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various essays on, well, art and culture
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observations on the human condition
The Saint in the Ditch
It was good to not have to worry about the 'hours' for breakfast, or packing up to move on to the next B+B. We had a leisurely start, both of us taking long showers to make up for the lack of such the previous morning. The cottage was warm, cozy, and would have made a great little apartment for a long-term stay. I made breakfast: bacon (gods, that oak-cured bacon was incredible!), eggs, toast. Of course, coffee from a provided French press for me, tea for Alix. Maybe fruit or juice, I no longer remember. Eventually we settled on a plan for the day's activities. We decided on the National Botanic Garden of Wales as a starting point, since it was literally just over the hill from us, maybe 2 miles as the crow flies. Granted, that hill was damned big, with a 19th c. architectural folly on it called Paxton's Tower, but nonetheless. We gathered our stuff for the day (including the book about the Holy Wells, and Landranger maps for the places we were headed), jumped in the car and decided to take some local roads to go on over to the Garden.
It was a lovely, warmish day, with bright sun and clear skies. We got to the Garden, went on in, enjoyed strolling about. It was interesting to be there that time of year, still early in the season when things were still being organized and planted, but there were new sprouts and a wonderful early-spring excitement.
One area we found especially fun, which was new since our last visit, was the children's play area. This has a number of fun playground-style features, mostly constructed with recycled materials from the Garden. But what was really cool was the area of mazes, tunnels, and whatnot - all constructed by living woven willow. Now, I don't have kids. I don't particularly like kids. But if I had kids (particularly young kids), or if I was a kid myself, I'd go to the Garden just for this. This early in the year the willow was just starting to leaf out, and I doubt it would ever really form as dense a wall as a true hedge, but it did create this wonderful living playground, all to the scale of your typical 8 year-old. Very cool. Take a peek.
In pulling up that link, I see the Garden has redone their website. Good. It was clunky and not terribly useful previously. Use that link to explore a bit - the homepage has several different pix which show up on the header, one of which is the best shot of the Great Glass House that I've seen, which shows very nicely how the thing 'completes' the top of the hill into which it is dug. It remains one of the most interesting places I've ever been, and seeing it this trip, with many of the plants in bloom (in a wide variety of weird flower-types), was fascinating.
After we had maxed out on the Garden, we decided to head south to the Gower Peninsula. First on the agenda was a swing through the east end of Swansea, down to The Mumbles (gotta love these English names). We jumped on the A48, which passes close to the Garden, and then onto the M4, and it was a fairly quick drive down to the mess of Swansea. 'Mess,' because we promptly got turned around and more or less lost in the city, which is your basic British industrial town with all the appeal of Gary, Indiana.
Eventually finding our way down to the A4067, which runs along the coast of Swansea Bay, we got stuck in traffic for about the next 473 miles. Imperial miles, not the wimpy American ones. OK, I exaggerate. But it seemed like it, since evidently it was 'the thing to do' to go drive along the sea-side from Swansea to The Mumbles. (This isn't actually very far, just a matter of like 5 miles, but when it's bumper-to-bumper and you need to pee . . .)
It is a pretty coast, with nice beaches. But way too over-developed and crowded for my tastes. Think the worst stretch of your favorite beach which has been ruined by commercialism. Add in crowds enjoying the first halfway decent Sunday in spring, and I'd rather be someplace else, thank you very much.
So that's what we did - went elsewhere. Specifically, west. Alix just generally wanted to see Gower, and there was a holy well on the west end of the peninsula that I thought was worth checking out. From the tip of The Mumbles we took a little local road that wound through some suburban residential areas, then out into Gower proper. This was largely an agricultural area, with clusters of houses here and there that called themselves villages, and all in all it reminded me of Anglesey. It was a pleasant drive, and much more enjoyable than the stretch through Swansea. We took the B4271 until it sorta stopped, then on to a series of local roads due west for about half the width of Gower (OK, granted, that's only a few miles), until we rolled into the fairly small town of Llangennith.
A word or two on Welsh place-names. Llan means (as I understand it), 'enclosure' or 'grounds' or 'place,' usually with the understanding that it is associated (historically) with a church. What follows then is the name of the church in a place-name. So, Llan - gennith means the place (church grounds) of Gennith. But Gennith is a mutated form of Cenydd. (The Welsh are big on mutations. I think they did it out of boredom. "Hey, I know what we can do - let's find another way to make our language impenetrable to the English! We'll pick a few consonants and have them randomly change when near other consonants - it'll drive those English buggers nuts, and maybe they'll leave us alone.") Anyway, the C will frequently change to a G. Dd is basically another version of th. And Y, like in English, can sometimes be pronounced sorta like an I. So, looking at it, you can see how Llangennith could come from the Church of Cenydd. OK, but who was Cenydd? I'm glad you asked . . .
He was a local boy what made good, according to the standards of the day. The day being sometime during the Dark Ages. Which, of course, came after the bright period of the Romans, and before the Just Kinda Earthtone Ages of the medieval period. No, I don't have a specific date. The legend is just that he was a baby, cast adrift in a basket, who was raised by seagulls on the nearby island of Worms Head (again with the names), which is just off the western point of Gower (and probably visible to the south from Llangennith). Anyway, he was considered a saint by the locals, but my Sacred Springs book doesn't explain why, though I'd have to say that whole surviving-by-being-raised-by-seagulls thing would qualify.
Nor does it indicate what the water from the holy well was supposed to do for you. Not terribly exciting, eh? But it was out on the end of Gower, where we wanted to go. And the book had a nice photo of the well head, explaining that it now flowed out of a 19th c. stone structure which had been put up to stop animals from fouling the water. Looked interesting, and likely easy to find.
Anyway, we rolled into Llangennith. Around a curve past a pub, in the center of the small village. And there was the church, in all of it's 14th century glory. I pulled up in front and just a bit past the lychgate, and parked. We got out, looked around, lifted the metal latch on the gate and went in.
Great little stone priory church. Brilliant green grass, just bursting with that early-spring energy. The yard was enclosed with a stone wall of course, and full of graves topped with slate slabs. But there was no obvious well. Hmm. Go, read the sign on the door of the church. It welcomed us, said that if the door was locked, to get the key from "PJ's Surf Shop" during normal business hours. Given that it was late afternoon on a Sunday in the off season, we decided that it wasn't even worth the trouble to try to find PJ's Surf Shop.
Maybe the well was around the back of the church? I went, passing a pile of debris from some previous construction work. There was a fence and a nice hedge, looking down into the backyard of some neighbor who had a noisy dog, but no sign of the well structure. Hmm. Back to the entrance, check all around inside the yard, then out, past the car and down the street - maybe it was below the church in another small garden or something? Nope.
Back to the churchyard, where Alix was taking some photos. Another look around, but it was a small yard and there was no way to miss something like what was in the photo. I decide that maybe I should look at the book again, see what it says. So we go back to the car. Going around to the drivers side, I get the book from the rear seat, and read the description again, about how the well is on the village green. As I'm doing this, I become aware of a sound behind me. The sound of running water.
I turn. There, across the little-bitty street, not ten feet away, is a bit of grass. Sort of like the little triangular island you get when you've got a road that splits so you can turn either left or right to merge with another, larger road. And on the edge of this little triangle, in the open ditch I just assumed was the gutter, is the structure I had seen pictured in the book. In fact, right beside it is \ indeed a culvert to allow the water in the gutter to go under the street.
But there, pouring down from a simple pipe, is the holy water.
Weird. I had brought along another empty water bottle, which I now filled with the water from the well. I didn't get any mystical feeling from it, there was no special quality to the water upon my touch. But I figured that the poor saint, almost forgotten there in the ditch, deserved a little respect. At one time he had been venerated, and people probably came from miles around in pilgrimage, centuries before the road was laid. So I took some water, and we went on our way.
We were making our way back east, along a different set of local roads on the northern side of the peninsula (might as well see some different scenery), when Alix spied on the Landranger a CADW-managed castle just off our path. Weobley Castle. Might as well . . .
It's on farm property, which isn't unusual, with a sign indicating that the castle was open until 6:00. It was a couple of minutes past, but when I went up to the farmhouse and rang the bell, said we were CADW members, the nice fellow told me to enjoy looking around and to be careful not to fall or anything in the gathering dark. We parked the car, and accompanied by a small pack of three or four Welsh sheepdogs (one of whom REALLY wanted to jump up and give your face a lick), crossed the yard to the castle.
As we emerged from the trees on the path up to the gate, a vista opened up before us. The castle was sited on the edge of a cliff, which dropped perhaps a hundred \ feet to a tidal basin known as the Llanrhidian Marsh. The salt grasses were rust colored this time of year, with lighter tones underneath and where pathways ran. A few hundred yards out was the eastern arm of Carmarthen Bay.
The castle itself is a Norman gem, surprisingly intact. Not huge, but well appointed, it would have made a very comfortable fortified home for the local Baron and his family, with enough retainers to run the place and keep them safe. From the Castle of Wales website (a great resource if you're ever going to Wales!) here is a page with some images and more information.
But it was late, and the sun really was setting, so it didn't make sense to stay too long. We got going, picked up the B4295, and worked north until we hit the M4. Back-tracking our drive down to Gower, we then got on the A48. Our thought was to go back to Carmarthen, and to find a grocery store there to get stuff for dinner. We had managed, through one distraction or another, not to have a real meal since breakfast, getting by on some energy bars. But, as it turns out, not even the big chain stores are open after 8:00 p.m. on a Sunday.
OK, fall back to plan B: find a pub or some such, get dinner. Since we were in Carmarthen, this was easy. "The Dover Arms" in the city center had a board out front advertising various specials. OK. We go in, and it is a classic small wood-paneled pub, locals standing around the L-shaped bar, having a pint, a few more sitting at nearby tables, playing dominoes, all of them talking sports (rugby or cricket, I think). The bar-keep was a young man named Matt who was very busy running the bar, booking rooms for the hotel, even popping out to get a packet of cigarettes for one of the patrons from the machine in the hallway adjacent. We asked if it was too late to order dinner. Nope. I was half afraid he'd have to go off to the kitchen to cook it, but that wasn't the case. We ordered food, got drinks, went into the next room, which Alix informs me is usually called the 'lounge' in Britain, and found a comfortable table.
We wanted to get away from the smoke, but I also enjoyed the chance to see this room. It was the classic dark walnut box paneling up to about 7', with a fairly wide shelf for plates and whatnot above that. There were many small framed pics of local scenes and farm animals scattered about.
Dinner arrived in mere moments. I had decided to try the Welsh lamb, served of course with a mint sauce. It was stunning. Potatoes, broccoli (overcooked), and a sharp chutney completed the meal. Well, with a couple of pints of good dark bitter, that is. Matt brought us our food, and checked in now and again to see how we were doing. Pleasant fellow, was able to answer some questions I had about a new Welsh whisky I wanted to try.
Dinner done, we settled up, then Alix drove us the dozen miles back to our cottage. There we did the dishes, wrote postcards, had some of the excellent cheese and a splash of scotch before crashing.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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