Time slows in the Tywi Valley. Houses scatter, phones lose signal and more than once I’ve switched off the engine, mid-tarmac, to patiently wait for a mama sheep and her babies to stagger up from a sun-soaked doze and move along. Some days, the only sense of hours passing is the cessation of birdsong. Utter stillness rests atop ebon hills until, eventually, the song starts up again and the gentle carousel of another long, slow day turns.
Staying at the Reading Room is like being in the very middle of a Russian doll of quietness. In the hush of the Tywi Valley is Cilycwm; barely a village. At the end of the village is a secluded lane leading to Cambrian Escapes and in the courtyard is this gorgeously converted hayloft from a time gone by. We talk so easily of switching off, but this is one of the rare corners of the world in which my mind is simply, perfectly still.
The Reading Room, also known as the Artist’s Retreat, is one of two boutique boltholes at the former Penstacan farm, with a third conversion – of the old coach house – underway. Glanyrafon is a sumptuous riverside cottage for four (and dogs), ideal for family holidays and group gatherings. With all the board games you could shake a wet Welsh weekend at and a hot tub filled with spring water, it’s just been awarded an amazing five stars by Visit Wales. The Reading Room – Yr Ystafell Ddarllen – is a four-star, grown-up getaway, sophisticated yet soothingly simple. My stay is 24 hours and it feels like a week.
Set above an 18th century stable block, the hayloft has history pouring out of every alcove. Owners Tanya and Duncan Jordan bought Penstacan from the family of Sally Forde, the first English woman to farm in this very Welsh-speaking pocket of rural Carmarthenshire. A keen horsewoman, Sally installed a bed in a tiny nook and added a window looking inwards over the stable, in order to keep an eye on her foaling mare. Tanya has immaculately woven the ‘bedroom’ into the very seams of the loft, one of many beguiling details that make you wonder how you’re ever going to leave.
By her own admission, Tanya has ‘expensive’ taste; I prefer ‘elegant’ and not an inch of it comes at the expense of comfort. The sitting room is a book lover’s dream, deep reading chairs draped with Welsh wool blankets and cushions and a low, shuttered window overlooking the courtyard if you can bear to glance up from your book. There’s a TV, but I don’t get as far as finding the remote, so loathe am I to fracture the golden silence.
The country cottage kitchen has a hefty slab of a wooden table, a ceiling sloping into enormously thick walls and a mish-mash of old and odd tiles that really shouldn’t work but looks gorgeous. The Reading Room is largely self-catering but, during the summer months, guests can book the ‘DIY B&B,’ which includes a delicious breakfast, homemade and prepared ahead of arrival. I opt for Glamorgan sausages, which I find in the fridge along with handwritten cooking instructions propped up on the worktop. They are deliciously, meltingly creamy and, along with the organic muesli, spelt bread with homemade jam and organic duck eggs, I’m more than set up for a hearty day’s exploration.
The bathroom is pure Castell Coch; a faux-Gothic fantasy with gleaming Art Deco tiles, pink papered walls and a mahogany Victorian suite that seems far too lovely to, um, use. The entertainment is fittingly 1920s, in the shape of an original gramophone and a pile of vintage ‘78s, which guests can to listen to, door ajar, from the balcony, with its twinkly solar fairy lights and log burner. A wood-fired hot tub is also about to be added, which will be available for stays of three nights or more, on the basis of water sustainability. Tanya is hopeful I can light the log burner and sit out under dark skies, but those skies fill heavily and it’s not to be. Sipping cider in the doorway, listening to the rhythm of the rain, I really don’t feel too sorry for myself at all.
On unpacking, I’m cross to realise I’ve forgotten my laptop. Determined not to waste my writing retreat, I plough on in longhand – and something magical happens. I write. A lot. I write without pause, without wondering what’s a better word for each word spilling out, without timing my next tea break. Paragraphs stream obediently onto the page, sentences lining up neatly in the right order and complementing that which goes before. I haven’t handwritten so many words since long-ago university exams (four essays in three hours each time). A lightbulb on long string hangs low over the kitchen table, a symbol.
Cambrian Escapes is perfectly positioned between the Carmarthen Fans to the south – which reveal themselves on a rewarding climb to the top of Tanya and Duncan’s hill – and the Cambrian Mountains north. I could write endless blogs about my favourite walks around here, and I’m sure at some point I will, but for now I’m enjoying the surprises of a valley I thought I knew well, but which has in fact been guarding myriad dips and curves, like concealed treasure, all along.
I wander from Penstacan along an old drover’s track in search of Sally’s bench; I’m defeated by waist high ferns this time but, in a place that time forgets, it’s the travelling hopefully that matters more than the arriving. I face a choice of climbing Mynydd Mallaen, unfolding above Penstacan, or a waterfall secreted away in an enchanted forest. I opt to chase Cwm Rhaeadr through steep emerald avenues and stand in the roar of her spray, without seeing another soul for hours.
The teens’ favourite campsite is just up the road at Rhandirmwyn but I fear it’s soon to be usurped, because Cambrian Escapes also includes an eco-campsite with a select number of sprawling pitches (by pitches, I really mean private fields and hidden glades). After such a heartfelt welcome to the Reading Room, it would be rude not to return and check out the other accommodation too – if those snoozing sheep will kindly let us pass, that is.
I stayed at Cambrian Escapes as Tanya and Duncan’s guest. DIY B&B at The Reading Room is £95-125 between July and September, while it’s available as a self-catering cottage throughout the year, starting at £180 for a minimum two-night stay and £400 for a week.
October exclusive! The Reading Room is being offered during October 18/19 as a two-night stay for £210 or a three-night break for £300, which includes tickets to the launch of a new Dark Sky Discovery Site and an Evening with Alyn Wallace, God of Astrophography, on the 19th.