Britain's Hidden Kingdom
Published: June 2009
By Melanie Fleischmann
Wales brings out the child in anyone--nights in private castles, mornings at the seashore, afternoon frolics with lambs and ponies in the endless green
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.
Over four days, the Royal Welsh Show draws hundreds of thousands of farmers -- and their livestock -- to the foothills of the Cambrian Mountains. The fairground is 80 acres of stands, exhibition halls, barns, and show rings. The Royal is also very crowded; trying to find your way around is a little like being dropped off in Pasadena for the first time, in the middle of the Tournament of Roses Parade. We had a pair of expert guides: our friend Gail Thomson, a Welsh-pony breeder from Arkansas who has been coming for 20 years, and her husband, Arthur.
The Thomsons marched us straight to the horse barns. Welsh ponies are elegant things, with tiny ears and muzzles and large, intelligent eyes. They dominate the U.S. show-pony ranks as the preferred steed for the 12-and-under set. The tour de force of the Welsh equine world, though, is a magnificent little creature called the Welsh cob, taller than the average Welsh pony by only a hand and a half, and with the same exquisite head -- but in a cob, there is, to put a twist on a phrase of Gertrude Stein's, a lot more there there. The Welsh ponies have the same sort of dainty appeal as, say, a string quartet -- people observe them quietly, intellectually, from their seats. The cobs are more in line with the high-volume, rhythm-charged rock music that snatches an audience's dignity and shoves it, if momentarily, under the bleachers. During the pony competitions, the stands are just a bit crowded. Three hours before the Welsh cob stallion class, you can find neither seat nor standing room.
We saw plenty of women handling ponies at the show, but only two in the cob stallion class. It didn't take long to figure out why. The handler has to hold the animal so that the head stays high, and then trot with it. And, as Gail says, the cobs "boogie right along." Many handlers become exhausted partway through, at which point substitutes charge in. The crowd, meanwhile, is in a frenzy. When the judge takes off his hat to signal that he has chosen a winner, all the non-winners regard this as their cue to steam up and down the ring, to prove that even though their horse wasn't chosen, it can still trot the pants off the winner.
There is also a big crowd at the ax racing. While I don't pretend to know the rules, it was fun to watch because of the running commentary between the announcer and the competitors. The goal is to whack away at a vertically planted, telephone-pole-size log until it is severed in two. "Now then, Owen," the announcer remarked to a man whose progress was painfully slow, "what'll it be that you're making over there?Is it a pencil?"
Later, we all gathered at the bar reserved for members of the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society (which operates the show): not as grand as it sounds, but a small tent where a band was playing. It was here that I first heard Welsh being spoken. The strange Celtic offshoot laden with "kl" utterances, which has come down from the sixth century, made me think of tapes I'd heard of the click languages of South African bushmen. Although we were to hear more of it as we progressed north and west, it was primarily older people who spoke it.
We left Clytha with some sadness. Jane, as she recorded in the visitors' book, made a new friend at every pub. But we went from one divine folly to another, from a solitary edifice to a whole village.
Around 1126, a Welsh prince named Gruffudd ap Cynan erected a castle on a hill above the Traeth Mawr estuary in northwestern Wales. Eight hundred years later, a direct descendant -- architect and self-confessed dreamer Sir Clough Williams-Ellis -- bought the land just below and built a village, which he called Portmeirion. A local publication shows a black-and-white photograph of Sir Clough and Frank Lloyd Wright, sitting together. Sir Clough, in a pale tweedy jacket, trademark yellow kneesocks, and plus fours, has a twinkle in his eye, while Wright, dressed in black, is straight-backed and serious. The picture is emblematic of their work: where Wright's speaks of the cerebral horsepower that produced it, Sir Clough's, as demonstrated at Portmeirion, is filled with enthusiasm and abandon (he called it "general architectural levity").
Portmeirion's specific mission was to tune in a broader audience to design and architecture. Judging by the swarms of people (278,000 in 1996) who line up to pay £3.50 just to walk around -- not to mention eat, shop, or stay at the resort -- the village is fulfilling its mandate.
On a slope above the estuary's sandy shores, with the peaks of Snowdonia as a backdrop, Portmeirion is a village- cum-architectural treasure chest. Twentieth-century buildings join the 16th-, 18th-, and 19th-century structures that Sir Clough rescued and moved to the site; they run from Elizabethan through Italian Renaissance to neo-Gothic, all collected in a landscape reminiscent of an Italian hillside garden, with pools, fountains, columnar cedars, and arched gateways. The colors are Mediterranean-Caribbean: peach, pink, pale blue, and terra-cotta, with turquoise ironwork. The delightful buildings are quite small, the arrangement higgledy-piggledy enough that it feels ancient, even a little funky.
Our cottage, called the Unicorn, was a tiny shell-pink Palladian villa. Inside were two comfortable bedrooms and bathrooms just redecorated with Osborne & Little fabrics and wallpapers, along with a living room and a kitchen. At dawn, before the crowds arrived, all was quiet. I threw open a casement window and stood out on our balcony, listening to the fountains and someone sweeping a path.
We tried the dining room in the Town Hall (a.k.a. the Hercules Bar) but found it too austere. The bar itself is fine, so it's best to go for a drink while admiring the 17th-century ceiling's bas-relief carvings of the life of the mythic strong man. The Hotel Portmeirion, down by the water, has fabulous food. I ordered one of the small lobsters from nearby Tremadog Bay. Grilled and served with a ginger-and-spring-onion hollandaise, it was exceptionally sweet and tender.
From the outside, the hotel is a Victorian pile with a cheery coat of white paint and turquoise trim. Inside, the bar is a celebration of India, with elephants and birds carved into the painted wooden shutters, and dark wooden chairs inlaid with brass, all from Rajasthan, as well as elephant prints, carved wood elephant tables, and crewelwork cushions aglitter with sequins. One bedroom has antique Chinese black-lacquered furniture with painted gold designs, inset with mother-of-pearl, and Chinese figures printed on the wallpaper and fabrics.
From Portmeirion we drove east, up through the cool, mist-shrouded western side of Snowdonia, over the drier, windblown, and sheep-strewn highlands, and down toward England. East of Llangollen, the precipitous Welsh landscape yields to the broad, inflated hilliness of its neighbor. Wrexham, like much of the Welsh border country, is politically Welsh but, well, ugly -- a flattened landscape overhung with an oppressive web of power lines, some coming down from a nuclear-power plant in Snowdonia. Smokestacks belch gray plumes into the sky. Our introduction to Wales, in the south along the M-4, had been through landscape similar to this.
I found myself remembering the day, when I was Jane's age, that my grandmother offered to show me her jewelry. She led me through the kitchen to the utility closet, and there, on a shelf beside the jars of nails and the furniture polish, was a shoe box full of the loveliest things my young eyes had ever seen. "No one who isn't meant to," my grandmother said, "will ever find this." I like to think it is the same with Wales.
The southern half of Wales is easily reached from London's Heathrow Airport; the north is closer to Manchester. Although Wales is served by buses and trains, without a car we would have missed some beautiful remote areas, such as the tiny road over the Cambrian Mountains from Llanwrtyd Wells to Tregaron.
Hotel Portmeirion Portmeirion, Gwynned; 44-1766/770-228, fax 44- 1766/771-331. There are 14 rooms in the hotel (doubles from $205); 23 rooms (from $150) and 20 cottages (from $725 a week) in the village.
Rentals: Two preservation groups offer stays in historic properties. The Landmark Trust (44-1628/825-925) has 11 other Welsh buildings besides Clytha (which sleeps six and costs from $1,540 to $1,800 per week). The National Trust (44-1225/791-199) has 19 Welsh properties, one of them a cottage that sleeps six in the extraordinary gardens of Powis Castle ($1,150 per week in summer).
Cider Mill Inn Hwy. A-40, outside Crickhowell; 44-1873/810-775; dinner for two $50. In an old stone building on a river -- if it's nice out, try the patio.
Portmeirion 44-1766/770-228. The town has three restaurants. The formal dining room at the hotel (dinner for two $90) overlooks the estuary and has excellent food.
The Hercules Hall Bar(dinner for two $25) was a little bleak, as was the food.
The Terrace Restaurant (lunch for two $20) is great for sandwiches on a sunny day.
Royal Welsh Show July 21-24, 1997; Builth Wells; 44-1982/553-683, fax 44-1982/553-563; tickets $17 ($13 on the final day). Stop by the International Pavilion for snacks, clean bathrooms, and relief from the crowds, all gratis.
A History of Wales by John Davies (Penguin) -- A first-rate account of Wales's evolution, from prehistoric times to the turbulent late 20th century.
How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn (Dell) -- This 1939 best-seller tells the story of a Welsh mining family through the eyes of the youngest son.
-- Martin Rapp