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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
more "it's all about me"
I’m at -7.13/-7.33 on The
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observations on the human condition
So cold. So bloody damned cold. All night long, when I woke up shivery or looking for another blanket to toss on the bed, I kept wondering whether this was a ploy to slow us down, so when she came in with the knife we wouldn't have a chance to escape.
Neither one of us slept well, no surprise. We got up, shuddered at the thought of a bath, just got dressed and got packed up. Mom Bates asked us what kind of breakfast we wanted. Having just sat in the bathroom, admiring the collection of dried bugs & cobwebs in the corners, I recommended to Alix that we go with the 'Continental,' figuring that it would be safest not to trust to our hostess' ability to discern the freshness of bacon or eggs. The bananas were a bit spotted, and the rolls were clearly just out of the freezer, but none of it was furry.
One good thing, as we enjoyed our morning repast: amongst the piles of aging tourist flyers (such as for Celtica - the place we learned on the way down had been closed for some time) there in the dining room, I found a brochure promoting the "Best of Western Wales Food." And it was only a year old. Yay!
We left the dear old woman to her pink frills and dried bug collections, headed to Aberystwyth. The sky was mostly clear, the cold front having blasted through, and it was a short and beautiful drive. One thing we wanted to do was to go up to the top of 'Constitution Hill' to where there is a real, honest-to-goodness Camera Obscura - not just any Camera Obscura, but the largest one in the world, boasting a 14" lens. Having seen the one at Greenwich some years back, we thought it would be fun to see this one as well. So we rolled into town, made our way to the northern end of the Promenade, and eventually found the offices for the electric 'Cliff Railway.' It didn't open until 10, and we had about an hour to kill.
What to do? Drive back into the downtown area and maybe look around for an internet café or see if we could find the local library. Doing so, we stumbled onto the local Farmers Market. Cool. We parked, wandered a bit. As we wandered, we saw a bookstore, thought we'd pop in and see about getting some postcards. Alix also wanted to see what Welsh dictionaries they had in stock. After finding some cards, I was just browsing randomly, found myself in a section of books about the old Celtic beliefs. One of the first books I picked up was a thin volume titled "Sacred Springs: In Search of the Holy Wells and Spas of Wales" by Paul Davis. Hmm. I opened it, saw that it had been marked down in price. Hmm. It was a 2003 edition, printed at a small Welsh firm. Hmm. Flipping through the pages, I noted it was divided into different geographic areas, and each had a map with the relative locations of the wells in that section. Hmm. Not knowing too much about Holy Wells in Wales, but knowing a little bit, I decided to check what it said about St. Cybi's Well. I found it listed under Fynnon Gybi, which is the Welsh name. The description, diagrams, pictures, and instructions on how to locate the well were excellent. OK, good enough for me; I bought it. At that moment I didn't expect that it would go a long ways to helping determine our itinerary for much of the rest of the trip, but that's the way things went.
We spent more time going through the Farmer's Market, picked up some of the local artisanal cheeses, honey, some fruit. By the time we made it through it was past 10, so we headed back to the Cliff Railway offices.
We could have climbed up. It's only 430 feet (vertical climb) to the top. But the Victorian-era rail sounded like fun, so we did that instead. It's an interesting set-up: two mostly open-air railcars, each could hold maybe 30 - 40 people, if crowded. As one goes up the hill, the other goes down, each on it's own track, each pulled by a cable, counterbalancing one another. It was originally designed to run on gravity and water power, but now there's an electric motor that turns the great drum on which the cables spool and unspool. Good physics.
To the top, and the view is really quite stunning. Unfortunately, there were enough clouds in the sky that the Camera Obscura was closed. Or maybe it was closed because it was out of season. The sign wasn't real clear. But the thing was closed. So we enjoyed the view for a few minutes - right up to the point where we were frozen from the brisk cold wind coming off the sea. We ducked into the little café there on the top for a cup of tea. The café is new, designed with 'green' criteria in mind, and has these triple-pane glass walls, so the view remains unrestricted. This was the way to view Aberystwyth on a cold early spring morning.
Tea done, hands thawed, we caught the rail back down the hill. We asked and got directions to the library (it's near the Castle/Park), went there and checked email. We knew if there was a real emergency back home that we'd hear, since Alix had her phone, but it was good to be able to get status reports on how her mom was doing, and answer minor questions her sister had (who was caring for my mother-in-law during our absence).
Done there, we headed south on the A487 along the coast through Aberaeron, then followed the highway inland for a time. Eventually we turned off the A487 and proceeded through a series of small B roads and local roads, looking for any woolen mills or places listed in the little brochure about Welsh food sources. Many of the locations listed were closed this time of year, or open only during the week. However, one place in particular we wanted to find was a smokehouse, with attached lake, that specialized in smoking fish. Following our noses as much as the map, we turned down what can only be described as a series of increasingly small roads bordered by high hedges, ending in a tractor path and emerging onto as placid a scene as one could hope to find. A fair-sized lake in the bottom of a valley, fed by a clear-flowing creek. An ancient stone house on the right, well accentuated with ivy and at least a dozen fat and happy cats lounging on benches, walls, and the sun-warmed flagstone courtyard. On the left a more modern building (meaning sometime in the last century), some kind of modified barn, but with a storefront-style window through which I could see a display case. We parked, careful to avoid cats.
I got out, and from around the side of the second building came a stout man, wearing work clothes. "The missus is off to the market with most of the goods, but come inside and we'll see if there's anything you'll be wanting."
He stepped inside the storefront building ahead of us, grabbing and putting on a white butcher's apron as he did so. As we followed him in, the aroma - the thick, heavy scent of smoked fish - rolled over us. I didn't have to wonder what kept the supply of cats well fed.
He was right - the display case (which was a deli-style glass cooler) did look a little thin on the amount of goods, but not so much on the selection. We stocked up on salmon, some local cheeses that they smoked, and American-style "streaky" bacon. He was surprised to hear that was the most common kind of bacon here in the States, but approved, saying that it was the most flavorful. All of it was slow-smoked using local oak. He was proud of his products, and justifiably so - all the next week we savored those smoked goods, the flavor of the oak subtle, as in a good scotch. Yum.
We worked our way East, taking our time, driving through the countryside on roads perfectly suited to our little car, more or less along the A475 through the Teifi Valley. Each of the woolen mills on the map was closed for the season or the weekend, except those which only had finished goods (not the yarn we were seeking for a friend). But it was a delightful drive, relaxing and enjoyable. Eventually we stopped in Lampeter for lunch, at a little bakery with attached café. After a brief exploration of the town and the small university there, we were back on the road.
We took the A485 southwest to Carmarthen. Rolling into the city center, we parked in the large lot just off the pedestrian mall, and went exploring. The castle there in the heart of the city, actually forming part of the city since it is largely subsumed by the town, wasn't far from the car lot. On one side of the castle there's a new city council building, and now people use the castle grounds to access the pedestrian mall. But still, what is there is pretty cool - most of the main gatehouse, some towers you can climb up into (and see more of the city - a great way to orient yourself), and parts of the curtain walls.
But we came in hopes of getting to a grocery store and setting in supplies before heading on to the cottage we had rented for the coming week. As we wandered through downtown Carmarthen, the cold wind whistling, crowds of mostly young people hanging out (these kids need a mall!), we popped into this or the other shop, picking up a few things. Then we turned a corner, and saw a full-sized Tesco. Yay!
It's a little disconcerting to see how much large supermarkets in the States and the UK are coming to resemble one another. Oh, there are still country-specific oddities (eggs stacked on shelves, not refrigerated, for example) but more and more you pretty much feel at home in a Tesco (or any other big chain) as you would at a store in the US. Well, excepting that the carts have four wheels which can swivel in any direction, rather than our two, meaning you can do a lateral shift across an aisle at any time. Handy, particularly in a crowd. But that's about it. So there isn't much to tell of our shopping expeditions. We got groceries, and left.
From Carmarthen, we took the A40 due east about 20 miles to where we turned off for our rental, onto the B4297. There, just on the edge of the small town of Dryslwyn, just at the foot of the castle of the same name, was our cottage. We pulled into the drive for the restaurant next door, went and found the owners (who also run the restaurant & reception hall). They walked us over to the cottage, the middle unit of a long, low stable (what is it with all these converted stables in Wales?), got us settled and situated (showing us how everything worked, where the switches were, et cetera), left us to our own devices.
Which mostly consisted of unpacking, getting dinner, relaxing. It was good to have more than just a small room to call our own (I'll give a full description of the cottage in the next travelogue), and to completely unpack the suitcases for a change. Dinner was a selection of fruits, smoked/nonsmoked cheeses, and the exquisite salmon, accompanied (at least for me) with a nice bit of scotch. We wrote postcards, checked the weather and the news, crashed. The cottage was warm and cozy, and we both slept well after such a long day of driving and the previous night's lack of sleep.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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