January 29, 2020
We’re off to Wales in the morning; a journey we make four times a year. Boots in the car, a scratch picnic just in case, clothes for one evening out and three probably wet days. Out of London past Westfield, the mammoth shopping centre I’ve never penetrated, onto the A40, past Hendon aerodrome, where Uncle Pat taught RAF pilots, and was the first person to take off, fly round and land with a blanked-out windscreen, on instruments alone.
You’re soon in the woods, or apparent woods, where the tree-planting to screen the new motorway has come of age. An unnoticed climb through the Chilterns until suddenly a deep chalk cutting reveals the rest of England, or at least the broad Thames Valley, stretching off to the north. Oxford, Banbury, Warwick seem to be among unremarkable fields and occasional herds. It’s amazing how empty England is…. .until the lorries thicken, gantries come up one after another: Birmingham, M6 north, airport, NEC, and England is suddenly modern and unfriendly. The M6 Toll Road is a luxury break, then more queues until the M54 cuts loose, heads west, and you feel you’re leaving it all behind. Telford, signs for Shrewsbury, across the sluggish Severn and the signs say Wales. And we see it. There is a grey hill on the horizon that is not English-shaped. Left at the roundabout for Welshpool, the road narrows, and now its 50 miles of bends and steeper, greener hills, and sheep instead of cows, and bigger beeches, then hills high enough for heather. Miles of bends behind trundling caravans, grey villages with ARAF/SLOW painted on the road and names too long to read as you drive through.
The windscreen wipers are going, the houses are scattered and the hills rise above the car windows. The river below the road is black and white with foam, then the climb begins, a high waterfall to the right, winding into bare turf and rock, sheep and heather and bracken to a pass that changes everything. Light floods from under black clouds to the west, Cader Idris crouches grey in grey gauze through the raindrops. The road swerves down and down towards the sea. We’re ready for the orderly market square of Dolgellau, its trim charcoal stone shining with rain. It feels like home.