When Sarah Ferguson marries Prince Andrew Wednesday, she will follow a tradition started, 60 years ago. Her ring (like all the royal wedding rings) will be made of Welsh gold, which carries a high premium because of its rarity. It is mined in a remote valley above the Mawddach estuary in the county of Gwynedd. Are you with me? And it isn't just the place names that read like an optician's test.
Taking a four-day drive around northern Wales, we approached it from the English town of Chester, just across the border in Cheshire County You take the A55, then the A494 heading west for Mold and Ruthin, in the county of Clwyd (pronounced Clue-id). When you see Rruthin, that double R will be one of the early signposts that you've crossed the border and the management (i.e., the Welsh) will kindly spell everything out for you in both languages.
Here are a few twisters to help you along: ysbyty (hospital); canol y dreff (town center); croeso (welcome); toiledau (toilet). How about cariad (lover), gwylan (seagull) or mynydd (mountain)? The Welsh phrases for "which way" or "how much" completely eluded me.
The Welsh have a more Mediterranean complexion than the English, count themselves as one of the lost 10 tribes (of Israel) and are known to be extremely musical and poetic. Danny Abse, a Welsh poet now living in London, writes in "A Strong Dose of Myself" that "what the English describe as tact, the Welsh call hypocrisy. They don't so much speak sentences as make incisions and they do this to the manner born without benefit of a Cambridge education."
We lunched in the medieval market town of Ruthin at a homely pub called the Eagles Hotel, which was a coaching inn dating from 1400 on the old Roman road. beamed ceiling gave the pub an authentic olde worlde charm and the plowman's lunch (bread, a hunk of cheese and salad) was just right with the local beer.
The drive through Clocaenog forest -- south on A494 and west on A5 -- to Cerrigydrudion and on to Betws-y-Coed (pronounced Betsy Coed) is picture-book: snowdrops, streams and splendid mountain views. This is training ground for climbers and soldiers and is definitely on the "oh and ah" list. But we found Betws-y-Coed village to be just the place to avoid. It was chock-a-block with tourists wandering in and out of craft shops and the traffic was a snarl-up.
So we took the A5 west to Bangor, then crossed the Menai Bridge to the Isle of Anglesey. The island is fringed by a 125-mile coastline -- with dunes, beaches and dramatic cliffs. we turned right onto the A545, an old coach road leading to the Georgian seaside village of Beaumaris, once Beau Marais, meaning "lovely flatland." Here is a castle, is a castle, is a castle -- and Wales boasts more of them per square mile than any other European country.
Beaumaris was the last and the largest of the castles built by Edward I to prevent the Welsh from overrunning the border. You cross over the water-filled moat once connected to the sea by a canal, and into the stronghold squared with gatehouses, at one time royal apartments. As you stand within this ruin you are left in no doubt that Edward meant business.
It was the end of our first day, and we headed back across the bridge and north on the coast road, A55, which runs along Conwy Bay. We were to spend the night at Bodysgallen Hall Hotel, just outside Llandudno.
The house is a superb example of harmonious additions built over the centuries, from Jacobean balusters to Victorian stairs. that It was ori1734934529nally designed as a watchtower for Conwy Castle, below in the valley. Six centuries later, Bodysgallen is a magnificent country hotel with 19 very comfortable bedrooms in the main house and five self-contained cottage suites renovated from adjacent farm buildings. Six gardeners enhance the views from the terraces and walks around the seven acres of formal gardens, one of which has a sundial dated 1678.
"The 1986 Good Food Guide" selected Bodysgallen Hall as Welsh Hotel of the Year, and after staying there you understand why. Every possible comfort has been considered -- even the nooks and crannies provide ideal extra coziness for two people to chat or read or have a private drink. The panelled drawing rooms on the first and second floors each have welcoming fires and the comfortable library and bar feel like home. The food is deliciously French, with accents on Welsh favorites and fresh herbs and vegetables from the garden.
After a massive breakfast -- kippers, eggs, bacon, etc. -- we set out to the south for Conwy, attractive medieval town, approached over the Conwy estuary by three bridges. (The railroad bridge runs above the 13th-century walls.) The town grew around the castle, another of Edward's marvels, and is still contained within its walls. Aside from the castle, you can visit the oldest house in Wales at the corner of Castle and High Street, and the smallest house in Britain by the river. Traditionalists claim that Britain's first sweet peas were grown here by Queen Eleanor of Castile -- just the sort of thing you need to know when playing the British Trivial Pursuits.
Deciding on just one more castle, we drove southwest along the coast road to Caernarfon (A55 to A4087), continuously owned by the Crown since its founding in 1283. The siting of the castle and its encircling town walls at the end of the Menai Strait, where the River Seiont flows into the sea, make it irresistible. It is a perfect shell, the entrance made through the Gate of the King over the old, now dry, moat. There is an effigy of Edward II, the first English Prince of Wales, at the arch of the gateway. Legend has it that it was here that Edward I showed his baby son to the Welsh as "the native-born Prince who could speak no English." platform out on the grass is the very spot where Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales on July 1, 1969.
Less than 20 miles south on A487 is Portmadoc and the 13-mile Welsh Highland Railway, originally built to transport slate in 1922 and closed due to the decline in the slate industry. In 1980 it was rebuilt -- and then operated -- by enthusiast volunteers. The track bed rises over high embankments, crossing spectacular rivers and quiet valleys, through tunnels and around horseshoe curves. All this for 75 cents for adults, 45 cents for children.
"You have to go to astonishing Portmeiron," says every Welsh enthusiast, and since this unusual "jig-saw" village lies so close to Portmadoc -- about five miles down the A487 -- we did. Between the world wars, Welsh architect Clough Williams-Ellis bought an old mansion called Aber Ia on a beautiful peninsula with magnificent mountain views and quiet water. He then bought up 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century architectural bits and pieces, moving them to this site, which became his Welsh Xanadu. Eclectic in the extreme, this village is, on the one hand, vaguely Portofino in landscape (squint and you'll see Italy), and on the other, frankly folly. If you look on it as one man's unique fantasy, you'll enjoy walking through the village ($2.50). There are 18th-century English houses that can be rented and a number of shops selling pottery, candles and books. But the real charm lies in the grounds, with woodlands filled with azaleas, rhododendrons and exotic plants like eucalyptus, gingo and cyprus. Heading north from Portmeiron, the A470 runs dramatically through slate country. Low dry walls of slate snake through the hills and massive piles of it mound up on the side of the road. Ubiquitous sheep mill around the hills and you feel here some of the gloomy passion of Wales as you glide through this landscape.
About 30 miles beyond the slate mines is the celebrated Bodnant Garden, its entrance along Eglwysbach Road. It is open daily except Mondays and Saturdays between March and October; admission is $2.50. Laid out in 1874 and given to the National Trust almost a century later, this outstanding example of landscape architecture molds water-lilies and azaleas, camellias and conifers along its steep paths. Eight miles later we reached the seaside resort of Llandudno, one of the best-preserved Victorian towns in Britain. The resort is enclosed on one side by Great Orme's Head, a 700-foot-high limestone hulk, on top of which a 7th-century early Christian church still stands. Open-air services are reached by ascending in a cable car, and the views over the Isle of Anglesey and into the great mountains of Snowdonia or the coast itself are heavenly indeed. The eastern side of Llandudno is contained by Little Orme's Head with wild cliffs and sandy bays. Marine Drive runs in between, with the sea on one side and all the English-sounding small hotels, like Somerset, Shelbourne, Dorchester and St. Georges on the other. A long pier finished in 1883 has gaily painted blue and white railings and small kiosks lining the wooden walkway.
This is a gentle, quiet seaside resort without the sustained elegance of Brighton perhaps, but not lacking in its own earlier, courteous beauty. It is an ideal spot for rest and reflection after the delightful rigors of castle-hopping in North Wales.