Wild on Wales

A country of majestic landscape and near-unpronounceable names claims Jill Hocking's heart.

WHEN I was a small child, the Roberts family lived next door. Robbie Roberts was a Welshman, from the Lleyn peninsula in north Wales. My sisters and I would listen entranced as he recited, without drawing breath, the name of an unremarkable village on the isle of Anglesey. It is called Llanfairpwllgwyn - gyllgogerychwyrndrobwyllllantysiliogogogoch. It was gobbledegook to me (a lifetime later I can still recall the lift of go-go-goch at the end) but it fairly tripped off his tongue. Llanfairpwll, for short, is now the stuff of a million postcards showing the longest railway station sign in Britain.

In late 1974, while on a working holiday, my partner and I took a winter's lease on a house in the Welsh seaside town of Aberaeron, half an hour south of Aberystwyth on the west coast. We found work, and on weekends during that winter and spring explored the Welsh coast and countryside. We weren't exactly locals but we weren't tourists either.

Over the years we've been back three times. Why Wales? To a child's ear there was magic in a village called (in English) St Mary's Church, in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St Tysilio by the red cave. Through Robbie Roberts' lilting rendition of Llanfairpwll, Wales became a book of stories of princes, poets, magicians and fairies; of brooding castles, toy trains and pit ponies.

On that first trip, more than 30 years ago, we approached west Wales across the remote central uplands. In her book The Matter of Wales, travel writer Jan Morris calls the unpeopled heart of Wales the "Great Welsh Desert". The Abergwesyn Pass between the stone villages of Tregaron and Abergwesyn was once the drovers' route from Wales to the Midlands and London.

There is a silence and emptiness in the expansive landscapes of mid-Wales that come as a shock after the stitched-together green fields of England. Cardiff is only two hours by car; it's not really remote but the solitude is palpable.

Our house in Aberaeron was a 10-minute walk from the sea. The small harbour, flanked by Georgian houses painted in lilac, pink and aqua, was much photographed. A square of green surrounded by more painted houses and the usual pubs and shops, chapels and schools made up the town. A short walk took us along the wooded Aeron riverbanks or across the cliff tops.

Life moved indoors. We saw Bruce Spence in The Cars that Ate Paris at the cinema in Aberystwyth and a travelling opera troupe performed Don Giovanni in the Aberaeron Comprehensive School Hall. Percussionist James Blade played Theatr Felinfach in a nearby village. Dylan Thomas' Adventures in the Skin Trade was part of a full winter program at Theatr y Werin in Aberystwyth.

Off-season Aberaeron hunkered down. The harbour was emptied of boats and more often than not the rain-slicked quay was deserted. Wind whipped around the empty caravans on the clifftops and seagulls that had grown fat on summertime chips went on enforced diets.

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As winter segued into spring, daffodils and bluebells spread on the river banks and the trees took on a mantle of green that deepened as summer approached. Come May, we moved on, making way for the first of the summer tenants.

Hearing the mellifluous cadence of Welsh for the first time felt like a breath of fresh Celtic sea air. It was strange and marvellous to live in a town where the people kept the pulse of their language strong. Our landlady used to say that "real Welsh" was only spoken in the north. I can't judge, but in Aberaeron last visit, "real Welsh" was alive and on the street. A little knowledge of the language always helps. During that long-ago Welsh winter we learnt that "aber" means river mouth (Aberaeron sits at the mouth of the Aeron River) and that "llan" at the beginning of Llanfairpwll (and scores of other villages) stands for the village church. In time we could pronounce Pontrhydfendigaid, Pontrhydygroes and Ysbyty Ystwyth, the names of grey stone villages.

Wales is wonderful walking country and some of our best times have been stepping out on the paths that garland the coast and cross the moors and mountains.

An early hiking trip was a week-long loop of Snowdonia. The mountainscapes of north Wales are harsh and sharp-edged, the bare hills fanned with scree at their base and snow-flecked in May. We climbed Mount Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa, meaning the tomb) on a spring bank holiday. The track bustled with ramblers: families with small children decked out in expensive hiking boots, a group of men in their 70s, and fell runners who streaked ahead, ignoring the raw majesty of the scenery.

On the day we climbed, the vista beneath us moved like a fairground carousel. Gusts of wind swirled the clouds in front of us, cutting visibility to a few metres. Just as suddenly, they rolled away to briefly reveal small lakes glinting in the sun and below them sheep nibbling the turfy lower slopes.

Years later, on a clear and breezy summer day, we strapped our toddler into a backpack and hiked the cliff-top path around the coast of Pembrokeshire. We stopped to admire the 12th century cathedral at St David's and then hit the trail. The Atlantic surf churned beneath us and between the rocks grew sea pinks, gorse and broom. We paused on the headlands and gazed north along the indented coast marching to Strumble Head.

On another trip, young sons in tow, we set off on a three-day bushwalk along the Offa's Dyke Path. The long-distance trail roughly follows the mound and ditch earthwork built by King Offa in the eighth century to mark the boundary between England and Wales.

We tramped for 15 kilometres each day through the Welsh Marches between Knighton and Hay-on-Wye. We cut across fields littered with giant hay bales and climbed stiles over hedgerows threaded with cow parsley and wild rose.

Last trip we contented ourselves with a half-day woodland ramble near Machynlleth in southern Snowdonia. It was near Machynlleth that the resistance hero Owain Glyndwr led the uprising for Welsh independence in 1400.

The path followed a drover's track alongside a tumbledown fence fashioned from slate offcuts. Tepid winter sunshine struggled through bands of grey cloud. The air was pungent with wood smoke, dampness and decay.

There are two Aberystwyths. The summer version is a Punch-and-Judy, deck-chairs-on-the-pebble-beach kind of place: you can ride the cliff railway, stomp around the castle ruins, take the narrow-gauge train to Devil's Bridge and lick ice-creams as you stroll the prom.

The other Aberystwyth (Aber to the locals) is the home of the University of Wales. The waterfront is backed by Victorian-era buildings converted into student digs and the main campus, including the arts centre (concert hall, theatres, cinema, galleries) is on Penglais Hill.

Just down the hill from the university, the neo-classical National Library of Wales is one of Wales' treasures. It holds all things Welsh: medieval manuscripts, Turner landscapes, maps and newspapers, videos of Plaid Cymru rallies and the 1984 miners' strike.

We gave the docklands a miss and instead ate at a cafe opposite Cardiff Castle. Cardiff Bay would still be there next time, we told ourselves, as we cut through the Victorian arcades on our way to afternoon tea and cakes in the crypt of St Peter's Church. And next time, we could take a look at the new glass and slate National Assembly for Wales, which opened on the waterfront earlier this year.

Jan Morris is half-English and half-Welsh but makes no secret of her passionate love for Wales. In The Matter of Wales she celebrates Wales as "not just a country on the map, or even in the mind: it is a country of the heart, and all of us have some small country there".

I'll go along with that.

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