A rare bit of Wales

For Stephen Bayley, childhood trips to Wales meant sulphurous fish and chips. Now he finds that a gastronomic revolution has taken place in Aberaeron
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The Independent Travel

As a Londoner, born in Cardiff but brought up on the Mersey shore, I had mixed feelings about re-visiting the place where I spent my childhood holidays. For a start, Liverpool feels guilty about Wales. To slake the city's thirst for water, a whole valley was flooded between 1881 and 1910 to create Lake Vyrnwy. It is a location of epic, coniferous gloom, full of ghosts and reprimands and regrets. Vyrnwy was often used as a substitute location for Switzerland: topographically similar, but much less jolly.

Wales as a whole discomforts the English: there is something, perhaps, in the collective memory that excites uneasy emotions. Explaining a problem in architectural conservation, Dr T H Hughes-Davies wrote in The Times: "Memories of the dark cloud of guilt and fear which many chapels once spread over Wales may account for their present neglect." Evelyn Waugh found it hilariously grim: "We can trace almost all the disasters of English history to the influence of Wales."

My memories of holidays in Wales involve rain slapping on caravan roofs and eating sulphurous fish and chips in the back seat of a Ford Corsair. We always went to Anglesey, a favourite then of Liverpool's earthbound jet-set. There was the border crossing of Connah's Quay, where northern industry first gives way to a hint of the country described in George Borrow's Wild Wales (1862). There was Betws-y-coed, where the Alpine romance of Snowdonia began, and then there was the Menai Straits, since 1826 traversed by Thomas Telford's superb bridge. Lewis Carroll, sensing the mystery of great engineering, said the chains of the bridge were boiled in wine. My father, the Corsair driver, had a less mystical approach, but used Telford to teach me the beauty of engineering.

And Anglesey itself? A strange mixture of caravan parks and dolmens. Vernacular long houses and gentrified Georgiana. Speedboats and shipwrecks. There is something primeval about Anglesey, but something worldly, too: that name, Llanfair-p-g-etc - which purports to be the longest in the world - was made up as a stunt by the local tailor. Nor did Anglesey altogether successfully resist the worst influences of Liverpool tourism. A main road rings the island, dipping down here and there into small, rocky coves and large, sandy bays. In her wonderful Companion Guide to North Wales (1975) Elizabeth Beazley described Anglesey as "outcropping rock; blazing gorse; few trees".

The town we always visited was Moelfre, a pretty village with a lifeboat station and a beach where I skimmed stones. But the great attraction here to me, the boy, was the dramatic wreck of the Hindlea, a 650-ton coaster that had run aground in a gale in 1959 - 100 years to the day since one of the worst Victorian maritime disasters when the Royal Charter, bound for Liverpool from Melbourne, foundered in the same spot. More than 400 people died, many of them prospectors swimming for shore, weighed down by the gold stuffed into their pockets. We move on.

Wales is like Gaul - divided into three parts. There are few north-south roads, so cultures are distinct with little transaction between the extremities. Mid-Wales is different again, but since the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth holds the priceless White Book of Rhydderch from the Mabinogion, the story cycle of Celtic mythology, it has some claim to being the scriptural heart of Wales.

I drove there the day my wife went on business to Budapest, enjoying a sense of personal destiny about the lonely journey back to Wales. I used a new Maserati Quattroporte, but even this cannot make the entirety of the M4 anything more than a chore. After Carmarthen you leave the motorway system, the tail-gating Peugeots and Vauxhalls drop away, and there is a strong and thrilling sense of escaping the surly bonds of the cosmopolis.

In Llandyssul, a Morris Marina van puts you a confident step ahead of the social competition. So the voluptuous Quattroporte could not be recommended for covert excursions here, but swooping through the intense greenery in the Hen Wlad fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers) was a fine prologue to thinking about how Wales has changed. Indeed, how I have changed. My father's Corsair had a four-speed manual gearbox. My Maserati has Formula One-type paddles.

My destination was "The Best Hotel in Wales". This may sound only faintly like praise to those with memories of Welsh hospitality as long as mine, but if you can be bothered to make the journey, then a notable experience can be had at The Harbourmaster Hotel in Aberaeron. This is an exquisite, polychrome Regency village surrounding a harbour created on an aristocratic whim in 1807: a 19th-century concept town. The countryside is ravishing and the Cardigan Bay seascape imposing in all weathers. It was near here that Thomas Johnes inherited the estate of Hafod Uchtryd in 1780. He turned it into the picturesque paradise, much depicted by painters who found in Wales a convenient alternative to the Grand Tour, which may have been the inspiration for Coleridge's "Kubla Khan".

This is not the only literary connection. Dylan and Caitlin Thomas lived in Aberaeron from 1941 to 1943. They liked to watch westerns and thrillers in the Memorial Hall. Apart from sea-fishing, drinking, fornication, reading and walking there was not much else to do. Yet the poet said the Aeron valley was "the most precious place in the world". His friends were Dewi Evans, proprietor of the electrical shop, and the vet, Thomas Herbert. Dylan went walking with Herbert and a favourite destination was Fferm Wernllaeth. This translates as "Milkwood farm" and... the rest is literature.

The Harbourmaster's youngish owners are Glynn and Menna Heulyn. They have no previous experience in the hotel trade, so are happily without the brainless and lazy prejudices that still contaminate so much of the hospitality business. The best word to describe The Harbourmaster is "fresh". Fresh paint; seagrass; good fresh linen; bright, modern bathrooms with good towels. The fire doors have nautical portholes and the rooms are named after boats built in the local shipyard. There are no concessions to vulgar concepts of luxury, but the Heulyns have somehow hired and kept four chefs who cook with imagination, precision and - yes - freshness. I ate salmon with chunky chips and basil hollandaise - one of the best takes on the national dish I have ever tried. Other dishes used correctly sourced oysters, mackerel, lamb and beef. Sauces were real and good bread was served with local butter.

True, purists might quibble at the mixture of culinary metaphors - chalkboards offer Welsh tapas, and Welsh black beef satay is a starter - but that would be the dullest pedantry. Yes, of course, we all know that "Mediterranean salad, local ewe's cheese shavings, basil salsa" was not what Owain Glyn Dwr ordered with his bottle of Ovacion, but nor would the Prince of Powys have recognised the superb range of Welsh cheeses. On a misty June evening, the place was heaving with prosperous people drinking good wine. Breakfast had seriously good coffee in a cafetière. At last, there is a revolution beginning in Wales. I have been to France six times this year, but in Aberaeron I found more vitality and style, more genuine luxury, than in Paris, Lille, La Rochelle, Beaune or Reims.

As recently as 1958 Gwyn Thomas could write: "There are still parts of Wales where the only concession to gaiety is a striped shroud." Ten years later I can remember my father's despair that Welsh pubs were shut on Sundays. Now, snuggling into the Maserati and leaving Aberaeron for the journey back to London, I can see that even the café in the harbour is using elegant sans serif type to advertise the availability of espresso and good wine. In my original Wales, olive oil was sold in tiny bottles with droppers and was held to be medicinal. The Harbourmaster, with its ample supplies of cold-pressed extra virgin, is just one example of the welcome changes. The Felin Fach Griffin, near Brecon, and Plas Bodegroes, near Pwllheli, are others. There are more. I used to look forward to an ice-cold Coke when the Ford Corsair eventually arrived in Moelfre. When I arrived in Aberaeron they had no difficulty making me a well-judged Kir. We really do move on.


Getting There

First Great Western (08457 000125; www.firstgreat western.co.uk) operates trains to Aberystwyth, which is around 16 miles from Aberaeron. Arriva Trains Wales (08457 484950; www.arrivatrains wales.co.uk) operates trains around the country.

Staying There

The Harbourmaster Hotel, Pen Cei, Aberaeron (01545 570 755; www.harbour-master.com). Doubles start at £95, including breakfast.

The Felin Fach Griffin, Felin Fach, Brecon (01874 620111; www.eatdrinksleep.ltd.uk). B&B from £93, including breakfast.

Plas Bodegroes, Pwllheli, Gwynedd (01758 612 363; www.bodegroes.co.uk). Double rooms start at £100, including breakfast.

Further Information

Aberaeron tourist information office (01545 570 602; www.tourism.ceredigion.gov.uk).

Wales Tourist Board (08708 300 306; www.visitwales.co.uk).