‘What do people do for work around here?’
‘… Jobs.’ – Without irony, outside the Eagles Hotel, Corwen.
I awake in Chirk Bank, a small hamlet just on the inside of the English border. It’s a cosy place that my parnter’s aunt and uncle have here, and I’ve been made to feel welcome. Sandra’s given me a crash course in the Welsh language.
Bore da, a chroeso i Gymru! Mae’n debyg y dylwn ddysgu ychydig o ymadroddion, ond yn eu ynganu un anodd iawn.
I cheated a bit here and used an online translator, but just consider those words. If you have no Welsh, take a moment to attempt to pronounce them. So different does the language and appear, and flowing and unusual its sound, yet it’s the tongue of England’s neighbour.
We spend the morning talking, and I then catch up with writing, before heading out into the early afternoon. Heavy rain has been forecast for the next few days, and after some utterly abysmal long nights soaked through in a leaky tent, I’ve decided to plan ahead and book a youth hostel in Snowdonia. It means missing out some of the Welsh north coast, places like Rhyl, Prestatyn, Llandudno and Conwy, places popular for beach holidays with people from the Midlands in the earlier part of the 20th century, but it’ll give a chance to explore in closer detail the large national park that surrounds Mount Snowdon.
I cross back into the Welsh border and through the village of Chirk, a pleasant looking place with some character. There’s a local butcher and an enticing pub, as well as the delightful burnt toasty chocolate smell that comes from the nearby Cadburys factory. Visitors come by this way to follow Offa’s Dyke, a large and linear earthen wall that roughly follows the modern border between England and Wales. It was built by King Offa of Mercia in the 8th century to mark the boundary between Anglo-Saxon Mercia and the Kingdom of Powys. This is frontier territory, and the genteel landscape hides a deeper history of attacks and counter-attacks. Somewhere near here is the ‘Great Oak of the Gate of the Dead’. Back in 1165, King Henry II of England attempted to invade and seize Wales, crossing through the heavily wooded Ceiriog valley nearby with a large band of soldiers. Outnumbered but familiar with the terrain, the Welsh princes led by Owain Gwynedd harassed and eventually overwhelmed the invaders through guerrilla warfare.
I cycle out through Chirk, along a peaceful A-road, untroubled by rain for now. The road threads through into the Vale of Llangollen, pronounced ‘Clangoflin’, as every double L takes the sound of a ‘cl-’. It’s apparently a classic way of identifying an outsider. It’s a small but pretty village in the Dee valley, marked out by a few twee bric a brac shops and a pretty canal with gardens nearby. It’s a place to enjoy a slower pace of time, and the ruins of an old castle and abbey nearby reinforce the feeling of time deferred. There’s a long-standing international Eisteddfod that takes place each year here, an international choral competition that attracts choirs from across the world. For around six days the town becomes manic and alive. A bard is crowned each year for their prolixity and prowess in verse. It sounds exciting, but there’s not much happening in Llangollen today. I pass in and out, underwhelmed, and continue on.
They say this road’s historic too, the A5, a single-carriageway track that once belted from London to Holyhead, connecting north-west Wales with the rest of the country. It’s not exactly flanked with memorials, monuments and other ephemera, but I take a moment to admire Thomas Telford, the engineer who oversaw the construction of this road. The ‘colossus of roads’, this largely self-taught Scottish genius built many of roads, bridges, and canals still in use now, like the staggering Pontcysyllte aquaduct nearby, or the long and extensive Caledonian Canal through the Great Glen. He was also a poet and designer of churches. The relative ease and banality of roads is largely an engineering marvel developed by the Romans, but further enhanced by the works of people like Telford. I ride on.
The A5 largely follows the course of the River Dee, and passes through villages with unpronounceable names like Glyndyfrdwy. It’s pretty scenic and pleasant, and the pace of my cycling slows in tandem with the speeds of life here. I take a stop in the village of Corwen, a village with a couple of shabby pubs and shops. There’s a growing normalisation of bilingualism here. Road signs switch their ordering as we pass from county Wrexham into the county of Denbighshire. ‘Slow Araf’ becomes ‘Araf Slow’, Welsh taking priority. The town’s chippy is called a ‘psygod a sglodion’ instead of ‘Tony’s fish bar’ or ‘XX Super Fry’. I pop into the Eagles Hotel for a quick half and get a deeper sense of the place.
It’s the August Bank Holiday Weekend, and outside there’s a large group of middle-aged locals already pretty inebriated in the early afternoon. They sing together ‘Living the Viva Loca’, as they render it, before one choral leader steering them onto ‘Lady in Red’ as one of the barmaids pops out in rouge attire. It’s a funny kind of place. I get a half of Wrexham lager, not bad but nothing memorable about it, and sit outside, listening to the chat and watching the slow traffic of people. There are children and adults all out, wandering round, laughing and playing, enjoying each other’s company. The sun’s out, and the catastrophic rain I’d been warned about by a recent forecast hasn’t appeared. Was it hasty booking a hostel and heading to Snowdonia?
I get talking to a pretty strange fella outside the pub. Conversation in Wales so far has been a little sluggish, as I found in Wrexham. Sharp, racy and acerbic wit won’t be found here, unlike the bigger nearby cities of Wrexham and Manchester. It’s more slow and cautious without being ponderous, delayed but not returning with an insight. Perhaps I’m the one slow, asking the wrong questions, not quite getting north Wales just yet. I suspect it’s something in between. But the accent’s changing as I pass further west, losing some of those Scouse elements just about present in the Wrexham accent (an effect of Liverpudlian migration to the plethora of light industries there in the Seventies), to a tone that’s more cavernous in the mouth, yet at the same time monotone, lacking that singsong intonation I’ll come to hear in south Wales. The villages are mainly residential, and it’s becoming hard to suss the nature of life here. With reticent albeit friendly locals, I’m feeling in the dark about the place.
Further up in Corwen is a statue to Owain Glendwyr, a rebel Welsh prince who led a large but ultimately unsuccessful revolt against English rule during the early 15th century. He was the last Welshman to be titled the ‘Prince of Wales’, a title now held by the downright silly figure Prince Charles. For a time he united the Welsh peoples in a full-sale rebellion that retook much of Wales from King Henry IV. He envisioned a self-governing Welsh state where university education and an independent church took prominence in directing Welsh national identity, and for a time, it might’ve been possible. But Owain was gradually outmanoeuvred, his castles fell, his lieutenants died and the rebellion faltered. His family were imprisoned and killed, and he went underground, never to resurface. So was the heroic Owain Glendwyr, that same haunted and magical figure in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, able to ‘call spirits from the vasty deep’. He led his Welsh rebellion from Corwen here. Do not expect any history lesson in an English school to recall this figure, or anything of Scotland. The plaque pays homage to the ‘father of modern Wales’.
Given the energy and passion behind the inevitably successful Scottish campaign for autonomy, I am curious how Wales will respond. As I travel out of Corwen and through some increasingly rural countryside, by villages like Rhug, Cerrigydrudion, Pentrefoelas and Glasfryn and into the Snowdonia Park, the landscape becomes more wondrous, rural and isolated. I cross into the county of Conwy, and the prevalence of Welsh as a first language increases.
Could the Welsh become politically independent?
It’s a choice they’ve struggled with. Back in 1997 only 50.3% of voters agreed that there should be a separate Welsh assembly created. Devolution was passed with only the narrowest of majorities (and note that only 50% of eligible voters actually bothered to attend the polling station). The Welsh Assembly was established in 2006 in Cardiff, but how relevant or meaningful is its power if nearly half of 1997 voters didn’t want it to exist? Scotland could face a similar dilemma. A more recent referendum in March 2011 voted overwhelmingly 21 to 1 in favour of more legislative powers being transferred from the UK government to the Assembly, suggesting that the desire and preference of autonomy has increased over time, but some ambivalence remains in my mind. Only 35% of voters turned out this time. Clearly the issue isn’t felt with the same passion as in Scotland. Let’s see.
As I ride up into the Snowdonia countryside the landscape becomes increasingly wonderful and beautiful, and I am very glad that I’ve taken this route instead of the coast. The sun’s held out, illuminating the late afternoon clouds with gilded edges whose rays confer a glory and splendour on the sleepy fields, forests and cattle that I pass along. A dark and jagged mountain line is beginning to grow in prominence along the horizon. There are few villages to stop in, but the ride is a pleasure. I cycle on, the road ascending up and up. I take a break at the Conwy waterfalls, which seems to belong not to the Welsh people but to some private owner. There’s a large security gate and turnstile, admission operated by a pound coin deposit. I watch a couple of rascals sneak under the gate, the small size of children having its benefits in such situations.
Further I go, reaching Betws-y-Coed, a large village entirely given over to Snowdonia tourism. I cross the River Conwy which the village faces, and pass a long string of hotels and chain camping stores. The pavements are filled with weary walkers tramping along in search of a preferable restaurant or pub. Some will have been caught in the heavy rain that apparently hit the area this morning, I’m told. I don’t envy them.
The village itself isn’t particularly beguiling, and no place so dependent on tourism ever feels charming. It’s a place to be in and pass through, and when the season closes, so does the village. It’s choked with cars, though there’s a small convenience store where I buy some tortillas, beans and lettuce for my dinner, and a nice little waterfall and bridge where couples share bottles of wine and talk romantically into the early evening.
I cycle out of Betwys for around a mile, reaching the Swallow Falls further west. Entrance is again guarded by a large and imposing security fence with a football ground turnstile. £1.50 secures admission into a gushing waterfall that my weary impressions drift under, caught in the gaze, thinking awhile about the possibility of falling in and under. There are memorial flowers here to someone’s lost dad. Indian tourists sit on benches by the waterfall and talk quietly in the early evening.
My hostel’s just by the falls, an ugly annex of the Swallow Falls hotel and pub situated here. I check in. The kitchen area’s filled with lively conversation between a small group of middle-aged women who have just walked up Snowdon to raise money for Macmillan cancer trust, and a young man who had planned to but was rained out. I prepare my food, and its healthiness causes some mirth among them. We get talking quickly about our travels, and I end up spending a few hours in conversation with these good people.
The two Karens and Nicola have already raised thousands in their walk up today, though they’re feeling pretty exhausted by the hike up. Rob’s aged 32, and has climbed Snowdonia several times before. He’s not a mountaineer by any means, but has come up for the weekend with his father-in-law for an annual drinking and bonding-type event. They’d given up and retreated to the pub, and Rob’s pretty refreshed after a long afternoon of beer tasting (his father in law’s gone to bed).
We head into the pub next door and continue conversing, Rob and I. We talk about our partners, who we’re both heavily missing, and show each other photos and share stories. Rob has two sons aged five and eight, and has just heard that his wife is pregnant. They’re holding back from making any announcements in case there’s complications, but he’s privately glowing with excitement.
‘As soon as they come into your lives, you’re not number one. … You’re thinking about them all the time, worrying.’
He means it in a good way. He’s not resentful about a job he can only describe as at best boring working in underfloor heating. It provides much of the income for their family, whilst his wife works as a self-employed cleaner. He talks glowingly about their risk-taking when they were younger. They met in their late teens and quickly fell for each other, though ‘the first year of living together was the hardest. After that, marriage was easy!’ They took a risk, quitting their jobs and travelling around Australia for seven months, living the good life and spending far more money than they could afford. When they returned, she discovered she was pregnant. Things have changed for the even better, he feels. It’s a pleasure to spend time with a man so quietly content.
We’re drinking Welsh Pride and Honey Fayre, two reasonable but unexceptional beers made by the local Conwy brewery. The barman talks to us about fishing and gives us tips on how to pronounce Welsh names which turn out to be very useful. Rob’s buying the rounds in, happy to help a traveller on a shoestring, and I’m glad to accept the generosity, but eventually I’m also pretty drunk. The pub closes and we return to the hostel, where we meet with our Macmillan friends and share a couple of bottles of wine. The drink’s kicking in, my sensible judgement switches off and I find myself enjoying a few spliffs outside. I’ve failed to stick to the student adage: ‘before before grass you’re on your arse, grass before beer you’re in the clear’. But the conversations are superb and we’re having a great time. The ladies begin to talk about how they’ve made their marriages last.
‘You’ve got to love them as a best friend. Everything else, it changes. They start getting lazy, snoring, farting, then they get a belly.’ One texted her husband after reaching the peak of Snowdon (where, incidentally, there’s a long queue to have one’s photograph taken in exchange for cash). He ignored her news and text her the cricket score. ‘I wanted to say F off!’ Another complains about her husband’s beer belly. Each of us, drunk, tired, a little stoned, happy, is sharing their stories about the things they care most about. I talk about my partner, Rob talks about his wife and children, and the ladies tell us about their teenage sons, ‘so much choice, they can’t decide on going to university or doing something else’. The choice is paralysing them, and the craic’s paralysing us. Happy and sleepy, we each head off to our rooms and collapse into a well-deserved deep sleep.