Why it is so important to keep the seagulls on your side, how to have tea with Alice and where Gandalf the train driver is taking his passengers

 

For an entire week traveling through Wales, from north to south, from Conwy to Cardiff, I was unable to shake off a strange feeling somewhat akin to a déjà vu. From each road sign and from every facia sprung intricate combinations of letters, behind which hid even more bizarre sounds, vaguely and hauntingly reminding me of something I couldn’t quite place. And the mountain scenery with its huge trees, moss-covered boulders and babbling brooks in a peculiar way only reinforced the feeling. Gwydyr Forest, Llechwedd caverns, Hafod y Llyn Station, Beddgelert Village... Hmm...

The epiphany occurred in the south, in Pembrokeshire. When under the crown of a centuries-old oak, a fair-haired and blue-eyed girl, our guide, dressed in full 6th-century B.C. garb, greeted us with her Celtic name – Hedwyn! – it suddenly dawned on me – Welsh is actually Elven! It is the very same language from "The Lord of the Rings"!

It turns out that Tolkien really did bestow his Elves with Welsh phonetics. The English professor had a passionate love of the Welsh culture, studied its ancient lore, wrote part of his famous trilogy there and even spent five years teaching medieval Welsh at the University of Leeds.

Tolkien is not the only celebrated figure, however, who has fallen under the spell of Britain's western land. Charlotte Brontë was another, having drawn a romantic view of the majestic Conwy Castle from an engraving while still a young girl, she visited the real thing years later, beginning her honeymoon in this medieval town.

It is a good idea to begin a trip around Wales from up here, in one of the northernmost locations. The Conwy fortress, together with the city walls, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built in the 13th century and is one of the largest and most well preserved examples of its kind in the whole of Britain. Historians are especially taken with the excellent condition of the royal chambers. Examining the niches in the thick walls that housed the fireplaces while dodging drops of water falling from the ceiling, you can't but feel compassion for the medieval rulers and empathize even more with the simple guards of this stronghold. While the guide is trying to share with us the basics of fortification science (“they didn't pour boiling oil from bastions because it was too expensive. They poured hot sand instead”), we climb on the walls of the castle, where amazing views of the city, mountains, river and bay await you.

Tourists have been flocking to Conwy for over 300 years now, not only to appreciate the history and beauty of the place, but also to sample its delicacies. The city is famous for mussels, which are farmed in the age-old manner, from boats, by hand using nets.

We went to taste the local speciality in the restaurant of the oldest of the local inns, The Castle Hotel, the very same establishment that played host to Brontë and also William Wordsworth, who came here in search of inspiration.

A stone's throw from the hotel is one more of the country’s most outstanding attractions – Plas Mawr, a perfectly preserved townhouse from the Elizabethan period. From the outside, it is all snow-white plaster and steps, adorned with numerous pots and flowers. From the inside, it is full of squeaky floorboards, exposed beams, the smell of old wood and exquisite interiors.

The manor was built in the second half of the 16th century by a successful merchant, who after spending time in London and perusing the architecture on offer there, decided to erect a similar palace in his hometown to impress his neighbors. I have no doubt in the slightest that he achieved his goal. The abundance of brightly painted caryatids filling the drawing rooms and halls is unbearably touching, and even by itself is enough to propel ones jaw firmly in the direction of the floor. Another reason for the envy of his contemporaries, undoubtedly, was the toilet – a real one, inside the house, located on the second floor. In this respect, the owner got one over on the capital dwellers – even at the beginning of the 17th century the average Londoner still had to venture into the yard when nature called.

From Conwy we hasten to the neighboring town of Llandudno, where we don’t wish to be late, as we have a very important meeting there.

Beaches, a vintage funicular, golf course, handsome pier and elegant promenade with seagulls swooping over our heads (“If they don’t like you, they can drop a dead jellyfish down onto you”, our guide warns us playfully, but how do you know whether a seagull likes you or not?) – we will go into all this later, because right now a serious little girl in a blue dress with a white apron is waiting for us.

“Would you like some Welsh cookies?” she asks serenely as the guests assemble in the dimly-lit hall of the old St. Tudno Hotel, famous for little Alice Liddell’s family having stayed here. The Oxford Dean's daughter so loved to come to this city that her parents eventually bought a cottage here (alas, it has not survived). Local legend has it that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known now as Lewis Carroll, visited the Liddells in Llandudno and while on a walk caught sight of a white rabbit...

Perhaps you have been told another version of the origins of the famous fairy tale? The locals won’t labour the point, but rather gently point out that the writer could well have seen a white rabbit here. And the fact that the surrounding landscape, when viewed from the top of the mountain where the funicular leads, looks quite like a chess board. So, at least one of Alice’s adventures was inspired here, the people of Llandudno believe.

In honor of little Miss Liddell, there is a themed walking trail ("with augmented reality!" proudly regales the guide), but most importantly – every year there is a competition among the local eight to ten-year-old girls, with the winner being crowned Alice and becoming the face of the city for a year. She makes an appearance at all the holidays, represents Llandudno abroad, and takes part in charitable events. And sometimes she even drinks tea with journalists.

Our Alice is actually called Jessica. She won the competition on her second attempt and will be too old to enter next year, and so plans to cheer for a friend. We eat local cookies, that are a bit like Russian sirniki (fried cottage cheese pancakes), washed down with milky tea, and talk to Jessica about the books and her impressions of her year in the role of Alice. From time to time her four-year-old sister Poppy interrupts us. She hasn't yet read about Alice, but is still hungry for her share of attention.

Conwy and Llandudno are by themselves enough to fall in love with Wales without any hesitation. But this land so exceeds all expectations that every kilometer becomes ever more interesting. You will always find yourself wondering what’s next? From one Victorian resort we head off to another, the village of Betws-y-Coed, located in the famous Snowdonia National Park. It was a place popular in the 19th century among artists. But now, meditative rest has gradually given way to adventure, especially since an adventure park opened in the former slate caverns. Here, you can fly down a zip line through a mountain landscapes, or head underground and jump on the three levels of suspended trampolines, Bounce Below (at the entrance to the latter they hand you a promisingly scuffed helmet). As it is foggy today, we opt to head through a tunnel carved through the rock onto the trampolines. Those who are not keen on flying and leaping through the air, come here to take part in historical master-classes devoted to the manufacture of slate tiles, the main source of income in North Wales in the 19th century.

After the adrenaline rush, you really need something that slows the pulse, and a trip on an old train with panoramic windows is ideal for this. But when you glimpse a lonely station against the backdrop of the mountain peaks, the reflection of the sun in the bend of the railway tracks, the noble steam engine gleaming cherry-red, the heart once again begins to beat faster with joy and the anticipation of what is to come.

Cedric the machinist looks a little like Dumbledore and Gandalf rolled into one, and the station, Porthmadog, is like an unscheduled stop on the Hogwarts Express. It looks as if there must be a short delay, as the camera-happy crowd wishing to capture this magical moment is in no hurry to settle down into the cars. But eventually off we go, and yellow blossom fills the air outside the window ("When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season," they say here, not forgetting to add that, fortunately, in Wales, it blossoms almost year-round), plump lambs prance in the meadows, farmers cheerfully traverse their acres on quad bikes…ah...rural life. The train travels along at 25 miles per hour, which is ideal for taking photos and dreaming.

When you carve through the kilometers on Wales roads, at some point your head begins to spin – not from the serpentine curves, but from the richness of the landscape and its intrinsic nature. Here we drive past the birthplace of Merlin the magician, and just over there is the peak of Cader Idris and they say if you spend the night on it you'll wake up either a poet or a madman. In this lake there lived an ancient monster that was tamed by a local beauty. "Lara Croft" was filmed on those hills and "King Arthur" in the canyon down there. The first team to scale Everest lived and trained in an inconspicuous house along the road here (now it is a famous mountaineers hotel), and yonder in those mountains gold is mined, from which the British monarchs fashion their wedding rings.

Further south the landscape is more even, but not in the slightest poorer. Bays and cliffs, palm trees and blackberry thickets, castles – some haunted, some not – at some point you lose count of them, but you begin to understand why Wales can boast to have one of the most ancient continuous literary traditions in the world. Officially it dates back to the 6th century, but rests on the legends of Celtic times. Historians have tried to bring this era closer, reconstructing the settlement of the Iron Age, Castell Henllys. Under the chieftaincy of Hedwyn the Blonde (in the real world, her name is Sarah), we pass the Celts’ sacred creek and climb a steep hill, which was once inhabited some two thousand years ago. We inspect the round houses with their warming hearths, photograph the local breed of black sheep, preserved since that time, climb under the roof of an ancient pub where the villagers gathered in the evenings to swap tales. We look at the tools and utensils, of which the tribal leader’s huge copper pot is particularly conspicuous.

"When visitors from other villages came, the pot was shined so hard it looked like gold – it was always fun to show off in front of guests," laughs Sarah-Hedwyn. She is waiting for a group of schoolchildren, who are being led here to explore the living history and master the Celtic crafts (Sara herself specializes in basket-weaving).

We leave the hospitable village and prepare to say goodbye to this western land, where there are about three times more sheep than people, and where everyone is either a singer or a poet, or at least, the Welsh will have you know.

Details

  • Get Impressed! Another fabulous corner of North Wales is the village of Portmeirion, the dream of architect Clough Williams-Ellis. He was obsessed with the idea of melding different styles into his architectural plan and inventing a whimsical built-in joke for each construction. A century ago few believed in his folly, but now guests to the village include celebrities and members of the royal family.
  • Get Inspired! Those looking for inspiration in the scenery can follow in Dylan Thomas’ footsteps and visit the coastal town of Laugharne. His house (now a museum) and shed, which served as his study, are preserved here and there is a scenic walking trail based on his poems. If you happen to be here on your birthday, then visit the local café for a treat – find out more on the website dylanthomasbirthdaywalk.co.uk.
 

Text: Alena Tveritina

Published on: May 20, 2018