Valentine’s Day

Stuck for something romantic to impress your loved one this Valentine’s Day? I was – until I discovered the patron saint of Welsh lovers, her folklore-rich domain in Anglesey and the wonderful appeal of an away-from-it-all, romantic break in North Wales.

The country celebrated St Dwynwen’s Day on January 25th and there’s plenty to learn from the quirky Welsh equivalent to February 14th.

The event in Wales is no commercial free-for-all; it taps into the poignancy and romance of the Celtic soul.

Remembered: Two crosses stand near Twr Mawr lighthouse, close to St Dwynwen’s church

Dwynwen was a 5th-century beauty, the daughter of the King of Powys. She fell for a dashing young prince called Maelon, but her father would not agree to the marriage. Maelon attacked Dwynwen in a fit of passion and was turned to ice by an angel.

Dwynwen pledged that if the angel were to bring Maelon back to life, she would devote herself to God alone. She then crossed the mountains of Snowdonia on horseback to find a site to establish her simple church and begin a life of spiritual devotion.

She settled on Llanddwyn Island, a remote tidal islet off the west coast of Anglesey. Young lovers from across Wales would seek out Dwynwen for saintly blessings for their forthcoming marriage until she died in 497AD.

Isolated: Llanddwyn Island is a tidal isle cut off from the mainland at high tide

The medieval love poet Dafydd ap Gwilym first popularised her story in the 13th century, writing: ‘Dwynwen your beauty is like a silver tear. Your church is ablaze with candlelight.’

Even today, Welsh lovers will exchange gifts of love spoons or jewellery engraved with love poetry on St Dwynwen’s Day. Some may even take their sweetheart to the beach, close to the ruins of Dywnwen’s church, to pop the question.

I decided to follow her trail, strolling a seven-mile walking route through the Newborough Warren National Nature Reserve.

I made my base in Beaumaris, the visitor-hub town of Anglesey. It was a cosy spot to soak up some great Welsh hospitality with a clutch of brightly painted hotels, cosy pubs and funky shops strung out along Castle Street, the main thoroughfare.

Tranquil: Beaumaris is the town most visitors head for on Anglesey

On the boat-bobbing quayside, I drank in panoramic views across the Menai Strait to Snowdonia.

After a comfortable night at The Townhouse, the contemporary-styled sister hotel to Beaumaris stalwart Ye Olde Bulls Head Inn, and a slap-up breakfast of local delicacies that included cockles and lava bread, I was ready for my day’s walking.

The walk lead me through Forestry Commission land, where red squirrels frolicked with early-spring fervour amongst the Corsican pine and silver birch trees. There was a chill in the air but my heart was warmed by the closeness to nature and a delicious sense of tranquility.

Dropping down to Newborough Beach from the sand dunes, the wind engulfed me in a fine veil of salty sea-spray and gritty sand. But I pushed on. After all, Dwynwen didn’t shirk from her saintly duty, nor bow down to the elements. Neither should I.

Legacy: There are few remains of St Dwynwen’s church but her story lives on

My reward as the beach opened up
before me was a glorious yomp across the tide-washed pebbles, the sea
crashing on the beach beside me with a throaty roar. Further ahead, a
weathered sign marked the perimeter of Llanddwyn Island, the headland
stretching out into the Irish Sea, and weathered stone steps led
through a series of elaborately carved gates to the saint’s inner
sanctum.

Dwynwen’s ancient, moss-covered church may have long since fallen into ruins, but the stone altar still stands proud, while a stoic Celtic cross dominates the eerie landscape. As a testament to the church as a place of pilgrimage even today, I noticed a faded bouquet of blood-red roses atop the ancient altar.

The Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William have been living just a short distance from here while he serves as a search and rescue helicopter pilot. I wondered if they sometimes strolled this stretch of sand. It seemed a perfect spot for some time together away from the public gaze.

Dreamy: A view through the dunes of Newborough Beach towards the Llyn Peninsula

Along the headland, there is a small exhibition about Dwynwen and the geology of her remote outpost in a series of stone-built pilots’ cottages. Inside, it is stark but cosy, a wood-carved effigy of Dwynwen, depicting the saint with flowing robes and cascading blond ringlets, standing guard by the door.

The afternoon sun was fading and the elements gathering force for another Biblical storm. It was definitely time to head back to Beaumaris.

I was looking forward to a pint of local ale in the snug at Ye Old Bulls Head Inn, a browse through the seaside-inspired prints at the Janet Bell Gallery and dinner that evening at Cennin (which means ‘leeks’), a smart new restaurant offering signature Welsh black beef and lamb dishes.

But first I cast a wish into the wave-washed cove below, evoking the spirit of Dwynwen to watch over me and my loved one from her holy resting place.

So, you can keep your flowers and chocolates this Valentine’s Day. I’ll be whisking my cariad (sweetheart) away to North Wales. When it comes to romantic gestures, I’ve got a bone-fide Welsh saint on my side.

The Townhouse, Beaumaris (01248 810329; www.bullsheadinn.co.uk) has doubles from £120 BB.
Cennin, Beaumaris (01248 811230; www.restaurantcennin.com) has mains from £17.95. For more about romantic breaks in Wales see www.visitwales.co.uk/romantic-breaks.

Way to prepare for the London marathon

I thought a long weekend in Tuscany would be the perfect place to prepare for the London Marathon. During my athletics career, I won an Olympic silver medal and a string of titles over 400m, but these days I run for pleasure over much longer distances. I also needed this short break because I knew I was about to enter a hectic time at work as I was part of Channel 4’s team presenting the Paralympic Games in London.

Pasta master: Iwan creates his dough during an Il Maggio cookery lesson

With good weather almost guaranteed and a short flight time from the UK, no wonder thousands of Britons head to this part of Italy every year. We flew to Florence, and from there it was a 90-minute drive to our 18th Century farmhouse, Il Maggio, near the delightful city of Siena.

Another of the attractions of this stay was the chance to have a cookery lesson – I was runner-up on the BBC’s Celebrity MasterChef several years ago, and I’m really passionate about food.

Il Maggio was very impressive, with attractive limestone floors, terracotta tiles and original beams. There was underfloor heating throughout the house too, which I particularly liked.

Where the magic happens…the kitchen at Il Maggio

The property had its own spa area, including a Jacuzzi, while outside were lovely gardens, and – this was a nice touch – a small outhouse containing a traditional pizza oven. After a relaxing first day, we headed to the local village for our cookery lesson. We were shown how to make ravioli and other types of pasta (actually, I learned how to make pasta during my stint on MasterChef, but it was great to have a refresher course).

Afterwards, we went to do some food-tasting, and later that evening we went out for dinner. It’s a good job I have a big appetite. The next day I had to remind myself that I was here to get in some last-minute London Marathon training, so I headed into the hills close to our villa. The weather was gorgeous and (believe it or not) I was having such a good time that I ended up covering 15 miles – much more than I had originally intended.

This was my last outing before the Marathon itself and, although it was a harder run than I meant to do, it was great to be able to explore such beautiful countryside.

As an athlete, I was lucky enough to race in Italy several times but this was my first holiday in the country. Wherever I was competing, I rarely had the opportunity to explore a place as much as I would have liked – it was always a case of getting from the airport to the hotel, from the hotel to the arena, and from the arena to the airport for the journey home.

I spent the majority of my career on the athletics grand prix circuit. During the summer months, that meant flying to Oslo, for example, on the Tuesday, racing on Wednesday, going home on Thursday to collect some fresh clothes and kit and then heading to, say, Zurich on the Saturday for the next meeting.

At first, I really enjoyed all the travelling, but eventually living out of a suitcase, queuing endlessly at airports and staying in characterless hotels took its toll.

Competing at a major event such as the Olympics was a more enjoyable experience because we would be based in a host city for longer, which meant we had time to get to know it a little better.

Soul soother: The beautiful Tuscan city of Siena is within easy reach from Il Maggio

I took part in the Atlanta Games in 1996, where I won a silver medal in the 4x400m relay, and I was also involved in the relay team at the Sydney Olympics four years later.

When I was growing up, we travelled a great deal as a family and spent holidays in America and Australia. I’ve also lived in Canada and Germany, while, during my career, I often used to train in South Africa. I’d love to return there, especially for a safari or to stay in Cape Town.

I’m happy to say I finished the London Marathon in four hours, which I was pleased with. That session in the Tuscan hills obviously did the trick.

Ll Maggio sleeps up to seven people. Seven nights costs from €2,000 (about £1,800) in low season. Price excludes heating. To book, contact Tuscan Views on 020 7855 2998 or visit tuscanviews.eu. CityJet (cityjet.com) flies from London City to Florence. Prices start from £83pp one-way.