DAY 13: PORTMEIRION/LLANDUDNO/LIVERPOOL

I’m a little sad at having to leave Beddgelert.

It has all those perfect fantasy British village sights: pretty babbling river, a 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. Her hesitant sideways looks at me as I talk of Nutwood villages, Bill Badgers and Tiger Lilies suggests otherwise though. I get the feeling she’s under the impression he might be a real person).

It must be an unrelenting place here at times though.

A heavy solitude must sit on these deep woods. An unending quiet for the residents in the winters. But then also 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 here. I think it must make him feel better or something, I don’t know…” she shrugs as she takes away the plates stacked up, balanced along her arms.

We get chatting. I ask him his name.

“John,” John tells me.

I tell him where we’re going on to. About our tour, seeing as much of Britain as we can. John seems to like the idea.

“Ah there’s lovely,” he says in a deep Welsh voice. A voice as low as mushrooms. “I’d come with you on that…”

John almost looks like he’s gathering himself together, before thinking better of it.

“Ah, but, you know, well. 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, mistakenly killed his dog even though it had just saved his son from a wolf.

All 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. For the pet-loving Brits to write epic poems about four-legged faithfulness 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 fantastically pretty, of course. 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, 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 by 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.

I envisaged the Mediterranean feel and all theDay 13 - 1-w1000-h979 Greek columns and pediments would appeal to Giristroula. Make her feel at home.

The Prisoner tv show filmed here was even a big hit in Greece, so Giristroula knows all about Number 6’s beleaguered struggles in this village.

I’m wrong though. The Greek seems completely unimpressed by Williams-Ellis’ spirited labour of love, his “home for fallen buildings”.

And I find myself, too, unhappily walking around, spending the whole time grumbling about the £20 admission fee.

It’s expensive, but less extensive than I thought it would be. The main village walked quite quickly, even with the stopping and staring.

The painted designs, the gardens and fountains, the giant chess set, concrete boat and Hercules’ statue: they’re all trippily impressive.

The acres and acres of dancing woodland and hidden stone gazebos, and the coastal drop down to the bay, is better still.

But Giristroula is in a mood where she feels she won’t be hoodwinked by 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.

The polite middle-aged women cooing over the Portmeirion poetry in the gift shops, and then passive-aggressive jostling with each other with fierce fixed-smiles to get one of the better ‘seconds’ on display, is all a bit wearying too, so we move on.

*

I have little hope for Llandudno proving much of a winner either, as we park the car on the town’s old fashioned front.

This time, however, the Greek seems to love it.

She frowns with childlike amusement at the bandstand on the prom – deckchairs pointed at the empty edifice in a seemingly forlorn hope of something happening, sometime.

She then skips along the beach where the holidaying Lewis Carroll met and took an unusually keen interest in eight year old Alice Liddell, later to be immortalised in his Alice in Wonderland books.

She pulls up short at a Punch and Judy tent by the pier.

Day 13 - 4-w1000-h979

I guessed that this peculiarly old English amusement would need a lot of explaining, but after we stand and watch awhile Giristroula tells me it’s very similar to the puppetry of Karagiozis in Greece – centuries old tales, still popular with children today, told through shadow puppets.

Karagiozis is a poverty-wracked comic trickster, representing the everyday Greek. The 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…

As I seem to feel quite often on this trip when I think of the two countries, Britain and Greece – I reflect: same same, but always so very different.

Day 13 - 3-w1000-h979

We continue walking, and I stop to help an old lady who is very indecorously trying to haul herself backwards from the beach up onto the concrete prom.
Her skirt getting hitched higher and higher, revealing industrial strength stockings and map-of-the-town varicose veins.

“Oh everybody has been so kind since we’ve been here…” her also rather aged daughter tells me as I try and lift the sturdy old dowager up.

I’m struggling with the weight of this hat-and-coated old woman, and suddenly her eyes widen and she starts to teeter backwards again.

She thinks 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.

As she tries to pull herself up, heaving herself up on to the prom – 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.

For an age, I remain Day 13 - 2-w1000-h979offering my arms to the puffing cheeked old woman – plant potted by my trousers.

With my trousers eventually hitched back up, Giristroula and I walk out onto the very long pier and look back on the outstretched bay curving between the two bulbous headlands: the Great Orme at one end and the Little Orme at the other.

“Such quantities of sand,” I quote “If this were only cleared away it would be grand!”
Giristroula scowls back, puzzled.

“The Walrus and the Carpenter…” I tell her.

She pulls the Greek non-plussed look of drooping mouth and elongated face, shoulder half-shrug. We move on.

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, above old fashioned bakeries and bookshops.

We head back to the car. The courteousness of old fashioned Llandudno, has come as a complete novelty and counter to anything offered by the seaside in Greece. Giristroula likes it a lot. And I realise I really don’t have any idea whatsoever what will appeal and what will fail with the Greek view on things on this trip round the island.

*

Llandudno grew as the place for fin de siecle holiday makers from industrial Liverpool to come and take the waters.

We’re now heading the opposite way ourselves – into the city of Liverpool – arriving in Merseyside just as a salmon sky fades behind the Liver Bird perched up high on the solid buildings of the Pier Head.

These river front buildings have a sort of look of old Whitehall, or even opium-era Shanghai, and that evening we eat appropriately enough in a dark, lantern-lit, restaurant in Liverpool’s China Town. Before heading to the Philharmonic pub.

Ornate, grand, beautiful. The wooden insides of the pub are carved like a classic transatlantic liner. There’s a queue of men – and women – for the Gents, just to see the marble mosaic tiles in there.

The pub, though, has been left to be soundtracked by banging, unknown, infantile, handbag ‘choons’. Two of the staff in their pub uniforms are necking, feeling each other up, on the corner seats.

The older customers are trying to be served by using the tactic of tutting, moaning to their friend sat on a far table in a voice they hope can be heard behind the bar – before finally getting served… and then sitting down and moaning again to their friend, but this time with a pint in front of them. The classic British way.

The younger crowd are in baseball caps, looking like they are 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.

I have a sad feeling the Philharmonic on this night might sort of sum Liverpool up really – they don’t fully know what a great thing they’ve got – and we move on.

Down cobbled roads and 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 try this one instead, and sit in the corner where the barman – leaning over a glass dome of old 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 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 gamely abandoned ship and we slop pints of ale on the old wood, ringed, table and toast to a feel of an older Liverpool.

Happy to have got here.

Day 13 or 14-w1000-h979