Wales Sept 2011

Harlech: Reunion Time

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Crown Lodge Arrival, Harlech, Wales

13 Sept 2011

“This is the worst weather we have ever experienced in all our years of hiking in Wales” said a couple from Yorkshire we met on a day walk over the hills above Harlech. High winds and rain, brought on by the remains of a hurricane had been the norm since we arrived Saturday. Hiking Mt Snowdon was not an option, not that we had seriously considered this challenging climb. Short day walks were more sensible until the weather cleared.  

Luckily we were snug and warm in Crown Lodge. The large stone house was the original home of Coleg Harlech. When larger quarters for the expanding school were obtained, Crown Lodge was turned into a residence for attendees of seminars. We were able to rent the building for a week for a very reasonable price when the Coleg didn’t need it. We were all pleasantly surprised to find our accommodation well above the basic level we had expected. There were eight large double rooms with ensuite bathrooms for the seven couples to choose from and Janet Schom took a single room with a gorgeous view towards the Irish Sea. We had a comfortable sitting room for our pre-dinner snacks and the kitchen had room for all 15 of us to eat together. 

By 4:30 that afternoon our group of Ray and I, David and Suzanne Andrews, Claudia and Neil Carver, Marg and Jack Dunphy, Ginny and Jim Galway, Pat and Bruce Marshall, Cathy and Bill Pawley and Janet Schom, had all arrived. All the women had graduated from Bishop’s University together and two of the husbands had met their wives there. We were to spend the next week together; exploring the area and enjoying cooperatively prepared meals together. Claudia, Neil , Ray and I were the cooks the first night. We had bought ingredients to make Ray’s signature fish chowder and a green salad plus we had fresh pears provided by the owner of a B&B where Pat and Bruce stayed the previous night. We only had to add a few melted dark chocolate bars for a perfect desert. Dinner that night was a happy, noisy affair, aided by quantities of wine, beer and cider, as we all caught up on our lives. I have to say that the standard we set for meals has been met and exceeded since then. 

The rain stopped long enough the next morning for us to explore the town of Harlech and vicinity. With Ray as our guide several of us set off on a short hike across the dunes, a wildflower sanctuary owned by St David’s Golf Club, that cover the area between Harlech Castle and the Sea. It was much too windy to hike along the shore so we stuck to the shelter of the dunes. Later in the day we investigated some of the streets in the upper part of Harlech, in preparation for a longer hike on Monday. Labelled the Ancient Styles Walk, we hiked across sheep paddocks, climbed styles over dry stone walls and held onto our hats at the higher open areas. At least we avoided the rains. There were so many walking paths in the vicinity around Harlech, our appetite for more walks was whetted. There were more styles to climb and more pastures to cross to reach a high point with views of the Irish Sea, Harlech Castle and the Snowdon Mountains.  

Pat, Bruce and I spent an afternoon at Harlech Castle. It isn’t the largest of Edward I castles in Wales but it has the distinction of withstand a seven year siege before falling to the English during the War of the Roses. Built using almost 1,000 English, French and Italian workers between 1283 and 1295 on high cliffs overlooking the Irish Sea, it is a formidable fortress. It changed hands between the Welsh and the English several times until it was conquered by the less defended land side and left in ruins during the Civil War in 1647. 

A few of the others had visited Harlech Castle Sunday but the high winds had forced the closure of the castle that afternoon until our visit on Tuesday. The winds were still high when we visited, especially on the south facing rampart. We three crouched down beside the rampart wall and made it to a more protected side holding on to a convenient railing. We admired the view over the dunes facing the sea. When the castle was built a 200 ft staircase led from the castle to access to the sea. Now the castle appears marooned as changing weather conditions over the last two centuries have crated sand dunes stretching mile to the coast. The land is now home to St David’s Golf Club and walking paths we explored the previous Sunday. 

Others in our group have traveled to Portmeirion, Chester, Caernarfon and followed scenic routes through Snowdonia National Park. Everyone has returned with enthusiastic reports of their excursions.

Welsh Rarebits

18 Sept 2011

What can be more Welsh than a Men’s Choir? What about Welsh Cheddar Cheese on toast? Learning to pronounce those unpronounceable Welsh place names or learning about the ongoing struggle for political and linguistic independence, not to mention walking the thousands of trails over the countryside? We managed all that and more in our much too short ten days in Wales. 

Caernavon was the first town we noticed that all the locals did truly prefer to speak Welsh amongst themselves, but they always switched willingly to English when we asked a question. I don’t think I ever learned to properly pronounce place names. How do you pronounce Betws Y Coed, and what does it mean? I called it Betty’s a Co-ed? I hope now Welsh person heard me massacre their language. Lamb stew and Shepherd’s pie were on our menus. We ate Welsh cheddar for snacks and in sandwiches, used leeks, the national flower of Wales, instead of onions in all our dinners and had a feast of Fish and Chips for our last meal.

History was made real for us on a visit to the Llechwedd Caverns Slate Mine. We took both of the tours offered, one on a narrow gauge railway on the same tracks used to haul huge slabs of slate from the depths of the mine to be split into roof tiles. Our guide directed us to three different caverns where tableaux with recorded voices told the story of miners in 1860. A team of four family members, two men inside quarrying the slate and two men outside splitting the stone, worked an individual cavern. Few of the men survived past 45, laid low by silicosis. We also descended 400 ft into caverns used in 1846 and walked the low, narrow corridors from one cavern to another. It was a good thing we all wore hard hats. 

We read all the informative panels in the castles to learn the history of the Welsh in their struggle to gain independence from the British. Friday night after supper several of us walked to Harlech castle to watch the first ever, in Harlech, story of Olwain Glyndwr. He was the last native Welshman to hold the title of Prince of wales. Beginning in 1400 he led a revolt against the British and managed to keep control of Harlech Castle from 1404-1409 before ultimately being defeatd. The townspeople, some in period costumes, assembled at Coleg Harlech, who own Crown Lodge where we stayed, and walked along the beach by torchlight following men acting the parts of Olwain and his men. At the castle, some of Olwain’s soldiers mounted the lower level of ramparts where a sound and light show told their story. Olwain and his captains appeared on the upper ramparts to proclaim their victory. The townspeople, joined by us and other tourists, sang and waved their torches cheering on the victory. It was very moving and a fun history lesson for everyone. 

David Andrews found out there was a free practise session Thursday evening of Cor Y Brythoniaid, one of the best Welsh Men’s Choirs in the area. Several of us drove to Blaenau Ffestiniog, a town just 1 mile from the Slate Mines we had visited the day before. The performance, even interrupted by their capable director, John Eifion, to repeat a passage that wasn’t quite perfect, was superb. The choir consisted of about 40 men, aged from 20 something to over 70. They all obviously enjoyed the session, we certainly did. The choir has toured several countries, made recordings and was practising for a new CD to be recorded the following week. The evening started with a Welsh Hymn, continued with some Folk Tunes we recognized as well as a classical number or two and ended with a rousing chorus of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. We made up the majority of the audience that night and we were warmly received. Several men came to talk to us and thank us for coming. Suzanne won the 50-50 draw that we all entered that night. She put her winnings back in the pot marked for support of the choir. They were worth it. Look out for their YouTube rendition of the Mansions of the Lord at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uNiquukB0Y.


Every day but one, when we visited the Slate Mine and took the scenic route over the Pass of Llamberis, past Mt Snowdon, the Carvers, Ray and I, plus a rotating selection of the others, set out on a walk in the countryside. Ray was our guide on half-day walks of about 8 km, using a guide book we bought at the local information center. We walked straight from our Lodge to follow excellent routes through sheep paddocks, over ancient styles and up bare hills for the view. The warmest day found us in the woods alongside the Afon Y Glyn, a narrow valley with a rushing stream, passing through small hamlets. The routes were well marked and varied enough to keep us coming back for another one.  

We did make one remote start. Friday five of us, the Carvers, Burnhams and Cathy Pawley, drove to the small town of Aberdaron at the western tip of the Lleyn Peninsula, which juts 25 miles in to the Irish Sea between Caernarvon and Portmadog. An ancient pilgrimage route stretches around the peninsula, from church to church, ending in Aberdaron where the pilgrims boarded boats for a dangerous crossing to Bardsey Island, their final destination. In the middle ages voyages were long, perilous and costly so the Pope decreed that three pilgrimages to Bardsey Island equalled one pilgrimage to Rome. Thousands took up the challenge. The graveyards on land and on the island are full of those pilgrims, some of whom came hoping to be cured of an illness, who didn’t live to return home. 

We started our walk in Aberdaron, passing by Y Gegin Fawr (The Big Kitchen), where meals have been served since 1300, to St Hywyn’s Church, the last church before the boat ride. The original chapel was built in 1100 and a second half added 400 years later. I don’t think we said enough prayers there to protect us on our walk around the tip of the peninsula. We started off along the beach, climbed to the top of the cliffs overlooking the water and made our way along a well worn path to the tip of the peninsula. The wind was not as strong as the first days in Harlech but was enough to deter some fishermen we met at a small cove along the way. They had intended to take their large boat out but thought better of it when they looked at the swell and the deteriorating weather. We should have paid more attention too.


At the tip we got our first glimpse of Bardsey Island and took the requisite photos of our happy group. As soon as we started on the return route a little inland it started to rain. Soon the light rain became torrents of water, soaking all of us. Claudia and Neil managed to put on their rain pants but the rest of us didn’t have any with us and there was no shelter to be found. The rain ran down our waterproof jackets, soaked our long pants and filled our boots. We had no choice but to carry on, just as the Kiwis in New Zealand do, wet feet and all. Needless to say the return trip was a lot faster than the first half. We just walked the country roads right back to Aberdaron. The rain had stopped on the way back but I was cold. I stopped in a small cafe and had a hot pot of tea to warm me while the others ate their sandwiches outside the church. After finishing my tea I went inside one of the village Inns where the Andrews, Dunphys and Janet Schom were snug and warm, eating a great lunch after having toured the peninsula by car.

Feeling revived after my hot tea and a sandwich, Ray, and Cathy and I took a slightly longer trip back to Harlech. We stopped to see the little chapel of St Beuno in the village of Pistyll on the north coast. St Beuno, who died in 640 AD, was as important a religious figure to the Northern Welsh as St David was to the Southern Welsh. The chapel was a hospice for the sick and infirm. One window near the altar was sited so that lepers could see the service without entering. We entered the chapel to the pleasant smell of herbs and straw, strewn over the chapel floor to honour the harvest season.

Our last stop of the day was just outside Portmadog to visit the small fishing village of Borth Y Gest, the childhood home of our friend Kathy Greiner. We drove by a row of homes facing the small harbour, painted in gay colours for a filming several years ago for a series on the Welsh language. We found Kathy’s house on a terrace just above the main street and took a photo of her previous home for her.

Now everyone has gone their separate ways, some continuing to tour, a few to return home. We all look forward to our next holiday together. Ray and I are in Istanbul, having arrived from Heathrow this afternoon, and are now in Marmara Hotel, very close to the Blue Mosque. We will be listening to the call to prayer several times a day. It was 31 C when we arrived, summer once more. We will not be wearing our woollies here! 

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