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Saturday, 01 July 2017

Exploring Wales and England through the Eyes of Friends

Written by Dale Fehringer
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Welcome to Wales


“Croeso i Gymru” Richard said as he met us at the train station in Newport – “that’s Welsh for welcome to Wales!” We had just dragged our luggage off the train from London and we must have looked weary. But he and his wife Linda greeted us, put our luggage in the boot of their car, and drove us to their cute little stone house in the town of Monmouth. We settled in, met their part-time cat, Gizzy, (who belongs to a neighbor, but hangs out at their house) and toasted each other with a drink. How was London, they asked? Our answer was effusive: London is a marvelous place to spend a few days, and we had made good use of our time. Seeing a play, touring Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum, riding the “tube,” eating fish and chips and Indian food, and strolling through Hyde Park had given us a taste of what the city offers. And now we wanted to explore Wales, the “Land of Song.”


Seeing a new land through the eyes of friends provides a unique level of experience. Richard and Linda are friends (we met on a trip), and they are natives of Wales. Locals know the backroads, and they can show visitors places and things typical tourists could never find. They were perfect hosts – singing Welsh songs, showing us around their country, explaining the history, and telling us about the various groups that have inhabited this verdant land. They took us for hikes on lush, green hills, showed us castles and churches hundreds of years old, and led us down narrow, cobblestone streets. Neighbors stopped to chat with us, partly because we were with locals, but also because they are wired that way.

Wales Countryside


Richard used to play rugby, and he wanted to take us to a game, so we drove to the city of Llanelli in west Wales, over the Shropshire Hills – stopping at castles, photographing valleys, and enjoying lunch in an ancient abbey. When we arrived at the stadium the excitement was building and fans from both teams (the Scarlets and the Ospreys) were milling around, dressed in team gear and sipping large glasses of beer. Our hosts tried to explain the rules to us, and we could see some resemblance to American football. The ball is leather, for example, and it is passed between players and occasionally kicked. But that’s where the similarities end. The players wear no padding or helmets, yet they tackled each other and engaged in mass huddles called scrums that made us a little nervous. There was excitement when a team scored and the fans stood, cheered, and sang in Welsh. When the game ended, players from both teams congratulated and hugged each other, and Richard said they would likely go out together for drinks. On the drive home, Richard and Linda pointed out several sites where coal mines and steel factories used to operate; most are now closed, and Welsh people are adjusting to other occupations.


The next day was sunny, and we took a scenic hike up the hills behind their house. The fields were ablaze in color: yellow rape seed, blooming bluebells, and fragrant wild garlic. Sheep grazed on the hills, and tidy farm houses were surrounded by stone fences and wooden outbuildings. The hilltops offered sweeping views of valleys and towns, a natural beauty that the Welsh love and most tourists don’t get to see.

Bluebells


We hated to leave our Welsh refuge, but our hosts were going to a family gathering in Spain, so we had a farewell breakfast and headed to a car rental agency, where we nervously sat behind the wheel of a right-hand drive car. Off we went to England.

 



Steer Clear of the Yanks!


Driving in England is an adventure for Americans! The steering wheel is on the right, cars drive on the left, and there are numerous roundabouts to be negotiated. We constantly reminded each other to “stay to the left,” and hoped the other drivers would be patient. Over the river, into England, and on to the Cotswolds we drove, watching the terrain turn to grass-covered hills and small villages of golden colored stone buildings. We passed through quaint and pastoral towns with names like Bourton-on-the-Water, Broadway, Chipping Norton, and Stow-on-the-Wold, and stayed overnight in the medieval town of Burford, drinking ale in a pub, eating Indian food in a small restaurant, and strolling down the main street, exchanging greetings with everyone we passed.
We stopped in Oxford, home of the oldest university in the English-speaking world, and climbed up the tower of University Church of St. Mary to get a glimpse of the expanse of the university. The sense of history, scholastic atmosphere, and diversity of students was inspiring.


Onward we drove, gradually getting used to driving in the left lane and navigating the roundabouts. As we approached the east coast the terrain changed, becoming more populated and industrial. Our destination was Mersea Island, south of Colchester, on England’s east coast. This former Roman vacation spot has been important for centuries as a harbor, fishing settlement, and tourist destination. Our friends, Julian and Chris, were waiting for us in West Mersea, one of two small towns on the island (the other is East Mersea). We arrived at their house just minutes after the last workman left, and we were treated to a remodeled home; including a new bedroom, kitchen, and dining room.


Fishing is king on Mersea, and we enjoyed feasts of seafood and oysters, fresh from the sea. We joined our hosts on a hike around the island, a bicycle ride, and friendly conversations with neighbors and friends. The pace of life here is slower than in London, and people have time to visit. We found we had a lot in common with them, including an appreciation for nature and art, love of family and friends, and concerns over political changes. We felt a sense of optimism, similar to what we had noticed in Wales, and a general agreement that while things are shifting, they will be OK.


Sea breezes and the smell of the ocean followed us around the island, keeping things cool and fresh. We walked to the piers to watch the sun set into the water and happened upon the end of a youth sailing class and a line of teens dragging their sailboats out of the water.

West Mersea 1


Too quickly our time at Mersea came to an end. We packed our car, said our good-byes to our hosts, and pointed the car west, back into traffic and roundabouts. This time we took a southern route, through Reading and Basingstoke, to Stonehedge. We could see it from miles away – massive stones strategically placed on top of a hill, with little around it but farmland and sheep. We parked our car, bought admission tickets, and rode a shuttle to the site, which is now roped off, to keep tourists from climbing on the stones. We walked the perimeter and read about the prehistoric monument and burial grounds that date back more than 4,000 years. We were impressed by how long man has lived here and how advanced those ancestors were.


We spent the night in Bath, a modern city on an ancient site. Here, Roman soldiers discovered hot mineral springs and built an elaborate mineral bath, much of which still stands. We toured the site, listening to how Romans used the waters to relax and find cures for health issues. The city of Bath is filled with tourists during the days, but in the evenings it is quiet, peaceful, and filled with good shops and excellent restaurants.


The Budded Mountain


Driving in England was getting easier, as we had figured out roundabout etiquette, adjusted our brains to staying on the left side of the road, and learned to lift a hand to other drivers in a friendly apology when we made mistakes. We crossed the beautiful Severn Bridge and re-entered Wales. This time we stayed with Dave and Kath, friends who live in a lovely stone house outside Oxwich, a small village in southern Wales. They both work in Swansea, a 20 minute drive (or 45 minute bicycle ride, or two-hour kayak ride) from their home.


Our hosts took us to dinner at a small neighborhood restaurant in the nearby city of Cardiff and to a concert at Acapela, a recording studio in a converted Welsh chapel. The next morning was sunny and mild, so our hosts led us on a hike to a nearby beach and in the hills near their house, and later a longer trek on the Wales coast path up and over the hills to the Worm’s Head, a spectacular nearby peninsula. We packed sandwiches and even a portable kettle and enjoyed hot tea and savored the sun and views of the Irish Sea. Lambs played on the hills and spring wildflowers offered a contrast to the green grass and gray cliffs. Fellow hikers stopped to visit with us, offering cheery observations and favorable comments on our American accents.

Worms Head


We had dinner in Swansea and watched the sunset, and then walked to a nearby pub to witness a tribute to Allen Ginsberg, the 1950’s San Francisco beat poet who had visited Wales and composed a poem about its beauty. Film clips of Ginsberg were followed by locals reading “beat generation” poetry, an historian reciting the history of Ginsberg and Dylan Thomas, Wales’ famous poet, and a reading of Wales Visitation, Ginsberg’s poem about Wales. It was a perfect ending to a wonderful day.


When the next day started drizzly we wondered if we would go out, but Dave and Kath assured us that Welsh people persevere in the rain, so we threw on rain jackets and headed out for a hike around the Mumbles, two large islands near Swansea. Waves crashed into shore rocks and sea birds squawked at us when we paused to enjoy the spring flowers growing among the rocks. Our final evening in Wales included a superb lamb dinner in Dave and Kath’s charming home and the company of Johanna, an elderly neighbor who added charm and interest to the conversation and the evening.


As Dave drove us to the train station the next morning, we hated to say goodbye to this beautiful and charming place. We had seen an exquisite piece of the world from the viewpoint of friends, and we had been welcomed, entertained, and given a glimpse of life from their perspectives. In the process we had experienced more than a new land; we had seen another way of life. Travel is a unique and eye-opening experience; combining it with friendship is heart-warming.


On the train back to London we reflected on our time in Wales and England and recalled our favorite lines from the Allen Ginsberg poem:


No imperfection in the budded mountain,
Valleys breathe, heaven and earth move together,
daisies push inches of yellow air, vegetables tremble,
grass shimmers green.

 

©Dale Fehringer

Last modified on Friday, 30 June 2017