- Category: What we have seen and done.
- Published on Friday, 05 August 2005 20:00
- Written by Kath Douglas
- Hits: 3046
I have so many unfinished tales of places we have visited (which I will finish one day) so this tale is going to be shorter than you're used to!
As you might have gathered from the subject name, we have been on holiday in Wales in July. A much needed break from the driving to and fro between home and work for me and a nice, easy-going few days amid scenery not too dissimilar to the West Coast of New Zealand for both of us.
I quote, "There is an old Welsh saying, now almost forgotten, that God made Wales first, and with what of beauty He had left He made the rest of the world. In the great scheme of things, if that be true, the beginning must have been made in Merioneth."
We stayed in Dolgellau in North Wales - Merioneth is the parish. It is a place of green rolling slopes in the valley's, woodland in the foothills, crag-strewn in the mountains; rivers rushing, lake surfaces ever changing, waterfalls tumbling and secluded pools.
As usual, the B&B was of a high standard though they tend to run bed and breakfasts like hotels over here. The daughter (we presumed she was the daughter for no introductions were forthcoming) welcomed us and showed us to our room, pointing out that breakfast was served between 8.15 - 8.45 and would we tell somebody the night before whether we wanted the cooked breakfast or not.
After settling in, we wandered into town on a reconnaissance mission. A handful of pubs and restaurants, a bakery, the Welsh equivalent of what we know as the corner dairy (complete with resident cat reclining on the iceblocks freezer), one single Takeaway all but hidden from sight in a deeply recessed old stone edifice, a ladies apparel shop, bike shop, lighting shop (see photo attached) and a couple of other assorted places of business which serve the 3,000 - 4,000 inhabitants between trips to the modern-day supermarkets and shopping malls in the bigger towns and cities over the hills and far away. If it hadn't been for the two dozen or so tourists or visitors like us, the only signs of life would have been the young local girls baring as much flesh as they can get away with prancing up the single main street for the benefit of the young local boys congregated around somebody's hotted up pride and joy on 4 wheels.
Our dinner that evening in the Dylanwad Da (restaurant) was superb. Turned out the owner had been to New Zealand a few times as he has family in the North Island but he has done a tour around both islands with particular interest in the wineries. His wine list complimented the menu and we went for a relatively expensive Lebanese red from the Bekka Valley in which we could taste the notes of cedar wood that Lebanon is famous for.
Next day dawned cloudy with a stiff westerly breeze puffing in from the Irish Sea and up the valley. We (or, at least, I) had decided we'd take the gentle Mawddach Estuary walk which proved to be a flat, well constructed path suitable for wheelchairs nearly its whole 15 km length. The weather improved markedly and the rest of the day remained nice and sunny. Halfway, Pete decided to go back and drive the car to Barmouth to meet me there so that we had transport for getting back. I duly crossed the 125 year old Fairbourne Rail bridge at the mouth of the estuary and had to pay a toll before passing into Barmouth. Luckily, I had my purse in my 'rucksack' (they're not called back packs in this country) - I don't normally carry money with me when out walking.
Pete and I passed the rest of the afternoon lunching alfresco beside the harbour watching the seagulls scavenging and the holiday makers strolling, then when the waitress was wondering if we were going to sit there all afternoon without buying anything else we explored the rest of the town, which culminated in me taking a dip in Cardigan Bay in my shorts and t-shirt. The water was warm and exhilarating - the last time I swam in the sea was in Spain 2 years ago in the Mediterranean but it nowhere near compared with the North Atlantic waters.
I had a change of clothes in the car in readiness for eating out in the evening but getting changed was rather a public exercise held in the seafront carpark! Gentleman Pete wouldn't even get out of the car to hold the towel up while I stripped off - he thought my predicament was terribly funny.
Our meal in Barmouth that night was in a fish restaurant, which of course it had to be since Barmouth was first a fishing village and now a seaside resort, but while the fish was straight out of the sea and on to our plates, the wine list had been selected off the supermarket specials shelves and the three waiters were just boys doing their best but with no finesse or proper training. We dubbed them Harry Potter, a slimmed down version of Billy Bunter and The Artful Dodger. It all adds to the character and memorability!
Long distance walking plays havoc with Pete's left foot and he woke up a veritable cripple the following morning. So, after breakfast we made for Porthmadog (pronounced: Port-maddock believe it or not) to catch the Ffestiniog Railway steam train to journey to Blaenau Ffestiniog, and the slate mines above it, in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park. The railway began in the early 1800's as a narrow-gauge horse tramway for getting the high quality roofing slate down the mountain more efficiently than pack-mules and carts, to the sailing ships in the harbour, for transport to Europe's expanding cities.
Slate is made up of mica crystals measuring 1/2000th of an inch in length and 1/6000th of an inch in thickness. Blaenau slate, 500 million years old, is noted for the fineness to which it can be split. At a competition in 1872 a quarryman split a block 2 and a half inches thick into 45 layers. Today, it is common-place for splitters to produce about 35 sheets per inch when making delicate slate ornaments, such as fans, using a chisel adapted from a table knife and blocks of fine quality Old Vein slate.
We heard on the radio, in a slate souvenir shop in Blaenau Ffestiniog, about the failed bomb attacks in London on 21 July. The day was gloriously hot, sky cloudless, and being so high up in the waste tip hills surrounding Blaenau, London and the recent horrors of the 7/7 bombing seemed a world away, as if it had all been a dream, even though it had only been a fortnight ago. It had that same sense of unreality as when we heard about the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers while holidaying on the Isle of Islay in Scotland in 2001. The news and the thought of what carnage there might have been had the bombs not failed to detonate sent a chill down our spines and tainted the day somewhat.
To top it off, when we were ready to go back down so that we had time to visit Port Meirion, the 3.15 train was not running because it had broken down somewhere along the track. We didn't have to wait too long till the next train and the ride back gave an even better spectacle as we went down through rugged mountain ranges above which buzzards glide lazily, through black as pitch narrow tunnels, into woodland of larch, wild rhododendrons, pine trees and ancient sessile oaks, emerging at unexpected clearings with dizzy views down in to the deep Vale of Ffestiniog or breathtaking panorama of the river meandering towards the Irish Sea with Harlech Castle on a headland in the distance. The train stops at several stations along the way, either to let tourists off to enjoy the many miles of woodland nature trails and mountain tracks, or to let residents off who live in numerous townships lower down. It is truly amazing to consider that the track bed was hewn by hand over 170 years ago and is still in good repair.