18 June 2015

A Weekend in Wales

When I was younger, we used to go on family holidays to mid-Wales two or three times per year. As teenager, I resented being taken to the middle of nowhere to hike in the rain and wander through sleepy countryside villages, where there weren't enough shops or boys. It was only when we went back for a little family getaway last weekend that I realised I hadn't been in over 15 years. Mid-Wales hasn't changed much, but I have and we had a lovely time.

My brother, sister-in-law and I caught the train from London to Oxford on Friday evening, and my dad then drove us as far as Montgomery, a small, charming Welsh town near the English border, about 20 miles southwest of Shrewsbury. We made good time and with the long, mid-June day, we arrived just before sunset, and just in time for dinner at The Checkers, a chic restaurant with rooms run by a 'Frenchman and two farmer's daughters'. As it was the eve of World Gin Day, we started with a gin and tonic in the lounge, while we waited for our table. They serve several gins, but we decided to try the Brecon Botanicals — when in Wales, and all that — a fresh, citrusy gin.

Our dinner was exceptional. I've never been so excited about a soup before, but the garden pea velouté with bacon, quail's egg and mint (£9) was delicious: simultaneously fresh and creamy. The fillet of beef (£29) I had for my main course was also fantastic: the meat was perfectly rare, tender and juicy, nestled in creamed potato 'bath' and red wine jus. I didn't have room for a pudding, but somehow found a pistachio crème brûlée (£8) in front of me, and somehow made short work of it. The service was immaculate and if you're ever in this part of the world — and even if you aren't — you should really pay them a visit.

There was no room at The Checkers, so we stayed elsewhere and after a hearty breakfast, went to explore Montgomery Castle, a Norman castle dating to the 13th  century. The rain had set in, by then, so we didn't linger for too long, but we did enjoy the views over the town and the valley. From Montgomery, we headed west to the small town of Dolgellau (dol-geth-lee), 40 miles and about an hour's drive. We spent a lot of time in Dolgellau when I was younger and not much has changed. I did find one independent coffee shop, T.H. Roberts on Glyndwr Street, where the macchiato was rather better than I expected. Sadly, the milk bar was no more.

Between Dolgellau and the coast, the Afon Mawddach river broadens into an estuary — the small seaside towns of Barmouth and Fairbourne sit on opposing sides of its mouth. Barmouth has a lovely railway bridge, which offers moody, misty views over the town, the estuary and the surrounding mountains, such as Cadair Idris. We took a few photos and went into town to get some lunch.

There isn't a lot to do in Barmouth: a past-its-best fairground, a few fish-and-chip shops (one called Arousal Café...), some second-half bookshops and a particularly excellent homeware store on the high street called Pieces for Places (pictured below), which has a great selection of furniture, kitchenware and accessories. After lunch, we went to Shell Island, a large camping site on the beach in Llanbedr, a few miles north of Barmouth. Again, it is a little past its best, but you can't deny the beauty of the beaches and the views across the bay to Harlech. While we were there, there seemed to have been an jellfishocalypse — dozens of large jellyfish were washed up and dried out on the shore.

After checking into our B&B, the lovely Farchynys Farm, just outside the village of Bontddu (bon-thee), about halfway between Barmouth and Dolgellau, we went for a late dinner at Bwyty Mawddach, a restaurant just outside Llanelltyd, which has stunning floor-to-ceiling windows that offer panoramic views across the Cadair Idris mountain range. The sun had come out and although I've seen Cadair many times, I didn't recognise the view in he glorious sunshine. I felt like I had arrived in Yosemite. Dinner at Bwyty Mawddach was rather good.

We started with another Brecon Botanicals G&T on the outdoor patio, before heading inside for dinner. We all ordered the homemade tagliatelle with pork ragu (£8) to start, and my brother and I both followed with a steak and chips (£21). Our steaks were rather more on the well side than medium, but were still tasty, and the head waiter took one of them off the bill, without prompting. My pine-accented, custardy, toffee-apply pudding (£7.50) was very nice too. The views and the setting at Bwyty Mawddach are wonderful, but the food was good too and it's a lovely venue for a special meal.

In the morning, the sun was out again and so we went for a walk along the estuary, taking some photos in the gorgeous morning light and working up an appetite for the excellent full-English breakfast at Farchynys Farm. Various tame blue tits and woodpeckers came to eat their own breakfast while we filled up on ours.

Afterwards, we drove to Fairbourne to take some pictures of Barmouth Bridge from the other side, and then began the long, slow journey back to London. You can travel by train all the way from London Euston to Barmouth, with a change at Birmingham, but it takes about half a day and isn't cheap, and you will probably need a car at the other end anyway, so it's better to drive. There is plenty of hiking in the area, various other outdoor activities, great beaches and plenty of country pubs. Of course, it does rain a lot, but it's such a beautiful part of the world that you probably won't mind it too much.

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