PUMLUMON, pronounced “Pimlimmon” and known as “Plynlimon” in English – is the highest summit in the Cambrian Mountains of Mid-Wales and dominates the countryside of north Ceredigion. Three rivers, the Severn, the Rheidol and the Wye, descend from these mountains through dramatic and varied scenery to the coast at Aberystwyth, while a fourth, the Teifi, heads south towards Cardigan (Aberteifi).
The wild summits, rolling foothills, and deep valleys of the Pumlumon massif have for centuries acted as a formidable barrier, making this one of the least-known parts of Wales. Today, the remote, peaceful atmosphere and lack of urban centres and development are among the area’s greatest assets.
In the Middle Ages, the Cistercian abbey of Strata Florida (in Welsh, Ystrad Fflur, or plain of flowers) controlled the economy of this hill country. The abbey owned extensive tracts of land, mainly managed for profitable sheep-farming, and also exploited the rivers and lakes for fishing and the area’s mineral resources. The monks built a good network of roads, including reputedly the first bridge at Devil’s Bridge (or Pontarfynach = bridge over the monks’ river), which brought pilgrims to the abbey itself and traders from far afield to the lucrative fairs held four times a year at Ffair-rhos.
When the monasteries were broken up by Henry VIII, the Pumlumon area became a marginal land of subsistence hill farms and absentee landlords, where few outsiders visited and little changed for 250 years. Then, in the late 1700s, it was “rediscovered” by the outside world. The fashion for making “Picturesque” tours brought the leisured classes to the upland parts of Britain, there to wonder at, describe, and sketch the mountains, waterfalls, rural scenes, and ancient ruins.
Wales, having its own language and distinctive culture and heritage, seemed to these early tourists an exotic foreign land, and nowhere more so than among the hills of Cardiganshire (now Ceredigion). Despite the language barrier, many visitors remarked on the friendliness of the local people, and the absence of the rigid class divisions that existed in England. Devil’s Bridge, with its magnificent cascades and ravines, was a major attraction and became the first purpose-built tourist “resort” in Wales. Its popularity increased with the development of the nearly Hafod Estate as a model picturesque landscape. Artists, travel writers, and romantic poets celebrated the area in their works.
In sharp contrast, by the middle of the nineteenth century much of upland Ceredigion had become an industrial landscape. There had always been small-scale mining operations – in places, dating back to the Bronze Age – but from the 1830s lead mining became big business. New villages grew up, with numerous inns and a frontier character, reservoirs were constructed to provide water-power, and a railway was built from Devil’s Bridge to the coast. Miners migrated to the area from Cornwall, Yorkshire, and elsewhere: their names can be found on gravestones in country churchyards and some of their descendants are here still.
The last mine closed in the 1920s, and at around the same time forestry began to provide a significant source of employment. Today, the old mine buildings and tips have to large extent been absorbed back into the landscape, but they continue to provide a fascinating study for the industrial archaeologist.
Today, the Pumlumon area is a sum of all these historical layers in a wonderful natural setting. You can visit Devil’s Bridge and enjoy the walks down into the gorge, where the views of the falls have changed little since the first tourists arrived in the 18th century. The ruins of Strata Florida abbey are beautifully situated in a bowl in the midst of hills, with nearby the nature reserve of Cors Caron, an upland bog relic of the Ice Age.
The historic landscape at Hafod is being restored, and here you can follow scenic walks that lead you to cascades and crags, picturesque buildings and bridges, and splendid views of rivers, meadows, woods and mountains. At nearby Pwllpeiran and at a number of other sites in the area way-marked trails can be enjoyed, and there is an inexhaustible supply of public footpaths through hugely varied scenery.
You can get acquainted with the history of lead-mining in a hands-on way, including a trip underground, at the Silver Mountain Experience. The Vale of Rheidol narrow gauge steam railway, built for mineral and timber traffic in 1902, will convey you at a leisurely pace along the steep valley side, with stunning views. For those who prefer a more energetic means of transport, there are two excellent mountain-bike trails at Bwlch Nant yr Arian, with more planned for the area, and routes along quiet lanes for the more conventional cyclist.
Natural mountain lakes, old mine ponds, the reservoirs of the Rheidol hydro-electric scheme, along with rivers and streams, provide a wide choice of location for the angler and some of the best brown trout fishing in the country. With so many different habitats, the whole Pumlumon area is a paradise for bird-watchers, and even the untrained eye can quickly learn to spot our most special bird, the red kite. For close-up views, you can attend the daily kite-feeding session at Bwlch Nant yr Arian.