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(Old) Walking, Water, and Wales

(Originally posted on April 21, 2012)

My adventures in Wales the past few days! With lots of pictures and raving. And also my Danish friend, Anna!

Day One – There (An Adventure of Itself)

I was up and standing with my small suitcase in the rain by 6:55 AM. It was quite cold, all the good weather apparently gone from the previous days. Tony picked me up, and we went around Reading gathering Anna and Donna. Then we hit the motorway and were off!

The drive was pretty nice. The sky turned sunny just as we got into the Cotswolds, so we could see many a lamb playing in the fields under blue skies. We stopped off at Malvern Hills. These hills are the only rise in the flat land for miles and miles around, and are quite dramatic. I decided to try my will and climb to the top—thankfully from a car park that was pretty near the top anyway. But after my adventures trying to find Prior Gardens in Bath, I felt prepared. It was a challenge, but a challenge definitely worth it. Apparently in the Victorian Era the hills were very popular for vacationing and climbing, so my hat’s off to those ladies in skirts and corsets.

The view was stunning from the top. The wind was also very impressive, as it tried to push us off. We wandered a bit, then made our way slowly back to the car.

We stopped off again at Ledbury, just down the road, to wander around the medieval town and grab a cup of tea. It was quite relaxing. After that we hadn’t been long on the road before we passed a little town, Ross-on-Wye. It looked lovely, and Anna remarked about it, so we took a detour and stopped there as well. The market center had another cool meeting house. We were parked next to a bakery. Tony recommended the Yum Yums, which are a sort of twisted pastry. They were cheap so I grabbed one. It tasted like a donut, but with the consistency of a crescent. Delicious!

From there we were on the road till Cardiff. We stopped off at an outdoor heritage museum so Tony could eat his packed lunch. Apparently they had gone all around Wales and found houses from different centuries, took the houses apart brick by brick, and then rebuilt them in this outdoor museum so people could come and explore inside and out. Anna and I only popped into a few (one of which was actually a Unitarian church from 1770). Wales also turned from sunny to pouring to sunny again in the space of the half hour we had to explore, which seemed typical.

Popped in the store and bought a book about Gwellian (“the Welsh warrior princess”), who sounded like an interesting lady and one I’d like to know more about. (There was a lack of fairytale/myth books, and the ones they had were in the children’s section and pretty simple.) I also found a stuffed animal lamb with the Welsh flag on its back, which was cheap and I figured I should buy so it can keep my Irish flag lamb company.

From there we went into Cardiff city, where Tony dropped Anna and me to quickly explore the town center and opera house. We ran around for about ten minutes before hopping back in the car. After that, it was a straight shot to the house in Marloes (with a stop in Tesco for groceries).

After dinner, we went out to a little harbor by a castle (owned by an Earl, then used as an insane asylum, recovery center for WWII, smallpox quarantine and now resort—I’m going to venture a guess that it’s probably haunted). We played around there for a bit, but it was freezing, windy and starting to rain. We retreated back to the house (a family holiday cottage) and went to bed early.

Day Two – The Wind and the Rain

We arose fairly refreshed and ready to go. First off, we walked through the tiny village of Marloes and down to the cliffs on the coast. The weather was wavering between sunny and rainy, but it remained pleasant—though cold. The footpaths were fun, and the hills weren’t too bad for climbing. We enjoyed the views, were nearly blown off the cliffs again, then retreated back to the house for tea.

Having sufficiently thawed, we set out again. Anna and I took a longer, scenic walk along the coast while Tony and Donna drove to a town to meet us. The views were lovely, and we saw some patches of sky. However, the wind was fierce. It died down tolerably whenever we were in a hedge or patch of trees. (The hedges had tufts of fur (wool?) in them that reminded me of Cupid and Psyche. The trees had no leaves, and sounded like bones being shaken together when in the wind.) At one point, we were walking downhill, and we literally were not moving because the wind was so hard.

We arrived at the beach and met up with Tony. After walking a bit there, we popped into a little tourist/art shop that was quite cheap (unfortunately/fortunately I didn’t have my money on me). We drove to another section of beach to walk some more.

After that, we set off towards a beach closer to the house. We went through some marshes and spent a little while in a shed, bird watching. Then we took a beautiful walk along the cliffs. While they weren’t as crazy as the cliffs at Inishmore on the Aran Islands in Ireland, these were still quite impressive. The jagged rocks, thorny hedges and aggressive tide all held that untamable, legendary feeling that is somehow unique to Wales, in my limited experience.

We ended up on the beach, were Anna and I climbed over some rocks for a bit. I saw a tunnel down the beach, formed by a huge rock against the cliff side, which I though 1) Looked mysterious and intriguing and 2) Would make an awesome picture. I picked my way over the rocks to the place, watching the tide come in nervously. Even though I was very safe, it was still a bit daunting to have the sea on your left and high cliffs on your right. But I did make it to the spot, and took some pictures. At the bottom of the tunnel was some still, green water. I threw a rock in and waited for a mermaid to attack me, but had no such luck. Anna joined me, and we climbed around a bit more. I discovered that the rocks are quite sharp. Definitely wouldn’t want to be washed arose there.

We made our way back—surprised at how much the tide had come up in so short a time—then settled with Tony and Donna. The rocks on the beach were quite pretty. Anna made little designs by scraping colored rocks on grey rocks. I worked for a long time trying to shape a red rock into a heart, and after I made some progress I put it into my pocket and promptly lost it. Oh well.

The tide was after us even there, so eventually we had to leave. Made our way to the car, and home from there. Tony left to pick up his wife, Elaine, who was coming in on the train. We had dinner ready when they returned, and partook of a lovely meal. Then we raced down the small country roads to the highest point on the coast in the area, where we hoped to catch the sunset. We were a little late, and there were clouds resting on the horizon, which blocked the most impressive part. But we climbed to the high point, and Anna and I climbed all the way to the peninsula cliffs. It really felt like being on the edge of the world.

After it was clear the sky wasn’t going to get very impressive, Anna and I made our way back to the others. Then it was back home for a quiet evening and bed.

Day Three – Weaving, Pertre Iffan and St. Davids

The sky was blue when we set out, but gray before we’d been on the road long. We stopped in at a largish store for Elaine to look for a certain brand of pans she fancied. I looked high and low for a Welsh pillow (now that I have my Union Jack I’d love to collect pillows of the places I visit), but though I found several Union Jacks I was without luck. From there we went in search of a cheese factory, only to realize upon arrive that it was closed. So we went to a wool/weaving mill instead. It was interesting watching the workers (and thinking of the difference between this mill and North & South). We stopped in the little shop, and I picked up a small lavender rabbit that was woven in the Welsh pattern (a sort of art deco green). My collection of stuffed animals keeps growing. But this rabbit looks very folky, and will make a good edition to the folky Santa from Italy and the folky doll from Virginia.

Then we went to the best fish and chips in the UK! Which actually lived up to its name. Something’s Cooking was delicious, and not bony, and I was delighted. Also I got to have ice cream! I believe that was the first ice cream I’ve had since coming here, and it did not disappoint.

After that, we drove out to Pentre Ifan, which is the Welsh Stonehenge. It’s basically the entrance to an old tomb, on the top of some impressively high hills and surrounded by sheep. It was completely open, so you could walk under it and touch it and such. We passed two other people while we were leaving, but otherwise it was totally empty.

From there we went to St. Davids, the smallest city in the UK. The sun was shining by now, without a cloud in the sky with only wisps of cloud in the sky.

The cathedral itself was quite beautiful. I was surprised. It’s huge—especially for how small the town is—with a lovely carved ceiling and some beautiful detail stonework. It felt really medieval, but not dark at all. I went up into the library briefly, but it wasn’t that impressive. (Well, I’m sure it’s impressive if I had been looking for a certain book, but as someone just browsing it didn’t have a huge appeal.) I took some pictures from my stomach, because you were supposed to buy a voucher to take pictures (which really wasn’t that expensive, I was just lazy). There were some really cool graves. I think I saw Rhys ap Tewdwr, which I took a picture of but unfortunately cropped the name out. I’d been reading about Rhys ap Tewdwr in my Gwenllian book. He was a southern alley that fought against the Normans, but was beheaded. His son is the “William Wallace” of Wales, whose story I’m currently reading. I think the son ends up with Gwenllian, but haven’t got that far yet. ANYWAY. If it was Rhys ap Tewdwr, that was awesome, and either way it was cool to see the grave of a dude I’d just been reading about.

On our way back to the car, I jumped in a used bookstore in search of fairy/folklore books. Unfortunately the only one I could find was a cheap, glossy paperback for kids. Instead I bought some postcards and we went back.

We stopped at another small town (where I got a super cheap Welsh flag/tea towel), then at a rocky beach, then went back home. After another quiet evening, it was off to bed.

Day Four – Walking, Walking and More Walking

We set out with a packed lunch to do some walking. There were beautiful views from the cliffs, and it was pleasantly warm. The wind wasn’t too bad, and the sun shone pretty much all day. It’d probably be boring for me to try to describe the walk (which was about five hours long), so here are some pictures.

Suffice to say: Very beautiful. My feet were beginning to ache by the end, and my legs were rather tired, but overall I was surprised by how easy it was.

We rested for a bit. Anna and I watched some news, some footage from the House of Commons (very amusing!), a tourism show about Yorkshire (which made me even more eager to go) and a bit of a game show, all of which was very educational. We had an excellent dinner. Later Anna, Donna, Tony and I went on a much shorter walk to a lighthouse, where we attempted to catch the sunset (once again it was blocked by clouds just on the horizon). But it was a good day.

Oh, and I finished reading Gwenllian: The Welsh Warrior Princess! She and the Robin Hood/William Wallace/Gruffudd ap Rhys fellow did end up together, and merrily run about slaughtering Normans. Unfortunately it doesn’t end very well for her, and in fact is rather heartbreaking. But the Welsh spirit goes on, fights the good fight, etc. Also found out that the fellow buried in St. Davids was her youngest son, the one who apparently ended up with the happiest ending of the lot. I’d love to learn more about her (especially to see what this author dramatized and what is “real”). I think a skilled author could write a really excellent trilogy about her life (Book One: Her upbringing and love story with the Welsh prince just returned from exile in Ireland, Book Two: Married couple fighting the good fight together/having babies/getting imprisoned, Book Three: The escape, further fights, the tragedy, the aftermath/the Welsh spirit lives on). Not sure I’m that author (partially because historical fiction scares the heck out of me, not going to lie) but I’d fully support novels and/or films about this forgotten Welsh heroine.

Day Five – And Back Again (Another Adventure of Itself)

After cleaning up the house, we hit the road. First stop: Pembroke Castle!

Anna and I went to explore the castle ourselves. It was awesome. Almost all of it was completely open for exploration, and aside from about four or five other people we had the whole thing to ourselves. The sky was blue and it was pleasantly warm. Just wonderful.

Among other things, we saw: The tower where Henry VII was supposedly born, the best preserved medieval dungeon, and a natural cavern under the castle. We also wandered in and out of dank, dark rooms, peered at some interesting plastic people reenacting scenes from the Civil War, and climbed many steep and narrow winding staircases. I was very comfortable, as all the doors were my size, but Anna (who’s about a foot taller) had to stoop a few times. Unfortunately we ran out of time and didn’t make it into the keep tower itself, but other than that we saw everything quite thoroughly. Popped into the gift shop, where I finally found a little book of Welsh mythology, and then ran back to the car just in time for our meet up.

On the drive into Wales, we’d passed some signs that said “Roman Fortress.” At Anna’s request, Tony looked up the info and added the stop into our return trip. We stopped here to eat our picnic lunches and explore the town. It has the only fully excavated amphitheater in Britain, which was very nice and grassy. Walking around it felt a little surreal. I kept thinking about how many stories had converged here—the Roman soldiers out in the wilderness, the slaves, animals, outcasts and gladiators that made up the sport, whose defining triumphs and deaths took place in this theater. Now all that’s left of those stories is this ruin, covered in grass and yellow flowers.

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From there, Anna and I went to look for the Roman Baths. We got a little confused by the map, and ended up wandering in the residential areas. Caerleon (the town) is known as a place where King Arthur held court for a while, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth. None of the museums or signs said anything about this, but the residential area had am “Arthur Street” and “Pendragon House.” We even found the court of Camelot!

… Or not exactly.

We found a plaque that said “the Roman Baths were probably around here we think” (summarized interpretation). Frustrated, we went on to the other town museum. This one was quite interesting, with a lot of Roman burial stuff, artifacts and a little shop. From there we went to the car, where Tony pointed out the actual Roman Baths museum (we apparently had found the back of the museum before). It was actually really cool! Not as massive as the ones in Bath Spa, but quite impressive for the little town. It was very interactive as well, and would have made an excellent place to bring kids.

The rest of the drive back was uneventful, with Anna and I discussing art history, the Danish royal family, teen pregnancy and other interesting subjects. We got back to Reading before too late, where I immediately unpacked like a responsible adult before getting on the internet forever (this is an actual fact).

Over all a fantastic trip.

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