THERE are times when you need to go to a place where economic failure has settled like silt on the seabed, turning hard and reliable as rock through the centuries. That is when you need the part of mid-Wales where all the town names seem to end in Wells. Builth Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llanwrtyd Wells, Llangammarch Wells: all manner of things will be well as you sink into their uneventful tranquillity.
Almost everything to be seen is deserted or has declined: the villages have shrunk and the chapels have emptied. The hills are beautiful and desolate, but even the beauty and desolation are understated compared to similar parts of Scotland. Even the depopulation appears to have been accomplished by poverty, and not, as in Scotland, by clearances. But the bars are loud with raucous gossip and the valleys resound with the thunder of machine guns on the hills above as soldiers practise at war and civilians play at soldiers all weekend.
Llanwrtyd Wells advertises itself as Britain's smallest town, and looks beautiful; Llandrindod Wells, on the other hand, was bustling about a century ago and still has Victorian promenades with overhanging canopies outside the Metropole Hotel, next to a shop offering Christian handicrafts. In the end, I settled on Llangammarch Wells, the smallest of all, just a request stop on the railway line from Shrewsbury to Swansea.
The Cammarch Arms hotel is a magnificent pile, faced in grey and brown stone, like chain mail over leather. The rooms have high ceilings and the beds almost infinite depth: I found them so soft as to be almost impossible to sleep in. It breathes a faded luxury which dates - I should guess - from just after the Second World War, when soft beds, warm rooms and copious helpings of food were the summit of delicious decadence.
The visitors' books in hotels such as these suggest that life inside them has changed much less than in the surrounding communities. The same people return year after year, and largely to the same pursuits, though some of the more violent country sports have fallen out of favour. Visitors no longer boast of shooting or otter-hunting. Nowadays the only serious blood sport practised in the area is the pursuit of John Birt, whose holiday cottage is near Builth Wells. But that is a sport for men on huge expense accounts who stay in country house hotels, rather than for people seeking inner peace and reconciliation in places such as this.
The sort of hotel I prefer - another is the Severn Arms in Penybont - is the kind of place where judges, or majors on half-pay, would come for their holidays. In England they have all been tarted up until the prices are monstrous and the food is tolerable, but in Wales they retain their original character. On rainy days there are thrillers to read, merely rubbish when written, but which have now softened into fertile mulch for thought: to read James Bond on a rainy afternoon in such a hotel is to get a greater appreciation of human vanity and silliness than ever you could find in the sublimity of the mountains around.
On sunny days there is walking and fishing and driving to the sea. The walking and the fishing are satisfying without being tremendous. It is a curiosity that the trout fishing season in this part of Wales starts on 1 March, rather than in April as almost everywhere in England, which accounts for my interest in Wales in the spring, but there is nothing truly remarkable about the trout fishing any longer. It is simply pleasant, the way that large parts of England must have been once, before industrial farming and suburban development everywhere.
The rivers are stocked with brown trout, but all the ones I have seen have a large population of coarse fish, too; this adds to their charm. In the south of England it is possible to pay pounds 30 or pounds 40 a day to fish for stocked rainbow trout in lakes, and more than that for river fishing. I would rather pay less and take pot luck with smarter fish.
In the bar of the Cammarch Arms they told me of a tragic accident at the trout farm upstream, near Beulah, one year. An almost unbelievably evil person, said the ghillie, winking with exaggerated gravity, had let the fish free in a flood, and once they were in the river everyone from the surrounding villages helped to clear them out since they had been transformed by their escape into the river from a cash crop into vermin. I agreed that this was depravity difficult to credit and bought the ghillie another pint.
The episode struck me as another example of the superiority of this part of Wales to Scotland: it seems an unbreakable rule that locals everywhere will stab salmon in their little spawning brooks with pitchforks and gaffs, but when they poach rainbow trout, and do so with wit, it is easy to see that they are on the side of the angels really. Another thing in praise of the Cammarch Arms was that it was not really a fishing hotel. It was very well equipped for the purpose, with a huge rod room for storing tackle and drying clothes in, but the bar was mostly full of people talking about absent neighbours, not about fly patterns.
One day we drove to the coast, near Cardigan. My wife had friends on the very edge of the sea, down a long and twisting track. Like almost everyone else in Wales, they had moved from London. But they had found one of the places where Welsh was really the first language, which they had to learn to be usefully employed; and the wife was delighted to discover that, there, being American was an advantage compared to being English.
They took us to a bay deserted except for a vanload of Christians, who drew fundamentalist slogans in the sand. The tide wiped clean their eternal truths, and a seal watched us from about 15 yards out, whiskery, unblinking and infinitely strange. I wanted to ride on its back like some Celtic saint towards America. Wales isn't exactly tame - being untamed is part of being old-fashioned, too; in fact, it's one of the best parts of it.
Cammarch Arms Hotel (05912 205).
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