Histourism: A weekend in Snowdonia

Two weeks ago my supervisor at my internship gave me one day’s notice to go to Caernarfon in the north of Wales to visit a literary festival, Gwyl Arall, and gave me permission to take a day or two to off to enjoy myself there since I’d technically be working on the weekend. Transport and accommodation paid for? How could I say no!

In my opinion the train system in Wales is quite terrible – compared to the Netherlands, at least! The train lines run from west to east, into England, rather than from south to north. To get to the north you have to take a train into England and transfer there. Not to mention that the trains are very expensive and almost always late. It is relaxing, I suppose, to glance around the platform and not see people glancing at their watches furiously or nearly tearing their newspapers in two with frustration. They just go with it.

It proved quite difficult to find a place to stay in Caernarfon, so I opted for an Airbnb in Bangor, a university town north of Caernarfon from where I could take the bus. A very friendly Vietnamese man showed me into the world’s most depressing bedroom, furnished only with a bed and a closet. I was convinced his entire family was living upstairs based on the noise, but later on I heard students as well, including one who had a very painful-sounding tumble on the stairs at 6 a.m. (and who was immediately attended to). On the day of my arrival I wandered around the town to find a place to eat, but the streets were deserted – of course, many students would be home during the weekend, and especially during summer holidays. I didn’t fancy getting fast food or sitting in an empty restaurant eating by myself, so I went to the supermarket and bought some breakfast and a salad for dinner.I visited the “famous” Bangor pier, from where you have a lovely view of the town nestled at the feet of the mountains of Snowdonia, and walked up to a hill that housed a Roman encampment once. There were no remains to be seen up there – though the view over the town and the bay were stunning – and, so a sign told me, the name is misleading because it is believed that the Normans, not the Romans, settled there in the 12th century. It was a lovely place to wander around for a bit, though.

The next morning I went to Caernarfon. Caernarfon is a tiny town that is most famous for its castle, which is part of the elaborate defense system of castles and town walls constructed by the English king Edward I. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the castle is a great example of late 13th century architecture and is very imposing indeed. I got off the bus and wandered into town, vaguely wondering where the castle might be when I turned a corner and boom, there it was! Smack dab in the middle of town. I resolved to have a good look at it later and went to look for the local independent bookshop that organised the literary side of the festival. They were to give me a press pass so I could gain free entry to all the talks and events. I felt very important!

What struck me immediately was the number of Welsh speakers! Everybody greeted each other and conversed in Welsh and for the first time I really felt like I was in a foreign country. The province, Gwynedd, has the largest number of Welsh speakers in all of Wales. What I had not anticipated was that all the events would also be in Welsh. The first talk I went to was by a photographer who gave tips on taking photos in Snowdonia, the mountainous area just below Caernarfon that I was to visit later. He launched into his talk full of enthusiasm – too late, alas, for me when I spotted a table full of headphones and a woman providing a simultaneous translation in English across the room, which was packed.Well, the photos were certainly very pretty, and gave me a taste of what I could expect from Snowdonia: dramatic skies, tranquil mountain brooks, flowers, and rain. Lots and lots of rain. After this talk, I went for a quick bite in a nearby café. Ever zealous to get the native experience, I ordered Welsh Rarebit, which was toast covered in melted cheese and spiced with what tasted like mustard, served with more toast and an enormous cup of milky tea. Say about British cuisine what you will, but it’s not hard to understand the appeal of hot, greasy food when it’s cold and rainy outside. After my lunch I went to see somebody speak about Welsh conscientious objectors during World War I – which sounded more interesting than it turned out to be – and then it was time for the interview with Alys Conran, author of Pigeona novel published by my hosts, Parthian Books, which I was to record for marketing purposes. Like an idiot I hadn’t tried the video function on my camera before, and as a result I fooled around with it for the first ten minutes of the interview until I figured it out. Again, the interview was in Welsh, and I grabbed a pair of headphones so I could understand what was being said. I talked to Alys a little bit afterwards about the Welsh language and her book and then went to have a cup of tea with view of Caernarfon Castle. There is nothing I like better than tasting the atmosphere of a city by sitting in a coffee shop with a book and observing the different people that come in. After an hour I hurried back to the festival to catch a talk on the role of Welsh women during World War I by an eminent female Welsh historian. The reason that the First World War was so prominent a topic was that July 1st marked the 100-year-anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, the largest battle of the war on the Western front with more than one million casualties. The 38th (Welsh) Division of the British Army fought the Germans in the Battle of Mametz Wood, which has been engraved into the Welsh national consciousness as a particular source of pride. Among the ranks of the Welsh were famous war poets Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon.

After the lecture I had an excellent Italian restaurant recommended to me, where I had dinner next to a disgruntled Dutch (can’t go anywhere!) couple who were complaining that there weren’t enough options for people with a gluten allergy. One might think that maybe Italian isn’t the best choice when you aren’t allowed to eat pasta, or bread, or pizza – but their determination to find a gluten-free dish was certainly admirable. The night ended with a concert featuring several fairly decent Welsh rock bands, but I had to catch an early bus and couldn’t stay to watch the whole thing.

The next day, I decided to return to Caernarfon and see the castle. I was disappointed that a nearby Roman museum and site, Segontium, was very difficult to reach by public transport and so I had to skip it. This fort was built in AD 80, when Britain was under Roman rule and the local tribe, the Ordovices, had to be conquered. The Romans have left quite a few traces in Wales, mostly roads, and occupied the region until the Roman empire began to show cracks in the late 4th century. The people of Caernarfon have made an effort to preserve any myths surrounding the building of the castle, which are rather far-fetched if you ask me. One of the towers in the castle had a large screen on which a video of the castle’s history was projected. A Roman emperor named Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig in Welsh) had a dream about meeting a beautiful princess in a castle in a land far away. He sent messengers across the globe to find this castle, and Caernarfon was identified as the place where it should be built. Attracted by the prestigious Roman mythology of the place, Edward I constructed this the largest of his group of castles in 1282, having defeated the Welsh princes in the area and beginning his colonisation of the area by building fortified towns. The castle was besieged several times after that, in the 1294 Welsh revolt under Madog ap Llewelyn, the Glyndwr Rising of the early 15th century and, following that, during the Wars of the Roses, when it was a Lancastrian stronghold. It fell to ruin after that and became an attraction for tourists in the Victorian area. The first non-Welsh Prince of Wales, Edward II, was born here, and Princes of Wales have been crowned here ever since.

The castle is open to the public and you can walk around on the battlements and go up and down inside the towers, but most of the buildings that filled the courtyard are gone. One tower houses an excellent museum about the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a line infantry regiment of the British Army that came into being in 1689 to oppose the English King James II and existed until 2004, when it was amalgamated with the Royal Regiment of Wales to form the Royal Welsh regiment. The regiment fought in every significant British conflict over three centuries, including the Wars of Spanish Succession in the Netherlands, the American Revolutionary War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the Boer Wars, both World Wars and the Yugoslav Wars. There was a huge collection of memorabilia, clothing, medals that illustrated the history of this proud regiment – including a taxidermied goat that belonged to the regiment (not as a mascot, as a legitimate member) and had its own medals, a tradition which apparently dates back as far as 1775. As I said above, the 1st Battalion fought on the Somme during the First World War, and the 2nd Battalion endured the horrors of massacre and mud at Passchendaele in 1917. During the Second World War, regular army divisions fought the Japanese in Burma, most notably at “Britain greatest battle”, the battle of Kohima, nicknamed the “Stalingrad of the east” because of the ferocious fighting on both sides and its importance in turning the course of the war in the east.  Several of its Territorial Army battalions were assigned to the 53rd (Welsh) Division that landed at Sword Beach (I remember seeing a memorial for them there).

Given that this month was the 100-year-anniversary of the battle of the Somme, there were a fair few re-enactors walking around on the castle grounds. I’d seen some of them before, in the Swansea market hall. Here they had set up field hospital tents, the soldiers tried to get children to engage with them in duels with swimming pool noodles, and every once in a while two nurses spattered with fake blood would carry a “wounded” soldier around on a stretcher. When the church clock nearby struck the hour, one man would recite Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Aftermath” from one of the towers, leaving the last line to echo around the ruins: “Have you forgotten yet? / Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.” I must say I find it fascinating to be in Britain while the First World War is being commemorated, as it was a very different conflict from the Second World War and is remembered very differently, certainly very fervently. People here are anxious that it shouldn’t be forgotten. It has made a massive impact on the British population and it is altogether a whole different form of war commemoration than I’ve experienced in the Netherlands (particularly with this year’s debate on whether we should continue to celebrate Remembrance Day, where we focus on the civilian victims of the Second World War and the military personnel who have died in service of our country ever since then, most notably the campaigns in Bosnia and Afghanistan). Small wonder; just think about the figures – 57,470 British dead on the first day of the Somme alone! It is a staggering figure and an enormous waste of young lives.

On Monday I decided that I wanted to walk up Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in England and Wales. On clear days, you can see all the way to Scotland from the top. I’d been told that it wasn’t too much of a challenge, about two hours up and an hour and a half down. There is an old-fashioned train that goes up and down, but it’s fairly expensive, and anyway I wanted to walk. I took the bus to Llanberis, a village at the foot of Snowdon, and started off. The path I took is a very popular one with hikers, and well-maintained. It was rainy and foggy and the higher I got, the less visibility I had. I was surrounded by rocks, sheep, flowers and gurgling mountain brooks, and occasionally I heard the wheezing of the train up the slope through the mist. It took me about two hours and twenty minutes to reach the top, by which time I was absolutely soaked through; I quickly touched the monument at the top and went down again. There was a café of sorts just below where I had a warm pasty and a cup of tea, and wrung out my wet socks. Lots of people were stranded there as the train wasn’t going back on account of the bad weather. Having warmed up a bit I headed back out and down, and the weather cleared up a bit so I took a few photographs. When I had nearly reached the bottom I stepped into a cafe to use the bathroom, and decided to stay a while and dry my socks and jumper in front of the roaring fire. The couple who owned the cafe were incredibly nice, bringing me a hot foot bath free of charge and a cup of the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. They were interested in what brought a single Dutch woman to Snowdon, and declared that the reason I didn’t have a Welsh boyfriend yet was because I am too tall. I went back to Caernarfon slightly drier, happy to have been reassured once again that kind people are all around.

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