Abu Dhabi vs Aberdovey: Why the UAE's capital is often mistaken for a tiny Welsh town

Their names may sound alike, but are there any other similarities between the capital of the UAE and this small slice of Wales?

Abu Dhabi, left, boasts a modern skyline, while Aberdovey has seaside charm. Reuters, James Langton for The National
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On the final leg of the journey to Abu Dhabi, gusts of freezing rain sweep down from the thickly wooded hills, shrouded in cloud. Damp sheep graze on a strip of grass between the road and an ever-widening band of angry grey-green water.

The road bends round to the right and dips below a bridge carrying the railway, and suddenly it is there: a curve of white and pastel terraced houses and an endless forbidding panorama of sea that vanishes into the mist. The rain hammers down even more furiously.

What? Sorry, you must have misheard. Abu Dhabi? This is Aberdovey, a tiny seaside town on the coast of Wales, perched on the edge of Cardigan Bay.

Gwynedd, Aberdyfi (Aberdovey) and Dyfi estuary.

It's a common mistake, at least for anyone with a connection to the UK. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE, with a population that exceeds one million. Just more than 1,000 people live full time in Aberdovey, in the county of Gwynedd. It is also spelled Aberdyfi, but it's when you say it out loud that confusion reigns.

Decades of confusion

There are stories of mix-ups over the two destinations going back more than 60 years. Susan Hillyard arrived in Abu Dhabi with her husband and infant daughter in 1954, the first European family to live in what was then little more than a fishing village with palm frond huts.

The news was broken by her husband, who worked in the oil industry and called home to announce their new posting. What on Earth, Susan Hillyard recorded in her memoir Before The Oil, was British Petroleum doing in north Wales?

A call for examples via the Abu Dhabi Good Old Days Facebook group produces nearly 40 anecdotes in less than a day. There were returning visitors quizzed about how they had managed such a splendid tan in Wales at Christmas, or how they played on the beach in the dead of winter.

Others were asked about why they would fly from England to Wales when it was just a short hop by train or bus. And it's not just British expats who experienced the confusion. Emirati students in the UK recalled being told the same thing, as well as having their Welsh ancestry questioned.

It was the same for the author of this article, who moved to Abu Dhabi in early 2008 for the launch of The National, leaving the family behind to finish the school year. Distraught – mostly at the thought of managing two teenagers – my wife was consoled by colleagues. "At least he'll be home at the weekends."

At the time we were living in Shropshire, an English county that borders Wales and is barely 80 kilometres from Aberdovey. Ten years later, and now more than 6,000 kilometres from Abu Dhabi, we are back in Shropshire and it is Aberdovey that beckons.

By the seaside

There was a first visit in Spring 2019, when the sun sparkled on the water and the kilometres of wide, golden sands were alive with families and joyously barking dogs, racing along the beach or splashing in the sea. Our Dubai rescue Saluki-cross was among them, probably earning the distinction of being the only canine to swim in both Abu Dhabi and Aberdovey; the Arabian Gulf and the Irish Sea.

Between April and October, the dogs are banished from the water’s edge to make way for the hordes of visitors that in normal times, by some estimates, swell the summer population to more than 5,000.

In February, it is peak time to visit Abu Dhabi. In Aberdovey, it is not. Google Maps estimates a drive time of just under two hours from Shropshire, at a stately average of 40 kilometres per hour.

The deserted pier on a rainy day in Aberdovey, Wales. James Langton for The National

After several days of mixed sunshine, the clouds are closing in. The A489 winds among hills and over narrow stone bridges; past black and centuries-old white timber frame houses and stone cottages that seem to have been grown rather than built.

Machynlleth, in Powys, is a charming market town that's home to the Welsh Museum of Modern Art, and a taste for culture, as well as eating. From here, the countryside flattens out to the estuary of the River Dyfi, crossed by another 200-year-old stone bridge and a flood warning.

After the bridge, there's sharp left turn for Aberdovey, now less than 15kms, but still about 20 minutes away. Rock music trivia fans should watch out for a lane about 300 metres on the right that's marked with a dead end sign. This leads to Bron Yr Aur, the remote cottage where Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, freed from the distractions of electricity and running water, wrote Led Zeppelin's third and fourth albums, including the first draft of Stairway to Heaven. You can pass by it, but it's not open to the public.

Now the heavens really open, windscreen wipers swishing furiously. Sky and sea merge on the horizon and the dashboard temperature gauge dashboard drops to 7°C.

Aberdovey is near, but Abu Dhabi seems further away than ever.

Unlikely links

Is Aberdovey aware of its unlikely link to the Middle East? It feels increasingly unlikely. Its most far-flung connection seems to be to a women’s toilet twinned with Malawi as a charitable gesture, and located in the town’s Literary Institute, a community and cultural centre that dates back to 1882.

Aberdovey's Literary Institute founded in the 19th century. James Langton for The National

The Literary Institute seems a good place to start in finding out what links there may be, and an exploratory email results in a suggestion to contact the Town Council for potential interviews. The town clerk thinks it is a “good idea” and says it will be put on the agenda of the next council meeting. That was nearly four months ago, and nothing more has been heard.

Parking on the windswept seafront, it seems that almost everyone has left town. A lone sailing boat rocks furiously at anchor just off the beach and the rain seems to be coming in horizontally. Even the hardiest dog walkers have abandoned the beach. The canoes and sailing dinghies that are such an attraction in the summer months are drawn up on racks behind the lighthouse station.

Not much to see from the telescope on the beach of rain-lashed Aberdovey. James Langton for The National

I visit the Literary Institute and find, with a firm push, that the door to the reading room is unlocked. It is empty, but for leaflets, two cabinets of stuffed seabirds and a copy of the Daily Express, still bashing on about Brexit. The room has a window overlooking the river mouth and the sea beyond – mainland Britain's western rim before the rest of the world begins.

Walking back to town, I try to trace the origin of a mysterious bell tolling somewhere near the town’s wooden jetty. There’s a local legend of Cantre'r Gwaelod, a lost kingdom sunk beneath Cardigan Bay like a Welsh Atlantis. A song records that the city’s bells can sometimes be heard from beneath the waves. Research later reveals the sound to be a “time and tide” bell, designed by sculptor Marcus Vergette, to ring when the tide catches its clapper.

The bell is a reminder of our connection to the sea, but also climate change. As sea levels rise, so the bell will toll ever sooner.

It’s a gloomy thought to match the weather. On a whim, I decide to send a message from Aberdovey to Abu Dhabi, as the only shop open with postcards is also the town’s post office.

I ask for a stamp for Abu Dhabi. “First or second class?” No, Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. “Don’t suppose you get asked that very often,” I say to the counter clerk.

“Not very much.” He pauses. “Not ever, to be honest.”

Aberdovey's butcher with Welsh road sign. James Langton for The National

Then I head over to Coast Deli & Dining, a pocket-sized cafe that braves all the seasons and serves locally sourced food. It’s here that I have arranged to meet Andi Byrnes, who writes the blog Aberdovey Londoner.

Over cappuccini (plural of cappuccino, not a typo) and Welsh rarebit, toasted cheese on sourdough bread, with slices of the local seaweed delicacy laver bread, we discuss the merits of Aberdovey.

There is a strong connection to the sea, with a history of economies dependent on fishing and ship-building that is now largely in the past

Many years ago, Byrnes's parents bought a second home in the town and she's now lived here for a couple of years after selling up in London. She's an archeologist by training, ironically in deserts, although has never visited the UAE.

The character of Aberdovey, she says, changes with the seasons. There’s what she calls “the summer personality”, when life is all about sailing, playing on the beach and eating freshly caught seafood from Dai Hughes, a local fisherman who sells from direct from his boat.

“In winter, it’s a completely different experience. The beach changes, the people change.” She loves both times of the year. “I’m a great walker and there’s this wonderful beach where you can walk for miles.”

She talks about the history of the place (and later sends an email packed with suggestions of things to do). Until the railway connected it to the outside world in 1877, Aberdovey could only be reached by sea or winding footpaths over the hills.

Entrance to the Aberdovey Yacht Club. James Langton for The National

It was an important port on the Welsh coast, though, transporting slate from the nearby mines, and with a fishing fleet and shipbuilding yards. It was a railway, and the road that followed, that transformed Aberdovey into a holiday destination.

Today’s attractions include the nearby Snowdonia National Park, while the area’s old narrow gauge steam trains now transport tourists instead of slate.

Shifting fortunes

Both Aberdovey and Abu Dhabi have seen changes in the past 60 years, which also raises the question of not what makes them so different, but what they might have in common.

There is a strong connection to the sea, of course, with a history of economies dependent on fishing and ship-building that is now largely in the past.

Aberdovey sits where the river meets the sea; its name in Welsh, literally means estuary (Aber) of the Difei. Abu Dhabi’s name is also descriptive. Father of the Gazelle, meaning a place where antelope go for water.

Like Abu Dhabi, Aberdovey has seen an influx of outsiders, with profound changes of character. Both have an official first language that is not English, even if the latter is widely used.

Officials signs in Aberdovey are in Welsh and English. James Langton for The National

In Abu Dhabi it is Arabic, in Aberdovey it is Welsh, still spoken by some of the long-standing inhabitants and marked first on official signs. "Araf" (stop) it says at road junctions, "Dim Mynediad" (no entry) on the narrow road outside the cigydd (butcher). But many of the homes and business are now English-owned.

“It’s really very cosmopolitan,” says Byrnes, referring to the numerous restaurants and cafes, the art galleries, the yacht club, hotels and shops selling the latest summer fashions. If you need an organic jute basket or rug, there’s even a place for that.

The same could be said for Abu Dhabi, albeit on a much grander scale. The city has gained a much higher international profile in recent years, thanks to everything from Manchester City and Etihad to Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

Maybe this is bringing a subtle shift to the old Abu Dhabi / Aberdovey confusion. When living in London, Byrnes would occasionally escape city life to decompress for a few days in Aberdovey. “Abu Dhabi?” A neighbour asked her. “Isn’t that a long way to go for the weekend?”