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I love going to Wales. Admittedly it isn't quite as exotic as the South Pacific or the Rocky Mountains, but it has a strong claim to being the part of the world I most love. Although I do have some Welsh ancestry, I've never lived there myself and it's not a place I've adopted as any sort of spiritual home; I just like it. But there are only so many times you can go to the same few places, so when I spotted The Hidden Places of Wales I grabbed it at once. The fact that it was the 6th edition encouraged me, as surely that implied that it had kept a loyal customer base for some time, and so would make it likely to be something special.
Unfortunately, it isn't. It's by no means a dreadful guidebook, so long as you'd rather have breadth than depth of coverage, and it does seem to be kept well up to date. However, it is flawed. One problem is that I'd been hoping for something along the lines of the Rough Guide books, but with even more little details about interesting places even they hadn't reached. I'm sure that all of us have favourite haunts within a few miles of our own homes that the travel writers never seem to discover, and that's the sort of "hidden place" I was hoping to see revealed here, preferably with both praise and criticism dished out as appropriate. However, the introduction reveals that the guide has deliberately avoided giving "merit awards or rankings", and has preferred to concentrate on description. I'm not entirely sure that's the right approach for a guidebook like this, as opposed to a coffee-table book.
The guide is laid out in geographical areas roughly corresponding to the Wales Tourist Board areas, a sensible move. However, guide author Peter Lord (who as far as I can tell seems to have written the whole thing himself!) tries to cover so much ground that there is rarely any depth to the entries for each individual town or area, and that rather prevents finding much out about actual "hidden places". Llandudno, for example, is covered in barely four thin columns of text - and it doesn't help that there is a glaring error here, with a picture of the town's Cabin Lift being captioned "Great Orme Tramway"! That sort of thing doesn't inspire confidence in a guide's accuracy elsewhere, and really should have been caught before publication.
I always find it irritating when a guide seems to be trying to promote its area to an excessive degree, and a bit of whitewashing does seem to be taking place with the Hidden Places book. I don't mean to suggest that it is deliberately covering up attractions' shortcomings, but (for example) calling Abergavenny "particularly pleasant" is perhaps pushing it a bit. I've certainly visited worse towns, and it does have some good facilities that make it worthwhile to call in at (not least Crumbs café!), but in my experience it's much better used as a base than as a destination in itself, and so for the guide to describe it using a phrase that implies that it is one of the touristic jewels of south Wales is really overdoing it just a little bit.
This is a fairly substantial (just over 400 page) paperback on glossy paper, which looks nice but does add extra weight if you're carrying it around in a backpack. Sadly this size is deceptive, as only just over half the book is actually the main guide. The back half is taken up with an enormous advertisement section for accommodation, food and drink and places of interest. These are laid out in a consistent format, rather than being designed by the establishments themselves, and that's welcome - but being advertisements they're (again) relentlessly positive, and short of telling you that you may need to book in advance, there's barely a sniff of negativity to be seen. It gets a bit trying after a while.
All in all, I would have a hard time recommending this book as your only guide to Wales; my preference would go to the Rough Guide book. The Hidden Places book could be handy to keep around as a secondary reference, since it does cover a lot of country pubs in particular, but the (deliberate, as I mentioned above) lack of anything remotely judgemental in their descriptions counts heavily against it for anything more. One unusual feature is nice, though: many of the photographs used in this book are from the Geograph project, and thus Creative Commons licensed; to their credit, Travel Publishing Ltd do properly credit the authors in a section at the back. At £7.18 (inc p&p) from Amazon this is worth a look, but I can't recommend it any more highly than that.
Pictures of Hidden Places of Wales - David Gerrard
A rather less hidden place in Wales, just off the Severn Bridge.