Deep in the folds of the ancient Cambrian mountains, close by a river tumbling ferociously to the sea, lie the crumbling remains of one of the 19th century's more unusual experiments with tourism.
The fortunes of the vast Hafod estate, built on the Silurian rocks of mid-Wales, have waxed and waned since it was established at the turn of the 19th century. Then it was the centre of a grand tour of the Celtic regions but it fell on hard times, to the point that its grand residence, fronted with Bath stone, was dynamited in the 1950s after attempts to find a buyer fell through.
Things have taken a turn for the better in recent years, after a charitable trust took on the task of restoring the grounds and walkways. Hafod's five walking routes are the focus of this month's walk. The paths, cleared and restored, are mainly based on historic ones devised by the estate's most celebrated owner Thomas Johnes, who was driven by a passion to get visitors to explore the estate's majestic grounds on foot.
Hafod is a world away from the – albeit delightful – manicured and managed lands of Stourhead and other large, National Trust properties. "It was a bit of a reaction to that sort of estate," says Jennie Macve, author of a history of Hafod. "There'd been this feeling that a Greek temple was a must-have; Hafod was an attempt to return back to true Britishness. It was created in the Napoleonic wars when those Grand Tours came to a sudden stop. People had to explore their own country and the scenery they had previously dismissed as uninteresting or threatening." If that chimes with these recessionary times, when more people are seeking to holiday at home, so will the fact that Johnes essentially funded Hafod on credit he was unable to pay back.
The walk starts in the car park on the B4574, beneath a mournful landscape of abandoned mines, east of Aberystwyth. Zig-zag downhill following the blue waymarkers to Hafod Church, where the Johnes family lies buried, and further to stand below the Peiran waterfalls before retracing your steps up to the first footpath. Turn right and follow a sweeping path through woodland to reach the delightful original restored chain bridge, a wobbly affair teetering above a point where the river Ystwyth narrows and crashes through the gorge.
Follow the southern bank of the river past a mothballed gothic arcade to reach the Dologau Bridge. Turn left through a gate, pass the polytunnels and take the red waymarker signposted left over a stile and along the field edge. Cross a stile and continue with the river on your left on an undulating path. At a meeting of paths climb the slope and bear left, through a moss-covered stone wall and keep to the narrow path above the river, with a graceful waterfall on the other bank. After 400m you'll come to a cave – venture through the cave to come face to face with a hidden cascade.
Return to the meeting of paths, and keep ahead this time, following the waymarked red signposts (you can take either path as they meet after 300m).
The walk picks up the ridge on the south side of the Ystwyth, high above the river, the silence – apart from birdsong – striking after the drama of the rushing river. Though the woodland here is mainly conifer, there are some superb, ancient beech trees. Eventually you pass through a tunnel, with views across the valley to the Bedford Monument, and drop down to cross the Mossy Seat Falls. The path follows a Forestry Commission road with views to the north and west framed by the distinctive rolling Cambrian mountains, heavily faulted, with glaciated, smoothed peaks. The area is sometimes referred to as the UK's "Empty Quarter", the large chunk of the road atlas that separates Snowdonia in the north and the Brecon Beacons in the south and which is almost entirely free of trunk roads.
Bear right, waymarked by a red post, along a fenced-in track and over a stile. A waymarked detour picks up a small stream and a miniature gorge and you then wind downhill to cross the Alpine Bridge; immediately to the left is the old ice house.
Walk up the path to reach a track. Cross over this and a second road and follow the blue waymarkers. To the left lies the rubble of the original dynamited Hafod House. Pass a pond and restored Hawthorn Cottage and cross the hay meadow into broadleaf woodland. This is a classic example of the picturesque landscape Johnes intended to construct: moving from one habitat to another. Follow the path uphill and take the detour to the right, which leads to Mariamne's garden. Mariamne was the Johnes's daughter and according to Macve, she was a "romantic, tragic figure", knowledgeable about botany but who died young. Across the valley you'll spot the tunnel you walked through earlier. This valley was also one of the last refuges of the red kite; in the 1980s volunteers, including barristers from London, spent chilly nights watching nests to make sure eggs weren't stolen. The result is one of the greatest conservation success stories of the late 20th century, with red kites as common in the skies of the Cambrian Mountains as buzzards are elsewhere. From here return to the blue waymarkers and follow the track uphill to finish back at the church.
OS map: Explorer 213 Aberytswyth & Cwm Rheidol.
Distance: Six miles. Time: Three hours.
How to get there
Mark Rowe stayed at Faengrach cottage Faengrach@aol.com) in Devil's Bridge, above Hafod. Available from £253-£604 per week. Book through cottages4you.co.uk, ref 3880 or OGT.
pumlumon.org.uk and hafod.org
Maps available from the church carpark at the walk's start.