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Iím at -7.13/-7.33 on The
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observations on the human condition
It's been two and a half years since I've had a real vacation. In that time,
I've closed a business, become the primary full-time caregiver for someone well into
the arc of Alzheimer's, and spun my wheels trying to get a novel picked up by a
publisher. To say that I needed a break away from it all is classic
This is an account of that vacation. Part research for a new novel, part typical travelogue, part spiritual quest, all mixed with a good dollop of my weird take on the world. Read it at your own peril.
We Gotta Get Outta This Place
OK, actually, it all started on Monday. Well, the travel parts did, anyway. The planning and dreaming started sometime last fall, when we decided to go back to Wales. We (me and Alix, my wife whom most of the world knows as Martha, and others know as Sionned, but I'm going to keep to tradition and call her Alix - how I came to know her - through these stories...) wanted to go someplace far enough away that we wouldn't be tempted to try and maintain a close contact with home, yet someplace familiar where we knew we could enjoy ourselves and relax. We've been to Wales three times together previously (not including a mad dash which lasted for all of about 34 hours and barely whet our appetites for the later trips), knew that we could enjoy ourselves and be relaxed, yet still explore areas we hadn't seen if the mood struck.
So, anyway, we left on Monday, took the shuttle to St. Louis, then a flight to Chicago, where we caught Flight 54 into Manchester. The travel-foo was relatively uneventful, a weather delay in getting into Chicago mediated by traveling Business Class and hence having access to the luxury lounge of our airline. No, I didn't pay for the tickets - I could barely afford getting shipped there by UPS. The tickets were courtesy of a friend who has about a bazillion frequent-flyer miles, and cashed some in for us. It's good to have friends like that.
After a reasonably short and comfortable flight 'overnight,' we arrived in Manchester at about 8:30 local time. That's 2:30 AM according to what our bodies thought, and I've long ago learned that while I do have the willpower to force my body to do things like stay up way too late, there's a price to pay. That bill includes itemized goodies such as reduced cognition, slowed reaction time, and random fatigue-poison fantasies. So of course the first thing we do after getting our bags and clearing customs is to find the rental car place and head off into rush-hour traffic. Driving on the wrong side of the road. In a car where everything is reversed from what we're used to (I never did get the damned windshield wiper and turn signals straight!). In a city we've never been to before. Without a reliable map to where we're going because, while we'd packed a ton of "Landranger" maps (think USGS Topo maps), we had managed to leave the "Wales A - Z" map at home, and they didn't have one in the little news shop at the airport.
And, as it turned out, we were without money, except about $8 (OK, actually it was 5 Pounds Sterling, but my keyboard doesn't have a Pound sign, except this one #, and that isn't really what it stands for) in local money Alix had stashed from a previous trip. This is because unlike any other airport in the UK I've flown into, the ATMs there at Manchester didn't much like the flavor of our bank cards. Go figure.
Anyway, we were soon on the highway, heading in the general direction of Wales, and knew that we needed to stop and get cash and a map. The first big stop on the M56 (think the 'Services' area on a large tollway) seemed like the best bet to find these things. Well, the cash machines there didn't like the flavor of our bank cards either, but we did manage to locate a new copy of the "Wales A - Z" map. Which, frankly, shouldnít be called that, because the Welsh language doesn't even have the letter 'Z' in it, let alone place names which start with 'Z.' But I suppose it's tradition, and it would look a little funny to see "Wales A - Y, with Ll, Ff, Ch, and Dd mixed in."
So, we at least had a map, though it took all the remaining cash we had. No matter. Alix navigated, I drove. M56 to the somewhat smaller A55. (The M designation is used for their superhighways. In Wales, the A's are real highways - the single & double digit ones often limited access, divided. Generally, the more digits a road has, the smaller it is, so by the time you get down to a B4444, youíre talking a country lane which might be big enough to allow two cars to go past one another most of the time. Or not. Smaller than that, and you're talking purely local roads with occasional places to pull off to let oncoming traffic get by. Or not. And smaller than that are what here would be considered gravel roads, down to even something like a jeep trail or fire road through the forest, except there the damned things are paved!) The A55 up into Wales, to the small town of St. Asaph. Er, make that the small city of St. Asaph. The town does have a cathedral - the smallest one in Britain, purportedly. Alix had performed there a few years ago, when the North American Welsh Choir did a tour through Wales. And she wanted to show me the place.
And that cathedral was just what I needed. No, in spite of the comment above about this travelogue containing a spiritual quest, I'm not really a person of faith and old cathedrals merely hold a historical/cultural interest for me. You'll find out about the spiritual quest part later. But that sudden jolt of being in a building three or four times older than my country (depending on how you want to place the date for that) slapped me out of my "OK, Iím on vacation. And I'm tired. Can I go sleep someplace?" mindset, and got my awareness outside of myself. Just what I needed.
Anyway, St. Asaph's cathedral. Small, barely larger than most parish churches I've been in. But with the classic cathedral layout. And it had seen a lot of renovation work in recent years. There were new timbers supporting the roof inside, carved and gilded in a nice understated sort of way. The roof itself was probably new, and the geometric designs of the vaulted construction were a work of art. Clearly, the craftsmen who did this work took pride in their labors.
In the parking lot for the cathedral was a map of the town, hand painted and very informative, showing the locations of other churches, parks, the Village Green. Using it (well, using it twice, since the first time we wound up outside of town before we knew it . . . little did we know that the map was nearly life sized), we traveled the short distance to the Village Green (the "Comin" it was called in Welsh). Parked the car, used the public restroom. (The reason for our using the map was to find one. Which is nice, because I think there's like a law that says that every small city, town, or berg has to have a public restroom located someplace more or less convenient near the center of the town.) Then a short hike up the hill to a bank, which did have an ATM that liked the taste of our bank cards. Then a short hike back down the hill to the car, and off to see Denbigh castle on our way south to our B&B.
Took the A525 south a short hop (about 8 miles), rolled into town, found our way to the castle grounds, high above everything else. Parked the car. Since it was early season (no tourist in their right mind goes to Wales this time of year; after all, it wasn't even Easter yet), the castle was just "open" for folks to wander in. Took the paved path on an arc around the front of the castle, pausing for a moment to just enjoy the brilliantly-lit morning, clear skies over us, some clouds off to the east above the Clwydian Mountains, all of which were topped with snow. Yeah, there was snow, even at this elevation.
Got to the gatehouse for the castle, and stepped inside. Ahh. Mostly ruins, but the main gate tower was still evident, with enough remnant of the structure above that you could climb up. Stepped on through into the castle grounds, and was surprised at how large it was. And at how cold it was. Because there, just where the passage opened into the grounds was a windtunnel and a blast of air that made it almost hard to stand. Out onto the springy turf, bright green with early growth, and made the circuit of the yard. I'm surprised I'd not heard more of Denbigh. It's a substantial castle, and in better shape than many others we've visited. Oh, it isn't the size of even Caernarfon, and doesn't have the grandeur of Conwy, but there is ample evidence of the layout of the major structures, enough of the walls that you can walk on, and that wonderful view over the Vale of Clwyd.
A roll of film and an hour's exploration, and we were off again, this time in quest of some lunch. When short on sleep, go long on food. We went down into the town, parked, and walked up into the town center. A nice bit of lunch at a popular little shop (I had a 'chicken tikka' baguette which was a frightening orange color, but had a nice flavor) and enough caffeine to see me through, and we were ready for the drive over the Horshoe Pass on our way to Llangollen by way of Ruthin. (Generally I'll be using the most common names of most of the towns, that is, the one most prominent on the map, regardless of whether it is English or Welsh.)
It's only 24 miles, over good "A" roads (the A525 then the A542). But given the fact that it was indeed a pass over the mountains, and there was a fair amount of blowing snow, (not to mention my somewhat less-than-peak mental/physical state) it had its moments of excitement. However, we rolled into Llangollen, a town we knew from previous trips, and found our B+B straight away. It was the Oakmere Guest House a Victorian country house beautifully restored, just a short walk away from the main drag through town. Stopped in there, made nice-nice with our hosts, dropped off the bags in our room, and went to do a bit of exploring on foot, familiarizing ourselves with what was new or different. Eventually (well, after much walking, and even a short nap back at the room) we settled on going to "Y Felin Ŷd" ("The Corn Mill") for dinner. A combination of formal restaurant and pub, which you'll find a lot. A bit pricy, a bit of a tourist place, situated right on the beautiful River Dee that runs through town. But this was out of season, and though the place probably accommodates a thousand people a night during the annual Eisteddfod, we pretty much had it to ourselves, and it was our first night in Wales. So what the hell.
We entered, wandered a bit until we found an open bar, placed our order (you typically order your meals at the bar in a pub, and this was the section we were in), got drinks, and then wandered a bit more. This is a big place, mostly newer structure carefully done to make it feel old. Three stories, sprawled along the river, part on the bank, part on piers out over the water, with even an open-air deck for 'in-season.' The original building probably once did have something to do with a mill, and in fact we settled at a table near a window looking down on a turning waterwheel. Well, when I say a window, I mean more of a hole in the floor, covered with a thick bluish glass. This'd be a great place for a kid. Dinner was nuevo-Welsh (there's a real movement towards improving the quality of dining in Wales, with trained chefs setting up in even small towns and out-of-the-way places, making use of local artisanal produce, special Welsh meats and cheeses), which was quite good. The cold draft bitter was even better. By the time we made our way back to the B+B, we were satiated and ready to sleep. And sleep we did, for about 12 hours, in spite of the small, slightly uncomfortable bed. It was vacation, after all.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2005
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2005
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