Tales from the Crypt

Wales

Our first two home exchanges were initiated by others who found our listing on IHEN. Our third home exchange was one we found ourselves. I was reviewing the IHEN listings one day and came across an intriguing property in the Brecon Beacons National Park of Wales. There was a beautiful panoramic photo, apparently taken from the property. I didn't know much about Wales but you have to admire a country with a Dragon on its flag, a long history of resistance to English influence, and its own corps of Druids who wrote poetry in the incomprehensible indigenous language.

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The web site of the Brecon Beacons National Park bragged of a scenic region of hills, mountains, rivers, and forests, with the occasional waterfall. I e-mailed David and discovered that we shared a love of wine. He was sufficiently fanatic to have rented a vineyard in Wales for two years, though it was a hard slog to produce anything given the climate and certain other difficulties (apparently the farmer that owned the vineyard accidentally sprayed it with weed killer one year.)

David and his wife Zoë had their own small business and two children. I was impressed with the quality of David's e-mails and have discovered over the years the average educated Brit is much better at writing than his American cousins, a fact being demonstrated to you now.

My British wife had visions of South East Wales as a post industrial wasteland of derelict factories, disused mines, and coal slag heaps. It was one of the hot spots of the industrial era but the local tourist promoters claimed it had been well cleaned up and that many of the industrial sites had been restored, reused, or turned into museums. The home was located one valley over from the intensively developed part of the country. I asked my wife to trust my judgment and for no apparent reason she did.

I had a new Marin mountain bike and Wales would be ideal territory to use it. I obtained a used cardboard bicycle box from the local dealer and learned how to disassemble a bicycle. The pedals came off with a pedal wrench, the wheels were removed and the tires deflated, the seat and seat post removed, and the handlebars taken off, though this is tricky as they are connected to the brake and gear cables. The bicycle did not fit correctly in the box but I shoved it in and added a helmet, the pedal wrench, a lock, and various other accessories. I sealed it up with lots of tape and noticed that some pointy bits were poking out of the box and hoped this would not be a problem.

At the airport they took the bicycle at no extra charge. After a long flight we arrived at London's Heathrow airport and picked up the rental station wagon. We barely fit all of our things in, even with the bicycle box being tied on the top rack. We had an uneventful drive to Cardiff except for frequent stops for coffee to stay awake. The hardest part of the journey was finding the Holiday Inn Express, though I had printed out maps from the Internet. We had booked a family room capable of holding five people and it turned out to be half the size of a normal American motel room. There was a double bed, a sofa bed, and space for one small child on the carpet under the desk. We were so tired we didn't notice the discomfort. British singing sensation Robbie Williams was putting on a concert nearby and the place was filled with young and older women smitten with him.

The next morning I assembled the cycle and rode it around. It was not quite right; I had evidently stretched the brake and gear cables in taking the handlebars off. I took it to a local bicycle shop that wanted ten pounds to deal with what seemed to be a five-minute problem. I negotiated the rate to five pounds. A couple of hours later I retrieved the bike and was able to cycle around town.

Our family enjoyed walking around central Cardiff and overhearing folks speaking what we surmised must be Welsh but could have been Serbo-Croatian. Cardiff is the capital of Wales and has an interesting mix of older buildings, disused industrial structures and infrastructure, and new and interesting architectural wonders such as the Millennium stadium. We spent two days there before meeting David and Zoë to begin our exchange. We had time to participate in the Celtic Food Festival; it was great trying local cheeses, beers, sausages, and pate. There was a large contingent from Nantes, the French Twin Town of Cardiff. They wore traditional outfits and were generous in pouring Muscadet wine. This was a sign from God or perhaps Bacchus, as four years later we were to end up in the Muscadet region. But that’s another story.

One morning at breakfast we were astonished to see a large picture on the front page of a national newspaper of a politician from our region who had become embroiled in a sex scandal in Washington DC. It was surprising this would be newsworthy in Britain but it did involve a pious and upright older gent who lied about his beautiful young mistress who had disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

Julia and the children were picked up by David. I decided to bicycle; there was a trail along the Taff River heading most of the fifty or so miles to our destination. The ride was enjoyable; it followed the rushing river and wound through thick hardwood forests. There were fairy tale views of Castel Coch and picturesque cottages and gardens. There were parts of the trail that had never been completed and other sections were little used and covered in brambles. I encountered many folks walking their dogs who greeted me with Morning.

I usually overestimate my cycling ability and this occasion was no exception. I arrived in Merthyr Tydfil tired and exhausted and it got worse when I tried to take a short cut and lost my way finding steep hills and dual carriageways heavy with traffic. At that point, as I was only fifteen minutes from my destination by car, David graciously fetched me and the bicycle.

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We had a bottle of Sancerre with them, and since I was thirsty from the cycle ride they were obliged to bring out a second. We had a friendly conversation, took pictures, and they were off to stay with Zoë's mother before flying to California.

Their home was pleasant. On the ground floor were a bright yellow and aqua kitchen, a comfortable living room with satellite TV, a sun room, and a formal dining room. Upstairs there were three bedrooms, a play room, and an office with the computer. We had the luxury of a large and soft bed with an en-suite bathroom.

The views from the house and garden were spectacular. They were high on a ridge overlooking the Usk River valley. They had views on two sides of the house, one across and down the valley and the other of a rocky escarpment that looked like a piece of Swiss cheese that had been in the fridge six months too long. This hunk of rock was full of holes as it hosted one of the most extensive natural cave systems in Britain. We still have several large photos of their views on display in our house.

National Parks in Britain are naturally beautiful areas, usually somewhat remote and wild, that contain villages and occasionally towns. The land remains privately owned but planning controls and regulations are stricter than usual. We were looking forward to hiking as a family as there were many great trails. One of the best was the towpath of the Brecon and Monmouthshire Canal that hugged the hills above the Usk River Valley. It was amazing that in such hilly country they could construct long stretches of canal without locks. The children enjoyed a canoe excursion on the canal.

The second day we were there I walked the winding trails under the trees and across the canal down to the village. Unfortunately, that was the day foot and mouth disease was discovered in the area. Within twenty-four hours the same footpaths were closed to prevent spreading the disease. The footpath along the canal was also closed in sections. One day I was obliged to make a detour of several miles by road when the part of the path previously open was suddenly closed.

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Wales is overrun with castles, some in good condition, others mostly ruins. We visited the castle at Caerphilly during a demonstration of siege equipment. The children enjoyed seeing catapults, trebuchets, and ballistas firing into the lake next to the Castle. Chepstow castle is perched on a ridge overlooking the Wye River and has an excellent exhibition on medieval warfare. Castel Coch is on the Taff River north of Cardiff and has been beautifully restored. There are fine views across the countryside from the tower of Raglan Castle, though the children got more fun from rolling down the grass covered fosse. All of these places and Cardiff Castle were within one hour of our exchange home.

The industrial heritage of Wales is well preserved. We descended into an old coal mine at Blaenaevon where a retired miner gave us a tour complete with the same headlamps used by the miners. At the surface they had an exhibition on the history of mining and miners.

There are Roman ruins including a camp and hot baths at Caerleon. Tintern Abbey is a picturesque ruin on the beautiful Wye river. We visited the Abbey and two castles in one day and that afternoon the children began agitating for an immediate return to the house because they were bored and wanted to play Nintendo.

David did a great job of arranging for us to meet the locals. Roger Thomas is a travel writer and mountain biker. He and his wife invited us for a drink at their beautiful old cottage. They complimented us on the fact that we would drink more than one glass of wine at a sitting, a habit of mine that has rarely been considered a positive asset.

Roger and the lads took us cycling on three occasions. One excursion was on a trail on the Gower Peninsula, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) near Swansea. We climbed and descended hills, rode through pastures, and even waded through a swamp. After a few hours of this punishment it was a pleasure to sit on the terrace of a modest restaurant in Rhossili and admire the green fields steeply descending to the sea at the rocky point of Worms Head, or in Welsh, Penrhyn Gwyr.

Another day an excursion was planned in the hills of central Powys, and as we arrived it started to rain. We waited ten minutes and decided to set off. It rained vigorously and continuously for the hour or so of the ride, stopping only a few minutes after we had given up and retired to a pub for a drink. One of the lads pointed out that in Wales the water table is on the surface ten months of the year, retreating a few feet underground only in July and August.

The final cycling excursion with Roger and Company found us cycling along the River/Afon Honduu, which runs parallel with the ridge that forms one border of Wales with England. We visited the crooked church of Cwmyoy, a rare ancient example of the Dr. Seuss school of architecture. The good Doctor could not write a book on this building as he could not find anything to rhyme with Cwmyoy.

Lunch was at the ruined Llanthony Abbey where the remaining solid bits have been employed to good use as a Pub. Roger told a story about the famous author Bill Bryson, whom Roger and the Welsh Tourist Board had brought over to walk Offa's Dyke and write favorable commentary on the country. Offa's Dyke is both a trail and fortification/boundary line between Wales and England. Roger and Bill had taken a well deserved rest from walking the line to have a drink at the same Pub.

We reached the Gospel Pass, one of the highest in Britain at 542 meters and took a break to admire Lord Hereford's Knob (Twmpa in Welsh) and other attractive features of the countryside. We had a fast descent into Y Gelli Gandryll, also known as Hay-on-Wye, famous for used bookstores and one of their eccentric owners.

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I am a member of Rotary International and attended meetings in Y Fenni and Grug Hywel. At one meeting I discussed our hosts in general without mentioning their name, which one of the locals promptly supplied as he knew Zoë's mother. Another man invited us to lunch with his family. It was a lazy and pleasant afternoon spent eating, drinking, and walking along the Usk River. Another chap, a rugby fan, had us over for a barbecue. The Welsh love rugby and are disproportionately represented on the All British team. Our new found friends had accompanied the team to Australia where they had been thrashed. We helped them commiserate with sympathy and French wine.

David had a wine friend take me to a wine tasting and lecture at a local Inn. It was especially ironic as the discussion was on the wines of California. It was edifying to learn facts about California wine that I had never discovered in my fifteen years of being a certified wine judge.

We met many Welsh with connections to the US. My aunt lives in Florida or I worked in Long Beach or less commonly, my two boys married two sisters in Tennessee. At one of the Rotary meetings a local lady who had lived in Houston lectured on the peculiarities of the Americans mentioning that they didn't like to talk about sex and that they were ignorant of British culinary specialties such as Bangers and Mash or Spotted Dick. I whispered to my rugby friend that although I didn't mind talking about sex I would refrain from discussing a Spotted Dick.

The home exchange in Wales was magical because it was much more than expected. The combination of beautiful natural scenery, castles and stone villages, and a friendly corner of Britain with a unique culture and history was captivating. The people we met there made us feel at home.

We retain warm feelings for Wales. Our city in California has an International Festival, and ethnic heritage organizations will put up exhibits from such countries as Italy, Philippines, France, Norway, or Columbia. My wife has organized the booth for England at this event for many years. After our visit this became the booth for England and Wales. We met many proud Welsh and they now have their own exhibit at the festival.

When we returned for a weekend in 2006, I had nostalgic feelings when I saw the Welsh mountains looming into view. It was great to see our friends again and we enjoyed two cycle rides through the hills with Roger and shared more than one glass of wine. In 2007 we nipped over from Shropshire for 24 hours, cycled up and down a mountain, and had dinner with Roger and his wife and David and Zoë. Wales is getting to be a habit for us that is hard to break.

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