Saturday, 5 March 2016

A470: Part 1: Introduction

world-map llangelynin


And welcome to the first part of a new travelogue, the account of my 2014 trip along the Route 66 of Wales, the uninspiringly-named A470. Wales is a country close to my heart and one that I know well and this travelogue is my tribute to it. I just trust that my affection for the Principality comes through.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Part 1: Introduction

Also check out my other Welsh travelogues:

The Sacred Heart of Wales

Across the Sound

V-log: Llangelynin

V-log: Barmouth Cliff Walk

V-log: Walking Pilgrimage to Bardsey Island





'Drive the little white car on the A-four-seven-oh

We're going off to see the mountains

Waterfalls and animals and glittering skies

There is nothing in the city that is half as pretty'


In amongst the earliest memories of my life it is there. That annual trip to the sea. The journey as much as the destination. It is seared into my brain, every detail. The early star, car packed to the brim and then suitcases on the roof-rack above. Pile in and we're off. A soundtrack, Now 4 or Now 6 perhaps. The first part of the journey familiar, then less so but still dull. Then, after uncountable miles of green fields, the town of Shrewsbury, over the Welsh Bridge and the magic begins. The rolling fields turn into hills and then the first mountains. Welshpool, with its little steam train, then stuck behind a tractor or lorry, now the place names as well as the landscape are different: Llanfair Caerinion, Llangadfan and Mallwyd; Machynlleth that way, Llanfyllin the other. Alien, exciting. The mountains are rugged and wilder now, the rolling fields but a memory. We snake in-between tall trees, rumble over gushing streams. Then we rise over a dramatic mountain pass, something out of a fantasy world before descending towards Dolgellau, over the river and then the estuary itself. We eagerly looked out for the first glimpse of the bridge over the shifting sands, then the road off to the pub built where a railway station once stood, then the clocktower house where it is well known that Puff the Magic Dragon resides and finally into Barmouth itself, first the bridge that we've been transfixed on for so long, then the Angry Cheese restaurant, then the town itself, awash with seagulls before finally pulling up on the seafront and diving into the milk bar for beans on toast.

That was the drive to our annual family holiday, a week in a caravan at Talybont near to Barmouth in Mid Wales. Year in, year out, the same place, the same activities, the same trips out, the same excitement. Children thrive on the familiar and to me there was nowhere else on earth as brilliant as Wales with its misty mountains, incomprehensible tongue, fantasy castles, cool little trains and amazing, vast, sandy beaches.

Fast forward over two decades. In 2005 I'd returned to the UK after years abroad. The exotic was now Phnom Penh, Tokyo and Samarkand, not Dolgellau, Pwllheli and Harlech. Wales no longer seemed so foreign or mystical. Yet a trip with my wife back to Barmouth revealed one thing that surprised me: it was just as beautiful, the mountains just as majestic as I'd remembered it all to be. Most things, seen as extraordinary through the eyes of a child, disappoint the adult, jaded by the sights of life. Yet the Mawddach Estuary, the wilds of Snowdonia, and the castles of Harlech, Conwy and Caernarvon were still as breath-taking as they had been to the eight-year old me.

Then in 2012 I undertook a pilgrimage to St. David's. Aside from a solitary family holiday in Tenby, South Wales – indeed any of Wales south of Aberystwyth – was terra incognito to me. Exploring the ancient Welsh spiritual traditions, the Celtic saints in their isolated hermitages perched on cliff tops or deep in secluded vales, I began to see Wales in a new light, as a genuine foreign country, not just some extension of England designed for beach holidays. I wandered the cliffs of Pembrokeshire, then the streets of Swansea and Cardiff, then the coal-rich, poverty-stricken valleys of the Rhondda and Taff and wondered just what this place called 'Wales' actually was. How did the rugged, tourist-sodden north relate to the softer, more workaday south? Why was there no railway or motorway linking the two and why did there seem to be an antipathy between the residents of the two different regions? Why in 1997, whilst much of the north voted in droves for Welsh devolution, a majority in Cardiff, the so-called capital, actually voted against devolving powers to a Welsh Assembly? And if that is the story of the north and the south, then what also of the middle, that vast swathe of territory between Machynlleth and Brecon which nobody ever seems to either visit or talk about?

I decided to discover Wales, to find out what connects – or doesn't – it with England who furnishes the Principality with tourists and laws; its Celtic cousin Ireland whose residents all seem to view it as a place to pass through from London or Liverpool en route to Fishguard or Holyhead, and itself, the nationalistic, rural Welsh-speaking north to the more cosmopolitan, urbane and English-speaking south.

And whilst I was doing this with words, my brother, a respected artist across England, had started doing the same with oils. Like me his Welsh odyssey had begun with that drive to Barmouth, but later his had headed slightly south as he read Fine Art at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. But, by his own admission, he'd rarely stepped outside that friendly, little university town, his only expeditions to Cardiff for example, being two trips to the Millennium Stadium to watch the Super Furry Animals and Division Two Play-Offs Final respectively. He had begun painting the scenes of the north – Llandudno, Conwy, Betws-y-Coed – but now wished to move on and explore further.

The final impetus for this book and the art exhibition that accompanies it came whilst searching the archives of the BBC iPlayer and I chanced upon ' The Welsh M1', a two-part radio programme in which Cerys Matthews, the Welsh-speaking feisty ex-front woman of Catatonia takes a trip down the A470, the M1 or Route 66 of Wales, the road that links Llandudno with Cardiff, north with south. If there was any way of getting the 'big picture' of Wales, to discover that connection, to explore the Principality's very soul, then driving this vital artery was it. And so, on evening in the June of 2014, we loaded up the car and set off for Llandudno...

Cerys Matthews describes the A470 as the “Welsh M1”. I’ve also heard it referred to as the Welsh Route 66. But what is it that makes this road, hardly amongst the premier routes of the UK to be granted such grand monikers? It’s antiquity perhaps? Or it’s scenic beauty? Or perhaps its significance? Or maybe a little bit of all three?

One that it is most definitely not is the road’s age. The UK has many roads of great antiquity and some of them, the A5 for example, run through Wales. But the A470 is not one of them; in fact, if anything, it is one of our newer A-roads. Today’s basic was created in 1979 when the original A470, (the Cardiff to Brecon section which is today, ironically, the only bit that has been replaced by a dual-carriageway, the original route now renumbered the A4054), was extended taking in chunks of the A438, A479, A44, A492, A489, A458, A487, B4407, A544 and A496. So, age is not the answer but the investigation into it antiquity does bring forth another question: why bother with all that renumbering?

And the answer to the A470’s importance perhaps lies here, for all those roads were very deliberately renumbered by the Welsh Office back in 1979. This was the year of the first referendum on Welsh devolution which voters had decisively rejected with a ratio of one for and four against. This caused there to be a long and hard look at Wales and Welshness and what both meant and one thing became clear: beyond the shouting in the rugby stadia, Wales was not a very united country at all. The south was the south and it looked towards Cardiff and Swansea. It was a land of mining and industry, solidly Labour and almost wholly English-speaking. The Welsh nationalism that existed was mainly in the north where Welsh still held its own against English and where farming and tourism were the main industries, voters more split between Labour, the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru. And these Welsh people, when they looked towards an urban centre, headed to Liverpool, Manchester or perhaps Chester and Shrewsbury. Between the two regions, there was little traffic and little in common.

And part of that was due to geography. Glance at a map of the UK and it is clear that Scotland is Scotland with all roads leading to the Glasgow-Edinburgh axis and England sucks all into London, but Wales looks, transportation-wise, very much like a mere extension of its larger neighbour. After the Beeching Report of 1963 the only north-south railway lines within Wales were severed[1] and there was no single road linking the two regions either. How can a country develop a sense of togetherness when it’s difficult to even travel from top to bottom? Of course, in those days railway reopening was never going to be on the agenda, and the cash to build a whole new road was not forthcoming either and so instead the nation-builders decided to go for a cheaper option: renumbering the roads that already existed, hence the A470 was born with the significance of it being the only road to go from the north coast to the south coast of Wales without passing into England.

But that on its own does not make a road worth driving on. The M62 links England’s east coast at Hull with its west at Liverpool yet that hardly recommends driving on it unless you’re an enthusiast of traffic jams. But the A470 does have something else as well: it is beautiful. According to a 2014 poll of drivers, the road, which passes through two national parks, came out as the best drive in Britain,[2] pretty amazing when one considers completion from routes such as the A87 to Skye and the A82 to Fort William. So, perhaps this Welsh M1 does deserve its appellations after all?

But ask many people – Welsh, English or Irish – to name one road in Wales and it's not the A470 that they'd think of. The A55 which we drove along to get to Llandudno is far better known, only perhaps the M4 trumping it in the popular conscious. It stretches from near Chester where it is born out of the M53 and M56 motorways all the way to Bangor where it meets another venerable highway, Thomas Telford's A5 (more of which later). It is the road by which the North of England gets to the seaside resorts of the North of Wales. It's not a bad road; as a dual-carriageway it's mammoth by Welsh standards and, clinging to the coast for most of its route, the views are pretty spectacular too. But it is not loved, for whilst its attractions are plentiful, so too are both the vehicles that ply its tarmac and the speed cameras that line it. To many the A55 is a tale of traffic and tickets, the latter because the rules in Wales are different to England: there’s no leeway and cameras don't have to be marked. The English perceive it as a way of the Welsh punishing their hated neighbours.

Do the Welsh hate their neighbours? There is a perception that, in the north of the country at least, they do, although I have personally never experienced it. But if they do, perhaps they have a right to. Go along that northern coast from Fflint to Llandudno and, well... it's not very Welsh. The English have moved there en masse, retirees from Manchester, Liverpool, Stoke-on-Trent, Warrington and Stockport, brought by the A55 to a thousand and one bungalows by the sea. And the English that live in those homes often talk about their neighbours in rather disparaging terms. “They can be a bit funny”, “No, I don't speak the language; they all speak English anyway.” I remember well my grandmother talking with disgust about the children of her best friend who lived in Rhos-on-Sea, (the very name smacks of Middle England), who christened their child “Harri”. “Fancy doing that! Landing the poor child with a name like that; he'll have to explain his whole life why the 'y' is an 'i'. It's the Welsh spelling apparently, well, she [the child's mother] is Welsh after all, so what do you expect, poor boy!”

14485755399_79a44c6149_oColwyn Bay

Yes, I could understand why you might resent it, being a minority in your own land. After a miserable couple of hours crawling along the A55 in heavy traffic and drizzle, we stopped in Colwyn Bay, poor Harri’s home, for some sustenance. In 'Chips Ahoy' we were served by a friendly chap who assured us when we ordered a curry sauce to go with our sausage and chips that he would look after us in an accent straight out of Salford.

Yet the A55 is not just the road of the holidaymaker and English colonialist. Much of its traffic – like that of the M4 and thence the A48 and A40 which plies an almost parallel route across the south of the country – is neither English nor Welsh in character, but Irish for both end in ports: the A55-A5 at Holyhead and the M4-A48-A40 at Fishguard, the gateways to Great Britain from the Emerald Isle. Virtually every Irishman knows those roads, (even if they don’t recognise their numbers), yet their relationship with Wales, a Celtic cousin after all, is quite different to that of the English. My friend Paul plies both routes several times a year as he travels to and from his adopted home in Norwich to his family home in Cork, yet not once had he ever thought of stopping. “Wales is somewhere we go through, not to,” he said. Such a perception is sad in my mind; an ancient country reduced to the status of a corridor between its two neighbours; an add-on to England to be rushed through rather than relished. Perhaps that more than the retiring English in their bungalows by the sea is the reason why experiencing the vertical cross section of Wales rather than the horizontal ones is so important, for vertically there is nowhere else to go onto next.

[1] Today one can travel from Llandudno in the north to Llanelli in the south via the Heart of Wales Line but to do so requires entering England at Shrewsbury.


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