Due to an accident of birth which I blame on my parents, both of whom came from the same Surrey suburb, I am neither bilingual nor exotic. When we went to north Wales last week I was fascinated and envious of the Welsh speakers. Welsh is a Celtic language, the language everyone probably spoke on this island before waves of invaders. The lyrical accent and words also have similarities with Hindi, perhaps there are very ancient exotic origins for this language of poetry, music and Eisteddfods, but it is also officially recognised. Apart from Wales there is a small colony in Patagonia of natural Welsh speakers.
You know you are in Wales when the road signs are in both languages. Only about fifth of people in Wales actually speak Welsh fluently, but in the north the majority do.
We stayed in Porthmadog for four nights, a lovely town with mountains in the background, a harbour and lots of trains, including the famous Ffestiniog Railway, Rheiffyrdd Ffestiniog. Being winter some places were closed. Our pub hotel was rather gloomy inside; someone had bought a job lot of brown paint. The dining room was in darkness and the bar rather bleak, but on our first evening we found a cafe at the railway station which was open till eight and was warm and cheerful. A family birthday party was in full swing and they were all speaking Welsh, even the children.
The next morning at breakfast our suspicions were confirmed that we and four chaps on a photography holiday were the only guests. A Welsh radio station played in the background. The weather was mostly heavy skies and damp, but stayed clear for our trip on the Welsh Highland Railway. As it was winter the Ffestiniog was closed and most of the line for our train. We went half an hour out, stopped for the engine to be moved then back again, but the little steam trains are gleaming and lovingly looked after and the scenery is lovely. That night a roaring open fire had appeared in the bar so we had our meal in there amongst Welsh speaking locals.
The next day was the planned trip to Portmeirion, the fantasy cliffside village designed by architect and local aristocrat Clough Williams-Ellis. It is famous as the setting where sixties television series ‘The Prisoner’ was filmed, one of those dramas where viewers had no idea what was going on, thus making it a cult film. You have to pay to go in, but it is well worth a visit and it must be even better on a sunny summer’s day. Colourful strange buildings cling to rock faces. Various winding steps, slippery in the damp weather, take you down to the edge of the estuary. No one lives there. We went to the hotel that was the house of a previous reclusive owner before Clough Williams bought the land in the 1920s and had coffee in front of an open fire. It was quiet, but apparently they had had a hundred guests for breakfast, those staying at the hotel and others in self catering apartments in the exotic buildings. Behind the village woodlands spread up the hill.
Back up at the main cafe after more clambering around and photography we talked to a waitress who only spoke Welsh till she started school. Her granddaughter goes to the high school in Harlech where every subject is taught in Welsh, except for English. If young children or English children arrive to start school and don’t speak Welsh they are whisked off by taxi for an intensive six weeks tuition and apparently come back speaking fluent Welsh!
On the third day we drove to Llanberris through the mountain scenery of Snowdonia in mist and rain to visit the Snowdon Mountain Railway. Of course that was closed till March, but we thought it would be fun to see the station; I had always imagined it sitting at the foot of the mountain. It isn’t quite like that and with the low lying cloud and mist we were not quite sure which mountain was Snowden. Since 1896 the little rack and pinion railway has been taking visitors up the mountain and there is now a new visitor centre and cafe at the summit, no doubt welcome after the one hour trip. I wonder if anyone would be allowed to build such a thing today?