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various essays on, well, art and culture
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observations on the human condition
Why are you here?
Since I now understood about the sequence necessary in order to have heat in the room, it wasn't so cold when I woke this time. I got up, peered out the window on my way to the bathroom, into the grey of early morning. Make that the grey of early morning snow.
It wasn't heavy. But it was snow. And it was sticking. So much for Dinas Bran this trip. Ah well, something for another time. We had another excellent breakfast, packed and settled up with our hosts. It was still early when we set out, heading south.
Our first real trip to Wales was with a small tour group, just eight or nine of us, including the tour leader, and Eddie, our driver of the mini-bus. This was your typical 16 - 20 seat vehicle: sat up high, comfortable and spacious but still smaller than a big truck or something. Still, I was always amazed when Eddie managed to take it on those little bitty roads in rural Wales. Such as the road we took out of Llangollen. Specifically, it was the same road we took out of Llangollen this trip. One of those local roads I mentioned earlier that don't even have a number. And now, driving it in our little Kia, I had renewed appreciation for Eddie's skill and nerve, and understood better why he was always willing to join me for a beer once we settled in someplace. Jeeze, I wanted a drink as soon as we cleared the top of the first major ridge . . . and I knew we hadn't even gotten to the most, ah, 'interesting' part of the drive yet.
If you'd like to know when that happened, find a good map of Wales. Check out the little local road that goes due south out of Llangollen, over the ridge to the town of Glyn Ceiriog. You know, the one with the 25% grade coming down into town. Yeah, that one. It's a pretty drive, or so Alix tells me. I was too focused on whether or not I was going to slide off into the abyss on one side or careen into an oncoming car. If that was a paved road here in the US (it wouldnít be . . . I've been on jeep trails in the outback of Colorado that are bigger), you wouldn't see anything of the surrounding countryside for all the memorial crosses which would be planted on the side of the road.
Heading out of Glyn Ceiriog, we took the B4500 to Llanarmon Dryffryn Ceiriog, the town which served as the backdrop for the movie "The Englishman who went up a hill but came down a mountain." It's a delightful little place, or at least had been when we had been here previously, during decent weather. Now it just seemed cold, with blowing, wet snow. Still, we stopped and got out of the car for a few minutes, poked around the ancient churchyard with the weathered lychgate and huge old yew trees. Alix took some pictures of the snow on the surrounding hills, and of me huddled in the shelter of the chapel.
Then we got back in the car, took a series of the little local roads, averaging maybe 25 mph. We drove across a high ridge of pastureland, snow swirling lightly on the road and settling on the leaves of low-growing gorse. The land was empty of all but sheep and ravens, and a bleakness filled me. Who would think that such a small country could feel so empty?
We came to Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, and from there headed up the Tanat Valley to a remote (yeah, as if Llanrhaeadr y. M. isn't remote) little place called Pennant Melangell. It's really just a chapel, though there are a couple of other buildings outside the churchyard. It's one of those places, however, worth seeing. We'd been there previously, and this trip I definitely wanted to go there again, since the location plays a critical part in the novel I'm working on. Forgive the ecphrasis that follows.
You drive through the valley floor, dancing with the river Tanat. The weather, so cold and miserable just a short time ago, is now mellower, with none of the blowing snow. There are the standard picturesque Welsh countryside elements of stone walls, sheep, hedges, sheep, quaint buildings, and sheep. Oh yeah, and a TON of ringneck pheasants. When you get to the end of the little un-numbered local road from Llangynog, you're there. There's a small car park outside the wall and gate. But you probably won't notice that. Because you'll be busy looking at the Big Damned Yew tree just on the other side of the wall. The one that looks like God used it as a template back at the creation of all trees. Yeah, the 2000+ year old one.
Now, it's common for every church and holy spot in Wales to have a Yew tree, and generally they're claimed to date back to the time of JC himself, if they're big enough to convince a gullible 8 year old. But this one really has been tested. Here's a nice shot of it, from the Ancient Tree Forum. (Ainít Google grand? Though I hafta admit, coming across a listing for a site for "Pennant Melangell Swingers" on the first page of results was rather a shock. Who knew?)
Enter through the classic lychgate (you do know what a lychgate is from reading my travelogues from previous trips, right? OK, ok, a lychgate is a small covered gatehouse at the entrance to a church yard which has a platform under the roof where they would put folks who just died prior to burial. That way, if they weren't really dead but just sorta fakin' it, they could get up and go home. Beats burying people alive, I'd say.) into the circular grounds of the church. Hmm. That alone is an interesting thing to note, and shows that this was a holy site before the church was built. Wind your way through the slate-slabbed graves to the small chapel, enter into the 12th c. structure in the middle of the nave. To your left is the little office, to the right the chancel and apse. If the lights aren't on (there's seldom anyone there, unless services are being conducted), go back to the office, and find the light switches to the right as you enter. Now, turn around and go to the chancel. Look at the shrine there. Note how it resembles all those drawings in your Sunday-school texts of the Ark of the Covenant? Um-hmm. Rumor has it that Dan Brown's next book is going to feature Pennant Melangell, though I hope to get mine written and published first . . .
Sorry. The shrine is to St. Melangell, supposedly one of the earliest such shrines in northern Europe. It's been nicely restored, using new local materials to recreate missing pieces, but in such a fashion as to be clear what is old and what is new. Yeah, that's the professional book conservator talking there - I appreciate good craftsmanship when I see it. Evidently the shrine had been pitched (literally) into a local ditch during the Reformation, but was (much) later recovered, then even later properly restored.
The rest of the chapel is stunning, though in an honest and simple way. It has seen multiple alterations and revisions in the last 800 years (big surprise), but still maintains a sense of what it is all about. And what it is all about is grace. No, not in the strictly Christian sense of the term, but in something older, something deeper . . . dare I say in the sense the early Christians wanted to appropriate?
Here we get into what I was talking about when I said that this trip was partly a spiritual quest. The Celts had notions of holiness tied up with location, of 'thin' places where the boundaries between this reality and the other side came together. You'll frequently find a river, stream, or spring at such a location. The whole valley of the Tanat has that feeling to it, but it seems to be particularly strong here, where the young river wraps itself around the church grounds. The rough circle of the churchyard is bounded by a coarse wall, more like an earthwork than anything. More importantly, while the wall is higher than either the interior or the exterior ground, the interior is on a slight rise, a slight dome with the chapel at the apex. It's almost like it is a lens of earth, focusing spiritual energy. And that Big Damned Yew tree? It isn't the only one. There are several others of almost the same age at other points on the wall, the anchors of the lens, both to the earth and to the sky.
So, go. If you make it to Wales, and have an afternoon or a morning to spare, go. In the coming travelogues I will have other places you might want to visit, each one special in its own way. But go to Pennant Melangell. Make a donation of a few pounds if you can spare 'em. Avowed atheist that I am, I now carry a wallet with a religious inscription that I got at Pennant Melangell, from the self-service/honor system selection of items in the office. And yes, I even paid for it.
* * *
Now we back-tracked, to the very small town of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant. We were headed up to the falls of Pistyll Rhaeadr, but first we wanted some lunch. In the center of town, where once stood a great barn, is now a parking lot that serves as a small town square. Well, maybe the town triangle, since that it the real shape of the lot. We took the last parking space, and walked over to a small diner, opposite the SPAR/Post Office. The dining room is basically where the front room for a home would be, and about that size, holding only half a dozen tables. The owner came through a small doorway, an older woman who looked almost surprised to see tourists so early in the year. But she seated us, took our orders, and went back through the doorway into what was evidently the living quarters and kitchen. As I listened to her making our sandwiches, and the sound of the soap opera she was watching, I looked around the room, studying light-worn prints void of color and more stable black & white photos of the town. And that was how I know there was once a large barn in the space where the parking lot/square now stood. We ate our simple meal, paid and left, stopping at the public restroom on the edge of the parking lot before continuing up to the falls.
We've been there before. A graceful U-shaped valley, sculpted by glaciers, leads back to one of the seven natural wonders of Wales. It really is quite stunning any time of year. Take a look yourself.
Last time we were there was while the Foot & Mouth Disease disaster was effecting the countryside, forcing us to climb to the top by way of a 'scramble' which more or less went right up the side of the mountain. This time, with the blowing snow (which had reappeared once we left the Tanat Valley), we decided that the longer but gentler (and more stable) pathway would be best. Still we were glad for our hiking poles (the adjustable/collapsible kind), given the slickness of the conditions on the path, and the downright muddy and dangerous conditions at the top of the falls.
This too is one of those 'thin' places, where the whisper of the other side is almost audible, just barely beyond the rumble of the falls. All water is graceful, in that older sense, whether it is a teardrop or a torrent. You stand there at the top, right at the edge, a cold wind blowing up the valley, carrying along the blast of wet snow, and you can almost touch the spirit world. It calls you, beckoning you to step off into the wind, to step free and join it. I don't know how many people give in to that subtle, supple call. And I'm not suicidal, but both times I have been there I felt that desire to step across into the world beyond.
We walked down, of course. And we had tea and cakes in the little restaurant, watching Barney the large, shaggy, and fairly filthy dog terrorize the 'non-dog' woman seated at another table with his heavy slobber of friendliness. Biggs, the fat and happy short-haired calico cat, lazed on top of the bar and swatted playfully at the dog when he came by after the woman and her friends had gone. The restaurant was warm on our wind-burned cheeks, the tea hot, the cakes homemade.
But it was time to go, to find our next B+B. We had booked it the day before, at the Tourist Information center in Llangollen. It wasn't far, just down the long valley of Pistyll Rhaeadr, then a bit of winding on the small "B" roads through the Berwyn Mountains, and we found it. A farmstead, no longer a working farm, the long stables converted into several little self-contained efficiencies. The hostess, a short an energetic woman named Pam, came out to meet us when we rolled into the driveway, got us settled in one of the units, jabbering pleasantly the whole time with a strong Yorkshire accent. We dragged the bags in from the car, and I pulled out the Landranger map of the area to see what was around. I noted a "motte & bailey" was just up the way a bit, so I went for a walk. It was just up the hill, less than a mile, and there wasn't much to see any longer, only the remnants of earthworks in a muddy sheep field. I went back down to the B+B.
And was met by the host, who had seen me walking along the road and came out to investigate. Pleasant fellow by the name of Bob, he just wanted to make sure I wasn't one of the local immigrants from Eastern Europe casing out the place for a theft. Uh, right. He too had a thick York accent - we discovered that it is fairly common for people from other parts of Britain to retire to Wales and set up as B+B owners. These folks had done that some 15 years ago, when land prices in Wales were still very cheap (they aren't any longer). Anyway, in spite of his distrust of Poles and Gypsies (I think that's how he put it), he was a very pleasant guy, and we had a good chat. After determining that I wasn't there to rip him off, but rather was a paying guest, he looked at me and asked in a somewhat bewildered tone, "Why are you here? I mean, now? No one comes to Wales this time of year."
Alix came out to see what was going on, joined the conversation and we talked about where we were from, and why we were there, and eventually we thought to ask him about his recommendation of a good restaurant or pub in the area. He told us there were two pubs that did good food, a bit down the way. One was the "New Inn," so called because, well, it was newer than the other one (the "Anchor" or some such), by like 100 years. Of course, it was built in the 17th century, but still . . .
We went. Found the two pubs, one across the street from the other. We picked the one on the same side of the street as where parking was, so it was essentially a random choice. Went inside, stepping down into a classic rural pub - a warren of small/medium sized rooms all interconnected, with low-hanging black-painted beams, wood paneling and plastered walls, benches, chairs, and wooden tables all which may well have been there since the place was built. A cluster of men sitting/standing at the bar, a young woman tending behind, looking bored. In short, a vernacular heaven.
Polite greetings all around. We ordered drinks and food, then went and found a cozy table next to a lit wood-burning stove that had been built into where once had been a massive hearth. We relaxed, chatted with the barkeep when she brought out our food. She seemed to be very surprised to have real, honest-to-god Americans in her pub, and wanted to talk. She thought it wonderful that we were from 'near Chicago' (about the best way to describe where you live when you're from Columbia, Missouri, and talking to folks who only have a vague grasp of US geography). Clearly, she didn't get out much. But she was nice. After enjoying dinner and a couple of pints, we returned to our cold little cabin, discussing options for the next day's adventures. Bed followed not long after.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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