March seems to have flown by really quickly this year. Spring is now well and truly with us, or it should be! I’ve patched up the strawberry patch, had the last of the winter stews and in just under a week it will be time to plant this years bean crop. I bought some interesting looking French ones this year. Round these parts I’ve been doing what I have called the ‘Welsh March,’ articles and posts that are all about Wales. And yeah, I do love that pun! For the last of this years troop (More next year? Definitely!) I have decided to talk about a few of the places that I love, the places in Wales that I could never grow tired of… Not that I could ever grow tired of Wales anyway. As our erstwhile grumpy friend Dr Johnson almost said, ‘He who is tired of Wales is tired of life!’
PONTCYSSYLTE AQUEDUCT- NR. LLANGOLLEN
Llangollen is quite rightly considered to be one of the gems of the Welsh borders and there are some great things to see nearby. The ruins of Valle Crucis abbey are one such place and I’d also recommend a trample up the road from there in order to take a look at the Pillar of Elliseg, an old early medieval monument. You could also visit Castell Dinas Bran above the town. But of all Llangollen’s sights you have to travel a bit beyond the town to see the best of them. And yes, I know this appears on every local travelogue, engineering documentary and most things that have ever mentioned Llangollen in the last two hundred years. It also isn’t like me to follow the crowd but in this case I think its excusable. The Pontcyssylte aqueduct was opened in 1805 and it really is a marvel of engineering. It carries the Llangollen canal a whopping 126 feet above the Dee Valley and looking down from the towpath on top the drop is as frightening as it sounds. At least the towpath has a rail though… The side the canal runs along is open to the elements with only a couple of centimetres separating the top of the water from empty space. Its deep enough that, barring some kind of freak accident, a barge isn’t going to go over the edge but my mind does quite easilly wander over to the possibility. It isn’t likely in real life but it might work for an action movie. Only with speedboats instead of canal barges of course. Maybe it could open the next James Bond film? How about this: Bond, who is escaping from some bad guys with a flash drive containing important information in his tuxedo pocket, gets into a speedboat chase on the canal (Let’s not bother with any arguments over how the idea of a speedboat chase on the Llangollen canal is utterly ridiculous, this is the opening to a Bond film after all,) and at the climax he purposely ploughs the speedboat right over the edge of the aqueduct, jumping out of the boat and parachuting to safety just in time.
Ignoring fantasy Bond film openings, let’s return to the aqueduct. Even at over two hundred years old this thing still has the power to impress and awe. It’s a practical structure, very simple in its design, and yet it is still beautiful. Pictures alone do not do this aqueduct justice. You have to see it, experience the aura for yourself. We’re so used to skyscrapers and huge bridges and massive feats of engineering these days but Pontcyssylte can still make a person go ‘wow.’
THE THREE HOUSES OF CONWY- CONWY
I could wander around this little town for hours, especially if the sun is shining. Inside the walls the streets whirl around each other, full of hidden gems and secret places. There’s one particular street running up to the walls that reminds me, only a little, of Fireman Sam’s Pontypandy. This was practically the only reason that, a few years ago, when I was planning on writing a Fireman Sam movie (the gritty origin story nobody ever wanted) I was going to make sure that it was filmed in Conwy. The town is famous for its castle but there are plenty of other, lesser known places to see as well. For example, you can three distinct, very different houses. Usually they aren’t all lumped in together but here I’ve decided to do just that. Why settle for just one when you can visit all three for the same price as your average stately home? Personally, I love them all so of course I’m going to include all three houses!
Down by the river side you’ll find the smallest house in in Britain. It’s so small that an average sized man standing on the shoulders of another average man (that includes myself, and I’m not exactly Long-Legs McLankey) could see onto the roof with ease. It comprises of one door and a tiny window on the first floor and a single window on the second. There are only two rooms inside. It’s also painted red, if that information is of any use to you. An awful lot of preserved houses are the houses of the upper class, the aristocracy, but this is on the opposite end of the scale. The last man to live here, up until 1900, was a fisherman called Robert Jones so this is a real, humble (humble is exactly the right word) working class home. The humbleness makes a nice change from the chandeliers and endless walls of paintings of grander houses. It is somewhere different. And despite its size I find that it is always worth a revisit. I’ll take a special wander to see it most times I find myself in Conwy.
Just around the corner is Aberconwy house and of the three houses in Conwy this is my least favourite, though still very much worth a visit. You wouldn’t even know it was there if you didn’t know it for it blends so well with the surrounding townscape that it becomes nearly indistinguishable. When you take a closer look you can see that it is different, that it is older, more worn down by its years. In fact, we have gone from the smallest house in Wales to one of the oldest. Once a medieval merchant’s house, today it is owned by the National Trust. Like the smallest house it is by no means grand, though it is a bit grander than the aforementioned. As a part of the self guided tour there’s a short film all about the history of the house which I would recommend taking the time to sit down and watch. It can be all too easy in museums and such places to skip the film sections, especially when they’re half way through playing or there’s a long wait before they restart, but in this case it is worth hanging around.
Finally we come to the grandest house out of the three and almost certainly my favourite- Plas Mawr. For a long time, whenever I visited Conwy, I always found it wasn’t open but perseverance paid off and I got in eventually. What you find beyond the front door is a true historical gem, a unique survival of the Elizabethan era. Nowhere else that I know of feels so much like walking through an actual Elizabethan town house as here. It feels like the owners have just popped out for a pint of milk and in that way it can be a little creepy at times. It is a place well worth taking your time over as it is much smaller than you might initially expect it to be. As I was wandering around, on my first visit, I didn’t want the thing to end. I wanted to linger in every room, wanted the place to keep going, and I was so disappointed when I came to the exit. There’s still a fair amount to see though so you aren’t likely to come away disappointed. Personally, my favourite place in the whole house is the restored renaissance garden at the rear.
BEAUMARIS COURTHOUSE AND GAOL- BEAUMARIS
Beaumaris is another town famous for its castle but like Conwy there is also more to see. The courthouse is right in the centre of town and I only came across it by chance initially. I happened to see a sign for it whilst out on a university trip and though I wasn’t able to visit on that occasion I made a specific point of coming back later on just for the sole purpose of visiting. That might also have been the time I bought my small H.M.S Endeavour from the RNLI shop on the sea front. This was just before such places stopped selling miniature ship models you should understand… But anyway, enough divergence. The courthouse! Once I entered the place I discovered there was a gaol nearby as well and I could get a cheap ‘visit both’ ticket. And then, wandering the courthouse with my audio tour machine in hand, I started to admire the place. This was a well thought out, well presented museum. A lot of care and attention has gone into the visitor experience here, I could tell. Walking away, more than happy, to find the gaol, I didn’t think it could be any better than the courthouse.
Boy was I wrong on that front. Forget the castle. The Gaol is what tourists should come to Beaumaris for. I had a bit of difficulty finding it first time, seeing as it is tucked away down the back streets and how from the outside it looks like nothing more than a really ugly wall. Inside though… Wow! Like the courthouse you can see the care and attention that has gone into the place… No audio tour though, which I was disappointed by. There’s a chill in the air and like with Plas Mawr I found that it was a place I wanted to explore forever. It doesn’t quite feel like the prisoners are still lurking behind their cell doors but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. It’s still all too easy to imagine yourself being dragged in here, kicking and screaming and proclaiming your innocence. One of the best parts of the museum, for my money, is the solitary confinement cell; a dark and claustrophobic room that would turn even the most resilient minded of men into insanity. And coming out at the end of the visit, blinking into the light, you suddenly feel like you’ve been released. How’s that for an experience?
I would recommend visiting the courthouse first as that way you can proceed logically through the justice system (sentence and then punishment.) Also, the courthouse is near to the car park and bus stop.
PARYS MOUNTAIN- ANGLESEY
As a young and impressionable teenager I became determined to one day visit Parys Mountain after it was featured on the BBC’s Restoration programme- Anyone remember that? The one with Gryff Rhys Jones where the public got to vote on which historic building to save? Sadly, of the two clips I could find of that probably now mostly forgotten programme neither was of Parys Mountain. But it wasn’t until my second year of university that I finally got around to visiting. And it was worth the wait!
Pulling in from the road you step into a thoroughly bleak, almost alien landscape and only every once in a while as you stroll through this bleak wilderness do you get a glimpse of the rolling fields of Mona. What you walk through is a scar, a scar where for almost four thousand years men broke their backs toiling to extract copper from beneath the ground. The bronze age copper mines at Llandudno may be more famous (and also worth a look I should add) but this is on another level. Being all open (at the present moment in time you can’t go underground except by special, pre-arranged tour) it is naturally less claustrophobic and it also means that you see a fair bit more than some tunnels and caverns.
The most prominent feature of the mountain is the remains of the old mill, a cylindrical tower standing tall amidst a purple and orange hue. You find yourself inevitably drawn to it. This could well be the last outpost of a lost civilization, the place where they buried their final secrets. And no matter how many people you are with there is always a strange sense of loneliness and isolation in the air. In common with almost all of the places mentioned on this list I could stay here for hours, especially when the sun is beating down on the orangey red landscape and you just feel like you’re miles from nowhere, like you’re on another world entirely. The best part? This isn’t that well known amongst the general public. People come here and you’ll probably see other people off in the distance every once in a while but it’s quiet, in general.
For me the place is almost perfect. It evokes so much with just a few tiny things; the isolation and the surreality of the landscape being just two of them. And after writing this I have suddenly realized that I want to blast off back there. I need another ridiculous picture of myself holding a sonic screwdriver because I lost the last one when my computer crashed.
ROALD DAHL PLAS/CARDIFF BAY- CARDIFF
Sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide come rolling in… What could be better? Well this bay happens to be the dock of Tiger Bay so that makes it kind of special. It used to be all shipyards round here but now it’s a blend of the old and modern. The red brick of the pier head building sits alongside the sleek glass of the Welsh Senedd building and the Millennium Centre. There are shops, places to eat… Watch out for Seagulls trying to pinch bits of your sandwich though. I lost a meatball to one of those little gits!
Yet again I could spend hours here, wandering around, soaking in the south Walian sunshine or just sitting on that dock. Things that are definitely worth seeing here are the Senedd building, which is much smaller than it looks on the television, and the old Norwegian church a little further up. This is a place where the old and the new juxtapose each other very well indeed, a prime example of how you can regenerate a run down area and turn into something great. Other cities around the world should take notes on this place because this, in my opinion, is what the modern world should look like, what it is capable of being. It is quite obvious, when you look around that care has been taken to redesign this place and to redesign it is well. They haven’t just slapped in a few modern buildings that will look awful in twenty years time. Come 2036 Cardiff Bay will still be looking as gorgeous as it does today, perhaps moreso.
THE DESERT OF WALES- CEREDIGION
There are hundreds of great rural, wild places in Wales. I have a particular fondness for the Carneddau in the north, a place where horses run wild and where no one ever goes. I could have, and I was sorely tempted to, choose that for my final Welsh place but instead I have opted for somewhere yet more remote. I have opted for, quite literally, the middle of nowhere. And unlike Parys Mountain this really is nowhere: The Great Desert of Wales. Now it will probably surprise a lot of people when they discover that Wales has a desert and it surprised me as well. But don’t expect hot, scorching sun and miles of sand or any Sahara like features, this is still Wales after all. It rains quite a bit here apparently.
The ‘Desert of Wales’ was a term coined in the nineteenth century, mostly for the fact that there is absolutely nothing here except a few hills and maybe some trees. Otherwise… Nothing! Nobody lives here, there are no towns or villages, it is deserted and remote, remoter than anywhere you’ll find in Snowdonia. And that’s why I like it. There’s nobody here and virtually no chance that you’ll ever see anyone else. If Parys Mountain can make a man feel like he is alone, if it feels like there’s no civilization, then this place actually DOES have both of those things.
To tell you the truth there isn’t a lot to say about it because it is actually a desert. It’s a wilderness. All I really need to tell you is that it’s beautiful!
There are so many more places I could mention here… So many more. But for now I’ll limit myself to these few. But doing this, actually, has made me realize how little of Wales I have actually seen. Writing it I kept coming across places I had never heard of- Ty Mawr Wybrnant outside Penmachno, for instance. This was where William Morgan, who translated the bible into Welsh, lived. One of these days, I therefore suppose, I’ll have to go on a grand tour of Wales to see all these new places!