Monday, March 29, 2010



Well, it seems I have more to say on Wales than I thought. (Though I’m sure the only person who’s surprised is me!)

There’s so much to say about Swansea (and it’s even a small city)—I’d advise if you’re curious you can’t go wrong with Nigel Jenkins’ Real Swansea. And Cardiff—even though technically speaking Swansea and Cardiff are bitter rivals, I ignore all that because I love Cardiff. I love the Bay area, with its modernistic buildings (where the Torchwood hub is/was), the Norwegian Church, the Doctor Who Exhibition. I like the Hayes and the Forbidden Planet and the Rummer’s Tavern and Howell’s (which will always be Henrik’s from “Rose” to me); it’s all Doctor Who territory, from the National Museum of Wales (which I love) to St David’s Shopping Centre to St John’s Church. I like Cardiff market with its superb Welsh cakes and the second-hand book shop. I didn’t see Cardiff Castle for a long time, but it was well-worth the trip.
But there’s a lot more to Wales than the southeast. (Now I feel like I’m on the Welsh Tourism Board. Well, they could do worse than hire me!) There’s the whole section of the Marches in the Wye Valley. I love Chepstow, Tintern—beautiful little places, especially in the autumn (just over the border is Ludlow, one of my favorite places in the world). And what self-respecting bibliophile can pass up the chance once in their lives to visit Hay-on-Wye (or as it’s known colloquially, Way-on-Hye), the book town?!

Some of the names in the Brecon Beacons have always sounded a bit sinister to me, like something out of Tolkien, Black Mountain, Crickhowell. But it’s a lovely forested area with wild ponies on the hillsides. Off the beaten path (well, sort of; Rough Guide to Wales mentions it) is the chapel in St. Patricio in mid-Wales where, to quote myself,

The church there is on an isolated hill and is remarkable for several reasons.
It has a gorgeous rood screen carved of Irish oak, 15th century, that survived
the Reformation. There is also a haunting image of a skeleton with an hourglass
and scythe. It is medieval and is seeping through the Reformation’s attempts to
whitewash over it. There is also a copy of a 1620 Bible in Welsh, and the
baptismal font is 10th century (!). There is also a very old pilgrimage well at
the bottom of the hill with a presumably medieval Maltese cross carved as a
marker in stone.

Further north and west, the places have stranger-sounding names: Porthmadog, Tremadog, Betws-y-Coed, Beddgelert (all with interesting stories behind them; Google them). There’s the unforgettable fantastical folly, Portmeirion (a bit overpriced, but well worth it if you are a fan of The Prisoner—and a Pertwee story was filmed there, though I can’t remember which one it was). Harlech Castle is one of the more interesting of the ten billion castles in Wales; the poem I wrote about it was published in Borderlines. Conwy is also a nice castle town, but my family and I were in agreement that Caernarfon is the best castle in Wales. I’ll quote myself again,

The castle is another of Edward I’s, built on the roman site of Segontium.
In medieval times, Constantine himself was thought to have been born in
Segontium, hence one reason Edward modelled the castle on the Theodosian
walls of Istanbul. Edward fancied himself a second Constantine and dragged his pregnant queen to Caernarfon to give birth to the “Welsh” Edward II hence why the first son of a king is the Prince of Wales. But we’ll be modern and conjecture that Edward’s power-hungry leanings resulted from his childhood as a princeling whose father was bullied by the Baron de Montfort, allied, as it happens, to the Welsh.
The movie Gladiator is also partially inspired by Caernarfon because Maximus, Spanish-born pretender to the imperial throne who was declared Emperor by his British troops, launched his attack from Segontium in 383 A.D. The castle itself
is dramatic, full of high towers reached by steep spiral staircases. It’s very well-preserved and a lot of fun to climb around in. It also houses the Museum of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

The Church of St Brynach is also an out-of-the-way place to visit, with the 10th century Great Cross in the churchyard, the 5th century Maglocunus stone inside the church, and the “Bleeding Yew” outside. Further south and west are the mysterious and ancient Preseli Hills, from which come the bluestones at Stonehenge; I wrote a poem about Pentre Ifan (that hasn’t been
published). Also in this area is Britain’s smallest city, St David’s, a lovely spot.

There’s a lot more to see of Wales than that, but I think that gives you some idea why I’m so enamoured of the place. Though the Cranky Yank will remind you that it’s traditionally got a lower standard of living and a poor economy, which is okay for visitors but a somewhat depressing past to struggle out of!

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