Monday, June 02, 2008

My Great Britannic Adventure, Day Fifteen

Friday, 31 March, 1989
Caernarfon to Aberbran
Day Fifteen

Was up reading till around 2:00 last night and, not having the nerve to risk waking people up by going down the hall to the lavoratory, I went to bed with a dirty face. That’s one of the drawbacks of not having a sink in the room.

Yesterday Mrs. Hughes had asked if I’d like a grapefruit for breakfast. I’d said, yes, that would be nice . . . But I certainly wasn’t expecting her to go to the effort of sectioning one with mandarin orange pieces and a cherry. It was a nice touch.

Packed up my things and put them in the car, but left the car parked on Victoria Road, out front, while I visited the castle down the hill. Spoke to Mr. Hughes, or rather, Dr. Hughes, as I was leaving. Turns out he’s a retired Presbyterian minister. There’s something about being here that makes you realize just how strongly the roots of the American Presbyterian church grip the soil of Wales. In many of the hymns, if nothing else.

To the
great castle of Caernarfon today, then. The day started out overcast but cleared up to the extent that I’m sure I took a lot of pictures twice, once in shade and once in light. Seeing the effect the sunshine could have on the stone, I kept feeling a kind of idiot surprise. You’d think I’d gotten so used to the light effects through cloud that I’d forgotten things could look any other way.

I probably lead my life like that. I’m so used to this narrow, dull range of mediocrity-- of accomplishment, of emotion, of spirit-- that I no longer remember that something brighter and stronger is definitely possible. I hope clearing away the obscuring clouds isn’t in my purview, however. I wouldn’t know the first way to go about it.

Edward I and his successors certainly built themselves one whopping big castle. I started out at the Granary Tower and gradually worked my way around counter-clockwise, exploring every chamber, stair, wallwalk, or other nook or cranny that was accessible. Saw a plethora of fireplaces fitted out with genuine, original Carnarfon arches (I wonder if those chimneys ever smoked?). And I wondered how all these towers had looked with their storeys properly floored, all those beam holes in the their walls fitted with beams, and a roof over all.

The Eagle tower is restored to that condition. But I think it’d be good (there are so many towers there) if at least once chamber was fitted and furnished as it would’ve been in the 14th Century, with painted plaster on the walls and everything.

There were a good number of other people going over the castle as well. (There was one school group, presided over by a matronly teacher with a very loud voice. She had no hesitation about using it to bring to general notice any minor infraction by one of her charges. If I’d been one of those kids I’d’ve died of embarrassment.) Still, when I saw a suspicious-looking man on his own in one of the passages on the south side, I took my time until he had moved away. Another episode as at Carcassonne I don’t need [There, in a tight place between the double walls the previous December, I was, shall we say, indecently accosted by a sleazy character. I broke free right away and ran for the main gate, but it made me a little sick to know that if he'd really wanted to pursue and catch me, he could have].

Saw everything there was to see till I got round to the Queen’s Gate, by which time I was very tired and said to hell with the rest of it. I don’t think God’s going to hold one tower and two stretches of wall against me.

Left the castle and went over to the pedestrian shopping street and bought a steak and kidney pie for lunch. I ate it sitting near a monument while I contemplated all the bilingual signs and wondered about Welsh grammar.

Got another pie and a macaroon for tonight, then returned to the castle to visit the shop. Was closed for inventory. Got my postcards at a shop (or siop) outside the castle walls.

And I called ahead to South Wales about tonight’s lodging. The place near Brecon named in Staying Off the Beaten Track was full, but they recommended me another place, where I booked a room.

Back up at the car, I marked my route and headed out by 2:30 or so. Took the Porthmadog road, the A487, south to where it joins with the A470 south of Ffestiniog. North Wales is definitely coal country [Wrong. Slate.], though I’m not totally sure if those subsided heaps of flat gray stones on the hill sides were of coal slag or were slates.

The day stayed fine, the landscape was beautiful, and I was one frustrated little kid at not being able to pull off anywhere to really look at it. In the North stone walls line all the roads, as in Scotland, and there was no place to squeeze off. Too bad, especially as there was a spectacular rainbow at one point.

I saw the funniest thing in the hills between Dolgellau and Machynlleth. As I came around a curve there was a person in the road, trying to flag me down. Thinking there had been an accident or something, I slowed to a stop, wondering if I’d be able to assist if required. The woman approached the car and said, "Some sheep are coming down the road. I’m taking them up that lane. We’ll be out of the way in a few minutes." She then dashed over to give the same message to the driver behind.

And in a moment here the sheep came, from around the bend ahead of me, appearing from behind the curve of the hill. They came not slowly and phlegmatically, as I’d expected, but trotting and gambolling like little dogs, seeming to grin as they advanced, even as puppies do. All seven or eight of them overshot the turn and came bounding up to their shepherdess (in wellies and oiled jacket) and she, in the Welsh version of the lingua franca used between sheep and shepherd, gave a command. At that, they all turned and scampered up the little lane and out of sight, with no other urging or coercion, followed closely by their keeper.

The traffic started up again. Even in my amusement, as I went on I couldn’t help but be reminded of what Jesus said about "I am the Good Shepherd of the sheep. My sheep know My voice and follow Me."

Sometimes as I drove I listened to Welsh radio, seeing if I could pick words out here and there. It sounds more graceful than it reads. And sometimes I turned the radio off and sang all the hymns to Welsh tunes I could remember: Hyfrydol, Cwm Rhondda, Aberystwyth, Ton-y-Botel, Llanfair . . . Rather frustrating to find that after this time away from the Presbyterian hymnal, I’m a little rusty on the words.

I did pretty well with keeping to my projected route. I only went wrong once, when I took the turnoff for Llanadarn before Aberystwyth. I turned around and rejoined the A487-- then found if I’d kept on I would’ve bypassed Aberystwyth and saved myself a few miles. But that’s all right, because if I had, I would’ve missed the view of Cardigan Bay shimmering silver in the afternoon sun.

The landscape becomes more pastoral, rounded, and homely the further south you go. Golden light bathed the valleys and hills, and highlighted the roadside hedges that now replaced the rubble stone walls. The yellow green hills were punctuated with sheep, grazing against the crisscross of the sloping fields.

I headed southeast at Aberaeron, on the A482, through Lampeter. I pulled off to check the map in Llandovery and found I was all right, I’d gotten onto the A40 as I should. It was past 7:00 by now but the light was holding beautifully.

I had an Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 map of the Brecon Beacons area with me and it was a good thing. The lady at the B&B had given me directions, but for some reason, probably habit, she’d given them as if I were coming from the east, not the west. But the hamlet where the farm is, Aberbran, is on the map and I hadn’t the least bit of trouble knowing when to look for the sign for the turnoff.

There was a black and white cat that ran across the lane as I approached. "Out of the way, moggie," said I. "I don’t want to hit you."

The actual name of the place is Aberbran-Fach, or little (farm) at the mouth of the black water, to distinguish it from Aberbran-Mawr up the lane before the bridge over the Usk. I pulled into the yard and was greeted by the usual brace of black and white shepherd dogs, and could hear the bleating and lowing of some of their charges across the court. Pretty soon the owner, Mrs. Jones (very Welsh) came out. Though definitely what I’d call pushing elderly, she insisted on carrying my bag in. Fortunately her husband carried it upstairs.

Basic good white and tile farmhouse with an Aga stove in the kitchen. They’d made some "improvements" by pasting weave-cloth photograph vinyl wall covering over the plaster between the antique timber beams. A little off, but for £11 you can’t have everything.

And Mrs. Jones was so kind and filled me full of tea and Welsh cakes down in the parlor. There was a fire going in the fireplace and it was good just to sit and rest.

The cakes look like little pancakes about 1½" across, but they’re thicker and are more of a shortening bread. "A lot of English people want to put butter on these," she announced in a tone that fully indicated the cultural ignorance of any who would even consider such a thing. As would not I, of course not. Besides, no butter had been present to tempt me to such a desire.

I hadn’t seen a newspaper in ages so I picked up one of the tabloids they had there. Well, I’d heard the Sun and the Star were sleazy rags and now I discovered it first hand. I suppose one simply pretends not to see the young ladies displaying their mammaries on Page 3 and turns on to the important news of the latest Hollywood or Royal scandal and the editor’s current sanctimonious posturing. It gets pretty thin, though.

There was another couple, from London, staying there too and around 9:00 they returned from a steak dinner in Brecon (dream on, kid). The TV was on but no one really watched it. Mr. Jones dozed in his chair and everyone else talked about Welsh.

They don’t really speak it in south Wales, Mrs. Jones informed us, though they can read it well enough. I’m starting to pick up some vocabulary and even some pronunciation. I find it is inflected from the front-- initial consonants can vary depending upon a word’s place in the sentence [Well, sort of. Not exactly inflected, but mutated.]

General adjournment of guests for upstairs at 10:00 or so. Me, I sat up and worked on the journal till after 2:00 . . . It was fun going to the loo around midnight. All the lights were off, it was pitch black in the passageway, and I dared not turn any lights back on. So I had to feel my way along, avoiding the narrow place at the top of the stairs, and feeling very shaky where the floor in the kitchen wing sloped perceptibly downwards towards the bathroom door. (The bathroom floor sloped severely, too.) Getting back was much easier, since I knew then what I was doing.

Ate the meat pie I bought in Carnarfon this afternoon, lest it go bad. Tried not to leave crumbs around. Less luck with the chocolate I followed it with. Got a bit on the white bedspread. Moistened my washcloth in the water from the carafe and did my best to get it out. Talk about klutzy.


Anonymous said...

All it takes is a teeny tiny bit of chocolate to just get EVERYWHERE! You are completely right about a good author being able to draw you in to their world. Currently I'm reading Ngaio Marsh's Inspector Alleyn mysteries and love love loving them. The hero, Roderick (Rory) Alleyn, and his wife, Agatha Troy, are just so well suited to each other you want to reach in and hug them both. I have almost the entire set, and am only missing about six. I intend to finish my collection with Christmas money, if I get any. If you haven't read any of the books, I recommend you start with "Tied Up In Tinsel". It's quite good, and lets you really get to know Alleyn and Troy.


Sandy said...

As usual, felt like I was there. I especially loved the part about the sheep.

St. Blogwen said...

There's a lovely follow-up story about the Joneses at Aberfan Fach. In June of 1993 I was touring Wales with my mom. We'd explored the castle in Caerphilly, about 36 miles to the south. We couldn't find any place to spend the night there, so I told my mom we should drive up to Brecon, I had an idea. I didn't have the Joneses' number, but we stopped at a pub down the road and asked. "Yes, the Joneses at Aberfan Fach are still doing B&B, go on up." "May I see the phone book so I can call ahead?" "Oh, you don't need to call, just go! They'll be glad to see you!"

So we just went, and Mrs. Jones remembered me (over four years later, it was), and put me in "your old room." We all sat in the kitchen and talked about cattle. My mother loved it.