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The Wind of Deheubarth
It was grey and cool, the morning news forecast much the same for the entire day in the south of Wales. We went down and had breakfast with a couple of Japanese tourists who we had run into at Castell Coch the day before, and who, perchance, were staying at the same B&B we were (the Beaufort Guest House). Good, full breakfast, the coffee particularly strong and rich, fresh in a French press just for me. After breakfast, we collected our bags, and left Cardiff.
West. Take the M4 past Bridgend, Swansea, until it ends in the A48, heading north. To Middleton, the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Carmanthenshire. It's an amazing place, the grand estate of William Paxton which had fallen into disuse, now being recovered and converted into a repository for native plants as well as educational facilities to promote an understanding of botany and the natural environment. You can find out more at gardenofwales.org.uk but this was the place which gave me the first inspiration for my 'Glass Canopy' project, since there on the grounds is the largest free-span glass dome in the world. But more on that in a moment.
You first enter the Garden through an indoor ticket area, opening into a covered patio. In the center of this large patio is a glass funnel, perhaps ten feet wide at the top where it joins the roof, narrowing to just a foot or so across at the bottom, where it meets the floor. Inside this glass funnel water pours, rippling down the sides, creating both a visual effect and a pleasing sound. Water is one of the themes which runs through the entire Garden, and there is a meandering shallow stream which is part of the main walkway. When I say itís part of the walkway, I mean just that: it flows in winding curves that echo the course of the river Tywi right through the sidewalk, in a pebble-lined channel only a foot or so wide. You walk over it, in it, through it if you're not paying attention. You'd never be able to do such a thing here in the States, some fool kid would stumble over it and the parents would sue. The stream ends in a giant spiral, designed to represent both the cross-section of a nautilus (fossils of which were found on the grounds) and a traditional Celtic spiral ornament. But that's after it has passed through multiple miniature lakes and rock gardens, each representative of different geologic ages of the area. Brilliant. Simply brilliant.
First, we walked around a marsh area, lush with water plants. Then over to a traditional Japanese Garden, installed by a master of that art and his assistants, complete with a Tea House and all the ritual components. Then up on a temporary scaffolding to look inside the double-walled garden of the old estate. Not being much of one for this kind of gardening, I didn't know until then that these double-walled gardens were used to create a micro-climate, sort of an open air greenhouse which would extend the growing season considerably, by protecting from winds and banking solar heat in the brick walls. They have reclaimed about half of the considerable-sized garden (about an acre, I'd guess), and have not only a kitchen garden, but herb, floral, and medicinal components. In the center is a nice sitting area which has a smooth-finished raised slate pool, very modern in appearance, yet somehow appropriate.
Then we went deeper into the Garden, to a group of buildings down the hill from the Great Glass House. Here they have a display on the Physicians of Myddfai, the Millennium Square, the Theatr Botanica, a small restaurant, a modest gallery space, and the Garden Shop. Entering into the Shop & restaurant complex, we crossed through one of the artworks which had been put in that year as part of 'Explorations 2003' a circular turf sculpture about 5 foot high in four components, two of which were outside, two of which were inside. Constructed by environmental artist Richard Harris, this was the first of the whole series of installation works by 11 participating artists for this summer and fall.
We popped into the shop, where I found a nice forest-green cloth hat (which will be seen in many of the subsequent pictures Alix took). Then checked out the gallery, where they had information about "Explorations 2003," and after to the restaurant for a snack and something to drink. Thus refreshed, we wandered out again, Alix noting the new Science Center building high on a nearby hill, apart from the Gardens proper. What the hell, in spite of the fact that it wasn't really 'on the tour,' we walked up there so she could get a good look at the architecture. Nicely done, modern without being offensive. On the way back down the hill we stopped to enjoy more of the "Explorations 2003" installation pieces, some signposts by Craig Wood and rock art by Tim Pugh. Passing by the cluster of buildings at Millennium Square, we went up to where Middleton Hall had stood, where there is a viewpoint of Paxton Tower in the distance. But there's also a delightful sculpture in wood and steel there by Rawleigh Clay, which when viewed from one perspective is a giant version of the Greek letter 'pi,' and viewed from other perspectives is a large circle with supporting components that convey the mathematical concept of the same name. Very clever. From this location you can see several other of the installations for "Explorations 2003." But as it was starting to sprinkle a bit, we decided to head into the Great Glass House nearby.
This structure is, as I mentioned, the largest free span glass dome around. Actually, it is more in the shape of an ellipse, the lines of which complete the hilltop which was removed to install it. Inside it is maintained a 'Mediterranean Climate,' filled with plants from such bioms around the globe. (There's five . . . and I'm sure if I thought long enough, or did a little digging, I could come up with all of them. But the hell with it.) We enjoyed walking through it for an hour or so, even if I'm not that big on botany. Before leaving, we got sandwiches there in cafe inside, and amused ourselves greatly by tossing small bits of baguette to the hordes of small birds hiding in the brush, who would pop out to snatch a bit of bread, then retreat again to their hiding place.
Well, we left, and headed for the car park, stopping now and again to enjoy another of the art installations or some nice bit of landscaping (sometimes they were one and the same). A brief visit to the garden shop (where Alix got a few daffodil bulbs we smuggled home), and we were gone.
Mid-afternoon, and we headed north on some side road, picking up the A40 going east toward Llandeilo. Our destination was Aberglasney Garden, but we didn't make it that far, because Alix saw that we were going near Dryslwyn Castle, one of the main holds of the Lord Rhys in the 12th c., part of the ancient Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth. We hadn't intended on going there, but thought the opportunity too great to pass up. A quick jog down a narrow 'B' road (paved, but meant for local traffic only), and we pulled around a curve to see the ruins on a high hill to our left. Dart into the nearby little park/parking lot, and we look up. No way we're going to miss this one. Out come the knee braces, we grab a bottle of water and binoculars, the camera, and off we go.
It's a climb. No, not like Snowdon, but it ain't no relaxing little stroll. The path curls sharply along the hillside, hugging close and rising steeply. This is why we started hiking every morning months ago. We make it to the top, step into the ruins, and then look out across the wide Tywi valley below. The blast of wind which hits us, coming up the valley from the sea to the west, is just like the blast we felt when we first climbed up to Dinefwr Castle our last trip together. It is the wind of Deheubarth, we joke with one another.
The castle is just ruins, but there's enough there to tell that it was once a substantial structure. And due to the strategic location, brilliantly sited, it would have been a bitch to assault. In fact, it was. Edward I had a force of 11,000 who took over three weeks using a huge trebuchet and mining the walls to take the castle. Looking northeast, the profile of Dinefwr Castle could be seen in the distance. This was the second great castle of Deheubarth, the third and final one being Carreg Cennen, which was over a ridge of mountains further east.
Nothing like a castle fix to balance tromping around sedate (though lovely) gardens. We climbed back down, removed the knee braces, put away the canteen, and headed for Aberglasney.
Aberglasney, like Middleton, is a rescued estate. But in this case, the garden is much older, with roots back to at least the 15th c. Furthermore, while much smaller in scope, when the recovery started, it was discovered that many of the heirloom plants were still viable. There are courtyards, pools, a walled-garden, the ruins of an aviary, delightful walking paths, and any number of fascinating plants suited to the region's mild, almost sub-tropical weather. We walked, we looked, we took pictures. We stopped for a spot of tea (and scones!) in the little cafe, sitting out overlooking a lovely large pool, the weather behaving for the time being. But it was starting towards dusk, and we needed to continue on into Llandeilo, to find our B&B, and eventually some dinner.
Well, Llandeilo is just a short drive. But we went through it, around the large roundabout on the north side of town, and thence further up the A40 toward Llangadog. Alix had very detailed directions from our hosts, but we drove past the place about 27 times before we actually located it. It was the American flag out front that gave it away. Turns out Andrew, the 17 year old son of the couple who run the B&B was born in the States (and hence is a US Citizen, remember?). The father, Martin, is Welsh, from that general area, but he had worked all over the globe for a large multinational before retirement. The mother, Aura, was Venezuelan, and also not there: she had gone into hospital some two weeks earlier for emergency surgery. Martin hadn't said anything to us about it, because he felt that he needed to respect the reservation we had made some months earlier. Aura was the one who usually handled the B&B, and Martin took it as a point of pride that he was keeping things up in her absence. He did a right fine job, too.
Anyway, we met Martin and Andrew, got settled in our spacious room (I'm not kidding or being facetious, either), then went out to have a bit of dinner. Martin had recommended a nearby pub on the A40, 'The Plough.' Why not? So we drove down the street, parked and went inside. There was a nice restaurant area just inside the door, but it was empty. We hesitated. Then we heard voices toward the back of the building. We followed. It was the pub. It's usually a pretty good idea to eat where the locals do. We decided to pass on the restaurant, have simpler pub fare, and a little company.
After an excellent, hearty dinner we went back into Llandeilo to a grocery store we had seen. It's always fun to check out grocery stores in other countries. See the dogfood in tubes like pork sausage, the soup in pouches, the many flavors of 'crisps.' Yeah, crisps, or chips as we would call them here. 'Ready Salted' was plain enough. So was the barbeque and 'Vinegar & Salt' versions. The 'Cheese and Onion' wasnít too weird. But I was a little taken aback to see 'Smoked Bacon,' 'Roast Chicken,' 'Chinese Spareribs,' 'Thai Hotdish,' 'Roast Ox,' 'Slow-roasted Lamb & Mint.' I bet they have a 'Haggis' flavor further north.
We put in a supply of cheeses, some 'biscuits,' some scotch, some soft drinks, and went back to the B&B and shortly thereafter to bed. It was a good day.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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