Welsh Diary II: Keep an eye on those Cockneys

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.

Day 2: Rhyl i Gonwy (Sunday, 3rd April 2011)

At eight o’clock the next morning, we hit the road, in my case mourning the loss of a pre-paid breakfast, but consoling myself with Laura’s homemade bagels.  We decided to begin by taking in the sights around the Rhyl area, starting not with a castle or a cathedral, but with Dyserth Falls.  We drove along the Prestatyn road and inland a bit, to a village on a flat plain between the Clwydian mountain, finding the waterfall beside a cemetery just off one of the main roads.  As it was a Sunday, the gate which led right up to the falls was unmanned, but it had been left wide open, and there was an honesty box where we could deposit our forty pences.  It seemed a little odd to be charged to see a natural feature, but I suppose someone had to maintain the carpark and paths.  We stood by the spot where the River Ffyddion falls twenty-one metres, making a terrific sound, and then climbed up the steep steps to see the river going over the edge.  But we were reluctant to go too far up: it started to rain, and the stones were narrow and slippery.  An information sign at the foot of the falls told us to look out for dippers, small brown river birds, and, sure enough, I spotted one on a stepping-stone as we headed back to the car.  Next door to the carpark was a churchyard, with one stone sacred to the memories of Harold and Christina Iball.  ‘Hopefully they were opticians’, commented Laura.

We drove on to Rhuddlan, just south of Rhyl, where we found the castle not yet open, so we went on south to St Asaph’s to see the cathedral.  I had never heard of it before, and indeed, it is not much bigger than a parish church.  Yet there you will find the grave of composer William Mathias, and a plaque to poet Felicia Hemans (best known for her work on the burning deck), both adopted locals.  There has been Christian worship on the site for 1400 years, but the present cathedral, possibly the smallest Anglican one in Britain, dates from the twelfth century, and was largely rebuilt in the nineteenth.  Although it was named after the sixth-century St Asaph, the cathedral was in fact founded by St Kentigern, his predecessor, and so the Victorian window in the northern aisle commemorates them both.

To my eye, the cathedral didn’t look obviously medieval: the central altar and the modern-style crucifix in the south transept gave it a very up-to-date ambience.  But Laura found lots of stonemasons’ marks, bearing witness to the cathedral’s makers.  I went into the north-east corner, where I found a small display of old Bibles, with a timeline explaining how the Bible came to be translated into Welsh.  There was also a set of posters with information about the Welsh Assembly Government and the European Union, including a verse from the New Testament about praying for people in power.  Perhaps they need it.

At ten we left and returned to Rhuddlan Castle, which was now open and manned by a very helpful employee of CADW, the organisation responsible for the upkeep of Wales’ historic buildings.  This lady, discovering our plans to travel around Wales in a week and a half, suggested I buy a 7-day CADW pass, and then told us about how she was awarded an MBE the other day.  It was a fun experience, she said, except that of course these days there’s all the tight security and police surrounding such events.  As we spoke, the lady was wiping down her hands and putting a plaster on her finger: she had cut it picking up some broken glass, left from when people had been drinking there overnight. She didn’t mind the drinking, she said – it was smashing of bottles that was the problem.

The castle was fairly large and pretty much wrecked, but the basic outline was still there, and looked like it was being well cared for.  The original castle on this site was constructed under the Normans in the eleventh century, but now it is ruled by a colony of jackdaws and pigeons.

The ruins of Rhuddlan Castle, with lots of birds flying around them
Rhuddlan Castle (and bird sanctuary)

Nearby Bodelwyddan was a different kind of castle altogether.  Although it was originally medieval, what remains today was built for the Williams family in the 1830s.  Consequently, it is in good condition nowadays, and has in its time been used as a girls’ school, before it came to be the National Portrait Gallery and a fancy hotel, as it is now.

The first part we saw was the gallery, which takes up most of the downstairs rooms.  I don’t know a great deal about art, but I noticed that there seemed to be a relatively strong emphasis on nineteenth-century female intellectuals: the historian Agnes Strickland, the social philosopher and writer Harriet Martineau, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and one Isabella Frances Rower, who apparently wrote books on mesmerism and wrote travel books about Europe and the Middle East.  I was particularly struck by a portrait of Emilia Francis, Lady Dilke (1840-1904), an art historian and feminist, painted by Sir Hubert von Herkomer in 1887 – you can see the picture here.  She must have been forty-seven at the time of the painting, and she looked so wise and happy, young yet mature.  Another thing which pleased me was a chair which, aside from the seat and back rest, was constructed entirely out of interlaced horns and antlers.  Upstairs was an exhibition of Victorian toys and optical illusions, a room in which you could dress up in a crinoline and produce your own nineteenth-century visiting card, and another dedicated to the history of the Lowther Girls’ School, which used to be based at the castle.

Returning downstairs, Laura attempted in vain to find a guidebook.  The bloke on the reception desk asked us where we were from; I tell him I’m originally from South London.  He nodded to Laura.  ‘You’ve got to keep an eye on those Cockneys,’ he told her.

Having seen all that there was to see around the Rhyl area, we drove west along the Abergele road, photographing Gwrych Castle on the way over to Conwy.  We kept missing our view of the castle, and ended up driving back and forth to get the photographs, in the middle of a thick traffic jam.  Nevertheless, the puppies in the car in front were enough to cheer Laura up: I remarked that she can always coo over dogs, no matter how stressed she is.

Conwy is a nice little seaside town, whose main landmark is the massive castle which you cannot avoid seeing as you drive over the bridge.  It is one of several fortified towns on the North Welsh coast, founded by Edward I, into which the Welsh were only allowed during the daytime, and even then not to trade.  Now, instead, it is ruled by large and imperious seagulls, who stare down at you like winged CCTV from every available lookout, including Edward I’s statue in Lancaster Square.  I think that shows who’s in charge now.

Our first stop in Conwy was Plas Mawr, a town house from the sixteenth century whose original owner Robert Wynn was related to the Tudor family.  For most of its history, it was rented out in sections to poorer people, and yet the main part of the house had been restored to a sixteenth-century style.  Most striking of all was the plasterwork around the walls, in the shape of Tudor roses and naked maidens, painted in garishly bright colours, according to the style of the time.

A large living room, with fireplace, and brightly-painted naked maidens on the walls, with the initials E R and a Tudor rose
Tudor interior

Here and there we could see traces of the original paint on the walls.  The kitchen had been made to look as realistic as possible, with herbs and dead animals hanging from the ceiling, and rushes on the floor, something which I always forget was the norm even in well-to-do homes.

Upstairs, there was an exhibition about Tudor medicine.  It covered astrology, the belief that bad smells caused disease, herbal medicine, and Tudor bowel surgery, shown in exquisite detail in woodcut diagrams.  Not for the squeamish.  Some of it was ridiculous, not to mention tragic, but the exhibition ended with a poster asking if it was fair to laugh at those who came before us.  Modern horoscopes are not constructed with anything like the knowledge of the planets that astrologers had in times past, and, while we might not have sewage running in the streets, we are still polluting the environment.  ‘Instead of laughing at the people of the past,’ the poster read, ‘it would perhaps be fairer to admire their courage in the face of difficulties which would surely defeat their descendants.’  Also interesting – to us, at any rate – was a reproduction of a handbill listing all the deaths in an area of London from the sixteenth to the twenty-second of August, 1665.  4,237 people died of the plague, whilst others died in more intriguing circumstances: ‘head-mould shot’, ‘rising of the lights’, and a full 111 because of their teeth.

One of the attic rooms was presented as it might have been in the nineteenth century.  According to the census, it was inhabited by a widowed washerwoman with three sons, of whom one was a local miner, and another worked for the railway, which was coming to Conwy at the time.  This gets me thinking: when you present a historic home for visitors, which period of time do you take it back to?  Is the period in which it was built the era that it ‘really’ belongs to?  Or any of the intervening times?  Or even the present day?

After Plas Mawr, we walked around Conwy for a bit.  We walk along the quayside, past the Smallest House in Great Britain, a tiny little enclosure created in a corner where two rows of houses meet at an angle.  In what had already become a feature of our travels in Wales, it was not open until Easter, which would be unusually late that year, so we could only imagine what it must have been like for a 6’ 3” man to live in a space of barely 3×1.8m, until 1900 when the council declared it unfit for human habitation (and, presumably, fit to be a tourist attraction).  Apparently the poor man couldn’t even stand up in it.

Shaking off the attentions of an inquisitive dog, we climbed the stairs to the walls for a better view of the city.  But unlike those we walked on in Chester, or those back home in York, these were school-of-hard-knocks walls, uneven, unpaved, and with only a railing preventing us from falling down a very long way.  The walls were linked by towers and went around the old town, continually rising as they headed away from the beach.  At each tower, there was a derelict flight of stairs leading down into someone’s garden, and a hollow tower, open to the skies, which we looked down into to see abandoned gardens or stashed wheelie bins.  And still we climbed higher and higher.  Every time we thought we’d got to the end, the wall jerked around a corner a bit and there was still more.  Now we were as high as the rooftops (someone had even put barbed wire along the top of their house, as if people tried to climb the gap onto it), now we were higher than the city, where the seagulls were poised on their stations, monitoring the people below.  The view was stunning, and the altitude quite terrifying.  Laura was particularly nervy, until she spotted a dog below us and cooed over it.  ‘You’re right,’ she said.  ‘Even when in extremis, I can still go mushy over a dog.’

A view over Conwy and its estuary, seen from the top of its city walls
Looking out over Conwy

Finally, we reached the highest tower, which could be reached from the wall and seemed horribly flimsy and exposed, so we declined to climb it, and found ourselves going downhill towards the final set of steps back down to street level.  All that walking had made us hungry.  At 17.30 we returned to the city centre to Alfredo’s Restaurant in Lancaster Square, which was listed in Laura’s Rough Guide to Wales.  We had had our seafood appetite whetted earlier on when we saw a sign advertising mussels – a local speciality – so we both ordered the risotto marinara: tomato sauce, prawn, tuna, anchovies and mussels.  And then back to the car, parked on the outskirts of the city opposite a hill which was home to the noisiest sheep I had ever heard.

At around seven, we got to the youth hostel, which we had booked ahead thanks to the helpful woman we met on the front desk.  This was the most sleek and shiny youth hostel I had ever seen, almost hotellish, with elevators and meals served for an extra charge.

As the hostel was on a hill on the edge of the town, the dining room had the most stunning views: on one side, out over the plain with the mountains in the distance; and to the other, the city, the river and the sea, where we could just about make out the windfarms, harvesting their crop of atmosphere, a beautiful view to fill our hearts as the day ended.

To be continued …

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