With a deep sense of regret, we’re back in a rented car again – steam won’t clear from the windows, rain stays on the wing mirrors, annoying rattle from the back and Giristroula still taking roundabouts with seemingly only a pure leap of faith. But it seems the only way to get out of Swansea city and into the countryside. We’re aiming for the Gower Peninsular.
We pass through briery Welsh moors with rising hills and sheep-worn ways to our right. Stone-faced crouching towns appearing every now and then. Giristroula peers at the road signs here all in two languages, which isn’t help her settle into her driving as she tries to mouth along to the words. “Araf…” she says, wondering what it can all mean. I tell her not to get too preoccupied by the Welsh bit. I think the Welsh speakers are all in the north rather than down here on the south coast. Although, I feel ashamed at how little I know about it all.
“Popty ping” I say. “That’s one I know. It’s meant to be the Welsh for microwave…”
Giristroula casts me a doubtful look up from under her fringe. She doesn’t believe it. Neither do I. I tell her the old story about the sign somewhere in Wales that has “No Entry For Heavy Goods Vehicles” in English at the top and underneath “I Am Sorry I Am Currently Out Of The Office And Will Be Back On Monday” in Welsh underneath. The sign writer had sent his email to a Welsh translator to have his English translated the translator was on holiday. the sign writer received the out-of-office email back and thought that was the translation. I hope the story’s true anyway.
Even here, with the miles of rain-fed green fields, thick copses of trees, po-faced staring sheep as we pass acres of rolling farmlands, I’m pleased to see a Sunday League football match is going on. A pitch has been cut out on the hillside, defenders clanking mud off their boots on the metal goal frame, old men in caps resting on sticks watching the action. A terrier dog gets onto the pitch, chasing the match ball much bigger than him, holding up play. You have to have steel heart not to love seeing a dog on the pitch. Eventually we arrive at Rhossili beach. It’s huge. Huge sky. Huge sea. Huge sweep of orange sand. The wide shore gaping open in front of us.
“What a great big lot of…About…” I say, opening my arms wide. Giristroula ignores me and fixes ahead in a sort of deep contemplative silence on the sheer scale of it all. The beach spreads away from us for four long miles,. We stand on the high grassy bank above, our stomachs falling and looping as we stare down below us onto the sand and the wreck of the Helvetia: a Norwegian ship which ran aground in the 17th century and whose wooden hull still sticks out of the sand like an immense jaw of black teeth. Behind the beach are dark red and green hills with the occasional flash and wink of a bird-watcher binoculars deep in the woods, pricking a tiny bright speck in the mass of trees.
We walk out on to Worm’s Head, a long jutting rocky promontory sticking out into the sea that rises so, when the tide is in, it’s meant to look like a serpent writhing in the water – the end of the jutty being the head poking up into the sky. The tide is out now though, so Giristroula and I spend an extraordinarily long time walking out across rocks and pools and finally up on to the worm’s head itself, to bathe there in the sun like two fat seals.
We head back late in the afternoon, picking our way back over the rocks, trying to balance with arms aeroplaning out vertically – frightening the fiddler crabs into fleeing their rock pools with their claws waving horrified in the air. We fall into a good-looking hotel just as the weather starts to turn again and we have an awful British dinner in this incredible British setting.
As I examine my tasteless tell-tale microwaved hot-as-the-sun-at-the-edges-freezing-cold-in-the-middle dish, complimented by a small pool of bullet-hard grey peas and a garnish of a couple of sprigs of cress, Giristroula pokes miserably at her “Egg Medley” on her plate and raises another doubtful eye at me. It’s all seems very different from Greek taverna dining. I look round at the other customers, grimly eating on the wedged-in tables.
A child too old for a highchair nevertheless sits in the pub-provided seat howling at his ignoring parents. His sister puts something jumbo and breadcrumb-coated from the kiddies menu deep in her mouth, pulling out saliva-covered fingers with great long strings of spit attached. Four young men – tucked-in jeans, smart shoes – stand at the bar making ostentatiously loud noises, slapping backs, tweaking nipples.
“Lads, lads, lads… It’s just banter…”
“I’m a bantersaurus, mate!”
“I’m the fucking Archbishop of Banterbury…”
They cheer, arms thrown up in the air as a glass is dropped behind the bar. The smell of burnt chip oil hangs everywhere. Teenagers on a break from working in the kitchen sit in the lounge listening to thin tinny music coming through a mobile phone. A drunk man swears at his girlfriend who stares disinterestedly out of the window at a father outside smoking a cigarette standing over a pushchair.
Two young farmer boys are out for the evening – stopping here for “a cheeky one”, sitting in a cloud of Lynx Africa deodorant behind us, adolescently boasting.
“Got together with that Kelly in town last night. Felt her up, didn’t I…”
“Yeah…?” says the friend, impressed. “Oh,” he stops. “But didn’t you have to get the cows in last night?”
It’s not the usual laddy chat that I’m used to over-hearing.
“Got my mum to do it, didn’t I…”
Two overweight women next to us cackle over a bucketed bottle of prosecco. “Bubbles o’clock!” one chirps as she tops up their glasses. “I’m just off to shake me lettuce…” says the other as she gets up from her chair. Giristroula looks at me, confused, and flicks the twisting thumb and forefinger Greek sign of ‘what on earth does that mean?’
“I think she’s going to the toilet,” I say, under my breath.
“Po, po, po…” says Giristroula, now doing the Greek windmilling hand movement in big circles to mean ‘what is this nonsense?’ “Why can’t you people ever just say you’re going to do? Why do you always have to dress it up with your funny sayings…”
A young woman on the table next to us on the other side, in glasses and a ponytail, sits bolt upright and tries a little desperately to keep up conversation with her over-dressed for the occasion stiff parents. The unimpressed mother regarding the surroundings around her primly. Her tight pursed mouth like a cat’s bottom.
The beauty of the Gower is still waiting there for us when we leave though. We stand and drink in one long last look at everything from the car park, as the sun leaks its final light over the hills behind Rhossili. A huge clatter of a hundred bottles being thrown in the recycling bins from round the back of the pub breaks us off from our reverie. It’s time to go. We get into a long debate about whether we should carry on to the Greek’s Promised Land of Tenby, but as the day limps to its end we decide to use the car to head north and look for mountains. Real Welsh mountains.
The journey is long as we drive through the Brecon Beacons in the dark and pass towns, shrouded in blackness. Signs appearing suddenly in the headlights to tell us the town names, all starting with a Ll: Llandeilo, Llandovery, Llandrindod. We are dimly aware of looming mountains above us, getting higher – darker jagged shadows on top of the dark night – as Giristroula peers out on a black road. A badly tuned, faulty, radio the only thing keeping us awake as we drive on and on for mile after mile, our aimed-for destination of Snowdonia just never seeming to arrive.