Wednesday, 4 May 2016

DPRK V-log 2: Chongjin Seamen’s Club

Greetings!

Here’s the second of my V-logs documenting my journey through North Korea (the DPRK) featuring the most beautiful and graceful lady in the entire country.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

dprk2

DPRK 2015 V-log 2: Chongjin Seamen’s Club

Check out all my V-logs!

V-log 1: So Uncle Travelling Matt, how many countries have you visited…?

V-log 2: Llangelynin

V-log 3: A Tour Around Schouwen-Duiveland

V-log 4: Draycott-en-le-Moors

V-log 5: Barmouth Cliff Walk

V-log 6: Walking Pilgrimage to Bardsey Island

V-log 7: Crowland, Lincolnshire

V-log 8: Repton, Derbyshire

V-log 9: East to West Berlin

V-log 10: Berlin

V-log 11: Poznan

V-log 12: The Ashes 2015

Norway 2015 V-logs

Oslo V-log Day 1

Oslo V-log Day 2

Oslo V-log Day 3

China and DPRK 2015 V-logs

China V-log 1: Overnight Train to Tumen

DPRK V-log 1: Crossing the Border

DPRK V-log 2: Chongjin Seamen’s Club

DPRK V-log 3: Sightseeing and Sing-a-longs on the Bus

DPRK V-log 4: Chilbo-san National Park

DPRK V-log 5: Beach at the Homestay Village

DPRK V-log 6: Reflections atop a Mountain

DPRK V-log 7: Back to School

DPRK V-log 8: Wangjaesan Grand Monument

China V-log 2: Bullet Train to Beijing

Cuba and Spain 2016 V-logs

Madrid and Toledo V-log

Sunday, 1 May 2016

DPRK 2015 V-log 1: Crossing the Border

Greetings!

Here’s the first of my V-logs documenting my journey through North Korea (the DPRK).

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

dprk1

DPRK 2015 V-log 1: Crossing the Border

Check out all my V-logs!

V-log 1: So Uncle Travelling Matt, how many countries have you visited…?

V-log 2: Llangelynin

V-log 3: A Tour Around Schouwen-Duiveland

V-log 4: Draycott-en-le-Moors

V-log 5: Barmouth Cliff Walk

V-log 6: Walking Pilgrimage to Bardsey Island

V-log 7: Crowland, Lincolnshire

V-log 8: Repton, Derbyshire

V-log 9: East to West Berlin

V-log 10: Berlin

V-log 11: Poznan

V-log 12: The Ashes 2015

Norway 2015 V-logs

Oslo V-log Day 1

Oslo V-log Day 2

Oslo V-log Day 3

China and DPRK 2015 V-logs

China V-log 1: Overnight Train to Tumen

DPRK V-log 1: Crossing the Border

DPRK V-log 2: Chongjin Seamen’s Club

DPRK V-log 3: Sightseeing and Sing-a-longs on the Bus

DPRK V-log 4: Chilbo-san National Park

DPRK V-log 5: Beach at the Homestay Village

DPRK V-log 6: Reflections atop a Mountain

DPRK V-log 7: Back to School

DPRK V-log 8: Wangjaesan Grand Monument

China V-log 2: Bullet Train to Beijing

Cuba and Spain 2016 V-logs

Madrid and Toledo V-log

Saturday, 30 April 2016

A470: Part 8: Rhyader to Diserth

world-map cardiff

Greetings!

This week I completed a new type of V-log for Uncle Travelling Matt: Talk with a Traveller. the idea is to have a chat with a seasoned traveller and see what we can learn off them. As soon as it’s been edited then you can see my interview with KFA Chairman Dr. Dermot Hudson. In the meantime though, back to Wales…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Llandudno

Part 3: Llandudno to Dolwyddelan

Part 4: Dolwyddelan to Blaenau Ffestiniog

Part 5: Blaenau Ffestiniog to Dolgellau

Part 6: Dolgellau to Caersws

Part 7: Caersws to Rhyader

Part 8: Rhyader to Diserth

Also check out my other Welsh travelogues:

The Sacred Heart of Wales

Across the Sound

V-log: Llangelynin

V-log: Barmouth Cliff Walk

V-log: Walking Pilgrimage to Bardsey Island

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Part 8: Rhyader to Diserth

We took a side-trip from Rhyader. One of the great pleasures of motoring in Wales are these side-trips, down narrow winding lanes to picturesque villages or hamlets untouched by the tourist hordes. My favourite is to Gwytherin, ten miles or so off the A5, reached by negotiating a stretch of wild moorland, its beauty only enhanced by the farm of wind turbines on the top silently harvesting the gusts. Gwytherin, a pretty little village with its church in the centre, holds a special place in the Welsh national story for it is the home of St. Winifred, one of the country's most famous saints whose main shrine, the healing well at Holywell in Fflintshire, is visited by thousands and nicknamed 'The Lourdes of Wales'.

Abbey-cwm-Hir, another pretty village reached by several miles of winding lanes through rolling hills, red kites soaring above and rabbits gambolling across the road in front of us seemingly oblivious to the dangers, also has a special place in the Welsh national consciousness. Like Gwytherin it has a religious element to it: the ruins of the mediaeval Cwmhir Abbey from which the settlement gets its name, but the main draw here is secular, not sacred; it is the grave of a man who was buried within the abbey precincts. Abbey-cwm-Hir is the resting place of Llewelyn ap Gruffudd.

Llewelyn ap Gruffudd is sometimes described as the last Prince of Wales. He is not. After all, we have one today, Charles Windsor, invested with great pomp in Caernarvon Castle in 1969. Nor too is he the last Welsh-born Prince of Wales. Legend states that after Edward I won the country for England, he promised the Welsh “a prince born in Wales, who did not speak a word of English” before then producing his infant son and heir to the throne Edward, who had been born in Caernarvon Castle. Thus it is that the first-born son of the reigning monarch is always the Prince of Wales. No, poor Llewelyn cannot claim that honour and nor too can he claim to be the last Welshman crowned without any English involvement. As we have already learnt, Owain Glyndŵr claims that honour.

But what Llewelyn was, was the last in a long line of Gwynedd princes who had claimed the throne of Wales, the man under whom the flame of Welsh independence was finally snuffed out, never to be lit again save for that brief flicker under Glyndŵr. It was Llewelyn ap Gruffudd – Llewelyn the Last – who died bravely in vain, fighting the English invaders of his beloved homeland, taking the hopes and dreams of an ancient nation with him to his grave.

Or so the romantic version goes. The truth, as always, is a little murkier. For starters, Llewelyn's Wales was not the country outlined on the map today. Successive buffetings by English armies, not least the heavy defeat inflicted on him by King Edward I in 1277 had reduced it to a rump, barely extending beyond the mountains of Snowdonia. Remember when we passed through Llanrwst, the town which declares “Wales, England and Llanrwst!”? Well, that's because after Llewelyn's defeat, that is where the border between the two countries lay. And what is more, after having demonstrated his might, Edward wasn't particularly bothered about absorbing that minor princedom on his borders, just so long as Llewelyn kept on paying his tribute and acknowledged Edward as his sovereign then the mighty Longshanks was happy. Llewelyn however, was not; Llewelyn rebelled and, rather predictably, Llewelyn lost. Anyone who has explored the castles of Conwy and Dolwyddelan further up the A470 can be in no doubt as to why the English won. The two monarchs were worlds apart in wealth, power and military sophistication. Sad though it may be, Llewelyn never stood a chance.

And so there, in that beautiful green valley, by the babbling waters of the Clywedog in amongst the stones of Cwmhir Abbey, it is a good place to stop and think awhile by the stark black stone which marks his resting place. Was the man whose mortal remains lie thereabouts a national hero, the last valiant defender of Wales, or was he a delusionist who did not grasp the harsh political realities of his day and who threw away the legacy of his illustrious forefathers?

photo-28-06-2014-18-17-30_14485601389_o At the grave of the last prince

We started looking for a place to sleep beyond Rhyader and when we saw a campsite signposted at Newbridge-on-Wye we turned off to check it out. It turned out to be just what we were looking for, a pleasant field by the river, situated next to a beautiful old church. The idea of waking up and seeing that church in the morning appealed and so we booked it and erected our tent.

After settling in I went to have a look at the church itself, and it turned out that we had stumbled upon an absolute gem. Diserth (sometimes spelt ‘Disserth’) Church is dedicated to St. Cewydd, another of those early Welsh holy men whose history is shrouded in myth. According to a book in the church, he was what is called a “weather saint”, that is to say, like St. Swithin in England, a saint whom one would call upon for a particular kind of weather. Since he was also known as Cewydd y Glaw (“Cewydd of the Rain”), one assumes that it was to him that one would pray if one desired a downfall. This may explain why he is not so celebrated these days: the amount of rainfall that Wales gets suggests that either he was very rarely needed in the first place or that he was so successful that he has made himself virtually redundant!

The present structure dates from the 16th century, (although there has doubtless been a church on the site for centuries before that), and even that was heavily “restored” in the 17th century when the parish was a wealthy one. Even so, there is something timeless and something very Welsh about it. Outside, the nave/chancel is whitewashed – something that is extremely rare in England – though the tower is bare stone, whilst inside it contains some exquisite box pews although the overall impression, to my English eyes at least, was one of austerity and simplicity. Welsh churches are often so, bare whitewashed walls and an absence of the decoration and flamboyance of the average English parish church.

But then the spiritual history of Wales is quite different to that of its neighbour across the Severn and that history more than anything else has helped shape – and maintain – a Welsh identity as a separate nation during the long centuries when, politically at least, it was not. I have already discussed several of the hundreds of hermit saints who evangelised the land centuries before Saxon England was converted by Lindisfarne and Augustine. Those more monastic and Celtic traditions persisted much longer than they did in England, with the Welsh refusing to accept Augustine Christianity. However, by the time of the English conquest, the Church in Wales was part of the see of Canterbury although even then the parish system never quite took hold with the same vigour that it did in England and when the Reformation came about, whilst there was little resistance, there was little acceptance either. Why was this? Perhaps it was due to the Reformation being seen as being yet another English imposition on the Principality, (the Church was only disestablished in 1920 and up until then the Established Church in Wales had been the Church of England), or perhaps there was still a lot of affection for the Church of Rome. Certainly, the remarkable shrine at St. Winnifred’s Well at Holywell persisted throughout all the years of Catholic persecution in a way unthinkable in England, let alone Calvinist Scotland. But I think that the real reason may be that, unlike its larger neighbour but like both Ireland and Scotland, prior to the 19th century, Wales possessed few if any urban centres and her villages were never clustered around a green with pub and church, but instead are strung out along a road or scattered across a certain area and so were never as likely to be drawn to a particular central or focal church.

Whatever the reasons, when Dissenting movements came about like Rowland Ellis’ Quakers in Dolgellau, they found fertile ground in Wales although in the end it was the Evangelical Dissenters – Calvinists, Baptists, Methodists and the like – who won the majority of Welsh souls, and no symbol of Wales is more potent nor omnipresent than that of the restrained classical edifice of a chapel, each with a foundation stone laid by a local 19th century worthy. The Welsh took to their chapels like no other nation, often attending several times on a Sunday, and it was those chapels which did more than anything else to preserve the Welsh language with Bible and hymns being belted out in Cymraeg to packed congregations who lapped all up with gusto.

Yet nowadays, that picture of the Principality is all but unrecognisable. Since World War II the Welsh have abandoned organised religion in droves and as the 21st century dawned, most communities struggled to support one chapel, let alone several. Wales is now amongst one of the most secular parts of the (extremely secular) United Kingdom with only 57% of the population identifying themselves as Christian in the 2011 census and only 10% being church or chapelgoers.[1] What is more, those trends show no signs of reversing. And so, her beautiful churches and great chapels are today either derelict, converted into shops or houses or, like the gorgeous church at Diserth, largely devoid of worshippers, loved more as historical monuments rather than living temples of faith.

And so I prayed alone as the sun sank, in a quiet rural church where once the inventor of the steam engine, James Watt, had drank in the sermons. However, it is quite understandable that the great man did choose that church for his weekly worship for its main claim to fame is a sermon that was once preached there and which is said to be the shortest on record. The rector, or so the story goes, had forgotten to bring the text that he had prepared along one Sunday and so instead he ascended the pulpit stairs and preached the following:

“Ha, yes, here we are. And it is a fine day. I congratulate you on a fine day, and glad to see so many of you here. Yes, indeed. Ha, yes, indeed. Now then I shall take for my text … Yes, let me see. You are all sinners and so am I. Yes indeed.”

And with those words he sat down.

Now, if only our vicar would follow suit…

photo-28-06-2014-19-34-19_14672240375_o The Church of St. Cewydd, Diserth

There’s an unusual gravestone in the churchyard at Diserth. It initially caught my eye because of its shape; spartan and wide, like three standard headstones pushed together, but it's made out of one piece of stone. It commemorates three people. Reading from right to left, the first is one Archibald Francis Freeman, born 1889, died 1940. The second name is Enid Gertrude Freeman “His Wife”, born 1889, died 1976. But it is the third name on there that catches one's curiosity: “Elena Vigliano, Their Lifelong Friend and Companion, Born in Italy December 16th 1898; Died September 13th 1975.” However strange for a friend to be interred next to a man and wife, and a foreigner at that in this, a most rural and uncosmopolitan community. I pondered awhile the love of friends, different and distinct to erotic, filial and marital love yet vital to humankind before then moving on my way.

photo-28-06-2014-19-34-56_14485604108_oIn Memorium…

As the sun was setting we decided to have our evening meal. The campsite owner had recommended a particular pub as being good for food and so we decided to head for there. The Red Lion at Llanafan Fawr turned out to be rather further away than we’d anticipated but an excellent choice nonetheless. It was an ancient and atmospheric building, with low eaves that, according to its website at least, dates back to 1472. The history of the hostelry however, goes back even further than that with no less a figure than Gerald Cambrennis (Gerald of Wales) staying there in 1188 whilst recruiting for Richard the Lionheart’s crusades, he making a beeline for the village in order to pay his respects to St. Afan’s remains.

Geraldus Cambrennis is an interesting character and no book on Wales would be complete without giving him a mention. Born in Manorbier Castle near Tenby around 1146, he was of mixed Norman and Welsh ancestry. His grandmother was Nest ferch Rhys, a princess of colourful character who was famously abducted from Cenarth Bychan (possibly Cilgerran Castle), by one Owain ap Cadwgan, an act which caused her Norman husband to seek revenge and thus began a war between the Welsh and Normans, earning her the title of “Helen of Wales”.

Indeed, her abduction was not the only remarkable incident in this redoubtable lady’s life. At twelve years of age her father, King Rhys ap Tewdwr[2] of Deheubarth was killed in battle and she was taken by the Normans whom he had been fighting and held hostage in England where she caught the eye of Prince Henry and became his lover, bearing him a child. When he became King Henry I he had to make a political marriage but provided for her and arranged her union with Gerald de Windsor with whom she returned to her native Wales and bore him four children. It was then that she was abducted from Cilgerran Castle by her outlaw cousin Owain who she also enjoyed intimate relations, with most sources saying that these were entirely consensual, (apparently the two had been betrothed as children and she knew him well). This then caused a war between Owain and Gerald which the latter won, causing Owain to flee to Ireland and Gerald to regain his wife plus the added bonus of Owain’s lands. However, even this was not the end of the road for Nest, since after Gerald died, she married again to another Norman lord, Stephen of Cardigan, with whom she bore several more children before finally passing out of history, once assumes rather exhausted.

I first heard of Nest and her exploits when a friend of mine named his daughter after her. Never having heard the name before, he explained to me where it came from and I must say that, whilst I admire his originality and commitment to preserving Welsh traditions, I do wonder if he and his wife fully realise what they have let themselves in for giving their child such a role model to follow. If one thing is to be predicted, she won’t be having a quiet life in the decades to come…

But to return to the original Nest’s grandson, Gerald took Holy Orders and later acted as a mediator between King Henry of England and Prince Rhys ap Gruffydd of Deheubarth. He accompanied one of the king’s sons, John, on a journey around Ireland in 1185 which resulted in him writing ‘Topographia Hibernica’, an account of his journeys around Ireland and a valuable source of information on the country at that period. Having demonstrated his usefulness to the establishment, he then went on a similar journey around Wales in 1188 at the behest of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the aim being to recruit for the Third Crusade and it was during these travels that he visited Llanafan Fawr. The two books that resulted from those journeyings – Itinerarium Cambriae (1191) and Descriptio Cambriae (1194) – remain as his seminal works and valuable historical documents which shed much light on the very dark and murky ways, culture, events and chronology of Wales during that period, particularly throwing light on how Welsh and Norman culture co-existed and interacted.

After a most satisfying meal in the pub, (and overhearing conversations amongst the locals in which immigrants and blacks were discussed in a manner unthinkable in more cosmopolitan and urbane parts of the country), we left the hostelry and crossed the road to have a look at the Church of St. Afan where Gerald once stopped to pay homage. St. Afan of Builth is yet another of those Welsh saints of whom we know little. He is listed as being an early 6th century bishop and martyr whose feast day is November 17th. His diocese is unknown although he is said to have founded the church at Llanafan Fawr (literally, ‘Great Church of St. Afan’), and also Llanfechan, (a corruption of Llanafan Fechan, literally ‘Lesser Church of St.Afan’), both in Northern Powys, although the current church across from the Red Lion is a much later rebuild. There is a stone in the churchyard which declares ‘Hic Iacet Sanctus Avanus Episcopus’ (“Here lies St. Avan, Bishop”) although the stone is no later than the 13th century so, sadly, it is not even the one that Gerald prayed at.


[1] England by contrast, has 59.4% identifying as Christians as well as a far more significant minority of people following other faiths.

[2] The name Tewdwr is the original Welsh spelling of Tudor and Rhys and Nest were both ancestors of Henry who later became King of England.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Talk with a Traveller 1: Dr. Dermot Hudson

Greetings!

It’s May Day today and so I thought I’d post something suitable for the occasion. The result is the first in what I hope shall become a new series for Uncle Travelling Matt: Talk with a Traveller. In each of these v-logs I shall be holding a conversation with a different traveller about their different and varied travel experiences. Some will be with friends of mine, others folk whom I’ve met whilst on the road whilst others still notable figures. Today’s traveller certainly fits into that latter category. His name is Dr. Dermot Hudson and he is the Chairman of the Korean Friendship Association UK. He has written papers on Korea, has contributed to the Bradt Guide to North Korea and was recently awarded a doctorate by the Korean Academy of Social Sciences. So, Dr. Dermot, 반갑습니다!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

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Talk with a Traveller: 1). Dr. Dermot Hudson

If what Dr. Hudson had to say interested you, then here is the link to the KFA website. The UK branch has a section. For those interested in visiting the DPRK, the KFA does offer trip although there are other providers. I travelled with Young Pioneer Tours who I wholeheartedly recommend.

I have done several videos myself about my trip to the DPRK. These may be of interest:

DPRK V-log 1: Crossing the Border

V-log 15: Books about the DPRK

Check out all my V-logs!

V-log 1: So Uncle Travelling Matt, how many countries have you visited…?

V-log 2: Llangelynin

V-log 3: A Tour Around Schouwen-Duiveland

V-log 4: Draycott-en-le-Moors

V-log 5: Barmouth Cliff Walk

V-log 6: Walking Pilgrimage to Bardsey Island

V-log 7: Crowland, Lincolnshire

V-log 8: Repton, Derbyshire

V-log 9: East to West Berlin

V-log 10: Berlin

V-log 11: Poznan

V-log 12: The Ashes 2015

Norway 2015 V-logs

Oslo V-log Day 1

Oslo V-log Day 2

Oslo V-log Day 3

China and DPRK 2015 V-logs

China V-log 1: Overnight Train to Tumen

DPRK V-log 1: Crossing the Border

DPRK V-log 2: Chongjin Seamen’s Club

DPRK V-log 3: Sightseeing and Sing-a-longs on the Bus

DPRK V-log 4: Chilbo-san National Park

DPRK V-log 5: Beach at the Homestay Village

DPRK V-log 6: Reflections atop a Mountain

DPRK V-log 7: Back to School

DPRK V-log 8: Wangjaesan Grand Monument

China V-log 2: Bullet Train to Beijing

Cuba and Spain 2016 V-logs

Madrid and Toledo V-log

Monday, 25 April 2016

A470: Part 7: Caersws to Rhyader

world-map llangelynin

Greetings!

Following on from my comments last week, I’ve now booked my trip to Iceland, the Faroe Isles and Denmark for November. Can’t wait to explore the Far North! Until then though, the equally wild Green Desert of Wales…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Llandudno

Part 3: Llandudno to Dolwyddelan

Part 4: Dolwyddelan to Blaenau Ffestiniog

Part 5: Blaenau Ffestiniog to Dolgellau

Part 6: Dolgellau to Caersws

Part 7: Caersws to Rhyader

Also check out my other Welsh travelogues:

The Sacred Heart of Wales

Across the Sound

V-log: Llangelynin

V-log: Barmouth Cliff Walk

V-log: Walking Pilgrimage to Bardsey Island

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Part 7: Caersws to Rhyader

We left the A470 at Caersws and took a detour to Newtown, the very English-sounding largest town in Mid Wales. Newtown sounds rather un-Welsh because it is; it was founded by Edward I as a new town to be settled in by his people near to where Dolforwyn Castle, a seat of the Prince of Wales, had stood before Edward besieged it and gave all the lands thereabouts to the Mortimers. Even today, it still has a very English look about it and, only ten miles from the border, like Wrexham to the north, it looks far more to the English border towns than it does those places lying to its west.

Newtown's most famous son is Robert Owen, the famous socialist reformer who advocated giving workers decent conditions and housing and helped to found the co-operative movement. He was born where the HSBC bank now stands and the town has both a statue and museum dedicated to him although his greatest legacy is not in Wales nor even England, but instead the model workers' town of New Lanark in Scotland. The socialist legacy however, remained strong in the town; in 1838 it saw Wales' first Chartist demonstration.

However, it was not to explore the socialist heritage of the area that we made the detour, but instead to get the charger for the iPad that had proved so elusive in Dolgellau. This time we were luckier, and after purchasing what we needed, ogling the rather fine Victorian brick parish church and then buying a coffee, we headed back into the Green Desert to the A470.

We left the road again at Llanidloes, another of those Welsh settlements named after an obscure early Christian hermit saint. Although a pretty place and unusual in being one of the few places to elect a Conservative MP regularly, we had turned off not to go to the town but instead a spot several miles on that I'd read about in a newspaper article which praised the virtues of touring the A470. The writer, a Welsh tourist chief, had commented how he liked to take detours off the A470 and one such detour led from Llanidloes to the nearby Llyn Clywedog, which is not actually a Llyn (lake), but instead a reservoir (cronlyn). It was formed in 1967 when a dam was built across the Afon Clywedog, a tributary of the Severn, the aim being to provide drinking water for the English Midlands, a little electric power and also to help limit winter flooding of the Severn, although judging by the incredible flooding of that waterway that I witnessed several months earlier whilst travelling by train from Shrewsbury to Newport, the latter aim does not seem to have been totally successful.

I love a good dam; nothing speaks so vividly of human progress and the harnessing of nature, (that's why the communists were so enamoured with them in all their propaganda), and over the years I've seen a fair few around the world, my favourites being the immense Light of the Party Dam in Northern Albania, (if only for the name), and the staggering Tateyama Dam near to where I used to live in Japan. British dams however, tend to be a bit of a disappointment; generally earthworks rather than concrete cliffs, they might do the job but they don't look the part. Clywedog however, is the exception and it took our breath away. This was a sight worth driving to Wales for, let alone taking a short detour off the A470 and the ironic fact is that if it were only a few miles north, it would be a stop on a lot of tourist itineraries. In the Green Desert however, it is virtually unknown, a pleasant surprise for us intrepid Welsh wanderers. We stood and looked across the placid waters to the mighty wall that holds them at bay and decided that we both rather liked it.

14485659418_3d4fc5cf17_z Clywedog Dam

Not all would agree though and when it was built in the 1960s there was much local opposition to the fact that a lush valley of fertile Welsh farmland was being flooded to water English homes. There were numerous disruptions and protests which culminated in the detonation of a bomb which set work back by two months. This was thought to be the work of Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (Movement for the Defence of Wales), an ultra-nationalist Welsh paramilitary organisation which organised a series of bombs throughout the 1960s and 70s, many directed at disrupting the construction of dams destroying the Welsh countryside for English benefit.

One does not usually think of the Welsh as a people who resort to violence to achieve their nationalistic ends, perhaps because a majority do not want independence, but during the 1960s both Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru and the Free Welsh Army campaigned actively for Welsh independence drawing on the tactics of their Celtic brethren across the Irish Sea. It was not just those organisations either; during the 1970s and 80s another group, Mebion Glyndŵr (The Sons of Glyndŵr) torched English-owned holiday homes in the north and locals also suffered prison sentences for refusing to pay their TV fines because there were no Welsh-language programmes; a campaign that led to the introduction of S4C, the first Welsh-language TV channel.

Just below the dam we saw signs leading to a lead mine and decided to take a look. This nineteenth century ruin stands at the foot of the concrete wall, forever in its shadow and is a pleasant place to spend half an hour or so, admiring the views and learning a little about the region's industrial heritage. For me though, there was another good reason to go: I have been constructing a model railway with my son based on a fictional Mid-Wales town, Caertomos (the fortress of Thomas – my son's name is Thomas), and high on the hill above the campsite, it has a little disused lead mine. I headed for the old slag heap and picked up a few handfuls of stones in order to make my own slag heap that bit more realistic. Then, after taking that little bit of Wales in my pocket, we got back in the car and continued on our way again.

The area that we then passed through, hugging the banks of the River Wye, is known as Red Kite Country. This is nothing to do with those contraptions of wood, string and material that always fail to fly properly when you head up to a windy spot, but instead a particular type of bird of prey that has a most remarkable story. Relatives of the eagle, Red Kites live on carrion but as society became more modernised, there were less rotting animals around for them to feed on and their numbers began to dwindle, a process only accelerated by the fact that they were shot and poisoned by gamekeepers who did not want them on their reserves. This led to what has become one of the oldest conservation projects in the world. It began in the 1880s when one E. Cambridge Philips lobbied landowners and offered bounty payments for the protection of nests but these efforts were unsuccessful and by the turn of the 20th century only a couple of breeding pairs were left in all Wales. That led to Dr. J. H. Salter, Professor of Botany at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth persuading the British Ornithologists Club to set up a 'Kite Committee' to organise the protection of the few remaining kites in the upper Tywi Valley. Progress was slow but the process was reversed and slowly the population recovered. Today there are an estimated thousand pairs across Wales making it one of the biggest red kite populations in the world with the county of Ceredigion having the highest concentration of the birds in the world. As we drove along we watched them soar and swoop above us, proof that not all is gloomy and without hope in ecological matters. What is all the more heartening is that the repopulation of Wales is not the end of the story either, for now Welsh birds are being used to reintroduce kites into Ireland and other parts of the British Isles, thereby guaranteeing a healthy future for these once threatened creatures.

Rhyader is the mid-point of the A470, the town at the heart of Wales. That makes it sound oh-so-grand, yet it is not. It is, in fact, barely big enough to be called a town – the village where Rob and I went to high school is far bigger – instead it is a collection of dwellings and shops radiating out from a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, a minute oasis of urbanity in the vastness of the Green Desert.

Yet it is precisely this which makes Rhyader so very Welsh. The Welsh never were an urban people you see. Prior to the English incursions they had no towns save of course for the Roman barracks town at Caerleon which was nonetheless abandoned pretty soon after they left. Their cathedral cities were tiny villages clustered around a monastery church and their royal strongholds lonely wind-buffeted towers in the mountain fastness. And whilst the English did bring with them city-living, the Welsh, I suspect, have never really taken to it. Only Newport, Swansea and Cardiff are cities of any great size and when the referendum on devolution came in 1997, all three were lukewarm in their support of it. No, to me it seems that the Welsh, when not on their farms, seem happiest in small towns like Rhyader. After all, was not the greatest work of Welsh literature in modern times a play for voices chronicling a day in the life of one such town, the fictional Llaregub,[1] the guidebook description of which could well fit Rhyader, Dolgellau, Llandeilo, Lanrwst, Denbigh, Cardigan, Machynlleth and a score more Welsh towns in addition to the Pembrokeshire fishing town of Laugharne which inspired it:

'Less than five hundred souls inhabit the three quaint streets and the few narrow by-lanes and scattered farmsteads that constitute this small, decaying watering-place which may, indeed, be called a 'backwater of life' without disrespect to its natives who possess, to this day, a salty individuality of their own. The main street, Coronation Street, consists, for the most part, of humble, two-storied houses many of which attempt to achieve some measure of gaiety by prinking themselves out in crude colours and by the liberal use of pinkwash, though there are remaining a few eighteenth-century houses of more pretension, if, on the whole, in a sad state of disrepair. Though there is little to attract the hillclimber, the healthseeker, the sportsman, or the weekending motorist, the contemplative may, if sufficiently attracted to spare it some leisurely hours, find, in its cobbled streets and its little fishing harbour, in its several curious customs, and in the conversation of its local 'characters,' some of that picturesque sense of the past so frequently lacking in towns and villages which have kept more abreast of the times. The River Dewi is said to abound in trout, but is much poached. The one place of worship, with its neglected graveyard, is of no architectural interest.'[2]

Guidebooks though, talk down the charms of the Llaregubs, Laugharnes and Rhyaders of this world for such towns offer little to traveller passing through in haste. Beyond its handsome Victorian clocktower at the heart of the crossroads, there was little to arrest our fickle attentions in Rhyader, but the beauty of these small places lies not in the fleeting visit, but in the longer sojourns during which one can begin to get a sense of place... and people. Again, it is a creation of Dylan Thomas, a resident of sleepy Llaregub that puts it best. Rev. Eli Jenkins, the poetic minister, recites his hymn in praise of the non-descript backwater town that he knows and loves so well each morning as he wakes and so, as we passed a similar such place, we too marked his words:

'Dear Gwalia! I know there are

Towns lovelier than ours,

And fairer hills and loftier far,

And groves more full of flowers,

And boskier woods more blithe with spring

And bright with birds' adorning,

And sweeter bards than I to sing

Their praise this beauteous morning.

By Cader Idris, tempest-torn,

Or Moel yr Wyddfa's glory,

Carnedd Llewelyn beauty born,

Plinlimmon old in story,

By mountains where King Arthur dreams,

By Penmaenmawr defiant,

Llaregyb Hill a molehill seems,

A pygmy to a giant.

By Sawdde, Senny, Dovey, Dee,

Edw, Eden, Aled, all,

Taff and Towy broad and free,

Llyfnant with its waterfall,

Claerwen, Cleddau, Dulais, Daw,

Ely, Gwili, Ogwr, Nedd,

Small is our River Dewi, Lord,

A baby on a rushy bed.

By Carreg Cennen, King of time,

Our Heron Head is only

A bit of stone with seaweed spread

Where gulls come to be lonely.

A tiny dingle is Milk Wood

By Golden Grove 'neath Grongar,

But let me choose and oh! I should

Love all my life and longer

To stroll among our trees and stray

In Goosegog Lane, on Donkey Down,

And hear the Dewi sing all day,

And never, never leave the town.'[3]

23958lgRhyader


[1] Read it backwards...

[2] Under Milk Wood, p.23

[3] Under Milk Wood, p. 24-5

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Madrid and Toledo V-log

world-map madrid

Greetings!

I’ve been spending some serious hours this last week or more going through my old videos and editing them for consumption. The result is a whole heap of new v-logs will be on their way to Uncle Travelling Matt and here is the first, the account of my recent stopover break to Madrid.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

madrid vlog

Madrid and Toledo V-log

Check out all my V-logs!

V-log 1: So Uncle Travelling Matt, how many countries have you visited…?

V-log 2: Llangelynin

V-log 3: A Tour Around Schouwen-Duiveland

V-log 4: Draycott-en-le-Moors

V-log 5: Barmouth Cliff Walk

V-log 6: Walking Pilgrimage to Bardsey Island

V-log 7: Crowland, Lincolnshire

V-log 8: Repton, Derbyshire

V-log 9: East to West Berlin

V-log 10: Berlin

Friday, 15 April 2016

A470: Part 6: Dolgellau to Caersws

world-map llangelynin

Greetings!

People who know me well are more than aware that I don’t, as a general rule, do television. But just lately I’ve been gorging on a number of Scandi Noir crime dramas, the pick of the bunch being the Icelandic series ‘Trapped’(Ófærð).

30385625114376e29_ca

Set in the small town of Seyðisfjörður during the depths of winter, it has an exciting and intriguing plotline based on several murders of town notables. What caught my attention early on is that part of the story involves the Smyril Line ferry from Denmark which I was investigating at the time due to a possible future trip. The immense scenery and fascinating culture depicted in the series has made up my mind and so, watch this space, art shall imitate life, and Uncle Travelling Matt’s next intended trip is northwards to the land of geysers…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Llandudno

Part 3: Llandudno to Dolwyddelan

Part 4: Dolwyddelan to Blaenau Ffestiniog

Part 5: Blaenau Ffestiniog to Dolgellau

Part 6: Dolgellau to Caersws

Also check out my other Welsh travelogues:

The Sacred Heart of Wales

Across the Sound

V-log: Llangelynin

V-log: Barmouth Cliff Walk

V-log: Walking Pilgrimage to Bardsey Island

A470_5

Part 6: Dolgellau to Caersws 

We considered turning off at the Cross Foxes pub for Machynlleth and perhaps we should have done. Although well away from the A470 no exploration into what makes Wales tick is complete without a visit to that little market town. It was there, in 1404, that Owain Glyndŵr held his Welsh parliament, the last one before the opening of the new Welsh Assembly in 1997 following devolution. As such it thinks of itself as the ancient capital of Wales and, despite having a population of little over two thousand, has twice applied for city status.

Owain Glyndŵr is a difficult figure to assess but an essential one for his name is heard all over Wales. Indeed, of the several proposals to rename the A470 into something much more memorable, the Glyndŵr Way is the one looking most likely to succeed, even though, to the best of my knowledge, he has had nothing whatsoever to do with the road.

Glyndŵr is generally portrayed as the last great Welsh hero. Born in Glyndyfrdwy near to Llangollen and a descendent of the Princes of Powys, he led the Great Welsh Revolt against the English King Henry IV in 1400. Initially the revolt was successful; the great castle at Conwy fell to Glyndŵr and very soon he held much of North and Mid Wales. Under Henry Percy the English countered but the Welsh defeated them at Mynydd Hyddgen and then later, in 1402 at Bryn Glas. By this time the French and Bretons were helping the Welsh and the revolt spread to South Wales as well. By 1404 Glyndŵr held court at Harlech, (another of the great castles of Edward I that he had captured), and he felt confident to call his Parliament at Machynlleth where he was crowned Prince of Wales and emissaries from several foreign powers attended. There he declared his vision of an independent Wales with a return to pre-English Welsh law, two universities and an independent Welsh Church. Now Glyndŵr was at his apogee, with the English holding only a few isolated castles in the Principality and, in 1405, a French force landing at Milford Haven and marching all the way into Worcestershire. However, although they met with the English army, a battle was never fought and both forces retreated. So too did Glyndŵr's fortunes as the political winds changed in France and his main ally abandoned him. Slowly the English regained the country, taking back the castles at Harlech and Aberystwyth in 1409, and in 1410 Glyndŵr's ancestral home in Glyndyfrdwy. By this time the Prince of Wales was a hunted rebel, yet mysteriously, he was never captured or betrayed by his followers so that he adopted an almost mythical presence. He is thought to have died in 1415 but no one knows for sure or where his body lies. Since Glyndŵr though, Wales has never been an independent state.

Which is why the nationalists love him so much. When the modern-day nationalist movement began with the establishment of Cymru Fydd in 1886, (perversely, it began initially in London amongst Welsh emigres and only opened a branch in the Principality itself in 1892), they revived Owain Glyndŵr and recast the half-forgotten rebel as a national hero par excellence, creating a mythology around him that many place, particularly Machynlleth, like to exploit. This modern reworking of ancient history is best represented for me by Jan Morris' 'Machynlleth Trilogy', a trilogy of novellas in Welsh and English set in the town dealing with the state of Wales past, present and future. The first revels in the pageantry and pride of Glyndŵr's 1404 Parliament; the second mopes about the sad, provincial tumbleweed state of the town (and country) in the 1970s whilst the third is a look forward to a glorious future in the 21st century when Machynlleth is again a capital of an independent Wales, a country that is eco-friendly and devoted to peace, a beacon of hope and progress for the world. For us A470-lovers though, what is most noticeable is how Morris envisages a brand-new highway cut through the mountains, joining the nation from top to bottom, with a large junction just outside of the new capital. That book was written around the same time as the A470 was renumbered into a single entity and the thinking is clear: a highway to unite Wales is necessary, but if you can't afford a new one then instead make one up from some old bits of road.

But was Glyndŵr really the great national hero that Morris and Cymru Fydd make him out to be? As a great sceptic of nationalism, I personally doubt it and all reports from the time declare that his initial grievance was not the sad, subjected state of his spiritual homeland, but instead the fact that his neighbour, Baron Grey de Ruthyn, seized some of his land and when he appealed to the courts for redress, he was turned down. So perhaps his cause was not quite so noble after all, but what of his legacy? Simon Jenkins, himself a proud Welshman, states in his classic work on Welsh architecture, 'Wales: Churches, Houses, Castles' that “The land that Glyndŵr left behind was ruined, as much by his own warmongering as by that of the English. In his Jacobean history of Gwydir, Sir John Wynn remarked that 'it was Glyndŵr's policy to bring all things to waste, that the English should not find strength nor resting place in the country.' The revolt, he said, 'brought such desolation that green grass grew in the market place... and deer fed in the churchyard'.”[1] So, a man who brought his country to its knees, a state from which it took decades to recover from. Is that the same as the hero that Jan Morris drools over? I shall leave it to you to decide.

Owain-GlyndwrOwain Glyndŵr

Several miles on from Dolgellau is another contender for the Highlight of the A470 Award: Bwlch Oerddrws (Cold Door Pass). Owain Glyndŵr once fought a battle there but he is not the main reason why it is notable. Folk memory talks far more about the Red Bandits, a group of robbers who set upon travellers traversing the lonely pass in the 16th century before retiring to their lairs in the nearby mountains. Most of today's travellers though are unaware of this unless they stop at the viewpoint at the head where there is an information board. Instead they are stunned by the awesome views across the vast empty glacial valley of Cwm Cerist with the looming mass of Cadair Idris in the background. Nonetheless, even today the descent is still not without its perils. I remember vividly a trip over as a child when we passed the mangled wreckage of a car and caravan. In the high winds and driving rain, the caravan had swung violently and left the road, pulling the car and its unhappy occupants down the slope to their deaths.

1497665_10154592528205305_640592624074697750_nBwlch Oerddrws

Looming over Bwlch Oerddrws is the forbidding mass of Cadair Idris, perhaps the second most famous mountain in Wales after Snowdon. At 893m in height it’s hardly a monster even by British standards, but it is the highest peak in Mid Wales and it looks far more forbidding than its height suggests. That impression was only reinforced when I was told as a child that it was the Devil’s Chair but in fact the name refers not to Satan but instead Idris, a mythical giant who was supposedly skilled in poetry, astronomy and philosophy. Interestingly though, Idris is also cited as an early prophet in Islam who lived in Babylon which has caused some, such as Bob Quinn in his book ‘The Atlantean Irish’ to postulate about links between early Wales and Ireland, suggesting that the ‘Celts’ of the Western reaches of the British Isles are not in fact connected to the Celts of the central European La Tène culture as most historians suppose, but instead get their vibrant culture from seafaring routes stretching back to the Middle East. Whatever the case, a popular legend about Cadair Idris states that anyone who sleeps on its slopes alone will supposedly awaken either a madman or a poet. This has been taken up by many writers of fiction including Bernard Cornwell in his entertaining Warlord Chronicles in which his Merlin ascends the mountain and returns with a bit of both qualities in him.

After Bwlch Oerddrws the scenery beyond our car's windows changed. Gone were the harsh rocky crags of Snowdonia and in their place greener, tamer hills. This was still an empty landscape in terms of people but it was far less forbidding. We had now left North Wales behind and were in the middle of the country.

Travel guides, historians, politicians and a plethora of others always seem to divide Wales into North, Mid and South which is strange since no other country in the British Isles seems to get the same treatment. We are told that North and South Wales do not connect much with one another, hence the need for an artery like the A470 to unite them, that they are quite different in character. Such a viewpoint however, to me begs three very important questions: Firstly, what do we mean by South Wales? Secondly, what do we mean by North Wales? And thirdly, what is there in-between the two that is so awesome as to separate them so completely?

These are not easy questions to answer. Geographically, the country can be divided into three broad stripes. The southern one is the largest since Wales is at its widest there, stretching all the way from St. David's to Chepstow. However, is this stripe an interconnected whole? Well, it has the largest population centre (Cardiff) although the other big city (Swansea) is far more central. Nonetheless, it is linked together by road (M4-A48-A40) and rail with various off-shoots up the valleys and down to Pembroke and Milford Haven. If any region can be seen as such, it is the south.

North Wales however, is a different case entirely. That too has its great east-west road, the A55 which we have already discussed, but that clings to the coast and misses every major population centre bar Bangor. So too the A5 which plunges through the region but passes through nowhere. And our own A470, whilst pretty, hardly provides a oneness to the north. When we think of the north we think of the rugged and wild peaks of Snowdonia such as those Rob and I had passed through, yet Snowdonia only accounts for around a third of the region if that. Clwyd is rolling and lush, as too is the Isle of Anglesey, whilst the Llyn Peninsula has more in common with St. David's than St. Asaph's. The largest town is Wrexham, but that clings to the English border and is almost cut-off from the rest of the country that claims it. North Wales is not a whole but a collection of regions; it may need the A470 to link it to the south but I would also suggest that it needs its other routes to link it to itself as well.

But if that is north and south, then what lies in-between? Mid Wales is what it is called in the guidebooks, but what does that, the most overlooked part of the Principality consist of. Gone are the lofty mountains of the north and there are no coal or iron-rich valleys yet to replace them. Instead this is a vast expanse of rolling hills, farming country, sparsely-populated and little visited. The fact is that we were struggling for places to stop off at, suggesting that this is more an area that people pass through rather than go to. However, the light traffic on the roads and poor nature of the transport infrastructure, east-west as well as north-south, suggests that people don't even do that much either. Tourists flock to the Gower and Pembrokeshire Coast, to Anglesey, Snowdonia and the Northern Coast, but here is a region they miss. Is this therefore, where the hidden soul of Wales lies?

And there's a term for this region, from Machynlleth down to Brecon. They call it the “Green Desert” because of how empty it is. This is the barrier separating Llandudno and Cardiff that the A470 punctures, this is that piece of Wales that you know nothing about. In 1860 a travel writer wrote, “The locality we were now traversing is one of the most untamed and desolate in either division of the Principality; it has indeed with perfect truth been called the "great desert of Wales." Vast sweeping ranges of hills with round tops, add to the dreary aspect of this nearly unpeopled region...”[2] and from what Rob and I could see beyond the panes of the car's windows, little had changed. Tiny places – Llanbrynmair, Carno, Caersws, Llanidloes – with nothing to make you want to stop, pull over and explore. Just rows of bleak cottages by the side of the road until we leave the 30 zone and enter the national speed limit realm of rolling green pastures once again.

Actually, one of those names meant something to us. Caersws. I've never been there mind, but it had meaning for both me and Rob. You remember how I talked about taking the train a lot when I was younger? Well, another of the great train journeys of Wales is that from Shrewsbury to Machynlleth where the line forks, northwards to Barmouth, Harlech, Porthmadog and Pwhelli, or southwards to Aberystwyth. It's a fine line passing through the heart of the Green Desert and when thinking back of trips along it I always recall Caersws. You travelled for miles and miles through nothing and then there was a stop, in the middle of nowhere with that very unpronounceable Welsh name, the first of the trip, (the stops before are the very English-sounding Welshpool and Newtown). There the train stopped in the evening twilight, very Aldesthrop, just a platform and nothing beyond, and you knew that you were now in a special, half-magical land.[3] For twenty miles or so beforehand, the railway follows the A470 and I remembered by boyhood journeyings along it. I was fourteen or fifteen and had a cassette walkman with a Rod Stewart 'Greatest Hits' tape in it. As he rasped out his cover of 'The First Cut is the Deepest' I thought longingly of a girl in my Chemistry class who just wasn't interested, and then when he broke into the psychedelic strains of 'In a Broken Dream' it was as if I were transported to a different, more surreal place as the sun set over both the Powys hills and my hopes with that siren of the Science lab...

Rob too has memories of that journey, many more than me. He lived in Aberystwyth for three years as he studied for his degree and made the trip to and fro home countless times. It influenced his art greatly as well. Rob is best known I would say, for his innovative work on perspective which he started to experiment with whilst studying at Aberystwyth. Actually, he began writing his thesis whilst on an overland rail trip with me from Bulgaria to Varna and the end result was a painting done on the Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury train. It's good and it's also a theme that he has returned to again and again. So far as I know, that painting has never had a name but surely there can be none better than Caersws to conjure up its capturing of the state of inbetweenness that occurs on every journey.

P1250749Train at Caersws


[1] Wales: Churches, Houses, Castles, p.20

[2] Solitudes of Wales

[3] Caersws actually has much more to it than a railway station: it was once one of the pre-eminent Roman centres in Wales, the word ‘caer’ denoting the fortress built by them.