Perhaps the best-loved landmark in the beautifully situated market town of Crickhowell is the 18th century bridge spanning the River Usk. It happens to be the longest stone bridge in Wales – but that’s not why it’s special.
Take a look at this bridge from the downstream side and count the arches. The answer is 12. Then pop across to the upstream side and count again. Hang on, that can’t be right. Suddenly there are 13.
This strange fact, brought about by alterations in the 1800s, tells you all you need to know about Crickhowell. Because nothing here is quite what you’d expect.
Who would have thought, for example, that this little town on the meadows of the Usk would be the home of Wales’s biggest music event?
The Green Man Festival is a refreshingly ethically-minded affair that does more to rekindle the spirit of the swinging sixties than all your Glastonburys and Readings combined.
When Green Man started in 2003 it was more like an intimate party in the countryside than a festival. Since its move to the Glanusk Estate it’s gone global with 20,000 festival-goers de- scending every year. But it still has the same friendly vibe and independent ethos.
Much like the rest of Crickhowell, in fact. This town they call “the glittering jewel in the vale” is much more than a base for exploring the great unspoilt wildernesses of the Black Mountains to the north and the Brecon Beacons to the west. It’s a destination in its own right.
And it’s always ready to confound your expectations – in a good way. If you really want to get to grips with the place, head for the Crickhowell Resource and Information Centre, or CRiC for short.
It’s run by a team of 70 local volunteers and what they don’t know about the town isn’t worthknowing. But in the surprising spirit of Crickhowell, they don’t just dispense maps, leafletsand a mountain of insider information.
They also run a WiFi-enabled internet café serving Fairtrade tea and coffee and locally-made cakes and ice cream. And upstairs at Oriel CRiC there’s a constantly changing showcase of work by local artists and makers.
Somehow though, given the strength of the local art scene, there’s never quite enough space. That’s why every Spring Bank Holiday in May CRiC organises an Art Trail of Open Studios – about 60 at the last count.
You don’t just get to buy a pot off a shelf or a painting from a gallery wall. You get to meet the artists, see how they work and explore the stunning scenery of the Brecon Beacons that sur- rounds them.
It’s enough to inspire anyone. Over to Arts Alive Wales. From its light and airy studio just 10 minutes’ walk from the town centre, this educational arts charity runs a vast range of crea- tive classes by top artists.
They do all the stuff you might expect: pottery, oil painting, basket making, photography, children’s crafts. Plus a few things you might never have thought of such as life drawing. That could certainly be a bit of an eye opener.
Mind you, even a stroll along the High Street is an experience in Crickhowell. Don’t expect theusual one-size-fits-all big name brands. This is a throwback to the days when all shops, pubs, cafés and bistros reflected the character of their town.
And Crickhowell has a very big personality. So in just a few yards you’ll find a family baker and a grocer, butcher’s shops and a delicatessen, a ladies’ boutique, a florist, a book shop, a coupleof independent department stores, a haberdashery – and a place to buy all the gear you need to tackle the great outdoors right there on the doorstep.
Get around even half that lot and you’ll have worked up quite a thirst. Fortunately the famous Bear Hotel, built in 1432 but with all the modern comforts, has twice been voted the Best Pub in Britain. Or you may prefer to take afternoon tea on the terrace of the Gliffaes Country House Hotel, a Crickhowell institution.
Suitably fortified, it’s probably time to head for the hills. You could ride a horse, charter a narrowboat or hop on a bike – Crickhowell is one of five mountain bike centres in the BreconBeacons with a network of seriously testing trails.
But most people just put one foot in front of the other. Every day is a walking festival in Crick-howell but for nine days around the beginning of March, they make it official.
Experienced local guides lead more than 70 walks of every grade – from low-level accessiblestrolls to fully-fledged mountain rambles.
For the rest of the year, you’ll have to improvise. Try the popular route up to flat-topped TableMountain overlooking the town and take a look at the Iron Age hillfort of Crug Hywel. Explore the ruins of Crickhowell Castle on the green “tump” beside the river with its spectacular views (the perfect spot for a picnic).
Or visit Tretower Court and Castle, where custodians Cadw have recreated a suite of rooms just as they may have been in 1470 when the Vaughans were the movers and shakers of their day. So a typical Crickhowell family, by the sound of it.