Thursday, October 31, 2013

Croeso i Gymru - Welcome to Wales

On October 15th, we decided to leave England for while and take a brief sojourn in Wales. Our destination was the Bron-Y-Wendon Touring Park (£20/nt) at Llanddulas, just east of Conwy. The campground is nicely situated overlooking the Irish Sea. When we arrived, the weather had cleared up and it was gorgeous and sunny.
LandShark overlooking the Irish Sea at the Bron-Y-Wendon Touring Park. Off in the distance, you can see a windfarm off the coast.
Because we had a rare sunny patch we were all inspired to get outside and go for a hike. There's a paved bike/footpath that hugs the coastline and we followed it for a few miles.
Yay! We're in Wales and it's not raining! (Man, that sun was bright.)
This is a shot of the £2bn Gwynt y Mor windfarm off the north Wales coast near Colwyn Bay and Llandudno. It was billed as one of the largest offshore windfarm projects in Europe, able to provide enough clean, green electricity to power the equivalent of around 400,000 homes.
On October 16th, we woke up to the (getting far too familiar) gray skies and rain again. The wind also really picked up and we felt we were experiencing gusts like those back at John O'Groats in northern Scotland. With the ability to finally plug in, giving us electricity and access to fresh water and the ability to dump gray water on site (the trifecta!), Vince pulled out the washing machine and proceeded to do five loads of laundry. (What a guy!) He and the kids pulled out Monopoly and played a game while I worked on the blog, filling in for people when they had to leave the game for various periods. After Monopoly, the kids worked on the week's homework and before I knew it, it was dinner time. We spent the whole day inside LandShark.
While doing laundry, the kids and Vincent played Monopoly; Sarah was the big winner. That evening it was Catan and Mom pulled out a surprise win.
On October 17th, we woke up to a stunningily, sunny day. What a gift! This was our day to go and explore Conwy. Our first stop was Conwy Castle. Built for Edward I between 1283 and 1289, it is amongst the finest surviving medieval fortifications in Britain. An estimated £15,000 was spent building the castle, the largest sum Edward spent in such a short time on any of his Welsh castles. The castle is comprised of two barbicans (fortified gateways) and eight massive towers and is built on solid rock which added to its defenses (no risk of invaders tunneling under the castle). 
This is the splendid view of the quay and harbour as one climbs up towards the Conwy Castle's front gate.
A view of the castle (and Vincent) from between the north west and south west towers.
Paul and James can be seen peering over the north east tower.
Up at the top of the castle's north east tower, this is the magnificent view.
Created by architect, Thomas Telford, the Conwy Suspension Bridge (opened in 1826), was one of the first road suspension bridges in the world.
After leaving the castle, we walked down to the quay and stumbled upon the smallest house in Britain.
Sarah, James and Paul in front of the smallest house in Britain. The house was built in the 16th century and was inhabited until 1900, when it was condemned as living quarters.  The last owner, Robert Jones, was a fisherman who was 6' 3" tall. At one time, an elderly couple lived in here.
Sarah and Vince on the ground floor of Britain's smallest house. The second floor was the bedroom.
After leaving the quay, and finding there were no boat cruises that day (tide was out), we walked up High Street to Plas Mawr (=Great Mansion), which claims to be the finest surviving town house of the Elizabethan era anywhere in Britain. It was built between 1576 and 1585 by Robert Wynn, who was a successful Welsh merchant. The audio guides are very detailed and if one has the time, one could spend 90 minutes plus listening to the information. (Once we paid our admission, we were told we only had 35 minutes before it closed. Hmm.) There were a couple docents in the building and the woman in the kitchen was exceptionally chatty and interesting.
If one wants to visit both Conwy Castle and Plas Mawr, one can buy a combination ticket.
The docent located in the kitchen offered many interesting details about the kitchen. If we had the time, I could have talked with her for an hour. The wooden crate hanging over the table was for bread so that rodents couldn't get at it. The large kettle over the fireplace would usually have boiling water in it and smaller pots would be placed in the boiling water to cook their contents. Under the plaster on the walls, was a mixture of dung and horse hair; one can see horse hair now sticking out in places where the old plaster has worn away. Some equipment in the kitchen was actually thought to be original with the house.
This was Robert Wynn's room. The E R over the fireplace stands for Elisabeth Regina. Queen Elizabeth I didn't have a middle name. She was Elizabeth Tudor. Regina means "queen" in Latin. For Canadians, this gives us a clue from where the capital city, Regina, in Saskatchewan might have come.
We were so rushed getting through Plas Mawr, that I totally missed the big ghost story around it. Robert's second wife was pregnant and waiting up in one of the towers with one of their small children, looking for for Robert to return. It got cold and so they started to come down, but his wife fell on the twisted staircase, taking the small child with her. Both were injured and so the servants called for the doctor. The wife's regular doctor was out of town dealing with another patient and so another younger doctor showed up. Turns out he was not experienced enough to deal with the problem and wanted to leave. The servants locked him up in the room with the Mrs and small child while they sent messages to bring the experienced doctor. Robert eventually returned home later that evening, unlocked the room and discovered his wife, small child and unborn child were all dead. The young doctor was no where to be found. People speculate that he tried to escape through the chimney and got stuck. So distraught, Robert committed suicide later that day. The reason why I stumbled on this story was because I was wondering what was behind the several naked ladies formed in plaster over the fireplaces and around the walls in several rooms. The women appeared to be pregnant. It appeared that these women were made in the likeness of Robert Wynn's second wife who had several children.

After leaving Plas Mawr, the kids and I walked along the city walls while Vince went off on his own to explore more of the town center.
Paul, James and Sarah walking along the town wall.
Sarah walking ahead along Conwy's town walls: The castle can be seen in the background.
While walking along the wall, the boys hurried ahead and somehow Sarah and I lost them. On our way back to meeting everyone at the car, Sarah and I stopped by St Mary's Church (founded in the 12th century). There are many interesting slate gravestones in the churchyard and one tomb in particular contains seven brothers and sisters and is marked "We Are Seven." It is said to have inspired the poet, William Wordsworth, to write his poem of the same name.
We Are Seven
By William Wordsworth

--------A Simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?

I met a little cottage Girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.

She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
--Her beauty made me glad.

"Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
How many may you be?"
"How many? Seven in all," she said
And wondering looked at me.

"And where are they? I pray you tell."
She answered, "Seven are we;
And two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea.

"Two of us in the church-yard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the church-yard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother."

"You say that two at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven!--I pray you tell,
Sweet Maid, how this may be."

Then did the little Maid reply,
"Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree."

"You run about, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five."

"Their graves are green, they may be seen,"
The little Maid replied,
"Twelve steps or more from my mother's door,
And they are side by side.

"My stockings there I often knit,
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.

"And often after sunset, Sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.

"The first that died was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.

"So in the church-yard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.

"And when the ground was white with snow,
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side."

"How many are you, then," said I,
"If they two are in heaven?"
Quick was the little Maid's reply,
"O Master! we are seven."

"But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!"
'Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, "Nay, we are seven!" 
When we returned back to LandShark, Paul and Sarah both wanted to make hamburgers. We resolved it by suggesting a burger contest. We split the meat in half and Paul and Sarah each spiced up their beef to make, what they thought, were the best hamburgers.
Paul and Sarah were both very confident in the excellence of their burgers. Vincent had the hard job of judging; somehow he navigated that delicate task without declaring either Paul or Sarah a clear winner.
On October 18th, we set out for the Trefriw Woolen Mill which is a fully operating mill open to the public. Here they demonstrate the entire process of how woolen goods are made from blending the wool, to dying, carding, roving, spinning, warping and weaving. Most of the machinery dates back to the 1950's or 1960's and shows the textile processes introduced in the Industrial Revolution and before computerization.

Before going to the mill we enjoyed lunch at The Old Ship pub in Trefriw. It's worth a mention because the food was excellent. Vincent had mussels which were the best he said he'd ever had anywhere. My white bean soup was delicious too.
Lunch at The Old Ship pub. Cozy atmosphere with a coal fire. Lots of heat radiates from a coal fire. Vince had bought a travel Scrabble game and we played that over lunch; hopefully this will help the kids with spelling.
After lunch, we went to the mill. One can walk through the different buildings and read about the different stages of making woolen goods. Most rooms don't have any activity going on but there are placards of information available. Apparently there are 60 different types of sheep in Britain. (Everywhere I turn around, I'm learning something new.)
A carding machine: The Trefriw Woolen Mill does not use all local wool because British wool is too scratchy. British wool is largely used for carpets. The Trefriw Mill typically uses 50% New Zealand wool, 25% Shetland wool and 25% British wool in its blends.
The threads going across are called wefts; the threads going vertically are called warps. The more complex the pattern, the more cards (wooden frames) are used. A bobbin shoots across and can go back and forth 92 times within a minute. In today's machines, a bobbin can go back and forth over 400 times a minute.
The mill generates its own electricity. The river is dammed above the village and a 20" pipe carries the water to the two Boving Pelton wheels, which generate 60 kilowatt electricity. The one pictured here was installed in 1942. The other was installed down stream in 1951.
After leaving the mill, we headed towards Betws-Y-Coed which is a quaint town and the principal village of the Snowdonia National Park.
We passed a couple outdoor clothing shops and I finally bought an all weather jacket with removable lining which, as it turned out, would be very useful the next day.
With new outdoor gear in hand, we got in the car and drove further into the Snowdonia National Park. It was beautiful with similar landscape to parts of Scotland.
We parked for a moment to try to get a good photo (despite the overcast sky).
Driving along towards Beddgelert, we came across the Sygun Copper Mine, which had its hay day in the Victorian era and closed in 1903. As our luck would have it, we arrived at about 16:05 and the museum and tours were closed for the day. So we decided to go for a hike instead.
Sarah waiting for me to catch up.
Me, waiting for the boys to catch up.
A lovely walk along the Afon Glaslyn.
After our hike, as we were just about a mile from Beddgelert, we continued on to that village which was reported to be picturesque. We had dinner here, hoping for another great meal (mussels were on the brain) but unfortunately we just had a mediocre fare at Lyn's Cafe.
If you are ever visiting Beddgelert, visit the fudge shop (pictured) and try the chocolate mint fudge. Yummy.
On October 19th, we realized we had hit the three month mark on our travels. (We departed Los Gatos on July 19th). Feeling motivated from our hike yesterday and inspired to do another outdoor activity, we headed to Llanberis in the Snowdonia National Park. Our first stop was the Snowdonia Mountain Railway which, during good weather, will take passengers up Mount Snowdon. In this area of ever changeable weather, while it was good back at our Bron-Y-Wendon Touring Park, it looked increasingly snarfy as we got into Llanberis. I went to check on whether we could catch the 13:00 train only to find out that trains were only going half way up the mountain that day. If we did take it up, there were no paths near that train stop that would lead us back down the mountain (which is what Paul and I wanted to do). It would also cost us £81 for an hour trip up and down the mountain, which seemed pretty pricey. So we decided to just start hiking up the mountain and see how far we would get.
After about one third of a mile up the mountain, Sarah didn't want to go any further so she and Vince stopped off at the Penceunant Isaf Cafe for midday tea (which serves as a base station for mountain climbers). Paul ran back and got the water bottles. This is a photo of Paul coming back to meet James and me.
Paul taking a water break after we got hit with the first cloud burst (see rainfall behind): Paul assured me that would be the only rain and we should keep going. Besides, if there was anymore rain, "It would come in fast and go out fast" (to quote Paul). The town of Llanberis and the Llyn Padarn lake are in the background.
James waiting for Paul and me to catch up.
Further up the mountain, we saw the Snowdon Mountain Train coming down the mountain. We got hit by that wall of rain, seen in the background, about 2 minutes after this photo was taken. It came in fast but it didn't pass by fast (enough for me).
After the third or fourth rain squall, I told the boys we should pack it in; we had walked about 40 minutes up the mountain and parts of me were soaked. To get to the top, it would have taken 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
James and Paul standing by the Llanberis path marker: We got pummeled with rain. Poor James didn't have a waterproof jacket. My new jacket seemed to be holding up but my trousers and shoes were soaked.
When we arrived back at the Penceunant Isaf Cafe, Sarah and Vincent were still there both cozy and dry drinking tea and lemonade. I ordered the boys each a deliciously rich hot chocolate (made with cream) while I opted for tea. (Yes, each day there are choices to be made that aren't always easy.) After our refreshments, we decided to go check out the National Slate Museum. In my now clammy wet trousers and cold sopping shoes, the thought of wandering around a museum was less than appealing but I thought we should see it while we were here. It's another educational opportunity to learn about slate mining.
Entry into the National Slate Museum is free. It sits at the base of a giant slate quarry that was operational until 1969.
The best part of the Slate Museum experience is the slate splitting demonstration. Here the male demonstrator is showing a volunteer how to split a piece of slate along the grain using a wide-bladed chisel. While machines were invented to do this, the best way to split slate is by hand.
Slate is often made into roof tiles. The edges are beveled using these tools so that rain water will drip off the tile edge rather than circle around the tile edge. A 24" x 14" slate tile would be sold for ~£4 but the person who made that tile would only receive 2 pence for making it. I'm not certain of the date for earning that wage but, reading more about slate mining, one learns that a few men (owners of the mines) earned great fortunes while the workers mostly struggled. The workers seemed to struggle to organize into effective unions and management usually had the upper hand.
The demonstrator showed a fan made out of slate. Slate can be split into sheets as thing as about 1 millimeter thick.
Used between 1870 and 1925, this big 50 foot water wheel (the largest in Britain) turned a shaft that ran throughout all the workshops and powered all the various belt-driven machinery. After 1925, the wheel was replaced by the more efficient Pelton wheel/turbine (also seen at the Trefriw Woolen Mill).
On October 20th, we left the Bron-Y-Wendon Touring Park and headed to the Manorbier Country Park in Pembrokeshire in south Wales. Paul was my co-pilot during the drive south. The countryside was exquisite. You know it's seriously beautiful scenery when your thirteen year old son wants to stop and take pictures.
Paul took this photo from the passenger seat while driving. Imagine if we stopped and took a proper photo without the front windshield in the way?
Picture taken by Paul.
Paul commented that if he didn't see the green hills himself, he'd think the UK pictures were all photo-shopped.
When we arrived at the Manorbier Country Park we realized this place was a "find" with an indoor swimming pool, tennis courts, nightly entertainment and free wifi.
LandShark's engine wasn't even cool before the kids were in the pool.
On October 21st, we woke up to another gray, rainy day. At 8:30am, it was barely light. Due to lethargy or whatever, no one seemed motivated to get going anywhere so we focused on homework. A lot of time was spent on algebra. As I don't have the teacher's editions of the text books, I need to do the same exercises and tests as the boys which so far has been okay as I rationalize it's good brain exercise. The tricky part however has been learning how to solve equations the "new" way. The steps that kids are taught to take, in order to solve algebraic equations, are different than how I learned back in the dark ages. So in order to explain something to Paul or James, I need to relearn the approach. (And we've just only finished chapter 3.)

A little after 13:00, the kids took a break and went swimming (while I watched them working on relearning algebra). Then about 15:30, I couldn't take being in one place any longer so Sarah and I went out to do some food shopping. Before hitting the Sainsbury's in Tenby, we went to the Manorbier beach (about a mile away from our campground). It was wild and windy down there but we had fun getting blasted and looking for unusual rocks.
Sarah loved getting blown to bits by the wind.
There are crazy people in Wales who go surfing in October (like there are crazy people who go surfing in Northern California). But here they don't seem to bother with wet suits. Interestingly, it seems the Bristol Channel is slightly warmer (15 degrees) than the Pacific off the coast of Santa Cruz (13 degrees).
When Sarah and I did shop at the Sainsbury's, we received this coupon for 4 pence off our next shopping bill. Seriously? I don't think I've seen a more pathetic coupon, ever.
When we returned back to Manorbier Country Park, Sarah wanted to show me one of the playgrounds. (There are two.)
After dinner we headed over to the bar/restaurant for quiz night (the disco music and corny games were calling out to those of us starved for some entertainment); it was worth our effort because, "Team California" won the second quiz and a box of toffee! Okay, we were hooked on the evening resort offerings. The next night's event would be karaoke. We'll see if we can step up to that one.

On October 21st, we went to the city of St. Davids and St Davids Cathedral. St Davids is reported to be the smallest city in the UK and only got its city status because of the Cathedral located there.
St Davids Cathedral, dates from 1176. To the left and behind the cathedral, is the Bishop’s Palace (built during the 1300s) which is now a ruin.
After having lunch in the cathedrals' cafeteria, we went out for a walk along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Coastal walks are of the highest ranking activities to do in southern Wales.
Walking along the coastal path by St Bride's Bay.
Fabulous views from the coastal path.
Heading back to St Davids.
I had observed a number of hydrangea bushes in bloom. This was mid-October. Our hydrangea bushes in California bloom in July.
After our hike, we looked for a place for refreshments/afternoon tea.
We found The Sampler Tea Room but read this sign posted on the front door. Note the second half: No children under 7 years old allowed. Great! We just made the cut off.
Then we read the second sign, "Well behaved older children only". Hmm, this proprietor really didn't want kids at all in his/her establishment. I wondered what disasterous event led them to ban kids? I didn't want the pressure of ensuring my children met the standards, so we moved on to a pub down the street which had board games and was a hit.
That evening the Manorbier was offering Karaoke after the evening quiz. Our gang was all over that.
Sarah and Vincent were cute singing Do Re Mi, Our Favourite Things and Singing in the Rain. (I took this picture with the kids' Fuji underwater camera and it doesn't do well with nighttime shots.)
I bribed the boys with 15 minutes of computer time if they would get up and sing. Here they are singing We are the Champions.
On October 22nd, we booked a Family Foraging Tour with Wild About Pembrokeshire back in St Davids. It was lovely and sunny but temperatures had dropped so it was a rather crisp outing. The objective of the outing was to be able to identify plants and berries that one could safely eat. It was the sort of tour that would have helped Hansel and Gretel out when their father abandoned them in a forest. It was interesting but I was disappointed that mushrooms weren't covered at all. I think one needs to sign up with a mushroom expert for that experience.
We discovered that there are many plants along the side of the road that are edible. Just pick things at least 3 feet above the ground to avoid any dog contamination.
Our guide, Julie, explained how to make noyau, a beech leaf liquor. Hopefully Sarah won't take this knowledge back to her Brownie troop.
After the tour, we went to The Grove Hotel for lunch. It was lovely. We stepped out of our camping/outdoorsy world for an hour into a more refined experience. Vincent and I both had the mussels in a garlic cream sauce. Divine.

After lunch, we went to the tourist office across the street and got a recommendation for another walking tour along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. It was sunny and beautiful; it wouldn't get any better for a hike along the coast. We were directed to start at the Whitesands Bay, just north of St Davids and walk north around the point. And it was a perfect outing, except for the part where we abandoned James.
The views of the seascape only got better with the sun shining.
We walked out to St David's Head, behind Paul, after this shot was taken.
Paul standing on the chambered tomb, Coetan Arthur Dolmen, at St David's Head.
After just having taken the above photo of Paul, Paul informed the rest of us that James was tired of hiking and went back to the car. This became an example of the importance of communication. What James had said to Paul is that he was fed up and "might as well go back to the car". This had an entirely different meaning than what Paul heard.
After having climbed further up Carn Llidi, here's another view of the Whitesands Bay. At this point, we all thought James was down there waiting for us in the parking lot.
Forty-five minutes later, it was Sarah who heard James calling for us to "wait"! Poor James, had just sat down to rest back at St David's Head. When he arose, we had all left and he spent the next three quarters of an hour running all over the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park looking for us. Here, Paul has just run down to meet James and he's yelling up to us, "James is pissed!"
Once James caught up to us and we had some time to apologize profusely, we set out to finish our climb to the top of Carn Llidi.
Paul on top of Carn Llidi. Whitesands Bay in the background.
Paul took this photo of Sarah, Vincent and me on Carn Llidi.
On October 24th, we decided to go to Tenby for the afternoon. There was a Merchant's House and the Tenby Museum that were both rated pretty highly for local attractions.
Just opposite the Merchant's House is Albie's Bookshop. This sign posted on the front door does not exaggerate.
If you managed to walk into Albie's, it was a book-loving hoarder's paradise.
The Tenby Museum offers an ecclectic collection of artifacts from the Pembrokeshire area. Here, Sarah found an effective "time out" chair.
After leaving the Tenby museum, we flew a new kite that we had purchased that afternoon on the beach.
On October 25th, we were contemplating golf at Celtic Haven (a 9-hole course, advertising £10 for a day of golf) but, as we were getting ready to leave LandShark, the rain clouds reappeared and the showers came down. Vince looked up movie theatres and found one in Carmarthen, about 30 miles away. So off we went. Sarah got to see what she wanted while Vincent, the boys and I saw Captain Phillips, which is pretty much a non-stop, intensive adrenaline rush. (Very well done.)

That evening we went back to the Manorbier Country Park lounge for our last quiz night. James had gone ahead and the quiz was 2/3rds over by the time the rest of us showed up. James was very frustrated that he had to shoulder the quiz on his own. Much to our surprise, "Team California" won so a big congratulations to James for doing so well on his own! After the quiz, Vincent signed our family up for the Blockbuster Game show. It's a game where two families compete answering questions. The family that wins 2 out of 3 games, gets a chance at the "Gold Run". Team California won the competition and so we nominated Vince to give the "Gold Run" a go, where he had to answer a series of questions within 60 seconds. Vince won that so we walked away with our big prize---a bottle of Invenio Shiraz wine from Australia.

On October 26th, it was time to leave Wales and meet up with friends outside of Oxford. We all really enjoyed Wales and would happily return for another visit in the future.