THE LAKES, CHESTER, GWYNEDD & HOAREY STORIES
by Irwin Hirsh
(First published in GUFFaw 3, November 1999, edited by Paul Kincaid)
Our schedule only allowed us a flying visit through the Lakes District. Five hours travelling along the Lakes' main drag - from Keswick down through to Windermere and Bowness; five hours of postcard views. The scenery was fantastic, dramatic, as if someone had taken the main body of England and compacted it down to something a twentieth of the size. Where elsewhere we would pass fields, which would gently roll up to the hill peak in the distance, in the Lakes that peak would be far closer and there'd be a rougher countryside in between.
The drama of the District was added to by the weather. As we travelled south we drove into a beautiful, sunny light, which picked up and enhanced the scenery before us. Behind us were dark clouds, which did their bit to emphasis the austere aspect of the Cumbrian Mountains. And sometimes ahead of us and sometimes behind us was a most marvellous rainbow. Wherever we stopped, in Keswick, on the shore of Derwent Water, at a number of spots along Lake Windermere, we would do so in bright sunshine. But soon we'd be hunted down by those clouds and the rain they brought with them. Our time to move on in the Lakes was largely dictated by having the arch of that rainbow pass over us.
We travelled on the Chester, spending the night in a B&B. The next morning we walked over the Old Dee Bridge and spent a few hours in a quick exploration of the ancient walled city. We were taken by the sense of pride in the city, and the way in which its ramparts and buildings have been preserved. My favourite building was the Cathedral. With my first glimpse of its dusty red sandstone exterior I was in its spell, and it was to be one of my three favourite churches we would visit on my GUFF trip. It's darker stone created a majestic, eerie effect, both outside and in, and I was particularly taken with the elaborate carving of the screen around the choir stalls.
We would have stayed longer in Chester but we had a date to make, so late morning we hit the A55. Soon after the start of the journey we crossed a national border. Wendy and I had our passports ready, but all we met was a sign welcoming us to Wales. Cheated out of our desired stamp in our passports, we have no formal evidence that we ever set foot in Wales. Be warned, what you are about to read could be all made up.
The travel along the A55 was standard, but on the A470 we entered the Snowdonia National Park and encountered the great scenery on offer. Looking at the map we noted a small spot in the middle that wasn't part of the National Park. We were intrigued to know what it was about Blaenau Ffestiniog that had it holding out against the surrounding hoards of natural, national splendour, and quite conveniently the town was right on our route. So impressed were we with what we could see of the National Park which contains the highest mountain in all of Wales and England that we'd forgotten that slate was the region's basis of wealth in 19th and early 20th century. Blaenau Ffestiniog was a town built from that wealth. There were mountains of grey slate, the waste from the mines, overhanging the town, sometimes in a menacing way, which held its own splendour.
Our point of rendezvous was the town of Harlech, where we were to spend a weekend with Dave and Hazel Langford in their holiday flat. From quite a distance out from the town we could see the town's Castle - built by England's Edward I as he conquered North Wales in the 1280s - signifying that we'd made the correct turn-off from the A470. Arriving at the Langford's flat we knocked on the door, but no one was home (or, only a deaf person was home) so drove up into the village. Walking around the streets, checking out the stores and the cafes I heard a group of kids conversing in Italian.
Italian? I did a double-take, and realised that for the very first time my ears was hearing Welsh as it is spoke. When we met up with the Langfords I described this scene to them, which greatly excited Hazel. She told me 70% of the population of the county of Gwynedd speak Welsh as their primary language, and she was pleased that what I'd heard could indicate that percentage could grow. "I think that's a good sign, if school kids out on their own are speaking Welsh. It shows that the language is still alive." While Dave is Welsh it is Hazel who knows the language, and a number of times over the weekend Dave would quiz Hazel about some aspect of Welsh grammar and linguistics.
That evening, over a meal of Hazel's patented and tasty Sludge, we compared our trips into Harlech. Dave and Hazel found themselves stuck driving behind an old VW van, with CND stickers plastered all over. "We looked out for Judith and Joseph, but not a sight," Dave said, "The van didn't have a muffler, so it made a lot of noise and bangs and all that. Obviously not believers in anti-pollution."
Wendy and I mentioned that from the A55 we were noticed a building set halfway up a hill and overgrown by trees. We would have kept driving on, but there were features of this building that demanded we stop for a longer look. The building looked like a castle but was not one with a strong defence system. It would have been hard to stop artillery attacks from either atop the hill or from the surrounding trees. Today the easiest way to scale the walls would be to climb one of the surrounding trees and drop into the castle grounds from an overhanging branch. "All part of Edwards the First's plan for taking over Wales" said Dave, "Getting his men to strategically plant seeds."
Dave and Hazel had only recently taken possession of their flat; so recent that they hadn't tried out any of the town's restaurants or pubs. Dave did add that to find the best pubs would require the expertise of Martin Hoare. "He walks into a pub and within five minutes he's a regular." We discussed plans for seeing the sights of west Gwynedd and Martin Hoare's brought back into the conversation. Dave noting they and Martin are not exactly compatible travelling companions. "We'd be admiring some fantastic scenery, and Martin wants to leave. 'Pubs opening in half an hour... can't waste valuable drinking time.'"
Further anecdotes were related, each of which had a mythic quality. Not having met Martin I wondered aloud if he really does exist. Could he instead have been conjured as a plot device for Dave's tales and a second voice for Dave's fannish interests? Hazel assured me that Martin is real. "Yes, I guess he is," I allowed, "You're real, and Dave uses you as his anti-fannish voice."
Wendy, who doesn't read fanzines, wasn't sure what I meant. "In Dave's TAFF trip report the impression I got of Hazel was of someone who spent a couple weeks travelling around USA with her mouth wide open, aghast at the horror at what she was seeing."
"But that's how I was on that trip," Hazel said. "Dave didn't have to invent any of that."
We talked about other fannish characters. Dave wondered about the impressions people would gain from the work Greg Pickergill put in as the person in charge of the well-run Conspiracy Fan Room; a job which had made Greg respectable. "It's like the worst kid in school being made a prefect, in the hope of reforming his ways. Greg's an anarchist doing the committee heavy."
Hazel programmed our sightseeing schedule, and the next morning she was guiding us through Portmeirion. The brainchild of Clough Williams-Ellis and his dream to build a village "to my own fancy on my own chosen site" the town is, as Dave had put it "the fanac of a real architect." A wander around is very easy on the eye: buildings painted in baby blue and pink. As a lot of the features at Portmeirion were rescued from buildings being pulled down around the country there's a wide mixture of styles - oriental and gothic, neoclassical and Italian. It could have been a bizarre mix, but placed within Williams-Ellis's aim of a town that enhances the local surroundings it all works.
As they went around pointing out features we could tell that Dave and Hazel enjoy watching the reaction this place brings in. We wandered down to the town's pier, which had an old wooden boat moored off it. As we got closer I noticed that the boat was permanently attached to the pier. And just before stepping on I realised that there was no boat at all. A skillful paint job and fittings of a deck of a boat placed on a concrete slab had created the illusion. "The best boat in the world - it doesn't rock at all," Hazel cheerfully noted.
It's unoriginal to suggest the town would make an ideal location for films and television programmes, because more than enough producers have had just that thought. It's most notable as being the spot where a significant part of the sixties TV show "The Prisoner" was filmed, and as a result in fandom terms is the site for regular Prisonercons. Enter any of the buildings and it is obvious that Portmeirion was used only for show's exterior shots. In the years since our visit I've kept an eye on the listings of British conventions, hoping to see that a Prisonercon is to be held at Ealing Studios (or wherever) but not yet.
Upon entering Six of One, the Prisoner bookshop, Wendy and I witnessed a most amazing transformation. At Conspiracy Wendy and I had decided that the only reason Hazel attends conventions is to be on hand to ensure that a daily hangover cure is administered to Dave, but here, in this shop, Hazel was being all fannish. Her eyes light up, and she adopted a Goshwowoboy stance. There was some new stuff on the shelf and she eagerly went for it. And when Max, the proprietor, indicated that another couple of episodes had been put on videotape Hazel went crazy. "Have to have it. Another one for the collection."
"But you don't have a VCR," I said.
"That doesn't matter," Hazel said as she reached for her purse.
From Portmeirion we drove onto Porthmadog, had lunch, and walked around to the train station. Next on the Hazel Langford Tour was a trip to Blaenau Ffestiniog and back on a narrow gauge train. The railway was built to transport slate from the mines down to the port; since being reopened by a gang of train enthusiasts in 1955 it has existed for the likes of Dave, Hazel, Wendy, and I.
When the train pulled into the station Dave rushed off to try and get some first class seats in the first class glass roofed observation carriage - which was built for the better class of slate - but he was beaten to the punch there, so we settled down in one of the standard carriages. The train took off and soon we were chugging through some stunning scenery. The journey starts by the seaside, and goes through the green farmlands, woodlands, open country and into the grey slate mine territory. Over the last two-thirds of the trip the rise is quite steep but the little engine makes light work of job, helped by the various twists and turns along the way. The slowest the train goes is at Dduallt, where the track took us through a tight spiral so we could gain a height of about 11 meters to rise above a reservoir water level.
Our carriage had rows of seats that go straight across the width of the train, leaving no aisle. This took something away from the attraction of train travel - the opportunity to wander around the vehicle. That night that I learnt of another disadvantage with the lack of an aisle. We were all writing postcards, and in a card to Martin Hoare Dave noted that the arrangement made it extremely difficult to get to dining car for a beer.
The following morning we made a return visit to Blaenau Ffestiniog, this time by car. We saw more of this dot in the middle of a National Park than we saw of the Park itself. I guess this is symbolic of the importance of the slate industry to the area, and is reflected by this visit being undertaken so we can visit a slate mine. The town has two mines that are open to the public: The Gloddfa Ganol Slate Mine and Llechwedd Slate Caverns. The former boasts that it's the biggest in the world, but Hazel saw little merit in a visit: "I'm rather dubious about a slate mine which proclaims its restaurant and craft shop in big letters while its tours get minor billing."
After paying our entrance money, and being fitted out with hardhats we joined the queue for the next tour. As we waited Hazel asked us if we have any problems going in caves. "No worries," we reassured her.
"It's us tall people who'll have the problem," said Dave, "Wendy will happily walk around upright." And with that he did an excellent imitation of Wendy's walk and toothy grin.
Sure enough Dave was right. As Wendy put it: "Every time I heard the thud of hardhat hitting stone I turned around and it had been Dave."
There are two separate tours of the mine. One involves a tramway into a mountain, the other a steep inclined railway into a deep mine. Each tour offers a different perspective; the former showing the history of the mine and how slate is worked, the latter describing the life of the miners in earlier days. Parts of the tours make use of tapes of someone acting as 12-year-old miner from the Victorian era. The content was good though I could've done without the chosen style of presentation. I'd much rather have straight narration, without all the added drama. This blight is more than made up by the scale of the place, with its large chambers, a beautiful underground lake, and an excellent demonstration of how slate is split.
The tour ended and it was time for lunch. "After finding out what it's like to be a Welsh miner," Dave said, "I need to continue the learning and go to the miners pub." And so he led us to The Miners' Arms.
Sometime during that meal Wendy noticed Dave's quickness at drinking his pint, while I sauntered over my half-pint. "It's what comes of living in the same city as Martin Hoare since 1976," Dave explained.
Then we travelled on to Caernarfon. In leaving Blaenau Ffestiniog we were saying farewell to a town with a most marvellous name. Hazel, particularly, took great delight in pronouncing the town's name. All her love of languages came to the fore as she wrapped her tongue around the Welsh syllables.
In Caernarfon we spent the afternoon wandering its Castle, another built by Edward I in the 1280s. We had a fine time exploring a selection of towers and walls, and getting a good feeling for its qualities as a fortress. As in indication of Edward's strength the castle showed how the Welsh would've had a hard time fighting back. We visited a number of exhibitions within the Castle, which emphasised the Englishness of the place. One exhibition was about the English chaps who have been given the title Prince of Wales, while another is about Edwards I's Welsh campaigns and the castles he built. I asked Dave and Hazel about Welsh Nationalism and its prospects. Hazel told me that it's not as strong as Scottish Nationalism, partly because the English have had a longer presence in Wales and partly because economically Wales is not as strong as Scotland.
The next morning we continued in the footsteps of Edward I and his conquest of Wales when we checked out Harlech Castle, which is in a most magnificent setting. Perched on a crag, overlooking Tremadog Bay, with the Snowdonia mountains in the distance. I stood atop the Castle's western wall, looking out to the sea. As I did so I was caught by a memory of an etching that shows the sea lapping up almost to the floor the castle walls. This confused me but Dave put my mind to ease. In the centuries since the castle was built the sea had receded a kilometre to the west. Scanning the land and beach below, trying to imagine them as a seabed 50 metres below sea level I remarked that the Langford flat looks like a toy.
"That's why the people of the old town call our estate 'Lego'" Hazel told me.
Our time in Harlech was almost up and all that remained was for us to accompany Dave and Hazel to the local supermarket. Hazel had a small list of items required for that night's meal, and as we approached the supermarket she asked Dave to get an onion. Entering the building Dave surveyed the scene, and took a few steps toward the off-license.
"An onion, Dave!"
As he did an about-face Dave mumbled something about hoping Martin Hoare doesn't hear about this.
Dave, Wendy, and I wandered around the supermarket, chatting and looking for onions. Eventually we found them in a tray that had been placed at an angle. Dave reached out and picked up an onion. And an avalanche began. There was only a slight movement at first. An onion fell to the floor, followed by another. Then three rolled forward, and all hell broke loose. Dave's hand shot back and forth across the plane in short, sharp movements, trying to stop the momentum. And it worked. Dave relaxed, only to find that this had been only a temporary halt in the proceedings.
By the time the last onion had hit the floor Hazel was on the scene. She looked around, shock her head from side to side, said, "At least you made Wendy laugh," and just kept walking.
"It was like being attacked by klingons," Dave said as we helped him clean up the mess.
It was at that point that Wendy and I bade our farewells, got into our car, and began our drive to Birmingham.
Three days later we were back in London, timing our arrival for the Wellington met. I was standing chatting to Mike Dickinson, when I heard Wendy call me. She was standing next to a chap I didn't recognise. "This is Martin Hoare," she yelled over the din. I stood there for a moment, wondering if I really wanted to go over and say hi. In my mind was the idea that to actually meet Martin Hoare would be to take something away from Dave's stories. Then I realised that just seeing the chap in the flesh has spoilt the myth. "Excuse me," I said to Mike and began mentally rehearsing my first line to Martin. But he proved that he could read my mind and beat me to the punch. "It's all lies."