Day 7: August 16th - Ffestiniog
Another day of re-learning English, like ‘give way’ and ‘take away’ which mean yield and take out, respectively. And did you know license tags on cars in Britain are white in front and yellow in the rear? Our driver, David, explained that’s so you know which direction the car is heading - towards you or away from you. I asked him, what if he’s in reverse?
Wales is primarily Presbyterian, probably a statement of independence to the British and their Anglican church. Today is Sunday, which use to be dry, but not nowadays. However, grocery stores were closed, D&I noticed as we had to run over to the ATM in front of one for more pounds, and the restaurants & pubs will close early tonight.
Leaving Caernarfon, we paused at the ruins of ancient Roman buildings in the largest Roman fort here in Wales. Over 1,000 legionnaires were stationed here at that time.
As we drove along, we listened to the Caernarfon Male Chorus singing traditional Welsh songs in Welsh. Did I mention yesterday that Welsh was a dying language not so long ago? Today, children in Wales have the option to attend an all-Welsh school (where they learn English from the Welsh) or all-English school (where they study Welsh from the English). Matthew, our host’s son last evening, began attending a Welsh school from early on, but right away he told his parents that he wasn’t doing very well, because they didn’t speak Welsh in the home, as all the other children’s families did. So that is when his father began studying Welsh, too (being originally from Liverpool) and his mother, a native Welsh speaker, began to emphasize only Welsh in their home. Signs in Wales are always bilingual in order to preserve the language.
Another curiosity: we see so many sheep, everywhere, but never on the menu! Anita told us they are raised for export to France!
We arrived at Porthmadog (try: porth ma dogck, the g is really hard) for a steam train ride on the Ffestiniog Railway (fess tinny ogck), the oldest independent narrow-gauge railway in the world, built in 1832 to carry slate, now carrying passengers since 1864. It took us from the coast at Porthmadog into the mountains at Blaenay Ffestiniog, (something like Blind eye Fess tinny ogck) through some of the most spectacular scenery we have yet seen.
The train was charming, but small. We tried to figure out how ladies in hoops and bustles could have fit on the seats. The windows were opened by gently pulling on a leather strap and holding on to gently lower the window from its bottom into the side of the car, then tugging mightily on the strap to raise the window. This we had to do through every tunnel, or the soot and steam from the engine billowed into our car. We were surprised by a tunnel the first time, but then noticed on the maps they had given us where the tunnels were located and keep watch.
Anita passed out a treat for us once again: Bara Brith (sort of like “barrow breeth”). Delicious fruitcake-like samples she made herself and brought along on our trip. Consisting of dried raisins and currants and other fruits, soaked to plump them, with nuts and sugar and… she’s emailing the recipe to us, so I’ll make some for you to try!
We crossed roadways with warnings like a police sirens, past lovely gardens of heather and hydrangeas and beddgelert, sounding like “boodle ear” (but I’m not sure I heard that right!). We stopped to take on water half-way up the mountain at Tan-Y-Bwlch (tanny belck – but the end is almost like clearing your throat!). We rode past a lovely lake, Llyn Mare (just like it looks, meaning Lake Mary) named after the quarry owner’s daughter. He built the railroad down the mountain side to move workers in the villages below and along the mountain to work up in the quarry and, at the top, the passenger cars would be changed to carry slate down the mountain to the port in Porthmadog. Workers were paid about 6 pence a day…
Up, up, up we went to Dduallt (D’dault) or Black Hill, the slate making everything turn black, but today, the quarry is closed and Mother Nature has turned everything green, except for the rocks and the black slate mountains still sticking out. At Dduallt is a spiral in the tracks, called Campbell’s Platform. Here we could get a good look at the steam engine in front and the men shoveling coal into its furnace. At Tanygrisau (tanny grease oo), we began seeing waterfalls cascading down the mountain, and far down in the valley, electric power station to convert the water to electricity. Finally, we arrived at our destination: Blaenau Ffestiniog (Blind eye Fess tinny ogck). There, we hopped off the train and boarded our bus once again (David having come up the mountain with the bus to fetch us).
We stopped in the village of Portmeirion for a walk-about and lunch. We entered the enclave down a long entrance drive full of lacy-leaf and full-headed hydrangeas of every color – pink, deep blue, white, almost scarlet – and came to a tall blue gate, the entrance to Portmeirion. This village was begun as a villa for architect Clough Williams-Ellis (pronounce the gh as ff) in the Italianate style popular in the 1920s. He patterned it after Portofino, Italy – bright colors, flowers everywhere, statues. But the interesting thing was he didn’t remove rock to build, instead he built into the rock or on top of it. It’s billed as a “magical environment of lakes, temples and gazebos”, but personally, I think it is over-done and garish. Famous people rent cottages here, and a TV series “The Prisoner” was filmed here years ago. There’s a Buddha from “The Inn of the Seventh Happiness”. The cottages use trompe l’oeil to fake windows that don’t exist or additions to the cottage to make them look larger than they are. Transportation for residents/guests are race cars made from kits. A totally unexpected place.
We had lunch just a short distance from the entrance in a castle! Castell Deudraeth (Dey dreth) Ancient outside, modern inside and lovely. Big chicken breast with a swirl of pureed turnips, shredded brussel sprouts, pearl onions, and a lemon cheese pie with raspberry sauce and ice cream for dessert.
Then we headed to Snowdonia National Park and learned the front seats of the bus had special names on this part of the trip. Yesterday, Darrel and I had the front seats, but each day we are rotated around the bus. Anita told us today the front seats for the trip up & down the mountains were called, just for today, “Jesus!” and “Holy!”. Thank goodness, D&I were a few rows back, and couldn’t see what was ahead of us. But sometimes it truly was, “Holy Jesus!”
The Snowdonian Mountains have 15 peaks over 3,000’, and today we stopped to view Mt Snowdon at 1,085m. Sorry about the change in measurement. Anita has been telling us everything is in miles and feet, but the signs today were in meters! But no matter, it was HIGH. And we saw beautiful mountain lakes and sheep climbing right up the sides of the mountains.
We stopped at the National Slate Museum, which was once the Dinorwig quarry and at its height employed over 3,000 workers. Today, a man demonstrated how he splits slates by hand, which is still how it is done today. We walked around the open air museum to view the workers’ cottages, the enormous tools and the operations of the quarry used in the 1800s at the height of the Victorian Era to roof the houses of the world. Welsh slate was shipped all over, even as far away as Australia. Many of the quarries today, however, have closed (Dinorwig in 1969 and it became the Museum in 1972). What remains are huge slag heaps, the left-overs of blasting. They are unstable, and once a whole Welsh village was buried when workers were trying to move the slag. We watched an excellent little movie about the slate quarry operations, then boarded the bus for the hotel. Passing through Pen Y Pass (penny pass) at 1,160m, it was downhill all the way from there.
We made a few more stops on the way back: For a photo-op of Mt Snowdon from the rear and another to get a long-distance view of Caernarfon Castle (but you had to climb four flights of stairs and many were too exhausted to do it to see just another castle, the two of us included). Just want to hit the shower and fall into bed. May even skip dinner tonight and read my book!
TOMORROW: Off to Chester and York