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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

A Rich Manís Fantasy

Wednesday, 9/17

After a long, luxurious sleep, we totter out of bed and over to breakfast.  We were quite fortunate, in that each of the B&B's we stayed in were 'real,' places which were well established and well run, that knew how to cater to guests on a personal level.  Sat in this converted front room, one of half a dozen tables.  Had the full breakfast (in England and Wales this amounts to:  egg of some variety, what the Brits call bacon but we think of as ham, one of those pasty British pork sausages that make anyone who loves a real wurst blanch, a couple of fried tomato halves, perhaps fried mushroom caps or beans, cereal, coffee or tea, juice, and toast of either white or brown bread - appropriately served cool in a little rack, so it is nice and crunchy), after which I wanted to go back to bed, since I'm used to a small amount of cereal and a banana, just enough to cushion my two cups of coffee.  But since the coffee was fully caffeinated (I drink just a 25% version usually), and strong at that, there was no way I was going to sleep.  Besides, we needed to drive to Cardiff.  So, we packed up the bags, rearranging things for driving and hiking around rather than for getting through security at the airport and sitting on a plane.  Bid our hostess farewell, and negotiated the hard turn out of her front yard carpark into traffic.

We took the A36 northwest from Salisbury toward Bath, skirting that ancient city (yeah yeah, I know we should have stopped.  Another time.) and up to catch the M4 west into Wales.  At this point Alix (who is a member of the North American Welsh Choir, has been to Welsh Camp, and is now reading novels in Welsh) started to get excited.  A long time ago I learned that this was the point at which I should just relax and go along for the ride, so from then on until we left Wales, I was getting impromptu lessons in Welsh pronunciation . . . which is hard for anyone who has years of German.  The languages are completely unrelated, but some of the constructions in Welsh are false cognates, meaning that they try and trick you into saying them as they should be said in German.  It's enough to drive one to drink.  But since I was partly on this trip to sample every ale I could find, I didn't consider this to be much of a hardship.

Anyway, we crossed the Severn, heading toward Cardiff.  This part of Wales is the most 'British,' and the most industrialized/economically developed.  Driving the M4, you could pretty much be anywhere in Britain, except the signs are bi-lingual, with first English, then Welsh.  (That changes when you go north, and there were plenty of places in the north where Welsh nationalism is so strong that people routinely paint over the English.)  We slipped past Cardiff itself, going just a couple of miles north of the city to see Castell Coch.

Castell Coch is frequently dismissed as nothing more than a 19th century fantasy castle.  This is unfair, since it was built upon the extant ruins of a real medieval castle dating back at least to the 13th c.  When you come upon it, Castell Coch the tactical position of it for defensive purposes is obvious, and the actual structure from the outside doesn't scream 'Victorian fantasy.'  Three towers, enclosing curtain wall, nice drawbridge, evidence of a moat . . . this would've been a pretty decent place for a minor noble and family to live comfortably and safely, with a small garrison to handle the riff-raff.  Alix and I agreed that it would be OK.

You enter the castle across a permanent bridge, flash your CADW membership to the nice man at the gate, and step into the courtyard.  To the immediate left is one of the towers, then the hall block, then another tower containing the kitchens.  To the right is the remaining tower.  There's a nice gallery walk along the curtain wall, which is covered, and has benches to enjoy the view both in the courtyard or out into the surrounding forest.

Back in 1875 a local robber baron, John Patrick Crichton Stuart, the third marquis of Bute, decided to turn the mostly ruined castle into the perfect Victorian version of the middle ages.  He hired William Burges, a famed yet slightly nutso architect and designer, to work his Romantic magic.  The result is simply amazing.  Burgess (and the man who finished his work after his death) created one of the most remarkable medieval fantasies around, but was practical enough that the castle could be used as an actual summer residence by the Stuart family.  There's the great Banqueting Hall, lavish with carvings and rich paintings on the walls and ceiling, in a pseudo-medieval style.  There's the adjacent drawing room in one of the towers, the walls muraled with scenes from Aesop's Fables, a great vaulted ceiling with balconies looking into the room, gilt and gold on the statues of the Fates, butterflies Lady Bute's room of a thousand colors ribbing the vaulting, culminating in a brilliant sunburst in the center at the top.  Overwhelming.  But not nearly as much as Lady Bute's bedchamber, at the top of a tower, the dome of the ceiling done in Moorish-style painted panels of monkeys, birds, butterflies, and fish.  The amount of gold gilt glinting there made my head spin.  The Lord's bedroom, more manly and austere but still keeping the medieval fantasy theme is easier to take.  The rest of the castle maintains the Victorian vision, but is more functional (and wasn't intended to be seen by others).

We went through it all, even down into the damp, musty basement of the well tower.  Then decided to have a bit of lunch in the little cafe just beside the entryway.  Turned out that our options for lunch were somewhat limited, for some reason given by the young woman there which I can no longer recall.  Just a couple of choices for sandwiches:  tuna, cheese, prawn salad, which we could have on a baguette or a baguette.  Tea, some soft drinks.  Cookies or some kind of muffin, I think.  We made our selections, sat to eat and catch our breath.  After finishing, we walked around the outside of the castle, then headed into Cardiff.

Traffic was awful.  But we drove into the center of town, swung past Cardiff Castle (another Bute and Burgess project), and found our B&B on a nearby side street.  Cardiff is a large port city, the capital of Wales, and we were in the thick of it.  We parked the car, went in to make arrangements for the room, then took a stroll into the downtown area called 'The Hayes.'  The Hayes, Cardiff The weather continued to be beautiful, a tad warm, but there was a nice bit of breeze coming in off the bay as we walked among the street performers and pedestrians, exploring the old merchant section of town.  It's nice enough, not unlike any European city, but wasn't really what I had come to Wales for.  We did a bit of shopping, popped in to an internet cafe and checked to see that there weren't any critical email messages, then wandered about some more.  One thing Alix wanted to get from a store she had been to last year while on tour with the NAWC was a large golf-style umbrella, but in the colors of the Welsh flag.  She had purchased one there previously, but the airlines conspired to make sure it never got home with her.  When she ordered one from the store, it arrived with a bit of a bend in it.  Of course, now they were completely out of the things.  Disappointed, we moved on.  I spied a 'Welsh Heritage' store.  We went in.  We found about every conceivable thing with the Welsh flag splashed across it.  But no umbrellas of that size.  Just as we were about to leave, I asked the clerk.  "Oh, yeah, we've got this one," he said, pulling it out from under a display case.  "Not sure what it's doing there.  But you can have it."

At one point Alix went on in quest of something else, I popped into a pub and had a pint, and got to listen to some loudmouthed salesman from Ohio holding forth to the locals.  Yeesh.  Had I not told Alix this was where to meet me, I'd have moved on.  Anyway, we wound up in a nice little music store, as Alix was looking for a specific CD to give to a friend, as well as the words to a piece (in Welsh, of course) for her choir group which she had been unable to find elsewhere.  They were helpful enough, but didn't have what she was looking for . . . though we did get a nice CD by Carreg Lafar which I'm listening to as I write these stories.  After, a bit of dinner in one of the little restaurants in The Hayes, and a nice walk back to the B&B through the city park next to the castle.  We flopped down on the bed, flipped on the telly, and browsed through our four broadcast station choices.  One of them was just starting to show "Mission Impossible 2," which neither of us had seen.  So, we watched a bit.  And were astonished when halfway through the movie, they broke for a half hour newscast.  Evidently this is common practice.  It must do wonders to promote getting cable or satellite service.

We caught a bit of the news, mostly so we could find out the weather, then crashed before watching the last half of the movie.  Weird.

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all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
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