August 2003: Wales

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Hard to believe that Wales is so close. Thanks to ferry technology you can be in Holyhead from Dun Laoghaire quicker than it takes to reach the M50 toll booth, and with some of the special fares for autumn at something not much more than the cost.

They helpfully positioned the best view in Wales about mid-way between the ferry ports. It comes on a little mountain road from Machynlleth to Llanidloes, and they have erected a memorial to Wynford Vaughan Thomas along the way to remind you to stop and to help identify the peaks.

The sweep of Cardigan Bay is a testimony to centuries of swapped culture. It circles round a half moon from the Llyn peninsula (“of the Leinstermen”) right around to St David’s Head on the other side, with its collection of ogham stones built by ancient Munster migrants, and the point from which that bellicose bishop, Giraldus Cambrensis, first travel writer to visit Ireland, set sail in the 12th century.

It is here you will find the Welsh landscape at its starkest and the culture at its strongest. Stray from the highway and you discover another Wales: the Wales of the narrow road. Even on the smallest mountain tracks in the winter-time, pot-holes are few and far between.

You find strategically placed pots of salt grit for the winter, workmen fixing roads shredded by mountain floods, and signs for the stranger: “Take Care: VERY silly lambs” on the Talerddig to Llanerfyl boreen) and there is even a traffic lights at a farm to enable the farmer to bring home his milk cows on a main road through Snowdonia National Park.

Even close to the cities you can find Welsh rarebits. The waters between Cardiff and Swansea turns decidedly rural, faster than the fortunes of Welsh rugby changed in the mid-nineties. You can view the coast from the world’s last seagoing paddle steamer, the Waverley, or by the Glamorgan coast path. They also have Europe’s largest dune system  The ancient shrine of St Lltud in Llantwit Manor , with its Celtic crosses,  or the shrine to the modern religion, McArthur Glen, with its designer retail outlets.

In Wales, the scenery changes so rapidly from north to south, from valley to valley and lake to lake that you might imagine yourself on a tour through a very compact continent. The Swiss style valleys with fields of various hues of green nestling below the moorland and Snowdonia vying for position as an honorary Alp.

The Provencal villages dotted around Cardigan Bay, the inland Bordeaux landscape of Powys, the Rhineish castles of Lake Vyrnwy in Llanwddyn, and the mountain of Penmanmwr poised Vesuvius-like on the landscape.

The little Flemish weavers’ villages such as Dont Dolgadfan, the Greek-style heritage coast and the Victorian shop front overhangs of Llandrindo Wells, like an Australian outback town. And that is not even counting the deliberate Italianate parody of Portmerrion, an architectural in-joke. It is no wonder that Rene Cutforth described the Welsh as “Mediterraneans in the rain.”

As 19th century raconteur Thomas Hood once claimed he was “in several Wales”, while “Jonah was in but one”.

Hard to believe Wales is so close.

 

They tell you that somewhere under the mountains near Corris there is a cavern the size of Wembley stadium, all dug out with pick and shovel by the miners of our grandparent’s generation.

The treasures of Wales are not all hidden away so thoroughly. They opened up part of that labyrinth of the Corris slate mines to visitors for one of the most magical underground experiences of western Europe.

To enter King Arthur’s labyrinth (you will find it on the road from Dolgellau to Machynlleth) you pass through a silent passage flooded to a depth of four feet and a descendant of those slate miners steers you through a waterfall gate. Down here it is dark and eerie. The world of King Arthur seems close.

In Dolgellau they still mine for gold, the tourists they bring along with them making the whole proposition more viable than the ill-fated Welsh gold rush of the 1850s ever was.

The nearby centre for alternative technology is one of the hidden treasures of Mid Wales, with its remarkable waterpower chairlift, sets out the case for environmentally sound power sources. In visiting Felin Crewi, the restored watermill, you can only succumb to the enthusiasm of the owner and his excitement over the “bicycle pace” of the 18th century watermill rather than the motorised mills of the port cities.

It is here in mid-Wales that the language is strongest and the Celtic tradition still held dearest. To celebrate its Celtic past, Wales has chosen the demesne of Machynlleth. The ground floor of the house has been turned into an audio visual tour through the Celtic past.

The images of Welshmen diving past the English try-line, and the message; the spirit is strong brings home the message that this is a Wales of people, of soul and of spirit. What a lot of treasure to give a visitor. Maybe they should re-open that gold mine.

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