Because we had missed our original flight to the UK, we lost an entire day of our trip, cooling our heels in that misery known as Newark. For our last full day in Wales we had to make a choice between going north to Aberystwyth and doing research in the Welsh National Library there, or taking our last day and heading to the coast to see St. David's Cathedral and some cairns along the way. Technically, this was a research trip, and we should have gone to Aberystwyth, but we unanimously decided that we would get more out of seeing the coast. We tucked away our last prodigious traditional Welsh breakfast, which we felt compelled to photograph for posterity, before we hit the road. Here you see my dad and the hub-man oohing and aahing over our breakfast, while our lovely hostess looks on a bit nervously. I don't know if anyone had ever photographed her cooking before!
Our hosts were delightful people, and their B&B was immaculate and quite comfortable, but I think we were maybe just a bit too much for them, being Ugly Americans, and all. However they felt about us, the breakfasts were incredible! Fried bacon, which was closer to what we would call ham, fried tomatoes, eggs over easy, and fried toast. Add to this fresh grapefruit, orange juice, toast with the most incredibly tart and delicious marmalade, and fabulous french-press coffee. We did eat breakfast at a couple of inns during our trip, but none of them could touch the home cooking at Cwmgwyn Farm.
We left Llandovery early Thursday morning, headed for St. David's and the coast. We drove through Carmarthen and some other smaller towns on our way east. We were starting to wonder just how far this drive would be, when I sniffed the air and exclaimed, "I smell the ocean!" We rounded a bend in the road and there was the coastal town of Newgale and my beloved North Atlantic. Its kind of an odd sensation, to be looking at your same old ocean from the other side of it. It was breathtakingly beautiful, but I confess; as I looked to the west my heart was thinking of home. Not long after our pit-stop at Newgale, we drove into the very picturesque town of St. David. The sun actually deigned to show itself at this westernmost point of the country and the sky was a brilliant blue. The salty delight of the air paired with a cool crispness was possibly the most perfect air I've ever breathed into my generally allergic lungs and chronically outraged sinuses.
We parked and walked through the town to St. David's Cathedral. St. David, or Devi/Dewi, is the patron saint of Wales, and his Cathedral is considered to be the most sacred site in Wales. It was one of the earliest Christian centres in Britain, dating from the 6th century, and many early missionaries travelled from here to Ireland and Brittany. But considering the Prescelli Hills were just up the coast, I'm not sure I would agree with St. David's being the most sacred site. The Prescellis are the place of origin for the bluestones in the center circle at Stonehenge and are also the site of many Iron-age and neolithic burial mounds. These are the ruins of the Bishop's Palace at St. David's Cathedral. There was scaffolding around parts of this, as a restoration project was underway. I loved the checkerboard mosaic aspect of the upper stonework. The stone used to build St. David's Cathedral is of a local origin and it's purple. It was hard to really see the purple color in the bright sunlight, but it did show up in the photos. Something else I noticed in the pictures that wasn't apparent when standing next to the immenseness of the church is how irregularly it's shaped. The tower is off-center and the back of the church is built into a hill as well, giving it an uneven aspect as well. This is the interior of the main nave of the church. The ceiling was completely panelled in intricately carved wood and the lower arches all had different patterns carved in them. The flat ceiling was put in later, because of structural issues in supporting a stone roof. In the High Gothic style, you would see barrel vaulting or rib vaulting giving the height, instead of these massive rows of arches supporting even more arches above. Don't you just love the Jesus-on-a-trapeze thingy hanging from the ceiling? Who knew he was so talented? Obviously, this church has been added to over the years. I don't know what happened to the original 6th century structure, but what we see here is called Transitional Norman, with an arches supporting arches structure. It was embellished at some point in the Gothic period with the beautiful ribbed vaulting and the intricate coat of arms painted between each rib. I meant to take pictures of the many tombs inside the church, but my camera was not liking the dark gloom of the church's interior. We bought a map of the Welsh coast in the gift shop at St. David's that showed several neolithic burial mounds quite close by. Following the map, we found ourselves on a narrow, one lane, dirt road that turned out to be someone's driveway, more or less. At one point we had to come to a complete halt in this narrow lane, for fear of running over one of the chickens and roosters who had excitedly come out to greet us and now unconcernedly blocked the way. Finally getting past the chickens, we surreptitiously parked our car on the grassy hill behind the house and began the climb up to a peninsula of land known as St. David's Head. As we crested the hill we looked off to our left and saw this:
The sunny and blue skies had disappeared, covered over by a rapidly moving front of wind and rain and lowering clouds. It was so very Bronte sisters-like, to be walking the moors, and watching the storm come in, but I was with three men, so I kept this thought to myself. We struck out across the moors towards the north, with the mist rising and swirling around us. Halfway across, we encountered a quintessentially British couple, and stopped to say hello. The wife had the horsey look commonly associated with the Royal family, and the husband, with his tidy little mustache and tweeds responded to all our remarks with a "Yes, yes, yes!" that we still love to use. They were very nice, really, and I feel a little guilty writing seeming disparities about them, but remember - I am an Ugly American, so I kind of can't help it. We walked out to the water, which was roiling and thrashing up against the rocks that made up the shoreline. There wasn't really any beach at this spot, but we didn't care; walking the moors was a novel pastime, and a plain old beach would have just been a letdown.
Those prodigious Welsh breakfasts always lasted just long enough to find us somewhere without lunch prospects, but this time I was prepared. We propped ourselves against a boulder that blocked some of the wind and ate sharp cheese and crackers we had bought back in Cheddar, washed down with garlic stuffed green olives and water. We gazed out at the rapidly disappearing Atlantic, as the fog came in quickly and completely obscured our vision. as we headed back up the hill to the cairn, I could well imagine people getting lost in an influx of this stuff.
The fog and mist were, in the words of Yukon Cornelius, "thick as peanut butter". At some points we couldn't even see each other as we walked along together, but the obscurity came and went, with helpful gusts from the wind. It did make for an eerie scene as we approached Coetan Arthur, a 5,000-year-old burial chamber, that is reputed to be King Arthur's resting place. Of course, there are a number of cairns throughout Wales that are reputed to be Arthur's tomb!
While my brother and I posed for this shot, the old man headed up and over the hill. We joked that he was looking for the old elephant/ancestral graveyard. What he actually found up at the top of the summit was a concrete pad that had been used as a lookout during WWII. If there had been more time and better weather, I would have liked to explore this area further, because we missed a number of ancient sites here, due to time restraints and fog. Back in the car, we headed north towards the coastal towns of Fishguard and Newport, where there are ferries to take you across the channel to Ireland. In a future trip to this area it might be fun to fly into Ireland and take the ferry from there to Wales - it can't be any further than driving all the way across Wales from Bristol, England, and it would be fun to see a bit of Ireland.
In Newport we made our first pub stop of the day, at the Golden Lion, a cozy little hotel and pub right on the main road. I had tried to book rooms for us here, but a band of bike riders beat us to it, booking the entire place. A shame, really, because it looked like a nice place. We had a few pints, played some tunes on the jukebox and chatted with the guys playing pool, before setting off to find our next cairn.
Carreg Coetan, also a reputed burial site of You-Know-Who, (No, not Voldemort, silly! King Arthur!) was right in Newport, down a side road. It was like a little park, nestled in a small neighborhood. My brother took this picture and he was all excited that he had caught the tiny gap between the capstone and the stone holding it up (look at this picture up close and you'll see it). My dad surprised himself by really loving these ancient tombs. He had kind of scoffed at the idea of seeing ancient sites (its what he does, we just ignore him), but after St. David's Head, he not only understood our fascination, but he was getting into it as well. See the little leprechauns hiding in the cairn? Our last cairn of the day, Pentre Ifan, was the biggest and most impressive. Looking through the cairn you can see the Prescellis and Carni Ingli; Mountain of the Angels. I don't know how we did it, but we encountered very few people at any of these sites, which greatly enhanced our ability to get a feel for the energy at these places. We took a group shot as well, which is a little dark, but I wanted to show the massive proportions of Pentre Ifan, as compared to the smaller cairns we had seen earlier. Because of its size and extreme age (built around 3500 BC) this is considered one of the most important sites to see in western Wales. Pentre Ifan was the last planned stop of the day. We got back into the car and headed a little further north to hook up with the highway that led back to Carmarthen, where we had booked rooms at the 16th century coaching inn, The Boar's Head. Along the way, we noticed signs for a historic castle, and decided to stop and check it out.
Cilgerran Castle, first built in the early 12th century and improved upon in the early 13th century, was the site of quite a bit of Welsh history, both legendary and factual. It sits on the tidal river, Teifi (Tiffy), right outside of Cardigan. Again, we missed the crowds and had the entire castle to ourselves to explore. Unlike the ruins at Carreg Cennen, Cilgerran was more intact and we were able to climb the ancient stairs inside and feel truly immersed in the history of the place. Never a believer in the theory of Ancestral Memory, my father had an immediate connection to this place, and said that he felt like he had been there before. We could hardly drag him away from the place; this from the man who said he didn't want "to see a bunch of churches and castles".
Cilgerran is built of local slate and the construction was fascinating. I loved the stack of slate discs that form the support for this staircase.
It was kind of maze-like to follow your nose around this place, and I got lost from the others more than once! As we were headed back out of Cilgerran, we met the curator, who had just realized there were visitors over at the castle. It had been a slow day, so she had nipped out for a cup of tea. We felt bad for crashing and offered to pay the admission, but she waved us along. So we headed back to Carmarthen and the inn for our last night in Wales.
Part IV: Our night at the Inn and the trip back to England, and then it will be done, done, DONE, I swear!