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Britain's Hidden Kingdom

It was with a bit of anxiety that i turned our car onto the dirt track that serves as the driveway to Clytha Castle. In the handbook the British Landmark Trust sends to prospective renters, there are two photographs and a 19th-century etching of Clytha. It was these, I suppose -- plus the very term castle -- that made me anticipate something large, with a moss-clad gray exterior and echoing stone rooms. The handbook had also led me to expect the spectral moan of owls at night and the weird, rattling call of rooks from the trees at dawn.

Clytha sits on a curious bump of a hill; but all we could spot at first were some small crenellated towers peering coyly from behind a chestnut grove. To see it whole, we had to proceed up the hill, through the iron gate, and around a turn. The castle wasn't completely revealed until we were nearly in the courtyard, and it turned out to be not at all forbidding. Clytha serves as an apt metaphor for Wales itself: diminutive, charming, and virtually unknown, even to its neighbors.

My husband and I were here with our daughters, Jane and Sarah. Part of our plan was to visit the Royal Welsh Show, an agricultural fair more than 40 miles away. The distance rendered Clytha an impractical place to stay, but practicality, in my life, has rarely coincided with desire. The castle it had to be. Later, we would head about 140 miles northwest, over the Cambrian Mountains to Portmeirion, an architectural folly-as-village, in a garden beneath the mountains by the sea. If there was a thread that tied this itinerary together, it was to indulge a certain juvenile fantasy of mine. I wanted to stay in a castle, to scamper up stone steps reminiscent of the inside of a seashell, to survey the world from a turret. Imagining myself a farmer, I dreamed of being surrounded by lambs and rams and pullets and foals. And I yearned to awaken to the sound of fountains, then wander down cobbled paths to the sea -- and, on the way, pluck a fat sky-blue hydrangea blossom for my bedroom.

It is said that no country on Earth has more castles per square mile than Wales. This fact was plainly illustrated by the 20-minute drive from the English border to Clytha, during which we spotted three. Had the terrain been ho-hum, we might have grown blasé about castles. But there is a madcap quality to Welsh topography -- it looks like something drawn by a child. Hills erupt like molars out of gently rolling terrain, with castles clinging to them like burrs.

The castles are the most visible sign of an embattled past. In the first century a.d. it took the Romans 30 years to subdue Wales; 10 centuries later it took the English 200 years. (If you want to make an enemy, ask a Welshman whether he's English.) It was the English who built the principality's most awesome castles: Conwy, Harlech, Caernarvon, and many others, enormous waterfront things that spawned towns. The Welsh princes put up castles of their own, smaller structures in steep, craggy spots.

By the 19th century the castles that were being built spoke more of tremendous wealth than of warfare. Still, they oversaw conquests as unspeakable as anything the Welsh hills had ever experienced: a law that forbade the native language in schools, a countryside laid waste by mining, children on hands and knees pulling trolleys through tunnels too small for ponies. Succumbing to economic pressures, the mining industry slid toward oblivion, bringing unemployment and poverty.

Salvation may come, at least partially, in the form of tourism; the fortresses may now assist a country they once helped dominate. Clytha, in fact, is not a castle at all in the medieval sense, but a demure, Gothic-style folly. That designation seems heartless, however: a plaque on an outside wall tells us Clytha was built in 1790 by William Jones "with the purpose of relieving a mind afflicted by the loss of a most excellent wife." (Clytha House, where Jones lived, is a pretty Classical-style structure in the valley below.) Clytha has pointed arches and quatrefoils for windows and doors, and sheep that graze up to, and occasionally over, the ha-ha, or waterless moat, that runs around its base. It is gray only in photographs; the stucco walls are actually blessed with a chameleonlike skin that changes from shades of buff pink to ocher, terra-cotta, or moss, depending on the light, moisture, and, one gets the feeling, mood.

One of its four towers (three round, one square) has been made into a bedroom, a high-ceilinged octagon with windows that run right down to the floor, and a bed crowned in rivers of cream-colored muslin. For eight-year-old Jane, who occasionally feels the tug of princessdom, the room and the castle proved too much. She parked her luggage, her teddy bear, and herself in the middle of the bed, smiled beatifically, and surrendered to jet lag.

The Landmark Trust has equipped Clytha with crisp cotton sheets, plenty of heavy wool blankets, shelves full of books about Wales, and a fine kitchen. The housekeeper distinguished herself by being the single frosty personality we met in Wales, but we had to deal with her only upon arrival and departure. (To be fair, there was also a head-scarfed woman in a Range Rover who found it satisfying to hammer around us on the farm track, scattering sheep, which, in my experience, is not comme il faut. But she, we discovered, was English, and doesn't really count.)

It would have been easy to spend our week at Clytha doing little more than observing. One day hot-air balloons drifted so near our little hill, we felt we might touch them; another day a fighter jet did so many back rolls and wing-over-wings overhead that Jane speculated the pilot might be responding to our being quite scantily clad (it was dawn, and a sonic boom had brought us onto the front steps with our coffee cups). Beside the ha-ha, four-year-old Sarah found a young hedgehog, which unfurled itself to lap up a saucer of water she brought it, and then ambled off.

From Clytha, an intelligent person would visit relatively nearby sites: perhaps Caerphilly (30 acres of 13th-century magnificence with one tower leaning over a lake), or Margam (consisting of a 19th-century castle, an 18th-century orangery, and a medieval abbey). We, however, made an 85-mile journey past Swansea and out onto Gower Peninsula, a rolling, windswept terrain where ponies grazed on the commons.

Leaving our car in the tiny village of Parkmill, we climbed down a steep path, brushing through gorse and heather, to Three Cliffs Bay. There children galloped ponies in the shallow water, and a black-haired, brown-eyed boy ran across the sand, his dog skimming along beside him. A river cleaves the little cove in half, and on the far side the cliff is breached by a door-size hole through which we could see the surf ramming against sheer rock. The tide came in faster than a nice walk. Halfway back up the cliff we turned to look: the sand was gone and so was the sun; below us murmured Dylan Thomas's "sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea."

Gower was lovely; the drive back, through the industrial wasteland around Swansea (we got lost), was not. By contrast, the trip up to Builth Wells for the Royal Welsh Show was beautiful. We trailed alongside the Usk River, then over the Black Mountains, and picked up the river Wye. Fortuitously, the road goes right past the Cider Mill Inn, just north of Crickhowell. There we had one of our best meals in Wales. Memories of England had lowered my expectations of Welsh cooking, but the food at all the pubs and restaurants we tried was clearly based on whatever was fresh and local. Crisp roast pork and chicken, crunchy salads, and barely cooked vegetables, all with a gratifying lack of sauce, were highlights. The menu at the Cider Mill, however, was more elaborate. My favorites were the baked phyllo "parcel" filled with three very Welsh foods -- laverbread (actually a lettuce-like seaweed), cockles, and smoked bacon -- and the pork medallions with a Welsh rarebit glaze. All of us gave high marks to the sticky toffee pudding.


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