It’s a lot to handle, when a relaxing walkabout is more my up my alley. It’s something the Welsh are fond of, too, and there are plenty of walking paths meandering across the countryside. Mike unwisely lets us off the leash on a path from St Govan’s Chapel to Stackpole Quay, with clear instructions on where to meet to meet him at the other end. It’s a gorgeous day to be strolling along the coast, and we amble past pixie rings (mushroom rings) on clifftops and beautiful beaches, our fingers stained purple from all the wild blackberries we’ve picked, until Mike chases us down and reins us in. He’s been doing a lot of that – Wales has that sort of ethereal beauty that has us pleading “Just five minutes more!” as we march up St David’s Head to get closer to the wild horses that graze there, making him pull over to take yet another picture of sheep, and throwing all his carefully-laid plans into the wind as we decide to picnic on a quiet beach, our fish and chips flavoured by a thin mist of sea air. Mike’s been pushing us hard through the days, eager to show us as much as he can of his beautiful country. But getting to our stops for the nights has been a real treat. If the sort of hotels to be found here are anything to go by, the Welsh love celebrating the good life as much as the outdoors. We’ve camped out at Huts in the Hills, cosy ’huts’ cut off from everything, kept warm by wood fires and snuggly Welsh blankets, and, of course, a woodfired hot tub.
We’ve bedded down in the handsome Georgian Harbour Master Hotel, serenaded by the lapping of waves, and at the St Brides Spa Hotel, with an infinity pool overlooking the steely Atlantic. We’ve given into the ’glamping’ trend – and how! – at Wonderfully Wild, out in a field in Anglesey, in a safari-style ’tent’ (and I use that word very loosely) that I could see myself living in. We’ve even spent a night in an honest-to-goodness castle, marring the sense of propriety at the Roch Castle Hotel with loud games of Trivial Pursuit fuelled by plenty of gin and tonics. And the food’s been brilliant, too, not at all just the meat and potatoes that I was expecting. Like in much of the United Kingdom, Wales is trying to break the stereotype that its food is boring, and you’ll find loads of bright vegetables, seafood fresh from the sea, and, of course, plenty of lamb so tender it melts off the bone.
As we’re puttering along the coast, we come across an isolated food truck, parked in the middle of nowhere and being battered by strong winds off the sea. We’re wondering what’s going on as Mike screeches to a stop and herds us out of the car – we’ve already lunched, and can’t imagine eating any more, but he insists. The young lady’s whipping up lobster rolls sprinkled with ’Welshman’s caviar’, or laverbread, a type of seaweed that’s dried and roasted. Hashim and I reluctantly order (the things we do for the job!), but, after one bite, and the explosion of flavours that follows, we know Mike’s “told you so” grin is totally deserved. The lobster is fresh and buttery, and the laverbread adds a moreishness and depth of flavour that’s difficult to put into words.
I can’t believe we’re not battling long queues to get at these rolls, but I’m not complaining, until Mike starts marching off towards the swooping sand dunes on the beach across the road. I slip and slide my way up a dune, but the grumbling gets blown out of me when I get to the crest. In its place, Queen’s Bohemian rhapsody stilts playing in my head, questioning whether I’m living in some sort of fantasy.
There’s a lone sock, fluttering weakly in the breeze, anchored to the top of that dune by a smooth stone. A stone which, on closer inspection, reveals a message: “Here lies Dobby. A free elf.”
Freshwater West Beach is where Dobby was buried by Harry and the gang in the movies. And so, here I am, feeling as awash in grief as I did when I first read that paragraph in the book years ago, and questioning my sanity as the lines between reality and fiction blur.
Then again, so much of being in Wales has been surreal. When we were first sent our very detailed (and very cutely-written) itinerary, I was imagining a slow, leisurely exploration of the acclaimed wild beauty of these lands, not this almost manic whirlwind of surrealness we’ve been swept up in. Not that the countryside isn’t stunning – but Wales throws up happy surprises when you least expect them. Like laughing over a meal of curry and chips over episodes of Dr Who at Mike’s home in Cardiff, or accidentally trespassing while looking for an ancient church on a hillside. Did I really plunge off a cliff into the swirling grey tides?