I remember the first time I drove through Abergwesyn Pass. It was spring and I was living in Cardiff, questioning my decision to move to Wales after a cold grey winter. I wasn't happy in the city, but didn't feel at home in the hills either. Much of South Wales seemed grim; even the Brecon Beacons lacked the stillness I had come to love in my home county of Northumberland. I must have mentioned something of the sort in the office.
Rodger was having none of it. 'I tell you, Wales is the most beautiful and the most ugly country in the world – and you'll come to love both.' Rodger lived above Merthyr, a proper Valleys boy who'd been a coach driver for years and now worked for the local newspaper, though he missed his time on the road. His great delight was to visit customers in Carmarthen or Cardigan – very important area for us but – indeed, he insisted on 'going west' at least once a week.
'You come with me to make some calls,' he insisted, 'then you'll see.'
We drove the mountain road from Rhayader to Aberystwyth, stopped for quick coffee with a newsagent in town, then – work completed for the day - headed south to Aberaeron. Rodger was on a mission; he drove me to Lampeter, to Dolaucothi, to the wonderful village of Caio (still my favourite place in Wales) and then, by yet another double back, to Tregaron and the road to Llanwrtyd. 'Now is this a mess, or what?' he asked as we drove through an area of young forestry. I murmured agreement, though in truth I took little notice, being somewhat car sick by that point. 'Just you wait,' he said. 'The best pass in Wales is over this hill.'
The Abergwesyn pass is a near perfect glacial valley, cutting deep into the hills from the hamlet of Abergwesyn towards the Llyn Brianne dam and the Mid Wales forests. I was there again this morning; driving through the ancient deciduous trees at the start of the gorge. There was ice on the road, the northern slopes still in shadow by mid morning; on the southern side the bracken was drying in the sun; two ravens were harrying a buzzard. It is twenty years since Rodger took me here, I have driven and cycled this road dozens of times since, and still it takes my breath.
Abergwesyn is owned by the National Trust, consequently it has been saved from the vandalism wrought on the hills beyond. At the head of the pass is a steep road where the forestry begins – appropriately, it is known as the Devil's Staircase. From here westward, swathes of fir trees cloak the hills, the only respite to the monotony being the fell-clearance areas and the Dolgoch hostel, nestling in an oasis of bog that was presumably too awkward to plant. A huge area of land between here and Tregaron has been spoiled – some would say ruined – for what I suspect was little more than politics and the quasi- economics of the forestry commission; but what do I know?
What I do know, is that the fir trees are every bit as ugly and despoiling as the industrial detritus that litters the Rhondda. And this is only one small area of the Mid Wales forests. Huge areas of the Cambrian Mountains have suffered the same fate, and sadly I suspect it will be repeated – though today it is wind farms more than trees that the politicians want. What was it Rodger said about Wales being the most ugly country…?
And yet I still love this area. Today, I walked to the bothy at Moel Prysgau. It is miles from any tarmac, approached by the old drove road to Strata Florida. The path is stubbornly defiant; it hugs the river, sometimes this side, sometimes that - time and again you have to wade through to stay with it. In a sense it is the reverse of walking the hills of the South Wales Valleys – here the dereliction is above you, not below.
A few miles in and the trees take over, the paths become forest roads, complete with junctions and rights of way; the views become sporadic. Yet there is remoteness here, a stillness that saves the landscape despite our worst efforts. My son Daniel was with me today, but we walked much of the way without talking. Towards the end of the walk we came to a small boggy pool in a clearing, two geese floated serenely on the water, untroubled by our watching. 'Do you want to chat? I asked.
'I'm good,' he replied. 'It's the silence that I like the most.'
Mid Wales - an object lesson in how to ruin a landscape?