Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Britain Revisited: Day 4


In my opinion, British Rail has improved over the past ten years or so. Maybe the average Briton would disagree with me, and I really only had a few days to view its workings, but it seemed a little more efficient than usual. I recall frequent and long delays, lags of service, and areas of the country where one could feasible be stranded—as there was no way to get from “here to there.” Our travel by train was relatively seamless, except for our first leg from Paddington Station in London to Cardiff, Wales.

Our train was delayed by 40 minutes, and while we waited, we sat in one of the cafes and drank horrendous coffee. The boards listed the cause of delay as “Crew and Supply Displacement.”  How do you displace a crew? What supplies were displaced, and how on earth did this displacement occur? Like any bold American would do, Stephen finally approached the service desk to ask how long the delay might be, and he was told by a snarky woman in a tone meant to send him away forever, “It will only be a few minutes!”

Once the platform of the train’s departure was announced, there was a mad rush of people all running for the train and clambering aboard. The train moved along without any further delay, and an announcement followed shortly. “We apologize for any inconvenience caused by the delay at Paddington Station. This was mainly due to an assault on a crew member and a resulting smashed window. We are in the process of finding seats for those without ones.”

Passengers on the train lifted eyes and eyebrows, pursing their lips as if to say, “My! That’s quite something!” I was simply amazed at their honesty! And sure enough, when I walked through the train later to get a snack in the food car, I saw that five rows had been sectioned off with caution tape, and bits of glass still sparkled in the seats (although the window had been repaired).

As we had already passed through several stations on our way to Cardiff, the breezeways between each car on the train were littered with bodies who had boarded with no place to sit. Some actually slept on the floor in front of the bathrooms! I had to travel through about five rail cars to get to the café, and as I entered the food car, I found that it had been transformed into a Welsh pub! It was absolutely packed with young, Welshmen all drinking beer and talking about the rugby. (I assumed these were some of the displaced passengers). I had to fight my way through to order my sausage roll, and because it was going to take a few minutes to make, the server suggested to me that I might wait in the next car. “It might be less intimidating there.”

We arrived in Cardiff’s busy, train station that afternoon, and immediately spotted our hotel just across the street! I had booked the hotel randomly with no idea where it was located. We couldn’t have been happier with our good fortune! No cab needed. We could just roll our suitcases across the road.

Of all the places we stayed during this trip, the Maldron Best Western Plus Hotel was my favorite! It was tastefully and artfully decorated, very clean, and had a very decent shower (and that is saying something in the UK where plumbing is an issue).  But we hadn’t a moment to relax, as we only had a day and a half in Cardiff, so we immediately set off for Cardiff Castle with our raincoats and sweaters.  It was actually quite chilly in Cardiff, and the skies were gray and heavy with the threat of rain.

First of all, let me just say that I love Cardiff! It is a pretty capitol city with a well-organized town center. The Welsh are patriotic people, and the streets of Cardiff are lined with the Welsh flag (half green, half white, with a red dragon in the center). There are many shops and shopping centers and places to eat and pubs and friendly people. The streets are clean and there is a feeling there that the town is alive and festive—an overall nice place to be. I think if I had chosen Cardiff as my home base in 1995, I would have liked it very much.

It was already starting to rain a little as we made our way through the town toward the castle, and we stopped off in a shopping center called The Royal Arcade to have a look at some antiques. Stephen spotted an antique toy bus in one of the stores that he really liked. It was a replica of an old tan and brown double-decker bus, and it was well-preserved, still in the box. We should have bought it right then and there, as by the time we returned from the castle, the stores were closed down. The stores close very early in the UK—in Cardiff, the shops were all closed down by 5:30. This is wonderful for their employees, of course—but unfortunate for the consumer.

By the time we reached Cardiff Castle, it was raining pretty hard! It was a strange sort of rain, though. It was coming at us sideways—a misty and thin precipitation—almost like standing in a shower mist. The wind blew the chilly damp into our eyes and against our cheeks, and we cinched our raincoat hoods closed around our faces. 

First of all, I want to say some good things about Cardiff Castle. It holds that rare sort of beauty of which only medieval ruins can boast. It began as a Norman fortress in the 11th century. Over the years, many wars (too many for me to go into here) ensued between the Normans and the Welsh. Finally in the late 1200s, Wales was under the rule of the dynamic leader Llewellyn ap Gruffydd (and this is the time frame that interests me due to a fabulous series of historical novels by Sharon Penfold. The first in the series was titled Here Be Dragons. Oh, it’s wonderful—and Llewellyn comes across like this very romantic, King David sort of character). Anyway, over the years the castle passed through many hands, and in the 19th century, a Victorian edition was added to the original fortress. Parts of the fortress were used during World War II as a bomb shelter, and finally, in 1947, the castle was turned over to the city of Cardiff as a preserved site. And it really is something to behold—both the old and the new.   I love it. But…

All of the information above was not adequately provided to us at the castle. I had to look it all up later (or think back to the information in the novels). Unless you pay to do the guided tour, you do not get a lot of information about the castle origins or any of that. We started off the tour with a 7 minute movie “about the castle.” But it wasn’t about the castle at all. It was 7 minutes of deafening music (most people were holding their fingers in their ears), images of armored warriors slashing at one another, and some completely random side plot of a modern teenage girl and boy carrying drawings of the castle and meeting up with 11th century invaders. No words and no information. It was weird. After that cryptic introduction, we walked through a portion of the castle plastered in newspaper clippings and war posters from 1939-1945. It all seemed random and disorganized, and the whole place looked like it needed a good cleaning. The cobwebs, grime, and mildewed photos were a little disconcerting.

For me, the best part of the castle was the Victorian structure. Restored in 1865 by the Marquess of Bute, it looks a little like a smaller version of Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina (see pictures). We could only view a portion of the mansion, but the library alone was worth seeing.

Cold and wet, we departed the castle and made our way across the street to The Rummer Tavern (supposedly the oldest pub establishment in Cardiff). There, we chatted with the friendly bartender, had some warming libation, and ate an outstanding baked potato stuffed with cheese and ham and sour cream, and I can’t even remember what other artery-clogging ingredients were included in that monstrosity.

Stephen and I had decided that the following day we would take a day tour to the Gower Peninsula, so we stopped off to book a tour, and continued through the town to wander past the street vendors, and check out the strange man in the center of the square charging folks to attempt to “walk on water.” He had an inflatable pool of some sort surrounded by Plexiglas siding, and we watched as some poor (drunk) soul, whacked his shin trying to jump on top of the water and “walk” across it. He sank. 

We made our way back toward the hotel, noticing that all of the shops were closed, but every pub was full to brimming with people all shouting at television screens (and each other). Wales (and the UK in general) is mad for football (soccer), rugby, and the most boring game every created—cricket (I'm sorry British friends, but I just don't get it. Why don't you have to run?) Every male in Cardiff looked as though they were players of at least one of these games.  As Stephen said, “These guys don’t look like people you’d want to get into a scuffle with.”

That night, however, we learned about another interesting Welsh tradition (actually, I think it takes place all over Britain, but I’d never before witnessed it).

After dinner, Stephen and I stopped by the hotel bar to try out some Welsh beer. We sat off by ourselves, chatting and laughing and recapping the day. Suddenly, four men approached us—one of them dressed as Wonder Woman. We had no idea what was going on, but the one in the costume asked if I would help him apply his make up before they “went out on the town.” In his hands, he held up a brand new tube of vermillion-red lipstick and cornflower blue eye shadow. Well, what could I say? I was the only female there and the only one who could help him out!

Stephen stood by, filming the whole episode, as I took on the role of make-up artist. Afterwards, all of the men thanked us profusely, (I believe one of them told Stephen he was "a scholar and a gentleman") and thinking that they must be going “down the pubs” for some weird contest, I asked what this craziness was all for.

“Oh, it’s his stag night,” one of his friends told us. “He’s getting married next week—to an American girl, actually.”

This bit of information was confirmed minutes later by Wonder Woman himself, as he told us that he was marrying a girl from LA and moving there. We wished him luck, and Stephen sent the video footage to the guys to use as blackmail as they saw fit.

We were to find out later, that this sort of thing (people dressing up in weird costumes) happens every Friday or Saturday night in Cardiff during “stag nights”. We were just fortunate enough to have been in the right place at the right time!

That night Stephen and I got to share a bed for the first night since we arrived in the UK! After all of the excitement, I couldn’t sleep, however, so I was forced to sit up watching another episode of Big Brother and wondering—how many nights a week can this show possibly be on?

1 comment:

  1. Oh my goodness about the assault on the crew member thing! Interesting though. Love the castle info. I laughed so much at your description of the bizarre 7 min. castle movie. I remember reading "Here Be Dragons" - loaned to me by you - sitting on my bed living in your old room in Burke. (I don't remember if I read any more of the series. Maybe I should read those books again!) Stag nights ... hmmmm ....