If old things are to your liking, really old things, older than castles, I would recommend a visit to the small Welsh village of Llangernyw, just down a maze of tiny zig-zag roads from the much larger town of Conwy. Here you’d find the Llangernyw Yew, a 4,000-plus-year-old tree, the oldest in the U.K. If that is not enough to lure you there, the tree has a notch that is considered to be a gateway to the world of the dead. It was once believed to deliver a prophecy each Halloween as to which local citizens would die in the year ahead. Dogs are welcome, but I would be careful to keep them on a lead and away from the tree itself. I was pleased to see a local news story that none other than Charles the Prince of Wales visited the tree before he stopped off to have his picture taken several hundred times while pulling himself his own pint of bitter at a local pub. Despite worries about pooch patrols and overzealous council members, it was still a grand thing to be in the land of princes and pubs and trees that were thousands of years old.
Like so many other places on our itinerary, we really should have lingered longer around Conwy itself and visited nearby Little Ormes Head and Great Ormes Head and sought out some interesting stories in the towns with names like Llandudno which sounded like something out of Gulliver’s Travels, Book III. But instead, we ushered our pup Kelty into the backseat of the Fiat and found ourselves suddenly on motorway A55. If you were in the Midlands of England and wanted to get yourself across Wales quickly to Holyhead to catch the ferry to Ireland, this is your road. It skirts along the sea with some fantastic views but, as we raced along, I knew we were missing some interesting towns.
Penmaenmawr – meaning Head of the Great Stone, for example. Here was a stone circle built by druids, among other ancient things, but today it is a quarry town like so many other Welsh locales. There had been a devastating train crash here in 1950 with five hundred passengers aboard as the train slammed into another locomotive and thirty-one people were injured. And, in 1976, a former submarine commander murdered four people at the Red Gables Hotel before setting the place ablaze and shooting himself.
It looked like there was a good wide beach for hiking in Penmaenmawr but I was afraid to stop and walk the dog there given the town’s bad luck and the potential fines that I had read about, so we just zipped on by. My wife Linda had commandeered the map book and discovered that there was yet another castle ahead near Bangor. She spotted it from the motorway as we skirted the coast and we turned off the A55 onto a leafy stretch of road that led to Penrhyn Castle. Despite the fact it was built in the early 1800s as a “mock castle” – intended to look like something much older – the National Trust still charges the usual hefty fee to walk inside.
It was the brainchild of architect Thomas Hopper, and the BBC once filmed a sitcom there called It’s That Man Again. Queen Victoria had planted a tree there, but we couldn’t seem to locate it as we walked around the grounds. And, of course, the castle itself was said to have ghosts. What castle doesn’t, even a replica one? And there was even a ghost dog reported to roam the Ice Tower, but when we tried to enter the main edifice with Kelty, we were turned away because dogs were not allowed. Bloody hell, as the English say.
At the end of the day, back in our slate cottage in Betws-y-Coed, I dipped into a book that might unlock the meaning of some of the strange-sounding Welsh words we had encountered. Thus, I discovered that the language wasn’t nearly as confounding as it seemed. I learned that a llan is a church, coed is woods, a pont is a bridge but a pant is a hollow. Aber means river mouth, castell is a castle, glyn is a glen or deep valley, Y or Yr means the, and newydd is new. Betws means bead, referring to a rosary bead so Betws-y-Coed means bead house or house of prayer. Very nice indeed.
I also opened a volume called Wild Wales by nineteenth-century Norfolk novelist George Borrow. In his 1854 publication he had this to say of the town outside my doorstep:
“Crossed over an ancient bridge and passed through a small town and found myself in a beautiful valley with majestic hills on either side.”
Mr. Borrow would probably be appalled at the commercialization that has overtaken the “small town,” but the valley itself is indeed still beautiful and I can attest to the majestic hills.
To the south of us, for example, was the town of Penrhyndeudraeth, which looked somewhat desolate at first with high barren hills all about, but I knew it held some intriguing history. Later, I would dip into The Daily Post again, a newspaper that serves up North Wales with both the latest gossip and some solid history, to discover there had been an explosion at the local dynamite factory there in the summer of 1998. The blast was heard up to twenty miles away, reminding me of the Halifax Explosion. Some problem, it was surmised, with the “nitroglycerine mixing house.” What town allows a dynamite factory to be built in their community? I wondered. Well, the dynamite was used for slate mining and slate mining has been ever so popular throughout much of Wales for at least a couple of centuries. Where you have slate, apparently, you have dynamite.
Back in New Jersey when I was still in graduate school, I had a happy-go-lucky friend named Larry who worked on the night shift in an explosives plant. On breaks in the middle of the night he and his coworkers were in the habit of smoking marijuana – which, to my mind, even then didn’t seem like a wise thing to do. So, I thought of Larry while pondering life in a dynamite and slate Welsh town like Penrhyndeudraeth. If blokes like Larry end up working in explosive plants, then it is likely that occasionally there will be accidents like the one in 1998.
I made a to-do list of things to dig deeper into when I next returned to Wales and first on the list was more research into the history of mining zinc, coal and slate. My guess is that it is not a pretty picture. In 1941, John Ford created a Hollywood blockbuster about the plight of Welsh miners called How Green Was My Valley. According to IMDB, “Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall), the academically inclined youngest son in a proud family of Welsh coal miners, witnesses the tumultuous events of his young life during a period of rapid social change. At the dawn of the 20th century, a miners’ strike divides the Morgans: the sons demand improvements, and the father (Donald Crisp) doesn’t want to rock the boat. Meanwhile, Huw’s eldest sister, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara), pines for the new village preacher, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon).” Who could have guessed a film set in Wales about mining and pining could be such a huge success?
Much of the devastation of Wales by mining has been erased by time and the natural healing of the land.
While the hard lot of the poverty-stricken Welsh has mostly disappeared from the view of travellers like us, I am sure it is not forgotten and echoes down through generations despite our current universal obsession with the here and now.
On a fine sunny Welsh morning, we set off to find a castle that allowed dogs and hoped that Dolwyddelan would do the trick. Built early in the thirteenth century, it is set in truly beautiful surroundings. We had to keep Kelty on his leash as there were sheep rambling about on our paths. It was a grand morning with dew still on the grass and the sky a striking blue. After hiking several steep dead-end paths, however, we decided that we should save our energy for the trails of Fairy Glen to the south of us in the Gwydir Forest Park.
With substantial difficulty, we found the tiny car park of Fairy Glen, deposited the requested entrance fee into a rusty money box and made our way across a field and into a dark wood that indeed looked like the perfect place for fairies. It reminded me a lot of Puck’s Glen back in Scotland, and I told Linda we should seek out as many of these glens as we could until we ultimately came face to face with some real spirits. Having the place to ourselves, it certainly felt spooky in a completely pleasant way and Kelty kept stopping to look at trees and plants as if he could see things we could not.
Like Puck’s, the narrow trail dipped down to a dazzling stream at the bottom of the forested canyon where light played tricks with the water. The stones were wet and slippery – as they should be – and we danced through the dappled sunlight from stone to stone until we heard the fairies singing madrigals in our attentive ears. Fortunately for us and others like us, plans to build a hydroelectric power plant here in 2016 were thwarted by tree huggers and sprite enthusiasts alike – a good reminder that magic places of nature and spirit need protection from the coalition of profiteers and pragmatists who plague the planet.
None other than Wilhelmina Stitch once wrote a poem about the place saying that she “waits and waits to see the fairy men.” I don’t know why, but I had always thought of fairies being feminine or at least childlike and I am sure I would be accused of being sexist had I mentioned that to my wife. If there had been fairies about during our family visit, I believe they were genderless, but I made a point of wanting to find out more about this once-famous and now forgotten Stitch woman and later – when I did some scant research – found out this; she was born in Cambridgeshire in 1888 as Ruth Jacobs, married a Canadian lawyer, E. Akarie Cohen, and followed him to Winnipeg where she started writing for newspapers as . Her prose and poetry were bubbly, full of advice and optimism and eventually found its way into international newspapers and books. In the “The Singing Kettle” she wrote,
“Up to its neck in water, boiling water, too. Yet the kettle keeps on singing – that’s what we ought to do!”
Well, for my money that stands as good advice today as it was back in her day.
And in “Begone, Dull Care” she scolds, “No! Little, whining, fretting care, you cannot come and walk with me. So lovely is the morning air I do not want your company.” Once again, I agreed that her 1920s advice could still stand us in good stead on this day as we trudged back up the steep trail surrounded by the gnarled limbs of holly and sky-reaching oak trees.
Without a doubt, the Welsh countryside around Betws-y-Coed was a spirited place. We designated our final afternoon there for a trip to one of the must-see places nearby on the Llugwy River – Swallow Falls as it is known today but originally called Rhaeadr Ewynnol or “foaming waterfall,” which it truly was. You pay a gentleman in a booth some money and walk through a full body turnstile that reminded me of something you might go through to get in or out of a prison. Kelty was a bit perturbed by it, so I had to carry him through the mechanism, prompting me to wonder what travellers do if their pet happens to be a Newfoundland dog.
Steps led to a viewpoint and then down to several other stages until you arrived at the lower reaches of the fall. Here was a clear pool with a great number of coins on the bottom including plenty of one-pound coins. I thought it looked like easy pickings to reach into the water and scoop up enough money for the pizza we planned to buy later that day. As always, Linda reminded me that discretion was the better part of valour (did she really say that?) and, as I leaned over to touch the surface of the clear pool with my finger, she not so gently elbowed me in the ribs and pointed to a noisy family descending the stone steps discussing how hard it was on their knees.
Why do people throw money into pools and fountains? It turns out that this was an ancient European custom to repay the gods (whichever ones were popular at the time) for clean water. In return, the water would keep flowing and maybe the gift would bring a good crop of hops or wheat or string beans. If it was a well, it became a “wishing well” and I wondered how many lives were lost when young hooligans through various centuries tried climbing down into the well to steal the money.
In Rome, we had observed one of the most famous of the fountains where residents and tourists alike tossed coins; Trevi Fountain. In the bright city lights of evening, the floor of the fountain pool was a skittish silver of reflected light, a complete carpet of coins reflecting tourists’ dreams and wishes from around the world. According to Business Insider, the equivalent of $1.5 million U.S. gets tossed into the waters there each year. The city collects the money each night and turns it over to a Catholic charity that uses the funds to feed the poor, making at least their minimal dreams come true. Thieves often attempt to scoop up the loot late at night, but usually get caught and charged, quickly discovering that it is not the easy money they thought it might be.
As to the pool at Swallow Falls and its cache of cash, the ever vigilant and probing Daily Post reported that in 2017 a “Mr. Egan and Mr. O’Neill” were apprehended collecting the coins from the Swallow Falls pool. A nosey upright citizen named Mr. Wylde who reported them said, “One of them had a spade and the other a colander and they were taking the coins, Mr. Egan sweeping up the coins with the spade and dumping them in the colander held by Mr. O’Neill.” When they saw the police coming, Egan and O’Neill started throwing the money from the colander back in the river.
I am not sure which of the men brought the colander, but I have this vision of one of their wives at home that day hoping to make spaghetti for her brood when lo and behold she can’t find the damn colander and blames the fairies for hiding it. The Post did not report if the spade or the colander were commandeered and held as evidence. I personally have sympathy for the two men and am glad the judge was lenient and only charged them court costs for the petty crime.
Me, I only throw pennies into fountains and pools but now we don’t have pennies in Canada anymore and I might toss a nickel or two in Trevi or the fountain in the local mall, but that’s it. If I want to throw away my money, I would rather spend it on pizza and beer.
It turned out that Swallow Falls also had a spirit or two rambling about. A year before the coin heist, some paranormal investigators caught, on video, the ghost of Sir John Wynn of Gwydir walking about there. Some claim his spirit is trapped at the falls because he mistreated locals when he was alive. I presume this was John Wynn, first baronet, who lived a long and wicked life from 1553 to 1627.
During his tenure on the planet, he was as nasty to his fellow man as he could be. His hobbies included quarrelling, suing and generally being unkind to his neighbours and, at one point, he was declared a public nuisance and briefly imprisoned. Why he chose to haunt the falls in modern times is puzzling, but perhaps he too was tempted by all that glittering cash in the moonlight.
But about that pizza…Linda had read about Hangin’ Pizzeria in downtown Betws-y-Coed over by the train station where all the train fanatic nutcases liked to hang out. We decided that pizza seemed like a good last supper for us in Wales since Hangin’ donates a portion of their profits to two charities: Orangutans Appeal U.K. that rescues and rehabilitates orangutans in Borneo, and Ape Action Africa, which works to aid gorillas and chimps in Cameroon. There were plenty of photos of those lovable, hairy, near-human creatures on the walls for us to stare at as we waited for our gluten-free vegan pizza and shared a Death’s-head Hawk-moth Stout. I read a poster on the wall that chided anyone who would use a plastic straw to drink their soda and it struck me as kind of preachy but, hey, here were some young tattooed health-conscious business people concerned about the fate of monkeys and great apes and I was happy to support their efforts – and so should you, if you ever find yourself mid-Wales with a healthy appetite for goat cheese, feta, olives and marinated leeks on your thin crust pizza slice.
~ Story by Lesley Choyce