At one time the southern part of the county of Powys was best known for its four spa towns, Llandrindod Wells, Builth Wells, Llangammarch Wells and Llanwrtyd Wells. Today, the lure of sulphurous waters has lost much of its appeal but all four of them retain a charm and elegance that seems to be an intrinsic characteristic of spa towns everywhere. Surrounding these elegant towns is a varied countryside ranging from the bulky Cambrian Mountains in the west to fertile farmland in the east. Close to Rhayader are the spectacular reservoirs and dams that make up the scenic Elan Valley. Built at the end of the 19th century to supply water to the West Midlands, the reservoirs are a great feat of Victorian engineering, and the surrounding hills are home to one of Britain’s rarest and most beautiful birds – the red kite.
Further south lies the Brecon Beacons National Park, which takes its name from the distinctively shaped sandstone mountains of the Brecon Beacons. Two other ranges lie within the park’s 519 square miles. To the east of the Brecon Beacons rise the interlocking peaks of the Black Mountains, which stretch to the English border; to the west is Black Mountain, which, though its name is singular, refers to an unpopulated range of barren, smooth-humped peaks. One of the area’s most impressive natural features lies underground – the largest complex of underground caverns in northern Europe can be explored just outside Craig-y-Nos.
Perhaps because the population here has always been sparse, there are few buildings of special note. A major exception is Brecon Cathedral, “half church of God and half castle against the Welsh”. Museums of particular interest include the National Cycle Collection in Llandrindod Wells, and bookworms will surely find irresistible a visit to Hay-on-Wye, the ‘second-hand book capital of the world’. Equally, aficionados of eccentric sports will be drawn to Llanwrtyd Wells in August for the annual World Bog Snorkelling Championship.
The most elegant of the spa towns of mid-Wales, Llandrindod Wells is still a popular place that has retained much of its Victorian and Edwardian character and architecture. It was only a scattering of cottages and two churches until 1749 when the first hotel was built here. It had several hundred rooms and its facilities included hairdressers, milliners and glovers. There was a billiards room and large function rooms for balls and assemblies. And visitors could also sample the spa waters, which had been known about since Roman times.
But it was not until the coming of the Central Wales Railway in 1866, along with the Victorians’ enthusiasm for taking the waters that Llandrindod Wells really developed into a spa town. At the peak of the town’s prosperity some 80,000 visitors a year came to take the waters in an attempt to obtain relief from ailments ranging from gout, rheumatism and anaemia to diabetes, dyspepsia and liver trouble. Special baths and heat and massage treatments were also available.