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Wales

WELSH RAREBITS!
Published in Signature Magazine | May 1994

I had begun the day in nervous anticipation. For nearly two months, I had been planning this trip to a land that, for a long time, beckoned mysteriously. Over the past 11 years, I had travelled often to London — sometimes, on business as some of you do; at other times, on pure pleasure, discovering the garden of Kent, the variety of East Anglia, the cream of Devon. Some of these delightful places have also been explored by those bitten by the travel bug… I was, in fact, bitten by the question — Where next in the United Kingdom? This time, the British Tourism Authority came forth in kind generosity when I posed the question that most Indian families of four ask, “What unexplored vistas can we discover by car from London?” “Oh, Vinod,” they said, “go to a different country in Britain. Go to Wales. It is so unspoilt, so unique, so peaceful, you’ll love it.” To a jaded traveller, such adjectives are like magic, and yet one wonders, will it really be that different? I needn’t have worried. Wales is everything the guide books promise, and more. We set off on a shiny, happy Monday morning. In the driver’s seat sat Peter Joel, my peripatetic traveller friend who, for years, had been a director with an international airline and now only did charity work. I would hardly qualify as needing charity but, having left my international driving licence back in Bombay, Peter stepped in on a week’s notice to play chauffeur and was now stepping on the gas of the rented Hertz car. Zoom on— the M4 having cleared London’s never-ending suburbs. Put the radio on. Listen to the latest pop hits. Get information on which motorways are jammed. Sip a Pepsi. Munch a chocolate. Marvel at the green, green, green English countryside. Stare in envy at occupants of cars that carry watersports equipment on top. Stare in envy at occupants of cars towing caravans, knowing that they have a long camping vacation ahead. We, of course, had only five days. But what fun-filled, fabulous, fascinating five days they were. In three hours flat, we had arrived in Cardiff. At the Wales Tourist Board Office, we were welcomed by the soft-spoken and exceedingly kind Eirlys Thomas, senior marketing officer, who had planned our itinerary. First, however, it was necessary to appease our growling stomachs, and Eirlys led us to a memorable Italian meal. Cardiff is an international city with a range of lively and interesting restaurants to suit every pocket and taste, from nouvelle cuisine and home-baked pizzas to Oriental fare and fine Indian dishes. Cardiff is probably better known for rugby football than elegance and excellent entertainment, yet both are evident all around. Many of Britain’s finest department stores fill the pedestrianised city centre, along with countless speciality shops. Three excellent new shopping malls and no less than seven superb Victorian and Edwardian arcades provide a comfortable shopping environment all year ’round. Cardiff also offers peace and relaxation in its magnificent city parks. Bute Gardens, alongside the castle, features beautiful formal gardens and rolling lawns stretching out as far as the eye can see — perfect for a picnic or a quiet walk.
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We walked through the city centre at a leisurely pace and arrived 10 minutes later at Cardiff Castle. Cardiff Castle has a history of more than 1,900 years, dating from the coming of the Romans in the first century AD. They realised the strategic importance of the site and used it as a naval base and trading post.

Unfortunately, after the Romans left in the 4th century, very little is known of the inhabitants of the area until the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century. The Roman defences were still in place, and the Normans used them as the foundations of their medieval fortress.

In the 18th century, by marriage, it came to the family of the Marquesses of Bute, and the third Marquess, together with his renowned architect, William Burges, transformed the castle into the marvellous place which can be seen by visitors today.

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We took the two-hour long guided tour and then, bidding goodbye to Eirlys (which, in Welsh, means ‘flower’), drove westwards, connecting once again with the M4 and arriving an hour later in Swansea. This city is the gateway to the Gower peninsula’s breathtaking beauty which attracts more than a million visitors a year.

Swansea’s maritime heritage continues to be celebrated today in the city’s award-winning Maritime Quarter with its lively Marina, which features the Maritime and Industrial Museum and a myriad shop, cafes and pubs.

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Swansea is a shopper’s paradise — from famous names to the traditional Welsh covered market. The market acknowledges this tradition each year in The Swansea Market Market Cockle Festival, which highlights local produce from the sea, such as cockles and the famous local delicacy of layerbread — a dish made from seaweed. I tried it and it was absolutely disgusting. It is obviously an acquired taste.

If it’s fresh air you want, then Swansea has plenty of parks and gardens to wander in or take a stroll along Promenadein Mumbles. But for breathtaking scenery and beautiful beaches, the Gower peninsula, Britain’s first Area of Out-standing Natural Beauty, is unsurpassable.

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There is more to Gower than just beautiful beaches—medieval castles and ancient burial sites add a touch of mystery to the spectacular scenery. The hills of Cefn Bryn separate North and South Gower and provide stunning views Whether you decide to explore on foot, by bicycle or on horseback, breathtaking sights await you around every corner. We saw hang gliders in the air over Rhossili Bay, like huge butterflies defying gravity over the famous Worms Head.

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If beach holidays are your passion, then look no further than Swansea Bay, Mumbles and Gower — there are safe family beaches with plenty of golden sand ideal for building castles! Don’t forget to videotape your kids as they build their own castle in South Wales!

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Popular family beaches include Langland Bay, Caswell, Oxwhich and Port Eynon. All these beaches have parking and public amenities, either on the beach or nearby. At Oxwich, there also is a Nature Reserve where guided walks are available throughout the summer through the woodland and dunes which skirt the expanse of Oxwich Sands.

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Gower is famous for its watersports. One of the most popular being surfing, enthusiasts travel from far afield to surf on the peninsula. The surfing beaches are at Langland, Caswell and, primarily, at Llangennith, where the Atlantic rollers provide ideal surfing conditions. Surf shops nearby hire out equipment, so go on, be a beach boy.

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Seafishing is also popular within Swansea Bay and off the Gower coast, with catches including cod, bass, monkfish and mackerel. Boats are available for hire, with local skippers who can steer the holidaymaker to the best fishing waters.

You’ll probably need a miniholiday from all these hectic activities, and the obvious place to do it is anywhere in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Covering an area of over 500 square miles, the Brecons are a quartet of mountain ranges. To the east are the green ridges of the Black Mountains; then, the famous shapes of the Brecon Beacons, which giveway to the more gentle Forest Fawr; and lastly, to the west, another Black Mountain.

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The Welsh have their own language, the oldest living language in Europe. If you can’t understand the names, don’t worry — all the signposts are also marked in English. In fact, English is spoken everywhere, with a charming sing-song accent. The Welsh also love music, poetry and storytelling. You won’t, therefore be surprised to discover that Richard Burton, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones and Dylan Thomas all hail from Wales.

Brecon is a historic market town, being the principal centre of the Borough Beacons. The cathedral, founded in Norman times, dates mainly from the 13th and 14th centuries. The Promenade is an attractive walk by River Usk, where the young and young-at-heart can take to the water in rowing boats. If you enjoy browsing around shops, then there is plenty to arouse your interest — quality gifts, local crafts, paintings by local artists, prints, and all the clothing you need to be well equipped for the hills. The produce market on Tuesdays and Fridays displays much to tempt the palate, and the country really comes to town on Friday, when Brecon is alive with the sights and sounds of the livestock market. The town is internationally famous for its award-winning jazz festival, which takes place in August.

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We settle in for the night at Ty Croeso (House of Welcome) Hotel in the little village of Llangattock. In a historic building which was once the local workhouse, Kate and Peter Jones have created a friendly, charming small hotel run with that all important personal touch. Peter looks after the guests in the comfortable lounge-cum-bar, the focal point of which is a warming log fire. Kate’s main concern is the cooking. She has put Ty Croeso on the culinary map by offering imaginative food with a creative Welsh touch and outstanding value for money.

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If you use Llangattock as a base for a couple of days, there are many places you could discover. The small town of Abergaveny, has the same population as Brecon and buzzes with activity throughout the week, but especially on Tuesdays, which is Market Day for the environs.

Now that raglan sleeves are back in fashion after nearly two decades, it might interest you to know that halfway on the A4 between Abergaveny and Monmouth to the east, lies Raglan Castle. It belongs mainly to the 15th century, and was as much a product of social grandeur as military necessity. It was begun, probably on the site of a small Norman castle, in the 1430s by Sir William Thomas, whose great tower is strikingly positioned outside the castle walls.

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From Raglan, we made a detour southwards to Usk, a pretty market town Peter had always wanted to visit. We had delicious scones and tea in Twyn Square (town square) and blissed out for an hour in this erstwhile Roman centre situated on the banks of River Usk, justly voted as “best-kept small town in Wales” for the past consecutive 10 years.

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Tracing our route backwards, we drove north to Monmouth for a fleeting visit, and proceeded onwards to a tiny, tiny hamlet called Whitebrook to check into The Crown Hotel, which has been recommended by Michelin, Egon Ronay, AA, and all the other important guide books to the area. It may seem a trifle expensive, but The Crown gives great value for money: its outstanding attractions being the location and the food — both truly marvellous.

The thickly-wooded slopes of the lovely Wye and Whitebrook valleys envelop this peaceful hideaway. The Crown’s away-from-it-all location on a winding country lane consistently fails to deter lovers of good food for the cuisine at this intimate auberg-style establishment attracts guests from far and wide. The Crown is very much a family affair in the French style, with Sandra Bates in charge of the kitchen and husband Roger looking after the guests. Sandra’s cooking has earned The Crown accolade after accolade.

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Massive mountains and deep lakes. Sheep grazing in pastorally perfect landscapes. Delicious cuisine and over 50 different Welsh farmhouse cheeses. Walking, trekking, watersports, gold, mountain biking, hand-gliding, pony trekking, are just a few activities unlimited. Never forgetting the fact that Wales has more castles and fortresses per square mile than any other European country.

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Let me take you to two fascinating sights. Set in a beautiful landscape, Chepstow has been a strategic fortress for hundreds of years. The castle, high up on its river cliff above the Wye, guards one of the main crossings between England and Wales. Visitors can trace the history of medieval fortification from a stone hall-keep built within a decade of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 by one of William the Conqueror’s principal lieutenants, through to the gun loops of the 17th century. It demonstrates, perhaps better than any other, the changes in medieval military fortification. The other impressive site in Wales is the impressive ruins of Tintern Abbey. Seen against the green wooded slopes of the Wye Valley, or in autumn, against the reds and golds of the dying foliage, these justly world-famous ruins inspired William Wordsworth’s famous poem.

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It is noted for its majestic arches, fine doorways and elegant windows. This was a Cistercian house, founded in 1131 by Walter de Clare, that survived until the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in the 1530s.The building reveals very clearly the daily life of the monks. The centre of their life was the abbey church, which still survives almost intact; the view through the east window of the wooded slopes being particularly memorable. Wherever we have travelled, we have been struck by a couple of unexpected things. The number of restaurants serving Indian cuisine, run by Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Indians. To be quite honest, we did not indulge in these; preferring to have our fill of the delicious and hearty Welsh cuisine. And always, the genuine friendliness of the people. The Welsh people are renowned for their friendliness. On entering Wales, you will see road signs with the legend Croeso i Gymru — ‘Welcome to Wales’. This heartfelt message is based on a thriving Welsh tradition — after all, the Welsh have been offering hospitality to travelling strangers for centuries. Welsh folk love a good story or a rousing sing-song. Their capacity for hwyl, which roughly translates as enjoyment but is somehow more than that, is legendary. Be sure that wherever you are in Wales you will be welcomed as an honoured guest and invited to share in a unique way of life. Remember, too, that a holiday in Wales offers quality and value for money. The choice of good class accommodation is wide and that warm Welsh Croeso is found everywhere. Goodbye, Wales, you are always in my heart. And surely, one day, we’ll meet again.