Wednesday 16 May 2012

Places of Worship

I'd just eaten a joyless pork pie.  I didn't know such a thing existed.  The fusion of hard pastry, thick pork and a layer of shaky jelly is one of the most wonderful food combinations there is.  It's one of the great British food inventions.  On top of that, I was still dieting, so the pie was tinged with the subtle taste of illegality, a stolen pleasure I wasn't meant to be enjoying.

It just wasn't doing anything for me though.  I munched through the perfectly adequate pastry, consuming each piece until all that was left was greasy fingertips and crumbs round my mouth, and I didn't enjoy any of it.

I blame Llanbedr.  My lengthy trek round Shell Island had left me tired and defeated.  There should have been another five stations on the horizon for the rest of the day; because I'd missed that train, I was going to have to drop the last two of the day, Tygwyn and Talsarnau.  Which meant I'd have to do them another day, which meant another station would drop off the end...  One train every two hours restricts your routing, particularly when you want to explore around the stations and not just spend all your time waiting for buses.

I was sat on the floor, hiding from a cold wind and the rain shower that had finally turned up.  It was another of those shelters they didn't want passengers to be comfortable in, making the hard concrete preferable to the narrow shelf above.  Occasionally a big truck would rattle past, out of place in the countryside.

I was glum.  I was down.  I was miserable.  I needed cheering up.

I took out my iPod and put on some Kylie Minogue.

I can hear your judgement from here, but you know what?  I don't care.  Dame Kylie of Erinsborough is a joy.  She sings perfect pop songs that are clever, fun, interesting.  She's got an amazing back catalogue - if you don't believe me, put on her Ultimate Kylie album and just listen to it all the way through.  Count how many songs you know, enjoy, tap your feet to, despite yourself.

I put on Aphrodite, her latest album: not my favourite (that's probably X, controversially) but one whose newness meant I was less familiar with it.  Soon I had the elegant All The Lovers in my ears, and things didn't seem so dark.  The rain stopped.  Moments of brightness shone through the clouds.  By the time the third track, Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love), came on, my arse was shaking, my fists were bouncing, and I was singing along.  Thank God Llanbedr is in such an isolated spot.    

Does all that make me a big old gaylord?  Yup.  I don't care.

The train arrived with the last song, the first moment of good timing that day, and soon I was crossing the bridge over the river Artro and disembarking at Pensarn station.  On my journeys in Wales last year I'd visited Abergele and Pensarn station; coming here felt like a strange link to the last journey, a passing of the torch almost.  While that station had overlooked clean clear sand, this one was close to tidal flats and grey water.  Its position was less beautiful, but equally inspiring.

I crossed the railway line and passed through the boatyard of the Christian Mountain Centre.  This was a new one for me.  I didn't realise that outdoor pursuits were an activity that required religious guidance.  I suppose dangling off a rope thousands of feet above the ground is when you would want God to be on your side.

I was now following the Welsh Coastal Path, which follows the edge of the whole principality, and which took me across the sheepfields round the coast.  The ground was soggy and wet, releasing my boot only after a struggle.  I tried to stick to the path, but sometimes I was forced to dance around in the grass just to stay upright.

Sheep watched me approach with intensity.  They ran it through in their head - friend or foe?  Fight or flight?  Every time, I thought I might have a challenger, but then they'd suddenly turn and leg it, moving to a safe distance, their lambs following behind.  It was hard not to be insulted.

After a couple of stiles, the soil firmed up, and the grass became more trim and managed.  I saw a woman standing in the middle of the path, perfectly still; at first I thought she was just taking in the majesty of the scenery, then I saw the backside of a mongrel in the grass up ahead of her.  She wasn't the last dog walker in this particular field, and I was back to dancing around, this time to avoid the little heaps of mess left behind.

The chapel at Llandanwg has become famous as the "church of the dunes".  Built in the 13th century, it's proved to be rather less mobile than the sands around it.  What was once an inspiring spot on the coast has become a sand-bound hillock, and the church was soon finding itself buried.  Regular worshipping had to be stopped as it became impossible to get the grains out of your cassock.

It was a lovely idea - this old building succumbing to the forces of nature.  Unfortunately, man had intervened again, in this case in the form of the Prince of Wales.  As usually happens when HRH intervenes on matters of architecture, he'd made it much more boring than it could have been.  His organisation had paid for the church to be rescued, the dunes shored up, fencing put in place and a path laid around it.

It revealed that the Parish Church of Saint Tanwg was, at heart, just another church.  Take away the mounds of sand and it was revealed to be no different to churches all across Wales.

I did a circuit, but the building was locked up, so I couldn't even go in and look round.  I peered through the barred windows and saw little hints of religious miscellany, but it was too dark to see anything.  The only fascination was the high walls of sand above my head.  I reflected that these protective efforts wouldn't be enough to hold them back; in the end, this church was doomed to be reclaimed, and it was just a question of when.

The plus side of Charles' intervention, and that of the National Trust, is that the church is now being promoted as more of a tourist attraction.  It's also lead to the opening of a small cafe, the Maes, by the car park.  Thank goodness it was there, because as I left the churchyard, the cloud above me collapsed, hurling water down over the bay in a violent storm.

I ducked inside and ordered a tea from the Brummie woman behind the counter.  She'd obviously retired here with her husband, a Frank Butcher-alike who was hiding in the shed outside, and she had the smily, optimistic look of someone who can't quite believe her luck in getting to live in such a wondrous place.  Or perhaps she was just glad to get out of the West Midlands.

The tables and chairs were still new, spotlessly clean and comfortable, if a little bland.  A tiny underfed  girl came in while her boyfriend held the dog under the awning outside.  She ordered an orange juice - fifty pence - and then befuddled the lady behind the counter by asking for a receipt.  After three attempts, she managed to wrestle the till into issuing one, leaving me to wonder who wants a 50p receipt.  I pictured her at the end of the month, totting up every purchase against her bank statement.  Her boyfriend then came in, a giant Welsh rugby bear, to get himself a hot chocolate.

Outside, his mobile rang, and he effortlessly switched into speaking Welsh.  It was the first time I'd heard anyone speaking it since I'd arrived, and I enjoyed the sudden alien-ness of it.  It made this rather ordinary cafe seem exotic and foreign.

Warmed by the tea, and with the rain subsiding to a mere drizzle, I headed up the hill to Llandanwg station.  It's another dinky platform, the length of a single carriage, with a wooden shelter and a plant pot with some insipid Bizzy Lizzies in it.  I installed myself in the shelter, took out my now shattered schedule, and tried to use the timetable on the wall to plan the alternatives.

Something was wrong.  Something didn't add up.  My route was based on a pattern of station-train-station-walk-station, and it should have fitted the remaining trains perfectly.  I always ended up with one left over though, an odd, rogue station that shouldn't have been there.  I couldn't work it out.  I ran my finger down the timetable, getting frustrated that the lateness at Llanbedr had thrown me out so completely.

Then it hit me.  Porthmadog was missing.

I checked again and, yes, there was no Porthmadog on the timetable.  My first thought was that it was closed for some reason - engineering works, or refurbishment, or something.  I finally spotted a sticker, artlessly added at the bottom: Train times from Porthmadog.

Yup, Arriva Trains Wales had managed to print and issue all the timetables, and no-one noticed an entire station was missing.  If I were a passenger at Porthmadog I'd be feeling pretty aggrieved.  Clearly they're not high on the train company's priorities.

I figured that it was more hassle than it was worth trying to make this broken timetable work, so I took out a book from my bag and read that until the train arrived.  I'd have put on some more Kylie, but I didn't want to violate the by-laws:

I'd left a space on my schedule to explore Harlech.  It does, after all, have a castle, plus a famous song named after it.  And when I got off at the station, there was an impressive riot of colour and facilities - even a footbridge.  The northbound platform's shelter had been illustrated with colourful imagery from Wales, a pleasing splash of brightness.

The southbound platform was - how can I put this - shit.  It had been decorated with a mural, and a sign boasted that it was "painted by the ladies of the Harlech WI".  I suppose I should admire their honesty in confessing to their crime.

It apparently tells the story of "Taliesin: How the legend of the chief of Celtic bards was born".  It was a mish-mash of New Age, semi-mystical, wibbly-wobbly Earth mother nonsense - all fire giving birth to animals and flying stars.  Of course, because it tells a story, we're meant to overlook the dreadful representations.  It looked like it had been drawn by schoolkids, though at least you'd forgive them for their naive artistic style.  It was just horrible.

Worse, there were far better things the ladies of the WI should have been devoting their time to.  A plaque on the wall said they'd adopted the station in June 2010, but they'd devoted all their efforts to the awful mural and a rowing boat full of flowers.  The station building stood on the platform, boarded up, abandoned, ignored.  I'm not suggesting that they should set up a full ticket office, manned by women in sensible hats and serving cream teas, but they could have spent some of their paint budget on giving it the odd lick.  Perhaps cover up the graffiti, or deal with some of the flaking parts, or knock down the burnt out wooden porch.  Not major structural work, just a bit of a touch up.  As it was, I got the impression that they did their mural then buggered off.

Station adoption is admirable, and I have to give props to Harlech WI for even bothering.  I just think they should have concentrated on the quick fixes first.

The way from the station to the town is via an impossibly steep, pavement less road that curves and twists up the hill.  Staggering, wheezing, realising that I still need to lose a whole load more weight, I dragged myself upwards, jumping into people's driveways to avoid the cars coming the opposite way.  At the top I was presented with the castle.

I was surprised by how small it was.  It's impressive to look at, but it's not the giant fortress of, say, Conwy.  This is your starter castle, for your first time dominator.  I walked around it, but it was 4:30 and so I wasn't going to pay to go in and get half an hour of wandering before I was turfed out.  Besides, a castle is always most impressive and fearsome when you're on the outside.

I turned instead to the town, and walked the main street.  Everything was closing or closed.  Not much of a loss, if I'm honest.

There are some places that lazily recline on their history.  They almost challenge the visitor with their past: "We've got an eight hundred year old castle.  What have you got?"  Chester does it, pointing at its walls and daring you to say it's not worth visiting.  Harlech did the same trick.  It had got its castle and then stopped bothering with anything else of interest.  The high street was banks and newsagents and chip shops and a few tacky "antique" shops flagging up Portmeirion china.  The houses were ordinary working class stock, scattered across the hillside like dropped Monopoly pieces; nothing to be ashamed of, but nothing special either.  The town didn't work for my attention, and I didn't grant it.

I reached the other end of town, where an alien spacecraft had landed and been pressed into service as the theatre, and passed one of the most horrible buildings I have ever seen.  It was quite easily the worst building I have seen in Wales (and remember, I've been to Rhyl) - a slab of beige concrete towering over the coast.  I turned back, shielding my face from its hideousness, in case I got concrete cancer from looking at it for too long.

Twenty minutes, and I'd seen everything I wanted to see.  I went back on myself and found a pub, the Lion Hotel.  It was warm and had wi-fi.  I bought a pint of bitter and hid in a corner, beside a stack of board games that had obviously been pressed into service in the pub once the kids grew out of them.  There were four men at the bar, rough, gnarled, talking about shagging and drinking and saying "fucking" with every other sentence.  One man held forth about his experiences in the Navy - getting locked up in the brig for desertion, getting his wife pregnant before starting another tour - before asking for another glass of "medicine - and not in a warm glass, neither".

Across from me were two Goths, pierced and blackened, sipping Cokes.  They murmured in Welsh, unlike the men at the bar, and sipped their drinks thoughtfully.  I wondered what was the Welsh for cthulhu.

And behind the bar - be still, my beating heart - was an astonishingly beautiful barman.  Through the chat I worked out he's the landlord's son, a student, and he's so attractive I had problems ordering my drinks from him.  He had enormous blue eyes and a shy smile, and I was struck dumb.  He wandered around the bar, bored by the old men's complaining ("America's awful.  Especially Disneyland - what a fucking dump."), and threw a few darts into the board with a languorous swing of his arm.  I reminded myself that I was a married man.  And that it was rude to stare.

Two pints later and I was heading back down the hill towards the station.  I wondered if I'd just misjudged Harlech.  If it wasn't lazy, but instead, overawed.  It was perhaps just a normal Welsh town that happened to have an enormous piece of Medieval masonry plonked in the middle.  I thought it would be like Caernarfon; I'd had expectations that hadn't been fulfilled.  Or perhaps the barman had just given me an urge to revisit the town.

There was a boy walking up the hill towards me, singing to himself.  He was about eleven, old enough to still sing without embarrassment, a rucksack over his shoulder.  He was also, quite clearly, lost in a world of his own.  He saw me approaching and did something unexpected.  Instead of shying away, blushing at being caught, he smiled at me and said, "hello!".  Cheery and polite.  I was taken aback, but mumbled a hello back as he passed me, still singing.

I realised I was grinning.  He'd charmed me.  The town wasn't up to much, but the people obviously were.  I mentally upgraded Harlech and headed home.


Anonymous said...

Harlech station still looks awful though. Bad public art, those miserable narrow benches to sit on and Arriva's hideous turquoise all over the place.

And as for historical or local interest, I think the sheep doing the splits at Chirk is yet to be beaten.

Unknown said...

The Church at Llandanweg is beautiful inside. It is ancient and has been preserved really well. Its also tiny and has no electricity which adds to its charm. If that doesn't interest you, then how about this, the day I visited, a wedding had happened the day before and the best man was none other than David Tennant - in a Kilt.

Scott Willison said...

That must be the weirdest place for a celeb sighting ever.

Though the "no electricity" part brings back painful memories of church parade in the Cubs, shivering in a medieval pew because there was no heating. All very pretty but I'd have liked a few storage heaters installed to keep my nine year old knees warm.