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Cruising Wales: Chilly Days, Warm Smiles

Beaumaris, Wales, offers fantastic encounters both on the water and off.

October 4, 2007

It’s one of those grim days on which Britain seems to hold an undisputed patent. Rain veils the stone and filigree of the old Menai Bridge and obliterates distant Penrhyn Castle. It runs down the stone walls and soaks the people pushing big-cheek babies in strollers and dragging sodden dogs on short leads.

No one seems to mind. They smile in greeting as they pass my 15-year-old daughter, Abby, and me. It makes us feel welcome in this 1,000-year-old Welsh village at the edge of the beautiful Menai Strait on the island of Anglesey in North Wales.

Despite appalling 21-foot tides and wicked currents that run in from both sides of the strait, Beaumaris is an active sailing center. Several 1926 Conwy Fifes, elegant daysailers that race twice weekly in a clutch of locally owned one-designs, sit in cradles at the North West Venturers Yacht Club on Gallows Point. The anchorage basin is filled with boats. The Royal Anglesey Yacht Club is still decorated from last weekend’s regatta.

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Still, few are sailing today. Except for a few slicker-clad die-hards who haul out ladders and toolboxes during low tide to climb aboard boats-some resting on double keels, others sprawled on their bottoms-everyone is ashore.

Even in the rain, Beaumaris, Welsh for “beautiful marsh,” is appealing. Flowers spill from window boxes and froth over fissured walls. The aromas of leek soup, grilled scallops and herb-roasted lamb waft out café windows. People happily wander through the Beaumaris Marine World aquarium, shops, galleries and Shaws, a great wine shop with reasonable prices.

While the town appreciates visitors, it’s a self-contained community of 3,000-from farmers and fishermen to lawyers, doctors and Web page designers. Its modest size encourages connectedness. People walk everywhere, stopping on the street to chat or debate the merits of the proposed 400-boat marina at Gallows Point. After work, residents bend an elbow and tell lies at the Bull’s Head pub or the medieval George and Dragon.

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As Abby and I turn the corner, the aromas of currant scones and bara brith (fruit-laden Welsh tea cake) seduce us at one of Beaumaris’ two independent bakeries, a sadly vanishing breed in Britain. The baker greets us in Welsh, realizes we’re clueless, and switches to English. Conversation is usually in Welsh, the ancient Celtic language that sounds like a cross between French and German complicated by a terrific head cold, but everyone also speaks English.

Fortified with superb pastry, we tackle the Victorian gaol (jail). Built in 1829, it was once considered a model penitentiary where prisoners learned penitence through labor. The learning-impaired were forced to climb the tread wheel, a constantly moving stairway toward reform, while the incorrigibles were summarily hanged out an upper window.

With slightly dampened spirits, we scurry out of the grim 19th century to explore what remains of the 13th at Beaumaris Castle. Though small, the town is an architectural kaleidoscope. Aristocratic Georgian townhouses line the shore. A 14th-century church is a stone’s throw from the Bull’s Head hotel, where Oliver Cromwell stayed in 1646 when he besieged the castle a few doors down the street. (Easy to imagine them downing coffee, then plodding bleary-eyed to the moat to hurl insults and arrows until supper.) An 18th-century row house rubs shoulders with the Tudor Rose, the self-proclaimed oldest house in Wales. Built in 1410, the black and white half-timbered building is now home to a book shop, a casual museum and, according to shop owner Teresa Huntington, several pre-Elizabethan ghosts that declined to appear that day.

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Better luck, maybe, at the castle-it has a longer history. Begun in 1295, Beaumaris Castle is the last in a ring of fortifications built by Edward I to contain, if not actually subdue, the unquenchable Welsh. (The Welsh later retaliated by sending Henry VIII’s father, Henry Tudor, over to nab the English throne for a few generations.) Together, Abby and I clatter through dark stone corridors and tiny arrow-slotted guardrooms (ideal for either assignations or assassinations). But Abby, who likes heights-and likes the fact that I don’t-walks the top of the wall alone. (The ungrateful spawn also later abandons me, clinging to a tree halfway up a mountain at the Llanberis slate mines.)

Food-not altitude-is more my forte. With the exception of a useless lunch at the otherwise promising Cockleshell, meals in Beaumaris were very good, and dinner in the noisy, modern addition to the Bull’s Head was downright memorable. We ate with a longtime Welsh friend, Anna, and her cousin, Sian, who lives nearby in a 200-year-old, five-story townhouse and describes life in Beaumaris as “Friday every night.” (Sian is single.) We started dinner with smoked salmon and lightly dressed mesclun followed by fresh seafood pasta with wine and sour cream sauce, lemon cod with steamed herbed veggies and cilantro salsa, and crusty warm bread. A light but rich chardonnay enhanced the meal (and possibly the conversation). Dinner for four with two bottles of wine, lovely double chocolate mousse, fresh strawberry Pavlova and coffee was about $100.

Despite vile predictions, the weather eventually cleared, revealing the purple and green outline of Penmaenmawr Peak and the blue-tipped mountains of Snowdonia. On our last night there, we climbed to the top of the grassy headland by the light of a full moon. Waves shushed against the cliff face. The indigo sky was pocked with stars. Below, the town glowed and in the distance, a necklace of lights glittered on the Menai Bridge. Spectacular.

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Getting into Beaumaris requires calculation, skill and either a very good engine or nearly slack water, because currents regularly run 6 to 8 knots in the simpler bits. To complicate matters, the tide starts coming into the strait from Caernarfon Bay on the southwest an hour before it sweeps around the top of Anglesey to the northeast Beaumaris side. The competing incoming waters collide beneath the Menai Bridge, where currents can reach 10 knots. People sometimes white-water kayak beneath the bridge, and the Swellies, a choked, rocky passage between the Menai Bridge and Caernarfon, is described in the cruising guide as “literally lethal” at times.

The buoy system is opposite ours. Red buoys (shaped like cans) are left to port on entry; conicals (nun-shape) are black and left to starboard. One Welsh sailor speculated that the difference is the result of an American attempt to fool the Brits during the Revolutionary War. Perhaps. In any case, it’s “left red return.” Entry to both sides of the strait is buoyed as a return to port; they change at Caernarfon (which has a huge 13th-century castle where the Prince of Wales is traditionally crowned). The main channel runs roughly parallel to the Anglesey shore. There are ever-changing shoals, but buoys are shifted regularly to reflect the changes.

WHILE YOU’RE THERE

LOCAL MARINAS

Royal Anglesey Yacht Club (Club Brenhinol Hwylio Mon) 6/7 Green Edge Beaumaris, Anglesey, Wales LL58 8BY (011) 441248 810295; (011) 441248811788 [email protected]; www.RoyalAngleseyYC.org.uk

ABC Power Marine Gallows Point Beaumaris, Anglesey LL58 8YL (011) 441248 811413; (011) 441248 811412 [email protected]; www.abcpm.co.uk Chandlery, brokerage, fuel, water, shore- side stowage up to 36 feet. There is a slipway available for three hours on either side of each high tide.

Dickies of Bangor (mainland across from Beaumaris) (011) 441248 352775; (011) 441248 354169 [email protected]; www.dickies.co.uk This full-service boatyard offers a chandlery, sales, and Dickies Beneteau Regatta at Pwllheli.

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