The Daily Telegraph - Travel
‘I craved the mountains. I even craved the rain’
Hattie Garlick reveals how Ceredigion, where her mother has a cottage, tugs at the soul with its wild, timeless appeal
The Welsh have a word with no direct equivalent in English – “hiraeth”. Roughly, it is homesickness, a grief or yearning for a landscape that you can return to only in memory because you cannot get back to it, or it has changed irreparably, or perhaps it never even was.
It’s one of those words you don’t understand the need for, until you find yourself in its grips. And that is exactly what happened to me last year.
My family tree is firmly rooted in Wales. But Welshness has been drained from my short branch, wilting generation by generation. My mother and her twin sister were raised around kitchen tables that hummed with the language, yet were the first in their family never to be taught it. When university called, she moved to England. So I was born and raised an English girl in an English city, placing English stresses and rhythms on my words, seeing urban foxes in place of sheep, flat pavements in place of mountains.
Then, three years ago, Mother retired. Finally freed from her ties to the capital, she bought an old cottage in Wales. Not in popular, pretty Pembrokeshire or mild Monmouthshire where the other Londoners were buying (“If it has a Waitrose, it’s not real Wales”, as a new neighbour would soon inform me). Not even in the rolling hills of Carmarthenshire, where the rest of our family has lived for generations. But in underrated Ceredigion, deep in the heart of Mid Wales.
No one could understand why we would want this cottage, especially not the locals. Its name (roughly translating as “small holding on the heath”, or “bog”, depending on whom you ask) should really have been a red flag. It sits in a field so wet and far-flung that you could sink into it, welly first, and disappear for 2,000 years like the Tollund Man.
Green mould blossomed on the kitchen walls the first time we saw it, in a shade so improbably vivid it recalled scenes from Ghostbusters. And while you can see for miles from every window, the views are far from chocolate-box. The mountains are rough, wind-blasted and asymmetrical. In the words of a friend who would later come for a weekend and assess them perplexedly: “a bit… random.”
But we loved it from the very first moment we saw its red stable door and bright yellow ceilings in the grainy photos of its online particulars. You couldn’t put its appeal into words, and its owner knew as much. So the purchase proceeded in a peculiar manner. Mother was abroad at the time, so we were invited up for the weekend, with two small children in tow, and gently but probingly interviewed for the job of cottage custodian.
Stage one: a hike. We stumbled through a dark cave with a waterfall thundering down its back. We clambered up hillsides, stumbled over tree roots and emerged, out of breath, into the walled garden of a stately home that once stood proudly somewhere nearby but had long since been gobbled up whole by an unfamiliar, overawing, supercharged form of nature.
Were we being shown the area, or was our worthiness of it being tested? In this corner of Ceredigion, farmers work hard on hillsides, while hippies practise ecstatic dancing in the village hall. We spotted a photo of a smiling Indian guru pinned to a noticeboard in the otherwise ascetic cottage. So, just in case, we decided to project our most positive vibes. Every time we parked up at a new point on our host’s mystery tour, we would turn to the children (then aged six and three) in the back seats and bribe them: ice creams for good vibes and strong walking legs.
And so began two years of long car journeys – up to the cottage every school holiday, half term and bank holiday weekend. Did we hold on to those good vibes, that first wonderstruck reaction to the landscape? I like to think so. But it wasn’t until last year, when the pandemic struck and travel restrictions were imposed, that I realised how deeply it had become ingrained in me.
It was an odd sensation – finally feeling a sense of kinship with a landscape in the very moment I was barred from it. But talking to friends who found themselves dreaming of the Yorkshire Dales from terraces in Surbiton, or of Cornish coasts from high-rises, it was one that a surprising number of people shared. Hiraeth had us all in its grasp.
I craved the mountains. I even craved the rain. I craved the way the cottage’s ailments and eccentricities forced us all to collaborate in nursing it – the kids painting the bottom half of a peeling wall, me on a ladder above. But I craved something more ancient than these relatively fresh memories, too.
Ceredigion’s natural fortifications of mountains, rivers and seas made it a separate kingdom, sealed off in the fifth century. Even today, it remains the second most sparsely populated area of Wales, and one of its most rural.
There are so few landscapes left in the UK where you can feel this thrillingly alone, a sensation I thirsted for in lockdown, while homeschooling and working within the same four walls. Yet it can be frightening. Victorians called the Cambrian Mountains “the green desert of Wales”. The longest three minutes of my life were spent on their western slopes, where a narrow road weaves through a series of vast windswept lakes like mirrored craters on a moonscape. There’s no phone reception in the Teifi Pools, no dwellings for miles. It is a terrible place to play hide and seek with a crafty four-year-old.
Yet you never feel quite abandoned. The landscape is busy with history. Every walk reveals a ruin, summoning the ghosts of rugged Welsh princes, garlanded druids or medieval monks. Take Strata Florida, just below the Pools. Our children view its remains as a playground, yet in 1164, when it was founded, it was the Westminster Abbey of Wales. Eleven early princes of Wales were laid to rest there. During the dissolution of the monasteries, monks hurried precious relics to this remote spot for safekeeping. Among them was the Nanteos Cup, a wooden bowl whose healing powers led some to conclude it might be the Holy Grail itself. You can visit it at the nearby National Library of Wales, in Aberystwyth.
Miracles abound in Ceredigion. The Patron Saint of Wales, St David himself, was a Ceredigion boy. He performed his most famous miracle 20 minutes down the road in the village of Llanddewi Brefi. When people at the back of the crowd complained that they could not see him, the ground beneath him rose up to form a hill.
Pretty impressive stuff, but our modern-day, heretical visitors are always far more interested in how his nemesis appeared in our own nearest village – Devil’s Bridge. The 300ft Mynach Waterfalls and its ancient wooded gorge should belong in a tropical rainforest, not beside a steam railway and caravan park in Mid Wales. Stranger still, the bridge that spans these falls – as our children will tell you, wide-eyed – was built by none other than the devil himself.
He popped down to Ceredigion in the 11th century, lured by tales of its beauty, and met an old lady whose cow had wandered over the river. The devil promised to construct a bridge to the beast, in return for the soul of the first living thing that crossed it. He kept his word, but the wily woman hurled some bread over the bridge, and a dog chased it across. The devil was so embarrassed to have acquired a canine soul in place of the human one he had envisaged that he never set foot in Wales again.
Ceredigion also saw off Wales’s last dragon. In Newcastle Emlyn, the water that is born in the Teifi Pools, before flowing into the river of the same name, forms a natural moat around the town. It was here that the winged serpent met its end, in a whirlpool of blood, having been shot from its perch in the castle’s turrets. Is this daring feat a historic fact? Hiraeth draws no such distinctions. It is part of Ceredigion’s myth and magnetism, and that is enough.
That was what I loved about all these places, I realised, as I daydreamed about them from afar. Their history is not stuffed and preserved in glass cabinets, to be dutifully visited, ticked off and forgotten. It is part of the today and the everyday, to be clambered over, picnicked upon and explored within. Standing at Strata Florida gives me an entirely different perspective on my own passing problems, one I could have used in the middle of the third lockdown. But my favourite of Ceredigion’s time-bending secrets is found on a beach. Cardigan Bay is the UK’s only permanent summer home of bottlenose dolphins. The National Trust beaches of Penbryn and Mwnt are a must. But it was Borth I returned to, over and over again, in my hiraeth-stricken mind.
The scruffy seaside strip was, supposedly, the inspiration for Morrissey’s song Everyday is Like Sunday, (“This is the coastal town/they forgot to close down”). Yet the place is pocked with gems. Homes painted in wild, hopeful murals; an independent cinema to which you can bring your dog and slump on a sofa; and on the beach behind it, an actual miracle.
Ancient Welsh legends tell of a forest that once surrounded a kingdom. The earliest surviving manuscript written in Welsh, The Black Book of Carmarthen, mentions it by name – Cantre’r Gwaelod. A dyke protected the kingdom from the sea, and was guarded by two princes. One day, however, Seithenyn was drunk on duty. Water gushed through the floodgates, drowning the forest and submerging the kingdom.
Until 2019, that is, when Storm Hannah battered Borth. In its aftermath, the peat-covered remains of tree stumps resurfaced. They had been buried underwater for thousands of years. It is the Atlantis of Wales. Did Einstein come to Ceredigion before cooking up his theory of relativity, I wonder? I’ve no proof. Except that, from here, it’s easy to agree with him that: “the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion”.
‘There are so few landscapes left in the UK where you can feel this thrillingly alone’