Saturday, 17 October 2015


Conwy harbour from the castle
Our annual leave is restricted this year as we’re leaving some for a trip back to NZ in November, plus we can’t leave the country until then as Vicki may not be allowed back in! Making the best of this situation we decided to explore Wales and the north of England. To maximise our chances of fine weather (or warmer rain) we took a week off in August. The downside to this is that everyone else is taking August off too as it is the school summer holidays. While Britain isn't big and there are a lot of fast roads (there are a LOT of all sorts of roads), we were fairly ambitious in our scope and we spent most of our time toodling along on slow and narrow back roads, stopping every few minutes for a photo opportunity. While we spent several hours screaming along the motorways at 70mph (yes - that's miles per hour!), our average for our 9-day, 1300 mile trip was 30mph (50kph).

So, first task: sort out the accommodation. We don’t have enough gear for camping, and that is a pain anyway when you’re on the move every day. Hotels and B&Bs are quite expensive, £80+ a night, which for a minimum wage earner adds up over 8 nights. And big cooked breakfasts every morning are wasted on Vicki and dangerous for me with my lack of will/won’t power. So it was to be Airbnb again and it worked brilliantly. We averaged about £35 per night and all bar one included breakfast - mainly cereal, fruit and milk - perfect. Interesting hosts too. Perfect for us, though recently we looked for Airbnb places near to where we live for friends and found local prices double what we paid! That’s the difference between one of the most expensive areas in the country and Wales and the dreaded “North” of England.

The amphitheatre at Caerwent
First stop the English/Welsh border country. We had lunch at an unexpectedly interesting village – Caerwent. Here are the remains of one of the best-preserved Roman forts in Europe - Venta Silurum - and there are a lot of remains, barracks (a Legion was base here for hundreds of years), walls, and the remains of a large bath complex. 

Tintern Abbey
The drive up the valley of the River Wye, which marks the border between England and Wales) is beautiful, and in the middle are the remains of Tintern Abbey, a truly spectacular ruin. It is easy to see why the Cistercians built it here as they like remote locations for their abbeys, unfortunately it cannot escape the hordes of tourists, like us.

A night at Hay-on-Wye, famous for its literary festival and numerous second-hand bookshops, was only “spoilt” by traction engines rumbling through town for a classic car and steam festival the following day. We sprinted out of the pub (where we had just finished a superb dinner) and chased them down the road to get a photo and find out what was going on. Depressingly we had to leave early the next morning to get to our next stop, and it only got worse as various classic cars passed us heading for the festival.

Driving through the Brecon Beacon “mountains” is very peaceful and atmospheric. One of the remotest spots south of Scotland, and we found some very quiet one-lane roads as we searched for ancient iron-age forts and castle ruins. It was a bit of a shock emerging into the Welsh mining valleys, poor and sad. We were trying to hurry as we were heading to the west coast for the night, but the valleys go north to south so it was a convoluted trip through places with names like Ystradgynlais, Ystalyfera and Cwmllynfell. Clearly a shortage of vowels as well as money in the area.

Fishguard lower town
(not the modern ferry port to Ireland)
We stayed near the port of Fishguard which must have been quite remote once upon a time as in 1779 the pirate ship the Black Prince bombarded it when the populace refused to pay a £1,000 ransom! We enjoyed the following day’s drive up the coast where we even stopped to watch dolphins frolicking. The port towns are very colourful, but full of people at this time of year.

The falls above Dyfi Furnace

No one seems to know much about the middle of Wales; the south has the mining valleys, the Brecon mountains, and the big Welsh cities of Cardiff an Swansea; and the northern part is known for the Snowdonia mountains - good walking country. There are also plenty of engineering “marvels”, early viaducts taking railways or canals across steep valleys.

A canal on a bridge across a valley! Pontcysyllte aqueduct.

Cardigan Castle
Throughout Wales there are lots and lots of castles: the Welsh were an unruly lot and the English kings needed to build castles to keep them under control, apparently. There are also plenty of ancient stones in the form of forts or just standing on top of each other.
Standing stones at Pentre Ifan
Welsh countryside from the
iron-age fort Garn Goch
Carreg Cennan Castle

And, returning to the earlier subject of weather, we had only one day of heavy drizzle, in the north of England.  Mustn't grumble. :-)

For more photos, take a look at our gallery.

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