Tuesday, November 13, 2012

WALES, Portmeirion and Sean

Wales, Day 2

We boarded the bus bright and early on our second day in Wales having been promised a tour of some of the best sights in Wales. It frankly sounded like typical tour guide fare but little did I know it was going to be one of the best days of the trip for all of us, because Sean came into our lives. Who knew I was going to fall in love in Wales?

But first, according to our Grand Circle Tour booklet, we were scheduled to take “…a steam train ride on the Ffestiniog Railway from the coast of Porthmadog into the mountains at Blaenau Ffestiniog.  The Ffestiniog Railway is the oldest independent narrow-gauge railway in the world. It was built in 1832 to carry slate but has been carrying passengers since 1864.  Our destination is the strikingly scenic and mountainous section of Wales called Snowdonia, which surrounds the region’s highest peak, Mount Snowdon. Snowdonia is part of the impressive Cambrian Mountains, which are steep-sided and rugged, presenting some of the most spectacular natural beauty in the British Isles.” It sounded impressive.

Porthmadog is on the southern coast of Wales and is best known for being a slate shipping port. It was swaddled in fog when we got there and we had to keep our umbrellas handy as light rain fell intermittently during the morning. We boarded antique wooden train cars hooked behind an equally ancient locomotive blowing out impressive blasts of steam like the little engine that could and chugged slowly up the narrow little rails into storybook scenery. We savored our steaming mugs of coffee while leisurely enjoying the passing views of steep slate filled mountains covered in rich rain soaked pastures and munching sheep that were oblivious to a train full of tourists oooohing and awwwing over such beauty. 
The little engine that still can.

John and Susan enjoying the scenery from the train.


We huffed and puffed our way to the little town of Blaenau Ffestiniog where Davie and our big silver bus waited to take us to Portmeirion. I had never heard of Portmeirion, which isn’t surprising; however Barbara and Ruthie had done their homework and were very excited at the prospect of big savings on an expensive line of botanical dishes that are made there. It turned out Portmeirion was a very pleasant surprise.  Perched on a wooded peninsula overlooking Tremadog Bay it is a whimsical Italian style village built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. The delicately hued pastel buildings and architecture capture Sorrento in its charm and it was a delight to wander its steep lanes landscaped with mountains of flowers.

Portmeirion overlooking Tremadog Bay

Paula enjoying lunch at the Hotel Portmeirion with Tremadog Bay and Pormeirion in the background.

The Group Who Loved a Doorstop

After lunch Paula and I walked the steep lanes of Portmeirion and drifted into one of the shops.  While she was admiring the famous Portmeirion pottery I spied a tucked away display of goofy faced stuffed sheep. I was instantly smitten. My granddaughter Kailey’s favorite show is an English cartoon called “Shaun the Sheep”. She and I had spent hours watching this black faced woolly hooligan and his hilarious flock and I just had to buy a “Shaun” for her. However, there was only one hitch.  Unlike most stuffed animals, he was heavy. My luggage was already on the edge of the 50 lbs limit and I was afraid that Shaun would put me over.Sadly, I put him down and walked away just when Paula happened by.

“Hey Paula, come here and look at this little guy.  He’s perfect for my granddaughter, but he’s so heavy. Why in heck is he so heavy? Feel that—he feels like he’s full of beans or something.  How in the world would I get him home? My suitcase is already borderline.” 

“Take him home in your purse.”  And, with that obvious solution, an ongoing saga was born. My Shaun, who would become “Sean” because he was his own unique self, would ride along in my purse where ever I went; I would take pictures of him and then make a book of our travels for Kailey. And Paula would be my director. 

Once the rest of the group saw him, he instantly became the mascot of our tour. Every day, someone would ask about his health or what he thought of this or that.  Larry and Steve began to steal him and leave ransom notes while their better halves, Barbara and Ruthie, shopped in every store between Portmeirion and Edinburgh trying to find Sean clones. Larry especially had a crush on Sean and would take no substitutes. The magic of Sean was that he made a bus full of strangers into a group of close knit friends from that day forward. A star was born. (And by the way, if I had bothered to read his tag I would have found out that Sean was full of beans because he was actually a doorstop. Oh well. I’ve fallen in love with stranger things. )

Sean in his personal carrier (my purse) pausing to smell the flowers.

Who could resist this face?  By the way, Sean is a Swaledale, a type of sheep indigenous to Yorkshire.

But, the day was not over. We still had another stop to visit the Welsh Slate Museum. Seems that slate is and was a major industry in Wales since their mountains are full of it. Even in this modern industrial age, slate still has to be hand cut.   Sean had to sit on a pile of it and have his picture taken of course. 

 The former slate quarry next to the museum.

Chuck and Paula in front of the Welsh Slate Museum, site of the old quarry.

Sean having lunch among the slate after the tour.

(It became clear very early on that I wasn’t going to be able to part with Sean. He was going to be my buddy on every trip I took from now on, which meant I needed another one for Kailey. I recently contacted Richard Lang & Sons LTD in England (makers of my black faced friend) who graciously agreed to send “Sean’s Cousin” to the retailer, Scotland by the Yard in Vermont, who would then send him on to me. So it is a very grateful me who profusely thanks Lois Coleman of Lang's and Donald Ramson of Scotland By the Yard for understanding and enjoying the story of Sean. Bless you both!)

*To start at the beginning of the tour, scroll back in the blog to "My Grand Gallop Through Great Britain".  See and read more about Sean and the group.

Next time: Chester

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

WALES, Llangollen, Isle of Anglesey, Caernarfon

What can I say? I'm in love with Wales. Like Scotland, Wales is a land of fiercely independent Celts who were driven into the highlands many generations ago by successive invaders. It is a rugged landscape of incredible beauty, peppered with thousands of sheep clinging tenaciously to steep emerald green pastures. Interspersed with miles of purple heather on the moors, the views are breathtaking.

The heather bloomed everywhere in Britain this year because of the
 abundance of rain. The moors were a sea of purple that went on for miles.
Paula, Cousin Judy and Chuck
I’d made good friends with a wonderful couple on the tour, Paula and Chuck whose playfulness and engaging sense of humor kept us all laughing. We’d been assigned seats that rotated daily around the bus so that I either had a good view of the backs of their heads or they had a great view of the back of mine so we had plenty of time to get acquainted on the trip. To this day we still miss the backs of each other’s heads. 

Our first stop in Wales was Llangollen (LANG-o-lin) where Chuck had arranged to meet his cousin Judy who lived in a nearby town and whom he hadn’t seen in many years. Paula discovered she had accidentally left her camera in Cheltenham (CHELT-n-um) so I volunteered to be their photographer until it could be sent on. They invited me to lunch with Cousin Judy at one of the nicer places in town called The Royal, which was built overlooking the picturesque River Dee. Chuck and Judy were so happy to see each other and it was a pleasure to take photos of them catching up on old times. After lunch I excused myself so they could have some time to themselves and set out to explore my first Welsh town.  

Overlooking the River Dee from the bridge

View from The Royal Hotel

The sign is in Welsh and don't ask me what it says but I recognize the town's name on the end.  That's Darlene, one of our group buying postcards.

Most signs are in Welsh as well as English. Are they really calling us a Dim Wit?
The Isle of Anglesey

After leaving Llangollen we drove across Wales and over a bridge to the Isle of Anglesey.  Anglesey (an-GEL-see) has become famous lately because Prince William is stationed there on a large military base and Kate can be seen doing her own grocery shopping. It also has a town with the longest name in the world, I think, having a grand total of 58 letters. It beats the one in Llangollen by 3. You wonder when they know to take a breath!

Going across the bridge from Wales into the Isle of Anglesey

At least they translate for us Dim Wits.
We continued on our way to Caernarfon, (ca-NAR-fon)located on the northern coast of Wales, and home of the medieval Caernarfon Castle built after the English conquered Wales. It had been a long day of driving, but one of the best parts of the trip was yet to come. We were scheduled for a special treat, an evening with a Welsh family and a good home cooked meal. We were divided into small groups each going to a different home. A taxi was arranged to pick up my group which consisted of Frank, Pat and her husband Bill, Ruthie and Steve and I. I settled in for what I thought was going to be a long ride, but after just a few blocks the taxi stopped in front of the Castle. The cab driver said, "Right then.  Straight through there." indicating a dark opening in the Castle wall. Looking at each other as if to say, "Huh?" we huddled together and shuffled forward into what looked like a deserted alley. Once we went through the entry way we could just make out a row of small attached homes in the dim light with  doors to each just a few feet from one another. Just as we started to look back at the taxi driver to plead for some direction we saw a door open flooding the lane with warm golden light and excited happy voices. Out bounded a black dog the size of a small horse that acted like we were the Magi bearing dog bones followed by a plump apron clad woman with a beaming smile saying, "This way, Loves!"  

Castle Caernarfon. Prince Charles was inaugurated Prince of Wales here in 1969.   
Monica, Pete and family live inside the walls of the Castle.
Monica and Pete, along with their children, were our hosts and I couldn’t have imagined a more delightful experience. We laughed and talked and ate until we couldn't move and none of us wanted to call it a night. Their home had been Monica's mum's (they lived around the corner) and it was tiny with barely any room to move around so we didn’t even try. How Monica could make and serve the outstanding dinner she did in such a small space was amazing, but we didn’t question it as we stuffed our faces with Cottage Pie (made with beef—Sheppard’s pie is made with lamb), mushy peas, boiled potato and cabbage and took second helpings on the most divine trifle I’ve ever tasted. I had to stop myself from being a pig and taking more.

After dinner the conversation centered around Wales and the Welsh language. Monica explained, "We have our own flag here in  Wales and Welsh is taught in the schools. We're determined to keep our language, culture and identity alive, you see. Pete and I, we're from England , but our children were born in Wales and are bi-lingual. Come here, son and read something in Welsh for us." Their son was about 10 years old and when he spoke English I thought he may have had a speech impediment, but when he spoke Welsh I realized he had been carrying over Welsh sounds into his English pronunciation. Welsh has some very distinct vowels and consonant sounds, and the one I heard particularly in the boy's speech was a unique slushing sound.(I felt very urbane after that when I could pick Welsh out of the cosmopolitan mix of languages I heard around me because of those distinctive sounds.)  

It was getting late and time to leave, but it was with great reluctance we said goodbye to these new friends who had made us feel so welcome in their country and in their home.

From left to right, Steve, Ruthie, Monica and her son and daughter, Bill, Pat, Frank and Pete.  And yes, they are all as nice as they look.

Our hotel, The Celtic Royal, located just blocks from the Castle.
Next time: More of Wales--Portmeirion and Sean

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


“It is to you upon the languid river that I return again and again….”

Shakespeare didn’t actually say that, but I’m sure that’s the way he felt about his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.  Born in 1564 to a prosperous glove merchant in a middle class home, he attended school just a block away, and grew up to marry Anne Hathaway who only lived a mile down the road. Over the years he divided his time between London and Stratford, buying a grand house called New Place and retiring there. He died in 1616 and was buried at the church where he had been baptized and married. He could have been buried in the prestigious Westminster Abbey beside the other notables of England, but he declined preferring to be buried in the town and church he clearly loved.

I could see why he loved it. It is a serene village located in the heart of England. The Avon River tranquilly flows through town overhung with weeping branches which trail in the ripples of its water like fingers and swans graciously allow canal boats to share the river.  It is an idyllic place away from frenetic London life.

Me in front of Shakespeare's birthplace
 taken by two very disappointed tourists.
After our driver Davie parked our enormous bus, Anita passed out maps and told us we had about an hour on our own before we were to meet her at the Edward Moon for lunch. That didn’t give us much time so everyone scattered in different directions, maps in hand. A few of us headed over to what looked like the main street where I saw a small crowd of people huddled around a sign on a very old building. I craned my neck over their shoulders and read, “Birthplace of Shakespeare”. I stepped back a few paces to take pictures of his childhood home when a couple approached me and asked me to take their picture with it in the background. I said “Of course, certainly.” and babbled something like “If you don’t like it, I can take another.” With charmed expressions on their faces, the husband asked me where I was from. I brightened and said, “San Diego!” and with that their faces fell and they walked away without saying another word. I wondered briefly what that was all about when it occurred to me that they must have thought I was English! I knew I had been picking up Anita’s lilting accent but I didn’t realize to what extent!  I couldn’t help it. I flashed a beaming smile in their direction and said, “Cheerio!”

I thoroughly enjoyed wandering the rough stone streets of Stratford seeing the town through Shakespeare’s eyes. I ended up a few blocks down the river at Holy Trinity Church where at the age of 52 he was buried. The sign placed at the head of his grave reads: 

"Good frend for Jesus sake Forbeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare.
Bleste be ye man (that) spares thes stones
And Curst be he (that) moves my bones.”

Translation:“Don’t go digging me up and moving me to Westminster Abbey, damn it.”


Avon River with Holy Trinity Church in the background

The Bard's grammar school next to the Almshouse

Fresh bacon anyone?

Shakespeare's home, one of the nicest in town, was torn down by the fellow who bought it because he hated the tourists that came gawking.  It is now a community archaeological site.

Have we found it yet?

Gardens are planted on the site of W. Shakespeare's home.

The only two things I knew about Oxford was that it was a college town and that it was the inspiration for many of the scenes in the Harry Potter movies. I had hoped we could have seen some of the places made famous in the movies like the dining hall located in Christ Church College, but while we didn’t see that one we did see one very similar just smaller. Besides, I found out later, even Harry Potter didn’t actually use their dining facilities because of the difficulty in filming at the same time 300 students were being served three meals a day. The producers ended up having to build a set of the Hogwarts’ dining room in an airplane hangar.

The day we were there it was like a beautiful San Diego day, warm and mild with the sky a lovely blue lifting our spirits. Even the college buildings themselves elevated our mood being built with that same sun drenched stone I’d seen at Bath which made the town feel welcoming. There were only a few students around, but I could feel their youth and vitality in the numerous bicycles parked in racks, the sports team banners in the college’s courtyards and the numerous bookstores where I found them, jersey clad and texting.

Anita took us on a guided tour and gave us some background on the town as we walked the cobbled streets. “Oxford is the oldest University in the western world having been established in 1169 and is actually comprised of 35 colleges. Each has its own sports team, library, dining hall and cultural organizations. Over its 843 years it has graduated 25 Prime Ministers, 47 Nobel Peace Prize winners, 20 Archbishops, 12 saints and 1 Mayor of London. Prior to the establishment of the colleges, Oxford was a small Saxon village. The residents over the years have not always welcomed the students and they’ve occasionally thrown pitch forks and rotten fruit at one another, however they seem to be getting along swimmingly now.”

She then took us on a tour of Lincoln College, one of the smaller colleges but no less prestigious. All of the colleges we found out are built around a “Quad” or quadrangle landscaped with grass and flowers, making it a visual treat to look out upon when dining or studying. The largest colleges like Christ Church have entire parkland attached to them as well as an immense quad, but Lincoln is small and intimate. Sitting in Lincoln’s dining room, I could still get the feeling of Hogwarts’ Hall even if it was on a small scale.
Lincoln College Quad or Courtyard looking toward the dining hall.

Looking out from the dining hall toward the Quad.

Dining room

It is after all a college town.

Radcliff Camera (Italian for "room")
Oxford's version of Venice's Bridge of Sighs
Bodleian Library, the oldest library in Europe

Trinity College, one of Oxford's 35 colleges.
Next time: Wales