On my first evening in Cardiff about five years ago, I asked my host John, a friend from graduate school who had relocated to Wales, to recommend a destination. I wanted to indulge in a seaside town past its heyday with only one remaining fish and chip shop, a boardwalk with rotting wood, and an amusement park where most of the rides are no longer fixed after breaking down. In other words, I sought redemption in the kind of town the singer Morrissey chastises in his lament, “Everyday is Like Sunday” (This is the coastal town that they forget to close down…”). I had an imminent deadline and I always get writing done when I am in a lonesome location—like the time I hid in a past-its-prime motel on the Florida panhandle with abandoned trucks along the hillside creating a renegade sculpture park, or the time I ignored the glory of nearby Red Rock Canyon and locked myself in a chain motel just outside Colorado Springs.
I also felt the rumbling of a Proustian remembrance—a corner of my consciousness began to recall the time when my mother and I travelled to Llandudno in North Wales on a British Rail Day Trip in the 1970s (my mum and I also went on day trips to the Roman town of Chester, the Lake Country, and Brighton). Though I didn’t want to exactly retrace footsteps from my youth in the British Isles and venture on the tramway up the Great Orme Mountain once more, I did long to see the Welsh coast again beyond Cardiff Bay, perhaps to reconnect with those cherished moments when my mother and I were travel companions with a home base in London (we also visited Paris, Bruges, and Amsterdam by rail, as she refused to fly).
John responded in an instant to my query: “Barmouth.” He had worked on a production outside the town and stayed at an ever-so-delightful B&B right run by a charming couple, a local fellow and his European lover. Later I found out that the non-native had learned how to make an authentic Welsh breakfast, consisting of various forms of delicious high cholesterol meats and eggs…and laver bread, which is made with local seaweed and oatmeal! Though John didn’t spend much time in the town itself or at the inn as he was on location all the time, he said confidently that the town should meet my needs. And so I contacted the inn-keepers right away by phone to make a booking because they hadn’t yet fully embraced the notion of the internet as an ersatz travel agent.
John was both right and wrong. Barmouth (in Welsh, Abermaw) sits gingerly on the confluence of the River Mawddach and Cardigan Bay. At low tide the town twinkles in the sun, and the beach is sandy and wide, unlike most of the stony, unpleasant beaches I’ve endured in England, spoiled by living much of my life near the wide, sandy Atlantic beaches of New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts. Yes, there was a nostalgic redolence as one sensed Abermaw wanted to brag about its more posh past, but the town also displayed a little dazzle in the present tense–even if many of its cottages and townhouses did need repainting and repair. Barmouth had been a center of shipbuilding in the 18th century and also a great exporter of local wool to the American colonies. Later on the active port diversified to include local timber, and the importation of all sorts of foods and building materials needed for the coast. The coming of the railroad, which finally crossed the Mawddach in 1876, began to change the industrial structure of the town, bringing in visitors in awe of the area’s physical beauty. Even before the railway, intrepid writers such as Shelley, Tennyson, and Wordsworth traveled down the Mawddach to encounter the sublime in Abermaw; Darwin stayed for seven weeks, working on a revision of The Origin of Species.
In such a fabled setting, would I be able to meet my deadline? Indeed, I might end up trekking to the top of the hill behind the village to indulge in the vista (called the “Panorama View”) or walk along the railway viaduct and then continue along the coast, taking photos with my new camera of the mountains and wild flowers. Or would I spend an afternoon and take the ferry across the river and take the two-mile “little train” known as the Fairbourne Railway, once a horse-drawn tramway before it was converted into a miniature steam railway? Could I resist such tempting diversion? In the evening, surely I would venture forth to one of the local pubs, and order the politically incorrect named dish known unfortunately as “faggots and mushy peas” (made of pig livers and hearts wrapped in fatty bacon, served with smashed vegetables). No doubt, I’d drink one too many pints of lager, and learn how to curse in Welsh with my new found friends. Or would the inn-keepers invite me out to dine with them at a newly-opened French restaurant and meet other folks who run local businesses, each devoted to making Barmouth a must-see spot for so-called world travelers like myself—a traveler that takes advantage of academic conferences so that he can get out of New York City!
When I was in the Florida Panhandle or Colorado Springs I barely left the motel room…but here there was perhaps too much non-simulated charm for my senses to resist. My ability to meet my deadline was in jeopardy…
When I was at the Cardiff Railway Station purchasing my ticket, I was annoyed to learn that I had to take a train back to Shrewsbury in England in order to catch the Cambrian Line (Cambria is the Latinized form of the Welsh word Cymru, which means Wales). This detour makes the trip longer and is probably due to the Beeching Axe of 1963, which cut back on the number of railway lines in the U.K., reshaping Welsh transport. Though it originates in England, the Cambrian Line heads directly to the west coast of Wales, and then branches off into two branches, one heading north past Abermaw, the other heading south to the university town of Alberystwyth. The Line is run by Arriva Wales now; British Rail was privatized after the Railway Act of 1993 as a direct result of Thatcherism, though it happened while John Major was Prime Minister. Certainly under nationalization, the sandwiches were stale and tea was akin to the “grease-tea” in Morrissey’s song. Nonetheless I was always a big fan of British Rail, indeed I confess to a wistfulness toward its logo of parallel and intersecting red lines. Almost forty years have passed since I was a resident of the U.K., but from my perspective now as a visitor, privatization has made rail travel more expensive and less efficient. Yes the food–and tea–is better now on board, but cuisine has generally improved all over the U.K., thanks to its integration into the European Union and the growth of its immigrant population since the days when I lived there in the 1970s. Mind you, I have always had a fondness for some of the traditional English meat pies, especially the Cornish Pasty–and to my mind fish and chips, served in local newspaper, is the ultimate way to revel in fried food.
The two and a half hour train trip through Wales becomes spectacular when it reaches Dovey Junction, which is the last stop before the train turns either north or south. The speed of the train slows down as it hugs the hillside above the sea, affording longer views of the craggy coastline and allowing the rider to peer into the hamlets that have grown up along the railway tracks.
A classful of schoolkids in uniform boarded my carraige, heading home. Endearingly, the conductor appeared to know all the kid’s names and shushed the ones who insisted on misbehaving. The train became very local; no one but me seem invested in the play of light against the ornate coast or the abundance of flowering plants in the late, still chilly spring. I even overheard a conversation in Welsh (perhaps they used their Celtic language to discretely discuss the rather inquisitive American tourist!). One had to request a stop, as if the rider were on a local bus. These stops are referred to as “halts” and I learned later they were once used by miners—who used footpaths that connected the halt with a road that led to the mine. Now it seemed as if a passenger could request that the train stop right by one’s door.
The visitor’s breathe is taken away as the train approaches Abermaw and crosses the estuary of the Mawddach. On the right side the meandering river heads into Snowdonia National Park and its mountain range, including the peak called Caider Idris (Idris is a giant warrior poet of Welsh legend, caider means chair). To the left the estuary greets Cardigan Bay, and the town unfolds in front of the slowly-moving train. The bridge (also known as a viaduct) itself is stunning, and deserves further examination by walking along the footpath (there is a small toll to take this walk). It consists of 113 wooden trestles that collectively form a unique lattice-like patterning above the water. These trestles were almost destroyed in the 1980s when it was discovered that marine worms had been eating the wood. The bridge was almost shut down for good (and indeed the Cambrian coastal line was threatened with termination many times in its history), but the European Union provided the funds to rebuild the bridge. This alerts us to how the smaller coastal communities of Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland might suffer without access to European revenue streams under Brexit. Additionally coastlines, which provide so much pleasure to residents and visitors and increasingly rely upon tourism, are also particularly vulnerable to climate change. But for now the trains run and the bridge is sturdy, and the ever-so-wide beach still protects the glistening town from the rising seas.
I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether my deadline was met. But if I didn’t get any writing done, the fault was not mine. Blame it on Barmouth. Or as Google Translate suggests: Fe’i bai ar Abermaw.