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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 82

I added nine hours straight through sleep in the most comfortable of rooms overlooking the sea. I’ve always enjoyed waking up in the morning and enjoyed it ten fold this morning. The body had been tireder than I would care for it to become again. It was exhausted through physical effort and fatigued through lack of sleep. And now, it felt like it had been re-born. Strength was in my legs and my lungs pulled in more air than they had managed for days. I even felt that I had cast off the illness that I had carried with me since the Sperrin Mountains. That wasn’t to be but it felt very good to be alive.

A Room of On'e Own

It was pretty classy to sit in the window and write my notes while drinking tea. The tide was half way in. A wide sandy beach, hills, pier, harbour and wide stretching sea. I’d seen a lot of the British coast in these three weeks and this was likely to be my last sight of it. I spent as much time looking out of the  window as I did looking down at my writing. It was cloudy and breezy. You could almost say downright windy and from my bedroom it was impossible to tell which direction it was coming from. If it was behind me then I was going to be blown over the Cambrian Mountains. If it was going to be in my face, I’d consider another day on the coast.

Breakfast came and went in a dining room which felt the nineteen fifties so keenly it had forgotten to move on. Even the teenaged waiting staff were from my distant past. One almost expected them to be in black and white, and they were.

I was keen to get on my way; the next stage of my journey, whether it took me three, four or five days, would end with home and it was beginning to exert its pull. I wasn’t going anywhere though until I had had a look around this unique town.

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I’ve never seen a National Milk Bar. Like Lyon’s Corner Houses  and Maypole Groceries, I’ve heard of them, absorbed them into a part of the pre-me Britain, but had never actually visited one. There’s one just around the corner from my hotel and I’m seven and a half months too late. It’s deserted and for sale. And even though I have no desire for a cheese toastie or a cup of frothy coffee, this seems a pity.

A National Milk Bar 1935

A National Milk Bar 1935

Once there was a minor empire of these shops. Willie and Florence Griffiths came up with the idea after seeing the growing popularity of milk bars in the United States. Like Billy Butlin, he took and American idea and made it work in depression hit 1930s Britain. The first one opened in Colwyn Bay in 1933. Within 10 years there were a dozen of them, mostly in Wales but there were National Milk Bars in Birmingham, Liverpool and, of course, Shrewsbury. Coffee bars were the new meeting places of the young after the war. Lionel Bart wrote that, “Once our beer was frothy and now it’s frothy coffee ‘cos, Fings ain’t what they used to be.” Sixties publicity made a big point of saying that the Beatles met in a National Milk Bar. It was true but a matter of semantics. They didn’t actually meet, as in become known to each other, in a milk bar but they  once met up in one.

Inside the National Milk Bar Llandiloes before its closure.

In a way their passing is a good thing. They were very successful while their founders and owners lived. They provided  a generous living and were part of the big push to drink milk of earlier times. We had a free bottle of milk to drink at playtime in primary school. Adverts cajoled us merrily to “Drinka Pinta Milka Day”. Cycle races were sponsored by the Milk Marketing Board and my favourite was the winning players from the FA Cup final being interviewed in the Wembley tunnel while quaffing from a pint bottle of the white stuff. But they were also a part of the nadir in British catering. The milk shakes were thin, the coffee tasted vaguely of coffee and was mostly foam and the food was largely uninspired. They would have suited me down to the ground. If only I’d done this trip a year earlier.

The last National Milk Bar is still open in Rhyl. It’s time to make that trip if I am going to catch a last taste of the Britain I was born into.

Map showing the National Milk Bar Empire at it's height in the 1960s

Map showing the National Milk Bar Empire at its height in the 1960s

At the southern end of the parade is what many regard as one of the finest war memorials in Britain. It indeed has a timeless beauty which sets it apart from most of its fellow monuments. It was built between 1921 and 1923 to a design by Professor Mario Rutelli. The money was raised in the town and Rutelli himself gave his plans and skills for free. There are four elements to this piece of work. They all work individually but collectively they are an impressive and fitting memory to the Welshmen who gave their lives for the freedom of others. The statue on the top represents Victory, the leaning statue pushing towards the sea is Humanity emerging from the effects of war. There are inscriptions in Welsh “Dros Ryddid: For Freedom, and in English “Greater love for no man than this…

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The War Memorial Aberystwyth

It is a thing to see. I’m a sentimental old fool and I’m touched to the trickle of a tear.

A pale watery sunlight welcomes me back onto the sea front and in full daylight it is glorious. The town piles up the hills and cliffs behind to provide a glorious backdrop to the buildings nearest to the sea. The castle, the church and the old university college buildings are the three graces to Aberystwyth every bit as much as the three glories of the Liverpool pier head. The stone is largely the same but many hundreds of years, three very different architecture styles and three very different uses separate them. They blend perfectly. A monument to a warlike race, a monument to centuries of worship and a monument to higher levels of learning. They somehow encapsulate the town and what it stands for.

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To have three such buildings on a British seaside promenade is unique and splendid. The rest of the seafront curves around the bay in long terraces of elegant houses and hotels. There is an extra dimension to Aber. It is cut off on one side by high mountains and on the other by the sea. It has always remained in touch with the latest developments in the world, but there is something detached about the town and that is something that makes it all the more special. All I need to fill my cup completely would be a major centre for the arts and a great national library. And Aberystwyth provides these too. All I’ve got to do is collect my bicycle from the hotel, post my notes home to the family and push my way, gently, up the hill.

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