Sunday, 21 April 2013

Easter: the Pemberley and other bits

So we survived bike riding in the snow, a little muddier for the experience but otherwise intact and made off for the town of Buxton. Our accommodation for the night was the Old Hall Hotel, where Mary Queen of Scots used to stay. It was more tired granny grandeur than anything once regal but a huge bed, a hot shower and a good night’s sleep left us with zero complaints. We hadn’t originally planned to stay somewhere old school shabby posh but it was the only place in the entire region that welcomed single night stays, this being the Easter long weekend and all so really, we were just grateful they’d have us.

This is not the Old Hall Hotel in Buxton (unfortunately. This is Chatsworth House.)

Easter Sunday was surprisingly chocolate free (hence why it’s still hanging around the house now) but we had a great day nonetheless, snooping around the wonderful Chatsworth House in Bakewell. Chatsworth was a well-known pile of bricks before Keira called it Pemberley but the Austen association has clearly not hurt visitor numbers. We turned up at 11am on the dot and there were already several coaches in the generous parking lot and by the time we left several hours later, it was bumper to bumper back up along the road with people waiting to get in.

Lyme Park in nearby Stockport is the BBC Pemberley of Darcy in the lake lore but we opted for Chatsworth, I think in part because we knew that a trip to Bakewell would inevitably also mean tarts. I’ll get to the tarts momentarily but first let me rhapsodise about Chatsworth.

Yes it was shoulder-to-shoulder throughout – busloads of shuffling, cooing grannies - but even that couldn’t distract from the stately beauty of the architecture or its rather covetable interiors – would love the chandeliers, definitely want the drapery AND the wallpaper and wouldn’t say no to the sculpture hall or dining room table arrangements either. Thank you very much. Ooh it was all just so lovely.

We found Darcy stuffed surreptitiously in the corner of the gift shop before venturing out into the gardens, where the sunshine and fallen snow made for a very pretty series of encounters.

By the time we’d finished exploring it was well past lunch and hurtling towards afternoon tea. Which suited me and my need for baked goods entirely.

Brooding in the gift shop...
The small village of Bakewell (or is it a town? How does one distinguish these things?) is chocolate box cute, which is appropriate given there’s pastry named after it. Like Chatsworth, it was also heaving with tourists but we weren’t there to sightsee. We were there to eat.

Cherry bakewell tart? Tick. Bakewell pudding? Tick tick. There’s nothing I love more than the unrepentant consumption of cake.

Now pleasantly doped up with culture and sugar, we got back on the road and made for the next of our destinations, Wales. The Snowdonian village of Betws-y-coed to be exact and no, I don’t know how to pronounce it either.

This was a fairly uninspiring drive – lots of motorways and ring roads around Manchester – but Betws, when we got there, was delightful.

The stroll from our B&B into the village took us through paddocks full of sheep with their dazed-from-the-cold lambs and across an old but very beautiful pedestrian suspension bridge. There’s not a lot to Betws, which didn’t seem to deter the gaggle of freezing, desperately underdressed teenage girls we saw hobbling into the pub in very impractical shoes. I love small towns but having grown up in one, there’s no way I’d ever live in one again.

After milling about and passing a civilised hour drinking G&Ts, we went for dinner and had what turned out to be probably the best meal of the whole trip – which even the world’s slowest, most distracted service couldn’t entirely ruin – a series of compelling modern takes on Welsh specialities. And then, just to make things even sweeter, on the way home, I spotted a dinky series of signs promoting an antiques fair the next day – lucky for me, not so much for Lovely Boy, who had zero interest in rifling through tables of tat in an old church hall in search of treasure.

Betws-y-coed, Wales
But he’s not called Lovely Boy for nothing and so before we took off for Tenby via the Snowdonia National Park, we took off for the local church, paid our 50p entry fee and had a good half hour looking for treasure. Well, I looked, Lovely Boy looked embarrassed.

I made quite the haul in the end, a beautiful 1940s green crystal necklace, a brooch I’m going to turn from an impulse buy into a necklace, a 1980s rhodium-plated strap bracelet and a little gold cigarette tin to keep them all in. Treasure! It was the perfect start to our last full day of adventuring.

A colleague at work had told me about Portmeirion, this strange seaside resort in North Wales built by a man called Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975, inspired by the Italian city of Portofino. It is one of the oddest places I’ve ever been too. Apparently you can still stay here, in one of its many self-contained cottages, but in cold, wintry early April, wrapped in a biting wind, it has the feel, not of a seaside village, but of a depressed, Disney-esque theme park. It’s fame I think comes as much from its anomalous existence in a remote part of Wales as it does the brilliant eccentricities of its designer. 

Portmeirion on a freezing, grey day
Most of the architecture, including the 19th century porticos at either end of the piazza, was gifted to Williams-Ellis from soon-to-be-demolished historic houses around the UK. Noel Coward retreated here during the Second World War to write Blithe Spirit and every year the resort hosts a convention for Prisoner fans, Portmeirion having starred as “the village” in the famous 1960s spy show. It was so very kooky – and so very far from the staggering beauty of the Snowdonia National Park, which we drove through on the way there.

Snowdonia looked exactly like I’d imagined it to, which isn’t to say I was remotely disappointed. It has a quiet, staggering, rough-hewn beauty to it, everything in a palette of greys and greens. It was incredibly beautiful and so I’m really pleased we made a point to visit.  

Our final destination was the seaside town of Tenby. I liked Tenby a lot. I would have liked it even more if it hadn’t been so miserably, bitterly cold and grey. It was just so unpleasant. We wandered around determinedly and got as far as looking at the beach but I wasn’t even prepared to contemplate a walk along it. Instead, we took refuge in a cute little pub where LB was soon accosted by a local who proceeded to volunteer all sorts of information about his bi-polar disorder and the government secrets he knew about what really happened in the Falkland Wars. It was an uncomfortable half an hour but it wasn’t a dull one.

And then, after another night in another chintzy B&B it was home time. Four hours on the M4 back to lil’ old Hammersmith to drop off the bags before heading back to Heathrow to drop off the car.

It was a long week but it was a really good week, with just enough genteel hospitality, fresh air and jaw-dropping natural beauty to make us appreciate the uncompromising, rude, hard beauty of London once again.

And just long enough to wait until the next adventure that we can't reasonably be miserable. Countdown to Paris-Provence-Venice begins..... Now!

1 comment:

tori said...

Perfect vicarious travel adventures. xxxxx