Wednesday, September 12, 2007

27 June: From Cornwall to Wales

John had the Bottreaux’s English breakfast again and I had scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and chives. Our hostess came over to greet us – after talking to all of the other guests first, just like yesterday. I felt sort of second-class. She seemed nice enough, although they never did turn on the heat. John loaded up the car while I checked out and chatted with the hostess. For some reason we got on the topic of Africa because she used to live in South Africa.

Today’s route was slated to take us back through northern Cornwall to Exeter and northeast along the Bristol Channel. We planned to take a short detour to Glastonbury to visit the famous Tor and then continue on past Bristol, across the channel, and into Wales. We had reservations this evening (including dinner) at a bed & breakfast called Brynhir Farm near Llandrindod Wells in central Wales. Susie said the drive would take about four hours.

We followed the narrow winding roads back through Cornwall and I was reminded of a comment I read somewhere expressing frustration about the hedges being so high here. All we ever seemed to see were masses of tangled green shrubs, with glimpses of rolling hills (dotted with sheep, of course) flashing by through the occasional break in the hedge. Of course John’s eyes were always on the road, anticipating the next car to come speeding around the bend. English drivers don’t seem to expect an oversized German sedan to be coming at them and they often barely give us enough room to squeeze by. (I’m laughing as I write this since an E-Class is considered a mid-size sedan in the U.S.)

We soon hooked up with the welcoming broad swath of the M5 motorway and made good time through the rolling countryside to Glastonbury. Susie guided us into town and, amazingly, even knew exactly where we should park, as you cannot actually drive to Glastonbury Tor. The parking lot was right next to Glastonbury Abbey, site of the first Christian settlement in England, and, according to legend, where Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail and founded a monastery in the 1st century. We could see bits of the ruined Abbey over the high stone wall, and I hoped that we could take a peek inside (after all, it is rumored to be the site where King Arthur and Guinevere were buried), but our primary goal was the Tor, long-revered as the heart of the mystical realm of Avalon.

We decided to get something for lunch first since it was almost 1:00. The town – at least what we could see of it – looked like your normal sort of college hangout, despite Glastonbury being a major draw for druids, hippies, and various other New Agers attracted to its mystical past. We walked down the street a ways (figuring it was probably a good idea to put a little distance between us and the tour bus throngs descending on the Abbey) and ducked into a cozy pub with red velour seats and red curtains and a very frazzled bleached-blonde barmaid. We ordered a couple of toasted baguette sandwiches and sodas. While we waited for our lunch to arrive, we watched with mild amusement as the barmaid told some teenagers of uncertain origin to turn down the music that they were blasting on their cell phones. They pretended not to understand English but did what she asked and left soon after. We gobbled down our sandwiches and then set off on our jaunt to Glastonbury Tor.

We walked about a mile through town, past a park, and then along a trail through a cow pasture to the base of the Tor. It sprinkled on and off but fortunately never turned into a serious downpour. The dirt path angled steeply upwards and we could see the massive dark tower looming on the hill above us (photo, above). When we arrived at the top we had the place completely to ourselves, although there was plenty of evidence of past visitors of the bovine variety – evidence splattered rather unceremoniously all over the base of the tower. The striking square edifice is all that remains of St. Michael’s Church, which collapsed in1271 (photo, right). From the open archways at the base of the tower we had magnificent views of the surrounding countryside, out across the red-brick houses of Glastonbury and the vivid green fields of the so-called Vale of Avalon (photo, below). A circular stone slab set into the ground nearby pointed out nearby landmarks. We found Cadbury Castle, one of several contenders for the site of King Arthur’s Camelot, about 13 miles distant. Or rather, I think I identified a dark green, flat-topped hill as the location of Cadbury Castle.

We took our pictures and then hiked back down the hill in a light rain. We peeked in the entrance to Glastonbury Abbey but didn’t have time for a visit (it would have cost £18) which was too bad, because the ruins looked very atmospheric in the rain. (The abbey was completed in 1524 but destroyed in 1539 when Henry VIII called for the dissolution of the monasteries.) We looked around the gift shop instead and bought a fridge magnet with the Wilkinson family crest (Wilkinson being John’s grandmother’s maiden name).

Then it was back in the car, a quick stop for gas, and onwards to Wales. I called Brynhir Farm on my cell phone to tell them when we would arrive; Mrs. Nixon said she had to attend an important meeting in town and was leaving dinner in the hands of her husband (she actually said, “I think everything is under control!”). We bypassed Bristol and headed across the very new, very modern Severn Bridge (whopping £5,10 toll!) into Wales. We were greeted by a “Welcome to Wales” sign printed in English and in Welsh, and I was pleased to see that all of the road signs are printed in both languages, with Welsh on top. On the down side, this meant that my navigational instructions became completely incomprehensible as I tried in vain to pronounce the jumbles of consonants that pepper the Welsh language.

Near Cardiff we left the M4 and headed north on winding roads through more rolling green countryside that gradually became more rugged and barren. I am beginning to understand why people are always joking about how many sheep there are in the U.K. There are a few cows, too – I spotted my first Highland cows, the cute ones with blonde bangs and long curved horns. We made our way through a string of quaint little towns until we finally reached the tiny hamlet of Howey, just south of Llandrindod Wells, where, after one wrong turn, we found Chapel Road and followed the signs to Brynhir Farm. The road became a narrow one-lane track with high hedges on either side, and we just hoped that no one would come at us from the other direction because there was nowhere to pull over. We passed several other B&Bs and farmsteads and the road finally ended at the entrance to Brynhir Farm (photo, right). It was pretty funny to see where the mapmakers had stopped – we drove right off the end of the white line on the navi’s display, our little arrow indicator heading into a blank sea of gray on the screen.

We parked in front of a rambling white stone farmhouse (photo, right), where we were greeted by a scruffy but friendly Border Collie. As we rooted through our stuff in the trunk, a grizzled man in mud-covered work clothes came out of a nearby barn carrying a bucket. He apologized for his appearance, saying he was dealing with a difficult birth (a cow, I assume, from the heart-rending lowing coming from the barn), and asked if we wouldn’t mind showing ourselves to our room. He gave us directions through the house and there was also a note from his wife for us on the door. Our room was on the first floor at the far end of the house, through two small parlors filled with frilly antiques. We were surprised to open the door and find twin beds on opposite sides of the room (I had simply requested a double), with a sink in one corner and a small but serviceable bathroom with shower. In one of the parlors there was a guestbook, which I peeked at; no American guests had signed it since last September. After we’d settled in, I decided to take a little walk before dinner. As soon as I started down the road, my friend the Border Collie jumped up and led the way. I got the feeling he had done this before. I took a few pictures of the scenery and then returned to the house. On my way inside I met an elderly lady who was seated at the desk in one of the parlors. She told me she was here with two friends on a walking holiday (apparently a very popular pastime for Brits). We chatted for a bit about the weather, as there has been some serious flooding elsewhere in Wales and England over the past few days.

Dinner was served promptly at 7:00 p.m. We were seated at a table in front of the stone fireplace, which was large enough for five people to stand up inside of it (photo, right). The woman from the parlor was there with her friends, along with another older couple. Dinner was efficiently served by a young woman dressed in a prim black skirt and white apron. It was a rather interesting meal. First we had a piece of honeydew melon garnished with an orange slice and a strawberry. The main course consisted of a platter of cold ham, accompanied by individual dishes of potatoes, rice and peas, pickled beets, halved hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise, an iceburg lettuce salad, and bread and butter. The potatoes were the only thing served warm. In some ways it reminded me of the simple dinners we would eat on the farm in France when my brother and I stayed with the Nuttens in high school. Lunch was usually served hot and dinner was the leftovers, served cold…typical farm fare, I suppose. I saw that the other couple had a bottle of wine so I asked the young woman if they sold wine. She asked us if we wanted white or red. I asked for a medium white, and we got a very nice Riesling – from Bernkastel-Keus in the Mosel Valley, of course!

The best part of dinner was dessert – a fabulous raspberry custard topped with a thick layer of the richest cream I’ve ever tasted – homemade, I reckon. We finished with tea and coffee and then took a nice late-evening stroll down the lane. We stopped to watch a couple of horses grazing in a pasture (photo, right), but they wouldn’t come very close – apparently they didn’t smell any apples or carrots on us. We went on down the road until we reached a herd of plaintively bleating sheep, several of whom were sticking their heads through the fence to munch on the tender leaves of the hedge (you know what they say – the grass is always greener…). Finally we turned around and headed back to the farmhouse, marveling at this little idyllic corner of the world that we had discovered in central Wales.

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