Friday, 1 April 2016

A470: Part 5: Blaenau Ffestiniog to Dolgellau

world-map llangelynin


This week’s offering from the heart of Wales includes a visit to a nuclear power station which reminds me of possibly the best day trip of my life when I went to see Chernobyl and the ghost town of Pripyat next to it. The account can be found here and I must say that there is nowhere on earth quite like it.


Power stations may not seem an obvious destination for the curious traveller but over the years I’ve been to a few and they rarely disappoint. As a child I remember visiting the (now defunct and razed to the ground) Ironbridge Power Station and being both awed and horrified by the interior of the enormous cooling towers littered with several inches of bird corpses – the birds fly in, don’t have the energy to fly out again and then the whole place starts to heat up… bird’s eye view (ironically) of the late Ironbridge Power Station and its cooling towers

On an entirely different note, Cultured Vultures keep posting my tales. Please check out ‘Imagine That’ and ‘Eve’, the latest offerings.



Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Llandudno

Part 3: Llandudno to Dolwyddelan

Part 4: Dolwyddelan to Blaenau Ffestiniog

Part 5: Blaenau Ffestiniog to Dolgellau

Part 6: Dolgellau to Caersws

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


Part 5: Blaenau Ffestiniog to Dolgellau

The A470 switches back on itself outside Blaenau Ffestiniog, a turn not easy in a car and probably very tricky if driving a larger vehicle such as the double decker bus that we got stuck behind afterwards. Proof, if it were needed, that the A470 is a created, not a natural road.

Several miles beyond Slateopolis is another hellish vision. Two gargantuan structures loom up before you, giant invaders from Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis'. They're the Trawsfyndd Nuclear Power Station now closed and being decommissioned. I have a thing for power stations; they're always inhuman in scale and slightly frightening since I'm never quite sure how they work, particularly nuclear ones. One of the most memorable day trips I ever took was to Trawsfyndd’s sister at Chernobyl, equally decommissioned though for very different reasons. That has an abandoned city next to it and although everything looks fine, you can almost smell the invisible menace in the air and every time the Geiger counter crackles you feel nervous. Not that Trawsfyndd is like that although the buildings do seem designed to make you very afraid. They're the work, apparently, of Sir Basil Spence, a favourite architect of the 1950s and 60s and a pioneer of concrete brutalism. His most famous works are the New Zealand Parliament (the Beehive) and Coventry Cathedral. I am unimpressed by either of them and when I see the alternative design submitted by Sir Gilbert Giles Scott for Coventry, I can almost cry with missed opportunity. Yet many, Rob included, don't share the same ascetic distaste for brutalism; they like its daring and difference and later on in our trip we engaged in a rather heated debate about another product of those times: Epstein's Christ in Majesty in Llandaff Cathedral. As for Trawsfyndd, it doesn't offend me as much as Coventry Cathedral and it almost has a place in amongst such majestic mountains but again the question remains: why would anyone try to make a nuclear power plant look even scarier than it actually is?


Nuclear power though, is not the only daunting thing for the visitor to Trawsfyndd. The other is the settlement's name and how to pronounce it. It's far from being the only place in Wales either that gives the outsider such dilemmas; try twisting your tongue around Betws-y-Coed, Dolgellau, Llanidloes and Caersws and those are only the places one encounters on the A470 itself.

Welsh is a perplexing language for the outsider. The English share an island with the Welsh but their two languages seem to be as far apart as any in the world; I can understand more spoken Russian, French, Spanish or German than Welsh which is completely incomprehensible until an English loan word or two is dropped in. Take the slogan on the sign of the A55 as we drove in: 'Croeso y Cymru'; only those in the know could guess that that said 'Welcome to Wales'.

Yet different though it may be, it is also a survivor. Trawsfyndd may be impossible for me to pronounce, (broken down it is something like this: Tra-oos-vin-th (the 'th' being the 'th' of 'there' rather than 'think'), but for the locals it's easy for around 85% of them speak Welsh, (or to give the language it's Welsh name, Cymraeg), as their mother tongue, and in the north and large swathes of the middle of the country, much of the national identity is based around speaking its language. That of course throws up problems, the main one being the reason why the A470 was created: a North-South split for go south of Aberystwyth and few people speak Welsh as their first language if at all. True, since devolution, the numbers are growing as it is taught more and more in schools and promoted in public, but there is still a long way to go.[1]

I don't speak Welsh, yet it fascinates me. It's an ancient language, one of the oldest in Europe and is the closest modern-day descendent of the tongue that was the lingua franca across all of Great Britain south of Scotland and, before that, large swathes of mainland Europe. It's a beautiful language to listen to and, once its spelling system has been explained to you, quite phonetic and easy to pronounce. For example, once you realise that a 'w' is an 'oo' sound, then the Welsh word for 'zoo', 'sw' looks far less alien, and those many 'd's and 'y's look less daunting when you know that a single 'd' is as it is in English, but the double 'dd' is pronounced 'th' as in 'there', whilst a 'y' is a vowel, pronounced like 'i' in English. Similarly with the 'f's; the double 'ff' is like the single English 'f', (so Ffestiniog is an 'f' sound), but the single 'f' in Welsh is a 'v' in English. Then it becomes understandable why so many rivers in England, are named the Avon, ('river' is 'afon' in Welsh).

But that said, what has always puzzled me is that why, aside from a few place names, (particularly in Cumbria, itself having the same root as the Welsh word for Wales, 'Cymru'), English has borrowed so little from its Celtic neighbour and indeed, why the language died out so completely east of the Severn. Traditional wisdom held that, in the Dark Ages after the Romans left, waves of Angles, Saxons and Jutes came over into England with their Germanic tongue and wiped out the native Celts or drove them westwards into the mountain fastnesses of Cornwall, Wales and Cumbria, but more recent research into the DNA of the English has revealed us Angles to be far more Celtic than Saxon. There was more bedsharing with the Celts than butchering it seems but if this is so, then how on earth did the language of the majority die so completely? One theory holds that the Saxons held the power and were also literate and so their language took over. However, the locals learnt the Saxon tongue badly, keeping elements of their old language with them and that is why English is the only Germanic language with the two 'th' sounds in it and also the sound usually represented by a 'w' which the Germans and Dutch fail to reproduce accurately. We learnt the new words but we couldn't get the sounds right. Similarly, we struggled with the grammar too; Welsh makes great use of the continuous aspect, ('I am thinking' as opposed to 'I think'), whilst the Germanic languages don't; English uses it a lot; again we copied the grammar of the old tongue and plonked it into the new. So, maybe Welsh is not so alien to the English after all; every time you say “We were thinking about having a beer there” then thank the Lord your ancestors were Welsh because you wouldn't have been able to say that sentence without them!

After Trawsfyndd there were no major settlements for some distance. The open mountains disappeared and instead the road was enclosed by tall trees, as high as skyscrapers, enfolding its tarmac on either side. Were we in Wales or the Californian Redwoods? Actually, the area was Coed y Brenin, a forest park maintained as a logging and tourist site. The thoughts of California however, were not too far off the mark as the trees in question, which can grow over fifty metres high, are Douglas Firs, named after Donald Douglas, a Scottish plant collector who scoured the USA for suitable trees to plant commercially in the UK. The Douglas Fir is native to Oregon and the fine specimens that we passed were planted in the 1920s. Once again, this seemingly isolated part of the world turned out to be far more cosmopolitan than it initially appears.

A few miles short of Dolgellau and we came to a very special place. At a rather nondescript roundabout our route joined the road that we had taken as children en route to family holidays near Barmouth. As I expressed in the introduction, both of us can remember every mile of that journey, particularly those latter stages as we neared the semi-mythical paradise of our childhood pleasure; a place of endless sandcastles, stunning scenery, clifftop walks, snacks in the milk bar, paddling in the sea and evening walks across the magnificent railway bridge that spans the Mawddach Estuary. Instinctively, we both craned our heads to the right to gaze up the estuary to the sea and catch a glimpse of that bridge of dreams spanning the gap where earth meets sky. It is, was and always shall be an incredible view. Many places that you visit as a child appear incredible yet when you return as an adult, jaded by a wondrous world, their attractions dim. The Mawddach Estuary however, is not so. When I drove up it again in 2005 after years exploring the glories of the globe, it appeared as stunning as it had done when I was an excited five-year old dreaming of meeting Puff the Magic Dragon, (who everyone knows lives in the house with the clock tower just before the bridge). In my mind at least, put them against Angkor Wat, the Japan Alps, the volcanoes of Indonesia, the steppe of Kazakhstan, the Alps and the Nile Valley and the wonders of Wales hold their own.

We stopped at the peaceful ruins of Cymer Abbey next to the fast-flowing waters of the infant Mawddach. Unlike Barmouth and its evocative estuary, this site was not as spectacular as I remembered it to be. Hmm... perhaps I had got those early memories mixed up with those of childhood visits to Valle Crucis in Llangollen…?

Both are mediaeval Cistercian abbeys, both are ruined and both suffer from the same malady. Their natural setting is beautiful and their history fascinating but their otherwise flawless faces are marred by a new growth: an unsympathetic caravan and camping site. Wales might need its tourists so, but can it not leave these ancient bastions of faith alone? No, it seems, for instead both are spoilt by static caravans and canvas shelters in blue, red and green clustering up close to their stones. Nor too are these sites raw and wild like the one where we had slept the night before, with sheep keeping the grass down and the smell of wood-smoke in the air. No, alas, here the grass is manicured and where fires should blaze there are electric hook-ups. They call it glamping I believe, but in such a place it is just plain wrong.

Cymer Abbey is strange. Think of Wales and faith and you either imagine the hardy saints of the early church who built their rude hermitages on rain-lashed cliffs, praying silently as the sun set over the Irish Sea, (which they'd originally crossed in a coracle), and the wind tousles their mighty beards. Or if not them, then we conjure up images of slate-hatted chapels under menacing slag heaps in which a choir of mining men belt out 'Cwm Rhondda' or 'Gwahoddiad' after listening to a fiery minster preach hell-fire and damnation tempered by God's grace.

We do not, however, think of the Middle Ages. That is a far more English image: tiny villages under the shadow of the manor and church; monks in their herb gardens making medicines before retiring into the abbey for Vespers. Yet Christianity flourished in Wales too through those traumatic centuries and remember too, that the most famous of all mediaeval monks to the folk of the late 20th century, Ellis Peters' fictional herbalist Brother Caedfael, may have lived in Shrewsbury, but his name and mother-tongue were wholly Welsh. Did men not dissimilar to him once walk the cloisters of Cymer deep in prayer where now glampers gaze at their satellite TVs?

photo0010_14485834238_oCymer Abbey

Several miles on from Cymer Abbey and there's a very different religious story to tell. The town of Dolgellau is the only sizable population centre for miles around and we pulled off the A470 there to buy a new charger for Rob's iPad, (with which we were recording the journey), the old one having got damaged in Blaenau Ffestiniog. We, however, were far from being the first English visitors on a mission to that market town for in 1657 George Fox rolled up preaching his new Quaker doctrine which went down a storm with the locals, scores of whom converted on the spot. The authorities, on the other hand, were not quite ready for such a liberal interpretation of Christianity and persecution followed to the degree that in 1686, led by one Rowland Ellis, there was a mass emigration the new American colonies.

Emigration and ex-pats are a feature of many societies; those who live away for generations still feel somehow linked to the home country. Welsh emigration is less talked of than that of the Irish, Poles and Italians yet it has been no less cataclysmic for both Wales and the countries where the emigrants later settled. During the 18th and 19th centuries whole villages emptied to a better life elsewhere, often within the UK – Liverpool was once known for its high number of Welsh-language chapels whilst the London Welsh rugby club is a reminder of their influence in the capital. But away from these shores Welshmen and women also ventured in large numbers. Think of New South Wales in Australia or the Welsh colony of Y Wladfa in Patagonia, Argentina. When visiting Wrexham, the largest town in North Wales, no tourist cannot help but stop and admire the magnificent tower of St. Giles' Church but for the American visitor it is more than just beautiful for a copy of it has been erected in the university founded by a famous son of the town. His name was Elihu Yale and Yale University is today one of the top higher education institutions in the world. However, the Quakers of Dolgellau were not outdone by their cousins from Clwyd, for in the new town they established in Pennsylvania, they also established an educational institution which they named after the farmhouse of their leader, Rowland Ellis. Today Bryn Mawr is regarded as one of the finest female liberal arts colleges in the world.

But whilst the Quakers may have gained a lot in Dolgellau, we didn't. Rob went off to investigate the mobile phone shop on one side of Eldon Square, I popped into the tourist information centre on the other. I wanted to find out about attractions and accommodation options along the coming stretches of the A470 yet all I received was bemusement. The lady behind the counter explained patiently that Dolgellau TIC, like all TICs, only provides information for a very limited area around the town itself and the idea of someone doing a road trip through Wales seemed most queer to her indeed. This surprised and rather annoyed me since research on the internet had revealed a growing awareness and interest in the A470 as a tourist attraction in its own right and I'd imagined that the tourist board would both pick up on that trend and promote it. Obviously not, and to make matters worse, when I re-joined Rob I learnt that the only mobile phone shop in town stocked all possible kinds of cables except the one we wanted. “We can get it in for you by Wednesday,” they'd told him.

[1] As an aside, when I was walking the Llyn Peninsula with an Irish friend of mine, we discussed the Welsh national identity and he stated that even though Ireland had its political independence, at times he felt that they were less of a nation since they'd lost their native tongue.

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