Wales - My First Trip 'Abroad'
I was ten when I went to Wales and enormously excited to make my first trip ‘abroad’. The parents of a school friend took me with them on their family holiday. I was very disappointed that there didn’t seem to be any kind of border crossing at Welshpool, even though the name appeared to indicate territorial change. The drive was long and the mountains huge, brown and magnificent. I’d never seen proper mountains before - I don’t think the North York moors count, but I had read about Welsh mountains, magic and Merlin. They seemed to cover the whole country. And they, in their turn, were covered in sheep. (Today, Wales has a population of approximately three million people and 12 million sheep.) It felt delightfully foreign. People spoke with strange lilting accents and the place names were astonishingly difficult to pronounce.
We stayed at Penrhyndeudraeth, a small town near Porthmadog, on the edge of Snowdonia, making forays into the national park:
- up Snowdon on the train
- another train at Ffestiniog (steam this time)
- into Porthmadog town (shops full of welsh hats and blue bottomed copper jugs)
- to exotic Portmeirian Village (I’m not a number I’m a free man)
- skirting round Snowdonia for the spectacular views at Capel Curig, with a stop at Beddgelert (sad grave of faithful Gelert the hound, slain by his master when he had in fact defended the child, not killed it) and another at Betws y Coed for the pretty waterfalls
- and south to Dyffryn, near Barmouth to meet up with my friend’s cousins. Dyffryn Beach had sand dunes to play in. I’d never seen them before either.
I went back a couple of years later on a school camp. We travelled on the bus via Blenheim Palace and ended up in Snowdonia again, but this time on the opposite side, near Bala. We revisited Beddgelert and Betws y Coed, walked up Snowdon this time (the ridge was a little scary), went to Bala Lake and hiked all round Lake Vyrnwy. We were only supposed to reach the other end, but we got lost. It’s a big lake.
I made use of my knowledge of Wales when I sat my GCE exam. ‘Write about sheep farming in Wales’, stated the question. So I traced the outline of Wales from the weather map of the UK on the front of the paper, shaded in most of it and annotated this area as mountains and therefore sheep farming country. Then I wrote about looking after sheep - I learned that when we did Australia.
Since then I’ve returned to Wales several times:
- A family holiday in a caravan in Llandudno. We went to Carnarvon and Conway Castles, and explored the Ormes headlands.
- A weekend visit, when I was a student to visit a friend at Cardiff University. It was a gentle experience. We were woken on a Sunday morning by a Salvation Army band marching down the street and made an out of town excursion to the gothic revival delight of Castell Coch.
- My honeymoon in Cardigan. A really beautiful coastline, towering hedges, coracles on the River Teifi and a diversion south, to Pembrokeshire and St David’s, the smallest city in the UK.
- By car through Wales to Anglesey to catch the ferry to Ireland. The lanes were so narrow, the journey was interminable. The increasing anxiety around missing the boat quite took away the rapture of visiting the town with (debatabley) the longest (concocted) place name in the English speaking world –
Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (or St Mary's Church in the Hollow of the White Hazel near a Rapid Whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio near the Red Cave).
- A friend’s house in the Valleys. (He couldn’t afford one in Sussex.) This entailed a visit to Newport and the Gower Peninsula (gorgeous), as well as walking in the Brecon Beacons. I last returned to the latter in 2015. My friend Nicola is lucky enough to live in a converted chapel there. It's stunningly beautiful and there's access to Hay (Book Festival) and Ross on Wye too. It's a reasonably easy drive up the M4. It’s also reasonably easy to get lost there, and a little frightening, as night comes down.