Reading: Ulysses (James Joyce) [Forever…]
Listening: Yeezus (Kanye West)
London, its manifold structures, its frantic medley of sound and sight, gave way to a long, pure note of grayish green as our train rolled further from the metropolis. By way of the Great Western Rail, and eventually a bus ride, our destination promised a complete one-eighty in terms of setting. A farmstead, deep within Wales’s Brecon Beacons National Park, would be our new home for the next few days. The lack of urban comforts wasn’t the problem, in fact I welcomed the prospect of a quiet, more introspective pace of life. No, as we would soon find out, the real challenge would be getting there in the first place.
After a train delay, a frantic dash for cash from what must be Abergavenny’s only ATM, and a recuperative pint amongst friendly but slightly concerned Welsh folk at a neighborhood pub, we boarded the night bus for the mountain village of Tal-y-bont. Well past sundown, the dim lights of local towns grew yet dimmer and less frequent. Finally we arrived at our stop, marked by a single bench under a single amber-hued street lamp. To our right: the village, dormant. To our left: a solitary road, narrow, lightless, and hemmed on both sides with tall hedges.
Shouldering our packs, we turned towards the road, laughing and joking nervously as the streetlamp gave way to the blackness of the road’s mouth. It felt as though we were entering a fairytale, not the modern g-rated kind, but the kind in which the path before you ends up being the esophagus of some hungry Welsh giant.
I held a cheap flashlight, Sarah her phone. All was quiet but for the occasional chirp of insects and the tramping of our advancing feet. That was until we turned off the road, up a steep dirt path still shrouded in darkness. The hedges continued up, but now they rustled occasionally; not softly with the breeze, but suddenly and fiercely, willed by some unknown force. “What was that?!” “I don’t know!” Terror gripped us for a moment. “Uh… Hello?” To my surprise… a response was issued. “Baaaaaaahhhhhh.” Sheep! The bleating of sheep all around us! Just beyond the hedges! Relieved, we giggled the paranoia away and continued. Still, the scene reminded me a little too much of Hannibal Lector (thankfully, the sheep were somewhat conversational) and we got a move on. Though the climb was tough, we finally found our little red cottage near the top of the hill. It wouldn’t be until morning that we’d discover our new home was shared by other furry (and gaudily feathered) inhabitants.
A breathtaking land in the heart of South Wales, Brecon Beacons National park is home to the “central beacons” range and the “Black Mountains,” including South Wale’s highest peak “Pen-y-Fan.” The area feels relatively untouched by modern civilization, as glistening moss blankets the ancient limbs of Oak, Ash, and Yew. Dense woodlands are fractured by precipitous hills and rolling fields dotted with the cumulus outlines of sheep. In lieu of steel or iron, the grazing animals are enclosed by dense hedges, adding to the sense of pastoral tranquility. Due to inconsistent weather caused by the approach of Winter Storm Ciara in the UK, we did not get to explore as much as we’d liked to. In fact, on our way back from a brief hike, we found ourselves assailed by a torrential downpour without shelter. To my dismay, the compact camera in my jacket pocket was drenched, and I felt terrible after we discovered the power button was unresponsive (though miraculously, weeks later, the camera had a Lazarus moment and resumed full functionality!!). Due to the inclement weather, we spent a lot of time on the farmstead. Sheep, a cantankerous old goat, a flock of peacocks (who took cover from the rain on our porch, using our chairs as toilets), and two lovely Newfoundlands became our constant companions. The Newfoundlands, with their initially alarming size and strength (I’m glad we hadn’t bumped into them on our nighttime ascent), were in fact totally chill and left quite the impression on me. I love those fluffy beasts!
While Wales is largely known for its natural beauty, its unofficial capital, Cardiff, offers a great deal in terms of nightlife and urban living. Again, getting here wasn’t as easy as planned. We learned a valuable lesson about buses in the UK: if you don’t wave them down, they’re likely to just roll on past the bus stop (even in the middle of nowhere!). This particular bus driver even waved back as we chased after him, which struck me as pretty cheeky. A few hours later, we caught the next bus with prompt, extended arms. It was on this particular ride that we met a kindly gentleman named Alan, who gave us an impromptu guide on the various natural landmarks and towns we passed through. He expressed his fascination for American mafiosos, and told us how he frequented Brecon Beacons to visit a family grave (and to go on scenic walks). He was very helpful in directing us to Cardiff, and a testament to Welsh hospitality. Thanks Alan!
Downtown Cardiff sports innumerable restaurants, cafes, pubs, and “arcades” which are mall-like shopping centers akin to outlets in the US. I particularly enjoyed the central pedestrian street, lined with Welsh flags sporting the iconic red dragon of St. George and leading towards the walls of Cardiff Castle. I highly recommend checking out the castle grounds (discounted entry with a student ID + having a baby face in my case), as it includes an opportunity to explore medieval battlements (the top offering a great view of the city), as well as a gorgeous and remarkably intricate gothic-revival style mansion renovated by the illustrious William Burges. The ceilings of the mansion are especially stunning.
Finally, if you happen to be in Cardiff during the Six Nations Rugby Cup, prepare yourself for a wild time. I felt right at home amidst the flurry of red and white (Wales’s team colors), public intoxication, and hearty banter. Think Lincoln, NE on game day hosting Wisconsin (hard to say which is crazier!). Also, the best fish and chips I had in the UK were consumed during this match, though that may have been due to an appetite worked up by zealous day drinking (for cultural immersion, obviously…).
Even in Swansea, people asked “Why Swansea?” And for a few rainy days, with few options for dining or nightlife, I too began asking myself, “why Swansea?”. But then it happened: radiant sunshine stretching out over the sea , beckoning us out from our shoddy apartment and towards the shore. We strolled along the coast to the “Mumbles” area, around the pier, and up and up and up upon absolutely stunning cliffside trails. For two blessed days the sun shone, and we walked miles along the ocean cliffs, from Langland Bay to Caswell Bay. Shocks of samphire plants and yellow wild flowers fringed our path as ocean waves spit white froth, lapping at the cliffs below us. We ended the second night with wine and sandwiches snuggled within a small alcove overlooking the sea. We watched the setting sun. Blushing, sleepy sky. It felt like a dream.