Saturday 9th April 2022 (a very sleepy girl is writing this!)
Although we didn’t travel far today, only about 70 miles round trip and just a couple hours in the coach, it ended up being the longest day full of scheduled events so far. We left the hotel heading north-northwest toward…wait a minute. I am totally distracted. I have to tell you a funny story first.
Decades ago when I was a kid I lived in a few places, but the spot with the deepest influence by far was the Lakes Region of central New Hampshire in America. Our home there was in the heart of a small village which stood in the shadow of our beloved Mount Cardigan. I climbed Cardigan once with a good friend, and the view of the surrounding lakes and mountains was spectacular. Another seemingly random note is that in the 19th century, one of my ancestors started a knitting mill in the nearby town of Bristol, and called it Cardigan Woolen Mills.
Today, here in Wales, I did a double-take when I saw the day’s itinerary: the plan is to first head to the town of Cardigan before we move on to Carmarthen where we will learn more about the Welsh wool industry. Carmarthen is located on a river that spills into the sea at, you guessed it, the Bristol Channel. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up.
Okay, back to today’s real story. We headed out, and about an hour later we arrived at the town of Cardigan (pop. 4,000), situated on the River Teifi, which feeds eventually into Cardigan Bay to the north. Cardigan Castle, built during the 11th-12th centuries, overlooks the river. The town has been home to a variety of industries over the years, and now has a fairly balanced economy, with businesses, schools, retail, and healthcare establishments. We learned all sorts of historical details from the Study Leader, and around mid-morning we were set free to roam the town.
I settled in to sketch the waterfront area. “Keep it simple,” I told myself. “Sometimes less is more, right?” No color, and I’m glad of it. Had fun mixing up those warm and cool greys though!
After regrouping we were off again, heading southeast to Carmarthen, a place thought by many to be the oldest town in Wales, with records dating back to 75 AD. It is located on the River Towy, which feeds into Bristol Channel, just to the north of the South West Peninsula of England. I think you need a map now– at least I do!
In Carmarthen there is still evidence of Roman ruins, and that was something I found downright amazing. Time for further childhood confessions:
History classes, for me growing up, were just a big blur of names and dates and maps with an awful test waiting for me at the end, that’s all. I never ‘got it.’.
As an American kid, growing up in mid-20th century American schools, I just couldn’t grasp history. 90% of everything I was being taught was a blur because it all happened “over there,” whether it was in northern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Africa, or the Far East. I admit the expression ‘The Middle Ages’ never meant anything to me. (“Middle of what?” I wondered.) Thanks to this trip (better late than never, right?), I learned ‘The Middle Ages’ have that name because they mark a gap of sorts, the time between the 476 AD fall of imperial Rome (which had included most of the land from Western Europe all the way to the Middle East). and the beginning of early modern Europe (about a hundred or so years later). It was a time of great instability and migration throughout the entire region, including Wales.
As I think back to my school years, how wonderful it would have been if we were taught not only what to learn, but also why it was worth knowing. Then and now, I needed a heartfelt, human scaffolding on which to hang all that data. Standing here today, in this very spot in Wales, it suddenly feels real to me as it never did before. I see that the history I studied happened where my feet are right now. Travel gives ‘history’ context and texture.
So now, back to Carmarthen. Many industries came and went from this lively town as well, including iron works, printing presses, and the Welsh wool industry which we learned more about today at the Dre-fach Felindre Woollen Mill. I enjoyed the tour of the mill (I used to teach weaving so the industrial-sized looms were familiar to me in a way, and fascinating.) I was spared any temptations in the gift shop though because, despite raising sheep as a kid and having taught weaving as an adult, I am deadly allergic to wool! Crazy, right? But it sure saves me a lot of money, never being tempted to buy or even touch those luxurious spun, knit, or woven goods I saw in gift shops today.
Instead of lingering inside, I grabbed a take-away lunch and headed for the millstream area behind the buildings to hunker down and sketch for a while. My trusty bubble-wrap ‘sit-upon’ came in handy again, as well as the bottle of water that I used this time for painting. That riverbank was way too steep and slippery to fetch river water with which to paint, and I was not about to risk a midday swim!
Back on the buses and on to Laugharne, another small coastal town perhaps best known for being home to Dylan Thomas, the famous Welsh poet and writer, during the last four years of his brief life (he lived to be only 39.) There I enjoyed the view of the sea and of the rolling landscape which now feels so familiar. The long shadows of late afternoon were enticing, and I almost began another sketch, but by then I was hitting that ‘pause’ between the day’s activities and the evening’s ‘settling-in’ time, so I looked, and I listened, and spent time simply breathing Welsh air.
Our dinner tonight was at a local restaurant that looked pretty humble from the outside, but was anything but inside. I was thirsty more than anything, so I finished off the bottle of water I had carried all day, then sat down to enjoy a tall cool glass of Belvoir elder flower sparkling water. Delicious! My travel-mates tucked in to enjoy mussels, fresh fish and chips, and all sorts of yummy selections, while I had a delicious house specialty, a combination French onion/minestrone soup, a colorful mixed salad, and more than one slice of their crusty homemade bread. Many of us also indulged in Pwdin Eva, a Welsh apple dessert that is similar to apple cobbler. I will certainly try making it when I am back at home.
Our real treat of the evening was a pre-arranged mingling with some of the locals, lively fun for many of the extroverts in our group. Our new Welsh friends were warm and curious, happy to answer our questions as well as asking some of their own! The evening in the tavern ended with a performance by a Welsh ‘mixed-voice choir,’ very impressive.
Upon reflection, I began to think there might be a simple secret to why so many Welsh people have such beautiful singing voices. For years, many children in Wales have grown up in an atmosphere of group singing, the same way my brothers grew up playing baseball and I grew up riding bicycles with my friends. When you grow up thinking that singing out loud in front of people is no big deal, then you have a chance to develop the skill that can only come with practice. (I am suddenly reminded of all the great American singers who grew up singing in gospel church choirs.)
I think oftentimes when you meet someone who seems to be ‘naturally good at,’ or ‘have a natural talent for’ something, they might be that way because they grew up in a household where that behavior was simply normal: not encouraged, or discouraged, just normal. Our childhood homes and neighborhoods are the Petri dishes for our early development. And in my opinion, no amount of intentional instruction can hold a candle to a child seeing a parent enjoying themselves doing something.
Kids want to be happy more than they want to be talented. If Mom is happy gardening, I am more likely to think it is a good idea too. If you are lucky enough to grow up in a household that is always humming and whistling and singing, you might not be so shy about joining in yourself. The choir members we heard tonight were happily hanging out singing, having a good time together, in perfect pitch.
The coach ride home was only about 40 minutes long, but I am sure I heard the not-so-perfect-pitch sounds of snoring along the way. That made me smile; it’s proof we are now officially a family I suppose! But no rest for the weary—tomorrow we head out first thing. By 7am we need to have our suitcases downstairs in the front hall, ready to be loaded onto the backseats of our coaches, so we can all snuggle up front together as we head for our final day’s adventures, and the hotel at Heathrow Airport. We have done this routine a few times by now, so we are old hands at it. As usual, Ellen and I will be all packed up by later tonight, so we can each sleep well.
I plan to dream of all the places in Wales that are now 3-D vivid for me. I am one lucky girl.