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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"


Iím 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

Welcome to the Bates B+B

Friday, 3/17

Well, we liked to freeze that night.  It may have been a nicely converted stables, but it wasn't insulated for winter occupancy.  I was only warm once I got in to my shower.  Which was an interesting enough design that I want to mention it before we get into the day.

Most recent B+B rooms have some kind of en-suite bathroom, usually with a shower, to accommodate American sensibilities.  In this regard I am completely American.  But because most of these rooms are adaptations of existing bedrooms or whatnot, there really isn't much space for a bathroom, and they tend to be rather diminutive.  Oh, there's enough room for someone of my size, but let's just say that I'm glad I managed to lose a bit of weight last year.

As part of this whole Lilliputian scale, the shower stalls are just about big enough to stand in, with a little extra room to move your arms so you can shampoo your head.  And that's about it.  Most of these stalls have a single door that swings to the side.  But a couple of the B+Bs we stayed at had a design where two of the doors would slide away from one another at the corner, to half their width, creating a nice space for entry.  Once inside, you just slide them back into place, and because of the overlapping design they are water-tight sufficient to stop flooding.  You can even do it still bleary from sleep, before you've had your coffee.

Anyway . . .  We got up, got going, wandered over and had a nice breakfast while chatting with our host.  Bob wanted to discuss politics, taxes, machinery (he had been a large construction-equipment mechanic), and living in Wales.  It was enjoyable, because by and large we agreed with him about most of the issues, and besides, he fed us very well.

After, we made our way across Wales, heading to the Lleyn Peninsula and St. Cybi's Well.  It was raining most of the way, though when we got out on the Peninsula itself, about the time we went through Criccieth, the rain stopped for a while.  First the little B4391, then the A4212 to the A470, up to the A487, to the A497, then finally onto the little local roads without name or number to the tiny village of Llangybi.  We parked in front of the church, went in.  This is how I described St. Cybi's, after my first visit there in 2003:

The drive back to Llangybi didnít take long.  We quickly found the church in question, entered through the gate into the courtyard.  Following the directions in the CADW guidebook, we crossed the churchyard, went to a stile at the northwest corner that took us over the churchyard wall, dropping down into a field.  From here there is a clear path leading down into the valley, first running along the field's edge, then through a kissing gate and descending through a bit of forest before emerging across a field from the Well.  Instantly, I knew we were at the right place.  Crossing the bit of open ground, we came before a series of ruins.  To the right was a small stone cottage which was probably used by the caretaker for the Well, perhaps as a dorm for those receiving the cure.  To the far left was a latrine building, a sort of stone outhouse.  There in the center, adjacent to the cottage, was the Well room.

St. Cybi was a 6th c. Welsh saint, though the oldest of the structures at the well can be dated only to about 1200.  To me the place felt ancient; there was a depth and power there similar to what I sensed at Strata Florida, but moreso.  I get goose pimples just remembering it.  My awareness shifted, slowed, and a calmness and sense of peace came over me.  I did a cursory examination of the cottage, but then walked behind the Well room to find the source of the stream which fed the pool there:  it was a spring, unencumbered by metal bars, bubbling up in a stone-ledged pool complete with small steps, perhaps four feet across.  I knelt on one knee, left hand on the cold stone slab, the right reaching down to caress the surface of the water.  Just touching that water gave me an electric chill, and brought tears to my eyes.  Those tears have returned as I write this.  I paused there, and just felt the joy of that water through my fingers for a few minutes, before returning to the Well room.

This is a substantial room, all the walls mostly intact but the roof missing.  Perhaps 15 feet on a side, the pool in the center 8 or 9 feet across.  Again, there were stone steps leading down into the pool.  In the thick stone walls are several niches for sitting, perfect for contemplation.  I sat.  I just felt that place, felt the faith and devotion that had shaped it, and the deep source that fed it.  The pool is quiet, the surface a mirror for looking up into the open sky.  After what was probably only a few minutes, but what felt like hours, I again kneeled, reaching down to touch that smooth inviting surface.  Here there was a different character to the energy, less raw, perhaps easier to digest.  A sense of communion with all the souls who had entered that pool.  A moment that stretched back centuries.

I was speechless for a time.  Alix knows me well enough, has seen me in these moments before, that she let me be, allowed me to just experience the place, until I was filled and ready to move again.  With the silky texture of worn stone sliding under my fingers, I rose and left the pool, pausing only to pat the dark stone of the doorway and give thanks.

We left the Well as twilight started to settle on the land.  I remember walking back to the car, then driving back to Caernarfon, and on to the cottage.  I remember making dinner, and spilling rice all over when I tried to open the plastic bag that held it, both of us laughing heartily.  I can even tell you what else we had for dinner, and the brand of ale I drank.  But all those memories are dim, perhaps eclipsed by the brilliance of that moment touching water.

I see no reason to change that description, as it was much the same for me on this second visit.  But this time, I brought along a small water bottle, and filled it from the spring source.  I had decided that I wanted to bring home some water from that well, and maybe one or two others I had heard of while doing research for my next novel.  More on that later.

We headed back to the mainland, stopping in Criccieth for gas and more cash, the rain picking up again as we rolled out of town.  When we got to the A470, we took it south through Snowdonia National Park to the town of Dolgellau, where we decided to stop and have lunch.

Dolgellau is a town we know well, having stayed in the vicinity for a week on a previous trip.  It sits up the Mawddach river a bit from the estuary, has a long history as a fishing/market town.  Cadair Idris dominates the skyline to the south, though now it was partly hidden by clouds.  A stop by the Tourist Information center got us a B+B listing book which included the area we were headed to next, down around Aberystwyth, with accommodations broken down into type (Hotel/hostel/B+B/Farmhouse) and with ratings from one to five stars.  We picked a small Tea Room busy with people at the end of the lunch hour, went in.  It was warm, and humid, almost too crowded but with smiling, friendly people, about half of whom were speaking Welsh.  We ordered, got drinks, found a table which had just been vacated along the side of the room near the front - a perfect place to people watch and start looking through the B+B listings.

Done with lunch, we resumed our trip south, taking the A487 past Cadair Idris.  This was another of the things we had talked about doing this trip - to climb Cadair Idris - but once again the weather wasn't going to cooperate.  Ah well.  But we did detour off the A487 onto the B4405 to go to one of our bestest, most favoritest places in all of Wales:  Castell-y-Bere.  Again, allow me to steal from my 2003 travelogue:

This is one of my favorite places in the whole world.  I'd only been there once before, but that memory has proven so strong that it seems like I must visit the place regularly in my dreams.  It was the first 'native' Welsh castle I had seen, and is still my favorite.  It sits on a modest lump of rock in the middle of the wide Afon Dysynni valley.  The hills on either side of the valley are much higher, and close off what you can see from even the castle grounds.  But you're high enough to see all that happens in the valley, and the feeling you have is of being protected by those higher hills, like being in the arms of a mother or lover.

We parked in the small lot, entered through the kissing gate.  The path to the castle winds along the south east face of the castle, the long axis of this oddly-shaped fortress ruin.  The path leads steadily upwards, climbing gently, a grace for our complaining muscles.  Then you swing around the D-shaped South Tower and continue to climb almost back the direction you just came from.  In a few moments you're standing in front of the castle's main gate, ready to cross a wooden bridge that spans the remains of one of the deep defensive ditches.

OK, Iíll be honest.  This castle is a ruins.  There aren't great, restored walls, impressive towers you can climb through, all-weather displays explaining the layout and history of the castle.  But what's there is just charming, compelling somehow.  I said that it is oddly-shaped.  It is, due to the configuration of the rock it sits upon.  Make a fist with your left hand.  Extend your index finger.  Now look at the profile of your hand, palm facing you, finger extended to the side.  That is roughly the shape of the castle.  The South Tower would be where your fingertip is, the North Tower at the base of your wrist.  Got it?  OK, the Middle Tower is about where the knuckle of your finger is.  The Round Tower where the tip of your thumb rests on your third finger.  There, that's the layout.

Llywellyn the Great built this castle in the early 1220's.  Edward I captured it in 1283.  There really isn't much in the way of history to the place that I've come across.  But it is a wonderful castle.  There's just a sense of peace, of harmony, there.  Others I know who have been there report the same thing.  As we wandered the grounds, stood on what was left of the walls, sorted out how the passage around the large well just inside the main gate must have looked, I felt almost like I was home.  Weird.  To the best of my knowledge, I have no Welsh ancestry.  (My grandmother, who was 3/4 Cherokee, used to always say "We're Indians.  Everybody used to screw the Indians.  No telling who your ancestors were.")  But there was some kind of connection there.

Again, not a lot to add.  We poked around, enjoyed the castle the way you enjoy seeing an old friend or lover for a long lunch, lingering in quiet shared memories.  We had the place completely to ourselves.  There was a respite from the rain here in the shelter of the valley, and a hawk wheeled in the sky over the pastureland.  Then we went on further up the valley than we'd ever traveled before, just another mile or so, to check out three or four buildings huddled together that calls itself Llanfihangel-y-pennant.  In spite of being in such a beautiful valley, there isn't much to recommend it.  We moved on.

Back down the A487 to Machynlleth, where we paused in the vacant lot of what used to be 'Celtica,' a multi-media celebration of Welsh heritage and history we had attended on one of our previous trips.  It had been closed a season or two, based on the condition of the grounds.  But we used the pause to try and find a B+B.  The first couple we tried, there in Aberystwyth itself, were booked up or closed for the season (more accurately, not yet open for the tourist season).  Finally, we found one I had noted while at the restaurant, outside of the city on our side, which seemed OK and less expensive than some others.  I should have been paying closer attention.  Alix made the call, and had a pleasant enough chat with the woman who answered.  Got it arranged, told her we'd see her in a little while, and hung up.  As we pulled out of the parking lot, heading towards Aberystwyth, she said "The woman sounded older."

"How old?"

"Hard to say.  But a little - spacey."

Hmm.  I drove.  We got to where we knew we needed to look for the B+B, found it, and pulled into the driveway, around the back.  And there was this classic blue-haired little old lady, hanging up laundry on a line.  I now have a new rule:  never stay at a B+B where the host/ess is older than my mother-in-law and almost as frail.  "Mom Bates" lead us in to a home which seemed frozen in, oh, about 1963.  It was walking into a time capsule, except that it had been clearly refurbished sometime in the last couple of decades.  Using lots of little-old-lady pink and frills.  All that was lacking was a little yappy dog, though I suspect there was the stuffed carcass of one in her 'private' rooms.

She took us upstairs to our room, which had even more of the pink.  Not en-suite, but since we were the only ones staying, we had the whole upstairs to ourselves, including the full bath (with a avocado-green tub! And matching toilet!!) and a half bath.  We dropped bags, sorted ourselves out a bit, then drove on into town to find dinner, after a brief visit to the castle ruins.  This wasn't the sort of castle as you'd find at any of the CADW sites, but rather now formed just part of the backdrop for what was a rather nice city park, used for concerts, and festivals, and kids playing games.  There are a couple of towers still standing, but you could only get into the ground-level rooms, otherwise it is mostly just low walls.  This park was at the south end of the big seafront promenade, a long stretch of nice beach on the one side, apartments/hotels and typical tourist businesses along the other.  When it started getting really dark, we decided to go find some dinner.

One thing we had failed to consider.  Look at the date.  Yeah, March 17.  St. Pat's Day.  In a University town (U of Wales is based here).  We first tried a pub on the end of the promenade, but the moment we walked inside we knew that was a bad idea, though it seems that the Welsh have enough respect for their Celtic brethren and don't drink green beer.  Instead, we drove around until we saw a Chinese restaurant, then found someplace to park and walked back to it.  Could have easily been a restaurant in any fair-sized strip mall here in the US, with better food than most I've eaten at.

As we had dinner, we chatted about Mom Bates and the B+B.  Since I had been the one to recommend it, I sorta felt some responsibility, and wanted to clear that off my slate if we were going to be murdered that night by some butcher-knife wielding lunatic.  "Sorry," I said. "I should have known it was too good to be true."


"Well, I figured that since it had three stars . . ." "Nope.  Only two.  I wondered about that, since we agreed to only stay at three or four star places.  But you seemed to be pretty sure about it."

"Oops.  You sure it only has two stars?"

From the look on her face I knew.  Alix is usually pretty tolerant of my foibles, but when she knows she's right, I can tell.  But she decided to let me off easy.  "Yeah, certain, though it was grouped with the others we had looked at, probably because of the way they had laid out the section."

"Ah.  Well.  Sorry.  At least there's no shower in the room," and we both laughed.  Full, we headed back to the Bates B+B.  We watched a little telly, then crashed, listening to the howling of the wind, feeling the draft of cold air forcing its way in, wondering whether we'd live to see the morning . . .

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