September 12th, 2009


Wales/England; England/Wales

(Written September 9 & 10)

We've spent the last two days dipping in and out of Wales, sometimes several times in the course of a single drive. According to the map, there was one road we drove where the left side was in Wales, the right side in England--which accounts for the bilingual signs on my side of the road.

Before leaving Bristol, we visited the SS Great Britain, one of the earliest and largest iron-bottomed steamships ever built, launched in 1843, which means that Jack Aubrey could have lived to see it, with its 6 masts (just in case, I guess) and its massive counter-balanced rudder and innovative propellor screw. One wonders whether he loved it or loathed it. Stephen, of course, would have been fascinated. It was a luxury passenger ship at first, then an immigration ferry to Australia--for which purpose, they removed the steam engine and went entirely by sail. They've restored the interior beautifully, down to laundry hung across the berths in steerage and violins and children's toys and books and drawings lashed to shelves and hanging from the walls. There was even an elderly gentleman playing "Bicycle Built for Two" on the upright in the First Class Saloon. I bought a book. It was very cool.

It's hard to believe that same day ended in Tintern Abbey, but it did. We drove from urban to silvan, from commerce to poetry, from crowds of people to flocks of sheep and birds singing above the steep and wooded hills. We wandered around the ruins, taking pictures and looking up at the vistas, finally settling on a bench in what had been the infirmary garden so that I could read "Tintern Abbey" to Ellen. That's three times I've read it in the last few days, and every time, it makes a little more sense to me, and moves me more. I've never felt about Nature the way Wordsworth did--I'm not wired for that particular kind of Awe, I think. But I can feel an echo of it in places like Tintern (especially in the off-season absence of coach tours), when guided by his words. That's what poetry is for, isn't it?

We spent in the night in a B&B whose chief virtue was being around the corner (in country terms) from friends. We had dinner with them in the beautiful stone house they rebuilt over the course of 14 years from tumble-down walls and a leaky roof. It was a tavern once, with a huge cellar they use as a larder and a wonderful lofty kitchen they've fitted out with an Aga and open shelves. There are books everywhere, and the walls are painted in hand-mixed lime paints in deep, organic colors. They have two sons, 11 & 5, who told us about school and dinosaurs and Greek mythology and animals and the mysterious correspondences between American and British grades until it was time for them to retire and us to eat dinner, which was partly from their extensive garden and wonderful. Our host was an old friend of Ellen's from radio days. We're so lucky to have a life so full of people who live in beautiful and inspiring places.

Yesterday, the weather was absolutely and positively glorious, warm, bright, sunny, dry, and many other words one doesn't usually use to describe Wales. Which was a good thing, because we spent a lot of time driving the lanes, and the drive from Abergavenney to Hay-on-Wye especially is not something I would have been happy about in bad weather. I wasn't all that happy about it in good weather, either, being a somewhat timid driver, and very bad at reversing, especially down a narrow track, with hedges to either side and a woman glaring at me from the wheel of a huge Land Rover. It was a gorgeous drive, though I mostly couldn't appreciate the scenery, being entirely focussed on the road. We passed through woods and dells and up into the Black Mountains, which are more rocky moorland than proper mountains, high and windy and covered with bracken and moss and grass and sheep. Many, many sheep. Oh, and moor ponies, grazing or standing with their heads draped over each other's necks--very picturesque.

But the best thing about the "shortcut" through the mountains was Llanthony Priory. For my money, it's lovelier than Tintern, certainly quieter, compact all of grey stone, with the great pointed arches framing bright vistas of green and grey and blue that would put the subtlest of painted glass windows to shame.

Also, sheep. And horses running slantwise up the steep field. And a long, low wall of dressed stone between the priory and the field behind whose picture is now the wallpaper on my iPhone, and long will be so. We wandered around, loving it so much, and then we got back in the car again and pressed on to Hay.

Let others write of the joys of Hay-on-Wye. We came late in the day and had to browse fast before the shops closed at 5. We focused on children's books, which were present, although somewhat thin on the ground, the best children's book shop being a mile in the wrong direction for us and I being somewhat shaky about driving after the trip over the moors. Still, Ellen scored a copy of Allison Uttley's A Traveler in Time (of which more in its proper place) and I got Leon Garfield's Apprentices London and (at the last minute) a book by Richard Llewellyn, who wrote How Green Was My Valley, the title of which I can't remember and it's in the boot of the car, so I can't look it up. And a couple more books ditto. I can't say I loved it. Touristy and pricey, was how it struck me. But I'm willing to concede to a jaundiced attitude. Also low blood sugar.

And then we came to safe harbor in the little B&B of Well House, in Castle Lawn, Shropshire, just over the border from Knighton. We were warmly recieved, fed tea and Victoria Sponge cake (I gotta make me some of that Victoria Sponge--it's go-o-od), and shown a lovely large room with a little casement overlooking the garden and the hills and a truly Lucullan bathroom, with a little shower cabinet like a glass torpedo-tube and a long double-ended tub under the window and a heated floor. I hastily washed off the dirt of the road, and then our host drove us to Mark and June's, because I wasn't going to get in the car again that day, no, not for anything. Plus, I wanted a glass of wine. Possibly two.

Which I duly had, along with home-grown runner beans with olive oil, crushed garlic, a little wine vinegar, and chopped walnuts, and feta in filo dough and prize-winning homemade sourdough bread and tapenade and fresh tomatoes and roasted potatoes with yogurt from the farm down the road. June is a splendid cook, and is baking two loaves of bread this afternoon to enter in the Ludlow Food Festival competition this weekend. She took first prize last year with her sourdough, and is ettling to take it again.

And today? Well, today is our day of (relative rest). There's been a little driving about, a fair amount of getting lost, an all-too-brief massage from our host's Yoga teacher, a pub lunch, and now I'm sitting in June's garden, waiting for the wash to come out of the machine so it can at least get a start on drying before sunset. Maybe our hosts will let me hang my jeans out tomorrow morning.

Into the Hills and Onto the Shore

Off into the wild blue yonder we go, away from familiar faces and scenes into the Wilds of Mid-Wales. It's very, very beautiful here, all misty blue distances and stolid stone farmhouses and sheep grazing. Last evening, before dinner, we walked down a lane near our inn, turned off onto a walking path, and wandered down beside a winding river running very fast around great rocks that were smooth and shiny and dark--slate-colored, in fact. Which made perfect sense in slate country. Only I've never seen slate boulders before, and was amazed and charmed in equal measure.

So. Yesterday. Well, we got lost a lot. We got lost in England; we got lost in Wales. We did manage to find Powis Castle, though, and that was a fine thing. It's the seat of an Earl (I forget which, and our guidebook doesn't say. Parenthetically, I gotta say that The Rough Guide to Wales is pretty lame. It manages to make everything sound either boring or too much trouble, and gives little or no history, and that badly and confusingly written. A bad cess on it, say I), transformed from a Norman castle to a gentleman's country seat in 1587 by Sir Edward Herbert, and a very nice job he did of it, too, with plenty of linenfold panelling (remember how I feel about panelling?) and a trompe-d'oeil Long Gallery painted with fabulous beasts from no mythology I know and several bedrooms I could move into very comfortably, thank you very much--although I prefer the one at the end of the gallery and to the left, with the little sitting room built into the curtain wall and the embroidered bedhangings and the desk in the window. If anyone's asking.

The gardens are worth a post all in themselves, and we didn't spend nearly enough time in them, but it was getting late and I was worried about driving to Harlech, which we had planned to do, so I took pictures of some of the strange and wonderful perennials in the herbaceous borders, and we came away, vowing to return some day.

And set off totally in the wrong direction. Which happens with us from time to time. OK, fairly often. Especially when I'm driving and Ellen is navigating. Or vice versa. And when we're tired. Or hungry. Or confused.

I draw a veil over the next hour or so. The long and the short of it was that we gave up the unequal struggle (and the subsequent wear and tear on everyone's nerves) at an place on the roundabout in Mallwyn. It's called the Brigand's Inn, and it advertises itself as a coaching inn from the 15th Century, which doesn't sound right to me. Inn, perhaps. Coaching, I don't think so--not until the 18th C, anyway. Still, they had a room free and a table for dinner, so we hired the one, ordered the second, and sat out on the patio and drank bitter and talked to a friendly guy who had lived in California for three years and his girlfriend, a school photographer. The conversation was pleasant, the meal spectacular. I had best end of Welsh lamb, which turned out to be lovely little chops, with a redcurrent sauce, and Ellen had local-shot venison in a gooseberry sauce. We shared both dishes and felt much better.

Today, (after a brief foray the wrong way on the A470), we made Dolgallau at last, passing through some very lovely country, with all mountains safely and picturesquely in the distance, and north and west on the shore road to Harlech. It was an easy and pleasant drive, in which I feel I finally came to terms with the location of the left side of the car and third gear, which I've been having some trouble with.

We contemplated the castle for a while before we entered it, from the back patio of the restaurant where we had lunch (salmon sandwich and Welsh rarebit, if you're interested, both on homemade bread). It's built of the same variegated slate blocks as the other houses in the village, but where they are cozy and sturdy, it is massive and grim and uncompromising, the threat of a conqueror and nobody's home. Fear me, it says. Tremble in my shadow, which is long and cold, very like the power of the king who ordered me built--and will kill you as soon as look at you, so watch your step. It's fairly well-preserved on the outside, but once you get inside, of course, it's a ruin with small children running around on the grass, shouting to their fathers that they're knights with BIG swords.

More wandering, more picture-taking. I declined climbing to the battlements, but Ellen did, and returned to announce beautiful views. And then we got in the car again and drove (without incident, this time) to the farmhouse B&B we'd managed to book through the Tourist Information office. It's called Pengwern Farm, and it has internet I can sign on to. Intermittently. The host cooked us a wonderful dinner of roast lamb and locally-grown vegetables and sherry trifle with wonderful whipped cream. I've iced my leg (which is blooming purple and green and black) and am more than ready to call it a day.

Carnarvon tomorrow, then a night in a haunted castle. We may or may not cross from west to east through the mountains. I'll see how brave I'm feeling.