(An edited version of a post previously made on Livejournal in 2007. Now with pictures taken recently)
Recently I have been thinking about the sodden holidays we used to spend in my Uncle Nat’s cottage.
Uncle Nat sold the caravan in favour of a ramshackle husk of a cottage half way up a soggy Welsh mountain. This meant that instead of ending our holiday journey at Porthmadog we would travel the extra 20 or so miles to a remote and (then) little known area of North Wales called Rhiw.
My dad is very handy, DIYwise. So it came as no surprise that Nat would require his assistance when fixing up the cottage. My first journey to the cottage was on a rainy night in March with just me, my dad and Uncle Nat. My dad had a Ford Orion at this time which was a lot more comfortable than the yellow Escort of old but Nat had a lovely comfortable Volvo estate . Initially (and probably because we didn’t know any better) the route would take the same direction of the way to Porthmadog only continuing along the A497 through Criccieth, Pwllheli and Llanbedrog then a quick dash down the B4413 through Myntho and turning down the unclassified road behind the church in Botwnnog until reaching the telegraph pole with the crab on it and turning once again this time up a steep hill to the telephone box and post box which used to stand (until someone drove into them at high speed) at the bottom of the mountain driveway. The first night travelling was straight after school/work and as a result we were both very hungry by the time we got to Criccieth. So we stopped off at a fish and chip shop set back from the road and thus a new family tradition was born, Sausage, chips and Onion Gravy.
Sausage, chips and onion gravy you may think tastes the same the whole world over. It does not. I have travelled far (well at least to the tip of Cornwall and the craggy highlands of Scotland) yet no where have I ever tasted sausage chips and onion gravy as delicious as at that chippy. I defy anyone to tell me otherwise but unless you too have dined there then your opinion on such matters is moot. But since then I have tried to stop there when Aberdaron bound as a homage to the days of travelling to the cottage. Of course, traditions are meant to be forgotten and a further tradition would evolve which I will relate a bit further into this post.
Anyway, on arriving at the telephone and post box at the bottom of the drive it was clear that this would not be a caravan holiday. Far from it. For a start it was pitch black dark. Darker than dark itself. Had someone switched off the dark it would still not have been anywhere near as dark as it was that first night. The drive way was nought but a mud track and taking the Volvo up the mountain side would probably have tested the skills of even the most hardened rally driver. Even the Royal Engineers would have stood round scratching their head for a while trying to work out how to get the blasted car up the hill. My dad tried with the Orion on a future visit but was thwarted by gravity and lack of traction. Fortunately everything was not lost. With the cottage came a Land Rover (old style) so we would unload the bags into the back of the Land Rover and ascend the mountain through the pitch black using the power of 4 wheel drive. Mynnedd Rhiw really lived up to it’s Welsh name. (Mynnedd = mountain Rhiw = Steep).
Arriving at the cottage the coal fire was stoked into life to dry our sodden boots and clothes and I was introduced to the crockloft bedroom. A ladder in the living room led up to a door midway up the wall behind which was the bedroom consisting of two single beds and a very slanty “mind your head” roof in which a single frame window allowed the pitch darkness of outside to leak in. Hot drinks were consumed and the boys own adventure began with bedtime and the promise of mystery come the daylight.
Daylight battled with darkness and at 6am finally won the war. Fingers of light thumped through the little window like a hammer and woke me up. Accompanying the light came the faint sound of far off tractors and the not so far off sound of sheep bleating. I scurried down the ladder into the living room and switched on the old black and white portable TV so that I might watch some breakfast TV (either Wac-a-Day or something with Roland Rat). My disappointment at the black and white picture was soon joined by confusion as the people on the TV were talking in Welsh. I realised this was S4C (a channel my Nan used to watch regularly) but the confusion was brought about by the lack of any other channels. So remote was our location that TV signals refused to come there. Looking out of the window all I could see was grey. Grey and green. Through the grey was the black outline of the Land Rover and the occasional white blob. Closer inspection revealed these white blobs were sheep. The fog was bad but through the fog came the occasional blast of solar energy so it wasnt that bad.
After breakfast and a warming cup of tea I was allowed to go out into the mist (but not far) and explore what I could find. The neighbouring cottage had a swimming pool and the back field had a view of the slope down into the valley disappearing into the fog. Despite the outlook it was very exciting and on my return to Liverpool I told everyone and anyone that would listen about the cottage and how fantastic it was. My dad gave me a police issue whistle with the instruction that should I get lost in the fog or stuck in somewhere up the mountain then I was to blow as hard as I could on the whistle so that the Mountain Rescue could find me. I still carry that whistle on my keys. Just in case I get caught on the moors or somewhere remote.
We took several other trips to the cottage over the following years. Alternating the route through Porthmadog with a much quicker route along the A55 and the craggy North Wales coast. As the A55 route did not take us through Criccieth we would struggle to find a chip shop of equal quality. Instead it would take us past a Little Chef roadside cafe. For years I had wanted to stop at a Little Chef and our first stop was at the one just outside Conway near where the road goes through the tunnels in the mountain side. To celebrate my dad and I would always have the Early Starter Full English and to be a little bit different, a plate of maple syrup pancakes. This sustenance would put us in good stead for the continuation of the journey and heighten our spirits. Of course my Mum did not approve of greasy spoon cafes and so whenever she was with us we would be unable to dine in such salubrious surrounds, opting for sandwiches and juice at a road side table.
On future visits we were joined by Uncle Nat, Aunty Mary and their son Christopher (who, having spent a good deal of time there himself was able to show me where all the secret hidey places where and all the exciting nooks and crannies), my mum, my school chum Dominic Smith, my childhood friend Paul Midgely and my middle brother Chris. Furthermore my mum and dad would head off there for holidays with their friends Freda & Jim and Bill & Lil. So popular was the little cottage that we spent as many holidays as we could there. The cost took the form of renovations with my Dad doing what he enjoys the most – DIY.
On my third or fourth visit it became clear that the fog was low lying cloud. A trip into the nearest town, Aberdaron, revealed that while the mountain was shrouded in fog the rest of the world was enjoying glorious sunshine. That part of the Llyn Peninsula enjoys a micro climate of outstanding weather were when the rest of the UK is having piss poor weather and wearing cagools and wooly jumpers the Llyn would be walking round in shorts and tshirts enjoying the sun and the crystal clear waters of the sea. Indeed, this discovery lead to exploration of the locality by car and there upon we discovered some delightful parts of the world. Aberdaron with its tiny cafe and spectacular beach; Nefyn and Porthdinllaen with its golf course and pub on the beach; the various unspoilt beaches dotted about the coastline and Braich-y-Pwll over looking Bardsey Sound and the remote and holy Bardsey Island.
Braich-y-Pwll still to this day holds very fond memories for me. I try to take as many of my friends there as are willing to share the spectacular views, the peace and serenity of the locale. It is there that my father and I descended the unstable cliff top steps to St Mary’s Well, a natural fresh water well in the treacherous cliffside. In the well other brave tourists had cast coins of all denominations. Now to get to this well you have to be really careful. I get petrified when I go down there and I refuse to let Mrs Gnomepants go there knowing how unsure footed she is. One slip could result in certain death on the sharp and bastard rocks at the bottom of the cliff or failing that drowning in the nasty currents, swells and eddies of Bardsey Sound. Regardless, people to this day brave the journey and still, to my knowledge, cast coins into the well. On discovering the contents of this well, I am ashamed to say, my father and I fished about as best we could to raise £4 from its ice cold depths. There was still a substantial amount of coinage left there. I do not think anyone actually empties the thing as there were old pennies, shillings and farthings lurking at the bottom of the pool. Never the less we took our £4 and spent it in the cafe resturant down the lane.
Pen Bryn Bach is a fantastic restaurant. Owned by Roger, it specialises in locally caught fish. Years after the events I relate here I went there with Mrs Gnomepants and sampled their seafood mornay which is, as you know, my favourite meal ever! They used to do cream teas at lunch time but this practice seems to have ceased. But at the time of the great Well raid they did cream teas and the scones and cream were the best I have ever tasted!
Just as things were getting to be a habit, my Aunt Mary decided the prospect of having a stroke or diabetic event on top of a remote Welsh mountain was too scary for thoughts so, persuading Uncle Nat, the cottage was sold. It lay empty and nearly became derelict once more for almost 10 years after until about 1999 when somebody bought it and installed a tarmac road up to the cottage (the Land Rover having rusted away long ago). They also took down the wire fence my dad had placed around the cottage to keep the sheep out with a horrid wooden thing. They demolished the kitchen and built a new two storey thing and basically ruined the place fitting Velux windows into the crockloft and them nasty faux cast iron carriage lights on the gate posts.
Still, however, the area has a special place in my heart. I have begun my own traditions and discovered my own special places that I like to visit time after time. I try to visit when we can even if it is only for a day out from Anglesey. I hope that when I have children they too will hold the area in equal regard. I hope they too will be able to dine in Pen Bryn Bach and on Sausages Chips and Onion Gravy at the Chippy in Criccieth. But our family holidays became less of a family thing and I had nearly a ten year break from going away with my folks. Indeed, I had a break from going on holiday. It wasnt until 1998 when Mrs Gnomepants took me to Scarborough that a regular holiday period would once again arise. The following year I treated Mrs Gnomepants to the Solar Eclipse from the top of Braich-y-Pwll which inspired us to hire a cottage of our own there with Philip from Brighton and Stef from Cardiff in the summer of 2000 and again many times later breaking tradition briefly due to me going to university.
I rekindled my love for the area in 2010 when for the first time I went on my own. My fond memories clouding my judgement when it came to the weather as, following a couple of delightfully clement days, it turned nearly causing my tent to take off and glide towards the sea. I was there once more only this week, this time with old friend Nick. Nick hadn’t been to the area before and I hope that he ended up falling for the area as much as I already have. In fact, I challenge anyone to spend a week there and not fall in love with the place.
Thankyou for reading once more.