Saturday, May 31, 2008

My Great Britannic Adventure, Day Fourteen

Thursday, 30 March, 1989
Fitz to Shrewsbury to Caernarfon
Day Fourteen

Whole party assembled at breakfast in the
main dining room in the morning, including Ted* and Susanna's* 17 month old baby, Timothy*. Intelligent child, even if not speaking intelligibly yet. The baby’s tone of voice and inflection made it sound as if he had something important to say, if only he could get his tongue around the syllables. Reminded me of the children at Coverdale*.

I thought about mentioning the mice, but refrained because I was only there the one night and Mr. and Mrs. Baly probably couldn’t do anything about it at the moment anyway.

After breakfast Harry* and Elspeth* and I adjourned to the sitting room to see a video on Shropshire the Balys had. It was a little boosteristic in places (I kept my mouth shut, though appallingly I was tempted to make cynical comments) but it did me the favor of showing me what Shrewsbury Abbey looks like.

Went upstairs thereafter and took a bath and all the rest of it, then packed up and was ready to go by 11:00.

I never know how it is with people. Last night Mrs. Baly was very kind and even motherly with me; this morning she was perfunctory and mainly concerned that I pay my £12.50 and let her get on with her business. I suppose that had something to do with it, since Fitz Manor is a working farm and they had had some Welsh sheep pastured on their land this winter, since Shropshire had grass while Wales (NE part) didn’t. And today the Welsh shepherd was come to collect his flock.

Still, my hostess’s change in manner had me wondering for much of the rest of the day what I could possibly have done or said. Maybe I’m oversensitive . . . but I’m afraid that if I blow that sort of thing off all the time, I’ll be in danger of being inconsiderate of someone I really have hurt. [I've recently learned something about the practice of overwintering the young mountain lambs on lowland farms and what a major undertaking it is to gather them all in to return them home. So yes, I was being oversensitive.]

Took off for
Shrewsbury along the not-so-well sign-posted lanes. Arrived there from the north, driving in from the castle side and went round and round from awhile, trying to find a carpark. No luck, till I found myself on the Wyle Cop (familiar name, that), going eastward across the bridge over the Severn, and heading up the Abbey Foregate towards the red sandstone front of the formerly Benedictine abbey church of St. Peter and St. Paul. I haven’t read all those Brother Cadfael mysteries for nothing.

Located a free carpark south of the church, reflecting ruefully that this expanse of broken tarmac and its attendant fenced-in spare parts yards were once part of the abbey grounds and gardens. The Meole Brace, which still exists under a different name, was completely obscured among the jumble of decaying modern buildings. The millpond still exists as a stagnant pool next to some archeological diggings sponsored by the University of Birmingham, but looking long unworked.

The abbey church is a stout Norman building with a Gothic choir and narthex added at either end. Along the south side you can see the jagged masonry where the demolished abbey walls and buildings used to join its fabric.

The interior is of three storeys, with round piers with plain banded capitals supporting no-nonsense rounded arches at the nave arcade and triforium levels. Above that the clerestory is a mural surface pierced by round-headed windows.

As I passed through the nave, I constantly had to stop myself from saying things to myself like, "This is the part that Brother Cadfael knew." He is, after all, only an invention of the writer Ellis Peters. Still, it was helpful to think of his character as I walked through "his" church. Though sometimes perplexed by them, the sins and foibles of man do not shake his faith in God. Whatever evil man can do, Cadfael is assured that God can do greater good still, and he rests in the confidence that God can make right, here or beyond the grave, whatever messes we make of our lives and the lives of others. Only a fictional character, true, but when so many evil fictional characters are influencing people to the bad, why not rejoice in the fact that an author has seen fit to invent one who can confirm one in the good?

It was funny-- they had a supply of the Brother Cadfael novels for sale in the little postcard shop. I peeked in one or two just long enough to look at Peters’ sketch maps of the abbey and its environs to reconcile them with the 20th century cityscape outside. Actually, that’s why I stopped in Shrewsbury in the first place.

There’s a road running south of the church as well as to the north, now. It’s called the Abbey Foregate as well.

They had a little pamphlet there, locating the places around Shrewsbury that Peters features in her novels. But it cost 60p and that seemed a little steep for a mimeographed sheet that would only serve to satisfy a literary fancy.

Headed for the
Severn, and walked a bit in a little garden that marks the approach to the Gaye. The Severn is a little river here, like most English rivers I’ve seen (when they aren’t estuaries).

English Bridge as it stands is an 18th century production, reworked and widened in 1924.

Crossed it and walked up the Wyle to the main square and ye olde tourist information office. Needed to know where the local NatWest is so I could cash in some traveller’s cheques, and learn where I could find
Butchers’ Row, to see the 15th century house I’d read of in Margaret Wood.

While I was there at the tourist office I, quite lazily, decided to make use of their "Book a room ahead" service. The man told me they’d find me a place in Carnarfon and would tell about it if I’d come back in a half hour. £1.50.

Found the NatWest, got the cash, and remembered to ask about the check I’d discovered missing the other day. The computer had a record of the amount-- £45--but none of the endorsee. I’d have to call Oxford for that.

So I went and found a phonecard booth and had the Cornmarket branch on the line, when it came to me that the check is one I wrote out of order before I left Oxford. So all is well.

Found Butchers’ Row. It has 15th century timbered and jettied houses at both ends, dragon beams and all.

Bought a cheese savory and a cream pastry at a baker’s shop and returned to the tourist office by 2:30 or so. They’d gotten me a place at a Mrs. Hughes’, in a house with a Greek name-- Pros Kairon-- and the man wrote out the directions for me.

Sat out in the square then and wrote the Mackintosh postcard to Jim* and Annie* [our brilliant furniture makers back in Kansas City].
Shrewsbury’s a pleasant town but could do with fewer agglomerations of foul-mouthed pre-teenaged boys. They’re on school holiday, too, and were hanging around the square trading insults and voicing threats of what they were going to do to some other gangs of boys, their chorus sometimes augmented by solos from one or two local drunks who found the square a convenient place to pass the time as well.

Posted the card, then went to the street leading to the Castle and stopped at
Boots, for some vitamins. I’m out. And got some shampoo, as well.

Didn’t go into the
castle keep (it’s a military museum now, which didn’t particularly interest me), but you can come into the walls and admire the garden and climb the tower all you wish.

The neck of land that falls between the two sides of the loop of the Severn in front of the castle is spanned now by the BritRail terminal and its platforms. It’s disappointingly, monumentally ugly.

Walked back to the carpark another way, more or less. Took note of the Norman south door on St. Mary’s. Then a little later, turned off the Wyle to follow the lane of St. Julian’s Friars. No remains of a friary to photograph, though, so I just walked along the Severn north to the English Bridge and back to the carpark.

Pulled out around 4:15. Back across the Severn, around the southern bypass (or what passes for one in this town), across the
Welsh bridge and through Frankwell, and thence to the A5 and Llangollen.

Into Wales at Chirk. First thing you notice is that the Welsh are very serious about
Welsh. I determined not to get into any accidents along these twisty roads-- I could never cope with an argument in such an unintelligible tongue.

But I had the fun of seeing the region for which so many Philadelphia suburbs are named. Passed by the turnoffs for both Bala and Cynwyd.

For one stretch I had the exquisite pleasure of forming part of a parade behind a very wide house trailer that was being moved. Police escort and all. They occasionally had to stop oncoming traffic so the trailer could go by.

After awhile the mist set in and it began to rain a little. Along the A4086, before the rail line for the top of
Snowdon, I passed through a valley that was grand even in its grim bleakness. There was no vegetation to be seen, and great black rocks lay in tumbled heaps and spills along the mountain faces, below nightmarish crags. I said to myself, "Mordor. It's Mordor. This is where Tolkien got it for Lord of the Rings. It's Mordor!" And the mist made it seem bleaker-- and therefore more romantic-- still.

Carnarfon by 6:45, fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. Directions were fine-- to a point. Said take the second right after turning left at the firestation. Second right was a One Way Do Not Enter onto the motorway. Went back to the Shell Station near the firehouse, to ask directions.

Filled up the car while I was there, since the radio had said Texaco would be raising their petrol prices to £1.878, up by 7p a gallon, and I could just see Shell following suit.

Inside, everyone was speaking Welsh. Momentary fear: what if they’re so militant they’re not bilingual? But they were. I started to explain what my directions had said but the woman cut me off with a perfunctory "Listen!" which brooked no nonsense from idiot foreigners. In her opinion I was to turn left after the left by the fire station.

Tried that, and it ultimately worked, even if the street had no name plate, in Welsh or English, and I had to ask a passerby if I was in the right place.

All this is giving me an entirely new insight on Jonah 4:11. I used to think that bit about the people of Nineveh not knowing their right hands from their left was a metaphor for a kind of moral blindness. But now I see it simply means they couldn’t give accurate directions! It’s a good thing for them the way through the city was obvious, for if Jonah had had to rely on the directions of such people as around here, he’d’ve been preaching only in one small corner of the city those three days, not enough people would have repented, and Nineveh would’ve been destroyed.

Found "Pros Kairon" by parking the car and walking down and then up the street till I spotted a B&B sign. Mrs. Hughes, a little elderly Welshwoman, was ready to answer my ring; she said she’d been looking out for me.

Room was upstairs at the back, overlooking a bit of garden. Small, but nice, with an electric blanket on the bed and a space heater.

Since it was relatively early, I decided to be reckless with my cash and get a pub meal in the town center. The Hugheses directed me to a pub they recommend and I set off.

They live in a part of Carnarfon outside the Edwardian [Edward I--13th century] walls. The houses here are all pretty modern: Victorian or newer than that, marching in mostly-gray ranks up and down the hills.

To get to the town center you have to go down the hill, across the motorway via a pedestrian underpass, along a street or two, and then you’re in the
castle square. The city still focusses there, it seems.

The castle, which I cannot do better than describe as a formidible pile (though Carcassonne on its hill is more aesthetically impressive), lies at the point where the River Seiont empties into the Menai Strait. The boats moored in the river mouth looked, in the mist-filled drizzly twilight, as if they were sitting on a water preternaturally calm.

There were many people about, even though not a lot of places seemed to be open. Everyone was speaking Welsh and most of the signs were in that language, or that and English both. I am beginning to pick out words here and there, written, but have no idea how the
grammar works.

The directions I’d received at the B&B didn’t work too effectively, for lack of street signs. I finally found the pub,
The Black Boy (and was it a racist act to go there?) via the offices of another pub, who weren’t serving evening meals but were happy to direct me to one that was-- the aforementioned B. B.

Ordered a plate of garlic mussels and sat down at a table to wait for them. The TV was on, showing some BBC evening soap opera, which soon ended. Then a program about some British man’s travels in Arizona came on. And I confess that the sight of all those cars driving on the righthand side made me a little queasy.

Pretty soon, the set was turned off and the juke box came on. It was highly incongruous, hearing the pounding background of those English rock songs laid beneath the general flow of Welsh conversation. You’d think they’d have some Welsh pop bands by now. Even funnier was when a Welsh tune did come on-- it was obviously meant to be some heart-stirring romantic or nationalistic ballad, and was sung dramatically by the Welsh version of Lawrence Welk’s inevitable Irish tenor-- and amongst the Welsh in the pub you could hear the very English expression from the brave young men of Wales: "Squelch it! Squelch it!!"

Some people don’t got no culcha.

One of the guys at the next table asked me, in English, what I was reading. At first my impulse was to give him the cold shoulder-- as in "I don’t talk to strangers"-- but decided not to be such a jerk. So we had a mild amount of chitchat, until he was called to join a darts match with some of his mates. The reason I felt odd about it is not that here I was an American in a Welsh pub, but that here I am 34 and surely he took me for someone closer to his age (mid-20s), or he wouldn’t have spoken to me . . . But why should I assume that? Maybe because I’m that way myself. Anyway, I felt odd, as if I were sailing under false colors.

The mussels were good, though they could’ve used a bit more salt. I had a half pint of
Worthington’s bitter to go with them. Not the best combination, but the ale itself was palatable and not bitter to the extent of Guinness dark, say.

Satiated my chocolate craving with a bar bought at an off-license on the way back to the B&B. Went back without loitering or rubbernecking, because although it was hardly 9:00 PM, with the mist the streets were a little surreal.

Pros Kairon has a guest sitting room downstairs so I brought my journal down there to sit in front of the nice electric fire and work on it. But instead I talked to the other guests and let myself be distracted by the television. The others were a couple from Australia. They’d already been to Israel and Egypt before coming to England, and were labelling their photographs. We told trip stories, not neglecting ones about driving around the UK (especially in those winds last week), until they retired about 10:00.

I followed shortly, to work on the journal a little more but more to read Walter Scott.


Anonymous said...

Ohhh.... I just love Brother Cadfael!

Now I am soooooo jealous. I would be jumping up and down with excitement just to walk where his (fictional) sandals had trod! (Also would stand up the entire world for a dinner date with Sir Derek Jacobi who plays Cadfael in the BBC series). Did you know that the Severn is where the name "Sabrina" comes from?

Anyway, I'm babbling.

Good luck on your presentation to the council. lots of hugs for you.


Sandy said...

What a great post! I was impressed with the electric fire AND an electric blanket!

St. Blogwen said...

Me, too. Nice people; unfortunately old enough then that they're probably no longer doing B&B now.

St. Blogwen said...

Whiskers, having read the books, being in Shrewsbury was truly like returning to a familiar place. Once I hit the Wyle I did not get lost!

That's the power of good writing. The author can create a world and bring you into it, so that you see places and things through her eyes and the eyes of her characters. And when the author's world and the "real" world overlap, your experience of both is enhanced and made fertile.

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