I stand on the sand, wondering whether or not to take off my shoes.
It’s early, very early, and the sand is wet, packed and hard, little rivulets of early morning water joining hands to spirit themselves off to the sea: a marine demonstration of children returning to school from the playground.
The gulls seem to sigh instead of call, as though they, too, cannot quite believe that they are up and about, unpacking their wings at such an ungodly hour.
As for the waves themselves, they turn over in bed, a gentle roll, a snoozing splash, leaving all that crashing and pounding of surf for later in the day, once the alarm has been silenced and there’s been the chance for coffee.
But then the sun decides to have some fun.
Shifting clouds and lighting shadows. It’s as if it’s trying to reward all those who stirred with its 4 am summer light.
Babies. Beaches. Parents. Photographers.
It paints across the sky and almost dares me to confront it with whether or not there can be anything more beautiful in the world than a slice of sunshine in nature.
I’m in north east Wales with my family on a project called “routes to the sea,” a project that hopes to show and share this part of Wales with a different kind of audience.
But I’m also here with my family to explore different kinds of routes. Roots to culture, family, heritage, and yes, I suppose, the sea.
Growing up near the coast in Brighton, a small part of me believes that all routes should lead to the sea. That the night is too quiet without the call of the birds and the crawl of the waves.
And the sea, ultimately, is where science believes we all hail from.
But more recently than that, by the odd 540 million years, was my route from the sea in Brighton to my not-all-that-far-from-the-sea city life in Cardiff.
Because another aspect of my growing up in Brighton, in England, was that my mother, my single parent mother, is Welsh.
I grew up a foreigner, of sorts, in a country that I both belonged to and didn’t, a pattern that more and more of us are sharing (and hope to share, as the world continues along its unpredictable, border-obsessed turn.)
I’m based in Cardiff now, with my own daughter who was born here, but what do I know of the north?
What do I know of the language?
And what does any of it really matter?!
These are big questions, and small questions too, since the activities of daily life consume them: cooking, washing, dressing, surviving.
Well, one thing that I didn’t know but should have, was the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct – and UNESCO World Heritage Site, no less.
What's with all the sheep?
It's the Wrexham Sheep Trail!
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Also known as the Stream in the Sky, this incredible feat of engineering straddles the Dee Valley at a height of over 38 metres to connect the English lowlands and rugged Welsh terrain during the pivotal Industrial Revolution.
It’s impressive not only for its technical stats but for the area of stunning beauty it crosses, all rushing water through mossy, glossy stone.
Then there are the fun facts: that Pontcysyllte means “the bridge that connects,” that the masonry piers are partly hollow and that the mortar was made of oxen blood, lime and water.
Pontcysyllte. The bridge that connects.
The very name sums up so much of my ancestry. I partly wish I didn’t have to ask about how to say the word – and spell it out: Pont-cuh-SU – uh – ta Ack – wa - duct ;-)
Not far from here, within the 11-mile UNESCO World Heritage Site land, lies another aqueduct. One with a little less fame.
With my novice aqueduct eyes, it still looks pretty impressive: 21 metres high with a still-in-use rail track on its twin line as well.
You can buy an ice cream at one end, from the window of a stationary canal boat, and on the other, a small sign announces, ever so quietly, that you’ve just walked across to England.
And there isn’t a soul to be seen.
Borders are, of course, a hot topic at the moment, and so it’s slightly surreal to find one with so much solitude, awash with rural, well, peace.
A canal boat passes, two teens, a dog, a family. From the jokes they make as they glide by, I don’t know where they’re from but I do know it’s neither England nor Wales.
This is an international holiday spot now, visitors lured from across the world in search of that quietness, that peaceful beauty.
Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. Numerous castles still stand to tell the bloody tales, cathedrals too, and, perhaps more movingly because it is so fragile, a book.
St Asaph’s cathedral, the smallest in Britain, holds the world’s oldest, and thereby first, Welsh Bible completed in 1588.
Not one to take sides when it comes to religion, we visited out of a loose sense of duty, a curiosity to focus the mind.
My daughter slept in the car and I crept in, on a Sunday, as the caretakers sipped their last cups of coffee and the vicar said his goodbyes.
For a small, largely unheard-of cathedral, St Asaph has an incredibly informative display. And a warmer welcome from volunteers I have yet to find.
And there, in one cabinet, was the book.
Pages beautifully burnished and old as you’d expect. Calligraphy pleasingly crafted. Colours suitably bold and muted at the same time, the clear siren-call of history that shows that TIME HAS PASSED.
And so, looking at these pages that first came into being over 400 years ago, I read a line of modern text that made my thoughts reshift.
This was less about the preservation of the gospels and the story that has marched, with astonishing success, all around the world.
This was about preservation of a language, the Welsh language, in written form, from the time when the use of language was about political survival (as some may argue it still is today.)
Welsh (Cymraeg) is deliciously different to English, something that comes as a surprise to some visitors as it’s also different to French, to Spanish, German, Dutch, Latin and all the other main languages that have marched across Western Europe over the years.
To me, it sounds lilting and poetic. Comforting, I suppose, since it reminds me of my grandmother, even when she was telling me off.
Where Irish scoops up all the vowels, Welsh gallops off with the consonants, throwing double Ds, Ls and FFs together with joyous, carefree abandon.
(The double L doesn’t exist in English and is described by linguists as a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative. An easier shortcut is to try to say “hl.”)
Then there is the length of the word, as probably best summed up by Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch in north west Wales.
And, no, I can’t say it (but I can have a pretty good try!)
These days, all children are taught Welsh from a very early age, with antenatal appointments encouraging us to be bilingual with our bumps.
And I get the feeling that if we stay here, it won’t be long before my daughter’s grasp of the language outpaces my own, in a pattern found all over the world.
The exhibits in Wrexham’s new Ty Pawb Centre grapple with identity as well. (Ty Pawb, it should be said, means “everybody’s house” in Welsh.)
“Wrexham is the name” proclaims the wall, inviting a question mark within its statement.
Meanwhile, the Ruthin Craft Centre shows shattered mirrors and spinning mosaics that reflect heritage in modern times in my mind.
The routes to the sea are not always natural. Yet between countries it is still possible to build a stream in the sky, a bridge that connects.
Borders can remain without the bloodshed. Language can be fluid and yet still stay preserved.
With its refugee work, Wales currently aims to become the world’s first Nation of Sanctuary, and it’s clear that these streams of land, language, and identity will flow on in yet another form.
As for me? It’s time for me to head back to the south, thinking about the rest of Wales and how much I still have to learn.
Thinking about routes to the sea.
And remembering, that ultimately, that is where we all are from.
Disclosure – I travelled to north east Wales as part of a Routes to the Sea project supported by Denbighshire, Wrexham and Flintshire to highlight northeast Wales.
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