writings    ||    books    ||    projects    ||    madvertising    ||    odds & ends    ||    about    ||    bio

Art & Culture

various essays on, well, art and culture

Bookbinding & Conservation

lessons learned from this profession


ok, I'm not the guy from SNL,
but I still have a sense of humor

'Jim Downey' Stories

mostly true stories from my

Personal Essays

more "it's all about me"


Iím at -7.13/-7.33 on The Political Compass.  Where
are you?


observations on the human condition


Europe 1994

Wales 1998
      Final Friday

Wales 2003
Wales 2006
CCGA Vignettes

Sunday:  Conwy, Bodnant Gardens, and Ruthin Castle

We left "The Hand" after a fine breakfast (well, except for the cold toast.  Why did the British develop a desire for cold toast?  They even have specially designed cooling racks to cool the toast quickly, making sure that it arrives cold, hard, and crunchy.), driving out of the lovely little valley and heading North and West toward Snowdonia, on the edge of the Cambrian Mountains.  Past Betws-y-Coed into the Vale of Conwy, then straight north through the wood, the Conwy river below us, leading us to Conwy Bay, and the walled city with its impressive castle guarding it.

Four years ago, Alix drove into that city, and held her breath as our little rental car squeezed through the gate in the wall.  This time we all held our breath as Eddie somehow made our coach fit through the same space at twice the speed.  Maybe that was the trick.

We left Eddie to his own devices, and went into the city, heading straight for the castle.  Outside the walls a re-enacting group was selling tries with a Welsh longbow, six shots for a Pound.  Just two guys there, with a small Viking style tent, busy with a crowd of people.  Inside the castle we found more of the re-enacting group, giving forth about the Middle Ages to a much larger crowd.  Their garb, gear, and the manner of their presentation all sounded so SCA that I'm sure there was a connection.  But Alix and I left Jan and "the ladies" to hear them out, taking advantage of the fact that most of the people in the castle grounds were listening to the presentation, meaning there were few folk in the way as we explored the castle.

We went over the castle, one of Edward's massive keeps ringing Wales, and saw what had changed since the last time we had been there.  Some different displays in one of the towers.  A bigger gift shop.  More people on this holiday weekend.  But the castle was much as we had remembered it:  rising out of the living rock on a point overlooking the bay, commanding everything.  This wasn't one of the perfectly symmetrical Edwardian castles, but rather the shape was dictated by the shape of the land, the great hall (and consequently the castle on that side) having a "kink" to it because of a ledge of solid rock.  The outer ward faces the city, and can only be accessed through it.  The inner ward, where the King would stay when he was in residence, was primarily accessible from the sea, had a smaller, more compact arrangement, with the addition of smaller guard towers rising another level from the large corner towers that held apartments.

Climbing up onto the wall, we walked around the outer courtyard, made our way to the walls looking down into the inner courtyard.  Into the Chapel Tower, then all the way up to the guard tower.  Looked out into the town, over the bay.  Down and around, looking here, poking there, getting some great pictures (I hope; Alix is just now going through the slides).  Finally through the gift shop where we got some postcards and mementos.

We left the castle behind, and went into town for a bit of lunch.  Roast beef sandwiches with a pint a bitters in a pub that backed up to one of the existing town walls.  The walls are still mostly there, mostly intact enough to allow you to walk them, at least a mile or so worth.  We didn't do that the last time we were in Conwy, and this time decided that it was the thing to do.

Starting at the opposite end of the beach from the castle, we climbed the corner tower.  From there the wall rose from the beach back up the hillside, with a sharp gradient on a narrow walkway, footing uneven and little or nothing much to stop you from tumbling over the side if you didn't pay attention to what you were doing.  Alix remarked to me that this was a principal difference between the US and Europe . . . you could never get away with such a risky public access as this in the States, thanks to the likelihood of lawsuit.  In Europe they just put up a sign at the entrance to such structures that says "You are entering a 13th century ruin.  Pay attention to your footing and safety or you may be hurt." Iím convinced that Darwinism works better there than here because of it.

Looking down onto the busy streets of the town, into the backyards of the homes that lined those streets.  Apples just coming ripe, a cute little greenhouse-shed, a child's scooter leaning against a picnic table.  Normal homes, normal life, inside a 13th century walled city.  I thought how weird it must be to live in a place so heavily visited by tourists.

At the high corner of the town, furthest from the bay, we climbed the guard tower, and just spent a moment taking it all in.  Then back down the other side, down the wall that would lead us toward the castle (though not all the way to the castle).  Just as we were about to descend to street level, saw a ramshackle market in a parking lot near the train station.  Since it was on the way, stopped in there, and picked up a jar of "Welsh Lady Strawberry Conserves," looked over the fruit and the flea-market types of stuff.  Popped in and out of a couple of other shops, got some ice cream, and went back to where our Coach waited at the appointed time.  When the rest of the crew arrived, we were off again, a little south to Bodnant Garden.

I must admit, I was less than impressed with the notion of going to a big garden.  Formal European gardens are not my thing.  When I think garden, I think veggies.

But we got there and, well, it wasn't like that.  More "The Secret Garden" (is that the name of that old movie?).  The place seemed . . . almost magical.  A little rambly, uncontrolled, not exactly formal.  Like a well-used and well-loved college campus, where the students would occasionally tramp through the mulch around the trees, fetching a frisbee that got away.  Clearly, a lot of work went into the place, but it had just enough of a sense of informality to feel like you wouldnít get in trouble for straying from the path, for dangling your feet in the stream that cut though one side, as we saw a young German couple doing with their toddler.  This was a garden of the sort that I would have.

Yet there were formal aspects to it.  Like the huge green behind the off-limits mansion.  Lined with perfect flowers (I dunno what they were . . . botany is not my thing).  But the sort of green that made you think "Bocce," that made you want to take off your shoes to feel the texture of the genetically-short grass.  Beyond that was a walled area, with a large reflecting pool, fed by an artificial spring that tumbled down through a break in the wall, foot-long goldfish playing at the edges.  Gigantic Lebanon Cedars at either end, so large that the lowest branches curved down to the ground and then turned back up to the light, as thick around a big man, secondary branches spreading their soft blue-green needles out in wide fans.  Inside there, between the main trunk and where the lowest branches touched the earth, a natural shelter of coolness and comfort, places for Victorian faeries to play.

One terrace down the mountainside was another green, this one surrounded with tall hedges that formed a little theatre, the hedge curling around and around to create trysting places or private little alcoves for sculpture.  At one end, three steps up on a dias of that short green grass, was a wide painted couch.  The perfect place to hold court, to sit and watch birds play, to listen to a chamber group perform.  And everywhere flowers, flowering trees, flowering bushes, flowers hanging from trellis, flowers floating in the many small ponds.

One path from here led down, and following it a ways we came to a break in the trees we could see that below us, after several switchbacks and another terrace or two, was "The Dell." But our time was running short, and it would be a hike back to the entrance as it was, so we left it for another trip.  We made our way back, getting to the nursery & gift shop about the time they started ringing the large bell to announce the closing of the garden.

It wasn't a long ride, but it was a scenic one through the forested mountains, to the small town of Ruthin.  Our hotel for the next two nights was the castle there, or, more accurately, the 19th century Gothic revival manor adjacent to the 13th century ruins of the original keep.  We got our rooms, huge by even American standards, changed for dinner, and met the other members of our party in the Library-bar.  This was the bottom room in an octagonal tower, with two corners "pushed out" to make the room almost a rectangle.  And the ceiling, like all the public areas on the ground floor, was done with intricate traceries of molding, creating a pattern both of color and shadow.

Dinner was delicious, overabundant, and most welcome.  In the course of the meal Jan told us about the "Grey Lady," the ghost of the castle grounds, whose grave was just outside of the walls of the ruins nearby.  Intriguing.  But not for Eddie, who quickly and clearly indicated that he would have nothing to do with no ghosts, no sir.  We retired from the table to the "Grande Salon" for coffee, more ghost stories, and to tease Eddie.

And in the course of coffee and conversation, as members of our group peeled off to go crash for the night, we got to know Jan and Eddie a little better.  This was the one big surprise of this trip for me:  getting to know these two 'average' Britains.  We had had opportunities to talk with average people both in England and on the Continent on our last trip, of course.  But those were usually surface conversations, casual in both content and the insight they provided.  This time we were able to find out more about the things these people thought, what they considered important, how they viewed the world.  It was a valuable aspect of the trip, all the moreso for being unexpected.

contact me:
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
site designed and maintained by:
Coeurbois Graphic Design