Flights of fancy on a wild Welsh weekend

By Sankha Guha

Yes, it can be wet, but sweeping views, soothing massages and awesome birds of prey are just some of the delights to distract you at Wales' luxury Red Kite Barn, writes Sankha Guha.

The return of the red kite from near extinction in Wales has been one of the great wildlife comeback stories of the past four decades. Photo / Thinkstock
The return of the red kite from near extinction in Wales has been one of the great wildlife comeback stories of the past four decades. Photo / Thinkstock

It's lashing down on the Severn Bridge. The clouds which have held back during the drive west can no longer contain their fury and have let the deluge loose. There is water to the left and to the right. There is water above and below. Curtains of frenzied rain are being pulled across the carriageway by an unseen hand; visibility has reduced to 50 metres and the sky is a snarling dragon of malicious intent. Welcome to Wales.

Well, what did I expect? After I endured one of the dampest springs on record, the timing of my trip is counterintuitive to say the least - if not downright perverse.

I have persuaded myself the alliteration of wet and Wales is a lazy cliche and I am having none of it. The rain has to stop at some point. So why not right now? And why not in Wales?

In a rush of blood the gauntlet has been thrown down to the weather gods. And as I cross the mighty bridge they are making it clear they are up for the fight.

There can only be one winner. And against the odds it turns out to be me - or us to be precise, as my partner Hannah is accompanying.

An hour and a half after crossing the border we are in mid-Wales and the sky clears miraculously. The sun is casting a benign evening glow as we turn off the B-road in Powys between Newbridge-on-Wye and Beulah and find ourselves on a narrow country lane.

The freshly washed hedgerows look sharp and perky. Down in the valley a brook glints silver through the trees. Everything else except the sky is green. There must be 10,000 shades of green.

The asphalt surface runs out in due course and we bump along a rough track through a dense conifer forest. The track dips down to a bridge and then a last push up a steep incline to Red Kite Barn - our home for the next couple of days.

It is as isolated as Angela Merkel would feel in Greece. From the barn there is literally no sight of human habitation.

Later I discover the odd cottage hidden away within the woods and a sizeable farm just over the brow of the hill at the rear. But to all appearances, we are alone - magisterially commanding the sweeping views that stretch for miles around.

Inside, the barn is equally eye-catching. Sheepskin, the company that markets the property, specialises in rural getaways to a standard the average city-slicking hedge-fund manager would no doubt regard as the bare minimum for a weekend of roughing it in the barbaric sticks. So it comes as no surprise that the interior of the barn is design-fabulous and about as un-rustic as a cottage in mid-Wales can be.

The pool table, the wine cooler, the Bauhaus-inspired log burner, the Miele kitchen appliances, the Italian rocking sofa (yes, sofa), the stripped wooden floors and the three-metre-screen home cinema would not be out of place in a bachelor penthouse on the Isle of Dogs.

Light floods into the colossal living room upstairs through substantial glass panels cut into the sides and the gable end - but instead of delivering a Manhattan-style skyline, the panorama serves as an ever present reminder of rural bliss. So far, so good.

But it gets a bit weird downstairs. The bordello-chic Moroccan theme is playful, eclectic, bold - call it what you will - but also provocatively out of character with the surrounds.

The polished plaster floors and walls are warm enough to the touch but cannot help looking cold and are, I suspect, better suited to the riads of Marrakech than the boglands of mid-Wales.

One of the bedrooms is equipped with an "LED shower" that sprinkles multicoloured light as you wash. There is also a useless and rather large LED "fireplace" that simulates multicoloured flames but offers no heat. It is all too disco for my jaded senses.

On our walk the following day, the sun is blazing down again and the hills are alive with the sounds of bleating lambs calling to their mothers, and vice versa.

Our route takes us around the nearest hill called Banc Creigol (382 metres). On the approach we pass through a farmyard where a group of lambs have been penned off from their mums. There is nothing silent about these lambs, yelping in distress to the helpless but equally voluble ewes. Are the lambs being sent off to slaughter? The scene is affecting enough to awaken the inner vegetarian in me for the few minutes it takes to traverse the yard.

All is bucolic bliss, however, as we round the shoulder of the hill and the view southwards opens up. Visibility is good enough to see the twin bumps of the Brecon Beacons in the distance. Fluffy white clouds in the sky mirror the smaller fluff balls of sheep that roll across the patches of green baize.

The route takes us across a brook and along a spongy field and then runs out of ideas. There is no stile or obvious path, just a rusty barbed wire fence which is scaled with care. We are lost.

The distinctive outline of a red kite with its forked tail appears on the ridge to the right. The return of the bird from near extinction in Wales has been one of the great wildlife comeback stories of the past four decades. I take this as a good omen and we head for the ridge. It is not the easiest route back but it turns out well enough, taking us over the col between Creigol and Cwm Clyd. From the ridge we see Red Kite Barn straight ahead.

Emma Gethin, a masseuse, has been called out from Builth Wells to revive our tired bodies. Emma's wise fingers pummel and coax life back into grateful muscles. She has chosen some vaguely oriental sounding floaty-flutey music to accompany her massage.

Semi-comatose, I become convinced the yin of the cosmic yang must be balanced, and 9500 kilometres away in a spa in Thailand they are, at this precise moment, playing a backing track of gently soothing Welsh and Celtic melodies.

The next visitor to the barn is Layla Bennett accompanied by Olivia, Monty and Hope. The latter three are raptors. Layla's had a thing for birds of prey since she was 16, and has made her hobby pay by building up a falconry business over the past 10 or so years - extracting £50,000 (NZ$97,000) to this end from the famously dour Duncan Bannatyne on the BBC's Dragons' Den.

She's here to do a falconry display. Ironically none of her birds are red kites, which she explains aren't much use for hunting since they're primarily scavengers. Olivia (barn owl), Monty (gyrfalcon) and Hope (Harris hawk) are lined up on their perches in front of the barn. They are all extremely photogenic and quite mesmerising up close.

Harris hawks originated in South America but don't have a Latin temperament and can be trained easily, explains Layla.

She untethers Hope (a male despite his name) who glides off immediately to perch on a tree. She tells me how to hold a gauntleted hand up, and how to offer little treats that will tempt the bird down.

Layla then produces a leather pouch which contains an appetising pick 'n' mix of chicks' feet. I am examining these macabre little "treats" when I feel a sharp pain in my scalp. Hope, unable to contain his excitement, has landed on my head. His razor-sharp talons are scrabbling through my hair trying to get a grip. Now I know what an unlucky rabbit might feel like.

Layla shoos off the bird. We walk up the hill, periodically summoning Hope with offerings of chick foot. Every time I hold up my arm, Hope appears within seconds without warning, sleek, silent and deadly.

A similar but massively scaled-up sight is on view daily at Gigrin Farm in nearby Rhayader. Over the past 20 years the farm has become the premier "feeding station" for the once endangered indigenous red kites.

At 3pm every day, farmer Chris Powell drives his tractor into a field which is now designated for the kites. In front of a row of hides he shovels gobbets of meat from a trailer. What follows is one of the most thrilling wildlife spectacles in the world.

Instantly the sky is thick with four to five hundred kites swooping, flapping, gliding and soaring. If it weren't for their size they would resemble a swarm of supersize-me killer bees; bees with razor sharp talons and evil beaks.

The red kite has a wing span of nearly two metres and a dazzling livery - seen from beneath the primaries are white with black tips, fringed with chestnut coverts and dark grey secondaries.

The deep-V-shaped wings and the rotating forked tail are not only elegant but also confer an amazing agility evinced here in a breathtaking aerial ballet as the birds bank and dive vertically through the impossibly crowded airspace, scattering crows and ravens on the ground, to get at the morsels of meat.

The clouds have returned and are spitting; the breeze is rising but the kites are in their element.

The list of alliterations is getting longer. Wet. Windy. Wild. Wonderful.


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