3 ½ Days in Wales
During the whirlwind of London 2012 excitement, I did manage to get out of the city to do a little touring. After my volleyball and fencing events were over, I jumped on a Megabus to Cardiff for a little taste of Wales.
Until this summer, I’d never been to Wales. Wales figures so strongly within the history of Great Britian and British culture, and yet it still stands as a country apart. Even during the Games there was a touch of nationalism controversy involving Welsh footballers on Team GB.
I only had a few days to spare. I thought three and a half days in Cardiff would be too long, unless I wanted to take in a sporting event, do some serious shopping, or party like I was at frosh week. But three and a half days is simply not enough time to see Wales. And so, I settled for one and a half days in Cardiff and two days for venturing outside of the city.
After some research on the interwebs, I settled on the SeeWales tour company— good reviews on Trip Advisor, and a varied selection of tours and dates to meet my interests and schedule.
Day 1.5 — Cardiff
I have to say, Cardiff is a lovely city. It may be the youngest capital in the UK (incorporated in 1905 and declared the capital in the 1950s), but it has a rich history and there’s lots to see. After exploring the city on the afternoon I arrived, my one full day didn’t seem quite adequate. In the end, I was only able to take the tour bus around the city, explore the central core, and visit Cardiff Castle. The fact that it rained all day zapped my energy a little and I spent more time on the tour bus than I should have. But, I did get out to Cardiff Bay on the hop-on, hop-off, and despite the rain, enjoyed exploring the new civic development. Had I been a Doctor Who fan, I would have been in heaven. And, even though I’m not a Roald Dahl acolyte, I always appreciate a touch of literary history, even if only from the outside.
Cardiff is a great destination for shopping with its mix of brand-name shops in the downtown shopping centre and independent traders in the Victorian arcades—the centre of the city is a pedestrian shopper’s dream. The Civic Centre in Cathays Park (which I explored from the shelter of my tour bus) is a beautiful collection of Edwardian buildings, many of which now house the Cardiff University.
I enjoyed the mishmash of Cardiff Castle and learning about its history from Roman times to the present. And I stumbled across some Canadian content in Firing Line, the museum of the Welsh Soldier in the basement of the castle’s visitors’ centre.
I missed the National Museum Cardiff (with the largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside of Paris!!!), and St. Fagans National History Museum, an open-air museum chronicling Welsh life with reconstructed buildings from across Wales. It turns out that three full days in Cardiff would have been perfect.
Day 2 — Romans and Ruins
My first SeeWales tour was Romans and Ruins. We started at Caerleon, 30 km east of Cardiff. The Roman ruins in this town are extensive, from an ampitheatre and army barracks to Roman baths; just recently the remains of a Roman habour were discovered. There’s even a museum in Caerleon dedicated to Roman life.
What I love best about the story of Roman ruins in the UK is the fact that up until the late 1800s, when archeologists really started discovering and identifying the ruins correctly, so many were considered to be Arthurian—if it’s old, it must be Arthurian! This amphitheatre spent most of history as a mysterious mound attributed to Arthur and his knights. Of course, they come by that local legend honestly, as Caerleon figures prominently in the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. Well into the 20th century, before it was finally excavated, this amphitheatre was known as King Arthur’s Round Table.
Tintern Abbey, our next stop, is a sight to be seen. I’m rather accustomed to seeing grand old abbeys and cathedrals and churches, but what makes Tintern so special is the fact that it’s a true ruin. Most of the houses of worship I visit are spectacular, but still in use, or at least preserved—that the ruins of this Cistercian monastery have stood for more than 500 years after the Dissolution is incredible. And to see the contrast of the grand structure surrounded by the green hills was breathtaking.
A word about the greenery of Wales. England was deforested long ago—its rolling fields create an iconic country estate landscape, but not a historical one. The idea of Romans, or Arthur, or Robin Hood, or Ken Follet’s characters making their way along the forest paths of Britain is hard to imagine—until you visit Wales. Primarily an agricultural region, with more sheep than people, the landscape of Wales harkens back to what the lower half of Great Britain would have looked like when William the Conqueror landed. Very different from the Britain of Austen, or even Shakespeare. Many of the roads off the main highway are simply cut through the woods and are barely wide enough for one vehicle, let alone two cars passing. More than once our tour guide had to back up his car to allow for an oncoming truck or public bus to pass through.
Raglan Castle was our final stop. According to our guide, there are 641 castles in Wales, and Raglan is the 641st. It was built well past the period where such castles were useful. It’s now a lovely site, overgrown with greenery, lots of nooks and crannies to explore, and two lookout towers. And, as a bonus, Raglan figures in the “Tudor Trash” novel I just finished reading! (Ms. Gregory, if you happen to find yourself reading my blog, rest assured that “Tudor Trash” is a term of great affection).
Day 3 – The Golden Gower
My second SeeWales tour took me to the Gower Penninsula. A relatively small area of Wales, but one with so much to see, I would definitely consider making a special trip there again. We began with the obligatory stop in Swansea to see The Dylan Thomas Centre—a great overview of this literary and cultural phenom. In a short visit, I learned a lot about Thomas, and none of it had to do with A Child’s Christmas in Wales!
Arriving at the seaside, we drove through the town of Mumbles (named for two round-topped islands in the bay, resembling women’s breasts. Seriously, French sailors and explorers were obsessed with boobies: Mumbles, The Tetons, are there any other places in the world named after French words for women’s anatomy?).
(While driving through the town, our guide shared a funny anecdote that seems to be at least somewhat true, according to the interwebs—there’s a family in Mumbles who have, for generations, named girl babies after a ship that was much loved by their forefather who captained it. The ship’s name was the Zeta.)
After Mumbles, we took a clifftop walk from Langland Bay to Caswell Bay. Absolutely stunning views; the photos don’t do it justice through the mist, despite the warm sunshine (hard to come by in the Great British Summer of 2012).
By the time we arrived in Caswell bay, I was very ready for my dip in the sea. But, sadly my swim was short—we had to press on to the picturesque Worm’s Head and Rhossili Bay at the tip of the peninsula for our lunchtime stop. Never in my life have I taken a photo that looks EXACTLY like the postcards in the shop.
See the white house above the beach? Our guide mentioned something about the original town being closer to the water, perhaps near that house, and that it’s now a holiday rental—unfortunately, I couldn’t find any info on the house on the interwebs. But it does seem that it was used as Rose’s house on Doctor Who, and may have figured prominently in an episode of Torchwood.
We topped off this tour at Weobly Castle, overlooking the salt marshes (that’s 3 down, 638 to go). But, before we did, we made a short stop at Parc Le Breos. We happened upon a Jamboree, which seemed to be attended by mostly German-speaking scouts, both boys and girls.
But, we were still able to visit the historical site: a burial cairn built almost 6000 years ago, making it some 1,500 years older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid at Giza. According to our guide, on a particular day in January, the sun hits the back wall of the cairn, the very same date and time that it hits the wall of a nearby cave, suggesting a significant level sophistication among the earliest inhabitants of the Welsh peninsula. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any reference to this solar date on the interwebs, but that doesn’t detract from the experience of touching this little piece of history.
All in all, it was a great three and a half days!
Thanks to my tour guide, Adrian, his son, and my fellow tour members for a great experience.
I hope to find myself in Wales again in the not-to-distant future.