Sunning myself near a bar window I was very happy with my own company, watching the world go by all afternoon. I registered some ‘types’ of a contemporary mid-Wales town go by: old Farmer Dewdrop, the white Rastafarian making his way towards the New Age gift shop cum internet cafe and the retired couple who probably wish they’d settled in a more wheelchair-friendly South Coast town.
I had arranged a meeting in the bar of the Neuadd Arms Hotel, Llanwrtyd (Powys); business over I had several hours before my return train to Swansea. The tall window of the comfortable bar was ideal to settle down by for an indulgently long lunch. First, the low sun backlight a pint of pub-brewed beer that had been placed on the table in front of me. The pastime of rambling is humoured in the naming of ‘Shake, Ramble and Roll’ but it reminded me more of the small train I’d travelled here on as it had struggled up the long wooded incline from Llandovery to Sugar Loaf Halt. Appropriately, the attractive flavour of the beer had its parallels in the unique rhythm of carriage motor when in full throttle; slightly hoppy and multilayered.
Why take the train? Motoring around Wales in holiday mode is a pleasure, but trying to get to a business meeting on time means you can arrive as charming as modern concrete; in other words; ‘pre-stressed’. Your ‘bootless cries’ count for nothing; don’t the road-corseting river bridges, miscounted mountain passes, the elements themselves – water, wind, fire and earth – all realise that you’re terribly important and being late is so naff.
In fact, the day of the train journey was perfect. Brilliantly clear, we crossed estuaries and rivers, dissected the length of the wide Towy valley to eventually negotiate the mountains. At the start of the journey at Swansea Station, the Welsh language version of the pre-recorded platform announcement smoothly intoned the names of the stations and halts. I smiled, half in sympathy, as the English announcer negotiated a tongue-twisting litany, audibly relaxing only when the border was approached and Welsh names ran out:
Cynghordy, Sugar Loaf Halt,
Dolau, Llanbister Road,
Llangynllo … Knighton!
Llanwrtyd is one of a small number of historic spas in mid-Wales. Since the end of the eighteenth century for more than 150 years people came to drink and bathe in what was prompted as ‘the most sulphurous waters in Wales’. The well house in the fields could be found by its smell alone; there, whilst drinking a good draught of the natural waters, you could watch ‘ the sinister bluish-white bubblings’ at the bottom of the well via a strategically placed mirror.
At my window seat, my non-sulphurous beer had that that liveliness that you can only find when you take the trouble to go to the beer, rather than when the beer come long distances to you. The chosen goat cheese and pear tart was indeed the good home cooking the menu had promised. I was contemplating the idea of the interesting salty/sweet combination and, if I was to cook this at home, I’d won’t mind if the cheese was a little more strongly flavoured when my attention was drawn to something out of the ordinary. There was something glowing on my plate. A strange inner light was apparently emanating from the tart. Maybe an enterprising UFO was using the medium of the goat’s cheese tart to attempt contact. I fumbled for my glasses, trying to detect if the glow had started pulsing sapiently – I can verify that at this point the majority of the ‘real ale’ was still in its glass.
Spectacled, it still took some time for my synapses to align. Reality can be so mundane, the only alien presence were long slices of tinned pears that performed the role of rather tubby optic fibres, giving out a transcendent glow on the ‘dark side’ of the tart. If the fruit seemed to have optically properties that only tinned cooked pears possess, they didn’t have the tooth-aching sweetness that you associate with them. The tart was a pleasant experience, even if its taste spectrum veered to low-key to bland that is geared for general public consumption.
You will be relieved to hear that, in contrast, the next course was extraordinarily opaque. ‘It’s very rich’ the barmaid explained apologetically as she passed me the thinish slice of chestnut terrine. No more was wanted; I took my time savouring its unrelieved texture and profound flavours. This is the sort of dessert not to be eaten by itself, but to be tempered with a coffee. The nameless ingredient in this dessert was, of course, chocolate. Under the name pavé aux marrons it is a dish historically associated with that gastronomic centre, Lyon. This French inland port was an early entry point for New World chocolate that was combined with native chestnuts to make, together with cream and butter, a pavé or pavior – the later a very identifiable flying object during French urban uprisings.
Outside, the paviors of Llanwrtyd’s Square were unworn and in place. A gentle ripple of energy radiated from the shiny steel box of the school bus to disperse as the children vanished into lanes, passages and doorways. It was nearly four o’clock and time for me to walk back the ten minutes, or so, out of the town to the railway station – a sort of early, earthbound version of the isolated Ryanair ‘city’ airport.
Telling ‘signs of the times’ proliferated; the Victorian station building had been renovated some time ago, with the help of regional grants, but was now boarded-up. The line seems to be run intermittently by the train crew from windowless wooden lock-ups from the end of each platform. This could explain what happened next.
I arrived as the gloom was gathering and the temperature plummeting, the platform train indicator glowed its message of reassurance to the empty station; the train was on time. As disappointing as a trust once was taken for granted now cruelly broken the indicator remained unchanged twenty minutes after the train was due. The surrounding ‘silence’ was made up of the quiet murmur of a distant river, a very distant school rugby game and from the leafless boggy wood a few cold birds sang. At that point my train disappeared altogether from the indicator. I stood on the platform apparently waiting for a train not due until two hours into the unwelcoming night. People appeared to whom I was invisible; I became more effectively ‘sent to Coventry’ by them then sent home by the railway company (it’s ok, I have a following in Coventry). If they thought I was stupid or mad, or both, to me they became sinister bit players. A man with a dog looked at the indicator board and averted his gaze from me, making a note to return later with a garrotte in his pocket. The passing horse rider was oblivious and would not make a good witness to my eventual demise, whether by malintent or exposure. My roused mobile phone lit up my face; I couldn’t be ‘beamed up’ but I did have, rather surprisingly, a signal. The captain of the Swansea mothership consulted the ‘on-board’ computer and passed on the information that the train was running a mere half an hour late; which it was.
Despite this single glitch I am quite willing to be a supporter of the Heart of Wales Line; and support it will no doubt need as it’s a line which always seems to hang on a thread. For £9.95, it was relaxing as a day at a modern spa and very much more memorable; trundling happily homewards the train passed the conically shaped Sugar Loaf Hill, shortly afterward the landscape parted and I was captivated by the sight of the Brecon Beacons range shining as luminously and unblemished as a distant, barren planet.
Maybe the true mystery of the translucent tart was the silent man who one day walked into town, ate, drank and – eventually – left.