“Look – it’s our viaduct on telly!” I exclaimed as I watched the simply stunning shots of our Cynghordy Viaduct on BBC2’s Great British Railway Journeys this evening. I don’t think I can ever remember ever being that excited to watch anything with Michael Portillo on it before. For the first glorious half of the programme, landmarks and landscapes that make up our home had literally their 15 mins of fame. From the unique and charming gardens of Aberglasney just outside Llandeilo, to the countryside right around our home, Portillo seems genuinely enchanted by the area and also enjoys a unique peek into the mysterious cupboard at Llandovery station that holds the token system for the single track line (I always wondered what they got up to in there!).

The programme is up on Iplayer for the next 4 weeks – well worth a watch. If you’d like a closer look at our beautiful viaduct, any holiday cottage bookings we get this week (until 2nd Feb) will get a 10% discount if you quote: VIADUCT in the booking email. And if you’d like to retrace some of the journey, I’ve written a blog post about how to have a holiday just using the train (the station is just 300 yards away).

Winter light above the Heart of Wales Line

Winter is here and is making itself felt with thick soupy mists in the morning (known as Dragon’s Breath) that roll off the hills down into our valley, followed by bright pink sunsets in the evening. The Red Kites are more in evidence now and soar overhead calling out their haunting cry. We see them more now and in the early spring that at any other time of year. On bright winter days, thermals form over hills above our village of Cynghordy, and you can often see five or six kites spiralling upwards in turn.

And inn the evenings we hear a lot of tawny owls right in the garden around us and the holiday cottage – the sharp screechy “twit!” of the females and the “too-woos” of the males. The Welsh word for owl sounds exactly like a tawny owl – gwdihŵ.

Woodburning stove

Woodburning stove

I sometimes think that it’s in late Autumn/Winter that Seren Loft really comes into its own as a getaway. The little woodburning stove in the holiday cottage makes the place so cosy and there’s a rocking chair too – so all you have to do is make a hot chocolate, open that book you’ve been meaning to read for ages and you’re all set.

The wood is provided free of charge and while we try and keep the wood pile ready-split, if you want a ‘learn to swing an axe’ lesson, I’m happy to show you how to do it. (I secretly enjoy teaching the ladies who then amaze their men-folk by whacking through the wood as if it were balsa) You don’t need to be really strong – it is absolutely in the swing and not in the amount of pressure you apply.  (Obviously it is at guests’ own risk.)

And if you’ve not brought any books, there is a shelf we keep stocked up along with some board games and a few jigsaw puzzles. There even seems to be a long-distance conversation going in the visitors’ book as to how quickly guests have managed to complete the 500 piece butterfly shaped jigsaw.

*£173.00 = 3 nights: arriving Friday departing Monday OR 4 nights: arriving Monday departing Friday, any time between 30th October 2014 – 20th March 2015 (not including Christmas week) This price includes free wood for the stove and a free welcome hamper.

The 'Woodpecker Beech' next to Llofft y Seren

The ‘Woodpecker Beech’ next to Llofft y Seren – where our Greater Spotted woodpeckers nest every year.


The above picture is one I took on a walk we did around the Parkland Trail at the Dolaucothi Gold Mines a couple of weeks back. The sheer number of foxgloves flowering was breathtaking. I’d never seen so many. The weather, apart for a few stormy moments has been gorgeous.

If you’re learning Welsh (as I am) you find yourself working out the translation of the Welsh month Gorffenhaf (July) roughly means ‘summer’s end’. And while it is true that the late Welsh summer has gathered some fame for the occasional spot of rain, this one so far is proving ‘hyfryd iawn’ (very lovely).

Summer visitor - Tiger Moth hiding in our greenhouse.

Summer visitor – Tiger Moth hiding in our greenhouse.

Song thrush

As I write there are two pairs of Song Thrush, several Blackbirds and a Pied Wagtail scrapping over the berries in our Mahonia. The bird life around us and the holiday cottage here in Cynghordy has been amazing this spring. March brought with it the drama of a pair of Kites and pair of Buzzards arguing over this quadrant of the village and every morning when I stepped outside you could here the screeching cries of all of them trying to lay claim to a good nest site. We think the Kites won – they seem to be visiting an ash tree a lot about 150 yards from us near the railway tunnel. It’s harder to see them now the leaves are out.

As for nest sites here, we have Housemartins raising a brood on the ledge above our bedroom window, and Swallows, having given up their attempt to nest inside the cottage, are in the process of building a nest in the eves of my studio behind the holiday cottage. Sparrows are nesting there already and they yell at me every time I go past. Last week I managed to rescue a female Spotted Flycatcher which had tumbled down the chimney pipe into the (fortunately unlit) stove. It looks like she learned her lesson in the suitability of nesting sites as they have set up home in our nesting box on the end of the woodshed.

Last year we had Grey Wagtails nesting behind Llofft y Seren much to the delight of our guests from the Netherlands who were visiting Wales for the first time.

I shall have to add Spotted Flycatcher to our ever growing bird list.

Lily of the Valley

Lily of the Valley

I love being able to put fresh flowers in the holiday cottage for our visitors – so to be able to source them entirely from the garden around Llofft y Seren and our house is a genuine pleasure. I also love to give bunches of homegrown flowers as presents and to that end have sown a huge amount of annuals this year as my ‘cut flower project’. I’ve chosen lots of bee-friendly plants like cosmos and rudbekia – which have the added bonus of producing more flowers the more you cut.

However I have to own up and admit that all the flowers I’ve cut this year so far have been entirely down to what was growing already and this years efforts have yet to bear fruit, well, flower.

The above picture is of a tiny bunch of Lily of the Valley cut from a huge carpet of them around the tree near the holiday cottage – that we call the ‘Woodpecker Beech’ (a family of greater spotted woodpeckers nest in it every year). The scent of the flowers is amazing – like a cloud of maiden aunts at a wedding.

The 'Woodpecker Beech' next to Llofft y Seren

The ‘Woodpecker Beech’ next to Llofft y Seren

Another project for the grounds this year is to start creating more wildlife friendly spaces in the lawns and turning them over to meadow. So the garden will be appearing a little more shaggy but hopefully will have lots of colour, as well as lots of bees and other pollinating insects. I’ve sown a lot of native Welsh wildflowers and a pictorial meadow mix so we shall see how they get on.

Last year our ‘controlled neglect’ bore the lovely surprise in the shape of a patch of rare wild orchids, also near the woodpecker beech, which we think are some form of Broadleaf Helleborine. I’ll try and take some pictures of ours when they come up again, in the meantime here is a picture courtesy of www.wildaboutbritain.co.uk.

Broadleaf Helleborine

The Cynghordy viaduct on the Heart of Wales line

The Cynghordy viaduct on the Heart of Wales line

Following on from being featured as one of Greentraveller.co.uk’s best rural places to visit near a train station, it was high-time to demonstrate how easy it is. While we only have 8 trains a day (and 4 on Sundays, which is why it’s so peaceful around here) it’s possible, with a bit of planning, to have a fab rural holiday without a car. Cynghordy station is just a short walk from the front door.

So here are five days out to get you started:

Sight seeing and shopping in Llandeilo
The magnificent Dinefwr Castle with its amazing views, along with Newton House and the Deer Park, all managed by the National Trust is a 1.5 mile walk (30 mins) from Llandeilo station. The second half of that walk is through the beautiful deer park and takes in some of the loveliest countryside in the area. The NT cafe at Newton House is very good but then if you walked back down into the centre of Llandeilo you would find lots of good places to eat, along with lots of little boutique shops for poking around in. And you’d still have time for a quick early supper before getting the last train back to Cynghordy.
Journey time 30 mins each way. Time between trains: 2 or 7 hours.
Depart 11:20. Return 19:16
If you just fancy a putter around the town for a couple of hours, then get the 14:15 home.

A shopping and lunch stop in Llandovery
We are just 10 mins away from our nearest town where you’ll find lots of little independent shops including a fab greengrocers & healthfood store called Iecyd Da (their facebook page), a butchers, a wonderful delicatessen and a large co-op on the outskirts. There are lots of great pubs and cafes – The Castle and The Old Printing Office are two of our favourites. There is also a ruined castle and a really nice kid’s playground next to it.
Journey time 10 mins each way. Time between trains: 3 hours.
Departing train 11:20 Return train 14:35
OR shopping and an early supper:
Departing train 16:26 Return train 19:38

A walk in the woods nr Sugar Loaf
Right opposite the station at Sugar Loaf Halt, just 9 mins from Cynghordy, is Esgair Dafydd, a vast expanse of open forestry land with hill climbs and many trails to discover on foot or bike. You’ll have 5 hours in which to explore the many trails. If you’re feeling intrepid, climb to the top of Garn Wen (510 metres above sea level) and take a fab view of 3 counties. Go on a nice day or wear proper outdoor clothing – and take a picnic. (If the weather turns, you’re close enough for us to rescue you by car – if you can find a mobile signal!) It is possible to walk to Sugar Loaf Mountain but does entail walking a half a mile section along a very busy road, you would actually be safer doing that by bike.
Journey time 9 mins each way. Time between trains: 5 hours.
Depart 10:45 Return 16:19 (Alternatively, if you want a bit of a shorter treck and can get back to Sugar Loaf Halt by 14:55, you can go on to the next stop at Llanwrtyd for a swift half before catching the 16:10 home again.)
Or if you want to take advantage of Summer evenings:
Depart 14:46 Return 20:16

Pop to the ‘corner shop’ in Llanwrtyd Wells
If you just need a pint of milk and a breath of fresh air, a relatively quick return trip to the UK’s smallest town might be just the thing. You’ll find all the basics at the Spar and have a chance to admire the pretty town and river before catching the return train.
Journey time 14 mins each way. Time between trains: 1 hr + 10 mins.
Depart 14:46 Return16:10

A visit to Llandrindod Wells
Locally known as ‘Llandod’, this pretty little Victorian spa town is a popular day out for locals and tourists alike. A vist to the Rock Park and a walk around the boating lake are a must. There is a cafe by the lake, but our favourite is near the station – the Herb Garden Cafe which at our last visit still sourced great local food and catered for all kinds of dietary requirements. And there is a Co-op, Tesco and an Aldi all very close to the station so good for a stock-up shop on the way home.
Journey time 45-50 mins. Time between trains: 4 or 8 hours.
Depart 10:45 Return 15:35 or 19:31
Depart 14:46 Return 19:31

There are lots more trips you can do including having a grand day out as far afield as Swansea Bay or the medieval town of Shrewsbury. Have a look at the Heart of Wales timetable for more ideas and we are always happy to help you work the timings out.

NB: The above times are not applicable for Sundays. I’m still working on those.

Delighted to find out that the award-winning travel guide, greentraveller.co.uk, have featured us as one of their ten great places to stay near train stations. Lots of people can’t quite believe that you can have a rural holiday in Wales and use public transport and yet – here we are – on the beautiful Heart of Wales line. (And we even have a shopping trolley for you to borrow that you can bump up the track to Cynghordy station when you want to stock up on groceries. It’s decorated in a trendy cow-hide print – so we call it ‘The Moo’. Original I know.)

Photo: Michael Whiteside

Winter Sunset in Cynghordy

News travels fast here in the Brân and Tywi Valleys – which doesn’t necessarily mean it gets passed on accurately. The joke goes that if you tell your neighbour in Rhandir-Mwyn that you’ve got a cold, two hours later you’ll get a call from a friend in Llandeilo who’s heard you’re dying of flu. There’s truth in the joke; towns and villages are strung like beads on a necklace alongside the wild Tywi river, but vital gossip and chat help bridge the gaps and hold the community together.

Our village of Cynghordy sits on a tributary of the Tywi known as the Brân. That’s Welsh for “crow” or “raven” and Wikipedia thinks that’s a reference to the dark colour of the water.  Anybody who’s come here for a birdwatching holiday would disagree: there are plenty of corvids to be seen in the valley. Welsh legend even has a character called Brân, a giant king famous for (among other things) owning a magic cauldron and turning his body into a bridge to help his warriors cross a river. Apparently after being mortally wounded in battle, Brân asked his soldiers to cut off his head – the disembodied head then continued to talk and was such entertaining company that eighty years passed without anybody noticing!

It’s been heartening to have had such a warm welcome to this valley. Maybe some of the goodwill is because we’ve embarked on trying to learn Welsh, although there is a long way to go before I’m fluent. Neighbours help me practice when I bump into them, though the proper chatting still has to happen in English! Best of all is the culture of sharing, which helps to build a sense of community and reciprocity. Our best swap so far was getting rid of a piece of farm machinery and getting a big load of well rotted cow manure in return. My neighbour was able to fix his harrower and I grew big fat squashes in my greenhouse.

Guests who’ve had a cottage holiday here often talk about the peace and quiet, the birds, the beautiful scenery. But I worry that they never really manage to scratch the surface of how lovely this place is. They might get an inkling when the guard kindly holds the train for a moment or two while they sprint up the platform. To truly put down roots, you also need to be part of the community, sharing news and swapping eggs for jam (or manure for farm machinery). When a friend in Llandeilo rings to ask how your pneumonia is progressing, that’s when you know this is your home.

A couple of the neighbours

There’s an old joke about a primary school teacher arriving at a rural school from the city and endeavouring to bond with her class. Paying heed to the adage ‘start with what they know’, she pinned a picture of a sheep up on the wall and asked, “Can anyone tell me what this is?”.

For a while there was a sort of whispering and conferring but none of the children actually said anything.

“Come on!” said the teacher, “Surely you must know?”

One of the kids shyly raised their hand and said, “Well, we’re not sure Miss, but we think is it’s a Texel/Blackface cross but there’s probably quite of bit of Cheviot in there too.”

Most of the sheep around us are Badger Face Welsh Mountain, an ancient and sturdy breed that copes well with rough pasture and tough upland conditions. We occasionally get them wandering in – they are always on the look out for tastier grub. And around Easter, having the lambs so close is a real joy.

However it was at Christmas, our first Christmas Eve here in fact, that a white-face ewe ambled her way into our garden. The first job was to shoo her into the paddock, where she would have shelter and could earn her keep by keeping the grass down. The second job was to work out where on earth she had come from. We rang round the village however the neighbours didn’t have any idea but they found the whole thing very amusing.

The ewe passed a contented Christmas munching the grass in our paddock. On Boxing Day, the mystery was solved when a landrover hoved into view and a chap emerged, swiftly caught the ewe and deposited her into the back of the vehicle. Turned out she’d wandered 10 miles away from home and came from a farm on the other side of Llandovery. How did she get here? Wander through the town in the midst of last-minute Christmas shoppers? Catch a bus? Or simply hitch a ride on Santa’s sleigh?

City-dwellers might be wondering how the owner found out about our unexpected visitor. But when you’ve lived here for a while, you get used to news travelling very fast along the valley.

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