Up until this point, my feelings on Wales had been mostly distant admiration. Previous visits had convinced me it was a bit of a miserable place - that soulless strip of grey buildings that hugs the coast from Shotton to Prestatyn; rough houses and abandoned factories and miles of tin caravans. The trip so far had shown me some astonishing beauty (on the Anglesey coast, crossing the Menai Bridge) but also ugliness (Holyhead, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch). I had been impressed, and sometimes enthused, but I wasn't captivated.
That was about to change. I was on the train from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch to Llanfairfechan, which sounds like someone trying to say the first one but giving up halfway through ("Llanfair... feckin' hell, can't they just speak English?"). Onboard I noticed this little notice, which fascinated me:
To save your eyes, it says "It is an offence to consume alcohol on trains and stations on the following routes: Ponytypridd to Treherbert, Aberdare, Merthyr and Caerphilly to Rhymonsey". To which the obvious question is: "why?". What goes on at those stations? What scandal erupted and turned them dry? I wondered if this was part of that Welsh Temperance Movement, still clinging on to the railways through some antiquated by law. It's probably more likely that it's to stop marauding rugby fans from tearing up the carriages.
As was becoming the norm, I was the only person to get off at Llanfairfechan; I didn't take it personally. The station was squeezed under the A55 which lead to an interesting contrast. I was stood on a deserted country station, but all I could hear was a drone of traffic whizzing past behind the retaining wall. It was like being back on Anglesey, with the jets interrupting your contemplation.
On the other side of the station is a small park, which runs down to the promenade, and blessed be: a totem sign! I hate having to use platform signs on this blog. It's just cheating. I grinned madly under the BR logo, and only got one pitying look from a passer-by, which is a result:
Under the A55, and I got my first surprise: a very scenic river, cascading down the hill towards the coast. It was pretty in a sort of ridiculous way, like it had been designed for a Disney film; it was so perfectly tranquil. I headed up the hill towards the village proper, becoming increasingly gleeful as it unfolded in front of me.
The thing is, Llanfairfechan is wonderfully, brilliantly, amazingly gorgeous. It is one of the most charming places I have been to in my life. I was absolutely smitten. The high street was heralded by a round tower, and after that it was a parade of tiny, valuable shops: a carpet store, a bathroom fittings store, a hairdresser, all local businesses, not chains. Interspersed with them were greystone cottages and little patches of green, with the mountains rising above me. And behind it all I could hear the cascading water as it made its way down the slopes.
Rather than push on, I took a table in the Castle Bridge Cafe, and had a pot of tea out of the kind of glass cup and saucer that I thought had vanished in the 1970s. The Cafe seemed to have some kind of nautical theme going on; there were plastic starfish in the windows, and my tray was encrusted with all sorts of barnacles.
The only other people in the cafe were the owner, a man sat at the counter, and a table of four: three old ladies and an old man. I could have listened to them forever. They must turn up every day, for their tea and cake and gossip, and stay here till it closes. The man at the counter was doing a crossword: they offered to help but he refused, because they'd spoil it for him. In the meantime, I leaned back and eavesdropped. Anyone disgusted by my behaviour should think again - eavesdropping is the best free entertainment there is, and more people should do it. Especially when the conversation was as good as this. Among the gems I unearthed in my half-hour in the cafe:
- Lady No. 1 was out in her dressing gown last night because of a disturbance over the road. The police were called because someone had tried to break into Alistair the Artist's shop. (Woman behind the counter, horrified: "The police came?")
- Lady No. 1 regularly goes on holiday with a lady named Rhoda who, for reasons best known to herself, refuses to go to bed unless she's wearing a cardigan.
- "I was watching Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? It was his last film. No, not Sidney Poy-ti-eh [sic]. Spencer thingy. With the hat."
- "That trip to York was awful. Morse died while we were away." (She meant John Thaw, but apparently none of them were fully cognisant of the fact that Inspector Morse was fictional).
- The man brought up the topic of football, which they all agreed was rubbish and a waste of time. He complained: "Manchester City won the FA Cup and there was a picture of them celebrating in the paper. They all had their mouths open - it was disgusting."
I texted The Bf. "We're moving to Llanfairfechan. Start packing."
There are two ways to get from Llanfairfechan to Penmaenmawr if you're a pedestrian. The first is to walk up the mountain, round the back of the summit, and back down again, via the North Wales Coastal Path.
The second way is to get a bus.
Sod it, I was tired and lazy and the cup of tea and the interesting chat had made me a bit dozy. I figured I could do without a hike through the foothills of Snowdon. Plus the bus stop - a tiny little one in the Welsh countryside, remember - had a shelter and seats and an LED Next Bus indicator and a service every fifteen minutes. That's better than Merseytravel offer me in Oxton. There's a shelter at the top of my road with no seats or timetable, and the buses only turn up every half hour on days during the Spring Equinox when there's a rising star in Cancer. And even then, they don't go anywhere you'd actually want to go. I took up a seat in the shelter and watched the people in the bus stop opposite stroke a horse in the field behind. It was all so wonderful.
The bus was clean and efficient and on time. I was sat across from two people talking Welsh. Surprisingly, this was the first time I'd actually heard people talking Welsh on my whole trip. Previously, I'd found it a slightly annoying language - all those extra l's and f's, and the occasional throat clearing noise, and their absolute refusal to use the letter 'x' ("tacsi"? Really?). Now, in my new fondness for all things principality related, I wondered if it was difficult to learn. It probably is, but I figured that I wouldn't be able to truly consider myself a productive member of the Llanfairfechan community until I was able to ask for a pint of bitter using only consonants.
I was close to choosing wallpaper patterns for my new Welsh home when I realised the bus was heading for the Penmaenbach tunnels. The A55 swings through two tunnels here, one built in the 1930s and now only used for Eastbound traffic, and one built in the 1980s for Westbound traffic. In line with my general love for massive engineering projects, I have an unhealthy fondness for tunnels. I think it comes from reading too many adventure stories as a kid, and growing up loving anything secret and hidden. I still get a thrill when we use the Mersey Tunnels (true fact: the night I met the Bf, I got him to use the Kingsway Tunnel, because I'd not travelled through that one. And he still came back for more!) I was ridiculously pleased as we disappeared into the darkness.
The downside of buses is that if you've never been somewhere before, you don't know where your stop is. Train stations have a certainty about them. They're fixed, unmoving points in the world. Like God. Except they exist.
As it was, I had to just jump off when I estimated I was in the centre of Penmaenmawr. If I was wrong, I apologise, but what I saw looked gorgeously centre-ish. Again, I was entranced. This had a different feel to Llanfairfechan; that had been mostly about nature, with trees and the river capturing me. Here it was the buildings and the people. Penmaenmawr was busier, and its high street was wonderfully Victorian - thick solid buildings with ironwork and glass out front.
The sadness was that the village centre had seen better days. Most of the shop windows were empty, but strangely, it didn't seem frighteningly bare. There wasn't an air of decay. It seemed like they were temporarily between tenants - not so much abandoned, more "resting". I decided to have another cup of tea to compare and contrast the gossip with Llanfairfechan's. I picked the Light Up Pen Cafe which was, I thought, the worst pun-named cafe in the history of the universe. "Light Up Pen"? That's just rubbish.
Turns out, the reason for its strange name is this cafe is a community run venture: all the profits go to funding the annual Christmas lights. I felt the sense of local pride while I was in there - the staff and the customers were bantering back and forth like old friends. I should however report that the level of gossip in the Light Up Pen cafe couldn't compare with the Castle Bridge, so I'm afraid Llanfairfechan wins that battle. The best Penmaenmawr could manage was a couple of blokes earnestly discussing the football, and who cares about that?
It was a very pleasing walk down the hill to Penmaenmawr station, past one of those miserable looking Victorian monuments to Gladstone. Apparently it was erected from local donations - I'm not sure why they bothered, since he doesn't look very happy to be there.
On the plus side the station itself is lovely...
...or it would be if it wasn't shuttered and boarded up. Sigh.
I'd trekked all the way from Anglesey, and I'd only encountered one working station, at Holyhead itself. That was mainly because they were sharing facilities with the ferry terminal. What gives? (Though in fairness, Bangor might have been staffed once they finished the building work). How hard is it to lay on a single ticket office, with one man who can answer questions and sell you a ticket. He'd be an oracle, a salesman, and a security guard.
Because I got thinking: this would be a great place to commit a murder. A nice open space. Not too many people around. The ability to come and go without raising suspicion. Time it between trains and no-one would ever know. You could get a couple of hours of bodily mutilation without being bothered.
Although thinking about it a bit more, it'd be better for an affair. You want a discreet place to spoon with the person of your choice, without having to pay out for a hotel room. Here's your spot! It's got parking, it's got places to sit down, it's undisturbed. Far better than doing it in the back of a car on a lane somewhere. And if you're of an exhibitionist bent, you can coincide with the express trains and give them all a flash of your arse as they speed through.
With my mind firmly in the gutter, I got on board the train and headed off to Conwy. I'm not being English-centric - this used to be called Conway, didn't it? That seems to have fallen out of favour completely. I'm not complaining. Conwy sounds much nicer, and in my new pro-Welsh stance, far prettier.
It's a testament to the power of the railways in Victorian times that the trains brush right up against the skirts of the castle itself. No-one dared tell them that it was a bit close to the heritage, or that they might endanger the artefacts, or it didn't look as pretty. They built the line where it was practical and that was it. Something the HS2 planners should perhaps bear in mind.
Conwy's another request stop, but I didn't need to worry: the platform was teeming with tourists waiting for the train. I wasn't the only one to get off for once, either.
I know this isn't exactly a newsflash, but Conwy is very pretty. Ridiculously pretty. Obscenely pretty. Castle + walls + tiny streets + more history than most countries forget = gorgeousness.
Just look at that. That's the square right outside the station; that's before you've even ventured into the town proper. Like most tourists, I wandered round with a delighted smirk on my face. It was all so lovely.
But - well, there had to be a "but" - it was all a bit fake. Not the history, but the feel of the town was that it had become a tourist destination, and that was it. The shops were almost all tourist tat or tea rooms. Or banks. No matter how small the village or town was in Wales, there always seemed to be a representative from each of the big banks: perhaps the Assembly is secretly funding it.
It meant that while I liked it, I couldn't love it. It was a bit too theme park for me.
On the plus side, it did have somewhere I could buy one of these:
so obviously it's not all bad.
No, actually, it was a wonderful little town. Perhaps after Penmaenmawr and Llanfairfechan my joy muscles were all tired out. I'd come to expect - not expect, take for granted - that this corner of North Wales would be beautiful and scenic and lovely.
I leaned back in the pub and let it all wash over me. The barmaid brought me a prawn sandwich that was about four hundred times better than the mangy one I'd bought in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, and for half the cost. The man next to me rustled his paper. The sun streamed in from the beer garden.
I thought, I could stay here. I could just settle in and relax and have a few pints and be happy. Contentment.
Bliss. A great account. I will be going to North Wales soon on the strength of this.
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