Rough Guides Senior Editor Helen Fanthorpe reminisces about family holidays spent in mid-Wales, and a lockdown spent craving the countryside.
Growing up, we spent almost all of our holidays at “Wales Cottage”, nestled in the heart of mid-Wales. Bought by my grandparents when my mum was a baby, the house is made of stone, painted white with dark-green window frames. An old parsonage with more recent additions, it’s largely set across two floors, every room with its own name: “The Parish Room”, “The Sun Room” or “The Study”. Each has its story to tell. The Parish Room is where the wellies are kept – a rich stash, for the extended family is large and growing – and where an antique, cast-iron manual coffee grinder once delighted me and my siblings. It’s where the ancient piano (hideously out of tune) still accompanies the odd sing-along, and where a massive ping-pong table has long hosted family tournaments. The Sun Room, meanwhile, is where my grandparents once sat reading their books, side by side, bathed in light; where little green plant shoots appear through cracks in the tiles. But our favourite as children was always “The Attic”. With a trapdoor to reach it, a skylight to listen to the rain pitter-patter and a rope ladder to escape in the event of a fire, The Attic represented the height of adventure.
Wales Cottage occupies a dip between two steep hills, with a stream on one side, and a disused railway line running along the other. In the garden is a huge copper-beech tree (well climbed, of course), with a swing tied to its lowest branch. Sheep dot the hillsides – grazing lands interspersed with bracken, gorse and wildflowers – and local walks to the hilltops reveal long views across patchwork fields, pockets of woodland and remote windfarms to mountain peaks in the distance. Family lingo, now passed down through three generations, has given local spots their common names: “The Exciting Place” (where rapids punctuate the stream), “The Pooh-stick Bridge” (ripe for a game of Pooh-sticks) and, more prosaically, “Richie’s Farm”. Our usual walks include “Up Old Chapel”, “The Gorge Walk” and “To the Windmills”. And though we’re out of towners, relationships with the locals stretch back decades, too – especially the farmers who work the land around the cottage. I’ve played with their children, watched lambing in action and fed an orphaned calf from the bottle.
It almost goes without saying that until I was about twelve, the house was seriously off-grid – and I mean quite literally. With no electricity, our six-week summer holidays were lived by the light of the sun, enhanced by a few gas lamps that hung from the ceiling in the kitchen for the evening. Upstairs, candles provided the only source of light. We made shadow puppets with our hands, told ghost stories around a naked flame and dripped hot wax onto our bare skin and watched it dry and crack. Heating was provided by an aging rayburn – fed by trips to the coal shed with a scuttle in hand – and an open fire where we propped our muddy boots to dry and turned our palms for warmth. Sitting round that fire we thumbed through books, strummed guitars, played UNO, scrabble and l’Attaque.
Even today, though electricity has finally come, there’s still no reception or Wi-Fi, and I’ve never fired up a laptop or watched TV at Wales Cottage. You can forget about social media and quick connections: to make a call is to scramble up the side of the hill behind the house until you’ve reached a position where a mobile-phone signal appears. And though we no longer have to walk the ten minutes down the old railway line to squeeze into a red telephone box, clear the cobwebs and insert our coins, we must have been some of the last people in the country to do so.
When lockdown hit, barricaded in my flat in London, I regretted that I hadn’t been to Wales in several years. While my urban routine was shattered (no office, no restaurants, no pubs!), I doubted life had changed much in our community in mid-Wales. Certainly not for anyone who goes to Wales Cottage, where electricity came late and where children’s books from the 70s still line the bookshelves (think: Jim Slater’s A. Mazing Monsters), mushrooms can be plucked from the hillside and days can be whiled away without seeing a soul.
When I return to Wales later this month, I too will slow down. I will relish all the simple pleasures and the glorious surroundings. I will lace up my walking boots. I will look upwards at night to drink in the starry skies. And I will be grateful for it all.