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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
more "it's all about me"
Iím at -7.13/-7.33 on The
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observations on the human condition
Just out our breakfast window we could see the north slope and summit of Snowdon. This morning, like most mornings, there was a cloud parked on top of the mountain, like Snowdon had snagged a passing cloud and refused to let it go. Between that and the weather forecast on the telly, we decided to wait and try climbing the mountain later in the week. If we wanted to do this (and we did, it was one of the major goals for this trip), we wanted to be able to see what we were climbing.
So, we turned to our list of the many other options for things to do in the north of Wales, and decided to go explore the Isle of Anglesey, or 'Ynys Môn' as it is known in Welsh. We had a light breakfast (of eggs which I put in the small refrigerator, local custom be damned), packed up our day bags for general exploring, and set off. Bangor was just 12 miles or so to the north of our cottage, as Caernarfon was 12 miles to the west. Before crossing the Menai Strait, however, we tooled around Bangor a bit, looking for an Internet Café. We found one, but like most things on a Sunday morning in Bangor, it was closed. We made note of the location, figured we'd try again on Monday.
So, across the Menai Strait and into Llanfair P.G. Ok, that's not its real name. The real name is like 37 syllables long and even native Welsh speakers get tripped up on the pronunciation, so they abbreviate it to Llanfair P.G. Of course, my wife can rattle off the full name with ease. Oh, you wanna try? OK, hereís the name: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. No, really. It translates into something along the lines of: "These three guys walk into a pub . . ." Oops, my mistake. It actually translates into roughly: "St. Mary's Church by the white hazel pool, near the fierce whirlpool with the church of St. Tysilio by the red cave." Clever Welsh, using just one word to say all that.
Anyway, at the Llanfair P.G. train station, there's a welcoming center under a big sign with the complete name. Next to the welcoming center is a tourist trap that claims to be a discount outlet or something, complete with young women in 'Welsh Lady' outfits and busloads of pensioners from England looking for a deal on Welsh Stuff. Scary. We spent entirely too much time in this place, and it was kind of an enjoyably surreal experience, like dropping acid and then going to your mom's fourth wedding.
When we finally came down off this trip, we found ourselves out in the van with a double jumbo box of shortbread rounds, some Traditional Welsh Leek & Whole-Grain Mustard, and a handful of postcards. Shaking off the effects of the tourist trap, we set forth to discover the real Ynys Môn. And just a few miles down the road, on the south side of the island, we found just that: a 4,000 year old burial mound. OK, Anglesey is littered with these things, and you can't swing a Llanfair P.G. sign without hitting a 'Standing Stone.' But this was a special treat, because you could actually go inside this mound.
Alix navigated, we found the small parking lot with the CADW sign, and we stashed the car. Grabbing a few things, we hiked the half mile or so back off the road, walking a wonderful path lined with blackberries, blueberries, some variety of multiflora rose that had giant rose hips, and the accursed stinging nettles I had so cleverly discovered our first day in the country. First we were beside a small stream, then we crossed it, went along a farmer's hedge, and after a couple of kissing gates wound up in the back yard of someone's farm. But there was the mound, maybe a dozen meters across and four high, with a slight ditch and raised ring surrounding it, a Standing Stone at each end of the passageway that ran through the middle of the thing. The CADW information indicated the age of the cairn, asked people to take it easy on this bit of history. We went through a modern gate and inside, walked through to the far end (which was closed off with bars). Odd. Not particularly 'spiritual,' but just a tad creepy. The ceiling of the passage was about a foot over my head, and I noted with some amusement that the large capstone over the small chamber at the far end was bolstered with what was clearly a concrete beam, painted to fit in with the stone. Nonetheless, it was a cool thing to see. We walked back to the car, went on.
Ynys Môn is mostly flat, except where it's flatter than that, and agricultural. The best description in my notes is that it's like Iowa stuck out in the sea. Sure, there's some roll to the place in areas, but there's nothing which could be construed to be a mountain or even much of a hill. Well, except Holyhead Mountain, but even that is only some 670 feet tall. We took the A4080 around the south side of the Island until the road turned north and intersected with the A55, which we took to Holyhead. Oh, we did pause in a small town of Aberffraw, which had been the home of the Princes of Gwenedd, including Llywelyn the Great. We had a bit of lunch there in the Heritage Center, which was mostly closed down for the season, the little tea shop being the only part open.
We rolled into Holyhead, me navigating. I'm not bad at this, though Alix is better. But nonetheless, it took a bit for us to find our way into the 'Country Park' at the base of Holyhead Mountain, after poking around to see if we could find a road which would take us close enough to the top to make the hike to the summit just a Sunday walk. Nevermind, we did find the park, got out of the van to stretch our legs a bit. There near the parking lot was a small lake, on which a half dozen radio-controlled boats danced, some powered by motors, most just sailboats. We joined the small crowd of families with young kids to watch the boats, all of which were run by a group of retirees sitting off to the side. After an enjoyable few minutes of this, we went exploring. Much of the area of the park was actually a quarry, where stone from the side of Holyhead Mountain was turned into the vast breakwater that created the New Harbor and made the extensive port facilities possible. Now it is covered with the usual combination of ferns and blackberries, so dense that it would be impossible to cross overland.
Leaving Holyhead, we took the A5025 around the north of the island, the sea never far from sight. Not too far north of Holyhead, we saw our first 'wind farm,' there inland near the Llyn Alaw reservoir. You've seen them, but until you see them in person, you don't have any sense of just how wild these things are, like something out of "The War of the Worlds." I had to get closer. So, when we wrapped around the top of the island, we detoured down a country lane, past a lovely Standing Stone, then onto a gravel farm road, breaking through the hedge right at the foot of one of these metal monsters. The size is what throws you. The three large, grey propellor blades look from a distance like they move lazily around and around. But each blade is about 75 foot long (no, seriously), and when the tip comes whizzing past just 20 feet overhead, it's really hauling. So much so that the sound it makes is loud, more of a thump of displaced air than a humble whoosh, the shockwave a rumble you can feel in your bowels. I got just under the blades, looking up, and felt a sense of vertigo and disorientation I never feel, watching the blades spin and the clouds pass, hearing and feeling the beast before me, the calling of the dozen others in the herd scattered across that bit of countyside. Mighty peculiar.
We made our way down the east coast, dodging inland and straight down to Beaumaris, then back up the coast to the east to Penmon. This is a medieval priory with roots back to the 6th century. We only paused here, because our real destination was just a bit further on: Puffin Island. Puffin Island (in Welsh Ynys Seiriol, which I would take to mean 'The Island of Seiriol,' who was the Saint that founded nearby Penmon as a monastery) isn't much more than a stone's throw off the coast of Anglesey, a little hump of rock and some grasses just big enough to be a popular place with the seabirds after which it is named (no, the English name, silly). If memory serves, the nearby monastery then priory earned a fair amount of fortune hunting the birds and their eggs and selling same.
Anyway, Penmon Point, just across from Puffin Island, is your typical seacoast: surf, rocks, tide, birds, the whole bit. Grey seal are also supposed to congregate there. Nice enough, but I was born too far from the sea to be particularly drawn to it. There is a lighthouse a bit out from the shore, warning ships to stay clear of the point. I gather they know to stay clear of Puffin Island. Standing up on the mainland back from the beach, you look out and can see the Isle of Man to the north, a slight dark lump on the horizon. Interesting. But only to a limited degree. We went back to the Priory.
This was pretty cool. The original monastery fell victim to Viking raiders sometime in the 10th c., to be rebuilt a couple centuries later as the Augustinian Priory which now stands there in ruins (though fairly cool ruins). All that's left of the monastery is a couple of Celtic Crosses, and back behind the Priory ruins is St. Seiriol's well. Seems that in order to rank as a Saint in Wales back then, you had to have at least one healing well to your credit. This one is now mostly covered in 17th c. stonework, but the basin is old, and the water still is cool and energizing to the touch. Fascinating.
There on the grounds of the priory is an Elizabethan dovecote, a beehive shaped structure maybe 40 feet high. You go inside, and the walls are entirely covered with the little boxes used to hold the doves. In the center is a fat, tall dias rising perhaps 20 foot from the floor, the remains of stairs still carved into the side. From the flat top of this dias a ladder was used to reach out to the wall all the way up, collecting birds and eggs, I suppose. Ingenious.
But it was time for us to head back. We went through Beaumaris (there's an excellent Edwardian castle there, which we had visited previously), then across the strait to Bangor. We decided to find someplace to eat, but didn't count on the fact that seemingly no restaurants and precious few pubs are open late on a Sunday afternoon. Finding nothing, we decided to go to the slightly larger town of Caernarfon, just another seven or eight miles down the coast. As we were winding through town toward the A4086, the road which would get us back to Llanberis, I spied a Chinese take-away place off a ways. I parked illegally, Alix ran in to get some dinner for us. How long could it take, after all?
Almost an hour. No, seriously. Seems the place is popular, being one of the few open on a Sunday, and people from all over call in orders, then swing by and pick them up. And I suspect that since Alix didn't greet the young gent at the counter in Welsh when she walked in, she got put way down the waiting list. Yeesh. But eventually, she came back to the van, bag full of delicious aromas in her hand. We headed back to the cottage, stopping only long enough at a roadside SPAR for me to run in and get a Sunday paper. I love reading newspapers, and while we were in the UK I tried to get a different brand every day. Quite a slice of culture, that.
So, a few minutes of twisting and turning, and we were back to the cabin, treated again to a magnificent sunset across the Irish Sea. We popped on the telly (weather forecast wast't good for the next day . . . seems a front was passing through and it was going to be more than a bit damp) plopped ourselves down, read newspapers, watched news and quiz shows, ate Chinese and washed it down with half litre bottles of ale. Not a bad way to end the day.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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