Welsh Diary I: Doing the Little Things

In 2011 my friend Laura and I travelled around Wales and I wrote a diary about it for my friends to read on Facebook.  Here it is, a few years late and slightly edited.

A metal sculpture of a Welsh lion, in a potted plant display in a public street

Day 1: Caer Efrog i Ryl (Saturday, 2nd April 2011)

The thing about travel is that, once you have got home, emptied your suitcase and washed two weeks’ worth of clothes, you find yourself wanting to do more.  In 2010, my friend Laura and I had spent a couple of weeks driving around the southern half of Ireland, visiting castles and abbeys; Laura’s great thing is photography, but mine turned out to be writing about our trips.  A few months later, we took a coach tour to see the Passion Play at Oberammergau in Germany, and once more I entertained (hopefully) all my Facebook friends with the stories of our travels.  By the spring of 2011, we were ready for another trip.  But where to go? Laura comes from the United States and, due to her visa situation at the time, could not then travel outside of the UK, so the Continent was out.  But Laura had never been to Wales before.  I had, many times, mostly on family holidays and weekends away, but I had never explored the whole country, particularly the south.  So we decided to spend nine days or so travelling around, photographing castles and abbeys, and I would take notes and write about our trip: as St David, patron saint of Wales, once put it, we would do the little things.

And so, early in the morning, we set off from Caer Efrog – the Welsh name, equivalent to Fort Eboracum, or York – and drove south-west across England.  It ws an uneventful journey, with Laura driving and me navigating, and both of us singing along to Laura’s folk rock CDs.  The clouds gather and rain began to fall, and by half nine, when we were driving around Huddersfield, it really got going.  ‘We’re not even in Wales yet, dammit!’ Laura muttered.

Our first stop was not in Wales itself, but the walled city of Caer – also known as Chester.  I had the vaguest memories of visiting as a child, but that’s all.  The cathedral was made out of that kind of red sandstone that goes kind of dingy and black when it’s weathered, which put me in mind of Lichfield Cathedral.  Inside, it was incredibly cluttered, but I was impressed by the ceiling over the chancel: painted red and gold, with angels all over it.  I was staring up at the ceiling when Laura came over to me and abruptly said, ‘This is a dangerous place.’

‘Why?’ I asked.  Then I realised.  It had misericords, one of Laura’s great passions.  She enthusiastically set about photographing them whilst I took a look at a patchwork quilt depicting the Chester cycle of medieval mystery plays.

A patchwork quilt depicting the city centre of Chester
Two of our favourite things: Mystery Plays and craft projects

Chester Cathedral is dedicated to the city’s patron saint, St Werburh, daughter of Wulfhere, King of Mercia.  A little plaque told us that the saint was a nun in the convent at Ely in the last quarter of the seventh century, and that she was later in charge of all the Mercian convents.  In the tenth century, Werburh’s relics were brought to the minster that stood on this site at the time.  Her shrine still survived, behind the Lady Chapel, but the reliquary did not: I assumed it got trashed in the Reformation, like so much else.

Sandstone shrine in Chester Cathedral, with a statue of St Werburga on it
St Werburh’s shrine

The Anglo-Saxon minster was rebuilt as a Norman abbey church thanks to St Anselm, eleventh-century theologian and later Archbishop of Canterbury.  Anselm was invited to Chester by the local earl Hugh Lupus, and together they refounded the church as a Benedictine abbey.  We looked around the chapels behind the high altar, while a clergyman said praying the intercessions: for an ill person, for Libya, and for a forthcoming marriage.

As it happens, there was a concert at the cathedral that night, and the orchestra and singers were taking this afternoon to rehearse.  The Chester Bach Singers were performing Handel’s Samson along with an orchestra playing eighteenth-century instruments.  They were all very good, and the two male soloists were excellent.  We sat in the nave for a while and listened to one of them singing a solo – I decided he must be Samson.  Then the other sings in a voice which surprised me with its falsetto tone, making us wonder if he was intended to be Delilah.  But after a while, the conductor stops him and says, ‘We need to make this a gender-ambiguous character.’  I never did find out which part he was singing, as the conductor then turned to the choir, and the chorus ‘Oh first-created beam’.  They must have been a local amateur society, but clearly one of the best.

Before we left the cathedral, we took a look at the refectory, which was still used as a not for monks, but for visitors.  There was a spectacular stairway leading halfway up a wall, where one of the monks would have stood to read to his fellows at mealtimes, exactly as the Rule of St Benedict taught.  We left, and took a look around the city centre.  Foregate Street, a Roman road which was now the town’s main shopping street, had what at first glance appeared to be a bridge across it.  The bridge turned out to be the city walls, even though this street looked like it had been bang in the city centre since its earliest days.  To the side of the road, concealed between two shops, there was a tiny flight of steps leading upwards, from which we went up to the walls and walked around the city.  From our vantage point, we could look down and see that the publicans of Chester clearly had a sense of humour: one pub is called Off the Wall, whereas the Albion Arms had a large blackboard outside saying:

CHESTER’S FAMOUS ALBION

OLD, CHARACTERFUL, FAMOUS

– and that’s just the landlord!

The pub did not, the board went on to say, give any quarter to chips, fryups, silly foil portions of UHT or convenience foods, designer drinks or shots.  Or children – in fact, it was ‘family hostile’.

We left the walls at St John Street in order to take a look at the ruins of the Roman city.  First up was an amphitheatre.  Or half an amphitheatre, to be precise.  The rest was buried underneath a building: we couldn’t see what it is from here, but presumably the occupants didn’t want to have their foundations dug up.  So what we had was a group of stone ruins surrounding a half-circle of gravel, the other half of which had been painted onto a board to give you the impression that any moment now they were going to release the lions.  Instead of lions, though, the arena now only played host to a lot of kids, who were skateboarding and generally larking about.

Chester amphitheatre; a sandy expanse, with a painted board behind it depicting two Roman centurions opening a gate
Send in the lions

A nearby park was furnished with other Roman remains, apparently the ruins of a bath-house attached to a fortress.  The path was lined with pillars, and we could see part of a hypocaust: Roman underfloor heating.

Back on the walls, we were beginning to get hungry, and so it was our luck to spot below us the Café at the Walls – a traditional sort of caff, small but we got a really friendly welcome.  Miracle of miracles, the sun actually came out while we were there, so we sat by the window and basked for a bit while eating a large and gorgeous fried breakfast between the two of us and reading the local paper, from which I learned that people from Chester are called Cestrians.  After lunch, we walked up Bridge Street, an attractive sort of shopping street in that kind of black-and-white style that, where it isn’t genuine Tudor architecture, is in the same tradition.  But this street and the similar ones nearby were apparently one of a kind, in Britain at least.  There were walkways running the whole length of the street at first floor level, where there was a second layer of shops.  They are known as the Rows, and, Laura told me, were built because the city was founded on rock and consequently medieval architects needed to compensate for their inability to dig cellars.  They looked pretty, novel, and excellent for keeping out of the rain, which kept threatening to restart.

It was quarter to four when we left Chester, and the sun was coming out.  Barely were we out of the city when we crossed the border.  Dyn ni’n yng Nghymru!  (We are in Wales!)

There were a few castles that we wanted to take a peek at on our way across the northern coast, starting with Hawarden, a village some seven miles from Chester.  It seemed to be inside a kind of park, and it was a beautifully sunny day, so we dumped the car and went in search.

The park was accessed through a large red gate, bearing a small sign saying that members of the public could use it and let their dogs off the leash as long as they were under control, and it was not during the sheep’s grazing season.  Inside, a large meadowy area lay beyond a heavy wooden gate with a terse notice stating that dogs MUST be on a lead as there were sheep grazing, and any dogs found worrying livestock will be shot.  Well, no-one appeared to be paying the latter notice much attention, because approximately every second person we passed had a lovable retriever or spaniel running along beside them, manifestly not on a lead and eminently shootable.  After we had been walking for five minutes or so, we came to a fence marking the end of the public land, with a sharp drop down to the river on our right, and a motte to the left, on top of which is the castle.  It was behind a wall, and nailed to a tree there was a sign reading DO NOT TRESPASS.  AUTOMATIC CCTV CAMERA IN USE.  This castle was finally destroyed by Cromwell’s forces, who left it as little more than a small tower and a few nice windows, which we photographed from a distance.

Just down the road from Hawarden was the town of Ewloe.  We left the car by the side of the main road and wandered uncertainly across a field to a quiet little spot which was the site of our next castle.  Built for Llywelyn ap Grufudd, prince of Gwynedd, in 1257, it appeared to have fallen out of use after King Edward I conquered Wales in 1284, perhaps because it was impractically sited.  Nowadays, it finds itself in an out-of-the-way little clearing where the wild daffodils and the wood anemones were coming out.  However, it had clearly not been forgotten, as there were teenage boys climbing all over it.  Part of the upper floors survived and you could still climb a little staircase up to a go-nowhere little precipice, but that didn’t stop one of the boys from climbing up the wall and onto the platform.  Crazy guy.

We drove up the coast to Flint, which was larger and more industrial than I would have guessed from the map.  Blindly guessing where to go, we found the castle down by the estuary of the River Dee which separates North Wales from North-West England.  Indeed, on a day like this we could see across to the Merseyside peninsula.  The castle had already been locked up for the day, but we could see most of it from the outside.  Even in its ruined state, it was a very different beast from Ewloe.  Built as one of Edward I’s ‘iron ring’ of castles along the northern coast, it was larger and clearly intended to intimidate the Welsh soldiers, who nevertheless attempted to take it twice, to the point that the English constable actually burned down the castle rather than let it fall to them.  Although it was rebuilt, this castle too was finally destroyed in the Civil War in order that it might not be recaptured by the Royalists.  We took a couple of photographs and then stood and stared across the estuary for a while.  Great flocks of birds were flying eastwards over the water, so far away that I could only make them out as a flashing arrow of little silver lights shining in the light of the setting sun.

Our next stop was Basingwerk abbey, at the edge of a park outside of the village of Holywell.  Not a lot remained, and the main building was under scaffolding, although we could see roughly where each part of the abbey was.  Outside of the wall, there was a little plaque telling us about Welsh monasticism.  Traditional religious orders apparently made few inroads in Wales, as they were associated with the occupying Normans.  The Cistercians of the twelfth century, on the other hand, were far more successful due to the austerity which they shared with existing Welsh monasticism.  We wouldn’t see many abbeys on our journey around Wales, but those which we did would be those founded or taken over by the Cistercians.

We started thinking about where to stay for the night.  Conwy would have been a bit of a long drive, so I suggested Rhyl, a northern seaside resort which I think I visited as a child.  As we entered the town, we spotted a lot of care homes, but no Bed and Breakfasts, which was slightly worrying.  They did, however, have a barbershop on Kinmel Street named, with wonderful irony, Sweeney Todd’s.

My Lonely Planet guide to Wales (which was a bit of a disappointment, as it only listed a small selection of the youth hostels in the country, and was nowhere near as good as the Ireland edition) didn’t even have an entry in the index for Rhyl, let alone a guide to the B&Bs that a bucket-and-spade place like this must surely provide.  We parked on Bodfor Street, and I riag the two listed in Laura’s Rough Guide, but neither had any vacancies – and in April, too.  One gave me the number for another establishment, which also turned out to be full.  The other recommended the Premier Inn, but had no number for it.  In desperation, I got out of the car to go into a bar and make enquiries.  But before I got across the road, I realised that I was standing mere metres from a sign saying HOTEL.  From the outside, it was a fairly generic-looking pub, but it turned out to have rooms for the night, and at a mere £20 each with breakfast included. We dragged our luggage through a maze of narrow corridors located somewhere above the bar, which was cheaply decorated and had something of the atmosphere of a university residence.  But the room itself was good, and had tea-making facilities, which is the main thing I require in a hotel room.  My only quibble was that they only served breakfast between 9 and 10 in the morning.  Considering that our car had to be moved by 8 a.m., and that in any case we intended to already be on the road by then, we would have to miss out.

But first we went in search of dinner, and again found it serendipitously a few doors down in the form of a Chinese restaurant.  In a move which would become a feature of the trip, we both chose the same dish, duck in plum sauce, a bargain at £7.50.  The duck was soft and crispy around the edges, while the sauce was sweet and plentiful, even if it was clearly made from pineapple.  But did ‘Crabmeat & Broccoli’ really belong in the vegetarian section?  I would have thought that the word ‘meat’ should be a clue.

To be continued …

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