Written more as a diary entry.
Today I began a break in Machynlleth, stopping in a holiday “cottage” that is in fact an end terraced house, one of four that have been recently constructed. It has been an interesting day, fraught at the start, because I had left my camera at home and had to turn round at Ewloe, 22 miles away. We began in sunshine and ended, below Cader Idris, in swirling rain.
Our eventual route went via Gledrid, where we filled up with petrol at what are now reducing prices, and Welshpool, where we turned to take the route up the valley served by the Welshpool & Llanfair Railway. Just before Welshpool, traffic was held up while a section of highway is raised to mitigate against flooding from the nearby Severn; given the forecast rain for most of the week, it may well be necessary.
The route through the Llanfair valley was not one with which we were familiar; I think I had travelled it perhaps once before. Sara commented that this was typical UK scenery, and did not agree with my view that it was “low key” or “quiet”. It was not long before we were driving into Machynlleth and finding our accommodation. We then walked into the high street looking for the Co-op store and for the two charity shops that we had found on our previous visit. Alas, not only did it start to rain as we approached the Spar shop, but both shops had gone – the Severn hospice one, that had specialised in books and videos, very carefully cleared. In torrential rain, I stood outside the Spar shop with the dog, and talked to a middle-aged lady from Birmingham who also had a dog to tend, She had lived there for one year, an it was very different from the city, very much less diversity, she said, but she thought it would be a good place o be if you were writing or retired – both of which I hope to be before too long.
It occurred to me that this was only the second occasion that I had stopped in Machynlleth for a holiday, and that brought me back to the very first time that I had seen the place, on a short holiday with my mother and father. I was, at the time, a student, and this must have been in the summer of 1975 – or so memory suggests. [I was able to drive the car, but had not passed my test, so this places it as before January 1976]
We had followed a different route down, via Llandegla (I think) and travelling, in the dark, through Dolgellau, what seemed to be very narrow streets, at a time before the whole place was bypassed. We stopped in the Wynnstay Arms Hotel, then a Trust House Forte place, which Dad liked to patronise. I do not especially recall where we went from there, but I do recall the main road north of Dolgellau, being newly widened, before a further section north was widened. And I do recall a long drive on narrow roads through the hills behind Machynlleth, when we came upon a reservoir; I was shocked that a reservoir should have been constructed to drown another Welsh valley, but Dad grew annoyed and gestured at an empty cottage that we passed – “that’s your Welshman”. He may have had a point.
My main memory was of the Wynnstay Arms, then not as scruffy as it became later, We talked to a middle-aged man from Birmingham, in a room with a roaring open fire. As I recall, he was commenting on an odd development when an entire group of people engaged in a car rally had turned up, seemingly unannounced, and had expected an evening meal to be laid on, much to the anger of the manager. Later that night, much the worse for drink, there was a lot of noise and disturbance with this group.
I don’t recall this being a particularly happy occasion, but it was in my mind when, with marriage to Brenda impending, we began to arrange our honeymoon. I was keen to go to this part of Wales, while Brenda wanted to go abroad; so we compromised, with two nights in a hotel near Machynlleth, and then a few days in Paris. Brenda was very dubious about West Wales, which she had never visited, but I recall setting off in my red Datsun in mid-afternoon, on 6 November 1982, in some trepidation. It was a journey we would repeat many times until 1988, and so I recall few details, but I think we followed the route over the Llandegla moors and past Bala and Dolgellau, the latter now by-passed. What I do distinctly recall is going past the bridge at Machynlleth, and slowly up the hill on the road to Pennal, finding a narrow lane to our left. We drove slowly down through trees, wondering where on earth the place was, until we went through two gateposts into a car park in front of a large stone house. The front door, large and built in heavy timber, was not open, and I remember trying it gingerly and stepping through into the welcoming space beyond. The new life that began beyond that door will be recounted separately.
It was through that door, however, that I stepped on one of the grimmest days of my life, in October 1986. I had been called, early in the morning, down to the reception desk, where my sister Hilarie told me that my father had had a fatal heart attack. I recall vividly the feelings I had on the 100-mile journey home that day, but less of the journey. The only distinct memory of the latter was travelling near Corris and commenting to Brenda, who was deeply upset, that Wales somehow, remained a beautiful place. And so it was, even on the worst of days. Maybe Machynlleth should have been associated with sadness and shunned after that day, but Dad had been to the same hotel at Christmas 1985 and enjoyed it so much that a booking was made for 1986. Mum soon decided to follow this through and so, 10 weeks later, we were back in the Machynlleth area, on a sadder occasion, but still one with some enjoyment.
After the hotel closed, Brenda and I visited Machynlleth less frequently, although the secondhand bookshops and the Centre for Alternative Technology drew us. After she herself passed away, I visited myself, sometimes passing the place by train, sometimes venturing into the town. After I met Sara in March 2005, and especially after she moved to Wallasey that November, we visited the place on several occasions, by road and rail. I am stopping in accommodation that is very near the White Lion, a pub that we spent a pleasant hour between changes of train at the station.
What draws us now is a different prospect. I cannot be too far from retirement, and Sara has been retired, effectively, for over 3 years. We have thought of moving to another area to start a different life. Shropshire seemed inviting, but house prices are way too high, and it is too far from the coast. Llandudno is a possibility – indeed, earlier in the week we met a youngish man in Port Sunlight who said he had moved from Llandudno to Egremont (Wallasey) and had really liked Llandudno. What attracts us to Machynlleth is something different. Low house prices, for quite extensive accommodation, has to be one draw – to a place we could spread ourselves out. But the real attraction is the impression that the place is a Welsh Hebden Bridge – with a lot of middle-aged hippy types moving to a place that seems to suit. The CAT seems to have quite an influence here. And that lady said that this was not a commercial town, by which I think she means that money does not count, and maybe other values prevail. The age and condition of parked cars suggests this. Sara and I are reluctant to move, but don’t want to dismiss it, so maybe the best approach is to investigate.