Snowdonia: There's Lovely Isn't It
Taking the Welsh Cultural High Ground
August 2017 and time for a British Summer holiday. I’ve wanted to visit Snowdonia and North Wales for a long time. Rain or Shine; Wales has so much weather. So many variations, but mostly involving water. Water was a key theme of the week, starting with a crossing of the River Severn via the magnificent Second Severn Crossing. Once in Wales, a jaunt along the Menai Strait (in a speedboat), swimming in Cardigan Bay (almost freezing), more rivers (torrential at times), lakes and reservoirs, rills (cascading down the hills) and rain, yes more rain. So much of it. Every day, though thankfully, as they say in Horrible Histories, “but not for long”. Except for the final day, which would have been a complete washout if it had meant staying indoors. Climbing half way up Mount Snowdon was much more fun.
Snowdonia National Park, taken near Beddgelert
Historically, the main source of commerce in Blaenau Ffestiniogg was the local stone. A little sadly, this was the reason why the town is not officially part of the Snowdonia National Park. It’s an enclave, surrounded by the park and excluded from the park on the grounds that the slate stacks are just too ugly to justify national park status. Harsh. Still, it’s a pleasant town with good connections. The sound of steam trains stopping by throughout the day added charm even when the mist gathered and there was just too much greyness all around.
On the way to Betws-y-Coed
I wanted something a bit more exquisite than Welsh rarebit on this trip. I also ruled out lardy cake (seriously, who can eat anything with that name?) and laverbread (seaweed, which can stay where it belongs). Bara brith didn’t look much fun either. My favourite dish was braised lamb shank, falling off the bone, supported by green beans and Dauphinoise potatoes. I felt a little guilty here, seeing relatives of my meal in the fields as I drove through the delightful countryside. I compensated for this by eating a Kurdish vegan pasty from a friendly Kurdish bakery in the High Street. Not a cultural connection you expect to find in Snowdonia. Not much of a pasty, to be fair; I only managed half of it. But it felt wholesome enough. Less wholesome were Ian’s fish and chip parlour and the Chinese takeaway across the road. In both establishments, so many ingredients get badly battered on a nightly basis.
Sheep not safely grazing
Abersoch beach was a favourite, with millions of shells including rare purple towers and one elusive, perfect scallop. Shell Island was also impressive, with innumerable cockles, limpets, venus shells and razor clams. Not quite an island, but still a place of inspiration, with some spectacular dunes.
At Harlech beach you could happily walk for miles or spend hours making a sandcastle within sight of a much older, grander and more permanent castle. Harlech Castle was built next to the sea, but it seems mysteriously to have moved some distance away from the water now.
Far and away my favourite beach in North Wales is Porth Iago. A place where beach culture meets Shakespeare. No shells to be found here. Just a beautiful and inviting, but very cold sea, into which I simply had to plunge. Challenge met. Exhilarating. Porth Iago is accessed through a farmyard, adjacent to a field of cows minding their own business. Not quite a deserted beach, but quiet and remote. Far from the madding crowd. Far from home. Far from anywhere. I like to go to extremes. To challenge the elements and to distance myself from my normal habitat.
Inviting me in - the bay at Porth Iago
Aegean-like - Porth Iago again
The Welsh language is fun. You can imagine, when the words were formed, the Welsh throwing up all their letters into the air and seeing how they landed. Then mixing in a few more ‘Gs’, ‘Ls’ and ‘Ws’, just for good measure. Another consonant please Rachel.
Before I went to Snowdonia, I was told that locals suddenly start talking Welsh when tourists arrive. That’s nonsense. They talk in Welsh long before you turn up. They are kind and courteous, fiery and passionate too, and they switch effortlessly into English, rather than the other way around, whenever you approach or need help.
Consonants, consonants, and more consonants
I’ve picked up a few words. Diolch was said a lot. It means ‘thank you’. Ysgol means school. I like that word. I also liked Araf, and the longer version Arafwch. This is found on road signs, and means ‘slow down’, which seems quite a useful word for life in general. Arafwch also sounds like a character in Harry Potter.
I was hoping to hear Bore da – ‘good morning’, as voiced so charmingly by Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) on Radio Four’s Today programme every time she was interviewed in the run up to the general election. Not to be confused with Bora da (‘good morning sugar’ or ‘good afternoon’). And a far cry from Yaki da (‘up the Welsh’) which absolutely no one has ever said in my presence.
My favourite word is Croeso, meaning ‘welcome’. That’s a nice word. Croeso y Gymru. Alternatively, Croeso i Gymru. Sometimes Cymru. One of these versions can be seen on the Welsh side of the original Severn Bridge. I’ll have to cross that one again some time to check the spelling.
Variations on a theme, but always welcoming
Don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you that the Welsh don’t like the English. We are neighbours. We get along fine. It’s all about being friendly, making a little bit of an effort at times, but that applies within any group of people, as well as between different nationalities or groups. Just don’t make any reference to the burning of English-owned holiday cottages in the 1980s. That’s history. Stick to this simple rule and you’ll get along famously.
Fiery and passionate
In some parts the folk may seem quiet, perhaps withdrawn, but that’s understandable, especially given the current economic circumstances and the many social problems across Britain and beyond. The Brexit referendum and recent elections have caused dissonance for most of us in recent times. But deep down it feels as if politics doesn’t really matter much in this fairly remote area of national park, at the moment, if it ever did. It’s less crowded here than in Westminster. Slower. But Snowdonians get on with what’s really important in their lives and they control the things they can control. Wi-Fi Is not all that easy to come by. Nothing is superfast here. Locals just move along in the real world and at their own pace.
Taking it easy
A highlight of the week was a journey on a steam train chugging up and down the terrain between Porthmadog and Caernarfon. Gazing at the mountains, admiring the lakes, eyeing up the sheep and the cows. A brief stopover allowed a glimpse of Caernarfon Castle.
Steam engine going backwards towards Caernarfon
An even higher point was meant to be reached on a diesel powered climb to the summit of Mount Snowdon, starting in Llanberis, but that was the one day when the heavens opened and stayed open, all day. The service was cancelled due to high winds. The carriages are lightweight and passengers tend to rush across to one side to get the best view, destabilising the train and jeopardising the safety of all on board, so perhaps the cancellation was a blessing.
The most exciting adventure was a ride on a RIB (reinforced inflatable boat), hosted by RibRide UK, a company run in partnership with the intrepid Bear Grylls. Bouncing along the Menai Strait and under the Menai bridge. Bridges and Swellies. Lots of spray. At times it felt as if the boat were about to capsize and that we’d all be tipped out into the surf. Thrilling.
Come in RibRide Number 4
Warmth and excitement
The week in Snowdonia came to an end all too quickly. The scenery was breath-taking, the rain refreshing, and the way of life relaxing. One last experience to mention: setting light to a real fire, starting with scrunched up sections from the Guardian and then building up with coal. It felt completely mischievous; it was August after all. Also, the Guardian is my paper, I won’t buy any other. But the fire was heart-warming, and it was an exciting way to toast the English cricket team and the series victory against South Africa. The sports pages went up in a real blaze of glory.
A link with South Africa: a Welsh table mountain
And it's 3-1 to England
© Eddie Hewitt 2017
Ribride UK www.ribride.co.uk/bear-grylls-ribrides