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. Nevertheless, despite all the dappled Nutwood feel and the Bill Badgers and Constable Growlers, it must be an unrelenting place around here at times. A heavy solitude sitting on these deep woods, an unending quiet for the residents in the winters. And those 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 on and is in a hi-vis road-worker’s jacket. The Polish waitress tells me, quietly, he doesn’t work on the roads. He doesn’t actually work anywhere.
“He just puts this on to come in here. Every day he comes in 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.
“They call me 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. The old patron of our hotel for the last two nights, the 13th century Prince Llewellyn, had returned to his home one day to find his child’s cradle upturned and covered in blood. Thinking his dog, Gelert, had murdering his son, the Prince ran his sword through the animal only to then hear the baby’s cries outside near the body of a huge dead wolf. The wolf had been killed by the Prince’s loyal dog, defending the child. Prince Llewellyn never smiled again. The hotel was hit by a meteorite in 1949 too.
Many countries have a similar story.
“Oh it’s an ancient Greek story,” says Giristroula, who like all Greeks believes every story ever written initially comes from classical Greek times.
“Pausanias wrote it. I think a cook knocked over a jar of valuable herbs and spices and is killed, only to find the jar held a poisonous snake…”
Of course it has to be a dependable dog in the British story though. A Good Boy for the pet-loving Brits to write twee poems about four-legged faithfulness and get all choked when they read the story printed on a tea towel in the souvenir shops, as I do now. The British love their dogs. Or the country seems full of “dog people” anyway. Wellingtons in car boots; poo-bags in coat pocket. People always offering unsolicited advice to other dog-owners in parks on how they should look after their pet, whilst in the background their dog chases a vicar on a bicycle onto a busy dual carriageway. But over in Greece, the Greeks don’t really seem to see things the same way. They only have dogs to howl at you from their balconies or to guard their houses: chasing after you with slavering jaws as you walk past – comedically rebounding on their short chains and howling some more at the indignity of it all. Dogs are a functioning tool is Greece, not the most important member of the household.
The surrounding countryside around Snowdonia and the county of Gwynedd is all 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 spot a tree growing through the foundations of an old bridge, the roots slowly, year by year, displacing the bricks. It looks like an explosion happening in slow motion. 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 in the car, 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. 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 big in Greece, so Giristroula knows all about Number 6 and his struggles in this village.
I’m wrong though. Giristroula is completely underwhelmed 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, 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. “What is this?” she asks. “I mean…What is it?”
Polite middle-aged women in the gift shops coo and chatter over the Portmeirion poetry. Passive-aggressively jostling with each other with fierce fixed-smiles to get one of the better ‘seconds’ on display. Panic-buying chinaware like an epidemic has just been announced. Giristroula and I 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, Giristroula 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. She then pulls up short at the 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, where comic but wise Greek stories are told through shadow puppets. Karagiozis is a poverty-wracked trickster, representing the everyday Greek and 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. I think, as I have quite often on this trip when 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, corn beef legs 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 the sturdy old woman up. “Now be careful Mum…”
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 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 old woman, plant-potted by my trousers.
Giristroula and I walk out onto Llandudno’s long pier. Past bored kids watching purposeful-faced fathers with foam mallets raised in the air above the Whack-A-Mole stalls; past the empty goalposts of a Beat-The-Keeper stall; past a face-in-the-hole board with fat women painted in a bathing suit holding up her wizened husband from the sea. A couple roar with laugher as their photo is taken. The woman then comes out from behind the board, unperturbed that she’s considerable fatter than the comedy image. Key rings hang on a board to be bought, especially emblazoned with names: ‘Pauline’ and ‘Lesley’ and ‘Kenneth’. Names that no one’s been given for 50 years or more. A man-size plastic cone of chips with a grotesque leering face stands, 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. “If this were only cleared away it would be grand!”
Giristroula pulls a quizzical face at me.
“The Walrus and the Carpenter…” I explain, feeling a bit disappointed my quote hadn’t gone down better.
She gives the usual Greek non-plussed look of the 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 as we head back into the town and onto the shopping streets – polite, a little stuffy, arcades and 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 Llandudno has come as a real novelty to Giristroula and a complete counter to anything usually offered by the seaside back in Greece. She tells me how she liked the place a lot, as we drive past the Victorian villas on Marine Drive heading out of town and I realise I have absolutely 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.
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 Birds perched up high on the solid buildings of the Pier Head. These riverfront buildings have a look of old Whitehall, or even opium-era Shanghai. Later in the evening we find ourselves, appropriately enough, in a dark, lantern-lit restaurant in Liverpool’s China Town. Then we 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 and there is a queue of men – and women – for the Gents, just to see the marble mosaic tiles in there. The pub tonight though has been left to be soundtracked by banging ‘choons’ over the PA. Two of the staff in their pub uniforms are necking and feeling each other up on a corner seat. 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 – the classic British way. There are 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 alternative had laid itself out in 20 years of shit jobs, terrible housing, crap tv, grey concrete, no choices, Maccy Ds, KFC, Tory and New Labour. But, God, this hedonism has truly taken its toll on some of those faces…
It feels miserable to be in the Philharmonic 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 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, pinned packets of pork scratchings on the wall, a collection box in the shape of a lifeboat and a red keg of old Watney’s Red Barrel on the bar – tells me John and Cynthia used to sit. I don’t know how he could possibly know this, but as he tells joke after joke to his crowd of barstooled old drinkers in a line – noses running from pink to red – and as he presses the glasses up into the whiskey optics, and the Wurlitzer jukebox needle picks out some country classics, it feels a good place to be. I plonk down in a chair where the springs have long ago abandoned ship and slop gin over the old wood, ringed, table and we toast to this side of Liverpool. Happy to have got here.