Necrwys, Wales -- Where Was the Knight in Shining Armor?

The kids were joking that he'd show up before we finished our eggs. After all, we were in the country that boasts a fire-breathing dragon as its official symbol, the country of King Arthur and his wizard Merlin. And we were staying in a real castle, eating breakfast in a drafty stone room that had been built before Columbus discovered America.

The sunlight shone through stained glass. We sat on high-backed chairs at a long, scarred wooden table. All around us were ancient swords, pewter plates, portraits, a coat of arms and a tower dating back centuries.

Talk about being princess-for-a-day. Talk about an in-your-face history lesson. The mayor of a nearby town had been hanged from that tower eight centuries ago, Wendy Wynne-Eaton told the kids, leading them up the winding staircase of her husband's ancestral home. There was a framed letter from 1661 and books even older in the shelves. A pond was out front. The Wynne-Eatons told us they open just three rooms to tourists to help pay for the expensive upkeep of the old house. (Bed-and-breakfast rates are under $100 per room. Call 011 44 2352 700220.)

``Wales is a place to give children a real sense of history,'' Wendy Wynne-Eaton said. ``We want to share our history and our heritage.''

Hospitality, too. Wynne-Eaton invited my 7-year-old Melanie to spend the evening watching videos with her granddaughter while we went out to eat nearby in an old restored stable. Melanie couldn't believe her luck -- TV and a new playmate instead of a boring restaurant dinner. I drove off not the least concerned leaving my child with a stranger, albeit the owner of a castle. Wales inspires that kind of trust.

The smallest of realm of the British Isles, Wales is less than 200 miles long and 60 miles wide and offers American families the chance to get off the tourist track at prices most budgets can handle. For a few days, with planning help from the Welsh Tourist Board, we stayed away from the city -- we never got near Cardiff -- and glimpsed an entirely different Britain, with its own language (though everyone speaks English, too) and its proud culture, with sheep grazing in the hills, men's choirs, small villages and castles everywhere you look -- more than 200 in all, more per square mile than any other place in Europe.

Wales is a good bet for families precisely because it isn't a country where you want to race from sight to sight, though there is plenty to see. It's the place to stay in one of the many out-of-the-way B&Bs that welcome children. You can meander on country roads and in small towns, stopping in a small village for ice cream along the stream (which Melanie promptly fell in to), horseback ride in the mountains or bike along the coast, picking up a little history as you go. (Call 1-800-GO 2 BRITAIN for general Wales information or www.usagateway.visitbritain.com.)

We spent one morning exploring the ruins of Conwy Castle on the River Conwy, one of several built in the 13th century by King Edward to show his strength after he defeated the Welsh princes. The kids raced up and down the steps, along the crumbling walls. Looking down in the dungeon made us all shudder.

Later we ate freshly caught fried fish and chips in the town, where the crooked narrow streets are still surrounded by the castle's medieval walls -- three-quarters of a mile long and guarded by more than 20 towers. I wish every tourist town was as lovely.

We were mostly in northern Wales, in and around Snowdonia National Park, the highest mountain range in England and Britain. Not even the rain drove us off the hiking trail in the park, with its craggy path covered by purple flowers. Sheep grazed on either side of us. The kids thought it was terrific that an ice cream truck was parked at the bottom of the trail, just waiting for us!

Our first morning in Wales, in fact, we woke up to the bleating of sheep at a 200-acre farm bed-and-breakfast called Plas Trefarthen on the Isle of Anglesey overlooking the Menai Strait. We ate the best porridge I've ever tasted made from the farm's own oats. Plas Trefarthen was just one of many Welsh farms that welcome guests, we learned. On some farms, your family can help with the farm chores.

(Plas Trefarthen charges less than $50 a person per night, half-price for children. Call 011 44 1248 430379. Country Lane Tours, also can arrange farm or unique family holidays. Call 011 44 1248 352402.)

We went hundreds of feet underground into the Llechwedd Slate Caverns to hear the story of the men and boys who spent their lives as miners in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The kids were amazed that children were working in the mines, walking down 10 stories and staying in the dark and cold 10 hours or more at a stretch.

Afterward, we rode the Rheilffordd Ffestiniog Railway, the world's oldest narrow gauge steam train, up the mountainside in the national park. The train was built in 1832 to carry slate from the mines in the mountains to the port. (Ask about arranging dinner or lunch on the train. Call 011 44 1766 5122 2340 or www.festrail.co.uk.)

I wish we'd had longer because Wales is the kind of place you want to linger, especially with kids. Where else, I wondered as I snuggled under the quilt in my castle bedroom, could a family travel from medieval times to the industrial revolution and back again?

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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