Newsletters  | Mobile

Britain's Hidden Kingdom

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.


Sign Up

Connect With Travel + Leisure
  • Travel+Leisure
  • Tablet
  • Available devices

Already a subscriber?
Get FREE ACCESS to the digital edition