On 24th May, I met six BRITISH HERITAGE readers and Jan Shivel, representing Lord Addison Travel, in the lounge of Blossoms Hotel in Chester in preparation for an exploration of Wales, the latest reader tour offered by BRITISH HERITAGE and Lord Addison.
Our jaunt began the next morning with a ride westward along the North Wales coast that set the tone for much of our adventure. The coachload of complete strangers who boarded in Chester were quickly transformed into a friendly, chattering comedy troupe as we shared attempts at reading and interpreting Welsh road signs. By the time we reached our first stop–lovely Bodnant Gardens–we were friends.
Mother nature put on a show for us, as she does for every visitor to the North of Wales. Rain showers alternated with glorious sunshine as we took in Snowdonia, gorgeous seascapes, and spectacularly rugged hillsides. "The Welsh like to say that their country is larger than Texas, if you flatten out all the hills," Jan told us.
In contrast to this natural beauty, Wales also presented us with another face, in the form of its muscular medieval castles. First in Conwy, then again in Caernarfon, Beaumaris, and at Manorbier Castle, we encountered the evocative remains of some of the most turbulent periods of Welsh history and climbed spiral stone staircases until we were dizzy–which can be a thrill when you emerge onto a narrow parapet high above the ground.
Other sites we visited are harder to classify. Is Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’ fairytale village of Portmeirion a man-made attraction enhanced by nature or a natural wonder enhanced by the architect’s loving touch? And while Castell Coch, the fantasy castle created by William Burges in the 19th century, is undeniably artificial, it blends into its green surroundings so perfectly that it seems almost alive itself.
The centrepiece of our journeys was the town of Hay-on-Wye, the used-book capital of the world, with its annual festival of literature. With so much to see and do in the Wye Valley, even our close-knit touring party could not withstand the temptations, and we split up into several groups, each in pursuit of its own special fancy. Some went on to Clyro to the home of Francis Kilvert, the cleric-diarist who recorded impressions of life in the valley during the 19th century. Others dove into Hay’s many bookshops, armed with wish lists, and in nearly every case emerged holding much-treasured volumes, including several collections of Dylan Thomas’ works to commemorate our trip to his home at Laugharne, and another signed by the self-proclaimed "King of Hay."
At the festival itself, Earl Spencer talked about the history of his famous family, and another lucky member of our party was able to pick up an autographed copy of his latest book.
Shopping for all sorts of items took a high priority throughout our trip. Woollens were in great demand and prompted stops at Betws-y-Coed and purchases at the shops of the Museum of Welsh Life at St. Fagans. Recordings of the choir of St. David’s Cathedral, antique prints, and Welsh love spoons were also among the items that found their way into our bags.
Our daily explorations often left us reluctant to break for lunch, but quick and delicious pub food typically filled us with simple, pleasing fare and had us quickly on our way once again.
I would like to thank each of my travelling companions for a wonderful time: George and Wendy Gesslein, Lee Peiffer, Carol McCabe, Sandra Gaffett, and Jane McCormick. I hope BRITISH HERITAGE and Lord Addison Travel were able to bring the wonders of Wales to life–from Colwyn Bay to Caerleon and dozens of places in between.