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, dragons and Merlin. The mountains seemed to cover the whole country. And they, in their turn, were covered in sheep. It felt delightfully foreign. People spoke with strange lilting accents and the place names were astonishingly difficult to pronounce.

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.

Revisiting Childhood Memories

I’ve made several trips to Wales since then, but not for a very long time - especially North Wales. And now, I know better. Wales signifies castles, steam railways (The Great Little Trains of Wales), mountains, sheep and rugby. It's every man’s dream trip. But I’m partial to these things myself. And I've decided to revisit my childhood memories and wiggle my way round the coast of Wales in a week. I'm heading for the northernmost border and Queensferry to start.

This time the journey from the south, is much faster - we have a network of motorways, but the rain is relentless. So, the journey is half hell - aquaplaning, a constant deluge and floods. Then I cross the border into Wales - half heaven. Calm, relaxing, warm and welcoming (isn't it usually the other way round?)

North Wales

Along the north coast of Wales - there’s an expressway now and tunnels through mountains, which tumble into the sea. That’s almost in touching distance. Though sometimes you have to stop and take a footbridge over the new road.

Llandudno

I was fifteen when I was last in Llandudno. A family holiday in a caravan. in Llandudno. It’s still very much a Genteel Victorian seaside town, the 'the Queen of the Welsh Watering Places'and still the largest seaside resort in Wales. Llandudno means "Church of Saint Tudno".

Then, we went to Carnarvon and Conway Castles, and explored the limestone Ormes headlands, which form the bay. It rained and we watched reruns of Carry on Camping. Today, Great Orme and Little Orme, frame a stretch of pebble beach basking quietly in the sun. Lines of benches set back along the flat wide promenade are the place for lunch picnics. The Liverpool packet (the one I saw in the Isle of Man) has arrived for an annual reunion. It's moored off the nineteenth century pier.

The Ormes are named after the Norse word for sea serpent. Great Orme (it is much the longer and 207 metres high) is home to the Summit Hotel, reached by the Great Orme Tramway and the Llandudno Cable Car. There are also mines and, much to my surprise, it also has the longest toboggan run in Britain (750 metres.). The tourist intrusion isn’t sufficient to deter the rare flora and fauna in the nature reserve – peregrine falcons and a multitude of other seabirds. And there are several large herds of wild Kashmiri goats originally descended from a pair donated by Queen Victoria. Sometimes they escape into the town.

To the east, smaller headland Little Orme is also a nature reserve.

Conwy

A hop, skip and a jump to Conway, now known as Conwy. Most place names here have reverted to the original Welsh. It's on the banks of the River Conwy, defending Conwy Bay. This is one of the most complete walled towns in the United Kingdom. It was built, on the instructions of Edward I of England, between 1283 and 1289, as part of his conquest of of Wales.

You used to drive right alongside the castle - the expressway by passes the giant buttresses  now. The best view, today, is from the RSPB nature reserve across the river.

Caernarfon

Caernarfon (as I said, things aren’t spelled like they used to be), another fortress on the water's edge built by Edward I. The first fortress here dated from Roman times. When the Romans left Britain in 382, Caernarfon became part of the Kingdom of Gwynedd and it's now in that county. William the Conqueror then built a motte-and-bailey castle at Caernarfon as part of his attempt to invade Wales. But he had to give up. Edward I built his grand fortification after Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the ruler of Gwynedd, refused to pay homage to him.

Caernarfon Castle is possibly best known as the setting for Prince Charles' (slightly controversial) investiture, as the Prince of Wales, and the queen's weird winged helmet hat. The town has expanded beyond its medieval walls and there's a new marina full of bobbing yachts as well as moorings and sightseeing boats on the gentle River Seiont. But it's quiet today in the sun. there area few tourists wandering the narrow streets, but the square in front of the castle walls is empty.

Anglesey

Anglesey floats to the north, across the Menai Strait. A flat green pancake. No time to visit, this trip. I went once, by car through Wales, to Anglesey, to catch the ferry to Ireland. The lanes were so narrow, in those days, the journey was interminable. The increasing anxiety around missing the boat quite took away the rapture of visiting the town with (debatably) 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).

Llŷn Peninsula

Wales has over 1,680 miles of coastline, and the Llŷn Peninsula is a pincer arm, extending into the Irish Sea. I've never been here before, but I'm making good time so I'm going to tootle southwest across to Pwllheli. It's an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) and it's obvious why. A hundred miles of coastline, cliffs and glorious beaches. Gorgeous in the north, where a string of mountains abut the sea.

Pwllheli, the largest town, used to be famous for its Butlins. There's still a holiday camp there, run by Haven. There's another stunning stretch of sand backed by dunes. More importantly, this is where the Welsh Nationalist Political Party, Plaid Cymru, was founded. A large proportion of the population around here (81%) speak Welsh.

Criccieth

East to Criccieth, nestling in the elbow of the peninsula. I'm back in familiar territory now. This little resort has a cumbersome and imposing strap line 'The Pearl of Wales on the Shores of Snowdonia'. Another ruined castle, this one atop a hill, between the curves of beaches. It predates Edward I, but he extended it. The other historical building to note is the ice cream shop. Cadwalader's Ice Cream Parlour, opened in 1927.

And apparently, there is a furore ongoing, over the spelling of the town's name. Some Welsh purists argue that the double 'c' is an anomaly in Welsh and it should be eradicated. Signs have been defaced.

Snowdonia - Eryri

 The highest Welsh mountains (all those over 3,000 feet) are in the north - in Snowdonia - now called Eryri. The national park is huge - an over 800 square mile chunk of north-west Wales, which runs down to the mid-Wales coast at Aberdovey.

Penrhyndeudraeth

When I was ten, we stayed at Penrhyndeudraeth (it's not easy to say), a small town near Porthmadog, on the edge of Snowdonia, making forays into the national park. So, I've made it my Snowdonia base again, in a B and B. I'm not sure it's the same one - I suspect that's vanished into the mists of time. There are lovely views of the mountains and across the River Dwyryd estuary. An Indian restaurant and a Vegan restaurant with the unlikely soubriquet The Eating Gorilla. And that's about it.

Portmeirion

But, just down the estuary and still, officially, in Penrhyndeudraeth, is exotic Portmeirion. I've wanted to visit Portmeirion ever since I saw The Prisoner (which was filmed here) and was fascinated by Patrick McGoohan. (I'm not a number, I'm a free man). The village was still being completed last time I came. It's a riot of colour against a fortuitously blue sky. A fantastical Italianate wonderland, designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. He said that he wanted to pay tribute to the atmosphere of the Mediterranean. It's a surreal homage, an architectural bricolage, with copies of some buildings and fragments of others, as well as classical style statues imported. All set in beautifully manicured technicolour gardens.

It hasn't only served as inspiration for The Prisoner. Portmeirion has been a source of inspiration for Noël Coward (he wrote Blithe Spirit here). George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gregory Peck Ingrid Bergman. Brian Epstein, Paul McCartney, George Harrison (he filmed interviews for The Beatles Anthology documentary here). Iron Maiden, Dr Who, Cold Feet, Supergrass and Jools Holland have all graced the village with their presence.

The Prisoner's house is now a shop (it's the round building), crammed with Prisoner memorabilia. Sadly, I can't buy any, as it is, in its turn, imprisoned. The shop is already shut at five and all the cafes quickly follow suit. Including Café Number 6.  I wouldn't mind, but they've charged me full price to enter.

According to the woman who sold me the ticket 'It's for charity, so they have to do these things'.  I'm not sure I follow that logic. The charity seems to be the trust which maintains the buildings. In more charitable times they used to charge half price after 3 pm. And Williams-Ellis once stated that the levy of an entrance fee was just a deliberate ploy to prevent The Village from being spoilt by overcrowding. Humbug. All I can say is don't go towards the end of the afternoon. You won't get your money's worth.

In addition, bringing in the money are two hotels (one is crenelated Victorian Castel Deudraeth, which Clough Williams used as his base and inspiration) and most of The Village doubles as self-catering cottages. I wonder what all those folk staying here, do for food in the evening. Many of them have American accents. They're floating up from the lovely swimming pool situated with amazing views out to the estuary. I think that's strange too. Why pay top dollar to stay in a pastiche of an  Italian village in Wales? 

So, I'm left feeling grumpy and exasperated at the end.  Much like I felt after watching the much anticipated  finale to The Prisoner which I didn't understand at all. (Your knee bone's connected to your thigh bone.)

Porthmadog

Almost at the mouth of the estuary is Porthmadog. It used to be Portmadoc, named after William Madocks, who built a sea wall, the Cob, in 1808–1811, to reclaim land for agriculture. A harbour followed, mostly to export slate from the enormous mines at Ffestiniog, 11 miles inland. Madocks also built Tremadoc(g), which gave its name to the bay. Tremadoc's main claim to fame is as the birthplace of T.E. Lawrence.

Porthmadog is not at all as I recall it. I have memories of Welsh costume, tall black hats and souvenir shops full of pretty blue bottomed copper bowls and bronze bells fashioned as Welsh hats or ladies with flowing skirts. There's nothing remotely like that. Not a speck of copper. Tattoo parlours, burger bars and charity shops.

The harbour is still pretty and there's a lovely walk along the coast to Borth y Gest, (the best kept village in Caernarvonshire says the sign) and Myrtha Bachan, with the cutest of sandy bays and rocks islands. It's very easy to find a minuscule, rock sheltered beach and pool all to yourself. But today, I'm accompanied on my stroll, by Ros and Deirdre, from Australia, via Southampton.

The Great Little Trains of Wales

Porthmadog is a major hub for famous The Great Little Trains of Wales. Whilst I'm waiting at the station, no fewer than six pristine team locomotives puff up and down, in preparation for (or returning from) various journeys. The station began operations with the railway to Blaenau Ffestiniog and the slate mines. The Ffestiniog is the oldest independent railway company in the World today(1832). Prestigious indeed and all very Ivor the Engine.

The first journeys were much more perilous. Steam locomotives were not introduced until the 1860s. (They still use some of the same engines today.) To start with, the line was only operated by gravity. The slate laden wagons were simply pushed down the hillside and courageous (or foolhardy) brakemen jumped from one carriage to another, tightening and loosening the brakes, as necessary. Another man sat at the front, blowing the horn loudly, to warn people to keep out of the way as the train thundered along.

The Welsh Highland Railway

Thankfully, today things are much more sedate. I'm travelling on the much more recent restoration, the Welsh Highland Railway. The original Welsh Highland Railway was formed in 1922 from the merger of two companies, but it was never a commercial success. The old carriages (1890s vintage) were uncomfortable, the journey took too long and the service had a reputation for being unreliable. It sounds like a familiar story (Thameslink are you listening?)

The full Welsh Highland Railway trip goes to Caernarfon and back and takes a whole day. It only operates on 'selected days' of the week. Shorter sections are offered at other times, and today I'm travelling on The Aberglaslyn. This operates from Porthmadog to Beddgelert, travelling through the Aberglaslyn Pass. They report that this is acknowledged as the most scenic countryside in the United Kingdom. That's some boast.

I've gone up market and bought a 'Gold' seat in the observation car. It's a Pullman carriage, 'modern in years but ageless in quality, ............ a golden opportunity to travel in Orient Express style splendour'........ the epitome of luxury'. It is indeed very comfortable, especially as I've got the whole car to myself. It's situated at the end of the train, so on the outward journey you peep round the locomotive and on the return there's a 180 degree (and more) view of the picturesque countryside.

Across the flatlands of the ‘Traeth Mawr’ (the great estuary) for wide vistas of the mountains of Snowdonia and Snowdon, towering over them all, before the train enters a tunnel, reappearing high on a ledge above the river in the famous Aberglaslyn Pass.

The Aberglaslyn Pass

Up until the early nineteenth century, the Aberglaslyn Pass was the preferred route for goods from Caernarfon or Bangor. It saved having to sail all round the Llŷn Peninsula. The River Glaslyn, tumbling through its narrow gorge, was navigable for small boats, as far as Pont Aberglaslyn, about a mile south of Beddgelert.

As with so many spots in Wales the bridge at Pont Aberglaslyn has a legend attached. The Devil built this bridge on the proviso that he would receive the soul of the first living creature to cross over it. When the bridge was finished he went to the local inn to tell the magician Robin Ddu (Black Robin). Robin went to inspect the new bridge, together with a dog he had lured from the pub with a fresh-baked loaf of bread.

On arrival, Robin demanded to know whether the bridge was strong enough. The Devil was suitably annoyed and demanded that the magician throw his loaf onto the bridge to prove that it was indeed sturdy enough. So Robin threw the loaf and the dog chased it across the bridge. He was sacrificed to the devil, instead of a human (so that's a happy ending), and Robin Ddu returned to finish his drinking.

The ride is eight miles and 52 minutes and an utterly joyful experience. The mountain peaks clear of cloud on this glorious day - the white puffs drift overhead instead. The train drivers, on the other hand, are serious and  solemn, almost dour. Arms held aloft to signal the engine is in place. Perhaps their duties are too important for smiling. They're riding on the running plate hanging off at the bends. We're not even supposed to lean out, in case we decapitate ourselves. The windows are all open today, so we get the full steam experience, when we puff through the longer tunnels.

People are making the most of the weather, splashing in the cascades. Everyone leaps up to wave and take photos as we chug past, horn blasting. I'm doing my royal family impression again.

Beddgelert

This is, I think, my third visit to Beddgelert. It's delightfully pretty. Stone cottages, bridges and walls. The Church of St. Mary stands in a field, at the end of the main street. This was originally a part of the Augustinian Monastery, which gave succour and security to all those porting goods to the river. The chapel is all that remains, as Edward I's army burnt down the rest.

I'm scurrying, as I only have an hour and quarter and I want to revisit the raised mound, at the end of a path leading from aforementioned meadow. This is said to be the grave of the hound Gelert (bed of Gelert.) Sad legend here, has it that the faithful dog was wrongfully slain, by his master, when he had in fact defended and hidden his child, not killed it. The grave is marked by stone slabs and encircled twice. Once by a metal fence - and then - a huge circle of dramatic mountain peaks surrounding the valley. I'm thinking you couldn't be buried in a nicer place. Until I discover that the 'grave' was built by an eighteenth-century landlord of the Goat Hotel, in order to encourage tourism.
 
Beddgelert is also famous for its Glaslyn ice cream and I'm thinking I just have time to indulge, before my return journey. Except a whole class of schoolchildren has just joined the queue. I'm just giving up, when I notice the pizzeria at the back. They've only got four flavours there, but it's instant service. And they give me two tubs.

Yr Wyddfa - Mount Snowdon

Another day in Wales, another railway.

Snowdon Mountain Railway is a very different experience, however. There’s one carriage and eight sections and we’re packed in like sardines, eight to each compartment. I’m with a Romanian family of seven. 'Romania is the land of possibilities', they tell me.

‘Of all kinds’, I reply.

Today, the train’s horn sounds to scare sheep off the track.

Snowdon (the name of the highest Welsh mountain) means Snow Hill. In Welsh, Snowdon is known as Yr Wyddfa (tomb or cairn). Legend has it that Yr Wyddfa is the final resting place of Rhita Gawr, a fearsome giant, who wore a cloak made of men’s beards. He challenged King Arthur to combat, but Arthur defeated him and cut off his head. The cairn on the summit of Yr Wyddfa is, somewhat gruesomely, said to mark the final resting place of Rhita Gawr’s head.

Both Arthur and Merlin seem to originate in Welsh mythology - Arthur as a king who led the Celts against the Anglo-Saxon invaders. No-one is certain about the origins of the name Eryri. And the peaks are tiny, compared to the giants of Asia and South America. Whatever, this is my favourite part of Wales - it's definitely magical.

Sadly, the weather forecast is inaccurate in the wrong direction today. The mountains live up to their name and the summit of Snowdon, so clearly visible yesterday, is denying a close up view. Crib Goch is ominously dark, bringing back memories of terrifying ascents along the Pyg Path, the slopes slipping away each side of me. My PE teachers, in their infinite wisdom, brought us up there on our Outward Bound trip.

As I've climbed Snowdon before and don't need the glory I opt to walk back down the easiest Llanberis track, which descends parallel with the railway track for the most part. I’ve decided I need some exercise, but I’d forgotten that even this track is classed as strenuous. I have to concentrate hard on the steeper sections, which are stone paved and covered in slippery shale. Elastic ligaments are not helpful - I have very wobbly ankles. What's more there is absolutely nowhere to go to the toilet. The Halfway House café doesn't have a public loo. and displays signs saying CCTV will record you if you try and urinate on the premises. There are hordes of would be climbers. And there's no cover anywhere, on the open slopes.

There are great views of velvety hillsides, down the Llanberis Pass, across to the pool below Crib Goch and to the distant town and lake. But there's no time to enjoy it. The cloud is rolling over the ridge and soon catches up with me. I’m drenched. My clothes are literally wringing wet. I’ve got the heater, in the car, on full blast, to try and dry out.

Maentwrog

Now I'm eschewing the train and driving through The Vale of Ffestiniog, alongside the River Dwyryd. I've given up exclaiming how beautiful the mountains and valleys are. Just take it as read. Splashes of delicate pink, as foxgloves and orchids line the paths.

The tiny village of Maentwrog, en route, is another slate mining community. There's The Grapes pub (nice pork ribs). The church is hidden behind an eye-catching lychgate on the main road. It's dedicated to St Twrog, an apparently eminent British saint, who lived in the fifth and sixth centuries. I've never come across him before, but according to information in the church he was one of four brothers, the sons of Ithel Hael o Lydaw ( of Brittany), who came to Wales as Christian missionaries. The others were Saint Baglan, Saint Tanwg and Saint Tegai. I suppose it depends on your definition of eminent.

A boulder in the churchyard is known as the Maen Twrog (maen being the Welsh for stone). Twrog is reported to have thrown the stone from the top of the mountain, crushing a pagan altar in the valley below. (His handprints can still be seen in the stone). The boulder gives the name to the village.

Betws y Coed

When I was on my school trip we stayed at the Youth Hostel in Betws y Coed. I think it's been retired now, but it was right opposite the pretty Swallow Falls, which I had already seen on Welsh Visit One. So a nostalgic trip is essential, a little north and back east of Snowdon. You can just see the falls, peering over the surrounding stone wall, but you have to pay £2 to be allowed through the turnstiles and get the full frontal.

The town of Betws y Coed is the Welsh equivalent of Keswick, in the Lake District. It's Outdoor Shop Central - buzzing with hikers, climbers and holiday makers. They’ve even draped strings of illuminations over one arcade of shops.

Harlech

I've moved my base to Harlech. Partly because I've never visited the town and partly because my current B and B doesn't have space for me any more. Few town names can be more evocative of Wales than Harlech. I can't hear it without singing Men of Harlech (just to myself, don't want to scare everyone) and then I want to tear up. (as in watching the film Zulu), though it's obviously better if the Welsh sing it and then I'd be crying for the right reasons. It's arguably more stirring then the national anthem - Land of our Fathers. And the Welsh choirs are, of course, wonderful.

The song, is, naturally associated with Harlech Castle, prominent, high above the sea. It is traditionally said to relate to the seven-year siege of Harlech Castle (1461 - 1468), when the castle was defended by the Lancastrians (against the Yorkists), as part of the Wars of the Roses. It was the longest known siege in the history of the British Isles. The Welsh prefer to associate the march with the 1408, briefer siege of Harlech Castle, when the Owain Glyndŵr led rebels, attempted to resist the future Henry V of England.

Harlech is surprisingly small and very quiet. It's essentially two towns. The little upmarket old town around the castle, (chi chi cafés, pottery studio, high class grocers, excellent chippie and a very good restaurant) and below, the new town and championship golf course (St Davids), backing onto dunes (a nature reserve - orchid and birds) and a very gorgeous beach beloved of dog walkers. They’re only allowed to turn left.

The two towns are linked by the steepest street in the world. Ffordd Pen Llech, Maybe. Sometimes, the title reverts to Baldwin Street in Dunedin, New Zealand. The Guinness Book of Records has twice changed the criteria by which the gradient is measured, after challenges from the residents of the two towns. I can testify that walking up both is very hard work.

The Lake District of Wales

My Outward Bound trip also took me to the Welsh Lake District, to the south of Snowdonia. We visited Bala and admired its lake, Llyn Tegid is the largest lake in Wales. Then, we hiked all round Lake Vyrnwy (that's an artificial lake - a reservoir for Manchester). We were only supposed to get to the other end, but we got lost. It’s a big lake too.

So Bala also has to be revisited, though Wales is now living up to its reputation for being wet and the rain is relentless. I daren't get out of my car and I'm peering at the scenery through a veil of mist. Bala is another place for outdoor enthusiasts. The main street is lined with leisure wear shops. Most of the action here is centred on the 4 1/2 mile lake and the River Tryweryn. I say enthusiasts deliberately. This is Iron Man country. And the river is a white water canoeing centre. There's another steam train, for the more sedately inclined.

South Snowdonia

I'm having to delete most of my photos. Too much water on the lens, So, I'm avoiding all activity in the wet and heading south. Along the coast, a too busy road winding through small seaside resorts and culminating in the wonderful dunes at Dyffryn (I played there with my friend's cousins - I'd never seen dunes before), to Barmouth. It's a harbour and fish and chip town, on the Mawddach Estuary. There's an old railway viaduct running across it.

The other route south from Harlech takes me through mixed forests, to Dolgellau at the end of the Mawddach Estuary. Genteel souvenir and tea shops. A welcome retreat from the downpour. And more outdoor gear outlets. This is where you come if you want to climb Cadair Idris. The spreading peak in south Snowdonia is probably Wales's second most well known mountain. With Pen y Fan (in the Brecon Beacons), they constitute the Welsh Three Peaks Challenge. There's ongoing debate about the inclusion of the 'i' in Cadair. The Welsh purists say you should put it in. So I have. Of course, I can't see Cadair Idris today. It's totally swathed in cloud.

I've read that Aberdovey is pastel pretty and I want to hug the coast, so I'm taking the coast road south again, still hugging the enormity that is Cardigan (Ceredigion) Bay. It's narrow and teeters along the edge of cliffs, the ever stunning beaches stretching below. I'm not convinced it was worth the extra time and bravery. Though Tywyn has the colourful Magic Lantern Cinema and closed tea shops. Aberdovey (Aberdyfei) also has a great beach, but it is looking a little worn. The car parks and cafes are full and a seagull uses my car as a toilet. Like being back in Brighton, again.

South Wales and Cardigan

Finally, and sadly, leaving Snowdonia, though I'm still following the curve of Cardigan Bay, south. Last time I was here, I was on my honeymoon. An ongoing beautiful coastline, towering hedges and coracles on the River Teifi. It's Saturday and that's the only day that the National Coracle Centre is closed, so I won't be seeing any of the small round fishing boats. The car park at Poppits Sands, the other side of historic Cardigan town, is bustling (It's Aberteifi -' mouth of the Teifi', in Welsh). Yet another contender for most gorgeous beach in the country.

St Davids

Right on the southwest tip of Wales, the next revisit is to St Davids, the smallest city in the United Kingdom by population. It battles with the City of London for smallest in size - it depends how that's defined. Unusually for patron saints, St David, born 500AD, actually lived in Wales and was buried here. (Although some sources claim that St Patrick was here around 30 years earlier). David established a church and monastery where the current cathedral now stands. Parts of this date back to Norman times.

The cult of David became a thriving business, in the Middle Ages especially as Pope Callixtus II declared that two trips to St Davids was equal to one trip to Rome. Plenty of prominent pilgrims (including William the Conqueror) visited the city.

With the Reformation pilgrimages became less popular, income fell and the city and cathedral were increasingly neglected. Bishop William Barlow even sold the lead from the roof of the Bishop's Palace in 1536. (He moved to Carmarthenshire.) Some of the ancient buildings were demolished and only the cathedral remained relatively unscathed.

Today, the cathedral seems oddly isolated, quietly floating in countryside, outside the few houses that form the city. It doesn't help that it's nine o'clock on a Sunday morning. The doors are shut, ostensibly for a service, but there are no cars outside. The nineteenth century Penny Cyclopaedia's description isn't too far off:

'At present its appearance is that of a poor village, the houses, excepting those of the clergy, being in a ruinous state. The locality is lonely, and the neighbouring district wild and unimproved; but it is still an interesting place as the seat of a large episcopal see, with a fine cathedral and the remains of other magnificent religious edifices.'

Wales Coast Path - Pembroke

Now I'm in exciting new territory. The Wales Coast Path is advertised as the first/only path to follow the entirety of a nation's coastline. I've already walked sections in the north and at Porthmadog, but now I'm dipping in and out of the Pembroke Path, generally agreed to be the most scenic of all.

Just outside St Davids, is Newgale Beach, on St Bride's Bay, Today, it's wild, windy and shingly. I can see why the surfers are happy. But apparently, when the tide goes out, there's a vast swathe of sand to enjoy.

The most iconic rock formations all, seem to be at the end of single track roads, winding across military bases. You have to check the signboards to make sure they're open and that you don't stray into the fields accidentally. That's definitely going to happen if a car comes from the other direction. And there's still a tank trundling across in front of me.

Google's hopeless here. I navigate using a phone photo I took of a friendly walker's OS map. A quick stop in Pembroke town, to admire yet another classic, stalwart castle. Henry Tudor was born here and Visit Wales says the place is steeped in history. But then, I've noticed that, according to their website, everywhere in Wales is 'steeped in history'. It probably is.

My highlights; St Govan’s Chapel, squeezed onto the tiny beach below, between stacks and The Green Bridge of Wales, a limestone arch. The stack heads are an undulating mass of guillemots; and they're surrounded by black and white dots covering the sea below.

Tenby

Tenby is another unexpected delight. I had heard it lauded as a seaside town, but didn't expect the old medieval walled town (with barbican gatehouse), the cunning narrow streets, the beautifully decorated (mainly) Victorian houses, the little harbour, all bobbing pleasure boats, and the utterly splendid sands. There's even a castle, on a crag, with its own beach. (The Sunday Times rated Tenby's Castle Beach the best beach in the UK in 2019.) And there's an ice cream parlour almost every 10 metres. What more could you want? It definitely warrants a revisit. If I can work out when quiet season is. It's definitely not today, though it is the weekend.

Burry Port

More glorious beaches - Saundersfoot, Pendine Sands (home to land speed records and into Carmarthenshire. My home here is in Burry Port. It sits at the mouth of the Loughor estuary: more dunes, more seemingly endless stretches of sand. and views south to my next destination, the Gower Peninsula. Mysteriously, my lodging is called Seaview and the main image depicts the boats in the harbour. It actually sits right next to the railway station. I can just make out patches of blue water in the distance. The port is a ten minute walk away, to the west. The tide is out and the boats are wobbling on their keels. Today, it's sailing and fishing boats. the harbour was originally built to service the export of coal.

The Gower Peninsula

Through Llanelli, to the Gower Peninsula. When I came here (and Newport) before, I stayed in Ebbw Vale. A colleague at work bought a house there. (He couldn’t afford one in Sussex.)

The (majority of) Gower was the first area in the United Kingdom to be designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which probably tells you all you need to know. I have to use that word gorgeous again. Right at the western tip is Rhossili Beacon, the highest point on the peninsula and below that Rhossili Beach. The three islands that form Worm's Head wiggle off into the distance. You can walk right out there when the tide is low. There's not a huge window of opportunity, the currents are lethal and people often get stuck. Dylan Thomas was one of these. He described Worm's Head as 'the very promontory of depression.'

It's still a rewarding, and safer, if bracing, ramble, at high water. Rhossili Beach is vast, the dog walkers tiny pin pricks. In 2014, it was voted the UK's number one beach, third best in Europe, and ninth best in the world, (no less) on TripAdvisor.

On the south coast, Three Cliffs Beach has also been cited as both Britain’s best beach and Britain’s best view. Three Cliffs Beach has sand, backed by three limestone cliffs, sand dunes, salt marsh, rock pools and the Pennard Pill stream running through the middle. The piton like cliffs guarding the entrance are reminiscent of St Lucia. The downside, is the mile, long steep descent.

I often disagree with these best in the World Lists (see The Best Beach in the World?) There are so many amazing beaches in Wales. This is smaller than Rhossili, but wilder and in my opinion, more spectacular. I'm going to allow this boast.

Mumbles is the characterful village/town at the Swansea end of the Gower. It's not as pretty as I remember. Maybe it's because so many of the pubs have disappeared. It was once notorious as a spot for binge drinking and one of Dylan Thomas's favourite hangouts - especially in The Mermaid. Today, most of the action is down by the Victorian (just) pier, where there are lighthouse views, It was once advertised as 'The Prettiest Pier in the Bristol Channel'. Several plate glass restaurants and a chip shop.

'Mumbles is a funny place,
A church without a steeple,
Houses made of old ships wrecked
And most peculiar people'.

The Brecon Beacons

Along the edge of Swansea. No time to revisit Cardiff this tripe. I went for 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.

Now skirting the Valleys and into the Brecon Beacons National Park. I was last here in 2015. My friend Nicola is lucky enough to live in a converted chapel in Crickhowell and I'm finally getting to catch up with her again. Brecon is home to the above mentioned Pen y Fan (2,907 feet) and starkly beautiful. I climbed that too, when I was younger. More castles: Carreg Cennen and Crickhowell, though both, it's fair to say, in various stages of disrepair. There's access to the shops (and pubs) of Abergavenny, Hay (for the Book Festival) and Ross on Wye too. My memories tell me it's reasonably easy to get lost in the hills, and a little frightening, as night comes down. It's also a reasonably easy drive up the M4. Which is the way I'm heading home...

Where Does the Word Wales Come From?

  • The name Wales comes from the Cymraeg word Gwalia, meaning 'Homeland' in English, or the Anglo-Saxon word for Britons - Wēalas, which  evolved into the name for their territory, Wales. Take your pick. The Welsh name for Wales is ‘Cymru’, and this translates to ‘friend’. The latinized version of this is Cambria, so anything Welsh is Cambrian.

Is Wales a Country?

  • Wales is one of the four parts of the United Kingdom (along with England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland)
  • More accurately, Wales is a principality, traditionally ruled by the Prince of Wales, the eldest son of the English monarch.
  • Wales emerged as a Celtic speaking nation after the Romans withdrew from Britain in the fifth century.
  • Wales came under English rule when it was conquered by King Edward I (completed in 1282). Owain Glyndŵr briefly restored independence to Wales in the early fifteenth century, but Wales was formally annexed by England in 1542.
  • Wales was ruled directly from London; but in 1997 the Welsh voted for devolved rule and in 2006, the Senedd, the home of the Welsh National Assembly, was created.

Wales - Facts and Factoids

  • Wales is the only part of the UK not to be represented on the Union flag. The Welsh flag of red, green and white was officially recognised from 1959. The red dragon represents the native Britons.
  • The Welsh people are friendly, sing beautifully and lilt the Welsh language, Cymraeg. About 29% can speak some Welsh, although maybe half this figure is fluent.
  • The national symbols of Wales are the leek and the daffodil (the people happily wear both).
  • Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country, with Caerphilly being the largest in Wales and the second largest in Europe, behind Windsor.
  • There are also a lot of sheep. (Today, Wales has a population of approximately three million people and 12 million sheep, but still that's way fewer than New Zealand on 25 million sheep and five million people.)
  • The Welsh are fanatical about rugby. It's their national sport.

What To Do in Wales?

  • Wales; is famous for its rugged coastline, and mountainous National Parks. It's great for trekking and outdoor activities. There are also beautiful beaches and a lot of castles (see above). See Wales Merlin and Magic to find out what I did.

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