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The best places in West Wales

Written by Travel Adventures

In my mind’s eye, when I see Cardigan and the landscape around it from afar, I assemble narrow lanes banked by tall hedgerows filled with bickering birds and empty sands between the paws of dragon- skinned rocks. Fields hazed by farm-fire smoke, shadows gathering like folds of theatre curtain, a chiaroscuro woodcut in the landscape. I had holidayed in this part of West Wales as a child, returned by chance a decade ago with my own son, and then just kept on coming back. It’s a land beyond motorway and train, far enough away from London to be almost immune – with properly dark night skies that seem to have a cleansing effect, some of the most beautiful coastline in Britain and deep-cover countryside to vanish into. And anyway, there’s always a magnetism, an impetus, about going west.

Summer fields in Cardigan

David Watts

I am drawn to stories of young folk escaping here from town life in the early 1970s – just as bored Welsh teenagers were making the reverse journey – finding tumbledown cottages to repair and cheap land to grow food, fuelled by hippie optimism. Many were disciples of back- to-the-land guru John Seymour, whose Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency lay on teak coffee tables in every patchouli-scented household. If there’s a little disdain now for that brown-tinged era, for its damp cagoules and earnestness, there’s also a sense of ‘well, what took us so long to catch up?’

One of those pioneers was Patrick Holden, who still lives on the farm he began as a commune in 1973 after hanging out on folk troubadour Donovan’s island near Skye, later working for the Soil Association and founding the Sustainable Food Trust while continuing to make cheese from his dairyherd. ‘As soon as you come over the Cambrian mountains it feels purifying – nature in the ascendant,’ he tells me. ‘It’s like California with more rain, and that west-coast, anything-can-happen feeling.’

Holden regards this part of Wales as the epicentre of small-scale organic farming in the UK, and many others have followed since – there’s room and space to experiment. Adam York, the co-creator of Manchester’s Unicorn cooperative supermarket, came to set up a market garden in Cardigan (Aberteifi in Welsh), the mild winters making it possible to grow salad all year round, stretching the seasons; others have seeded mushroom farms, while eco-housing schemes support young individuals keen to start land-based projects. Just outside town is In the Welsh Wind Distillery, shiny with copper pipes, its founders Ellen Wakelam and Alex Jungmayr vociferous about local provenance for their ingredients and for a wider Welsh food scene. They began by making craft gin, then gathered barley from nearby farms for their field-to-glass whisky.

Kayaking on the River Teifi

Finn Beales

‘People have to have a little more gumption these days,’ says Jack Smylie Wild, a poet and baker based in Cardigan, whose parents were new-age travellers in the late 1980s, the era of Castlemorton raves, of living in old ambulances and horse boxes. ‘There’s the same spirit, but not so much hanging around in damp farmhouses smoking weed.’ He writes about the area in his lyrical debut Riverwise, a meditative ramble along the banks of the River Teifi, enjoying the ‘wilderness of mind’ it brings, alighting on personal legends and secret spots. I know the Teifi well, its waters tracing the county border between Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire. I have kayaked and paddle-boarded and fallen in, scrambling down to swim in gasping breaths in summer, watching out for but never seeing otters. The chance of a kingfisher, though; kites overhead; a curlew stalking the shore by the wetlands reserve, its name redolent of both call and beak; reeds as high as a water buffalo’s eye, the shaggy creatures a surreal presence here.

The Church of the Holy Cross above Mwnt beach on the Ceredigion coast

Finn Beales

At Cardigan the Teifi broadens out, makes a moat for the stone knuckle of the castle, slows enough to drop a crabbing line. Cast back a century and more, and the place resounded with all the clanking and hammering of a thriving shipbuilding port, fleets of boats laden with herring, slate and oak bark sailing to North America and the Baltic. The clamour has long faded; ferns and woodland have rewilded industrial scars, and often the distant past seems nearer the surface than recent history. Coracles woven from willow are still used to fish the river; at tiny St Dogmaels, just down the road from Cardigan, the ruins of a 12th-century abbey stand where others have a village green. Once, an elderly, beetle-browed man appeared from behind an arch and enquired of my then-seven-year-old son what he knew of the dissolution of the monasteries.

‘If you’re looking for an archetypal, low-carbon town in the UK, this is as close as you’ll get,’ reckons York from his market garden. He’s right. Here is river and beach, castle and high street all in close proximity, easily walked or cycled, and with enough for the inquisitive – a couple of arts centres, butchers, delis, galleries, a nature reserve for walking, the ebb and flow of people with fresh ideas.

Warming fireplace in the farmhouse at Fforest

David Watts

More often than not I spend some time at Fforest, which is more than a mere campsite – it’s a whole eco-system. Former art students James Lynch and Sian Tucker didn’t just buy a tumbledown homestead but 200 acres of wood and farmland on the edge of Cilgerran, crafting geodesic domes among the trees and evolving it into a year-round project, with winter women-only retreats and a summer happening of craft and cheese making, all accomplished with a clear-eyed sense of style and community. The campsite pub is the most atmospheric around, with a ghost story so unsettling it will shadow the walk back through dark, dark woods. Lynch, a gruff Tolkien-esque figure, is the sort of person who might disappear into his shed and emerge a week later, goggles on, with an incredible flying machine; one of his current projects is to turn empty churches into way stations for cyclists, with sleeping pods he designed himself. In the process the pair have not only fallen in love with the landscape – camping on the beach with their four sons, diving for spider crabs, foraging for samphire – but given a serious boost to Cardigan’s profile and economy. (Some credit too must go to David and Claire Hieatt, the couple behind Hiut denim and the inspirational DO Lectures.)

Along the coast north of Cardigan are my favourite beaches in the world. Mwnt, with its ancient church and neat, conical hill that I climb to the top, an optical illusion making the drop to the shore seem more sheer and scarier than it is; Penbryn, with its cave and near-tropical sands; and Llangrannog, reached by the steep road or by clambering over a stile into a sudden, surprising gully of ferny rainforest and cascading streams. Every Bonfire Night, fireworks are set off from opposing clifftops and a huge blaze is lit on the sand, to be slowly extinguished by the tide.

Up until recently, locals would tell you it was like Cornwall without the crowds; last summer that changed, of course, as people who normally flew to Bali found West Wales instead. But luckily there are the spots where no signposts point. The waterfalls at Ffynone Woods, said to lead to the under- world; the seal colony just out of sight from Poppit Sands; standing stones and silent glades of green. Places on the periphery, where the outside world fades away.

Cedar barrel sauna at Fforest

Heather Birnie

Where to stay


The Fforest project has taken glamping to the next level, with several evolutionary leaps – but the alpha species is the geodesic domes, some with steaming onsen, all kitted out with beds, bathrooms, handwoven rugs and kitchen cabins. Also in the mix are split-level digs in former pigsties set around a vegetable garden and a farmhouse to be rented in its entirety. There are some Scandi-style apartments in a warehouse in central Cardigan, with painterly views of the Teifi and castle, though these are being adapted to create The Albion. Opening later this year, the hotel will riff on a backstory involving the eponymous ship, which departed in 1819 from the quay below carrying emigrants to New Brunswick. For those determined to see otters, the off-grid Oak Tree Cottage is embedded in the Teifi Marshes Nature Reserve.

Lunch with a view at Harbourmaster

Keith Davies

Cardigan Castle was reopened in 2015 after years of restoration and now has family-friendly bedrooms in a Georgian mansion withinits doughty medieval walls. Up in Aberaeron is Harbourmaster, whose dark-blue frontage resembles a postage stamp, while Sea and Slate has several pretty cottages along the Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire coast. Back in the early 1970s, one way of staying here cheaply was to sign up with WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), helping out with planting and harvesting in return for bed and board. It’s still going strong, with small farms taking part including Troed y Rhiw, owned by Californian-born Alicia Miller and her husband.

Pizzatipi slices

Ed Schofield

Where to eat and drink


In Cardigan, the Pizzatipi encampment, set under a huge canvas around a pagan-like firepit, draws in folk from as far as Carmarthen. The little pub has local ales and ciders, and a small restaurant has just been added above the kitchen. Sadly, local favourite Bara Menyn café closed after six years of early starts (baker Jack Smylie Wild has plans for a follow-up), but for sourdough and coffee, as well as pudding kits, there’s now Crwst, established by locals Osian and Catrin Jones, which has brought a little urban slickness.

Foraging hedgerow botanicals for Dà Mhìle gin

Heather Birnie

Nearby, the new Yr Hen Printworks is a rare wine bar. El Salsa’s Mexican street food has gathered a loyal following since it parked its food truck and set up permanently – chef Laura Elsaesser grows her own spices and sources everything else from nearby farms, while Jen Goss’s Our Two Acres supper clubs are fed by ingredients from her smallholding. In Llangrannog, bag fish and chips from The Beach Hut, and crab cakes from The Boy Ashore shack in Aberporth. Inland, the small university town of Lampeter is where you’ll find Watson & Pratt’s, a brilliant organic deli that will be opening an outpost in Aberaeron this summer. St Dogmaels Market gathers each Tuesday morning, with stalls selling bread from the mill across the duck pond and Foxhill jams. Ask for the ‘goat man’, who makes pies using butter from his herd. There are more jams, chutneys and crunchy Welsh edibles at the Abbey Café (where this writer was once the proud winner of an afternoon tea at the summer fête).

Cardigan Bay Fish runs out of a family house on the high street – knock at The Villa and ask what Mandy and Len Walters have that day. Scallops, spider crab or half lobsters, perhaps, though if Len’s been out in his coracle there may be fresh sewin (wild river trout) too. On the little road to Poppit Sands, The Ferry Inn is a favoured first-night destination for fish pie and terrace views across the river estuary. Seasonal farmshop Glebelands Market Garden is on the St Dogmaels road just out of Cardigan. In the Welsh Wind Distillery, about two miles out on the Aberystwyth road, holds gin-tasting sessions, while the Mantle micro- brewery does the same for beer – start with the easy-drinking Rock Steady Golden Ale. In the village of Llandysul is Caws Teifi, founded by a Dutch cheese-making trio in the 1980s; they also make Dà Mhìle gin (try the savoury seaweed variety), apple brandy, rum and whisky. Sitting in the cheese-tasting cabin with a hunk of washed-rind Saval, the sounds of the farm all around, is a deeply satisfying churn-to-plate experience.

Sea and Slate cottage near Llangrannog

Where to shop


Opposite the castle, Canfas Gallery has a growing reputation for seeking out and supporting up-and-coming Welsh artists who don’t depict endless seascapes and white cottages. Meinir Mathias, for example, who paints men cross-dressed in traditional bonnets and lace, and ceramicist Joe Frowen, who casts dystopian futures on his pots. It’s all curated by former B&B owner Anne Cakebread – she also paints in her atelier at the back, writes and illustrates a witty series of Welsh-language books (Teach Your Cat Welsh is on my bookshelf), and knows everything there is to know about local comings and goings. She moved here with her girlfriend by chance: ‘I’d been painting a beach from my imagination and when I stepped onto Poppit Sands for the first time, there it was.’

Restored using traditional techniques by its owner, Custom House Shop and Gallery sells soap made using seawater from Mwnt beach, teeny-tiny coracles, knitwear and a cookbook by Anja Dunk, who grew up in Cardigan and fuses German and Welsh cooking (surely a one-off). Peter Bodenham’s studio is a dinky space in St Dogmaels where he turns very collectible cups, vases and bowls with colours blown in from the wild West Wales coast. And in Llangrannog, the Sea and Slate gallery is run by Spot Scott, who renovated the fisherman’s hut where she showcases willow-weaving and artworks, along with homewares from Welsh social enterprise The Goodwash Company.

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