Archive for August 29th, 2007

Pan y Fan mountain in Brecon Beacons, Wales

Completing our “Summer of the UK” series, Jon and I spent this past long weekend in southern Wales, which is about a 2-hour train ride west of London. We completely lucked out and had sunny weather from Saturday to Monday, and now I have only good things to say about Wales.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived at Cardiff Central Station were all the signs in Welsh. Yes indeed, Welsh is a living language in Wales, and if you have an aversion to guttural sounds and double consonants galore, then Welsh is not for you.

Fortunately for me, all the Welsh signs include English translations below.

Jon and I quickly abandoned Cardiff and headed for the hills. We dropped by the Europcar, flashed a US license, and off we went. Driving on the left? No problem, of course.

Brecon Beacons National Park (Bannau Brycheiniog for you Welsh speakers) is a 45-minute drive north of Cardiff on the A470. It’s not like an American national park, where development is prohibited. Rather, it seems a lot of the land in the park is privately owned, but land use is strictly controlled by a National Park planning authority. So on the one hand, there are towns (with homes and shops) within the park boundaries, but on the other, the towns are quaint and convenient, and all the lonely natural beauty of the mountains and fields seems intact.

Before setting off on a hike, we stocked up on organic goodies at a “Summer Fayre” hosted at the Brecon Beacons Mountain Centre. I loved the quaintness of it all – the parking in a grassy field, the homemade food stands, and the silly rides. For £1, you could ride a sheep, just as the sign says:

ride the sheep at the Summer Fayre in Brecon Beacons

We picked up a fresh, nutty seven-grain loaf from the Caroline’s Real Bread stand as well as some chive-flavored fresh goat’s cheese from the Cothi Valley Goats cheese stand. It was hard to resist buying more when everything looked so fresh, but when you have to lug the food around on your back for a couple of hours, you learn to control yourself.

Provisioned up, we hiked up the (of course, tallest) peak, Pen-y-Fan. It took us less than an hour to reach the top, mostly because Pen y Fan isn’t very tall, but I would characterise the hike as pretty strenuous because the trail goes straight to the top through open fields. I don’t hike very often, but when I do, I prefer the kind where you’re in shady, leafy bits so that you appreciate the open, sunny vistas more. I also prefer a little switchbacking to make the inclines less crazy. (All spoken like the true outdoorswoman I am).

In any case, the summit of Pen-y-Fan is just a 5 minutes’ hike from another peak, Corn Du, so we devoured our Summer Fayre goodies at Corn Du, snapped a photo of Pen-y-Fan (at top of this post), continued on to Pen-y-Fan, and then started the slow descent.

The views in every direction from Corn Du and Pen-y-Fan were stunning, but I felt a little queasy looking at the steep slopes. You start to imagine that one false step is going to send you rolling down these dramatic hills.

Having done my healthy outdoor activity for the day, Jon and I drove another 30 minutes north to reach Hay-on-Wye, a town famous for its large number of bookshops. A book town! My kind of place.

Hay-on-Wye town centre

The streets in town are quaint and picturesque: Window boxes spilling over with bright geraniums and petunias; half-timber buildings; and of course bookstores everywhere, even outdoors! When we were in the town center, we noticed hundreds of books left outside on shelves, and it turns out they’re sold on the honor system. If you decide to buy a book, you deposit your money in a designated metal lock box.

I loved browsing the bookstores, which ran the gamut in degree of specialization and organization. There were stores selling overstock of best sellers on the cheap and others offering only rare first editions priced at hundres of pounds. Many shops had only the most high-level organization (“Fiction” vs “Non-Fiction,” for example), and finding anything within these categories was a total crap shoot. I wondered how these places could possibly make money, because you’d be hard pressed to walk in and find a specific book. I know, because I spent a lot of time trying to find E.L. Doctorow’s “The March,” which I will obviously now order from amazon.com.

Richard Booth bookseller, Hay on Wye

Our favorite shop was the Richard Booth bookseller, which was a musty old jumble, but largely organized the way you’d expect in a mega-chain store (so you could actually find a specific book). Walking through the damp, cool basement level of the store, I felt like I was back in the forgotten stacks of Firestone Library, three floors underground. And yes, this was a good thing. I ended up just buying yet another (my third?) copy of Pride and Prejudice, and Jon and I found a sunny bench and spent a few hours reading outdoors in perhaps the world’s only Book Town.

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