The word Powys is not filled with onomatopoeic potential and, to the English ear at least, doesn't conjure up a particular image. And yet the region has a dizzying lineage, one that stretches back to antiquity. In the fifth century, the Romans scarcely off the stage, Powys was ruled one of the last kings of the Britons named Vortigern – that’s according to the Venerable Bede not the comedically venerable Monty Python. Later still Powys was ruled by Brochwel Ysgrithrog (‘the fanged’ or ‘of the tusk’) and did battle with the Saxons before Alfred the Great had even been born – let alone burned his fingers on a cake. It thus qualifies as one of the most ancient place names in Britain – predating the Saxon era.
Bordered to the east by Shropshire and Herefordshire, Powys straddles middle Wales, and is the largest of its counties by far – with mountains, forests and the fertile valleys of the Severn and Wye rivers of arresting beauty. For those in search of a new life, it is festooned with a string of stout, slaty, Georgian market towns, many of which can claim to be the best in the business.
If you don’t believe me, drop the dot of your sat nav on Wellington’s head in the main square of Brecon – and once you’ve done a tour of the Regimental Museum of the Royal Welsh, where you can gaze upon Victoria Crosses and other resolutely un-PC artefacts from the Zulu War of the 1870s – then jump in the car and head north.
Follow the A470, one of those glorious country roads that must have been treacherous at Christmas in the days before in drink driving restrictions. Soon you’ll pass through Bronllys, which boasts a keep and motte built in 1100 by the Anglo-Norman landowner Richard Fitz Pons. The first stop is Builth Wells, with its beautiful six span bridge over the River Wye, which dates back to 1775. Head north on the A483 and you’re in Llandrindod Wells before you know it, and then Newtown, the biggest town in Powys follows.
Continue from Builth on the A470 and you hit the smashing town of Rhayader, which offers another dictionary definition of the term market town. More than that it might very well qualify as the Platonic ideal of market-town-ness. At the heart of Rhayader – indeed the A-road takes you straight through it, is a clock improbably placed in the middle of the main crossroads, which you must do your best not to drive into, as you gaze agog at the sorts of teashops and confectioners that you last saw when you were prone in a pram.
Rhayader, which comes from the Anglicised form of the Welsh word for waterfall, was a hotbed of the Rebecca Riots and these days describes itself as ‘the outdoors capital of Wales’. (I can only imagine there is a queue of others eager to disagree). It sits close to the highest peak of the Cambrian Mountains and the source of Wye river.
But Powys – and its remorseless A470 – still isn’t done yet: there’s more. Keep going north and you hit the town of Machynlleth, which is a word that you must be extremely cautious in attempting to pronounce. Here you’ll find yet another gothic town clock lording it over the thoroughfare, and yet another place steeped in history: it was the seat of the Welsh parliament under Owain Glyndwr in 1404 – that’s more than five centuries before Rhodri Morgan was invented – and they’ve been having a market on a Wednesday here since the days of Edward I. But hang on there’s also a museum of modern art (MOMA Machynlleth no less, and a handful of other galleries). And up here, now in north Wales, you are on the doorstep of Snowdonia, but also a stone’s throw from the coast.
And whether you’re interested in a staycation or somewhere to live, these are proper thriving towns with broadsheet newspapers proudly bearing their names (my favourite being the Brecon and Radnor Express, in which I have had at least one letter published). Spanning it, running from Welshpool in the north to Knighton in the south is the Glyndwr Way, a 135-mile national trail meandering ‘through open moorland, rolling farmland, woodland and forest’ and named after the hereditary prince of Powis Fadog who led the Welsh in rebellion against the English in 1400s.
And we have haven’t even alighted upon the Black Mountains or the Brecon Beacons, which are to Himalayas what a Shetland pony is to Shergar: every inch as special, just a bit less racy. The highest peak in the Brecon Beacons national park, which covers 520 square miles, is Pen y Van, which is but a 1990s Hugh Grant period romcom away from being 3,000 feet tall. It’s a handsome slab as you’ll find and the views and the teacake afterwards will reward the effort. For a quieter walk you can head into the hills above Abergavenny or Talgarth and stride along Lord Hereford’s Knob or Hay Bluff for day and landscape you’ll never forget.
Down at this end of Powys you’ll find the town of Crickhowell, again an authentic market town that boasts the sort of flourishing high street you assumed had ceased to exist a decade or so ago. Here the tone is set by the independent bookshop, Book-ish, but everywhere you look, is a special little shop doing something its own way (even if they’ve just lost their fight to let a chain supermarket into the town – the Co-op – announced in May).
This is a really special corner of this country. And a short drive away, passing the Glenusk Estate from which hails Princes William and Harry’s nanny Tiggy Legge-Bourke; up here, up a hill you’ll find one of the best afternoon teas by a country mile – perhaps, that you’ll find in the British isles at The Gliffaes hotel, overlooking the swirling white of the Usk. The fly-fishing is meant to be superb, also.
Stay here at your peril, for once you have eaten of the lotus flower your mid-Wales odyssey will be over.
And the clincher for Powys is that as well as the mountains and valleys and charming towns – and simple joys like tractor fairs – you discover that this is area has a population density more than ten times lower than Yorkshire, and nearly 20 times lower than Hampshire. Indeed, it’s nearly 60 times less densely populated than Surrey.
According to Rightmove the average property price in Powys is just £232,381, well below the ONS’s average house price of £251,000 across Britain in April 2021. There’s no doubt that for beauty, for tranquillity and the sheer drama and unremitting greenness of the landscape on offer that Powys is a steal compared to the likes of Oxfordshire (£464,384 was the average price there in the past year). All that, and it boasts Hay-on-Wye, so far unmentioned, but home to a brace of Norman castles, more than 20 bookshops and the most famous literary festival in the world.
And I should say that this is also a place where rugby is in the soil.
My advice? Get there before it changes. Pop in to Morrison’s in Brecon where Gurkha wives man the checkouts; kayak on the Wye and imagine you’re on the Zambezi; scale the peaks of the Black Mountains before repairing to an unpretentious market town for tea.