KEVIN RUSHBY asked his wife and daughter, why go to California when you can go to Wales? They said, hmmm…
It is a bright, breezy day and on a verdant hillside Richard Morris is checking through his vines. ‘We need sun in late June,’ he tells me. ‘It’s the vital moment when flower turns to fruit.’ He lifts up a swelling bunch of grapes and pronounces himself happy. ‘This will be a good year − I reckon we’ll make 20,000 bottles.’
Richard’s dream of owning a vineyard became a reality only in 2006 after a worldwide search. But it was not in Napa Valley or Hawke’s Bay that he found what he was looking for. He laughs. ‘We hadn’t found the right vineyard and we were getting a little despondent. Then one day I was looking at our field and I thought “Why do we have to move? What if…?”’
A few scientific soil tests later and Richard and his wife Joy had found the site of their dream vineyard, not in the New World, but four miles out of Monmouth in South Wales, where they had been living for years. To their amazement, their first batch of Chardonnay won a silver medal in The Decanter World Wine Awards and they were off and running.
‘Are there other vineyards?’ I ask, wondering how far we are from a Welsh version of Sideways, the 2004 movie in which buddies Jack and Miles go on a wild wine-tasting road trip through California. ‘There are seven,’ says Joy, ‘but not all are open to the public.’ OK, it might have to be a movie short. Seven, at least, is a lot more than the early 20th century when British viticulture, introduced by the Romans, had sunk to absolute zero. ‘There is the possibility,’ says Richard, ‘that we can grow a world-class sparkling white − the conditions are right. We have the wine in casks but it’ll be 2012 before we taste it.’ Something, perhaps, to rival the best that Jack and Miles swilled in California.
I’m on a mission here: with my wife Sophie and seven-year-old daughter Maddy, trying to convince them of what seems obvious to me, but wrong-headed to them: we don’t need to go to California, we have Wales.
Maddy has never been to California but she has an idea of what it is. ‘It’s a place,’ she says, thinking hard, ‘where it’s always sunshine. Does Hannah Montana live there?’
Sophie has been many times and she has more to say. ‘California is movies, freedom, wine, giant redwoods, pines, Ocean Boulevards, Big Sur, beatniks, hippies, Hollywood − and that restaurant in San Francisco that serves only garlic. It can be kooky and a bit mad. Maybe all the wind and surf and ozone off the beaches, all that ocean air sends people a bit wild. They start inventing crazy pastimes like mountain biking and surfing. It is definitely not Wales.’
The previous day, we were driving through the mountainous middle of Wales and I had to admit that all we could see was sheep and drizzle. This was the old Wales, a landscape I love. You can go for miles without seeing a shop. Civilisation? Of course they have it − let’s not be snobbish− there’s probably a library van every second Thursday.
The Welsh used to be the butt of English humour when they couldn’t think of any more Irish jokes. But then the Irish got the Celtic Tiger economy and became cool. That might have put the Welsh under comedic pressure but they wisely followed the Irish example.
‘Cardiff, for example,’ I tell Sophie as we leave Richard and Joy’s vineyard and head west, ‘is now the place: architecture, food, bars, nightlife, film industry – it’s all happening.’
‘Film?!’ An eyebrow.
‘OK – Doctor Who. But it’s a start.’
When we get down to Cardiff Bay and find a table in the über-trendy brasserie, Mimosa, it is as if the gods are with me: we spot actors – lots of them.
‘Hey, don’t look now – it’s that girl from… what’s it called? And isn’t that Alan Davies with the woman from… er… is it Peep Show?
And him… look… isn’t he famous?’
Sophie smiles dismissively: ‘The next Hollywood indeed.’
But Maddy is with me now, especially when we tour the Doctor Who exhibition the next morning and get to hear the Daleks exterminating everything in sight. Truth to tell, this exhibition is only for real aficionados who rush around gushing over the Cybermen and other characters – Who’s Who of Who.
The list of locations, however, does prove my point that Cardiff can at a pinch, with eyes squinting shut, be the new LA. The coast does have that luminous light of a big ocean littoral, even if it is only the Bristol Channel.
We go west. The highway – well, the M4 − stretches and curls over the green hills of Monmouth county and Glamorgan. Sophie reminisces about her road trip across the US to the West Coast, done many years ago in a Cadillac Coupe De Ville, the radio tuned to a country station playing Hank Williams, the trunk filled with – I don’t know – bandanas and bottles in paper bags. What have we got? I can’t seem to get any country music on the radio. ‘But we’ve got surfboards!’
‘Body boards,’ she sneers, ‘Polystyrene body boards in a Toyota Avensis.’
On the outskirts of Swansea we search for a diner, but in the end have to settle for a fish and chip shop in a backstreet: ‘School Holiday Special! Chip Butty £1.’ There seems to be a large proportion of very fat people and Sophie cannot resist observing: ‘Now that is like America!’
In this game of cards, however, I have an ace up my sleeve: the Gower, a 25-mile peninsula that juts westwards from Swansea. In Old Welsh the name Gower meant ‘pure’ and it is a place whose beauty, I confidently assert, will match anything in the New World. Trouble is, my confidence is based on a visit made when I was eight years old.
I can recall the clear green seas, roaring surf, white sands, fabulous rock pools and even a few hippies lazing about in the dunes next to their Kombi vans. That was long ago, however, and I fear that fame and proximity to Wales’ second city might have wreaked havoc on those fragile charms.
We head towards the last village on the peninsula, Rhossili, then take narrow lanes that burrow and twist through the land to a caravan park where we leave the car and walk out on to the coastal path. Now, at last we get views of white-capped seas and broad sandy bays.
Kestrels hover in a sky of torn angry clouds, but there are some promising breaks in the gloom, revealing strips of pale watery blue.
I am heading for a well-known rock pool and my vague childhood memory has been jogged by a wonderful guide called Wild Swimming: Coast by Daniel Start. On one of the rounded clifftops, we bump into an elderly couple who smile at my description. ‘That’s the Blue Pool,’ says the man. He points to a narrow, grassy path that disappears over the lip of the cliff. ‘I used to swim in it as a boy – 60 years ago – although once we got there and it was full of sand.’
We scramble down the steep slope and on to the rocks. We spot the pool, an eye of still water held in a bowl of rock, three yards above the sea below. And what a sea! As green as volcanic glass, foaming and roaring.
Behind the rock pool a narrow bay curls away to another rocky promontory with an arch − a favourite with treasure-seekers as it is said that gold doubloons have been found beneath it at low tide. Apparently an 18th century galleon was wrecked nearby and occasionally, when the winds and tides are right, it gives up a little more of its cargo.
We clamber down, change and leap into the pool. The shock soon passes – it is not that cold and the sun is threatening to appear.
One of the marvels is the lip of smooth rock, a natural horizon pool that beats anything five star hotels can offer. Maddy dons a facemask and snorkel and swims down to gaze at the barnacles, mussels and sea anenomes that cling to the pool’s walls, a whole world, refreshed by the tide twice a day.
Sophie is enraptured. ‘Okay, I admit it – this beats anything I can remember from the West Coast – but comparisons are unfair. Big Sur is wild and magnificent too.’
We tear ourselves away to get to Rhossili for a surf lesson with Mike Steadman of the Welsh Surfing Federation, who gives tuition in the bay, profits going to support the sport.
There is a good crowd and the sun comes out. After a brief lesson on the sand, we head out into the breakers and within an hour some of us are standing up − for a few fractions of a second. It’s not much but the feeling is there – that glorious sense of catching the wave, rapidly followed by that sickening sense of falling sideways for an awkward submersion.
Nick, an instructor, tells me that he’s been watching the US surfing championships on satellite TV, live from Huntington Beach, California. ‘The water temperature there is lower than here,’ he says with a grin.
That evening we eat at Langland’s Brasserie in the Mumbles, an erstwhile fishing village but now more of an upmarket suburb of Swansea. We eat fish and watch kids in Bermuda shorts lighting a beach fire to warm up after surfing.
Next day we do some mountain biking in the deep forests of Brechfa and visit the home of Dylan Thomas at Laugharne.
‘Think of him as the Welsh beat,’ I advise Sophie, who gets totally absorbed in reading Thomas’s epic lines in the man’s own parlour.
By late afternoon we are heading further west into Pembrokeshire, out past St David’s, Britain’s smallest city, and on to the north coast’s idyllic coves. The visitors here have usually been coming for years and don’t want to go anywhere else. This is Britain’s far west and, unlike the American variety, it feels undiscovered. Londoners don’t drive this far, preferring to head for Cornwall, and the result is that you can wander down to a beach such as Mwnt and suddenly find, as we did on a balmy August evening, that you have the place to yourself.
‘In summer,’ says Sophie, laughing, ‘This place must be totally packed.’
‘It is summer, my dear. Shall I book the tickets for California?’
We walk out into the shallows. ‘No rush,’ she says, ‘isn’t there another cove to explore just over that hill?’
By Kevin Rushby, Do Not Disturb (In-hotel Magazine)