Y Ddraig Goch, or the Red Dragon as anyone not speaking Welsh would say, is the national emblem of Wales. This symbol has existed and been used by leaders since the days of King Arthur and other Celtic rulers.
The story goes that there was a red dragon and a white dragon that would fight constantly over Wales. It became such a nuisance that King Llud of Britain trapped them in the hills of Snowdonia using mead (which made them fall asleep) and buried them there for centuries.
Then, King Vortigern decided to build a castle where they were buried. All stories of the dragons had become legends over the centuries that had passed, and every night the castle walls and foundations were destroyed. The king was told that to stop this from happening, he would have to sacrifice a young boy, Merlin, yes, King Arthur’s Merlin. The young boy is spared when he reveals the history of the dragons. The King frees the dragons and the red dragon finally defeats the white dragon. The red dragon comes to represent the people of Vortigern who defeated the Saxons and who are the predecessors of the current Welsh people.
To this day, Y Ddraig Goch can be found on the Welsh flag with his feet on the grass and his wings in the sky, protecting the people of Wales. For a land filled with so much mythology, my hopes were set impossibly high for my visit.
I was not disappointed.
I left Dublin on a 2:15 a.m. ferry to a place called Holyhead in Wales. From there I jumped on a train to stay with a friend that I hadn’t seen in almost eight years. To say I was anxious would be an understatement. Would it be awkward? Would we have enough to talk about? Would he be there waiting? Do the people in Wales like Americans? And there Haydn was, smiling and greeting me with a hug. All of my anxiety faded in an instant.
That morning was glorious, with the sun rising over the village of Conwy, which is nestled within old castle walls.
We spent an hour walking along castle walls and around town catching up on life, relationships, and friends we shared over the years. When I think of the morning it feels like a movie that I was lucky enough to stumble into for a few days. It felt like we had the town to ourselves, oh wait, we did… mostly because at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday there is nothing open. It took us a good while just to find a coffee shop.
After some flat whites we stopped at a town I can’t pronounce to pick up some ingredients for a proper American barbecue, and of course, some Welsh craft brews to enjoy around the fire later. We spent some time trying to get into an old church, but even a river walk couldn’t get us there… but that river view was beautiful. We had so much fun being up to no good.
While all of this was wonderful, my favorite part was driving up one of the scariest little winding-up-the-side-of-a-mountain dirt roads I have ever seen to meet the three coolest rams:
Haydn and I came through the gate and these three joyfully over-sized fluffy ‘dogs’ came running over the hillside with their tails wagging to greet us. They rubbed on us and only ear scratches and sweet-talking made them happy. We fed them and headed up over the hill to see the ladies (AKA the sheep that will never let you touch them). We sat atop a hill overlooking the mountains of Snowdonia. Can you see the castle? It was the perfect amount of peace I needed. Unfortunately, there were no dragons.
On our way back to the farm, we stopped in the village of Dolwyddelan to admire an old church, surrounded by yew trees, a link to the rich Druid history of Wales. They believed that yew trees lived forever and therefore your soul would become immortal when buried near them.
When we arrived home, I was greeted again with hugs from Haydn’s Mom and Dad, wet kisses from Ajax and Hector, and even the hissing of the guard goose (let’s call him Christmas dinner). As we played with lambs, roasted vegetables, made my Mom’s famous Kaake BBQ sauce, and I learned to use the ‘heart of the home’, my heart was full. I can never express how grateful I am for the overwhelming hospitality and open arms shown to me by Haydn and his family.
With the sounds of sheep and birds in the background and the smell of the fire and grilling in the backyard, we shared stories and we laughed. My experience in Wales was already more than I ever could have dreamed up… and it was only day one!
The next morning I captured my walk and all I could think was: How is this someone’s real life? How does a place the beautiful really exist? When am I going to wake up and realize that this was all a dream?
Haydn’s Dad and I shared a chuckle as we attempted to help move the fence so that the sheep could graze on the next part of the land. We failed miserably… Who knew that moving four pieces of wire could be so challenging? We got them awfully tangled and we fixed one that we were glad Haydn never noticed!
After his parents left we made our way up to the pasture and this time we just sat there on top of this grassy knoll that might have well been from a scene of The Hobbit. We sat there looking at Mount Snowden, and it was awesome. It’s moments like this one that I will cherish forever. The moments of nothingness that mean everything.
We walked down to a stream and Haydn instantly threw his head into it and we laughed. I also looked at him like a crazy person when he decided to demonstrate his faith in the waterproof abilities of the new iPhone by throwing it into the water.
After our inspection of the sheep in the pasture was complete we made our way to the littlest tourist trap in all of Wales, Bewts-Y-Coed. It’s got all the things people love — little gift shops, beautiful sights, ice cream — and it’s nestled in the middle of rolling hills. We ate more chips, which are amazing, and visited one of the oldest churches in Wales, St. Michael’s. It was breathtaking with medieval glass in its windows and graves dating back into the 17th century.
When we got home it was time for some lambs and their Moms to rejoin the herd. This basically meant Haydn did a ton of work while I held baby lambs. I definitely think I won the coin toss on this one. He’d flip the sheep onto their bottoms like humans and shear the dirty wool from birthing, clean their feet by digging out the dirt and spraying them with this purple antibacterial compound, and make them eat this delicious looking white goop de-wormer. Yum. Then we’d lead them into the field with the other sheep and lambs. Seeing a lamb on grass for the first time is the cutest thing in the world!
On my last day in Wales I decided I didn’t really want to leave, and I was so devastated to go so soon. We decided to head back into Conwy and do the full castle tour. We spent an hour or so exploring all the ways to get lost in the halls and discovering the old school bathrooms, the private viewing of the chapel used by King Edward I, and we admired the views of Conwy from every angle.
Even though it went by so quickly, it felt like forever. Haydn schooled me on British military history. I kept closing my eyes and breathing in as much of the air as I could. I engraved the way the rocks felt beneath my palms and feet into my mind. All morning I had a heaviness in my chest because I was dreading getting on that train.
Haydn, I treasure you and your hospitality more than I could ever express. I hope you know that you are an amazing human. I can’t thank you enough for your sacrifices you have made for your country, but I also cannot express my awe of you and your perseverance in the face of it all. I adore the life you live. My only regret is that I didn’t make it to see you earlier, but I can guarantee that I will be back soon.
Wales, you are too beautiful for my words or even these pictures. A part of me stayed in those valleys and hills. Your history, mythology, and culture is a fairytale that I feel lucky to have been a part of – thank you for helping me find a piece of me that I never knew was missing.