By Ron Bernthal
I wanted to spend a few days in a typical Welsh town, a place with no major tourist attractions, no famous castles or museums, and where I might, in a short time, get to know some of the local residents. The folks at Visit Wales (formerly the Wales Tourist Board), suggested a town called Crickhowell, on the southern edge of the Black Mountains in mid- Wales, a two and a half hour drive west of London
I arrive in late morning and check in to the Bear Hotel (www.bearhotel.co.uk), an 18th century former coaching inn, located at one end of town, where High Street begins. The site of the Bear Hotel actually dates from the 15th-century, when it was a stop along the road for sheep and cattle drovers taking their animals to market. Parts of the original building still exist somewhere on the property, and the interior of the more “modern,” 1700′s building, is wonderfully cozy with slanted wood floors, numerous levels, stone fireplaces, old timbered ceilings, and front rooms that overlook the entire one-block town.
Crickhowell has only 2,000 residents, but it lies along busy A40, the main road that connects Abergavenny, a larger town nearby, and western Wales. The shops along High Street are busy, and include several grocery and produce stores, a few cafes, a bakery, a couple of real estate offices, and some high end furniture and design shops. I quickly notice that this is no poor Welsh mining town in the shadow of slag heaps, but a prosperous market town, surrounded by green mountains and pastures where thousands of sheep graze peacefully on the sloping fields. The free flowing River Usk (called Afon Wysg in Welsh) originates in the high mountains west of Crickhowell, and rushes past the town’s southern end on its way to the Bristol Channel in Newport. It is the deepest river in Britain, and from the top of the one-lane Crickhowell bridge, it seems like one of the cleanest as well, as I could see the river bottom quite easily.
I want to feel at home right away, so immediately after arriving in town I walk up and down High Street, opening the door of every business and introducing myself to the shop keepers, as they do to me. There are no security buzzers in Crickhowell, and no one looks frightened when a stranger walks in. Crime in this part of Wales is almost non-existent. The local newspaper mentioned a crack house in Abergavenny that was raided by police, but in the Powys district of Wales, where Crickhowell is located, crime statistics are more than 2.5 times below U.K.’s national average.
During my first walk through town I meet Margaret and Maggie, from Petals Flower Shop, Collin and Jane Richards, from F.E. Richards & Son, one of the town’s meat and produce shops, and Steve Askew, from Askew’s Family Bakery, where I sample some great jelly donuts and talk about Steve’s move to Crickhowell just a few months before. Like many of Crickhowell’s newer arrivals, he wanted to escape the problems of England’s bigger cities He and his wife rise at 4 a.m. every day to bake fresh breads and cookies, and then walk their kids to school at seven-thirty, returning to the bakery right away to serve the early morning customers coming in for coffee and croissants.
After spending most of the day speaking with the shopkeepers in town, sticking my nose into small alleys, doorways, and other peoples’ business, I am beginning to feel at home. Everyone in town is talkative and friendly, perhaps because it is not tourist season, perhaps because a winter sun is in the sky, rather than a cold, dreary mist, but mostly because everyone seems to really love living in Crickhowell, and they like the fact that I am sincerely interested in their town and their lives here.
In the evening I sit in front of the stone fireplace in the bar of the Bear, enjoying a lamb dinner, local ale, and the conversations going on around me, a few in Welsh, most in English. After dinner I put on my hat and winter coat against the night chill, and walk through town again, where the mid-week darkness has sent everyone home. All the shops are closed, the bar at the Corn Exchange Restaurant is open, but quiet, as is the little pub in the Britannia Inn, a stone, 18th-century yellow building in the middle of High Street.
I sleep soundly and when I awake at seven, I peer out my room window into the half light of dawn and see Crickhowell begin to wake up as well. Baker Steve is outside his shop signing for a delivery of milk. Collin is already in his shop, wearing a clean butcher’s apron and cutting fresh pork chops. I see his wife, Jane, through the front window of the store, filling wooden display boxes with radishes and carrots, the brown wet dirt still clinging to their roots. A jeep drives slowly down High Street, a kayak tied to its roof, heading in the direction of the river.
After a big Welsh breakfast of sausages, bacon, eggs, cereal and coffee at the hotel I am ready for some much needed exercise. I had arranged to rent a mountain bike from a company called Bikes and Hikes (www.bikesandhikes.co.uk), where Keith and Arlene Lee run the shop in Brecon, a town about 20 miles from Crickhowell. They usually rent to biking groups, or serious individuals who plan on biking for a full day or more in the Brecon Beacons National Park, a stunning 520-square mile territory that includes mountain ranges, rivers, forests, valleys, waterfalls, lakes, caves, and deep gorges.
There are numerous small towns in the park as well, and even a number of welcoming pubs, something you don’t find in too many American parks. There are also lots of biking and hiking paths that go up, down, and around the Welsh countryside, and this year the park is celebrating its 50th year as a British National Park. But I just wanted a bike for several hours, to ride along the scenic, 32 mile-long, Brecon Monmouthshire Canal, a lovely, early 1800′s waterway, with a narrow bike bath running along one side.
“If you start in Crickhowell you can go into the mountains to the north, or follow the little farming roads that lead into small villages,” says Mr. Lee, as he unloads my rental bike from his van, delivering it directly to my hotel in a typically generous Welsh gesture that is genuine and most appreciated.
I listen to Keith’s directions and advice, happily accept his offer of maps and helmet and, under another sunny and cool day, begin an activity that many residents and visitors to Wales feel is de rigueur for a true understanding of what this part of Britain is all about – a day in the countryside. The ride along the canal, and then into the nearby hills and valleys, is as good as Keith described it in his pre-ride lecture. I wave to a few walkers along the trails, and even say hello to a few Crickhowell residents who I recognize from my town the other day. I was beginning to feel like a…well…a Welshman!.
“Crickhowell used to get more American visitors, but after 9/11 and the London subway bombings, tourism from your country has dropped off a bit here,” says 80-year old Judy Hindmarsh, owner of the Bear Hotel, as we sit in one of the old-fashioned, but comfortable, parlor rooms a half-level above the small reception area. She says that Americans are beginning to return, and will always be welcome to Wales, which has seen many of its own emigrate to America when times were bad, and economics forced young men to flee the brutal poverty of their homeland.
I learn from Ms. Hindmarsh that almost everything I saw during my time in Crickhowell has a fascinating history behind it. The town takes its Welsh name, Crug Rywel, from the rampart and mountain above the town, known as Table Mountain. Past the cricket field is Castle Grounds, where the castle (now in ruins, but beautiful nonetheless), was built in 1272 by Sir Grimbald Pauncefoot, a Norman. Effigies of Sir Grimbald and his wife, Lady Sybil, can be seen in the local parish church. The Crickhowell Bridge, which crosses the River Usk, was first built in 1530, and rebuilt in 1760, and Bridge Street, which leads down the hill to the river, was laid out in the 18th-century, still surfaced in its original cobble stones. And it was on nearby Standard Street that, in 1485, Sir Richard Evans raised his standard and mustered 3,000 men, who later shared Henry Tudor’s victory at Bosworth Field.
Trying to keep up with all the local history forces me to spend the last few days in Crickhowell walking, reading up on Welsh history, and talking with local residents about how the town has changed in recent years. Almost everyone says that there have not been major changes in town, that everything seems pretty much the same since they were kids here. I chat with the women in the library, the folks who work at Marina’s Fish and Chips shop, and the older men at the pubs, who slowly and quietly, and after several pints of the local Brains beer, spill out the secrets of life in one Welsh town.
I grew very fond of Crickhowell and even went into the local branch of Clee Tompkinson Francis real estate office (www.ctf-uk.com), where a nice woman showed me pictures of beautiful Welsh farmhouses for extraordinary amounts of British pounds. Buying a home in Wales, or anywhere in the U.K. these days, is not inexpensive. A lovely old stone farmhouse in the countryside, with two bedrooms, central heating, modern bath, great views, perhaps a few acres with a stream, will cost about £500-700,000, approximately $1-1.4 million.
Just as I was getting familiar with Crickhowell, waving to locals when I walked through town, knowing where to ride and hike in the countryside, feeling comfortable with the slow pace of life, the ease in which you fall into conversations, the dozens of shades of green you see all around you (even in winter), I had to leave.
There’s probably no English translation for cynefin, the Welsh term for fierce attachment to a patch of land, but it is easy to understand why the Welsh feel so strongly for their land of green mountains, sloping pastures dotted with sheep, fresh water rivers, and towns and villages that are heartbreakingly beautiful and friendly. I hope to return soon.
If you go…
Lonely Planet Travel Guide – Wales; www.lonelyplanet.com