The Gwiber in the Taff
Wales is often tacked on as an afterthought in discussions about Great Britain. Some people would say that, geographically, it sticks out from England like a pregnant belly; but having worked in a bar in Cardiff for the last six months, I can say with some authority that it is more likely a beer belly. The Welsh aren’t famous for much, possibly just sheep and male voice choirs, but they seem to be working hard on building a reputation as the biggest drunkards in Europe.
Every Friday and Saturday night, hordes of 9-5ers squeeze themselves into the dozens of bars and clubs on St. Mary Street. Their aim is to drink as much, and usually more, than is physically possible before getting thrown out at closing time. St. Mary Street between 1-3 am is a cross between a feeding frenzy at the zoo and a war zone; a wide variety of creatures in various states of inebriation can be seen pissing, puking, fighting, snogging and staggering about in the street. It’s not a fun place to be.
With a rare weekend off, I therefore decided to escape Cardiff’s social scene and travelled north to the Brecon Beacons National Park. My aim was to hike part of the Taff trail, and hopefully I’d be able to discover some of the culture Wales claims to have.
A hour’s train ride from Cardiff is Merthyr Tydfil, an industrial town on the edge of the national park. Merthyr is a fairly drab, industrial town, and it may explain why the Welsh drink so much. It is the sort of town where kids with skateboards hang around in groups drinking two litre bottles of cider. It is the sort of town where teenagers drop out of school at 15, get a job in a factory, and soon realise that, like their parents, they are trapped in a town with no hope and nothing to look forward to – except, of course, the weekend. It is the sort of town that I didn’t want to hang around in too long.
The Taff trail is a long distance route, starting in Cardiff Bay and ending in the market town of Brecon; being built for cyclists as well as hikers the trail is flat and easy going most of the way, but at a distance of over 55 miles is still quite a challenge. Merthyr is just over half way, but marks the point when the trail begins to rise into the hills, thankfully it isn’t long before I found myself surrounded by steep slopes of grazing sheep, small farmhouses and church spires peaking out over the tops of woodlands like a grey slate tree struggling for light.
The track winds on up to a reservoir, through woodlands, down deserted country roads and along abandoned rail tracks, but it’s not until I reached some of the higher points on the track that I was rewarded with some of the finest views South Wales has to offer.
I’ve often found myself complaining about the amount of rain Wales receives. It’s rare to get a cloudless day in this country, but it was suddenly clear to me what the results of so much rain were. Ahead of me was a patchwork of endless green, every clump of wood or scrap of field seemed to be a different shade of olive, jade or sea green; as though Mother Nature had run out of all other colours in her paint set. It’s views like these that makes every blister and every sore limb worth it, the prize for the effort put in.
Talybont Resevoir Valley
My campsite for the night was 15 miles from the start point, and situated by one of the most picturesque spots on the trail – Talybont reservoir; lakes and hills always seem to be a great visual combination. Camping out in the countryside can be tough however, with none of the traffic noise and street lighting that I’m used to I found it difficult to sleep, and that night, along with the bleating of sheep and hooting of owls, I heard something that could quite possibly have been a Gwiber.
Welsh history is full of myth and legend, a famous set of stories called the Mabinogion tells tales of fairies, princes and dragons. As everyone knows though, dragons are only usually found in the North of Wales. Gwibers, on the other hand, can probably be found everywhere. A Gwiber is a dragon-like beast, a huge flying snake to be precise, and in the myth it features in, it escapes being slain by slipping into the river. If the Loch Ness monster has been able to stay hidden for so long, then why not a Gwiber?
Welsh history is one of the things that makes this country so unique. It’s virtually impossible to go for a walk without coming across an ancient castle or monument, they’re dotted across the country like a case of the measles. In fact the only historical buildings that are more common are pubs.
For some, country walks are just basically scenic pub crawls, a pint of ale at the end of a long hike is often the only motivation to keep going. Entering a traditional country pub on your own can be quite intimidating however, I almost expect a John Wayne Western situation, when everyone, including the dog and the piano player, stop to look at you when you enter. Most pubs are friendly though, it’s just important that you don’t sit on a regular’s stool, it’s the pub equivalent of sleeping with someone’s wife!
The Taff trail has its fair share of pubs, a couple are nicely placed by the canal side, ideal for a midday pint on a sunny day (assuming you’re lucky enough to get a sunny day). Unfortunately the pubs weren’t open yet as I began the second day of my journey. Following the canal tow path, passing by colourful barges and over small aqueducts, I was greeted by ‘good mornings’ from dawn dog walkers and farmers until I arrived in Brecon shortly before midday.
Brecon is the sort of picturesque little market town that people go to retire in, consequently it is jammed full of pensioners hobbling their way around the narrow streets. It’s also the sort of town that the tourist board like to promote as typically Welsh. It boasts of cathedrals, castles, museums, bridges, Welsh cakes, daffodils and, of course, male voice choirs and sheep. Thanks to the blisters on my feet, however, I shuffled around Brecon in much the same way I imagine a Gwiber would.
So twenty four hours and twenty four miles after leaving Merthyr Tydfil, I had discovered that there is a lot more to Welsh culture than a pissed up Friday night. The history, the environment and the dragons are all are vital to the Welsh identity, but the Welsh language is the most unique aspect. It’s a linguistic form of yoga, stretching your tongue into all sorts of unnatural positions to pronounce words that have had their vowels surgically removed. Here’s an important phrase for you to learn – Ga i beint o chwerw, os gwelwch yn dda (I’d like a pint of bitter, please).