Before leaving Europe, I spend a few days in the countryside of Wales. Wales is mostly rural, and I’m looking forward to meandering through grassy fields and exploring ancient hilltop castles. Half of my family can trace their ancestry to Wales, and this will be my first foray down into the root system of my family tree. In fact, I find that many people here looks like me and my family—pale freckly skin, thick legs, moppy blonde hair, jaw like the front end of a Volvo. Prepare the banquet and raise the family sigil—I’m coming home!
No addresses in Wales
Our friends Dave and Clive collect Alan and me from the train station. Dave and Clive moved to Wales a couple of years ago, and currently live in Peterson-Super-Ely, a tiny village just outside of Cardiff in the Vale of Glamorgan. Once we’re out of the city, the route to their abode follows a winding one-lane road that is enclosed on both sides by tall hedges. Their house has no address per se—post is simply addressed to the name of the house, and the mail carrier delivers it from memory. A typical address in Wales could be, for example, Ty-nettle, Peterson-Super-Ely, Vale of Glamorgan, Wales. Good luck finding it!
Dave and Clive’s house was originally designed, built, and lived in by an architect, and it has many design elements that must have been cutting-edge in the 1970s, but today seem strange. For instance, the second floor is divided in half, with each side accessed by its own staircase, and dark wood panels in place of doors can be slid across the house to divide off the rooms. The floor-to-ceiling windows offer up wonderful views of the property’s densely-planted gardens. The River Ely runs right through the backyard—hence “Super-Ely” in the town name. It’s refreshingly quiet and verdant compared with… well, compared with almost everywhere.
A romp in the heath
For our first activity in Peterson-Super-Ely, Dave and Clive (and their two Chihuahuas) take us for a walk through the nearby countryside. We start our first randonnée right from their house, stepping out of the front door and following a path that leads down the road and over a footbridge. Above the bridge is a sign that reads “no horses.” Thank goodness I left Clip-Clop at home.
For the next hour, we tromp through fields, meadows, and forests, both on public and private land. Clive explains that the UK is crisscrossed with historic rights of way (called easements when on private land), and that private landowners are obliged to allow the public to access them. Wherever there is a fence demarcating the boundary of a property, someone has thoughtfully installed a set of wooden steps to allow walkers—but not livestock—to cross. Clive points out a plum tree that is showing early signs of the fruit to come. Local people collect them from the wild to produce a unique and delicious jam.
We encounter lots of livestock on our walk. At the boundary to one field, a stunning white horse trots up and greets us as we pass. A little later, we find our path is blocked by a herd of terrifyingly large Welsh cattle. Normally I would not balk at skirting around a few cows, but as soon as I mount the steps to cross into their domain, several of the largest and scariest specimens start jumping—jumping!—and rolling their muscled shoulders in preparation for a charge. We decide to reroute. As we return home, we pass the remnants of an 800-year-old wall that now serves as the side to someone’s car enclosure.
The following day, Dave takes us to Dunraven Bay, where the high bluffs run like a white-grey brushstroke along the coast. The landscape looks like it was drawn in pastel. Sheep bleat stupidly as they graze on the grass and wildflowers that carpet undulating hills, and the waves whisper gently as they lap against the stony shore far below. Further along, we encounter an old walled garden that at one time formed a part of some fortress or castle. It’s the sort of environment in which Smurfs are likely to be found.
Just another castle
Castles are everywhere in Wales, remnants of the feudal past when every lord or wannabe-prince had to defend his territory against some other claimant or a marauding band of thugs. Most of them are many hundreds of years old, and they take the form of drafty stone fortresses, not elegant palaces like were constructed in France and Italy. Most Welsh castles tumbled down long ago, usually due to a siege, but for many enough of the structure remain to evoke images of dragons and damsels and knights in shining armor.
The first castle we visit is mostly in ruins, with no roof and only a few surviving arches and walls. Grass has replaced the floor, and school-aged children run about playing hide and seek. On a pedestal stands an ingenious crank-powered audio box that crackles out short pre-recorded historical docudramas in either Welsh or English. The voices have heavy Welsh accents, and it’s easy to imagine that the voices are actually produced by a little gnome living inside the box.
The second castle we visit, Caerphilly Castle, is awkwardly situated in the middle of the semi-seedy modern town of Caerphilly. “Here’s this amazing historical castle, and it’s sitting in the middle of a Tesco parking lot,” Clive sighs as he parks the car in front of a cheque-cashing place. The castle is much better preserved than the previous one we visited, and it’s possible to climb into the towers and relive the life of a paranoid lord huddling with his family in a drafty stone hall. This place was also partially destroyed in a siege, and now its main tower leans precariously to one side. A sign exclaims proudly that it leans further than the famous tower in Pisa.
As we depart Caerphilly Castle, we notice a wedding party gathering outside of the main hall. The hall itself has been decked out with rayon tapestries embroidered with some lord’s sigil, and a great wooden feasting table has been hauled in, presumably to hold food for the reception. “That’s for a ‘Ye Olde Wedding’,” Dave explains with some irritation. “These old castles are always clotted up with weddings.”
On our final night in Wales, the four of us head into downtown Cardiff. Cardiff isn’t known for its elegance or class, as a quick Google image search on “Cardiff after dark” will reveal. Nevertheless, Cardiff is technically the capital of a European country, and the cash from the EU that accompanies such a designation has given the city quite a boost in recent years. The downtown has been converted into a lovely pedestrian mall filled with haberdasheries, cafés, restaurants, and shops.
We head to the New Theatre for the night’s entertainment. Playing tonight is Jeeves and Wooster, a comedic staging of the exploits of the popular novels (and then TV series) from the 1920 and ‘30s by P. G. Wodehouse. The story follows Wooster, a lovable but vapid aristocrat, and his faithful butler Jeeves, whose intelligence obviously exceeds his master’s, as they navigate an absurd set of inconsequential problems related to stealing an antique porcelain cow creamer. The slapstick British humor is lost on me at first, but by the end I’m giggling along with the rest of the audience as the cast of velvet-clad and clueless marquises and petty lords pettifog over their trivial problems. At intermission, theatre staff swarm the aisles selling little tubs of ice cream, of which nearly everyone partakes—a UK theatre tradition, apparently.
Before heading home for the night, we head to “the bay,” a commercial and entertainment district built around the striking new Welsh parliament building. This being Saturday night, the bars are stuffed with loud young people. In one popular establishment, we spot clusters of drunk people belonging to two bachelorette parties, one stag party, and a birthday party. A woman wearing fluffy angel wings and a clingy black skirt disguised as a belt nearly tumbles off of her heels into the arms of a well-positioned male companion, while in the background some puffed-up boys throw back shots of colourful liquor. It looks like it will be another fun night in Cardiff. I implore you, Google search “Cardiff after dark.” You won’t be disappointed.