Bring binoculars and a sense of adventure
by Sherri Telenko
Living in Wales – a country defined by rural rolling hills, coastal sea towns, deep valleys and the birth place of the industrial revolution thanks to rich coal deposits in the valleys – Michael Sullivan promised himself he’d ride a horse before his 80th birthday. There are many horses and ‘pony trekking’ operations all over this country of 300,000 people. And we are a random group people at one of them.
Today is Mr. Sullivan’s 79th birthday and for the first time in his life, he’s astride a mount. He’s joined our small group of horse enthusiast who, like me, believe the back of a horse is the best way to tour new landscapes when travelling. We’re at the Ogmore-by-the-sea riding school, a family farm outside of the country’s capital city Cardiff, and adjacent to the Merthyr Mawr Warren National Nature Reserve near stretches of beach, steep cliffs, sand dunes and forest. I’m on a sturdy, obedient, multi-coloured Irish Cobb who’s done this route many times. Yet I’m concerned my weekly riding training isn’t up to British standard.
We start off slowly, light walk and some trot and I soon realize I can handle this stride comfortably and easily. Mr. Sullivan is keeping up, and his friends are driving along the edge of the park far in the distance waving and encouraging. Then, he and a guide turn back and head to the barn, promising to come back another day.
It was like the pace car leaving the Indy 500 race track.
We were off – the remainder of the group catering across the beach, trotting through narrow winding paths through the forest and, at my insistence, walking up the side of a hill to stand for a moment and take in the surveyor’s eye view of one of the many sea-connected straights that seem to spray this hardy country with a coating of chill vapour.
Wales, accessed via London’s Heathrow airport then a train ride to Cardiff (two hours from Paddington Station), fiercely holds its own next to the dominating England. It’s defined largely by landscape and language (some still speak the original Welsh along with English). Now that the mining industry has all but ceased and the sheep and wool industry struggles to break even, tourism is being heralded as the contender for the new economic engine.
For those who love coastal towns, cozy pubs, castles and of course the great outdoors, you have arrived. Wales has more castles, or castle remains, per capita than any other European country; Cardiff is a contemporary city built on two millennia of history, the Big Pit mine is a national museum and the city of Swansea celebrates its prodigal son, poet Dylan Thomas. Welcome to Wales – or Crymus, derived from the Welsh word for comrade or people.
The Capital: Cardiff
Cardiff is the gateway to the country and where most people start, or sometimes stay put. The modern city balances 2000 years of history with demand for contemporary creature comforts of 21st century such as shopping malls, boutique hotels and a Millennium waterfront stadium hosting soccer tournaments and concerts. In the centre of the city behind a high stone wall separating a complex bus system and busy city streets from Cardiff’s most visited attraction is a castle – an actual castle restored to its last incarnation: a lavish Victorian gothic masterpiece of opulent murals, gilded architectural detail and stain glass windows. That is the newest part, now opened to the public for tours, and once owned and renovated by the wealthy Bute family in the 1800s.
The hilly land mass around the castle is the remains of a Roman Garrison thousands of years old and the smaller central castle, now only partial there, in the centre of the courtyard has been standing since Norman times. Crossing the actual drawbridge and the mote and climbing the narrow stone staircase to what was once the king’s living quarters feels like an experience out of a fairytale, where fire-breathing dragons were an actual menace damsel’s cried for help from tall spires.
Outside the castle walls, the 21st century rages on. And outside of Cardiff, little has changed geographically, but much has had to ebb and tide with economic demands.
Big Pit: National Coal Museum
North of Cardiff, for instance, in the UNESCO heritage site of Blaenafon (the birthplace of the industrial revolution) is Big Pit: National Coal Museum. Once a real coal mine opened in 1837, it closed in 1980 after the final vein of coal was removed. In 1983, when the walls and ceilings were reinforced and additional track lighting installed, it opened again as a museum dedicated to submerging visitors below the surface of the earth into the dark dank world of coal mining.
Nine metres down doesn’t immediately sound like a lot, until we cram into a metal cage-like elevator with ten other people, all wearing hard hats with lights and battery packs slung over our shoulders, methane gas emergency packs handy. The metal doors slam shut and we descend down, down, down and into the dark narrow tunnels, water trickling down the walls. We duck low beams and pass non-functioning conveyor belts.
For the most part you can stand up right (but not always) and tours are given by actual former miners, most whose fathers and grandfathers spent their lives down here. What’s missing is the sound of pick axes clanging against the shale walls and carts grinding along rails dragging chunks of coal to cargo elevators. For the complete auditory experience, you’ll have to go to one of the three galleries on the surface that recreate the sounds and experience of working the in the coal industry, once Wale’s largest industry.
Swansea by the sea
West of Cardiff is the country’s second largest city: Swansea. Birthplace and childhood home of poet Dylan Thomas, probably one of the country’s best known exports next to Tom Jones. (Who didn’t read “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” in high school?)
Thomas once said, “Swansea has got as many layers as an onion – and each one reduces you to tears.” Eventually, the city would make peace with the poet who was both inspired and critical of the town he called home in his youth. He might even be impressed today with this coastal urban centre that’s redeveloped its waterfront, turned the former harbour house into the luxury Morgan’s Hotel at Somerset Place and enhanced the downtown nightlife to meet the demands of university students who dominate the streets each week.
Today, Swansea’s home to the Dylan Thomas Centre that pays homage to the work and life of the Welsh writer and includes a reading room, small gift shop and exhibition of costumes used in film and stage adaptations of his works, such as Richard Burton’s 1972 version of Under Milkwood.
Also in town, at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, is a meticulously restored historic house, one of many in a row along a steep street. Only this one is marked by a small plaque denoting it the childhood home and birthplace of Dylan Thomas, and this is where hardcore fans, literary lovers and academics can spend a night or two, even in the exact room Thomas spent his childhood. This now bed and breakfast is a passion project of owner Anne Haden and her husband Geoff Haden who spent years restoring the guest house to its 1914 stature, when Thomas’ parents originally bought the home. Some people, Anne says, who rent the entire house for a night sleep in each of the beds just to have the full Dylan Thomas House experience.
Cardiff, Swansea, even Blaenafon, are a short driving distance from each other and many visitors make the latter two separate day trips from Cardiff. Between these places, north to south and east to west of the country in fact, are miles of country roads winding past expansive sheep farms, deep valleys leading to former pockets of rich minerals, and crumbling stone castles that to locals are as common as barns, highway roundabouts and harbours offering buoyed boasts safe haven from the sea raging along two thirds of the country’s borders.
published in Fifty-Five Plus magazine, Fall 2011