DAY 13: PORTMEIRION/LLANDUDNO/LIVERPOOL

I am 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 the Bear stories (“Of course we know him in Greece,” says Passepartout. Pause. “He’s like a sort of character, right?”)

It must be an unrelenting place at times though. The heavy solitude surrounding the area, but also village lives that are then lived far too close 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.

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 work on the roads. He doesn’t work anywhere. “He just put this on to come in here. Every time. I think it must make him feel better, I don’t know…”

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 I’d come with you on that,” he says. Almost looking like he was gathering himself together, before thinking better of it. “Ah, but, you know, well. I’ve got my pint to finish…”

Beddgelert has one of those sad village legends attached.

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 is a mongoose that heroically kills a snake before wrongly being run-through with a sword itself.

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 human 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 majestically pretty, of course.

Towering high hills, fields painted with vivid poster-paint greens. Then suddenly a rough stone wall, a ruined stone cottage. Here and there a sloping sea of bluebells ebbing off into a 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.

We want to be going north. Annoyingly though we have to head south first to hit the main roads north.

Passing Portmeirion I suggest we stop off to see the much-extolled, singularly strange, Italian-style Welsh village.

Built by eccentric architect Clough Williams-Ellis’ between 1925 and 1975, I envisaged the Mediterranean feel and all theDay 13 - 1-w1000-h979 Greek columns would appeal to Passepartout. The Prisoner tv show filmed here was even a big hit in Greece, so Passepartout 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.

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

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

The painted designs, the fantastical buildings, the gardens and fountains, Hercules’ statue are all trippily impressive.

But Passepartout is in a mood where she feels she won’t be hoodwinked by the artificial beauty on offer (“It’s without any…soul”).

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.

Frowning with childlike amusement at the bandstand on the prom – deckchairs pointed at the empty edifice in a seemingly forlorn hope of something happening, sometime; skipping along the beach where the holidaying Lewis Carroll met and took an unusually keen interest in 8 year old Alice Liddell, later to be immortalised in his Alice in Wonderland books; pulling up short at a Punch and Judy tent by the pier…

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I guessed that this peculiarly old English amusement would need a lot of explaining, but Passepartout 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… And – as I seem to often on this trip – I think of Greece and Britain: same same, but very different.

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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 though. And her eyes widen and she starts to teeter backwards again and she thinks she’s going to fall back onto the sand below.

Her prune-skinned toad hands grab desperately for anything they can cling to and she grips at my trousers to pull herself up. As she heaves, my trousers are pulled slowly, silently, to the ground.

She continues to blow heavily as she tries to climb up the concrete bank, and the wet Wednesday British holiday makers pass by in this genteel, demoded, old resort, staring at us. And, for what feels like an age, I remain on Day 13 - 2-w1000-h979the prom offering my arms to the puffing cheeked old woman – plant potted by my trousers.

Trousers hitched back up, Passepartout 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 it were only cleared away it would be grand!”
Passepartout scowls, unimpressed, in return.

The sun shines sulkily through grey clouds and we head onto the shopping streets.

Old, a little stuffy. There are arcades and Victorian iron canopies hanging out over British boulevards, 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 sea in Greece.

Passepartout likes it a lot. And I realise I really don’t have any idea whatsoever what will appeal and what will fail on this British trip round the island with a Greek.

*

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. Into the city of Liverpool. Arriving in Merseyside as a salmon sky fades behind the Liver Birds perched 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 in a dark, lantern-lit, restaurant in Liverpool’s China Town. Before heading to the Philharmonic pub.

Ornate, grand, beautiful – there is a queue of men – and women – for the Gents, just to see the marble mosaic tiles.

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

The older customers are trying to be served by using a tactic of tutting, moaning to their friend sat on far table in a voice they hope can be heard behind the bar – finally getting served, sitting down and moaning to their friend about the service, with a pint. 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 sort of sums Liverpool up really – they don’t fully know what a good 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 sit in the corner where the barman – leaning over a glass dome of old sandwiches and, quite implausibly, an old 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, I plonk down in a chair with the springs gamely abandoning ship.

We slop pints of ale on the old wood-ringed table and toast to a feel of an old Liverpool I had always hoped to see.

Happy to have got here.

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