South Wales

This account was written up by Ian from brief notes made during the journey.

Friday 1st September 2017.
Our trip to Wales was a last-minute decision. An unexpected hospital appointment for Jill had curtailed our plans for a longer autumn journey and we were not needed in Beverley to help with our granddaughter Indi after a successful operation to stretch the tendons in her legs, so we decided to look up a long-lost relative and revisit south Wales. We crossed into Wales by the second Severn Crossing, on which Modestine was charged as a car.

Our first port of call was Cowbridge (Y Bont-faen, the stone bridge, in Welsh), the nearest town to Oscar, Ian's long lost relative. It seemed a prosperous and busy little town with many old buildings and substantial remains of its medieval walls. We lingered in Old Hall Gardens and the nearby Physic Garden, recently established in the former Grammar School market garden. This has been beautifully laid out as a formal herb garden with bilingual slate plaques for each section and containing only plants that could be found in Wales in 1800. The gardens also formed part of a trail dedicated to Edward Williams, better known by his bardic name Iolo Morganwg 1747 –1826, an antiquarian, poet, collector, and also a literary forger. He was widely considered a leading collector and expert on medieval Welsh literature, but only in the 20th century was it revealed that he had forged a number of his manuscripts, especially parts of the Welsh Triads. But he was still influential on Welsh culture, founding the Gorsedd, and the philosophy in his forgeries formed the basis of the neo-druid movement. It is also pleasing to note that in his shop in Cowbridge he put up a notice to say that the sugar he sold was not produced by slaves.

Gardens. Cowbridge.

Physic Garden. Cowbridge.

Church. Cowbridge.

Town hall. Cowbridge.

Modestine's neighbour, Cowbridge.

We stayed overnight at Broddawell, a campsite in Nottage, near Porthcawl. The helpful staff provided us with a map to walk to Porthcawl, rather further than expected after a long day of travel, where we reached the sea to admire the view of Exmoor across the Bristol Channel. It was strange to reflect that we had often gazed out at the coastline of south Wales from Exmoor. We returned to have a beer at one of the three pubs in Nottage and explore the unusual holy well in the village.

View towards Exmoor, Porthcawl.

Holy well, Nottage.

Saturday 2nd September 2017.
We drove into Porthcawl the next morning to find the little seaside town taken over by a Truckfest - massive lorries decorated with paintings and gleaming metal, cared for by massive truckers decorated with tattoos and cowboy hats. Stalls selling burgers and similar fast food, model lorries and other logistical knick-knacks. It is strange how Transatlantic the trucker culture is. There was a trailer which would be used later for music. We imagined that it would be country and western and the grass in front would be covered with line dancers. Apart from that there was little to detain us. Porthcawl seemed a pleasant enough resort, with a port area now largely given over to restaurants, a Grand Pavilion in art deco style on the seafront, soon to host the world's largest Elvis festival when thousands of Elvis lookalikes outnumber the local inhabitants. Next to the Pavilion stands an ugly luxury development christened "the bottlebank" by the locals and inland on the main drag wonderful period public conveniences gleaming with copper pipes feeding vintage ceramic receptacles.

Truckfest, Porthcawl.

Bottle bank, Porthcawl.

Public conveniences, Porthcawl.

We tore ourselves away from Porthcawl's delights to meet Oscar at a Spanish restaurant near Bridgend. Our common link was Uncle Harry (to us) or Uncle Mac (to Oscar). Mr Maxted has been discussed by literary critics analysing J. G. Ballard's Empire of the sun, the novel based on his experiences at the Lunghua internment camp in Shanghai during World War 2. Ian's great-uncle Henry William Maxted married Anne Ackerman (Oscar's aunt) in Shanghai Cathedral before World War 2. He worked for an international paint company in Shanghai and seemed to lead a high life in the international settlement on the Bund, even owning racehorses. This came to an end when the Japanese invaded China and the Brits were interned in Lunghua Civil Assembly Centre. Among them Anne recalls an annoying little boy Jamie Ballard who was always running around and getting in everyone's way. She was not impressed by his later depiction of Mr Maxted, the father of Patrick, Jamie's best friend in the novel. In fact Harry and Anne had no children and, unlike Ballard's Mr Maxted, Harry survived the war, moving to South Africa when the communists arrived, where he helped to establish that country's blood transfusion service. We got to know him and Anne after they moved to Torquay where they lived in a flat crammed with mementos from their lives in China and South Africa – their house in Shangai with its treasures was found to be untouched after they were released from the camp. We think Ian was a disappointment to them. Harry said that with his university degree "the world is your oyster" and urged him to "live life nineteen to the dozen". We don't think that becoming a local studies librarian in Devon fitted the scenario he had in mind. So there was much to discuss and Oscar provided us with a typescript list of the British internees in 1944, including Harry, Anne and a 13 year old J.G.Ballard and also showed us many photographs of their life in Shanghai.

We parted mid-afternoon aiming to reach the Gower, a difficult journey via Mumbles because a road accident had closed the only other road into the peninsula. Now the rain was starting, which was to accompany us through the rest of our journey. We spent the night at Scarlage in a field behind a pub without electric hookup.

Sunday 3rd September 2017.
Fortunately Modestine started without wheelspin on the damp grass and we optimistically set off to view the scenic delights of the Gower, making first for Rhossili to view Worms Head through the mist and drizzle, then Port Eynon through the drizzle and mist, before giving up and rejoining the M4 until it became the A48, bypassing Carmarthen and stopping briefly at St Cleers. This little town, despite being signposted from miles around had nothing of interest and we did not feel inclined to linger to see the sheep racing later in the day. We then found ourselves on the wrong side of the dual carriageway heading back towards Carmarthen. Turning off as soon as we could we found ourselves in the village of Benyfelin where the snugness of the Fox and Hounds lured us out of the rain for lunch.

The afternoon was more successful as we made our way through the picturesque coastal village of Saundersfoot to Tenby. This was a delightful historic town to revisit, with one of the most complete circuits of medieval walls in Wales, including the unique Five Arches barbican, and spectacular coastal views with handsome Regency houses topping the cliffs above a scenic harbour and rocky headlands. It attracted many visitors in the early 19th century. Nelson stayed there with the Hamiltons at East Rock House in 1802 and while staying in Tenby in 1857 Mary Anne Evans decided to publish her first novel Adam Bede as George Eliot. The streets are full of interest with many independent shops and eating places but our entire tour had to be undertaken with brollies unfurled. We decided to seek out hard standing for Modestine and spent the night near Lydstep in the forecourt of a farm campsite, again without electricity.

Harbour, Tenby.

Monday 4th September 2017.
We drove on to Pembroke and walked along the main street which topped a spur between rivers. We did not look at the castle this time but enjoyed the Town Museum housed in the town hall, a wonderful jumble of items guarded by enthusiastic volunteers. The town was home to an early moving picture enthusiast and we were able to view some of the amusingly amateurish silent movies.

Castle, Pembroke.

Early cinema, Pembroke.

Haverfordwest has a sturdy old bridge over the Western Cleddau river. In the town we found another museum run by enthusiasts who are working to restore a Spitfire aircraft.

Bridge. Haverfordwest.

Then on to Narberth where the parents of friends once lived, a pleasant little town with a striking town hall at the junction of the main roads. Here we purchased some Welsh faggots which we remembered fondly from a meal we once enjoyed in Fishguard and examined the ruins of the castle.

Town hall. Narberth.

Castle. Narberth.

We stayed overnight at Gower Villa, an excellent campsite at the reasonable price of £16.50.

Tuesday 5th September 2017.
Over hills today to Fishguard, where an old milepost informed us that we had come 14 miles and 170 yards from Haverfordwest. We soon established that the restaurant serving faggots was no more, so we settled for coffee and scones in the Transition community café. The staff and customers were friendly and keen to expand on the problems the café faced as it would have to find new premises when the area was redeveloped. There was little else as a community centre in the town, so we wished them well. There were probably several Welsh chapels which could accommodate them nearby.

Community café, Fishguard.

Chapel, Fishguard

High above the estuary was the Gorsedd circle, not a prehistoric stone circle but dating all the way back to 1936 when the national Eisteddfod was held there. Unfortunately the ceremony was rained off and participants adjourned to a nearby schoolroom, except for one David, who made his way to the stones and carried out part of the ceremony alone. One visitor was Dylan Thomas who came to Fishguard for the day with the artist Augustus John. Characteristically the day ended in an unseemly manner for them. They stopped for liquid refreshments in Carmarthen on the way home and ended up having a drunken brawl. From the circle were fine views over Lower Fishguard and of the ferry to Ireland berthed in Goodwick harbour.

Lower Town, Fishguard.

Gorsedd stone circle, Fishguard.

In the public library the last invasion of England, which took place nearby in 1797 was commemorated by a remarkable tapestry, inspired by the one in Bayeux, and stitched by 77 local needlewomen. The designs by Elizabeth Cramp are full of humour - appropriate for a cross-Channel invasion that was somewhat less successful than William the Conqueror's and was terminated largely by a group of women in red capes who frightened the French soldiers and Jemima Nichols who reportedly captured several of them single-handed. There was a fascinating video produced while the tapestry was being made, showing all the processes, including the painstaking matching of the 178 shades of crewel wool so that they would harmonise across the entire thirty metres length.

Tapestry, Fishguard.

Tapestry. Fishguard.

We ended our visit with a walk down to Lower Fishguard where Dylan Thomas's famous radio play Under milk wood was later filmed, a picturesque row of houses along the shore of an inlet.

Lower Town. Fishguard.

Wednesday 6th September 2017.
Cardigan boasts a handsome old bridge across the Teifi at the foot of the castle. The main street rises up beside the castle, past the 18th century shire hall, now a charity shop, to a massive late Victorian complex housing the town hall, a market on two levels and the public library. Despite the name of town, the wool museum is not located there, rather to Jill's disappointment.

Bridge. Cardigan.

Town hall. Cardigan. Wales.

Newcastle Emlyn is a little market town with a rather more modest town hall than Cardigan's, some speciality charity shops, many welcoming looking coffee shops and the remains of a castle once in the possession of Owain Glyndwr, which became one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit. It is also reputedly the location where the last dragon in Wales was killed, although recently a dragon's egg floated ashore in a coracle and, once hatched, the dragon was enlisted to guard the entrance to the castle and bring prosperity and tourists to the little town – or so the interpretation panels would lead us to believe.

Charity shop. Newcastle Emlyn.

Castle. Dragon gate. Newcastle Emlyn.

Castle. Dragon mosaic. Newcastle Emlyn.

Castle. Dragon seat with Jill. Newcastle Emlyn. Wales.

We did finally locate the National Wool Museum, remote in the Teifi Valley amid the Cambrian Mills. A wonderful free museum, set in a working mill, covering all aspects of the woollen industry in Wales. The massive looms were there as well as other pieces of machinery. It was a delight to discover that, in the midst of all this industrialisation the humble teasel still had its place. Rows of them were fixed to the drums of the carding machines as no better mechanical substitute had been found. The patterns and colours of the finished cloths were very satisfying, but woollen garments lost their appeal as cotton and softer synthetic textiles became available. We could stand above the workshops amid the deafening din, and see the fabrics being woven.

National Wool Museum, Dre-Fach Felindre.

Teasels still have their uses, National Wool Museum, Dre-Fach Felindre.

National Wool Museum, Dre-Fach Felindre.

Thursday 7th September 2017.
Today was largely dedicated to the little town of Lampeter, which is largely accounted for by the presence of the oldest part of the University of Wales. A little museum in the lodge house at the gates of the University gave an an insight into the town, lyrically expanded on by the curator in a wonderful Welsh singsong.

It is widely accepted that rugby was introduced to Wales by the Rev. Professor Rowland Williams, who became Vice-Principal of St David’s College in 1850 and who had played Rugby Football as a student at Kings College, Cambridge. The Welsh Rugby Union has also given the anniversary celebration its full support, acknowledging Lampeter’s importance to the birth of rugby in Wales. With articles in the University’s archives featuring former students reminiscing about playing rugby at Lampeter in the 1850s, rugby matches were certainly thought to have been played between students from 1850 onwards, although the first competitive match using the rugby rules wasn’t played until 1866.

University. Rugby monument. Lampeter.

University. Rugby pioneer. Lampeter.

The College buildings date from the 1830s and are in a light neo-gothic style. We penetrated the Founder's Library, but a function was in progress, so we were not able to explore a great deal, but it mainly seemed to be stocked with runs of periodicals of a theological nature. So we had to make do with an exhibition on love (religious tolerance) and harmony (of mankind with nature), the brainchild of Prince Charles, in his capacity as Prince of Wales. There were a number of thought-provoking exhibits and also two unusual illustrated Chinese screenfold books on the life of Confucius and visions of hell.

University. St David's College, Lampeter.

The was little else besides – although Lampeter can pride itself on an excellent fish and chip shop where we had lunch.

We moved on to Llandovery where Ian's attention was attracted by the Old Printing Office. Like so much in Wales it had been repurposed, now serving as a café and gift shop. We looked at the castle ruins – every Welsh town has to have its very own castle – and made our way to the local campsite.

Printing Office. Llandovery.

Town hall. Llandovery.

Castle. Llywelyn ap Gruffydd monument. Llandovery. Wales.

Friday 8th September 2017
Brecon is one of the most interesting towns we visited in Wales during the week with many hidden corners.
Market. Brecon.

Post horse sign. Brecon.

We arrived in Brecon Cathedral just in time to hear the last of a series of free lunchtime concerts by Gwent Chamber Orchestra. The delightful programme incuded the Mozart divertimento in D K136, William Boyce's symphony no. 1, Handel's organ concerto "The cuckoo and the nightingale", with Stephen Power, director of music at Brecon Cathedral at the organ, and Elgar's serenade for strings. The director Stephen Broom told us that the bishop of Brecon had just been elevated to become the archbishop of Wales. Brecon Cathedral was originally a Benedictine priory, then a parish church after the dissolution of the monasteries and only became a cathedral in the 1920s. It has a fine medieval structure and contains a number of curiosities, including a stone supposedly used to sharpen the arrows of Henry V's Agincourt bowmen, recruited from Breconshire, a magnificent Romanesque font and the signature in the visitors' book of Dr Who, who landed in Tardis in 2009.

Cathedral. Concert. Brecon.

Cathedral, Agincourt bowmen's stone, Brecon.

Cathedral, Visitors book, Dr Who, Brecon.

Cathedral, Font, Brecon.

The nearby castle is now a hotel – yet another repurposed building and on the other side of the town is the busy canal basin and theatre. There is a strong military presence including the Museum of the Royal Welsh Borderers and eastbound military traffic is required to use the bypass, as did we on our way to camp at Bronillys.

Castle, Brecon.

Theatre, Brecon.

Black Mountains from our campsite, Bronillys.

Saturday 9th September 2017.
We arrived in Hereford in time for Sheffield library school friend Sylvia to take us on a tour of the Cider Museum. Ian recalls that the Westcountry Studies Library was visited by researchers setting up the collections in the Bulmer's factory back in the 1980s and was keen to see the results. Henry Percival Bulmer founded the firm in 1887 having taken his mother's advice to make a career in food or drink, "because neither ever go out of fashion". The firm was taken over in 2003 and is now owned by Heineken. They now operate from a factory outside the town, but the former premises were very extensive. The tour was led by the very enthusiastic curator who had great plans for the large empty workshops she had recently taken charge of. The cellars were very impressive with the stacks of bottles and a special treat for Ian was that one of the volunteers had a copy of Pomona herefordiensis : containing coloured engravings of the old cider and perry fruits of Herefordshire. With such new fruits as have been found to possess superior excellence. Accompanied with a descriptive account of each variety, by Thomas Andrew Knight, printed for the Agricultural Society of Herefordshire, by W. Bulmer and Co. in 1811, with 30 coloured leaves of plates, each plate accompanied by one or two pages of descriptive text. It was a precursor of the better known Pomona britannica : or, A collection of the most esteemed fruits at present cultivated in Great Britain, by George Brookshaw, printed for the author by R. Bensley in 1812 with 90 leaves of coloured plates. Was the printing Bulmer related to the cider Bulmers? In any case it is a beautiful book and to see it was (for Ian) the highlight of the tour.

Cider Museum, Hereford.

Pomona Herefordensis. Hereford.

Sunday 10th September 2017.
Today Sylvia took us to see Ledbury, a beautiful half-timbered town, very quiet on a rainy Sunday. We were able to look inside the Master's House with its painted room. The building formerly housed the court of pye powder. The main street is dominated by the half timbered market house and a street lined with medieval buildings leads to the church which includes an interesting version of Leonardo da Vinci's last supper copied from a version made before extensive and ill-considered restoration was made of the original.

Painted room. Ledbury.

Painted room, Ledbury.

Master's House, Ledbury.

Market house, Ledbury.

Street leading to the church, Ledbury.

Last supper in the church, Ledbury.

We returned for our final night on this unexpected mini-tour. Sylvia had made us most welcome in the comfort of her home after several less than cosy nights in a variety of camping places across rain-drenched Wales and provided an enjoyable end to our tour.

Sylvia and Modestine, Hereford.