Heading into Wales is as good a time as any to address the United Kingdom and what exactly this is. If you’re like me, no amount of research or informative YouTube watching can really clarify what’s going on here. Wikipedia calls it a “sovereign state in Europe,” so what does that make England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland? Again according to Wikipedia, Wales, England, and Scotland are countries, while Northern Ireland is a “constituent unit” of the UK, but it is impossible to get a consensus on this. Wales.com insists it is a country. The Guardian says they are all countries, but not independent states. Many definitions of “country” heavily rely on the idea of a state’s independent sovereignty, which none of these have.
Right now during the Olympics, all four “countries” are competing as one team, Team GB, even though Northern Ireland is not a part of Great Britain, which refers to the geographic entity that is made up of England, Scotland, and Wales. But during the Euro soccer tournament earlier this summer, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland were separate teams. Are we all sufficiently confused yet?
Whatever the technical differences and definitions are, I think most people would honestly assess that England is first among equals in this confederation of quasi-countries, and that has been causing kerfuffles of varying degrees of severity for centuries. The Irish still have a chip on their shoulder about this and they’ve been fully independent for more than 50 years. The differences in England, Wales, and Scotland when it comes to identity are stark. In England, people don’t seem to worry about what exactly the United Kingdom is. They’re at the center of it, so what difference does it make? The same way people in New York or California don’t concern themselves with what statehood means for the people of North Dakota or Mississippi.
The Scots and the (Northern) Irish have a rich cultural history. Though Gaelic is pretty rare, you still see it on signs and there is a very distinct and very visible Scottish identity that has variations within Scotland, the Highlands culture being pretty different from what you’ll find in Edinburgh. In addition to their own cast of legendary historical figures, all of whom have great names like Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, there is a long history that combines the English monarchy with Scottish figures. Charles III, who you probably know as Bonnie Prince Charlie, is a big part of Scottish history, though he was an English monarch. Scottish heraldry is completely separate from English heraldry. While the two places have more in common than not, Scotland marches to the beat of its own drum.
You don’t get that sense in Wales. That’s not meant to be a dig at the Welsh culture or the strength of their pride in their heritage, but it’s much harder to get a sense of what Wales is like without the English being involved.
What’s interesting is how this has played out with Brexit. Oddly, though Scotland is usually agitating in some way about gaining their independence, they voted across the board to stay in the EU. Wales, a place that doesn’t have a legitimate independence movement, largely voted to leave the EU. To give you a sense of what I’m talking about:
I find this kind of bizarre. Scotland, a place that’s very nearly voted to venture out on its own, seems very proud of its EU membership. You see EU flags frequently around Scotland and the voting results speak for themselves. Wales, which is frankly very hard to imagine as an independent country, is prepared to give Brussels and Angela Merkel the finger.
In another way, I suppose this makes sense. In an unquantifiable way, I sensed greater cohesion and clarity in purpose among the Scots. Of course not everyone agrees about whether or not they should leave the UK, but there is a very palpable soul in Scotland and I think, generally speaking, they understand the balance between a strong national identity and potential national sovereignty, and the benefits and necessity of being a team player, whether that’s in the UK or in the EU.
Wales, in a way, felt more aimless to me. I didn’t sense the same benign agitation with the English (though it is certainly there), and simultaneously I didn’t feel a lot of cohesion among the Welsh. I could be 100 percent wrong about this and I’m not suggesting that the Welsh are not a proud people without independence and cultural pride; Welsh is still spoken and widely used in Wales, much more so than Gaelic in Scotland. But I left not fully knowing what the Welsh are about.
One thing I will point out is that much like the nationalist, anti-immigrant stance in America, a big motivation for leaving the EU among the Leave contingent was this issue about open borders and national security. Aside from the thinly veiled racism towards refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa, there is this constant worry about people from Eastern Europe, predominantly from Poland, coming over and stealing jobs from hardworking Brits. The exact same argument many people make about immigrants from Mexico and Central America. I can’t say on a macro level whether or not that’s valid, but what I will say is that in Wales and in the Midlands in England, two regions that voted to leave the EU, I saw more “Help Wanted” signs than I’ve ever seen in my life. Particularly places in the Lake District seemed absolutely desperate for storekeepers and waitresses. Makes you wonder about all these jobs that are allegedly being stolen.
Anyway, onto Wales, where we’ll start at the beginning.
Stow-on-the-Wold—Hay-on-Wye, 76 miles
In 1962, Richard Booth opened a bookstore in Hay-on-Wye, a barely-there town smack on the England/Wales border. Nothing about this is seemingly remarkable. Bookshops are a pretty common stable of small towns, but for whatever reason, a frenzy was born. If you’ve previously heard of Hay-on-Wye, it was probably in a Buzzfeed article about how there’s a town in Wales made up entirely of bookshops. And that’s mostly true. With 20-odd bookstores in less than a one-mile radius, in a town of 1,600 people, the books far outnumber the people. As a result, Hay has become an unofficial Mecca for hard-core book lovers.
This is the kind of town where you have to fold in your side view mirrors to drive down some of the streets. Surrounded on all sides by open fields and hills, the houses are still tightly packed together in squished rows that circle around back onto each other. An abandoned castle sits in ruins on a small hill in the middle of it and the streets spiral out from there.
As for things to do, you have the books and that’s pretty much the extent of it. Any more than one day here and you’d be a bit bored, but there’s enough to fill a day. Of the few dozen stores, Richard Booth’s is the mothership, though Booth no longer owns it. As it turns out, the man responsible for putting Hay on the map is also a bit of a wacko; he declared himself “king” of Hay in 1977, which he alleged was an independent kingdom as part of an odd publicity stunt. Whatever the point of that was, Booth went through the looking glass and seems to have never really come back. The store in town he currently owns is called The King of Hay. I also just discovered he has an exceedingly bizarre website, a necessity for legitimate nutjobs in today’s world.
Anyway, many of the stores in Hay are cobbled together with used books on musty shelves, but Booth’s has a bit more of a professional feel without turning into a Barnes and Noble, and without pretension. The basement houses a used books section that’s a replica of the library basement in the opening scene of the original Ghostbusters, while the upstairs has an airy, glass vaulted ceiling. There’s the requisite better-than-average cafe in the back and the shelves are a mix of new and used books, so while things are alphabetized and orderly, you never quite know what you’re going to get.
For charm in spades, Addyman Books has everything else in town beat. The main shop occupies a corner space and is like something out of Harry Potter in that it is impossibly large on the inside given its external footprint. The first floor looks like Jimi Hendrix’s opium den in one section, matched with an Alice in Wonderland-esque whimsical display in the next room with the children’s and young adult sections. The second floor is draped in dark curtains with Gothic, steampunk decor in the vampire and horror section, while the next room with the classics has overstuffed armchairs and a dusty fireplace. At the very top of the store is a tiny attic with a sunroof, a wooden bench, and a collection of travel coffee table books and biographies of Ernest Shackleton. The danger with designing a shop this way is it can become gimmicky very quickly, but Addyman is an authentic literary wonderland. If that still isn’t enough for you, they have another outpost across the street, Murder & Mayhem, dedicated entirely to murder mysteries and crime novels.
For what has to be comic effect only, there is an outdoor honesty bookshop near the castle, with a few shelves under some ramshackle awnings and a box for you to drop your few pounds into when you’ve made a selection. As you might expect, the catalogue of items is bleak. One of the more intriguing titles I saw was Birds of Coastal Norway: 1978. This is the kind of thing that gets set up in town that lives and breaths books. It is the most unhelpful collection of unwanted books ever, but it’s all about creating the novelty of Hay.
Aside from the bookstores and the smattering of cafes, a few of which are a little too proudly vegan, there’s not much here. Hay has a lot of personality, but 50+ years of being famous for books and only books has an odd effect on a place. There’s a big book festival here in May/June and it’s a pretty big deal; people like Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie have been in attendance in the past. There are plenty of small towns like Hay that live for that one week a year of the big event, biding their time until the next festival.
Generally speaking, Hay doesn’t really have a sense of humor. E-readers of any kind are unapologetically hated, and the people visiting take up the pitchforks as much as anyone. There was a guy clearly reading on an iPad in a café and people were looking at him like the guy who gets on an airplane coughing into a bloody rag.
I get that there is a tactile experience to reading a book that you don’t get with an iPad and you can’t build the industry of a small town on the back of the Kindle library. But if you really love books, you love literature, and I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument about how e-books have somehow hurt the practice or consumption of literature, when in fact all they’ve done has helped more people read more. Great for literature enthusiasts; unfortunately not so great for the people of Hay.
Hay-on-Wye—Cardiff, 58 miles
Though the Cardiff you see today is by and large a new city, it’s emblematic to me of what is a little strange about Wales. Cardiff is a port city, though the main downtown area is about a mile from the port. The castle, an 11th century Norman fortification, is the central point of the main downtown, which is essentially a collection of interconnected outdoor malls. The residential neighborhoods scattered throughout have some interesting Victorian homes but for the most part, everything looks brand-new. So new that I tried to poke around to figure out why. It felt like the city had been totally destroyed in a natural disaster 25 years ago and was just now finally back at full strength. As far as I can tell, nothing of the sort happened, but it is still very new. It was only made a city in 1905 and the capital of Wales 50 years later, with much of the development happening in the last 30 years. What was once a bustling city with a major docklands operation slumped significantly during the Interwar Period and is only just recovering.
About a mile from downtown is the port, which appears to be both a working port and a popular hangout area, with one giant waterfront shopping center with restaurants along a promenade. In the middle is something you don’t usually find between two popular, gentrified neighborhoods in a city: housing projects within a few blocks of the new convention center and performing arts hall. It’s this kind of thing that makes Cardiff unusual. Most cities have long since marginalized lower-income neighborhoods and pushed any blighted areas to the outskirts of a city, but in Cardiff, it’s right in the mix with everything.
Cardiff is nice enough. It was actually almost hot the day I was there and the city felt very lively, with people occupying every patio seat and sprawling on the open plazas with drinks. What struck me as odd was how little originality there was in so much of it. In the downtown area, almost every storefront is occupied by a chain. There are a lot of great, upscale fast-casual British chain restaurants so it’s not like a bunch of Subways and TGI Friday’s but particularly when it comes to food, I didn’t see very many restaurants that weren’t pubs or names I recognized. Obviously there are independent businesses but you have to look for them. Any decent-sized city is full of chains, but this felt like an unusually high percentage. This is why Cardiff seems like a good microcosm to me of Wales as a whole. I just can’t quite imagine it if you took away all the British companies and international chains. I can’t really see what makes Cardiff Welsh underneath it all, and I struggled with that all over Wales.
Dubai is a place I would describe as entirely surface-level. What you see there today is completely artificial and contrived, ostentatiousness cobbled together from all over. Wales is not a surface-level place. It doesn’t feel fake or like it’s trying to be British. It’s not putting on airs. But I just couldn’t mine deep enough to identify the soul of Wales. Other cities outside Cardiff had more personality and a stronger sense of identity, but Cardiff had this kind of pleasant aimlessness that, to me, characterizes Wales in general.
Cardiff—Newport, 100 miles
If you look at a map of Wales, you can appreciate just how much of this very tiny “country” is coastline, and Pembrokeshire is arguably the most spectacular stretch. Much of Pembrokeshire, particularly the popular St. David’s Head area, is like a slightly toned down version of the southwest coast of Ireland. There’s not much to say here that can’t be better conveyed in pictures because while the scenery is stunning, the towns are decidedly uninspired. St. David’s has a nice atmosphere, like a New England fishing village, but many of the towns are pretty rundown and tired.
This is I think where the difference between England and Wales becomes really obvious. There are plenty of old industrial towns in the Midlands in England that aren’t particularly interesting or even nice, but much of rural England has been injected with a lot of money and/or a lot of interest and time investment from locals who want to preserve their towns and keep them looking good. In Wales, you just don’t see that same kind of thing. Maybe due to lack of interest or, more likely, a lack of capital, but the results are striking. Driving around the English or Scottish countryside, there’s a good chance you’ll just happen upon several charming villages that will make you want to pullover. Much of Wales feels pretty economically depressed. None of that, of course, takes away from the natural landscape and if anything, it probably helps.
Tourism seems to be one of the main economic drivers in this region, but it still feels pretty quiet and out of the way. There’s a 186-mile path that goes all along the coast of Wales, not just in Pembrokeshire, that brings in the bulk of the tourists. For the distance, it looks remarkably easy. As there’s almost no elevation gain, it’s perfect for novices and for what I saw, it’s a very well marked and maintained trail.
There’s not a tremendous amount of atmosphere in this part of Wales, but not everywhere needs cultural vibrancy and food worth writing about. As a result, nothing gets in the way of enjoying the scenery.
Snowdonia National Park
Newport—Betws-y-Coed, 116 miles
Whether or not there’s any validity to this, Snowdonia felt like the most “real” part of Wales. This is the only area where I regularly heard people speaking Welsh (though there are pockets all over the country) and where the towns felt like they had a lot of unique character.
In addition to Pembrokeshire, Snowdonia is the big national park in Wales, home to Mount Snowdon, the tallest mountain in the UK outside Scotland, which has a bit too many qualifiers on it to make it that menacing. At 3,500 feet, it’s very manageable for anyone and there’s even a train to the top. Snowdon is a good example of quintessential hiking trails in the UK. The first part of the trail is pretty well marked and you can find directions online that keep you on the right track. Then, at some point, the trail totally disappears and even with a map and a compass, it can be shockingly difficult to know where you’re going.
In my experience, this is a classic situation hiking anywhere in the UK. Trails are only vaguely marked and inevitably run out altogether. You’re lucky there are any signs or cairns, and much of England is worse than Wales, which I just do not understand. “Hill walking” is enormously popular here and there are trails absolutely everywhere, but the correlation between maps and reality is weak at best. I took to downloading written out trail instructions online but about 10 percent of the time, they would be blatantly inaccurate, i.e. telling you to go right to the West when you should be turning left to the East. Point being is, map reading and navigational skills are actually necessary here. Information on hiking trails always says that, but that usually translates to “need to be able to read a sign and follow the direction of an arrow.” This actually requires legitimate navigation so be aware so you don’t get half a mile from the summit in foggy weather and have to turn around because there is no indication where the summit or the trail is.
Anyway, Betws-y-Coed is ideally located in a long valley that forms the spine of the national park, with several other towns along the main two-lane highway stretching up to the coast, where you’ll find, most notably, the town with supposedly the longest name in the world, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. That is truly the name, not nonsense, and you get a good sense here of just what an unusual language Welsh is. The sign outside town isn’t even really worth seeing as they’ve shortened the name so the sign didn’t need to be half a mile wide.
There’s much more activity here in than in Pembrokeshire, though it’s still pretty quiet. I didn’t see another American and most of the other tourists seemed to be from other parts of Wales. Or Germany. The Midlands in England and Wales are hugely popular with road trippers and motorcyclists from Germany and the Netherlands who take the ferry over from Amsterdam and have a tendency to drive down the wrong side of the road. This is a mistake everyone who’s used to driving a left-hand drive car on the right side of the road has made at one point or another, but I saw it happen here and in England with alarming frequency.
Maybe this is unfair, but I kept waiting for my “wow” moment in Wales and it never fully materialized. Much of it is really beautiful, but it just didn’t excite in a way you would think based on the photos. For whatever reason, and this could be entirely my fault, I didn’t connect with Wales. Perhaps this is because I had a hard time getting a good sense of the connection between the Welsh and Wales. It is a very small country and it feels like they get lost in the greater entity that is the United Kingdom, compared to England or Scotland. I’m sure some of this is because history is written by the victors so in general, we’re much more familiar with English history and a dramatic highlight reel/abridged version of Scotland’s history. I think most of us would be hard-pressed to name even a few Welsh people, Dylan Thomas being perhaps the most well-known, though there is a surprisingly large actors’ contingent: Rob Brydon, Tim Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Christian Bale, Catherine Zeta-Jones, to name a few. But how many of these did you know were Welsh?
It’s an attractive corner of the world, but it just lacked a passion that I can’t really articulate. Everything just felt a little lethargic. I probably had unfairly high expectations for Wales, as everyone I know who’s been really enjoyed it, but it struck me as a place in need of some livening up to take it from good to exceptional.
Lake District, England
Betws-y-Coed—Keswick, 194 miles
The Lake District is not Welsh but as it was my stop-off between Wales and Scotland, I’ll include it here. This one was a bit of a curveball. For whatever reason, I had an idea in my head of the Lake District as being extremely sophisticated, like the Cotswolds, with immaculately maintained cottages, swanky hotels and restaurants, and hoity-toity gastropubs. This is an area associated with a lot of English writers, Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter in particular, so it’s the kind of quintessential outdoors vacation spot with some history. The Lake District is definitely an outdoorsy destination, but I’d sort of thought this is the kind of place where people charter private yachts and go hiking in tweed jackets and ascots.
There are a few very nice hotels and restaurants in the Lake District, but overall the vibe is much more Wet Hot American Summer than Vanity Fair. Which is fine. This very much has that American summer camp feel, with wooden canoes on the lakes and campfires and hammocks and that sort of thing. The place is full of walking trails, but the crowd tends towards family outings with dogs and real picnics, not the kind with Fortnum & Mason baskets and silver cutlery.
Because of the lakes and the numerous, pretty tall mountains, this is a deceptively difficult area to navigate. Things that are in fact very close take forever to get to along two-lane roads that go over and around all the mountains. For some reason, they don’t seem to be into tunnels in this area.
For a place named after its lakes, you could spend a week here and never actually see a lake. Several of the popular towns—Grasmere, Cartmel, Crosthwaite —feel much more like mountain towns, tucked in valleys miles away from the water. The lakesides towns do appear to be more popular. Avoid Bowness-on-Windermere at all costs, but Keswick and Ambleside are a little less chaotic.
You’ll never be out of things to do here, but this is very much a family-friendly place. I usually think of that as a euphemism for a tourist trap. Here, it’s the old-fashioned summer family vacation spot that feels like the kind of place the same families have been coming every summer for decades. Compared to many of the other national park areas I visited in England, this one is definitely the least pretentious. People from all over the UK rave about the scenery in the Lake District and while I don’t think it quite lived up to the hype, it’s pleasantly laidback. Much as I loved the Cotswolds, it’s trying pretty hard. Bring your Burberry to the Cotswolds and your Tevas to the Lake District.
Brace yourself for the bagpiges. Scotland is next.