To mark the 150th anniversary of the Heart of Wales Line, a new long-distance footpath is being created alongside the railway. We explore the route by train and on foot.
Words by Sarah Baxter, photography by Paul Bloomfield
It’s said that, on occasion, the Heart of Wales Line train pulls out of Swansea station before the announcer has had time to list all the stops. Pontarddulais, Pantyfynnon, Ffairfach; Llangadog, Llanwrda, Llanwrtyd, Llangammarch... Twenty-nine of them, in English and Welsh. Less a timetable than a lyrical Anglo-Cymraeg incantation to entice aboard the unhurried and the curious. I was both. ‘The line has charm,’ Rachel Francis of the Heart of Wales Line Travellers’ Association told me. ‘It’s like Alice in Wonderland.’ The question is: how to get more people travelling down this rabbit hole of a railway? ‘We know walkers already use the train,’ said Rachel. ‘So we wondered: could we create a walk along the whole line?’
Trail in the making
The Heart of Wales Line stretches for 129 miles between Swansea and Shrewsbury, a leisurely four-hour journey by rail. The line celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2018. Built to move livestock, coal and passengers around the bulbous valleys of mid-Wales, it survived Beeching’s 1960s hatchet thanks, in part, to running through several marginal constituencies that no politician dared upset. Now, this ‘international’ line pootles through Wales and Shropshire, slow and infrequent but still proudly connecting remote towns, villages and hamlets.
It’s always been a boon for walkers, offering car-free access to dramatic countryside, but this year it’s getting a walk all of its own. Following a 2016 feasibility study for the Heart of Wales Line Development Company, Heart of Wales Line Travellers’ Association and Arriva Trains Wales, the Heart of Wales Line Trail (HoWLT) is now mapped out, a 140-mile route linking the stations between Llanelli and Craven Arms.
Professor Les Lumsdon, who, with a small team and input from local Ramblers groups, developed the trail, is on his fourth pair of boots. ‘I’ve walked 2,000 miles as part of this project,’ he told me. ‘There was lot of trial and error. We needed a route that would require minimal resources to make into a trail, using existing rights of way. We also looked to make it beautiful and historical, and to ensure it passed accommodation and refreshments. The route is now set – and it offers such diversity.’ Diverse indeed, from tidal wetlands to Cambrian Mountains, wild river valleys to ancient forests, taking in Iron Age hill forts, Norman castles, Welsh heroes, handsome viaducts and the world capital of bog snorkelling. The Shropshire section was completed in mid-2017, while the Carmarthenshire stretch opened this spring. The whole route should be ready for summer 2018.
Though the HoWLT is still a ‘trail in the making,’ according to Les, I embarked on a hop-on, hop-off rail ramble anyway, to see how good the line really is for walkers. I planned to trace parts of the new route, try circular station strolls and do plenty of refuelling at hostelries along the way. ‘The Heart of Wales Line is a classic rural railway that connects vibrant communities, like pearls on a string,’ according to Paul Salveson, Arriva’s community rail advisor, tasked with finding creative ways of regenerating the area and engaging local people. ‘The HoWLT concept has been a big success.’
Another part of Paul’s plan is to bring station buildings back into the heart of the community. For instance, the unloved 1850s station in the town of Llanelli is gradually being revived, with plans to improve facilities and develop the former goods shed as an arts project. We started our journey there but didn’t dally: we had a train to catch at the next station. Following freshly-nailed HoWLT waymarks, we traced the wind-blustered seashore towards tiny Bynea for a coastal contrast to the green hills awaiting further up the line. It was a lovely morning stroll. Dunlins probed the shallows, plovers skittered on the shell-crunchy sands and flocks flew low over the Loughor estuary, the Gower Peninsula looking glorious beyond.
We strode at a fair lick, conscious of not missing our connection. With only four or five services a day on weekdays, falling to two on Sundays, you can have a long wait for the next train. Crossing a pedestrian bridge, still a mile from Bynea, we had a momentary panic as a train rumbled beneath... but it wasn’t ours. We arrived in time to hail the next northbound service. Bynea is one of 16 request stops on this 29-stop line, so we stuck out our arms and hopped aboard.
Beyond the train window lay the winding Loughor River and the Graig Fawr ridge, both of which the HoWLT traces. But the lure of castle exploration at lovely Llandeilo was too great, and we zipped straight there. Laden with a picnic of Welsh cheese and homemade tarts, we set off for Dinefwr, first built around AD 850 to repel the Vikings, and once seat of Deheubarth, the southern kingdom of Wales. The castle fell to the English in the 13th century, and was left to fall to ivy-clad ruin by 1700. Now it sits amid ancient oaks, looming over the River Towy. As we looked out, a great grey storm advanced army-like up the valley. We cowered within the battlements – as many have before – to wait out the weather before returning to town, back to our next train.
In Llandovery, we popped into the station building, now a thriving community cafe, to pick up leaflets and homemade Welsh cakes. These powered our last stroll of the day, out along the river to a fine stone bridge, then back via fields noisy with ewes bleating to their lambs. We stayed at the Castle Hotel, just as travel writer George Borrow did when he walked through ‘Wild Wales’ in 1854 – poor George was 14 years too early to use the train.
A range of rambles
North of Llandovery is the Heart of Wales Line’s ‘difficult bit’ – some of the remotest country, deep in the mountains. After emerging from 915m-long Sugar Loaf Tunnel, it was as if we’d entered another realm. The thin morning sunshine was swallowed by cloud seemingly pumped in for atmosphere. No one got on, no one got off at Sugar Loaf halt – it sees about five passengers a month, mainly walkers. And while it was tempting to alight, the climb up the peak that is the stop’s namesake requires an unappealing trudge along the busy A483. Indeed, Sugar Loaf is one of the few stations the HoWLT doesn’t visit. Sometimes Mother Nature, or landowner rights, cannot be overcome.
There was plenty more to call us onwards, anyway. There was Llanwyrtd, the ‘smallest town in Britain’, with its biennial Alternative Games (to be held from 10 to 27 August in 2018), an Olympiad of worm-charming, wife-carrying and bog snorkelling. Cilmeri, with its memorial marking where Prince Llywelyn, last native Prince of Wales, was killed in 1282 and its access to walks along the River Wye. The fashionable Victorian spa town of Llandrindod Wells, with its mineral springs and nearby wilderness, topped by the remains of Cefnllys Castle. So many options – the railway seemed tailor-made for rambling. ‘The line and the trail just fit,’ agreed Les. ‘Travelling by rail, going slow, walking between stations, meeting other walkers – it’s a marriage made in heaven.’
Find a way
It didn’t feel quite so heavenly when we disembarked at cold and lonely Llanbister Road. We’d told the conductor where we wanted to get off (essential for request stops), and were the only people to alight on this middle-of-nowhere platform in the wind-ruffled hills. But Les had told me this was his favourite section of the HoWLT, so on we pressed. It was wonderfully wild walking, despite the weather; high and dramatic, a landscape of bouncy green and orange-purple hues. At one point we were stalled by a quad biking shepherd and his flock blocking the lane – it’s worth planning for such unexpected delays if you’re hiking a catch a train. But otherwise we saw no people, only kites, whirling against the ominous sky.
There were no HoWLT waymarkers to guide us here, and nor will there be – in the county of Powys, new trails aren’t allowed to be marked with bespoke roundels. We muddled along, picking up parts of the Glyndŵr’s Way National Trail, but then mistakenly arrived at Llangynllo station (at almost 300 metres above sea level, the line’s highest point). We’d rather hoped to emerge at Knucklas instead, where a magnificent 13-arch viaduct and a community-owned castle are all lodged in the Heyope Valley. Drat! But no matter. Our maps and Owain Glyndŵr saw us safely onwards into Knighton, where we happily collapsed with a pint of Wye Valley ale in the Red Lion, happy to put our walkers’ pounds into local business at the end of a long, muddy, marvellous day.
Tomorrow, we’d walk into Shropshire, to follow the inaugural section of the HoWLT, opened last year. It would take us via Offa’s Dyke, an old drovers’ road and a medieval castle-cum-townhouse. But all I could think about was Les and his team, all they’d achieved, all still to be done. ‘So the trail is almost finished,’ he’d told me, ‘but it won’t be perfect. The first walkers will get a bit of an adventure! But we’ll continue upgrading it. This is only the start.’
- TIME/DISTANCE: Walking possibilities are many and varied. Llanelli-Bynea (6 miles, 2.5 hours) is a flat, coastal hike with good birding; Pontarddulais-Pantyffynnon (7 miles, 3 hours), runs along a broad, dramatic ridge; a Llandeilo circuit (5 miles, 2-3 hours) takes in two castles; a Llandrindod Wells circuit (7 miles, 3 hours) takes in a Victorian spa and castle ruins; Knighton-Bucknell (9 miles, 5 hours) is HOWLT waymarked, with dramatic valley views.
- MAPS: OS Explorers 178, 186, 187, 188, 200 and 201. Walks from the Heart of Wales Railway (kittiwake.com) is useful; a guide to the Heart of Wales Line Trail will be published by Kittiwake later in 2018.
- ACCOMODATION Vista Hotel, Llanelli, is convenient for the train station (B&B doubles from £40; vista-hotel.co.uk). The Castle Hotel, Llandovery, is an old coaching inn-turned gastro pub with rooms (B&B doubles from £65; castle-hotel-llandovery.co.uk). The Bell Country Inn, near Llandrindod Wells, is bright and welcoming (B&B doubles from £95; bellcountryinn.co.uk). The Red Lion, Knighton, has an excellent restaurant serving local produce plus cosy accommodation (B&B doubles from £85; redlionknighton.co.uk).
- FURTHER INFO: For timetables and info, see heart-of-wales.co.uk and howlta.org.uk. Other useful sites include discovercarmarthenshire.com, visitmidwales.co.uk, visitwales.com