Friday, September 25, 2009

Castles and Hills

Wales has been an absolute treat! I’m staying in a 17th century house – which was split into two accommodations after a fight between the wives of two brothers who lived there many years ago – surrounded by farmland, walking tours, and old castles. I’m just minutes away from Abergavenny (prounounced Aber-ga-vEnni) – a small town with great coffee and cake shops, all the necessities of life and loads of history.
My bedroom is tiny – just enough room to put my small bag and walk beside the bed, a TV attached to the wall at the end of the bed, a tiny window high on the wall that a sweet bird cheeps through all morning,
and a cute little ensuite at the other end looking up at grazing sheep on the hill behind. I arrived in after dark, as I had missed my train – it being only two carriages so that I did not see it as I waited in a room on the platform. The next train arrived an hour later, and once again, I was comfortably seated at a table with lots of room. Everything here is written in Celtic (Welsh) and English, although the language itself is seldom heard.

I was warned that the Welsh do not have a great liking for the English – possibly stemming from their ongoing rebellions over the centuries against the ruling British. This is particularly the case these days as the British are continually moving to the picturesque countryside to benefit from the peaceful lifestyle. My two hosts are English, as well as the taxi driver, and most of the shop owners and employers in town. Of course the British can’t see what the fuss is all about, arguing somewhat correctly, that the waves of immigrants from Europe that have entered Britain over the centuries have continually diluted the ‘Celtic’ culture so that it really has little authenticity as a separate culture. It appears that the Celts in fact came to Britain from Europe – after the last Ice Age, displacing a mystical people who were apparently short, stocky and dark with curly hair. The Celts who arrived were part of a larger culture that also existed in France, Spain and other parts of Europe, drifting across the borders as successive kingdoms rose and fell. I find it almost amusing that such deep rooted hostility could still exist after generations – not too different from the long lasting feud between Prophet Abraham’s sons!

Yesterday I spent discussing the history of Wales and elements of environmental philosophy with my good host, then hitching a ride into town. Busses come only once every two hours, and are situated a good half hour walk away anyway, so its best to get a car when you come sight seeing in Wales – not to mention the difficulty in locating castles in the first place. I then set about finding some lunch and a decent coffee – something not had till late in the afternoon. My first castle visit was virtually in the town itself, Abergavenny being built on the foundations of another Roman garrison (just as the Tower of London was) which was abandoned temporarily to concentrate forces against Queen Boadicea. Within 30 years they were back and had subdued the unruly Celts. Again, castles were built as much to protect the new ruler from his populace as to prevent invaders arriving – in fact, they were built to protect the new invader! These castles were much smaller and again showed how ruthless they were, with descriptions of how the Norman Lord decided to end opposition in 1175 by inviting the Welsh leader and his men to a massive feast – and then slaughtering them all! Revenge was enacted by the later Earl of Pembroke – a London educated man who was so angry at losing a dispute over land in the courts there (he was also a lawyer) that he attacked the castle and destroyed most of it 50 years later. Much of it was rebuilt and added to in stages, and it continued to be a massive presence in the area until recent history (that being about the time Australia was discovered I guess!).

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through the most beautiful garden at the edge of the town. After enjoying a delicious dinner at the Greyhound Vault (not sure why it was called that and probably don’t want to know either..) it was dark and time to head back to the country house. The difficulty was that outside of the town there were no street lights, so after a few unsuccessful attempts I managed to locate the guest house hidden up a long dark drive, and stumbled in the dark towards the dim lights of the old house.

The next morning after another hearty breakfast of mushrooms, tomato, egg and crunchy toast with an excellent round of coffee (5 stars for both) I was encouraged to take a walk in the hills. The day was cooler which assisted with my huffing and puffing up the hills. The views were magnificent and I went a little crazy with disappearing roads, old stone walls and the beautiful hedgerows coloured with a range of berries and beautiful gnarled old trees. There were heaps of blackberries which I munched on continuously - much better than old bottled water! From the top of the steep hill behind the country house the heath begins, stretching for many miles along the border between Wales and England. The views were just beautiful and I hope that I have given them justice in the shots that I took. Truly a beautiful country.
The afternoon was spent back in town, blogging, eating cake (what else!) and driving through the countryside to find the elusive next castle. I eventually found it close, well after both it and its adjoining information centre were closed. Tomorrow begs even more fun with horse riding over these magnificent hills, and hoping that this beautiful weather doesn’t suddenly turn to pouring rain!

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