A winter week in Wales

Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
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Trip End May 13, 2009


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Flag of United Kingdom  , Wales,
Sunday, January 11, 2009

I crossed into the Prince of Wales' domain on 6 January, a cold, overcast day, and spent my first night in Cardiff at a comfortable backpacker's hostel called NosDa (?) next to the Taf river, opposite the huge Millenium Stadium. Being my first time in Wales and almost knowing nothing about it (other than seeing a depressing film many years ago about the lives of a family in a slate-mining village) I leisurely wandered the streets of Cardiff next with my curiosity very alive. One of the things I quickly came across was the number of shops selling lovespoons - traditionally young men would carve wooden spoons with decorative handles with symbolic meanings (keys, intertwined stems, chains, etc) and give it to a girl he was interested in or loved. If she accepted it she demonstrated her interest in him and they could start courting - old-fashioned and sweet but also practical and direct. 
Cardiff has quite a lot to see but I didn't have much time so I spent my time in 2 main places: Cardiff Castle, which architecturally ranges from a 3rd century Roman fort, a Norman castle, through to the main part which is a neo-Gothic folly (a Welsh Victorian Camelot?) built by a family made wealthy by iron & coal; and the National Museum & Gallery of Wales, where after viewing the collections of art & science I went to the attached café and had a Y-Fenni & leek tart (Y-Fenni is the name of a town, called Abergavenny in English, where they make a cheese from mature cheddar blended with whole-grain mustard and Welsh ale), and a Welsh cake, which is about the size of a pikelet, and a bit like an unrisen scone with sultanas. For the record Cardiff is the Gay centre of Wales and has a Mardi Gras every year - my imagination runs riot with the idea of gays parading through the streets in camp versions of Welsh bard clothes, talking in musical but impenetrable Welsh, and stopping off at the numerous pubs drinking pints of Bragdy Mŵs Piws Welsh ale and eating Y-Fenni tarts.
For the size of the place a lot of well-known people come from Wales. As I travelled westwards I went through Neath, which has a port designed by the impressively named Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Richard Burton, Ray Milland, Bonnie Tyler, and Michael Bogdanov came from here and villages nearby, and I stopped the night in Swansea, which is famous for Dylan Thomas, Michael Heseltine, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Harry Secombe.
At dusk I drove along Oystermouth Rd on the sea-front a couple of times, trying to decide which of the myriad slightly shabby and run-down 3rd class hotels I was going to stay at and eventually chose one at random, hoping it wouldn't have nylon bed-sheets, a definite health hazard in many places. I strolled into town in the crisp night air to dinner at Miah's, an Indian restaurant which occupied a beautiful old church. There I sat alone at my table in the huge space, wading through pages of menu, attended by several waiters who silently waited for my order. Even though I had been to Britain half a dozen times in the previous 2 years, this was my first Indian meal (apart from a Balti restaurant my cousin Claude took me to in Brick Lane, London). I ordered up big - prawns & spinach, Jalfrezi chicken (with peppers, chilies & coriander - my first hot & spicy meal in over a year), dahl, nan with onion, potato, egg & coriander, and felt a bit like a sahib, eating in stately silence and with waiters attending expeditiously to my every request.
The next day I started my Dylan Thomas expedition. Although of course I knew who he was, and how he is considered by many to be the finest English-speaking poet and writer of the 20th century, I haven't read any of Dylan's work - in fact my only exposure is seeing his famous play, Under Milk Wood, at Montsalvat in Melbourne several years ago, which I found a bit hard to follow.  So I started at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, which gave me a comprehensive overview, then I drove up to Uplands, the suburb where he was born and grew up and visited the park he wrote about, the family house at 5 Cwmdonkin st, then along to the nearby village of Mumbles, where he liked to go for a drink (actually he liked to go for a drink everywhere, unfortunately to the point that alcoholic poisining contributed to his death at the age of only 39). My next stop in the pilgrimage was to Laugharne, where Dylan lived in various houses but on the way I couldn't but help and stop for a drink myself at the gorgeous White Hart Thatched Inn, whose additional attraction was that it housed the Coles Family Brewery. I sat happily in the parlour before the open log fire and drank a half pint of roasted barley stout (as I think I've mentioned before it's hard to find a local stout as Guinness and Murphys have a stranglehold on the market, so I take every opportunity I can).
Arriving in Laugharne and parking near the ruined castle I walked along the Cliff Path to the Writing Shed (formerly a garage) where DT (apt initials?) wrote Under Milk Wood (it has been left in virtually the state he left it in, ie messy), then on to the Boat House overlooking the beautiful Taf Estuary, where he lived with his wife Caitlin and 2 sons for the last 4 years of his life. The water in the estuary was so still it looked polished and the reflections so vivid it was hard to tell the clouds and water apart The atmosphere was sombre and beautiful, encouraging me to reflect on such a short, tragic, but productive life. A little later I bought and read 2 Dylan biographies, one by a good friend and the other by his wife and was left mystified by his short, tumultuous, poverty-stricken and highly creative life.
That same day the Daily Mirror of 8 Jan reported the sea froze on the Dorset coast (near where I had been only days ago). Temperatures were as low as -12 in some parts of Britain, colder than Iceland and Greenland, there were lots of accidents with cars sliding off the road on ice, the fountain at Trafalgar Square froze, a school in North Wales closed because thieves had stolen heating oil, and an ice-cream factory closed because feeder pipes to the refrigerators had frozen - in other words it was too cold to make ice-cream!
I arrived that night at St David's (Patron saint of Wales, Ty-Dewwi in Welsh) on the westernmost point in Wales. With only around 2,000 inhabitants it is the smallest city in Britain and also one of the holiest (in 1124 the Pope said a 2 pilgrimages to St David's was equal to one to Rome, and 3 were equal to one to Jerusalem). Stayed at the Alandale Guest House. The owner, underneath his mild demeanour, was a bit of a character - on New Year's Day he went to the Whitesands surf beach nearby and with a group of friends swam 10 strokes out to sea and back to raise money for charity. He gave his future son-in-law a test to earn his daughter's dowry - he had to dress in woman's clothes and a wig, put some lipstick on and kiss the mayor, leaving big red lip-marks on his face (the mayor was dressed in the mayoral cape over a body-hugging lycra outfit underneath). Obviously you have to do something to amuse yourself in a small city but this does seem quintessentially British to me and casts a little light on the mentality behind all those entertaining scandals that British politicians and other members of the establishment seem to get themselves into from time to time.  
I had dinner at a great pub, the Farmer's Arms - smoked haddock (my first time), prawn & spinach lasagna (served with either chips, salad, or jacket potato - can't get used to any of these being placed on top of pasta dishes) - very cheesy/creamy; then a huge apple & cinnamon crumble. My aperitive drink was a very good scrumpy cider, then a glass of French wine, and of course I had to have a Tallisker whisky to aid my digestion and fortify me to walk home in the freezing cold. My companions in the tiny bar were an interesting lot - on the one hand a silent and serious young man, handsome intellectual/bohemian type - black beard, long wavy hair, red beanie, tweed jacket over check lumberjack shirt, jeans, heavy boots, pint of Guinness, guitar case, reading a massive black-leather-bound book about Welsh bards; on the other hand the vicar presiding at the head of a table of pale-skinned young men in dark suits and ties, conversing in mellifluous voices - from what I could make out they were the church choir and were complaining to the vicar about the choir-master.
To round out my spiritual journey I walked along several muddy country paths hedged in with briars to the site of the ruins of St Non's Chapel (mother of St David), the Holy Well, and back to St David's Cathedral, which has the disconcerting feature of the floor sloping more than 3 metres from the beautiful high altar to the other end.
On the way to Machynlleth, which claims to be the ancient capital of Wales, I stopped at 2 fascinating historical sites: Pentre Ifan is the site of a 5,500 year old Neolithic Cromlech (burial chamber inside an earth mound); and Castell Henllys, an iron age fort and settlement. I arrived at the Castell when they were closing but persuaded them to let me look around -  the roundhouses and fortifications have been recreated on the original foundations and with a bit of imagination you can get some feel for what it would have been like living here in those days.  
I was really looking forward to visiting the Centre for Alternative Technology nearby but unfortunately it was closed for a couple of weeks for maintenance (the good part of travelling in winter is there's no other tourists, but the bad part is that many things are closed). I couldn't use their toilets because they were frozen (a thermometer told me it was -14C, but I had an interesting sensation exposing myself to the elements to have a wee on the icy grass nearby), and I could only look at some of their technology - a water-balanced cable car, solar-powered telephone, community turbine, etc).
I then turned back to the coast past Harlech castle (Men of Harlech), through Porthmadog, past another ruined castle, through Criccieth to Pwllheli, hoping to have lunch at Plas Bodegroes, one of only 2 Michelin starred restaurants in Wales (The Sunday Times Travel Magazine's "Top 10 Gourmet Retreats in the World"), but it was also closed for winter, so had to make do with Allports Café for haddock & chips with mushy peas (or alternatively with baked beans, curry, or gravy - the British are very inventive as to what they have with chips).
On my way back I stopped at Portmeiron where a Welsh architect, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis designed a folly which mixes Italian-style buildings (inspired by Portofino) with Dutch and other influences, all painted in a wild mixture of colours. Ice was floating in the ornamental pools and swimming pool by the sea. It has a fantastic view over a large tidal estuary but on the day I was there the wind was blowing extremely hard through the site, so I didn't linger as long as I would have liked. There is a hotel on the site and it would be fun to stay there (but in summer).
From this colourful neo-Victorian folly I drove into the mountains of Snowdonia National Park to a place that could not be more different. Blaenau Ffestiniog is in the heart of the slate mountains - the Ffestiniog Railway used to carry slate from the mines to the port of Porthmadog (now carries tourists on the 13.5 mile line). I stayed at Bryn Elltid Guest House on the shores of Lake Ystradau - it's a sort of eco-lodge with wood-burning stove & boiler which runs the heating in all the rooms, solar collectors, etc. If you can imagine a town with virtually all buildings made of slate, surrounded by mountains made of slate, under a slate-grey sky, with slate-coloured sleet driving down you will get some idea of the atmosphere. There wasn't much in the way of choices for dining establishments but as often happens I managed to find a decent place, a small bistro where I had a good meal. Dinner was a Welsh goat cheese tart, Welsh lamb livers & bacon, helped down with Welsh whiskey. The bistro was tiny and there were 3 tables lined up in a row and we all got chatting and the owner came and joined us (what is an Australian doing here in the middle of winter?) and I had a very pleasant night. 
Next day I woke up to low heavy leaden clouds and heavy rain. The temperature was 6-8 degrees warmer than the last few days. I drove up into the slate mountains to the old slate mine, overlooked by massive hills of broken slate (the detritus from mining - for every ton of usable slate there were 9 tons of waste!). A Teacher with a group of 10 year-old boys on an excursion, their bright red and blue rainjackets standing out brilliantly against the slate background. I forged on ahead up the hill, driven by the wind, the back of me getting soaked. I climbed up to a plateau where there was a partially frozen lake and ruined buildings, but had to  turn back as the weather was getting worse. On the way back the wind gusted hard, and I often had to stop and stand my ground, clutching my jacket's hood so it didn't get ripped off my head. My jacket was not sufficiently waterproof, and with rain running down it, and rain being driven by wind directly on my legs, my thin poly/cotton trousers quickly became completely saturated and stuck to my legs, with rain running down them into my socks and boots. After a while I didn't feel my legs any more. I had to lay a towel on the seat, hang my sodden jacket up and drive on, water running down my legs in my car, and with the heater up full blast, all the windows of the car fogged up internally, which, added to the low, dark clouds and the driving rain meant I could see almost nothing. From here I continued north to Betws-y-Coed, a cute little tourist town, then up over Llanberis Pass, through the village of Nant Peris, passing Mt Snowdon and many other peaks on the way, but not seeing any of them, and back to the coast at Caernarfon past the ruins of the Roman fort of Segontium on the outskirts.
Caernarfon has a massive castle and substantial amounts of the medieval city walls, which encircle much of the town. I spent a couple of blustery hours looking around the castle and wandering around the museum of the 3rd Welch Fusileers (original spelling), who have been going since 1689. They seem to be a remarkably brave and dogged breed of men who have served and died all over the world (the poets Siegried Sassoon & Robert Graves served with them in WW1), and have a few odd traits - until 1808 they wore their hair long, in pigtails, and their mascot is a goat, who holds the position of a corporal and is attended to by the Goat Major (this is not made up!).
Then I drove along the coast past Bangor to Conwy, where there is another huge fort (part of the iron ring of castles built by Edward I in the 1200s) and arrived in the Victorian holiday resort of Llandudno just as it was getting dark. I had planned to turn south and stay at Hay-on-Wye tonight about 250-300kms away, but Llandudno is set on a huge curve of sand between 2 imposing headlands and has many fine old Victorian buildings, so I decide to spend my last night in Wales by the sea.
I had dinner at Osbourne's Hotel (Michelin-starred) - grilled goats cheese salad (very good), lamb shank on mashed potatoes with a red wine jus, with side plate of mashed peas with garlic (must have been only a sliver as it was barely noticeable). I don't know, I'm trying to give the benefit of the doubt to the British, as I've now had lamb at 2 well-regarded restaurants, but I just don't like it - not sure if it's the type of lamb itself or how it's cooked and the gravy or sauce they put with it (I don't have a problem with lamb as I have enjoyed in Patagonia, Italy, even eating half a sheep's head in Matera, Italy).
I got chatting to a friendly and loud-talking couple at a table a few metres away (sounded a bit like a dirty weekend away and some hanky-panky was definitely sure to follow :) - the woman was looking at the dessert menu and was talking about how Peach Melba was named after the famous Australian ballerina Dame Nellie Melba and I corrected her (Dame Nellie was not a ballerina but an opera singer) - it seems nobody is safe from me even if they are a few tables away :). This woman had a tangled genealogy - she had an English father and a Norwegian mother, who was the illegitimate offspring of a German soldier from WW2 (her father's first wife was a Maltese woman whose mother didn't like him and organized for her daughter and children to migrate to Canada). Steve, was an affable, joking type of ageing lad in a camel-coloured corduroy suit (don't know if it was new or whether he had kept it from the last time it was in fashion :). When the woman stood up to say goodbye, she was wearing about the shortest mini I have ever seen - she was also quite chubby and spilling out of her low-cut décolletage and I didin't know where to look. 
So I turned south and drove for several hours through the rolling green hills and arrived in Hay-on-Wye (Y Gelli Gandryll in Welsh), just inside the border with England. It's claim to fame is that it has become known as Book town - although it only has a population of 1,900 it has around 40 bookshops, and every year hosts a 10-day literary festival with around 80,000 people attending (in the Sheland islands last year I met an Italian man who went there every year with his mother). I was brought up on English Boy's books and am tickled pink to read the titles on some of the old books at one of the bookshops: Warnes Happy Book for Boys, The Boy's Book of Carpentry and Electricity, Shrimp of the Seaflake, Inky Way Annual, Luck or Pluck, Jackanapes and other Tales (some of my favourites when I was young were The Lost World of Everest, which had a hero called Sir Everard, The Empty Boat Mystery, and Eric, or Little by Little, a sentimental story about a boy who little by little deviates from the path of Victorian rectitude). After buying several kilos of books I cross back into England and head for Stratford-on-Avon, where I follow the Shakespeare trail, skirt Oxford and head for the last time to London.
When I arrive in London I have dinner at an Italian restaurant in King's Road: rigatoni with sausage, porcini and scamorza cheese (unfortunately no chips or baked potatoes are piled on top :). The atmosphere is so incredibly different from my last 2 weeks – I am greeted with a buona sera as I come in, one of the young women waiters stands on the steps between 2 of the dining rooms and every other waiter going past does something to her – a male waiter kisses her shoulder as he goes past, a female waiter fondles her buttocks with both  hands, and cheesy Italian pop music is playing. I meet up with Claude again, for the last time on this trip. I sleep in my usual position on the couch. Claude's flat in London has been one of my bases in Europe - the others are in Rimini, and Floridia, my birthplace in Sicily. It's been fantastic to drop in on him every few months, have a few days rest & recreation from the work of travelling, reminisce about our childhood, parents & relatives, solve world problems, etc. 
On my last night I meet Barbara (who travelled with me in Iceland in July 2007) outside St Pauls and have drinks, and dinner at Japanese restaurant. I am now starting to say goodbye to people as I working my way back to Italy, from where I plan to leave in a couple of month's time to return to Australia.  
I have been on the channel ferry 3 times already so this time I decide to go via the Eurotunnel - it's much more expensive than the ferry and you have to book ahead - amusingly, when I filled out the online booking form a few days before, in the title section, apart from the usual Mr, Mrs, Ms, you also have the choice of Lord, Lady, Rev, Doctor, and Father.
So I begin my return to Australia and drive my car on to the Eurotunnel shuttle train one evening and in 35 minutes I'm back in Calais, having travelled 50 kms (37.9 undersea) at a maximum depth of only 75 metres below sea level.
 
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