Have I got a passel of pictures to show you! As usual, these are all low-resolution thumbnail pictures, with just enough detail so you might know what they are if you squinted at them and used a lot of imagination -- if you want to see more, click on the thumbnail and another browser will pop up with the picture in it. Get rid of the extra browser, and you're back to this screen, without having to wait for it to download. On with the show!
When we told people that we were going to Wales, they all screwed up their faces like puzzled dogs, as if to say, What on earth would you want to visit Wales for? But what they said was, "It rains all the time in Wales, you know." So this, then, is the story of our wet, drippy week in Wales under the unending rainclouds that dogged us whereever we went.
The First Day is the day I usually dread, because it means being cooped up in the car for hours on end, driving through all kinds of traffic on all kinds of road, and emerging hot, sweaty, tired, and in desperate need of many pints of beer. Luckily there was, in fact, plenty of cool beer at the end of the road, so some good came of it. Oh yes, and we arrive at our destination, which in this case was Cobbles Cottage in Talgarth, Wales. The cottage itself was quite a cozy little place, very neat and pretty, and just down the street from several pubs. Talgarth itself seems to be a quiet farming town, not much doing there, although on Friday night they seemed to find plenty to keep them up until after midnight. Nevermind. The peace and quiet was all right for us, considering what tourist traps some of the local towns were. After unpacking, Barb and I strolled through the whole town in about five minutes, then stopped off at a local pub for a refreshing pint. The dress code was so relaxed that we apparently didn't have to wear shirts, but we did anyway. It was warm, but not that warm.
A traffic jam along the way held us up behind a car with a dealer's sticker in the rear window that read ASHMOLE, which struck us all at first as an unfortunate last name. I mean, really, if it was yours, wouldn't you change it, at least a little bit, at the first opportunity? I don't know how girls are about these things, but guys will grab at the least little excuse to hang a nickname like 'Stinky' or 'Noisy' on a guy with a name like 'Ashmole'. And if your parents were dumb or had a sick sense of humor, imagine the given names the children of Stinky Ashmole could end up with. We'd been stuck in traffic so long, and were so hot and tired, that we made a game out of who could come up with the best given name. Barb went for the obvious 'Harry;' the best I could come up with was 'Ima;' and I think Tim won with 'Hugh G.' Yep, it was a pretty long, boring traffic jam, bad enough even to drag our kids into inappropriate word games.
We didn't have any plans, really, for Sunday, so when the day broke bright and clear and warm, we decided to spend it out of doors. A trip to Hay-on-Wye, right up the road, seemed to be in order.
Hay-on-Wye is a little bit of heaven on earth to people like Barb and me. The village is chock full of book stores. There's scarcely a street that doesn't have at least one, and if you tried to visit every one on just the main street, it would take you the better part of a week. I could spend the rest of my life and all the money I'm destined ever to make browsing through the books Hay. Most of them are used book stores, and though the prices are a bit higher than those in the used book stores I like to visit closer to home, it was still a rare treat to browse through shelves and stacks and heaps of out-of-print and wonderfully musty old books. I brought back more books than anybody else and spent the most, so I suppose I won. Sean didn't get any; I'd have to guess that he wasn't really trying. We spent nearly the whole day there, then shuffled on back to spend the evening in the cottage, reading the cartload of books we took away. The photos show a couple typical shops in Hay (no, really); the first is a chippy and a book shop, the second is Hay Castle, which is a book shop, I swear to God. Sorry about the sheets of rain obscuring the photographs; that's just the way Wales is, if you haven't heard.
We'll start off with a real prize of a picture, Barb, Sean and I having lunch on the grounds of the Cardiff city park, every one of us wearing an exceptionally dumb expression. I seem to be executing some kind of difficult potty function. Little wonder I rarely let people take pictures of me.
Our plan to visit Cardiff grew out of an idea to visit the National Museum, which the guidebook made out to be an interesting place for adults and kids alike but which didn't mention that the place is closed on Mondays. Dumped on the front steps of the museum with only the vaguest ideas of what Cardiff was like, we didn't quite know where to go next. Barb wanted to look around the town and particularly in a shopping district called The Hays, and I was all for wandering around town, so long as I didn't have to drive. Lucky for me, a tour bus rolled past as we were debating how to get there. It was one of those double-decker, open-topped busses that advertisements say you can buy a ticket for and then get on and off anywhere in town -- actual practice turned out to be somewhat different, but nevermind that for now. We bought a ticket and hopped on.
Cardiff's not that big, but the bus trip was about an hour to see the whole loop around town, adn they weren't stretching it out much. In any event, it was better than the tour bus we paid umpty-zillion pounds for in London. We got off the bus at Cardiff Castle and spent a long hour strolling through it, scaring the peacocks and spitting off the battlements. In the first picture, possibly the worst I've ever purposely taken, you can just barely see Barb, Sean and Tim posing along the inside of the battlements with the clock tower of Cardiff Castle in the background. I was having some trouble adjusting for the light in the typically gloomy, rainy Welsh weather. But we also had a look around the inside of the grounds, and in better pictures you can see the castle keep, with Sean and Tim in the lower left of the picture, and Barb, Sean and I posing on a stairway inside the keep, where you could climb all the way to the top of the parapet and make dumb tourist comments about how everything looks so small from up there.
After Cardiff Castle, we went down to the wharf, an area of town that's under development and is supposed to absolutely take off sometime in the very near future. Nevermind that now, though; we showed up just so that Tim could pick this guy's nose. This is actually a memorial to lost sailors, a face in the hull of the wreck of a ship, and very striking, really. Tim didn't mean any disrespect, but there are some things a nine-year-old's gotta do. If you squint, you can also see Tim and Barb at the rail on the lighthouse ship, braving the Welsh downpour that seemed to soak us every day. The lighthouse is a chapel run by some evangalistic mission. Ordinarily they let tourists up in the light itself, but we got there too late.
Finally back at the cottage, after dinner Barb and I went for a short stroll up the street to look for a likely place to have an evening drink. I wish I could remember the name of the pub we settled in; we remember it as The Pink Pub, because it was painted all over in the pinkest powder-puff color and decorated with colored Christmas tree lights. The pub was in fact the lounge of a B&B, really no more than a small room with a bar to one side and plush benches round the walls. It reminded me of the bars that people of my parents' generation used to build in their basements, so I was especially happy that they served a delicious pint of a local ale there and could settle down for a happy hour with a pretty girl.
This is the part where I get to make fun of Welsh place names. LLangorse was about the easiest Welsh name we ran across; it's the same in Welsh as it is in English, so we could say it out loud with some confidence that we didn't sound like babbling maniacs. Other Welsh place names were either rather nifty looking but I had to pronounce them with a question mark (Abergavenny? Merthyr Tydfil?), or completely incomprehensible; when I see names like Ystradgynlais, Llwydcoed, and Troedyrhiw, they hardly register on the speech centers of my brain.
And then there were the road signs. Every traffic sign was rendered in English and then again in Welsh; sometimes a sign would have several options, each in English, then Welsh, the next in English, then Welsh again, another in English, then Welsh once more ... by the time I sorted through all that, we were hell and gone from the turnoff I wanted to take. And nearly all the Welsh towns had an English-language name and a Welsh name, both of which appeared on almost all the road signs. Sometimes this was no problem, as the English name looked much like the Welsh name; but some were nothing like their English equivalent, so when I saw a sign pointing the way to Brecon, under which the word Aberhonddu was written, I wondered what I was supposed to do, abber do or hon do? (When Barb saw Aberhonddu, she said, "Aberhonddu! I did!" which was a much better joke than that lame one I just made you struggle through.)
Back to Llangorse Lake: We went there for a little family bonding by way of a canoe trip. You wanna see how any two family members get along, put them in either end of a canoe and turn them loose on even the calmest water for half an hour. Am I right, Barb? We all had a great time, especially Tim, who thought he was in some kind of adventure movie, paddling away like a madman in the bow of the canoe we were in.
In the afternoon we bunched up with the tourists again to take a ride on a canal boat. These used to be the trailer-trucks of England, carrying freight up and down canals before trains took over. The canal boats you see these days are floating homes away from homes, or cruise ships like the Dragon-Fly here -- in the rain-soaked picture, it's crossing a viaduct over the river Usk. The picture of Barb, Sean and Tim relaxing at our table is pretty crappy, but I love the expressions. Looks like Sean's had at least one too many, doesn't it?
We all piled into the car that night to make a special ninety-minute road trip to Caldicott, on the south shore of Wales, to ... buy gasoline! Do we know how to live, or what? Yep, easy riders, that's us. We went all the way to Caldicott because we knew there was supposed to be a filling station there that accepted our coupons for gasoline. Gas costs about a buck and a quarter per liter over here, or roughly five and a half bucks a gallon, but we can buy coupons off the US Navy that bring the price down to about half that. Trouble is, not every filling station takes the coupons; you have to go out and find them, and the Navy picked them according to the formula, "How far away and difficult to find is the station?" Caldicott is a prize-winner, took us about a half-hour just to figure out where the heck in the town it was.
To make it all worth while, the fates dropped this Chinese take-away along the route.
We've had a spattering of rain almost every night around about midnight or so, and maybe a little sprinkle in the early morning, just enough to make you glad you're in bed. This morning it dragged out long enough to make us think we ought to look for some indoor activity. We've had our eye on a place just down the road, near Llangorse Lake in fact, where we could go rock climbing. The place is so popular, though, that we couldn't get in this morning and had to book a time for tomorrow.
The rain let up after a few pretty lame attempts to get things wet, and the sun came out and quickly dried everything. We'd been through a town called Abergaveny several times travelling to and fro, and liked the look of it, not to mention the sound of it, to stop and have a wander through the streets. It turned out to be a fairly nice town, if not a bit on the crowded side, but we didn't stay very long and didn't do anything else there other than say the name out loud far more often than conversation demanded it. Abergavenny, Abergavenny, Abergavenny.
The highlight of the day, then, actually came in the evening when we went to see A Midsummer Night's Dream at an outdoor stage in the ruins of a Norman castle in Tretower, and what a treat! There were about a half-dozen actors dashing through all the parts, which set a manic pace to the play right off the bat, and they brought a real chuckle to the play to lighten it up, which the boys enjoyed -- Tim liked the guy who turned into a donkey, and Sean roared at the raunchy bits. We brought a picnic lunch with us so we'd have refreshments to enjoy during the interval. Too busy enjoying the play to take any snaps, sorry, but got this one of us filing in to the castle, drenched in the usual Welsh downpour you hear so much about.
Rain! Real rain, drenching showers that don't let up for hours, rain that comes gushing out of downspouts and runs off your umbrella in sheets. It really does rain here! Just like they said! This is really gonna put a dent in the Welsh tan I'm working on.
Lucky for us, we were booked for a morning of rock climbing, which is as big in Wales as the Baptist church is in The South, maybe bigger. People travel from all over in the UK to go climbing in the Brecon Beacons, and it seemed like maybe they were all in this climbing center this morning. We were in a group of about a dozen people with our personal instructor, Wally, who kitted us out and took us to 'The Pit,' a hole in the middle of the pole barn where the climbing walls were. 'The Pit' was about fifteen feet deep and lined with natural rock, good for a scramble, and all the safety lines were already in place. All we had to do was clip in and make like spiders. The biggest surprise this morning was how Barb threw herself into climbing with such boundless exuberance! Every time she went up a new rock face, I wanted to break out singing, 'Spider man, spider man, does whatever a spider can ... ' She paid for her physical outburst the next day, though; could hardly raise her arms higher than her shoulders. For today, though, we all had a great time on the rocks.
The rain stopped in the afternoon and the sun came out. So much for worrying about my tan. We figured on staying in, playing board games all day, but we could hardly afford to waste the sunshine in such a overcast, soggy place as this, so we scooted back over the Hay-on-Wye for the afternoon and browsed the stacks once again. I spent almost all afternoon in just one store, where Barb found me when she was getting ready to leave.
One of the things we'd been talking about doing all week was climbing to the summit of Pen-y-Fan, the highest mountain in Wales. Sean says these were once mountains as rugged as the Rockies, but a skazillion years of erosion has worn them down to these nubs. To get to the top, we had to park off the road, then walk about two miles out and two-hundred fifty meters up. At a stroll, it took us two and a half hours for the round trip. It was worth the view. Of course, there's no way I could ever capture that view on my crummy little 35mm camera, but we did take the usual tourist snapshots of the family sitting on the summit. Funny thing I noticed about the photos, though, was that on two of the photos we were all sitting on the same side of the summit, in slightly different places, so I patched together this panoramic shot that doesn't quite look totally crummy. The other snapshot shows the route we took to the top of Pen-y-Fan, with Barb and Tim winding their way up, with a view of the Brecon Beacons in the background.
We scarfed a lunch after climbing down from Pen-y-Fan, then wandered back to the cottage by way of Erwood, where Barb dimly remembered there was supposed to be a craft shop. Lucky for the rest of us, there was also a tea shop that served soft drinks and sweet snacks. We sat down to dessert, then Barb wandered among the handywork of the local artists while Tim and Sean scrambled through the underbrush and I refilled my teacup from the pot.
The load-out has to be the loneliest part of a vacation. Packing is such a drudge anyway, but packing up to leave such a relaxing place as the one we had was a real downer. The holiday wasn't quite over yet, though. We were headed for an overnight stay on the Salisbury Plain to see Stonehenge, with a stopover at Cheddar on the way.
Yep, there's a place called Cheddar, and it is where the cheese comes from. Not all of it, I'm pretty sure. In fact, not a lot of it, because we stopped in Cheddar gorge to buy some and had a darned hard time finding it. It's just one of those tourist things we had to do. Barb really likes cheese. I do, too, but I can't eat much any more, because of the sound effects. So when we saw Cheddar on the map and we were going to pass by, we made sure our route took us right through the place. I scanned the post card so that you could see what it was supposed to look like. On the post cards and in the guide books it looks like a quiet, rural little village. You get the idea of a dairy or two where delicate maidens milk the cows, painstakingly but happily by hand on little three-legged stools, and make the cheese. There's perhaps a tea room or a cafe where you could sit and have a quiet cuppa while snacking on cheddar cheese with crackers, then you might be able to stroll down the high street to a local store where you'd buy a golden wheel of souvenir cheddar and a post card before you left. The gorge looks majestic, yet peaceful, filled with a quiet grandeur that you might be able to find nirvana while meditating on. But actually, Cheddar is a tourist trap of the most obviously rough kind. Crass, tacky, thronged with thousands of tourists in hundreds of cars, and the ones driving are naturally trying to run over the ones on foot. The gorge is narrow enough so that the pedestrians can only just get away, so you don't even get the satisfaction of seeing them squashed like the bugs they are. They park in all the wrong places and swarm up and down the gorge, tossing their candy wrappers in the brush, helping their kids take a leak on the rocks, and converging on the movie-set town in numbers that make the extras in The Greatest Story Ever Told look trivial. And my god does the town charge you for every little cheese-lovin' minute you spend there. They charge for parking, they charge for the bus ride, they charge to explore the show caves or see real cheddar cheese being made, and for any one of these pleasures they charge enough to make the eyeballs of the breadwinner of even our small family pop right out of his skull. If we'd done all the crap they had on offer, we would have spent enough money to feed India for a week. So we parked on the grass and ducked into town where Barb bought a couple wedges of cheddar and I bought the post card, and then we got the heck out. We stopped further up the gorge in a much less congested spot so the boys could scramble up the rocks and scare their mother.
I'm going to say something now that'll sound incredibly stupid and tourist-like: Stonehenge is a lot smaller in person. I don't know why, but I can guess it's because I've heard about Stonehenge all my life as an enigma, something great minds have pondered over for decades and never satisfactorily explained. I've seen an endless number of pictures of Stonehenge, usually from the air, or from the ground taken at angles that make the stones seem to soar into the heavens. It was huge, it was vast ... hate to break the bubble, but it's not. The stones are maybe twice my height, and with a couple hundred tourists crowded around them, they look puny. The wide, sweeping circle that surrounds them and seems to encompass the meadows of Salisbury Plain is just one quick lap around the gym. I wasn't any less impressed that stoneage druids (or spacemen, or whoever) may have lugged those huge stones all the way from Wales; I'm not trying to say they could have easily slapped up plaster garden decorations and gotten the same effect, and I'm not trying to say don't bother going there because you're just going to be disappointed. All I'm trying to say is that I expected something bigger, something that would make people believe spacecraft might have set it there. It's just a circle of stones. Sure, big stones, but I've seen dozens of castles that were just as impressive.
And then there's the guessing game. What the heck was it? Everybody wants to make something big and mystical out of it. Looks to me like it might've been a stronghold. Could've been dumped there by spacecraft, I guess, if spacecraft use stones for ballast. Heck, it could be a dozen or so spacemen who just happen to look like big stones and move really slowly. Maybe it's a bunch of extra-terrestrial kids observing tourists from around the world for part of their homework assignment. Whatever Stonehenge is, we were determined not to take it too seriously. We posed in front of it for the obligatory tourist snapshot, then wandered into the souviner shop, where they don't take Stonehenge too seriously, either, bless their hearts. You can buy the tackiest drinking mugs I've ever seen with Stonehenge printed on them in what looks like three colors of Crayon, a Sarsen stone cast in pewter (which bears a strong resemblance to the shapeless lump of pewter it must have started from), an Edgar Winter collectable plaster Stonehenge, and a Stonehenge snowglobe. So it's definately worth visiting. Just don't expect a big Stonehenge, as I did.
After Cheddar, Stonehenge, and all day in the car, we were hot and sweaty and ready to wash up before a relaxing evening in a pub with some food and some beer. We checked in to our B&B in Shrewsbury, and on a recommendation from the host we strolled down the road to The George, a local pub with lots of character. The food was scrummy, and so was the Stonehenge Ale.
I read Watership Down years ago, but when I was stationed here in 1985 I didn't realize that the place wasn't a complete fiction, and didn't find out until after I left that it was a hillside to the west of London. Since we were traveling in the area to see Stonehenge and the White Horse, we made a little detour so that I could take a short ramble on Watership Down. After the fiasco we found in Cheddar gorge I was more than a little afraid that we'd find the whole place had been sold to a sightseeing franchise and we'd find throngs moving from one kiosk to another, buying up stuffed bunnies and rabbit's foot keychains, stopping for ersatz cowslip sandwiches at the Silfay Cafe, and getting their pictures taken on the seat of a giant hdrudru, but thank Rah that's not true. It's just a quiet forested hillside with a frankly picturesque view of the farmland plains to the north. A trail runs along it on the way to the town of Inkpen; isn't that great? We strolled a couple hundred yards along the path to get a feel of the place, a look at the countryside, and maybe see a rabbit or two (sorry, nothing to report), then turned back to look for horses.
I'm not going to give you any explanation of the Uffington white horse, other than to say it's a chalk drawing. Okay, that's not a very clear description, is it? Several thousand years ago some primeval artists or priests or bored doodlers with a lot of time on their hands scratched through the turf on the ground in Wiltshire and found there was white chalk underneath, so they kept on scratching until they had bared the outline of a running horse on the side of a hill. They did it over and over again in this part of England, and several times elsewhere. Funny thing is, the horse is about thirty yards from nose to tail and it's almost impossible to make out from the ground; you almost have to be airborne to see it. Some people think they're objects of worship, some think they're signs to the gods or spacemen. One of our guide books says they mark the boundaries of tribal lands, sort of like gang chops spray-painted on city walls, which I think is a hoot. You have to be able to see it if you're expected to say off it. You could walk right over the horse without knowing what it was or even that it was there. I think they're just doodles, like crop circles, which we got as a bonus, by the way. If you visit the Uffington white horse you can climb a nearby hill for a better look at it, and somebody pointed out that from the top of the hill we could see a crop circle that had just appeared in a nearby field, very pretty. Some people think that crop circles have to be the work of visiting spacemen, because why would people do it? I don't know; but then why would people do half the dumb things they do? Golf courses are far more elaborate than crop circles, and at least as big a waste of time, if you ask me. What really gives me the giggles about all this speculation, though, is that chalk drawings are possibly the work of local landowners, dating back only to the 18th century instead of the usually-mentioned couple thousand years. The Victorians apparently loved this stuff and went in for it in a big way, although I find it a little hard to believe that the Victorians put this guy on a cliff side. Then again, if it was spacemen, they certainly knew how to flatter a guy.
We had to figure out a way to get home from Uffington, and one of the most obvious took us through Bedford, which I voted for. I used to live there when I was stationed at RAF Chicksands in '85, and I didn't mind if I saw the place again just for yuks. By the time we got there I had reached my limit in the car anyway; my backside's got an alarm built into it that sends little neurons armed with sledgehammers to sit on my shoulders and chip away at my spine if I drive for too long, and they were just warming up as I crossed into the city limits of Bedford.
I really had no idea what to expect. I was posted back to the States in '87, so I hadn't seen Bedford in thirteen years, and didn't recognize anything at first. Then we came into a roundabout, the very roundabout I used to live on, and BANG! instant recognition hit me right in the face. Barb must've thought I'd gone out of my mind as I wheeled the car around to turn into St. Leonard's Avenue without giving any hint as to what I was doing. My old apartment was still there, but the street beyond it was almost entirely changed; I have no idea how I recognized the roundabout, because the only thing that hadn't changed was a pub to one side. Once I knew where I was, though, I drove into the town center with no trouble.
The high street was entirely made over. The square at the center of it was much the same, but all the shops I remember up the high street were almost entirely wiped away, all replaced by much newer, slicker-looking storefronts. Only an occassional, older-looking store, dressed up on the street level, reminded me where I was. But when I drove through the back streets, looking for a parking spot, I knew it all again. I used to walk a lot, miles and miles through the back streets, just to wander and take pictures, or to stumble happily drunk to or from a buddy's house on the other side of town. The houses and neighborhood stores hadn't changed a bit.
We stopped for dinner at Pizza Hut -- hey, they're everywhere, they're affordable, and the kids will eat almost anything on the menu -- before saddling up again and stretching out for the final push home.
As always, I'm intensely interested in knowing how you like the layout of this page. Ever since I glommed onto some software that let me generate thumbnails, and you seem to get along okay with them, I've gone back to a more conventional layout that lets me write a narrative around the pictures instead of just captions. I thought I'd throw in a few extra pictures I didn't actually take, by way of explaning some of the subjects I mentioned. Does this page work okay for you? Drop me a line: The address, as you know, is firstname.lastname@example.org -- give me some idea how you like this so I can keep tweaking a better way to keep in touch.Go to the Front Page of the O-Folks' Photo Album
I've got this feeling that I'm starting to look like Calvin's dad. What do you think?