The gorgeous open highlands of the Cambrian Mountains, which lie between Snowdonia National Park in the north and the Brecon Beacons in the south, are sometimes known as the 'Green Desert of Wales' because of their sparsely populated nature. Neighbouring Ceredigion is home to quiet villages and an appealing coastline. These two regions of Mid-Wales are at the forefront of rewilding efforts, and indigenous plants and wildlife are slowly returning. A visit offers the opportunity to see how rural Wales is changing, one community project at a time, and makes for a great family break.
Going green in Mid-Wales
In the foothills of the Cambrian Mountains, Denmark Farm Conservation Centre (denmarkfarm.org.uk) is a former working farm that is being transitioned to a pre-agriculture state. Local wildlife is returning, from otters to bats, birds and butterflies. You can engage with the environment via wildlife photography and forest gardening for adults, and classes identifying small mammals and doing forest crafts for kids. The day-long instructor-led school holiday programmes in the woods are a good bet for parents looking for some time out as well as time away. Accommodation can also be booked here in sustainably-sourced cabins and a camping field (with a yurt for the glamping holidaymaker).
Nearby is the Long Wood Community Woodland (longwood-lampeter.org.uk), a working woodland that produces sawn timber and firewood for the local community while increasing public awareness of sustainable woodland management. The visitor centre, which unfolds over seven acres of gardens near Snowdownia National Park, offers guided walks and courses in sustainable building. If you want to learn more about how to live the green life, check out nearby Centre for Alternative Technology (cat.org.uk/index.html), which has displays on organic gardening and creating an eco-home, and also puts on everything from short courses to full-length degrees.
Dark skies and grand dams in the Elan Valley
On the southern side of the Cambrian Mountains are the reservoirs of the Elan Valley (elanvalley.org.uk), which were built in the late 19th century. Here too, the landscape is in the process of being rehabilitated, encouraging the return of indigenous wildlife. Over the last 200 years coniferous woods have been planted in the estate, but these are slowly being replaced with oak, birch, rowan and ash trees gown from local seeds. You can go cycling and walking on marked woodland tracks along the valley and into the uplands, but the biggest draw is the birdwatching – this is an excellent spot to see birds of prey such as red kites and buzzards.
The team of six rangers here can organise bespoke guided tours for families or groups wanting to learn more about the wildlife or the local history. A poke inside the walls of the dramatic Victorian dams that line the valley is an option on tours, as well as during one of four public open days each year. The visitor centre runs a calendar of activities for outdoorsy types too. The remote location, free from man-made sources of light, has seen the valley designated a ‘Dark Sky Zone’: check the online calendar (elanvalley.org.uk/explore) for star-gazing activities and hope for a clear night when you visit.
The Welsh Robin Hood
It seems every country has its own celebrated outlaw-cum-folk-hero, from Jesse James to Ned Kelly. In Wales the legend of Twm Siôn Cati, the ‘Welsh Robin Hood’, is kept alive by the Twm Siôn Cati Society, which publishes stories and holds events to reminisce over his 400-year-old antics: he’s said to have tricked everyone from shopkeepers to rival highwaymen. The cave where he saw out his final years, close to the farm of his younger lover, is a couple of miles along the river Tywi from Tregaron in Mid-Wales. Local historian and raconteur Dafydd Wyn Morgan of Twm’s Treks (twmstreks.com) takes guided tours here and to other significant sites in the Cambrian Mountains, dressed as the famous robber himself.
Sea life and coastal hamlets
If you want to spot your wildlife by the sea, head west to a series of sleepy seaside hamlets. Gwbert, on Ceredigion’s coast in Cardigan Bay, just north of Pembrokeshire, is home to a mix of marine life including bottlenose dolphins. Watching them frolic in the waves is magical, but spotting wild porpoises and grey seals up close is also thrilling. Curious seals will often come right up to your boat to take a gander at the hairless animals snapping cameras at them.
Local outfit Bay to Remember (baytoremember.co.uk) takes groups out on superfast, rigid-hulled inflatable boats, taking in wildlife watching and environmental and community projects. For example, the craggy offshore island of Cardigan was once used for sheep grazing but is now is a protected home for gulls, shags, razorbills, and oyster catchers.
Seasonal things to see and do
Summer Activities galore including Ceredigion Art Trail (ceredigionarttrail.org.uk) with local artists opening their studios to exhibiting artworks.
Autumn Cooler months are best for long cycle rides and walks – get that crisp Welsh mountain air into your lungs.
Winter Hunker down in accommodation with a wood-fired stove – ideally out of phone range for a complete break.
Mid-Wales is accessible by road, but for a more environmentally-friendly trip you can catch the train to Carmarthen and bus onwards to your destination. See Traveline Cymru (traveline-cymru.info) for more information.
Tasmin Waby travelled to the Cambrian Mountains with support from Mid Wales Tourism. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.