We’re just back from a week’s holiday in North Wales. We’ve been going there regularly for so long now, I must have spent over a year of my life there! Years ago, I travelled abroad a few times, but to my own surprise I don’t have much urge to travel. It’s not just the prospect of flying, of boarding and disembarking, checking in and checking out, although these sources of stress are bad enough: it’s also the question of what I want to do when I reach my destination. I prefer getting to know places to just seeing them. I like to know the backstreets of the places I go to and the names of the hills on the skyline. I like the repetition of returning to them.
It used to be an easy journey from here to Porthmadog but over the years it has become more and more difficult. A mixture of heavy traffic, holdups and roadworks on the motorways around Manchester usually means it takes hours longer than it once did. We’ve taken to travelling late and stopping overnight half way, at a Travelodge just over the Welsh border.
This is where we found ourselves just over a week ago now. The following morning, we set off along the coast then headed inland along the Conwy valley. We stopped at the Ffin y Parc gallery there: good coffee, a comfortable sofa and view of the steep, forested slopes that mark the edge of the Carneddau mountains. It is an magical place and it’s easy to wile away an hour or two there without realising it.
We were saying in Borth y Gest, a small harbour on the edge of Porthmadog. We’d been to the house we rented for the week before but not for several years. It was odd, stepping into an empty house I’d last stepped out of six years ago to find it virtually unchanged. Once we’d unpacked, it was strange, too, to do routine things around the house and find very old memories stirred of doing them before.
One evening, after dark, we drove out to Criccieth and walked along the seafront. At the end of the path we strayed away from the road and found ourselves at the very edge of the sea, not far from the cliffs below the castle. There was almost no wind and the sea hardly moved. It was -at the risk of overusing the word- quite magical. The beach at Criccieth always reminds me of the Robert Graves poem, Welsh Incident:
”But that was nothing to what things came out
‘From the sea-caves of Criccieth yonder.’
‘’What were they? Mermaids? dragons? ghosts?’
‘’Nothing at all of any things like that.’
‘’What were they, then?’
‘’All sorts of queer things,
‘Things never seen or heard or written about,
Someone we spoke to mentioned that the mountain bike centre in Coed y Brenin Forest Park had devised several wheelchair trails through the woods there. We went to investigate. We explored the trail that led downhill through the trees to the bank of the Afon Eden. We had lunch at the nearby forest café. It had all been so good we went back the next day to do another of the trails: this one, up to the ruins of a copper mine, a high path that contoured the steep side of a tree-lined valley. A hundred feet or so below the slope ended in a stream-bed. The sound of white water rushing between the rocks there was a background presence all afternoon. All the paths we explored were great opportunities for people with mobility problems to get to wild places usually only available to the able-boddied.
Which brings me to Erddig, a National Trust property not far from Wrecsam. We visited it midweek. Two friends of ours were on holiday in the Peak District and we’d chosen Erddig as a good, central place to meet up for the afternoon. The house is famous for its apples (they grow over 140 varieties there) and the fact that they had portraits made of the servants for many years and even, bizarrely, wrote poetry about them. Servants at Erddig certainly enjoyed far better conditions than most servants working in “big houses” used to.
Unfortunately, there is no wheelchair access to the upper floors of the house. There is a “virtual tour” for anyone who can’t climb the stairs. It’s quite good – it certainly lets you see all the extraordinary things you’re missing. I couldn’t help wondering if we’d buy tickets to the Louvre only to see a photograph of the Mona Lisa at the foot of a staircase I couldn’t climb with K. Fortunately, being members of the National Trust, we didn’t need to buy tickets but please, National Trust, put a lift in the house!
It was good to meet up with A and J. We live over 200 miles apart. If we lived closer, we’d see a lot more of each other. It’s a fact of modern life that many of one’s relations and closest friends can end up living a long distance away. There is the consolation that one appreciates them more, perhaps, when one can’t take their company for granted. However, it’s a state of affairs that can leave people vulnerable and isolated. I’ve heard it said that though Mexico spends slightly less on health and social care (slightly, note) than the UK, one may possibly fare better in Mexico as the bonds of the extended family are still strong there and family members tend to live in closer proximity to each other. Mutual support can outweigh the slight difference in funding.
One day, we travelled down the Llyn Peninsula to another art gallery, Plas Gwyn y Weddw at Llanbedrog. There were several exhibitions on, including one of photographs of Welsh pop stars who sang in Welsh from the 1960s and 1970s – as they are now, fifty years later. K liked James Naughton’s landscapes – they have a dark, brooding, almost Gothic feel to them. I felt more drawn to Deborah Butler’s semi-abstract landscapes, particularly the least “semi-“: the ones where all figurative elements of the work have been lost. When I see art that pushes forms in landscapes towards abstraction, I’m usually left feeling that the artist can push it all the way for me. I warm to abstract painting.
We like going out to walk at night. One evening we set off on a walk along the front at Borth y Gest itself. We’ve been visiting the place for many, many years. One place is particularly special for me: at the western end of the village, the road turns to a path over a grassy prominence. We have often hung around here in the dark, over the years, at the top of the low, sea cliffs that run most of the way from here to Black Rock Sands. Across the estuary you can see the lights of Harlech. Here and there, in the sea, red and green lighted buoys slowly flash on and off. Once, stood here, I saw a massive fireball streak across the sky, disintegrating as it plummeted towards the hills beyond Ffestiniog. Climbing the low cliffs here by day, or walking here with K at night – I can’t think of a time I’ve stood here and not felt intensely happy.
We made our way back on Saturday morning, stopping again for a timeless coffee-break at Ffin y Parc. Unusually, we encountered virtually no congestion. For a change, we decided to head up the M6 to Lancashire before heading off across the Yorkshire Dales to get home. Warnings of hold-ups ahead had us heading of the motorway earlier than we intended and we ended up taking a road along the lower edge of the Forest of Bowland: a pleasant journey, I thought, as it is an area I hardly know. We arrived home not long before A and J, who had arranged to stay with us for the night before heading home themselves the next day. A and I had both grown up in small villages in Lincolnshire and we sat up a little too late together, revisiting them with the aid of GoogleMaps and comparing notes.