With lamentations and 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). It seems the only way to get out of the city and into the countryside.
We’re aiming for the Gower Peninsular.
As we pass through briery Welsh moors with rising hills and sheep-worn ways to our right, small stone-faced towns appearing now and then, Giristroula peers at the road signs here all in two languages. It doesn’t her her settle much into her driving her and 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.
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. It is impossible not to feel your stomach fall and loop as you stare out along it. The sheer size of all this nature. The grassy escarpment plunges down in front of us onto the amber sand shore, and to 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 rolls 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 the beast’s head, poking up into the sky.
The tide is out now though, so we spend an extraordinarily long time walking out across rocks and pools and finally up on to the worm’s head itself, to bathe in the sun like two fat seals.
We make it back, picking our way over the rocks 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 bar, 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. I guess she might be thinking it’s all a little 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 breadcrumb-coated from the kiddies menu deep in her mouth, pulling out saliva-covered fingers with great long strings of spit attached. 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. Blind, or maybe all-too-aware, of everyone else around them.
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 uninterestedly 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.
“Shagged Tina in town last night 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 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!” 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 pursed mouth like a cat’s bottom.
The beauty of the Gower is still waiting there for us though when we leave.
We stand and drink in one long last look at everything from the car park, as the sun leaks it’s final light over the hills behind Rhossili. A huge clatter of hundreds 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.