Road Trip: Llandovery to Tregaron via Llyn Brianne

The moors open up above Llyn Brianne © Kerry Walker

This rollercoaster single-track run begins in Llandovery, on the cusp between the Brecon Beacons and the Cambrian Mountains of Mid Wales: a dinky, delightful market town seemingly designed for kickstarting road trips with its legendary bikers cafe. It whisks you through the verdant Upper Tywi Valley, via the winsome villages of Cilycwm and Rhandirmwym, up to the tentacular reservoir of Llyn Brianne, swooshing you through lonely forest and moorland below rolling yellow-green summits as it negotiates the reservoirs’ tendrils before the climb up, over and down to the photogenic little town of Tregaron, home to one of Mid Wales’ best rural hostelries, Y Talbot Hotel.     

Distance: 33 miles/ 53km

Time: 5 hours (including stops)

Get to the start point: Llandovery is 54 miles northwest of Cardiff (one hour 45 minutes’ drive) and 102 miles southwest of Birmingham (two hours 30 minutes’ drive).

You need:

Snacks (the refreshments en route aren’t always open and it’s a long drive)

Hiking gear (you’ll want to stop for at least one stroll/hike)

Why?

We’re almost as excited writing about this, the first in our series of Welsh road trips, as we  are about driving it!

Rural Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion sport some of the finest driving roads in Wales between them, with a transition between fertile valleys, thick forests and rugged moors that is kaleidoscopic on the eye and revitalising for the soul, and this drive offers the most iconic introduction possible to this landscape.

The route runs through Mid Wales on one of those classic ‘pointless but perfect’ through routes that, despite several moments when you really feel the tarmac might utterly give up, keeps carrying on defying the odds and the steeply up-and-down terrain to provide a paved link between an unknown corner of the Brecon Beacons, Llandovery, and a seldom-visited Mid Wales town that might wind up waylaying you for days, Tregaron. In-between, this road bisects the greatest uninterrupted wilderness south of the Scottish Highlands: a region that hides formidable forest parks for hiking and biking, the tales of infamous outlaws, the exceptional Llyn Brianne reservoir, splayed between inky forests and rimmed by the UK’s highest dam, plus a long hit-list of ‘Wales’ remotest’: look out for Wales’ remotest chapel, Soar-y-Mynydd, a few candidates for the title of Wales’ remotest place to stay and Britain’s remotest telephone box! Plus a trio of charming country pubs along the way, too. Accentuating the drama of this drive is the fact that it’s multi-choice: you’ll face several points where you’ll have to make some tough decisions about which way is the more magical… or just come back and try the alternatives another time!

Start

Sandwiched between the Brecon Beacons and the Cambrian Mountains and their myriad singletrack mountain lanes, Llandovery is a road-trippers delight: as you will see from the many long-distance bikers gathering outside the West End Cafe of a Saturday or Sunday morning for a hearty breakfast fuel-up. It’s no coincidence that this is where our road trip begins too: eat up, as the next food on offer may well be at journey’s end!

Llandovery has a small ruined castle on a grassy mound behind the tow car park with a monument outside to Llywelyn ap Gruffyd Fychan, a Carmarthenshire gentleman who supported Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion, refused to divulge the whereabouts of the rebel to Henry IV and was executed for his pains (follow the walk on which Llywelyn took Henry IV to lead him in a wild goose chase away from Owain Glyndŵr). The town was known historically as one of Wales’ main cattle droving centres, with the drovers no doubt accounting for the one-time presence of 100 pubs here. There are less today, with the whitewashed old coaching inn of Castle Hotel on Kings Road being one of the best. You’ll spy a small tourist information centre opposite, and some quirky shops within the handsome pastel-hued townhouses clustered around the market square. The other interesting sight within the town itself is the Anglican church of Llanfair-ar-y-bryn, where a monument in the churchyard marks the resting place of William Williams Pantycelyn, Wales’ most revered hymn writer, who penned Cwm Rhondda, the classic rousing Welsh rugby anthem, amongst many others. The gobsmacking surrounding hill country is Llandovery’s biggest attraction: it’s only 3 miles south to Myddfai, home to the legendary Physicians of Myddfai, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, and only a few miles north on this very road trip into the untamed Cambrian Mountains…

The route

1: Follow the sweep of the main road (the A40) north to Llandovery Rail Station (with infrequent trains on the Heart of Wales Line between Swansea and Shrewsbury). Turn right on New Road, which takes you along a line of townhouses to the junction with Cilycwm Road on the left by the fire station. Swing left on Cilycwm Road under the railway bridge, and this road trip truly begins!

2: The first three miles (4.75km) are along the pea-green and fairly flat Upper Tywi Valley, with the River Tywi glimmering intermittently alongside the road. You pass two hump-backed old stone bridges on minor roads to the left. The first of these, Pont Dolauhiron, is a Grade I structure regarded as one of Mid Wales’ prettiest bridges, designed by minister-cum-bridge-builder William Edwards. It’s the second of these, though (marked 1 on the map), sign-posted Cilycwm, that you want to take on our recommended route along the west side of the valley. Otherwise, keep straight on along the east side of the valley and rejoin our recommended route after 5.5 miles after Rhandirmwym near the Towy Bridge Inn. Our route trundles over the humpback bridge on a sinuous lane that soon reaches the pretty village of Cilycwm, host to a beautiful pub, the Neuadd Fawr Arms and an equally photogenic Norman church right alongside.

3: With the lane narrowing all the time (two cars can still squeeze past each other, but it’s tight!) proceed along the main lane through Cilycwm and on, gradually rising up the valley, to reach ravishing Cwm Rhaeadr after 1.75 miles (2.75km), a steep-sided tract of forest that plunges down valleyside framed by its namesake rhaeadr or waterfall below Mynydd Mallaen. With its seemingly endless maze of hiking and mountain-biking trails this is a very worthwhile break for a leg-stretch in this, your first proper taste of the Cambrian Mountains which are by this point swooping prominently up around you with their ochre, rounded summits. Continue on along the lane to descend to the out-of-the-way but fantastic and friendly Towy Bridge Inn after two miles (3.25km). Cross the River Tywi here on a lane which very soon brings you to the crossroads with the other way up the valley you may have chosen to take through Rhandirmwym. Sneak right here a short distance for the area’s third pub, the beautifully located Royal Oak Inn; otherwise your road trip bears left to forge on up into proper hill country.

4: Things get dazzlingly greener now as you carry on past the lovely rural setting of Ystradffin Campsite 2.25 miles (3.5km) through the very few scattered dwellings of Ystradffin beneath huge yellow-green hills and patches of forest to the entrance of RSPB Gwenffrwd-Dinas and the hike to the cave of the famous Welsh outlaw Twm Siôn Cati. The entrance is marked by a small chapel, and there is a brilliant woodland, crag and river hike to do here to the erstwhile cave hideout of Wales’ answer to Robin Hood (follow the link). There are the remnants of construction work for new controls on the River Tywi as you climb up one mile (1.5km) with a gully-etched valley yawning on your right to the approach roads to Llyn Brianne reservoir. At this point you are properly up on the moor, and about to get even higher. Plumping for the first left-hand turning to the smaller of the two car parks gives you brilliant views across to the dam, the highest in Britain, whilst the second left-hand turn a bit further on is to the main parking area and access to Llyn Brianne and its dramatic reservoir and forest hikes. A cattle grid, straight ahead on the road you have been driving, marks the beginning of the mountain road proper – and this you stay on all the way to Tregaron.

5. To give you an idea of how lonesome your surroundings are from this point on, you will pass no more than five or six other buildings in the next 20+ miles, as you swoop in and out, rarely getting a chance to make it out of third gear, up and down, over and around the bumpy, twisty contours of Llyn Brianne, a body of water which with its spinach-green bands of forestry spreading around gorsey moorland shores, looks more akin to an scene snatched from the Canadian Rockies than anything. The road is narrow – narrower even than it just was – and you need to make astute use of passing places if you want to avoid having to reverse long distances for oncoming vehicles. That said, we’ve done the full route from here to Tregaron a few times, and the number of oncoming vehicles you’ll likely pass is about the same as the number of buildings! The road at certain junctures resembles a vast, carelessly unspooled ball of string, with approaching traffic visible sometimes miles ahead around the steep reservoir shores, and at times not at all until the very last moment!

The first section lifts you up high onto the open moor tops with the water far below, with wild ponies grazing all around. Then there’s a thrilling Top Gear-esque drop with a couple of hairpins to the reservoir’s easternmost inlet, before a clamber again into dense forest to meander along via a couple of parking places, each blessed with its own short trail, to drop to the best point to access the lakeshore at the northern end of the eastern shore and a car park favoured by those who like to kayak on the lake (after 5 miles or 8km from the beginning of the mountain road). Below the treeline is a flat, grassy area by the water’s edge that is great for picnics.

6. The road now wriggles away from the forest and lakeshore over open moor two loopy miles along the northernmost tendril of the reservoir to the Soar-y-Mynydd junction with a left-hand turn on a bridge over the water (marked 2 on the map and also A because it is the start of the alternative route to Tregaron). This dividing of the ways signals decision time: there are two alternative routes from here, one via Soar-y-Mynydd Chapel and one via Dolgoch Wilderness Hostel. Both scoop through some gorgeously wild Cambrian moorland scenery before converging later at the UK’s remotest telephone box five miles (8km) later on.

Solitude (and sanctitude) standing – Soar-y-Mynydd chapel © Kerry Walker

7. We recommend getting a little bit of the best of both. Hang left at the junction signposted Soar-y-Mynydd on a four-mile (6.5km) out-and-back detour. Continue on a serpentine lane barely distinguishable in colour or texture from the forestry tracks branching off either side as you wind two miles (3.25km) up and then down through forest to emerge on the edge of open ground beyond the trees at a sudden sharp left-hand turn down over a bridge and up to Soar-y-Mynydd, Wales’ remotest chapel and still-functioning place of worship after a further 100m. It’s a humblingly simple, thick white-walled building which, against its backdrop of nothingness, is a poignant point for a pause on the journey. It is the jump-off point too for the hike/bike on rough but lovely track to the Ty’n cornel Hostel, remotest hostel in England or Wales. See our post on Soar-y-Mynydd for more! You can continue three miles on up this moorland road through the Camdwwr valley to the UK’s remotest telephone box and the point where our recommended route rejoins this one. BUT. We recommend going, well, on an even remoter loop back the way you have come to the junction at the northernmost tendril of the reservoir (marked 2 on the map) (because of the few who do this road trip, all of them go on the road past the chapel – you don’t want to be like them, do you?).

8. Swing left, continuing 1.5 miles to another parting of the ways on a gear-crunchingly steep gradient (marked 3 on the map) above the valley where the Dolgoch wilderness hostel (not quite as remote as Ty’n cornel Hostel but still probably the second- or third-remotest hostel in Wales) sits in splendid isolation. A right turn here would bring you to one of Wales’ most challenging public driving roads: the infamous Devil’s Staircase. A precipitous flurry of switchbacks with precious little room for manoeuvre to let oncoming cars pass, it ushers you down to the picturesque Abergwesyn Common, the branch-off path to the Drygarn Fawr summit and, after five solitary miles (8km) more, the eccentric mini town of Llanwrtyd Wells. Something to save for another day, or tack on to this one: your choice! Anyhow. You bear left. This next stretch renders even the route around Llyn Brianne up to now a veritable highway in comparison! You skirt forestry on the thinnest thoroughfares of the journey so far, passing almost no one (because they have all gone via Soar-y-Mynydd, remember?) through tussocky moorland that farmers seem to have largely given up on fencing, tracing the course of the Nant-y-Gerwyn valley. Your wheels, even driving as central as you possibly can, will be brushing both verges on the run which elevates you on to open moor then down to the UK’s remotest telephone box (yes, hereabouts this is a very major landmark).

9. The setting at this point is very starkly pretty, with a waterfall gushing behind the telephone box the only sound if you kill the engine here. The track leading off behind takes hikers on the Cambrian Way across a rarely-trodden tract of moorland over to Strata Florida Abbey. After this, with the alternative route via Soar-y-Mynydd having rejoined yours just pre-telephone box (marked B because it is where alternative route rejoins recommended route), there are not many points you can go wrong in terms of directions but a scale-down to first gear is necessary on the sudden sharp corkscrewing rise the road makes next up onto the moor high above Tregaron. However, you’re still in mighty remote terrain and you do not want to be breaking down or coming off the road here, so keep your eyes fixed on the way ahead until the next stop! This, as you come down into another green-black band of forest, is the turn-off to the parking place near Llyn Berwyn a lake part-hidden in the trees, after two miles (3.5km).

10. From the Llyn Berwyn turn-off it’s a 4.5 mile (7.25km) descent into Tregaron, with the lane sticking closely to the forest on one side and dipping into a U-shaped valley on the other, with some of those rare sights – other houses! – gradually starting to be scattered near the roadside. A nook of bright green – the pastoral patch surrounding Tregaron – looms ever-larger ahead but although the topography appears to be getting gentler, there are a few steep narrow sections of road right up to the last: keep your foot close to the brake!

End

Like with all wilderness drives, the return to civilisation in Tregaron takes a little getting used to, but this attractive Ceredigion market town lets you end this road trip on a high. The excellent Y Talbot Hotel, Bar and Restaurant, a handsome whitewashed townhouse sandwiched between equally fetching lower-rise stone-built buildings, has over four centuries of history to impart. Its snug slate-floored bar with tables sequestered away in recesses around a blazing fire, is about the best spot any hungry road-tripper could wish to take refuge in and refuel: it cannot be so very different to the days when Tregaron’s most famous resident, Twm Siôn Cati, the Welsh Robin Hood, hung out hereabouts in the 16th century. The town is also renowned for its fine Welsh handicrafts (just pay a visit to the Rhiannon Centre across the road with its outstanding selection of jewellery) and the nearby Cors Caron, one of Wales’ only remaining intact tracts of raised bog, with paths and boardwalks allowing you to explore this interesting ecosystem contrasting strikingly with the mountain country you have been exploring. Tregaron will also host the 2022 Eisteddfod when the cultural festival returns after a two-year hiatus in 2022. There are some high-quality places to stay hereabouts too: and you can rest easy knowing that you have successfully navigated one of Mid Wales’ most stunning road trips.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Once you are fed and rested in Tregaron, how about a trip 11 miles northeast by car and then foot to one of Wales’ remotest accommodations at Claerddu Bothy

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