LIDAR and the Morfa

Morfa Harlech is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It’s the sand dunes you can see behind the beach from the round window. But if you look at it through LIDAR, a laser view which strips away all the vegetation, a remarkable sight comes into view.

It’s a long cursus with semi-circular ends. It’s not the Old Race Course which used to be marked on old maps of the Morfa, and I have no idea what it could be. Neither does anyone in Harlech, it would appear.

So any suggestions are gratefully received. Go and have an exploration! You can park near the tip (a bit smelly) and set off on a walk.

Refunds due to COVID-19

Who could have foretold that someone who simply fancied a little snack of deep-fried bat in an obscure Chinese megalopolis in 2019 could have shut down most of the Western world for two years?

We thought 2020 was bad enough, but it looks as if we are going to have to live with this terrible plague for another year. We all need a holiday, and Murmur-y-Don is calling to you! The house hates to be left alone.

If you do book a holiday in Murmur-y-Don and the Welsh or the English government forbids you from going due to Covid-19 restrictions, I will immediately refund your booking payment.

I have a second home in London which is presently in National Lockdown, so I’m not allowed to go to Harlech. Like you, we have no idea when we’ll be allowed to travel again.

As a Living National Treasure* I have been lucky enough to get my first vaccination, the Pfizer/BioNTech jab (it didn’t feel at all cold) but I won’t have the second, effective one until April 19th. Let’s hope we all get the jab as soon as possible so we can resume a semblance of normality.

*My wife says it’s just because I’m old.

Waxing Lyrical

In preparation for welcoming our summer visitors after lockdown I ordered two litres of Antiquax liquid floor polish for the oak flooring in Murmur-y-Don.

I use knee pads, as the job would be impossible without them. So I started waxing on Tuesday morning, with a large coarse floor cloth and wearing gardening gloves.

The vapour was intensely strong, and I got a little woozy. It’s also hard work for an old bear, four-legged on the floor rubbing away for six hours.

That was the round window and drawing room. The fun bit is polishing it off with the Kärcher electric floor polisher, which only takes a couple of hours.

Two days later I fought through the stiffness and did the hall and study, which only took four or five hours.

I must say it looks and smells wonderful, and there is a sense of achievement, however stiff I was as a result. And I Was STIFF!

The two litres of liquid wax polish cost £52.86. As I poured the gloopy wax onto the floorcloth and rubbed it into the floor I realised that each drop of the polish had cost more than a fine single malt Scotch whisky. A bottle of Laphroaig (which I like) is £23. I’d rather have had the whisky.

Just picture me silently weeping as I rubbed my Scotch dreams away.

Is there a glimmer of hope?

Today, Friday June 19th 2020, the BBC Wales website says:

Tourism industry is being told to prepare for self-contained accommodation, such as caravans and cottages, to take bookings from 13 July.

I do hope this means we can get back to Murmur-y-Don. I haven’t been allowed back into my home since March 5th, when I broke my ankle and the nearest hospital with a working X-Ray machine was in North London.

There’s still food in the fridge. The beds are unmade. The house won’t have been dusted or hoovered for four months.

This is trivial compared to the suffering experienced by those who caught Covid-19 and their families and friends, I know. We have only lost one dear friend, Rita Boogaart, who died in the Netherlands on April 14th. We have been fortunate.

I can’t wait to get back to my house. I am experiencing the full force of hiraeth.

Cooked up in Cymru

A culinary trip from Caernarfon to Conwy offers wine, whisky and fine produce a world away from rarebit and laverbread*

An article by Liz Boulter in The Guardian, Saturday 14 July 2018

Sitting at a sunny table a stone’s throw from the vines, savouring the citrus and berry notes in fine white and rosé wines, we could be in the Loire or Veneto. But we’re actually a few miles from Caernarfon, and the south-facing slopes these grapes grow on are the foothills of Snowdon.

Richard Wyn Huws established Pant Du vineyard in 2007 and, while he loves to show off his wares, he knew his countrymen were unlikely to take to the swooshing, spitting ways of your average wine buff. So he devised a less-ostentatious tasting protocol.

“Take a mouthful,” he says, pouring from a bottle of his aromatic white. “Flick your tongue three times against the roof of your mouth then ‘chew’ three times before swallowing.”

It’s a revelation: my mouth floods with a fresh taste between lemon and grapefruit. His rosé, with the same treatment, delivers a hit of just-ripe strawberries.

We’re on a gastro tour that’s offering daily revelations of this kind, though what first drew us to north Wales was not wine but whisky. Aber Falls opened on the northern edge of Snowdonia late last year. It is the first new distillery in north Wales for more than 100 years, and uses local barley and water from the eponymous 37-metre waterfall up the valley.

Greeting us at a pop-up visitor centre which opened in May – a more permanent one is taking shape – owner James Wright bounces us excitedly round his project, telling us how distillers use nose and palate, plus time, heat and a variety of wooden casks – and still never quite know what they’ll get. The mix of wort (barley liquid) and yeast in the distillery’s huge fermenter smells like strong pilsner to me – but then beer and whisky at this stage are similar. It’s what happens next, in the 500-litre copper wash stills, hand-beaten in Scotland, that makes the difference; plus a second distillation, the making of the right “cut”, judicious dilution and three years of barrel fermentation.

This last stage explains why there is no whisky to try: early tastings of unaged spirit are promising but the first casks won’t be ready until 2020. Visitors needn’t go thirsty, though: Aber Falls also does gin, which can be made in 24 hours. That doesn’t mean it’s not a quality product: its Welsh Dry tastes smoothly of liquorice and coriander, as well as juniper, and is quite drinkable neat, though it’s also great with tonic. Launched this spring, it immediately won a gold medal in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Aber Falls is happy to shout about its spirits, even if showy self-promotion is no more part of the reserved Welsh nature than wine snobbery. This, according to some, is one reason why this area is not as well-known for food as it is for beaches and mountains. Now a few passionate foodies are changing that, including David Evans of Dylan’s restaurant. “We’re not trying to change the world,” he says, as we look over the straits from a table in the Menai Bridge branch (there are others in Llandudno and Criccieth), “just show locals and visitors that we have world-class foods, which should be celebrated.”

So at Dylan’s, fresh fish lunches can be paired with a Welsh sparkling wine made at Gwinllan, near Conwy, from 100% solaris grapes – by Colin and Charlotte Bennett, who also run tours with tastings and boards of local cheese and meats (from £15pp) in a lovely, south-facing vineyard setting.

With fizz you think of seafood, and Dylan’s buys from Shaun Krijnen of Menai Oysters & Mussels, who uses his marine-biologist training to produce top-quality shellfish. His mussels (wild, not rope-grown) have just spawned, so they’re not up to much right now. But in a shed, 8,000 oysters are purifying in running water and UV light, ready for shipping to (mostly) London restaurants and fishmongers. My husband and I have had the odd holiday huître in France, but what Shaun gives us is another revelation: cool and silky fresh, with a lingering sweetness. “That’s the algae they feed on at this time of year – phaeocystis,” he says. “Oysters are at their best in summer.” On Wednesdays and Sundays he opens his sheds and sells direct to canny customers.

A seashell’s throw from Shaun’s shellfish beds is another Anglesey food stalwart, Halen Môn, a sea salt producer set up by the Lea-Wilson family, who in 1999 boiled some Anglesey sea water on their Aga and realised they had a business opportunity. On a factory tour, we learn how the sparkling clean Menai Straits are washed daily by tides from east and west, and we do another tasting, this time comparing other salts with delicate Halen Môn crystals, which also come in smoked, spiced and roasted garlic varieties. The biggest surprise is a mad-sounding product developed for Heston Blumenthal: smoked water is a pungent brownish liquid that adds intriguing depth to soup, risotto, mayonnaise …

The culinary gifts keep coming. At Llaeth y Llan, the Roberts family makes yoghurt with rich grass-fed milk from cows in lush fields nearby, and we have a splendid fish dinner on the beach in Colwyn Bay, where celebrity chef Bryn Williams of Odette’s in Primrose Hill, London opened his seafront bistro, Bryn@Porth Eirias, in 2015. The Bull pub in Beaumaris, Anglesey, is celebrating Wales’s Year of the Sea with regular seven-course seafood evenings at its fine-dining Loft restaurant.

The historic town of Conwy is the area’s gastro capital: here Mark and Emma Baravelli make exquisite chocolates; Parisella’s emulates the finest Italian gelateria; and butcher’s shop Edwards of Conwy does pies, hot sandwiches and a signature “bistro” cut of Welsh black beef, “tender as fillet, tasty as rump”.

The heartwarming thing about this foodie revival (apart from the fact that no one uses the word “artisanal”) is its collaborative spirit: every producer seems to stock, use or promote stuff from other makers, and all are passionate about creating jobs, and recruiting and training locally.

David Evans at Dylan’s may say he’s not trying to change the world, but he and his fellow foodies are making this corner of it a whole lot better – one meal at a time.

* Gwyn writes: And what is wrong with Laverbread? Or Rarebit, for that matter? Laverbread is Wales’ great culinary secret. Hardly anyone outside Wales has tried it, and luckily those who have tend not to care for it. But once you’ve got the taste — umami, bland, comforting, tasting like nothing else you can describe — it is addictive. You can’t get it in North Wales, though. Best places to find it are Swansea and Cardiff markets. I buy 2 kilos at a time by mail order and it freezes beautifully.

What a location!

OK, I’m the proud owner of Murmur-y-Don so I’m allowed to exhibit a little bit of bias, but honestly how many other houses anywhere can claim the following:

  • UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • National Park
  • National Nature Reserve
  • SSSI — Site of Special Scientific Interest
  • National Coast Path

It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of Harlech Castle, one mile to the north. It’s in the Snowdonia National Park, the first and most beautiful of Wales’s National Parks. The sand dunes behind the beach, Morfa Harlech, are a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and the Wales Coast Path runs past the bottom of our drive. The Wales Coast Path is the world’s first public footpath to run round the entire coast of a country.

And of course it’s blessed with what many say is the finest view in the country, above Good God Corner, acclaimed by people of such excellent taste as Philip Pullman and Humphrey Lyttleton.

That’s a heck of a pedigree for one house to carry. But it bears it with dignity.

2018 Prices

Well, this is one of the more riveting blog posts I’ll be making this year. I’ve just posted the price list for Murmur-y-Don rentals for 2018 on the harlech.org website. As I know you won’t be able to curb your enthusiasm, I’m providing a direct link http://www.harlech.org/?page_id=96 right here.

The prices are the same as last year, apart from a £5 week rise in August. They will be going up in 2019, when my Brexiteering friends will suddenly realise they can never, ever, ever afford to go abroad again.

Duty done. Have fun!

 

Bluebells

Batty!

54 year old Alistair Aitchison is probably not the most popular person to pass through Harlech. He may be the owner of an opaque Gibraltar company which owns two of the most noticeable buildings in the town after the castle —  the old St David’s Hotel and the residential tower block for Coleg Harlech, the only skyscraper to be built in a National Park.

Both big buildings, next door to each other on the main A496, are derelict and very shabby.

A large luxury hotel built for visitors to the fashionable resort of Harlech and for golfers at the famed Royal St. David’s Golf links, allowed to slip into decay and degradation under the stewardship of a property company registered in Gibraltar.

Eight years after permission was granted to demolish the hotel, work still hasn’t started.

Parts of the roof have collapsed, windows are rotting and the site blights the town.

In 2009 the Snowdonia National Park Authority granted conditional planning permission for it to be torn down and replaced with a 130-bedroom hotel with 76 holiday apartments — but the developer did not proceed with the project.

Then in 2014 a further application was approved and despite SNPA receiving assurances from the developer work would commence on the new development, nothing of any significance has happened, except for the partial construction of a bat tower.

Local councillor Caerwyn Roberts said the bat building had to be built before demolition can start, although even that has stalled.

He continued: “It is fast becoming a source of major concern for the people in Harlech.

The former Hall of Residence at Coleg Harlech

“The same owners also own the former Hall of Residence site, the tower block, and that is also empty.

“Between them they are holding Harlech back, we’re not happy and we find ourselves very limited in what we can do.”

Aitchison Associates may be registered in Gibraltar, but Alistair Aitchison’s address is Buckingham House, Myrtle Lane, Billingshurst, West Sussex, RH14 9SG.

Best in Travel 2017

Here are the Top 10 Regions in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2017:
Choquequirao, Peru
Taranaki, New Zealand
The Azores, Portugal
North Wales, UK
South Australia
Aysén, Chile
The Tuamotus, French Polynesia
Coastal Georgia, USA
Perak, Malaysia
The Skellig Ring, Ireland

See that? North Wales is fourth! There’s lovely, yes?

Lonely Planet’s editorial director Tom Hall said: “We included North Wales in this year’s list of top ten regions because it deserves to be recognised on the global stage. It’s a stunning area with a vast array of activities on offer to keep travellers entertained. North Wales has also become a haunt of in-the-know foodies, so however visitors get their kicks, once they’ve worked up an appetite, they’ll also be well catered for. North Wales is a gem and should be on every traveller’s radar.”

Well, well.