There was no obvious sign marking the divide between England and Wales on the A55 from Chester, but the countryside grew greener, the flat fields grew curves and castles appeared on the hillsides; we were clearly in Wales.
Wales has a quantity of imposing castles, but these are not a testament to Welsh power; instead they are a reminder of English invasion and enforced rule. The string of Castles which we visited along the north-west coast from Conwy to Harlech were built by King Edward 1st of England in the late 13th century to retain control of Wales. Despite that, they are incredibly picturesque these days. The first we visited, Conwy, is just a small coastal town. The castle and its largely intact walls hug the wee township.
We were staying a couple of towns over, in a three hundred year old, crooked farmer’s cottage with low beams and even lower doors. The lane to the house was edged by tall earth banks topped by hedgerows full of honeysuckle flowers, wild roses and holly. Inside, no wall in the house is completely straight and no two stair depths are the same. According to our host very few of this style of home remain, the size and age are not valued and most are torn down or left to dereliction on account of their lack of windows and low ceilings. But hers is clearly loved, and has been in the family over 100 years. She thinks it a travesty that they are slowly vanishing from the landscape, and I agree; these places have so much charm.
Just down the road is an award winning pub – the White Lion Inn – which served a delicious meal and was bustling with locals. At 9pm a quiz began, we were not taking part and had intentionally sat at the back, but the tables around us were full of participants and the man bellowing out questions from the other end was clearly audible. He asked “who painted the Lady in Gold?’ “What is a corsair?” “Who is credited with the invention of the little black dress?’ before accidentally missing a question. This got the crowd going as they all haggled about how to fix the mistake!
On the walk home we chatted to some small black bulls through a farm gate. I had thought them young due to their size, but apparently these are in fact ‘Welsh Black’ famed for their tender meat and smaller than most cattle.
The following day we visited Gwydir Castle, somewhere I had wanted to visit for years after reading the book ‘Castles in the Air’ the story of its purchase and recovery from dereliction. This is not one of the imposing fortresses built to subdue the Welsh to English rule, and is not really even a castle, just a rather grand home. We arrived and rang a bell, a middle aged man opened the tiny door set into the larger gates and bid us enter. Stepping through the door we entered a courtyard filled with peacocks basking in the afternoon sunshine, the geometric box hedge garden was being slowly flattened by the lounging birds.
The temperature inside the house was chillier by far than outdoors, we put our coats back on as we explored inside. The rooms were lit by natural light from the windows, it was not bright; it was authentic. The furniture (some dating back to the 15th century) was not roped off; a solitary teasel was placed on the ancient chairs as a reminder to their fragility. To add to the feeling of authenticity, the doors croak in protest to opening, and bats still live inside the roof space. In some rooms small open fires burnt in cavernous fireplaces, only giving warmth if you were to climb in beside the flames. There is a priest hole tucked behind the main fireplace and a bedroom labelled the ‘ghost room’.Spiral stone stairs lead to the upper floor, each stair’s tread worn down in the centre by the centuries of feet. Upstairs the floor boards creak and the ceiling is high and beautifully arched.
The most famous aspect of the house is the wooden panelling of the dining room. In 1921 the estate was auctioned off and the wooden panelling and leather frieze of the dining room were bought by William Randolf Hearst and shipped to America. For decades the panelling sat in its original shipping crates, never opened. Hearst died and they were left to the New York Metropolitan Museum. The current owners of Gwydir managed to trace them and negotiate with the museum for their return to Gwydir. When those boxes were opened, it was the first time since 1921. The panelling has since been painstakingly put back together like a jigsaw puzzle of tiny carved pieces. The room is now complete with the wood panelling and leather frieze which runs around the room between the top of the wooden panels and the ceiling. It is not recognisable as leather though, being so richly decorated in silver and gold.
Gwydir was just as I had hoped, not a museum, but more real than any other castle I had visited. The floors creak, the doors groan, the fires are real, the rooms are dark, the wood and stone appear old. So many castles are either ruined, roofless husks of former grandeur, or completely restored and full of reproduction furniture, bright colours, gleaming floorboards, re-enactors, and spotlighting. By contrast Gwydir smells old, yet is still someone’s home. I never asked, but I assumed the man who let us in was the owner, and that the lady in gumboots and gloves spraying some mold in a dark corner of the courtyard was his wife. They are still battling away against frequent floods and searching other treasures lost in the 1921. It would be a cold and unforgiving place to live, but definitely worth the effort.
We left in a bit of a daze, and regained energy at the local tearooms, another low ceilinged building, this time covered in ivy. We took the last available table and I sat inside the large fireplace!
We continued on through Betws-y-Coed to Bethesda, through the remarkable scenery of the Snowdonia National Park. The clouds were low but occasionally they would part revealing brilliant green pasture or massive rocky peaks. At one point the clouds were seemingly pouring off and over hills, bright rays of sunshine battling through.
The next day dawned damp and grew wetter as we arrived in Caernarfon another Welsh town dominated by an English Castle. I imagine it would be a cute place on a nice day, but it lacked charm in the rain and the castle tour was also disappointingly mundane. We sought refuge in a busy café, a friendly local offered us a place at her table as there were none spare and warned us that the service was shambolic. That turned out to be an understatement, but it is for a wonderful reason: the café is run to provide jobs and training for young people with mental disabilities. At the door they advertised ‘suspended coffee’, thinking this was some strange form of brewing we enquired as to the meaning and discovered you could purchase food and drinks for yourself as well as ‘suspended’ meaning you paid for an item from the menu, the receipt was put on a notice board at the door and anyone in need could redeem it. After finding out these things the poor service was no bother at all.
Speaking of food, asking for pepper with a restaurant meal in Wales with a kiwi accent is a challenge, the best response we had was “is A4 ok?”
Our GPS struggled in Wales too, telling us to turn right into hedges and spelling out place names rather than attempting to pronounce them.
The next couple of days were spent in foggy rural solitude near Llaenalhearn climbing hills and cooking big dinners. Fog continued to hinder our journey south along the coast so we did not bother visiting Mount Snowdon but as we approached Harlech the clouds lifted and it turned into a brilliant day of hot sunshine!
Harlech is an adorable village sat halfway up the hillside, with big views out across the golf links to the distant sand dunes which shield the beach from view. The castle was once positioned on the sea’s edge, but the centuries have created a wide flat expanse of land in front which is now dotted with homes and the golf course. The Castle still dominates the village and the landscape, although its seaward gate is now landlocked.
Despite the heat of the day the castle was dripping wet. Each step I took up the narrow stone spiral staircase my jandals flicked more water up the back of my legs; clearly during rain the stairs turn into a spiral waterfall.
Back at the car I did some Mr Bean style changing into a proper summer dress and we headed for the beach. One thing we were learning is that Wales has a proliferation of pay and display car parks. Even here in a small village with a big beach, parking was not free.
The beach was busy, but due to its size the picnics were scattered far apart; patches of brilliant colour on an otherwise over exposed landscape of white and blue. The water appeared shallow for miles, but even in the sun warmed shallows it was cold. The air was so hot and still though, that I enjoyed an impromptu swim in water just over my knees.
It was in the late afternoon that we dragged ourselves away from Harlech, the perfect little town of castle, ice cream and beach. That night we stayed in yet another ancient farmhouse, chickens met us in the yard and in my bare feet I dodged the chicken poo. Inside, we found ourselves on the cold, stone flagged floor of a 500 year old kitchen. The ceiling had low black beams and an enormous open fireplace, sat next to it was a box of baby chicks and ducklings happily twittering away.
The day dawned warm and grew hotter as we headed for Aberystwyth, fast becoming apparent that this was no average Welsh summers day, but what would be the hottest day of the year. The surf lifesaver signs proudly proclaimed air temperature of 31 degrees, water temperature 15, and the town basked in a heat haze. There are virtually no trees in Aberystwyth but we clung to the scarce patches of shade provided by pastel painted Georgian terrace houses, as we explored from the castle ruins to the pier and along the waterfront. It was like a day in the Mediterranean had got lost and ended up in Wales; we ate at a Greek restaurant, fanning ourselves with menus and drinking copious quantities of iced water, had multiple ice creams and multiple swims.
Early in the afternoon we’d had enough of Aberystwyth in the heat and instead got into our superheated car in our togs. I promptly fell asleep and only awoke when we arrived in Cardigan. We stayed not far from town in a small place named Eglwyswrw (pretend all the ‘w’s are ‘u’s) in a handmade shepherds hut. It was utterly adorable; even the window latches were handmade from string and wood. The kitchen was a separate rustic building made from curly oak branches, ladles and pans hung like wind chimes and we cooked on a coal BBQ in the fresh evening of a scorching day. We had a delicious late dinner of slightly burnt everything, followed by raspberries from our host’s garden!
From Egwyswrw we left the coast and headed inland on ‘A’ roads to Merthyr Tidfil. We had booked two nights there as it was near the Brecon Beacons National Park, but that was not our best decision. The town centre was filled with endless shop fronts of slowly dying discount stores and the high-street had more litter than people. I felt cheated; we had left the idyllic rural coast for this depressing, downtrodden place. Even more disappointing; the Brecon Beacons appeared barely more than rolling hills. Fortunately our Airbnb host made up for the disappointment by having copious character! She explained that during her lifetime Merthyr Tidfil has changed from an area thriving, to what it is today after the mines and the Hoover factory closed. Her enthusiasm and bossiness kept us entertained for the duration of our stay, and it wasn’t long before we realised that the pint of orange juice she carried around was not as innocent as it seemed (gin!?)
Despite immediate appearances Merthyr Tidfil made a nice end to our experience of Wales, our host tried to teach us a little Welsh and we enjoyed living in a beautifully restored miner’s cottage. Our host showed us photos of the building when she purchased it with the kitchen roofless and the stone walls crumbling, and it was good to know that even in this sad town there are still people who care for it.