Wales: Taking Time to Slow Down and Feel the Place
Slow Travel through Wales
By Benjamin Millson
Just the thought of travel is usually enough to transport us from our hectic daily lives to a world of repose. But a couple of years back, when my trip abroad ended with sweaty suitcase sprinting and a missed flight, I realized that even our holidays aren’t safe from our penchant for rushing around.
Council of Britain research says we’re walking faster than ever (already 10% faster than in the 90s).
More importantly, though, we’re rushing through a whole host of activities at unrivaled speeds, as technologies offer us the chance to do more and more in a day.
Enter the Slow Movement
As Mcdonalds prepared to land boots on Italian soil in 1986, culinary writer and activist Carlo Petrini led protests calling for a Slow Food movement to counter the growing fast-food phenomenon sweeping Europe from the US.
He argued that Italian culture, which brings family and friends together, over exquisitely prepared meals, made from local ingredients, was not worth trading for what fast-food offered. By 2020, there’s now a slow movement for pretty much anything you can think of—slow food, slow art, slow sex, slow education, slow travel, slow TV, even slow cities.
So, inspired by Petrini’s simple yet revolutionary idea, I decided to plan a trip.
I’d commit to the slow by leaving distractions like phones and watches at home. Far from racing to the airport toward some far-flung destination to chase down must-see landmarks, I’d embrace a more local kind of adventure. I hoped that the trip would allow for a spontaneity often lacking in the way we travel. I wanted to get a little lost. And, finally, by breaking the habit of rush, I wanted to encounter a slower quality of time.
So I set off, with my partner and two friends, from London toward the heart of the Brecon Beacons in Wales, early on a Thursday morning in April 2019 (ah, 2019!).
Despite our best intentions, the journey was mired in delays and procrastinations. We drove enthusiastically toward the tempting peak of Pen Y Fan mountain and grew frustrated as we careered further and further away in search of a safe spot to leave the car.
Breaking a Rule
We’d already unwittingly broken a rule: fixing on a plan to get to the mountain’s peak. As we hurried on foot back toward the mountain, we misjudged the sunset and fell into panic mode. Abandoning our mission, we scrambled down the foot of the mountain toward the nearest cover in-sight, barely before nightfall. We were due a heavy rain.
Climbing into my tent while locking out as many midges as I could, I laughed, seeing my dainty girlfriend gently shivering away in her sleeping bag.
“Do you think we set our hopes too high?”
But apart from a rumble against one of the tents – what we could only assume to be a badger – we had a good night’s rest and woke Friday bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. We each set to our duties harmoniously, with barely more than a jovial “good morning” between us.
Bags Filled, Site Tidied
In no time, water was collected and boiled, the tents were collapsed, bags filled, and the site tidied. Sipping coffee, we surveyed our map, estimating our location, and, pointing to the densest swathe of woodland in the vicinity, we set our direction toward a large area called Fforest Fawr. Maybe a dozen miles to our South-West. “This seems like the best place to get lost.”
And so with the spring sun unexpectedly scorching, we walked, exposed, among protective mothers and their curious lamb. Forbidding mountain ranges to our East, thick ancient woodlands to our West, and the verdant hills we walked among, rolling endlessly North to South.
A conviviality gripped us as we amused ourselves, pointing out whatever sheep or hill or tree caught an eye. And, for the first time, with nothing to distract us but our long saunter ahead, time was beginning to melt away.
For several miles, the rugged landscape passed by and beneath us like this, as tranquil as the light, crisp breeze, and eventually we came upon some tree cover beside a stream. Glad of some relief from the sun, thirsty, and impressed by the shiresque scene, we paused, filled our bottles, and ate.
“Ah, having a little 10 AM lunch stop, are we?” my companion said. We laughed, but this reminded me that I’d hit a checkpoint on my journey. Looking up, the sun looked… noonish. But then, I’m no hunter-gatherer. So there we sat a while; beaming in the half-shade, inhaling fresh-perfumed air by the gulpful. The day felt somehow like childhood. Pressing on, we eventually came to a clearing into the dense woodland of Fforest Fawr. We’d arrived.
A Canopy of Leaves
So, with our water replenished, in the shade and enchanting surroundings – beneath a canopy of birch, ash, oak and I don’t know what else – we were rejuvenated. Skipping along at a steady pace, we climbed the dusty, steep, root-knotted pathways, into hills bedecked with flowering bluebells.
This was the ‘heart of the beacons’, and, awestruck, I grew giddy. Transfixed on our surroundings, we each became hyper-attentive as though all worldly thoughts had faded and the only important thing left was to inspect every last puddle, loose rock, sharp branch, and species of bird or plant.
If we’re complacent today about the importance of being immersed in nature, it only goes to show how detached we’ve grown. In Japan, though, Shirin Yoko or ‘Forest Bathing’ has been part of national healthcare policy for decades. It is also, I found, the perfect aid for slowing down.
As the patchwork sky beyond the trees dimmed, and the woodland cooled, we came to an old wooden marker. The tall sign offered a direction to somewhere in 2 ½ miles. But it was written in Welsh, a language made up mainly of vowels. Curious, we wanted to push on. Yet we’d encountered only one small stream since entering the canopy, and, hoping to avoid a midnight hunt for water, we elected to turn back, fill our bottles, and find a spot for the night.
A Peaceful Night of Rest in Wales
And though the ground there was bumpy and sloped, it lent itself to the most peaceful night of rest. So that, on awakening to Saturday morning, I felt entirely new. And clearly, it wasn’t only me. We’d each become at home in our surroundings, had found our bearings: knew North from South, where our local clean stream was and could backtrack the way we’d come.
Most importantly, though, we all knew where we were heading. Around midday, we came again to the intriguing wooden marker, and an hour or more after that, a quiet hiss grew into a murmur, and then a loud, persistent roar. We’d stumbled upon a treasure. This was Waterfall country.
A Serene, Shallow Pool
Clambering down a sheer face of stone, we came to a serene, shallow pool, lined with red sandstone. The water here glows a devilish vermillion and pours into what would be the first of four waterfalls on the trail. After the trip, I found the names of these falls’, Sgwd Clun-Gwyn, or, ‘Fall of the White Meadow’, was the first. A sharp, angular sandstone shelf from which the river Melte tumbles.
Following the water, we descended to the ‘Lower Fall of the White Meadow’ or Sgwd Isaf Clun-Gwyn – which, while flowing gently compared to the upper section, was all the more enchanting for it. Here we found a series of mossy stepping stones allowing passage across for the nimble-footed.
At this point, looking around myself, I started to feel like we’d got too lucky. And yet, wasn’t this exactly what I’d hoped for? If I’d explicitly driven to see these falls, I thought, then no doubt, I wouldn’t have felt so wonderstruck. It was by not planning, I realized, that we’d opened ourselves to such spontaneity and surprise.
We followed the quiet trail for most of the afternoon, pausing for a quick dip – the water was heart attack cold – before finding a third and fourth waterfall on our way. The third was Sgwd y Pannwr.
And finally, we arrived at the postcard picture of the region. The mightiest fall in the area, Sgwd yr Eira falls from a large basin lip, offering a dry pathway for walkers – once an ancient shepherd’s route – directly behind the cascade.
So we sat ruminating in front of this final mighty waterfall, agreeing that we were more than a little ignorant to have ignored such natural beauty so close to home. We shared the few tidbits we knew about the surrounding area. My girlfriend had read that the entrance to the fairy kingdom was in the vicinity. My friend explained that King Arthur, apparently, rests with his army below ground, somewhere not far south of us, at Dinas Rock.
Finding this final fall, we also had, for the first time on our wander, encountered a crowd. And so, with satisfied fatigue, we turned away from the trail here, marching slowly up into the hills in a new direction. And as I walked, allowing thoughts I usually bat away, to pass carelessly through my mind, I found a certain distance from those crucial things (job, family, future) that typically rouse anxiety. And yet, I thought, how often in daily life do I take the time to step back and reflect like this?
A couple more hours of uphill marching and the forest became thicker, before transforming into a new climate entirely. Suddenly, everything was a surreal, vibrant, living green – throbbing in all directions. Each tree, from the trunk to the tip of each branch, was dressed in a web of lacy moss. Even the ground – colonized.
In little over 48 hours we’d passed vast open mountains, quaint woodlands taken from Tolkien, mystical waterfalls, and now, this. The perfect spot for our final night.
Passing the Whisky
The fire whipped round in the wind like an angry cat’s tail, at the center of our quad. We passed the last drops of whisky round – now in our highest spirits yet. But the end of our little adventure was in sight. And with it, I anticipated, might come that familiar dread that comes at the end of all good holidays. A dread of returning to our everyday lives. You know. That, “wave to the villa kids, wave to the pool. We’re packed and off to the airport” dread.
But the final day still offered surprises. I woke at dusk, with a downpour that would last most of the day making good progress into my tent. A small puddle was forming on my sleeping bag. Soon enough, everything would saturate. So I awoke my party. We packed up quickly and sought the best shelter we could.
Tree cover wasn’t going to cut it, though. We altered our course to commence our several hour slog back toward the car.
After crossing fields, farms, the river Mellte, and stomping through miles of now swampy woodland, we stood, sodden in the relentless Welsh downpour staring at what seemed like some giant, grey portal. In front of us stood Porth yr Ogof, the largest cave opening in the United Kingdom.
We followed the river into the mouth of the thirsty cave, and by the time we’d dried off a little and refueled on our remaining cereal bars, the rain had calmed to a drizzle. Standing beneath the jagged teeth of the cave, glad to be changing into my final dry layers, I had no dread to be returning home.
Energized by the Walk
Instead, I felt energized. I would be returning to my normal day-to-day, sure, but not entirely as I’d left it. I’d found a new passion for being immersed in nature and a curiosity for a different kind of travel. I’d found that, with a little sense of adventure, the simple things in life become at least as exciting as the must-see attractions. And, perhaps most of all, I’d learned that slowing down isn’t all that hard. That, really, it’s all about living intentionally. About breaking our habits to allow curiosity to impel us instead.
“We have lost our sense of time. We believe that we can add meaning to life by making things go faster. We have an idea that life is short — and that we must go faster to fit everything in. But life is long. The problem is that we don’t know how to spend our time wisely.”
Benjamin Millson is a south-London based writer and daydreamer. Wonderer and wanderer. Fascinated by the weird creatures we are and how we live in our natural world.