PLACE NO 6: PENMAENMAWR, WALES - PLACE NO 7: CONWY, WALES
The hem of North Wales' rough gabardine is folded at the coast and seamed with three trailing stitches. The oily bitumen grey of the A55, the rust orange of the railway tracks, and the indistinct fawn of a walker's path. Its garment is broached at the shoulder by the jewel of Snowdonia - the highest peak in the nation.
This warrior queen dabs a salt-diesel perfume around her ears - it is at once distinctive, sublime and yet cacophonous and uncomfortable. Facing the elements with slate and spear, she is rugged and weary, with scars and pockmarks from her battles with mining and industry upon her facade.
Penmaenmawr (pronounced pen-men-mar) is a village just off the main road - it is a useable collection of small shops, largely independent, with the exception of a surprisingly upmarket Spar. The shopkeepers' co-operative have retained a quaint feel to the main street, ensuring all the businesses along the road are styled identically under a steel awning of beige and maroon. It is more Open All Hours than Mary Portas on closer inspection, but we can’t all live in a fairytale.
If you walk down the hill at Penmaenmawr you hit the train station; take a right and then a left. Here you’ll find an aggressive innercityesque looking underpass, resplendent with gauche drawings in a bombastic Matisse palette. It was urban-lite, urban-wannabe and I bet all the local teenagers think it’s fun to hang out here.
The beach was a rock-pit, broken into sections by lines of groynes. Avoiding the dog shit, we stared into the sea, of which there was plenty, and sat to eat our dubiously entitled ‘pasty’.
Above us the road, out of sight but not sound, created a miasma of carbon and carcinogens out of a rumble of rubber, grease and steal ball bearings. It cut through the landscape like a weekend DIYer who drips an extension cord unceremoniously across a flowerbed. It is only an eyesore if you believe the land should be without human intervention, and only an inconvenience if you are a pedestrian or, indeed, wilderness itself. Instead of falling to sleep at night with the sibilant shush of the ocean pounding the cliffs, inhabitants quake under the roar of meaty engines. Even now Wales cannot quite reconcile its image of wild beauty with black soot, lung disease and industrial accidents.
Along the entire sea border, however, runs the Welsh coastal path. A trail that staples the land to the sea. So we turned East and headed towards the medieval walled city of Conwy.
It was an easy route, but I can’t say that I recommend it, even if it does epitomise the socialist clash of convenience versus aesthetic. The path weaves in and out of the rail tracks, changing back and forth between unspoilt beauty and the smog of the A55. When the traffic hits the hill, the cars tumble under the mountain through lanes of red crosses and green ticks. The walkers' path, however, winds upwards, solo, around Penmaenbach point. Emerging on the other side in a cloud of petrol fumes.
The path wandered past an arboretum of tree species, from the architecturally inclined Scot’s Pine, harbouring clutches of pine cones in the crooks of their snarled elbows, to stunted oaks and birches. Next came the dunes, awash with sea holly, gorse, trefoil and rosemary bushes with lilac flowers. Leaning over fences, were charred looking broom twigs: their flat black seed pods fluttering in the breeze like the gnarled fingers of mummified men.
At Conwy, we had a much-deserved break, a cup of tea and a BLT. From the cheese deli below we selected a trio of Welsh made cheeses: a Haford Cheddar, a Teifi seaweed Gouda and a blue called Perl Las (which turned out to be a very sweaty, moist affair). Unrelated to Wales - we picked out a black cheddar (possibly the ambrosia of cheeses) and a soft buttery, pungent pick - not unlike brie - called 'Roll-Right'. It looked like it had been put aside to mature by monks centuries ago and in the interim years had been dropped repeatedly onto a cellar floor. It tasted a bit like it too. Never the less, we packed with un-abandoned enthusiasm these lactose treats into our holdalls and made our way to the bus stop.
We weren't walking back. Some of the group was dealing with blisters, others the heat, and whilst the alternative was enduring public transport we made the decision. A rural bus-stop is a unique place where one can rely on meeting the people of the liminal. Usually it is just inhabited by the young with independence blossoming and a pink driving licence still sitting on an expensive hill of experience. Or the elderly - giddy to have a free ride, but secretly, especially to the relief of their families, finally off the road. Their eyesight and reactions having long receded from the point of competence. But then there are those that make you wonder and shiver, and slide away from them along the bus stop bench, all whilst trying to look inconspicuous. You know the type: a woman in her 50's, frizzy orange dyed hair, the brains of a particularly cunning pigeon and her overbearing friend/carer - also of an age, thinning hair, stomach hanging low over the waistband - narrating the banalities of life for the whole of Conwy to hear, despite no-one wanting to know.
Never the less, after a small mortgage was negotiated with the bus driver, and I gave a silent prayer to the Goddess Hecate; we arrived at near enough the campsite.
On the grass outside our tent, atop a chequered picnic blanket, we laid out our small feast. We had cheeses and pink peppercorn crackers, fresh bread, caramelised onion relish, salad leaves and radishes, avocado and laverbread. We had sweet passionfruit cider and Welsh beer. We had a feast, and it was soon devoured.
Later, as the sun started to set, I watched as a yellow, red and blue stripped ice-cream van raced aggressively over the camping green and blared out a surprisingly bubbly version of Batman. It can still hear it. It reverberates around my skull when it is feeling particularly empty. It was a surreal moment; the recognition of the tune almost Pavlovian. I felt like I should start barking, or drooling or running or something, but all I could do was watch.
That night, as the sounds of the A55 filled my sleep, I dreamt I was the caped crusader. And I waded out into the misty grey sea and let the weight of my armour take me down.