On Monday 25 July we climbed Cader Idris. No particular reason except a free Monday and a memory of what a fine mountain it looked when, many years ago and heading for the north Wales coast, I skirted this massive ridged hunk of green and black rising from oak forests. Some hills have a strong sense of their own identity and Cader Idris impresses itself on all who see it. It’s a walk, really, not a climb, but at just under 3,000 feet a big, steep walk, taking four or five hours up and down.
So we set out from Derbyshire at seven and were there in three-and-a-half hours. In a little sunshine and some misty drizzle we left the car and followed the trail. Our route was to be circular, clockwise, right over the top.
Cader Idris must be, after Snowdon, Wales’s most climbed serious mountain and even on a dull Monday there were other groups on the path. It’s a challenge to maintain public access while avoiding footpath erosion, but the National Trust are making a determined effort, with thousands of roughly but beautifully built steps using great hunks of natural stone — and evidence of more to come in the shape of helicopter drops of hundreds more bags of rocks. Massive chunks of black slate have been laid across the stream as a bridge. The overall effect is of tremendous but sensitive labours that do not intrude on a wild and natural walk.
You start through oak woods with always the sound of waterfalls and the rushing stream in your ears, you emerge into open grass and heather (all in pink and purple flower now) and a striking diversity of mosses, lichens, flowers and ferns. Slowly the Welsh hillscape opens up beneath you; great flashes of bright quartz streak the dark rock, you circle a dark tarn far below, you begin to see flashes of the Irish sea, then undulate between two summits and pick your way back down. Strenuous (I found it difficult to descend stairs the following day) but I’m 67 in a week or so, and no athlete any more — and I didn’t find it too tough, and managed without those detestable walking poles.
And the whole day reminded me of how much I love Wales, yet how Wales always leaves me a little bit sad.
Some cups of tea at the base, then we drove on, through lovely valleys and miles and miles of hill and forest. I struggle to capture in words the particular quality of the landscape of Wales, and artists have struggled to capture it in paint. The country, only a couple of hundred miles from Brittany, ought to be famous among hikers from continental Europe, yet I remember a group of young French friends, keen outdoorsy types, supposing there was nothing worthwhile until you got to the Lake District and then — vivid in their imhaginations — the Scottish Highlands. The rough and wild romance of Scottish mountains is easily pictured; the soft sweep and grace of the English lakes is its own brand. But Wales? This landscape has stature too, but its character, like its rock, is dark and strangely messy, tormented: a tangled spirit.
Sir Kyffin Williams’s mountainscapes come closest, yet I don’t quite like his paintings. There’s something under the skin of Welsh hills that troubles. Rich in iron, the landscape of my African childhood showed red where torn. Gentle greys underlie the gentle greens of the Lake District. The chalky English South Downs show milky white when gashed. Wales bleeds black.
After an hour we came to a sizeable town called Blaenau Ffestiniog. This was once the centre of Britain’s slate mining, the town’s product still on roofs all over England (and Australia, where slate went out as ballast). Blaenau Ffestiniog now looks as though situated in the middle of an enormous explosion. The hills around it are shattered and strewn with slate rubble. Mysterious brick chimneys poke out of the hillsides, and broken slides, hundreds of feet long, claw down the mountain — once used to tip the slate into the valley.
This town felt like a real place, full of chapels, its bleak terraced architecture, miners’ dwellings, leached of colour like a black-and-white photograph, imparting a nice integrity of urban style — not least because little seems to have been built since.
But so poor. Few shops, and the few you see so shabby. I checked house prices on the website of the estate agent, Bob Parry, whose many boards I saw. You can buy a perfectly good small terraced house for £35,000.
I’ve since done a bit of work on statistics. I won’t bore you with numbers, but of the four countries in the Union, Wales — neglected by its low-calibre Labour politicians, overlooked at Westminster and consistently out-shouted by Scotland — is much the poorest: the poorest nation in western Europe and at present the most dependent on EU funds.
When I was an MP and still dreaming of being prime minister, I resolved (patronisingly no doubt) that when the great day arrived I would try to do something for Wales. I still think we should. How about making the whole principality a tax-holiday enterprise zone, as was done for London Docklands, Liverpool and Canary Wharf? It’s not as if we raise much revenue from Wales anyway: substantially less per head than England and Scotland; less even than Northern Ireland.
Wales is not an emergency — it’s worse than that: it’s chronic. There’s nothing wrong with the Welsh, as their success outside their own country proves, but for reasons entirely of economic and industrial history this has become a stubbornly low-performing part of the UK that isn’t big enough or noisy enough to sting our politics into action.
On Tuesday morning, after a good night in a pleasant little hotel in Dolwyddelan, I took the train to Llandudno Junction. How, I wondered, had they managed to keep the beautiful Conwy Valley railway open? Ah. To take the nuclear waste away from the Trawsfynydd Magnox power station (now closed) that Whitehall plonked on a beauty spot on the Welsh coast. Poor old Wales.