Rough Guides Senior Editor Helen Fanthorpe reminisces about family holidays spent in mid-Wales, and a lockdown spent craving the countryside.
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 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.