Monday, June 20, 2005

Historic Wales Delivers Family Fun

It’s a real invitation, emailed my friend Liz. We’d love it if you would visit us in Wales. Be careful what you wish for, I fired back, we’re coming. With a child to occupy during the school holidays in early June and a fierce determination to finally explore the Britain outside of London, we set off.

As it turned out, Wales is a first class “No Crowds” destination with a rich offering of things to do and see. There are stretches of dramatic, pristine coastline, superb sandy beaches, small villages undamaged by modern tourism, hazardous country lanes that put the thrill back in driving, and enough castles and fortifications to satisfy the most romantic history buff. Although we did not make this a sporting holiday, we saw much evidence that Wales is an athlete’s paradise with lots of opportunities to hike, bike, ride and sail.

As we were only in Wales for 3 nights/4 days, we confined our explorations to the south and the west. We saw lots of castles in various stages of disrepair. We visited a beautiful beach with well built surfers ( these people are hardy), went swimming ourselves ( we’re less hardy and didn’t last long ) and spent a lovely afternoon in St David’s which has been an important monastic site since 500 AD. The village, which qualifies as the smallest city in Britain due to its medieval Cathedral and once magnificent Bishop’s Palace, sits in a romantic position on the coast which is, in turn, part of the 250 miles of unspoilt coastline which make up the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.

We also spent a blissful afternoon in Laugharne, a well preserved seaside town of pretty Georgian houses immortalised by Wales’s most famous poet, Dylan Thomas. In addition to visiting the medieval castle which was later transformed into a Tudor mansion, you can visit several important landmarks in the life of Thomas, his writing shed, the house where he spent the last years of his life, the pub where he perfected his enthusiasm for drinking which ultimately killed him and the churchyard where he is buried. Not yet a fan of Thomas, my 7 year old daughter nevertheless found his seaside writing shed inspiring. She noted that it contained crumpled up and discarded drafts thrown casually on the floor. “So you mean this famous writer had trouble with his writing too.” She was incredulous but relieved.

That evening we had dinner in Laugharne in one of the most remarkable and singular restaurants I’ve been to in a long time. Located in a romantic manor house set in lush and spectacular gardens, this small restaurant is presided over by Nick Priestland, who was once an artist. The artistic sensibility is visible in everything Nick does from the drama of the gardens, to the decoration of the house and the artful presentation of the food. The night we were there two local and seasonal specialties were on offer and they were delicious, wild Towy Sewin (sea trout) and a rack of Welsh “salt marsh” spring lamb. The Cors can be found on Newbridge Road in Laugharne. Booking on 01994 427219 is essential as there are a limited number of tables. Dinner for 5 came to £175.

All in all, we had a great time in Wales. My daughter, who always worries about going back to school with a competitive holiday story to tell (we hope we didn’t teach her that), understood perfectly the understated chic of Wales versus Malaga or Mauritius. The Welsh were a helpful, straightforward bunch. The historic sites, National Trust properties, National Parks and beaches were beautifully maintained. These sites were well attended but by no means crowded. Prices for food and attractions were reasonable. At our first castle we purchased a 3 day family explorer pass which gives free admission to more than 30 historic attractions which more than paid for itself. The weather mostly co-operated and we returned to London happy and refreshed.

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