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A family reunion with Welsh appeal

Four generations find better-than-comfortable lodgings and a warm countryside welcome.

May 11, 2003|Geoffrey Dean-Smith | Special to The Times

Llanbrynmair, Wales — My sister suggested the trip. Our parents' 60th anniversary was looming, and we wanted to make it memorable. She called me in Los Angeles and told me about an interesting-sounding spot in the heart of the Welsh countryside where the entire family -- four generations of Smiths and Penlands, 18 of us in all -- might gather for a week of celebration.

"It sounds ideal," she said. "Barlings Barn in Llanbrynmair, mid-Wales. About 10 miles from the ancient capital of Machynlleth. It has a heated indoor swimming pool, squash court, sauna and self-catering accommodation for all of us, including the children."

Ideal indeed. Wales, a land of legend and the mystical world of the Celts. An intriguing language of virtually unpronounceable names, though just about everyone speaks English too. A place of intrinsic beauty and infinite variety.

From homes in California and South Carolina, family members arranged a date to congregate at my parents' home in Manchester, England, and when the time came a year and a half ago, we set off in a convoy of vehicles. Following the directions sent to us by the owners of Barlings Barn, we crossed into Wales in less than an hour.

The sun poured down from a clear September sky as we meandered along quiet, winding country roads. On the slopes of distant mountains and rolling hills, thousands of grazing sheep looked like tiny white dots painted onto a vast green canvas. Glassy lakes reflected the meadows and the forests.

Llanbrynmair is a village of 900 consisting of a post office-general store and a pub surrounded by neat houses and cottages. A couple of miles away we found Barlings Barn and a warm welcome from the owners, Terry and Felicity Margolis, who live in an 18th century cottage across from the barn.

Our accommodations included seven bedrooms, a spacious L-shaped lounge and dining area with oak beams, a long mahogany Victorian dinner table, a wood-burning fireplace and a piano. The kitchen's double doors led to a patio with a barbecue grill, a table and chairs beside a tree-lined field with a gurgling stream, which poured over stones to form a small waterfall.

We were near the heart of Snowdonia National Park. All around were mountains and streams. Trout, salmon, deer. Great golf courses. Hiking, riding, bird-watching. Beaches and coves and fishing villages to match any pirate's wild imaginings. What a lovely hideaway.

"Let's take a peek at the pub," announced my father hopefully. At 86, he believes that the secret to his good health and longevity lies in a good daily "gargle." I didn't need much persuading.

Leaving the others to unpack the suitcases, food hampers, baby strollers and enough toys to stock a warehouse, I drove Father and Mother back down the lane to the Wynnstay Arms Hotel, arriving a few minutes after the stroke of noon for open doors at its restaurant.

"You be staying long or just passing through?" inquired the jovial landlady in a lilting, singsong Welsh accent as she poured my father's gin.

"About a week," I explained. "Eighteen of us, including children. You can expect their imminent arrival."

"You must be staying at Barlings Barn," she chirped. "A charming spot, to be sure. Welcome!"

The Smith-Penland clan duly arrived. The landlady and the local people could not have been more naturally pleasant or hospitable. The adults gently poked and coochy-cooed the babies, tickling their tummies as they rolled and crawled all over the place. Highchairs were provided. Fish and chips, Cornish pasties and steak-and-kidney pie were brought to the table.

Busy market, country calm

Something about pure country air made sleep that night much more restful. I awoke early the next morning filled with vigor. I donned swimming trunks and headed for the indoor pool, only to find Father there completing his customary 10 laps.

The day was bright and beautiful. The family conferred and unanimously decided to visit Machynlleth, then the seaside town of Aberdyfi for a picnic.

The history of Machynlleth goes back a long way. The well-preserved Parliament House dates to 1404. A rebellious character, Owain Glyndwr, proclaimed himself prince of Wales and briefly made the town the capital of Wales before losing the last major attempt to escape English rule. There were all sorts of boundary disputes, assassinations, uprisings, English expeditions against Owain, rebellions, wars.

Market day in Machynlleth dates back even further, to 1291. Merchandise is a combination of the ancient and the modern. Every Wednesday the market bustles with customers browsing herbal medicines, bargain art and furniture.

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