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Wales: Hinterland

Ribbons of anonymous backroads thread their way through west Wales. Some take you to lonely lakes, some to chapels built for miners. Others just come to a dead end — sodden farmland or a steep hill blocking the way.

Wales: Hinterland

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This is the maze I navigate on a journey out to the coastal edges of Ceredigion, a wild, windswept, thinly populated marginal zone where the Cambrian Mountains slope down to Cardigan Bay.

It’s also the landscape of Y Gwyll (The Dusk), a Welsh-language crime thriller broadcast on S4C in October 2013. Simultaneously shot in English (with some Welsh-language scenes), it’s already screened on BBC Wales as Hinterland and starts on BBC Four on 28 April.

The critical consensus was that it was the most polished TV production ever to come out of Wales and that DCI Tom Mathias — the lead character, played by Richard Harrington — should have smiled at least once during the four two-hour episodes.

Everyone also agreed that the landscape was the real star of the show.

I arrive in Aberystwyth on a Saturday afternoon, when the wind is high and the skies are clear and of Nordic hue. This is the urban centre around which most of the action takes place; home to the main police HQ, dark alleyways and amusement arcades.

Joining the walkers on the promenade for a blast of fresh air, I get the impression of a seaside town that has gone into retirement. But Aberystwyth has its attractions — a glorious castle ruin to the south, a funicular railway up to a steep headland to the north, a camera obscura, and an elegant, ecclesiastical-looking university that was originally built as a grand hotel in the 1860s.

The centre is full of small shops and nice cafes, delis and places to eat, and there’s a great bookshop, Llyfrau Ystwyth Books, where I pick up a periodical that just happens to have a long essay on bilingualism and… ‘Y Gwyll/Hinterland’. The TV series is the talk of the town.

I spend the night at Nanteos Mansion, a grand Grade I-listed Georgian mansion three miles from the centre. The estate belonged to the Powell family from 1738 till 1951, but the Second World War killed off the last heir and the house was sold on and left to moulder. It reopened as a swish country hotel in May 2012, and is a cosy refuge from the late-winter weather.

On the Sunday, I explore ‘Hinterland’ by car. One road takes me along a high ridge. I’m definitely on the western edge of the Cambrians here — the mountain range that gives this country its Welsh name, Cymru, and its untameable form.

Another road takes me to Devil’s Bridge. A corpse is found here in the first episode of Y Gwyll/Hinterland. It turns out to be that of 64-year-old Helen Jenkins, the cruel, god-fearing head of a children’s home at Devil’s Bridge. Nice place for an orphanage, I think.

I go through a turnstile and follow a vertiginous staircase — part steps, part rocks polished by shoe leather — that zigzags down a deep ravine. I can see one small waterfall in the distance; then turn a corner to see a towering one right beside the bridge.

By the time I’ve descended and ascended the hundreds of steps, I’m soaked through. Time to abandon the beautifully bleak backcountry of west Wales.

Through the murk of sheeting rain I see the dark bricks of a huge hotel. Down in a cleft I see a small city of white caravans. A solitary farmhouse sits atop a canyon. For the makers of a noirish crime series, Aberystwyth and its environs offer no end of lonely sites.

The road rises one last time, and I drive for almost an hour without seeing another car or another soul. You can’t beat film for selling a landscape and bringing new visitors, and crime is the zeitgeist genre. Y Gwyll/Hinterland will people the Ceredigion coast with many memorable characters — familiar and strange, dead as well as alive — but it’s the raw and rugged emptiness of this place that tells the most enduring story.

verceredigion.co.uk
bbc.co.uk