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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"


Im 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

The Hinges of her Dreams

Friday, 3/24

Heavy rain overnight continued into the daylight, so we opted for a relaxed morning in the cottage.  This was vacation, after all.  About noon it looked like the rain was breaking up, so we gathered together some items for the day and went out for a bit of fun.

First thing, up to Paxton's Tower, a nineteenth century folly on the top of the ridge between us and the National Botanic Garden.  Winding our way through the itty-bitty back roads (thank god for the LandRanger map), we got up to the parking lot for the Tower.  We could see it (and you can too, here) but it was still a hike across a muddy sheep field.  With the rain coming down again.  To a building that was closed for the season.  Um, pass.  Perhaps on another trip.

Instead, we thought to go to Llandeilo, do some shopping, check email, figure out what we wanted to do with the rest of the day.  So, we wound down from the tower, took the B4300 east into town.  Hit the library first to check mail, then some shopping, with a stop in a wonderful little upscale deli down by the Cawdor Arms (where we had first met Sioni a few days earlier) to get sandwiches and snacks for lunch elsewhere.

And that elsewhere was to be Carreg Cennen Castle.  Through Ffairfach, then Trapp, we made our way by familiar local road (we'd been to the castle twice previously, though only climbed up to the ruins once, since the first time the site was closed due to the Foot & Mouth outbreak).  The castle is accessed through a farmstead, which has a nice little shop/caf and a decent parking lot.  We sat in the lot, watched the clouds, enjoyed the scene, ate our lunch.  We put on hiking boots and knee braces, grabbed binoculars and the camera gear, and started up.

It's a pleasant hike, not too strenuous, but also not just a stroll around the block.  The vertical climb is over 300 feet, much of it fairly steep, and winds up with a quite phenomenal view of the surrounding countryside.  The Castle Wales website calls it one of the most spectacularly sited castles in the country (Id have to agree), and has a lot of great images. Nearby mountaintops contain burial cairns and iron-age hillforts, settlement ruins, et cetera.

We paused on the way up to enjoy some just-born lambs staggering about on weak legs.  The winds down in the valley were brisk, but once we made it to the castle grounds they were blasting upwards of 40 or 50 mph, just as they had on our previous visit to the site.  The winds of Deheubarth.  We explored, took photos, slipped on the slick turf (well, I did . . .) and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.  It is a delightful castle, substantial even in its ruins, and should be on your itinerary if you ever find yourself in the area.  We stayed until we could see another line of showers headed our way from the West, off in the distance.

Leaving Carreg Cennen, on the way back into Llandeilo, we passed the farm store where on our last trip Alix had purchased the "Latches of her Dreams".  Curiously enough, just before coming on this trip we had constructed a large fenced-in area for the dog, and were planning on using those latches on new gates once we returned home.  So we decided to stop and get matching Welsh hinges.  Like the latches we got 30 months previously, these really are superior to the hardware commonly available in the US.  The clerk thought we were completely mental when we told him why we stopped in, of course, but sold us what we needed.  Between the hinges and books we bought, we were overweight on our baggage for the trip home . . .

Anyway, back on towards the cottage.  Not to return home, but to try and climb up to Dryslwyn Castle before the rain we saw coming over the mountains arrived.  During the drive back it didn't look good - there was rain off and on most of the way.  But it had mostly stopped by the time we got to the cottage, so we just parked the car, grabbed our gear, and took off for the castle (some couple hundred yards up the road).

Dryslwyn was a small and not terribly significant castle in Welsh history, but I've always loved it since the first time I set eyes on it.  Situated on its own lump of rock a couple hundred feet above the Tywi River valley floor, it is much like Castell-y-bere to the north in feel and spirit.  Unlike Carreg Cennen (which had been essentially re-constructed as a Royal Castle after it was seized by Edward I), it hadn't been substantially expanded from when it was a Welsh holding, and so retains that native Welsh castle design.  Largely a ruin, there is still much to see - check out the Castle Wales page on it.  It was a simple matter to climb up, enjoy the view and (once again) the winds of Deheubarth before the rain finally caught up with us.  On the way down we had a nice chat with a retired local fellow who was practicing his golf chip-shots on a flat space on the hillside.  Standing there, pretty much oblivious to the rain (which was growing in intensity), he wanted to chat about everything from housing prices to Tiger Woods.  I got the impression he didn't get out much, and the opportunity to buttonhole a couple of wet Americans was more than he could pass up.

We got back to the cottage pretty much soaked to the bone.  All the clothes we were wearing had to be hung over the storage heaters to dry overnight.  A quiet dinner and last evening in the cottage, listening to the pouring rain, watching a little telly, making notes and sipping scotch, was about the perfect way to end our time in the south.

Next morning, we packed up and said goodbye to our cottage.  Took the A40 over to Brecon and did a bit of shopping (it was crazy busy at the shopping plaza there!), and then just north of the town to check out a holy well just beside a housing complex.  Maen-du well has a beehive-type structure, probably rebuilt in the mid 18th century, though there is evidence to indicate that the well itself dates back into the early Christian era.  We followed the instructions from the well book on how to get there, parked the car, and went looking for the well in a large field beside the lot . . . missing entirely that the well was just to the side, in a small shaded glade.  Realizing our mistake, we followed a young boy with his father through the low stone wall into the glade.  The boy went right to a pool formed by the stream coming from the well, his father following.  We went left, along the narrow stream for a few paces, to the well building.  It hadn't fared well since the picture for the book was taken, and there was graffiti and some trash around the site.  But the water was cold and pure, seemingly in spite of the way it had been treated, and I took a sample.  Walking away from the well, we came again upon the boy and his father, the child carefully pouring out a bucket with frog eggs into the cold pool of water, a simple hope for future frogs to play written on his oh-so-serious face.  The father smiled at us.

From Brecon up the A470 to the A438 to Glasbury.  Northwest for a short distance on the B4350, then on local roads to the hamlet (and well) of Ffynnon Gynydd.  You drive right past the well on the road, and can easily mistake it for a bus stop shelter, since it was built about the turn of the last century to honor a local lad killed during the Boer War in the 1890's, and looks very much like, well, a bus stop shelter.  We parked a ways further on, where there was some room beside a driveway to pull off, and walked back.  A simple gate allows entrance to the small shelter, and in the middle of the floor is a wooden trap door.  Lifting this, the rectangular well is underneath, defined by slabs of stone.  Looking at the small plaque to Walter de Winton, I took a sample of the water.  The well dates back into the medieval period, likely earlier than that, but honoring the known dead is a worthy thing, and I'm sure that Saint Cynidr doesn't mind sharing his well this way.

We backtracked to the B4350, took it over to the A470, then that up to the town of Builth Wells.  Where, somewhat surprisingly, there are no holy wells (it's known for the mineral wells there, instead).  Just to the west on the A483 is the small town of Cilmery, the site where Llewelyn the Last (also known as Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, for you junkies who want to do more research) was ambushed & murdered in 1282.  This is what we came for.

There seems to be a theme to Welsh history which can best be summed up by the phrase:  "Nobody lives, nobody loves, everybody dies."  And what's curious is that the Welsh take an odd sort of pride in this.  So it is fitting that there is a wonderful monument to the murder, complete with a path to a nearby spring where a sign proudly proclaims that this is where Llewelyn's head was washed off prior to being sent to London for parading through the city.  Charming.

OK, I'm being a little hard on the Welsh here.  After all, we venerate where Lincoln and Kennedy were assassinated, which really isn't much different.  Well, except for the business with the head.

No, the monument is to the last prince of a united and independent Wales, and to the tragedy of his death.  And it seems very fitting - a large dolmen of native stone atop a hillock not unlike the motte of a castle.  It was a quiet and peaceful place, bright green with the recent rain.  Smaller monuments of the informal kind are also there, tributes to this or that Welshman who had lived a good life and then died.  The simple wooden crosses and flowers, the laminated newspaper clippings and plastic-wrapped cards were in some way more touching than even the historical monument itself, and contributed to the experience of going there.

We went back into Builth for some lunch, though it was getting a bit late.  We picked a nice little family-run Fish & Chips place ("The Town Fryer") on the main road through the downtown, getting our order in just before they locked the doors and shut everything down for the afternoon.  They were kind enough to allow us to stay there and eat while they cleaned up, chatting with us about where we were from, where we had been on our 'holiday.'  This was particularly welcome, since the skies had opened up once again just as we got to the restaurant, and we would have been forced to take our order and eat in the cramped little car.

Then it was a long drive north on the A483, up past Newtown to Dolforwyn Castle, one of Llewelyn the Last's border fortifications overlooking the Severn.  Perfect placement to keep track of the English at Montgomery.  Unfortunately, the English thought so too, and they seized it after a short siege in 1277.  Now it is largely ruins, though in recent years CADW has done a lot of excavation work to reveal the remaining walls.  Castle Wales has pretty good information & pics, though a few years old and not showing the full extent of the restoration work.

We had mostly driven out of the rain, but things were still wet, and the climb to the castle was up a slick cobblestone farm road.  Once there, however, we enjoyed the site considerably, and were quite amazed at just how far into England you can see.  Little surprise that it was considered a strategic location by both sides.  While we were there a family came up, which included several young children.  Who proceeded to race one another around the wet stone walls, climbing and jumping, and obviously enjoying the hell out of the place.  The parents gave them little mind, though the mother was keeping an eye that they didn't get themselves anywhere too dangerous.  Still, I couldn't help but think of the cultural differences between the US and England that this little scene illustrated.  Here in the States, such a site would have been heavily cordoned off, with all kinds of mandatory safety rails and whatnot on the areas open to the public.  Even the parks here in my city have carefully constructed pathways, complete with side rails, to make sure you don't stumble over root or rock or otherwise actually encounter nature.  It's rather pathetic.

Though, to be honest, a little less slick way back down to the parking lot in the valley would have been welcomed . . .

From the car we called to book a room at a B+B just outside Welshpool, being careful to pay attention to the ratings of the places we considered.  Found one, got directions, drove there.  Nice folks, recent addition to their home allowed them to put in a couple of decent-sized bedrooms for the B+B crowd.  Got settled there, asked about recommendations for dinner.  Drove over to "The Station" in Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain on the A495 and had quite a nice meal, driving back to the B+B in heavy, pouring rain.  Another good night's sleep, the sound of rain without thunder filling our dreams.

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