By James Green
As I’m packing for my first trip to Wales in 10 years, I start thinking about my last trip to this alluring edge of Britain. As I throw a sweater and light jacket into my rolling suitcase, the memories flood back…
This is more than just another travel writer’s trip. This is a trip into my memory, into my life as a traveler, and it assumes for me a significance far greater than your ordinary Euro-jaunt.
As befits this land of contrasts, I’m hit by two thoughts as I begin to re-explore my previous haunts: 1) Nothing has changed, and 2) So much has changed.
Are the changes purely within me, or is Wales really any different? Then again, have I really changed, deep down? My life’s in a different place, for sure: how could it not be? But am I really, at heart, significantly different?
I pause, amazed that I’m standing on a Welsh street having such thoughts.
Driving through the Pembrokeshire countryside from Swansea to the southwest coast, it’s as if the curtain of the years has been lifted, and the Wales I remember has come once again into view. Unchanged? Well, not really. It seems that way at first, though, as I drive along narrow roads bordered by stone walls, farmhouses sitting among patchwork green hills, the occasional sheep or cow resting by the side of the road. But as I explore more, I find wonders in every corner of the landscape, wonders I hadn’t even known existed–not the least of which is a rural gay-friendliness that might surprise those who equate “outside major cities” with “less than welcoming.” Here, gay couples run B&B’s in the middle of nowhere, and the most interesting historic home belonged to two 18th-century (presumed) lesbians. Hostility seems foreign to the laid-back Welsh, and that’s as gratifying as any gorgeous panorama.
Surrounded by such beauty, who has time for bigotry?
I start with a drive through Pembrokeshire, on the southwestern edge of Wales. This is a land of crashing waves and placid hills, dramatic crags and gentle pastures. Here, tiny lanes off the main road (and by “main road” I don’t exactly mean superhighway) lead to panoramic hillsides or stunning beaches (where, unfortunately it’s too cold to swim much of the year). On the southeast tip lies Tenby, one of Wales’ most popular resort towns, and the adjacent village of Saundersfoot, where my Mindy and I stayed in the backyard trailer all those years ago. I actually feel my heart pounding as I sweep around the coast toward Saundersfoot; such is the power of memory. As I round a corner and this cute village comes into view, I see a startling sight: Traffic! So popular has the area become, in fact, that driving into the center is limited during certain hours.
On a cliff just outside town, there’s something else new. No more trailers for me, I’m staying at St. Brides, the gorgeous new spa resort that’s the only real luxury spot in the region. I visit the lovely spa, where you can have a mud wrap or soak in the infinity-edge pool that seems to flow down the hillside into the sea. I dine in Cliff Restaurant, a casually elegant spot overlooking the water with food sourced from the surrounding Pembrokeshire countryside. In my room I notice that the furniture, blankets, even the mugs are made by local artists. The waves lap faintly below. I have my first good night’s sleep in ages.
Thoroughly rested, I head down to Saundersfoot the next day. It’s much as I remember it, a scattering of shops radiating from a lovely little seaside promenade. But Marina, an upscale twist on a fish and chips place, certainly wasn’t there! The Lounge, a sleek little black/red coffeehouse, is certainly very 21st-century! The Mermaid Café, with dishes from sardines and chutney to smoked salmon fishcakes, is most definitely a new presence!
For all the new spots, though, Saundersfoot hasn’t changed much. That pleasant jumble of buildings, pristine beach, and green cliff: direct transplants from the world of memory.
Nearby Tenby is, as it was then, more hopping. While it’s definitely touristy, it’s still charming, with long rows of pastel houses, an esplanade above a beautiful, wide beach, green-swathed hills beyond. I walk into the heart of the village as horse-drawn carriages clop down cobblestone streets, walking tours stroll past St. Mary’s spire, and boats wait to ferry passengers to nearby Caldey Island.
For all its seaside tourist pleasures, though, there’s much more to Pembrokeshire. It’s not just “beachside resort” or “farmland” or “craggy coast” or “rolling hills.” It’s all these, and more. It’s tiny cities, like St. David’s, Britain’s smallest official city. It’s massive castles, like the one in Pembroke. It’s places like Stackpole, where I set off on a long dirt track through green fields, pastures soaring up to undulating hills, coast hugged by striated cliffs, to Barafundle Bay, a luxuriant curve of honey-toned sand. In all, there are 12 people on the beach. And four dogs.
That’s Pembrokeshire, immensely popular but full of solitary moments. You can drive around all day and still not see everything, or lie on the beach and see entire worlds of sun, wind, and sea go by. In that respect, it’s changed very little indeed.
As I head into North Wales and Snowdonia National Park (home toMt. Snowdon, the highest point in England and Wales), it’s as if the scenery itself is coated with the mist of memory. This is where my friend and I, spent most of our time on that long-ago trip. Driving past grazing sheep in emerald fields, low-slung hills swooping up to purple/brown/pink/green/orange pastels of Wales’ highest mountains, the whole scene seems covered in a soft-focus, nostalgic mist. Then I realize: This isn’t memory; it’s the way North Wales looks, the skies overhung with a perpetual light fog even when they’re blue. Rugged crags change color as sun and clouds move across, and frequent turnoffs help me stop, catch my breath, and study breathtaking panoramas of fields, flowers, streams, and sky.
I take the rental car down a narrow drover’s road, plunging right into the heart of golden fields and fog-shrouded hills. I gaze out over the Gwynant Valley, an incredible vista of stone walls, bright fields, distant lake, and mountains stretching toward infinity. I check out Portmeirion, a wacky “village” on the coast, built starting in the 1920s and looking like an Italian town gone wild, with freaky statuary, wild pillars, and kaleidoscopic shops. I check out Bangor’s fab cathedral and student-y, laid-back atmosphere, with funky restaurants named Herbs or Java, and the only gay bar in North Wales, the Three Crowns.
I head down a seemingly endless road to Plas Newydd, home of the famous Ladies of Llangollen, a much-beloved late 1700s lesbian couple. Okay, there’s no sign on this historic house that says “two big 18th-century dykes lived here.” But how many times did they try to elope till their rich Irish families, in desperation, shipped them off to Wales and out of sight? Isn’t that bed displayed in the house awfully small for two non-lovers to have shared? Um… Wasn’t their maid called “Molly the Bruiser”? ‘Nuff said.
But here’s the great thing: They were the hit of the countryside. Pals like the Duke of Wellington brought them carved oak pieces that now fill the house; Williams Wordsworth wrote, “On Deva’s bank ye have abode so long/Sisters in love…” The inevitable thought arises: What if I’d stumbled onto Plas Newydd 10 years ago? How would my coming-out have been affected by the remarkable story of Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Charlotte Butler, these “sisters in love” who captivated the hearts of the Welsh countryside?
The thought stays with me as I re-explore Betwys-y-Coed, the sweetly touristy little town where we stayed all those years ago. It’s another one of those much changed/little changed scenarios. The captivating little church in the woods (from Betwys, “prayerhouse” and “Coed,” woods) is still there; the shops have probably changed but offer pretty much the same stuff—woolens, souvenirs, ceramics. But there certainly wasn’t a hip little coffeehouse like Station Cafe, with espresso, 24 varieties of tea and very cool little pastries.
I sigh as I e-mail my friend a photo of the Betws-y-Coed sign from my room at Sygun Fawr. This gorgeous country hotel in the sweet little town of Beddgelert is run by Ian and Chris, one of several gay hotelier couples I discover. But it doesn’t feel like a hotel; it feels like an amazing country house (which it was), where all the rooms are different and where you order your (quite wonderful) dinner while hanging out in the bar over a glass of wine or Welsh beer. It’s not surprising Chris and Ian have tons of return visitors, many also exploring the landscape of remembrance: The elderly gentleman who brought a photo of himself standing on a local bluff fiftysomething years ago; another who scrounged up the ad for the hostel (£4 a week) that occupied the premises when he was young.
It’s somehow satisfying to see I’m not the only one affected by the misty, memory-laden quality that’s North Wales. There’s just an indefinable something here: the sun glistening on meadows and on the distant sea; the tiny roads that twist through this awesome scenery as if to ensure you slow down, look around you, relax, remember. Looking from Sygun Fawr’s yard to flower-clad hillsides, to clouds and sky that seem placid but change on a dime, I think: this is a place where time doesn’t stand still so much as hang, suspended, waiting. It will probably always feel that way.
While Pembrokeshire and Snowdonia are the lynchpins of my nostalgia, I realize as I travel between the two that this trip is as much about creating future memories as reliving past ones. Between these two superstars of Welsh beauty lies an unheralded wonder: County Ceredigion. This time I don’t just wave at Ceredigion from a train window, I check into wonderful Ffynon Fendigaid (“Bountiful Well”). I wonder once again, what would be different if this place had existed ten years ago? In addition to its simple, comfy rooms and glorious setting, it has a surprising benefit: Who’d expect a B&B run by a gay couple, Huw and David, out in the middle of a countryside practically untouched by tourists?
Huw reports that they’ve found remarkably easy acceptance here in the middle of the Ceredigion countryside. They were the second same-sex couple here to have a civil union ceremony (“a lesbian couple beat us to it,” he smiles), and the local registrar was so helpful she’s still a friend. The postmistress’ comment on meeting him: “Oh, you’re Huw? I hear your wedding was lovely!” (Locals, he notes, never say “civil union” and universally refer to event as their wedding.)
For Huw and David, who spent years in London, coming here was a dream come true. When I ask how long they’ve been together, his reply doesn’t even surprise me: 10 years. My mind starts to reel—as my friend and I were discovering Wales, this Welshman was finding his lover, and haven’t things changed that the two can now be legally united, and what twists and turns our lives and those of our countries have taken since then, and…
The astounding view from Ffynon Fendigaid over the patchwork hills of Ceredigion brings me back to the present. This is farm country, and the pleasures here are basically rural ones: Visiting farmhouse stores and antiques shops packed with bounty, driving by stone churches and chapels, walking the seacoast trail that carries you over grassy bluffs overlooking some of the country’s least crowded beaches. As I sit with Huw over smoked haddock and steak/kidney/ale pie in the seaside Ship Inn, I know I’ll be back to Ceredigion. It’s a memory not from the past but belonging to the future.
That’s what this trip is about, after all, and I create more new memories in the Brecon Beacons, my final destination. The minute I set foot in the lovely region just forty-five minutes north of Cardiff, I feel nostalgia being made. I settle into Brecon, a charming town filled with antiques stores and galleries, and check into Segura Wales, an 1801 coaching house transformed into a beautiful guest house by yet another gay couple, Tony and Marc. Transplants from Cardiff, this delightful couple is eager to show off the beautiful area they now call home.
These are memories in the making for sure, I think as I hike through golden hills, past wooded waterfalls, in Brecon Beacons National Park (with over 500 square miles, you might consider a bicycle or horse to fully explore). I stroll aimlessly along a still canal as clouds march across a Technicolor blue sky. I take tea on the terrace at Gliffaes, a fabulous country house hotel; have dinner at Roberto’s, a surprisingly wonderful Italian restaurant here in Nowheresville. To an urbanite it might seem there’s nothing to do here, but start exploring, and you’ll find there’s more than you can do in most lifetimes.
Here in this location that’s new to me, this future memory in the process of being formed, I think back yet again to that trip, when I was young and everything was a discovery. Ten years ago I discovered a land I loved. Returning, the love deepens. Wales is not the flashy beauty that a a decade later has gone to seed. It’s the pleasantly pretty youngster that as an adult just gets more appealing.
Am I rhapsodizing? Forgive me. There’s something so captivating about this country, with its endearingly impossible language, its gentle scenery, and its unbelievably wonderful people, that everyone turns into a poet when they set foot there. It’s the bracket to my adult life, and I cherish it.