Starting mileage: 18235 km
Day started: 11:00
Day ended: 23:00
Long and dangerous is the road to Nant Gwrtheyrn…
Most cars whizzed past the sign urging caution from drivers, but we knew better: a 25 degree slope with sharp, winding turns was something our old van would never recover from. So we left her at the car park above and headed down on foot.
Nant Gwrtheyrn is an old quarrymen village on the northern coast of Llyn, in the shadow if the triple peak of Yr Eifl, the tallest mountain on the peninsula. The road down (and, eventually, back up) has easily some of the most stunning views we’ve seen so far. On one side, the spruce forest opens up, revealing a steep valley with almost vertical walls of granite; below is the heathland, broad strokes of purple, yellow and white; above, the slate rubble spreads all the way to the top of the hill, where, on a terrace cut into the slope, stands the ruin of the old quarry, surrounded by memories of old quarrymen cottages. Still further down, remains of a medieval village poke from under the turf, and sheep leap from stone to stone. And high on the top of a nearby peak, in good weather, you can spot an ancient hill fort of Tre’r Ceiri, one of the best preserved in Wales.
Thousands of years of history of human settlement, exploitation of the land, can be seen in this one valley in a perfect natural setting. All the hills along this part of the coast are on one side ravaged by quarries and mines – terraced and cut almost to their core. Now the mines are mostly silent, occasionally wakened to provide good quality granite for something precise and unique like Olympic curling stones. The people of Nant Gwrtheyrn – a village and community built specially for the quarry employees – had finally departed in the 1950s, abandoning their homes and lives.
But the village lives on! Refurbished and restored to its full glory, it is now Welsh Language Heritage Centre – the place to come if you need to learn Welsh in a fully immersive environment. The students live in the restored quarrymen cottages for five days at a time, and with the turquoise sea on one side and fir-covered mountains on the other, I can only imagine the education here must be great fun.
The climb back up was among the most challenging so far – which probably says more about our level of fitness than the steepness of the aptly-named Corkscrew Hill; the village above was another example of the complex spirituality of the Welsh, as it had more chapels of various denominations than pubs. Soon we left the valley, and the Llyn Peninsula altogether. Anglesey was before us, but first, like everyone arriving to the island in previous ages, we had to stop at Caernarfon.
It’s hard to say anything new about Caernarfon Castle, the largest medieval castle in Britain and perhaps in Western Europe. It is, without a doubt, an impressively massive pile of stone; several Harlechs could easily fit on the main courtyard. The angular and rectangular walls are curiously unique in Wales, designed to remind Roman and Byzantine castles in what was supposed to be first and foremost a building of prestige and ceremony rather than defensive power. What perhaps less people are aware of is that the entire adjacent old town of Caernarfon is also surrounded by massive walls.
Also uniquely, the castle is a lot more alive than other ruins in Wales. There’s a museum of Welsh Fusiliers in the walls; a cinema in one of the towers, showing a movie about the castle’s history (the movie is… rather odd, I have to say) and rooms explaining the importance of the castle in the institution of the Princes of Wales. Once or twice in a century, the walls of the castle are filled with thousands of people witnessing the ceremony of investiture – last time it was Prince Charles.
There is a ruin of a Roman fort in the city, but with so much ancient monuments to see on Anglesey we gave that one a miss. Maybe next time.
Crossing the Menai is always an event; there are two bridges across, both very grand and very old, but I always prefer the older and slightly more famous one, designed by Telford – and not just because there’s a Waitrose on the other side 😉 This was the first suspension bridge ever built, and together with Brunel’s Clifton Bridge are two of the most iconic such constructions anywhere in the world.
Just past the bridge is a small village that is known all over the world, and whose name always comes up in a pub quiz. I’m talking of course of Llanfair PG, which has the longest place name in Europe, and one of the longest in the world. The name was made up in 1860s as publicity stunt; the Welsh are normally far more reasonable people than that.
I had once taught myself to say the name as a party trick. In full, it’s spelled Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch; it’s pronounced pretty much the way it’s written, once you remember that w is a vowel and the double L in Welsh is a sort of phlegm sound followed by L. This is what the name means, word by contrived word:
LLAN – this is the most common beginning of a settlement name in Wales. It means an enclosed village near the church, and is usually followed by the name of the saint worshipped in the church. Another common suffix, Aber, indicates a river mouth.
FAIR – this stands for Mair, or Mary. In Celtic languages, consonants mutate where words join. In this instance, M mutates into F.
PWLL – means a pond or a pool
GWYN – white
GWYLL – hazel.
Here ends the original name of the town: Llanfair Pwllgwyngwyll, Village near St Mary’s Church in the White Hazel Pool. Now comes the made up part:
(GO) GER – near; not sure what GO stands for here, could be a mutated preposition
(Y) CHWYRNDROBWLL – (the) Chwyrn is fierce, drobwll is a whirlpool (dro pwll – turning pool)
LLAN TYSILIO – we have another Llan here, which is very much redundant. Tysilio is an old Celtic saint. So we have two parish churches near to each other in one placename.
(A)G – with
OGO(F) – cave
GOCH – mutated Coch, Red (as in Y Draig Goch, the Red Dragon)
Combined, that gives us the church of Saint Tysilio, a fierce whirlpool, and a red cave as additional locations near the St Mary’s of White Hazel Pool; this isn’t really a place name – this is a tourist guide…
Ty Croes campsite is located on a large farm; part of the farm – and the campsite – is dedicated to a small vineyard. It’s a nice, quiet, grassy place, with plenty of birds in the hedges and trees. The facilities are sparse, but fairly clean and newly built.
Anglesey is expensive to camp, since it’s so crowded with tourists, especially on weekends. Most places – this one included – take £20 per pitch with hookup, and showers are usually extra 20p for a few minutes.