Walking with windmills

April 7, 2019 0 Comments

The Heart of Wales line train leaves me at the station in Ammanford.  It’s still, sunny, and warm, the second day of summer time, with an extra hour of daylight walking.  My plan is to cross Mynydd y Betws and Mynydd y Gwair and drop down the Lliw valley to Gowerton, completing the Gower Way.  I started the Way many years ago and it’s still unfinished, mainly because the northern end, Penlle’r Castell, is inaccessible by public transport.  The whole route covers around twenty miles – more, if you include the unplanned deviations when I’ll get lost.  It’s a decent rehearsal for Offa’s Dyke next month.

Ammanford’s an likeable place, though it’s hard to find many young people on the streets.  I have a coffee in the Coalhouse – all the customers are pensioners – and cross the Amman bridge to Betws, older than Ammanford and the site of three, long closed collieries.  On the left there’s a park, bright with daffodils and primroses.  A stone memorial commemorates those who died in war and in mine accidents, and information panels remind us of Betws notables, including the politician Jim Griffiths, his brother David, the poet ‘Amanwy’, and the singer Donald Peers, now mostly forgotten but hugely popular as a crooner after the Second World War.

The road winds up the mountain to the south.  It’s called Ffordd y Cyrnol, named, it seems, after Lieutenant Colonel David Morris (1843-1919) of Brynffin, a pioneer of Indian railway building.  It’s a steady climb, and soon gives long views of the Loughor and Amman valleys and the Beacons. beyond  Past Maesquarre Hall and the Scotch Pine pub workable land gives out and I’m on open moorland.  This is where the windmills begin.  At first, just a few of them, but soon more and more appear.  They belong to the Betws Wind Farm, which started producing electricity in 2013.  The masts are tall, around 70 metres high, and carry three blades, each about 40 metres long.  Raw access tracks have been cut through the grassland from the road to each one, but there’s no denying the white grace of the turbines.  There’s nothing else up here, just the windmills, turning slowly in the gentle breeze and stretching across the tops, from Mynydd y Betws south to Mynydd y Gwair.  Standing and staring at them can put you into a strange mental state.  No wonder Werner Herzog found the forest of windmills on the Lasithi Plateau in Crete irresistible when making the dream sequence for his early film Signs of life (seeing them contributes to the madness of the film’s main character).  Herzog later wrote

I walked round the mountains of Crete where I came across a valley.  I had to sit down because I was sure I had gone insane.  Before me lay 10,000 windmills – it was like a field of flowers gone mad – turning and turning with these tiny squeaking noises.

The Betws mills are silent, today at least, but their giant, ghostly presence, alone in this bare land, fix themselves on the inner eye, and the unceasing synchronous swing of their arms sets up a hypnotic rhythm in the mind.  Wherever you walk on this upland plateau the turbines follow you, and even when you descend their arms lift themselves spookily over the horizon.

Further on, close to the fork where the road splits, is Penlle’r Castell, a fort enclosed by an earth bank and ditch, with big views in all directions, including south to the steelworks of Port Talbot.  I’m now in the county of Swansea, and this is its highest point.  The authorities agree that Penlle’r Castell was built before 1252 by William de Braose (Breos) II, a member of the infamous Norman family who took control of Gower in the twelfth century, to keep a close eye on Welsh lands to the north.  In 1252 it was captured and burnt by Rhys Fychan ap Rhys Mechyll, lord of Dinefwr and Is Cennen.  It’s hard to make much sense today of the complicated earthworks and fragments of stone.

Nearby is no. 50, the final inscribed stone of the Gower Way.  From here the path follows the hill’s contour across the moor, the sky alive with skylarks, towards the end of the long wood that marks the top of the Lliw valley.  Soon the path loses height and nears the shore of the Upper Lliw Reservoir.  My watch battery’s given out and I’ve no idea what time it is, but the stomach tells me it’s time to open the sandwich box.  Here I come across the first walkers since I set out.  Legs dangling over the reservoir dam wall, I eat my rolls and look out over the still water.  The far end of the reservoir is still dominated by the southernmost windmills.

From the far end of the dam at the Lower Lliw Reservoir a delightful grassy path, lined with trees and gorse bushes, keeps high about the Lliw stream and leads to the small village of Felindre, ‘a hamlet in a deep fold in the hills, almost as if in Devon’, according to Pevsner.  On the left is Ysgol Gymraeg Felindre, which Swansea Council, a local authority not famous for its support of the Welsh language, has recently condemned to closure.  The road towards Pontlliw passes through Tyn-y-cwm, where again almost all the houses have Welsh names: this was once a thoroughly Welsh speaking area; only a few miles from Swansea, but very different in character.

The guide to the Gower Way assumes you’re moving south-north: reading its instructions ‘backwards’ is almost impossible.  So I get hopelessly lost in woods and fields between Felindre and Pontlliw, and do a fair amount of trespassing on farmland belonging to Gwenlais-fach.  Then under the M4 and south towards Gorseinon, first across Mynydd Lliw Common, slowly regenerating from industrial despoliation, and then along the cycle track that follows the extinct Lliw valley railway.  Another old railway path crosses the Lliw river and leads south from Gorseinon, but there’s no alternative to approaching Gowerton than by the main road, choked with poisonous traffic crawling at rush hour.  I feel virtuous going home by train and bus, as the daylight fades.

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