Aberystwyth: Little city on the coast
Why burn carbon if there's so much to see in the UK. Andrew Spooner discovers Aberystwyth, a far-flung seaside port full of urban pleasures
Sunday 25 March 2007
There's something about the noise of the sea be it the rhythmic pounding of waves on a pebbly shore inducing a deep sleep or the crisp report of foamy, morning spray, it evokes something that helps me feel better about the world.
So, this morning, lying on the huge, soft bed of the Ty Belgrave guesthouse on Aberystwyth's seafront, with the curtains of the large bay windows flung fully open and the breakers mere feet from my warm duvet, I am positively harmonious. And it's not just the sound that captivates me - the sight of the rippling Irish Sea ebbing on the rocky Welsh shoreline, all light and space, both soothes and calms.
Strangely enough Aber (as the locals call it) is still relatively undiscovered. While we are all busy jetting off around Europe to sample the delights of the latest obscure city break, a collective refusal to explore our own islands persists. Places such as Aber seem to fall off the map. Yet, as any great traveller will advise, one should learn to enjoy the pleasures in your backyard first.
In terms of its dimensions there's nothing particularly urban about Aberystwyth. A small town stuck on the furthest-flung edge of the Welsh coastline surrounded by the sweeping splendour of the Cambrian Mountains to the east and a jagged coastline north and south, it is hemmed in by some astounding natural beauty. The town itself, an engaging collection of handsome, brightly coloured Victorian properties, oozes charm.
But Aberystwyth, for all its out-of-the-way appeal, offers more than just a chance to breathe fresh air and reduce your flying-induced carbon footprint. Unbeknown to me, Aber is home to some of the best cultural resources in the UK. First, there are the books. "We've got more books per head of population than anywhere else in the world," says Mari Stevens, a local tourism manager. "You've got the university's library, then The National Library of Wales and, of course, the local town library. The total number of books reaches six million and that's before you think about bookshops and private collections. Mad really, when you think of the size of the town."
Hang on, a National Library in little Aberystwyth? Yes. Set in an imposing neoclassical pile on a hill overlooking Aber, it not only houses the best collection of Welsh and Celtic language books on the planet, it is also home to some remarkable works that are of international significance. I'd had a tip from a photographer friend to check out the collection of a 19th-century American landscape photographer called Carleton Watkins.
I arrive at the library and drift pass endless shelves of dusty tomes. I eventually reach a table where Watkins' massive leather volumes are laid out. "I know that the Smithsonian is quite jealous that we have these," says photography archivist, William Troughton, as he reveals Watkins' impressive work.
There are images of giant canyons, pioneers with unfeasibly large moustaches, and endless prairies. Yosemite, the Arizona desert with its iconic one-armed cacti, and a tiny hamlet in California called San Diego also feature. Each photograph, created with the glass plates of the mid-19th century, is so detailed that upon closer inspection they appear like sepia-tinted pencil drawings.
"Many of Watkins' negatives were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906," says William. Like many famous artists, Watkins was only recognised after his death.
I leave the library behind and head back down the hill in search of food. A quick saunter reveals organic cafés, a fantastic Spanish deli at Ultracomida and a spacious, well-designed tapas bar known as The Orangery. "We're trying to raise the level of food and service in the town," says owner Robert Haddaway. "Bring in a bit more of an urban, sophisticated feel."
I eagerly devour several plates of grub - the tortilla is gorgeous. I follow lunch with a stroll around the town centre. With its huge student population of roughly 8,000, Aber also comes across as quite cosmopolitan. Students of different backgrounds, races and religions mingle with the Welsh-speaking population and help the town create another urban layer without losing its small-town attraction.
One of the best things about Aber is that within just a 10-minute drive you can be in the heart of some stunning natural scenery. There are the beaches at Borth, just a short hop to the north. Keep on going in that direction and you'll find the renowned Centre for Alternative Technology in nearby Machynlleth, while the dramatic Cambrian Mountains are a destination for mountain bikers and walkers.
I meet up with Mari again and she has the perfect plan. "Shall we go for some tea and cake at the Arts Centre?" she asks. We're soon sitting down gorging on thick slabs of gooey chocolate cake, watching the sun set over the sea.
Later that evening, with a belly full of the finest steak at Aber's best restaurant, Le Vignoble, I climb back up the hill to go to my first Welsh-language event. Gruff Rhys, singer of the legendary Super Furry Animals, is opening a tour to promote his new album and there was apparently only one place he was interested in playing - The National Library.
With my cultural appetite fully satisfied, I head back down to the seafront for my last lungfuls of fresh, ocean air. Aberystwyth is, in some ways, like a pocket-sized city. An unexpected cultural gem where everything - food, life and art - is played out against the magical sound of the Irish Sea.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE
Andrew Spooner travelled as a guest of Visit Wales and Virgin Trains (0845 722 2333; virgintrains.com). Virgin offers London to Aberystwyth return from £55. Doubles with b&b at Ty Belgrave House (01970 630553; tybelgravehouse.co.uk) start at £105.
Visit Wales (0800 9156567; visitwales.co.uk); Aberystwyth Tourism (tourism .ceredigion.gov.uk).
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