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By: Owen Sheers
Wherever I’ve lived, there’s only one place I’ve ever thought of as home: Wales, where I was raised and where my parents still live. The Massachusetts-size country occupies a western bulge of the island of Great Britain, its ragged coastline harried by the Irish Sea.
The Welsh have sustained an ancient culture, and their language, protected by the region’s hills and mountains, has remained largely unaffected by linguistic invasions of Romans, Anglo-Saxons, and Normans. Following a recent resurgence, Welsh can be heard all around the country today. One word in particular you might hear is hiraeth. Some say it means homesickness, but hiraeth is more than that. Writer and historian Jan Morris, who lives in Wales, defines it as “a longing, but for something indefinable, perhaps unattainable.”
I have spent many years living outside Wales but never really experienced hiraeth until after moving to New York City. Amid the skyscrapers I felt a desire for a nourishment of the soul that could be satisfied only by my home country. But what exactly was I missing? Was this longing no more than an expat’s rose-tinted memory from across the Atlantic? Last year when I was asked to make a BBC television series about poetry and the British landscape, I decided to reexplore my homeland – to try to decipher the character of Wales with a visitor’s gaze.
View our Wales slideshow by photographer Lorentz Gullachsen for a closer look at this small corner of the United Kingdom.
Getting Started: Abergavenny
I began with the Wales I thought I knew, my hometown of Abergavenny and the surrounding area of the Brecon Beacons National Park in southeastern Wales. Abergavenny is called the “Gateway to Wales,” and upon arriving there one feels as if one has passed through some kind of portal. There’s the language, of course, abruptly appearing on the road signs, and I may be biased, but I’m always struck by how straightforward and welcoming the people are here. I think it has something to do with a connection to the land, to feeling rooted and secure. There’s also a shift in landscape, from the flat English plains to the seven rounded hills around Abergavenny’s cluster of streets, shops, and the town hall’s prominent oxidized copper spire.
Unlike the nearby industrial and mining valleys, this is farm country, famous for livestock, produce, and dairy, all of which can be sampled next to the town hall at the thriving Tuesday and Friday farmers’ markets (www.abergavennymarket.co.uk), or at the annual Abergavenny Food Festival (September 19-20, 2009; 44-18-7385-1643, www.abergavennyfoodfestival.com), when the entire village is overtaken by stalls selling local lamb and beef, regional beers like Breconshire Brewery’s Ysprid y Ddraig (Spirit of the Dragon), and delectable cheeses. Local varieties range from sharp farmhouse cheddar to soft, creamy Pantysgawn goat cheese and Y Fenni, Abergavenny’s famous cheddar infused with mustard seed and ale.
Britain has witnessed a culinary revolution over the past decade with the rise of the gastropub, where high cuisine meets traditional country ingredients. The rural pubs familiar to me as the destinations of Sunday family walks have become hot stopovers: The Foxhunter in Nantyderry (Nantyderry; 44-18-7388-1101, www.thefoxhunter.com), The Hardwick outside Abergavenny (Old Raglan Rd., Abergavenny; 44-18-7385-4220, www.thehardwick.co.uk), the isolated Bull’s Head in Craswall (44-19-8151-0616, www.thebullsheadcraswall.co.uk), and The Crown (Old Hereford Rd., Pantygelli; 44/18-7385-3314, www.thecrownatpantygelli.com), nestled under the slopes of Sugarloaf Mountain in Pantygelli. The most established local star is The Walnut Tree (Llanddewi Skirrid; 44-18-7385-2797, www.thewalnuttreeinn.com) overseen by chef Shaun Hill. The spruced-up farmhouse is warm and inviting, from its flagstone fireside bar to the low-ceilinged, dark-wood dining room. I dropped in midweek to order off the set lunch menu and had choucroute garnie comprised of a perfectly succulent ham hock, smoked sausage and bacon, and mashed potatoes, followed by a bitter chocolate torte with crème fraîche, all for $23.
This area may be newly recognized for its food, but has always been famous for the eminently hikeable Brecon Beacons (www.breconbeacons.org), a landscape of sheep-cropped hills and mountains throwing dramatic shadows from their bladelike ridges. I began exploring on the Skirrid, a narrow mountain by The Walnut Tree. My reward for scaling the steep incline came 40 minutes later: stunning 360-degree views of Abergavenny and its environs. Heading west and deeper into the Brecon Beacons, I was determined to tackle the highest peak, Pen y Fan (Head of the Valley). Despite having climbed it many times, I discovered a fantastic new route, away from the crowds, that started beside a woodland river at Cwm-llwch, an old farmhouse about 6 miles southwest of the town of Brecon.
The Abergavenny area has a number of lovely country hotels. The Angel Hotel (15 Cross St., Abergavenny; 44-18-7385-7121, www.angelhotelabergavenny.com), in the center of town, is a 32-room Georgian inn once frequented by stagecoach travelers. It serves a cream tea (tea, scones, clotted cream, and jam) to die for. At the bar I met a racehorse owner, a local farmer, and an author of no fewer than 48 books on the Spanish Civil War. For a smart splurge outside town, stay at the elegant country manor Llansantffraed Court (Clytha Llanvihangel Gobion, near Abergavenny; 44-18-7384-0678, www.llch.co.uk). Located in the heart of the Beacons, The Bear Hotel (44-18-7381-0408, www.bearhotel.com) in Crickhowell is another historic coaching inn with a recently refurbished restaurant. Summer visitors might encounter Brecon’s world-renowned jazz festival, usually held in August
Seeking Solitude: Llyn
On my trip northwest to the Llyn Peninsula, a long finger of land stretching into the Irish Sea, I traveled the A470, often little more than a winding single-lane strip. I drove over the Cambrian Mountains, which divide North and South Wales, past some of the country’s most interesting towns like historic Llandovery and the Victorian resort of Llandudno, with its sweeping arc of coastal hotels. Just at the doorstep of the Llyn, near tourist favorite Snowdonia National Park (www.snowdonia-npa.gov.uk), is Machynlleth, where 15th-century resistance leader Owain Glyndwr was crowned prince of Wales and established his first parliament. Welsh aspirations for an autonomous Wales revived in the late 1990s when leaders formed the Welsh Assembly Government in Cardiff. In May 2007, Welsh ministers gained independent executive authority. Today Machynlleth is home to a cutting-edge eco-research collective, the Centre for Alternative Technology (Machynlleth; 44-16-5470-5950, www.cat.org.uk), with more than 7 acres of displays.
My first stop in the Llyn was Portmeirion (www.portmeirion-village.com), the brilliant madcap fantasy of Welsh architect Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis. He designed and constructed the town from 1925 to 1975, modeling it on the Italian Riviera’s Portofino and incorporating fragments of demolished buildings from across the Continent. The result is as striking as it is incongruous with the North Wales coastal setting. Yet, odd as it is, the place has inspired visitors from Frank Lloyd Wright to Noël Coward, who famously wrote Blithe Spirit in five days while staying in the Foutain 2 room at The Hotel Portmeirion (44-17-6677-0000, www.portmeirion-village.com). The town also provided the setting for television’s cult '60s spy show The Prisoner. Under the direction of the hotel’s new chef Wayne Roberts, the dining room’s menu is full of ingenious dishes like scallops cured at the nearby Llandudno smokery and served with a light black pudding and cauliflower puree.
Next I set off in search of the heart of Llyn by traversing part of the Edge of Wales Walk (44-17-5876-0652, www.edgeofwaleswalk.co.uk), a 47-mile coastal path following an ancient Celtic pilgrimage route. Locals maintain the path and offer accommodations, airport pickups, bike rentals, and luggage ferrying. The walk is mostly off-road, passing isolated beaches and craggy cliffs. Highlights include Wales’s largest and best-preserved Iron Age hill fort at Tre’r Ceiri, medieval churches, and wildlife such as peregrine falcons, stonechats, puffins, guillemots, and the occasional grey seal. I walked an 8-mile section from the village of Nefyn, over undulating cliffs to the tiny seaside village of Porth Dinllaen, skirting for a spell the dramatic Nefyn Golf Club (Pwllheli; 44-17-5872-0966, www.nefyn-golf-club.co.uk). (Wales is home to amazing golf; the 2010 Ryder Cup is set to be held at Celtic Manor, just outside Newport.)
I then headed for the peninsula’s most westerly village, Aberdaron, where poet R.S. Thomas served as parish priest of St. Hywyn’s Church (www.st-hywyn.org.uk) from 1967 to 1978. Thomas was known for his questioning, sparse verse – a great influence on me in my youth. Standing with my back to his church, watching seabirds scattered above the lazily flexing sea, I could see how Thomas’s poetry could be born amid beauty so unforgiving yet unquestionably honest in its vigor.
I could make out across a 2-mile stretch of sea opposite Aberdaron the shadowy outline of Bardsey Island (44-84-5811-2233, www.bardsey.org; boat charters: www.enllicharter.co.uk or www.bardseyboattrips.com), the destination of the old pilgrimage route. Throughout the fifth and sixth centuries, three pilgrimages to Bardsey were equal, in terms of divine credit, to one pilgrimage to Rome. Many pilgrims traveled to Bardsey to die, hence its sobriquet, “the island of 20,000 saints.” Today the ruins of a sixth-century monastery are visible, along with several Celtic crosses and Britain’s tallest square-towered lighthouse. All the circa-1870 cottages are listed by the Welsh historic and ancient monuments association, and several of them are available to rent in the summer.
Though the peninsula is rough-hewn, it has upmarket spots too. In the town of Pwllheli, Plas Bodegroes (Rosehip Hall) (Nefyn Rd., Pwllheli; 44-17-5861-2363, www.bodegroes.co.uk) is a B&B in a Georgian manor house. There the restaurant has scored Michelin stars for more than 20 years with its imaginative yet hearty fare, like breast of guinea fowl with mango and celeriac in lime leaf sauce. While few luxury hotels cater to this area, fine rental homes are strewn across the countryside (many managed by the company Under the Thatch). Castell-Mai (Caeathro village, Caernarfon; 44-12-3985-1410, www.underthethatch.co.uk) is a four-bedroom Georgian country house on 15 wild acres with views of the Menai Strait and Caernarfon Castle (44/12-3985-1410, underthethatch.co.uk), a World Heritage Site. Rhyd-Fudr (outside Llanuw-chllyn; 44-12-3985-1410, www.underthethatch.co.uk), a newly renovated 1725 farmhouse, offers a rustic setting (near Llyn Tegid, a lake in Snowdonia), but its two bedrooms are stylishly furnished. Bryn Dedwydd (Blessed Hill) (outside Rhydlydan; 44-12-3985-1410, www.underthethatch.co.uk) is a comfortable converted farmhouse with four bedrooms, two patios, and fantastic sight lines.
City Life: Cardiff
Although Wales is largely a rural country, visitors would miss out if they didn’t spend time in Cardiff, the capital and home to more than 300,000 people. The best place to start a visit is in the city’s center near Cardiff Castle (Castle St, 44-29-2087-8100, www.cardiffcastle.com), a Victorian rendition of a medieval castle, built in 1866 on Roman and Norman ruins. In its shadow, find markets and pedestrian-only arcades (among them High Street, Castle, Morgan, and Royal) packed with local designer boutiques, vintage bookshops, and cafés. The architectural icons of 21st-century Cardiff are the massive Millennium Stadium (Westgate St., 44-87-0013-8600, www.millenniumstadium.com) and the armadillo-like Wales Millennium Centre (Centre Bute Place, Cardiff Bay, 44-87-0040-2000, www.wmc.org.uk), an arts venue. Pick up a ticket to a rugby match or a performance by the world-class Welsh National Opera for a sampling of the country’s two most obvious passions. Or delve into Blysh, a 10-day festival in July featuring carnival performances, comedy, and burlesque at the Millennium Centre. For an education on Welsh history and culture, head north to the National Museum Wales (Cathays Park, 44-29-2039-7951, www.museumwales.ac.uk), right near the dragon-topped City Hall.
I lived in Cardiff years ago but was amazed on this return trip by how the city has changed. A bold renovation of the once-depressed bay area has brought sophisticated shops, bars, and restaurants like Woods Bar & Brasserie (the Pilotage Building, Stuart St., 44-29-2049-2400, www.woods-brasserie.com), serving British-Asian fusion cuisine. Among Cardiff’s newer hotels, two standouts are the boutique Jolyons Hotel (Bute Crescent, 44-29-2048-8775, www.jolyons.co.uk), with its six exquisite rooms just a quick stroll from the Millennium Centre, and The St. David’s Hotel Cardiff (Cardiff Havannah St., 44/11-8971-4700, www.thestdavidshotel.info), by the bay. I opted to spend a night away from the city’s bustle in suburban Penarth in the wonderfully eclectic Holm House (Marine Parade, Penarth, 44/29-2070-1572, www.holmhouse.com).
I’ve decided hiraeth is something to experience rather than work out. Despite all my attempts to quench it, I ended up falling for Wales all over again.
Eisteddfod And Other Welsh Festivals
One of the best ways to discover Welsh life is to sample the many festivals that pop up each spring and summer across the country. The largest is the annual National Eisteddfod (held the first week of August), a mostly Welsh-speaking affair gathering some 150,000 people for competitions in sculpting, singing, and poetry. Its climax is the “chairing of the bard,” when the winner of the poetry contest is revealed onstage. The Hay Festival, held each year toward the end of May in Hay-on-Wye (the bibliophilic town is home to some 30 bookshops), has become Europe’s preeminent literary happening. Set among rolling hills along the English border, the fest gathers a mix of locals and London literati for a kaleidoscopic array of events with writers, comedians, filmmakers, and politicians. Bill Clinton once called it “the Woodstock of the mind.” For a weekend of great music without huge crowds, head to the Green Man Festival (August 21 to 23, 2009) near Crickhowell. The grounds of the sprawling Glanusk Park and Estate form a natural amphitheater where alt-folk, indie, rock, and jazz acts perform.
Making it Happen
Londoners tend to think of Wales as a distant land, but one of the greatest pleasures about the country is that although it seems remote, it is remarkably easy to reach: From London, it’s a 3-hour car drive or a 2-hour train trip. Flying into Bristol from America, one can be at Abergavenny in less than 7 hours.
Combine With a Trip to London
Wales visitors will likely pass through the British capital and should stop to take in some of its charms. In the summer of 2009, the National Portrait Gallery presents a great Constable show, Jude Law portrays Hamlet at Wyndham’s Theatre, and Rachel Weisz stars in the Donmar’s A Streetcar Named Desire. For a great value, stay at The Metropolitan where rates are way down through Labor Day (www.metropolitan.london.como.bz). The splurge-worthy Langham London, which first opened in 1865, is fresh off a $130 million refurbishment (www.london.langhamhotels.co.uk).
When to Go
As in the rest of the UK, the height of summer tends to be the most popular and expensive time to visit Wales. Winters are cold, wet, and often foggy. Late spring and early fall are the best times to travel – with lower rates, fewer tourists, and plenty of sunshine.