Here, amid and around the ruins of the medieval Tintern Abbey, the solace and serenity recalled so poetically by William Wordsworth is almost palpable to 21st century visitors.
"Once again/Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,/That on a wild secluded scene impress/Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect/The landscape with the quiet of the sky."
Wordsworth wrote the poem after revisiting the abbey in 1798, at a time when it was fashionable for romanticists to seek inspiration in such picturesque places as this Wye Valley in Wales.
J.M.W. Turner, a 19th century watercolorist and landscape painter, also found it an ideal spot for his work.
It was the first stop on our 10-day journey by car through Wales. Our trip would take us from the abbey to a town filled with bookstores to the places where Dylan Thomas lived, wrote and, yes, drank.
Wales (Cymru in Welsh) is just 8,000 square miles, about the size of New Jersey, with a population of 3-million — humans, that is. It is also home to an estimated 11-million sheep.
It is part of Great Britain and shares a border with England to its east. Yet, we found it quite different than the rest of the United Kingdom, with a unique culture and language, still spoken by about one-fifth of its people. Welsh is used on all the bilingual road signs, ubiquitous evidence (to visitors, anyway) that the names of places are too long, have too many consonants and are virtually unpronounceable.
In driving (on the left, of course) from England, through South Wales to its northwest coast, we found it a marvelous place to visit — maybe Britain's best-kept secret.
Weather permitting, that is. Soggy is generally the most accurate description of Welsh weather, with rain a possibility at any time, winter or summer.
We had flown from the New York area nonstop to Bristol, England, just the other side of the boundary with Wales. But you can also fly into London, which is a little over two hours away by car. Other airport choices are Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool in England; few flights go directly into Cardiff, the capital of Wales.
After a short visit to Bath, just 15 miles or so from Bristol, for a glimpse of the settings made famous in Jane Austen's novels and a taste of the Roman baths water, we drove across the sleek span, a one-way-toll bridge, over the River Severn to Tintern on the River Wye.
From Tintern, we traveled north to Hay-on-Wye, the town with the appropriate sobriquet, Town of Books. Hay features more than 30 secondhand bookstores, including Castle Hay Books, which sells some of its wares on the honesty system (just leave the 30 or 50 pence), as well as Murder and Mayhem, Bookends, Boz Books, Cinema Bookshop and Outcast, tucked away behind a side street of a side street.
There seem to be few, if any, straight roads through the hills and mountains, so we meandered south from Hay-on-Wye, through the mid-Wales Brecon Beacons National Park, a magnificent magnet for hikers and bikers, to South Wales, the more populated of the Welsh areas.
This part of South Wales (and a little west) is Dylan Thomas country. Schools here are named for the poet and favorite son who was born in Swansea. There is a Dylan Thomas Centre in a museum in Swansea, and in bookstores, his writings are outnumbered only by the books about his life.
According to local lore, Thomas did much of his drinking at pubs in Mumbles, just to the south of Swansea. Many of the Mumbles stories detail where he drank, much like tales of where George Washington slept in the Colonies. Certainly, the Mermaid on Mumbles Road was a Thomas favorite. That old hotel burned down some time ago; it is now a fine restaurant.
Mumbles (Mwmbles in Welsh) is a splendid spot (in good weather) on Swansea Bay, enticing strolls along the promenade, stopping for ice cream or a light lunch outdoors at Verdi's or dining at Castellamare with its magnificent water view.