Beddgelert, Brooklyn & Beating Covid-19!
If every cloud has a silver lining then being married to a woman who does not possess a Euro passport comes with its perks: you get shoehorned into discovering the beauty of Wales!
And, even better, towards the end of your 72-hour trip, you get to sample the joys of Brooklyn, only this Brooklyn is not of the Big Apple variety but a little closer to Manc-hattan in Manchester city centre!
A couple of weeks before the Covid-19 lockdown, we boarded the TransPennine Express train to Manchester Piccadilly, blindly unaware that this would be our last trip for some considerable time, but still far enough ahead of panic buying and solitary confinement, to be enjoyed!
After negotiating the challenges of Google Maps’ blue dot, we eventually found our way to Store Street, just a 10-minute walk from the station platform, where our Scouse driver Charlie, from Rabbie’s Coach Tours,
was parked up waiting for his six charges. His greeting couldn’t have been more welcoming his smile any broader.
Piling our hand-luggage-sized bags into his 16 seater mini-coach, he said we were fine to grab a quick coffee whilst the other four arrived: two Australian girls and a couple from Brazil who, it later transpired, were research medics at Cambridge University on secondment.
One of the Aussies, a town planner from Canberra, was flying home, by choice, whilst the other, from neighbouring Tasmania, was having to cut her six week tour short because of the rapidly spreading Coronavirus; for now Italy was destined to remain an unachieved dream, whilst Wales was to be her last view of the UK before self-isolation Down Under!
‘Coach tours’ in their broadest sense tend to provoke different reactions. To some they are considered a vacation for the elderly, often representing incredible value for money, whilst to others, something to be avoided at all costs.
But, in the case of Rabbie’s – traditionally a Scottish company but now with tentacles much further south and even into Europe – the UK and Ireland offerings are quite different.
They get you there – wherever there is – but it’s up to you to sort your food and accommodation, although the company will happily do this on your behalf should you so wish, using, possibly, their supplied list of recommendations, or simply a hostelry you already know; entirely up to you. Either way, you’ll get dropped at the door.
Which makes the trips less prescriptive, more flexible and, because of the coach size, relatively nimble once you reach the narrow streets of places like Conwy,
Beddgelert and Betws-y-Coed.
The nearest I had been to Wales in recent decades was when I auditioned for Cardiff’s Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in 1979, at the tender age of 18, and then on a day trip to Llandudno when one of the outing’s highlights was marvelling at the Wetherspoon’s conversion of a 1920’s theatre!
Since then I have been halfway round the world ignoring much of Celtic Britain, which is visited annually by millions of international tourists most probably whilst I am in their country!
But, rain aside, I have been converted. Wales has given me my Epiphany moment!
Racing around like a demented bee – all within the speed limits I would add – our driver Charlie had more banter than a Cockney barrow boy, and his knowledge of local history, places of interest, areas visited, life and the universe, made him an absolute credit to Rabbie’s: the perfect host!
A former policeman he had retired from the force many years earlier due to injury, found himself working as a boatbuilder in France for 10 years, then as a coach driver/guide in the same country, before high-tailing it back to the UK for his new role with Rabbie’s. Charlie had been in rehearsal for 10 years and it certainly showed.
The destination was Aberystwyth, the unrelenting driver information was fascinating – along with carefully selected musical tracks that fitted the tour - and his anecdotes made the journey pass quickly.
“Does anyone know where the expression ‘getting plastered’ comes from?” We were rapidly advised that its origins were somewhere between ancient Latin and the building trade but, either way, it led on to a discussion about ‘bolt from the blue’ and ‘watching your P’s and Q’s’! It was an entertaining journey and the Aussies were certainly up for a laugh!
Our first stop was meant to be the beautiful town of Conwy but, using his discretion, Charlie made an impromptu diversion, taking us to St Margaret’s in Bodelwyddan.....
The Marble Church
.....also known as The Marble Church, not only architecturally stunning, but also a fascinating story in its own right thanks to its graveyard full of memorials to fallen Canadian and Commonwealth soldiers.
Commonwealth & Canadian graves
“That’s the beauty of a small coach and group,” he said, “it is easy to make changes and navigate narrower roads.” He was right, of course, and the slightly improvised journey plan was great, pandering to the driver’s superior knowledge of the area.
Just past Llandudno we found ourselves in Conwy with its Castle and Town Walls, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Built for English King Edward I between 1283 and 1287, Conwy Castle is among Britain’s finest surviving medieval fortifications.
Conwyn with its castle in the distance
It is probably too big to be considered ‘quaint’…. but it is….. boasting some lovely high street shops, architecture and even the smallest house in Britain, once occupied but, these days, more of a novelty tourist draw.
With rain in the air it hardly seemed the day for an ice cream but, then again, it is not every day you get to visit the award-winning Glaslyn Ice Cream Parlour……….
Glaslyn's Award Winning Ices
……… which has been plying its trade in Snowdonia’s picture postcard village of Beddgelert for half a century. But we snaffled our cones in the light drizzle and moved on once more.
Beddgelert - pretty as a picture!
By early evening we had arrived in Aberystwyth where me and my wife found ourselves billeted with our ubiquitous ‘Master of the House’, Johnny, at his Gwesty Guest House (Yr Hafod) on South Marine Terrace.
Cleaner than an NHS hospital in the middle of a Covid-19 scrub down, Johnny was the ultimate host and, the following morning, made a Welsh breakfast to die for.
“We don’t do a full English ‘ere,” he said, “just a full Welsh.” He paused, burst out laughing, adding: “They’re almost bloody identical anyway.”
Day two saw us in picturesque New Quay with its beautiful beach,
a regular haunt of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who, it would seem, found more solace in its pubs
One of Dylan Thomas' frequent watering holes!
than its poetic soul! Nevertheless, New Quay was a great inspiration to Wales’ first son, and is said to have provided inspiration for his famous work, Under Milk Wood.
Clearly this steep little coastal town is at the heart of Dylan country and, if New Quay is not to your liking with its beautiful beach, boats and eateries - I very much doubt this unless you are averse to steep inclines! - then surely you will be happy to take refuge in Laugharne, just 38 miles further south.
Here Thomas and his lifetime love, Caitlin, are buried in the graveyard of St Martin’s Church in this picturesque harbour town, which lies alongside the River Corran. It is from one of its two car parks that you can take the Laugharne Heritage Walk.
Dylan Thomas, poet extraordinaire and dead at just 39
As you walk you will pass the Port of Laugharne and the site of a cockle factory; Dylan Thomas’ Writing Shed and the Boathouse where he lived; his grave at Laugharne Church, Browns Hotel and fine Georgian townhouses, the Town Hall and Laugharne Castle.
When you have heard the names Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and Anthony Hopkins bandied around in such a glorious setting, you will quickly start to feel nostalgic, even if you aren’t Welsh!
Racing on as though time were running out and the Coronavirus pandemic were drawing ever closer, the remains of the day, and the following 24 hours, took us to Dinefwr Park & Castle,
and adjacent Newton House…..
……….an off-the-beaten-track and extremely tired National Trust property, that looks as if it has been preserved in aspic, untouched for years.
Harlech with its medieval Castle ruins moved us in the direction of our penultimate destination – Chester –
Men of Harlech!
but, before we could leave the now emerging afternoon sunshine, everyone had to get a snap of the world’s steepest street, Ffordd Pen Llech.
It has a gradient of 37.45% although everyone was confident they knew one steeper! The Guinness Book of Records will be informed!
Wales’ swan song on this tour was Betws-y-Coed.
It is a beautiful little place
St Mary's Church, Betws-y-Coed
In 1815 Thomas Telford built Waterloo Bridge to carry the A5 across the River Conwy. The village became a major centre for mail coaches, which would stop there en route from London to Holyhead.
But the biggest change came in 1868 after the railway station was built. The trains brought the tourists in their droves and Betws-y-Coed rapidly became one of the most popular tourist destinations in Wales.
Back in England I said a fond hello and an equally fond goodbye to the walled city of Chester with its black and white buildings.
By now there was a sense that commerce was slowing down. Signs had appeared suggesting that anyone with a cough should not enter the shop. We pushed on to Manchester where our tour would end.
Somehow, we had just entered a newer, slightly surreal world. Wales had been calm, now we were reading about this new virus called Covid-19, seemingly on every shop door!
Charlie, the Aussies and our new friends from Brazil bade us a fond farewell as we ended our tour where we had started it in Store Street. It was 7pm so we would be spending our night in the newly opened Hotel Brooklyn at nearby 59 Portland Street.
Downtown Brooklyn - Manchester!
I was greeted by natty dresser and General Manager Paul Bayliss who was eager to show me round the hotel which, like many neighbouring properties in Manchester, was reeling from the Coronavirus and cancelled bookings.
However, the relative quiet did little to dampen the genuine sense of welcome that I felt from all staff.
Part of Bespoke Hotels, the Hotel Brooklyn, which boasts an Americana Theme, partly inspired by the works of US literary giant Damon ‘Guys And Dolls’ Runyon, has 189 rooms but 18 of them are very special.
They are deemed ‘accessible’ for those with disabilities and are absolutely brilliant; I was so impressed: no-step showers; wider doors for wheelchairs; automatic curtains, paraplegic lift hoists.
Industry changing design at its best but, even better, everything has been designed in such a way that features for the disabled can be hidden / detached so that the rooms instantly revert to standard bedrooms when required.
This is a hotel that targets both the ‘Purple’ pound disabled sector, as well as corporates and general tourists / visitors: very much a hotel for all seasons and types.
Runyon’s iconic character, good-hearted gambler, Nathan Detroit, would be delighted to know that there’s not only a casino beneath the hotel, but that his creator has a restaurant named after him on the ground floor, ‘Runyons’.
The Hotel Brooklyn is high-end with a difference, trilbies and Charleston dresses at the weekend, Hershey Bars in the bedroom fridges and classy ‘eats’ in Runyons:
poached eggs California with smashed avocado or Huevos Rancheros for breakfast (translations supplied!).
“Robin Shepherd, the Chairman of Bespoke Hotels, took his inspiration for the Hotel Brooklyn from his actor uncle, Bill Shepherd, who used to live in Brooklyn,” Paul Bayliss told me.
“We have conference and celebration facilities on the 9th floor
where the Americana theme continues with little touches like the toilets which are for Janes and Johns.”
And in various places the original concrete ‘distressed’ walls are now a feature, complete with pencil scribblings left by workmen: bold and clever!
The Hotel Brooklyn is a smart operation and, if my 89 year old mum were still alive, she’d feel safe in the rooms and nostalgic in Runyons but, more to the point, my ‘corporate’ brother Paul – at the top of his game in pharmaceuticals – would be happy to book it for one of his conferences. A great stay in a great hotel with a bright future.
Checking out of the Hotel Brooklyn we took the TransPennine back to Leeds, blissfully unaware that lockdown was just a matter of days away. However, with so many wonderful memories who would baulk at the prospect of 21 days ‘solitary’ in which to enjoy them.
Thank you Wales, need to go there again soon!
Rabbie’s Coach Tours
Tour name: Snowdonia, North Wales and Chester
Departure point: Manchester
Duration: 3 days
Contact: +44(0) 131 226 3133
Brooklyn Hotel, Manchester
Nightly rates at Hotel Brooklyn start from £130 for a Club Room on a B&B basis. Visit www.hotelbrooklyn.co.uk