UK Trip 2011: Day Seven

I recently returned to the USA from a sudden but exciting adventure across the pond to the United Kingdom. The goal of the trip was three-fold: to study some unpublished manuscripts of J.R.R. Tolkien (for an article or two in progress), to tour sites related to Owain Glyndwr (for an upcoming book), and to visit the site recently identified as the location of the Battle of Brunanburh.

As a result, the trip was pretty well packed with things to do, so I’ll be breaking up my trip report here into smallish doses. Enjoy!

. . .

Monday, 18 July 2011

Last night I’d planned a return to the highlands in pursuit of Hyddgen — twisted ankles be damned — based on some additional data I now have in hand. Alas, I awoke to rain (still) and it was clear from the weather maps that it would be far worse up in the mountains I wanted to hike.

So it was on to the back-up plan: a relatively slow day touring Aberystwyth. Not the most glamorous thing to do, I know, and the way I did it was not exactly the most traditional way to do it, either, since my tour was built one or another around Owain Glyndwr, obviously.

The timing of things was driven by the weather. After breakfast the rain was down to a stinging mist, so I hurried as fast as I could to the ruins of Aberystwyth Castle, which Owain captured in his war for Welsh independence. I shot a lot and thought a lot. You know the drill.

The ruins of Aberystwyth Castle.

The clouds again opened up, so from there I went book shopping. There were a few Owain-related books I was wanting, and I ended up going to three or four shops to get almost all of them.

After my lunch of an apple, tapwater, and a power bar, the rain had let up again. I walked down to the Old College campus of the University of Aberystwyth, which is a beautiful building close by the castle. I was looking for one of my Brunanburh contributors, Marged Haycock. Alas, she wasn’t in.

So then I set off on a hike the mile or so uphill to the National Library of Wales. It is a gorgeous building high on a hillside overlooking the city with stunning views. Plus it is a friggin’ national library!

While up there I also bought another book — this one all in Welsh, which raised some eyebrows given my obvious American-ness. They took my money without complaint, though.

From there I walked further up the hill to the new campus of the university, where I mosied around a bit and then spent money in the campus store. Good times.

Alas, when I left it was dumping rain again. I had to make the long walk back right into the face of it. I got soaked, but at least it was downhill.

Before heading into the hotel to rest my wet and weary feet I participated in an Aberystwyth tradition by walking to the north end of the sea-side promenade and “kicking the bar” — which is, shockingly, the kicking of what amounts to a guardrail bar.

Kicking the bar in Aberystwyth, with Constitution Hill in background.

And so here to dinner at a Welsh-Irish pub-bistro. Decent enough fare, especially the dessert (there’s a reason I skimped on lunch): Belgian waffle with honeycomb ice cream, drizzled with honey. Wow!

All things being equal, though, I could sure use some good Mexican … but it sure is a bit hard to find that hereabouts!

My plans are a bit uncertain from here. I’d still like to get back up to Hyddgen, but I don’t think I can do it with all else I have to accomplish in these last few days. So instead I will head up to Machynlleth first, finally to do the Owain things I’ve missed there. Then, weather permitting, I’ll run over to Harlech Castle, followed by a drive through Snowdonia down into the Dee Valley and Owain’s holdings there.

My base in north Wales is Llangollen, and I am hoping I’ll have time to check off a number of local things there before it gets dark. That would make Wednesday and Thursday more doable.

I sat down to write this daily account in the bay window of my hotel, looking out across the darkening raging sea, and after a time I noticed that there was dancing in the bandstand along the promenade, the smallish building, sheltered from the wind and rain, where I’d seen the local orchestra yesterday.

I walked over and found a number of folks in traditional Welsh dress, turning folk dances to the accompaniment of a small band made up of traditional instruments, like harp and fiddle and a kind of box accordion. It was delightful.

After a time they cleared the floor and a folk music group from Karelia took the stage: they had a button-based piano accordion, a wooden flute, an upright bass, and then some positively medieval harps, lutes, fiddles, and bagpipes. They also had with them a group of dancers who showed off folk social dancing from Karelia. It was marvelous.

After perhaps forty-five minutes one of the Welsh folk dancers suggested that all the folk dancers and musicians ought to get together and teach each other some simple dances. Very few of the Karelians could speak English (much less Welsh, obviously), and the Welsh folks couldn’t speak a lick of Russian or Finnish … but everyone got along well enough with gestures, instinct, and perhaps some deep-rooted cultural commonalities. The musicians just picked things up from whichever group was in the lead. Everyone was singing and clapping.

After it was over I struck up a conversation with some of the Welsh performers, eventually retiring to a bar to chat into the night. As it happens, I got into a really fine talk with a Dutch PhD student from Maastricht of all places (I lived there for a semester abroad in college), who is studying medieval Welsh syntax and is also a huge Tolkien buff.

Crazy small world.

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