It’s become something of a joke with me ‘Places you must visit on the A487’. Something of a Welsh scenic highway; from mountain passes to estuaries, wild woods and pasture, seaside towns, cliffs and high moors. The subtitle might read ‘What took you so long?’. In all the years of driving down to Pembrokeshire have only now – two weeks ago – got round to turning off between Machynlleth and Aberystwyth at Eglwys-fach (former parish of that great Anglo-Welsh poet R S Thomas) to visit the RSPB wildlife reserve at Ynys-hir. (Eng: Long Island)
Ynys-hir richly rewards visiting, we quickly discovered, because it is so large and can thus boast diverse habitats. From raised bog and reed beds to estuarine marsh, ancient oak woods, fellside and traditionally managed lowland pasture grazed in part by hardy hill ponies. We combined two of the habitat walks on offer, stopping at two of the reserve’s seven hides to take in sightings of waders, ducks and geese at one and an overview from the other atop the wooded hilltop. The third walk – to the saltmarsh estuary of the Dyfi – we look forward to discovering next time we visit.
Another part of this large reserve is the fern covered hill inland, t’other side of the A487, known as Foel Fawr. We spot Red Kite circling. These magnificent birds are now a common sight in Wales and a great conservation success story. Their numbers were reduced to a mere handful of breeding pairs by the mid 20th Century but thanks to the efforts of concerned bodies and naturalists like Bill Condry they were brought back from the edge of extinction and are now something of a tourist attraction in their own right. Condry and his wife Penny rented a cottage on the estate from 1959 and a decade later became the first resident bird wardens when the RSPB bought the site and opened it to the public. Today rare birds getting the conservation attention are the Ospreys breeding just up the road at the Cors Dyfi site run by the Montgomery Wildlife Trust that I had visited earlier this year. However the RSPB warden confided in us that said fish eating breeding pairs actually prefer to do their hunting here, at Ynys-hir!
We stayed overnight with our friends Geoff and Diane at Penrall’t, their wonderful new and second hand bookshop in Machynlleth. A full time retirement project for this enterprising and hard working couple; they cleverly converted the former butcher’s shop into what has to be the neatest and (for its size) most comprehensively stocked little bookshop in Wales. They’ve recently added to the cultural offer with the addition of a gallery for contemporary photography three doors up which is also situated – you’ve guessed it – on the A487. Another attraction in this short stretch of highway is the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) whose seven interconnected galleries showcase the work of a wide range of Welsh artists and craftspeople. Privately run, with grant aid, this fabulous series of commercial galleries is always a joy to visit and the perfect non-metropolitan venue to make new artistic discoveries.
Kim & I were both struck by the current exhibition of the work of ‘The Secret Artist’ Roger Cecil (1942-2015). Abertillery born, working class, whose talent took him to study at the Royal College of Art in London in 1962. He rejected the road to commercialism and the allures of social mobility, returned to his terraced home in the valleys and dedicated the rest of his life to following his own road, living a reclusive existence, inspired by the land and built environment around him. The result , a remarkable run of paintings that has earned Roger Cecil a well deserved, long overdue reputation, since his passing and ‘discovery’, as the most outstanding abstract impressionist that Wales has produced. A genuine eye opener of a show, curated with compassion and insight. A reminder that, as John Lennon put it, ‘a working class hero is something to be’.