The spa towns of Mid-Wales, strung out along the Heart of Wales rail line between Swansea and Shrewsbury, were once all obscure villages, but with the arrival of the great craze for spas in the early eighteenth century, anywhere with a decent supply of apparently healing water joined in on the act. Royalty and nobility spearheaded the fashion, but the arrival of the railways opened them to all. Today, best of the bunch is undoubtedly the westernmost spa of Llanwrtyd Wells, hunkered down beneath stunning mountain scenery and renowned for its bizarre events. Llandrindod Wells, the most famous spa, attracted the international elite in its Victorian heyday, and has two excellent museums to enjoy. In between, the larger town of Builth Wells was very much the spa of the Welsh working classes and there’s no real reason to stop, except in mid-July when it hosts the absorbing Royal Welsh Show, Britain’s biggest rural jamboree.
Once the most chichi spa resort in Wales, LLANDRINDOD WELLS (Llandrindod) is a pale imitation of its former self. That said, many of its fine Victorian buildings still stand, and there are two superb museums. It was the railway that made Llandrindod, arriving in 1864 and bringing carriages full of well-to-do Victorians to the fledgling spa. The town blossomed, new hotels were built, neat parks were laid out and it came to rival many of the more fashionable spas and resorts over the border. You can sample more than enough of the town’s metallic, salty spa water in Rock Park, where a free chalybeate fountain stands in a glade to the front of the lavish spa pump room (restoration plans are afoot).
The small but entertaining Radnorshire museum evokes the area’s history with exhibits ranging from archeological finds to items from Victorian spa days. Among the pick of these is a Sheela-na-gig, a typically explicit and remarkably well-preserved carved relief of a figure displaying its vulva, which was found in the local parish church, and a log-boat dredged up from the Ifor River in 1929 and thought to date from around 1200 AD.
The National Cycle Collection is a nostalgic collection of more than 280 bikes, ranging from a reproduction 1818 hobbyhorse to relatively modern folding bikes and choppers, including some contraptions that look far too uncomfortable to have been a success. The museum also holds some notable machinery, including the bike belonging to serial record-breaking time trialist Eileen Sheridan, and the reserve bike and racing skin belonging to 1992 Olympic gold medallist Chris Boardman.
Of the four spa towns, LLANWRTYD WELLS, twenty miles northwest of Brecon, is the most appealing. This was where the Welsh – Dyfed farmers along with Nonconformist middle classes from Glamorgan – flocked to the great eisteddfodau (festivals of Welsh music, dance and poetry) in the valley of the River Irfon; today, it’s the Welsh capital of wacky events.
In town, Dolecoed Road winds for half a mile along the river to the Dolecoed Hotel, built near the spa’s original sulphurous spring. Although the distinctive aroma had been noted in the area for centuries, it was truly “discovered” in 1732 by the local priest, Theophilus Evans, who drank from an evil-smelling spring after seeing a rudely healthy frog pop out of it. The spring, named Ffynnon Drewllyd (Stinking Well), bubbles up amongst the dilapidated spa buildings a hundred yards behind the hotel.
From the riverside hamlet of ABERGWESYN, you can drive the quite magnificent winding thread of an ancient cattle-drovers’ road – the Abergwesyn Pass – up the perilous Devil’s Staircase and through dense conifer forests to miles of wide, desolate valleys where sheep graze unhurriedly. At the little bridge over the tiny Tywi River, a track heads south past an isolated, gas-lit hostel at DOLGOCH. Remote paths lead from the hostel through the forests and hillsides to the exquisitely isolated chapel at Soar-y-Mynydd and over the mountains to the next hostel at TYNCORNEL, five miles from Dolgoch.
Of Llanwrtyd Wells’ various quirky events, three stand out: in mid-June, the Man Versus Horse marathon, a punishing 22-mile endurance test between man and beast over various types of terrain; at the end of August, the world bog-snorkelling championships, in which competitors must complete two lengths of a water-filled trench cut through a peat bog; and in November, the Real Ale Wobble, an event for the somewhat less serious-minded cyclist, that involves two days of combined mountain biking and beer drinking.