Saturday May 1st 2010
Our train leaves Paddington at 10:45 so we don’t have to rush. Last-minute packing done, we caught the faithful 205 to the station.
One of the pleasures of travel is to have breakfast at the station or nearby. Today we tried the pub on the top deck of Paddington station, the Mad Bishop and Bear, where they offer three sizes of veggie breakfast. I won’t say which one we had!
Our departure platform was announced in plenty of time so we had no need to rush, the more so as we had reserved seats. Settled in and with our baggage stowed, we could relax and watch the world go by and even do a little light blogging.
As you may be able to see from the photo, we treated ourselves to first-class tickets for this run.
The train left on time and as we ran out into the open air air I was glad to see that the weather had taken a turn for the better. When we left the house this morning, I noticed that it had been raining. This was fortunate as it reminded me to go back and pack a raincoat.
Now the sky was peopled by massive white clouds like sculpted chalk but there were blue regions in between and occasional flashes of sunshine.
The train journey was uneventful and we arrived on schedule at 13:44. Across the road from the station is a cafe, called the Espresso Bar, with a rather retro interior. We had been before and it seemed a good moment to have lunch.
After lunch we walked through town to out hotel. Our room is on the second floor along a corridor that seems to go on for ever.
The room itself is spacious. This is because we apparently got the last remaining room and it is designed for disabled use.
Having set up home in our room, we had a little rest and then went out for a wander. Our "Freedom of Wales" tickets give us 8 days of travel with unlimited rail travel on any four days and unlimited bus travel on all days. We started by looking at the destination of the first bus we saw. It was going to Oystermouth, so we jumped aboard.
Our visit to Oystermouth was perhaps the highlight of the day. The tide was out, revealing an immense stretch of sandy beach. We had an unencumbered view of the huge bay from Swansea round to the Mumbles.
At first the skies were overcast but later the sun shone, lighting and colouring the view. A haze softened details in the distance but this is not surprising given how far we could see.
We had a drink at the West Cross Inn, a nice little pub with a rather fine stained glass panel on one of its doors.
By now it was getting on for 5:30 and a look at the timetables at the bus stop convinced us that buses were becoming scarcer at this hour on a Saturday so it seemed prudent to return to Swansea.
As we continued our explorations there, we spotted a gull collecting grass clippings, presumably for a nest. I was quite excited by this because I had never seen a gull doing so before.
Swansea has some beautiful old buildings – including a ruined castle – and a lot of dreadful modern ones. The least said about the latter, the better. A lot of money has been spent on building projects, not all of it with felicitous results.
When we returned to the hotel, there was a lot of noise and movement. On our floor, several roomfuls of young people were running about and shouting to one another, apparently getting ready to go out for the evening. What that means for later remains to be seen (or heard).
We made tea and Tigger settled down to study the books and other materials about the area that she had collected while we were out.
About 9 pm we felt peckish and decided to go Frankie & Bennie’s which is just across from the hotel. I seem to have the knack of choosing the one dessert that they have run out of. I did it at F&B’s in Southend and again here tonight. Apart from that, everything fine and we retired to the hotel comfortably fed.
I uploaded my photos to my laptop and geotagged them. Unlike the hotel in Telford, this one doesn’t provide any free Internet time so I will not be able to create maps of our trips until we return home.
Sunday May 2nd 2010
During the night, the revellers returned it batches, talking loudly and excitedly but though I was woken several times, the disturbance wasn’t too bad. During the earlier part of the night, the throb of music from a nearby club or disco could be felt rather than heard but it too ceased at some point.
Our rover tickets provide four days of rail travel but as train services are often disrupted over the weekend by engineering works, especially during bank holidays, we will make today a bus day.
Swansea bus station has been closed for rebuilding and buses therefore stop instead at various other points in the city. Fortunately, the tourist information office was able to supply a bus timetable and a map showing stops for the various destinations.
On leaving the hotel, we found it was a grey day, cold and very windy. Unsurprisingly, there were very few people about, though some of the shops were preparing to open.
It looked as though finding breakfast was going to be difficult but after a while we happened upon Franco’s cafe, just open. Over breakfast, we planned where to go and where to find the bus to get us there.
We chose a bus that was going to Cardiff. We had to look around for it and when we found it, it was more like a coach than a bus. We were instructed to attach our seat belts which caused us some amusement because they were rather tight for us.
On arrival at Cardiff we took a coffee break in the station concourse where there is a coffee bar and I always admire the Art Deco lamps. Then we sought out a bus to the St Fagans National History Museum.
St Fagans collects historic buildings from all over Wales, rebuilds them on site and preserves them for the public to view. As an example, above is the Kennixton Farmhouse built in 1610 and furnished as it would have been around 1850. The red colour is an unusual feature in houses of this type.
This is the Blaen-waun post office – possibly the smallest in Wales – which, operated by a sole postmistress, played an important role in the community during WWII.
I think my favourite is the Gwalia general store and its shelves full of goods familiar to householders of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
Or is it the tailor’s shop and workroom, full of clothing and accessories from a bygone era that I itched to try on?
After the exertions of exploring the buildings and the paddocks with different breeds of sheep and pigs, refreshment was obviously needed.
Above the Gwalia store is a small but well run cafe where we ordered a cream tea. Not just any old cream tea, mind, but a Welsh cream tea! (Cornwall, eat your heart out!)
Of course, I enjoyed seeing the animals, both the unofficial ones like the crows and pigeons and the official inhabitants like the pigs and sheep.
There were many more fascinating things to see, more than I can cram in here and if St Fagans sounds interesting, do go and see it for yourself. It is a beautiful and wonderful place.
We took the bus back to Cardiff and went for a ride on the free bus. This follows a circular track and brought us back to the station.
We thought there would be more choice of places to eat here in Cardiff than back in Swansea so we set out to explore. We found Pica Pica where they serve small dishes in the manner of meze or tapas. You can have 6 items for £15. Now it so happens that they have 12 vegetarian dishes on the menu, so we ordered all of them between us! It was quite a culinary adventure but we managed to dispatch it all.
We then had 10 minutes to get back to the bus station to catch the next bus to Swansea. We made it with two minutes to spare, at a pace not comfortable on a full stomach!
Now, though, we could relax and watch the light gently fading over the Welsh countryside.
Monday May 3rd 2010
The sun is shining today but it is still cold. The first task was to find breakfast. Franco’s, where we had eaten yesterday was still closed but we found a Wetherspoons pub serving breakfast. Travel may be a little difficult as it is Bank Holiday and experience suggests that either a Sunday or a special timetable will be in force.
For want of a better idea, we took the 111 bus to Llanelli. We did not know what to expect, never having been there before. Apart from the shopping centre and Asda ("Diolch am siopa yn Asda"), Llanelli seemed to be closed.
We had a look around and did see a few interesting buildings, such as this pair of rather striking chapels.
Back at the small bus station, we decided to play bus bingo and take the first bus going to what seemed an interesting destination. In the event, about the only bus going anywhere was the 111 returning to Swansea. We boarded, thinking we might break the journey at some point along the route. However, both of us were feeling sleepy so in the end we went all the way to Swansea and returned to the hotel.
After tea and a rest we went out again. This time we stayed in Swansea, first going to the Swansea Museum, just across the road from the hotel. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed so I can show you only the outside.
There were two exhibitions in addition to the permanent displays, one on Anne Frank and one on tattooing. This seemed to interest Tigger but as I have never like tattoos, I left her watching a film on the subject while I briefly toured that rest of the museum.
We then explored the sea front and marina area. There has been a lot of "development" there, including blocks of flats of rather mediocre design, decorated by the usual rather twee public art works that seem required in this sort of environment.
There were also some attempts at community projects, now fallen into disuse and disrepair, like the observatory above which is boarded up. It seems mad to spend these sums of money just to abandon the results.
While we were exploring the beach and the observatory, it tried to rain but then the sun came out and lit up the scene under a moody evening sky.
We came upon the Pump House, so called as it stands on the old Pump House Quay, and decided to have a late lunch there. The food was quite good but there wasn’t much of it
We continued walking and taking photos. Earlier it had threatened to rain but now it was a beautiful sunny evening. When we spied the rather picturesque Tug & Turbot, we went in and had dessert, cheesecake and coffee. Have you ever had hot cheesecake? I suspect they just meant to defrost it from the fridge and overdid it.
We had quite long slow walk, taking in the views. You cannot come to Wales and not expect to see traces of Dylan Thomas everywhere. A few of those we saw include the plaque above, the Dylan Thomas Theatre and this seated Dylan. See also Captain Cat below.
We returned to the hotel and I uploaded my photos to the PC. When I had finished I proposed making tea but Tigger had another idea. She was still feeling peckish from earlier and proposed we go down to the hotel cafe bar. So we did. There we had coffee and treacle pudding with custard. Naughty, perhaps, but we are on holiday!
Tuesday May 4th 2010
It is another sunny day and perhaps warmer than the first three days here. Today is a train day and we are aiming to catch the 9:55 to Shrewsbury. On the way to the station, we found a Wetherspoon’s pub called The Bank Statement which was serving breakfast, including porridge with fruit compote. This pub has been converted from a bank and has a rather fine ceiling, unfortunately affected by damp.
We walked on up the road and had plenty of time to catch our Shrewsbury train. Being early, we had a choice of seats which was just as well because the train soon filled up. This is obviously a popular service, because it calls at places like Cardiff and Shrewsbury itself where you can change for further destinations.
It is also the train which was cancelled on a previous stay in Wales leading to our being transported all the way to Shrewsbury in an old London cab. The cost was met by the railway company but it is not a journey I would wish to repeat.
The plan was to go to Barmouth, where we had been briefly on a previous trip. We had got ourselves stranded and had fetched up in Barmouth (Abermaw) where we were fortunate to find a pub-hotel with a room available. We had been meaning to pay another visit.
Barmouth is a pretty town and its surroundings, both the coast and the green hills are spectacular. We would have liked to spend time here but the railway timetable was against us. We arrived at 4 pm and checked the times of trains. There were two more today. Leaving it until the last train would be risky as a delay or cancellation would leave us stranded again. This meant leaving Barmouth on the 16:41.
We just had time to take a few photos and buy tea and muffins at a cafe and we were off again. We really must pay a longer visit another time, perhaps staying one or two nights.
On arriving at Shrewsbury, we had about 40 minutes between trains. As we had had no lunch and, given the late hour, no hope of finding anywhere open once we reached Swansea, we went to the Pumpkin buffet and had toasted cheese and onion sandwiches with coffee.
Then we boarded the train for Swansea. This will arrive at 11:15 pm. We have spent most of today aboard trains, with only a few minutes on the ground, so to speak. This has allowed us to cover a large area and enjoy a lot of different scenery, some of it spectacular. It has not been good for exploring towns, of course, or for photography, as I don’t like taking photos through train windows because of their grubbiness and reflections.
Tomorrow we will perhaps take a shorter trip so as to spend more time walking about and taking photos, not to mention having a decent lunch or dinner!
Wednesday May 5th 2010
We had a little lie-in this morning because we are on holiday, after all, and because we plan to cover a shorter distance today, at least compared with yesterday’s spin that took us nearly the length of the country and back.
We will be taking the train again today for the second of our train days and plan to go to Tenby. I hope we manage to spend more time there than we did in Barmouth yesterday.
In contrast to the warmth and sunshine that we enjoyed yesterday, today we have grey skies and a chill on the air. Perhaps it will improve later or be better where we are going.
We had a leisurely breakfast at The Bank Statement, then realized we had fallen behind schedule and hurried up the road to the station, wondering whether we would be in time.
Despite our worries, we reached the station with time to spare. We at first thought our train was not in the station and then we spotted it, a single carriage parked some distance from the barrier. We went aboard and found the staff in jovial mood. They told us that there was another train in the platform ahead of us and that we obviously could not leave before that one does. Fortunately, we have no appointments to keep.
During the journey it began to rain and some of the windows were letting in water which sprayed out from the corners. Some passengers changed seats. An abortive attempt was made to use toilet tissue to repair the leak.
While Tenby may not appear at its best on a dull and chilly, there is an advantage, namely that it is not packed with tourists. We had lunch at the Bay Tree Restaurant and then walked around the charming town which is quite familiar to us after our previous stay.
We visited the Tenby Museum & Art Gallery ("The only independent museum in Wales") and then went for a walk with views of the bay and the little harbour.
The tide was out, leaving broad stretches of sandy shore. In the harbour, the boats were left high and dry.
The Buccaneer Inn provided coffee and a chance to warm up again.
After our coffee break, we worked our way slowly back in the direction of the station. As we went, I spotted a jewellery shop and went in for a look. One of my rings has become uncomfortably tight to put on and take off. I suspect the joint must have swelled somewhat. Looking around the shop I was attracted to a ring with a variegated lapis stone in it. I tried it and found it a perfect fit! So I have a new ring as a memento of our trip to Wales.
We went into the market for a quick look but it was closing down by the time we arrived.
At the station we had a wait of about 40 minutes but the train eventually came and carried us back to Abertawe. Despite having had a good breakfast and lunch, we felt a bit peckish and stopped off at Il Padrino for a starter and a pizza. A good end to the day!
I enjoyed today despite the poor weather and dull light. Yesterday was mainly spent travelling but today we did some walking and exploring. It doesn’t matter that we already know Tenby because it can bear the repetition.
It is a attractive town with a magnificent and relatively unspoilt beach. It also has a pretty harbour full of boats, while the views of the sea and coast are breathtaking.
In summer, Tenby is apt to become crowded with visitors and while that is good for the town’s economy, it can make things a little uncomfortable. At this time of year one arguably sees it at its best, in its natural state, as it were.
Thursday May 6th 2010
The view through the window this morning is not promising: heavy grey skies and streets shiny with water indicate a day of rain. This does not fit in with our plans but where the weather is concerned you just have to make do with what you are given.
It was spitting with rain when we set out at 8:20. We hurried up the road and breakfasted at the pub, then continued to the station. We are now aboard our train awaiting departure at 9:16. Off we go!
The train took us through some spectacular countryside a varied scenery of hills and valleys, rivers and winding streams. From time to time the clouds opened and the sun broke through but then the grey overcast returned again, dashing any hope of a change for the better.
At around 1 pm we reached Craven Arms and thought to take a look at it, especially as we had had a light breakfast and the thought of a good lunch appealed. The station was deserted: perhaps we should have wondered why.
When you leave the station and follow a path signposted to the town centre you come to a rather unattractive area characterized by a big car park and a supermarket. At the nearby crossroads is a big pub, also called Craven Arms. They had a fairly well stocked menu, including vegetarian options, so we went in for lunch.
After lunch we had a look around in the immediate neighbourhood of the pub. This did not turn out to be a very prepossessing place at all. About the most interesting item was an obelisk with a list of distances to a number of other towns. This, however, is not enough to bring us back another time.
I subsequently discovered a link between this town and London, through the person of the legendary Dick Whittingdon who was born hereabouts. Having made his fortune, he returned here and the Earls of Craven are his descendants.
We did have a look around but there wasn’t much to see. Perhaps we didn’t walk far enough. We returned to the station and there we met a friendly native who was happy to stop for a chat.
The next train out was at 2:36. As we had arrived on platform 1, it seemed reasonable to wait for the train back on platform 2. When the train appeared, it was indeed on our side of the tracks but then – how strange! – it switched tracks and entered platform 1 where, a few minutes before, there had been a train going in the opposite direction!
We hurried over the footbridge but as the train spent a few minutes there, we had no trouble going aboard. That was perhaps the most exciting thing that happened to us in Craven Arms.
The journey south was a repeat of our journey north, though in reverse of course. I had another attack of sleepy sickness and just couldn’t stay awake. Eventually, I went for a walk along the train and that seemed to wake me up. I suspect I am suffering from a tea deficiency!
On a long train journey in Wales, if you get fed up of looking out of the windows, you can study the bilingual signage. Yesterday we bought what describes itself as a Learner’s Dictionary of Welsh. It is not that I have any plans to learn Welsh but languages always interest me and as a result of our visits to Wales, its language is coming to seem a little less impenetrable than it once did.
What attracted me to the dictionary was the section on pronunciation because when all’s said and done, you can’t get very far with a language unless you can pronounce it.
When we arrived back in Swansea just after 6 pm, it began to rain heavily. We hurried across to the Grand Hotel and had coffee in their bar.
The rain eased slightly so we made our way down towards the hotel and stopped off at PizzaExpress for dinner. The meal was fine but the knives were blunt. We asked for sharper knives, suitable for cutting pizza. The waitress said they didn’t provide sharp knives but that she would bring as a pizza cutter. This is safety-consciousness gone mad. We had been given proper knives the evening before at Il Padrino, so why does PizzaExpress act in this silly way?
Friday May 7th 2010
Today started with a disappointment: as I stepped out of the shower pain struck in my lower back. This is doubly disappointing, firstly, because it is inconvenient to be hobbling about in pain when on holiday and, secondly, because I had thought that the exercises had strengthened my back and prevented this happening.
Admittedly, the pain isn’t as severe as on some past occasions but it is enough to cause me difficulties in moving about. Fortunately, I have brought my walking stick with me for just such an eventuality.
At least it’s not raining but it is cold. We breakfasted as usual at The Bank Statement then continued up the road towards the station, looking in a few shops along the way. We are later than usual so the shops are open. The town is quiet, though, making it feel more like a Sunday than a weekday.
The train we took carried us on the first leg of our journey to Cardiff, where we found another for Newport. Here we had 40 minutes to wait for a connection. It wasn’t worth struggling out into the streets and back, so we waited in Upper Crust with coffee and chocolate shortbread.
We took this train as far as our rover tickets permitted, which was to Lydney. The most striking characteristic of Lydney is the endless streams of traffic passing through, so much so that it is hard to get across the road. Note that this is traffic that is passing through, not traffic coming to Lydney.
We had soup at Katie’s Cafe, went for a look around and then walked to the small bus station to take a bus out. I don’t think it unfair to say that Lydney is a small town without any pretentions that you would not visit except in the unlikely event that you had business there.
The bus took us to Chepstow, a rather more interesting town. Though it is in Wales, Chepstow, like its name, has an English feel to it which the few signs and inscriptions in Welsh do little to dilute.
We had a pleasant late lunch at the Lime Tree and checked times of trains and buses. The best bet seemed to be to take the bus back to Newport and the train from there back to Swansea.
After a final look around Chepstow, we took the bus. This eventually reaches Newport but makes a few diversions off the main road in order to serve smaller towns. This, however, is a general pattern with intercity buses and not just in Wales.
The bus station and the train station in Newport are some distance apart. Although this is an easy walking distance, my back was stiff from the bus ride and I was glad to arrive. We then found that a train for Swansea would depart from platform 2 – which meant climbing the steps to the footbridge – within 4 minutes! We made it, though.
As this was our first Friday night in Swansea, we discovered that the street where our hotel stands is closed to vehicles at this time. There are lots of pubs and clubs along here and the merrymakers were out in force.
Despite the disappointment of a recurrence of back pain, the day went well. Lydney wasn’t very interesting but Chepstow was worth seeing and the journeys by train and bus provided views of the countryside, not only of Wales but also that other place, called in Welsh Lloegr.
Tomorrow we return to London but it will be with the feeling of a successful trip in this beautiful and at times fascinating country.
Saturday May 8th 2010
It is another grey day and chilly but we don’t mind too much as we are returning to London today. Our train is at 11:28, giving us time for breakfast and a visit to Swansea Market.
The hotel cheerfully accepted to store our bags while we went out. For the last time on this trip we went up the road to The Bank Statement for breakfast. Afterwards we walked around the the indoor market. Not as big or as fine as some of the markets we have seen, it seems a good market and was quite busy.
We walked back to the hotel and reclaimed our bags. The clerk called a cab for us and this arrived within 5 minutes. The journey was short and the fare next to nothing. At the station, we realized we had hurried more than we needed and now had an hour to wait for our train. We had recourse to the usual stand-by, the Pumpkin cafe.
Along the way we talked to the taxi driver and asked whether he spoke Welsh. He said he did not and that although he had lived here all his life, his parents were English. I suppose that must be the case of many and that it must in fact be difficult to determine who is Welsh or even what this means. The same question, of course hangs over those other two adjectives that people like to bandy about without ever stopping to think what they really mean – English and British.
Whereas "British" can de defined in legal terms (i.e. you are British if the government is prepared to issue you with a passport), "English" has no objectively definable meaning, no matter how much certain groups and individuals wish that it did.
When I got up to leave the cafe, I found I could hardly move. Perhaps sitting on the hard wooden seat had affected my back. I supported myself with my walking stick in one hand and the other hand on a nearby screen. I remained stuck for a couple of moments before trying to take a step. Eventually, I could walk but with difficulty.
Tigger took both wheelie bags and hurried to the train as it was approaching departure time, and I hobbled along behind.
Yesterday I said the pain wasn’t too bad but today it is worse, despite the painkillers, and I am getting spasms in the small of my back. Between stations I go for a walk up and down the aisle in the hope of stopping my back seizing up during the long journey.
When we reached London, we left Paddington station and took the 205 bus home. We decided we should go out for lunch and do some shopping. It was at this point I realized I had left my shoulder bag on the train. Over lunch in the Millennium Cafe, we discussed whether to go to the station and try to reclaim my bag. Tigger then realized that she had left her back pack on the train!
I think we were so concerned about my back and getting our main luggage off the train that we had forgotten these other items on the rack.
After doing the shopping, we took the bus to the station and enquired about our bags. We were lucky. A member of the public, we were told, had noticed our bags and handed them in. We recovered them intact. Thanks to our anonymous bag rescuer!
So our holiday ended on a rather strange note but that did not detract from the holiday itself. Wales came up to our expectations and we shall return there in the not to distant future.