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various essays on, well, art and culture
lessons learned from this profession
ok, I'm not the guy from SNL,
mostly true stories from my
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observations on the human condition
There were times through the night I wondered whether the little cottage was going to blow away. Yeah, you could say that the wind did howl, the walls did rattle. If you wanted to understate the matter by a couple of orders of magnitude.
So, we awoke Monday to rain angrily pelting the windows. This was clearly not the morning to wander up the mountain. We turned on the tv to see if there was any chance of the weather improving. Nope. The front moving through was going to lead to "fresher!" weather. I swear the nice woman on the telly said this about a dozen times before I realized what she meant: that there was a cold front moving through and temps were going to drop. Kind of the way we say that the weather is 'brisk,' I suppose.
Well, if the weather isn't suitable for climbing mountains, you might as well go shopping. We did. Drove to Bangor in the rain, pulled into the parking lot of a largish store across the way from the Internet Cafe we found the day before. Something called a 'LIDL' store, which I gather is a chain. Like what you'd have if an Aldi was bred with a K-Mart, and the child was sickly. Bulk groceries, but not much selection. Boxes (and here I mean stove-sized cardboard boxes, their tops cut off, sitting on the floor) of cheap consumer stuff that looked like it was surplus from the Soviet Union. Alix picked up a sweatsuit (she'd forgotten to pack one) to help ward off the chill when relaxing around the cottage, since the weather was supposed to be 'fresher!' over the next couple of days, and we escaped the place. Rain cascading off my hat, we crossed the street and entered the Internet Cafe. Well, that wasn't really what the place was. It was a computer store. A little one. Had two desktops sitting there in the narrow sales area which you could use, for a fee. We did, clearing out some email stuff, paid the nominal fee, thanked the fellow sitting behind the desk, and moved on.
Across the coast on the A55 to Conwy, rain pouring all the way. Pop into the town proper, stop at the castle (an excellent castle, but one we had explored thoroughly on at least two previous occasions) to get some postcards. Conwy has good postcards. Then south out of town on the B5106, winding along the Afon Conwy through the Vale of Conwy, past the Rock of Conwy and the Shrub of Conwy, until we got to Trefriw. This quaint little town is worth exploring, if it isn't raining buckets. But seeing as it was, and we'd been there before, we went directly to our destination: the Trefriw Wollen Mill. This is kind of an outlet store that features real, honest-to-god Welsh wool products. Well, mostly. It also has some other wool and leather products from throughout the UK and Ireland. But I'd promised a friend some shanks of John Moss Woolen Yarn, and I'd promised myself another thick sweater, such as the one I had gotten the last time I was this way. At least they had the wool. And I did find a nice sweater I brought home, but it's a lightweight thing and a little more refined than the heavy fisherman's pullover I was envisioning. Some other items for friends and family, a pot of tea in their tea room, and we were ready to go.
The rain had calmed down at least a little, though not enough to want to walk around much. We jumped back into the van, and continued south. Just a few miles on, across the river from Llanrwst, we pulled off of the B5106 onto some side road and up the hill to Gwydir Uchaf Chapel. After rousting a caretaker from the nearby Forestry Services Headquarters to let us in the chapel. (It was unlocked, but the door, like all British doors - even in modern commercial buildings - opens inward.) This 17th c. stone structure still has the original roof with thick slates and a stone ridge, the original stout studded wooden door (with decorative strap hinges), and impressive leaded glass windows. But this straight-forward and simple exterior belies the magnificence of the interior. Once you cross the threshold, you're confronted with an elaborate baroque painted ceiling, rich wood paneling, carved wood cherubs, a gallery for a choir or musicians, collegiate-style side pews, a lovely wooden pulpit, and generally the impression that you could have just stepped back in time to when the Wynn family still ruled this area. If you like small churches, and find yourself in the area, look it up. It's worth the hunt.
The rain picked up again as we drove the few miles south to Betws-y-Coed on the B5106. This is a delightful town with a decided Alpine flavor, and which caters to those who are hiking and mountain climbing in the region. But in spite of a touch of tourist-y excess, it's a wonderful place. We had a delicious pub lunch at 'The Stable' (translating from the Welsh, which I no longer recall . . .), part of the Royal Oak hotel. This being the off season, we were able to enjoy the place with relative peace and quiet. After, we went down the street a bit to one of the mountaineering stores and picked up some additional maps and information on hiking Snowdon from one of the locals.
As we were exiting the store, the sun broke free of the clouds, the rain having stopped during our lunch. This was our cue to do something outdoors, so we drove SW out of Betws on the A470 to the small town of Dolwyddelan. Just beyond is one of the best surviving examples of native Welsh castles, which goes by the same name. Built by Llywelyn the Great back in the early 13th c., Dolwyddelan sits high in the Lledr valley, commanding and controlling all trade and transport. You can see the rectangular tower easily from the road, so we didn't have to go hunting at all. Just pulled off the highway, into the parking area, put on kneebraces, grabbed bags, camera, and walking sticks, and set out. You take the path along the road, a nice new wall of native slate between you and the cars, then turn up a farmer's driveway and stop at the house to show your CADW card (or pay the small fee for entrance). From there you go through a farm gate, up a fairly steep path that winds around the side of the hill for a few hundred yards until you cross a sheep pasture and stand before the castle.
It's not imposing, and doesnít have the brute strength of the more 'military' castles constructed elsewhere in Wales (most notably the Edwardian ring of castles), but it is damn impressive. Where you enter now is a simple staircase, but initially it was a drawbridge controlled by a gate on the northeast. You enter the courtyard, and there's the ruins of a large stone structure immediately to your right. This was the west tower, probably constructed as accommodations after Edward I captured the castle in 1283. Across the yard to your left stands the tower keep, mostly original, though refurbished in the 19th c. Enclosing the yard is the remains of the curtain wall some 6 feet thick, originally 13 or so feet high. We crossed the yard, and went up the stone stairs to a landing where there was originally a defensive fore-building. Then into the first floor of the keep.
Yum. OK, so it was reconstructed and somewhat altered back in the middle of the 19th c. Yeah, yeah, it was also changed after Edward took the castle and extended the keep another floor. But it is very cool. The massive fireplace is medieval in origin, and of course the basic layout of the room hasn't changed. In one corner is a doorway which leads to a passage within the wall, ending in a latrine. In the opposite corner is a doorway leading to a long internal stairway, which takes you up to the roof battlements.
From here you can appreciate the location of the castle. Good siting for general control of the valley, and the medieval road is still evidenced on the north side of the castle. The position of the keep on the top of a knot of stone, augmented by the defenses and some alteration of hillside to create deep ditches where there isn't a natural cliff, makes the immediate vicinity of the castle easy to control. Curiously, there's a large hill to the north not that far away, and I wondered whether this could have been used against the castle by Edward I. No record of that action exists, however.
Standing there on the battlements, feeling the stiff breeze coming up the valley, I was reminded of the winds of Deheubarth in the south. But I still prefer Northern Wales, particularly this area in the interior east of Snowdon, where the mountains are a little taller, the land a little wilder. It's been settled and farmed for thousands of years, but thereís still the feeling that it hasn't quite been tamed yet, that the native Welsh just reached an understanding with the land rather than conquered it.
We spent a good while just walking the site, taking in the view, enjoying the fresher! air. But after a while we made our way down the hill, back to the car, and took the A470 further SW to Blaenau Ffestiniog. This slate-mining town is location of the Llechwedd Slate Caverns, and looks like the used-up mining town it is. Surrounded by slate tailings, there's a sense of being at the site of a desecration or a slaughter, where the mountains have been butchered for their bones. I'd been through it several times, was never tempted to stop. But Alix had been there the year before, as part of the Côr Cymry tour, and sang in the little Greek Orthodox chapel as a benefit. The reception she and the other members of the choir had was warm and welcoming, and she wanted to stop by and see the place again. It just goes to show that people can retain their humanity, even in a place like that.
Our stop was brief, however, as there was no one at the chapel (Alix hoped to say hello to the priest). The day not yet done, we decided to backtrack a bit and head northeast, through Betws, across the Conwy, up through Llanrwst, then east on the A548 and south on the B5384 to the small village of Gwytherin. North Wales is the homeland of Brother Cadfael, the character from the series of medieval mysteries by Ellis Peters, and Gwytherin is the setting for the first of those books. It's also the historic home of Saint Winifred of Holywell fame (see, there's that thing with the saints and their wells again). You drop down out of the surrounding hills into this little burg, and right in the middle there is the cemetery, complete with a small chapel, and a little public square area. We parked the van nearby, and went exploring a bit. "Quaint" is the perfect adjective for this little town, which is clean, neat, and picturesque. Alix got some photos, and the return of rain told us it was time to call an end to the day's adventures.
It was a leisurely and lovely drive back through the mountains to the sea. We headed toward Caernarfon via the A5 then the A4086 through Llanberis. We needed to do some serious grocery shopping, and it was best to do so in a real town. We found a large Safeway which was still open (it was twilight, say 7:00) and went inside. We loaded up, again enjoying the wide and wonderful selection of unusual foods and packaging, the large variety of cheeses, the seemingly endless variations on the theme of 'canned fish,' et cetera. We drove back to the cottage, made a simple dinner, watched a little telly, read the newspaper, and crashed.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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