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There are no Chiliheads in Wales
Alix had, before we left on this trip, made arrangements to meet with someone she sort-of knew from an online Welsh discussion forum. She called him Sunday afternoon, and we set Tuesday at noon to get together. So we took our time getting going, having breakfast, doing house-elf stuff. About 10:00 we went into Llandeilo (just a few miles further east on the A40), a fair-sized town we were familiar with from previous trips. We confirmed that we knew where we were supposed to meet her 'friend,' then did a little shopping and hit the local library to check email and whatnot. The weather was very cooperative, and quite pleasant. At the appointed hour we made our way to the meeting place.
I had no idea what to expect of "Sioni." Not only had I never read any of his posts in the Welsh forum, the Internet is infamous for confounding one's ability to trust what you learn about someone online. This can be attested to by the number of scams perpetrated (from money juiced out of otherwise sane investors, to cops luring pedophiles into prison), the general unreliability of information from most sources, and the tendency for even 'decent' people to engage in a little ego-pumping blather about their credentials. Combine this with my natural paranoia, and, well, let's just say that I was a tad wary. When he suggested that we meet at the Cawdor Arms ("the most posh place in Llandeilo" he told Alix), I didn't even have the slightest idea how to dress. The nicest clothes I brought were at best so-so for any kind of socializing, and besides, we also talked about climbing up to Carreg Cennan Castle or going in search of some holy wells in the area.
Further, once we got to the Cawdor Arms, we realized that we didn't know who we were looking for. Alix had no idea what Sioni looked like, and we hadn't made any plans for identifying one another. Oops. As we stood there in the lobby (we arrived a few minutes early, just in case), watching various people come in and check at the desk about luncheon reservations and whatnot, I kept wishing we had been a little more organized - and I was kicking myself for not doing a little more research before we left. For all I knew, we waiting for the Welsh version of Hannibal Lector to meet us and take us on an 'adventure.' And, thanks to the laws and traditions of the UK, I didn't even have a small gun with me. Charming.
Positioned so that we could eavesdrop on anyone approaching the desk to ask a question (the number of illicit trysts that happen in a small town like Llandeilo would surprise you . . .), we caught it when Sioni came up and asked whether there were a couple of Americans in the Lost & Found, waiting to be collected.
On my first real trip to Wales, our tour guide explained that the Welsh were a mixture of "soppy & stroppy" - call it sentimental & scrappy - to a greater or lesser degree. Sioni at first glance struck me as being a perfect example of this, because I could easily envision him going either direction on the personality scale, and had the physical stature sufficient to back up whichever. But he smiled broadly, and shook our hands vigorously once we established that he was looking for us. He seemed charming enough. But I suppose a serial killer would. We sat down for coffee.
We'd brought over a couple of items as gifts. The first was a CD of folk music by a well-established mid-Missourian who happens to be Alix' cousin (Bob Dyer). The next was the latest copy of the Funny Times, a liberal humor monthly, which I hoped would convey that we were part of the sane contingent of Americans. The last was some of my habanero hot sauce. Genuinely pleased, he was also somewhat befuddled by the sauce. Which confirmed something I had started to suspect, after trying to find some local hot sauces to try in each of the different grocery stores and delis we had been in: there are no chileheads in Wales. The whole concept of "hot sauce" was, well, foreign to Sioni. I had to explain that you could use it to add heat and flavor to almost any dish, sort of like the way that 'Thai Hot' chips (er, 'crisps') were flavored. Poor guy, here he was trying to be nice, and I hand over a bottle of what looks like thin radio-active orange catsup. And I'm sure when he got around to trying it, unused to such things, he thought I was trying to kill him. That sauce is only about a 5 on my personal scale of heat (1 - 10), but then I've acquired a pretty solid tolerance to capsaicin. Alix wouldn't touch that sauce with asbestos mittens. I use it as salad dressing. Well, in a strong ceramic bowl. The plastic ones can't take it. Anyway, I tried to explain about hot sauce, and gave him a couple of my fav hot-foodie sites to look at (Hot Sauce Blog and Fiery Foods). We drank coffee, got to know one another a little, and decided what we wanted to do. Sioni was perfectly happy to go exploring a bit, looking for a couple of the holy wells in the area. I say exploring because he had a general idea of their location, based on my book, but had never been to either.
As I said, we didn't know exactly what to expect. And call me paranoid, but we made plans to fall back on (I always have a back-up plan) if either one of us felt unsure about Sioni and wanted to cut and run. But as we chatted, we both felt comfortable enough with the situation for her to go off in his car so that they could chatter away about Welsh, me following in our rental so 'we had the hiking gear' (and our options open). This bit of precaution was completely unnecessary, of course, but once we realized that we’d already established this routine and it was a little late to backtrack. Oh well, I enjoyed some time alone, listening to an English-language station on the radio for a change.
We set out for the first place, which I will call "Ffynnonfferm." And I will not be giving specific information about it. It's on private property, and the owner expressed some frustration of holiday-makers and school kids just tramping on her land. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.
We wound through the hills and valleys not far from Llandeilo, Alix & Sioni discussing the nuances of transitive Welsh verbs and the mutation inclinations of names, me following in the little car. After a couple of false starts, Sioni pulled his van into a private drive off a small lane way back in the mountains, and went to talk with the owner, who was out in the yard doing some work. She said it was the next farm up the road we wanted, but warned that we may not be entirely welcomed. Then she asked whether Sioni spoke Welsh. When he answered he was a native speaker, she said "oh, you'll be alright, then."
And she was right. Next farm up the road, we pulled in, got out. Barking dog alerted the owner, who came around the side of the farmhouse to see what the fuss was all about. Sioni greeted her with a stream of unintelligible (to me, anyway) Welsh, heavy on the local accent, and after a couple of exchanges she said "let me change my shoes, and I'll take you there."
Into a field adjacent to the house, where we met her black 32 year old Shetland pony named 'Bob.' No, that is not his real name. It's been months and I no longer remember his real name. Cut me some slack here, OK? Anyway, as we crossed the field, she rattled off some of the history of the farm. The woods behind were all protected now for environmental reasons (endangered flora), and were 'over 2,000 years old.' Uh-huh. We got down to the well, where there was a strongly-flowing stream coming out of a small pool created by a concrete retaining wall.
"That's the well," said the woman. "33 million liters a day, even in a drought. The whole area is limestone caves and underground streams. But they don't know where this one comes from, or even where it goes. That," she pointed at a jerry-rigged contraption up the hill a few paces, "is where the chief National Geologist has monitoring equipment to measure the flow. They've tried dyes and everything to trace the water. No success."
She pointed back towards the house. "And back there in the woods, as the history goes, a couple hundred years ago they discovered a cave with 12 men all arranged on biers. They were over 8 feet tall! They took one of the skulls off to the University, but no one could identify who they were. Legend is that it's Arthur and some of his knights. They closed up the cave again, and no one knows where it is anymore. Well, I know, but I keep the secret."
Right. Take your pick of any valley back in the mountains of this area, stop and chat with a local, and chances are you'll hear some variation of this story. Arthur is buried back behind about a thousand farmhouses. We thanked the woman for her time and allowing us to see the well, I got a sample of water from it, and we moved on.
Sioni said it would be fun to go up the mountain to the head of the valley, where there was a nice nature park and the lake of Llyn Llech Owain, a natural high mountain lake with a lot of lore about it. Sounds good. Get there, park, wander about a bit. It really is quite beautiful, though it was still early enough in the season that few things were in full leaf. But there is a nice boardwalk along the lake, leading up to the visitor's center. And there in the visitor's center, on an informational diagram about the area is the same legend about Arthur's cave that the woman at Ffynnonfferm told us. Hmmm . . .
Sioni said he'd take us to the other end of the valley next, to another well I wanted to see: Llandyfan and Ffynnon Gwyddfan. We wound our way once again through the scenic little towns, crossing streams and crossing them again on little local roads until we came to the small 19th century chapel on the side of the road. Across from the churchyard was a fair-sized pool, fed by copious amounts of water coming through a conduit under the road, obviously from the church.
"Is this the well?" asked Sioni, since it was about as picturesque a scene as you could ask for. We checked the book. It said the well was a large rectangular baptism font on the grounds of the church. So we went through the church gate and immediately saw the structure there next to the chapel, complete with a turnbuckle for a sluice-gate. Righto. The well had been 'suppressed' during religious squabbling some centuries back, and then rebuilt for functionality (certainly not for aesthetics) late in the 19th century. We went up to the well. It was there in the bottom of the rectangular font, some 8 or 9 steps down. But there a strong water welled up, flowing clear, cold, and clean, filling the font and exiting the sluice gate.
"The other one looks a lot nicer," said Sioni, nodding back across the road.
"Yeah, but it was probably easier to control getting baptism fees from this one," I answered. Alix and Sioni laughed. I went down the steps, collected a sample of the water.
We left there, going on to the small berg of Ammanford - Sioni's hometown. We parked outside the city center, dropped down through an enclosed passageway, and popped into a great little café/coffeeshop for a bite to eat. While there, many folks waved to Sioni through the windows, or came in and said hello. Clearly, he was popular with his townsfolk. I could see why, as friendly and charming as he is. After our snack, Sioni showed us all around this pleasant and prosperous town, stopping to see the new monument to the local miners - modern and abstract in style, very non-traditional but quite well done. I wrote about it for my newspaper, which you can see here and on my website here.
Afterward, Sioni escorted us up into the Brecon Beacons to a stunning 'beauty point' where we could look out over the beautiful raw mountains and say our goodbyes. It was a real treat to meet him, and his generosity with his time and knowledge was much appreciated. And as we prepared to part, he was sure to tell me within Alix's earshot that her pronunciation of Welsh was nearly flawless. It was a good thing I was driving after that, because I don't think that she would have noticed it if we drove off the road, she was so pleased.
We made our way back to Llandeilo, stopping long enough to pick up ingredients for dinner before heading back to the cottage for the evening.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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