Travel: Slow down, there's tranquillity ahead: Nicholas Bethell had never explored Wales before. He discovered an uplifting land of wild, spectacular scenery and indifferent food

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
WALES is a place for the young, or at least the young at heart, who would rather trek across a mountain in the cold with a Thermos of coffee and George Borrow's Wild Wales than lie on a beach in the sun washing down their Jeffrey Archer with vino tinto.

The sun is occasional, the beaches are pebbly and the sea is too cold for comfort. The food is patchy and there are few local delicacies. But the land of my fathers is one of Europe's few surviving wildernesses. It has the solitude and beauty of larger, grander Scotland, but is easier to get to. It was wonderful recently to discover the open space and tranquillity of Wales on my doorstep.

I was on the Severn Bridge and across the border in less than two hours from central London, but after that my speed dropped by half. Be warned about the roads: in the mountains they are narrow and like a switchback ride, with blind corners and just the occasional place wide enough for two cars to pass. The beauty on either side makes up for it, although any driver who takes his or her eye off the road for more than a second does so at peril.

One expects hazards on roads clearly marked as hazardous, but the 'A' roads are not much better. I thought that a sign saying 'SLOW', or 'ARAF' - the Welsh language has precedence - required me to reduce speed from 40 to 20mph. It actually meant that I was approaching an old stone bridge or other very narrow point and had to be ready to stop dead if I was to avoid head-on collision.

It is easier at night. Headlights are a good warning. In daylight, I advise liberal use of the horn and one foot kept hovering over the brake.

We tried the mountain railways, from Aberystwyth to the Devil's Bridge, as immortalised by William Wordsworth, from Portmadoc to Blaenau Ffestiniog and, of course, the famous Snowdon run. The last one is very expensive, pounds 28.40 for two people to ride the 10 miles up and down, with the chance to have a warming drink and mail postcards from the highest postbox in the country, but with no guarantee that anything at all will be visible from the summit.

'It is impossible to forecast the weather on Snowdon,' we were told as we contemplated this investment. 'I just spoke to the summit by telephone. The sun is shining. But that does not mean that by the time you get there in 40 minutes it will not be pouring with rain.' The advice was right. At the top it was very cold and children in shorts and T-shirts were crying, blinded by driving sleet. We queued for drinks, queued to send postcards and rode down again soaking wet. The heat of the steam of our closely packed bodies warmed us a little, but dried us not at all.

Lunch at Snowdon's foot in Llanberis proved particularly unsatisfactory, but tea at the Tyn Llan coffee house in Penmorfa made up for it. The coffee and bara brith (speckled bread) were excellent and the lavatories were made to smell nice by pretty teacups full of pot-pourri, with notices asking customers not to steal them.

The owner, Edmund McDonagh, told us that he used to run a night-club, Cagney's, in Liverpool, until he was drawn to live in mid- Wales by its beauty and quiet lifestyle. He is visited, he says, not only because of the cakes and Welsh crafts that he sells, but also because of the marine fossils for which the area is famous.

Wales is not famous for its wine or cuisine, so it is essential to take advice before venturing out to eat. At one restaurant near Aberystwyth, for instance, I ate a dinner of true English boarding-school awfulness, with rubberised chicken, cheese hacked out of a 10lb catering block and vegetables boiled to the point of evaporation. My thoughts as I picked at it were drawn back to the Second World War, the days when we ate to survive, not to enjoy. I hope never to taste its like again.

On the other hand, a few miles away at Plas Morfa, a hotel just outside Llanon, the fresh seafood and Welsh lamb were a delight. So was the cool bottle of Chilean sauvignon at pounds 7.50. And so was the sun as it set into the Irish Sea on the other side of the restaurant's huge west- facing window. We paid pounds 35 for two, including tip.

Laverbread, the most famous national dish, is seaweed bought in puree form, either fresh or tinned, and fried in bacon fat with oatmeal. It is an acquired taste. First-time visitors may prefer something simpler, such as Anglesey eggs: boiled eggs on a bed of mashed potato. The Cardiff beers are popular, Red Dragon being the best known and most finely named. The Welsh Tourist Board recommends a beer called 'Skull Attack'. Its spokesman told me: 'It is very smooth while you drink it, but a minute later it creeps up on you and comes back at you.'

I am afraid that the Welsh vodka, distilled in Brecon, is called 'Tafski', but there is nothing wrong with the local whisky, spelt chwisgi in their language. The elite 10- year-old single malt is called, of course, Prince of Wales, and the 'Merlyn' cream liqueur is better than Bailey's, I think. The Monnow Valley wine, made from grapes grown in the shadow of Tintern Abbey, is alleged by some to be drinkable.

One of the few places of luxury is the famous Portmeirion Hotel, where dinner at pounds 20 for two courses is a bargain. So, in its way, was a suite at pounds 115. Standard rooms cost as little as pounds 58. Bungalows in the village cost the same. And episodes of The Prisoner, the television series filmed in the famous Italian-

style streets and buildings, can be piped to rooms via the in-house video system.

The shop known as 'Number Six' still sells memorabilia from the cult series, including the well-known lapel badge or car sticker: 'I am not a number. I am a free man.' The dome of the pantheon, first made in the Fifties out of green plywood because of post-war austerity, is being rebuilt with copper.

However, if prices in Wales are modest at the top of the market, at bed-and-breakfast level they are higher than one might expect. A twin-bed room with bathroom may cost as much as pounds 45 a night. It will seldom be less than pounds 25, even without a bathroom.

It is activity, though, not gastronomy, that makes Wales such an attractive prospect. It is a land of song, but not of the disco. It has sheepdog trials, ponies, canoes, trotting and rambles. There are coal and gold mines turned into museums and good sports complexes, such as the Penrhos golf club south of Aberystwyth. There are lakes of glistening purity and castles built by the English to subdue the local people and make sure that the Prince of Wales is always an Englishman.

Visitors from east of the border need not worry about nationalist violence. The Welsh are welcoming, even to the English, except on the rugby field. There is politics about language. Programmes on S4C, the Welsh fourth television channel, are mostly in Welsh and civil servants must be bilingual. But the issue is never so dragged out as to spoil an English holiday.

Driving through Wales, I could see that the Sons of Glendower are still busy with their cans of spray paint. But they do not bomb or shoot and I could hardly be very irritated by graffiti that I did not understand. Welsh nationalism is partly a cultural movement and they do not nowadays, it seems, see it as an act of patriotism to burn down an Englishman's house.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments