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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

Wales 2003
      The Warm Stones
      A Rich Man's Fantasy
      The Wind of Deheubarth
      The Latches of her Dreams
      Ynys Môn
      St. Cybi's Well
      Castell y Bere
      Dafydd Iwan
      The Bird & Baby

Wales 2006
CCGA Vignettes

Dafydd Iwan

Friday, 9/26

There was a cloud parked on our mountain.  Yeah, the same odd effect that we had experienced at the top of Snowdon a couple of days previously, but with the added delight of rain splattering the windows.  Sort of miserable weather, truth be told.  We couldn't see anything.  So, after breakfast and sorting ourselves out a bit, we decided to drive up to Bangor, check mail, maybe explore the town a bit.

I'm used to fog.  I'm used to heavy, unexpected fog when you drop down out of the bluffs into a riverbottom just at the crack of dawn on the way to go dove hunting, the road suddenly disappearing and leaving you hoping that you know the next sharp turn well enough.  I'm used to the mist you get with fog, how it seeps into everything, making you instantly damp and chilled.  But being inside a cloud - a rain cloud - was new to me.  This wasn't just a mist.  It was embryonic, incipient rain.  Stepping out into it one didn't just in a cloud become damp.  One became wet, but in slow motion, the way you only get partly wet when slowly walking into a cold surf, afraid to dive in and get the shock over and done with.  And this in just the time it took to go out the door of the cottage and around to the door of the van and get inside.  Charming.

Now I know why airplanes have instruments.  Driving down the mountain in this cloud was more excitement than I had bargained for.  But, obviously, we survived.  Made it to Bangor in the rain.  Parked outside the little computer shop, went in and checked mail.  Came out, and the rain had lightened.  Drove downtown, found a parking space.  Alix wanted to check something in the local library, I decided to explore the downtown shopping district, and we set a time to meet back at the van.

Both I and the streets were still damp as I tromped around, a nice throng of townspeople and students (one of the major campuses of the University of Wales is near downtown) in the vibrant shopping area, the narrow streets closed to traffic.  I popped into a couple of music stores, looking for a CD Alix had been hunting for:  a small Welsh group by name of Rhocesi, to give to a friend of hers who we were going to be staying with near Reading the next night.  No luck.  Consoling myself, I stopped by a bakery, picking up a coffee and some sweets.  Then a bit of random wandering until I stumbled upon a side area of shops with a Welsh heritage flavor, but not something set up for tourists.  Rather, it was little mom & pop places that seemed to have survived on the edge of the business district, managing to compete with the larger and more British mainstream establishments.  One such was a music store, harps hanging along the ceiling, LPs, tapes and CDs in bins around and about in a manner that suggested some type of organization not immediately understandable to me.  In other words, the kind of place one could enjoy exploring, as opposed to the big Virgin Records store I had tried earlier that made use of the latest pop decor and marketing strategies more designed to emptying your wallet than providing satisfaction.

I asked the nice middle-aged shopowner about the disc.  Surprised to have such a request come from an American, she raised her eyebrows just a tad, but smiled and said that she could have it for me by Monday.  I apologized, said that we'd be leaving in the morning, would have to do without it.

Taking my leave, I made my way back to the van, where Alix appeared a few moments later.  Her expedition had been no more successful than mine, as she had been trying to locate the words to a song from a group she fancied, which she thought was traditional and might therefore be available somewhere in Wales.  But to no avail.  We munched the baked goods, settled on our next goal, and left downtown.

We had decided to stop by a large grocery store and get some items for dinner, but also some box tape to secure the hiking sticks in the carpet tube we had picked up the day before.  Tesco was the place to go.  We'd stopped in this place briefly earlier in the week, and I had been impressed (not in a positive way) then with just how similar it was to a WalMart Supercenter here in the States.  Evidently, Tesco was moving in the direction of being an all-encompassing hypermart, coming from a grocery store background, in much the same way as WalMart was moving that way coming from discount store origins.  The baked goods we'd enjoyed earlier had just whet our appetite, so we decided for an early bit of lunch there in the Tesco cafeteria, to get the full Tesco Uber Alles experience.  Yup.  Fast food, cheap, probably not particularly healthy, but edible and filling.  We sat at the little plastic table, eating our eminently forgetable meal, looking around at the signs for Tesco Banking, Tesco Insurance, Tesco Phone Service, Tesco Crematorium.  Given that there's a National Health Service in the UK, Tesco pretty much had everything else covered.  We even got gas at the Tesco Service Station on the edge of the parking lot, after we finished our meal and were trying to escape.

What to do?  The weather had finally cleared, and in fact it was quite nice.  But we'd had enough of hiking mountains and had seen all the castles within easy driving range.  Alix suggested that we might go in search of the headquarters for Sain Records, the company responsible for putting out the CD which contained the song she was wanting the words for.  They were off the beaten path in one of the little villages just this side of the Llyn Peninsula.  Sure, I was game for a bit of poking around the countryside.  We left Bangor, heading south on A487 to Caernarfon, then beyond.  Splitting off on the A499 for just a short bit, then off onto local roads to Llandwrog, the mailing address for Sain.

We had our Landranger map for the area.  There wasn't much there, so we thought we'd be able to drive through town, find the headquarters, and that would be that.  Well, not exactly.  We covered all the main roads, no sign of Sain.  Popped into the local pub, they gave us "go down to the big tree across from the house with the green door about a mile past the school" kind of directions, but they worked, and after a short time we pulled into the parking lot for a modest group of buildings.  Yup, there was even the company logo.  We'd found the world headquarters for Sain Records.

We went inside.  Small lobby, but nice, modern, with lots and lots of CDs from all their projects decorating the place.  Nice lady at the reception desk asked if she could help us with something.  Alix told her what she was looking for.  The nice lady chewed her lip a moment, then got up and went into another room.  We heard her talking to someone.  She came back.  So did this other person.  They started talking rapidly with Alix in a mix of Welsh and English which left me completely baffled.  The sound of this exchange seemed to catch the attention of others in the building, who started to wander in, offering opinions and thoughts on where the words to this song might be found.

I turned around from examining some promotional posters for a Sain album to see a man I recognized from TV the week before.  While we had been in the south, just after we left Cardiff, the national party of Wales, Plaid Cymru, had held their convention there.  And they had elected a new leader of the party, one Dafydd Iwan.  The same Dafydd Iwan who stood before me now.  I think he was even wearing the same green tie emblazoned with the Welsh Dragon he had on when I saw him on TV.  One of the founders of Sain records, and widely known for his patriotic Welsh songs and promotion of Welsh heritage, he'd gotten involved in politics in recent years.  Plaid Cymru isn't the main political power in Wales.  But they are an important force.  So this was like running into Ross Perot during the height of the '92 election.  Except that Dafydd Iwan is neither as rich nor as wacko as Ross Perot.  He is about the same age and height, however.

Anyway, Iwan was there, having been drawn in like the others by this musical question.  Asked Alix about the song, why she was interested in it.  She told him that she belonged to Côr Cymry, and that her local foursome wanted to add the song to their repertoire.  They talked about Côr Cymry, about where we were from, about the fact that she knew Sain well enough to be able to find their headquarters.  He thought about it, said that he was sure the song, while sounding like a traditional ballad, was actually an original text by the band in question.  He told the receptionist to pull the file for the recording, see if the words were in there, or, failing that, to get the contact info for the band.  Then, thanking us and wishing Alix well with her singing, he disappeared back into his office.  The receptionist pulled the file, and discovering that there was no record of the lyrics in there, gave us the contact info for the band.

(As an aside, just today Alix heard from the band via email.  They were very happy to provide her with the words, and were very pleasant in their correspondence.  Wouldn't surprise me if Dafydd Iwan had dropped them a note, asking them to help her out.  He seemed to be that kind of guy.  Whether or not he is, that's how he seemed.  Good trait in a politician.)

Thanking everyone for their help, and with Alix floating a few inches off the ground, we left Sain.  Drove back to Llanberis, to check out the craft center there, see if there were any gift items we wanted to pick up to take home.  We did find some items for guesting-gifts, a couple of other things.  Then to "Electric Mountain," where they have a fair-sized gift shop.

"Electric Mountain" is the local power company's theme for their hydro power facility there in Llanberis.  One of the local mountains, originally mined for slate, has now been converted into a time-shifting power generation station.  During the night, when electrical demand is low, the power company pumps water into a reservoir at the top of the mountain.  During the day, when demand is greater, this water flows back to the bottom, turning turbines and generating electricity.  Itís a common enough practice around the world, but cottage and van it always seems the power company in question has to make it sound like some big deal.  I guess they need all the good press they can fabricate.

It was getting on to late afternoon when we left "Electric Mountain" and drove back up to the cottage, high above Llanberis.  We parked the van, unloaded our goodies, but felt like stretching our legs.  Since we were going to be leaving the next morning, we thought to take a walk around the neighborhood.  Following the road east, we walked toward the old slate mine.  It was only a couple of miles, and we found ourselves in the middle of a wasteland of mine tailings, a place possessed of a strange and unearthly beauty, as is the way of so many disaster sites.  We collected samples of several colors of slate (three different colors from the same mountain.  Weird.) and hiked back to the cottage.  It was time for a leisurely dinner, packing, and preparing to leave Wales.

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all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
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