Published: June 1st 2011May 31st 2011
The Welsh language
I have a sneaky suspicion that some Welsh words have been 'borrowed' from the English - e.g. tyres, brakes, batteries, shocks (as in shock absorbers), exhausts...
'Croeso i Gymru - Welcome to Wales', said the road-sign as we crossed the boundary from England into the land of daffodils, leeks and red dragons.
Then, the heavens opened!
That was last September, when we came to look after our son's house, dog and cat while he took his family away for a well-earned holiday.
Exactly the same thing happened on our way here again last week!
The only difference so far is that, last September, the torrential rain was replaced by a succession of mainly sunny days (when the accompanying photos were taken). As I write now, at the end of May, our car is getting a daily wash to rival anything that the local filling station could provide with their Jet Wash machine.
It’s also so windy that the resident jackdaws hover almost gracefully as they face into the wind to steal rain-sodden bread put on the bird-table to feed the sparrows.
When the sun does deign to make an appearance, they'll keep a welcome in the hillsides (to coin part of verse two of a well-known Welsh anthem). Then, this part of the world will
In 1291, Edward I granted the town a charter permitting it to hold a market every Wednesday - and there's been one here ever since.
be hard to beat – hospitable people, great mountain scenery and old-fashioned seaside towns. Right now though, you're welcome to Wales!
The fields are very green, as you’d expect with so much wet stuff falling from the skies. There are sheep by the million. Wales, as a whole, has the highest density of sheep in the world apart from New Zealand, probably as many as two sheep per human being - which means there could be six million of the woolly beasts! In the valleys, you’ll also see some cattle, particularly the hardy (and very tasty) native Welsh Black
. Those hillsides not covered in the white blobs of sheep and lambs are swathed in mixed deciduous woodland, green now, or topped by managed, green-year-round conifer plantations.
We're staying in the town of Machynlleth
, situated at the head of the Dyfi (‘Dovey’ in English)
valley in the mid-Wales county of Powys (pronounced Pow_iss)
. Apologies to the Welsh-speakers among you, who will find my translations unnecessary! Oh, by the way, Machynlleth is so difficult for most people to pronounce properly (particularly the double letter ‘l’), it’s often just called ‘Mach’ (pronounced Mack!)
Mach is a small
Machynlleth's clock tower
The Victorian masterpiece has recently been restored - and all faces of its clock tell the correct time!
town of around 2,000 residents, and very... how shall I put this: “Welsh”. Dark-grey slate, the local stone, is much in evidence in buildings and field walls. The Welsh language is widely spoken - our two granddaughters, in nursery and primary schools here, are taught only in Welsh. It’s a pity, perhaps, that this ancient Celtic tongue is really only spoken these days in Wales and among communities of the South American land of Patagonia.
The town's a bit behind the times, or maybe it’s ahead of them? According to the many-faceted clock atop the Co-operative supermarket, it could be an hour behind, an hour-and-a-half ahead, eighteen hours behind or six hours ahead!
It has a reputation as a place for ‘alternative’ lifestyles. Certainly, you’ll find shops selling incense from the East and health foods by the container-load, as well as the occasional ageing hippie. The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT)
, where you can learn everything you didn't know you wanted to know about green living, is just a few miles outside the town.
In a converted Wesleyan chapel, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)
displays work by Welsh artists and, at Plas Machynlleth
Machynlleth standing stones
...and the dog's called Toby!
– a mansion dating back to the 17th century and the former residence of the Marquesses of Londonderry, you’ll find a wide range of arts and crafts by accomplished local artists and photographers.
Unlike many other towns, which have become saturated with national retail chains, nearly all of Mach’s shops are still independently-owned. A traditional market, full of local produce, has also been held every Wednesday for the past 700 years on both sides of Maengwyn Street, the wide main road. It runs all the way from the town's recently-restored Victorian clock tower (which tells the time correctly on every face and even chimes the hours too!) to its Parliament House. Oh yes, there’s a Parliament House – for this was “the ancient capital of Wales”, where the rebel Owain Glynŵdr became Prince of Wales in 1404 and established the country’s parliament. In the medieval building there’s now an interpretative centre that deals with the history of this much-revered man. Nearby, the energetic can join Glynŵdr’s Way
, a 217-kilometre (135-mile) national trail that takes about nine days to complete on foot.
A shorter walk from the town centre brings you to a nine-hole, heathland golf-course where
grazing sheep are constant hazards. On a hill overlooking the fairways, amid encroaching bracken, is a circle of standing stones – unfortunately though, this isn’t a grand or ancient circle like those at Stonehenge in Wiltshire or at Carnac in France. This one was erected to commemorate the 1981 National Eisteddfod (a festival of all things Welsh - literature, music and performance) that was held in the town. There is
an ancient standing stone hereabouts – the Bronze Age ‘Grey Stone’; it’s just a hundred metres from where I'm sitting right now, but hidden in the middle of a modern bungalow estate.
Those, like us, who prefer to use a car rather than shanks’s pony
will find some superb drives in the area.
An 11-mile route winds west beside the River Dyfi, downstream to the small seaside resort of Aberdyfi
(Aberdovey). Not surprisingly, ‘Aber’ means ‘river mouth’ or ‘estuary’ in Welsh. At this time of year, the road’s lined with the violet-purple flowers of Rhododendron (invasive R.ponticum
, alas), the creamy blossom of our native Woodbine (Honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum
) and magenta spikes of wild Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)
. There are some lovely views, particularly on the return journey.
Looking towards the cliff railway up Constitution Hill.
Aberdyfi has held best-kept village and best floral village titles, although its past glories are now a little faded. Its long, wide stretch of sand backed by dunes is still very popular though, and the jetty is always thronged with children - and their dads - lowering baited lines into the sea to catch some of the many crabs that inhabit these waters.
About 20 miles away to the south of Mach is another ‘Aber’: Aberystwyth
. Yes, Welsh is simple isn’t it? This is at the mouth of the River Ystwyth! For some reason though, Aberystwyth is colloquially known as just Aber! This is the administrative centre of West Wales and home to a university with around 8,000 students, the National Library and 50 pubs. It has plenty of shops too, including national chains and large out-of-town supermarkets. Its beach is nothing to write home about, but there’s a seafront esplanade and the longest cliff railway in Britain will take you up Constitution Hill for panoramic views towards Pembrokeshire in the south, Cardigan Bay to the west and the mountains of Snowdonia to the north. Take time out to enjoy a coffee on the seafront and to have
There are also some disused lead mines that can be visited nearby.
a reasonably-priced home-cooked lunch at the organic Treehouse
One of the finest drives is from Machynlleth to Clywedog via mountain and country roads, parts of which run close to Glynŵdr’s Way. Take a flask of tea and make an afternoon of it. From Mach, take the main road (A489) as far as Llanbrynmair, then down, through Pennant, on the B4518 until you reach a sign for Llyn (Lake)
Clywedog. The road soon becomes single track with passing places and there are a few lovely spots for picnics, with seats and tables provided at some of them too. The lake is very long and the road runs alongside it, with wonderful views all around, until you reach the dam. The lake is actually a reservoir, the dam measuring an impressive 72 metres (236 feet) high and 230 metres (754 feet) long, the tallest concrete dam in Britain at the time of its construction in the late-1960s. There’s occasionally a café there for a cuppa if you didn’t bring your own.
Retrace your route to the B4518, turn left and, near Staylittle, left again at a minor road, signed for Forge and Machynlleth. Pull into the lay-by beside the
Proof of what a glacier can do.
at Dylife (pronounced ‘De-leev-ee’ of course, not 'Die_life!)
, carved out by a retreating glacier in the last Ice Age. On a fine day, it's really worth seeing.
Then, onwards and upwards to a sheep-filled plateau, followed by a steeply twisting single track downhill, opening out to the spectacular viewpoint pictured in the panorama at the top of this blog. From here, there's a sweeping view towards the Cader Idris range and, on a good day, you can even glimpse the top of Mount Snowdon. The centre of the viewing table doubles as a memorial to the journalist and broadcaster Wynford Vaughan Thomas – not because he had connections with the area, but because he considered the view from here towards the Snowdon mountain range the best in the whole of Wales. It’s the highlight of the drive.
To the north of Mach is the Snowdonia National Park
. Mount Snowdon, at 1085 metres (3560 feet) the highest point in the British Isles outside of Scotland, is a bit too far for a comfortable day’s drive. However, a drive centred on Cader Idris (Cadair Idris, the seat of the mythological giant Idris, in Welsh)
is more than
A pork pie, a packet of crisps, a can of Coke - and this view!
worthy of a day’s outing with a picnic. At 893 metres (2930 feet), Cader Idris may be only the 19th highest peak in Wales, but the beauty of the surrounding countryside more than compensates. Drive directly north from Mach and, first, you’ll reach Corris with its Railway Museum, craft centre and subterranean caverns of King Arthur’s Labyrinth. Cader Idris comes into view as you continue towards the market town of Dolgellau (pronounce it Dol_geth_lee or Dol_geth_lie)
. You then have two choices. You could take the southern shore of the Mawddach estuary to the wooden toll bridge, drive cautiously across and join the main road to the family seaside resort of Barmouth with its massive beach and massive caravan parks to match. Alternatively, our choice: take the Tywyn road from Dolgellau’s main square and, after a short while look out for the sign to beautiful, National-Trust-owned Cregennan Lakes (Llynnau Cregennen)
. The 5-mile-long road is narrow with only a few passing places, some sharp hairpin bends, gates that need to be opened and closed along the way, and some fabulous mountain scenery. Near the lakes is a small car park (but the toilet block is now closed - you have been warned!).
Toll bridge to Barmouth
60p to cross to the other side
Among the boulder-strewn, sheep-grazed lakeshores there are plenty of places to sit with fabulous views over the crystal-clear waters towards the boat house and craggy hillside or to the tree-lined island with its tall Cader Idris backdrop. This is the place for your picnic! Remember to scroll down for more pictures, then click on 'Next' for another page... Double-click on pictures to enlarge them.
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