Landscapes of Imagination: images of wildest Wales

Compact but impressive, there‘s a lot of big stuff in little Wales. Here are a few of Cymru's scenic highlights.

By Simon Ingram
Published 10 Jan 2020, 15:41 GMT, Updated 17 Dec 2021, 12:07 GMT
A view towards Elegug Stack, one of a series of rock pinnacles and natural arches on ...
A view towards Elegug Stack, one of a series of rock pinnacles and natural arches on this stretch of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. The park, fragmented along the rugged edge of South West Wales, was designated in 1952, a year after the Peak District first National Park was consecrated in Britain. It is one of three National Parks in Wales, was the fifth in Britain to be ordained - and is the only one that is principally coastline.
Photograph by Sebastian Wasek, Alamy

“A short drive beyond any Welsh city leads to landscapes of imagination,” writes Amy Alipio in the January 2020 edition of National Geographic Magazine. And however true this is for most of Britain's compact patchwork of environments – almost all of them soaked to saturation with historic and cultural interest – Wales must rank as a special case. 

Scenically, this is obvious. Here is a landscape of daunting, ragged mountains, the highest in Britain outside Scotland. Of lake-filled valleys cut by long-vanished glaciers. Of moorlands reaching for the horizon, hills eroded and sculpted by erosion into elegant geological polygons, valleys of vivid colour, and a coastline of intricate complexity.

The country is home to three wildly contrasting National Parks. There's Snowdonia, filled with craggy grey peaks. The Brecon Beacons, filled with felty green ones. And The Pembrokeshire Coast, which is filled with neither – but does have a coast rugged enough to compete with both.

Small wonders  

It's an impressive collage for a country so diminutive. With a population just over 3 million (less than a third of the population of London) its area of just over 20,000 square kilometres is recruited with infamous frequency as a comparative measure – everything from the rate of deforestation to the size of icebergs has been compared to the ‘size of Wales’. There are bigger National Parks in the US. Bigger islands in the Mediterranean. And yet this small country has an awful lot within its borders.

Feral ponies – such as these near Hay Bluff in the Black Mountains, Brecon Beacons National Park – while far from common can be found across Welsh uplands. The ponies have roamed the hills for hundreds of years, and are loosely protected by hill farmers, upon whose land the ponies graze. But like any other wild animal, they live and die exposed to the elements, and as part of the landscape.
Photograph by DuncanImages, Alamy

History in stone

Culturally, the landscapes of Wales wear both badges of honour, and scars of war. Everywhere the legacy of mining – the slate of North Wales was once said to ‘roof the world,’ while the coal of south Wales powered a copper and iron industry that fuelled exports to every corner of it. Both left a legacy in the form of ruins, quarries and scattered relics: some coveted for their history; some high-tucked in the hills, and left to return to nature. 

Ancient castles, stone circles and trackways speak of a culture that's been evolving here for a long, long time. Neanderthal remains have been found dating back 230,000 years. Stonehenge's oldest and most famous 'blue' stones came from Pembrokeshire, and the Welsh countryside is scattered with monuments and standing stones of its own – some dating back 5,000 years to the Neolithic. It is not unusual to wander the countryside here and find a stone circle thousands of years old, standing unfenced, unmarked and very much unattended, alone with the landscape.  

A view along the ridgeline of Cadair Idris, the sprawling mountain range that forms the southern bulwark of Snowdonia National Park. An important mountain in Welsh folklore, the translation of the name means 'chair of Idris,' after a giant who was said to use the mountain as a seat from which to watch the stars. Today the mountain is popular with walkers; a rustic stone shelter crowns the 893 metre summit, visible above centre.
Photograph by James Osmond, Alamy

Names of note

Wales also has Britain's only city that's also the size of a village, its only village designed to look like an Italian town, and the only town with a name longer than any other place's, at least in Britain (Anglesey's Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, if you're curious).     

Literature lovers can wander the landscapes of Dylan Thomas, Bruce Chatwin, Roald Dahl and Jan Morris, amongst many others others. Photographers can fill their lenses with castles, coasts, dynamic weather and crepuscular rays. And adventurers need only set eyes on the waters, or up at the heights, or down into the depths to know that there is a wealth of diversion here for the intrepid. (Read about the wild ponies of Wales.)

Criccieth Castle, a fortification that has stood for nearly 800 years, overlooks Tremadog Bay, North Wales. In the lee of the Llyn Peninsula, a finger of land outstretched into the Irish Sea, the bay is afforded natural shelter.
Photograph by Rory Trappe, Alamy

The victorious Mount Everest ascent team of 1953 trained on the slopes of Snowdon, the highest mountain which, although at 1085 metres an almost exact eighth of the elevation of its Himalayan counterpart, evidently made a convincing and affectionate stand-in. The team – Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay et al – made frequent pilgrimages back to the mountain until all were in old age. Today the Pen y Gwyrd hotel at the foot of the Llanberis Pass is packed with relics and photographs from the epochal expedition, forever twinning this unlikely enclave of a tiny country to the first ascent of the highest mountain in the world. Though in truth, Wales had footholds on Everest long before Hillary and Tenzing: a key gateway into the mountain is the Western Cwm, employing the Welsh word for 'valley' - and the mountain itself was named after a Welshman, one George Everest.

Gallery: 13 images of wild Wales

In 2016 the Welsh tourist board unveiled a travelling art installation to convey the theme of its 2016 campaign. Subtlety wasn't its strong point. At four metres wide and eleven metres long, it comprised a single word of four mirrored letters: 'EPIC.' A bold claim, for such a diminutive place. But not a claim anyone who has been there would argue. 

  •  Read the story Epic Wales in the January 2020 issue of National Geographic Magazine.
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