Monday 17th August 2009, St. David's Head, Pembrokeshire
Once we'd landed in Pembroke we found Wales crowded by contrast with Ireland; its small towns, with their cottages and traditional houses, bustling with activity. Deciding to explore Pembrokeshire before returning to Exeter we crossed the toll bridge over the Cleddau estuary and turned off down to the quay at Neyland opposite to where our ferry berthed. This little town came into prominence when Isambard Kingdom Brunel selected it as the ferry terminal for his new steam ferry between Ireland and Wales, as well as for steam ships leaving for America. He brought his railway to the port to connect directly with the ships.
Brunel is perhaps England's most outstanding engineer of the 19th century, designing steam ships, trains, bridges, viaducts and tunnels. He was chief engineer for the Great Western Railway and his steam ships, the Great Western, the Great Eastern and the Great Britain were the largest and most advanced ships of their time. Today the ferry port has moved to Fishguard and Pembroke leaving the little town without either its ships or its railway but it is a charming little place steeped in industrial history, just across the estuary from where our ship was loading for the return crossing to Ireland.
We drove around the coast in the hot sunshine to Milford Haven. We'd passed by its oil refineries earlier on the ship as it made its way up Milford Sound. It's not a picturesque town but has some interesting Victorian terraced houses and cottages, a main shopping street, a pleasant park and some interesting views across the glittering sound to the chimneys of the refinery.
Next we drove inland to investigate Haverfordwest, the largest town on the Pembroke peninsula, before continuing towards St. David's Head. The picturesque little city of St. David's, no larger than a village, has one of the smallest cathedrals in Britain. It is also one of the loveliest. Its streets were busy with holiday makers and hikers while its campsites were already full. It has been a hot sunny day here in Wales, the warmest, driest and sunniest since we set off from Exeter over six weeks ago. How typical is that?!
We are now camped on a pleasant site just back from the sea on a windy, grassy headland. Once the sun had set it was too cold to sit outside and if it rains it will be very messy as we are parked amidst the thick grass of a freshly mown field. Prices here are more realistic at £16 a night in high season. More like Northern Ireland prices in fact.
Monday 14th September 2009, Exeter, Devon
We have been home for some time now and already memories of the last days of our travels are indistinct. After our first night in Wales we were not using campsites for one reason or another so, without electricity it was impossible to write up the blog. It was a week before we finally reached home and since then we have been so occupied there has been no time to finish the account of the final few days of our latest travel. So this will be no more than a hazy summary supplemented by some of Ian's photos. We would have liked to do better justice to Wales, it certainly deserved it, but a few highlights will have to suffice for now.
The following morning we explored St. David's Cathedral, set in a valley below the charmingly picturesque little town, standing beside a stream just inland from the sea. The Cathedral is reached through an impressive gothic gateway. Inside there is a Romanesque nave that stands askew but is kept standing by the solidity of its construction. There is a wonderful timber roof with a suspended rood screen. The choir is gothic with many mediaeval tombs of bishops and priests, including one said to be that of Giraldus Cambronsis. There is a side chapel with a stunning fan-vaulted ceiling and a reliquary containing the bones of the saints including those of St. David who founded the cathedral in the 6th century. He is the patron saint of Wales. The cloisters and the ruins of the bishop's palace were also open to visitors.
Later we drove out along pretty, winding byways to the nearby clifftop at Strumblehead where the lighthouse stands on an island just a few metres offshore. It is reached by a small footbridge. The scenery is quite stunning right along the Pembrokeshire coast and it is a popular place to spot seals as well as choughs. From here there are views towards St. David's Head.
Wales is famous for faggots – large meatballs mixed with herbs and served in a thick gravy. If memory served correctly several years ago they were to be found in Fishguard where we arrived eager for this culinary experience. Alas, the Welsh palette now prefers pizzas and kebabs. Is nothing sacred?
The seaside town of Fishguard is in two parts. The main town is perched high above the harbour from where ferries also sail to Ireland while the lower town stands on a pretty inlet of the estuary and was the location for the film of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood. Fishguard was the scene of the last invasion of Britain when in 1798 there was a short-lived incursion by the French.
We moved on to Fort Henllys where there is a reconstructed iron-age hill fort which we previously visited several years ago. It had closed by the time we arrived but we made a pleasant woodland walk and visited the attractive old church where the lichen-covered tombstones in the graveyard were inscribed in Welsh.
Searching for somewhere to camp we found ourselves in St. Dogmaels. With no sites immediately around we decided to use an inconspicuous corner of the village car park overlooking the river. The village is known for the remains of its 12th century abbey. The ground plan clearly shows cloisters, infirmary, chapter house, guest house and the shell of the main church. A nearby duck pond runs beside a restored monastic grain mill where bread is made from the flour produced.
Next morning we drove down the short distance into Cardigan where we arrived in good time for an early cooked Welsh breakfast served with fruit juice and fresh coffee. We've had more cooked breakfasts over the past few weeks than we've had over the previous few years, but they are delicious and in a friendly little café with people speaking in Welsh around us, it's a very pleasurable experience. All the breakfasts, be they Irish, Ulster, Welsh or English have the same basics – bacon, sausages, fried or scrambled eggs, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, baked beans and toast. Local additions may include soda bread, potato farls, black or white pudding and fried bread.
Cardigan is a pleasant little town with the main street rising steeply up from the river. There is a covered market and small, independent shops. In the second hand bookshop Ian found a book about forgeries while in the stationers I bought several birthday cards in Welsh which the staff kindly translated for me. (So if you've recently received one from us you'll know where it came from.)
We continued up the coast to the lovely seaside town of Aberaeron south of Aberystwyth. The streets are filled with 19th century terraced cottages. Every building has similar decorative white mouldings which help to give a sense of cohesion to the town despite each cottage being colour-washed in a different, complementing shade.
We reached Aberystwyth by lunch time. Slightly to our disappointment, but not to our surprise, the atmosphere was nothing like that conjured up in the pseudo-gangster novel we'd recently read, Aberystwyth mon Amour by Malcolm Pryce. That had given the impression that the town was a hotbed of intrigue, murder, witches covens and devious shenanigans by the Welsh bards. All we found was a pleasant friendly little town with a very windy seafront where the impressive university buildings look out towards the rolling, white-capped breakers of the sea.
Spectacularly situated on the hillside overlooking the town and the coast stands the National Library of Wales and it was here we headed for lunch in the staff canteen. Well, we reasoned, considering that we'd been obliged by law to supply the library with a free copy of each of Ian's publications, we had a right to see they were being well treated. The visit was a great success. The Staff was delightfully friendly, we enjoyed a very cheap and tasty lunch and spent much of the afternoon browsing free displays and exhibitions about Welsh writers and poets - in particular, and not surprisingly, the life and works of Dylan Thomas. In the Gregynog Gallery, where we were disappointed not to find examples of the fine printing produced by the Gregynog press – an all women Welsh company- we found material on the life and work of Edward Lloyd, director of the Ashmolean museum. He also accomplished much pioneering work in linguistics, antiquities, geology and botany. He travelled extensively in Britain and Ireland surveying and gathering information on ancient scripts, in particular the Ogham writing we'd encountered in Ireland.
Back down in the town we walked along the seafront, past the University which had originally been built as a huge and spectacularly splendid hotel. Beyond, the cliffs rose up to a headland with the remains of Aberystwyth castle. It was captured by Owen Glendower in 1404 in his attempt to achieve Welsh independence. Later it was recaptured by Prince Henry V in 1408 using canons. This was the first recorded use of canons in Britain. From up here on the headland we had spectacular views along the coast in either direction.
A break for all this culture was needed so we headed back down to the promenade and the pier, jutting out into the sea. Here we found the amusement arcade where we dutifully amused ourselves wasting our coins in the slot machines, winning a few back and wasting them again until we ran completely out of small change.
It was late afternoon when we left Aberystwyth and made our way inland through the Welsh mountains. As evening settled we reached Rhayader, an attractive little town in the heart of the hills. Reversing into the town car park an overhanging branch caught Modestine's brake light situated on her roof, ripping it off and necessitating an expensive replacement once we reached home.
Next morning we woke to heavy rain and drove high up into the completely deserted hills to the Elan reservoir, which, together with several others in the area, are linked to supply water to Birmingham. Huge dams hold back the waters. When they were originally constructed the water was intended to feed into a reservoir at Frankley on the outskirts of Birmingham. However, for reasons of finance and geology the city council was unable to construct a dam at Frankley. Discovering this caused us trivial delight misquoting Rett Butler in Gone with the Wind when he told Scarlett O'Hara that at "Frankley, my dear, they couldn't give a dam".
The scenery around both the Elan Dam and the upper dam was sublime, the rain and isolation adding to the atmosphere. The hillsides were covered in purple heather with foxgloves and yellow tormentil. The free-roaming sheep were large, white and fluffy. The grass was a bright emerald green while the huge, rugged hillsides were of mudstone, schist and slate. The banks around the reservoirs were clothed with ferns and gold-flowering gorse and there were oaks, birches and rowan trees with their bright orange berries. At the higher, Claerwen Reservoir water tumbled in a foaming, misty cascade over the top of the huge dam to fall into a swirling, bubbling stream that threaded its way across the hills to join the waters of the Elan dam. Just the place to shelter in Modestine with mugs of hot coffee as we prepared breakfast and looked out over this wide, wet and beautiful landscape which we had completely to ourselves.
We continued across inland Wales and the sun came out to greet us as we arrived in the delightful Victorian spa town of Llandridnod Wells. In its fashionable heyday between 1890 and 1910 it welcomed visitors to its pleasant streets and pretty Rock Park with its bandstand, shaded walkways and woodland stream crossed by romantic little bridges. The spa lay at the centre of the park and here people received health treatments and drank the chalybeate spring water tasting of iron and salt. The entire town developed because of the spa and there are streets of elegant guest houses and grand hotels. Even today the main industry is tourism but the character of the town remains as charming and evocatively Victorian as it has always been. Much time and money has been spent restoring the buildings to their original 19th century splendour. Even the railway station looks much as it has always done. The town is a really lovely little place, very civilised and gentile, offering a complete contrast to the rugged hills and empty expanses of moorland we'd so recently left behind.
Before leaving we visited the local history museum with paintings and water colours by local artists and sections on the history of the spa, the local geology and notable worthies such as the clergyman and 19th century country diarist, Francis Kilvert. Also in Llandridnod Wells is Tom Norton's museum of early bicycles and flying machines.
Further along our route we stopped at another Welsh spa town, Builth Wells but found it something of an anticlimax. It has one street of little shops and cafes and a run-down antiques business in a disused church. We never discovered the spa.
Hay-on-Wye stands near the border between England and Wales. The entire town has been given over to books and it is still the biggest second-hand bookshop in Europe. The business was set up in 1961 by a local enthusiast and mild eccentric, Richard Booth. He started by converting the town cinema into a bookshop, then the castle, and gradually he took over most of the shops and buildings around the town. In 1977, after numerous altercations with bureaucracy he declared home rule for Hay-on-Wye with himself as king. We arrived with just a few minutes to browse the cinema book stacks before closing time. Long enough for Ian to find another German Insel book to add to his ever increasing collection and we even found a copy of a work by our late French friend Alain Girard. Even after closing time there were shelves of books, open to the elements, to be found around the streets with honesty boxes for payment!
Dusk was falling as we left Hay and finally crossed into England to continue towards Hereford. As so often seems to happen when we need a place to sleep we found ourselves in an area with nowhere to camp. Asking at a pub if we could park up overnight in their car park if we used their restaurant that evening we were told we could if we paid them £10 simply to park there. We moved on without using their restaurant and eventually found a quiet place near a field entrance where we slept peacefully until disturbed by a farmer with his tractor, come to plough the field at 7am.
So we drove down into Hereford where we stopped at Tesco to use the facilities. On an impulse we rang our friend Sylvia who lives in Hereford. 30 minutes later we arrived on her doorstep with a bag of fresh croissants for breakfast. She'd already got the coffee going and in no time we were catching up on each other's news over the past couple of years since we last met, and swapping notes about grandchildren. It was good to be back in England amongst friends again.
Leaving Sylvia our route homewards took us through the Malvern Hills. Impossible to think of them without the strains of Elgar's music sounding in one's head. From there we followed a route through pretty Cotswold villages of honey coloured stone. At one we stopped for a picnic lunch in the church yard filled with 17th century gravestones. Beside it stood a truly beautiful Jacobean manor house, Stanway House with its mullioned stone windows. It was not open to the public at the time but having discovered it we will return one day. It apparently has a fountain in the grounds reputed to be the highest in Britain, but it is the atmosphere of a peaceful, stunningly lovely English village that is the real charm of the place.
It still took several more days before we finally reached home as we stopped to visit our son Neil and his family in Didcot on the way. We spent a wonderfully sunny weekend with them, picnicking in the garden and visiting the Didcot railway centre with its fascinating collection of steam engines.
On reaching Exeter we found our house well cared for by Kate and Matt who had been living here while waiting completion on the purchase of their own house in Exeter. They finally moved out a few days after our return. It still seems strange, but very nice, having our daughter living back in Exeter after her years of study, work and travel.
Since then we have been occupied in clearing and tidying the garden. Now the evenings are getting darker Ian can be seen, a demonic silhouette with a pitchfork as, under cover of darkness, he darts around a bonfire on the vegetable plot feeding branches and garden debris to the flames.
Thursday 24th September 2009, Exeter
To end on a traumatic note; a few days ago we received news that our French friend Geneviève, of whom you have all heard us speak so warmly, was woken in the night by a noise downstairs at her home in Caen. She went down in the darkness to find flames bursting out around the kitchen door. Fortunately she was alone and just had time to rush into the garden in her night clothes before the flames burst out into the rest of the house. Within minutes, while awaiting the arrival of the fire brigade, the fire had brought down the ceiling in the hall and kitchen and burst the glass in the windows, melting the frames. The intense heat also melted the metal cooker, fridge and microwave and completely destroyed the kitchen. The cause, apparently, was a slow short circuit on a recently purchased fridge. It overheated and burnt through the flexible hose carrying gas to the cooker. The gas escaped at the wrong place and ignited from the heat of the short circuit so there was a constantly burning blow lamp fuelling the flame. Our friend was left homeless with only her night clothes. Fortunately her brother lives nearby. She now awaits insurance assessors and the rebuilding and restoration work on her house. It will take several months. Meanwhile the oily smoke has permeated right through the parts of the house the flames did not actually destroy, even getting inside cupboards and drawers ruining everything from clothing and furnishings to books, paintings, photos and precious memories of the many years spent in a house that has now lost its soul. It can never feel quite the same again. She however, is safe which at the moment is all that matters to any of us.