Friday, August 31, 2012

Soar-y-mynydd and Llyne Brianne

The Soar-y-Mynydd chapel is often cited as the most remote in Wales. I'm not sure how that calculation is made, but it is certainly one of the most beautiful and makes for a fine pilgrimage when walking or cycling in the Green Desert of Wales - a Victorian description of the Cambrian Mountains which, in many ways, remains appropriate.

In describing Soar-y-Mynydd as beautiful, I'm defying convention: austere, would be equally apt; forbidding, not out of place. But then beauty comes in different forms. My neighbour is a stonemason who's indifferent to ornate carving but delights in the millimetre accuracy of cathedral pillars. He would like Soar-y-Mynydd, not for its stonework, but its simplicity: the symmetrical arrangement of the boxed pews, the lack of adornment, the sparse use of colour.

I like the windows too, tall with Gothic points inside a rounded arch, no stained glass. They remind me of my junior school, which is perhaps not surprising because the chapel was conjoined to one until it closed in the 1940s. To picture the community then is to imagine a lost world. Last weekend, three cars were parked on the drive; the information board says that in its heyday, sixty horses were regularly tethered on Sundays!

The landscape is transformed too. Down the hill is the Llyn Brianne reservoir, built in the Seventies to provide water for South Wales, it consumed the upper Tywi to near its meeting with the Doethie. Interestingly, I can't find a reference to the name of the valley before it was flooded (the river above it is the Camddwr, but perhaps it was just known as Tywi). An excellent local website says the reservoir is actually a misspelling of a minor tributary, the Nant y Bryniau (literally, the stream in the hills).

Above the waterline are the ubiquitous conifer forests that cover too much of the Cambrian Mountains. To be fair, the planting began long before the dam was constructed, and, of all the mid wales reservoirs, Llyn Brianne seems to blend more sensitively, even delightfully, into the hills. We walked a five-mile section last Sunday and saw redstarts, dragonflies, a tortoiseshell butterfly and a soaring buzzard - no kites at the dam, but they were there at the RSPB reserve below.

I first came to Llyn Brianne a month after moving to Wales, mistaking the mountain road as a potential easy option on a cycle tour. In the twenty years since I must have returned at least once each year, often more. Reflecting last weekend, I realised its become central to my image and understanding of this part of Wales. And it's full of good memories too -  of nights in the Dolgoch hostel, of backpacking with my boys, cycling the Tregaron road - of my friends kayaking the overspill on the dam (an activity now banned).

And of Soar-y-Mynydd too. I have no religious faith, but if I did, I think I'd be 'chapel' not 'church'. So it's good to know the pews are still used - and sometimes even filled. For Soar-y-Mynydd has become an oasis in the desert - parishioners travel miles to attend its services, and evidently, preachers consider it a great honour to be invited. A friend told me they are all firebrands, bible-bashers of the old school. I like the thought of them ranting as the rain hammers the windows and the Avon Camwddwr runs brackish and inextricably towards the dam.


  1. Hello Mark:
    Through your evocative description and your excellent images you bring to life this remote part of Wales. The small chapel, with its wonderful, boxed pews, increasingly rarely seen, is a delight for its utter simplicity and it is indeed a joy to think that it remains in use, albeit without sixty or so horses tethered on a Sunday.

  2. Greetings, Mark
    We drove round Llyn Brianne a couple of years ago en route back home to just outside Newtown - a more scary road I have yet to encounter in Wales (especially after we had passed the northern end of the lake and got on to the road to Abergwesyn and Beulah - that pass is evil!) I have to say that although we thought it was beautiful, in our eyes it doesn't beat 'our' reservoir - Llyn Clywedog - where we sail. If you haven't been there, do visit it, it is truly magnificent. It's about 5 miles outside Llanidloes, off the road via Staylittle to Llanbrynmair, Dylife to Machynlleth. The road round the southern side goes to the Sailing CLub and the Fishing Club, and the northern route (to Staylittle) has parking places with good views from high up as well.
    What a marvellous little chapel - so glad to hear that it's still in regular use. It looks as if it's well loved and cared for. Is it a Welsh chapel, or do they have services in English?

    1. I do know Clewedog, and excellent it is too - I have kayaked the Clewedog river when the dam releases - a fine white water run, especially in the tight gorge not far from the dam.

      believe the services at SYM are in largely in Welsh.

  3. These small chapels are as beautiful as a soaring cathedral to my mind. I lean towards the chapels, because of their simplicity and the way they seem to fold themselves around you and make you feel secure. Perfect places for a spot of quiet contemplation, and prayer, if that's your thing. Me, I just like to sit and enjoy the moment when I find these places.

  4. great photos. I loved the last one, it really gave me the feeling of looking down a rushing stream, almost like being on a bob sleigh!

  5. Give me an honest chapel over a grand cathedral any day...

  6. The chapel would be a fine place to concentrate the mind...until the bible bashers started up in full cry.

  7. I had a chapel upbringing - not Welsh, North country Methodist. I was in my twenties when I realised how important it had been to my young parents to have a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon when my brother and I were not there.

  8. I prefer this vision of austere than the current political one (which is giving austerity a bad name).

    Beautiful and natural and sustainable.

  9. Yet another special place in Wales I have yet to visit, Mark, though one of my sisters has been and sent me some super photos and background information. A lovely, informative and thoughtful post as always.

  10. Some wonderful images Mark....


  11. I know this chapel Mark, I also think it is beautiful and have some photos, I will post them in my next blogpost.

  12. You make me want to take a holiday there! Wonderful images...I too have no religious faith but I love that chapel...reminds me of ones in the highlands of Scotland!

    C x

  13. Just a little addition to this blog.
    My wife and I were only the 7th couple to get married in Soar-Y-Mynydd in 1985.