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The Great Welsh Road…
We in Wales have two wonderful languages to play with, but neither of them comes near to having an adequate word for that most delicious of sensations: schadenfreude. This fantastically German (of course) expression translates as the ‘feeling of delight in the misfortune of others’. There’s nowhere guaranteed to stoke up my schadenfreude better than the rural highways and byways of Wales. I positively cackle with evil glee when, bowling down a deserted mountain pass in my camper van, the traffic news comes on the radio and shouts at me about tailbacks here and gridlocks there.
Sorry to say (but not very) that such schadenfreude walloped me regularly during the filming of the fourth series of my Great Welsh Roads television programmes. Since filming the first series in 2004, I’ve been truly amazed by the variety and scope of routes through this fabulous, fierce little country. People sometimes say to me, “haven’t you run out of roads yet?”. Well, no. According to Ordnance Survey, there are over 21,500 miles of public road in Wales, so I’m a long way yet from exhausting the supply.
Great Welsh Roads always looks to find those twisting back lanes, lethargic B-roads and stunning passes to take me from place to place. Driving these days can be such a stressful, unpleasant experience, and it’s wonderful to have reason to remind myself that it doesn’t have to be that way: the vast majority of Wales remains uncluttered enough to afford hours of gentle, unhurried driving through some of the finest natural landscapes on the planet.
Of course, it’s not just the roads that make the journeys. Just as important are the conversations en route and the many stopping-off points, which, in this new series, include an October dip in the River Usk near Crickhowell, a Sealed Knot battle at Llandeilo, Wales’ tallest tower block at Cwmbrân, a musical jam in Dolgellau, tales of mavericks and drunkenness in the Gwydir Forest, some high-camp art near Welshpool, the world’s wettest campsite in the Valleys, plus the usual ragbag of chapels, standing stones, bridges, castles, shops, caffs and – of course – pubs.
I’m often asked which is my favourite Welsh journey, and it’s a nigh-on impossible question to answer. But…if I was strapped to a rack and made to choose, it would probably have to be the journey home – is that cheating? I must add that it’s not a great journey solely because I’m on the way home; my reason is that any route coming back to this part of the world is simply spectacular. I live in a small village tucked into the forested mountains outside Machynlleth, and for the final programme of each of the past three series of Great Welsh Roads have traced the trip back home from completely different directions.
Not for nothing did Owain Glyndŵr pick Machynlleth as the natural place to hold his major parliament: it’s the place where the mountainous north of Wales meets the rolling south, and where the hill farms of the east look out over the sea of the west. All roads seem to point in our direction. For the first ‘homeward bound’ programme, I came from the deepest heart of Wales to the east. This brought me across the deserted upland moors of Montgomeryshire, the finest being the final run from near Llanidloes, on a road that seems to skim across the top of the world. It passes through the surreal moonscape of the abandoned lead mining community at Dylife, which once had a population of two thousand, now shrivelled to a couple of dozen. Thankfully, that includes the folk that run the fabulous Star Inn, claimed as the highest pub in Wales. The road is certainly one of the country’s highest, peaking at around 1600 feet in a full frontal panorama of perfection, before dropping down through ever greener pastures into Machynlleth.
The next series, I wrapped things up with a trip home from the dune-backed coast of Ceredigion, hugging the estuary of the River Dyfi as it snaked its lazy way inland. Then it was on to the old coach road into Mach, now a tiny gated lane through the woods, with the rushing water of the River Llyfnant pummelling through the rocks alongside. Mosses and ferns drip from rock faces that the track has been hacked through: the whole atmosphere oozes primeval fecundity.
This year, I came home from the north, cascading through massive woodlands in their autumn colours, before descending the spectacular mountain pass that hurtles towards the lake at Tal-y-llyn, right beneath the mighty peaks of Cadair Idris. By anyone’s standards, each of these routes is right up there with the best you’ll find anywhere. But when you know that they all point home, they take on an extra glow of gorgeousness. Yes, I know. It’s a fine line between schadenfreude and plain old smugness…
3.3.07. (Happy first birthday to my nephew Griff!)
Well, I’ve not actually managed to see either of the first two programmes yet myself, as I’ve been galloping around the country like a mad thing, promoting my new book Neighbours From Hell? (see http://www.ylolfa.com <http://www.ylolfa.com> for details), a wry look at centuries of strange attitudes we English have had towards Wales and the Welsh. Plug over!
Response has been great from people about the new series, so thanks a bunch everyone. Lots of people stopping me in the street (their first question is nearly always “where’s the dog, then?” if Patsy isn’t with me at the time. She is most definitely the star of the show…I know my place, and it’s a supporting role!). Sadly, because of ITV scheduling, the series is being broadcast at very odd times, with big gaps between episodes. The final (8th) programme in this series won’t go out until October, I believe. We’ll try and keep you up to date with transmission dates, though these do seem to be subject to change and the strange whims of those at ITV HQ in London.
I’m just about to head off for my first trip of 2007 in the van; it needs a bit of a spring clean and a sort out, but I am so looking forward to getting back on the road. Winter does seem to have gone on for a very long time. One bloke on the train back from Cardiff the other week told me “it’s your fault I’ve bought a camper van”, a response I’ve had from a few people. I hope they’d all agree that it is a magic way of seeing some of the amazing places that we’ve got on our doorsteps.
A belated happy Dydd Gwyl Dewi to everyone, and here’s to a good spring and summer out there on those fabulous Welsh highways and byways.