Sunday the 10th of April, 2022
Hard to believe that by the end of the day we will be at our final destination, a hotel near London’s Heathrow Airport. Along the way though, we will dawdle and wander and smile in appreciation at all we have learned together. It is fitting that our last stop will feel very much like a country-wide sweep, as well as traveling through centuries of time, landing us at St Fagans National Museum of History, a.k.a. the Museum of Welsh Life, four miles outside the capital city of Cardiff.
This morning, for the first time ever, we were all at breakfast on time, our suitcases stowed on the coaches, with time to spare. (Third time we’ve done this, finally getting the hang of it!) After breakfast we settled in our coach seats for the next-to-last time and were off for a two-hour trip from Lamphey to Cardiff. The first hour or so was quite scenic, along lovely country roads, then we crossed over the River Loughor and joined up with the M4, a major motorway that will take us first to Cardiff, then later on to our hotel near Heathrow.
My sketchbook went on a little tour of its own this morning, making its way all around my coach! This happened once before, at the end of my 2016 English Gardens trip, when a number of my travel-mates wanted to see what I had been doing hunkered down with my sketchbook, while they had all been running around snapping pictures! It was fun to hear them exclaim and laugh as they looked through it. I wasn’t self-conscious about them reading my notes as well as looking at my sketches, because I cleverly had also carried a separate little notebook for all the entries that were ‘for my eyes only’!
My friend David, the retired professor from Houston, had become a great chum over the past ten days, and when he read my cautious comment about him on our first travel day together, he laughed out loud. “You had reason for concern, my dear,” he smiled. “I am grateful for the folks who took turns looking after me!” He was right, for some reason this lovely group of travelers were natural shepherds, keeping a watchful eye on each other so there were no strays, no need to call out the search party for lost souls.
So my sketchbook was passed around the bus, people took photos of pages they liked, and many vowed to bring a sketchbook with them the next time they travel. Some of the ‘nature folks’ (the ones who always travel with binoculars) had actually begun sketching with me yesterday in Cardigan, using their tiny photography notebooks. We sat scribbling away, while our traveling companions scrambled about the neighborhood, making sure they didn’t miss a thing. Great self-directed fun for everyone.
It’s funny to think that, in a way, each of us has had a unique experience of this program here in Wales. There has been a nice amount of ‘free time’ built into many of the days. The more of these RS programs I join, the more I am impressed by the planning that goes into making each itinerary flow seamlessly. Road Scholar programs are about learning, as much as they are about travel, so no time is ever wasted in boring tourist traps full of souvenirs made in China. Never! These adventures are also designed so that the detail-oriented folks, as well as the big-picture gazers, are all happy at the end of the day.
On to today’s travelogue! Around 10 am we arrived at St Fagans, and gathered for a brief talk by our Study Leader Kevin. Then we were given 3 full hours to explore this immense 100-acre parkland and open-air museum. What fascinated me was the variety of full-size, original buildings, from various historical periods, that had been brought here from all over Wales and reassembled in this one place. The forty buildings include farmhouses, barns, cottages, a craft workshop, a castle, a 13th-century church, and much more. Each structure had been on the verge of demolition at its original location because it was too far gone to be worth restoring. The buildings lucky enough to be selected for this massive Museum of Welsh Life were painstakingly moved from their original locations and reconstructed here, preserving not only the buildings, but the stories that went with them. The signage everywhere was interesting and clear, so you could easily learn the entire back story of each landmark building as you wandered the grounds. I later discovered the website for this Museum is equally brilliant.
The place where I decided to sit and drink in the details was here, at the iron-ore miners’ house, the Rhyd-y-car Terrace, originally built in 1795 in Merthyr Tydfil, some 23 miles to the north.
The final Herding of the Road Scholar Sheep (that’s us!) was done swiftly at 1 pm, and as we boarded the buses we were each handed a packed lunch (a sandwich, fruit, and a drink) to tide us over until we reached London in late afternoon. The final ride was about three hours, through gorgeous countryside we had not seen before because 10 days ago we had landed to the north, in Manchester. Now we were departing from London further to the south.
Riding on the M4, and especially crossing the River Severn, I was reminded of the TV series “Gavin and Stacey” which I really enjoyed watching way back in 2020 during the stay-at-home quarantine. What a great show, light and funny, right when I needed a laugh. Today I kept glancing over to see if James Corden was racing along in the car beside us. We traveled through the beautiful rolling hills of North Wessex Downs, an officially designated “AONB”, or “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. Honestly, how wonderful is that?
By around 4 o’clock we arrived at the Radisson Blu Edwardian Heathrow Hotel located near the airport, checked in, and had a bit of free time before our final meet-up downstairs. At this ‘last supper’ together, I know many of us were remembering our first supper only ten days ago, when we were exhausted from traveling, did not know each other, and were wondering what sort of odd bunch of folks we would have for traveling companions. Now many of us feel like we really are old friends– how on earth did that happen!
When tea, coffee and dessert were served, we followed the Road Scholar tradition of a round-robin sharing time. Each of us told one funny or poignant story (hopefully brief but not always!) about a special moment during the trip. With two dozen of us, it took over an hour to get all the way around the room. Well worth it, lots of laughter and a few sentimental tears as well. The microphone came to me near the end, and thanks to everyone’s encouragement, I announced that after I am home again and have some time to catch my breath, I will start my next project: turning my travel journal, complete with stories and sketches, into a little book that anyone can buy online, either as an e-book or small paperback. My new friends cheered and I blushed—now I have to actually do it! Exciting new learning curve, I am eager to start.
Since tomorrow morning will be a blur, with all of us leaving at slightly different times on different airlines, tonight was the time for goodbyes. The only farewells I will have tomorrow will be with our two wonderful Group Leaders and my roommate-now-friend Ellen. Since she lives in Maine, we have plans to meet up in Portsmouth, NH sometime over the summer.
At that time, together, we will look to the northeast, over the 3,057 miles of Atlantic Ocean, look past the southern tip of Ireland, and wave to the lovely Chapel of St Non on the Pembrokeshire peninsula. Travel makes old friends of one-time strangers. The country of Wales is now a friend as well, one I hope to meet again someday.
Ellen is asleep, and I feel a rich fullness that will easily accompany me to dream land. All that’s left is to check the alarm clock, shut off the light, and snuggle down one last time.