An SCA event takes place every year at Raglan Castle outside Cardiff, in Wales. For those of you who do not know, Patsy and I belong to the reenactment group, the Society for Creative Anachronism, (SCA), and we decided that we would go to Ragland Ffaire to join in the fun. (Yes, there are two letter ’f’’ in the word… this is Wales)
Fortunately, we travelled with four other SCAdians (a collective term we use for our group, pronounced skay-dee-ans). I say fortunately, because we needed to take our swords and our special clothing (which we call ‘garb’). That meant we would be dragging along extra weight in our suitcases, plus a heavy plastic golf bag to hold the swords. The bag weighed 45 pounds; stands 50 inches tall when you stand it on its end, and is about as unwieldy as you can get. I dubbed this particular item, “the Beast,” and it will figure prominently as the adventure goes along. The Beast has four easily tipped-open latches on the side, so I taped them down with red duct tape. Now, not only was the Beast large and unwieldy, it also looked like something out of a second hand store. I was not surprised later on when we got to Heathrow and found that TSA had opened the bag for inspection.
For this particular trip, we flew Delta Airline, but for some reason, when we got to Detroit, we had to switch to Virgin Atlantic for the England leg of the trip. I was surprised because our return flight from England out of Heathrow was on Delta. They can’t fly us all the way to England, but they can fly us from England all the way home; go figure.
Now, a word of praise for Virgin Atlantic; we were in steerage and expected to be treated with some benign neglect reserved for the economy class. Our plane was one of those new “Dreamliner” jobs with extra bells and whistles. A smiling flight attendant met us at the door. Several more were just inside the plane, one of whom stood behind a bar loaded with champagne flutes! Of course, these were not for those of us of the unwashed, but I did ask the nearest flight attendant if there were disco lights somewhere in the plane. He told me that a mirror ball dropped down after take-off when the curtain would be drawn, dividing the privileged from the poorer classes. Since this would have happened after take-off, I can’t verify whether it is true or not, but I liked the idea.
I asked another attendant later on if there were bar stools at the bar and if so, did they have seat belts. He said that there were seats at the bar but without seatbelts. When the ‘buckle up’ sign came on, the people sitting at the bar had to go back to their seats; I suppose carrying their drinks, the poor things.
Patsy and I opted to sit in the emergency exit row so that we would have extra legroom. It was a cool idea, but it also meant that we did not have a space to store things under the seat in front of us. However, as compensation, a flight attendant sat right in front of us on take-off and landing, so we had entertaining conversation from time to time. By the way, our seats did not have the little television screens in front of us, but they did have some fold out TVs in the armrests. We opened the flap on the armrest, pulled out the TV, and twisted it around to look at the screen; very “Wally-like,” if you remember the little Disney robot whose head swiveled around.
We have traveled in steerage quite a bit in the past and while I knew that they would feed us something, this being an international flight, I wasn’t sure what. Once, we had cold ham and Velveeta cheese on a dry bun, but that was a long time ago.
Before our meal, the flight attendant handed out warm hand towels – warm towels to us in steerage! I don’t remember ever having this sort of thing in economy. Anyway, we had a nice light meal and then the lights dimmed to help us establish a ‘night’ pattern. Some of us can sleep on a flight, while some of us cannot. Thank heaven for TV.
When we landed at Heathrow, we had to go through the front door past the bar, and so got a glimpse at first class seating. For those of you who have not flown on one of these new jets, business class looks about what we used to see in first class. First class is another matter entirely. Each passenger has his or her own cubicle of sorts. These sit at an angle to the plane, has a short wall between seats, and looks like the cross between a business office and a small, leather covered couch. If the spaces were much larger, they would look like one of those tiny Japanese motel rooms.
The next ‘morning,’ we landed in London and went through the usual customs events. This is where ‘the Beast’ came in to play and where our friends proved to be invaluable. We had to take the underground to Paddington Station to get our Oyster Cards (metro passes) and our train tickets that would take us to Wales and back at the end of the event. Paddington Station is a high ceiling place with iron pillars holding up a glass roof. I think this dates back to the early days of rail travel. If you looked up at the ceiling and the upper ironwork, you could imagine men in long coats and fedoras saying “to Queen Victoria, God bless her.” If you just looked around, you would find fast food joints, ticket booths, and such. Trains used to run into the station, but now they no longer do so.
Paddington Station has very few elevators (lifts) and an abundance of stairs. Patsy and I had two heavy suitcases, a double carry-on (two small suitcases that saddled together like one large bag), and… The Beast! We climbed up stairs, down stairs, up and down too many times. Without our friends, we would have taken many more hours to get to where we were going to stay, but everyone pitched in and helped us along. I usually do not feel seventy-five years old, but by the time we got to where we were going, I not only felt every one of my years, but I think I made a deposit on some future years.
We rented a flat on Whitechapel Road, which made it easy to get around, but had one drawback… we were on the top floor and the steps were narrow and shallow. We had to hump the Beast on this staircase twice, once coming and once going, which was two times too many.
When in the apartment, we a good view of the street below us, and we were only a couple of blocks away from the Metro. There were some very kind people in the Metro. On our way to the apartment, people stopped to help us up or down the steps, taking a bag and even the Beast a couple of times.
The Whitechapel area has been notorious since the 1880s, but is now fairly quiet. There is a large Muslim population, and we saw men in long gowns and skullcaps, and women who wore anything from gowns and headscarves to the full coverage with only the eye slits. (Note: as an exception to this, one day before we left, we saw a young woman, maybe in her early twenties, without a headscarf. She had a haircut reminiscent of David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust period, and she was showing it off. She looked me in the eye as though she was daring me to say something.)
We could look down the street toward a large mosque with the requisite minaret. I have often wondered why the minaret, since I don’t believe I have ever heard the call to prayer from one of these, but I digress. There was also a building further along, shaped like a gigantic glass Easter egg. Because of the green glass spirals down the sides, people have nicknamed it “The Gherkin.” It is one of London’s landmarks; I’ll talk about that later on.
The buildings along the Road looked as though they were Victorian, with special brick fronts and decorative concrete bits like pillars and ledges around the doors and windows. There was everything from clothing and food stores to betting shops and a storefront that advertised itself as a casino. Coming from Las Vegas, I couldn’t take this seriously.
There were also canvas stalls on the sidewalk outside the shops, selling produce and clothing in competition with the regularly established shops. I suppose this was a version of the Middle Eastern bazaar concept. I wondered how the merchants paying rent in the stores felt about all this, but Patsy suggested that the stalls were extensions of the shops they faced, sort of like kiosks. That made sense and accounted for the relaxed atmosphere.
This brings me to another thought: given how old London is and how many great buildings there are here (after all, this was the home of Christopher Wren), how can they build anything with modern relevance? It would be possible, but probably not desirable, to keep constructing buildings that looked like something from earlier times, but which time period? London has been around since the Romans stalked through here, although there is very little of their architecture left, just part of an old fort, a wall, and a temple. (Note: London had two great fires that pretty much razed the town. Even Westminster Palace, the home of parliament, was rebuilt after a fire in 1834, and made to look like something from the 14-15 centuries) The Gherkin was one answer, so were two other buildings affectionately called the Cheese-Grater, because it looks like one, and another called the Walkie-Talkie because it is curved like the old military radios. (Side note: the Walkie-Talkie building once actually melted a car by focusing sunlight. Really, look it up.)
We used our first day in London to more or less recovery from jetlag. We did go out to find a pub called the Blind Beggar. As it turned out, this was once a notorious place, a hangout for crooks and low life. There is apparently bullet holes in the wall, left from a murder committed there, although no one pointed them out to us. I learned about the bullet holes later on.
The pub wasn’t much to look at, and could probably have done more to attract tourism, since it once had a reputation. Instead, the owners have let the place go downhill. They made a nice burger though, and the chips (fries to us back in the colonies) were excellent; the ketchup we used on the chips was sweeter than we have back home. I had a beer called ‘Beggar’s Belief,’ which was an IPA and reasonably nice, but probably nothing I would walk across town for. The Blind Beggar was the high point of our first day on the ground.
One last thing I should mention before going on, and that is crossing the street. First, they have signs on the pavement that remind you to look right, I suppose because there are so many tourists mucking up traffic otherwise. Second, there is the usual green walking man light to let you know when it is safe to cross the street; this is advisory only. Given the least opportunity, swarms of people rush across the street. In addition, even though the green man is on, cars turning in your lane can mow you down if you are not keeping an eye out for them. Crossing a London street is a version of automobile dodgeball.
We planned to go to the Tower of London. Patsy and I had been here years ago, and we really enjoyed the visit, but we were many years younger then, and I forgot about how many bloody stairs there were. Knees give out easily as one ages, and boy, were mine giving out!
I’m sure most people know this, but the Tower was built by (for, actually) William the Conqueror twelve years after the Battle of Hastings and after he had totally subjugated the Saxon populace of England. He needed a place to rest safely just in case the subjugation didn’t take hold.
Before we got inside the gate however, we saw some horses and some people down in the old moat (now dry), dressed in costume, standing around in front of some period pavilions (tents), getting ready to joust. This is something they do for the tourists to make their visit more memorable. We spoke to some of the costumed people for a while and learned that we would see many of them at the Raglan Ffaire. Then we proceeded to the Tower.
The Tower is a three-story structure (three exceptionally tall floors) faced in whitish stone, with a moat surrounding the two defensive inner walls. It is 118 by 105 ft. square at the base, and is 90 ft. tall at the southern battlements. The site is about 18 acres in size if you include the land kept clear for military reasons. Designed as a royal palace, it was also a fortress and a prison for those who displeased the monarchy. Mary of England (or “Bloody Mary” as she was also called, due to how many Protestants were executed during her reign), kept her half-sister, Elizabeth I there before she, in turn, became queen. Other famous prisoners include 12-year-old Edward and his younger brother Richard, the young princes supposedly murdered by their uncle Richard III, and, of course, Anne Boleyn, one of Henry VIII’s wives and the mother of Elizabeth.
Once upon a time, there was a royal zoo inside the tower. To recognize that, there are statues of lions, baboons, and bears (oh my) scattered about the tower grounds. The artists made the statues from wire, much finer gauge than chicken wire, but with the same general idea. When you see them from a distance, they look solid, but as you get closer, their outlines start to get fuzzy. Apparently, one of the kings kept a polar bear at the zoo. A long chain attached to a post allowed the bear hunt fish in the Thames. Isn’t that a picture!
According to our guide, a Beefeater, the Royal Family still uses the site sometimes. By the way, a Beefeater is one of those docent/guides who dress in Elizabethan clothing and helps to run the tours at the Tower. Our guide said that they don’t call themselves Beefeaters, and that nobody really knows where the term comes from, but he did suggest that we Google it and see how many different explanations we could find.
Beefeaters are ex-military and have either retired from active duty with twenty-two years’ service or been recommended to the job for exemplary action. Now back to the tour.
When the moat was in use, the river Thames flowed into a gap each day, helping to wash out any stagnant water plus what may have accumulated there between high tides (the Thames is a tidal river, otherwise this wouldn’t work). Now the moat is just a grassy area used for special events.
There is still Thames access at the place called ‘Traitors’ Gate’ where people accused of treason came before their executions. The royal barge also stayed there when not in use, which must have been ironic if some of the prisoners were so inclined to think that way.
Chances were the traitors had other things on their minds, because the usual punishment for treason was hanging, then drawn, and quartered. This consisted of hanging until almost dead, revived long enough to witness one’s internal workings removed (drawn) and burnt before one’s eyes, and then beheaded, with the head then put on a spike outside the city gates as a warning to other people not to engage in treason. The quartering referred to having the headless body cut into pieces, with bits shipped to outlying areas just in case nobody was going to London any time soon. Our Beefeater guide reveled in telling us about the gory history of the tower. (Side note: only seven executions took place at the Tower in 400 years, the rest were done in on Tower hill, part of the cleared ground around the Tower. Later on, we took a bus tour of London and saw a pub near the Tower, with the name ‘Hung, Drawn, and Quartered.’ I’m not sure I would want to ‘hang out’ there.)
On a lighter note, the Tower also contains some several very important things including the Royal Armory and the Crown Jewels. The armory holds various war-like items, such as the armor of various kings – especially several suits worn by Henry VIII – and their horses, actual period weaponry, and assorted treasures they find when they periodically dredge up the Thames. The Tower was also the Royal Mint for a long time, and there were displays of coin making apparatus.
The Crown Jewels are in glass cases with a people mover type conveyor to carry the viewers along in front of the cases. You can double back to see the jewels again, but you cannot stop to look at them… also no picture taking. As usual, no matter how many times attendants tell people they cannot take pictures, someone always tries. By the way, one of our band, Lucia, said that she tried to do the moonwalk ala Michael Jackson, to stay in one place on the people mover. She didn’t say how effective this was.
The crown jewels not only include various crowns worn by former kings, but also the crowns worn by some of the queens. Apparently, some but not all, crowns get recycled. No one mentioned why only some are recycled; maybe it depends on the importance of the king or queen.
One of the special jewels in the crown of Elizabeth II is the Koh-I-Noor diamond (Side note: the Koh-I-Noor was once the eye of an idol, but then confiscated by various people who took over the region. I find this very “Indiana Jones-ish.” Art does imitate life sometimes.). The diamond is a mere 105.6 metric carat diamond, weighing 21.6 grams (a little over 0.046 pound), and looks about the size of a small egg. A massive ruby sits just above the diamond, and is about the same size. Other than the occasional rare jewel, all of the crowns are masses of smaller diamonds. In all, they look uncomfortable; Elizabeth’s crown weighs about two pounds depending on whom you ask, so you can see why she doesn’t wear it very often.
We were in the Crown Jewel room when Daniel, another of our merry group, dropped down on one knee and proposed to Lucia, she of the moonwalking attempt, and asked her to marry him. She accepted and he put the ring on her finger. The crowd of almost a hundred people cheered and clapped. They clapped even harder when the two kissed. Later on, Daniel said that it took guts to offer a small, jeweled ring to his love in a room full of incredible mega-jewelry.
Another interesting aspect of the Tower is their use of one-way traffic. There are places where you had better be prepared to go to the bitter end or not go at all. My knees had been complaining after so much stair climbing the day before, and I tried to avoid as many steps as I could, but this was almost impossible. For instance, there was a wall walk where I wanted to go to get a closer look at some of the carvings on the walls. Many of the carvings are very odd and humorous, with faces carved just below the parapets. One could almost call them gargoyles except that not all of them have open mouths. I think the proper term for these is chimera.
To continue, it wasn’t until I got to the place where I could take some pictures of the carvings that I realized I had to go much further and that I would have to climb a staircase a lot like the ones usually found inside lighthouses. Of course, what goes up must come down, so I had an extra helping of staircase.
The Tower has the Raven Prophecy, that if the ravens ever leave, the Tower will fall and so will the monarchy. One of the kings (possibly Charles II) was so superstitious about this that he decreed seven ravens be kept at the Tower at all times. To make sure they don’t fly away, all the birds have their wings clipped, and one (not always the same bird) stays in a cage for a while.
Speaking of Ravens, we had a nice meal at the New Armories Restaurant, which was next to the Raven Kiosk (how’s that for a smooth segue?),
The Raven Kiosk is another dining venue, but geared more to teas, coffees, homemade cakes and savory bites than what we were looking for (you probably thought I was going to say we ate there, and so did I for a moment until I looked at the Tower site map). However, we almost decided to go to the Kiosk for the name alone, if nothing else. The New Armories Restaurant advertised a larger selection and so we decided to eat there.
Patsy and I had Watercress Soup – something we had read about but never tried – along with a wodge of fresh bread to mop up the bottom of the bowl. The soup was semi-creamy, with the peppery taste of fresh watercress. We finished off our lunches with a type of crème brûlée and fresh berries, just the stuff to perk up a weary tourist.
After a long and trying day visiting the Tower, we made our way to the apartment, stopping first to buy tickets for a bus tour of the city. We went to the Blind Beggar for another one of their burgers and fries. This time, I had a Doom Bay, amber beer, which featured a slightly fruity taste and hops.
We took a double-decker bus tour of the city today. It was one of those ‘hop on, hop off’ affairs, so we were able to stop and see some things up close. Unfortunately, it also meant that there were steps to climb… arrgh!
We stopped near a park with a statue of Shakespeare in it. Around the base of the statue, a water fountain randomly spurted water up about three feet and then the water fell back into a shallow basin. Kids were running around, trying to step on the water jets when they came up, or just plain wanting to get wet. They accomplished this last bit quite easily. Near the statue/fountain, we watched a busker juggling three machetes and an apple, while riding a seven feet tall unicycle. Now please take a moment and try to visualize this man, when was a boy; do you think he ever said to his folks, “I don’t need to go to college since I already know what I want to be when I grow up… “
The day was cool, but we finished it off by taking a cruise along the Thames. We passed under several bridges, one of which was that most ornate of bridges, the Tower Bridge. Most people think of this as the London Bridge, but actually, it is not. The original bridge stood further downstream at a site where the Romans first built one, and was the only bridge crossing the river for centuries. Our guide was also quick to point out that the London Bridge started to sink in the river mud and so the government sold it. The new owner disassembled it and shipped to Arizona, where it now resides at Lake Havasu. If you really want to see a London Bridge, going to Lake Havasu is the cheapest way to do it.
The boat passed the ‘Eye,’ a giant wheel some three hundred feet high, with pods that you can go riding in, along with twenty-five of your closest friends for a mere $28 per person. They give you a drink and some munchies as well.
The ride has only one central support for the axel, the other support coming from rollers along the bottom of the wheel. If it had two central supports for the axel, it would be a Ferris Wheel (I don’t see the importance of one over another, but I am not an aficionado about these things.) The wheel rotates at about one mile an hour, so if you are not looking for the movement, it seems to be standing still. This means that they do not have to stop the wheel to load or off-load riders unless they are infirm.
Farther along, we passed “The Globe Theater,” Will Shakespeare’s old hangout. This is not the real Globe, which burnt down in the great London Fire in the seventeenth century. This replica probably does not stand where the Globe once did, but it is as near as they can figure. It is also the only building allowed a thatched roof in London. We would have loved to see a play at the theater, but the performance sold out for the time we would be in London.
On the other side of the Thames, we saw the parliament buildings and the tower of Big Ben. By the way, the tower is not Big Ben, but that is the name of the large bell inside the tower. Our guide on the boat told us that the clock is so big; the minute hand is eighteen feet long. He said the hand is so heavy; it takes an hour to go all the way around the dial! (Ba-dum-dah!)
Our guide on the boat also told us that the reason we call the river the Thames with no ‘th’ and a short ‘I’ rather than Thames with the ‘th’ and a long ‘A’ is that one of the royal princes could not say it correctly, and people started to copy the way he spoke. This is similar to why Castilian Spanish uses a ‘th’ for some ‘c’ places, such as ‘Grathias’ instead of ‘Gracias.’
Finally, after the boat ride, we made our way back to the apartment, where Daniel cooked us a nice traditional English countryside dinner of fajitas.
Today would be a mixed day, with me going off by myself to do some research for a book I am planning, while everyone else went to Stonehenge. This would be our last day in London, and I was on my own to navigate the London Metro. I felt rather proud of myself in that I did not get lost at the station (that would come later) and I avoided getting on the wrong subway line, although I almost did so.
I was supposed to go to the London Metropolitan Archives, but the brochure I got did not have an address for the place. My hearing aides were going out and I needed new batteries, so I found a Boots pharmacy, and while I bought my batteries, I asked the sales person if she knew where the Archives were. She looked it up on her telephone and gave me directions. I dutifully jotted them down in my notebook. As it turned out, her directions had me making a right turn when I should have gone left; I was going away from the Archives building, rather than toward it.
I ended up walking in circles for an hour and a half, meeting a number of people whose accents were not English, and who, although they wanted to help me, had no idea where the Archives library was. I finally got there with the help of an English gentleman I stopped. He was well dressed, grey haired and had one of those light-skinned complexions that includes a high flush on the cheeks. He acted startled when I spoke to him, but quickly understood my problems, and pulled a map out of his coat pocket. Now how many people do any of us know who just happens to have a map in their pocket? After I showed him what I had scrawled in my notebook, he pointed me in the right direction and, using logic, figured out approximately where the place was. Even so, I wandered around the general vicinity for another fifteen minutes and finally stumbled on the office.
I saw the material I came here to research: journals of soldiers from the Anglo-Afghan wars. I was very surprised that I could handle the original documents without using white gloves, and that I was able to read the script despite all the fancy curlicues. Patsy told me that she had students who could not read cursive because they never learned it. My experience was almost like that. I found it interesting that the writers could march twenty or thirty miles in a day and still have time to use pen and ink to write in their diaries. The handwriting was neat well done, but with several letters that I could not recognize.
Finally, my adventure was over, so I stopped at a pub named Betsy Trotwood. I did not realize it, but the pub had two other floors besides the main one where I sat. Apparently, the cellar is a rocking venue when things get in full swing, while the upstairs is an elegant place that hosts acoustic entertainment (the quiet type). I suppose the ground floor acts as a sound barrier or something. The pub was open for lunch, but I was the only one in it. I had a nice cottage pie with steak and mushrooms, and a Spitfire Beer. The beer was supposed to be fruity, but to me it was just watery. This could be because the barman was changing out the kegs, because he was pumping them while I watched him. That was an interesting thing in itself. The tap handles are about three feet in length, and to get the beer/ale flowing, the bar man has to pull these things almost to the ground several times; it was like priming a pump.
I made my way back to the Metro and to Whitechapel with nothing more exciting than having to climb even more stairs! I also had to do the street crossing fandango.
Today, we would leave London and head down to Cardiff in Wales. We got to Paddington, this time by using taxis rather than trying to haul all of our bags on the metro again. When our taxi driver drew up and saw all of our bags, plus the Beast, he looked startled, bemused, and then resigned. He was able to put all our bags and the Beast in the back seat, and still had room for Patsy and me, although it was a tight fit.
London, like many large cities, has construction work going on all over the place. By the time we got to the train station, we had gone in circles, driving down street that were closed for construction, backing up and going another direction, and generally getting confused… well us, not our driver. I asked him if he had memorized the A to Z, the official street map of London, and he said that he had. It took him three years and a couple of months, to do it, but apparently, all taxi drivers have to memorize the maps before they can get a license.
We found our train and got our baggage loaded just in time. Now here’s a funny thing: the luggage carts are free, but you have to use a pound coin to get them out of the racks. A box sits on top of the handle, with a couple of slots in it. You put the coin into the first slot, and shove a key into one side slot. This pushes the chain that holds the cart in place out of the other side. When you return the cart, you reverse the process and the pound coin pops back out, easy, huh. We did not know this, but as we were loading our bags onto the train, the porter just smiled as he helped us. Later on, we realized that he probably returned our carts to the queue, collected our pound coins and we had just bought him a pint at the pub.
We love traveling through the English countryside because it is very pretty; this is a green and watered land. However, the Welsh countryside is even lovelier. Hedgerows divide the rolling hills into various fields and pastures, with sheep or cows in many of them. There were trees everywhere, and flowers, things we desert dwellers don’t see as much of.
When we got off the train in Cardiff, there was a sign with the name of that town the Welsh seem to take pride in, flaunting it in the face of the English-speaking world. Here is the name: Llanfairnwillgwyngyllgogeryshwyrndrobwillantsiligogogoch. Try saying that three times quickly.
In English, the name of the town starts with “Church of St. Mary,” and then goes on to geographically describe where the church can be found (it now occurs to me that the explanation of the name is as long as the name itself, oh well). I read that the locals who live there shorten the name to ‘St. Mary Church,’ and go on about their business.
While we were at the station, I got a couple of carts to move the bags, again using coins to unhook them from their rack. Meanwhile, Guy and Laurie, the last two of our group, went to the car rental place. There was no metro or bus service to Raglan, and so we needed to have cars.
While they were gone, a young man who worked at the station helped me to move the baggage and return the carts to their queue. He showed me how to reclaim my pound coins and told me how we probably bought a pint for the first porter. I asked him if he spoke Welsh and he said that he did not. He went on to say Cardiff was too close to England, so they did not use Welsh all that much, but the schools further north teach the language. Even so, all the street and highway signs were in both languages.
We stopped at Raglan Castle (Castell Rhaglan in Welsh), the site of our event, to register before we went on to the place we were staying. The castle is in ruins, but there is still enough of it standing to impress anyone not used to castles. Some of the outer wall still stands, along with many of the interior walls, too. Raglan was the next to last castle to fall during the English Civil War, and it withstood a two month siege until Cromwell’s troops brought in mortars.
After the garrison surrendered, sappers and engineers came in and tore down the walls.
The central keep, or main tower, still stands and there are stairs that people can climb to look over the landscape… I did not climb these stairs.
We stayed long enough to see some interesting fighting going on with two-handed blunted, dull edged bladed great swords, approximately 48” long. It’s our way of reaching out and touching someone.
We signed in, showed our membership cards, paid the attendance fee, and got a bottle of hand-made beer. They told us there would be fresh pies handed out for lunch on Saturday. What a welcoming group!
After checking in, we headed off to our temporary home. We would stay in a village called Penalt (or Penallt, if you want to go full Welsh). To get there, we travelled along a regular freeway to near the turn-off, after which we found ourselves in successfully smaller roads. While none that we travelled on was small enough to be lanes, hedges hemmed almost all of them. Technically, the roads were wide enough for two automobiles to pass in most places; however, the hedges had grooves cut into them by car side-mirrors, that’s how narrow the roads were.
We were staying in a place that had once been a schoolhouse, with a chapel next door. The plaque on the wall said that the schoolhouse dated from 1834, and that the chapel came thirty-five years later on. The place was exquisite with stone floors, exposed wooden beams in the ceiling, and a small Franklin stove in the large living room, which was probably the main classroom when this was a school.
The house had the requisite English-style garden in front, with Hydrangea, Lavender, and Butterfly Bush planted along the driveway. Not only was the way down to the garage pretty, but it also had a wonderful smell that scented the air and attracted large bumblebees.
A tall, spreading tree dominated about a quarter acre of green backyard, with the requisite flock of small birds flitting around. The place was almost too perfect. We even had a table and chairs on a patio where we could sit and drink our coffee while enjoying a great view of the Welsh countryside.
We dropped our bags off and went to a grocery store for food. The back roads in Wales can be very narrow, but some of the in-town roads weren’t much better. When we went to the store, we parked along the curb and waited patiently while traffic drifted by. It could have been worth our lives, not to mention a car door or two, if we had gotten out at the wrong time.
By this time, we had been up for a long time and were hungry, so you can imagine the sort of ‘impulse buying’ we did. We bought snacks, real food, peanut butter and bread ( I’m pleased to say the English have excellent bread and very good peanut butter), and of course, Welsh wine, oh my.
After our trip to the store, we got to the house and whipped up a nice baked chicken dinner, with vegetables. I emphasize that because it is easy to miss having vegetables with all the nifty pies and pasties they have around here.
After dinner, we sat around talking and having a glass of wine or two before turning in.
I had a bit of vertigo on this day, and so Patsy and I stayed home while the others went to the castle. Sometimes when I get too tired, the vertigo tells me it’s time to slow down for a while. Being on an airplane for most of twenty-four hours, plus going up and down too many stairs while lugging baggage and the Beast, took it out of me. Anyway, this gave me some time to write, which was good. I tend to forget about some things if I wait too long to jot them down.
That night, we went to a small pub that featured a wide variety of wines and ciders. I had cowslip wine, something I had never had before. The cowslip flower is part of the primrose family and grows in clusters, something I did not know. My only reference was where Shakespeare had Puck singing, “in a cowslip bell I lie.”
The wine was very light, not too sweet, and floral (what would you expect; the wine was made from flowers. By the way, I would not know a cowslip from many of the other flowers they used in their wines; I just looked it up so that I could tell you something about it in this log). The selection of wines included elderberries, dandelions, and other fruit and flower bases.
I would have tried their Farmhouse Scrumpy (a kind of hard apple cider) if I had seen it before I looked at the wine list and got interested. We once knew someone who sang a song about scrumpy. As it turns out, I may have been suspicious of the drink, since it is supposed to be stronger than commercial cider, and a bit cloudy. Oh well, there is next time.
I had a creamy Leek, Ham and Stilton bake along with my wine. It’s a dish that I will probably make one of these days, but will figure out how to add some vegetables to it.
The pub was small, although there were places to sit outside if one so chose. The English allow dogs in their restaurants, which of course, we don’t… hygiene and all that don’t you know. There was a rather large brown dog that walked past me after we found our table, and I certainly wasn’t going to ask him to leave, no sir.
We went to dinner early, because we wanted to be back at home before it got too late. Guy and Laurie had done a bang-up job of driving; however, we weren’t sure what it would be like on the narrow roads after dark. We didn’t want to chance it. (Now it occurs to me that the term ‘bang-up’ is not one to use when talking about driving.)
This was an excellent day in that I finally had a chance to do some fighting. There were several contests going on, so I had to wait around for a while. We have various ranks in our sport, depending on the group. In this case, people were testing their skills to rise up another notch in the standings.
After the tests, I got to cross swords with some of the local talent and I loved it… even when they handed me my head. By late afternoon, all of us who went to Raglan to fight were tired.
There is something almost magical, fighting in a real castle. Enough of the castle remains to see that this was a very comfortable place until Cromwell and his troops blew the hell out of it. There were tracery windows in what was once a library, and more of them in the great hall. There are many graceful things left even though damaged. Among them were several large fireplaces scattered throughout the ruins, one of which had a decorative facing of what were probably the Muses above it.
One of the people I fought with told me he was sad about the library. He wished it hadn’t been destroyed, which I thought was interesting to say the least; I mean, the destruction took place almost 400 years ago.
There were some people down under a bridge that joined the castle to the bowling green, making Norwegian Tarts in a portable oven. The oven was a replica of a medieval oven that might have been next to a cottage. It was a half of a ball, about sixteen inches across and sixteen inches tall. The bakers built a fire inside the oven, and when the wood burnt down, they swept the hearth out and started baking their tarts.
I did not get a chance to taste the tarts, but let me tell you that I am not sure what they would have tasted like. The man making the tarts said that they contained raisins, apples, nuts and fish. Okay, maybe they were delicious, but we chose to go to the nearby coffee shop for some non-period coffee and scones instead.
There was ceremonial business at the site in the morning, so we chose to go to Tintern Abbey instead of sitting around the house until the afternoon. Many of us had read Wordsworth’s poem about Tintern Abbey, (Okay, he didn’t write the poem about the abbey itself, but about the countryside and his feelings, and on and on. Heck even the poem’s full name is Welsh-like in its length: Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798).
Now that I have gotten that out of the way, I will tell you about the place. First, it is in ruins just like the castle, and just like Raglan, it is a beautiful ruin. A wall surrounds the twenty-seven acres of Abbey grounds. Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to have been much stone stealing so common in other places. I have heard there are barns in Greece that have bits of sculpture embedded in the walls.
There are several buildings around the site including infirmaries, vestries, smaller chapels, guesthouses, and of course, dormitories. While the Abbey has many lovely features, probably the most outstanding is the Western Window, where there seven lancet windows (tall, narrow widows ending in points) with a rose window above them. The delicate window tracery work is so fine that it is easy to forget that this is all stone. I tried to get a picture of a cloud floating behind the openings, but the result wasn’t very impressive.
Construction on the Abbey began in 1131. 1301 saw the completion of the great chapel, but work around the site continued in one way or another until 1536, when Henry shut the whole thing down. The church was large enough to be a cathedral, but there was never a bishop at Tintern (cathedrals must have a bishop resident), and so it remained just an abbey.
Like many other places, Henry VIII and his Dissolution of the Monasteries ended monastic life in England, Wales and Ireland. All the abbey treasure went to the Royal Treasury (of course), while the buildings fell into ruins. Teams of preservationists are working on the site, putting things together like a giant stone jigsaw puzzle.
The buildings are mostly of sandstone, whose colors vary from purple to buff and grey. The abbey church is 236 ft. long, but I can’t say how wide, although like most of the churches at that time, is in the form of a huge cross.
After wandering around the site for a couple of hours, we retreated to the Anchor Inn for a bite of lunch, and then off to the castle. While there were other cafes at the castle, we parked in the Anchor Inn parking lot and needed our ticket validated. The Inn offered a wide variety of dishes such as tomato-and-brie pies, cheese and ham pasties, but Patsy and I settled for Plowman’s Lunch because, again, we had read several references to it in English novels. . This dish consists of small pickled onions, a slab of cheese, slices of ham, and a spicy savory that tasted like mincemeat. Plowmen have very interesting tastes. After lunch, we headed back to Raglan.
Since this would be our final day of fighting with each other, and not traffic, I intended to make the most of it.
When we fight in groups rather than as individuals, we fight what we call melees. A melee consists of two or more teams fighting for a goal, usually to capture a prize or a particular person. Imagine if you will, several people, in this case about twenty, all armed with swords and small shields in some cases, trying to stab each other while not getting stabbed.
Our first melee fight was a bridge battle, where the invaders had to fight their way into the castle. For some reason, everything favored the invaders. We lost twice, but when it came our turn to invade, we won twice, so it all worked out. The second battle took place over a low wall in what had been The Buttery, which despite the name, was a place for serving beer and wine.
After a couple of hours fighting, it was time to stop for the day; after all, I am not a spring chicken anymore. Guy and Daniel finished with tier fighting as well. Laurie did very well at the archery range. She was the first archer to kill a plague rat (okay, a Styrofoam rat about the size of a football. No rodents were harmed in this contest). We left Raglan on a high note and with the promised meat pies. They were delicious, by the way.
Back at the schoolhouse, Daniel whipped up a lovely beef stew, which we devoured. There is nothing like a good workout in the open air to build up an appetite. Now it was time to start packing, because we would have to leave the house around six o’clock the next morning. We packed up as much as we could, including the Beast, which we put into one of the cars.
We got up early, made coffee and toast, took all the last minute pictures we needed, and then set off to the train station. Laurie and Guy had to return the rental cars and then take a taxi back to the station. It was close, but they made it just in time, and we were on our way back home.
I won’t bore you with the return trip, because nothing exciting happened. A Sumo wrestler didn’t sit in the outside seat, so we weren’t trapped, there was no exceptional turbulence, and we arrived back in Las Vegas about 9:30 in the evening, which meant we had been traveling for almost eighteen to twenty hours. We felt wrung out by the whole experience. However, if you asked, would we do it again, our answer would be Hell yes. In fact, we have been trying to figure out how we can match a return to Raglan next year with another event we want to attend n Pennsylvania.
So, I hope you enjoyed the trip to England and Wales. If you have any questions, please contact me. Again, I hope to be able to post some pictures along with this log, but dinosaurs have difficulty with technology, so don’t hold your breath.
Until next time, be well and be happy.
Links to photos: https://goo.gl/photos/GBQNasoMmDPh9nKL8