Croeso i Cymru!

20 Mar

That means “Welcome to Wales” in Welsh. And Wales is where I am at the moment. A beautiful, hilly and mountainous little land jutting out into the Irish Sea on the west coast of Britain. A small country within the United Kingdom that would surely rather be detatched from England altogether.

The first thing I noticed when driving into Wales from England was that all of the signs are in English and Welsh. Sometimes the English comes first, sometimes the Welsh (much to the irritation of Anglophone drivers). It’s not just on signs, either…almost everything printed is available in Welsh, too. Not always, however…and it would be foolish to pretend that both languages have the same status in this country.

The region that I’m currently in, southeast Wales, is the least Welsh-speaking of all Wales, and in fact quite Anglicized. I don’t think I’ve heard any Welsh spoken yet…maybe a few words at most…so it seems odd that all the signs would be in both languages. However, I know that the Welsh are protective of their language, and rightly so. Moreover, in some areas of Wales, particularly the northwest (where I’ll be headed in a couple of days), the *majority* of people use Welsh as their primary language of conversation (around 65% I believe).

Nonetheless, it’s very obvious that I’m not in England. For one, the Welsh have very distinct accents, although some sound more ‘English’ than others…but it’s not uncommon to hear someone roll their r’s, and use that lovely Celtic sing-song intonation. It’s hard to identify a good example of a Welsh accent, however, because there seem to be so many of them…and I’ve only been to one corner of the country so far!

Some people have particularly strong accents. When I was buying my rail and bus pass at the Cardiff train station, I had to ask the ticket seller to repeat himself a few times…to be honest, for those with a strong Welsh accent (particularly the older folks), it often sounds like they’re speaking a foreign language, or that their native language isn’t English (which *might* be true in some cases).

Overall, though, it is a very pleasant departure from the boring, typical southeast England accent that I’ve become so used to hearing all the time. I bought a drink at a mall in Swansea today, and the girl who sold it to me had the most adorable accent. I wanted to take her home with me (…to listen to her accent, you sickos).

One of the problems for me (and many non-Welsh) is trying to figure out how to pronounce Welsh place names (“Cymru”, of course, is pronounced “Koom-ree”). They’re generally a jumble of c’s, w’s, y’s, d’s… I’ve done some cursory research into Welsh pronunciation and phonology, but that only helps when people actually pronounce the name as if it were Welsh – oftentimes, they use an Anglicized pronunciation. Actually, many towns in south Wales have both an English name and a Welsh name, which makes things even more confusing. But I’m trying my best. I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten the “ll” sound down…it’s like a “th” and an “l” pronounced simultaneously.

Of course, there’s more to Wales than just the language! The people are different, too. No, they’re not bursting with outgoing friendliness in contrast to the cold English…they’re still British, after all. But on the whole, there seems to be a slightly greater sense of familiarity here. By that, I mean that people will speak to you more as if you’re already acquainted…at least, they don’t seem quite as distant as the English can seem.

In fact, it seems like everyone knows one another here. People are always stopping to talk with a friend in the street, on the bus, anywhere. It definitely gives the area a friendlier atmosphere. On the other hand…you can also get the vibe that you’re an outsider, since no one knows you. But the people are generally nice enough that you don’t feel too alone.

The most remarkable thing that showed me how Wales is different happened on my first day here. I went into a big store to buy some food, and after selecting my items I proceeded to the register (or “till” as it’s called in Britain). While the woman at the register was scanning my things, a boy (probably 11 or 12) in front of me in line asked, “Would you like a bag?” At first, I was a little puzzled – he clearly didn’t work there. But I assumed that he had grabbed an extra bag while he and his parents were checking out their stuff and was offering to give it to me.

So, I said, “Yes, please”, assuming that he would hand me the bag. But then the most remarkable thing happened. He actually put my items (3 of them), one-by-one, into the bag. And nothing was made of it. It was an ordinary act of kindness, I suppose, but one that I wasn’t expecting in the least. The kid just left with his family and that was that.

Anyway, perhaps I should talk about what I’ve been doing along my journey. My first stop was the market town of Abergavenny in the county of Monmouthshire, nestled among the hills on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Here’s a photo:

I stayed at a hostel on the edge of town, right across from the train station. When I first arrived, I quickly realised that the bottom floor of the building was a pub (not too surprising in the UK)…but I kind of had that “all-eyes-on-you” feeling when I walked in with my luggage. Part of the problem was that it was apparently Pub Quiz night, so the normal beer-drinkers were unusually sober and alert for the game.

Anyway, the hostel was nothing fancy (not too shabby, either), but the best part was that I had an entire room (6 beds) all to myself! Ah, the joys of traveling during the low season.

In the morning I walked around Abergavenny before catching a bus to the village of Raglan, home of Raglan Castle. It was very cool – my second castle in Wales (there was one in Abergavenny, too), and the second of many to come. It seems like every bloody town has its own castle here. But it was a perfect day to visit Raglan – clear, sunny skies, fairly warm…I had to take my jacket off… like a real spring day! (And yet the next day would be the complete opposite).

I got some fish n’ chips for lunch before heading to Monmouth, the county town (and another market town). I chose to visit because two national scenic walking trails converge in the town – the Wye River Walk and Offa’s Dyke Path (which follows the border between England and Wales). I tried Offa’s Dyke first, which offered some nice views but was fairly strenuous (partly because I’ve been carrying my laptop around in my backpack – more on this later).

After the path headed into the woods, I realised there wouldn’t be any more good views for a while so I headed back to town to get some water, before moving on to the Wye River Walk. This was much easier, of course, as it simply followed the edge of the river. Nothing spectacular in the way of scenery, at least for the section I took, but it was pleasant nonetheless. The path cuts across the edges of various private properties, including farms and a church…there are small wooden gates at the entrance to each one (the whole thing reminded me quite a bit of Le château de ma mère.)

To see all of my photos from Monmouthshire, click here.

The next day I left Monmouthshire to head south towards the capital city of Cardiff, on the coast. Actually, the train from Abergavenny was cancelled due to “planned engineering works” (the UK’s favourite pasttime), so I started to freak out until I realised that there was a replacement bus service. It took me to Newport, and after a brief train ride, I was in Cardiff.

The cities in south Wales are actually, in my opinion, quite ugly. They are fairly industrialized (which is true of many cities in England, obviously, but I’ve been living in a resort town!), and have quite a bit of modern architecture. Part of this is due to German bombing raids in WWII, which destroyed much of the original buildings in these industrial port cities.

As far as modern architecture goes, I suppose the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff is tough to beat – it actually looks cool. But the rest of the city is fairly…blah. Cardiff Castle is a Victorian reproduction, which is ok I suppose, but it didn’t attract me enough to pay to go inside. Also, there were lots of American fast food places (admittedly, I actually went to Pizza Hut and Burger King, which I normally never would…but the options were limited and I needed something fast and cheap).

So, I took the bus out of the city and headed north (actually, the northern neighbourhoods of the city looked quite nice…nicer than any neighbourhoods in Brighton, for sure). I went to a northern suburb called Caerphilly, known for its castle, the largest moated castle in Wales.

The pictures probably don’t do it justice, but it was actually quite impressive. It was the first castle to really make me feel as if I were in the Middle Ages. You can see all of my pictures of the castle here.

As I mentioned earlier, the weather this day was the complete opposite of what it had been the day before, when I visited Raglan Castle. In the morning, I noticed snowflakes falling. But it was extremely light, and the sky was relatively clear, until I got to Caerphilly. It started raining…and hailing…and snowing…all at once. Now, it was a very mild “storm” compared to the kind of storms you have in much of North America, but it was still enough to get me drenched.

The downpour was actually very brief, and then subsided to clear, sunny skies in a minute. Of course, I thought I was safe until it started raining again later, but eventually that subsided too. Given that it was very cold, and I was fairly wet, and the wind was strong…I was freezing. It was probably the coldest I’ve been in Britain, at least since that late-night walk through Lewes in February.

I went back to my hostel in Cardiff to warm up, which was a very colourful place. It was fairly nice (something like a 4-star hostel, I think…which probably isn’t saying much). There was another person sharing my room, but I never really saw him. He came in after I’d gone to bed, making all kinds of useless noise and breathing heavily. Eventually I fell back asleep and woke up in the morning before him…except when I got out of the shower, he was gone. Hm.

For all of its colour and its four stars, the hostel was a bit of a let-down. I was under the impression that there would be some kind of breakfast buffet, but there was nothing of the sort. Also, the shower would not work properly…the best I could get was a drizzling stream of cold water. And the Internet connection cost 1 pound per hour…which was a complete rip-off.

So I once again decided to flee Cardiff and head for the hills…to another castle. The next castle on my list was Castell Coch (“Red Castle” in Welsh), a Romantic-era reconstruction of a Medieval Castle, which looks like a fairy tale. Unfortunately, there was quite a bit of scaffolding covering one of the towers, which really took away from the fairy tale feel. But it was a very neat little place, and I got to enjoy it all to myself since I went early in the morning.

To see my pictures from Cardiff and Castell Coch, click here.

For the next leg of my journey, and the final part of my journey in south Wales, I headed into the Brecon Beacons National Park. Driving through the park offered some incredible views…all of the mountaintops are covered with snow, and they’re quite breathtaking above all the fields with sheep and the mountain forests.

I arrived in Brecon, the mountains’ namesake, which is a very colourful town in a very beautiful location, overlooked by the peaks of the Beacons. I set off looking for the bed and breakfast where I had reserved a room, but unfortunately I got lost for a while. It took me some time to figure out the street layout and find my way to the B&B.

Even though I live in New England, which is known for its B&Bs and so forth, I’ve never had the luxury of staying at one (I’m inclined to think that there aren’t any in the U.S. as inexpensive as the ones I’ve found here, but then again, I wouldn’t know). The sense of comfort compared to the hostels is blissfully tremendous, and it’s such a contrast to have two people tending to your needs and making you breakfast…especially since I’m the only one with a room at the moment (yes, I’m writing this from my room, which has high-speed wireless.)

The couple that runs this B&B use only organic ingredients in their food. And of course it’s quite good. It’s nice to have true Welsh people to offer their advice on things as well. When suggesting places to go, they said they wouldn’t send me anywhere “too close to England.” Ha!

At any rate, after my arrival I set off to climb to the top of a hill which I’d spotted earlier from town. I knew that it would have a great view of the surrounding area, and after getting the walking directions from my host, I set off. I’d been warned about the mud, which wasn’t much of a problem until I got to the top section of the hill.

Although now part of a farm, the hill was actually once the site of a Bronze Age hill fort. You can still see the step-like rings around the summit, which would’ve been defensive ditches at one point. Climbing to the top, I was overcome with a sense of adventurousness…in fact, it was rather terrifying. I was so high up, in such an unfamiliar landscape, and the wind was terrible. I felt like I could be blown off at any second.

I walked past a bunch of sheep, who were startled (I was just as surprised to see them up there). I reached the summit, on which stands a survey marker, which I hid behind as shelter from the wind. But the view. Oh, the view. I’m hard pressed to think of a time when I’ve found a view more beautiful.

I took a bunch of pictures, soaked in all the beauty, and then started making my way down.

Then it happened.

I slipped in the mud. Landed on my arse, with my camera in one hand…now covered with mud.

First of all, I did not want to walk back into the bed and breakfast covered with mud, for my hosts’ sake. More importantly, I hoped to God that my camera would still work after I cleaned it off.

I did my best to wipe some of the mud off me (or just conceal it), but the whole incident brought me down off my high very rapidly. On my way back down, I missed the gate leading to the path I’d taken up, and so I started getting lost. At this point, I was panicking. The sun was going down and I did not want to be the object of a search and rescue mission. Eventually, I found the gate (as well as my cool) and headed back down.

My hosts were kind enough to not make a big deal of the messy clothes, and simply offered to put them in the wash. They even helped clean my shoes off for me (although they remarked that I need new ones, which is undoubtedly true…it was my goal to buy some in Brighton before I left, but couldn’t find any that I liked :p). I cleaned the camera off, and it seems to be working fine, but I certainly hope that no problems arise. I wouldn’t want to have to buy *another* camera.

Anyway, I enjoyed my full night’s sleep last night.

Today, I decided to avoid walking altogether and just go for a few bus rides. I took a couple of different bus routes across the Brecon Beacons, which offered some beautiful views, but unfortunately it was very difficult to take pictures from the bus, especially with the dirty windows. So you’ll just have to trust me about the beautiful part.

I stopped mid-day in Swansea, on the coast, which was an interesting town of little interest. It was interesting in that it is a very modern-looking city (see: WWII bombing raids), but there’s really not much to see. I walked to the beach, which was nice in the sunshine (although it was certainly too cold for anyone to be swimming :)), and then I went to Swansea Castle, which was kind of a sad thing. Surrounded by ugly modern buildings and litter, with people walking by and not even taking a glance at the castle.

(To see all of my pictures of the Brecon Beacons and Swansea, click here).

So, I went back to Brecon and the B&B. I decided to write this post because I don’t know when I’ll be able to have Internet access again. Unfortunately, since I can’t update frequently, I have to make the posts wicked long. Sorry about that. Unfortunately, it also means that I’ve stayed up far too late, and won’t get much sleep before I start my journey tomorrow.

I’ll be crossing the border into England briefly, to see Shrewsbury, a town filled with Tudor architecture, before moving on to the village of Llangollen in north Wales. I’ll try to find Internet access up there somewhere to keep you posted with my travels.

I mentioned my laptop, which I’m using now. It has come in handy, but it has also been a serious pain to carry around…literally. My neck and back aren’t doing too well. Part of the reason I took it is so that I could take pictures and immediately upload them to a computer, eliminating the need to buy another expensive memory card…but I’m definitely considering leaving it at Sussex when I head off to the Continent.

There were some other things that I intended to write about, but quite honestly it’s too late now, and I’m sure you’re ready to stop reading if you’ve made it this far. Perhaps to summarize the things I meant to write about over the past month or so: the UK is too bloody expensive, and school sucks (or: I suck at time management).

Speaking of which…time for bed. Nos da.

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7 Responses to “Croeso i Cymru!”

  1. Megan 29 March 2007 at 00:34 #

    Well, if it helps, I’m certainly wishing now I brought my laptop along… I have only space for 80 photos left! (and you know the way I take photos…) Although of course I’m glad I don’t have to carry it. My baggage in total is over 10 kg as it is, and I feel your physical pain (quite literally). Need. to. do. yoga.

    Anyhow, I’m going to attempt to look for a photo shop soon and have them put onto a DVD if I can… you should probably be able to do that with no problems with the parts of Europe you’re visiting? I hope they offer services like that in Budapest!

  2. Duchess 9 April 2007 at 13:06 #

    I hope to go to wales someday, cuz i’m a duchess or something there.

  3. Thomas Thurman 21 June 2007 at 11:45 #

    I’m enjoying reading this.

    I thought I should mention that because of the mutation rules it’s “croeso i Gymru”, not “croeso i Cymru” (“i” causes soft mutation in the following word).

  4. alji 21 November 2007 at 06:47 #

    I really enjoyed your account of your visit to our little country. It’s a shame you didn’t have more time to see more of it.

  5. David Conrad 4 February 2008 at 15:13 #

    I just came across this, and I enjoyed reading it very much. Wonderful descriptions, lovely pictures!

  6. Alan 17 September 2009 at 02:30 #

    Lovely little article. I found it when I googled “Croeso i Gymru” to find the correct spelling of Cymru in that context. I am English, but living in Cheshire I go into Wales quite frequently, and it is lovely to hear the Welsh language being spoken. Yes, the dual language road signs can be confusing, but you get used to it.

  7. Cardiff hostels private room 24 September 2014 at 01:33 #

    What’s up to every one, the contents present at this web site are in fact amazing for people knowledge, well,
    keep up the nice work fellows.

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