Monday, August 29, 2022

The Beatles and The Stones

I thought I would share with you a little more on our trip to Wales.  A couple of things Wales has in abundance: stone and sheep.  The crumbling old farm building pictured above, was only a minute's walk from our front door and in this corner of North Wales, sharing your garden with sheep is not uncommon.

I must give a timely shout out to our faithful VW old "new" Beetle, that somehow continues to serve the needs of two six foot plus males, an adult female and a week's worth of luggage in transporting us here.  Not for us the gas guzzling people carriers or cars on steroids as I think of them.  No, when we holiday, we'd rather squeeze almost everything we own into a two door car shaped like an insect and sit with our knees raised up to our ears!  

Before anyone points out the titular spelling error, there will be reference to one of the Mersey Beat pioneers coming up, but I digress.  It transpires that the bug is very adept at making small items disappear.  On the third morning of our holiday in Wales, we managed to lose the sacred front door key, after forgetting rule number 1, which was to leave it in the key safe upon leaving the property.  Luckily, our son had stayed behind for a couple of hours (inexplicably he didn't fancy accompanying me to an old graveyard) and was able to let us back into the property.  

Not much to report on the 19th century church incidentally.  It is no longer used for worship, the stone signage indicating the new occupant's business there.  

The building is now being used as an artist and sculptor's workshop and was cordoned off to the public.

Back to reality, a frantic couple of hours passed as we hunted high and low - the pressure and our heart rates increasing ever so slightly when, in the midst of this search, the owner emailed to check if everything was OK.  Finally, after retracing our steps around the graveyard and after the forty third check of the car's interior, Gareth found the key lodged between the driver's seat and the seatbelt.  Phew!

Here are some village views and glimpses of the hills surrounding our valley.  Everywhere you look, the land is divided by stone walls and many of the older buildings are made from what is known as "rubble stone."

However, perhaps the most impressive local stone building was Conwy Castle, a mere 15 minute drive away and an exceptionally well preserved medieval castle fortress.  Built by architect Master James of St George at the bidding of Edward I in a staggering 4 years between 1283 and 1287, the cost of the build was an eye watering £15,000.  Here's our first glimpse, as photographed through the windscreen.

The 13th century castle walls encapsulate the town and accordingly, you are never more than a few steps away from a view of the castle walls.

I'm really not good with heights and as the entry fee principally invites access to the castle's numerous towers, it would be entirely wasted on me.  Instead, we opted to separate.  The two boys elected to walk the castle walls around the town, as I stalked them through the streets with my camera.  For the record, I did try.  I got as far as the top of the first level of rusty iron access steps before spotting this rather nervous looking dove sheltering in the castle wall.  A kindred spirit?  As the steps felt a little creaky and wobbly and had gaps between them (another big negative for me), I swiftly descended to the safety of the street.

As I did so, I spotted this crucifixion statue outside St Michael's Catholic Church, just as the afternoon sun passed over, rewarding me with this glorious sunburst.  

This marble tablet, depicting the two Marys and created by G. Rinvolucri, is one of twelve adorning the town walls.

Dating back to the mid twentieth century, Rinvolucri was an Italian architect who came to Wales originally as a prisoner of war.  He lived and worked in the Conwy area and designed several Roman Catholic churches in the area.  The aforementioned church was built in the inter-war period as it is not shown on the 1913 Ordnance Survey.  None of the sculptures is signed or dated, but all have dedications.  

The work is Grade II listed for its special interest as a fine mid 20th century devotional sculpture forming the focus of the group of distinctive tablets, all of exceptional quality, on the medieval town walls.

Mercifully, I made the right call in not joining the boys on the town walls and instead, stalking them with my camera through the Conwy streets.  

The consensus was that the walk was, in parts, "terrifying" with the safety barriers next to useless and very easy to topple over.

In complete contrast, we opted to visit the coastal town of Llandudno, situated on the Creudynn Peninsula pushing out into the Irish Sea.  It takes its name from the town's saint, St Tudno. 

Llandudno epitomises British seaside resorts and just about ticks every seaside tradition and is perhaps a quieter, more sedate, slightly old fashioned choice of destination as opposed to somewhere like Brighton for example.

Saint Tudno is said to have been one of the seven sons of King Seithenyn, whose legendary kingdom, Cantref y Gwaelod in Cardigan Bay, was submerged by tidal activity.  According to the theory, Tudno studied at St Dunawd's college in the monastery of Bangor Iscoed, in order to make recompense for the drunken incompetence of his father, which had led to the loss of the kingdom under the waves.

As the story goes, Tudno headed to the great limestone outcrop jutting from the peninsula, known as the Great Orme... bring Christianity to its people.  Tudno originally lived as a hermit in a cave, utilising a nearby spring, before building up his church from there.  Nothing remains of the original 6th century church, but its 12th century replacement, named after Tudno, still stands today...

...with its spectacular adjoining Great Orme Cemetery and imposing headstones, which opened in 1903.

This extensive off shore wind farm in the Irish Sea, was visible on the horizon from the cemetery site.

Much of the town as we know it today came into being in the Victorian era.  The Great Orme itself, standing at 207 metres tall, is home to several large herds of wild Kashmiri goats, descendants of a pair given by Queen Victoria to Lord Mostyn.  

Now, if I thought for one second that Llandudno is an adrenalin-free zone, I swiftly revised that opinion on our drive up and around the Great Orme, taking the dramatic toll road.  The stop and start nature of our ascent was particularly hair-raising and a fully functioning hand brake was essential when giving way to The Great Orme Tramway, which also services the route to the summit.

For those who want to go even higher, there is a cable car option for the return trip.  As you might expect, I was quite happy to photograph these from ground level.

The views winding our way back around the toll road into town were spectacular.

Copper mining, fishing and agriculture were the town's principal sources of employment, but these days, Llandudno is a traditional coastal tourist "fun town".  From slapstick puppet Punch and Judy shows (which have 16th century Italian origins and have remained popular on these shores)... the 700 m long Grade II listed pier (the longest in Wales),

complete with amusement arcade, fun fair, ferris wheel...

...souvenir stalls, cafes and eateries.

This scene on Llandudno's sea front, photographed from the pier on our trip, must lurk in countless photo albums from decades gone by.  Unusually for me, I over exposed it slightly and added a little grain in the edit, to capture that simultaneously timeless and time faded feel.

On the sea front, there were abandoned pushchairs as parents and children revelled with wild abandon, in the unprecedented warm Welsh sunshine, skimmed stones and paddled in the sea.

All life is here.  

Back in town, that other famous "Beatle" - a gilded John Lennon, was spotted posing with tourists, alongside his wife, Yoko.

A girl was making her way through a cloud of bubbles....

...and in the summer of 2022, locals eschewed summer getaways in favour of a staycation.

But soon, the party (and summer) will be over.  This lady already has her mind focused on the impending cost of living crisis.

But before all that, there's still time to linger in sunny season a little longer.  I'll endeavour to conclude the Welsh travelogue next week.  I can't promise there won't be another church.  For an atheist, I do seem to spend a lot of time frequenting old churches and graveyards, but trust me, this one's special.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Fiery Red Dragon

 After almost a year without a break, our trip across the border into North Wales could not have come a moment too soon.  With the UK heatwave dominating the forecast for weeks, the weather looked set to turn for us with a weather warning of storms accompanying each day's forecast for the area around Conwy.  Not that we cared.  There's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes as the saying goes.

With a late check in time, we made an unscheduled visit to the National Trust managed Chirk Castle, when a road diversion took us almost to the castle entrance.  Serendipity!  A medieval Marcher fortress on the Welsh-English border constructed by Roger Mortimer de Chirk in the late 13th century under the instruction of Edward I, Chirk Castle is one of a chain of fortresses surrounding North Wales.

I confess, as much as I was enjoying the novelty of rain free conditions on the Welsh border, the teen amongst us was a little hot and bothered that day and keen to reach our destination.  So I apologise if my documenting of this visit is a little short on info.  Hopefully, I captured a sense of the place and some interesting details.

Here's the entrance to the 18th century dovecote, which was relocated at some point in its history, to a more favourable location.  Gareth joked on our way out that it had been moved a couple of inches to the left during our visit.

Sweet peas in the kitchen garden.

The family coat of arms including the notorious "red hand of Chirk."  Appearing on the family coat of arms for four generations, the red hand is, in all likelihood, symbolic of a baronetcy and its origins can be traced back to King James I.  However, I prefer the more creative explanation still spoken of today.

A long, long time ago, the Lord of Chirk Castle was facing a difficult decision.  Which of his twin boys (physically identical) should inherit the castle and estate?  Summoning both to his chamber and explaining his dilemma, he was relieved to learn that the boys were one step ahead.  The boys proposed that the best way to resolve the issue would be to race for it - from the portcullis to the lake, the winner being the first to put his hand across the winning tape.  The loser would leave for good.

Of course, as tall tales tend to go, one boy was very, very good (patient, gentle, popular) and the other was horrid (bad tempered, devious and selfish).  You can guess which brother the servants were rooting for on the day of the race as they all gathered to witness this historic moment.  

When the race started, the popular brother pulled ahead, but as they approached the lake, the bad egg, now trailing by a few yards, drew his sword, hacked off his own hand and threw it over the winning tape.  Sadly, that's where the story ends.  No one knows the result of these bizarre events and whether the Lord allowed this unconventional victory to stand, further adding to its implausibility.

Fanciful stories aside, we headed inside.  I always love the way the sunlight filters in through old windows, casting long shadows.  

The interior lighting was suitably baronial.

I would happily take the red room!

As we headed down towards the old chapel, this was my first glimpse of 1920s era chapel splendour.  What a stunning space!  I can see why Thomas Scot-Ellis (8th Lord Howard de Walden) fell in love with it in 1910 and turned it into a 20th century party pad for himself and his wife, the soprano, Margherita van Raalte.  I'm afraid you'll have to use your imagination now, because it swiftly became impossible to photograph any more given the hoards of tourists present on the day of our visit.

Tommy was a busy man though, his personal interests listed as writing plays, operas, commissioning flying machines, working with radio, Welsh theatre, falconry, fencing, art and literature.  He was also a big spender and had made a handsome offer for Chirk Castle, but ultimately had to settle for a lease.  That said, he still spent significant sums of money bringing the infrastructure into the twentieth century to realise his ambitious entertaining dreams.  

Unsurprisingly, Tommy loved all things medieval and staged jousts at the castle.  Naturally he required his own suit of armour, which he had designed by the armourer Joubert.  The artist Augustus John told of arriving at the castle to discover Tommy sitting in full armour in a Billiard Room armchair.

The guest book read like a who's who of early twentieth century celebrities.  Leafing through, I spotted the signature of Rudyard Kipling for example, who allegedly used to stay at Chirk with his wife in order to visit the Llangollen sheep dog trials.  The parties were legendary and somehow the music and frivolity the visitors must have enjoyed during Tommy's tenure, echoed through the walls of the chapel.

Here's the Irish artist, Sir John Lavery's painting of the family at Chirk.

Outside, Chirk Castle's 480 acre estate demanded time and cooler conditions, neither of which we had.  The gap in the trees on the hillside above the formal gardens, glimpsed through the hessian blinds, was about as far as we wandered.

I did capture a couple of the grounds' permanent residents though....Lucchesi's Bronze Nymph clutching a bunch of lilies, symbolising virginity and purity....

...and Hercules, commissioned in the 1720s and originally positioned at the castle entrance before being moved to his elevated castle vantage point.

So there, in a nutshell, is my very limited knowledge of our relatively fleeting visit to Chirk, but I love a reason to return!

As we travelled along the old Roman road (the A5, which runs diagonally across Britain from Anglesey in north-west Wales to Dover in south-east England), the scenery flanking the road sides grew ever taller, greener and tree lined...

but if you're ever in any doubt that you've arrived in Wales, the bilingual road signs are often the first clue, invariably followed by sightings of the Welsh flag, featuring the red dragon.

The Welsh kings of Aberffraw first adopted the dragon in the early 5th century in order to symbolise their power and authority after the Romans withdrew from Britain and on Saturday 13th August, we experienced the heat of the dragon's breath.  It's not customary to expect good weather in Wales, but we certainly received a warm welcome at our destination on Saturday in every sense; blistering sunshine, not even the whisper of a breeze, clear skies and a holiday cottage purpose built for me.  

Pen-y-Bont is a detached thick stone walled cottage dating back to the 16th century (the oldest building in this Conwy Valley village), accessed by a footbridge over a babbling brook...

...or via a series of stepping stones.

Here I am outside (photo from later in the week), looking around 4 inches tall and breaking all the fashion rules in double denim with style sinner walking shoes.

So far, so idyllic.  But the fun didn't stop there.  The cottage was 20 seconds' walk away from the charming Ty Gwyn Hotel and - be still my beating heart - no more than 20 paces away from an abandoned graveyard, nestling within a glade next to the stream.

Inside, we immediately put the wine from our generous welcome pack left by Paul, the owner, to chill, unpacked and soaked up the sun and the smell of the numerous roses surrounding the cottage.

After a good night's sleep, I woke early on Sunday morning and, a little bleary eyed, headed straight outside into bright sunshine - still in my nightie (Dilli Grey) - to paddle in the stream, thinking I had found my happy place and enjoying the warming fiery breath of the Welsh dragon on my skin.

Shortly after, and fully clothed, I met local gent Ken, a lifelong village resident who was keen to show me the Grade 2 listed Seion Chapel just up the hill from our cottage.  

Built in 1841, the chapel contained an exhibition on the growth of Nonconformism and photos and descriptions of the lives of the local community in the early 20th century.  

Ken, however, had other ideas.  He fired (friendly fire) a million questions at me:  Had I visited before?  How long would I be here?  Did I believe?  What did I do?  Hobbies and interests?  Was I on the internet?  Did I live in a multi cultural community?  Could I identify him from a school photo on display in the chapel?  Could I pick out the village's other famous former resident, Paula Yates (Punk Princess, author, former wife of Bob Geldof, former girlfriend of Michael Hutchence) from her school photo - also on display?  

I managed to get a couple of shots of the ceiling roses, typical of chapels of this era...

... and the view from one of the windows...

...all the time fielding questions from Ken.

Did I live in Birmingham?  It was at this point I tried to explain that Birmingham and the Black Country were not one and the same. However, I think this fell on deaf ears. I tried naming a few of our own famous local heroes, but he had never heard of Led Zeppelin, telling me he was more of a male Welsh voice choir man. He resumed his questioning. Parents still alive?  Would I sign the visitors book?  He then willingly posed for a photo before issuing me with a list of places to visit, kissing me on the cheek and wishing me a lovely holiday.

I left the chapel that morning a little stunned, quite exhausted, but chuckling to myself and armed with a plan of action.

See you soon for more Welsh tales.

North Country Girl

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