I’m a little sad at having to leave Beddgelert. It has all those perfect fantasy British village sights: pretty babbling river, triple arched stone bridge, an old restored railway – part of the Welsh Highland Line – and less that 500 people in the whole place. The deep green pastoral ways were inspiration for local Alfred Bestall’s Rupert Bear stories (“Of course we know him in Greece,” says Giristroula, offended that I even asked. Though her hesitant sideways looks at me as I talk of dappled Nutwood villages, Bill Badgers and Tiger Lilies suggests otherwise. “He’s, like, a character, right?” she double-checks.) It must be an unrelenting place here around Beddgelert at times though. A heavy solitude sitting on these deep woods, an unending quiet for the residents in the winters. But then also these village lives that are lived far too close together for comfort.
Before the breakfast things are cleared away in the Prince Llewellyn hotel, a few of the village men have come in and pulled up stools to the bar and ordered pints. The sun is nowhere even close to the yardarm yet. One man has a yellow hard hat and is in a hi-vis road-worker’s jacket. The Polish waitress tells me, quietly, he doesn’t actually work on the roads, he doesn’t actually work anywhere. “He just put this on to come in here. Every day he comes wearing this. I think it must make him feel better or something, I don’t know…” she shrugs and pulls a face as she takes away the plates stacked up, balanced along her arms.
We get chatting. I ask the man his name.
“John,” John tells me.
I start to talk about where we’re going on to. About our tour, about seeing as much of Britain as we can. He seems to like the idea.
“Ah there’s lovely,” John says in a deep Welsh voice. A voice as low as mushrooms. “I’d come with you on that…”
He almost looks like he’s gathering himself together, before thinking better of it. “Ah but, well, you know,” he nods at his glass. “I’ve got my pint to finish haven’t I…?”
Beddgelert has one of those sad village legends attached to it. This one is of how the old patron of our hotel for the last two nights, the 13th century Prince Llewellyn, returned home one day to find his child’s cradle upturned and bloody. Assuming betrayal, he killed his dog, only to hear a baby’s cry near the body of a huge wolf. The wolf slain by his faithful, now mistakenly-killed, dog. Many countries have a similar story: I’ve heard in India it’s a mongoose that heroically kills a snake before wrongly being run-through by its owner with a sword. It has to be a dependable dog in the British story though. A faithful dog for the pet-loving Brits to write poems about four-legged loyalty and to feel emotional – more emotional than they do about their own two-legged brothers – and to feel slightly choked when they read the story printed on a tea towel in the souvenir shops, as I do now. Prince Llewellyn never smiled again, apparently. The hotel was hit by a meteorite in 1949 too.
The surrounding countryside is achingly pretty. Towering high hills, fields painted with vivid poster-paint greens, then suddenly a rough stone wall, a ruined stone cottage, a sloping sea of bluebells ebbing off into a dark wood. I would have liked to take the old train line here, but we have the unloved rental car and, running along the west shoulder of Wales (Porthmadog to Caernarfon), it’s no good for us and our vague clockwise procession.
Passing Portmeirion, I suggest we stop off to see this much-extolled, singularly strange, Italian-style Welsh village. Built just by one man, the eccentric architect Clough Williams-Ellis, between 1925 and 1975, it’s a place that I’d heard casts a powerful spell over its visitors and I envisaged the Mediterranean feel and all the Greek columns and pediments would appeal to Giristroula, make her feel at home. The Prisoner tv show, filmed here back in the 60s, was even a big hit in Greece, so Giristroula knows all about Number 6 and his beleaguered struggles in this village.
I’m wrong though. Giristroula is unimpressed by Williams-Ellis’ spirited labour of love, his “home for fallen buildings.” The painted designs, the gardens and fountains, the giant chess set, the concrete boat and Hercules’ statue, they’re all trippily impressive, and the acres and acres of dancing woodland and hidden stone gazebos and the coastal drop down to the bay are better still. But Giristroula is in a mood where she feels she won’t be hoodwinked by any of the artificial beauty on offer. “It’s without any…soul,” she says, wafting her hands in the air as she looks out on the domes and spires of the painted village. Polite middle-aged women coo and chatter over the Portmeirion poetry in the gift shops, and then passive-aggressively jostling with each other with fierce fixed-smiles to get one of the better ‘seconds’ on display. It’s all a bit wearying. We move on.
I have little hope for Llandudno proving much of a hit with the Greek either, as we park the car on the town’s old fashioned sea front. This time, however, she seems to love it. She frowns with childlike amusement at the bandstand on the prom – deckchairs pointed at the empty stage in a seemingly forlorn hope of something happening, sometime. She skips along the beach where the holidaying Lewis Carroll met and took an unusually keen interest in eight year old Alice Liddell. Giristroula then pulls up short at a Punch and Judy tent by the pier.
I guessed that this peculiarly old English amusement would need a lot of explaining, but after we stand and watch the show for a while, Giristroula tells me it’s very similar to the puppetry of Karagiozis in Greece – centuries old tales, still popular with children today, foolish but wise Greek stories told through shadow puppets. Karagiozis is a poverty-wracked comic trickster, representing the everyday Greek. These Greek shadow theatre plays also have his nagging wife, various villagers, farmers wearing the old Greek warrior’s pleated skirts, aristocrats and the wicked Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. In Llandudno we stand and watch the anarchic clowning of Mr Punch with the policeman, the crocodile, the strings of sausages… And I think, as I seem to quite often on this trip when I reflecting on the two countries: same same, but always so very different.
We continue walking along the front, and I stop to help an old lady who is indecorously trying to haul herself backwards up from the beach onto the concrete prom. Her skirt getting hitched higher and higher, revealing industrial strength stockings and map-of-the-town varicose veins as she heaves. “Oh everybody has been so kind since we’ve been here…” her similarly aged-looking daughter tells me as I try and lift her sturdy old mother up. I’m struggling with the weight of the hat-and-coated old woman, when suddenly her eyes widen and she starts to teeter backwards. Thinking she’s going to fall back onto the sand below, her prune-skinned sharp hands start grabbing desperately for anything they can get hold of, anything they can cling on to. She grips hard at my trousers and as she tries to pull herself up, my trousers are pulled slowly, silently, to the ground. The wet Wednesday British holiday makers pass by in this genteel, demoded, old resort as the old woman continues to blow heavily and climb up the concrete bank. They stare but seem unsure whether to say anything as, for what feel like an age, I remain offering my arms to the puffing cheeked old woman, plant potted by my trousers.
Giristroula and I eventually walk out onto the long pier here in Llandudno, past bored kids watching purposeful-faced fathers with foam mallets raised in their hands above the Whack-A-Mole stalls. Past the empty goalposts of the Beat-The-Keeper. Past a man-size plastic cone of chips with a grotesque leering face enticing people onto the benches for food. We look back on the outstretched bay curving between the two bulbous headlands: the Great Orme at one end of the bay and the Little Orme at the other.
“Such quantities of sand,” I say with a flourish. “If this were only cleared away it would be grand!”
Giristroula scowls a questioning face back at me.
“The Walrus and the Carpenter…” I say.
She gives the usual Greek non-plussed look of drooping mouth, elongated face and shoulder half-shrug and we move on. Past the picnicking Indian family sat on the beach. The sun shines sulkily through grey clouds and we head back into the town and onto the shopping streets. Old, a little stuffy, there are arcades and Victorian iron canopies hanging out over a very British-looking boulevard of old fashioned bakeries and bookshops. We head back to the car. The courteousness of old fashioned Llandudno, has come as a real novelty to Giristroula and a complete counter to anything usually offered by the seaside back in Greece. She says she liked the place a lot as we drive off and I realise I have no idea at all what will appeal and what will fail with the Greek view on so many things on this trip round my island.
Llandudno grew as the place for fin de siecle holiday makers from industrial Liverpool to come and take the waters, but we are heading the opposite way ourselves – into the city of Liverpool. We arrive just as a salmon sky is fading away behind the Liver Bird perched up high on the solid buildings of the Pier Head. These river front buildings have a look of old Whitehall, or even opium-era Shanghai, and later in the evening we find ourselves appropriately enough in a dark, lantern-lit restaurant in Liverpool’s China Town. We then go for a drink in the Philharmonic pub – just as Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral, stood red and tall and regal above the city, is a proper church, this is a proper drinking place. Ornate and beautiful, the wooden insides of the pub are carved like a classic transatlantic liner, there is a queue of men – and women – for the Gents, just to see the marble mosaic tiles in there. The pub today though has been left to be soundtracked by banging, infantile ‘choons’ over the pub’s PA. Two of the staff in their pub uniforms are necking and feeling each other up on the corner seats. There is a scrum at the bar – some customers trying to get served by pushing and shoving, others using the tactic of tutting and moaning to their friend sat on a far table in a voice loud enough that they hope can be heard behind the bar – and then when they’ve finally been served sitting down and moaning about the service again to their friend, but this time with a pint in front of them. The classic British way.
There’s people in the other bar in baseball caps, looking like they’re coming up on pills or something, waiting for their night to take off elsewhere. Mobile phones resting on the table like pistols on a card table in the Wild West. Older characters sit with them too, reluctant to give up the chemical recklessness learnt back sometime in the early 90s. And why would they? If no better alternatives have laid themselves out in 20 years of shit jobs, shit housing, crap tv, crap culture, Tory and New Labour governments? But, God, this hedonism has truly taken its toll on some of those faces… It feels miserable to be here really, and so we move on. Down cobbled roads, past strong, secure three-storey Georgian architecture between Hope Street and Rice Street. Near the Art College where John Lennon was a student we find a quiet, unassuming old pub. A pub that doesn’t seem to have been painted, or even had the barrels changed since about 1960. We push open the old double doors and sit in the corner where the barman – leaning over a glass dome of curled sandwiches and, quite implausibly, an old red keg of Watney’s Red Barrel on the bar – tells me John and Cynthia used to sit. I don’t really know how he could possibly know this, but as he tells joke after joke to his crowd of barstooled old drinkers and presses the glasses up into the whiskey optics, it feels a good place to be. I plonk down in a chair where the springs have long ago abandoned ship, and we slop gin over the old wood, ringed, table and toast to this side of Liverpool. Happy to have got here.