Then how she leans, how furry foxwrap she nestles

The sky with her warm, and the earth with her softness.

How her lit crowding fairytales sink through the space-silence

To build her palace, till it twinkles in starlight –

To frail for a foot

Or a crumb of soot.”

–  From ‘Snow and Snow’ by Ted Hughes

Before I go to the effort of winding my mind backwards to a time when the Ceredigion landscape was blanketed with snow, I have a scrap, an authentic fragment, written at the time. Here it is:

“14th January 2016: Visiting Hafod

I was sitting in the library about to launch myself into Greg Garrard’s unconventionally slim critical reader ‘Ecocriticism’ when casting an eye outside the compendious windows of the National Library of Wales and catching a glimpse of two horizontal slabs of brilliantly blue sky, I suddenly thought it was plain madness to read theory about the environment when all I wanted to do was be out in it.

I made up my mind and texted Tom, within twenty minutes I had an extra layer on and we were driving out to Hafod by the Trawscoed (cross-forest) road.

Hafod Uchtryd is set high in the Cambrian mountains of Mid-Wales, about fifteen miles inland from Aberystwyth as the crow flies. It used to be the site of a grand stately home owned by a Victorian lead-mining magnate and patron of the arts called Thomas Johnes. Now all that remains of the fairy-gothic palace he built in its grounds, since its demolition in the 1950s are the grounds themselves – what Natural Resources Wales calls ‘one of the finest examples in Europe of Picturesque landscape [design]’. Luckily, over the Christmas holidays I had been reading an excellent monograph on Capability neé Lancelot Brown & Humphrey Repton,[1] so I had the conceptual apparatus of this 18th century school of picturesque ‘natural’ landscape architects in mind as we drove up to Hafod.

Tom proved to be an excellent tour-guide on the route. As he had grown up not far away and worked in many capacities on the land in these parts, he knew everything there was to know about Hafod and the surrounding countryside.

“What are they?!” I asked, pointing like a curious child towards some derelict ruins on the side of the road, that looked to all intents and purposes like the remains of some Mesopotamian ziggurat.

“Oh those are the remains of the old lead mining quarries,” he replied without batting an eyelid.

“Gosh, they really are in the middle of nowhere!” said I, casting my eye around at the peaks of the Cambrian Mountains in the distance, now sprinkled with snow, and the regimented blocks of pine forest cascading down the bare mountainsides.

“In the past the miners would have had to walk to work,” replied Tom. I gulped, these desolate mines were miles from any inhabited villages and towns.

The road continued & wound it ways up towards Hafod, bending about the sides of bulging mountainsides and pastureland. I admired the regularly-shaped forms of Victorian miner’s cottages positioned scenically along the way. Many of these stone cottages were now entirely derelict: knawed-away doors swung open on hinges, inviting in the frost and snow; half collapsed roofs that had caved in long ago exposing ceiling beams above the simple stone dwellings. A few were obviously inhabited and had probably been restored at a great cost to the buyers.

“Quite alternative people living there,” said Tom pointing at another stone-grey cottage. There was a burgundy & yellow caravan parked outside and a large bonfire belching out columns of pewter-grey smoke from the front garden.

Eventually we entered the official estate park boundary and parked up. As it was a bitterly cold day there were no other walkers about. Tom led me passed a few more doileyed homesteads and up through a vermillion field glowing like a green fire before the backdrop of powder-soft mountains. As we had limited time and could not see the remains of the old estate or even an over-view of the grounds, our destination that afternoon was a cave. What Tom called ‘Robber’s Cave’. I wasn’t sure what made this particular cave so special – and allowed it to remains a surprise.”

The record ends there but I remember the rest of the story so I’ll tell it now.

We continued walking up across the open parkland and into the forest. The trees here were tall and dark, festooned with ivies, creepers and dribbling veils of Old Man’s Beard. The wet, black earth beneath our feet was soft and sponge-like as a just-risen cake.  The path itself was well-trodden but this did not make it less scenic. It coiled between rocks and boulders, the steep slopes of the forested gulley, and down to our left a tremendous river crisscrossed with bars of white water. I remember looking down at the river in all its immodest, romantic glory and wondering to myself: surely this wasn’t also landscaped in or diverted, surely… It felt all so tremendously magical: an archetypal Welsh glen worthy of any of the most sublime craggy landscapes of the Beddgelert region in Snowdonia. Our isolation and the absence of any other walkers compounded that exciting feeling that anything could happen. I half expected Merlin to come traipsing towards us in a long white tunic from behind some boulder up ahead.

Eventually we reached the entrance to the cave. It was dark and wet, its plafond dripping with a consistent slime of raindrops. Tom urged me on so I went first – into the darkness. It didn’t take long before I realised what the surprise was: about eight or nine meters in an enormous oculus had been dynamited into the rear of the cave, exposing the viewer to an excellent view of the aforementioned river as it surged down the side of the valley in a waterfall. The delimiting cave had unexpectedly become a frame: a frame for the picture of the cascade and the galloping horses of its feathery water fingers. It was a spectacle; water theatrics of the highest order conceived by a man who was in the grips of Tennysonian poetry and Turner-fever. But this orchestration did not make it less impressive. I stepped back and left the water lens behind me. Robbers cave, or as I heard it less imaginatively denoted afterwards, ‘cavern cascade.’

“Did you like it?” Tom asked.

“Yes, very much,” I replied, looking up at him smiling.




[1] Hyams, Edward. 1971. Capability Brown & Humphrey Repton (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd: London).


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