Most people, in our experience, don’t know what a bothy is. Of those that do, most think these life-saving wilderness shelters are only located in Scotland. Of those that know there are actually eight or so in Wales, only a handful harbour a desire to stay at one and of those, not many ever do. Suffice it to say, then, that Claerddu Bothy, becalmed on a beautifully barren fold of moorland near the Teifi Pools in Ceredigion and way out of sight down an unsigned track off a very, very minor road, is not only undiscovered but also veritably arcane accommodation.
Why we love it
Even Undiscovered Wales, champions of the arcane, only came across it by mistake.
On an unrelentingly wet and supremely un-July-like day recently, whilst trekking the Cambrian Way, the long-distance trail that runs across Wales, sodden through three days of continual rain, we peered through the swaddles of grey cloud ahead, descried Claerddu, thought we were hallucinating and almost wept for joy when it turned out to be open (at the time, just post-lockdown, very few things in Wales were). One thing I love about a long hike is how the simplest things take on the greatest importance: getting dry and warm under a solid roof when you haven’t had that privilege for the best part of a week, for example – which was exactly what this simple stone cottage allowed us to do.
Bothies are a very special aspect of wilderness walking in the UK. Originally shelters for workers on large remote country estates in past centuries, and originating in Scotland (where there were a great deal of such large remote country estates), bothies in the modern sense of the word are refuges for hikers, cyclists, kayakers and other outdoor users in isolated tracts of countryside where all other signs of civilisation have long before fallen by the wayside. The network of bothies across the UK (mostly in Scotland, but some in Wales and Northern England too) has quite literally proved life-saving to generations of outdoor enthusiasts when the weather closes in. They might seldom be much more than four solid walls with a roof, with other common features including a hearth place and some sort of sleeping platform, but the fact that they are there at all gives them nigh-on palatial status for the weary adventurer. In the respects that they are historic buildings which initially had another purpose, free of charge and largely reliant on the trust and goodwill of users to keep them in presentable condition, Britain’s bothies are unique.
For years, bothies were closely and even jealously guarded secrets, their whereabouts known only to a select band of wilderness-lovers, and only since 2009 has the Mountain Bothy Association (MBA) been publishing information on their locations. As a result a certain cult status has grown up around them: a sense that by staying at one you have truly gone a big step beyond the beauty spots and the day-trippers that frequent them and faced the great outdoors head-on. At Undiscovered Wales, we don’t believe in keeping bothies secret: not only do hikers and mountain bikers in poor weather need them, but it is only be raising awareness of what they are and how they should be responsibly used that they can continue to exist.
Claerddu Bothy is not MBA-listed – in fact it is overseen by the Elan Valley Trust – but its cult status is clearly there all the same, as the myriad years of traveller graffiti all over its walls (despite the notice forbidding it) confirms. You can congratulate yourself even if you succeed in finding it (as we certainly did). And it is appropriate that this should be the first bothy we are profiling on the site, because in fact it is an amazing introduction to bothying: it is significantly better furnished than most.
As with other bothies, there is a potent feeling of poignancy at Claerddu – the sense that this was once a place where people eked out a very tough living. As with other bothies, it is one most appreciated in vile weather too – in bright sunny weather the thick walls and small windows can hardly be said to maximise natural light – but in a downpour (common in Wales, remember) you will be extolling its virtues. The grassy garden with a fence provides just a little respite from the harsh immediacy of the moor, and with its fire pit and stream-side location at a beautiful old clapper bridge is rather fetching. And just to emphasise, it is free of charge, which will ensure you are far less critical of its shortcomings than you might have been otherwise!
A stone croft huddling within a more expansive ruin, it sits on the bank of the rushing Afon Claerddu just north of the Teifi Pools, the source of the River Teifi. As is the custom, it is not marked on OS maps and even the track to it is unmapped. The water level was high when we stopped by, so high that it was not so far from the entrance! Unlatch the heavy door and you will find an interior nicely fitted and renovated with fixed wooden benches, school chairs and a table in a snug, beamed living room-cum-dining room with a fireplace. There is a separate kitchen at the back and, outside at the end of the building, an actual, flushing toilet (already catapulting it into the upper echelons of bothies). There are refurbished sleeping platforms in two separate areas up the creaking stairs.
What’s here and nearby
This is pretty much as middle-of-nowhere as the UK gets. You are within a mile of the llyn- or lake spotted moors comprising the Teifi Pools and bang on the Cambrian Way – and perhaps most critically, in the only inhabitable dwelling within two or three miles as the crow flies. Via one of our favourite walks, it’s about an hour by foot south to Strata Florida Abbey (shop, cafe, godsend to hikers!) and a tough two-to-three hour hike (often without an obvious path) to the next civilisation heading north at Cwmystwyth.
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Claerddu Bothy, it’s 22 miles by road and path to Pen Pumlumon Fawr, highest point in Mid Wales.
At a glance
Snooze factor: 6 If you’ve arrived on foot, you’ll sleep well enough here. You’ll be absolutely spent, most likely.
Food factor: n/a
Eco-friendly factor: 8 Bothies are very far-down on the list of environment offenders – almost at the bottom in fact – as they are totally off-grid. No electricity – bring candles and a torch! Claerddu is no exception – it is very, very off-grid.
Location factor: 8 Eyebrow-raisingly middle-of-nowhere: how did a house ever survive out here so far from anywhere else in the first place? And pretty, too. We saw it in the wet, but can imagine away the drizzle to how nice it would have been if, for example, it had been dry enough to use the fire pit and sit stream-side and flame-warmed as we gazed out over rolling moor. Oh well. Next time!
Book it You can’t! Few bothies can be booked. Rest assured, though, that outdoor-user etiquette dictates that if at all possible, anyone else staying the night there will make room for one or two more.
How to find it: Coming from Pontrhydfendigaid to the west, the narrow lane to the Teifi Pools passes Llyn Hir on the right, the second of three significant lakes this side of the road with tracks to them. Almost opposite the Llyn Hir track, another grassy track bears left. Take it, and over the brow of the hill on this, the bothy comes into view.
How to use it: It’s important not to take advantage of this, or any other, bothy. They are offered as free shelters for those that need them and it is crucial you respect that. Rules – should you be in any doubt after reading the following – are clearly posted inside but essentially entail leaving the place in the state you found it, and with doors and windows closed and fastened. Take all your rubbish away with you. And don’t nick all the wood in the wood store – leave some for others. When we stopped by, there was none left! These places rely on trust, as fewer and fewer things do. Please let’s not ruin it.