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North Wales - Not All Snowdonia and Pwllheli Rock
Villages & Resorts in Wales in general
Member Name: Nibelung
Villages & Resorts in Wales in general
Date: 05/06/04, updated on 08/11/05 (290 review reads)
Advantages: Beautiful inland and coastal scenery
Disadvantages: Take a Good Pub Guide- you'll need it
Another school holiday comes around and it's time for the N-tribe to get outta town, this time to a cottage in North Wales.
The area we chose was off the beaten track, quite literally, since it was up a two-mile farm track, in between Bala and Llangollen.
We?d both been camping here in "previous lives" as Mrs. N terms our former marriages, she having memories of it having rained every day, and for myself, I still have this image of waking to potentially fine days, but my tent's proximity to the Bala Lake-side shrouding me in a dense mist (or was it just beer fumes from the tent?).
Both Llangollen and Bala are on the old coaching route to Holyhead from London, now more prosaically known as the A5. Once past Shrewsbury, this becomes a bit of a drag, nonetheless scenic, especially if stuck behind a "shed dragger", aka caravan tower.
(I'm reading Iain Banks' "Raw Spirit" at the moment, and he makes the observation that caravans all seem to have swashbuckling brand-names like "Buccaneer, Cutlass or Bandito" when in fact the owner's are more likely to be branded "I know, let'?s pull in for a nice cup'o'tea" than "heave to and avast there ye swabs!")
From west London, and knowing that we couldn't pick up the keys till 3 p.m., I decided on a more scenic route than the conventional wisdom of M40/M42/M5/M6/M54/A5 as it would involve the Birmingham area on a bank holiday Saturday lunchtime.
Therefore, I took the M4 to Swindon (big mistake - queues at all major junctions, Slough, Maidenhead, Reading, Newbury By-Pass etc), cutting across country via Gloucester (somewhat less of a mistake) and Leominster to pick up the north-south "borders" road, the A49 (very nice drive, very scenic in places and not too busy). This intersects the A49 at Shrewsbury and you know the rest.
The nearest village was Glan-Yr-Afon, of which there are confusingly several in Wales (not suprisingly, since it means 'By The River's Bank' and to make matters worse, two of them conspire to be near Bala). Fortunately we'd got step by step instructions from Corwen onwards to finally get to Tudur Farm six hours after leaving home (the return journey over the "normal route" took four hours!). The farmhouse, still inhabited by its owners, had many outbuildings, which had been restored/rebuilt; ours being The Granary.
This was a charming studio flat built two years ago over three levels on account of its being built into the side of a hill. Downstairs was a well fitted kitchen and massive bathroom with "wet-room" walk-in shower. Upstairs was a lounge giving directly onto a decking patio with a REAL water feature, i.e. the sound of a gentle trickle of water from the hillside into a little stone font in the rock face just beyond the deck. Up a few more stairs leads to the bedroom section. The whole upstairs is open plan, and the owners have left their photo album of the place being rebuilt - nice touch as they can be justly proud of what they've achieved here. We weren't short of luxuries either. A TV and VCR complete with a Freeview set-top box and what I'd term a "real hifi" were supplied. For those that really MUST keep in touch, cell-phone reception on both 02 and Vodafone was full strength - rare in such a hilly region.
We also had access to a restored barn where we could play pool for free, use the washing machine/tumble drier, and what luxury, use the sauna!
I had the latter to myself, with the thermometer hovering a mere 10 degrees below boiling.
The farm has its own website at www.acottageinwales.com. Bloody hell, they must have moved fast to secure that one!
Other attractions included their son?s pet Bengal Eagle Owl called Trigger and a Houdini-esque cat called Tibbs who didn't take being locked out as a definite "No". Imagine our surprise, after he'd gone silent from mewing to be let in via the kitchen or patio doors, when suddenly he appears on our FIRST FLOOR window sill, as if to say "Aha, so Engleeesh, you thought you could keep me out, hein?" with a demonic twiddle of his whiskers.
THINGS TO DO WHILST IN THE AREA
CENTRE FOR ALTERNATIVE TECHNOLOGY - Being a Bank Holiday and school holiday, we avoided the obvious like "going up Snowdon" or to go ANYWHERE NEAR the seaside. Anyway, I'm a perverse so-and-so; I'm the one who went to Cairns but couldn't be bothered with the great barrier reef. However, The Centre For Alternative Technology near Machynlleth has long been on my list of "must do's". Having parked up, and paid to go in, (Adults £7.20, but there's a discount if you can prove you arrived by public transport), you ride up to the site on one of those water-balanced cliff funiculars, typical of those found all around our coast.
Given the nature of the site, you can just bet that this one has a twist, and it does. Since the hill has little natural water, except for what falls out of the skies, they are naturally keen not to let all that water powering the lift go to waste once it's dumped at the bottom. This is where technology comes to the rescue. Instead of friction braking merely creating heat, they use pneumatic braking, which charges up large "scuba" tanks, as the cars are slow to a halt. This pressure is then used to pump at least 10% of the water back to the top - not a lot, but better than nothing. Generally speaking, the coastal versions (e.g. Lynton to Lynmouth) have no need of this since they usually tap into a flow of water that was only going to flow into the sea anyway.
This is a big site, and it takes a few hours to look and absorb all the exhibits - kids might get a bit bored with the likes of composting, but the fun bits like being lifted up and down by a wind-powered mill get somewhat more attention, as does the demonstration of wave power, where if you really try hard, you can ignore the instructions concerning gently actions and get soaked into the bargain!
A lot of what's put forward is not too practical for a urban dweller, since you can imagine what the local reaction to every house having a wind-turbine would be, but the newer concept of being an "agent" for the National Grid, by getting your roof-tiles to generate electricity in a more likely starter, especially since any surplus can be made to "make your meter go backwards" in effect. My mum's church hall have just had a grant for photo-voltaic tiles to be added to the new building, and it's not uncommon now for the church to find that, in summer especially, the hall's meter in credit by the time the lights are needed.
There are also lots of demonstrations of raising the thermal efficiency of our buildings - they have a house there that is so well insulated that it only takes one radiator to heat the whole place, and passive heating is also touched upon - south facing conservatories generating warmth from winter sun, smaller windows facing north and the like.
Obviously, for a "green" site, it's not all about getting science to come the rescue, and recycling is also high on the agenda. As well as demonstrations of what can be achieved by composting (I would, but then I'd have to take up bloody gardening!), uses for recycled goods are also promoted. They have new roofing "slates" made from recycled car tyres, and very realistic they are too, complete with fissures and strata marks. Id imagine they'e somewhat easier to nail on without breaking too!
I came away intent on doing at least something extra to save the planet, and in view of recent fuel price hikes, I think yet more cycling in on the cards! Apparently, I'm told that regular cyclists have a body of someone ten-years younger. Mrs. N reckons I lied about my age in the first place.
THE NATIONAL WHITE WATER CENTRE - This is really the reason for my opinion title. My first thought when I heard about this place was "I bet there's only white water in winter", but I was wrong. Thanks to Welsh Water's dam creating Llyn Celyn where there had only been a valley before, white water is available on an almost daily basis, depending on supply conditions. Obviously, in a drought, forget it, but in late May, they were still being profligate with their out-pourings (in fact they have about 200 days of white water per year). In booking a "white water experience" at Canolfan Dwr Gwyn Cenedlaethol (Centre, Water, White, National I think) to give its Welsh name, you are advised to check their "water number" before setting out in case the Water Authority has other ideas. We were in luck though - I rang on Tuesday to find that water was scheduled from Monday to Thursday last week. Getting there from Bala is easy - follow the Ffestiniog road for a few miles to Frongoch and it's on the left.
The Experience costs £24/head unless you have your own wet-suit, in which case it costs £2 less. For this you get instruction and two rides down a seemingly daunting set of rapids lasting about 15 minutes each, although, first time round it seems to take a lifetime. Yes, why do all those rapids have names like Graveyard and Ski-Run?
Yes, you will be expected to paddle like hell when told to, duck down when told to, and yes, you will find out why they're called "wet" suits! Even in May, that water is bloody cold, but to be honest, despite sitting in 6 inches of freezing water for half an hour, it's the most fun I've had in ages. What did surprise me the first time, and my wife even more so, as she happened to have her mouth open (surely not!), was that hitting the backwash at the bottom of rapids actually stops the raft dead in its tracks. This causes the raft to be totally overwhelmed for a few seconds, making it look more like U-571 coming up for air than something that was already on the surface, and anyone who thought that sitting at the back would be drier now knows how VERY WRONG they were! Just to reinforce this, on the second run, we went down the last rapids backwards, right outside the centre with the next victims watching.
All transporting to site, including going for the second run, is done by minibus.
Makes mental note: Never buy a minibus from these people. "One careful owner, several lunatic drivers and thousands of sopping wet passengers".
As you can imagine, warming up is a priority on most people's minds after this, and the hot showers go a long way to restoring the balance, as does the centre's cafe with a roaring trade in bacon baps and a hot cup of something.
Would I do it again? - yes, please, next week, any time you like, why, I might even lash out for the all day jobbie next time.
There was only one minor disappointment - unless you arrange for the official photographer in advance, the whole thing goes unrecorded for posterity, but bear in mind that "yes, your bum does look big in that wet-suit".
Contact www.ukrafting.co.uk or ring 01678 521083. For water updates, ring 01678 520826.
THE REST - After all that excitement, I was ready for bungee-jumping, base-jumping, hang-gliding - anything but a nice walk up a hill or pony-trekking, which we had discussed before we set out. Somehow, the rest of the week felt a bit of a let down even though the weather was far better than forecast, and a lot of it got used up reading Iain Banks' "Raw Spirit" and sweating in the sauna.
We did a half-hearted attempt to ride the Ffestiniog Railway in its 50th year as a passenger train company, which, given my "anorakish" leanings ought to have been top of my list, but somehow, the fact that I'd done it before, the schedules would have meant an almost immediate turn-round at Portmadog and the £14/adult* price ticket, we somehow just kind of ended up driving to Portmadog instead, which at least gave me a view of these magnificent little locomotives, mainly of "Fairlie" configuration, being double ended with two boilers, in fact two of everything except crew. They are the "Pushmepullyou" of the steam train world.
*Is it me, or is that a bit steep for a line boasting a high percentage of unpaid staff? Admittedly, two adults can take two children for free, but given the somewhat stiff penalties for child abduction, it didn't seem worth it.
We spent a rather affable last evening in Llangollen at the Dee-side Old Corn Mill, still with revolving water wheel, sampling guest beers and eating some pretty damned-fine bar food, the sun bathing the decking sticking out over the many rapids below. Arghhh, not rapids again, not while I'm eating please!.
One thing did strike me about North Wales though. Compared to other British areas designated "picturesque", you don't exactly have quaint roadside inns throwing themselves at your feet - there's probably an inverse correlation to the number of chapels hereabouts.
So that was my week in North Wales (well, six days really, we left on Friday to beat the traffic). Hopefully, for anyone who thought that it was all Snowdonia and seaside rock with Pwllheli written all through it, I've given you a couple of other suggestions
Summary: Plenty of alternative activities, once the obvious ones pall. Dearth of decent pubs!