It’s about as far south as you can go and still be in rural Mid Wales. Head further down the Swansea Valley, or Cwm Tawe, and you enter the industrial heartlands of South Wales.
Like many places that live right on the edge, Ystradgynlais has a bit of a split personality. It may be a former powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution. But it’s also the gateway to an in- credible natural landscape of rocks, waterfalls and the caves of Dan-yr-Ogof.
In the 1600s there was no town at all – just a couple of houses by a church and a pub. Then the iron smelting started. By the early 19th century 1,000 men were toiling in six huge furnaces fuelled by local coal mines.
Ynyscedwyn Ironworks invented the hot blast technique that revolutionised steel production around the globe. It’s now a park where you can stroll around the still-soaring arches and see some of the original machinery.
The Diamond Colliery, so called because of the hardness of its coal, has also been turned into a tranquil green space with spectacular views.
But the stone circle right in the middle of Gorsedd Park is no industrial remain. It’s a legacy of the 1954 National Eisteddfod of Wales – and a reminder that the arts have always been a big passion here.
Ystradgynlais Public Band, one of the oldest brass bands in Wales, still enters the Eisteddfodevery year. Local people pack out the plays, concerts, films and live opera broadcasts at TheWelfare arts centre.
It’s also the place to see the wonderful drawings and paintings of Josef Herman. Known affec- tionately as “Joe Bach”, the displaced Polish Jew came to Ystradgynlais in the 1940s – and fellin love with the place. His paintings of the coal miners who became his friends had a big influ- ence on contemporary British art.
Just five miles north of Ystradgynlais lies the greatest natural wonder in Britain. And that’s official (at least according to readers of the Radio Times).
When local farmers Jeff and Tommy Morgan first squeezed through a gap in a hillside in 1912, they went armed with a candle, a revolver and a ball of string. And they discovered a geologi- cal marvel millions of years in the making.
The result is the awe-inspiring Dan-yr-Ogof National Showcaves Centre for Wales, where
you can walk down twisting subterranean passageways, through immense caverns and past20-metre-high cascading waterfalls that feed an underground lake. And when you’ve finishedyou can explore one of the world’s largest dinosaur parks.
The river Llynfell emerges from Dan-yr-Ogof to flow through Craig-y-Nos Country Park, once the private pleasure gardens of soprano Adelina Patti.
Craig-y-Nos Castle, her Victorian Gothic country house, is now a luxury hotel. Which means you can get married in the exquisite Grade I-listed opera house that she designed to be a min- iature version of La Scala in Milan.
Too late for that? You could always be a “Keeper for the Day” at the Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary at Abercraf instead. This traditional Welsh hill farm is now a haven for all sorts of primates rescued from zoos or laboratories. It also contains the only wolves in Brecon Bea- cons National Park. In a different enclosure, naturally.
A little farther west lies the spectacular Waterfall Country of the Fforest Fawr Geopark. Over millions of years fast-flowing mountain rivers have worn away the underlying mudstone toleave a series of gushing falls.
The best place to start is the Waterfalls Centre at Pontneddfechan – with its interactive exhi- bition telling the story of the geopark, the formation of the waterfalls and the part that rocks have played in the lives of local people.
From there you can take one of the many paths to the waterfalls and the old gunpowder works and silica mines. For an unforgettable experience you can walk behind the curtain of falling water at Sgwd yr Eira, or “Fall of Snow”.
But perhaps best of all, at least for movie buffs, are the National Trust-owned Henrhyd Fallsa few miles to the east near Coelbren. You can only reach them by following a steep footpath down a deep wooded gorge. But it’s worth it.
Not only is this the highest waterfall in South Wales with an unbroken drop of 90 feet. It also doubled as the entrance to the Batcave in The Dark Knight Rises.