25 April 2003

A Welsh Week

I fear I have slacked somewhat, having been back in Manchester for almost thirty-six hours without typing anything new here. It's not as if I haven't been online or anything.

Wee Welsh, or Tiny Taffies
It would appear that the Welsh are, in the main, a rather short race. That may not be a particularly profound observation, but it struck me twice while I was there.

The first occasion was at Mass with Dad on Easter Sunday, when it dawned upon me that I was the tallest person in the congregation. Being a resolutely average five foot ten inches, I could be considered tall in very few gatherings. The Mass, while I'm on the subject, was a pretty haphazard affair. The boney and rather jovial priest had candles given out to all those present, and seemed to sing at random throughout the ceremony. This sort of thing annoys me. I tend to think that if you're going to have rituals then go the whole hog and have a full-blown Latin Mass. If, on the other hand, you're going to trim away whatever's unnecessary, then do so, but do it properly. This Vatican One-and-a-half nonsense just annoyed me.

On Monday I was again struck by the apparent shortness of the Welsh. While visiting the slate mines at Llechwedd, which, should you care to exercise your tongue, is pronounced something like 'thLechhooeth', I must have hit my head off the roof at least eight times. It was most embarrassing, not to mention frustrating. The mines were fascinating, and one cavern, housing a sizeable lake, was particularly eerie. I've read that that cavern was used as a location for the Disney film of The Black Cauldron; this seems unlikely, since the film was animated rather than live-action, but I suspect that it may well have been sketched by Disney artists who would then have used it as the basis for some backgrounds.

Shaggy Dog Stories
I had headed off to Wales on Saturday morning, and was met by my Dad at Bangor's train station. It had cost only £14.65 for a return trip to Bangor from Manchester - Bargain. Mam, Dad, and myself set off in the car for Harlech, where my sister had hired a house for the week.

Leaving Bangor we passed by the old Roman auxiliary fort of Saguntium, easily identifiable by being, as Eddie Izzard would say, a series of small walls. We carried on along a stretch of road that supposedly followed the old and oddly crooked Roman road. Evidently the Romans had decided that the A487, the main road through Caernarvon to Portmadog, was far too busy and cluttered, and instead decided to cut through the mountains.

We had lunch at the beautiful village of Beddgelert, first going to see Gelert's grave. I'd heard his tale as a child, and had deeply upset me then. My dad said that he'd read it when he himself was a child, and it had quite distressed him.

Gelert was a great hunting dog belonging to the thirteenth century Welsh prince, Llewelyn the Great. One day the prince went hunting, leaving the hound behind to guard Llewelyn's infant son. When the prince returned from the hunt the dog eagerly ran out to meet him, and Llewelyn was horrified to see Gelert covered in blood. He rushed into the lodge to see the everything torn asunder, with the cradle overturned and blood everywhere. Horrified, he turned on the dog, drew his sword, and stabbed Gelert, believing that he had killed the child. Only then did he approach the cradle to find the child safe and well, lying beneath the cradle next to the dead body of a wolf. Gelert had clearly slain the wolf to protect the child, and indeed, had been wounded himself in doing so. Llewelyn, it is said, was so distraught by what he had done that he never smiled for the rest of his life, and had the site of the dog's death named Beddgelert, raising a great rock to mark his grave.

While I stood at the grave it struck me that this story was almost certainly a Victorian fiction. I hadn't thought about it since I was a child, but looking at the grave, and the tourist industry that has grown up around it, I couldn't help but be suspicious. Call me a cynic.

So I did some reading when I got to Harlech, and found that the tale appears to date from no earlier than 1798, when a a canny publican, David Pritchard, either invented the story or imported it from elsewhere, and had a big stone put in a field not far from the Goat Hotel, which he owned, claiming that this stone marked Gelert's grave.


Men on Harlech in the hollow...
Looming over Harlech, on a great rocky crag, is Harlech castle, a stunning and defiant fortress looking out over the sea. In the fourteenth century the garrison of Harlech, led by Dafydd ap Ivan, held out for several months against Yorkist troops. It is said that when the Lancastrian garrison was asked to surrender, Dafydd proudly replied, 'I have held a castle in France until every old woman in Wales heard of it, and I will hold a castle in Wales until every old woman in France hears of it!' 

They continued to hold out, evntually being starved into submission, but only after the defenders had been promised a pardon. The King tried to go back on his word afterward, but his own commander threatened to replace the garrison himself and renew the siege if the pardon was not granted.

Or so I hear.

The castle was in plain view from the kitchen window and the door of our house, which was perfectly located, with the gorgeous and enormous beach and sand dunes lying just behind us, across the railway track. The town was admittedly a bit of a hike, being quite high above us, but I got used to the steep climb; it reminded me of Siena, Assisi, or Cortona in that regard. Just behind the town were beautiful woodlands, while below the castle law a large flat fertile plain, which had evidently once been the sea bed.

I went for a walk in the woods on Sunday morning after mass, climbing down the 'zigzag' path to the railway track, which I followed back to the house, and that afternoon visited the castle. Inside it members of reenactment society were demonstrating medieval archery techniques and bashing each other with swords and maces. Apparently they don't choreograph their fighting, which strikes me as perhaps just a tad risky; the many dents in their helmets testified to this.

I climbed the spiral staircases to the battlements with surprising ease, perhaps because there was a rope bannister, held in place by metal clips in the wall, giving me something to hold on to. I have a thing about spiral stairways. I don't think I'm actually scared of heights, as such, rather of heights where there's a good chance of me falling to a rather nasty death. Spiral staircases seem to invite that. The stairway in Berlin's Siegesaule is one of the worst in this regard, but the worst of them all is the bell tower of Florence Cathedral. It's between six and seven hundred years old, worn shiny smooth and slippy from countless thousands of feet, and lacking in any form of hand holds. I climbed that, slowly, back in the summer of 1997, with a cold sweat on my forehead and trying to clutch the smooth wall for support. It was worth it for the view, as I knew it would be, but I don't think I'll be doing that again.

The view from Harlech Castle's battlements was fantastic, especially looking north towards Snowdon. Unfortunately, being up on the battlements was quite nerve-wracking. It was extremely blustery, and it didn't feel all that safe being up on the ramparts, especially since the parapet was usually barely above knee high. It would have been quite a drop had I fallen. Suffice to say that I would not be typing now. My nervousness must have been quite obvious.

One woman smiled while passing me and asked 'Not good with heights?'

'No,' I replied, 'You might say that.'

An eye like Mars, to threaten and command...
I had some trouble with the TV schedules while there, mainly because S4C, the Welsh Channel Four, has quite different programming to Channel Four proper. My Mam was a bit put out when she expected The West Wing to be on one night, and I pointed out that that was only in England. It turned out that S4C was showing it the following evening though, so I managed to see it when everyone else had drifted off the bed. I'd seen it before, as it happens. Channel 4 is a full season behind RTE.

On Monday evening we all watched 'Major Fraud', the ITV documentary about how Major Charles Ingram conspired with his wife and a Welsh lecturer called Teflyn Whittock to use a coughing code to cheat and win the grand prize in 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?'. It was highly entertaining, but what really struck me is how useless the Major must actually have been when in the army.

'Sir, what do we do?'
'Well, we could attack, or attempt to negotiate with them. Or we could just dig in. That's probably the thing to do. I've never heard of radioing for support.'
'No, I still think we should probably dig in. Or attack. Or maybe negotiate. That sounds like a good idea'
'Are you sure?'
'I've never heard of asking for support...' (Cough) 'I'm fairly sure we should either attack or negotiate...'
'So which is it to be?'
'Well, I think we should probably attack.' (Cough - NO! - Cough)
'Is that your final decision?'
'Well, like I've said, I've never heard of asking for support-' (COUGH!) '-so that's what I'm going to do.'
'Yes. I'm going to go for that. I'm going to ask for support.'
'You're not going to attack?'
'No. I'm going to ask for support.'
'Even though you've never heard of doing that before?'
'Yes. Definitely.'

A man to inspire confidence in the field, what? I bet you'd follow him to Hell and back.

Fire on the Mountain shall find the harp of gold...
On Tuesday I went out to Dolgellau with Mam and Dad. After lunch Dad drove me around the eastern slopes of Cader Idris, and as we neared the northern shores of Tal y Llyn, a rather beautiful lake and the site of the finale of The Grey King, I got out and started walking. My plan was finally to see places that I'd read about and been enchanted by the thought of as a child.

I walked the length of the lake, around its southern tip, and then further along the valley, after a couple of miles turning right along a winding lane that led me over a pass into the adjoining Dysynni valley.

The Dysynni valley is beautiful, a level green and gold plain, surrounded at flanks and rear by high mountains and gently leading down to the sea by Tywyn, from where I was due to catch a train to Barmouth a few hours later. There are very few interruptions to the flatness of the valley, but one striking one lay a mile or so north of where I entered the valley, so I set out in that direction.

Castel y Bere is a thirteenth century castle, built by Llewelyn, apparently, around 1220, and taken by the English around 1280. They extended the castle greatly, but it fell again when the Welsh rose up a few years later; after that it was left to nature to break it down. Situated on a rocky and heavily wooded hill, the castle appears to grow directly out of the rock, with its thick broken walls and pretty grassy courtyards. It's well worth a visit if you're ever in the area.

As I emerged from the woods towards the castle I was spotted by a young boy, brandishing a plastic sword and shouting 'I can see you, Sir Knight!' No sooner had he uttered the words he realised that I was not who he thought I was, and ran away.

I met his father shortly afterwards, a fellow named Will who was originally from the area but now lived in Somerset with his wife Fiona. He seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the castle, which is hardly surprising, since as a child his mother would regularly leave him there with his friends for the day, and he grew up playing in the ruins and the woods, hearing stories and reading about the place.

After spending a couple of hours relaxing in the castle, clambering about, chatting, and admiring the views, I returned back to the path and continued towards Tywyn.

I soon reached the crossroads where I had initially turned right towards the castle. The map indicated that a standing stone should have been there, but it took me some time to find it, concealed as it was behind a hedge, and with the rusty hinges of an even rustier gate embedded in it. This doesn't strike me as a wholly appropriate way to treat prehistoric monuments, however humble.

Another mile or so along I came to the massive rocky outcrop that is Craig y Aderyn, the Bird Rock. This is the only place in Britain where cormorants nest inland, albeit only four miles from the sea. I'd never seen them before, and didn't realise quite how big they were. In a more nostalgic vein, Craig y Aderyn is also the place in The Grey King where Will and Bran find the Harp of Gold.

It was quite a painful journey to Bryncrug, as my legs started to play up. I have bad knees, and a tendency to forget to take my glucosamine supplements for them, despite one of my friends having gone so far as to buy some for me at one point. Anyway, by the time I reached Bryncrug, a tiny village, it was hitting seven and I had a further two miles to go before I got to Tywyn, from where my train was due to leave for Barmouth at 7:31. Normally this wouldn't have been a problem, but with every step feeling like a small explosion in my knee, this was going to be difficult.

In agony I rushed to Tywyn, and then limped painfully through the town as fast as I could, ignoring the church that houses the oldest extant bit of written Welsh, which is mentioned in one of Susan Cooper's books, and made it to the station at 7:33. I gave thanks for the inneficiency of British railways and dragged my tortured legs up the hill to the station and then boarded the train, sagging in exhaustion into a seat to wait for someone to sell me a ticket. The doors closed, and the train started to move.

The wrong way.

I sighed with resignation and dug about in my bag for the timetable. Yes, the 7:31 for Barmouth had already gone, it appeared, as it was scheduled to do. I was clearly on the 7:34 to Machynlleth, where, if I wanted, I could get off and change to go to Birmingham. Feeling that would be rather off my planned route, I paid 35p and got off in Aberdyfi, where, incidentally Silver on the Tree begins. This was, if you'll pardon the expression, a bit of a silver lining. 

I had two hours to kill, so wandered about futiley looking for an open newsagent, then sat in the Dovey Inn, where I had a pint of bitter and a very welcome bowl of soup, before heading off to get a train direct to Harlech.

My right knee has almost recovered.

Back for Good
I came back to Manchester on Wednesday afternoon, Dad having brought me as far as Porthmadog. I got a bus to Bangor from there, and then a train to Manchester. God alone knows when I'll get away again. I have a lot of work ahead of me in the next while, so I might not get a chance to get out of here again until June, when I have weddings to attend. We'll see.

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