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By Brendan Seery

Deputy Editor

Exploring the wild, wonderful Wales from the cosmopolitan Cardiff to the glorious Gower

The writer visited Wales with his wife and shared his experience of the country in the piece

Even the locals in Cardiff laugh about the Welsh weather: in Wales, they will tell you, you’re guaranteed that it will rain. And drizzle. And, occasionally, deluge.

Oh yes, they might add, did we mention the wind? All of our previous visits to Wales – starting after we were newly married in the mid-’80s – have been in winter, where sleet and a bit of snow put in guest appearances.

Welsh weather

All of which is to say that, if you visit the country (its proud people will tell you they are, despite being part of the United Kingdom) in the colder months, you might well come away with the wrong impression.

So, as we strolled back from the pub in the Whitchurch part of Cardiff – replete with a great pub supper hosted by my daughter’s partner – it was through a fine spring evening.

The sun had gone by 8.30pm, but the twilight, and the clear, fresh air, reminded me why spring is so magical in Europe. (Mind you, though, the reality is that the Welsh voted for Brexit and to leave the European Union…)

Cardiff on a clear spring evening is every inch (no Euro centimetres here) a modern European city.

That perhaps wasn’t always so, for, while the city was the hub of trade in the country’s rich raw materials, headed by coal, it always had a grimy grubby look, in my mind’s eye at least.

GOD’S WINDOW: Oh yes, you can get gorgeous sunsets in Wales – like this one over the village of Crofty in the Gower Peninsular

To be fair, on our first visit to the UK back in the ’80s, that rundown appearance was common to most cities and towns.

The UK, recovering from the dominance of the unions and the Left in the ’70s, was being bruised into line by the Thatcher economics of the era.

Wales, with its closed coal pits (demand collapsed after Thatcher crushed the unions) and tiny, tenement-like miners’ houses cramped against the sides of valleys, was worst hit – visually and financially.

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Prime tourist destination

The Valleys still feel the after-effects in high unemployment and substance abuse. Ironically, the benefit of being members of the EU was yet to be felt.

But felt it was, later, as the prosperity brought by open borders and trade spread far and wide across the UK.

BLEAT ABOUT IT: Rhosilli Bay is one of the world’s spectacular beaches, but frequently empty because the way in is strenuous and daunting.

And nowhere was that rejuvenation more apparent than in Wales.

The country has now become recognised as one of the premier tourist destinations in the British Isles… and for good reason.

Cosmopolitan Cardiff hosts music concerts, is the home of Welsh rugby, boasts art galleries and classy restaurants and has come up in the world in all ways.

SHAPES AND SOUNDS: Cardiff’s Millennium Centre reminds one that it is very much a cosmopolitan, modern Europe city.

But it is the natural beauty of Wales that has seen tourist numbers, from both the UK and abroad, blooming in the past decade.

The well-heeled from London have started what the wealthy all over the world have been doing: buying holiday homes in the country or in seaside villages. You can see why.

We spend a pleasant few days with my daughter and her partner in the village of Crofty, on the outskirts of Swansea, but that is still part of the Gower Peninsular, which became Britain’s first Area of Outstanding Natural beauty in 1956.

Visitwales.com describes the Gower as “ringed by award winning beaches and adored by walkers, birdwatchers, sunbathers and surfers…”

One of those beaches has, on occasion, made it on to lists of the world’s most amazing beaches…incredible to think of that in a country most associated with hard-scrabble coal extraction.

Rhosilli Bay, on the day we visit, is lashed with wind and rain, counter-intuitively making it attractive in a sort of forboding, bleak way.

This is the place you’d expect to see smugglers wrestling their illegal cargoes to shore against the pounding waves.

Not where you’d expect to see surfers – but there are a few hardy, wet-suited souls are, waiting for waves, which look to me as though they wouldn’t get our average Jeffreys Bay surfer off his bum on the beach to ride… My daughter’s partner, Patrick, has hiked and visited many of these places and reckons that even in peak summer season, the daunting steep path down to the sands keeps all but the most energetic at bay.

It’s the same, he reckons, as he shows us Three Cliffs Bay, which is a solid hike of more than two kilometres from the car park to the beach.

LONG WALK: Hiking in the Brecon Beacons area soothes the soul.

And even then, you have to clamber over a Devil’s Playground of jagged rocks to get to the sand. With its own “Hole in the Wall”, Three Cliffs reminds me of the Transkei – beautiful and uncrowded.

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Welsh gems

While tourist numbers in peak season threaten to dilute some of the wild grandeur of Wales, canny walkers like Patrick can take you to the off-the-beaten-path gems, like hidden waterfalls and enable you to ignore, for example, the almost unbroken chain of humanity who goes out to summit Snowdonia National Park’s highest peak every day in summer.  

SUMMER SNOW: Like many, thousands of people climb Wales’s highest mountain, Snowdonia, every day in summer

In our AirBnb house in Crofty, we experience that most rare of British things – a self-catering place with more than one bathroom… So close to the salt marshes, which fringes the estuary of the River Loughor that the property’s owner warns that, when the tides are occasionally high, some roads will be under water.

As we walk on the one clear morning we get, my wife remarks on the presence of about a dozen free-roaming horses in the marshes, which, she says, remind her of the Camargue area of France.

The previous evening, the lashing rain which blanketed Rhosilli suddenly vanished over Crofty, providing a spectacular sunset that would have done Africa proud, it was so good. Another surprise – amazing sunsets… in Wales?

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Emotional attachments

Another thing you can rely on in Wales is the food.

It is good – whether it be in the local pub or in a fancier restaurant. And, of course, one of the better sides of being frozen out in the bad weather is that you can get inside and get a pint down you, which is a process which makes the world an altogether less threatening place.

Travel can also have family and emotional attachments, as we thought we would explore visiting the town of Pontarddulais, just across the M4 highway from Crofty, which is where my wife’s late father was born. After escaping the tough life his father had as a coal miner, he became an engineer and later sought his fortune in Africa.

KEEPING GUARD: The Welsh Dragon emblem in front of the Cardiff Castle.

The wheel has turned full circle with his granddaughter now working as a vet barely 30 miles (50km) from where he was born.

My wife, though, is little moved by the family tie.

Pontarddulais may have come up in the world from being a village to being a reasonable-sized town, but it still has coal dust under its finger nails… and that’s something my wife would prefer remained in the past.

Besides, we are in Pontard dulais more to shop – at the big Tesco there – than to dwell on the past. As I simmer the gammon steaks in orange juice that evening, we sit around the dinner table focused on the present and the future.

Even without the family connection, Wales is a great place to visit.

There is so much to see I would focus on research first, deciding on what your main aim will be and leaving the rest for your next visit.

You also need to get yourself a small car – you’ll thank me when you see how narrow the rural lanes are. Public transport is patchy and expensive so a car is a must.

SOUL FOOD: You’ll find good beer and good food in many a Welsh pub.

Oh – and a weatherproof jacket and stout walking shoes.

Down in a place like Rhossili, you could take an umbrella, but they’d laugh at you as a city slicker. And your clever gadget would last 10 seconds in that wind…

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