To say that Wales surprised me would be an understatement. To say that my brief weekend in the North West Welsh village of Llanberis dispelled some misconceptions I’d harbored for a long time would be true.
My revelation was long overdue, but wasn’t immediately obvious as the train crossed the border from England to Wales. The trains had all been running late. I had two changes from Oxenholme to Bangor, one in Warrington and one in Chester, and although because each one was late, it meant that I made all the connections, there was still the angsting in between about the potential for missing one, so I was on the grumpy side.
The scenery was green and pleasant, dotted with trees and hedgerows turning yellow and gold, but it was familiar, like the landscape of the South Lake District. Crows rose from the fields of stubble as the train passed, and bales of straw were neatly lined up in the fields, waiting for Winter.
I was lucky, though, that my seat was oceanside, because when we did reach the seashore, where the train seemed as if it was running right along the beach, the views were breathtaking. Near Colwyn Bay the ocean spread, glassy and translucent-silver, until it collided with the horizon, where dark, thunder grey clouds threatened. Against that backdrop the turbines of a small windfarm were framed, vivid white. I was aching to leap out and snap away. On the return journey the turbines were barely discernible in the mist, and I realized what great light I’d seen the first time. I think it was at this point that the grumps were trumped by awe, and I began to fall a bit in love with Wales.
Shortly after this, I had to change trains, and since it was Friday, and the train I caught was heading for the ferry to Ireland at Holyhead it was standing room only. Describing us as being squashed like sardines doesn’t come anywhere near conveying the crush, which for me wasn’t for too far, but my views were now very limited. I could make out craggy bays, boats moored in a picturesque harbor and rocky, little peninsulars, as we travelled deeper West. Making the return journey I know I missed castles and churches and mysterious and mystical Welsh mists tumbling from hills into the valleys below, more like a set from Lord of the Rings than real life.
Bangor, where I met up with Guy, looked very close to Llanberis on the map, but it took us 45 minutes to get there, on a bus which took us through story-book, stone villages, hillsides where the predictible sheep grazed and into the Snowden National Park.
Our hotel, the Legacy Royal Victoria, perched in a superb setting, on the edge of town. It was less than five minutes on foot from where the bus deposited us, and turned out to be the kind of hotel I think of as “a good old-fashioned” one, all dark woodwork, red carpet, keys and not cards for the rooms, a slightly formal dining room, and a bar which resembled a country pub. The staff were friendly and the food was good, and at 55 pounds for a single room it wasn’t too bad. These older hotels actually do have single rooms. That said, a short walk after dumping our bags proved that there was a plethora of small, interesting-looking B & Bs around, which on a different occasion might be fountains of local information as well as somewhere to lay one’s head. On this occasion the hotel was perfect, as lots of runners were staying there, adding to the race atmosphere.
First priority was to register at the race HQ before the crowds arrived later, and then some carb loading for Guy. Registration completed, we headed for the nearest café only to find that at 2.10 they had stopped serving hot food ten minutes before. We tried a couple more establishments before finding somewhere to eat, and this is one of the problems of being used to bars, cafés and restaurants which are open all day. You need to adjust to the small-town way of doing things – not unlike Tenerife outside of the tourist resorts, in fact. When we found Pete’s Eats, an “old-fashioned” style diner with chipper and colorful, plastic tablecloths, they were, of course, doing a roaring trade, being the only place open, and we were starving. Bright decoration and good, basic food, it was all we needed, and we also noted a sign behind the bar offering rooms, including a bunk room at only 13 pounds per night, and wifi…..noted for the future….check out this link - you don’t get much more glowing reviews than that!
The rain had set in by the time we left, so we trudged back, heads down, and it wasn’t until the next morning that I took in the full beauty of the place. The village itself, not so much, though it’s Fall, and the last weekend of the season, so probably not at its best, but it nestles in the most magnificent setting, guarded by sentinel and rugged peaks, which ease into mountain passes, and glide down to the shores of Llyn Padarn, a lake formed as the last Ice Age retreated North, and that sense of something pre-historic is what sets this scenery apart. Somehow you feel the presence of history.
It was the Romans who began mining slate in Wales, but I can’t find any indication that the history of Llanberis goes back that far. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough, but as it’s now a well-established tourist destination I imagine they would be making the most of that were it true. What is fact is that slate mining “made” the town. In the 19th century production was in its heyday, and the hills all around testify to man’s rape, but even with the deep incisions man made into their flanks, he altered, but didn’t tame their wild beauty.
Our visit was purely for the Snowdonia Marathon, so both time and weather were against us so far as getting to know more about the area. If you follow the Llanberis link above, you can can see just how much there is to do there. I am guessing that high season it gets pretty crowded, and maybe slightly off season is the best time to visit. I know a dozen places in the English Lake District I wouldn’t visit in full Summer, but which I adore at other times of year, and I’m sure it must be the same in Snowdonia.
The last census places the population at just under 2,000, and according to Wikipedia 81% of those speak Welsh, which I am sure in true, or maybe even an underestimate. All around us folk young and old spoke the language amongst themselves, switching to English with ease when necessary. It was so great to know that the language has not been allowed to die, which was feared some years ago, and I got that little thrill that I get when in a “foreign” country, even though it felt comfortably familiar at the same time.
It wasn’t just the stunning countryside which was a revelation for me, that sense of comfort was also a lovely surprise. I had based my previous feelings on one, fleeting visit to North Wales more than 30 years ago. With two friends I’d entered a country pub, in the middle of nowhere, to experience one of those moments you see in the old cowboy movies, where the bar falls silent when you walk in, and you feel as if all eyes are boring through you. Maybe it was like that, maybe it was just my imagination at the time, but we felt as if we were intruding. The barman was surly, food was provided grudgingly, and we left as soon as we finished our meal. Silly, so silly, to let that color my impression of an entire region. My experience this time was so opposite. The people of Llanberis are amongst the most helpful, friendly and cheery I’ve ever met. I can’t wait, I just can’t wait to go back and explore the area properly!