Sunrise, somewhere over Wales
Sunrise, somewhere over Wales
It’s hard to overstate the importance of coal mining and iron production in the history of Wales. With these, Great Britain mined and smelted and powered its way into the Industrial Revolution, and the world has never been the same.
One of the most important places in the world for iron production was Blaenavon Ironworks, a massive blast furnace built in the hills of southeastern Wales in 1789 and in use until 1900. It was such an important part of human history, in fact, and is well preserved enough, that it’s on the World Heritage List. Liz and I made it our first stop after Cardiff last May.
There were half-hidden stands with audio guides scattered across the complex, and when we were able to find them, we learned a little about how the furnaces worked–workers shoveled coal like fury at the top of the hill, fueling the steam-powered furnaces that turned iron ore into usable iron. A tall water-balance tower was used as a counterbalance when lifting the tons of metal. Eventually a railway was built to get materials to and from the site faster, although I didn’t see remnants of that.
Right next to the remains of the furnace was a small collection of buildings, which is where workers were housed for at least a century. The tiny rowhouses have been turned into museum sites. One set of rooms showed what it likely looked like early on, around 1790, when the company-provided accommodation was used by generally well-paid employees, who were maybe a little higher up on the chain. Another set of rooms showed how the houses were used about fifty years later, when the better-paid employees moved into the growing town of Blaenavon, and only people too poor to move out lived in the tiny rooms on site. In the first set of rooms, maybe a middle-aged couple lived, but in the second, a family of seven or eight crowded into the same small space. Apparently the BBC shot a popular series here, so yet another set of rooms was done up to look like it did in the 1960s.
The Big Pit
The Big Pit is the splendidly named coal mine just a few miles from the ironworks, and included as part of the World Heritage site, as together they show the full cycle of mining, smelting, forging, and shipping out metals that built up the country and the world.
The mine was operational up til 1980, and it re-opened as a museum in 1983. Before you go down in the pit, you have to remove anything metallic, anything at all, because some of the conditions that made it dangerous to mine down there make it still dangerous today. Yes, we’re not chopping away at the walls to get at coal, and we’re not carrying lamps all over, but there’s still a lot of flammable methane gas down there, and metal creates sparks. So off came watches, jewelry, belts with metal buckles, and of course cameras, and they were all put into lockers with many jokes from the former miners about selling it all on eBay while we were gone. (I did note that they let those of us with glasses keep them on, though, and my plastic glasses definitely have metal hinges. But I wasn’t going to say anything.)
Our guide mined in the Big Pit right up until it closed, and you could tell he missed parts of it, though maybe not others. He showed us where the horses who pulled the carts of coal and debris lived, and told us how once they were brought underground, they were never brought back to the surface for the rest of their lives, until sometime in the 20th century, when they were allowed a two-week vacation aboveground every year. Yikes.
We had to duck our heads as we walked from section to section, and one older gentleman could never seem to remember to do that, so we heard him hit his head at least 10 times. As someone who regularly gives herself concussions, I sympathized. Our guide was a joker, keeping us entertained with jabs at Americans (that’s fine) and eyebrow-waggling innuendos. But he was always deadly serious when he talked about how dangerous mining is, and the many precautions they took to keep their workers safe down in the mines. We all carried methane detectors on the belts they strapped around us aboveground, along with the battery packs for our headlamps, but our guide said that most miners still prefer the reliability of that poor little bird, the canary in the mine.
My friend Liz and I didn’t have much time in Cardiff, so we knew we could only do a couple things. I wanted to see the castle and the Doctor Who exhibit. We saw the castle, but we had laughably bad luck with the exhibit. At least we saw a lot of Cardiff on our way to the Tardis that wouldn’t let us in.
We walked from downtown, with its pedestrian-only streets, covered arcades, and huge department stores, along the main road to the harbor. The waterfront underwent a transformation in the last 15 years, following the same pattern as so many formerly working-class neighborhoods, going from underfunded zone to respectable tourist destination with the backing of a lot of government and private money. I didn’t find it to be all that interesting a space, except for a few structures: the Millennium Centre, the towers of Roald Dahl Plass (which I know from Torchwood), and the small Norwegian church that Dahl attended as a child.
The Millennium Centre houses the Welsh Opera, and the words on the front reflect this; the English words are “In these stones horizons sing,” and the Welsh words, “Creu Gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais awen,” translate to “Creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration.” Roald Dahl Plass itself wasn’t terrible interesting–it’s a large, empty oval, with nothing of the imagination of the man it’s named for, which is disappointing. But there are enough things around there–the Welsh government building, a carousel, the shops of Mermaid Quay–to keep you occupied.
We actually hadn’t intended to go all the way to the waterfront. Our guidebook said the Doctor Who exhibit was in a shopping center a little bit inland, but when we went in there, we found nothing but shops and a few between-meals restaurants. We wandered around for awhile, almost as if we’d hear that wheezing brakes sound and the Tardis would reveal itself to us. Since this was reality and not a BBC program, this did not happen, and we asked some waiters on a cigarette break where it was. They explained that the exhibit hadn’t been in this location in years, and we’d have to walk along the waterfront to just about as far as it goes. So we found all these sights along the way, and then finally we saw the big “Doctor Who Experience” sign looming in the distance, hurrah!
Oh but it wasn’t going to happen, as it turned out. I was not going to battle a Dalek and zip across space and time with a wacky Time Lord. We arrived at a little after 4pm, to find that only the gift shop was open. Apparently tours are only 10am til 3pm, and you have to reserve them ahead of time. Okay, can we reserve for tomorrow morning, before we leave town? No, tomorrow is Tuesday, the only day the exhibit is closed. I mean, if ever there were signs that something was not meant to be, these were those signs.
By that point, we’d walked miles and I was more than ready to take the bus back to the hostel. We waited for 20 minutes, optimistically believing the screen giving us updates on when the next bus would arrive–5 minutes, 2 minutes, arriving–until it became clear it was a system of lies. It was almost as bad as waiting for a Chicago bus. Though maybe not as cold.
Back at the hostel, we consoled ourselves on our ill-fated journey with a local Brains beer, and we marveled at the fact that we hadn’t even thought to check the internet to confirm what our guidebook (only a few years old) was saying. We concluded that actually it hadn’t been so bad. We hadn’t spent any money (tickets are £15, or about $25), and we’d seen a lot of Cardiff along the way. A budget traveler’s happy mistake!
I was already inclined to like Cardiff Castle when Liz and I walked across the large courtyard; the guy handing out the audio guides was incredibly cute and taught us how to say “thank you” in Welsh (a phrase which has nearly double the amount of vowels found in most Welsh words). But then we found falcons, and centuries-old graffiti, and a group of schoolchildren dressed in paper crowns, and we really liked it.
The castle was built by Norman invaders, on the site of an old Roman fort. So it was never a site owned by the native Celts. Cardiff Castle was part of the Marcher territory, a strip of land that acted as sort of a buffer between England and Wales from the 12th to the early 16th centuries. Marcher lords had almost total autonomy, though they were tasked by the English king with keeping the border secure for England, and they used a lot of Welsh laws in administering justice. A fascinating in-between kind of place, the kind of place where each motte-and-bailey castle matters immensely.
Once England firmly and finally took hold of Wales, the Marcher lords lost their far-reaching powers, and the castles lost their importance as defensive bastions. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Marquesses of Bute changed the castle grounds to be more of a residence and less of a fortress. They employed the marvelously named Capability Brown to make the changes, which mostly involved knocking a lot of stuff down and updating the main range (main house) to be fashionable for 1776.
The Arab Room in the main range was easily my favorite (the name, I know). The geometric shapes and deep colors were mesmerizing. It even had a crystal in the stained-glass window, the better to refract light even more. The dining hall was impressive, as was the long library and its massive fireplace. Apparently one of the family was fond of monkeys, and they can be found as little flourishes throughout the house; one is the bell-pull next to a fireplace in a corner room.
In a little hut next to the main house, falcons and an owl fluttered and swiveled on their perches. Outside the hut, peacocks stalked the grass, secure in the knowledge that they owned this place. A group of about 30 schoolchildren dressed in paper crowns and too-long tunics giggled on the green, and some of them got close to the peacocks before shrieking and running away again. From fortress to children’s playground in just under 1000 years.
I didn’t actually frolic with any live animals while I was in Cardiff, but I did pretend to be eaten by a lion, which is nearly the same thing.
The Animal Wall was originally built in front of Cardiff Castle in 1890, at the behest of the Marquess of Bute. He decided he wanted some animals atop a low stone wall to welcome people to his castle, as you do.
More animals were added in 1931, and a popular local cartoon brought all the animals to life in the 1930s, so that Cardiff children grew up knowing of the animals’ nighttime adventures in the city. The wall was moved when the road in front of the castle widened, and now the animals guard the entrance to Bute Park.
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,How often has my spirit turned to thee!
Wordsworth returns to a place he was fond of once, and he finds it lovely again, although he knows he’s changed and he sees it differently now. The poem he wrote about revisiting the Wye River near Tintern Abbey is one of my favorite Romantic poems, because he doesn’t just wade in the shallows of nature worship and nostalgia, but rather embraces his former self while appreciating who he has become. He values the memories, and wishes similarly fond memories for his sister, but he doesn’t want to turn back the clock.
Finding comfort in revisiting a place without being overwhelmed by nostalgia is difficult, I think, and I’m impressed that he could do it and then write a brilliant poem about it. I suppose that’s what makes Wordsworth a poet we return to again and again.
I first visited the ruins of Tintern Abbey with my family when I was in high school, around the time we studied “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” in English class. I saw them again last May, when my friend Liz and I drove from London to Wales for a couple days. I remembered it as a lovely spot in the ’90s and unsurprisingly, it still was in 2013. I didn’t quite have the revelations Wordsworth did, but finding old and new pleasures in revisited sites is something I’ve long valued.
The abbey used to be reached only by tramping or boating in, but now an A road runs right past, which is convenient for reaching the ruins but not so great for contemplating them in peace. But there weren’t many people there on the Sunday afternoon we arrived, so it was pretty quiet as we walked the neatly trimmed grass inside the walls of stone, under a roof of sky.
The abbey was the first Cistercian order established in Wales, in 1131. The monks took vows of work and silence, and Tintern Abbey was a productive place until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1536. The ruling lord of the area got the abbey, but rather than use it, he sold off its lead roof and let the building fall into ruin. A bad move for his people, who could likely have put it to some purpose, but a boon to the tourists visiting since the late 18th century, when the crumbling (and once ivy-covered) walls drew people in.
Revisiting beloved places is like re-reading a book; new layers of meaning and beauty are revealed. When I was here before, I was focused on retracing Wordsworth’s steps and wishing the car park away so it wouldn’t spoil my view. Now, I tried to hold in my head a picture of what I imagined the abbey looked like in its heyday alongside a picture of what it looks like now, to see the beauty in both. I still wished the car park away, though.
Half a dozen jokes start with how many castles there are in the British Isles, and how easy it is to stumble over one on your way to the grocery store. When my friend Liz and I took a mini road trip to Wales in May, we found this to be entirely true. We took advantage of it and did some castleing in passing, making very minor detours to peek at centuries-old stone edifices a few miles off the beaten path.
Here are the drive-by castles of our Welsh adventure:
Dearest fellow travelers,
Please excuse Lisa from a real blog post today, as she picked up a cold in Japan that has evolved into a proper chest cough, and also she is in the cold, damp land of the UK, and frankly only has enough energy to focus on sightseeing and not on documenting. Don’t worry, she’s safe in the care of her good friend Liz, who is exploring Wales with her before handing her off to her parents tomorrow. She and Liz are managing to have lots of fun despite the impediment of illness.
Here she is in Cardiff, showing off her drugs:
She expects to be back on the job soon, and thanks you for your understanding.
Lisa’s Sore Throat