Hafod-y-Llan • Photo: NTPL/Joe Cornish

Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold

23rd August 2008

Wales… it’s a foreign country, with a landscape on a scale we hardly can imagine here in southern England.

Jack Watkins ventured over the border and found not only awe-inspiring countryside but also dramatic coastline and engaging seaside attractions.

The gentle, underpopulated greenery of the Shropshire border country never fails to delight. Great oaks stand like monuments in the middle of fields, or burst clear from the tops of high grassy banks and hedgerows. Winding lanes seem to lead nowhere in particular, and there are long vistas across to distant hills. At any time of year there’s a reassuring sense of the continuity of “Old England”.

As you cross the boundary into Wales, at first there’s not much difference. But then the roads start to climb as you penetrate deeper north and westwards. Steep wooded slopes close in around you, then fall away to precipitous valleys. Houses and churches in little villages are made of severe granite, and the scenery is not so much beautiful, as awe inspiring and ominous. Suddenly, there’s an almost Alpine foreignness to the land, and the strangeness is unsettling.

At one point, edging by Snowdonia National Park, the rain closes in. This is not your average English summer shower. These steely rods ram and pound the windscreen. Through the descending gloom, a fierce-looking mountain, thickly forested and bear-like, carries a menacing prospect. I love trees and woodlands, but in this situation, with the light draining away, you realise why our ancestors abhorred them, associating them with danger, and craving clear fields and ordered, open landscapes.

In the Vale of Conwy, the land flattens, the river snaking onwards and past the castle, and you enter the little peninsula that brings you to Llandudno. If they wanted to build a place like this today, they wouldn’t get away with it, thanks to stringent modern planning laws which stop such development in areas of natural beauty. The Victorians knew no such restrictions. And so they purpose-built this handsome seaside resort along the bay, looking out to the Irish Sea, and spectacularly hemmed in by the monster crags of Great Orme to one side, and Little Orme to the other. The former hovers broodingly above the streets leading off the promenade, but the lovely, lengthy pier and amusement jetty just beneath counterbalance the potentially oppressive air with a levity that says ‘Don’t worry, we’re not that serious, really’.

But Llandudno, Wales’s biggest seaside resort, isn’t one of the gaudy, kiss-me-quick variety. It’s a rather stately and dignified old lady, and I and my traveling companion fall for it immediately. Of course, traditional seaside towns like this are struggling – have been for several decades – hit by holidays abroad and then the cheap flight era. But Llandudno’s hotel and B&B accommodation stretches for street upon street, along the prom, and up the back roads. The Palladium, once a cinema, originally a theatre, may now be a Wetherspoon’s pub, but signs are this town is riding out the storm quite nicely. There’s no reek of decline here. The hotels on the promenade are immaculately painted, large and, being all of a period, make a striking ensemble.

Venturing around the back of the Great Orme provides fine views across the bay to Anglesey and little Puffin Island, but eastwards from Llandudno, the coast has been subject to 20th century-style development. There are joyless rows of pebble-dash semis as you pass though Rhos-onSea, and then Colwyn Bay, which has sandy beaches and views right across to Liverpool Bay, but little of the charm of Llandudno.

The town, naturally, attracts plenty of the type of holidaymaker who decamps at the hotel at the start of the week and spends the rest of it alternating between tea room and prom, but wider prospects are on the doorstep. Less than an hour down the A470, Betws-y-Coed draws more outdoor, knapsacked hiking types, and the accommodation is smaller, nestling beneath Snowdonia Forest Park.

Ten years ago, the National Trust staged a £14 million public appeal to ‘Save Snowdon’ from falling into foreign ownership. Its success meant they acquired the 4,000 acre farming estate of Hafod y Llan. Numerous footpaths cross the property, including one to the summit of Snowdon itself, and farm animals, including Welsh Black cattle and sheep, the latter halved in numbers to prevent overgrazing, forage among the rocks and slopes. The Trust has also restored miles of drystone walls, which could be seen zig-zagging their way up the hills to incredible heights, as we ascended the Watkin Path, one of the routes that eventually leads to Snowdon’s summit.

The climb, at least in these relatively low passes, isn’t especially steep, pleasant enough for a leisurely absorbing of the views. Recent rain has sent water gushing through the waterfall at increased volume, and the drama of the scene is underscored by the sight of a sheep alone on the side of a steep escarpment, and another, performing a perilous leap, almost slipping, to join his companions. Round each turn, further plateaus and peaks appear before us, and the ruins of disused slate and copper mine works dot the fields.

Climbing to the peak of the mountain is not on the agenda today, and we beat a retreat, hitting the road once more and repairing for lunch in Caernarfon. This is a blustery, God-forsaken place overlooking the rough waters of the Menai Strait. Were it not for the chance to visit Caernarfon Castle, we would not stay long.

The castle was the birthplace of the first Prince of Wales (later the hapless king, Edward II), and where the present Prince of Wales received his investiture. You can watch a video of this or, elsewhere, listen to a pompous voice droning on about the Welsh Fusiliers, but I prefer to clamber up the battlements and think of the days when Edward I built the castle in the late 13th century, as part of his plan to subdue the Welsh. As my friend tactfully reminds me, this is probably still a sore point in these parts. It might explain the seemingly scanty information on how and why the thing was constructed, and the emphasis on boring ceremonial.

Crossing Thomas Telford’s celebrated Menai Bridge over to Anglesey, you can visit Beaumaris Castle, another of the Edwardian castles, more ruinous than Caernarfon perhaps, but, with its moat and pretty setting, also more picturesque.

The best view of the Menai Strait is to be had, back over the bridge, from Bangor Pier. This is a structure of nostalgic resonance for, beautifully sparse as it is, with faintly Chinese-style kiosks, it’s one of the best-surviving examples of how piers would have looked when originally conceived, as little more than promenades over the sea, in the mid-19th century. In the 1970s, it was closed as unsafe. It would have been cheaper to pull it down, but unlike Brighton’s shamefully lost West Pier, it has been beautifully restored.

Today, it remains as a pristine, uplifting badge of local pride. Too many English seaside towns look tacky and tumbledown, as if a sense of belief in their purpose has been lost. The Welsh, it seems to me, with the care and love they continue to show for old-fashioned places like Llandudno, and Bangor Pier, could tell them a thing or two about putting long term investment before short term profit.

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