Wales: Home to the self-proclaimed wacky festival capital of Britain

In the Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells, if it's not the 'Man vs Horse Marathon', it's 'Morris in the Forest'. Sarah Barrell pays a visit
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The Independent Travel

Festivals are in vogue. From Addis Ababa to Aberdeen, tourism organisations are desperate to jump on the festival bandwagon. Gone are the days when a highbrow arts festival, venerable sporting event or a superlative samba carnival was the only way to get on the international events calendar. From tomato-throwing festivals in Spain to cheese rolling in England, it seems, the "mine's weirder than yours" ethos now wins. In today's cut-throat festival climate a little individuality goes a long way - in the case of Llanwrtyd Wells (say: thlan-oor-tid) a little individuality took this tiny Welsh town from obscurity to international tourism stardom. Or as close to celebrity as a town with a population of 604 can hope to get.

According to a sometime listing in Guinness Book of Records, Llanwrtyd Wells is the smallest town in Great Britain. But it has latterly dispensed with its diminutive accolade, preferring to pitch itself as "The Wackiest Town in Britain" or, as one Welsh tourism website puts it, "the eccentric capital of Wales".

As sales techniques go, this rates as the marketing equivalent of a bumper sticker stating: "You don't have to be mad to work here but it helps" - an instant fun-numbing assertion sending savvy travellers running for the Black Mountains. Yet a quick inventory of the town's wacky festival attributes and visitor numbers suggests otherwise. For a start, Llanwrtyd Wells is the place responsible for introducing Bog Snorkelling to the world - the inspiration for self-consciously nutty festivals worldwide. It is also home to the Man v Horse Marathon, and once a year actively encourages men to dance with hankies at the Morris in the Forest festival. Since the first Man v Horse Marathon took place in 1980, the town's calendar has grown to include a total of 22 festivals, not one of them remotely dignified or born out of local tradition. Most of them, in fact, were born out of the pub.

That the town has more than one public house comes as something of a surprise, but I find myself gathered outside its most legendary watering hole, the Neuadd Arms, unreasonably early one damp Sunday morning, with a crowd of mountain bikers in mud-splattered Lycra. One of the cyclists is Gordon Green, the former landlord of the Neuadd Arms and the man responsible for thinking up the roster of wacky events that bring an annual £1.5m to the local economy. He has subsequently received an MBE for services to tourism.

Local celebrity he may be, and one apparently identified by his shocking crop of white septuagenarian hair and natty cycling shorts, but Green still manages to get swallowed up in the throng of pan-European mountain bike enthusiasts. They are here for the second day of the Real Ale Wobble festival, a two-day mountain bike and beer-drinking bonanza. "It's been complete madness in town since the ride started yesterday," says the old man working the registration table set up in the Neuadd Arms' bar. "You'll have better luck spotting Gordon out on the course," he concludes, gesturing me away from the comforts of the pub's open fire and out into the soggy morning with nothing but my beer tokens to keep me warm.

Two miles (uphill) into the course and things aren't looking good. My four bike-fit companions are already fatigued and I'm wondering when the first beer stop is. We have chosen the shortest of the course's three waymarked trails, combining 15 miles of off-road farm and forest tracks, wild mountain terrain and (allegedly) some gentle green lanes and minor roads.

Our climb up over some rolling, densely wooded hills is rewarded briefly with a run down into a beautiful fern-covered river valley before we deviate into a chain-deep muddy gorge through some trees that demands either the skill of a freefall parachutist or, in my case, a dismount. I stagger out with my bike at the other end to the ominous sight of a St John's Ambulance manned by a steward who clearly prioritises humour over health and safety. "I could fall down that hill quicker," he says, waving us on with a smirk. And still no sign of the beer tent.

Up over the next hill and I'm scanning the overcast skies for rain - and a hopeful sighting of the local red kite, saved from extinction during the past century and honoured with a statue in the middle of town. Sadly, it's the former that swoops down to greet us as we round the next bend, out on to a bleak, tree-denuded hilltop. Riding into horizontal rain and mud splatters from the bikes in front, I find it hard to rustle up enthusiasm as someone optimistically points out what could be the table-top outlines of the Brecon Beacons on the gloomy horizon. Now very last in a long line of bedraggled cyclists, I find myself unwittingly redefining the sport of ambulance chasing - in that one is chasing me. St John is bringing up the rear with the wry smile of one who knows a dead man riding when he sees one.

It would be nice to say I wasn't defeated in the face of arduous hill climbs and ridicule - but I was. With three hours to sunset, we're barely halfway round the course. Dignity thrown to the wind (and there is plenty of it whipping across the peaty hilltops) a companion and I get a lift with an accommodating female warden. Our bikes begrudgingly riding in the ambulance, we drive part of the way warm and dry, whizzing though open countryside. Wild green hills and dramatically threatening skies stretch as far as the eye can see - and it can see pretty far now it doesn't have to concentrate on avoiding flying scree and pitching over the handlebars. Reunited with the bikes, we ride towards our first beer stop of the day (most people's last) where a ditch-water-brown pint of local Lleud Lawn ale seems to appeal to me rather less than it does to the hundreds of cyclists around us who are throwing it down with the same enthusiasm they are exchanging course war stories and completion times.

The final leg is a fabulous downhill freewheel over wide dirt tracks on to the most picture perfect of country lanes, flanked by ruined stone farmhouses, a beautiful Celtic church and old pump house covering the sulphur springs that gave the town its name and its early tourism fame. Making it full circle back to the Neuadd Arms, we spend the evening sampling as many of the 72 ales on sale from 32 local breweries as possible.

"It's been a super weekend," concludes Green, who, like me, made it part of the way around the course. "Not least to watch all those bikers enjoy a beer or two out in the forestry. I made it out as far as the second beer stop." This confession proves less comforting when I realise I'm under half his age and that he's back out there tomorrow walking and marking the course for the following weekend's Real Ale Ramble.

Somewhat shamed, the next morning my companion and I walk part of the previous day's course. Minus the rain and the 500-plus festival attendees, the landscape is one of Welsh bucolic bliss: wild mossy hills populated by shaggy tailed sheep and the occasional lone farmer. Besides the deep ruts carved into some of the forestry trails, it's hard to imagine the place has ever hosted so much as a sheep dog trial. Back in the now deserted town centre, we witness what must constitute a major social event outside festival time. Two residents nod to each other as they pass on opposite sides of the street. "Quiet again," says one. "Aye," says another. "Quiet again." You don't have to be mad to live here, but certain weekends out of the year, it helps.

GETTING THERE

Llanwrtyd Wells is located in the Cambrian Mountains (on the A483) around two hours' drive from the Midlands and four hours from London. It is also on the Heart of Wales railway line (0845 606 1660; www.arrivatrainswales.co.uk), which follows a scenic route between Shrewsbury and Swansea. Reservations recommended for bikes.

EVENTS

The Real Ale Wobble takes place today and tomorrow, starting at 10am both days. The cost for one day is £15, and £20 for two days.

The Real Ale Ramble takes place next weekend. For a full festivals calendar and information contact Green Events (01591 610270; www.green-events.co.uk).

BIKERS

In addition to mountain bike festivals, the countryside around Llanwrtyd Wells offers myriad off-road routes for cyclists. Mountain bikes can be hired at Cycles Irfon (01591 610710; www.cyclesirfon.co.uk).

For National Cycle Network route information contact Sustrans (0845 113 0065; www.sustrans.org.uk).

STAYING THERE

Lake Country House Hotel, Llangammarch Wells, Powys, Wales (01591 620202; www.lakecountryhouse.co.uk). Double rooms start at £160 including breakfast.

MORE INFORMATION

Llanwrtyd Wells Tourism Information Centre (01591 610666; llanwrtyd-wells.powys.org.uk).
Wales Tourist Board (029 2049 9909; www.visitwales.com).

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