Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Posting from the Atlantic...

Sao Miguel - Largest of the Azores

At the time of posting we are sailing past the Azores across the Atlantic on board the Royal Caribbean Cruise Liner, Legend of the Seas. Since finishing work at the end of September, we have made a couple of trips which will be covered in some later (brief) posts - we flew up to Edinburgh for a few days, and spent a night in Stamford. Then it was a week of packing and off to the docks.

We're going by ship for a number of reasons - after the stress and hassle of preparing a house, selling a house, packing, moving and selling off various things (e.g. the car), we felt that we would need a holiday and 14 days on a cruise sounded good (though we've never cruised before so its a bit of an in at the deep end type of thing). On top of that when we were making our plans the full restrictions on flying were in effect (they are still pretty bad) and the idea of 10 hours on a plane with a two year old, no toys and no water was awful. Finally, the idea of emigrating the old fashioned way sounded cool, and we could bring more luggage (lots more luggage) which saved having to air freight things.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Wales Trip Day 8: Out of Wales

Before leaving the UK we intend to do a fair amount of sightseeing. This is an account of a week we recently spent travelling in Wales. Its not a live-blog, but I noted a few observations each day so that the posts read a little as if I had had a computer with me. (And its not as if anyone reading this cares where I actually am sitting when I post this!)

Harlech Castle

This was to be our final day in Wales and we had a few events planned so having done most of the packing the night before we got away promptly and slipped through Porthmadog before the traffic got too bad. Our first port of call was the beach of Llandanwg, just below Harlech, where we released the (amended) message in a bottle. Sadly, we got an email the following week from the people who found it: the next day on the same beach! They said they re-released it and would let us know when it was found again but we haven't heard anything since. When we move to the USA we are travelling by cruise ship, so we will have another go somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.

After that we headed back up to Harlech to visit the castle. Harlech is one of the best preserved castles in the UK, which is to say it has been a ruin for centuries. Built by Edward I as part of his ring of steel around Prince Llewellyn's heartland, it has a notable history. Llewellyn's forces beseiged it, but the English kept it supplied by sea. A century later it was used by the Welsh rebel Owain Glyndwr as a base, and it has the distinction of being the last castle to surrender to the victors of both the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War. Somewhere in all that (sources differ as to which incident is the origin) lies the inspiration for the words of the rousing hymn, 'Men of Harlech'. During the Commonwealth (1649-1660), most castles were blown up on orders of Parliament, leaving limited or badly damaged remains, but sleepy Harlech was left to rot, and thus most of its outer defences are intact, and it is possible to walk around the ramparts or to climb its keep.

After Harlech we went to have a picnic at a place I remember from childhood - Cwm Bychan, which is a valley behind Harlech. At the head of the valley is a lake, but below the lake are a series of waterfalls and islets carved by the stream that flows from it. The waterfalls are what I remember the most - they are not very tall (perhaps 6 feet or so) but above and below each one is a deep enough pool that can be swum in (at least by a child). They are also picturesque, so we planned to stop beside them for our picnic. Unfortunately, whoever owns the land has erected a wall closing them off, as well as putting up a fence across the area near them where people used to be able to park. Other parking spots have boulders across them. This is presumably to entice people up to the car park by the lake. Looking around on foot, I confirmed that this was the spot I remembered because there is a hole in the wall that someone has knocked through and it is possible to get in and look. I think this is an area that could be visited still if you parked lower down the valley and hiked in, but not by a family with younger children by car. Sad really.

Cwm Bychan

We found a nice spot lower down the valley by an old stone bridge. The stream was low and the boy had fun throwing stones into the pools. We had a barbecue and used our Volcano Kettle to boil water to make up some soup. So despite being defeated at our original objective we were able to have a nice time.

Volcano Kettle

From Cwm Bychan we headed over the top of the hills, through a blasted heathland, bare and empty apart from the sheep and then down onto the road that leads from Harlech to Trawsfynydd. This was a steep and narrow road - enclosed in sections by gates, which we had to back around on a couple of times when we encountered other vehicles, but one which afforded fantastic views over to Portmeirion and Porthmadog.

View over Porthmadog and Portmeirion

From Trawsfynydd we headed out of Wales via Bala. This was a very pretty drive and we made good time - as everywhere else in Wales the roads were excellent. The Principality may be a Labour heartland, but its rulers have clearly eschewed Labour's war on the motorist. We headed across Shropshire in search of a place to spend the night and eat. We had an abortive stop on the outskirts of Oswestry, where we attempted to go to a Little Chef (we went in, we were seated, we were ignored, we left), and passed through the middle of Shrewsbury in a vain search for a hotel (there was somw flower festival on). Flagging from the long day, and with daylight fast fading we were extremely grateful to find a Days Inn outside of Telford.

Wales Trip Day 7: Portmeirion, Merioneth

Before leaving the UK we intend to do a fair amount of sightseeing. This is an account of a week we recently spent travelling in Wales. Its not a live-blog, but I noted a few observations each day so that the posts read a little as if I had had a computer with me. (And its not as if anyone reading this cares where I actually am sitting when I post this!)

A week of travelling was beginning to take its toll by now and we didn't do that much on Day 7. One thing we did do was that we visited the village of Portmeirion, which lies back across in Merioneth, whence it takes its name. It is an interesting little place - small delicate architecture and odd pieces of classical style statuary dotted through some ornate gardens. It was put together by an architect by the name of Clough Williams Ellis throughout the mid-20th Century, from purpose built structures and items he collected for their aesthetic value.

His purpose was to show how building could fit naturally with the landscape, and make a beauty spot more beautiful. To an extent he succeeded, though I think we would tire of a world entirely like Portmeirion (which point is made by its being chosen as the location for filming The Prisoner in the 1960s), but in my opinion he failed in one respect: access by car to the village is extremely restricted and of limited utility. Which makes his case for it as a building philosophy for the future rather weaker. Still, it is a striking place, and worth a visit if you are in the area.

In the evening we went out for dinner in Criccieth. Uneventful really, except that we had always wanted to put a message in a bottle and launch it for someone to find. So we took a bottle and message along with us. Unfortunately, the tidal conditions weren't right so we had to leave the bottle for the next day.

To be continued...

Wales Trip Day 6: Porthmadog, Caernarfonshire

Before leaving the UK we intend to do a fair amount of sightseeing. This is an account of a week we recently spent travelling in Wales. Its not a live-blog, but I noted a few observations each day so that the posts read a little as if I had had a computer with me. (And its not as if anyone reading this cares where I actually am sitting when I post this!)

The remainder of our time in Wales, we stayed at Tyddyn Iolyn farmhouse which is a bed and breakfast with the farm outbuildings converted into ensuite bedrooms. The farm lies well up from the main road along a gravel path, that our car was not too keen on. The setting was magnificent - with views across to Harlech, up into Snowdonia and down to the sea. It was also quiet: apart from the occasional car of another guest or some farm equipment all you could hear were sheep. [Apart from the occasional buzzing by the RAF who like to train their pilots on low altitude flying all over North Wales]. Our room was nice, the cast iron bath lovely and the owners were friendly: again a recommendation. It is a testament to my wife's internet skills that everywhere we stayed on the trip was nice and memorable, because she organised it all in an afternoon.

After breakfast, we went into Porthmadog. Our original intention was to just stop there for some supplies and then head on to Portmeirion. The weather forecast predicted that it would rain and that the next day would be sunny so we changed plans and explored Porthmadog.

The town was founded in the early 19th Century by the local MP who acquired the necessary permission to build a dock and redirect the course of the estuary. The town was sited here to exploit the slate and copper mines in the mountains - indeed it hosts two of Wales' old steam railways which now carry tourists where once they carried the mines' products: the Blaenau Ffestiniog Railway and the Welsh Highland Railway.

During the 19th Century Porthmadog hosted a small but thriving shipbuilding industry which specialised in turning out two or three masted barques and brigs. These vessels would spend 9 months at sea, with an 8 or 10 man crew - plying a number of well trodden routes back and forth across Northern Europe and the Atlantic.

Most of the ships were locally owned, divided up into shares which members of the community subscribed to in varying numbers according to how much they had to invest. The locals also ran their own insurance firm to keep the cost of premiums down, which at its peak held the equivalent of several billion pounds of shipping on its books. I know that some lefties would see this as a sign of the Welsh people's natural affinity for socialism, but I prefer to look at it as proof that communities can take care of themselves without government doing it for them.

The town sports a small maritime museum, which is well worth a visit.
We left Porthmadog by a backroad because of congestion - in the afternoon the combination of badly timed traffic lights and a single main road through town leads to gridlock. We were searching for a supermarket (at this point we didn't realise that there was one in Porthmadog, but on the other side of town to the direction we went!).

After a seemingly endless jaunt through roads that gradually became narrower and narrower (I lost count of the number of times we expected to round a bend and find a gate marked 'Private') we made it back to the main road near the farmhouse we were staying at. We headed off from there to Criccieth, but found no large shops so kept on going. The next town was Pwllheli, and here we found a Co-op and were able to get provisions and turn round. I like to be positive about the places we visit and the people there but I am afraid that Pwllheli was the one of the most miserable and run-down places I have ever seen. I think we saw more examples of trashy behaviour by the ill-bred in the hour or so we were there than in the rest of our trip to Wales. Perhaps it is a class thing, and perhaps it was amplified by the contrast with decorous middle class Criccieth next door, but if I never have to go back to Pwllheli it will be too soon.

To be continued...

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

We get results

Incidentally, it should be noted that Powys County Council came back to us about the parking ticket, and have dropped it in this instance. Which goes to show that it is always worth complaining or appealing about such things.

Wales Trip Day 5: Dyffryn Ardudwy, Merioneth

Before leaving the UK we intend to do a fair amount of sightseeing. This is an account of a week we recently spent travelling in Wales. Its not a live-blog, but I noted a few observations each day so that the posts read a little as if I had had a computer with me. (And its not as if anyone reading this cares where I actually am sitting when I post this!)

Morfa Dyffryn

Before dinner the previous night we had set out on a reconnaisance to locate the best way onto the beach. It took us a couple of tries because many of the tracks down to the sea end in private land (usually devoted to camp sites) between the end of the road and the beach. Eventually we found the right road (by Tal-y-bont) and went out through the dunes onto the beach. The council has built a walk way through the dunes to protect them, which was pretty good as it speeded us up a lot: I remember as a child the treck through the dunes while fun, was laborious. What is good is that those who want to can still get into the dunes and play there - a few people will not erode a dune, but the regular stream of people would. That is how conservation ought to be carried out - without dogma and without inconveniencing those who want to use the outdoors for recreation.

Dunes at the beach

As suggested by the presence of the dunes the beach here - Morfa Dyffryn - could not be more different to Aberystwyth. Instead of dark gritty sand there are simply miles of fine, white sand on a gently sloping beach which at low tide extends well out into the sea. It is one of the UK's finest beaches, and runs from just below Harlech, the entire length of the coast down to Barmouth. The boy enjoyed his first real play on the beach (Aberystwyth had not really counted as he didn't much care for the grit) and enjoyed picking up shells and jumping into the remains of holes the day's previous beachgoers had left.

We returned to the hotel wet and a little cold. Thankfully, we saw no sign that day or the next of the nudists who have colonised a section of the beach north of where we were. Apparently the council got fed up with constant complaints about flashers and formally designated a section for them, since when they have kept to their area. Each to his own I suppose - though I can't think of naturists without being reminded of the film Eurotrip (link) (skip to next paragraph to avoid spoiler), where having finally made it to the nudist beach in Germany the backpackers find it entirely populated by scary naked men, who have all gone there vainly in the hope of some women doing the same. Eurotrip made little impression beyond the usual takings for gross-out comedies of its ilk, which is a shame because like Mark Steyn (who actually favourably reviewed it) I think it is one of the best and most accurate symbols of the transatlantic disconnect - and its hilarious to boot.

Beware: Naked people!

The next day we returned to the beach, but before we did so, we paid a visit to the village cemetary at Dyffryn. I mentioned childhood memories of the beach. These are because my paternal grandparents (Nain and Taid as I knew them) lived in Dyffryn and we would often visit. I have many memories of exploring around the village and being told old stories about the area by Taid. They died in the late 80s/early 90s, and for a variety of reasons this was the first time I had made it back to the area since then, so we visited their grave and left some flowers. The graveyard is wonderfully situated, on a hill above the village it overlooks the span of the coast.

Overlooking the coast

The entire stretch of the coast of Merioneth is a striking landscape. The Rhinog mountains roll right up to the sea, such that the last valley carries on rolling down to the coast. Along the coast is the tidal coastline of beach and a few fields. The mountains and littoral have very few trees, especially the higher up you go, so all you see are ancient drystone walls dividing up the grassy fields on the hillsides. Now, no mountains in the UK are very tall - these are perhaps 600 feet at their high points - but despite this they feel a lot more desolate than you would suppose from their altitude. Endless sea wind, rain, salt and grazing sheep keep them clear. For centuries the sea and the lone road along the coast were the only communications networks here. No matter who ruled the area, their rule would have been felt very lightly up in the valleys above the shore - where approaching ships could be spotted well in advance. Even today, it would be a good place to get off the grid should the need arise.

We spent the rest of the morning/early afternoon on the beach, where the boy after some hesitation played with shells and a little toy truck we'd brought for him. The wind was strong that day and his truck would shoot along the flat sands with him chasing after it happily. We didn't make it into the water - though it was quite warm and would have been pleasant - as he was not so interested in that. Afterwards we had a barbecue in the car park and then set out for our next port of call: another converted farmhouse just past Porthmadog. This drive, along the littoral for the most part, took us past Harlech with its famous castle (we did that a few days later) and over a small toll bridge across the Dwyryd estuary - on the approach to which you could see Portmeirion village.

Getting into Porthmadog took a long time. The toll bridge there is now council owned and no longer in operation. I don't know if that is why the traffic was so bad (unintended consequences) or if it was simply a combination of summer traffic and badly timed lights.

We arrived at our accommodation for the night, Tyddyn Iolyn farmhouse, which was again a great choice - full review in the next post. After cleaning off the sand and unpacking (we were to spend three nights here) we headed into the next town along the coast for dinner. That was Criccieth, a pretty Victorian resort, beneath its own castle - built by Prince Llewellyn to oppose Edward I's Harlech, which lies across the bay. We ate at a pub called the Bryn Hir Arms - the food was good pub grub, and then visited the local ice cream emporium - Cadwalladers. That is heartily recommended. Criccieth itself is a very nice little town - less brashly touristy than some others and exuding an air of calm, it is a good place to end the day.

To be continued...

Patchy posting

Apologies for the hiatus. We hit that point in selling a house where you just have to do a whirlwind of cleaning and packing. That is all done now - the stuff is in a container waiting in a warehouse somewhere and the house is sold. It is my last week at work this week, and next week we are off to Edinburgh for a short break - so I had best get the Wales stuff posted!

Another thing which held up posting is that I just read a fantastic book - The Prodigal Spy, by Joseph Kanon, which I'll post a review of if I get the chance.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Wales Trip Day 4: Caverns and coast

Before leaving the UK we intend to do a fair amount of sightseeing. This is an account of a week we recently spent travelling in Wales. Its not a live-blog, but I noted a few observations each day so that the posts read a little as if I had had a computer with me. (And its not as if anyone reading this cares where I actually am sitting when I post this!)

After breakfast we loaded the car and checked out. It took us a little while to get going as we needed to stop at a supermarket for ice and provisions, and the road system is a bit confusing, but finally we were on the way. We had two objectives for the day - to visit the Corris Craft Centre / King Arthur's Labyrinth just inside the boundary of the Snowdonia National Park, and to get on to our hotel for that night, just outside of Barmouth.

When we stopped at the supermarket I noticed the headline on that day's Telegraph which was that rural speed limits were to be cut. While Wales will doubtless be spared most of this thanks to devolution, somehow being so far from London crystallised this issue for me and I was more irritated by it than I might normally have been. The reasons given for the reductions (for our own good don't you know) were to reduce fatal accidents on rural roads (because its only speed that is responsible for that statistic and not, er, distance from a hospital) and to reduce the UK's carbon emissions. Leaving aside the completely bogus nature of the global warming scare, this story typifies how Britain is misgoverned today. A review driven by the pre-occupations of London ('green issues' and safety-obsessives), will impose additional inconvenience and cost (once they erect the speed cameras) on country-dwellers. For government to be truly representative it needs more than the charade of regular elections. Decisions must be taken in ways that the decision making process and those affected are as close as possible, to ensure that all those involved feel some affinity for one another. Naturally this means some decisions will be taken at a national level on behalf of our nation as a whole, but others should not. It is no business of Whitehall and Westminster what the speed limit is in Wiltshire, or whether it is different in Westmoreland. And people who need to drive between rural locations do not need to have their journeys made longer just because city dwellers who are used to crawling along anyway say so.

The drive north was a pretty one - through the hills outside of Aberystwyth to the pretty town of Machynlleth, where we were unable to make a stop and then into up to the village of Corris, which lies in a tree lined valley, below Cader Idris. By now we were into the County of Merioneth. Interestingly enough, the councils in Wales have done a very good job of marking the true county boundaries. Would that those in England would follow suit.

The Corris Craft Centre was an enjoyable place to spend a day. The setting is beautiful, and when we were there the weather was perfect: bright blue cloudless sky but a gentle breeze. The centre itself consists of three attractions combined into one. There is the craft centre which offers the usual rustic arts: candlemaking, quilting, wood carving and jewelry. To be honest the same sort of thing can be found in tourist traps the world over, but it is always fun to wander around such places.

The second part of the stop was King Arthur's Labyrinth, which is a sound and lights tableaux telling some of the Welsh parts of Arthurian legend located in a disused slate mine. A guide leads you underground and into a boat which takes you to the part of the caverns which have host the show. All three of us went underground - the boy was a little alarmed at first by the total darkness and the cold and held on tight, but as soon as he figured out there was nothing to worry about he was his usual self: at one point he demanded to be set down during one of the displays and cheerfuly set off at speed down a tunnel into the dark with us chasing him! The rest of the time he strenuously objected to wearing a hard hat and would dislodge it at inoportune moments. As to the content of the tales they were interesting, though there could probably have been a couple more told.

The final part of the centre was called Bard's Quest. It was basically a garden with a set of paths running through it that led to little groves where you could press a button and have a Welsh myth read to you via a tape recording. This area could do with a little improvement, since the recordings could not be stopped once started which meant that if someone wandered off and left a grove, when you reached it you might have to lurk out of earshot waiting for the tale to stop so as not to ruin the ending.

Barmouth (not our picture). Source:

After departing Corris we drove along the spectacular road that runs below the southern side of Cader Idris and then on past Dolgellau to Barmouth. Barmouth occupies a stunning position, perched on the north side of an estuary at the precise point the estuary reaches the sea, and nestled in the cliffs above it. It is a popular tourist destination on account of its sandy beach and the railway, so it was extremely busy there and we fought our way through to the other side. At a less busy time it would be a nice place to visit, but it was too much of a stramash when we were there. Our hotel was in the village of Llanaber just outside of Barmouth and up a steep hill.

Windswept trees, mirror the hillside

This was Llwyndu, a converted 16th Century farmhouse and another good choice. We had a big room with a four poster bed and an ensuite bath that had actual water pressure! The view of the mountains on one side and the sea on the other was beautiful - though bare, as witnessed by the windswept trees at this spot. We were booked in for bed and breakfast and the breakfast food was excellent, with local butchers providing much of it (though I opted for Isle of Man kippers). Another hotel we'd be happy to recommend.

We took a quick trip to the Morfa Dyffryn beach before dinner on Day 4 as well, but I'll cover that in another entry.

To be continued...

Sunday, August 27, 2006

If you're going to rely on the state....

NHS 'meltdown' predicted by Government bird flu report

The health service will be plunged into chaos if Britain is struck by a bird flu pandemic, a Government report warns.

Faced with a possible 4.5 million victims, demand for hospital beds would outstrip supply and doctors might have to deny treatment to the sick and elderly to save younger, fitter patients.

I'm well aware that the possibility of a flu-pandemic is extremely low, but it is one of those things that if it occurs is likely to be devastating. This report reveals that the NHS and the rest of the state apparatus would not be able to cope - something which has been obvious for some time, but frankly in the worst case 1918-9 style pandemic even the best organised state will fail.

Which means, make your own assessment of the risk and plan accordingly. If the government imposed a travel ban tomorrow would you have enough food in the house to last a week or two? Mark my words, those who rely on the state to help them will come off worst if this does happen.

A shocking indictment

27 August, Sunday Times: 10m want to quit 'over-taxed' UK

ONE in five Britons — nearly 10m adults — is considering leaving the country amid growing disillusionment over the failure of political parties to deliver tax cuts, according to a new poll.
Whatever successes Labour like to claim, having a fifth of the population actively considering leaving the country is not a sign of overall success. In the 1970s the Labour government drove many rich people (e.g. Michael Caine) abroad with eye-watering tax rates. Now, with cheap air travel they're able to drive ordinary people away too!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Wales Trip Day 3: To the coast

Before leaving the UK we intend to do a fair amount of sightseeing. This is an account of a week we recently spent travelling in Wales. Its not a live-blog, but I noted a few observations each day so that the posts read a little as if I had had a computer with me. (And its not as if anyone reading this cares where I actually am sitting when I post this!)

We set out from Llandrindod Wells and made for a nearby village, where an old barn had been converted into a children's activity centre . We wanted to give our son the chance to blow off some steam before cooping him up in the car for most of the rest of the day. The activity barn was great fun, and though some of the activities were more geared for older children he enjoyed it immensely. One of the good things about it was that adults could accompany their children around the various contraptions. This was ideal for us, but what I found surprising was that most of the other parents there spent their time sitting and reading rather than interacting with their children. When we were climbing around after our son, several of the other children plainly wanted to play, and we saw a few asking their parents to come and join them only to be rebuffed. I know that getting some free time is valuable, but it seems to me that those parents' priorities were misplaced. It seems to me that if parents spent more time with their children while they were children that they would know them better when they become young adults, and would therefore know better how to raise them - and know precisely how much to loosen the reins.

From Quackers we set out for the coast, stopping for an impromptu picnic in an utterly silent valley just off the main road beyond Rhyader. Then it was on through the Cambrian Mountains, passing below the uplands where both the Wye and the Severn have their source, a few miles from one another. The Severn flows north and the Wye south, only being reunited due to an accident of the last glacial episode where an ice dam blocked the Severn's path and forced it to cut a new path down to the Bristol channel. We came out of the mountains and caught a glimpse of the sea before descending into the valley leading to Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire.

The seafront at Aberystwyth

Most of the UK's seaside towns have suffered in the last generation or so. The story is the same: they grew up on the back to the Victorian railway booms and continued to serve holidaymakers until the advent of cheap air travel in the 1970s, when visitors began to desert them and decline well and truly set in. Denied their regular custom, hoteliers were forced to cut rates, whereupon Local Government started housing junkies and others it had obligations to find homes for there. Naturally this did wonders for the towns' aesthetics and crime rates and made matters worse.

Whether it is money from the devolved assembly, the growth of the University, or a more natural recovery, this does not seem to be the case in Aberystwyth today. The town has a real feeling of revival about it. The seafront hotels are being repainted and the promenade has had new stones laid along it. We only spent one night there so can't vouch for the rest of town, but the vibe we got was of a newfound confidence if not outright economic prosperity.

Room with a view

We spent the night at the Marine Hotel, a family run affair, which occupies several buildings along the promenade. The buildings are old and have undulating coridoors reminiscent of accomodation blocks in certain Oxford colleges (indeed many of the seafront buildings are university halls of residence - and will net the university a handy little windfall if the town continues to grow). We got a fantastic room, which had clearly been redone recently, with a very nice bathroom (featuring a massive jacuzzi tub). The main selling point was the view - a large sash window overlooking the beach. The price for three of us, including breakfast was a bargain. There were a couple of negatives - the car park is located at the back of the hotel, at the far end from the lift: better to hover out the front while unloading and then park. The water pressure in the bathroom was low and the breakfast was average. Otherwise it was another good hotel. I guess the test for hotels is whether you would stay there again - and it certainly passes that test.

Now, something Aberystwyth certainly doesn't market itself as is a spa town, but it does have an asset that would be of interest to anyone seeking a healthy living break. The beach there is not sand, but a kind of medium coarse grit. Fine for swimming from, but not the most comfortable surface to walk barefoot on - except that after half an hour of walking along the waters edge your feet will feel like you have just had a pedicure. Without the presence of mincing metrosexuals to boot.

Scouring sands

Before dinner we walked along the promenade to the ruins of the castle and the war memorial. En-route you pass a major University building of some kind. It is a wonderful testament to the greatness of Victorian Britain. Here, on this windswept spot, a mere 20 feet from the shore, they built a gothic sandstone behemoth. Blasted by the salt and the spray it stands there. Eroding to be sure, but very much in one piece. It exudes a self-confidence, sadly gone: today we'd build some abomination in metal and glass that would have to be torn down in a generation's time, or some limp-wristed eco-friendly squat monstrosity, hidden away behind windbreaks and drains - hiding from the elements not seeking to master them.

The castle ruins

War memorial

The castle is a picturesque ruin, occupying one half of a promontory shared with the town war memorial. Now, one thing I noticed on the trip was that the Welsh do good war memorials. A small village, which in England would have a dignified limestone cross, might sport a striking creation of porphypy and bronze, while a major place like Aberystwyth goes for something far grander: a tall obelisk, decorated with a nymph staring out to sea and topped by Winged Victory, with the names of the dead of both wars attached on large bronze sheets. It provides a focal point for the bay, and again one sees in it the confidence and power of that bygone age.

Dinner was spent in the restaurant at the end of the pier. A great setting, but the restaurant could do a better job with it. The food was good (I had a plate of crevettes, which I'd never had before - giant shrimp essentially) but one note of warning: if you order the steak, do not ask for it to be well done. Medium-well came out charred and was sent back. Re-ordered as medium it came out a perfect well done (but edible that time).

Sunset from our hotel room

Now, I've spoken here about the cultural confidence of our past. But what of the future. After all, Wales has devolved government (which is clearly doing it some good - we can leave debate about the financials for another day), so how are things going otherwise? Not much better than the rest of the UK if the snippet I saw on television that night is anything to go by. While we were in Wales they were gearing up for the annual Eisteddfod - basically a big cultural festival and celebration of Welsh culture. Now, I can't say that I was paying much attention, but there was something on in the background about it - a documentary in which they were asking the organiser of this year's event how he kept it 'relevant' and he waffled about how despite being inherently a conservative event (I know, the horror!) because of its link with tradition (urgh!) it was always being updated and so was simultaneously progressive (that's a relief). There then followed a classic cultural cringe moment. The documentary explained how some schools in the Swansea area had brought in an Indian dance instructrix to prepare their pupils to do a number from a 'popular' Bollywood movie as their submission to the Eisteddfod (or its surrounding events). I don't think there's anything wrong with schools doing intercultural activities, but surely an event such as the Eisteddfod if it is anything at all is meant to be a celebration of Welsh culture! That's progressives for you - they'll endorse your right to celebrate your traditions, and shower you with public money to spend on them, and in return they'll dilute those traditions into utter meaninglessness.

To be continued...

Wales Trip Day 2: Return to Hay

Before leaving the UK we intend to do a fair amount of sightseeing. This is an account of a week we recently spent travelling in Wales. Its not a live-blog, but I noted a few observations each day so that the posts read a little as if I had had a computer with me. (And its not as if anyone reading this cares where I actually am sitting when I post this!)

We spent most of Day 2 in Hay on Wye. We were able to park without incurring a further ticket and then spent some time casually wandering about the town. The variety of bookshops is impressive. For while there are a few specialist shops (such as the children's book shop, visited yesterday), most of them manage to stock a wide variety of product yet manage to retain a unique character.

The view towards England from the castle

We wandered through the streets around Hay Castle, where the Honesty bookshop is to be found - it consists of two sheds filled with books and a collection box for depositing payment. Naturally the books are of patchy quality, and in poor condition (especially on the part of this (or another similar) shop which consists of metal shelves lining the walls of the castle grounds. Despite this we did find an interesting book of Christmas ghost tales to be had for 50p (if memory serves) there.

Honesty Bookshop - pay using the red box

As mentioned above the bookshops are somewhat eclectic. I was in one of the larger ones looking for a Welsh Folk Tales book (without any luck, though that section did offer gems such as the 'New Feminist Tarot') while my wife let the boy run about outside. I wandered over to the window to watch for a while, and only when done did I notice that I had been standing over the erotic fiction section.

We ate at Kilverts Hotel, which offered fairly basic pub grub. There we made a cardinal mistake: not finding a high chair, so much of the meal was spent blocking escape attempts. Another lesson we learned was that the gunk people stick under tables is fascinating when you are two.

One of the most original bookshop signs

After that and some further wandering - we checked out the antique map shop and Murder and Mayhem (a crime specialty shop), and a linguistic specialist, it was back to the car and Llandrindod Wells, a pool, dinner and packing for the next leg of our journey.

to be continued...

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Wales Trip Day 1: Llandrindod Wells, Radnorshire

Before leaving the UK we intend to do a fair amount of sightseeing. This is an account of a week we recently spent travelling in Wales. Its not a live-blog, but I noted a few observations each day so that the posts read a little as if I had had a computer with me. (And its not as if anyone reading this cares where I actually am sitting when I post this!)

Our hotel was located some 30 miles away in Llandrindod Wells - a pretty little Victorian Spa Town on the edge of the Black Mountains. The journey gave the boy a chance to sleep and we took in some more spectacular scenery.

We were very well served with our choice of hotel. We had chosen the Metropole, a Victorian hotel which turned out to be located right in the centre of town, with a large car park. Everything looked spick and span - the hotel building was evidently fairly freshly painted (in a rich Victorian green) and the decor within was clean and spotless.

Our room

We had booked a room in one of the towers, which meant that we got a bed, room to set up the travel cot, and a sitting room area, which meant that there was plenty of room for a toddler to run around and let off steam. The only thing wrong with the room was that the water pressure in the bathroom was a bit low, but nothing to complain about. And it didn't cost us much more than I've had to spend on a pokey room for one in an anodyne Holiday Inn while on business trips (on a tariff here that included Breakfast and Dinner).

The hotel pool was located in a nice conservatory, and was refreshingly cool - you noticed it when you got in but not after a minute or so in the water. There were some floats and toys to keep children busy with and our son (who loves pools) had a great time.

And then it was time for dinner.

I have been to many restaurants in London and Oxford, and other expensive spots around the south east, so I have had my fair share of 'posh' or fussy food. I can honestly say that I have never had better haute cuisine than we ate at this hotel. The portions were just right, for all three it tatscourses, the food prepared to perfection (even the fish fingers on the children's menu, were actual cuts of cod that had been battered) and it tasted wonderful. Furthermore, despite the quality of the food, and the care taken arranging it on the plates, the hotel restaurant was absolutely family friendly - we didn't for a moment feel self conscious about having a toddler at the table with us. The hotel restaurant also evinced a certain pride in its performance that you don't always see - the menu contained brief resumes of the Head Chef, Sous Chef and Restaurant Manager (who had worked her way up from joining as a temporary waitress), and explained that the junior chefs were being trained with a view to obtaining formal qualifications.

Simply fantastic - if you are planning on staying in this part of Wales, consider the Metropole Hotel a must.

To be continued...

Wales Trip Day 1: Hay on Wye, Brecknock

Before leaving the UK we intend to do a fair amount of sightseeing. This is an account of a week we recently spent travelling in Wales. Its not a live-blog, but I noted a few observations each day so that the posts read a little as if I had had a computer with me. (And its not as if anyone reading this cares where I actually am sitting when I post this!)

Hay on Wye lies exactly on the border between England and Wales (having entered Wales in Monmouthshire we approached it from the Welsh side). It is a small and pretty English country town, which would be picturesque but unremarkable if it were not for its unique selling point - that it is the secondhand bookshop capital of the UK. Something like 30 secondhand bookshops, dealers and other related shops are crammed into the town - the centre of which would easily fit within a decent sized Shopping Mall.

Apparently, things ended up this way because an eccentric in the 1970s bought Hay Castle, declared the town independent and himself King. One of his first acts was to declare the town to be 'booktown' and amazingly people heeded his decree and (despite the distance from the major urban centres of the UK) came and opened their bookshops. My wife comments that this poses the question, does the opening of the shops validate the declaration of independence by clearly accepting the social contract!

Whether that is the case is sadly academic, as we found out when we parked. The Oxford Road car park sits on the Beacons side of town, and lies below a hill. As you come to the entrance it looks fairly small, but as soon as you come over the top of the hill you see that it is (by British municipal standards) vast. Despite Hay's pretensions of independence the car park is administered by Powys County Council. [Powys, for all its historical meaning as an area is confusingly not a County at all. Hay is in the county of Brecknock (or Brecknockshire), but UK local government structures no longer reflect the real counties]. The car park is terribly marked - you can see at least two generations of older parking space markings overlapping with the current ones. Thanks to this we wound up with a ticket for parking in a bus bay. We are appealing this on the grounds that the car was parked within a clearly marked car space, and that if they want to change the markings they should scrub out the old lines before painting new ones. If you are planning to visit Hay, watch out for this.

UPDATE: We heard about our appeal and they cancelled the parking ticket!

A nice, simple to understand car park...

After parking we wandered around town, had a spot of lunch and started looking at some of the bookshops - including a fantastic little shop which specialises in old children's books. We found a couple of nice old fashioned activity books (now terribly un-PC) there. By this point it was getting late in the afternoon, and our son (who is 2) was in need of a nap. So we decided to head for our hotel, which had a pool and return to Hay in the morning.

To be continued...

Wales Trip Day 1: Into Wales

Before leaving the UK we intend to do a fair amount of sightseeing. This is an account of a week we recently spent travelling in Wales. Its not a live-blog, but I noted a few observations each day so that the posts read a little as if I had had a computer with me. (And its not as if anyone reading this cares where I actually am sitting when I post this!)

The first part of our little trip is not terribly interesting. Having crammed the car full of provisions, turned our son's DVD player to the dulcet tones of Dora the Explorer and navigated our way out of Swindon onto the M4 we headed straight along the motorway. It was wet, and apart from which side of the road we were on could have been anywhere in the West.

The M4

Not that its a boring drive. Just outside of Swindon you pass Barbury Camp - site of the battle that allowed the invading Saxons to establish the Kingdom of Wessex in these parts (and drive the Welsh into Wales). Further on you pass close by Bath - one of our favourite cities. And there are some fabulous views. However, because it was raining I didn't get any photos to illustrate this with, so it probably best to skip on promptly.The Second Severn Crossing

We passed around the outskirts of Bristol and over one of the Severn Bridges and into Wales. There are bigger and more impressive bridges out there, but the two on the Severn are still cool.

The motorway services at Newport are too small and have a horrible car park. [US readers: in its wisdom our government does not allow merchants to put big adverts up along the interstate before exits, so if you want a break or something to eat you have to go into one of the designated 'service' stations which are every 50 miles or so on the motorway. Each one is run by a firm that has been granted the monopoly on that particular stretch, and the results are variable].

Just after Newport we turned off the motorway, and made our way north past Cwmbran and up into the Brecon Beacons National Park. This was one of the reasons for choosing this route to our destination (Hay on Wye), and the scenery rewarded us spectactularly. Unfortunately, I didn't get any pictures here - so follow the link to the Park website if you don't know it.

The roads were very good too. A lot of work has clearly been done on the roads over the past few years, and we travelled along quite quickly as a result. Having pushed out of the other side of the Beacons, we arrived at Hay on Wye, which lies on the border with England. It is an odd and wonderful little place - the Town of Books.

To be continued...

Work in progress

Just a note to say that this site is very much a work in progress right now. I'm not exactly new to blogging (of more anon) but time right now is not really on the side of spectacular site design. We'll concentrate on the content first. Also, my previous blogging exploits were pure politics, while I'd like this to be a bit more general, so the writing style is new to me and may take a bit of getting used to...

About us

We are a young family, currently living in the UK but about to move to the USA, where my wife is from. As such we will be in the unenviable position of being able to talk about the realities of LEGAL immigration into two countries, and I'm sure we will in due course!

Why the move? Too many reasons to say really. I could make political hay and say we are moving to get away from eye watering tax rates (over 40% of every further pound I could earn would be misappropriated by the Government), an interfering nannyish government, the loss of our traditional liberties (guns are almost gone, self defence too, with free speech and private property close behind), an impending demographic catastrophe across the English Channel, and the imminent introduction of ID cards. But if I did, I would be lying. However, I'd also be lying if I said that those things didn't factor into our decision.

Now don't get me wrong. Britain has been in worse scrapes than this - and we passionately hope that things will turn the corner and I'll be dutifully mailing in my ballot paper until they disenfranchise me (in about 15 years time I believe). We're not turning our backs on Britain and intend to watch closely and visit often, but we believe our future to be elsewhere.

And where in the US will that be? Unknown. I'm quitting my job and intend to relax for a month or two before finding another (the past two years I've commuted 160 miles a day by bus, so I fancy a break). We'll be staying with my mother in law in Arkansas until I find a job, so we'll start looking around that part of the country first. In due course I'll post a CV here, but if you know of any openings in the Mid West or South for a Management Consultant / Software developer (MCSD) give us a shout!