to convince anyone searching for Twm that there was no second chamber to the cave, a slope up which someone who knew the terrain could scramble to evade attackers. Most strikingly, again, is the sea of graffiti, of former cave visitors, occupying every available inch of rock. Say what you will about Twm, but his life as an outlaw garnered more attention than most individuals from his century, lawless, law-abiding, poor, rich or even royalty included.
Back down on the main path, your route now enters its trickiest and prettiest stage after a path-side bench. You pick your way over often slippery rocks, rising and falling and eventually coming down alongside the Tywi, where several perfect picnicking places await within the pockets of glassy, river-smoothed rocks and miniature river beaches. The view from here out from the woods and up to the grassy, rocky bluffs above the opposite bank is one that stays with you – and just maybe compels you to return.
And here, you are only just shy of completing your circuit of this ethereal wooded hill, and thus of the stomping ground of Wales’ best-known bandit. Although history adores him, Twm might not always have been the most likeable character – according to one account, even upon asking for the hand of his future wife, he needed to threaten to physically cut it from her arm before she gave her consent – but the place he chose to hide out in is very, very loveable.
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 13 miles southwest of the nature reserve is the wild Caio Forest
At a glance
How to get there: 11 miles from Llandovery (the nearest train station and town). Follow Cilycwm Road under railway bridge to Rhandirmwym (7 miles) then stay on east side of river to continue another 3.5 miles via the Ystraddffin Campsite to Gwenffrwd-Dinas Nature Reserve (you will pass a farm, currently with segments of water pipe covering its fields, and then see St Paulinus Church on the left along with an RSPB reserve sign. This is the entrance to the reserve, RSPB Gwenffrwd-Dinas. If you get to the Llyn Brianne reservoir you have gone too far.
Parking: Turn down the track by the chapel and a sizeable parking area (15 cars or so) is available with information boards, a cute little picnic area on an adjoining patch of grass and toilets (not always open).
Refreshments: Twm Siôn Cati left nothing in the way of refreshments, unfortunately. Backtrack a few miles down the road to the Royal Oak in Rhandirmwym or the Towy Bridge Inn (head right at the triangular crossroads below the campsite rather than continuing back the way you came into Rhandirmwym village)
Best time to visit: April or May when the bluebells cloak the entire woods