From the very first day I arrived in Ceredigion county I wanted to visit Devil’s Bridge. Actually, I drove passed it, as it’s impossible to miss for anyone following the A4120 turn-off from Llangurig. At first I was a little bemused by the small tourist resort town – it seemed like an incongruous addition to a desolate and rugged area of clear-fell mountainsides, small stone chapels and narrow winding roads that characterises that part of inland Mid-Wales. And there is no forewarning: screeching down on your brakes as the car journeys south down the plunging valley roads, you suddenly enter a glade-like landscape of trees and forests. Then the pageantry unfolds: you see a car park and tea-room to your right, an ice-cream kiosk and a ticket vendors for ‘The Devil’s Falls’ on your left, and a little further up the road into Devil’s Bridge town itself the imposing edifice of the Hafod hotel and Three Bridge Bar as well as the terminus of the Rheidol Railway steam train.
It takes you by surprise because the presence of this mysterious tourist town is completely unannounced. I am not usually a fan of places that look like they have been constructed for the pleasure of passing tourists or solely for the purposes of generating money. However, I liked this odd little tourist-outpost precisely because there was something so obviously badly marketed, twee and provincial about it. It is a charming anachronism; more of a Victorian folly than a theme park. I couldn’t help but enjoy its old-fashioned aura and the unashamedly out-dated infrastructure, including the hand-pushed turnstile leading down to the Falls themselves. In the wonderful Victorian lobby of the Hafod hotel, a jar with a label asking for donations for the hotel owners daughter’s piano lessons sits squatly on the grand piano.
In a spare afternoon of good weather in September 2015, I decided to drive down the road to see what all the fuss was about. As I wizzed down the roads, exulting in the automotative pleasures that have only grown in me recently (1990s VW with a coughing engine), I thought suddenly of Tom Gunn and the way he deploys the ‘figure’ of the motorcyclist in his work.
Take the second stanza of the poem “On the Move”:
On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys,
Until the distance throws them forth, their hum
Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt – by hiding it, robust –
And almost hear a meaning in their noise.
If writers like Kerouc and Ginsberg were the novelists of car travel, then surely Gunn is the bard of the motorbike. Poems such as ‘On the Move’ or ‘The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of His Death’ do not only connote his own delight in and experience of travelling in this way, nor of his absorption of elements of American ‘pop culture’ as the back of my Faber edition suggests, but a glimmer of post-modernity in the work of an otherwise rather traditional poet. The motorbike is modernity to Gunn. It is slick, masculine, indomitable: an apotheosization of the individual’s right to rule. But it is also depersonalising. The motorbike helmets the man and transforms him into a machine. Morality and history evaporate, obscured by the only thing that now matters: speed and the pleasure hedonism bestows. When I think of Gunn’s ethics of the road I can’t help but think of the posses of bikers that swarm into Aberystwyth in the summer time. They queue up at the ice-cream vendors with their helmets held in the crooks of their arms. When they’re on the road ‘the Boys’ move in buzzing gangs like ‘flies’ as Gunn suggests. Yet Gunn was wrong, these days they’re not all men. In fact, last month I watched in surprise as one peeled off their black leather armour on the beach promenade and the slight form of a seventeen-year-old girl was revealed beneath.
Let’s get back to Devil’s Bridge. Having poked my head inside the Hafod Hotel built against the steep sides of the valley, I suddenly thought what a great setting it would make for an episode of Pierrot or Sherlock Holmes. It had all the right stage props for a murder mystery: papery tablecloths, tea and scones on a glass-fronted counter, an old-mannish bar and not a receptionist in sight. When I eventually paid my £3 entrance to the Falls, I wasn’t expecting much, yet the air was so fresh – tinged with autumn – that I felt inherently pleased to be there. The steep track circling down to the bottom of the valley was thick with decomposing leaves. Above my head, a great number and variety of trees soared. Everything smelt and savoured good; of forest and mushroom, moss and earth. I listened to a hand-powered description of ‘How Devil’s Bridge Got Its Name’ and began my descent.
Down I went along the steep, perilous ladder of a path. As it was cold and a weekday there weren’t many people about, just a family group on an outing with grown-up kids who didn’t speak to each other. By the time I had reached a wooden structure built in the style of a Chinese Pavilion marking the half-way point to the Falls, I could already see the very beautiful, slender chute of a waterfall arcing down into a submerged pool below. I was impressed by the primal, pagan beauty of the landscape – its lushness – as well as the prominence of bracken and fern everywhere. It didn’t surprise me one bit that many local legends had their origins here. Special places always generate stories; its follows from one of the most basic functions of a story: to explain why unique and extraordinary things should come to be that way.
All in all, though the area is ‘marketed’ as a tourist destination, it is well worth a visit. I’m not sure it’s ever that busy and the infrastructure deserves to be financially supported as it protects an area of genuine beauty, one of the few stretches of woodland to remain safeguarded from the forester’s saw in this part of Mid-Wales.
 I have since discovered that the Hafod Hotel was indeed used as one of the opening sets for the highly successfully Aberystwyth-based murder mystery series Hinterland.