The Magic of Wales

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For my transition from my 22 years at the University of Essex to my new role at the University of Nottingham, I spent a much-needed week in Wales with family. I have been coming to Wales since the mid-1990s and it never fails to impress me; however, this visit to mid-Wales, where I have been many times before, gripped me in ways I had not experienced hitherto.

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We started our week with a home cooked dinner on the deck prepared by our dear family friend with a stunning view of the surrounding trees and mountain. The buddleia were in full bloom, the pine air was fresh, and the mountain had its typical immovable permanence coupled with the changeable contours, grazing sheep, and mesmerizing colours.

We had few plans for the week and allowed the weather to be our guide. As it happened, there was little rain and mild, partly sunny days that afforded us ample time for long walks with the dogs, an afternoon on the beach, a great ride on a restored steam train, a long walk inside a disused mine, and yes a Mexican breakfast in a small mining village just off the A487 called Corris.

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We began our week with a mooch about Machynlleth, which is a gateway to the delights of mid Wales with Aberystwyth to the South, Aberdyfi (Aberdovey) to the South West and Dogellau to the North. The serpentine roads take you through the valleys and bring surprises at every turn. Our foray into Mach included a great visit to Ian Snow, a wonderful shop with a mélange of worldly goods ranging from beautiful quilts and throws to incense and small wooden boxes (my magical mind races every time I see all the boxes).

We visited the antique shops, charity shops, and a great bookshop with a careful selection of volumes on politics, poetry, literary fiction, art, photography and philosophy.  I picked up a copy of Adam Ford’s The Art of Mindful Walking, which seemed hugely apt given our daily walks in the valley near our cottage. I also acquired a copy of Philip Ball’s The Devil’s Doctor, which is a great biography of Paracelsus and most suitable for my interest in scholar magicians.

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Our days in the cottage involved gentle mornings of coffee, games and reading (I started the amazing Luminaries by Eleanor Catton). We struck out every morning with our dogs Phoebe and Derek, our beloved rescue dogs from Romania using the back road between Ceinws and Corris with gentle slopes, a canopy of pine trees, and the sound of the rushing river. Ford’s essays about mindful walking remind us to ‘be’ present and to be ‘in’ the present, fully aware of all that we are experiencing in the here and now. The view across the Corris valley is spectacular, with sheep dotting the pastures below, the mountains ever watchful, and the village with its slate dwelling tendrils reaching into the foothills; providing a warm invitation for weary walkers and thirsty dogs.

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Corris is a fascinating place. It is nestled in the valley and site of the 19th century slate trade. The houses are a mix of small slate cottages to more grand affairs, situated along the mountain stream. The Institute is a social meeting place with a post office, second hand bookrack, wainscoted walls, a good sized hall, and photos from the history of Corris. For us, the real gem was Andy and Adam’s Café and Shop. Smallholders and proprietors, Andy and Adam offer a superb café with strong coffee, home made food, and a wide range of foods. The café has transformed Corris and has become the main feature of the village. All the residents and visitors were so friendly and laid back. We enjoyed several mornings there and on our day of departure, we savoured the Mexican breakfast, complete with a dish of baked eggs, mixed vegetables, potatoes, Chorizo, jalapeños, and sour crème and coriander.

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Corris also has a full working steam train, restored through the dedicated efforts of a network of volunteers.   We took it a few years ago and it was delight to ride the rails again. The volunteers were excellent, and the dogs had a blast. The short seven-minute journey takes you through the valley and then to a new car barn and old engine shed. The team has aspirations to reinstall the track all the way to Machynlleth and operate a new passenger service. We learned about gravity trains and horse drawn trains, as well as the new diesel engine shipped from Germany that is now being made ready for travel.

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The Dyfi Valley is extraordinarily beautiful and we made our way to Aberdyfi beach one afternoon. The built up area is great for supplies (and fish and chips), but further along the estuary, you can park, cross the tracks and golf course, and then get to a wonderful wide expanse of sparsely populated beach. It allows dogs and it stretches on for miles. The sea is blue green, and the sand dunes mark out an undulating coastline with the mountains in the distance. The wind blows quite forcefully, but we enjoyed lounging in the sun, making a sand castle and collecting stones and shells. There is a great virtue in slowing down, resting, and contemplating the natural beauty that surrounds us, and this beach did not disappoint. It brought back fond memories of lazy summers at Broadkill Beach Delaware as a child, with its rustic setting, natural surroundings, and hours of fun. We came back to the beach the next day with our dogs and those of our friend, for a brisk walk late in the day, which was magnificent. The contrast between our afternoon of sun and sea, and this rather colder affair was quite marked.

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Towards the end of the week, we ventured to Llanidloes, which is a fascinating town 19 miles inland from Machynlleth. The journey is steep, treacherous, but simply beautiful. The weather afforded us great views as we traversed the heights of the local landscape. The town itself is buried deep in a valley, as it suddenly springs upon you after what seems quite a long time climbing up steep inclines and then hurtling down through bendy valleys. I felt like this is town that time forgot. The storefronts, facades, and architecture are largely untouched from the middle of the 19th Century. There are great shops, cafes, antique collections, and a wonderful bookshop with whole barn full of second hand books.

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We topped off the week with home made lasagna in the conservatory with tea lights, beer and wine, and of course, a little mindful magic. For the more pensive and contemplative of us, Wales offers such a magical escape from the bustle of daily working life. The run from January to August had been a brisk one with many challenges and successes at Essex; however, the promise of this magical place kept me focused on completing my tasks and then letting go. The sights and sounds of this little corner of planet earth are simply fantastic. It draws us back each year and always serves up something new. This week was very special as it is a transitional period full of hopes, dreams and new (and as yet unknown) opportunities. It is also a period for reflection on that has been, taking stock of achievements and wonderful experiences. I remain ever so grateful for all the life offers and hugely optimistic for the future.

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