Sheenco’s Exploratory Trip to Wonderful Wales
“To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went into the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.” (R S Thomas)
Nightfall tussles with the GPS and sends our bus through Ruthin’s streets more than once as if chiding us not to avoid it. In the quiet darkness it feels as if you would always sleep easy here. Each wrong turn compounds its solid prettiness.
After throwing technology aside, fittingly, as we glide past black and white Tudor styled house and shop fronts, we steer gently through an archway with inches to spare and arrive at 13th century Ruthin Castle. Late night drinks in the dark panelled bar are shared with a work group who celebrated their Christmas party with a Medieval feast here, a perfect event for any company incentive in Wales. We are jealous and unsubtly drop hints for our festivities next year.
Even though it is night you still see the charm in this building. Crumbly, I think first, and unassuming, almost modest in its Castle grandeur. Maybe Wales has this trait overall. There seems an unassuming modesty about this country in general. No arrogant swagger or brash boasts, yet surely there is much to brag about.
The morning brings light and a walk outdoors confirms dented Castle walls as if quaked or bombed, shaken somehow and fallen back into place slightly askew. There is an authenticity to the grounds here many other restored properties cannot boast. A heritage dovecote overlooks a small car park.
Five peacocks perched in a tree punctuated the frosty morning. Our breaths wisped out as we walked towards the grave of The Grey Lady. She wisps into the Castle dressed from head to toe in grey, along the battlements and outside the castle walls where she is buried. Infidelity, axe murder and execution are the ingredients of her sad tale. We didn’t linger long enough to meet her and travelled on to Bodnant Gardens.
This National Trust property is famed for the longest laburnum arch in Britain and a wealth of plants collected for almost 150 years. Settled under Mount Snowdon’s rain shadow this wonder of Wales schedules seasonal events throughout the year. When we visited, ‘Unbind the Wing’ was exhibited in the skeleton of the wintry arch. This celebrated Bodnant’s proud links to the suffrage movement – cultivating liberty and change. A giant willow sculpture commissioned for the exhibition used Laura McLaren’s words as an inspiration: ‘A nation ruled by men alone is like a bird that tries to fly with one wing bound…Unbind that wing’. There is much to discover and savour here.
Bodnant is less than six miles from Conwy. The tidal estuary here is great for mussels and birds, maybe not for bird guzzled mussels though. We passed dreamy wind turbines in the hazy distance on one side and tree snuggled sheep on the other. A gentle peacefulness covers the countryside.
If Wales is unassuming in general, Conwy Castle bucks this trend completely. And yet not, it was built by England’s Edward I (also known as Edward Longshanks) as a defence against the Welsh, one element of his 13th century iron ring of fortresses. Conwy Castle is still grand and magnificent, the approach spectacular as you cross over the estuary beside one of the world’s first suspension bridges. Originally painted white, its imposing gleam a sign of power and might, there was nothing modest about this fortress. When we visited, conservation plasterers abseiled down the castle walls dangling like the 1980s Swingball game, enhancing the drama of this site.
Our wonderful guide Amanda Whitehead, with us throughout our journey, gave a great historical overview as we walked through the building. A testament to medieval architecture, only twenty to thirty soldiers were needed to defend this bastion. Each area a military design to defend, fallback and finally retreat. Assisted by the usual squeamishly gruesome devices such as Murder Holes where they poured hot sand or boiled urine (Medieval penny pinching) onto hapless attackers.
Less grisly is the private royal chapel area where the Queen was hidden from view during mass in the Chapel Tower. Here an inscription by Damian Walford Davies reminds us that war sometimes took a back seat ”At the altar they heard estuary birds cry over the kiss of salt and river water”.
Less than five miles away, Bodysgallen Hall has strong links to Conwy Castle, its 13th century tower built as a watchtower against surprise attacks. This Historic House Hotel is an elegant, understated gem and should be included in all the best Self Drives in Wales. If anyone retreating from Conwy Castle managed to find themselves here they would have thanked their attackers. Even without the wonderful spa, the building and location is an antidote to any stress. Everyone naturally breathes slowly in Bodysgallen.
History seems to have paused here in places. The rare 17th century parterre garden with its herb filled box hedges is a perfect sunshine-afternoon lolling magnet. Snooze here and you could for a moment wake up in another era, a brief time travel warp. The sympathetic restoration and interior décor will lean you less towards wifi and kindle and more towards a bay room window hardback cosy-up. For our lunch (sandwiches minus crusts of course) we felt so comfortable by the Drawing Room’s open fire, the deep carpet beckoned some of our haunches.
Reluctantly peeling ourselves off the floor we moved on westwards to 5* French inspired Chateau Rhianfa, a must in any Castle Tour in Wales. Another magnetic open fire greeted us at the entrance as we enjoyed more Welsh hospitality. Here the views are paramount. One of the bedrooms makes the most of its lofty aspect with a deep bath placed on a stage-like setting within a bay window. The perfect position to survey the dramatic skyline – theatre within theatre.
Afternoon Tea in the decadent Music Room allowed us to wrap ourselves in the views on the balcony. Across the tidal Menai Strait the backdrop of Northern Snowdonia’s mountains lends an air of somehow unexpected drama. There is a slight hint of Patagonia in the distance. Easy to see why Welsh migrants settled so well in the Chubut Valley of South America, so successfully that Welsh is still spoken in that small pocket of Argentina.
Amanda instructed us in the intricacies of the Welsh language as we drove along. We learnt that the double ll is not a sociable letter, spittle flying back and forth as we practiced. The local Argentinians might have learnt to borrow reading glasses when visiting their new neighbours. Warning….do not practice this letter with youtube at high decibels close to an unsuspecting cat.
About one and a half hours driving southward from Chateau Rhianfa, Pale Hall lies on the eastern edges of Snowdonia National Park. This is a world class location as a corporate venue in Wales. Sumptuous and comfortably magnificent with a tasteful opulence, the superlatives drop off the tongue here. Each bedroom is uniquely styled to suit different moods and tastes. When you hear people gasp as they enter a room you know something special awaits. The Churchill Suite where Winston stayed in the 1950s created these gasps and were repeated after a secret door hidden in the wall revealed the bathroom.
In 1889 Queen Victoria adored Pale Hall so much she changed her route and extended her stay here to ten nights. Sleep like royalty in her original bed and admire the bath (now preserved ) she used. Pale Hall can extend your stay at your command for any private stay or corporate travel in Wales.
Supreme care and attention to detail is a feature throughout this historic house. Strong eco credentials (turbine power from a local river heats the water system), innovative wallpaper design, hand painted ceilings and mirrors cleverly designed as flat screen televisions all boost the dignified beauty of Pale Hall. It is 5* luxury without the serious formalities, softened by its dog friendliness and that Welsh trait of unassuming ease. Local artist Rob Reen’s wonderful exhibition of paintings and ceramics mirrors the drama and stillness here.
Continue this tranquillity within drama at Lake Vyrnwy Hotel less than a one hour drive south, a perfect location to include in a romantic honeymoon in Wales or any Self Drive tour of Wales. Dinner in the Tower Restaurant was a pleasure, good food without being over fussy. Testing the Welsh gins afterwards in the fire-lit bar was also a pleasure but after a full day touring we didn’t dawdle and tested the beds earlier rather than later. Sleep happens here as if silence is contained within another silence.
We had arrived in darkness, assuming a great spectacle would unfold in the morning. It did. Surrounded by mostly evergreen trees, the lake is shrouded in verdant silence. Lake Vyrnwy is perfectly situated to escape any hectic bustle with an onsite spa to enhance the soporific quality of this location. If you want to prepare for the return to bustle more actively, a woodland walk is the perfect revival as you ramble between the conifers and pockets of sessile oak, refreshing as an early morning’s splash of cold water.
Our refreshments came later, further south by Aberteifi near Cardigan Bay’s coast at In The Welsh Wind Distillery. An unpretentious entrance down a proper country lane with grass the dividing central line. Our bus driver preferred not to negotiate the narrow lane so we easily walked the short distance to the distillery side-stepping the horse droppings along the way. This off-the-beaten-path genuine authenticity continued as we arrived at a farmyard. (The Distillery is moving to a bus friendlier location in 2020)
In The Welsh Wind Distillery is full of heart and won each of ours. From the moment you are greeted you know you have come to a place where love and passion are mixed in equal measures. Photographic footage of owners Alex and Ellen’s 1000+ mile walk of coastal and mid Wales rolls by on a large screen as we were brought on our own gin tasting journey. This is an ideal event for any company incentive in Wales. Their wild camping adventure inspired them to create bespoke premium gins where they forage many of the botanicals in their wildflower meadow.
We followed part of this inspirational couple’s journey southwards to St. Davids. Ahhhh St. Davids, having visited once you will always repeat its name with a wistful sigh. Smallest city in the UK, it is pimple sized perfection. Again that unassuming, humble quality seems to be reflected even in the tucked away location of the famous Cathedral here. An attempt to veil itself from historical marauders, there is a surprise reveal as you approach the bottom of a hill and round a corner, far more impressive than usual summit placed cathedrals.
Less than half a mile from St David’s Cathedral gentle elegance flows around Penrhiw Hotel, its pristine lawns edging the wilder countryside. Penrhiw is a perfect venue to include in the best Chauffeur Driven tours of Wales. This former Victorian priory built in the 1880s is now a boutique hotel where sleek rooms boast specially commissioned contemporary art. The tableware is also unique to Penrhiw, produced by ceramic artist Dan Wright, co-owner of local Goat Street Gallery. Unique here too are Tablets live-streaming wildlife subtly filmed by the woodland paths, river and meadow which circle this grey bricked property.
Penrhiw feels like a private residence and this is where architect Keith Griffith owner of Penrhiw, Twr y Felin Hotel and Roch Castle stays when he returns to his native St Davids. Easy to see why he enjoys this serene bolthole.
Our overnight destination was Twr y Felin Hotel, another Welsh delight in the best group tours of Wales. Complete and utter satisfaction as we settled in to our darkly chic rooms all kitted out with the latest digital accessories. The 100+ specially commissioned art works throughout the building raises Twr y Felin to Snowdonian heights. I lost count of the many times I changed my favourite piece as every corridor and room revealed another and another. All art works are thoughtfully placed, the supreme care and precision given to each is reflected in the service given to guests. The Oriel gallery as a ‘foyer’ is a unique joy, as this hotel is.
Highlight of our trip to Wales was about to unfold as Reception Manager Luke (and cathedral chorister) recommended we attend Choral Evensong within St David’s Cathedral. A complimentary shuttle dropped us to our 6th century location where we found our pews amidst a reverential hush and shoe-twitch shuffle. Choristers arrived dramatically with a swish of robes under a mighty silver cross. The conductor’s hand moved as if sewing music and voices through the centuries. Each palm-swoop pulled us through another segment of history as the music swung past our temples up to the brightly coloured ceiling and wooden dome. As it has for centuries. Our heads bobbed in recognition.
What a comforting pleasure it was to be greeted by our shuttle driver David (of course) as Evensong ended and we glided back to a stunning dinner at Tyr y Felin’s Blas Restaurant. The feast continued at breakfast with a wonderful variety of cooked options including cockles and laverbread. We prised ourselves knuckle-white, from the tables hoping to linger for lunch, but Cardiff beckoned.
En route, just 10 miles from St David’s, 12th century Roch Castle perches confidently on a rocky outcrop overseeing swathes of Pembrokeshire’s pasture. In keeping with the artistic overtones of sister hotels Penrhiw and Twr y Felin, specifically commissioned pieces are uniquely tailored to the Castle. Calm, curlew-coloured textiles by Amanda Wright, co-owner of St David’s Goat Street Gallery, drape the solid walls here softening any austerity.
This is an ideal venue in Wales to hire for your exclusive use. The communal Court Lounge and Sun Room give a private, residential quality to Roch Castle so you might gaze over your realm and imagine hosting King Arthur and his Knights. There are 6 bedrooms here so some Knights would have to share.
The Knights could have easily blended in with the crowd in the Welsh capital when we visited. Cardiff was awash with rugby fans as South Africa played the home country in a friendly International. Even if Wales had lost, I am certain the buzz around the capital would still be friendly and open.
It is a 2 hour drive from Roch Castle to Cardiff Castle located in the heart of the city with 3 distinct sections to visit on the site. Central position is the sturdy 11th century Norman Keep with its steep steps to a viewing platform. Running down one side is a World War 2 reconstructed Shelter. Castle tunnels doubled up as air raid shelters here in the 1940s. Stroll down this long, dark passageway and you will automatically pick up your pace when you hear the siren. This area is particularly evocative as history seems just a breath away.
The quirky Gothic Victorian Palace created by the 3rd Marquess of Bute’s vast wealth is bursting with colourful opulence. His own colourful history paints an interesting image of a man who understood 20 languages including Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and Hierogylphics. He wanted his children to speak many languages and ensured their nannies were from various countries. Lavish rooms here include a Banqueting Hall which you can hire for a private Dinner – a highlight of any company incentive in Wales. Other opulent rooms include an elaborate Nursery, ornate Library and The Arab Room with every millimetre of its ceiling decorated. The quote by Virgil emblazoned on The Smoking Room is “If love conquers all, let us yield to love”.
We respectfully yielded to the ladybirds in The Roof Top Garden. Our considerate guide James explained that when opening a window here earlier in the season he received a shower of ladybirds and now refrained from opening a corner window to protect their hibernation. I flash fowarded to a skittery shower of dotted reds opening on to a lucky guide next season.
More thoughtful consideration and love swept us over the Severn Bridge as our peerless Reservations Manager Ruth made secretive, coded calls to our final destination of Clevedon Hall alerting them to our location. Each one of us had a bubble bath ready and frothing on arrival.
The only negative we experienced at this property was exiting the bath. But of course dinner was worth pulling the bath plug for – each course matched with perfect wines. As impressive as the food was General Manager James stating his most important achievement …… 96% staff retention rate compared to just over 40% in other hotels. We are 100% certain that Clevedon Hall is a perfect venue for any private or corporate event.
Next morning, under the eaves on the window seat, Louis MacNeice’s line “Time was away and somewhere else” rapped on the window as pigeons fussed overhead. I pressed my head harder against the pane to soak up the acoustics, their coos the only fuss here.
This corner by Bristol extended the Welsh trait of elegant, natural ease. Our trip to Wales has confirmed our belief that the country is an understated gem which over-delivers in beauty and authenticity. Edward I’s iron ring of castles may have once succeeded in keeping ‘visitors’ away but no one can stop our return. Tomorrow if we could.