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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
The next morning we had a nice breakfast, saying farewell to the Collinses (we had met Aura briefly the evening before; she had just returned from two weeks in the hospital and seemed to be doing OK). We were headed north, but Martin had convinced us that we should stop at Ystrad Fflur, also known as Strata Florida, a Cistercian Abbey so intertwined with the history of Wales that some refer to the place as 'the Westminster of Wales.' It was somewhat out of our way, meaning that we would have to spend more time driving the narrow little 'B' roads. But the place sounded interesting enough, and all we had to do was make it to our cottage across the valley from Snowdon, so we decided to take our time and see the sights.
I've mentioned the road classification system in Britain. There's the 'M' roads, which are the same as our Interstate Highways, with very limited access, multiple lanes in each direction, high speed limits. Then there are the 'A' roads and the 'B' roads. But in each of these categories, there are levels. A single digit means the road is bigger/faster than a double, a double is the same to a triple, which is the same to a 4 digit road. So the A5 is a better road than the A44, which is better than the A470, et cetera. Well, we were about to drive most of the way through the center of Wales on the B4343. Yeah, I've seen driveways here that are wider and easier to navigate. I'm not kidding.
So, we went northeast from Llandeilo on the A40 to Llanwrda, where we got the A482 headed northwest. Took that until we picked up the B4343, heading mostly north toward Pontafynach, with a slight jaunt over to Strata Florida on a road that isn't even rated. The weather was somewhat grey, but there was little rain. Good thing, as there wasnít room for moisture on some of the roads we drove, between the overgrown hedges and oncoming traffic.
But it was pleasant enough, as we paced the Cambrian Mountains to the east, enjoying the wide valleys and still lush green hills. When we turned onto the little road to Strata Florida, I was thinking that this would be a good setting for a novel (I'd begun playing with the notion of a prequel to my recently finished book Communion of Dreams while in the south of Wales). We passed the walled yard of the historic site, turned the minivan around and parked. From the outside there wasn't much to see. We went into the office, flashed our CADW cards, and Alix noted that they had some CADW guidebooks that she had been looking for in other locations, but which had not been available. That was a good sign. There in the office they had a nice display giving a little of the history of the Abbey, showing some of the more remarkable architectural tidbits recovered from the site, et cetera. After a few minutes, we went out the back of the office and onto the grounds of the Abbey.
From that first moment, looking at the wonderful ribbed archway of the West Front door of the church, I knew this place was something special. In fact, that archway is unique in all the Cistercian structures known, and shows a level of masonry skill which is most impressive. This abbey had the support and patronage of the Welsh princes.
We went in, coming upon the foundations rising a couple of feet above the ground (there isn't much else of the church left standing). You can instantly tell that this was a very large structure. More than that, I could instantly feel something deep and powerful. Whether it was the location and therefore chosen by the monks, or the effect of hundreds of years of worship on the location, I could not tell. But there was something there which touched me, opened a door I usually keep shut against the pollution of the world, offered me a delectable and sublime lightness. Even the memory of it is enough to make my hair tingle.
From that moment I paid less attention to the old hard stone remaining in the place, and allowed myself to feel the nodes of energy, the places of focus, the joy of the view. Because even with low clouds and the threat of rain, that valley was beautiful, the hills comforting. Now, looking at the guidebook, I recall seeing the different rooms of the church, the sheltered medieval tilework and painted plaster, the piles of carved stone which had been collected in the side yard, awaiting a future restoration effort. I remember those things. But while I was there, I was called to another level of attention, brought to appreciate a different awareness.
And in that separate time, pausing, I looked down at a pier for one of the great walls. And there I saw a knife. Just a simple pocketknife, stainless steel, wet from recent rain. The metal of the knife matched perfectly the aged stone, and it was nearly invisible. It was an offering, a memento. I took it, but carefully laid my own pocketknife in its place, a knife I have owned for decades, which I have lost and then recovered in garden soil years later, a knife which served me well. That felt right.
We left, stopping long enough in the office to collect the books Alix wanted, a few postcards and gifts. We continued north, eventually connecting to the A44 and taking it west a few miles to Aberystwyth, then the A487 to Machynlleth and on to Dolgellau at the foot of Cadair Idris. We sought to get some lunch there, a town we were familiar with from our previous trip to this region, but pulled into the narrow streets of the old town to discover that it was Market Day. Arrggh! The place was packed, the roads impassible, and we barely got out without damage to the van and pedestrians. Took the A470 due north, a light rain now falling, stopping at the small village of Trawsfynydd. At first we thought that it was Market Day here as well, what with all the cars parked anywhere they would fit. But after parking, and wandering in, we realized that there was some kind of function going on at one of the churches, and went in quest of food. A couple of blocks away we found a little bitty place, the Welsh equivalent of a 1950 diner, complete with prints and calendars from that era. A simple lunch, watching three old women gossip, trying to make sense of a flyer taped to the door announcing a road-rally. (In Welsh, of course. We had crossed a boundary, and now if signs were bilingual, it was the English that was second. And it was common enough that the English had been spray-painted over.)
On the way back to the car, people were streaming from the church, all dressed in their finest, mostly an older crowd. And we saw a poster for the event which had just ended: the Glenn Miller Band. Very odd. We exited Trawsfynydd, ran through a quick mix of roads, eventually got on the A4085 to Beddgelert, Mount Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) occasionally visible through the clouds to the north. Climbing then, up the A498, with a stop at a scenic overlook for an ice-cream cone and to listen to the sound of a waterfall there on the side of Snowdon. Iíve always had a weakness for waterfalls. When the rain caught up with us, we jumped back in the van and continued, taking the A4086 through the Pass of Llanberis, pausing briefly in the late afternoon gloom to check out the parking lot there since that was where we were planning on starting our climb to the summit of Snowdon later in the week.
That accomplished, we swept down the mountain road toward the sea, through the town of Llanberis. Just beyond, we turned off onto the A4244 (which is still called B4547 on all our maps), then a mile or two later onto local roads to the village of Deiniolen, and beyond to the hamlet of Dinorwic. Following the directions given us, we had no difficulty locating the cottage we would be calling home for the next week. We met the proprietor, parked the minivan, and went in to explore the cottage. About the size of a big two-car garage, it had a simple kitchen and breakfast nook, a reasonable living room area, and a modest but not cramped bedroom. Our host made sure to get us settled, explained the power and plumbing (no joke; plumbing is not something that the British do particularly well. It's not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it's like a new faucet attached to a 300 year-old pipe: accommodations must be made.), showed us where everything was, and then left us to our own devices. We dumped the bags, went back to Deiniolen where we had been told there was a corner store that carried the basics for existence. We set in a small supply of basic foodstuffs: coffee, bread, eggs (just sitting there on a shelf next to the pasta, no refrigeration considered necessary), a selection of cheeses (this little country store had a greater variety of cheeses than just about any store in Columbia), et cetera. Enough to get us through the next 12 hours, anyway.
Back to the cottage. Got out of the van just in time to enjoy a spectacular view, Llanberis immediately down the hill and across the river from us, the Irish sea glinting in the distance down the pass to the west, Snowdon dominating the landscape to the south. The sun was setting behind the clouds which had lingered, breaking through now and again, providing us with a gorgeous show and suitable welcome to the north of Wales.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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