Friday 28 September 2007 Despite all of last night's drams, I'm off at a reasonable hour this morning, and it isn't long before I'm in Wales.
My intent is to turn off the highway toward Brecon, but I must be a little foggier than I thought. I miss the proper
junction, and, in trying to recover, run smack into Caerphilly. The castle dominates the town and makes an awesome first
impression. Who can resist? Brecon will be there another day.
I spend a couple of hours poking around the castle. Like most of the castles in Wales, it was built by the English (or perhaps more properly, the Normans) to keep the locals under control. Unusually, it was built on a site that had not been previously fortified. That, and its short period of active use, make it a particularly coherent model of 13th century military architecture.
A gentleman named Jeffrey L Thomas maintains an impressively comprehensive website dedicated to The Castles of Wales. Nearly 300 castles are documented, most photographed, and there is a vast number of essays and articles on Welsh castles and related themes.
After, I head up into the Brecon Beacons, bound for Penderyn. When I was planning this trip, the word was that the distillery there would open its visitors' center sometime in September, but I learned just before departure that it won't be until spring. I want to go have a look, anyway--I've never seen a photo of the place, nor has anyone else I know.
It does not take long, on arrival, to realize why. It is by far the ugliest distillery I have ever seen, a ramshackle recycled light-industrial building in a dirt lot by the side of the road. The only concession to esthetics is a small symbolic pagoda perched on the roof, and it just looks silly. If they're smart, before they open a visitors' center, they'll bury the place in a few tons of stucco and whitewash.
Despite the lack of touring facilities, I find it's possible to ring the bell for entry to a sales counter. I go in and buy a half-bottle, hoping to get a glimpse at the inner workings. All that is visible is a shipping area, with stacks of cases on pallets.
I meander a bit through the Beacons. It's really lovely country, reminiscent of the Dales in places, and I have in mind to take a stroll to the waterfalls near Ystradfellte. It's later in the day than I'd like, however, and I reluctantly decide to make tracks for St Davids, still a couple of hours away.
St Davids is known as the smallest city in Britain--a village, really, but its cathedral earns it the designation. Its triangular center reminds me of Donegal Town in Ireland. Friday night in the Farmers Arms is a bit more lively than I would like, but all in all it's a much more pleasant evening than the one I spent in Donegal.
Saturday 29 September 2007 This morning I set out to take a walk on St Davids Head. It's not a hugely
ambitious hike, but I'm a little worried, as the nagging tendinitis in my left heel, which has been bothering me for months,
is getting worse. This is the first time on this trip that I will be trying to walk any distance at all, and I'm not sure
I'm going to be able to do it. I'm surprised, then, when I pull on my hiking boots, and the pain virtually disappears. It's
my everyday Reeboks that cause it! They're supposed to be my comfy shoes. They have, however, always been a little tight.
Off I go, from the car park at Whitesands Beach, with a spring in my step. The ramble around St Davids Head is pleasant enough, with nice views, the remnants of Iron Age fortifications at the tip, and a moderately impressive cromlech called Carreg Coetan Arthur, or Arthur's Quoit, along the trail. I loop back around and ascend Carn Llidi, a tiny peak at 595 feet, but rugged at the very top, affording a panoramic view over Whitesands Beach to the town beyond. Back down, I stroll the beach for a while, watching surfers and drilling volunteer rescue squads.
I return to town and have a look at St Davids Cathedral, oddly tucked into a hollow below the village. I learn that St David was ordained by St Elvis, bishop of Munster, thank you very much. A choir is rehearsing with the organist; the reverberating sound is awesome. Next door, I examine the ruined Bishop's Palace in a steady drizzle. The stonework is fascinating, lots of use of contrasting stone patterns, hinting at the grand ostentation of the palace in its heyday.
There is, of course, a website for St Davids Cathedral.
The Farmers Arms is again elbow-to-elbow this evening, as Wales take on Fiji in Rugby World Cup action. The local favorites fall, 34-38, and the mood is dimmed. I decide to have dinner at the Old Cross Hotel, across the square (uh, triangle). But I return to the Farmers Arms to watch Scotland defeat Italy, 18-16, on six penalty kicks. The locals' enthusiasm for their Celtic brethren's thrilling victory is dampened by their own side's loss.
Sunday 30 September 2007 It's moving day, off to Llandudno. Getting there is the prime motive of the day,
but there is a little time to see a thing or two on the way. The first is the 4,000-year-old Pentre Ifan, Wales' most
spectacular cromlech, in the foothills of the Preseli Mountains. Preseli? Was St Elvis here? There are those who think
that it was a local family that emigrated to America, anglicized its name, and eventually produced a child named after the
obscure saint. Apparently there is no evidence, but who needs facts when you have a good story? In any case, Pentre Ifan
is the best ancient site I've yet seen in Wales. It's worth mentioning another local connection--it isn't too far from
here that the stone for Stonehenge was quarried. The how and why, of course, are lost in the mists of time.
I drive on up the coast, taking quick peeks at towns here and there. New Quay looks like an especially appealing seaside town, and I know from research that Dylan Thomas once lived there. It would make a nice base for the exploration of an area I am now just passing through.
Further up the coast, I turn inland and enter pretty hill country, driving up lovely valleys. Eventually I enter a narrow mountain pass, where sits the slate-mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Up until now, every place I've been in Wales has reminded me of someplace else: the Brecon Beacons, of Yorkshire; Pentre Ifan, of Poulnabrone and other Irish dolmens; St Davids, of any number of towns in Scotland or England or Ireland. Here at Blaenau Ffestiniog, I am confronted with a landscape unlike anything I have ever seen. I've certainly seen mining towns before, like Thetford Mines in Quebec, with its surrounding mountains of tailings. Such places are always ugly, if fascinating. This is different. The long, narrow town is jammed into the pass, stretching along the main road, surrounded by small mountains of waste slate, and the larger mountains from which they were torn. It would be easy to say that this, too, is ugly, but it seems to me that there is a terrible beauty to it. The fact that one of the mining railroads has been turned into a tourist excursion route on the mountainside indicates that I am not alone in thinking so. (To be fair, the attraction is the rugged drama of Snowdonia National Park, from which the town and its waste heaps are carefully excluded.) I suppose there are other slate-mining towns in Britain that look like this, but this is the first time that I have felt that I am undeniably in Wales and nowhere else. I regret not taking the time to stop and photograph it. I'm not sure that I could possibly have captured what I felt with the camera, but as it is I will have no photographic evidence at all.
The pass extends for some way before the road spills onto a broad plain, where sits the town of Betws-y-Coed. I've read how to pronounce this, but in my mind it will always be "Betsy the Co-ed". From here, it's a stretch down the river valley, past Conwy to Llandudno.
The larger part of Llandudno is a planned Victorian seaside resort. I drive along the promenade and find my hotel, at the eastern end. After checking in, I undertake a stroll, intending to end up in the older part of town at the west, at the foot of a massive rocky headland called the Great Orme. (I have, of course, chosen to lodge at the cheap end of town.) It's very quiet late on a Sunday afternoon, and I find myself feeling disheartened--the place feels empty and lifeless. I find the two pubs recommended by CAMRA's Good Beer Guide, however, and start to feel better. The Queen Vic is nice enough, but the Kings Head suits me better, and I know that it will be HQ for the next three evenings. It sits just above the terminal for the tramway up the Great Orme, a ride I intend to take in the next day or two.
Monday 1 October 2007 I have two full days in this area--more, actually, since my next stop, Chester, turns
out to be only an hour's drive away. I feel no urgency, then, as I set out this morning. I kill a couple of hours in town,
idly looking for an ATM and doing some casual shopping. I hit the road after 11:00, intending to go to Caernarfon. The
bridge to Anglesey comes first, though, so I decide to cross and see a thing or two there first.
I pass through Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllandysiliogogogoch without pausing, mindful of the guide books' warning that there is little of interest there beyond the name. (I suppose I should take a photo of the railway station sign, but I don't.) Somehow I miss Bryn Celli Ddu, a chambered cairn that is one of Anglesey's three notable ancient sites, but I do find Barclodiad y Gawres, which sits on a headland, a short walk from the road. The guides say that it is kept locked, and the key can be had from the shop down the road; but when I ask, I'm told that CADW, the Welsh heritage agency, has decided to deny public access entirely, due to repeated petty vandalism. I walk out to the tomb, anyway, and it turns out that you can look in at it through the gate. What you see are the remnants of the chamber, covered over by a large dome and reconstructed earth mound. What you don't see is what makes this tomb so interesting, chevron and zigzag carvings in the stones, said to be similar to those in Newgrange in Ireland, which is what the decidedly artificial arrangement has been built to protect. I try a few photos [none worth showing here] and enjoy the scenery.
I meander up the coast and cross onto Holy Island, a smaller island off Anglesey. The town of Holyhead is dominated by the rail and ferry terminals, serving passengers bound for Ireland. On the western side is a picturesque lighthouse on South Stack, a smaller island still, accessible by bridge to those who care to pay an entry fee and walk down the steep access path. I don't, not today, anyway.
Circling clockwise around Anglesey, I'm thinking I will have an hour or two to see Beaumaris and its castle, but I'm sidetracked by another ancient site, or sites, actually. First is the Lligwy Burial Chamber, a peculiar squat tomb with an absurdly massive capstone. Around the bend from there, a path leads into the woods. A ruined medieval chapel stands nearby, but the prize here is the Din Lligwy Hut Group, the foundational remains of a clutch of second- to fourth-century dwellings. It's an evocative spot, perhaps because it stands in a clearing in the woods, and I linger a while.
It's too late now to go to either Beaumaris or Caernarfon, so I return to Llandudno, stopping at the local ASDA to buy a single-use peppermill filled with black peppercorns. I'm sick of the powdery clouds of white pepper that issue from the shakers in most pubs. I get one filled with sea salt, as well.
There's nothing wrong with my dinner at the Kings Head this evening (made all the more appetizing by freshly-ground pepper), but I'm suffering from indigestion, and have trouble forcing down a couple of pints. I retire early, and sleep uneasily.
Tuesday 2 October 2007 I get off in good time this morning and make the short drive to Caernarfon (which
rhymes with Bar Marvin). The old town, built along with the castle by Edward I as part of his Iron Ring of Welsh
suppression, is enclosed within a wall. The walled town is small, but the castle is large, and impressive in several ways.
Not least is its architecture, cribbed heavily from Mediterranean fortifications seen on various Crusades. (See again
The Castles of Wales.) The passages through the castle
walls and up and down the various towers are convoluted and confusing, and I spend several hours exploring the nooks and
crannies. In fact, I tire before I've done it all, and take a bit of a look at the town before settling in for coffee and
email at an internet cafe. I am well behind in cyberspace, and spend a good part of the afternoon there.
I'm back in Llandudno by late afternoon, and decide to have dinner at the Queen Vic before ensconcing myself at the Kings Head. I'm not sure if I'd like to stay in Llandudno again, but I'm a lot happier with it than I was when I arrived, and I've come to enjoy the stroll along the Promenade on the way to and from the pub. I never did get around to the tram up the Great Orme, nor did I even walk out on the pier. There always seems to be a reason to return.
Wednesday 3 October 2007 Conwy is very close by Llandudno, just up the river a little, and I arrive within
minutes of vacating my hotel. Again, there is a walled town, quite a bit larger than Caernarfon. Unlike in that town, one may
walk along the top of most of the walls. The town edges up a hillside, as well, making the prospects more interesting.
The castle, on the other hand, is considerably smaller than the other, and easier to explore in a methodical way. By the same token, the towers are all about the same, and I feel no need to explore all of them. Once again, see The Castles of Wales.
It's lunchtime, and my belly still aches a bit from my bout of indigestion the other night, so I soothe it with a lunch of vanilla ice cream. Then I visit Plas Mawr, reputed to be the best unspoiled Elizabethan townhouse in Britain. I couldn't argue, although I do learn that "unspoiled" means "extensively rehabilitated and structurally reinforced with steel beams and other modern materials and methods". I have gotten an inkling of just what it takes to keep many of the old timber houses I've seen in Britain standing.
I leave Conwy in midafternoon and head for Chester. As I cross the border into England, I am already thinking about another trip to Wales. The list of places to visit and things to see has only grown.