Monday, 20 July 2009

Day 9 - Wales Coast - Harlech - The mountains of Snowdonia start...and cows get happy

So north I go. Driving along the coast from Broad Haven, through St Davids, where there is an imposing cathedral, well known locally as an important pilgrimage for Christians.

I stopped in Aberystwyth for lunch. It felt run-down and maybe in need of some tourist money.

Heading north further still, I got to Machynlleth (not sure how you pronounce that!) . Here the mountains smack right into your vision. It's a quick change of scene. And Dolgellau is the town that's right in the middle of the southern areas of Snowdonia National Park.

Further in, you notice plenty of happy cows and sheep grazing lazily. But the cows in these parts are not just happy, they positively overdosing on good vibes. For the first time in my life, I saw cows lying down on their sides, fast asleep in the afternoon sun. In South Africa, cows are pretty much everywhere outside of the cities, and I've ever seen this...I didn't know cows could do that! There must be something in the grass in these parts...(it does look tasty, even to a homo sapiens like me! If I had to eat grass, I'd eat Snowdonia grass.)

Day 8 - Wales Coast - Broad Haven - My first day on holiday...

I drove north up the coast of Wales from Rhossili to Broad Haven, a small holiday village to the north west of Milford Haven, which has the second deepest natural harbour in the world. There's also a massive oil refinery in the area, but don't let that put you off, because the coast is predictably attractive.

This trip isn't really a holiday - I am moving every day to a new spot, and don't really have time to sit and enjoy the views for longer than a few minutes, before finding the next spot. But after an hour in Broad Haven, I felt - for the first time on this trip - like I was on holiday. (Don't feel sorry for me though....I'd do this every day for a long time to come! It's a massive privilege to travel through new lands, meet locals, understand new cultures...)

I arrived at Anchor Guest House, right on the expansive beach, and the first thing owner Janet Havard said to me was: "I've been reading your blog, and you've done way too much travelling in way too little time. Put your bags down and just chill!"

So I did as I was told, and as it was sunny, I went straight tothe beach for a swim (The water wasn't cold, nor that warm...just in between.) I sat down and just watched the beach scene, without doing anything.

Broad Haven reminds me of one or two beach towns outside Cape Town, in South Africa, where I come from. They're simple, not glamorous, stripped of any pretension, and the sort of place where you can go out for dinner in your costume, flip flops and sand in your hair. In other words, a real beach holiday.

Anchor Guest House is the feel like you're on holiday in your own beach holiday home. It's simple. Bathrooms are small but clean. Bedrooms are not decorated. There's no fuss. The result is you don't feel scared to be untidy, and throw your clothes on the floor, just like I would at home, and worry if someone looked inside. It hosts a lot of walkers from Germany, Holland and the rest of Europe, who do the beautiful coastal walks in the area. And surfers too...they probably enjoy the easy going way Anchor is managed.

There're one or two basic restaurants, but head to Druidstone, about two miles to the north of Broad Haven. A completely different dining experience! It's a big old house in 20 acres of wild land, owned by the Bell family, who have opened it all up to guests for meals and for a drink in the bar and patio that looks out over the coast. Everyone is part of the family when you go there. Art of all kinds hangs on the walls, hard core locals mix with regular visitors. The meals, though, are very tasty, and service is good. So they haven't compromised the visitor experience by letting guests hang out in their home. Go there, because you'll meet locals, and they'll make you feel's an authentic insight into how people live around here.

Round the corner from Anchor Guest House is Haven Sports, a surfing store that rents our water sports gear. Richard Heys will point you in the direction of one of many of the good surf spots in the area.

Broad Haven beach is wide, long and has small waves for beginners. Newgale, a bit further north is bigger in wave size, reaching 6 to 8 foot in autumn. And further south at Fresh Water West, 10 foot waves are predictable in big swell.

To the north of Broad Haven, is St Davids, a town with a cathedral of the same name...a classic, fairytale cathedral, that is an important pilgrimage site for Christians in the area. It is beautiful, but I am quickly starting to become immune to all these architectural gems, because there are so damn many of them. (I've been spoilt by St Catherines, St Govan's etc)

But something did catch my eye near St Davids. I didn't go there, but I saw a pamphlet for sheepdog demonstrations at Pembrokeshire Sheepdogs. Apparently, you can see border collies giving demonstrations on how they herd sheep, and how they are trained. Awesome. Go there for me, will you? (I have a border collie called Jasper back in South Africa!!).

The view from Anchor Guest House onto Broad Haven beach...roll out of bed onto the sand. Click on the image for a full screen version.

Anchor Guest House...

Day 8 - Some more pics from before - Chesil Beach, and Worms Head near Rhossili

Chesil Beach, from a few days ago...17 miles long! (Click on image to full screen version)

Worm's Head to the left, and Rhossili Beach to the right, and the Worms Head Hotel looking over it all. This area was the first to be declared an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK. I just wish the sun was shining! Still, it was special. (Click on image to full screen version).

Day 8 - Some pics from before - Corfe Castle and St Catherine's Chapel near Abbotsbury

Here are some landscapes from earlier in my trip...the first is Corfe Castle near Bournemouth, the second is St Catherine's Chapel near Abbotsbury.

Click on the image for a full screen version...

Click on the image for a full screen version...

Day 8 - Wales - Gems of the coast...

From Rhossili, I drove up the west coast of Wales, through Llanelli, to the Pembrokeshire National Park. This is the only truly coastal National Park, and it protects a countryside that the locals are very proud of. Surging blue sea, coves with sandy beaches every few hundred metres, and undulating green coastal hills that at their edge fall twenty or thirty metres into the sea.

On my way I stopped at Barafundle Bay, another photogenic spot, with a rock arch just offshore. Then I headed to St Govan’s chapel, which might just beat St Catherine’s Chapel in Abbotsbury for being every girl’s favourite church for getting married. And it’s legendary origin is indicative of the Pembrokeshire coastline.

St Gobham was an Irish missionary who found his way across the Atlantic in the mid 500s. (Yes, 500...phew, that's 1500 years ago, or 1000 years before any white man got near my home country of South Africa!). His existence was for certain, but how there came to be a chapel at the bottom of a cliff, in front of pounding waves, is up for debate. Apparently, he was pursued by pirates to the edge of the cliff, where he looked down onto the rocks below, knowing that he’d die if he jumped off. Miraculously, the cliff face opened for him to walk down, and it closed around him, hiding him from the pirates up above. It was in this spot that St Gobham built his chapel. He died in 586, and his remains are thought to lie in the altar on the east side of the chapel.

Another fable which reflects the influence that this coast has on local folklore, is that of the Huntsman’s Leap, a huge vertical fissure in the cliffs, about 600 metres to the left of St Govan’s. In the 19th century, a horseman saw the crevice and had no choice but to urge his horse to jump over it. He and his horse did so successfully, but when he looked back and saw just how far they had jumped, the huntsman died of shock.

From St Govan’s I headed to Marloes Sands, another beautiful National Trust site. When I got there, it was high tide, and the “Sands” were covered in surging surf. Nevertheless, it was a powerful scene, something that makes one sit down and stare at for hours and hours, not knowing why - it’s maddeningly addictive. While looking for a good spot to take photos, I met Liz and Duncan, the summertime caretakers of the local youth hostel, and they invited me over for a cup of tea. The hostel is about five minutes from the beach and cliffs, and is well isolated. It is somewhere I’d like to go back to, and simply listen to the wind and sea, and watch the clouds and the surf. And at £13 a night for a dorm bed, I reckon I could do that for quite a while.

Unfortunately though, I’m having to move quickly from place to place. I only have 33 days to go all the way around the coast of Britain – it’s a strange experience moving quickly through these stunning landscapes. I wish I could have spent more time with Liz and Duncan. They really made me feel like I was on holiday.

St Govan's chapel on the way between Rhossili and Broad words needed. Click on the image for a full screen version.

Day 7 - Wales - The people...

Heading into Wales, you can’t help notice the road signs that are written in both English and Welsh. There is a strong sense of identity. Turn on the radio, and skip through a few stations until you come to BBC Cymru, the Welsh station...even though you won’t understand a word, you’ll be’s a language of fairytales. In fact, it reminds me of the Elves speak in Lord of the Rings.

The people are very friendly. There is the old man who pointed me in the right direction of Worm’s Head. There’s the other old man in the National Trust Car Park at Barafundle Bay who let me park for free, because I had no cash.

There’s the receptionist in the Dragon Hotel in Swansea who let me use their Internet without hesitation, but with a very big smile.

There’s Julian Short at the Worm's Head hotel on Rhossili Bay who seemed most happy to keep the bar open late for his guests, even though he’s had a year of late nights already.

There’s Liz and Duncan who manage the youth hostel at Marloes Sands, who invited me in for a cup of tea and a chat. And then there’s everyone else who I passed while walking along the coast, who smile like the sun’s going to shine forever. And the weather was good...after a few days of rain, the sun came out and saturated all the greens and blues. It is hard not to be extra friendly in a place like this.

And there are fewer tourists. It is now school holidays for six weeks, and while Cornwall was jammed with them already, the Welsh coast is comparatively quiet. It’s a somewhat wilder place, where villages are spread further apart, and are less commercial. The area seems less reliant on the tourist trade. Of course there are tourists, but they seem to be the independent travellers, not the tour bus kind or the city crowd. There are a lot of “walkers”, who simply enjoy walking. And it’s easier to bump into the locals at the pubs and restaurants.

Day 7 - Wales - Gower Peninsula - Official area of outstanding natural beauty

The Gower Peninsula, just to the west of Swansea, was the first area in the UK to be declared an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, by a governmental body, in 1956. Today there are 47 in total across the UK, and they are each deemed to be “a precious landscape whose distinctive character and natural beauty are so outstanding that is in the nation’s interest to safeguard them”.

It is clear, once you drive onto the peninsula, why Gower is an official AONB. But it is once you get to Worm’s Head, on the south west corner that you realise why it was the first to be declared. Worm’s Head is a photogenic offshore island, cut off at high-tide from the cliffs of the mainland. (The name is Viking in origin – “Wurme” meaning “Dragon” or “Serpent”). This in itself might be enough for an AONB designation, but it is Rhossili Bay immediately to the north that completes the symphony. Sweeping for a few miles along the coast, the beach of Rhossili is made all the more spectacular from the high viewpoint above the cliffs, where the Worm’s Head Hotel is situated.

This family hotel is a popular with locals who like to enjoy a sunset drink on the bar’s patio, perched high up on the cliffs, looking over the beach and the island. Just a week into my trip, I have been surprised again and again by the edge of Britain. It seems like the more I travel, the more diverse and locally unique it becomes. This west coast really does hypnotise.

The Worm’s Head hotel is right at the end of the road, next to the parking lot for visitors to the site, which is managed by the National Trust. The building itself is not beautiful or grand (fortunately, because the view deserves the attention), and it provides simple, clean, comfortable rooms, with reasonable food in the restaurant. And there's lot of fun in the bar. It’s hard not to enjoy oneself in a place with views that would cheer up an old fisherman who’s spent a whole winter’s night without catching anything. But they do catch down here. At sunset last night, a about ten local fishermen parked their cars next to the hotel, donned their wetgear, and headed down to the edge of the peninsula. The sea bass ended up on my plate later.

There is no cellphone signal, and no internet connections here. Owner Julian Short, who used to lecture civil engineering at Swansea University, says the telecom companies “won’t go near the area, because there are hardly any people living here.” It’s a couple of houses, and the hotel for plenty of miles - in one outstandingly beautiful area. There is no sign of commercial tourism. Even the hotel looks non-descript and subdued – the first time I drove up to it, I didn’t see it – because the sign can be easily missed. It is graded 2-star by the AA, which means there isn't the wide range of services that more demanding customers may require - but this suits the scene. I'm not sure guests should be making cellphone calls or checking their email in a place like this. It should probably be outlawed actually.

Julian’s son Adrian helps manages the hotel, after leaving university a few years back. Julian says:”I said to him, you can go to London and work on the tenth floor of a building, and not know who’s on the floor below, or on the floor above. Or you can come and work with me here, and enjoy the best view in all of the UK every day.” Adrian didn’t argue, and it’s obvious why.
The view from my room looked onto the island and the beach. The only thing that obscured it was the salt on the window, which probably accumulates over night, every night....the westerly wind is incessant.

There is, probably appropriately, very little to do in the area.

Walking is why most people come: you can walk for 18 miles along cliff tops from the hotel to Mumbles, the popular seaside town of Swansea.

There are five golf courses within a ten mile radius, the best being Langland Bay and Pennard, according to Julian.

For something more adventurous, check out Dryad Bush Craft, an outdoor survival school that teaches you how to enjoy nature without modern help.

There is a lot of water around, so you can try out some kayaking, surfing, canoeing etc with Gap Activities.

For more info, see Swansea’s tourist website.

Click on image for a full screen version...the Worm's Head hotel is on the right, up on the hill.