The rain smacks against the car windscreen as we narrowly miss hitting a miserable sodding, I mean sodden, sheep dithering on the road. The sheep have roaming rights up here and they know it. Big letters ARAF (slow) aren’t painted on the tarmac so you watch out for passing school children or old people. Oh no. Welcome to Wales – the Northern hemisphere’s New Zealand where there are sheep aplenty and the same welly-wielding farmer jokes apply. The sheep lugs her dripping fleece up onto the slippery heath and gives us the evil eye as we drive past in our seat-heated station wagon.
25 kilometres over Shropshire’s Welsh border and we, my fiancee and I, are deep inside the Montgomeryshire countryside, at the foothills of Snowdonia National Park. The thick green A-roads have long stopped appearing on the map and the straggly orange B-roads are becoming scarcer. There’s only one road up here – and we’re on it.
Behind us is the scenic drive around Lake Vyrnwy, a manmade reservoir smack bang in the middle of the Vyrnwy valley. Built in the late nineteenth century to provide water for Liverpool, this great lake sank the entire village of Llanwddyn – whose church spire could still be seen above the water up until the sixties, or so it goes. The single approach to the lake is over the slate crested dam itself. A masterpiece of Victorian architecture, the narrow road is edged with nobbled stone walls and wide pointed turrets.
A light grey mist filters off the lake and through the rusted iron railings as we drive away from the cafe and information centre – closed for Winter. Alongside the lake random waterfalls trickle out of the mountainside and run across the road. I open my window and breathe in the cold forest air – the smell of wet pine and earth.
Radio 1 crackles as we veer off into Snowdonia on the Bala road. Lush rolling hills and deep winding valleys are practically obligatory in this part of the world. Vast expanses of wet purple moorgrass and bell heather stretch before us as we descend further down into a wide grassy basin. Like a scene out of Wuthering Heights or a Wordsworth poem the grey December clouds cloak the mountain tops and empty themselves on the bent hillside trees.
I rip open my cheese and onion Ginster’s pasty – a cheap and guilty food stuff of British countryside service stations. Soggy pastry and a curiously smooth filling stick to my teeth as I chew. I hand it over to my fiancee who demolishes it without thinking, spilling pastry flakes down his front. The radio has given up searching for signal and is issuing white-noise-defeat through the speakers.
The area of Snowdonia itself covers over 2,000 square kilometres, stretching throughout most of North Wales. One of Wales’ three National Parks, and its most visited (attracting over 6 million tourists per year) it boasts some of the most spectacular natural scenery in Britain. There are numerous walks through its iconic mountain terrain, from exhilarating treks up Mount Snowdon for 360 degree views of the landscape to flatter, more leisurely strolls through the lowlands.
But you don’t have to feel the wind in your hair to appreciate this magical place. With over 26,000 residents living and farming in the area, their breathtaking drives to work are open annually for us all – as are many of their homes. Artists studios and tea rooms aren’t hard to come by if you’re after a watercolour souvenir to go with your pot of Tetley’s and current bun. And traditional British Bed and Breakfasts are plentiful, if you’re game for a night with the locals.
The rain thickens as we enter the historic Welsh market town of Bala, the gateway back to motorways and eventually England. We stop briefly to buy a packet of chocolate Hobnobs from the local Spar and are childishly delighted to hear people speaking Welsh. Back in the car, the radio is blares, as we head back East away out of the Romantic mountains towards England, and a pub, for a cold hoppy beer and a warm fireside.