Be a Wild Child in Wales
By Mary Alice
"Are we there yet?" When travelling in North Wales, the answer is usually "yes." The area is small (75 miles east to west, 30 miles north and south) but as filled with treats as a slice of bara brith (Welsh fruit cake.)
Here are a few destinations that both parents and children will enjoy, while leaving plenty of time for such essentials as beaches, piers, playgrounds, candy-machines and, of course, cream teas.
Several years ago, thanks to a determined small boy – "Read it again!" - I had the Life and Works of Thomas the Tank Engine by heart. It all came back as we climbed aboard the Buffet car on the steam-hauled Ffestiniog Railway, "the Oldest Independent Railway Company in the World," which travels through the Snowdonia National Park on a narrow-gauge train between Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog. We settled down on red leather seats with little tables beside wood-panelled walls. Very Agatha Christie. Doors slammed, the bell rang, the whistle blew and off we chugged.
It was raining that day, so we didn’t see much of the promised glorious scenery, but in compensation, the downpour activated dramatic instant waterfalls. Children, raced back and forth in search of hot chocolate. A burly retired schoolmaster inched along the aisle, providing information and selling souvenirs. At Christmas he plays Santa Claus.
We disembarked and continued to the Llechwedd Slate Caverns which is still a working mine. More children were there –it’s the perfect spot on a rainy Bank Holiday weekend – underground! They excitedly donned hard hats for a tramway tour in an 1846 tunnel, that enters through the side of the mountain. At various stops, ex-miners vividly described the dire life of the Victorian slate miner, who worked six days a week, 12 hours a day in the cold and damp dark, with only the light of a candle – if he could afford it. " How old are you?" the Guide asked one boy. "Eleven" "By now you’d be working here." Stunned silence.
The Trefriw Woollen Mill has been owned for 150 years by the same family. Elaine Williams guides visitors past the Weaver’s Garden, planted with woad for blue, soapwort for yellow, flax, teasel, rosemary for repelling moths. Her brother Morgan explains the process "from fleece to fabric". Young wouldbe mechanical engineers will be entranced by the waterwheel which still provides power for the massive blue turbine. Then he sits down at the loom and demonstrates how to weave a geometrically-patterned double weave coverlet. The shop sells all manner of tweed and tapestry items from dashing capes and jackets to tiny change purses. " The carthenni(bedspreads) were traditionally given as heirloom wedding presents. I can vouch for that. I bought a yellow one many years ago and it is still going strong, a patch of sunlight on a rainy day.
These are everywhere, leading happy lives on mountains and meadows or munching lunch by the side of the road. Ewe-phoria at the farm of World Sheepdog Trials Champion Aled Owen adds another dimension.. There was great thumping from backstage as impatient woolly actors awaited their summons, then clattered out to their places during "the Parade of Rams." Then, with much pushing and shoving the various breeds -Shetland, Suffolk, Hampshire, Charolais, Badgerface- tried to steal each other’s food. This was followed by a demonstration of sheepherding outside. Bill, the border collie, a black streak against the green hills, controlled his feckless charges with fierce blue eyes. Silently. Teen-aged siblings will enjoy an alternative attraction, Quad-trekking - zooming up the mountainside on a 250 cc. Kawasaki.
CASTLES & HOMES
Edward I built an "iron ring" of threatening fortresses in the thirteenth century to intimidate the unruly Welsh. Nowadays, the castles are invaded by armies of tourists. Our favourite was mellow Beaumaris, with its swan and cygnets sailing regally on the moat, a medieval fair inside, swings, teeter-totters and lawn bowling outside the walls.
In terms of stately homes, here’s what we overheard at Erddig House: "This place is great for kids." The enthusiastic mother turned to her child: " Ring the bell, Jeremy." Mansions filled with paintings and antiques are not usually of deep interest to children, but the National Trust which owns many estates, has the knack of keeping them entertained. Happy hordes raced through the halls following the Children’s House Trail "written" by Trusty the hedgehog. (What birds can you see on the Chinese wallpaper? What snack did the Housekeeper eat?") A patient Welsh cob (pony) was available for patting in the stableyard.
"Go outside and get dirty": With this motto, the National Trust has launched a Wild Child campaign with 1,000 events at its properties around the country: pond-dipping days, bat family walks, climbing walls, orienteering, nature crafts.
Counting sheep could occupy the whole trip- there are about 10 million of them in Wales - try picking up Welsh words from the bilingual signposts: Croeso – welcome, Diolch, thank you , Peryak, Danger. It’s not likely anyone will be able to pronounce this tongue twister though: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch
This small town has the second-longest longest place name in the world . It translates as "The church of St. Mary in the hollow of white hazel trees near the rapid whirlpool by St. Tysilio’s of the red cave." It’s pronounced "Llan-vire-pooll-guin-gill-go-ger-u-chwurn-drob-ooll-llandus-ilio-gogo-goch," with the "ll" sounding like the "thl" in athlete.
When You Go: www.VisitWales.com
Where to Stay:
Ruthin Castle Hotel (www.ruthincastle.co.uk): Lion (statues) snarl at the entrance, armour lurks in corners, peacocks strut about the ruins of the medieval castle shrieking like angry kittens. There’s a bear pit and a dungeon too.
Plas Dinas(www.plasdinas.co.uk): Little" princesses" will get a thrill out of flipping through the fairy-tale wedding scrapbooks on display at this seventeenth-century - with Victorian additions- Welsh country house . Princess Margaret often stayed here during her time with Antony Armstrong-Jones, whose family still owns it. No need to tell the children that the marriage came to a sad end.
About the author: Born in Illinois – on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday – to Canadian parents, Mary Alice grew up in Toronto. She lived in Pittsburgh, Pa., Cambridge, England and mostly Kingston. She has written and edited 28 books for children and adults, including The Well-filled Cupboard, a book about Canadian cooking/gardening, history and literature and And Some Brought Flowers: Plants in New World. A Pioneer Alphabet will be published this fall.