Wales and back to London

Trip Start Apr 24, 2002
Trip End Jun 08, 2002

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Wednesday, April 3, 2002

DAY 36 WED A few hours later we left the ferry at Holyhead. My charm worked its usual wonders and the Hertz girl handed us the keys to a Nissan Almera, one grade up from the Fiesta we had booked. As I navigated us over the hills and valleys of Snowdonia National Park Margaret was visibly moved by the beauty of the scenery. Her previous most beautiful place in the world had been Devon, now it was Wales. I could not help but regret that my drive through Wales in 1997 had not impressed me sufficiently to persuade me to plan a more extensive tour of the country. We passed through many a wondrous village where we would have been happy to spend the night but could not. My brilliant planning had us driving from Holyhead to Abergavenny in the one afternoon. My meticulous research all those months ago had let me down for the first time. It quickly became obvious that we were not going to reach Abergavenny before nightfall and I became rather worried as our itinerary was a lot tighter than it had been up to now.

While we were halted at the roadside gazing at the beauty of the valley below we were startled by the sudden appearance of a pair of fighter jets roaring between the hills just a few hundred yards away. Very exciting indeed! With Abergavenny still an hour or so away we decided to take the first B&B which came our way. Luckily for us we found The Cottage, an Edwardian house in the middle of the very pleasant town of Llandridod Wells. If only we had had a few days to linger. This was a more attractive place than most of the towns through which we had travelled while in Ireland. We supped in a sixteenth century pub where I rang my Aunt Nan in Cheltenham to warn her of our impending arrival.

DAY 37 THU From Llandridod Wells we drove all the way across the Brecon Beacons to Abergavenny, a journey which took us only ninety minutes. The parking lot hadn't changed at all since I last saw it, but everything else was quite different. I had assured Margaret that there was an excellent souvenir shop right in the middle of town. I remembered it as being directly opposite a statue under which I had sipped an orange juice five years ago, but even after walking the length and breadth of the town centre we couldn't find it. The lady in the information office knew nothing of the statue and we finally left Abergavenny without any souvenirs.

The next leg of our journey took us all the way to Cheltenham. Along the way we found ourselves drawn into the town of Monmouth. It was not a place we had intended to visit and I cannot explain how we came to find ourselves trapped in its streets, unable to get out. By pure good luck we managed to get back onto the main road and navigate our way to the outskirts of Cheltenham. Back in Sydney I had gone to a great deal of trouble to ensure that we could find Nan's house with a minimum of effort. Years ago Christopher and I had driven all over the city looking for Warden Hill and I was determined to find Lincoln Avenue without spending a morning driving around in circles. We found Warden's Hill readily enough but still ended up driving over the same streets repeatedly while trying to make sense of my computer-generated map. I eventually swallowed my pride and sought assistance at a service station. Lincoln Avenue was just around the corner from the local shopping centre and I recognised it right away.

The slip of paper on which I had written Nan's address specified 60 Lincoln Avenue, which was about forty more houses than actually existed in the street. I was fairly sure that a little house near the corner was the one we were looking for but a lady on the other side of the street had never heard of Nancy Cobb. She did know the names of a few of her neighbours however, and the lady living in the house I thought Nan's was, in fact, known as Nan. The address was 6 Lincoln Avenue. I was embarrassed by my carelessness but my charitable spouse quickly forgave me.

After a cup of tea, sandwiches and chocolate eclairs, Nan verified my long-held belief that I was descended from Old King Cole but declined to agree that I was 432nd in line for the throne of Great Britain. She and my cousin Wendy gave us detailed instructions on how to get out of Cheltenham but it still took us an age to find our way out of the urban sprawl.

I grew quite animated as we entered Winchcombe, the first English village I had experienced during my last trip. For me, animation means blinking rapidly and twitching violently, which Margaret probably didn't even notice. Gower House was as I remembered it, a top class B&B with both TV and coffee and tea making facilities. It earned extra points for providing two sachets of Cadbury's Drinking Chocolate. Mick, the proprietor, was unmoved to learn that I had stayed there before and his wife had no memory of me at all, even though she had ironed my shirt for the Freeman ceremony. I was most disappointed. I am pretty certain that their two dogs recognized me as they both came running up with their ball and hoop for a few hours of fun.

St Peter's Church is most famous for its fourteenth century gargoyles which I had missed last time round. Inside the church we spoke to a very knowledgeable gentleman who was there to prepare for his daughter's wedding the next day. So knowledgeable was he that I assumed he was the vicar. We learned everything anyone could want to know about the scene depicted on the stained glass window at the front of the church and left the bridal party brimming with erudition.

A pleasant stroll down a country lane took us to Suderly Castle which had closed half an hour earlier, thereby saving us the expenditure of eighteen dollars apiece. On our way back we walked along the public pathway which ran through the castle grounds and through a few fields. The public pathway concept, which we had encountered in the Lake District, is a jolly good idea though you think it would irritate landowners to have strangers traipsing across their properties.

The Plaisterer's Arms, a quaint old pub which had denied Christopher and myself accommodation five years ago (probably because they thought we were a gay couple) was closed so we dined instead at the White Hart. As had happened several times previously, the barmaid responded to my request for half a pint of lager by presenting me with an enormous pint glass. I eventually realised that my accent must have my order sound like "aaah pint of lager". As we ate we watched shopkeepers across the street decorating their shops and raising the Union Jack in honour of Her Majesty's Jubilee celebrations which were due to start in a couple of days.

DAY 38 FRI Gower House toppled from the top of the list of our most highly rated B&Bs last night, losing points heavily for the racket from the street below which didn't stop until nearly midnight. We hadn't realised that there was a pub next door which seemed to be invisible from the street. I was almost asleep when the alarm on the clock radio went off at midnight.

Returning the car to the Hertz depot in Marble Arch was much easier than we had expected and we didn't panic at all, which was in marked contrast to the last time we returned a car five years ago. We didn't even have to fill in any papers or pay any hidden extras! A weight seemed to have been lifted from our shoulders as we hailed a black cab and were driven back to the Georgian House Hotel.

This time round we found that our room was on the top floor of the annex, fifty-three steps from the front door. The room itself was an attic with a single tiny window opening onto a wall with a tromp d'oeuil picture of a dolphin and puffin swimming in a washed out blue sea painted on it. I was fooled for a moment until I realised that there weren't any puffins or dolphins on or in the Thames.

The registration form I completed at the desk showed the price of a room as being eighty-two pounds per night, which seemed higher than expected. When I checked my confirmation e-mail I discovered that it should have been fifty-six pounds. I was prepared to complain bitterly but the hotel people admitted their mistake. Margaret suspected that they had raised their room prices to capitalize on the Queen's Jubilee weekend. We walked yet again down Buckingham Palace Road to Buckingham Palace and found it surrounded by temporary grandstands and barricades. Apparently we were leaving London just in time to miss all sorts of spectacular celebratory activities.

After ambling through St James Park and marvelling at the wide range of spoiled ducks we made our way across a large square surrounded by yet more temporary grandstands. Passing beneath a set of grand arches we came upon a small crowd gathered for some unknown reason. We soon realised that the Queen's Lifeguards were doing something. Two splendidly uniformed and extremely youthful looking cavalrymen trotted out on rather large black horses and, at a sharp command from their sergeant, rode at speed directly into the crowd. Japs and Yanks scattered with yelps of fear and excitement. There followed a strange but probably meaningful ritual in which the two soldiers sheathed their swords, looked at their watches and then simultaneously cuffed their horses hard across their ears. Fascinating stuff!

At Margaret's request we walked the lengths of both Carnaby and Regent Streets before catching a double-decker bus back to Victoria Station. Carnaby Street was very famous during the sixties but was now indistinguishable from any other London thoroughfare. The council would do well to take a look at the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco which has retained its status as a tourist attraction by making the most of its sixties infamy.
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