Monday, September 17, 2007

30 June: From Wales to the Lakes

This morning we had the porridge oats again (they really do hit the spot on a blustery rainy day) and John had the full breakfast, but I just had a side order of bacon because I think eating all these eggs might kill me (yeah, I know, like eating bacon won't)! We had requested a picnic lunch to take with us, which was a little pricey at £16, but we figured it would be convenient on a long driving day. We thanked Kelly for the wonderful stay at Tan-y-Foel and then headed for Betws-y-Coed to get gas, find an ATM, and look around town a bit. I was surprised to find that there is not much to the town other than a string of slate-gray Victorian B&Bs and some shops. We stopped at a very cool outdoor sporting goods store called Cotswold, where John bought some waterproofing spray for his raincoat and I got some hand and foot warmers, just in case it is miserably cold in Scotland (which is beginning to seem more and more likely).

Even though it was raining and it would mean going a little out of our way, we decided to return to the dramatic Llamberis Pass in Snowdonia that we had driven through yesterday so I could get some photos. The wind was howling like a banshee down the valley, threatening to turn my umbrella inside-out and making picture-taking a bit difficult, but it was gorgeous. We stopped at a spot where sheep were grazing alongside a raging river strewn with massive boulders (photo, right). The clouds were even lower than yesterday, giving the place a very dark, brooding look. You could almost imagine the Welsh fighters holed up in caves high on the mountainsides. I took what pictures I could get and then we headed north back to Conwy. We hooked up with the motorway, drove through a tunnel under the estuary, and continued east along the coast.

We decided to make a brief stop at Rhuddlan Castle for lunch. Rhuddlan is yet another of Edward I’s string of castles, smaller and more ruined than the three we visited yesterday, but still very impressive, sitting squatly along the River Clwyd (photo, right). It was still raining so we ate our picnic lunch in the car (salmon and butter sandwiches, apples, and granola bars) and then went for a quick tour of the castle (our 3-day pass gave us entry here as well). Rhuddlan was constructed between 1277 and 1282 in a concentric plan, but diamond-shaped rather than square, with its gate towers positioned at the corner facing the river instead of along the bailey wall. The massive twin gate towers, thick walls, and three other towers are partially intact, but with huge holes blown through them and part of the exterior stone cladding chipped away. (I’m not sure how people managed to dismantle these castles some three hundred years ago with no more than sledgehammers and pickaxes!)

I bought a Welsh dragon Beanie Baby and a pewter Celtic barrette at the castle gift shop and then we set off on our three-hour drive to the Lake District. We didn’t notice when we passed back into England, but we realized at some point that the signs weren’t in Welsh anymore. It rained most of the way, but our route took us mostly on motorways (M6), so the going was fairly easy. (John continues to insist on doing all the driving because he likes having me as navigator, but I told him he's going to have to let me try driving on the left eventually.) We bypassed Chester, Liverpool, and Manchester and cut westward at Kendal on the A591 towards the Lake District. We only intended this “drive-through” visit to the lakes to give us an impression of the region, so we’ll know if we want to come back in the future. We drove through Windermere and Ambleside, winding through more lush countryside dotted with sheep and crisscrossed by neat stone walls. I will never get tired of those walls! Windermere is the largest town in the area, a popular Victorian-era resort known as the home of Beatrix Potter. It seemed a bit dreary in the rain and not very charming. Ambleside is smaller, with a better choice of restaurants and a nice little shopping district. We also passed Rydal Mount, home of the poet William Wordsworth from 1813 until his death in 1850.

Just outside of Grasmere, we found Banerigg Guest House a large, early-20th-century family home situated directly across the road from Grasmere Lake (photo, right). Actually we passed right by it the first time because it is nestled in the trees and is hard to spot until you are right on top of it. We pulled into the gate and parked in front of the house, where we were greeted by Angela, one of the owners. She showed us upstairs to our room on what I have to call the second-and-a-half floor, as our door was located on a landing between the second and third floors. It is an ample room (one of six) on the back of the house with a double and a twin bed, plenty of storage space, and a good-sized bathroom lit by a large skylight. The only down side is that it only has a bathtub with no showerhead attachment, but Angela showed us the shared shower on the second floor that we were welcome to use. There were several other guests in the house, including a couple of people who were obviously regular visitors - Angela introduced them like old friends.

We settled into our room and then decided to walk (despite the stubborn rain, which refused to let up!) into Grasmere for dinner, about three-quarters of a mile down the road. It was a pleasant walk except we had to step back every time a car came speeding by to avoid getting drenched by road spray. We passed an Italian restaurant that Angela had recommended, but decided to check out more of the town first before deciding where to eat.

Grasmere is a pretty little village with winding streets lined with quaint stone cottages and a variety of small inns and hotels, intermixed with craft and curio shops. We crossed an arched stone bridge (photo, right) over the rushing river and discovered the churchyard where Wordsworth and his family are buried, in the shade of a yew tree planted by the poet. We probably should have gone back to the Italian place, but we ended up eating at The Rowan Tree, which was completely empty when we arrived at 7 p.m. (on a Saturday night no less!). I had goat cheese and tomato cannelloni with a generous side salad and John had a tuna, red onion, and olive pizza. The meal was so-so but the homemade sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream that we had for dessert was to die for! We finished with coffee and tea, all of which set us back £50 – which doesn’t sound so bad until you realize it converts to $100. That’s England for you!

We wandered around the village some more after dinner (photo, right). The rain had lessened up a bit and for a while I thought it was actually going to clear up (we could even see the tops of the surrounding hills). I couldn’t get over how lush and green the landscape was – and there were more gorgeous hydrangeas everywhere (one of my favorite flowers). On our way back to the hotel we saw a blue sheep. Well, it was gray, but it had a definite blue tinge to it. Now that we’ve seen so many sheep, we’ve realized that while the lambs are very cute, full-grown sheep are actually quite ugly. They also spraypaint the sheep with fluorescent pink and blue markings, which sort of takes away from the timeless pastoral look. We stopped on the shore of Grasmere Lake to watch a lone white swan float by. Within a few minutes the clouds had descended again, and we walked in a steady rain back to the house.

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