Tuesday, March 08, 2005

A Weekend In Wales

Surgeon General's Warning: If you have not eaten recently, it is recommended you do so prior to beginning to read this post, lest you risk perishing by starvation before reaching the end of it.

Translation: This will be a long one.

Well, I have arrived home safe, sound, and slightly more culturally enriched from yet another guided excursion, this time to the neighboring country of Wales (which is snuggled up along the southwest border of England, for those who weren't quite sure). And quite a full adventure it was, too. So full that you might need to digest this recap in several sittings. Therefore I shall commence my description forthwith.

It all began with a train ride to London Thursday night, in order to be present for the departure early Friday morning. And as I was there for the evening anyway, I figured I might as well seize the opportunity for some London theatre, and had thus procured for myself a seat at Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical The Woman In White. Although my seat was up in the nosebleeds and my view was obscured by a number of handrails forcing me to contort in my seat to actually see the actors, the show was quite enjoyable. The set--a mechanized collection of giant curved white walls on which backdrops were projected with impressive technical skill, leaving the stage itself wide open to the actors--was quite well-done, I thought, and the music was fantastic, of course (although you can't help picking out bits which seem pulled straight from some of his previous shows, but I suppose that's unavoidable).

The plot, which focused on a pair of sisters (a pretty one and an "ugly" (read, she has brown hair (gasp!) and is tall (no, that too?!?)) one) both in love with a young artist (guess which one he falls for) but the pretty one has promised to marry this rich guy who turns out to be a jerk, which they would have known if only they had listened to the ethereal Woman In White who's been floating around the whole play warning them (and who happens to be the spitting image of the pretty sister). Don't worry, the ugly sister gets her moment of romance (art-boy falls for her eventually, once her sister's been pushed out of the picture and she puts on a revealing enough dress), although it doesn't last long before she's forced to give him up again. Hm, sorry, is my cynicism towards shallow appearance-based romance showing through? Really, though, other than that, it was a really good show.

After the play, I headed on to a nearby youth hostel to spend the night before heading out early the next morning to meet my fellow tourists. There ended up being 26 of us, all told, boarding the coach and heading off to the land of the red dragon. On the way, we passed through Windsor, and right by Runnymede (the field where the Magna Carta was signed).

We crossed over the River Seven on the longest bridge in the UK, and headed to our first stop: Caerleon, site of a number of Roman ruins from the days when the Empire stretched this far north. We saw the remains of an old ampitheatre as well as the only remains of Roman barracks in all Europe. There was also a Roman Legionnaire Museum with various bits of armor and other artifacts. Unfortunately, we only had an hour to take all this in before it was off to our next destination of the day: Caerphilly castle (the second biggest castle in Britain, after Windsor). The castle was pretty neat, and quite well intact. Very castle-y. Then we had some time to wander around the town, and I took the opportunity to buy some of the local, apparently famous Caerphilly cheese (a crumbly, feta-like cheese which turned out to be quite tasty) and have a soundly British dinner of fish and chips.

That night we stayed in a hotel in Cardiff (the capital city). The next morning we went, first, to the National Museum of Welsh Life, an outdoor museum consisting of thirty-some houses and other structures built across Britain at various points in history and reconstructed stone by stone on the site. So you could wander around from house to house, see the furniture of the times, ask questions of the museum representatives sitting in front of the various fires, and generally get a feel for life in different kinds of houses in various centuries. I thought this was a very neat form of museum indeed, and with good old Walter Lowrie (my Roots of Western Expression professor)'s encouragement to "Use your historical imagination!" echoing in my mind, I found myself delving deeply into the life experiences of my British ancestry. My favorite places were the tiny Unitarian chapel from 1777, the one-room schoolhouse from 1880, the recreated Celtic village, and the row of 6 iron worker's houses each decorated in the style of a different year from 1805-1985 leading you in a time-travelling journey from one to the next.

After that we were taken to Brecon Beacon National Park for a glorious walk through the countryside, past a number of waterfalls and quite a few herds of mostly friendly sheep. Quite stunningly beautiful--the pictures can't hope to do it justice, of course. That night we stayed in an environmental study center in Abergavenny, which was quite nice, actually. We were dropped off around 7 and left to our own devices, so I, having seen a sign for a theatre as we drove through the town, decided to venture out to see if I could locate it and take in a local show. Which I did manage, in fact, to do. They were playing Orpheus In The Underworld, a rather racy (at times) and slightly cheesy modern musical version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which was a glorious bit of amateur community theatre which was quite impressive, actually, for what it was. And always a fun experience, not only watching the play, but watching the local regulars who see every show and know the actors and get all the inside jokes they've scattered throughout the script.

The next morning we started off at the Big Pit National Mining Museum (or Pwll Mawr, as it is in Welsh--w is a vowel over there (makes sense, if you think about the name, really) which makes for some disconcerting-looking words), with a tour of an old coal mine. The most interesting part of that, besides being amazed and disturbed by the cramped, dangerous, and otherwise generally unpleasant working conditions, was the rant our tourguide (an ex-miner) went off on about what a stupid idea it had been to close down the mines, and how they'll just have to open them up again when they run out of other energy sources, which will happen any time now. Amazing how he can stick those sentiments in between telling us how hard the work was and how many terrible ways one could die in the mine shafts.

After lunch back in Abergavenny, we headed off to our final stop of the trip--Tintern Abbey, the now-abandoned Cistercian monastery made famous in the title of Wordsworth's poem (Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey). It was destroyed by marauding Protestants (the cathedral, not the poem), so the roof is gone, the statues have been removed, the stained glass smashed out of the windows, many of the stones carried away for other uses, and grass now covers the floors. Basically, all that remains is the hollowed shell of the chapel, being slowly but surely reclaimed by its surroundings. Except, of course, for the nearby giftshop! Once again, we had only an hour to enjoy the peace, solitude, and beauty of the ruins, which barely gave me the time to compose my own poetic response to the atmosphere--admittedly rushed and a bit stilted, but nonetheless, I thought, as good a way as any to enjoy the time there. I include my poem below, hoping it won't be judged too harshly, as I did have to make sure to be back on the bus in time to avoid spending the rest of my days amidst the crumbling stones.

Lines Composed Inside Tintern Abbey

Nature, sprung directly from God's hand
This man-made stone creation doth reclaim;
For all its soaring pillars, proved less grand
Than He for whom 'twas made's eternal name.

Now glass no longer hinders the sun's glints
Through pointed arches upwards racing, filled
No more in second-handed human tints,
But by Creation, dipped in sunset's gild.

A roof no longer blocks the soul's ascent,
But shining Heaven pours in from above,
And on the breeze which through the church doth vent
Soar winged messengers of God's Natural love.

For men move on, religious tables turn,
One order waxes as another wanes,
But from these stony ruins may we learn
That in all times and places, God remains.

Not Wordsworth, but hey. Anyway, after the Abbey, it was time to head home again to Londontown. We arrived there around 8pm, and I began the final portion of my adventure--getting back to campus. Which proved a more harrowing process than was absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, the underground line I needed wasn't in operation for the evening, so I had to take a rather more roundabout route to Victoria station. Once I arrived, I was unable to find the scheduled 20:32 train to Brighton on the display board, realizing just a minute too late that the 20:32 to Hayward's Heath was the train I in fact wanted, as all trains from Hayward's Heath to Brighton had been suspended and temporarily replaced with a bus service. I then settled in for the hour's wait for the 21:32 to Hayward's Heath, but before the proper platform was displayed I noticed Brighton up on the board as the destination of the front four cars of the 21:17 slow train, and decided to take my chances with that. After some confusion regarding which cars were the "front four", I managed to find a car announcing Brighton as its destination on the scrolling marquis above the door. A moment later, just as the train pulled away from the station, however, the announcement suddenly changed to a different destination entirely. Concerned, I traversed the train in search of a car still headed for Brighton, but was unable to find one. I did manage to band together with several others also aimed towards Brighton, and after some conference amongst ourselves and with an attendant a few stops down the line, decided to wait there for the aproaching Hayward's Heath-bound train, which, we were assured, would get us there quicker.

The rest of the journey was pretty long but uneventful--we managed to switch trains, and then locate the desired direct bus to Brighton, and, from there, there was fortunately a train running into Falmer. So four hours later, at midnight, I finally dragged myself across campus and home for the weekend after a journey very nearly as long and arduous as this story, having reminded myself many a time that, as I learned with my bus adventure a few weeks ago, travel troubles in a foreign land are not an inconvenience, they're a valuable cultural experience.

My goodness, now it's late and I must be off to bed. The posting of the photos, thus, will have to wait for another day. So do check back for those. In the meantime, I hope all is well, and that you have enjoyed this painstakingly detailed recounting. My congratulations to you for emerging in however many pieces you currently find yourself to be.

Post Script: Photos have now been posted and can be accessed by clicking on My Photos link on the right-hand sidebar.


Blogger Dad said...

Great pictures and poem. Dad, Nana & Boppa
We will try to call Thursday am at around 4:15 your time if you are around.

7:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wordsworth himself would, I'm sure, be most honored by your beautiful poem. It captures the feeling of the place perfectly. (Worth in fewer words.)

1:19 AM  
Blogger GrandpaFred said...

What a grand recounting of your trip to Wales! Doncha just love the signs in Welch in the train stations? The first time I "trained" into Wales was late in the day and when we got off at what I was assured was the correct stop, there was this sign in what seemed and endless parade of consonants, in a language that mystified! In any event, we got where we were supposed to go as well. I loved reading about your adventures on the trains; it brought back old memories...
The poem was superb! Encore! Brava!
Now to the pictures. I shall pine for England's majesty anon.

2:20 AM  

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