Hay-on-Wye, Book Town in Wales

Noddy and Big-Ears, in a place that looks like Hay-on-Wye

Noddy and Big-Ears in Toyland Village, a place that looks like Hay-on-Wye

Hay-on-Wye, Powys, Wales

Thanks to blogging, I learned about Hay-on-Wye, more specifically thanks to Samantha and her comment on my post ‘Travel and Books, Part 5: Where We Find Them’.

We left northern Wales and made our way to Heathrow Airport via Hay-on-Wye, in southeast Wales on the edge of Brecon Beacons National Park.

A Town of Books

Road into Hay-on-Wye, Wales

Road into Hay-on-Wye, Wales

Hay-on-Wye is in Powys County, Wales, on the south side of the River Wye, just over the border from Herefordshire, England. It’s about 175 miles from London.

The town’s name comes from the Norman word haie, meaning ‘enclosed place’. The Welsh version, Y Gelli, means ‘grove’. There was settlement in Hay-on-Wye in the 8th century, and the town has its share of castle history, including a 13th century castle destroyed and subsequently restored.

Today Hay-on-Wye is a market town with winding streets, an old butter market, and a Victorian clock tower. It’s best known for its 30+ second-hand and antiquarian bookshops and annual literary festival.

Tourist Office Services

Normally we know where we’re spending the night when we travel, as I wrote in ‘A Passion for Travel, Part 2: The Master Trip Calendar’.

If we don’t have a reservation ahead of time, I start worrying we’ll have to spend a lot of time looking for a motel or B&B, especially when we’re headed to a touristy area on a weekend.

One of the best ways to find accommodations in this situation, as many travellers know, is to go directly to the local tourist office, something we usually do anyway.

Tourist offices often provide a central accommodations service for a nominal fee. The woman at the Hay-on-Wye Tourist Information Bureau gave us several choices of B&B’s whose owners had rung to let her know they had vacancies. Within minutes, we were confirmed at one, a 5-minute walk from the town centre. The booking fee was £2.

We picked up a number of free brochures at the tourist office, including ‘Hay-on-Wye Secondhand and Antiquarian Booksellers, Printsellers & Bookbinders’.

Then we went exploring.

Hay-on-Wye’s Bookshops 

Bookshop on Castle St., Hay-on-Wye, Wales

Bookshop on Castle St., Hay-on-Wye, Wales

Hay-on-Wye owes its fame as a town of books to Richard Booth, an Oxford graduate who began trading books there in 1961. He said, “You buy books from all over the world and your customers come from all over the world.”

Booth’s vision came to fruition, and today Hay-on-Wye gets over 500,000 visitors each year.There’s a bookshop for everyone here, with specialties ranging from Dickens to antique maps to children’s books.

Shops are located in places like the castle, the old cinema, and a fire station, with names like The Sensible Bookshop, Outcast Books, Murder and Mayhem, and The Poetry Bookshop. In addition to serving customers in person, many of the bookshops also do business over the Internet.

Acknowledging one person’s trash is another’s treasure, I sometimes have difficulty distinguishing ‘antiquarian’ from junk. I know it’s subjective, and there’s the possibility of making a lovely discovery, as we did when we found a first edition of ‘Cheer Up, Little Noddy!’, a 1960 book by children’s author Enid Blyton.

Noddy and Big-Ears

The 20th Noddy and Big-Ears Book

The 20th Noddy and Big-Ears Book


Clive introduced me and my son to Noddy and Big-Ears several years ago, finding a gap in our literary education because we hadn’t heard of them before.
 
Famous Five and Secret Seven, yes; Noddy and Big-Ears, no.

The conversation was about political correctness, and Clive said, “Another example is ‘Noddy and Big-Ears’ having to be rewritten because it was considered suspicious they shared a cup of hot chocolate in bed.”


Noddy and Big-Ears?  My son and I thought the names were hilarious. We learned Noddy is a toy and Big-Ears a brownie, an elf-like creature I also hadn’t heard of. They live in Toyland.

Admittedly, Noddy looks like a boy and Big-Ears an old man, with his white hair and beard.  The first book about them was published in 1949.  Since then, various modifications have been made to Blyton’s original stories, to remove golliwogs (subject for another post), and words like ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ used with their original meanings.

Along with millions of children in England (and Australia), Clive read the pre-modified Noddy books. He remembers them as typical innocent, entertaining children’s stories of the time.

Until we went to Hay-on-Wye, I hadn’t looked through a Noddy and Big-Ears book.  I think the characters are adorable, and because of my fond memory of Clive making me and my son laugh so much, we bought the book as a souvenir/collectible.

Bookshops Old and New

bookshop

In ‘Travel and Books, Part 4: No Two Bookshops Are the Same’, I wrote about what makes a bookshop great for me.

As much as Hay-on-Wye is a booklover’s paradise and we enjoyed exploring its variety of shops, I prefer bookstores with more current publications, whether large chains or small independents. For me these are just as much a source of discovery and treasure as second-hand bookshops.

I also realised, as we went into one shop after another, I don’t always feel comfortable in bookshops with narrow, crowded aisles, books piled to the ceiling, and staircases leading up or down to other enclosed spaces. Sometimes I feel like I’m walking through a fire hazard, especially when I’m in an old building and smell the old, old paper. Other times I just feel hemmed in and claustrophobic. I had the same feeling when we went to Shakespeare’s in Paris.

There are a few bookshops selling newer books in Hay-on-Wye, but the majority are devoted to older books. Along with their specialty focus, virtually every bookshop also carries hundreds and often thousands of books on other subjects. The only exception we noted was the The Poetry Bookshop, which from what we could tell sells only poetry books.

A Little Too Much Richard Booth

Hay Castle Books, Hay-on-Wye, Wales

Hay Castle Books, Hay-on-Wye, Wales

We started our visit to Hay-on-Wye impressed with the man whose original idea spawned this town of books. We left thinking there’s just a little too much self-promotion going on. 

In addition to owning several bookshops, Hay-on-Wye’s founder initiated a publicity stunt in 1977, declaring independence from the British Isles and proclaiming himself King of Hay. In 2000, he established the Hay House of Lords.

Perhaps publicity from these activities keeps tourist numbers high. And perhaps I’d be more positive if we hadn’t had to pay 20p for a half-page write-up by and about this ‘colourful character’ when all the other brochures at the tourist office were free.

We think Hay-on-Wye has enough going for it without contrived antics that, for me, anyway, detract from the real commercial heart and natural appeal of the town.  Among other activities you can do in Hay-on-Wye are biking, canoeing on the River Wye, and walking.

After exploring the bookshops, we were delighted to find one more walk to do in Wales.

The Wye Valley Walk

Wye Valley Walk, Hay-on-Wye, Wales

Wye Valley Walk, Hay-on-Wye, Wales

The day we visited Hay-on-Wye was drizzly on and off, and we thought we’d try to get in a walk before the rain came.

This is a short loop around the outskirts of the town, along the River Wye. It gave us an opportunity to stretch our legs one more time, before flying out the next day.

There’s something about a river valley and a footpath along the water that makes a walk special for me. We saw a few canoes on the river but had the footpath to ourselves.

The River Wye at Hay-on-Wye, Wales

The River Wye at Hay-on-Wye, Wales


The Hay Literary Festival

Hay Festival 2009

Hay Festival 2009

Unfortunately we just missed theguardian Hay Festival

Over dinner at the Blue Boar pub, we pored over the 82-page festival catalog, picking out author readings and panel discussions we wished we could attend.

The New York Times referred to the festival as “the most prestigious literary festival in Britain and one of the most interesting anywhere.” Among many notables who have spoken there are J.K. Rowling, Bill Bryson, and the late John Updike, along with former President Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Paul McCartney, who read poetry.

This year’s speakers included Edna O’Brien, Alain de Botton, Adam Nicolson, Antonia Fraser, Robert Kennedy, Jr., and Stephen Fry. There were so many sessions we would have liked to attend.

During breakfast at the B&B, we met a young Argentinian woman, living in London, with a PhD from Yale, who was spending two weeks in Hay-on-Wye, writing and then attending the festival. Lucky girl.

The next Hay Festival is scheduled for 27 May to 6 June, 2010.

A World of Booktowns

Travel is nothing if not educational.

If we hadn’t visited Hay-on-Wye, we wouldn’t have picked up the tourist office brochure listing twenty-two ‘Booktowns in Europe’, including Bredevoort, Netherlands; Bécherel, France; and Fjaerland, Norway. Nor would we later have discovered there’s an international organisation of book towns, on whose website you can read about these and many others.

The obvious result of this new information is that our ‘someday/maybe’ travel list has become much longer. Clive’s reaction was, “Oh, dear.”

My Favourite Things

I loved visiting Hay-on-Wye, notwithstanding Mr. Booth’s self-promotion. Bookshops are its prime attraction, but it also has a beautiful setting on the River Wye, walks and other outdoor activities, and a renowned literary festival. And I love our Noddy and Big-Ears souvenir.

Thanks again, Sam, for a wonderful tip.

I think it’s fair to say if you love books, you’ll love visiting Hay-on-Wye.

Farewell to Wales

We highly recommend Wales as a fantastic destination for individuals and families of all ages.

Thank you, everyone who read and/or commented on my posts about this beautiful country.

Thank you, Wales, for an amazing visit. We hope to see you again.

Benches at Llandudno, northern Wales

Benches at Llandudno, northern Wales

My next two posts will complete my Passion for Travel series, covering managing personal business while away and coming home.

Hay-on-Wye Official Site

Related posts
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Croeso i Cymru: Welcome to Wales
 
Serious about Language in Wales
 
Y Ddraig Goch, the Welsh Red Dragon
 
Coastal Walking on Ynys Mon, Isle of Anglesey, Wales
  An Accidental Walk: Lakes and Slate in Snowdonia
 
The Ffestiniog Railway and the Great Little Trains of Wales
 
Wrexham, Wales: A City in Transition with a Yale Connection
 
Whimsy or Disney? Portmeirion, Wales
 
An Exhilarating Experience: The Great Orme, Llandudno, Wales

An Exhilarating Experience: The Great Orme, Llandudno, Wales

My Julie Andrews impersonation on the Great Orme

My Julie Andrews impersonation on the Great Orme

The Great Orme, Llandudno, Wales

The Great Orme, Y Gogarth in Welsh, is a limestone headland at Llandudno, on the northern coast of Wales.

According to Wikipedia, ‘Orme’ is an old Norse word for sea serpent. The Great Orme has had human inhabitants for over 8,000 years. Its geology includes Bronze Age copper mines, ancient caves and wells, and steep cliffs.

Today the Great Orme balances farming and tourism as its primary activities.

A visit to the Great Orme begins at ground level, in Llandudno, on the Irish Sea.

Llandudno, Queen of Welsh Resorts

Llandudno, Conwy, Wales

Llandudno, Conwy, Wales

Llandudno is a Victorian-style seaside resort, complete with a promenade and 1,234-foot pier, the longest in Wales. You could spend an entire day strolling around Llandudno, enjoying the atmosphere and fresh sea air.

Public footpath, Y Gogarth, Great Orme

Public footpath, Y Gogarth, Great Orme

To get up to the Great Orme, you can drive on the toll road, Marine Drive, take a tram or cable car, or, most satisfying of all for those who enjoy walking, make your way up via the Y Gogarth public footpath.

The walk isn’t overly strenuous, but provides good exercise in the early stages when the path climbs up the headland.

Y Gogarth, the Great Orme

The route up to the Great Orme winds through a public garden called Happy Valley, then continues up a long, steep set of gravel steps.

Clive at top of gravel steps, Great Orme

Clive at top of gravel steps, Great Orme

After reaching the top of the steps, the path winds around the headland, providing a taste of the views that are to come.

Footpath sign on way to Great Orme summit

Footpath sign on way to Great Orme summit

Eventually the path reaches the high, open area of the headland.
I felt like we were in ‘The Sound of Music ’, one of my favourite movies of all time, with nothing but stunning scenery and the sound of birdsong in the air.

The sheep have some of the best views on the Great Orme.

Sheep on the hillside, Great Orme

Sheep on the hillside, Great Orme

St. Tudno’s Church

The little church we came upon was established by Tudno, a 6th century monk.  Its present building is modern by comparison, dating only from from the 12th century.

Clive approaching St. Tudno's Church, Great Orme

Clive approaching St. Tudno's Church, Great Orme

I am always moved when we find these ancient churches, still active parishes today, on our walks. The sign at St. Tudno’s said it has been a place of pilgrimage for over 1400 years, where visitors find spiritual strength and prayerful healing.

The God I believe in is available everywhere, yet being in this place
I too felt a sense of peace and connection to the divine. We sat on a bench, ate our lunch, and talked about the earthly needs of various family members while surrounded by the gravesites of St. Tudno’s cemetery.

Gravesites at St. Tudno's Church, Great Orme

Gravesites at St. Tudno's Church, Great Orme

An Exhilarating Experience

What a joy it was, to walk high above the sea on the Great Orme footpath. We stopped briefly at the visitors’ centre at the summit, then continued around the headland to the southern side of the Orme.

Here we walked alongside a stone wall which we nicknamed the Great Wall of Wales. Below us we could see Conwy Bay and the estuary of the River Conwy.

Footpath, south side of Great Orme

Footpath, south side of Great Orme

Looking back to where we just came from, you can see the Great Wall of Wales stretching back as far as the eye can see.

Stone wall, south side of Great Orme

Stone wall, south side of Great Orme

We stopped and had a coffee from our trusty Thermos, to revive ourselves and give our feet a rest before leaving the Great Orme and descending to Llandudno.

Resting the feet near walk's end, Great Orme

Resting the feet near walk's end, Great Orme

The Great Orme can be enjoyed by all ages, whether you walk, drive, take the tram, or take the cable car to the summit. When you get back down to Llandudo, you can reward yourself by having an ice cream on the pier.

My next post will wrap up our Wales trip, as we said goodbye to northern Wales and made our way back to Heathrow via the book town Hay-on-Wye.

Llandudno and Great Orme Official Site

Whimsy or Disney? Portmeirion, Wales

Portmeirion, Gwynedd, Wales

Portmeirion, Gwynedd, Wales

Portmeirion, Gwynedd, Wales

It’s almost time to say goodbye to Wales (for now, anyway), on this blog.
 
Before I do, I’ll share our last three adventures here:  weird and/or whimsical Portmeirion, our final walk high above Llandudno, and a visit to book town Hay-on-Wye.
 
Virtual Reality in the Middle of North Wales
Entry to Portmeirion, Gwynedd

Entry to Portmeirion, Gwynedd

Portmeirion is located on the coast of Snowdonia, on Tremadog Bay between the towns of Porthmadog and Penrhyndeudraeth.

This pretend village markets itself as an Italianate resort. It’s known partly for being the set for the 1960’s cult TV series ‘The Prisoner’, about which I knew nothing, and various other shows and ‘Prisoner’ follow-ons since then.

Today Portmeirion has two hotels (one in a restored Victorian folly castle), 17 self-catering cottages, several restaurants, shops (including a ‘Prisoner’ store), and walking trails.

There is a fee of £7.50 per person (half-price after 3:30pm, when we went) to visit Portmeirion. Entry is via a pink archway, leading to a central pool and garden surrounded by pastel-coloured buildings.

Town Hall Restaurant, Portmeirion, Gwynedd

Town Hall Restaurant, Portmeirion, Gwynedd

An Architect’s Folly

Portmeirion was designed by the architect Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis over a fifty year period, from 1925 to 1975. Williams-Ellis died in 1978, and Portmeirion is now owned by a charitable trust.

Various guidebooks quote the architect as saying he wanted to demonstrate that “development of a naturally beautiful site need not lead to its defilement.”

Williams-Ellis repeatedly denied he modelled Portmeirion on coastal Portofino in Italy, but said, “How should I not have fallen for Portofino? Indeed its image remained with me as an almost perfect example of the man-made adornment and use of an exquisite site.”

Central pool and garden, Portmeirion, Gwynedd

Central pool and garden, Portmeirion, Gwynedd

Whimsy or Disney?

I couldn’t help feeling I was in a surreal, Disney-esque world at Portmeirion. Maybe I just don’t appreciate what their brochure calls ‘deliberately fanciful’ architecture, with columns, arches, balconies, and statues everywhere you look. I couldn’t get beyond the fact we were looking at a resort masquerading as a village. For me it was a bit too precious, and also a bit cheesy.

Clive had a different view. He reminded me the English are known for being eccentric, with follies dotting the countryside. He thought Portmeirion was a classic example of English eccentricity, and enjoyed the variety of architectural flourishes and that, unlike in a typical village, every building was different.
 
Seeing it through Clive’s eyes, I agreed Portmeirion is unique in being a collection of follies, not just one or two but a ‘village’ and garden filled with them. 
Entrance to Hotel Portmeirion, Gwynedd

Entrance to Hotel Portmeirion, Gwynedd

Gardens, Follies, and Something Quite Strange

What saved the Portmeirion visit for me were the gardens, 60 acres of subtropical plants and trees, with several circular walks.

We started out on a footpath along the coast, at the estuary of the River Dwyryd. This was my favourite part of the walk.

Portmeirion path, estuary of River Dwyryd, Gwynedd

Portmeirion path, estuary of River Dwyryd, Gwynedd

The gardens were originally developed by George Henry Caton Haigh, the previous owner of Portmeirion’s land and a world authority on exotic plants. In later years, during Clough Williams-Ellis’s time, two man-made lakes and numerous follies were added to the gardens.

Garden folly, Portmeirion

Garden folly, Portmeirion

Again I wondered if I lacked proper appreciation for what I was seeing, or if I needed to lighten up and simply enjoy the follies for what they were.
 
Some follies were more attractive than others. I liked the bright red gazebo we came across after rounding a bend in the path. 
Garden gazebo, Portmeirion

Garden gazebo, Portmeirion

After a while, though, I got tired of yet more artificial structures, even in the gardens.

We stopped at one to sit and talk about our impressions of Portmeirion.
Clive in a garden folly, Portmeirion

Clive in a garden folly, Portmeirion

If the follies weren’t unusual enough, what we came upon next was the strangest sight of all.

The Dog Cemetery

This is an area in the Portmerion gardens that seems to want to be taken seriously. There’s a large dog statue, and 50+ tombstones engraved with loving messages to deceased pets. Some tombstones are over fifty years old, while others are from within the past ten years.

Dog Cemetery, Portmeirion

Dog Cemetery, Portmeirion

Situated as it is in the contrived atmosphere of Portmeirion’s artificial village and folly-filled garden, I found the dog cemetery incongruous and bizarre in the extreme. The headstone messages of loss and love were in stark contrast to the ‘whimsy’ and ‘fanciful’ nature of the place, and I was quite taken aback, wondering if it was all for real.

Giving Portmeirion the benefit of the doubt, the cemetery and pet graves are probably genuine. But I was offended by the idea of making the death of a beloved pet another spectacle in a walking tour of Portmeirion. I hope the dog cemetery is authentic, and that those whose pets are buried there find peace and comfort in the garden.


I Tried to Like Portmeirion
 

At Portmeirion, Gwynedd

At Portmeirion, Gwynedd

I really did try to like Portmeirion, but it was over the top for me.

Portmeirion insists on describing itself as a village, but no-one actually calls it home.  Although the houses are rented out as self-catering units, to me it still felt like a stage set, one that reinforced my desire to visit real coastal and hill towns in Italy.

Over 250,000 people visit Portmeirion every year, and I’m sure many if not most of them are satisfied to have spent their time and money there. It’s a unique opportunity to see a collection of follies all in one place, but I have mixed feelings about recommending it. There are so many other interesting and beautiful places to visit in Wales.

My next post will be about one of those places.

Portmeirion Official Site

Wrexham, Wales: A City in Transition, with a Yale Connection

Internet photo, town centre, Wrexham, Wales

Internet photo, town centre, Wrexham, Wales

Wrexham, Northeast Borderlands, Wales

We woke to pouring rain, gave up all hope of walking, and headed to Wrexham, in the area known as the North Wales Borderlands.

Why Wrexham?  It’s the only real city in northern Wales, with large retail shops. We thought we’d wander around them, and Clive could get an overdue haircut.

Almost in England

Wrexham is almost on the England/Wales border, between the English city of Chester to the northeast and the Welsh region of Snowdonia to the west.

Coming from Australia, and having grown up in the U.S., it still amazes me how quickly you can drive back and forth from one country to another in Europe. We didn’t cross the border back into England, but were very close to it in Wrexham.

The Yale Connection

At the Wrexham Tourist Office, we discovered the Church of St. Giles has two claims to fame. One is its high Tudor tower. The other is being the burial place of Elihu Yale, after whom the U.S. university is named.

Elihu Yale’s ancestors came from Wrexham. His English grandmother was daughter of the Bishop of Chester, and her first husband was Thomas Yale. Following Thomas’ death, she married the British-born governor of America’s New Haven colony, which took her to the U.S.

Elihu Yale was born in Boston in 1649, but lived there only four years, until his parents took the family back to England. Elihu died in London in 1721, and is buried at St. Giles in Wrexham.

The city is proud of its connection to Yale. There’s a local college named after him, and we saw a pub bearing his name on one of Wrexham’s main streets.

Elihu Yale pub, Wrexham, Wales

Elihu Yale pub, Wrexham, Wales

A City in Transition

It was fascinating for us to see Wrexham as a city in transition, dealing with the forces and effects of both globalisation and immigration.

Wrexham’s town centre has narrow pedestrian thoroughfares and small, historic buildings with great character. Sadly, many shops sit empty, while the majority of commercial business goes to big-name department stores like Marks and Spencer, Debenhams, and H&M,
who have moved to bigger spaces in bright new shopping malls on the outskirts of town.

As in other parts of the UK, Wrexham has a huge, empty Woolworth’s in the city centre, a painfully visible reminder of the company’s collapse last year.

'Evening Leader' photo, Woolworth's closing in Wrexham, Wales

'Evening Leader' photo, Woolworth's closing in Wrexham, Wales

Immigration, Integration, and Language

In Wrexham we noticed, more than in other cities we’ve recently visited, the preponderance of eastern European accents and languages spoken by residents of all ages.

Wrexham has a large Polish population, many of whom moved to the UK after Poland joined the European Union in 2004. Their integration into city life has not been without controversy.

We read the Wrexham member of the Welsh Assembly made news in 2007 when, instead of following longstanding tradition and printing re-election materials in English and Welsh, he printed them in English and Polish. This caused significant debate, particularly in light of the national focus on preserving the Welsh language.

When the local Environmental Agency put up signs in English and Polish to control fishing at a lake near Wrexham, anglers whose first language was Welsh ‘vowed to fish with impunity until a sign went up in their native language’.

A Peaceful Day

The day we visited Wrexham, everything seemed peaceful, if a bit dispiriting due to the economic downturn. We saw several large groups of young people who appeared to have nothing to do, and wondered if they were students in between classes at Yale College or if they were unemployed.

Clive got his haircut in the old town centre, where the young woman confirmed many small shops are closing due to the new malls. I confess we headed to one of the malls ourselves after the haircut, where we enjoyed looking around the department stores and being in warm, dry surroundings.

A Bookshop Browse

There are still some medium-size shops in central Wrexham. On our way back to the carpark, a highlight of the day for me was finding a Waterstone’s bookshop with an excellent local interest section.

'Real Wales' by Peter Finch

'Real Wales' by Peter Finch

Here we had a lovely browse, and purchased ‘Real Wales’, a quirky, insightful portrait of the country by Cardiff poet and writer Peter Finch.

As I wrote in ‘Travel and Books, Part 5: Where We Find Them’, Clive and I both love to make these unexpected discoveries when visiting local bookshops.

This was the third Waterstone’s we went into on this trip. We learned this British chain is a subsidiary of HMV Group, which also owns Hatchard’s on Picadilly in London, another of our favourite bookshops.


We were delighted when the young woman behind the counter offered to register us for a Waterstone’s loyalty card. Our only regret was we didn’t have receipts with us for books we purchased in the past two weeks at Waterstone’s in London and Ipswich.

Wrexham’s Future

It will be interesting to see how this Welsh city develops in coming years. We especially hope the old town centre will find a way to compete with the shiny new shopping malls.

Small businesses are still trying to make a go of it here. After we left the bookshop, we passed one of them, a little piece of Paris in Wrexham.

A bit of Paris in Wales

A bit of Paris in Wales

My next post will be about something extremely eccentric in the middle of north Wales.

The Ffestiniog Railway and the Great Little Trains of Wales

Ffestiniog Railway, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd

Ffestiniog Railway, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd

Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, Wales

Some of my best family memories during my son’s growing-up years revolve around taking trains and visiting train and trolley museums.

As I wrote in ‘Bittersweet: Afternoon at the East Anglia Transport Museum’, Clive and I enjoyed taking his father to see (and ride) older vehicles in England. We also love travelling on more modern trains, especially the Eurostar between Paris and London

Wales has an interesting mix of modern trains and restored ‘little trains’.

The Great Little Trains of Wales

The Great Little Trains of Wales is a tourist initiative developed in the 1970’s to showcase and promote Wales’ narrow-gauge steam trains, along with its history and scenery.

These Welsh trains are ‘little’ because they used to carry slate from quarries to the sea, and had to go inside mines and confined spaces to collect their cargo.

Today there are ten railway lines included in the Great Little Trains of Wales. One is the Llanberis Lake Railway, which runs to and fro along the shores of Llyn Padarn, as we discovered on our Accidental Walk.

Llanberis Lake Railway, Llyn (Lake) Padarn

Llanberis Lake Railway, Llyn (Lake) Padarn

As with similar endeavours the world over, much of the success of Wales’ little trains is due to the dedication and support of volunteers.

Railway brochures encourage everyone to get involved, and many of the trains are driven by enthusiastic, silver-haired retirees.

The Ffestiniog Railway

Like many of Wales’ little trains, the Ffestiniog Railway in northwest Wales grew and declined with the slate industry.

The Ffestiniog line runs for 13.5 miles, starting at the coast in Porthmadog and gradually climbing through places with names like Minffordd, Penrhyn, and Tan-y-Bwlch.

Ffestiniog Railway stop at Tanybwlch, Gwynedd

Ffestiniog Railway stop at Tanybwlch, Gwynedd

The day we took this train was grey and damp, not great for walking but good for experiencing the mysterious, dreamy aspects of the Welsh countryside when it’s shrouded in clouds and fog.

Welsh countryside near Blaenau Ffestiniog

Welsh countryside near Blaenau Ffestiniog

The Ffestiniog Railway climbs through hills and forests, eventually ending in the mountains at the slate-quarrying town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Railway station at Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd

Railway station at Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd

We loved the scenery on our train ride, and riding in the old carriages, complete with an attendant coming around with a nice cup of tea.

The little trains of Wales are popular with all ages. Our train was full, and we wished we had more time to take the recently-restored Welsh Highland Railway from Porthmadog to Caernarfon.

Seeing the little trains of Wales reminded me of ‘Travel,’ the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, especially this stanza:
  My heart is warm with the friends I make
  And better friends I’ll be knowing;
  Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
  No matter where it’s going.

On the Ffestiniog Railway, Gwynedd, Wales

On the Ffestiniog Railway, Gwynedd, Wales

Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways
Llanberis Lake Railway
The Great Little Trains of Wales

An Accidental Walk: Lakes and Slate in Snowdonia

View across Llyn Padarn, Llanberis, and Snowdon Range

View across Llyn Padarn, Llanberis, and Snowdon Range

Llanberis, Gwynedd, Snowdonia

Travel often reminds us to expect the unexpected, and all travellers know weather is one of the big reasons you sometimes have to change your plans.

On a brilliant sunny day in Wales, we thought we were headed for a walk down Yr Wyddfa, Mount Snowdon. It wasn’t to be.

A Highlight of Wales

Seeing and walking on Snowdon was one of the major reasons we came to Wales. We planned to take the Snowdon Mountain Railway to the top, then work our way down on foot.

As with other mountain viewings (Fuji in Japan and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania come to mind), we knew nothing was guaranteed. On Clive’s prior trips to Wales, he got part way up Snowdon twice and to the top once, but it was a foggy day and he couldn’t see much of anything.

As we drove from Betws-y-Coed through the Pass of Llanberis, the landscape grew increasingly high and rugged and I got more and more excited about seeing Mt. Snowdon.

Llanberis Pass, Gwynedd

Llanberis Pass, Gwynedd

It seemed a perfect weather day. But when we got to the railway station at the base of the mountain, there was a strong breeze. Then
we learned that due to high winds at the summit, the train was only going 5/8 of the way up, and this was likely to continue for the rest of the week. The wind was so strong passengers would not be allowed to get off the train.

It was one of those decisions you sometimes have to make rather quickly when travelling. We thought we might have paid for 5/8 of the way up, if we could’ve walked down from there. Since we couldn’t even do that, we concluded it would be an expensive £23 each, only to take pictures out the carriage window.

We agreed summit or nothing, and we’d try another time. I did my best to stay philosophical and not be too disappointed. Clive took out the walk book, which we always carry with us, and we moved to Plan B.

Clive reading walk book, Llanberis Station

Clive reading walk book, Llanberis Station

Llanberis and Padarn Country Park

A few steps across the street from Llanberis Station, but seemingly miles away from the rest of the tourists, we discovered an 800-acre nature reserve, Padarn Country Park.

A footbridge between two lakes, Llyn Padarn and Llyn Peris, led us to the Her Awyr Agored, or Outdoor Challenge public footpath and walk around Llyn Padarn.

The Most Welsh of Welsh Industries

The National Slate Museum is on the northeast shore of Lake Padarn, at the edge of the massive Dinorwig Quarry complex. It employed 3,000 men at the start of the 20th century, and it’s said slate from here “roofed the world.” (It’s also used for snooker tables, roads, walls, fences, and my mother’s front path in New Jersey.)

When the quarry closed in 1969, many of the old structures were preserved, with the museum and surrounding footpaths developed to provide public access.

The museum includes the only mining incline working today in the UK, a series of tracks climbing the side of the Vivian Quarry. 

Slate mining incline, Vivian Quarry, Llanberis

Slate mining incline, Vivian Quarry, Llanberis

This is a fabulous (and free) hands-on museum, where we could have spent much more time. I was awestruck by the size and scale of the quarry, truly a marvel of human engineering. I learned a new term, ‘industrial archaeology,’ and here you can see how slate quarrying shaped the Welsh landscape.

The Quarry Hospital

The human aspects of quarrying are in such contrast to the epic nature of the physical landscape. As we continued ascending the north side of Llyn Padarn, we reached the old Quarry Hospital.

Steps leading to Quarry Hospital, Llanberis

Steps leading to Quarry Hospital, Llanberis

The hospital visitors’ centre is closed weekends, so we didn’t see the restored operating theatre or ‘gruesome implements’ (thank goodness).

To give you a feel for the hospital’s location and where we were climbing, here’s a view of it later in the walk, from the other side of the lake (hospital in the lower left of photo).

Quarry Hospital across Llyn Padarn, Llanberis

Quarry Hospital (lower left) across Llyn Padarn, Llanberis

Clive and I were both quite moved, seeing the quarry hospital after the museum, and imagining what the miners’ lives were like. It gave us a deeper appreciation of the risks they took, when we realised the mine had its own hospital (and mortuary). I can’t imagine what it was like in winter, but miners worked in harsh conditions year-round.

We could also sense, on the hospital grounds, how the beauty of the lake surroundings would offer to those who had to stay there a measure of peacefulness and healing.

Coed Dinorwig (Oak Woodlands) and the High Side of the Lake

Quarrymen walking to and from work created many footpaths. The path we were on kept climbing, and in the woodlands we came upon the ruins of an old woollen mill by a waterfall, now mostly crumbled stone.

Coed Dinorwig, woodland path, Llanberis

Coed Dinorwig, woodland path, Llanberis

The steepness of the path was more than we expected, and we were rewarded with views back across Llyn Padarn towards Llanberis village and the Snowdon range.

Llyn (Lake) Padarn, Llanberis, and Snowdon Range

Llyn (Lake) Padarn, Llanberis, and Snowdon Range

The Southern Side of the Lake

We descended to the southern side of the lake via the footpath and a paved lane through a small residential hamlet.

What a change, from high woodlands to flat, pastoral land. For part of the way, we walked on a wide lakeside biking path developed on the bed of an old railway track. Then we shared the footpath with a ewe and her lamb (which is partly why we couldn’t resist a Christmas ornament of a sheep wearing the Welsh Red Dragon).

Sharing the footpath with sheep

Sharing the footpath with sheep

Travel = Expect the Unexpected

We were thrilled our unexpected change of plan turned out as well as it did. The Llyn Padarn walk has a little of everything: it’s interesting, educational, and beautiful. As an added bonus, it was more strenuous than we anticipated, so we felt we got some good exercise along the way. And we would have missed doing it if the train had been running all the way up Snowdon.

Padarn Country Park even has its own narrow-gauge steam train, the Llanberis Lake Railway, which chugs back and forth along one side of Llyn Padarn.

The little trains of Wales will be the subject of my next post.

Llanberis Lake Railway (and little boy who reminded me of my son)

Llanberis Lake Railway (and a little boy who reminded me of my son)

Padarn Country Park
National Slate Museum of Wales
Llanberis Lake Railway
Sowdon Mountain Railway

Coastal Walking on Ynys Môn, Isle of Anglesey, Wales

South Stack Lighthouse, Irish Sea, Isle of Anglesey

South Stack Lighthouse, Irish Sea, Isle of Anglesey

Holyhead, Isle of Anglesey, Wales

The Isle of Anglesey, or
Ynys Môn in Welsh, is a combination of flat, rural countryside and rugged, seaside cliffs.

The island is historically associated with the Druids, and today its primary businesses are agriculture and tourism. Over 70% of its population are native Welsh speakers.

Driving west to Holyhead, we were struck by how quickly the landscape changed, from the hills and mountains of Snowdonia on mainland Wales to the sheep and cattle fields of Anglesey.

Driving west on the A55, Isle of Anglesey

Driving west on the A55, Isle of Anglesey

Getting There – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch

After going over the Menai Strait onto the island, one of the first places you come upon is this well-known town,
commonly shortened to ‘Llanfair PG’. (It’s pronounced ‘Clanfair PG’, since the double ‘L’ in Welsh is spoken like a hard ‘C’.)

The town’s full name means St. Mary’s church in the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the church of St. Tysilio of the red cave.

Llanfair PG is a shameless tourist destination, proud of having invented its name in the 1860’s to attract publicity and become the longest railway station name in the UK. It reminded me of Gretna Green in Scotland, one of those ‘gateway to xxx’ places found when you enter a new region or country. Llanfair PG also has the biggest tourist shop we’ve ever seen.

Entry to biggest tourist shop we've ever seen

Entry to biggest tourist shop we've ever seen

I’d read about Llanfair PG for years, and was glad to see it once for its novelty value. We joined the other visitors in buying a few postcards and souvenirs, then moved on.

Llwybr Arfordirol Ynys Môn
(Isle of Anglesey Coastal Path)

At the western end of Anglesey, we left the A55 as the landscape became increasingly rugged and hilly. It has that wonderful feel of water being close by, even if you can’t see it yet.

Near Holyhead, Isle of Anglesey

Near Holyhead, Isle of Anglesey

In the limited time we had to walk here, we decided to do part of the Isle of Anglesey Coastal Path.  This is a 125-mile coastal route still being developed, and follows much of the island’s coastline.

Public footpath, Isle of Anglesey Coastal Path

Public footpath, Isle of Anglesey Coastal Path

Clive especially wanted me to see area around the South Stack Lighthouse, where he visited over twenty-five years ago.

South Stack Lighthouse

South Stack Lighthouse, Irish Sea, Isle of Anglesey

South Stack Lighthouse, Irish Sea, Isle of Anglesey

This was the highlight of the day for me.

Many visitors park near the lighthouse, then make the long climb down (and back up) the zig-zag steps and onto the spit of land where the lighthouse stands.

Clive has fond memories of his daughter, at age four, showing what he calls early signs of her determination, insisting she was capable and joining her parents on the long climb down and back up again, all by herself (well done, K!).

We had a magnificent view from the coastal path above South Stack, and could see ferries on the Irish Sea going to and from Dublin. Clive took one of the ferries from Holyhead to Dublin in his backpacking days, but on this day we just enjoyed watching them from a distance. It was a bit hazy, but Clive says on a clear day you can see all the way to Ireland.

Late afternoon clouds rolled in, and we drove back east along the northern coast of the island, knowing it has potential for a lot more walking and exploring of its hillsides, bays and beaches.

Along the coast near Holyhead, Isle of Anglesey

Along the coast near Holyhead, Isle of Anglesey

Maybe we’ll return to Anglesey another time. Until then, we’ll remember its beautiful coastal scenery and how much we enjoyed seeing South Stack Lighthouse and watching ferries crossing to and from Dublin on the Irish Sea.
 
My next post will be about the mountains and lakes of Snowdonia, on the mainland.

Wikipedia Isle of Anglesey
Isle of Anglesey Coastal Path
Llanfair PG Official Site