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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"


I’m at -7.13/-7.33 on The Political Compass.  Where
are you?


observations on the human condition


Europe 1994
Wales 1998
Wales 2003

Wales 2006
      We Gotta Get Outta This Place
      Well, they shouldn't have . . .
      Why are you here?
      Welcome to the Bates B+B
      Market Day
      Sunday Morning Interlude
      The Saint in the Ditch
      One of the most evocative . . .
      There are no Chiliheads in Wales
      Halfway to Rome
      You ate What?
      The Hinges of her Dreams
      You Want Chips with That?

CCGA Vignettes

You ate What?

Thursday, 3/23

We decided this would be a good day to head east, to Tintern Abbey.  This is really east.  All the way to the Welsh/English border.  Like driving to Moscow, maybe.  We knew it would be a long day.  It was.

From our cottage we elected to take a middle path to get there, through the Brecon Beacons, stopping off in the small town of Penderyn to see if we could locate Wales' only extant distillery by the same name.  It was a pleasant day, cloudy yet without the threat of rain, slightly cool.  A good day for driving.  A good thing.  We took the A483 to the A474 to the A4069 to the A4068 to the A4067 to the A4221 to the A4109 to the A465 to the A4059.  And that was just to get to Penderyn.  The things I'll do for a drink, I swear . . .

Penderyn (the distillery) didn't have anything on their website about exactly where they were located, whether they have a tasting room at the distillery, et cetera.  A combination of other searches did give me a pretty good idea where they were actually located, but we were largely trusting to luck that we'd find more than a parking lot/warehouse there.

We rolled into the small town of the same name, and in short order found the distillery right on the main road through town.  At first it seemed that the parking lot/warehouse was about the size of it, and neither of those was particularly attractive.  The buildings were old industrial without any pretense at charm, the parking lot just white gravel and dirty cars.  But we parked, then went in the employee’s entrance - a beat up black metal door opening into a small, gravel-floored space barely bigger than a closet - and there was a battered black phone on the wall with a simple hand-lettered sign beside it that said "Visitors, lift handle and wait for operator."

OK, I lifted the handset, held it to my ear.  At first, just dial tone.  Then a woman, sounding somewhat surprised, came on asking me if I needed assistance.  I explained that we had come by on a lark to see what there was to see.  She said she'd send someone.

A few minutes later a young worker, hair short and wearing a sort of uniform/jumpsuit thing, opened a rather large, grey door to the left of the phone.  It had a padlock and chain on the inside.  He stood in the doorway and looked at us, said pleasantly enough, "Hiya."

"We were hoping for a visitor’s center?"

"Nah.  Nuthin' yet.  They're buildin' it now.  Might be open next year."  He stepped to the side.  "But come on in."

We stepped through the doorway, into the distillery proper.  Very much the industrial building we'd seen outside, but inside it was all bright, clean, shiny, and most everything looked new.  There was a bottling production line not too far from us, with several workers moving around it, machinery doing what machinery does.

"Sorry, can't show you around - we're bottlin' today, and the regs forbid it."

"Ah.  Can we buy anything, though?"

"Sure, here's the list."  He tapped a computer-printed, somewhat ragged sheet taped to the countertop just inside the door.

We looked over the list, made some selections, a full bottle of the single-malt whisky for me, some small gift bottles for friends at home, a couple of other items.  He gets them out of the large padlocked cage a few paces away.  We pay.  He puts the purchases in bags.  Then, as an afterthought, he asks:  "Oh, would you like to try the whisky?"

It's a bit early in the day for a wee dram, but . . .  "Um, sure."

He gets out a stack of small plastic pill cups from somewhere under the countertop.  Little bitty things, barely bigger than a thimble.  Produces a partial bottle of Penderyn.  Opens it and dribbles a bit of the amber liquid into the plastic cup.  Hands it to me.  Plastic cup has a crack in it, is leaking, drips onto my shirt.  Now, when first trying a new whisky, you really should give it a chance.  Sniff.  Swirl in a glass, allow the aromas to rise.  Deeply inhale, savor.  Taste, holding the whisky in the mouth for a few moments to get the full flavor.  Swallow slowly, allowing the range of other flavors/scents to develop as it passes down the throat.  That's how it should be done.  Instead, I toss back the half thimbleful (the rest is on my fingers and the front of my shirt) of whisky before it is all leaks away.


"Cheerio."  Yeah, he really said that.  I think those of us on this side of the pond don't believe people in the UK actually say that.  But he did.  Maybe it was just because we're Yanks, I dunno.  We gathered up our packages, left.  On to Tintern Abbey.

OK, an aside.  I just tasted the Penderyn for the first time.  I had promised myself I would wait to do so until I wrote this travelogue, both as an incentive to get to this point and to then talk about the experience/my opinion of the whisky.  But keep in mind, I'm not a pro at this.

First off, I generally prefer a Scotch whiskey, with the added smoky quality of peat.  But as 'straight' whisky goes, this one has a lot going for it.  It has a smooth, buttery aroma - hints of vanilla, a light toasted quality.  The first splash across my taste buds is quite pleasant, sweet and warm.  The flavor at the back of the throat is much like it first smelled, but there is the added scent/flavor of quality leather (bearing in mind I am a book conservator, and adore the aroma of really good leather).  And it lasts, warm and wonderful, not at all bitter, with a slight aftertaste of fresh vanilla bean, down deep.  Yum.  Yeah, I'd recommend this as an excellent addition to your liquor cabinet.  Not just a curiosity whisky ("oh, I got this while traveling in Wales - quite interesting what these natives come up with"), but one which will find welcome among educated whisky aficionados.  I'm sure that over time the Penderyn line will age and become even better.

And so . . . er, wait, another aside before we get to Tintern Abbey:  far-eastern Wales is a mess.  Particularly along the A465 between Hirwuan and Abergavenny.  I'm talking trashy.  Roadside garbage.  Not just a few items, but roundabouts on the divided highways (the big ones) full of trash.  Plastic bags tangled in trees and fences.  Cups, bottles, cans littering the roadside.  Just plain junk in the median.  Yuck.  I have never seen another part of Wales that was like this.  Maybe its all the English tourists or something.  But I gotta say, it was very unattractive.

OK, we now return you to your regularly scheduled travelogue.

So, the A465 from south of Penderyn to Abergavenny, then the A40 to Monmouth, then slide south on the A466, dropping down out of the mountains along the River Wye.  And then, suddenly, in front of us:  Tintern Abbey.  There's a reason this is one of the best-known heritage sites in Wales, and an icon of the history of the country.  It is huge, and sufficiently still complete as a structure that you have no trouble comprehending it even on first glance from the road as you approach.  Here, take a look.  Take a good look.  Stunning, isn't it?

We rolled into town, past all the tourist stuff, and into the empty parking lot.  In through the ticket office/gift shop, showing our CADW cards, and out onto the grounds of the site.  There's tons of info out there about the abbey, so I won't go into an extensive description.  But in a nutshell, the cathedral itself is largely intact in its external walls, with significant details in terms of window and door structures remaining.  The scale of the buildings is somewhat deceptive, because internal structures which are no longer extant (screens, dividing walls, tapestries, hallways and the like) would have changed the experience of the shape of the space.  But one thing which would have been largely the same would have been the height of the ceilings, et cetera.

Still, the whole thing is impressive even to a modern person used to built spaces on an epic scale.  For the average person in the Middle Ages it must have been like unto the glory of heaven.

CADW is doing extensive work to stabilize and secure the structure.  As we'd seen at the Bishop's Palace (St. Davids), they are doing select replacements of stonework with new stone shaped in the original design.  This gives a sense of what it must have been like initially, without losing any of the overall sense of the actual history of the ruins.  If you look closely at the photos on the site above, you can see some of this work.

The rest of the Abbey grounds are not nearly as complete, and much of it is the typical low walls outlining the 'footprint' of the buildings as is found at most historic sites.  Still, even these areas are very impressive in their size and how much is known about them.

After wandering the site to our content, we stopped off at the gift shop for a bit of browsing and some buying.  Then across the way to the 'Anchor' pub for a bit of lunch before continuing on.  This building seemed to actually have been a grain mill, because there were at least two grindstones & some of the hardware there.

I haven't said much about eating on this trip, yet, but I want to mention it here.  I made the decision going into this vacation that this time around I wanted to try food I might normally shy away from.  Thus, I usually just ordered one of the 'specials' on the board wherever we've eaten which seemed geared towards the locals (it's much easier to do this out-of-season, of course).  I also tried a much larger selection of oddly flavored (to my palate) snack chips (Mint & Lamb, Thai chili, Chicken, Ham, Braised Beef, Pork & Beans, Fish, Shrimp, Octopus . . . OK, I wasn't brave enough to try that last one.  Real Calamari is one thing . . . 'Octopus' flavored potato chips is something else.)  Several times when I ordered a special, I didn't have a clue what it actually was that I was ordering.  I figured I'd take my chances, that this was relatively safe in the UK - I wouldn't be quite so cavalier on the streets of Bangkok.

And so it was this time.  At the bottom of the "specials" was something called "Faggots & Peas, with chips."  OK.  A pint of dark and enough condiments, and I figured I could handle most anything they brought me.

Well, almost.  What arrived, with the standard chips and peas, was two ice-cream scoops of some kind of almost black meat loaf, covered in a thick dark-chocolate brown gravy.  I tried a forkful.  Hmm.  Yup.  The British appreciation of organ meats was in evidence.  Probably consisted of some combination of kidney, liver, heart, spleen, tripe, stomach and god knows what else.  Yum.


It wasn't Truly Awful, but I wouldn't repeat the experience unless under duress or in the extremis of hunger.  The 'hot' English mustard and a crusting of salt allowed me to finish off the double scoop of creamy nastiness, but only barely.  Oh, a couple of pints helped matters, too.  Some.  So, be advised.

We left the sumptuous feast and headed south, caught the M48 to the M4 to Cardiff.  We figured we could swing by there to check out some things which we hadn't seen on our previous trip.  Getting there was easy enough, as was finding our way downtown, but then parking was a minor nightmare.  It seemed like every foreign visitor coming to Wales had decided that a stop off in Cardiff was just the thing, like it was the capitol or something.  Yeesh.  Eventually, and with only a modicum of cursing, we found a garage to the south of the pedestrian area known as "The Hayes."  Secured the car, got our parking ticket from the vending machine, went walking into the Hayes.  Like much of the rest of the country, this was the site of construction work (they don't have winter in the south of Wales - they have the 'repair season'), so we had to make a couple of detours.  We wandered up to the castle, paid our fees, and went in.

We had debated whether we wanted to bother.  I'm very glad we did.  I've a scene in my new novel (currently, work on that on hold while I do these travelogues) where the main character goes in the castle grounds, and then up to the 12th c. Norman Keep, sitting up high on its motte.  I had been working with online resources (the Cardiff castle website is quite good) but a number of important details had eluded me.  Nothing like going someplace in person.  Now I'll be able to get that scene just right.  We climbed up into the Keep, then went inside up to the top of the structure.  Though quite small in comparison to most full castles, this one is really fairly impressive, given both its location and the condition it is in.  Very cool.

We left there, did some other window-shopping in the downtown district, popped into the library to check email, then went off in quest of the new Senedd and the Wales Millennium Centre, both of which were too new (The Senedd - the Welsh Assembly building - had only opened a couple weeks previously) to be on our maps.  Alix had a general idea where they were supposed to be, and after a bit of dead-reckoning (and several loop-de-loops on various traffic circles) we did find them just off the Bay, south of the city center.  Very cool modern buildings:  Senedd and Wales Millenium Center  However, parking in the area was completely non-existent (I'm sure this is partly for security reasons), so I parked illegally and stayed with the car, allowing Alix some time to explore a bit and take pix.

It wasn't getting dark by the time we left Cardiff - it was dark.  Night.  When we did find our way out of Cardiff (after some misadventures involving wrong exits and what not - all entirely my fault, I was tired), we were thinking about dinner.  A lot.  But there wasn't any place obvious to pull off the highway, so we just kept going more or less by default and inertia.  We took the M4 west until it ended, then the A48 until we were back in the area of our cottage, stopping at some small town along the way that I don't even remember, long enough to pop in to an "open late" grocery store and get supplies for a very late dinner.

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