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Del Hughes has a Murderously Good Weekend, part 1

28 May 2023 14 minute read
Wales’ most remote phone image by Del Hughes

Del Hughes

Reception was empty, barring one marvellously colourful lady who provided a blaze of brilliance in the slightly tired magnolia lobby.

Attired in a stunning hippy-chic dress, her coarse grey curls cascaded over her shoulders, were held in check by a cerise scarf, edged with tiny, mirrored circles, which framed twinkling eyes, and a lived-in face.

She was propped against the desk, dinging the call bell every few seconds (and with some force), and was evidently impatient for a member of staff to answer its sharp summons.

Being fanciful, as I frequently am, if the local am-dram were thinking of staging Blithe Spirit, she would have made a terrific Madame Arcati – no costume required. And remarkably, after exchanging smiles, her first words to me simply underscored her innate suitability for that role.

‘Ah, I know why you’re here. . . ’ she murmured, with an eloquent wink. Then she paused, thumped the bell, and whispered one final word, ‘. . . Murder!’ Wowzers!

Right, so she was clearly a bit of a character, but as it happens, she was scarily accurate. I was indeed checking into the Four Seasons Hotel – no, not the posh ones – in Aberystwyth, in order to attend the inaugural Gŵyl Crime Cymru Festival, where top authors would be giving talks and hosting workshops for whodunnit writer wannabees and crime fiction fans.

It promised to be a weekend filled with good old-fashioned homicidal high jinks, and Sidonia, Madame Arcati’s actual name – ‘Just call me Sid’ – was attending too. (Turned out, she’d spotted the event tickets peeking out of my handbag, which made her initial introduction a lot less impressive, though no less memorable.)

Perfect location

I arranged to meet her later, collected my key from the harried staff member who’d finally appeared, and headed off to my room feeling moderately trepidatious. Why? Well, for some reason, I’d booked and paid for the hotel well in advance, without any thought of checking the online reviews first.

See, I tend to rush into things with the fervour of a ball-chasing Labrador, only to frequently regret such haste at a later date. And that’s why I was steeling myself for a pretty dismal stay.

The reviews for this place, which I perused just the previous day, were abysmal to say the least. But I hadn’t booked this hotel for its facilities, rather because it was situated an equidistant one-minute amble from the Central Library and Ceredigion Museum, the two locations where Crime Cymru would be holding their events. And that made it a perfect location for me.

So, turning the key and entering my ‘accessible’ room, I was prepared for the worst. But no, I was pleasantly surprised.

There was a slight new carpet smell, two beds, a brand new wet room decked out with helpful grab rails and smart smellies, and a well-stocked tea and coffee tray, with ample milks and biscuits. Get thee behind me Bourbon!

It was clean, fresh and I was delighted. Like Goldilocks, I tried out the beds, settled for the softer of the two, then opened the sash window to let in a cooling breeze, made a strong cuppa, and relaxed for a few hours, in readiness for the intriguingly named ‘Dragon Parade.’

Road tripping

Actually, I dozed off for a bit, but it had been a very long day. Yes, the drive from Swansea to Aberystwyth is only a short two-hour, seventy-six-mile hop, but if you’ve read some of my other articles, you’ll know I’m a fan of road-tripping. And this journey was no exception.

Once I’d made my Crime Fest arrangements, I got out my trusty adventure maps and plotted myself a little route that would take in some true Welsh wonders. The outward leg had three stops:

  1. The most isolated phone box in Wales, about which I was extremely excited. And no, I still can’t explain why.
  2. Devil’s Bridge, a place my parents frequently took me when I was young, and when its very name caused shivers of delightful dread.
  3. The Magic of Life Butterfly House, which sounded pretty amazing, and who doesn’t love a flutter-by?

And homeward bound, I’d booked a dolphin spotting boat trip in New Quay. The weekend was going to be epic.

Setting off Friday morning, I waved a cheery goodbye to Tim, kissed the pups, tanked up Geoff (my Kangoo), and revved off into an overcast morning with a flask of strong coffee, my Google sat-nav, and a song in my heart. Woohoo! Adventure, here I come.

Road to Hell image by Del Hughes

Vertiginous views

Three hours later, my back was in spasm and a nascent migraine pulsed over my right temple. The grey morning had matured into a murky miasma, and whilst I could barely see the end of Geoff’s bonnet, the one positive was that the vertiginous views were also semi-shrouded.

You could say I was regretting heading into the heart of wild Wales, tentatively navigating an infamous road known as The Devil’s Staircase, with no more sustenance than a pack of Leerdammer (I’m low-carbing so cheese is my friend), a jar of pickled onions (Onions less so but hey, I was on holiday), and in the company of an increasingly exasperated sat-nav.

Originally an old drover’s path, The Devil’s Staircase is a single track road – though calling it ‘single track’ is tremendously generous – comprising a set of jagged hairpin turns, with a max gradient of 20.1%. It runs the twenty odd miles between Abergwesyn and Tregaron, and it’s at the thirteen mile mark that you’ll find the telephone box that was first on my ‘must see’ list.

However, what I hadn’t realised was how threadlike, twisty, and truly terrifying those miles would be. My jaw was permanently clenched, my nose was mere inches from the windscreen and the bloody sat-nav insisted on telling me to turn left or right, despite the fact that turning any way wasn’t an option – not unless I wanted to rock up at one of the Cold Comfort Farms we passed en route.

The Devil’s Staircase and springy lambs, image by Del Hughes

Magnificently bleak

It was slow going. I stopped several times, to give my eyes, jaw and buttocks a break, leaving Geoff idling in the centre of the road, because there were no other cars, traffic, people, just mile upon mile of grubby knitted sheep and springy lambs.

Nothing else stirred and, despite sat-nav’s propensity for announcing ‘unknown’ roads with an unseemly degree of relish, I admit I was glad of her company, even if conversation was mainly one-sided.

Just once, headlights appeared in my rear mirror, and soon two bikers barrelled past – though when I say barrelled, I mean they waited for me to pull in as near to the rockface as possible, before squeezing slowly past, then speeding onwards at twenty mph.

It seemed that anyone attempting this perfect Top Gear road knew caution was key.

We struggled on, and eventually, rounding a sweeping bend, there it was, rising from the mist with a an almost audible boo! I had reached my destination. Praise the Lord.

Honestly, I’m not 100% sure it was actually worth it. It was just a telephone box and, though located in magnificently bleak surroundings, I felt a tad underwhelmed.

Still, I parked up, had a fortifying onion and a glug of coffee, then climbed out into the fog, ready to ring Tim from the most remote phone in Wales.

Nope, not happening. Why? Because though it really is the most remote telephone box in Wales, the operative word here is box; there is no phone, just the cheery red shell containing a multitude of glittery stickers (?) that adorn the back wall. Sigh.

Geoff with Wales’ most remote phone box, image by Del Hughes

Cloven hooves

Oh well, on to Devil’s Bridge. The descent to Tregaron was hair-raising, Geoff’s brake warning light began flashing an ABS SOS, and I only fully unclenched when we pulled into a lay-by, where a food van provided a cheeseburger (no bun), and a very strong cuppa to steady my nerves.

And then, we got lost. Genuinely lost. And sat-nav was clueless too. In fact, she was having such trouble pronouncing Welsh road names, I reckon she’d given up and was sulking, but the fact there was a diversion didn’t help proceedings.

Four times I tried to follow it, and four times I failed, bouncing around side roads, signs, and sheep. Twenty-five minutes later I was back at the burger van, this time in need of directions, not protein.

Back on course, things started looking up. The cloud lifted, Devil’s Bridge lay ahead, beckoning with cloven hooves, and Geoff was purring along, all warning lights dimmed, for now. And, dropping down into the wooded valley, there it was. Or rather, there it wasn’t. Bummer.

See, the last time I’d visited was over thirty years ago, and time had wiped away the memories of steep slippery descents, and the need for healthy legs. Instead, I ordered a coffee in the fancy Hafod Hotel, sat out in their alfresco area, and listened to the rushing waters of the falls.

Of course, it wasn’t the same as seeing them, so I bought a postcard, and ten minutes later was back on the road. Next stop, butterfly central.

Postcard of Devil’s Bridge

Challenge accepted

On The Magic of Life website, they give directions on how best to reach their location: Please plan to come via Capel Bangor, unless you like adventure.

Hell yeah, I do! Challenge accepted.

I checked the map, switched off sat-nav and followed the A4120 to the sneaky right turn and . . . Yep, should have gone to Specsavers, and via Capel Bangor.

Geoff’s wing mirrors brushed the fences on both sides, and the overhanging hedgerows frequently blocked views of the way ahead. This route was, potentially, an adventure too far.

So, I caved, switched sat-nav back on, begged her forgiveness, and with an audible sigh, she advised me to turn around and head back to the A4120. Unhelpful. I’d already gone too far to contemplate a U-turn, but more importantly, there was nowhere to exact that manoeuvre. Sigh.

I struggled on, and after many alarming miles, arrived at The Magic of Life Butterfly House – a giant polytunnel on the banks of the Rheidol.

Trotting in, I was cheerfully greeted by two lovely young men (Chris and Max), who did their utmost to make my visit as unforgettable, and well-informed, as possible. However, we got off to a sticky start when I couldn’t figure out why I qualified for discounted admission.

After confusion on both sides, we resolved the situation amicably – or as amicably as was possible, given that I was being charged the concessionary OAPs price, and at fifty-three, I definitely didn’t want it.

Fool that I am, I insisted on paying in full, joked about grey hair being deceptive and, though it didn’t do much for my self-esteem, consoled myself with the knowledge that, when you’re a teenager, everyone over thirty looks ancient. Well, that’s what I told myself.

Sultry climes

Then I gently pushed through the heavy strips of plastic that masked the entrance/exit – used to ensure no morphos, malachites or common Mormons make a bid for freedom, or Utah – and carefully stepped inside.

Chris had suggested leaving my fuzzy shacket in reception, but it was a cool day, and I didn’t want my elderly bones catching a chill. Lol!

However, as I should have realised, these sustainably farmed pupae and butterflies hail from sultry climes, and their living environment was kept at a steamy 24 – 28oC, with a humidity of 60-80%. Immediately, my menopausal temperature gauge spiked, and my shacket was consigned to a nearby bench.

And then I saw the inmates. The air was filled with flapping wings, and in such an enclosed area, it took a little getting used to. It was like a scene from The Birds, though less intimidating, and certainly more colourful.

But soon, I was dipping my fingers into the little jars of sweetened water, using this syrupy solution to tempt the lively Lepidoptera into landing on me. Initially they didn’t, fluttering around my head and hands, before flitting unconcernedly away, to perch on someone else. Pfft!

But as I was taking a snap of a green glass wing (?), I felt a tickle on my hand and saw I had a visitor. It was a large, mothy specimen and, as butterflies go, was probably the least eye-catching of the lot, but it was on me and that warranted a photo.

And thank goodness I bothered, because as I clicked, its wings briefly opened to reveal the glorious glowing sapphire of a blue morpho. Wow! It was a real beauty.

Blue morpho image by Del Hughes

But life gives, and it takes. It remained on my hand for some time, and when cramp set in, I placed it gently on a palm tree. The wings parted, giving one final cobalt flash, and then it fell to the floor. Shit! I’d killed it!

I called the staff to help, but nothing could be done. Max bore it solemnly away to the chapel of rest, or whatever the bug equivalent is, and Chris explained butterflies live for only two to three weeks. For my blue morpho, this was day nineteen. Aw.

After that, I wasn’t bothered about getting up close and personal with the others – just in case – and was happy to head back to the seasonal chill of reception.

But as I was buying the obligatory fridge magnet, Chris mentioned stick insects, and suggested I might want to ‘. . . have a photo taken with one?’ Hmm? Though insect-averse, this type of bug holds no fear for me. They’re basically twiglets with legs. So yes, let’s do this.

Okay, what he placed on my arm was like no stick insect I’d ever seen, and thank God I’d already donned my shacket. As I urged Chris to ‘Hurry up and take the sodding photo,’ he, with a breathtaking inability to read the room, or my facial expressions, suggested I might want to try smiling. Grrr!

Stick insect! Image by Del Hughes

Alcohol

And that was Day One of my mini-break, apart from the evening’s bizarre, but strangely enjoyable, Dragon Parade – think Rio, then replace scantily-clad dancers with dragon-wielding-Birkenstock-wearing individuals. Afterwards, Sid and I agreed that alcohol was a necessity.

However long later, as Sid debated a flaming sambuca, and explained that her tolerance for liquor came from ‘eighty-four years of practice’ – Drunken Lol! – I, lightweight that I am, excused myself and trundled merrily, and vastly more unsteadily than usual, off to bed.

Overall, I’d had a splendid, if sometimes stressful day, but with a funicular railway, dolphins and a large dose of crime lined up, maybe the best was still to come? (Spoiler alert – it certainly was.)

If you’d like to spend a few hours in the company of butterflies, go to The Magic of Life Butterfly House website for visitor information, and directions on getting there. Just remember to go via Capel Bangor.

For news about Crime Cymru, and the Gŵyl Crime Cymru Festival 2024, visit their website at Gŵyl Crime Cymru Festival. I’ll deffo be going next year, so maybe I’ll see you there.

Though I didn’t see the signs, Devil’s Bridge does have a viewing platform suitable for people with mobility issues. Details are available on their website.


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Catherine
Catherine
9 months ago

Great adventure Del, I can’t wait for part II 🤗

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
9 months ago

If you liked the Devil’s Staircase you will love Bwlch y Groes Del…

Come up north and see us sometime…

Del Hughes
Del Hughes
9 months ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

I’ve deffo got north Wales on my list, Mab. Was up at Ty Newydd last year and was blown away by scenery! Absolutely spectacular. Hoping for a holiday up there this summer 🤞🤞

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