Continuing the journey in Wales… As last reported in Part One (Click here to read), I participated in a recent trip to the beautiful country of Wales that brought together 17 bloggers from around the globe. We split into four groups making our way from Conwy in the North to Cardiff in the South over the span of a week, each step of the way completing tasks in what was called “the Mini Welsh Challenge.” My group would put our adrenaline to the test with a theme of adventure.
Here is Part Two of the journey.
Mountain Bike Mecca
Day three of the trip began with a vigorous mountain biking adventure in the Coed-y-Brenin forest, part of Snowdonia National Park in Machynlleth. Originally part of the Nannau Estate, this area became known as Coed y Brenin in 1935 to commemorate the silver jubilee of King George V. Literally meaning “The King’s Forest,” it covers 9,000 acres and boasts an ever-expanding network of bike paths.
The routes range in difficulty from the very challenging (only for experienced riders) to the mild, kid-friendly courses that are wide enough for disabled persons riding modified bikes, leaving adventurous options for every level of rider. All of the paths are hand-built and meant for all-weather conditions.
Our ride, led by Ranger Andy Braund, was at times quite challenging with uphill climbs and winding cavities that resembled a skateboarding park. Throughout the trek, we passed incredible natural beauty, including four rivers and two phenomenally powerful waterfalls, Pistyll Cain and RRhaeadr Mawddach.
Beyond nature and narrow bridges, you may get lucky and see Fallow deer and plenty of birds. Keep an eye out for old mine buildings – copper, gold, and iron were once mined in this forest. In fact, some of the gold derived here in years past was used to make rings for the Royal Family.
With Snowdonia being the new home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and where Prince William serves in the Royal Air Force as a search and rescue pilot, I admit I found myself being a little braver than normal on the bike, feeling confident that Prince Charming would come to my rescue should I get myself into a pickle. The previous day we saw a helicopter flying above while venturing through the park by train; our trusty guide Mike said, “Oh, look, it’s Wills!”
The Sounds of Silence
Although Wales boasts 641 castles, very few are Welsh-built. We visited one that afternoon – Castell-y-Bere – which was a stronghold for six decades before falling to the English in the late thirteenth century and abandoned shortly thereafter.
Now just a hint of the majesty that once was, the castle ruins are quite possibly one of the most relaxing, picturesque places in the world to have a simple picnic. Miles from any true city center, it’s a bit of a trek to get to, but worth every second for one often overlooked gem: silence.
Without tourists mulling about, it was so quiet you could hear the pure wind whistling through the emerald fields below, only interrupted by the occasional “baaa” from the sheep herds in the distance. It begs you to throw your hands in the air and twirl, letting go of modern stress and letting in the power of Mother Nature. Words can’t do the place justice, and photos only slightly capture the magic. It just needs to be experienced.
Roadtripping through the Countryside
The route we took to get to our next destination was sublime; the kind of serene picturesque landscapes that literally take your breath away; the kind that make you appreciate ten-fold the gift of being alive and able to see the beauty that exists on Earth.
We took a road called Machynleth to Staylittle Mountain Pass, along the way passing fields upon fields of sheep and infinite views. At one point we stopped to try to fulfill one of our challenges. The task? To take a photo of a sheep, ideally with our team’s mascot – in our case that meant Dylan the bear, named after Dylan Thomas, Wales’ most beloved poet.
I looked up some of his poetry while in Wales and one particular phrase caught my attention. Written in a letter to his wife Caitlin in late 1936, Thomas said, “It’s that—the thought of the few, simple things we want and the knowledge that we’re going to get them in spite of you know Who and His spites and tempers—that keeps us living I think.”
The appreciation for life and its inexplicable magic, as the poet’s words allude to is something that was palpable throughout the week. Despite our failed attempts at capturing Dylan the mascot with a sheep, Eddy and I enjoyed hopscotching around the field trying to avoid the – how shall I say this delicately – sheep dung, that was spawned at every other inch of the hillside.
We attempted to sneak up on the sheep, but inevitably one on a far away hillside would “warn” his compadres that someone was coming with a loud “baaaa” and they’d scatter. It made for a humorous encounter that is highly recommended on any trip to Wales.
From there we took the A485 from Blaenplwyf to Penwuch over Mynydd Bach (Little Mountain) to our final destination, the Yurt Farm. It was quite frankly a long drive, but one that is worth the time, truly giving a sense of the expansive beauty of the country, from lakes to quaint cottages to rolling hillsides of green speckled with sheep and areas where civilization can’t be seen for miles on end.
A Night Among the Stars at the Yurt Farm
When I first learned we’d be sleeping in yurts, I was excited but knew nothing of what a yurt actually was. All I knew was that it would be similar to a tent, but a more permanent structure.
Arriving at The Yurt Farm was surreal. The sun was setting. We were all still recovering from mountain biking and picnicking at the castle, tired and desperately in need of a shower, and had long been venturing in the middle of nowhere before we arrived at Ceredigion. When we were greeted by Thea and Laurie, owners of the farm, everything changed.
Tiredness faded, the need to shower disappeared, and the desire to tweet or get on WiFi became nonexistent. (Cell service and reception wasn’t available anyway – in fact, earlier in the year, Thea and Laurie had been approached by the town asking if they wanted a cell tower installed and they refused. “Why bother,” Thea said. “You come here to get away from all that.”
And they were right. This young couple was extraordinary – madly in love, true partners and parents of two beautiful children who we’d meet the next morning at breakfast, and unaffected by modern pop culture and trends. They were simple in the most beautiful way; gracious, generous, loving, compassionate, calming, and genuine. I was instantly at ease.
They showed us to our yurts, the group split among the four on the property, and two things became clear. One, we were camping; and two, this wasn’t just camping.
Each yurt is equipped with everything you’d need for a “farm holiday,” meaning a kettle, firewood, matches, towels, gas lanterns as guide lights to walk around the property, and camping cookware. They are warmed by a wood-burning stove, and without any electricity (with exception to ONE outlet in the main cabin where food is prepared), in the evenings the yurts glow with candlelight only. Note to travelers: charge your cameras and cell phones before arriving.
Organic Farming at its Best
Throughout the evening, as Thea and Laurie prepared us pizza in a wood-burning stove, we’d repeatedly go back to our yurts to check on the fires and the candles to ensure a warm and dimly-lit abode after dinner.
Everything used to prepare the dinner, from the salad to the pizza dough was organic and fresh. Most of the vegetables and cheese came directly from the farm, and we each put our pizza together to our liking. It was delicious; farm-to-table cuisine at its very best.
The eco-green theme didn’t end there. All of the furniture in the yurts is made using timber from the farm, with comfortable organic futon mattresses and organic unbleached cotton sheets adding to the simple luxury.
After dinner, and collecting more firewood to get us through the night, we had a little bonfire outside the yurt Karen and I were sharing. It was like being a kid again, sharing stories, as the embers flew and the barn owls could be seen in the shadows hunting for their dinner.
I took a moment to walk back to the main house to use the sink and washrooms. This is the one part that wasn’t so glamorous and where the camping comes in. There are two modified outhouse-like structures for bathrooms, and an outdoor sink for washing hands or brushing teeth. No mirrors. No light. No hot water. And it was freezing cold water.
I was starting to feel like I was really roughing it, when on my walk back to my yurt I looked up to the sky to see the entire Milky Way in all its glory, a dusty haze, glistening and sparkling above me. I took a moment to lie down in the field and just gaze, feeling among the stars, a citizen not just of the planet but of the entire universe. I felt full of life and blessed to have the opportunity to see such awe-inspiring, out-of-this-world beauty. It had been many, many years since I’d seen the Milky Way like that and I felt grateful. Each of us saw at least one “shooting star” that night.
As I came back to the campfire, my adventure group was still carrying on with stories and drinking wine. I felt quiet, as only such natural settings can allow the introspection that comes with letting go of the superficial and letting in depth of what life is all about.
Sunrise over the Yurts
I woke up the next morning to the scent of bacon and eggs, a smoky fire, and crisp air. I looked out the plastic “window” of the yurt from my bed to see Laurie and Thea, walking hand in hand, smiling and lovingly gazing at eachother. They had no idea anyone was looking, and it warmed my heart.
They were preparing our breakfast, which would include “Kevin,” whom they told us the night before had been made into sausage. They name all their farm animals, even if they eventually end up on the dining table.
The eggs we ate that morning were almost fluorescent yellow, the freshest I may have ever eaten in my life, laid the previous day. I had fantasies of living on a farm, in a yurt, and never returning to the hustle and bustle of what my normalcy looks like. To them, this is normal. And to me, this is a dream.
As we loaded up our luggage onto wheelbarrows to take them to the van and load up, I knew that the trip had reached a turning point. It had reached the moment where you know you will return home changed because you’ve experienced something unique and special.
Next up: Pembrokeshire and Coasteering.
*** To be continued….***
This trip was sponsored in part by Visit Wales.
About the Author: Lindsay Taub is an award-winning journalist with over a decade of experience as a writer/editor/photographer covering travel, lifestyle, culture, arts, food, health, and all facets that make life a journey. Follow her on twitter @lindsaytaub58.