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Friday, 20 April 2012


A Welsh Odyssey

 Clouds over the Brecon Beacons

NB: This narrative will eventually be illustrated , using photographs that I took whilst on the journey described in it.

TUES 10 April 2012

We left our daughter at Gatwick Airport’s North Terminal early in the morning. She was joining a group of her classmates, who were setting off on a school trip to Florence, and we were embarking on a tour of Wales. We were carrying a number of books that we hoped to read as we relaxed in the various hotels which we had booked in advance. As it happened, neither my wife nor I finished more than one book. This was a reflection of how much we saw and did on this six day trip.

We sped along several motorways, and crossed the River Severn into Wales by means of the older (and shorter) of the two motorway bridges. It was long before we spotted the Sugar Loaf Mountain that towers above Abergavenny. Bypassing that town, we drove along the Heads of the Valleys Road until we reached the small road, which winds across the southern part of the Brecon Beacons. This narrow road crosses a bleak but beautiful treeless plateau inhabited by sheep, and then winds down a series of hairpin bends to reach Llangynidr, a village lying in the green valley of the River Usk. We stopped in the upper part of the village that trails up the valley of one of the Usk’s tributaries.

The Red Lion, where we had lunch, is located in the upper section just off the main road that separates the two parts of the village. It is a smallish establishment serving a variety of well-prepared tasty dishes. Its clientele and staff are friendly as well as welcoming. It was the second time we had eaten there this year. The first time was in early January just after we had returned from India. This was a sad occasion as we had come to the funeral of our good friend Gwyneth, who had retired to the village more than fifteen years earlier. Her late husband, Kurt, had been one of my father’s colleagues at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’).

Kurt, who died in 2000, was about fifteen in 1942 when he saw the Germans murdering his parents in Poland, and was then incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp. Miraculously, he survived the three years he spent there, and was recued by the Americans. My late mother told me that when he was rescued, he was interviewed by a committee looking to help young survivors continue their education. After all the horrors that he had been through, Kurt was still able to remember and recite chunks of the classics in their original Latin and Greek. He joined the LSE, where he studied before becoming a member of its academic staff, and met Gwyneth.  His family and ours were very close.

Gwyneth encouraged me in my interest in history, and introduced me to the wonderful books about episodes in French history by Alastair Horne. We used to visit her at her cottage in Llangynidr at least once a year, and we felt sad visiting the village knowing that we could no longer sit with her discussing books, old times, common friends, and films.

After lunch at the Red Lion, we drove down to the lower part of the village to spend an hour or two with Gwyneth’s younger son, whom I have known since he was born. He lives near to an ancient multi-arched stone bridge that crosses the river.  As we sat around his dining table drinking tea and reminiscing, we were greeted by his friendly children whose ages range from twenty to about five.

We crossed the Beacons back to the Head of The Valleys Road, and drove towards the roundabout north of Merthyr Tydfil. This is the location of an Asda superstore, which we visit like pilgrims on every visit we make to South Wales. We stocked up on various items, assisted by its friendly and extremely helpful staff. Having almost filled the boot of our hired Peugeot with goods, we continued on our way towards Cardiff Bay, where we booked into the Travelodge. Our room there was comfortable but dull, almost bleak.

After eating well-spiced Steak Tartare at the local branch of the competently run Cote chain of French bistrots, we settled sown to watch an Indian film in one of the cinemas in the Red Dragon entertainment complex, an architectural mediocrity located close to the magnificently designed Millennium Centre with its highly original beautiful facade. The film, which we watched for three hours, “Housefull 2”, is one of this year’s less successful Bollywood productions. I rarely sleep in the cinema, but I slept through much of the second half, which shows how little I was enjoying it. It was not difficult before I fell asleep again, but this time in our cell-like hotel.

WED 11 April 2012

            The buffet breakfast at the Travelodge was generous. The range of food on offer was wide, but the hot food items on offer (bacon, sausages, etc.) at a self-service counter were lukewarm. I don’t know whether this was unintended, or if it was kept deliberately cool as a health and safety measure to avoid risking the guests scalding themselves.

            We took a bus from the Millennium Centre to the centre of Cardiff, and disembarked close to the National Museum, having just been driven along the oddly named ‘Stuttgarter Strasse’. I last visited this establishment in the mid-1980s with my friend Michael Jacobs, who was then doing research for a guidebook to the art treasures of the British Isles. This museum was, and still is, one of those treasures. My wife and I marvelled at the richness of its art collections. Although they are not nearly as fine as those in London’s National Gallery, they are amazing nevertheless. My favourite exhibit was a small exhibition of paintings by French artists, painted during the revolutions of 1848 and the debacle that followed in the years 1870 and 1871. These paintings that convey eloquently the hope and despair of that era were well displayed with informative explanatory notes.

            There were several galleries devoted to Welsh artists and art in Wales. Apart from the better known artists such as August John, his sister Gwen, Kyffin Williams (who taught me briefly at Highgate School), and John Brett, there was a multitude of excellent paintings by other painters. We enjoyed the splendid special exhibition of paintings by John Piper, who was sent to Wales during the Second World War to document the storage of valuable paintings from national collections in the caves at Manod Mawr. Although the caves were too dark for Piper to paint, he fell in love with Wales, and thus began the series of visits he made to the country. His dramatic portrayals of the Welsh landscape rival those of Turner, some of whose paintings may be seen in the gallery in Cardiff. In complete contrast to Piper’s exhibition, there was another one showing portrayals of Queen Elizabeth the Second. This included Annigoni’s well-known painting of the Queen as well as that by Andy Warhol. I particularly liked a work by a Korean artist who used hundreds of tiny portraits of Princess Diana to create a huge picture of her mother-in-law.

            After two hours of intense but enjoyable viewing of the artworks in the museum, we walked through the sunlight across a green space, passing beautifully planted flower beds on the way. We walked around two sides of the walls of Cardiff Castle, and poked our heads through the main gates in order to catch a glimpse of its ancient keep. Opposite the castle across Duke Street, I noticed two old looking shopping arcades. We walked along one of them, Castle Arcade. It has been tastefully restored, and its cafés have chairs and tables lining the footway. We took a look inside a second-hand bookshop, which was well-stocked and reasonably priced, and bought a few books.

            The Duke Street Arcade, which leads to, and is perpendicular to, the High Street Arcade is less well-maintained that the Castle Arcade, but is the home of Garlands Café, where we ate lunch. Lopa ate a Welsh Cawl, a soup of vegetables and bits of lamb, which was watery and almost tasteless. I had something from one of the large selection of Welsh rarebits on offer. Thick chunks of brown toast were submerged under a gloopy tasty mixture of molten cheese, mustard and beer. Hidden within this unhealthy concoction were slices of black pudding and bacon. This wholesome dish was rich in fats in contrast to Lopa’s healthy soup, which was almost fat-free. We were served by a friendly man, who shared with us the secrets of preparing rarebits before we set off to return to our hotel by bus.

            We collected our car and drove to the small Pembrokeshire town of Pembroke Dock where we booked into another Travelodge hotel. The sun was setting over the River Cleddau estuary when we entered the Shipwrights Arms, a pub at the end of Front Street opposite the so-called Martello Tower, otherwise known as the Front Street Gun Tower. It was built in 1849, and stands away from the shore.  The pub, which we have visited once before, is popular with local couples of all ages. Last year, we had a good meal there, and we looked forward to repeating the experience, but this was not to be the case. The fish, which Lopa was served, looked as if it had been collected from a pathological laboratory, and was fairly tasteless. My dish, sweet and sour pork, was more attractive but might well have been bought pre-prepared at a local, downmarket supermarket. Despite the disappointing food, we enjoyed the company of our fellow guests. However, we won’t be visiting that pub again to eat!

THURS 12 April 2012

After a good night’s sleep, we drove across the toll-bridge, which spans the Cleddau, towards Solva, a charming village with houses painted in a variety of colours at the head of a fjord-like, cliff-lined inlet of St Bride’s Bay.  We ate a well-prepared breakfast at Café Thirty Five. Good coffee, superb fried meats, and delicious mushrooms sautéed in butter made a good start to the morning, and even encouraged us to start walking up an incredibly steep path that led to a vantage point high above the inlet. We abandoned the attempt as the incline became exponentially steeper, and the drop below the narrow footway became more and more sheer. We were not the only walkers to give up. We met a number of groups of people, much younger than us, who turned around before reaching the path’s destination. I felt a little sorry for their dogs, who had no say in whether or not they wished to exert themselves on steep mountain paths.

            Back at the start of the path, we spoke to two elderly gentlemen each with their own dog. They were resting before continuing their arduous walk along the 187 mile Pembrokeshire Coastal Footpath. We tried lifting one of their rucksacks, but were barely able to raise it an inch off the ground. Each of the bags, they told us, was filled with tins of dog food for their quadruped companions. The two men were also carrying for themselves the kind of rations that astronauts and Everest climbers survive on. One of them had a fresh scar on his forehead, the result of one of the many falls he had experienced whilst descending treacherous cliff edge paths with the weight of his rucksack, equivalent to that of a well-built child, bearing down on his back. We left these two hardy adventurers digesting the breakfast that they had just enjoyed, and strolled along a gentle path that led to a point from which we had a good view of the mouth of the inlet. Below us, visitors were preparing their boats, both sail and motor powered, for a pleasant day on the water.

            We left Solva, and followed the coast southwards until we reached Littlehaven, a small town at the head of another inlet of St Brides Bay. This place, which is bigger and busier than Solva, had plenty of visitors. We had coffee in a small tea room, which seemed to be over staffed. The young lady who served us was unable to understand the price list, and when we pointed out that she had made an error, she became flustered, and started pushing buttons almost at random on her cash register. I imagine that when the owners cashed up at the end of the day, they would have been faced with an accountant’s nightmare.

            Martins Haven, a tiny settlement at the end of a thin peninsular, was our next stopping place. This is the embarkation point for those wishing to visit the uninhabited islands of Skomer and Skokholm. We had just missed the departure of last boat trip of the day to Skomer by a few minutes, but were not particularly disappointed as we thought that it was overpriced. We walked up a hill that led to cliffs that overlooked nearby Skomer and the more distant Skokholm.  Far below us the waves of St Brides Bay crashed against the rocks at the foot of the cliffs.

            We left this magical spot and stopped at the nearby village of Marloes, parking outside the Clockhouse Café. This well-maintained, clean establishment offers a wide range of well-prepared dishes. I opted for a prawn cocktail sandwich. The prawns were fresh and the Marie Rose sauce, made with mayonnaise, was delicious, a contrast to that which I ate the night before at the Shipwrights Arms. I am sure that the latter had contained salad cream rather than mayonnaise. Lopa ate some crabmeat, which she said was delicious. The people who worked there were friendly and efficient, but I found the décor to be a little too twee for my taste.  We drove on from Marloes through the little port of Dale to the complex of buildings around the lighthouse St Anne’s Head, which looked bleak even in the bright sunlight.

            We re-crossed the Cleddau toll-bridge, skirted past the edge of Pembroke Dock, arriving at Carew Castle just in time to find it was being locked up for the day. The workers there told us where we would get good views of this ruined castle, which has been painted by Turner, and these compensated our effort to reach the place. There is a tall (more than 16 foot high) eleventh century Celtic cross in the grounds of the castle, and we were able to examine the carved patterns on this, but could not detect the inscription which is supposed to be carved amongst them.

            Some winding rural roads led us from Carew to Lamphey, where once again our efforts to visit a ruin were foiled by our arriving a few minutes too late. The lady, who was locking up the ruins to Lamphey’s ruined bishop’s palace (destroyed by Henry VIII), told us that it had been the favoured residence of the bishops of St David’s when they visited their diocese from London, where they spent much of their time. Apparently Lamphey is much more sheltered from bad weather than St David’s, and the wine that used to be served there was superior to that in the palace at St David’s.

            We drove from Lamphey to a town whose name, Manorbier, sounds like it ought to be the name of a French cheese. A well-preserved castle overlooks the wide bay at Manorbier. We were too late to visit the castle, but in time to enjoy a walk on the beach. The tide was out and the setting sun caused even the smallest pebble to throw a long shadow. People were out and about exercising their dogs, and a woman on a horse rode to the water’s edge, and then galloped through the foam created by the waves breaking against it.

            We crossed the Cleddau Bridge for the third time that day, and, intrigued by a sign that boasted that Neyland was Brunel’s town, drove to the water’s edge to view the heritage centre created by the town there. A curious looking railing running along the edge turned out to be made from remnants of the rails that Brunel designed specially to carry the heavily laden trains to the dockside at Neyland in order to load freight and passengers on ships bound for Ireland. Today, ships for Ireland no longer depart from Neyland, but from Pembroke Dock instead. In addition to a series of interesting plaques describing Brunel’s contributions to Neyland’s nineteenth century history, we had good views of the chimney stacks of the oil refinery at Milford Haven silhouetted against the setting sun in one direction, and of the Cleddau Bridge, lit up by the last rays of the day’s sun, in the other.

Milford Haven is a few minute’s drive from Neyland.  It has a modern yacht marina, surrounded by recently built buildings that lacked any architectural merit. The town was been founded by Quaker whalers from Nantucket more than two hundred years ago. This is probably why the restaurant where we ate dinner was named Martha’s Vineyard, an island that in the same archipelago as Nantucket. It had a pretentiously decorated dining room, but the food did not live up to its pretentions. The steak that I ordered could not be faulted, but the rest of the meal was unexceptional. The pate I ate as an hors d’oeuvre tasted liverish as it should have been, but lacked any flavour of the brandy that the menu promised that it would contain. The batter coating the prawns that Lopa ordered, expecting the lightness typical of tempura, which the menu hinted at, was ordinary and not particularly light. The chilli dip that was served with the prawns was indistinguishable from plain mayonnaise.  Though the food was better than what we had eaten the night before, and it was obvious that the chef was trying hard to please, I would not recommend this restaurant to anyone. We returned to Pembroke Dock, once again paying the 75 pence toll to cross the Cleddau Bridge.

FRI 13 April 2012

            After checking out of our hotel early, we crossed the Claddau Bridge for the last time on our trip. We were heading away from Pembrokeshire towards north Wales. The village of St Dogmaels lies just outside the town of Cardigan. We made a short detour to visit the ruins of an abbey sited there before driving into the centre of Cardigan, where we had coffee in a café named ‘Food for Thought’. However, all that I could think about whilst we sat there was how any more minutes we could sit there without risking infringement of the town’s strict parking rules.    

            It was a long, but beautiful drive along the coast bypassing Aberystwyth, and driving through the coastal resort of Aberdovey to reach the town of Tywin, where we stopped at its railway station. This is the coastal terminus for the narrow gauge Talyllin Railway. Formerly used to transport slate and passengers, this railway climbs up the valley of the Dysynni River to its terminal near the slate quarries at Nant Gwernol. Hauled by a small steam engine, we wound our way upwards alongside fields filled with sheep and their playful lambs, and then through a forest, passing occasional steep waterfalls. Every few minutes, the train stopped at small stations to allow walkers to embark or disembark. When it reached the upper terminal at Nant Gwernol, the engine was shunted from one end of the train to the other in preparation for our descent towards Tywin. On our way down, we stopped for twenty minutes at the Abergynolwyn station to allow passengers to make use of the refreshment room and other facilities. The round trip took just over two hours. It was pleasant to get the chance to experience a form of travel that has all but faded into history.

            We continued following the coast northwards to Penmaenpool where we crossed the River Mawddach by means of a narrow wooden toll bridge, having paid a fee of 60 pence. From the northern (right) bank of the Mawddach estuary we could see in one direction the snow-capped peak of Arenig Fawrr, whose height is between that of Snowdon and Cadair Idris; and in another direction, we saw the long low railway bridge that crosses the mouth of the estuary.

After driving through Barmouth, a seaside resort located at the mouth of the Mawddach, we drove on to Harlech. We visited its famous castle, which did not impress me as much as others I have visited, before taking tea at the Cemyn Tea Shop. This elegant café, whose rear terrace commands a good view of the castle, is owned by a friendly, knowledgeable tea merchant. It offers over thirty blends of tea to drink or buy as leaf.

From Harlech we drove to Penrhyndeudraeth after crossing the estuary of the River Dwyryd by a toll bridge that carries both the roadway and the railway. We slowed down at the toll-booth, only to be waved on without needing to pay. The collector of tolls was closing the toll-booth for the night, and seemed uninterested in our money. By following a series of roads and crossing a mountain pass, we arrived in the village of Bedgelert. This picturesque place, where the Colwyn and Glaslyn rivers converge, is located in a bowl almost surrounded by mountains. Soon, we arrived at the Bryn Eglwys Hotel, where we had booked two night’s accommodation.

The hotel surpassed our expectations. We were shown to the room by Jana, a woman from Bratislava in Slovakia, who, along with her fellow countryman Mihail and the owners of the place, Kevin and Lyn Lambert, helps keep the establishment in tip-top condition. The window in our room had a wonderful view up the Glaswyn valley. Our bed was comfortable and the bathroom was faultless. The three course dinner cooked by Mrs Lambert was one of the best that we have ever eaten outside London. Lopa’s duck was cooked to perfection and my chicken breast in a stilton sauce was tasty as well as succulent without having even a hint of the dryness often associated with this part of the fowl. The selection of Welsh cheeses was a delight to cheese lovers like us. Each of the three cheeses on the plate had its own distinctive and unusually unique flavour. One was cheddar, another blue cheese, and the third a soft cheese with a pungent flavour reminiscent of the strongest of French cheeses. After dinner, we sat in the hotel’s comfortable lounge where we were served coffee. We retired to bed well fed, and extremely tired.

SAT 14 April 2012

After a satisfying cooked breakfast at the hotel, we drove to Blaenau Ffestiniog, a small town nestling in a bowl formed by greyish black slate covered hills. When we had last visited this place in August 1994 in order to travel on the narrow gauge railway that runs from there to Port Madoc on the coast, we were impressed by the bleakness of its setting. In those days, houses were selling in the town for £10,000 or the nearest offer, but now the town is showing signs of becoming a desirable place to live. The former police station has been converted into a trendy looking wine bar and eatery, and there is a brand new supermarket in the town centre. We visited one of the town’s two second-hand bookshops. It is housed in a former post-office. The owner, whose mother tongue is Welsh, assured us that she had run the shop for more than twenty years ago, but we had not noticed it when we were there last. That was a pity because it is one of the best second-hand bookshops we have visited for a long time. The stock was large and extremely varied, and the prices were low. For those who can read Welsh, there are a vast number of books in that language available to purchase, both new and used. We left the shop laden with purchases, all written in English.

Our next destination was the ruins of Cymer Abbey, which we were looking forward to exploring. However, as we neared the site of the ruins, I saw the name ‘Vannier’ on a sign board, and I experienced a feeling of déjà-vu. It was the name of the caravan site which is adjacent to the ruins. As soon as I saw this dign, I realised that we had visited the abbey recently. We had completely forgotten that we had done so. As it was not a particularly interesting looking monument, we drove away disappointed.  So, we continued on towards Dolgellau, a small town with many dark stone buildings, where we stopped to refill the car with fuel.

After crossing a mountain pass, we descended into the valley containing Llyn Mwyngil, otherwise known as Tal-y-llyn Lake. We stopped at the Tyn y Cornel Hotel at the south-western end of the lake, and had coffee there in its lounge, sitting next to windows that afforded a good view of the lake and some of the peaks of Cadair Idris, one of the highest mountains in Snowdonia. Whilst we were settling our bill, a fellow guest informed us that the lake provided for good fishing, and we did notice a couple of men in boats out on its wind ruffled waters. 

Suitably rested and refreshed, we headed for Bala Lake. On the way we stopped twice in order to see from different vantage points the snow covered slopes of Arenig Fawrr. At one of these places the ground and edges of the road were covered with snow. Sheep standing on the snowy slopes stared at us as we stared back at them and the mountain. We reached the long Bala Lake at its southern end and drove north eastwards along its eastern shore, arriving eventually at the gloomy town of Bala, where we did not stop.

A short drive into the mountains brought us to Llyn Celyn. This lake is really a reservoir that collects water to supply to the city of Liverpool. We walked along the dam at its eastern end, admiring the lake in one direction and the grassy slopes of the dam in the other. A narrow channel containing water curved in a sinuous path down the grassy slope of the dam facing away from the lake. Sheep and lambs were grazing on this. Occasional planks of wood had been placed across the channel to allow the sheep to cross it. Some of the animals used it, but a small gang of four or five lambs seemed to take pleasure from repeatedly leaping over it from one side to the other. Whilst watching these animals in the bitingly cold air, which was blowing across the lake, we noticed that when lambs began sucking their mothers’ milk, their tiny tails began waving frantically, suggesting to us that they were experiencing something that caused them to be delighted.  This might sound as if we were anthropomorphising. Maybe nature has some particular reason for them doing this. Whatever the reason might be, we were pleased to return to the warmth of our car.

The sky became grey as we drove around the lake, and then up into the mountains towards a road, the B 4407, which leads to Ffestiniog (rather than Blaenau Ffestiniog, which we had visited earlier).  A few miles along the B 4407, we took a right turn and drove along a narrow unclassified road, which climbed up to a desolate treeless plateau, and then descended through a forest, finally reaching the hamlet of Penmachno.  We did not meet anyone or any other vehicle on this lonely stretch of road, and there were few sheep or any other creatures to be seen alongside it. From there, we drove along a less spectacular road that took us to the A5, the trunk road, designed by Thomas Telford in the early 19th century. It connects London’s Marble Arch with the Admiralty Arch in Holyhead on the island of Anglesey.

After by-passing Betws-y-Coed, we reached Llanwrst, a village on the right bank of the River Conwy. We crossed this waterway over the narrow three-arched stone bridge, and made our way to the chapel of Gwdir Chapel, which we wished to enter. It was locked. A notice on its door informed us of the number that had to be rung in order to obtain keys to it. We rang the number, and arranged to collect the key the next day. As we returned to the car, we saw three peacocks strutting about and investigating the rubbish bins near the chapel.

We returned to the bridge at Llanwrst, and had tea and cakes in an olde worlde teashop housed in a 16th century building at the end of the bridge away from the village. Although we were served about half an hour before it closed, its disproportionally large staff bustled about clearing the tables around us, clearly giving us and the other guests the feeling that we were not so welcome.

After tea, the sun reappeared. We re-crossed the Conwy over the old bridge, and drove through Betws-y-Coed to the Swallow Falls, which are just outside the town. Although they are not as spectacular as the waterfalls at Niagara, Schaffhausen, or Sivasamudrum (in southern India), the Swallow falls are most attractive. Staircases guide the visitor to a series of viewing platforms from which the multiple fast flowing streams can be seen coursing through the boulders that separate them.

The sky became cloudy as we drove via Capel Curig to Llanberis, the village at which the railway, which climbs Mount Snowdon, has its lower terminus. After passing a lake with the same name as the village, we drove around the base of Wales’s highest peak through Warnfawr and Rhyd Ddu, and arrived in the centre of Bedgelert, now bathing in the rays of the late afternoon sun.

We parked the car, and walked along the river to an isolated tree that marks the supposed site of Gelert’s grave. A stone at the base of the tree records the tragic story of Gelert’s demise: “In the 13th century Llewelyn, prince of North Wales, had a palace at Beddgelert. One day he went hunting without Gelert, "The Faithful Hound", who was unaccountably absent. On Llewelyn's return the truant, stained and smeared with blood, joyfully sprang to meet his master. The prince alarmed hastened to find his son, and saw the infant's cot empty, the bedclothes and floor covered with blood. The frantic father plunged his sword into the hound's side, thinking it had killed his heir. The dog's dying yell was answered by a child's cry. Llewelyn searched and discovered his boy unharmed, but near by lay the body of a mighty wolf which Gelert had slain. The prince filled with remorse is said never to have smiled again. He buried Gelert here.[1] Whatever the truth of the story, the tree is located in a most pleasant spot across the river from our hotel.

That evening, we ate well again. Lyn Lambert’s leek and potato soup and her simply grilled prawns made tasty starters. My pork in a cream and mustard sauce was faultless, as was Lopa’s generously large rack of Welsh lamb. The latter tasted excellent despite having watched the sweet little creatures frolicking innocently earlier in the day on the slopes of the dam. The filling meal was rounded off with another portion of excellent cheeses and a plate of Spotted Dick bathed in smooth custard. After dinner, whilst we drank coffee, our host, Kevin, told us about his exploits as a naval helicopter pilot just after the Falklands War, when he visited the islands.

SUN 15 April 2012

After breakfast, we left Bedgelert. A few miles out of the town we stopped beside Llyn Dinas. This lake, whose water surface was almost smooth, reflected the hills and mountains behind it like a mirror. Some distance further on, we passed Llyn Gwynant, but did not stop until we were high above its north eastern end. We pulled into a car park that afforded us with views all around. Far below us was the lake, which we had just driven past. In another direction, we could see the sharp, snow covered peak of Mount Snowdon. It was white against the grey sky. We admired it, and then drove onwards towards Betws-y-Coed. Just before we reached the town, we turned left onto a small road, which led through some woods to Gwydir Castle, where we collected the key to the nearby chapel.

From the outside, Gwydir Chapel looks like any small gothic church. However, its interior is a surprise. Its barrel vaulted wooden ceiling is covered with seventeenth century paintings, which are undoubtedly Baroque. Angels abounded, each surrounded by smoky garlands of clouds. A huge panel above the carved wooden pulpit had the coat of arms of Charles the Second painted on it. The painting quality was definitely not up to the standards of Tiepolo, but its charming naivety made up for what it lacked in finesse.

After returning the keys to the custodian of the castle, a somewhat gruff eastern European, we joined the A5 and drove south eastwards to a junction at Tyn Mawr. We turned left there, and soon found ourselves in the car park of Rug Chapel. Beautifully maintained by CADW (the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage), this gem of a chapel has a most beautifully painted, carved wooden vaulted ceiling.

Our next destination was near a caravan site in the northern outskirts of the town of Llangollen. We had come to visit the ruins of Valle Crucis, a former Cistercian abbey. Over the years we have been visiting Cistercian abbeys, ruined in the United Kingdom as a result of the actions ordered by Henry VIII, and intact in France. In wales, we had visited the ruins Strata Florida and Cwm Hir Abbeys more than once, but this was our first visit to Valle Crucis. If one ignores the occasional glimpses of the neighbouring caravan site, this set of ruins is both picturesque and magnificent. We spoke to an elderly couple dressed up in mediaeval costumes. They explained to us some of the ideas behind mediaeval medicine, especially the importance of iron, which requires all the four elements - air, fire, earth, and water - to produce it. Mummified hands of recently executed criminals were also supposed to have healing properties, and were also used by burglars to induce deeper sleep in the inhabitants of the houses they burgled during the night.

We took a look inside the Church of St Collen in Llangollen in order to admire the carved wooden ceiling of its nave. This elaborately carved ceiling was supposedly removed from Valle Crucis when it was being demolished. St Collen, whom I had never heard of before, was a Welshman, who lived both in Brittany and Wales, and died in the seventh century. He established a hermitage at Llangollen, and then just when he thought that he could dedicate the rest of his life to prayer, his troubles began: “Collen thought the new hermitage and chapel he had built for himself were the prefect place for prayer and contemplation, until he discovered that a flesh-eating giantess lived in a nearby mountain pass, Bwlch Rhiwfelen, and was devastating the local population. Determined to rid them of this creature, the saint took his sword up to the pass and called for the lady to appear. They only exchanged a few brief words before battle commenced. Collen quickly managed to chop off the giantess's right arm, but she picked it up and started beating him with it. So he sliced off her left arm as well. She called out for Arthur the Giant of the Eglwyseg Rocks to help her, but Collen slew her before he could hear her cries. The saint then washed his sword in St. Collen's Well on the mountainside and lived a life of peace in his Welsh valley home.[2]

We followed the A5 on its way out of Wales and into England, passing Oswestry and Shrewsbury. At Much Wenlock, we visited the ruins of Wenlock Priory, which are well maintained by English Heritage. In between the ruins of what must have once been an enormous establishment, there was a superb collection of topiary. Bushes of hedge had been carved into the shapes of creatures including cats and mice.

The ruins of Buildwas Abbey are near to Much Wenlock. This was another Cistercian Abbey, which we had never visited before. Its architecture was much more austere than that of its neighbour in Much Wenlock. It was our last stop before beginning our long drive past Birmingham to our home in London.