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May 19, 2002
Cymru: Rhuthun (Russell)

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Gorphwysfa: doing schoolwork in front of the fire

Our drive from southern to northern Wales on May 16th went smoothly... until we reached the town of Rhuthun (Ruthin), where we had our reservations.  We had chosen a B&B in the center of town, and the only map we had was the one in Rick Steves' book (which omits half of the streets and is not drawn to scale).  We successfully found the B&B, but when we discovered that it was on a narrow street with no place to park, we had to keep driving past.  This took us to a tangled web of narrow and winding one-way streets, and we ended up back outside the city with no clue how to get back in.  After about half an hour of wandering, we found our way back; this time Gail double-parked while Russell ran into the B&B to ask where we could put our car.  We ended up unloading our luggage by parking on the sidewalk, but we were ultimately able to leave the station wagon in a carpark a block away.

We are spending four nights at the Gorphwysfa Guest House, run for the last five years by Margaret O'Riain.  (It's also a couple of buildings away from the home of Cynthia Lennon, John Lennon's first wife.  We didn't see her.)  Margaret does double-duty as a therapist for abused children; her own five children are now grown.  The house itself is a huge 16th-century Tudor home in an excellent location.  Due to other guests, we are in a single family room for the first two nights, then we switch to two double rooms for the second two nights.  Downstairs, there is a grand piano that Joss plays every chance that he gets, as well as a cozy lounge with a roaring fireplace that Gail warms herself in front of every evening.  The other guests include Bob, a semi-retired cardiologist at Penn State, and his wife Gail -- they used to live in Davis, California.

On May 17th, our first full day in northern Wales, we drove an hour and a half to the west coast of Cymru to visit Portmeirion.  Here, architect Clough Williams-Ellis fulfilled a dream by spending 50 years (from 1926 to 1976) building an environment-friendly village.  More recently, Portmeirion is famous as the location of "The Village" in Patrick McGoohan's surreal television series, "The Prisoner."  We came here because the TV series is a favorite of both Russell and Gail, but there's really not a whole lot to do at Portmeirion except walk around and look at the buildings.  We did purchase a couple of wooden bow-and-arrow sets for Cameron and Joss.

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Gail and Russell at Portmeirion: "Be seeing you..."

In the afternoon we drove to nearby Blaenau Ffestiniog to visit the Llechwedd Slate Caverns.  Although this attraction has won every major tourism award in Britain and Wales, we weren't sure that we would get much out of it.  As it turned out, the Slate Caverns was one of the best and most memorable of our excursions in the UK.

We know about slate mostly from its uses in chalkboards and roofing tiles.  As we neared the site, we were amazed to see entire mountains of slate rocks and sheets.  The stuff has the amazing property that it can be sliced into extremely thin sheets that are perfectly flat, while still retaining its durability and strength (a high-quality slate roof will last for 200 years).  In this impoverished region of Cymru, the establishment of slate mines provided the only means of employment for thousands of people in the 1800s and early 1900s.

After visiting the so-so Pentref Llechwedd (village), we took two fascinating underground rides, the Rheilffordd Tanddaearol (miners underground railway) and Chwarel Ddofn (deep mine).  By touring numerous tableaux in the actual mine chambers (they run 16 stories deep underground), we learned just how miserable the life of a miner was.  They worked underground for 12 hours a day (6:00 am until 6:00 pm) six days a week (Sunday was spent in church), with only a half-hour break (15 minutes for lunch and 15 minutes for chatting -- all underground).  For this, a miner was paid 14 pence a week.  Slate was mined by boring a 12-foot deep pinhole in the rock by hand using a long thin pole (this alone took about 8 hours of hard work), then filling the hole with gunpowder, lighting a fuse, and running for your life.  Because the miners had to pay for their own candles and fuses, they would use as few candles and as short fuses as possible.  This, of course, led to numerous accidents and fatalities in the completely black caverns -- a miner was lucky to live to the age of 40.

Back at the top, we met Dafydd Thomas, who recently retired after 50 years of working in the mines and quarries.  Because most slate is now extracted from surface quarries instead of underground mines, Dafydd is one of the last living survivors of this kind of life.  And after having visited the Llechwedd Slate Caverns, we will certainly never look at slate the same way again.

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Llechwedd: mountains of slate

(This region of northwestern Cymru is also the home of the village with the longest name in the world: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, which means "Saint Mary's Church in the hollow of white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of Saint Tysilio near the red cave."  But we didn't bother going, because aside from some 19th-century marketing cleverness, there's really nothing to see there.)

May 18th was too rainy for doing much touring.  We decided to take a down day, drive a half hour to the city of Wrecsam (Wrexham), and see the new Star Wars movie, "Attack of the Clones."  Our first problem was that we became hopelessly and miserably lost in our efforts to find the Odeon Cinema (we had gotten directions from the housekeeper at Gorphwysfa; but unbeknownst to us, we entered the city from a different route and none of them made sense).  After asking numerous people in the street for directions, we finally found the place.  Here we experienced our second problem: the next few showings were almost sold out.  Rather than sit in the second row on the side (all seats are assigned), we purchased deluxe tickets for the next day.  We had lunch at the Deep Dish Pizza Company next door, bought some groceries at Sainsbury's, and drove all the way back to Rhuthun.  It ended up being largely a waste of a day, but fortunately we still had the evening to look forward to.

For our first two dinners in Rhuthun, we had dined a block away from the B&B at the Castle Hotel Restaurant, where the food was surprisingly excellent.  On Saturday, our third night, we had reservations for the touristy but enjoyable Medieval Banquet at the 13th-century Castell Rhuthun (Ruthin Castle).  When we arrived at 7:30 pm, we were amazed to see about a hundred other people there, all in period costume.  (At first we thought that they were all cast members.  We found out later that you could rent a costume from the castle -- an opportunity that we wish we'd known about.)

We were seated in the equivalent of front-row center (probably because of Cameron and Joss, who were the only children there), with a dagger knife as our only cutlery.  The four-course meal consisted of cawl crochan (a thick vegetable soup), asen cig oen (Welsh lamb roasted in herbs and spices), cyw rhostio mewn gwin cymysgfwyd o lysiau gardd (chicken roasted in honey and oranges), and hufen cloch y gwin (a syllabub of fruit).  The boys enjoyed eating with their hands, although Joss as usual ate almost nothing (approaching 10:00 pm, Gail had to take him outside for a walk to keep him awake -- they saw a peacock up in a tree).&nbssp; The servers topped the evening off with a nice performance of Welsh folk songs.

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At the Medieval banquet

On May 19th, after an enormously difficult time getting out of bed, we drove back to Wrecsam (by now we knew our way around) and saw Star Wars Episode 2.  Although we all count ourselves as strong Star Wars fans, we all agreed that The Lord of the Rings had been a better and more enjoyable movie.  (Russell also believes that Chancellor Palpatine really isn't Darth Sidious -- remember, you heard it here first!)

In the afternoon, we went into Llangollen, site of numerous geographical references to the historical (Dark Ages) King Arthur.  By chance, we were able to catch part of the annual Llangollen History Festival, "Clash at Llan," where historical re-enactors play the parts of everything from Roman legions to Vikings.  On the pavilion fields, we saw a Medieval tournament of knights, as well as a rifle-and-cannon battle between the English and the Napoleonic French (it was very amusing to see the British redcoats as the good guys, and the nasty woman-murdering French as the bad guys).  Cameron and Joss spent most of the explosive performance with their fingers in their ears.

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Llangollen: Napoleonic French clash with the British at the History Festival

The rest of our time in Rhuthun was rather low-key.  The boys played with their bows and arrows one more time... until Cameron's snapped in two.  We had our last dinner in, thanks to Margaret allowing us to use her kitchen to make some microwave meals.  Overall, Margaret's hospitality was among the best we've had all year.  She always had a toasty fire burning for us when we returned in the evenings, she let us hook up our DVD player to her TV set, and she even did a load of laundry for us while we were at the Medieval banquet.

This is Gail and Russell's second trip to Cymru -- and Rhuthun -- and we had specifically returned here because the region held so many fond memories.  We come away this time with even more, and we still haven't seen everything that we wanted to.  Due to the inclement weather, we completely missed visiting any of the sights at Snowdonia, including the scenic Snowdon Mountain Railway.  We wouldn't be surprised if on some future trip, we find our way back here again...


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