Howling winds and torrential rain battered the clifftop in South Wales. A flash of lightning followed another as the thunder continued to roll over the luscious green countryside. A fifth-century baby is born in the violent tempest and dies over a hundred years later on the first of March. Nowadays, his life is commemorated on the day of his death each year by pinning daffodils to your lapels and putting leeks on the menu, as many communities celebrate the life of the Patron Saint of Wales, St David.
Why daffodils and leeks?
It’s an interesting story. Apparently the Saxons decided to invade the Welsh lands one day; the Welsh caught wind of this, and both sides prepared for battle. The problem was that without the internet in those days, or any kind of postal service, establishing a dress code was a tricky concept and, consequently, both sides turned up in remarkably similar attire. David, a well-respected monk by then, noticed that this was causing a rather sizeable issue, and knew exactly what to do. Without hesitation he plucked a leek from the ground and instructed the soldiers to stick it in their helmets in order to distinguish themselves. This ingenious bit of sartorial advice caused the Welsh to win the battle, and the leek was adopted as a national symbol. The daffodil? Apparently it’s just a bit similar to the flower of a leek, and easier to find.
What do you do on St David’s day then?
Visit Wales of course. Giant dragons parade through central Cardiff on the first of March along with various theatrical groups. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales accompanies the dancing dragons and the whole thing is finished off with an ethereal version of the Welsh national anthem. Elsewhere in the country similar celebrations are held, as well as pub concerts and servings of traditional Welsh dishes such as bara brith (currant bread) and Welsh rarebit (a cheesy toasty snack).
What do you do when it’s not St David’s day?
The country has many things to offer. The capital itself has an eclectic range of activities to sate all tastes. The castle is conveniently located next to the city centre, allowing you to combine your cultural and consumerist desires in the same afternoon. Spanning one hundred and thirty acres behind the castle is Bute Park, which makes for a pleasant amble through the flora and offers many an Instagram opportunity from the bridges over the river. From the park you can take a boat taxi to Cardiff Bay and eat in one of the plethora of restaurants overlooking the water. Torchwood fans will want to take a stroll on the boardwalk and visit the Ianto’s Shrine.
In case you didn’t already know, rugby is big in Wales. March sees Wales competing in the six nations tournament, so if you’re in town when Wales have a home game, buy tickets. It’ll be worth it. If not, the Millennium Stadium is always hosting various concerts, so be sure to check out what’s on.
Enough about Cardiff. What else is there?
Literary buffs will want to stop in the little town of Laugharne, complete with quaint houses, a castle, and the river Taf. On the Taf estuary, you’ll find The Boathouse, where Dylan Thomas lived out the remaining four years of his life. Even if the historic residence of the famous writer doesn’t interest you, The Boathouse is a picture of serenity with its views of the estuary and the many breeds of birds fishing for their next meal. It was this scene that inspired the poem ‘Over Sir John’s Hill’.
Further west of Laugharne lies the popular seaside town of Tenby, with its stretching, sandy shores and medieval town walls. Castle Beach, reduced to a small cove at high tide, provides a flat, clean walk along the golden sand for the family to enjoy at high tide. It’s also the departure point for boats to Caldey Island, primarily inhabited by monks, steeped in religious history, and complete with a thirteenth-century chapel and a sixth-century Oghma cross.
The beach, defensive walls, and tourist shops of Tenby are all parallels you can draw with Gibraltar, but not the only parallels. There’s also a network of underground tunnels ripe for your exploration – allegedly, one of which was used to aid the escape of Henry VII to Brittany. The main thing Tenby has, to the delight of visiting children, that Gibraltar regrettably doesn’t: a Dinosaur Park.
This year, the northern seaside resort of Harlech is hoping to usurp the increasing tourism in New Zealand, specifically, Dunedin’s Baldwin Street, by taking the crown for being the world’s steepest residential street. Measurements have been taken, results are pending. Get here before they build a port for cruise ships to dock, decorate the roadsides with superlative signs, and build a £90,000 public toilet.
A precipitous road is not all Harlech has going for it. Yes, there’s a castle. Yes, there’s a beach. Yes, you can pay a small fee and be given a hard hat and torch to explore the nearby man-made caves, Chwarel Hen Llanfair Slate Caverns. Like so many other cavernous attractions, these passages don’t have any fluorescent lighting or other such gimmicks, so you can experience the tunnels as the miners did.
Further into the depths of the Snowdonia region, you can opt to raise your heart rate a little with an array of water based activities on offer. Whether you’d just like to paddle along and take in the surrounding scenery, or hurl down some white water on a raft tour, you’re bound to find something you like.
Sounds exhilarating. Too exhilarating. What else is on offer?
The don’t call Wales ‘The Land of the Keen Walker’ for nothing… or at all. But they should. Snowdonia is home to tallest mountain in Wales, aptly named Snowdon. There are numerous paths to the top, and each trail has its own sense of tranquillity with views of the rolling green countryside below, all ranging in length and difficulty to give you plenty of options depending on your experience and inclination. The route along Crib Goch is considered the hardest with some pretty daunting precipices, which have claimed a few lives along the years. It also sees more rain than most other almost anywhere else in the UK to make things nice and slippery. Maybe stick to one of the seven other routes on offer if you’re not feeling all that adventurous.
You can also visit some smaller, though no less scenic, mountains in the Brecon Beacons. Centrally, Pen y Fen and Cribyn are much quieter hikes than Snowdonia. If you’re looking for isolation, you might find yourself for hours on end without spotting another person. To the west, the Black Mountain Range, one of Wales’ most isolated and wild areas, is a spot where you can stumble across remote lakes and be miles away from the nearest town at any given point.
Over to the east are the similarly named Black Mountains, not to be confused with the Black Mountain Range. To add to the confusion, the Black Mountains are home to a peak named ‘Black Mountain’. So now all that’s left to do is finish the paragraph without saying ‘black’ or ‘mountain’. After all the walking you’ll have done, you can stop for a tipple in The Skirrid Mountain Inn (saying ‘mountain’ doesn’t count if talking about pubs), which also lays claim to being the oldest pub in Wales. The area is home to a plethora of little villages and hamlets as well as the small market town of Hay-On-Wye, home to over twenty bookshops, which explains its nickname ‘The Town of Books’. And with the word ‘mountain’ only appearing two times after pledging not to mentioned again (now three times), there’s a small summary of what’s on offer in the Brecon Beacons. Mountains.
Lots of walking. I don’t like walking. What other activities are popular in Wales?
There are a number of spots along the Welsh coastline that are not to be missed by the avid surfer. Bring your friends, even if they can’t surf, as the surrounding scenery often makes quite the backdrop as you enjoy your mid-afternoon picnic. Once winning the coveted award from BBC’s Britain’s Best Beach, Three Cliff Bay is one such spot, named so for the three pointed rock formations protruding from the cliff on the eastern side. Five hundred yards from the shore lie the ruins of Pennard Castle. Cardigan Bay in the West provides a nice reef break, and the chance of surfing alongside one of the local bottlenose dolphins. There are plenty of other spots for experts and beginners alike, some busier and more popular than others, but each with their own unique pull. Just drive along the coast and look out to the water to find yours.
I’m rubbish at surfing. Are there any decent pubs?
Yes. Loads. The heyday of Swansea’s infamous Mumbles Mile has passed, to the dismay of the city’s past university students. With drinking culture having changed over the past decade or so, the (not quite) mile of pubs is but a shadow of its former glory. Not unsurprisingly there are a number of revered watering holes in the capital, but you’ll be hard pushed not to find a centuries-old public inn tucked away in the valleys.
Sounds great. How do I get there? Don’t you have to pay to get in?
Flights from Bristol are fairly cheap. From there you can take a two-hour bus to Cardiff. If you’re driving, you no longer have to pay to cross the Severn Bridge! You know when you’re in Wales because it starts to rain.
Is it always raining in Wales then? Yes.