With a 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 seemingly with only a pure leap of faith). But it seems the only way to get out of the 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 now and then. Giristroula peers at the road signs here all in two languages. It doesn’t help her settle into her driving much as she reads and tries to mouth along to the words. I tell her I think only about a fifth of the country actually speak Welsh anyway. And most of them are up in the north. I then 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” underneath, as when the sign writer sent his email to a Welsh translator to have his English translated the translator was on holiday, so the sign writer received an out-of-office email back and thought that was the translation. I hope the old story’s true anyway.
Even here, with the miles of rolling rain-fed green fields, thick copses of trees, po-faced sheep, acres of farmlands, I’m pleased to see a Sunday League football match still going on. A pitch cut out on the hillside, defenders clanking the mud off their boots on the metal goal frame, old men in caps resting on sticks watching the action, a terrier dog on the pitch, chasing the ball, holding up play. And you have to have steel heart not to love seeing a dog on the pitch.
We arrive at Rhossili beach. It’s huge. Huge sky. Huge beach. The sea bay gaping wide open in front of us.
“What a great big lot of…About…” I say, opening my arms wide. Giristroula ignores me and fixes in a deep contemplative silence just on the sheer scale of it all. The beach spreads and sweeps away from us for four long miles. Our stomachs fall and loop as we stare out along it. The size of all this nature. The grassy steep bank plunges down in front of us onto the sand shore and the wreck of the Helvetia: a Norwegian ship which ran aground in 1887 and whose wooden hull still sticks out of the sand like an immense jaw of black teeth. Behind the beach dark red and green hills. The occasional flash and wink of a bird-watcher binoculars pricking a tiny bright speck in the mass of richly flowing carpet.
We walk out on to Worm’s Head, a long jutting rocky promontory sticking out into the sea that falls and 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 beast’s 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 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 – to a good-looking hotel, just as the weather starts to turn. 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 small pool of bullet-hard grey peas and a garnish of watery iceberg lettuce leaf, a quarter of a tomato, a couple of sprigs of cress, Giristroula pokes miserably at her “Egg Medley” on her plate and raises a doubtful eye at me. It’s all a bit 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 wedged in the pub-provided seat howling at his ignoring parents. His sister puts something jumbo breadcrumb-coated from the kiddies menu deep in her mouth, pulling out saliva-covered fingers with great long strings of spit.
Three lads – tucked in jeans, smart shoes – stand at the bar making ostentatiously loud noises, slapping backs, tweaking nipples. Cheering with arms thrown up as a glass is dropped behind the bar. Burnt chip oil smells hangs in the air. 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.
Young farmer boys are out for the evening – drinking lager, sitting in a cloud of Lynx Africa deodorant behind us, and adolescently boasting.
“Got together with Kelly in town last night. Fingered her…”
“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 town banter 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 regularly 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 voice.
“Po, po, po…” says Giristroula, now doing the Greek windmilling hand movement to mean ‘what is this nonsense?’
“Why can’t you people never just say you’re going to do? Why do you always have to dress it up with your funny words…”
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, uncomfortably stiff parents. The unimpressed mother regarding the surroundings around her primly. Her tight mouth pursed 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. Then a huge clatter of a hundred bottles being thrown in the recycling bins from round the back of the pub. 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 light of 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. We drive through the Brecon Beacons in the dark. And pass lots of places, shrouded in blackness, with signs telling us the town names all start with a Ll: Llandeilo, Llandovery, Llandrindod. We are dimly aware of looming mountains above us, getting highter. 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.