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Wales 1995

  • Submitted by: Evelyn C. Leeper
  • Website: None Available
  • Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005

[continued from Intersection convention report]

August 29, 1995: This was basically a travel day, first flying to Heathrow, then taking a bus to Caerdydd/Cardiff. I realize this sounds odd--why not fly directly to Cardiff? The only answer I have is that I have discovered that usually round-trips are cheaper, so it seemed to make sense to get a round-trip to Edinburgh/Glasgow from Heathrow. (And that's already an open-jaw ticket, but the two are close enough that they are probably counted together.) In any case, this is what we ended up with.

[Note on place names: many places in Cymru/Wales have both Welsh and English names. In these cases I will give both on the first mention, with the Welsh name first, but then use whichever one is most common.]

We flew down on British Midland 5 at 11 AM, along with a whole lot of other fans, including Dale and Jo, and Moshe Feder. Since we hadn't had a chance to talk to Moshe at the convention, we sat in the terminal after we arrived and chatted for about a half-hour.

Then we went off and found the National Express Bus office, where our tickets were waiting for us. The bus (or rather buses, since there were so many people going in that direction there were two) left a few minutes after its scheduled starting time of 2:15 PM but made up the time.

The bus was more like a tour bus than a long-distance bus in the United States. The driver told a lot of jokes, and there were beverages and sandwiches for sale. There was also more room than one has on a plane, and the three-hour ride was more comfortable than our one-hour plane flight had been.

We took the M4 west, perhaps not the world's most exciting road, but we did cross one of Britain's seven industrial wonders (or some such thing), the Severn Bridge.

Hywel Francis once said, "My Orwellian nightmare is a big black sign at the Severn Bridge: You are now entering a protected industrial relic. Pay #5 to view this disappearing society." Well, that isn't there yet, but it is true that industry in Wales is having a rough time of it. From what we can tell, however, much of the industry of the last two hundred years or so was of the heavily polluting kind, and has left a lot to clean up (which one assumes provides jobs if there's someone to pay for it).

We started seeing signs in both English and Welsh. Welsh is a strange-looking language (at least to me). It's written in the Roman alphabet, but it uses the letters differently, so when someone who knows English tries to read it, it's unpronounceable. There was once an ad for a literacy campaign that showed various familiar products, but with the letters in their named replaced by other random letters. So for example, "Tide" was "Xyri." Seeing Welsh reminds me of this. This is not to say it's totally unreadable, and once you know "w" is pronounced as "oo" in "cool," it's easy to translate "Clwb Golff."

I should also mention that we're using Wales: The Rough Guide by Mike Parker and Paul Whitfield, and the "Insight" book on Wales, though primarily the former. It is not nearly as good as the Lonely Planet book would be, but the only Lonely Planet book was for all of the United Kingdom and that was just too bulky. Since we are renting a car, we can get by with this, but if we needed to use public transportation to get around, the Rough Guide would not be of much help. It has some information on inter-city buses and trains, but not as much as the Lonely Planet would, and not as well arranged.

We got off at Cardiff and walked across the station plaza to the Tourist Information Centre, where we had them book us a room for three nights (at #38/night for a double) at the Penrhys Hotel on Cathedral Street. We also bought a two-person, seven-day CADW (Welsh Historic Monuments--the acronym must be for the Welsh name) pass for #17, which meant switching our plans around to see as many CADW sites within a seven-day period as possible.

The Tourist Information Centre said it was a "fifteen-minute walk" to the Penrhys. This took about forty minutes, about par for a fifteen-minute Welsh (or Scottish) walk. With our luggage, it seemed longer.

The Penrhys is a comfortable hotel, with bathrooms in each room, and more space than we had in Glasgow.

For dinner, we walked toward the center of town and ate at the Juboraj II, where Mark had Chicken Jahlfrazi and I had Vegetable Balti. Balti seems to be peculiar to Britain. Described as being from the Punjab region, it is cooked and served in an iron dish, but is not as delicately flavored as most of the curries. It was okay, but is not something I would soon reorder.

August 30, 1995: After a full English breakfast, including egg, bacon, sausage, and fried bread (Mark wonders that the British don't keel over from cholesterol), we walked over to the City Hall, known for its Marble Hall, with statues of famous Welsh heroes. Contrary to what the Rough Guide says, they are not all male: there is a statue of Buddug/Boadicea among them. Other than these statues, and the dragon on top of the domed roof, however, there is not much to see in this building. There is a monument outside dedicated to the dead of the Boer Wars--one thing Britain has more of than the United States is more wars to build monuments to the dead of.

We passed through a subway (underground walkway) with some interesting artwork on the walls, but no title or explanation. Parts of it looked like stylized representations of war refugees, but that could be just my imagination.

At 10 AM, we got to Cardiff Castle and decided to take the tour (#3.50 each). This took forty-five minutes and helped explain a lot (not to mention that the only way to see the inside is with the tour).

Cardiff Castle was first built (in a much reduced form) by the Romans and later modified by various people until it was finally remodeled by the Earl of Bute and the architect William Burges in the late 19th Century. A strange combination of Victorian extravagance and medieval austerity, it is certainly unique.

Every room in the castle has a theme. For example, the theme of the Winter Smoking Room in the Clock Tower is time, with various decorations representing the seasons of the year, the days of the week, and so on. Above the fireplace is carved Virgil's line, "Omnia vincit amor et nos cedamus amori." To prevent women from eavesdropping at the door while the men talked, Burges carved a devil's head above it to scare them away. (He was in the 19th Century, so he was a fairly recent git.)

The nursery has tiles painted by William Lonsdale from Shaker Heights, Ohio, which represented various figures from nursery rhymes and fairy tales. For one, he has the outline of the Invisible Prince between two trees shaped by the branches of the trees, but most are straightforward.

The Arab Room in the Herbert Tower has a ceiling of sandalwood, and is decorated with Welsh gold (the most expensive gold in the world). There are also painted and carved parrots; Burges loved parrots. The upper rooms in this tower are closed; the guide said they were haunted, but she said a lot of other stuff that was for effect only, so I suspect they're just not as interesting.

The Banqueting Room dates from the 15th Century and is in the oldest part of the castle. It has as its theme Robert the Consul, Earl and Lord of Gloucester, and son of William the Conqueror. After William died, Robert the Consul was involved in a power struggle with his uncle and his sister Matilda, and this struggle is commemorated in the elaborate fireplace. This room is now used for fancy banquets, wedding receptions, etc.

The bedroom has 189 mirrors in the ceiling (to increase the light from the candles used at the time) and a religious theme around Bute's first name (John). This includes having a wardrobe that looks like a confessional. According to the guide, by the way, Lord Bute looked exactly like Raymond Burr, which makes the rather small bed in this room look as if it might not have been particularly comfortable.

The Summer Roof Garden has a Roman theme, though heavily larded with Biblical overtones. For example, it has one of the six smiling Madonna statues in the world. Also, the wall tiles are of Elijah and Prophets of Baal from the books of Kings. And the style of the fountain is medieval rather than Roman. Still, the layout seems Romanesque.

The Dining Room has a table with a hole in center. Apparently this was so after a meal the servants could put a flowerpot holding a grapevine beneath the table and by pulling the table apart, bringing the vine up, then pushing the table together, have the vine come through the table so people could pick and eat grapes right off the vine.

The Library has five statues with tablets above the fireplace, each tablet with a different alphabet: Greek, Babylonian, Aramaic, Egyptian, and Celtic. These are somewhat related, of course. I think I once read or heard that there have been only four or five independently invented forms of writing. That of the Middle East and Mediterranean would be one, that of China another, and that of the Mayans a third. I'm sure someone can help me out with the other(s). There were also little angels or child-like figures around the walls with the names of authors, but they were not likenesses.

There is little left of the originally elaborate Grand Entrance Hall: Lady Bute fell down the stairs in the 1920s, decided they were built incorrectly(!), and had the whole thing redone in a very boring style.

Outside on the lawn, peacocks preened themselves.

We climbed up to the Norman keep and to the top of it. There is a good view of city from the keep--but then again, it's just a city, and not even a very old one. In Vilnius the view of the city from the tower was interesting; here it's the view of the castle from the city that's better.

After this my mouth and throat were fairly dry, so we stopped for a quick soda, then proceeded to the National Museum of Wales (#3 each). This is described as one of the great museums of Britain, and it certainly has an amazing collection. Towards the beginning, I saw that their Dante Gabriel Rossetti ("Fair Rosamund") was temporarily removed, and thought, "It's the story of our lives that this is missing." But this was just a minor omission considering the scope of their collection. They had a particularly good collection of the French Impressionists and 20th Century art, with Monet, Manet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Leger, and Magritte. After seeing so many museums which seem to concentrate showing only the art of their area, it's a change to see a museum that seems more aimed at showing the art of the world. If nothing else, the latter seems more aimed at local residents than tourists.

There were two paintings to which I was particularly attracted. One was Maximilian Lenz's "Spring." Lenz studied Byzantine mosaics with Klimt, and used similar gold highlights in this. The other was in the gallery of current painters and was "Entombed--Jesus in the Midst" by Nick Evans, showing a group of trapped miners with Jesus standing over them with a miner's helmet and lamp. The characters are painted in such a way that Jesus looks almost like a medieval knight, and the whole picture uses a very Welsh context for the image of Jesus as a protector.

But that's just the art section. There is also an entire floor dedicated to natural history, including an exhibit about the world's largest turtle (weighing 2016 pounds and caught off the coast of Wales). There were also exhibits on whales (pun intended?), bats, mollusks, and other fauna. The major exhibit on this floor was the "Evolution of Wales"--an excellent exhibition tracing Wales from the Big Bang to 250,000,000 years in the future. One part I liked was the computer simulation showing continental drift over the last 250,000,000 years and over the next 250,000,000 years (which was the extent of their predictions, I should note). I also liked that through the eras they indicated where "Wales" was then, that is, where the land in which these rocks, trilobites, dinosaur bones, etc. are now was then. I've often wondered when they talk about the climate in Utah, for example, being different in the past whether that's because Utah was really somewhere else then.

There were several audio-visual presentations (including one on volcanos with very dramatic footage) which were shown once in Welsh, then twice in English, then once in Welsh, and so on. I noticed that the Welsh showings didn't seem to have any attendees, while the English ones almost invariably did.

This got me to thinking about bi-lingualism in Wales. All the official signs are in both Welsh and English. All the museum exhibits are in both languages. Yet a bank that has its name in both English and Welsh will still have its signs advertising mortgages only in English. I get the impression that Welsh is prominent more as a political statement rather than as people's first language. Of course, things may be different in other parts of Wales.

The museum took us until closing time, 5 PM. We walked over to Sandy's on St. Mary Street for dinner, since it looked reasonably priced. It was reasonably priced, but Mark didn't think the food was any good. I suspect that "good" and "reasonably priced" may be conflicting concepts in Britain when it comes to eating out.

August 31, 1995: Nothing is ever simple.

I had made a reservation with Hertz through British Airways, saying we would want the car from about 9 AM on 31 August to about 5 PM on 9 September. However, they made it only until 9 AM on 9 September, possibly because the dealership closes at noon on Saturday and has no provision for after-hour returns. But they failed to convey this to me, so we had been planning on using the car that final day. Well, we quickly re-arranged our schedule (again), and moved some of the castles we were going to do at the end on our seven-day CADW pass to the beginning of the trip.

The car is a Ford Fiesta Automatic, costing US$33/day. It gets about 8 miles to the liter of petrol, and a liter costs slightly more than half a pound. So it's a little more than ten cents a mile for petrol.