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various essays on, well, art and culture
lessons learned from this profession
ok, I'm not the guy from SNL,
mostly true stories from my
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observations on the human condition
You Want Chips with That?
The worst of the rain blew through in the night, so the morning was cloudy, but not pouring. We woke, went down and had a nice breakfast, chatting with our hostess. In the course of the discussion we discovered that her father-in-law had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's in its early stages, so we spent a fair amount of time offering advice and suggestions about care-giving, and directed her to several websites we had found to be helpful in being full-time caregivers for Alix's mom.
We decided to go east into Oswestry, in search of some slide film. Our hostess had suggested a likely shop, but wasn't sure whether they would be open on a Sunday morning. In fact, when we got there we discovered that almost nothing was open in Oswestry on a Sunday morning. It was actually a bit eerie, walking around in the city center, everything shuttered, remnants of the previous night's pubbing still in evidence. Like being in some post-apocalyptic movie. I kept waiting for the zombies to appear.
The only things which were open were a large grocery store, where we stopped and gathered some supplies for lunch, and a couple of florists. Eh? What's the connection? Well, because it was "Mothering Sunday" - the UK version of 'Mother's Day' here in the States. And consequently, just about every restaurant and pub in the country had been booked up for the afternoon for weeks. The tradition is that you take mum flowers (hence the florists) and then out for a nice mid-day meal. So we figured it was best to plan on just doing our own little informal picnic.
Up the A5 through Chirk, then west and back to Llangollen. We popped into the Tourist Center for some information, then up the street to a little place that sold books and was reputed to have film. You probably know that digital cameras have just about completely displaced the old kind that used film. So it is increasingly difficult to find film, particularly slide film, even here in the States. In fact, at a couple of the stores where we had inquired about slide film we had to explain to the young clerks what the stuff was. But it did indeed turn out that this fellow had a roll.
The tradition in Europe for just about forever has been that you pre-pay for developing when you purchase film. I remember that was the way it was in Germany when I was a foreign exchange student there in 1974. It was certainly the same way on the previous trips that Alix and I made to the UK. It's the reason why you carefully calculate how much film you need for a trip, and then ration it, since you don't want to have to pay twice as much for film in Europe (for the processing you won't get). Well, Alix thought she had miscalculated (turned out she hadn't - but we didn't discover that until we were home and she found that one of the film canisters hadn't been opened yet), so she wanted to pick up a roll of film to finish off our trip, just accepting that we'd be paying a premium.
Like I said, this shop had a roll. And when the owner realized we were Americans, he sold it to us at less than half the marked price (essentially cutting out the pre-paid developing). I think he was just happy to get rid of it for what he had in it. Regardless, it meant that it was about the same price as we'd paid for film at home. Yay! Nice guy - he could have just pocketed the difference.
From Llangollen, we continued on the A5 west to the small town of Corwen on the edge of the Cynwyd Forest. Nice little town. Nasty little bathroom. (Most towns in Wales have public toilets somewhere near the city center, providing convenience for locals and travelers alike. With extremely few exceptions I've found these to be neat and tidy. This was the exception for this trip. Ugh. Envision a bank of poorly maintained porta-potties. After a huge all-you-can-eat outdoor festival. A week after a huge all-you-can-eat outdoor festival. In August. All of them without TP. Yeah, that's kinda what this was like. I've known politicians who were less nasty.) We were happy to leave it, er, behind.
We turned off the A5 onto the A494 going north, off that onto local roads to Derwen in search of Ffynnon Sarah. This is a marvelous little well, named after the Irish saint Saeran. You come upon it suddenly, winding along the road of a narrow little valley, a small stream to the left. Turn a sharp corner, around a hill, and there is a clump of trees and a small stone wall beside the road. There's just enough room to park. In through the iron gate, under a canopy of conifer and holly grown dense, a large rectangular pool enclosed by stone slabs, some leaves floating on the surface, heavy growth of moss under it. There are small bubbles rising in the water, and it is cold enough that it almost stings your hand when you reach in for a sample. The skies past the surrounding hills are brilliant blue, some traces and tracks of cloud. The sound of young lambs from a nearby farmstead. It is hard to leave this place.
But we do. Up to the B5105 just to the north, take that into Ruthin, where we pick up the A525. Up past Denbigh, then St. Asaph, then Rhuddlan, and into Rhyl. We stop and consult the B+B guidebook, call and make arrangements for a room. The owner gives us directions - it's downtown, not far from the seafront promenade. We find it, pop in to check out the room and drop off our bags. Owner is a retired engineer, who worked for decades for an aerospace firm in California, and is chatty in a random way that makes you wonder whether he's really still all there.
It's mid afternoon, and there's rain coming in over the sea. But we decide to go down to Kinmel Bay, walk along the beach. There is something very relaxing about walking along the sea in the rain, looking at the pretty shells and rocks, watching the dogs and kids play at the edge of the surf.
Some hours later, back to the B+B, park the car. Host tells us of a good Chinese restaurant at the end of the street. We figured it was as good a bet as any for dinner. In fact, it was some of the best Chinese food I have had anywhere - including in Chinatown in San Francisco. But the weird thing was the waitress asked us whether we wanted chips (french fries) or rice. Looking around, I saw that more people seemed to opt for chips. Very strange.
Back to the room, watch a little telly and crash. Not much in the way of sleep - too used to being away from the sounds of a city.
And consequently when Monday morning rolled around, well, it felt like a Monday, in spite of it being the last day of our vacation (and Alix's birthday). And since it was the last day of our vacation (and Alix's birthday), we decided to make the most of it.
Had breakfast, a bit of a chat with our host, then gathered ourselves together, packed everything in the car, and split. Stopped by the library to check email. Then just a short hop south on the A525 to Rhuddlan Castle, which Alix had read about. Hey, I'm usually up for seeing a castle. We parked on the street outside the walls, looked balefully at the construction equipment and crews inside the grounds, the sign saying the castle would open for the season at the end of the week (on the first of the month).
What the hell. We went in. Nodded to several of the workers, who nodded back like we were some kind of inspectors. I wished I had a clipboard with me. You can go anywhere if you have a clipboard and act like you're checking up on things. But anyway. We popped in the small trailer being used as a site office, said we wanted to see the castle. Guys nodded and said (over the chatter of the jackhammer outside) "don't fall in any holes." Cool.
And the castle is cool, too. It's one of the big, impressive Edwardian castles built to subdue the Welsh, and has a fairly typical plan for one such. Interesting thing with this castle, though, was the extension of the River Clwyd from the Sea a couple of miles to the north, with a big quay/moat constructed around the castle that allowed for the fortress to be completely supplied by ship. Impressive. See for yourself. And as you can see, there's still a great deal left of the structure, and CADW has been doing a fair amount of work on the site (including adding some really cool replacement spiral stairs - stainless steel framework but stone inset steps - where some of the original tower stairs had been). Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse, and we had blasting wind and rain start up, making it less than ideal to remain at the castle. Sensibly, we left.
What to do? Alix had come to the conclusion that having an extra luggage bag would be good, and she had seen some CADW bags somewhere along the way that would work. So we figured to drive over to Conwy, where there is a massive castle and a big gift shop, both of which we'd been to several times previously.
Hop on the A55, and in a short time we're there. Conwy is a great town, and an excellent example of the English castles. You can read about one of our previous trips here and check out the Castle Wales site for some really excellent photos and description. This time, we only bothered to go into the gift shop at the castle (which didn't have what we wanted) and not the castle proper, thanks to a couple of hordes of schoolchildren who were being escorted into the keep as we arrived. I'm really not that fond of school kids, and if no one was going to let me toss some off the castle walls to check on the gravitational constant, well, I'd just as soon pass.
But, after a bit of wandering through town, some shopping, Alix found just the sort of carry-on bag she wanted (but without the CADW emblem, of course). Plas Mawr was closed, naturally. But we'd seen it previously, so it was no great loss. On the way back to retrieve the car, we decided to stop in at the Castle Tea Shop and had a light lunch, complete with a small baby. Er, I mean, the people who ran the shop had a child/grandchild they were taking care of, and since we were the only patrons, we were more or less included in the play with the kid. It was at that adorable age of about a year, and since I neither had to clean it nor get up in the middle of the night to feed it, I was perfectly content to enjoy it.
Lunch done, we decided to go south in quest of another holy well listed in my book, just a few miles south of Conwy. Following the directions, we set out on the B5106, looking for certain roads and signs. Well, the directions suck. It was only due to stubbornness on our part, combined with a fair amount of skill at map reading and dead-reckoning, that we eventually found our way to Llangelynin and Ffynnon Gelynin (the Well of St. Celynin). While the directions to this site are horrid, the description of the site itself is pretty good:
Hidden away in the mountains high above the Conwy valley, and with only isolated farms for neighbors, Llangelynin has a setting few other churches in Wales can rival. The small and austere building hides a surprising interior graced with wall paintings and inscriptions, all roofed over with a forest of dark oak beams.Here, take a look. It is indeed located high above the Vale of Conwy, with one of the most stunning (if a little bleak) landscapes all around it. And to get there we had to go up the narrowest paved road I've ever traveled - and just about as bad as the narrowest unpaved one, as well. Seriously, this sucker was barely wider than our little car. It put those first few roads near Llangollen to shame (though, admittedly, there wasn't any snow - just wet and slimy paving to deal with). Oh, and did I mention it was STEEP? Good thing we had a jeep. First gear, feathering the clutch, the whole way up - and worse coming down. Just as we were about to give up on the track, and call it a wasted effort, there was a turn out for parking, and there, up a bit and across a wet sheepfield, we saw the site.
We made our way to the church, Alix taking a bit of a tumble on the slick grass. It is enclosed by a 6' tall dry slate wall. In the corner of the churchyard is the well. But first, we go into the church. This is one of those places which make you understand the appeal of faith. Not because of grandeur and glory such as you'll find at Tintern Abby or St. David's. Rather, because of the quiet warmth and welcoming of an empty and unheated building almost forgotten in the highlands. I am not a person of faith, and sometimes I feel bewildered by those who are, but it is in places like this that I begin to understand the motivation, the calling. It is because of places like this that I can accept that faith need not be irrational or destructive, as it sadly so often is. The description from the book above, and the images on the website I cite make it seem like this very small chapel is larger than it is. I think this is why.
When we left, we carefully closed the door and latched it, using a small twig to secure the latch because there was no lock. I went over to the well in the corner of the yard, a typical rectangular structure. Unsurprisingly, the energy there was as welcoming as what I felt in the chapel. I took a sample of the well water, and we lingered a while, just enjoying the scene, the blasting cool air, the brilliant blue skies with scattered clouds, the baa-ing of nearby sheep.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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