In a Ford Zodiac, Richard Wilson drives the circular route from Caernarfon that loops through some of Snowdonia and gets a Welsh lesson at Caernarfon Castle.
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For many, the 1950s were the golden age of British motoring.
Back then driving was leisurely, liberating, and fun.
SCREECHING, HORNS BEEP
Yes, things have changed a bit since then.
But perhaps it's still possible to recapture some of that old magic.
I'm setting off on six of the best drives from the 1950s,
as recommended by the guidebooks of the era.
And I'll be driving them in some of the decade's most iconic vehicles.
I've gone into reverse.
I want to find out if these routes still thrill and inspire.
This is a spectacular road.
And how in 50 years Britain itself has changed. Oh, for God's sake.
They wouldn't have thought to come here without a sat nav.
I'm sure they wouldn't.
People don't value each other as much as they did then.
It was a different type of life, wasn't it?
"Britain has no range as high as the Alps or the Pyrenees,
"yet its mountain scenery on a miniature scale is as impressive.
"The mountains of Wales have a real character of their own.
"A rugged grandeur and an intimate beauty
"out of all proportion to their actual physical height."
# Come on, pretty baby let's a-move it and a-groove it... #
So, here we are in North Wales,
driving a Ford Zodiac.
1957 this car was made.
Because it was made in 1957, you are exempt from wearing seatbelts.
When the Zodiac was launched onto the British roads in 1955
it must have seemed like it was from another planet.
Gone was the usual British reserve, replaced with exciting, brash, futuristic stylings
inspired, of course, by America.
And, for the time, it was pretty racy.
This model had a top speed of 90 miles per hour.
Although I don't think I'll be pushing it quite that far.
The steering is just a little bit unresponsive.
Turn the wheel to turn and it actually takes a couple of beats before it actually does it.
It's a little bit confusing.
I'm in North Wales to drive a route that in 1959 was reckoned a must for any motoring tour of the region.
A round trip from Caernarfon and its castle that'll circle Mount Snowdon,
a drive which my guidebook promises
"reveals much of the finest scenery of the mountains,
"several of the most handsome lakes, and the most impressive of all the passes."
Although these antiquated publications can't always be totally trusted.
According to my '50s guidebook
this modern looking bridge here was a road bridge.
You could actually drive along here and into Caernarfon.
So the guide book of the '50s is way out.
However, they do say this is the best view of Caernarfon Castle
and it is splendid.
All my guidebooks, of course, recommend a visit to the castle, and very impressive it is.
But Caernarfon Castle doesn't have entirely happy associations for the people of Wales.
I've arranged to meet author and Welsh language expert Bethan Gwanas to find out more.
But despite my obvious reluctance,
the director seems obsessed with filming in the most precipitous possible places.
-You'd think with a driving show, heights won't come into it!
And I don't quite know why he's so amused at the thought of me plummeting from the parapets!
That's a funny image. I'm rocking back with laughter!
At least you'd lose your bloody job.
So, Bethan, here we are in Caernarfon Castle above the cloud line.
Isn't it true...I heard from a guide today that the Welsh weren't allowed in this castle?
I know. Edward I built this castle when his soldiers killed our last crown prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd,
-and as you can imagine that depressed us a bit.
And then Edward I, nasty man, went round building all these castles
to keep the Welsh in check, and then all the Welsh had to live outside the castle walls.
They were not allowed in. Inside here in the 13th century and onwards would be only English people
so that made us feel quite inferior, you can imagine can't you.
Edward I wanted to stamp out the Welsh language, because...
I can see his reasoning. If you have your own language, you've still got that pride, haven't you?
-So if you just stamp it out...if you just, you know...
..assimilate us, make us English as well.
But he didn't succeed, did he? We're still here!
You're still here and talking Welsh.
Yeah, and we're allowed in the castle now as long as we pay.
But it seems Edward's dastardly dream almost came true.
Even 50 years ago the Welsh language was still on the back foot.
A touring motorist like me might have heard Welsh being spoken,
but they'd have been hard pressed to read it anywhere.
If you had been driving around here in the '50s, English would still have been the official language.
All the signs, everything, you know, menus, whatever, would have been in English.
The fact that they're Welsh now is quite a recent thing 'cos I'm not that old,
and I remember it was quite difficult to buy a birthday card in Welsh.
-Yes, it really was, because everything was in English.
-Even in the '50s?
-In the '50s and '60s, even the '70s. It was very recent.
Basically we've got more pride now. Would you like a lesson now?
-I could teach you how to say Caernarfon Castle in Welsh.
-Castle is "castell".
-Hey, you've just got the hardest sound in Welsh almost right.
-The double "L", you just put your tongue against the back of your teeth, just there.
-Say it again.
-You put your tongue...
Say the name!
-Castell... Castell Caernarfon.
-Is that what I sound like?
'Clearly, I've got some way to go before I master the Welsh language,
'so Bethan has offered to continue my lesson en route to the next stop on my journey,
'Llanberis, the gateway to the mountains.
'Little does she realise what she's letting herself in for.'
You're taking your life in your hands!
After 30 years of driving automatics I've discovered
that me, hills, and classic cars aren't exactly the perfect mix.
Did they have roundabouts in the '50s?
-Er, I don't suppose they did.
-Right, I'm glad you're having such a good time.
We have blast off!
When you meet somebody, you'll want to say hello, won't you?
-That's quite easy. Round here you would say "helo".
That's, er, Welsh... Helo.
How are you is "shw mae".
-Helo, shw mae?
-Helo, shw mae? Hello, how are you?
Yeah. "Da" is good.
Da. "Da" is good.
-And very good is "da iawn".
-Yeah. OK. So you ask me how I am.
Er, er, er, er...
Helo, shw mae?
Er oh, helo shw mae?
-You can just keep going like that.
-Helo, shw mae?
-Helo, shw mae?
-Helo, shw mae?
-Your accent is perffaith.
What is the Welsh for tailback?
Um, I would say cynffon, which means tail.
-It's not bad.
-It's about two miles.
'I can safely say it's not the easiest language in the world.
'So it's with some relief that we reach our destination.'
-Now this is Llanberis, we're here.
-We're at Llanberis.
'Just in time for a downpour.'
-Oh, look it's pouring. I'm sorry.
-Are you kicking me out in the rain?
I'll give you a... I've got a bus table, a bus timetable somewhere here. Er...
'Of course, my guidebooks had warned me about the weather.'
"In the mountains a few miles can make a big difference.
"The rainfall at Llanberis for instance is close to 100 inches a year.
"At Caernarfon, less than ten miles away, it is not much more than a third of that."
'It's into those unpredictable and dramatic mountains that I'm now heading.
'And the next part of my drive brings me face to face
'with a sight as awesome today as it must have been 50 years ago.'
Extraordinary view of the vast slate quarry here.
It stretches for miles.
"One of the most conspicuous features of Llanberis
"is the great Dinorwig slate quarry,
"on the opposite side of the lake.
"It rises in step-like terraces for some 1,800 feet.
"And the smoke from the locomotives as they ply along the galleries
"affords one of the best indications of the immensity of the task."
'Dinorwig was one of the largest slate quarries in the world
'and 50 years ago the valley would echo to the great explosions that freed the slate from the rock.'
'At its height, 3,000 men toiled on the side of this great mountain.
'And not surprisingly the quarry dominated life in the local communities.
'In 1959, local lad Derek Jones was doing his apprenticeship here,
'just like so many of his friends, neighbours and family had.'
Your father, and your grandfather and everybody was still working there.
-It was in the family.
-So when you were at school, did you think of doing anything else?
-Well, no, to be honest.
I wanted to follow in my father's footsteps and be a quarryman, to be honest with you.
-Right, and was your grandfather a quarryman?
-Yes. He was, yes.
-Right. And was it a dangerous job?
-Oh, yes, quite dangerous, yes.
There was many accidents.
'And it would appear some of the dangers may have been due to quarrymen trying to cut costs,
'and when you discover why it's hardly surprising.'
You had to pay for everything.
-You had to pay for your powder and fuse, while you're...
Even your tools, you had to pay for them.
-What, the company sold it to you?
And when you wanted your tools sharpening, like your knife
or your chisels and things, you'd take them to the smithy
-and you had to pay him even for them to be sharpened up for you.
Yes. You even had to pay for the rope
that the quarry mill would hang you from. Aye.
Because it cost so much, the fuse,
-people try to make a short cut sometimes, you know.
-Which was very dangerous.
Yeah. If they could have got away with using a shorter fuse,
-which meant you'd have more for the next time, you know.
-It would have done, but...
It's surprising they paid you at all, really, isn't it?!
But Dinorwig is no longer the hive of activity described in my 1950s guidebooks.
In 1969, after 200 years, the quarry was closed due to falling demand,
leaving this breathtaking, but eerie site.
When the quarry closed it must have affected the amount of work available.
Oh, it did. Yes, yes, yes.
There were so many people hunting to find work after that, you know.
Thousands would be out of work.
Well, yeah. It affected the community as a whole, to be honest with you.
-You might as well say it killed the community life in the village.
-Because it was such a happy place to work in, you know.
-Although it was hard work, everybody knew one another and they were all happy together, you know.
'The great Welsh quarries, like so much of Britain's heavy industry, are pretty much all redundant now.
'But what's interesting is how,
'although it was tough, dirty, often gruelling work, people still look back on them fondly.
'These huge employers, it seems, acted like a glue that bonded whole communities together.
'Leaving the quarry behind, I'm now headed for one of the highlights of my drive,
'the mighty Llanberis Pass.'
I can see the path ahead, now.
It does look quite dramatic.
"The finest mountain road in Wales.
"Shattered masses of every form, which have fallen from the heights, lie in strange confusion.
"On the sunniest of days, it is a wild scene.
"In cloudy or stormy weather, a scene of utter desolation."
The rock looks as though some sort of giant has come along and chipped it all up,
it's just millions of individual rocks.
I suppose it's been like that since the glacial times.
Everything looks like it's just strewn with rocks.
'Not surprisingly, the area is popular with climbers
'and many believe that modern rock climbing was born here in the 1950s.
'I've come to meet an extraordinary chap, who knows these mountains like the back of his hand.
'Solo climber and base jumper, Eric Jones, a man for whom safety ropes are a mere trifle.'
And so, how old are you, if you don't mind me asking?
-I'm now 71.
-And are there lots of 70-year-old climbers?
Not very many, no.
If you fell now, you could do yourself serious damage.
-Don't tell me that!
Is it harder going down than going up?
Yes, yes. It hard to see your feet.
Cos you've got to look backwards?
Especially on this rock where the holes tend to be a bit sloping.
-So what sort of rock would you call this?
-A big rock.
Oh, my goodness.
Have you always got three bits of your body in contact?
That's the way when you learn to climb.
That's the system you use, always have three points of contact.
But if you don't know how to climb, that's not possible always.
Maybe you've got just one hold, and then just launch yourself.
So, the three point of contact rule is only for beginners.
'Back when he was a mere slip of a lad at 61, Eric base jumped form the world's highest waterfall.
'Just one of his many achievements.
'He was also the first British climber to solo the north face of the Matahorn.
'He's conquered the the Eiger on his own and naturally beaten the hardest climbs in the mighty Llanberis Pass.'
Well, danger seems to spring to mind quite a lot.
Is danger an adrenalin buzz for you?
Yes, I must admit it is a factor.
I think it is for everybody or most people who do these sports.
If climbing was safe, or if parachuting was safe, it wouldn't be as popular.
I'm sure. And did you start around here?
I started down the years in the Llanberis Pass, yes.
This place has real special memories for me. They were magic days.
Yes, yes. Amongst climbers, is this a testing area, North Wales?
Oh, for certain, yes.
I think I'm biased, but I would say it's the best area in the country.
Although, Scottish climbers would disagree, I'm sure, but it is pretty unique.
'What a remarkable chap Eric is.
'I mean, having to drive without a seat belt is enough of an adrenalin fix for me,
'let alone dangling by my fingertips from the top of these mountains.
'But I can understand why Eric's heart belongs here.
'Quite apart from its obvious challenges,
'it really is an enchanting place and a stunning drive.'
So instead of all this rock, we now have green lush hills.
I think it's time to get out and have a look.
As far as you can see are sheep, little dots of sheep.
Up here, all the way down the valley.
I don't feel prone...
to say anything else...
..other than bloody lovely.
'My route now takes me down the long valley of Nant Gwynant towards a famously pretty village.'
"Bedd Gelert rivals Betws y Coed
"for the honour of being the loveliest village in Wales.
'But nowadays, the villages of Bedd Gelert are encountering
'a uniquely 21st century problem, unimaginable in the 1950s.'
Well, of course in this modern day we've got these monster trucks, monsters that come here.
And these roads weren't built for that.
-So why do they come this way?
-The old "sat naff" as we call it - sat nav!
-Oh, sat naff.
-Sat naff - they send them this way.
-So they send them here?
-They do unfortunately.
And they wouldn't have thought to come here without a sat nav.
I'm sure they wouldn't have picked up a map
and looked which route to come through the mountains of Snowdonia.
They think it's a short cut, but it's not.
They get stuck in every corner going, I think.
The bridge gets battered about a bit.
It does unfortunately. These two bridges in Bedd Gelert
are some of the most beautiful bridges in Wales. Listed buildings.
These monster lorries, they pull them down. Destroying them.
It very, very sad.
'Perhaps there's something to be said for navigating the old way.
'No need for a map to my next destination, though,
'Bedd Gelert's famous ice cream shop
'with its seemingly limitless choice of flavours.'
-..passion fruit sorbet?
OK. Hi, could I have a passion fruit sorbet, but could I have two cones?
Would you mind? I want to split it.
That's right, two small ones.
-What one do you sell most of?
RICHARD LAUGHS See?
I'm sharing it with Ian and the camera here.
Have you tasted it yet?
Who would like to share a raspberry pavlova with me?
I wasn't going to have any ice cream, I ended up having two.
C'est la vie. It is Saturday.
'The final part of my route leads through even more glorious countryside on the home leg
'back towards where I started in Caernarfon.
'But rather than end my journey there, I decided on a little detour
'in order to take three ladies on a trip down memory lane.'
-Are you going our way?
-Good morning, ladies.
I think you'll have to tell me where to go.
Linda, Nora and Doreen all worked at this holiday park,
back when it was the pride of Billy Butlin's empire 50 years ago.
# Good night, campers see you in the morning... #
-And that was over the tannoy?
-No, no, no. Wherever you were. The ballrooms.
'Butlin's Pwllheli dominated the holiday industry in 1950's North Wales.
'And on weekends, the roads would frequently be clogged
'by coaches filled with thousands of holiday makers in search of that special Butlin's magic.'
Everybody who came to Butlin's came to have a good time. And they did.
And we were here to make sure they did.
It was real good innocent fun.
Do you remember the times we used to have down here?
-Oh, yes. Knobbly knees.
There was knobbly knees for men.
-And was there lots of romances amongst the staff?
-Oh, yes, yes, I think so. Yes.
-During the season.
I think there were seasonal affairs, you know.
Maybe re-kindled or maybe move on, you know.
-With Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and Ringo Starr.
-Ringo Starr was here was here.
Yes, with his old band, though, before he joined the Beatles.
-I actually went out with Ringo while I was here.
What could have been, you see, what could have been.
It's my claim to fame.
We used to have parties on the beach.
-Yes. What, at night?
-Midnight parties, yes.
Sometimes you went swimming at night, which, really, I suppose was quite dangerous.
-No skinny dipping?
-I can't admit to doing that, no.
But I won't admit to doing it.
Well, you might have.
-We might have.
-We might have, but I can't remember that far back.
-Neither can I.
-Of course we didn't.
'The girls clearly had a ball working and living on the camp.
'And like so many of the people I've met on my journey so far, they have a real affection for the 1950s.'
You all seemed to have had a very good time. You enjoyed yourselves.
We didn't have much, but what we had we all enjoyed. It was a fabulous time.
We made the most of what we had.
Would you say that the '50s were a better time, by and large?
Yes. It seemed safer.
There wasn't the worries about leaving people or meeting people.
So it was, you know, a lot nicer in that respect.
People didn't want their designer things,
they just got what they could afford and made the most of it really.
Cos we're talking, really, the '50s, we were still recovering from the war.
-Cos you were very young then.
-Don't remind us.
As a little memento for your trip here in your vintage car,
that's a Butlin's holiday camp badge from 1958.
Oh, that's lovely, thank you very much.
-That's a little memento for you.
-I'll put that on.
There you are. You're a camper now.
-Not a camper van, a camper.
I better find a chalet.
'Despite the fact that back then we were obviously less well off,
'it seems that the spirit of optimism and that very real sense of community
'that the girls truly cherish from the '50s.
'Something, I suppose, epitomised by those Butlin's glory years.
'It's true to say that much of that has faded over the past half century.
'But this trip has also shown me that it would be naive to consider all progress bad.'
Well, that's the end of our Welsh drive.
One of the best drives in Britain, there's very little doubt about that.
I think the thing you take away from here is this scenery, the wonderful Welsh scenery.
The other thing I'd take away is that although it was many years ago when I was here last,
there seems to be much more pride in the country than I remember. They've got every right to be.
It's a very beautiful country and it's been a very beautiful drive and certainly one of the best in Britain.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Actor Richard Wilson takes a journey into the past, following routes raved about in motoring guides of 50 years ago.
Richard takes the wheel of Ford Zodiac to drive the circular route from Caernarfon that loops through some of Snowdonia's most sensational scenery.
He gets a Welsh lesson at Caernarfon Castle, learns the significance of the Dinorwic slate quarry, drives the Llanberis Pass, meets 71-year-old human fly Eric Jones and takes a trip down memory lane at a former Butlins holiday camp.