Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday Flashback: A Personal Tour Through Wales

Me and Will - Feb 2004
Our first date!
For last week's Friday Flashback post, I shared a memoir-style short story I wrote while I was studying abroad in England back in college. This week, I'm going to share another piece from my England writing collection, a travel writing piece about my first trip to Wales... which was my very first date with my husband.

So, here it is - I got an A on my first date.

A Personal Tour Through Wales
By Marisa Myers

"So, where in England do Welsh people come from?" Ha. That question kills me, but it has definitely been asked before. It has even been followed up with the answer, "Some town just outside of London, I think." Now that really kills me. Wales is a country, everybody. A real one. With its own flag, its own national anthem, and its own language (although hardly anyone speaks Welsh as a first language anymore).

Until recently, I had never been to Wales. However, I had heard of it, had known it was a country, and wanted to see it for myself. When given an invitation for a weekend in the said country by a friend named Will Hopkins (that is a very Welsh surname), I immediately said: "Yes, of course! I would love to see Wales!" Will picked me up promptly at 9:30 am a few days later and we drove from my temporary home in Bath, through Bristol, and across the river Severn.

As we crossed the Severn Bridge, from England into South Wales, I expected there to be some sort of change in the landscape. I did not really get it. Granted, Wales is attached to England and the climate and land should naturally be similar, but I was expecting more. Something along the lines of a woman in a traditional Welsh costume waving at the cars driving by with a welcoming smile on her face, or a field of daffodils and leeks shaped into the word Cymru. Maybe even a fire-works display, in glittering green and white with a red dragon breathing fire.

I certainly did not expect to see what I really saw, which was just a motorway, fields of sheep, and some kind of industrial smoke stack billowing black smoke into the fresh Welsh air. I was crossing the border into a different country. A different country. One which should have looked more different than it did. But I wasn't too alarmed. I was in Wales for the first time with my friend Will acting tour guide and, as Will delivers the goods always, I knew that my weekend in Wales would be an awesome one.

Having a personal tour guide as dedicated as Will was, I definitely had a thorough experience. Will had recently lived in South Wales for three years and had grown up visiting the area and seeing the sights, so he knew just where to take me in order to show me a good time. As we drove along the motorway, he even read all of the Welsh words off the road signs for me, in order to familiarize me to the sound of the Welsh language.

Our first stop was the Rhondda coal mine where we went on the "Shift in Time: Underground Tour" and enjoyed our journey through time as we travelled back into the 1950's and experienced what it was like in the Lewis Merthyr Colliery, digging up Black Gold. Once upon a time, the coal industry dominated everything in South Wales. Until the 1980’s, when Margaret Thatcher’s government took their toll on the coal industry, a quarter of a million men worked in the mines. The tour was quite interesting. We were led through different buildings, each with a film show and period dressed manikins set up to look like they were talking to each other. The tour guide was a voice recording of a man named Bryn Rees, who told about his life working in the Colliery in the 1950’s and his grandfather’s life, working in the Colliery in the 1850’s. As I am an American who had never heard a Welshman speak before, half of the tour was lost on me. I had a great time anyway; especially when a live tour guide came out and took us on a tour of what we thought was the actual mine. Decked out in hard hats, we went on a simulated ride, which made us believe we were going into the earth and walking through the mine passageways. The tour ended with another simulation and with this, the guide winked at me and said, "You'll like this one, California Girl. It's like a ride at Disneyland." It wasn’t, really.

Taff Merthyr Colliery
Treharris, Taff Bargoed Valley, S. Wales

Our next stop was the ruins of Ogmore Castle. William de Londres built the castle on this site in 1116, as a Norman fortress. While the ruin does not look at all now, as it did over 800 years ago, it is still impressive. Only one wall stands to its original three stories tall, although it has crumbled in many places. The staircase leading from the great hall to the lord and lady’s apartment is still intact as well; however, there is no way to reach the staircase, since the floor below it is completely gone.

Ogmore Castle, Brigend, Wales

There are sandstone cliffs in Bridgend, off the coast of Dunraven Bay, which are the most spectacular cliffs in all of Wales. Will and I made our way over there, trekking through the ruins and the overgrown gardens of Dunraven castle which were destroyed when “some Yankee Doodle Dandy bought all of the land so that he could take the stones and build himself a castle in America” (according to Will). The cliffs and the beach were very impressive. Will said that the beach had once stretched out for about a half a mile, but the sand had been removed over the years, in order to fill little children’s sand boxes. Now the beach is only a few hundred yards long. A shame really, how people can destroy such beautiful pieces of nature.

The Cliffs of Dunraven Bay, Brigend, S. Wales

Our next stop was Porthcawl, where Will and I would be staying the night. We drove into Porthcawl and found a house, which had a sign outside claiming that it was indeed a B & B. When we knocked on the door, a man answered and Will asked if there were two rooms available. I assumed that the man said yes (although I did not really understand a word he said), because Will seemed satisfied and went inside to make the booking official. They talked for a while and when I was introduced as an American from California, the man smiled and said to me, "Da da dada yada, I reckon. Yada dada da, like. Da yada da daya, is it?"


The next morning, Will and I packed up and hopped back in his car, to visit the town of St. Fagans, and the Museum of Welsh Life. As it was St. David’s Day, the day to celebrate the patron saint of Wales, it was perfect timing for us to go to a museum such as that.

The Museum of Welsh Life is an open-air museum, with grounds featuring reconstructed buildings that were found all over and are traditional to Wales. We walked among school children on their field trips (the girls wearing the traditional costume of Wales, as is the custom on St. David’s Day) and people wearing daffodils pinned to their shirts, as we learned about how the people of Wales lived and farmed for hundreds of years.

Our weekend in Wales ended with a drive to Cardiff, where we drove past the Millennium Stadium and over to the pier for lunch. There we found an American diner complete with 50’s music and pictures of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. I had been given a taste of Welsh culture, food and drink, but decided I wanted something American, as I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich and some chili-cheese fries. It was wonderful to eat what is familiar to me, while in such an unfamiliar country.

My journey into the country of Wales was definitely an experience worth remembering. While I had known that Wales was a country, I had never known what made Wales different from other countries. Learning about the coal industry, seeing how proud the people were to support their patron saint, walking through the traditional white and black houses and mock villages of the open-air museum, and seeing the spectacular cliffs, ones which are not found anywhere else in the world, gave me a new appreciation for a country that I had only heard about. I only hope that other people get a chance to see Wales like I did; especially, the people who still think Wales is just “some town outside of London.”


So there it is. Our first date. What I didn't include, is that Will and I went out on the town and got completely sloshed, and I was ridiculously hung-over for the Museum of Welsh Life part of our trip and couldn't even eat my chili-cheese fries because the idea of food made me want to die. Hey, when in Wales, do as the Welsh do, right?

If you have a flashback of your own, that you want to share with the world, head on over to Tia's blog at Enjoy!



Kelly Warren said...

great story! and what a great first date! love that picture of the cliffs. i've never been to europe. one day....

April said...

I think it's so cute that throughout the story you referred to Will as your friend! And now you're married with 2 girlies and a gaggle of animals! Ahhhhh, love!

Giggly said...

What a onderful story. Sweet first date, thank you for sharing. XOXOX The pics are gorgeous. I would love to travel to Europe someday. :)

Alyssa S. said...

I don't know why, but it's kinda funny you took pics on your first date...though it was an eventful one. I think my hubs and I were dating for over a month before there's any pics of us together.

I'm very jealous you got to live in England for a time...and to see Wales. Hearing about your trip to the Rhondda of course reminds me of one of my all time favorite songs by The Alarm..."A New South Wales"...which still makes me tear up when I hear it...and I've never even been there!

Will said...

who took that picture of us?

Unknown said...

Will - it was a random little old couple :)

betty said...

I love your stories :)
The fact that they're true makes them better.

Will said...

Just to add to Marisa's point, A customer just asked where I was from I responded "Wales" His reply guessed it..."Wow, I Just love Engalnd".
So I got a little annoyed and when he asked me how I liked America I replied, "quebec is beautiful". He didn't understand.

Crafty Mama said...

That is quite a first date! You look so lovely together, too.

Melanie @ Whimsical Creations said...

What a fabulous first date.

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