A driving mini-break through North Wales
Writing this blog has made me interested in doing things and going places that are just a little beyond the normal. I want to experience everything in life from the beautiful to ugly to weird to wacky. This week, for some reason, I thought I would try a little wacky.
When my sister, let's call her Phyl and her husband, codename: 'Joe', (spy references will become clear later) came to visit me recently on a boondoggle for 'Joe's' work, I thought I would try a little wacky. While he was off grind-stoning at the company Meet and Greet's, I kidnapped my sister and whisked her off to the remote corners of North Wales.
My interest in North Wales started off simple: I wanted to go swimming pool surfing.
I would love to be a better surfer, but fending off shark attacks tend to put a damper on all the fun. Surf Snowdonia, the world's first inland, artificial surf lagoon, would be a great place for a lesson, Phyl would really not enjoy, but a blast none the less.
Surf Snowdonia is located in Dolgarrog, Conwy Valley, North Wales. As everyone knows, the Welsh language is famous for having about 3/4 vowels less than is necessary to make a real word. This may work for them, but the very least they could do is put the A in Conwy. Blame the English for a history including barbarism, colonialism and repression, but please don't exact revenge by taking away the A in Conway! Interesting note, the 'Welsh Not' policy of the 19th Century was an attempted eradication of the language; removing it from schools and encouraging punishment for those who spoke it. By 1921, just 38% of the population could speak Welsh only as their second language. The 1993 Welsh Language Act put Welsh back into the schools, and today, the language is once again thriving.
According to the GPS, Dolgarrog is roughly a four-hour drive from London. It would be nice weather and a doable drive, so I planned a two-day Welsh road trip with lots of extra activities my sister would not want to do, and a room at the Portmeirion Hotel. We left at 10:00 am, an hour later than planned, stopped for Starbucks and gas, then got to chatting. Six hours later, after a detour through the Twilight Zone, and possibly a few time vortexes, we arrived at our destination.
Fail# 1. Our surfing lesson was booked for 1:30pm. We only missed it by 2.5 hours. We could not rebook.
Fail# 2. The full-face snorkelling mask that I was so desperate to have for Christmas and thought I might get to use (in a man-made pool?) took up 1/4 of my luggage.
Fail# 3. My wetsuit took up another half of my suitcase.
On hotel search engines, there are two incongruous pictures of the Port Meirion Hotel. I thought it would be fun for my sister to stay in a castle, so when we arrived at Castill Deudraeth (four vowels, but all in the wrong place), I assumed we could finally get out of the damned car. Unfortunately, the reception clerk told us that we were actually booked in the village and had to drive about another half mile to get there. Humph.
Portmeirion, Wales is not where they make the eponymous Portmeirion Pottery. The pottery is made in Stoke-on-Trent. Portmeirion is a village designed, built and funded by English-born Welshman Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. Sir Clough, architecture school drop out, acquired the 170-acre estuary fronted land in Gwynedd, Penrhydeudraeth (go ahead, American friends, twist your tongues around that one) in 1925 for just under 5000 GBP, and built his fantasy village.
We drove through the village (Let's just stop here and address the fact that I really cannot be in or speak about Wales and say the word 'village' without hearing Matt Lucas from Little Britain in my head, wanting to be 'The only gay in the village'. If you don't know the show, look it up. This is what youtube is for.) The receptionist at the village hotel then instructed us that our room was in a cottage in the actual village called 'Upper Mermaid'. Back into the car, for the short ride up the hill.
The village, paraphrasing the best line from Breakfast at Tiffany's Hollywood agent O J Berman " is a phoney. But it's okay because it's a real phoney." Yes, the village (have you looked up Little Britain yet?) is fake. These are real buildings, but each building in the village is actually a hotel room, suite or cottage available to rent. Development of the property lasted from 1925 until 1976, with updates continuing until 1999.
Speckled throughout the village are coffee shops, an art gallery, spa, several tourist and souvenirs shops, and more than what seemed necessary ice cream parlours. The Art Deco restaurant at the main hotel building has a more upscale menu, with an excessive amount of patrons dressed in striped shirts (sadly, I could join this crew), and the Brasserie Castill Deudraeth serves a more relaxed menu, including soon to be consumed fish and chips: approximate caloric intake 25,0000 kilojoules.
The buildings of the village are also not all they seem. Again, you think the style is 'Italianate' but there is a Greek-inspired domed building with a Parthenon archway, clapboard Norwegian style cottages, English row houses, a Buddha in a pagoda that was a prop in the film 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness' starring Ingrid Bergman, and Hercules Hall, which features reclaimed 17th Century plasterwork depicting the Labours of Hercules. There is also a large pink manor house that musician Jools Holland calls home when he visits the village.
Sir Clough imagined Portmeirion to be a 'home for fallen buildings' and that is pretty much what you find; buildings that somehow got caught up in Dorothy's worldwide cyclone and landed in North Wales.
There is a lot of randomly located sculpture ( mostly burly men and mermaids) and a lot of architectural ornamentation. There are also cutout one-dimensional sculptures which bothered the heck out of S2. They are phoney sculptures, but it's okay because they are original art deco tin artwork from 1932, so they are real phoneys.
And speaking of phoneys, Patrick McGooghan may have been a looker back in the day, but he was no James Bond. And to quote his most famous line: "I am a man, not a number!" he wasn't a number either.
To explain, "The Prisoner", filmed in Portmeirion in 1967 and starring Patrick McGooghan, was a futuristic television drama about a former British spy.
The main character, soon to be known exclusively as 6, viciously slams down his resignation from Her Majesty's Service and speeds off towards his swanky flat in his spiffy sportscar. Once home, he is fed poisonous gas through the keyhole and passes out. He wakes up still in his flat, however, his flat is now in Portmeirion which stands in as the prison. So much action! And it all took place just in the opening credits!
The setting for 6's flat, the Round House is now a shop that exclusively sells memorabilia from the show, including white-piped black blazers, bathrobes, and red velvet kitty-cat fedoras (which would not be out of place at any #MeToo rally).
The Prisoner theme had this sixties spy vibe and Johnny River's Secret Agent Man was a good song to continuous loop in our heads for the duration of the trip. Secret Agent Man was the theme song to a British TV show we had never heard of called 'Danger Man' and not The Prisoner.
Fail # 4. Song stuck in our heads for no good reason. (now it's in yours).
But wait: when researching for this blog, I found that 'Danger Man' was rebranded for the USA as ....'Secret Agent', starring one Patrick MacGooghan. Not the same show but a win for us anyway. (and deduct Fail #4!!!)
The second Welsh adventure I had planned for S2 was a hike up the highest peak in
wales, Mount Snowdon. S2 was not too happy about packing her hiking shoes but her mood improved when, in the vastness of Snowdonia National Park, we could not find the actual mountain. How can you not find a mountain? We agreed that after such a long drive, there was no sense driving around looking for a bloody mountain when Portmeirion has 20 miles of hiking trails and botanical gardens to explore.
Fail #4: Not hiking Mt. Snowdon and choosing instead to fanny about in botanical gardens looking at imported American Redwood trees.
The grounds of Portmeirion are actually quite beautiful, with a large collection of non-indigenous trees and flowers, a dog cemetery, beach-front, a Chinese lake and a ghost garden, questionably named as it seemed only to be filled with overgrown succulents which were very much not dead. I wonder what was really in the dog cemetery.
Happily, I afforded another quarter of my luggage capacity to my hiking gear. I was well equipped to dart up the well-maintained hiking trails, aided only by my courage and a trusty walking stick, swiftly passing all of the ill-prepared hotel guests in their skirts and flip-flops as they meandered the trails with while eating their ice cream. Smug sarcasm.
Fail # 5: Devoting my limited luggage space to superfluous activewear, while packing only one pair of elephant-legged jeans that grew by the minute, and two knit striped t-shirts. S2, meanwhile, looked adorable throughout all of our adventures.
With all the driving and the hiking we were doing, there was a definite need for some downtime. Just across the cobbles from the Prisoner shop and through a bright blue garden gate, you will find the Mermaid Spa. As I was proactive with this trip, I had prebooked us both hot stone massages, mainly for my spa reviews, and not at all as a treat for us both.
Angharad at reception very kindly asked if we still wanted the hot stone treatment.
"Sure", I replied, mentally limbering up my back and preparing for a nap.
"Are you sure?", she asked again. " You do understand that it is 30c/90f degrees and we don't have air conditioning. You might want to rethink that".
I agreed that her point was valid, and we settled on a facial and a back rub. The spa was rather small and a bit basic, but the treatment was delicious and the therapists could not have been more friendly, even if Angharad did refuse to touch hot stones in 90-degree heat.
Our final Welsh adventure, excluding the whale-sized fish and chips that we would have for dinner, was a trip 500 miles below the earth into the LLechwedd Slate Caverns at Blaenau Ffestiniog. I learned a lot about Welsh slate (lasts 250 years) and what it was like to be a slate miner (lasted about 40 years). I also learned that the mines are an average 50 degrees, regardless of outside temperature, which makes them a perfect place to age cheese.
I also learned that there are only three Welsh surnames in Blaenau Ffestiniog, one of which is Jones, and that Blaenau Ffestiniog was too ugly to be included in the map of Snowdonia. So like Lesthoto, the landlocked country in the middle of South Africa, Blaenau Ffestiniog is an ugly landlocked village filled with Jones' in the middle of Snowdonia National Park.
These mines are a museum of endeavour, excruciating conditions and of human suffering. Not the happiest place on, or under, Earth, but truly fascinating. There are some very nice hologram interaction and a script about a poor family of miners, including the eight-year-old Gavin, whose job it was to lug the slate out of the mine. There is a zip lining course and you can even get married in the mine, 500 feet deep below the Earth's surface, in total darkness, surrounded by cheese.
Lots of funny fails on this Welsh mini-break, but one very important win. S2 and I got some real quality time together, had loads of laughs and maintained our 'Probably the only people from Pittsburgh to have ever been here' status. S2 also fulfilled her life-long quest to eat Welsh Cakes.
*Welsh cake recipe on Eat This! Cooking with Phyl