THE LAND OF THE HOWELLS
By Lorena Di Nola
His passport may be American, but his surname is truly Welsh. It was time for my friend Chris to visit the land of his ancestors: a sign of gratitude for that surname, Howell, which among the valleys of his fathers proudly carries the meaning ‘eminent’.
Genealogy made us head for South Wales. This was going to be a journey of self-discovery, and the rite of passage was made ever more solemn by the majestic bridge marking the entrance to the country. The queue for paying the toll was equally majestic, and we started wondering if it was all Powells and Howells on the motorway travelling, somewhat biblically, to the land of their origin. The sense of exploration that comes with crossing borders caused a grin to appear as we started the drive on the Welsh side.
Aberganvenny was referred to by our guidebook as ‘the town of fine dining’: pithy description, but enough to persuade us to drive straight there for Sunday roast. Entire families had put on their best outfit for savouring ‘slow roasted shoulder of Welsh lamb glazed with redcurrant jelly’: with such a solemn name, the dish would deserve nothing short of a dress and a fascinator on the ladies sticking a fork in the meat.
As you leave the restaurant with a full stomach, the ascent to the castle has the potential to make you pause for breath along the way. The ruins reveal valleys in the backdrop; an opening in the ancient wall is filled by the blue of the sky. The passing of time seems to have improved the look of the castle: partly collapsed, it provides ever new vantage points over the valley.
Going to our next stop is only part of the reason why we so enthusiastically get back in our car. Nowhere more than in South Wales will the journey provide as much pleasure as the destination. We drive on stone bridges and country lanes, through valleys and across little villages. Still children of the 21st century, the electronic voice of a Sat Nav wisely tells us the way. We obediently follow the instructions, like magi guided by the star, but have to occasionally get off and measure the width with our strides to check if our car can possibly fit in the narrow passage we are, somewhat unbelievably, directed to. Even in the age of satellites and google maps, driving in this corner of Wales still retains elements of the adventurous.
It takes a good amount of driving on muddy country lanes to get to Hay-on-Wye, yet it attracts visitors from everywhere in the world. Its literary festival is completely different from the crowded plastic pavilions of so many other book fairs. The festive atmosphere is permanent in this small town; outside of festival days, you will recognise it in the children joyously holding ice creams, or in readers standing at every corner, oblivious to the world. With its 39 bookshops, you will find the book you were not aware you wanted. Or rather, books will find you. They are here to be enjoyed with all of your senses, as you get lost among the labyrinthine bookcases. War literature, gardening, American novels, Greek classics, Russian realism: the succession of second-hand books is head-spinning. Open them, and you may find a bookmark or a faded family picture from a previous owner. Books even cling to the walls of the ancient castle, like ivy to read, and are sold for a handful of pennies. The town that defies competition laws has more joys to offer than the literary ones. If books rule in Hay-on-Wye, antiques come a close second. In one of the shops, I find the mixer my mum used in the 1980s to make the carrot cakes I grew up with; with its warm orange colour and faded box, it brings back long-forgotten memories. A diamanté dress in a Berlin cabaret style lures me into a store with the look of a boudoir and the smell of French perfumes, displaying crystal bottles for sale on oak tables. It really is hard to leave Hay-on-Wye without a shopping bag of some kind hanging from your hands.
We follow the panoramic route for the drive back home. The sun is setting over the Brecon Beacons National Park: the earth is soaking up yellow and orange nuances. Evening sunlight penetrates the valley and hits the stones, casting long shadows on the bare ground. Standing on the edge of the hillside, I am confronted with nature. This is the ‘genteel’ Welsh countryside, yet contemplating it feels intensely powerful. Brecon Beacons is an idyllic refuge in the classical sense, the mythical Arcadia on British land. I stand in contemplation of a flock of sheep, and find in lambs the image of unconditional joy. One of them freely runs uphill, triggering all others to follow him in a rush, only to then frantically descend the hill and start the game all over again. Almost with the same enthusiasm as the lambs, a couple paraglide across the valley. Cows look gigantic and solemn as they stand on the side of the road, freezing in disbelief at the sight of a car, and curiously peering into our window.
The electronic voice of the Sat Nav is guiding us out of the park and back to the city, leaving the luxury of Welsh pancakes and the power of bare nature behind us. My friend Chris may have discovered the land of his ancestors, but in the immensity of the valley I feel like I, too, have found a piece of myself.