The upcoming TV detective series Hinterland was shaped by the desolate, atmospheric landscape of Ceredigion. Robin Turner unearths some of its treasures
Alighting at Borth station, it’s easy to imagine you’ve arrived at the edge of the world. A single track stretches north and south, out towards infinite horizons. Beneath endless skies, miles of scrubby peat fields unfold before the Cambrian Mountains. Beyond them, the Green Desert. Look eastwards and this could easily be the American interior, the sprawling vista a muted, colourised version of the Last Picture Show‘s Texas. Stepping back through the station, bilingual signage is the only thing to remind you that you’re actually in the midwest of Wales.
Even with 50 miles of picture-perfect coastline, sparsely populated Ceredigion is truly unsung Britain. That status might be about to change when Y Gwyll/Hinterland begins. A groundbreaking dual-language detective show funded by S4C and the BBC, all four feature-length episodes have been shot within a 30-minute-drive radius of Ceredigion’s university town, Aberystwyth. As filming got underway last year, Ed Thomas of Cardiff-based production company Fiction Factory became more and more captivated with the location. “We wanted to do something with a different rhythm from other detective shows, with a different landscape,” he says. “Aberystwyth is the end of the line for Tom Mathias, the guy at the heart of the stories. It sits in the middle of a wild landscape, untainted. Biblical, almost.”
Choosing to shoot Hinterland way out west, Fiction Factory found itself working in relatively unseen locations in a hugely photographed country (in the past decade, Wales has hosted productions of Doctor Who, Merlin, Clash of the Titans and Harry Potter). As Ceredigion’s mythology remains unexploited, Hinterland could weave regionalised legends into the stories to add further layers of Celtic noir. “If this was a Scandinavian drama,” says Thomas, “you’d listen intently to the myths of the north. We’ve tried to blur the myths of west Wales into the stories.”
Devil’s Bridge Falls – a focal point for the first episode – is home to one of Ceredigion’s legends. Cutting through impossibly lush, ultra-vivid countryside, the falls and surrounding areas are a walker’s paradise. The falls occur where the River Mynach drops 90m into the Rheidol and are easily reached via a steep descent from the road. Bridging the gorge are three crossings, each built atop the previous one. Dating back to 1753, the lowest bridge replaced the original 11th-century construction. Folklore states that the first bridge was built by the devil himself on his first visit to the country in exchange for the first living soul that crossed over it. After being outfoxed by a wily old lady, it’s said the devil was too embarrassed ever to return to Wales.
Just above the falls sits the Hafod Hotel, also used as a shooting location. An 18th-century hunting lodge, it overlooks acres of gorges. A tea shop is connected to the hotel, as is the Three Bridges pub, where a couple of decent local ales share bar space with regulation cooking lagers. On the strength of the view alone, it’s an unbeatable place to stop for a pint.
Twelve miles from Devil’s Bridge, overlooking Cardigan Bay, sits Aberystwyth. As the setting for Malcolm Pryce‘s six novels, each set in a parallel universe version of the town, it has its own noir heritage. “Maybe it’s the same reason Transylvania works so well as a setting for movies,” says Pryce. “Everyone’s heard of it, but no one really knows what goes on there. It’s a plausible hypothesis, because if you ask for directions to Aberystwyth in the nearby villages the peasants often cross themselves and hurry away muttering.”
Mid-Wales’s largest urban centre, Aberystwyth has a steady population of only 11,000 – term time brings in 7,000 more. Once it was known as the “Biarritz of Wales” but, like many Welsh coastal resorts, Aberystwyth’s looks have faded somewhat. While its Victorian promenade remains stunning, the fact that the train station has been sold to Wetherspoons speaks volumes. The Hinterland production team used many of the town’s derelict properties: the base for Tom Mathias’s detective team is a deserted council office off the seafront, and empty shops were used to represent housing, their windows made opaque with whitewash.
Travel just a few miles away from Aberystwyth and a sense of isolation kicks in. Supposedly the inspiration for Morrissey’s “Everyday is Like Sunday” (“This is the coastal town/they forgot to close down”), Borth consists of just a single street cutting between an endless stretch of beach and miles of scrubby wilderness – a ramshackle architectural fringe added to the world’s end. The town’s pervading aura of strangeness was captured by Sleep Furiously director Gideon Koppel in an eponymous film installation. For the film’s 50-minute duration, a camera tracks along the street at a trance-inducing 4mph. Low tide in Borth exposes the remains of an ancient submerged forest – local lore suggests that beyond the petrified woodland lies the Welsh Atlantis.
Seen through Hinterland‘s lens, Ceredigion looks every bit the equal of Wallander‘s southern Sweden or The Returned‘s eastern France – otherworldly and unmetropolitan. “Ceredigion is almost a character in its own right,” says Thomas. “It’s been a massive inspiration for us. The place really gets under your skin.”
Y Gwyll/Hinterland begins on S4C (with English subtitles) on 29 October at 9.30pm
Hafod Hotel at Devil’s Bridge, Aberystwyth (01970 890 232) has double rooms from £80.
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