Is heaven, or the centre of the universe to be found in the near-lost corner of north Wales that forms a leg of lamb shape including the Llyn Peninsula, the coast running south as far as Harlech and encompasses Snowdonia National Park?
If not, how can I make sense of our outing to Braich y Pwll, at the end of a long road, where the land meets the sea to Bardsey Island? In this place, my family and I stood, then sat, on the grassy headland, as near to the temperamental sea as we could get, staring at the waves looking for seals and porpoises. I’d bought us here because it sounded interesting, the old launching point for pilgrimage boats to Bardsey, and I thought there was a chance that we might see something. Searching the waves while we ate our lunch had yielded nothing more than a pair of choughs, crow-like and underwhelming, and the boys, seeing wonder in the waves, had claimed a whale sighting or two. We stood to leave this beautiful place, which had been ours alone, when George shouted and pointed at the water. A grey-headed seal, 50 feet or so from us, close enough to make up his face and staring at the shoreline so intently he might as well have been asking us the time. It was magical. After a longish time he dived under the water, and we spent a happy half hour watching him, and another seal, bob about in the turbulent currents of these straits.
Since then I have thought a lot about this thrilling meeting. The boys were desperate to see a seal, and had talked of nothing else. We had come to that place not in expectation, but to look, and see what we saw. Two peregrine falcons hovered overhead, at one point looking like they were going to swoop near us with their record-breaking velocity. But it was this curious seal, and why he picked there and then to give us such a moment, and why the land, and the sea, and the sky all combined to freeze everything in time, which has puzzled me since. A moment to make you forever look up, and keep you eyes peeled.
And if north Wales isn’t heaven, then how come it has steam trains rattling up and down hillsides, and turning Porthmadog into a kind of island of Sodor made real? On one day George, Winnie and I take the Welsh Highland Railway to Beddgelert, racing Harry and Imogen in the car (an honourable draw). We sit in the open carriage without windows, and on departing immediately cross the mainline on a kind of crossroads you’ve only seen in Brio railways but now made real, then run alongside another steam service called Emma. She belongs to near-namesake the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway. Then we ride up through tunnels and past a mountain called Cnicht that looks like a medieval helmet, and past the Aberglaslyn River and by the time we get off I am in some kind of reverie.
Completing the sense of something strange and special was the ascent of Snowdon. This had been discussed for weeks but due to my Dad’s schedule we only had one shot, on a day where rain was forecast. We headed up the Pyg Track in darkening cloud, but as we climbed higher things brightened up, even if we were in cloud for three hours or so of heroics from George (8) and Harry (6), who skipped up the bulk of Yr Wyddfa and claimed a notable top, their biggest yet. It looks like not much can hold them back. The summit was frigid, bitterly cold with the odd flake of snow and Imogen & I briefly worried, hurrying them back down. Such heights always have teeth. A maintenance train clanked up the cog railway at one point, an incredible delight growling out of the mist. Dad applauded its talismanic arrival. It chugged over the rails I had lay down on in mock submission a few minutes before. The lower slopes gave up trying to scare us, and offered us plenty of views of Glaslyn and the Miner’s Track. The boys skipped down, too.
On our last night Imogen and I drove over to Lloyd George’s grave in Llanystumdwy. This very secular burial mound by the rushing river Dwyfor seemed alive with the spirits of the place. It seemed sunny, damp, warm and cold and infused with life everywhere in the late Spring evening we were there.
And then going home, snow laced our passage out of Avalon and into mid-Wales, where our reluctant escape seemed to run dry in quicksand of towns with impenetrable names and valleys straight from my imagination I was now seeing in reality. So is it really all these things? You decide. I have decided.