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Wednesday: A full day, a crazed night
To Edward Colonel Prichard EsqThat's the entry 'ticket' that you get from the clerk in the reception area, when you go to Llanchaiach Fawr. Once you leave the little gift/restroom/restaurant complex, and go onto the grounds of this 17th century manor, you encounter everything as living history, including the 'servants,' who stay in persona throughout.
We had gotten up at a reasonable hour, had a full Welsh breakfast (like an English traditional breakfast: roast tomato, fried eggs, fried toast, English 'sausage,' and a couple thick slabs of what we would call ham but there is considered bacon - except the Welsh version also has hot pork & beans. Odd.), and then Eddie took us on a bit of a drive through the Rhondda. Pretty country, the mountains mostly free of trees, with sparse vegetation, mostly heather in full rusty bloom. Some mountains aren't even real; they're slag heaps of coal-mining refuse. But someone figured out how to spray them with liquid manure and get a thin layer of ground-cover to grow, and you can't tell it to look at them. Except, of course, when a part of the ersatz mount subsides, and a chunk of it slides down and wipes out a school or something, as evidently has happened on far too many occasions for anyone to feel comfortable about the situation.
Anyway, after this nice bit of a morning drive, we came to Llanchaiach Fawr. Got our "passes" and went into the manor. It is largely as it was 350 years ago, and all the renovation work that has been done recently has been with an eye toward restoration. At the entrance we were greeted by the servants, who stamped our passes, and explained that their good Lord & Master was away with his Lady Wife, but that they would conduct us through the manor house and see to our health & well-being.
First, one of the serving girls took us into the area where the servants were fed, and explained about the hierarchy of the staff, who got paid what sorts of money, and what sort of eating utensils went with their station in the household. Fresh-drying herbs sweetened the air, and the various casks, barrels, and tubs seemed to be well and properly used. Then we were upstairs, to the main hall, where the Steward for the manor explained that the Lord would handle manor business, feast guests, and sit in judgement of cases brought to Law, as one of his duties was to be Justice for the Crown. Low benches filled the room, with a large, bright-blue fireplace along one wall for heating the place. On one end was a step up to a platform holding table and chairs for the Lord and his assistants on business occasions, the high table on festive ones.
In the adjacent "withdrawing" room, the Lord and his Lady would take their meals together at a long, narrow table. The room was walnut paneled, and also served as a meeting place for the Lord to consult on law suits brought to him for assistance. One corner of the room held a hidden stairway, through which servants could deliver hot meals or drink from the kitchen and cellar below. Another corner opened onto a small privy, for the ease of the Lord and his guests.
The Lord's valet took us into the next room over, which was the Lord's bedroom, with his lavish, curtained four-poster bed. His man-servant explained that this bed was so fancy, since it was on the level where guests might see it, and hence had to show off the wealth and power of the family. The Mistress' bedroom was one flight up, and that bed and room were much more plain, since no one outside the family or servants would ever see it. In this room we met the manor's rat-catcher, who was also a pikeman in his Lord's service. This fellow was a lot of fun . . . a bit of a rogue, but also well-versed in pike formation and firearms of the period, some of which he demonstrated to us.
After exploring through the manor a bit more, we went out to the grounds where a falconry demonstration was being conducted. The Falconer and his assistants had a number of birds of prey, all well-trained and behaved. At first, working with a small owl, they demonstrated how a bird with such short, powerful wings was perfectly adapted to forest hunting, and had the owl fly not just close to the crowd, but actually through the crowd, zipping between people who were standing there, brushing you with the tips of his wings as he swept past. Then, having 'volunteers' from the crowd help, they had a falcon circle and hunt a small decoy, then land on the arm of the volunteer. I got drafted for this, and had the several-pound bird land on my extended (and gloved!) hand, take his treat of meat for performing well, and then leap off again on another task.
And we were off again, down the Aber valley to Caerphilly. We had a bit of lunch (Alix and I opted for fish & chips in a take-away place), then met to go over to the castle, which was placed not on any huge hill looking down, but right there in the center of the town.
It is fascinating. The largest castle in Wales, it was built not by Edward, but by one of his Marcher Lords, using (I think) the same architect who designed the Edwardian castles. And it has a real moat. More accurately, the city, about 20 years ago, decided to re-install the lake and moat system around and through the castle, though with proper storm drainage and whatnot. Consequently, instead of just imagining what the castle would have looked like with the water obstacles in place, you can actually see how it adds to the defense. Everything makes a lot more intuitive sense. And the people fishing there, and the dogs playing in the water, seemed to enjoy it, too.
Following the Civil War, the castle was 'slighted,' and most of the major towers blown up with gunpowder. But it was built so strongly that even though the towers were rendered unusable, they are still there. A couple have been restored, and now serve for museum spaces for artifacts and explanatory information about the castle and the city. Other medieval aspects of the castle have also been restored, including the 'hourdes,' the wooden constructions which would hang over the outside of the walls. These would provide a temporary platform for archers, but more importantly would allow the defenders to drop large, heavy and sometimes very hot objects on anyone attempting to scale or damage the walls. Likewise, the great hall was reconstructed, and trestle-style tables put into place. And they have siege weapons.
Yes, real, full-scale (though in some cases small relative to the really large engines that would have been used in period), and functioning siege engines. A rope-torsion ballista. A man-powered trebuchet. A 20-ton drop-weight trebuchet. A very nice tension catapult. Several times each year, they give demonstrations of these weapons, firing them out over the lake. And though we didn't get to see them in use, you could get right up to them, see how the construction was done, see how the things operated. Fascinating.
The weather, already a bit cool, turned damp with the threat of rain. We left Caerphilly and headed back to our hotel, with a quick drive up to Castle Coch. This is a 19th century fantasy castle, built to medieval plans on the outside, but with elaborate decoration and all the 'modern' conveniences on the inside. And it is the castle used as the home of Robin Hood in "Prince of Thieves," for the exterior shots.
Thence to the hotel, where several of the members of the group elected to relax for a couple of hours while the rest of us walked next door to the Welsh Heritage Park.
Like slate in the north of Wales, coal defines this area. The rich coal deposits exploited in the 19th century made this part of the world equivalent to our Persian Gulf: not the sole source of power, but one of the biggest players, supplying some of the best coal available. The British Navy used Rhondda coal to control the seas. Whole towns were created to dig, process and ship the stuff. And those who came to own the mines, and the miners, did pretty much as they pleased. There were strikes, strike-breakers, and small wars that were waged on both sides. Eventually, the mines were nationalized in this century, with improvements in safety and working conditions, wages and retirement benefits. But in the 80's the government started closing the mines, and the Lewis Merthyr Colliery was one of the last to be shut down, just a few years ago.
Fortunately, someone realized that without quick action, this piece of industrial archeology would be demolished and sold for scrap. So instead of chaining the gates, they turned the place into the Welsh Heritage Park, a gritty historical theme park, bringing in additional slices of coal-mining life such as the "Main Street" of a company town, complete with period store-goods. There's a nice, modern museum area, interviews and diary entries, photos of family life, and explanations of how coal came to be king, and how that king aged and died.
But one of the main components of the park is the trip into the mine itself. After a short multi-media history of the mine, you are escorted by one of the retired miners into some of the above ground facilities, have the nuts & bolts (sometimes literally) of the equipment explained, and given a hardhat. Then a short ride down into the mine.
The conceit is that youíre actually going a ways down, and they make it easy to believe. You come into one of the earliest versions of the mine, back in the early part of the 1800's. Then, moving through the mine, you also move through time, seeing the improvements in the technology and working conditions, the elimination of child labor and the replacement of draft mules with motorized carts. At the end you're given another multi-media ride, and brought back into the light. It is real enough, complete with the stench of coal gas and the heat of decaying deposits, to fool children and allow others to suspend their disbelief.
We walked back to the hotel, and a bit later joined everyone for an early dinner before we left for the evening. We had given Eddie a full day already, and regulations prohibited him from driving us to our engagement that evening. So Jan had contracted with a taxi company to pick us up and take us to a small town in the neighboring Aber Valley, to attend the rehearsal of the Aber Valley Male Voice Choir.
This was one of the highlights of the trip for Alix. She had contacted the tour company months previously to see if something like this could be added to our itinerary, since we had missed an earlier tour that was centered around the annual Male Voice Choir competition. In fact, right now she's listening to the CD of this group she brought home with us.
In Wales, it seems that everyone sings. Really sings. I remember a few years ago, I happened to be in the room when some sporting event was on TV. I don't remember whether it was the Olympics, or some BBC broadcast of the World Cup, or what. But I do remember that the Welsh national team was a participant, and when they sang the national anthem . . . well, the entire stadium rocked. This wasn't people struggling through out of patriot duty, with a lot more enthusiasm than skill. This was something like 40,000 people joined in one a cappella rite of passage, a power and joy to the sound of their voices that sent a chill up my spine at the time, and still does just remembering it. Choir is considered a serious, but very enjoyable, component of life. And the men of the Aber Valley Male Voice Choir are very good at what they do.
So, at the appointed time, our two taxis appeared. Not your big London taxis. Not even the Buick cruisers that you frequently see in small cities here in the States. These were a couple of compact cars, big enough to hold four or maybe five adults. Jan spoke with one of the drivers, who was the owner of the company. He assured her he knew exactly where we were headed.
Heh. We had to be there at 7 so as not to interrupt the rehearsal. Plenty of time. Alix, Martha, Jan and I all piled into one of the cars, the one driven by the owner's girlfriend's nephew (or some such), so that Jan could help him navigate in case we got separated. The others disappeared into the owner's car, and we were off, at about Mach 4. There was no chance that we would get separated, since the kid we were riding with made sure that he stayed right on top of the other car's bumper at all times, regardless of the speed we were traveling. Though to be fair, we weren't going that fast most of the time, since once we got off the interstate-style highway and up into the mountains (a shortcut, you know), sheep kept slowing us down.
Yeah, sheep. We climbed up and into the mountains quickly, taking these little-bitty back roads, even by Welsh standards. There were dry-mortar slate fences on each side, with only occasional glimpses out into the world as we zipped past a gate into a field or crossed another tiny road. At one point some poor sheep had gotten out onto the road, and had to run along for a couple hundred yards, us honking, pushing it on, until it damned near dove into the opening of a pasture, our driver laughing so hard I was sure he couldn't see for the tears.
And after the inevitable wrong turns, back-tracking, and stopping to ask for directions from the oncoming car we nearly sideswiped, we got to the location of the rehearsal just in time. It was being held in the upstairs room of the equivalent of a VFW post. And the fellow who had been our contact person with the Choir was very nice about explaining that he had gotten a special dispensation to bring women into the building . . .
We made our way past the bar on the ground floor, and the snooker hall on the next floor up. Into the largish classroom where the Choir was just getting started on their rehearsal. The director of the Choir welcomed us, introduced us briefly to his group, who welcomed us warmly with a round of clapping. About 40-50 men, in all ages and sizes, some wearing t-shirts, others ties. Almost all of them had a pint of beer from the bar downstairs handy. We took our seats along one wall, behind a row of tables, and stayed out of the way as they sang.
And oh, did they sing. It was a just a rehearsal, with all the stops and starts, chiding and banter, and practice, practice, practice that is typical of a rehearsal. But every snippet of song, every musical phrase, just poured out of them like white-hot metal, clean and pure of purpose. I was amazed that a room with such poor acoustics could sound so good, that a building such as that could stand such power. We were stunned, dazed at the common, unpretentious beauty of it. And then it stopped.
It was thirsty work, and they were taking a break to refill glasses. Before any of us could move, we had members of the Choir coming over and shaking our hands, sitting down to talk and find out about us, to welcome us to their valley. I thought Midwesterners were friendly . . . good lord, if they had been any more friendly I think I would have never been allowed to leave. They asked about our interest in the Choir, the director spent a fair amount of time talking music with Alix, and the members of the Choir I talked with told me about their upcoming trips to perform on the Continent, the couple of times they had been on tours in America, and how they were planning this or that charity benefit concert. I heard the history of the group, how the current director was a good man, but still a bit young (he had only been director for 25 years, still short of the time his uncle had led the group), and how they were all happy to listen to his suggestions . . . as long as he didn't get too full of himself.
Finally, I broke away to go get a beer, and was told that if any of the women wanted anything, I might bring it up for them, since they couldn't be served at the bar. So I got orders, got the drinks, and got back in time to sit down before the rehearsal started up again. The second half of the rehearsal was more of that same beautiful sound, except that half an hour or so into it they stopped practicing and started just singing songs from their repertoire for our enjoyment. At that point, I thought Alix was going to pass bodily into heaven, the look of rapture was so profound on her face. But while all of it was just fantastic, some of it had a very odd quality, with their Welsh accent. Not exactly what you expect. Some of the songs they sang for us included "Hava Nagila," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and "Send in the Clowns."
Finally, it came to an end, and we clapped enthusiastically for them, receiving their thanks for being there to hear their rehersal in return. It was 9:30, and as people left, some sat down to pick up conversations left hanging during the break, others just to chat a bit. Almost everyone shook my hand as they went by. Finally, we too left, about the last people to go, with only our contact person escorting us down the stairs, to where the taxis should have been waiting.
Well, they got there eventually. And then the return trip home began. I swear, it felt like I was on a roller-coaster, the "Red Dragon of Wales." We now went down the mountain we had previously come up, headlights showing nothing more than the leaves of the trees in front of us, as we fell through the downward-sweeping tunnel of the enclosed road. Now the kid driving us knew where he was going, and it seemed to be a race to see which car could wind up achieving escape velocity first.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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