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various essays on, well, art and culture
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CCGA Vignettes 25 May 2005
Where do you find Europe's newest national capital? Wales, of course. It's Cardiff, a modern port city dating back to Roman times, with that wonderful, cosmopolitan flavor of any large European city. You can explore the downtown pedestrian area called 'The Hayes,' enjoy a nice bit of breeze coming in off the bay while walking among the street performers, explore the old merchant section of town or the nearby medieval Castle. There's the Millenium Stadium, the National Assembly, the National Museums and Galleries, new Wales Millennium Centre . . . and the usual mix of restaurants, theatres, shopping, sports and distractions you'd expect in any European city.
But there's more. There's the Museum of Welsh Life, the oldest open-air museum in Europe, with dozens and dozens of buildings that have been brought to this location from all over Wales, each building an excellent example of a particular slice of Welsh history and life. All are carefully put into the correct context for the type of building they are, with the appropriate furnishings and the necessities of life.
There's Cosmeston Medieval Village. Archeological work in the 1980s had started to uncover the remains of this 14th century village, and as the work progressed additional historical research was not only able to identify the kind of life that the villagers had lead, but had been actually able to identify individual people in the village. This is a place that anyone who has even a casual interest in the Middle Ages simply has to see. The individual houses are perfect reconstructions, and there are enough of them, and varied enough, to feel like you have just walked back in time.
There's Castell Coch. "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" was filmed here. But try not to hold that against Castell Coch. Castell Coch is frequently dismissed as nothing more than a 19th century fantasy castle. This is unfair, since it was built upon the extant ruins of a real medieval castle dating back at least to the 13th century. Back in 1875 a local robber baron, John Patrick Crichton Stuart, the third marquis of Bute, decided to turn the mostly ruined castle into the perfect Victorian version of the middle ages. He hired William Burges, a famed yet slightly nutso architect and designer, to work his Romantic magic. The result is simply amazing. Burgess created one of the most remarkable medieval fantasies around, but was practical enough that the castle could be used as an actual summer residence by the Stuart family.
Best of all, perhaps, is that Cardiff provides a great place to start any visit to Wales.
The city - Wales' smallest city - lies behind the wall, on the hill above. Inside the Cathedral Close, the wide open courtyard is verdant green, punctuated with dark slate gravestones, divided by paved pathways which all converge on the Cathedral. It is an ancient place, built in the pre-Gothic style of stone now weathered and worn. But the building is solid, and inside, the beauty beheld by the eye is matched by a wonderful, rolling acoustic soothing to the ear. Nearby, across the small stream of the river Alun, are the ruins of the Bishop's palace, not as old as the Cathedral, but no longer serviceable. The important thing was the place of worship, the place of history, and so it was maintained. Here St. David, or Dewi Sant, the patron saint of Wales, was buried. So holy was St. David's Cathedral, that it was deemed by the Pope in the middle ages that two pilgrimages there were equal to one to Rome, and three pilgrimages the same as visiting Jerusalem itself. Even William the Conqueror came there to worship. Here, in the hollow of the hills not far from the sea, the Cathedral endures and welcomes another generation of pilgrims, children, singers, and scholars.
Well in the north, in the beautiful mountains of Snowdonia, there is slate. Slate which once brought a measure of prosperity, bought by long hours in the mines. Outside of Blaenau Ffestiniog the bones of the mountains have been laid bare, the work of generations of slate miners, toiling in the earth. Tailings spill down the hillside, a splash of dark grey in a landscape alive with every shade of green. Here, where the end of slate mining has meant cold economic hardship, the warmth of the Welsh heart beats true. The heirs of the miners live in their neat little row houses, and welcome a troupe of singers from across the sea. The Orthodox Church, which has seen better days, is refurbished to provide a place for a special concert. The holes in the roof are fixed, new floorboards put down, a fresh coat of paint applied. The people of Blaenau Ffestiniog may not have the mines to work, may not have much in a material sense, but they have beauty around them, and know how to share the joy of song.
Anglesey/ Ynys Môn
The history is deep here. Here where the land rolls as gently as the surrounding sea, what the Welsh call Ynys Môn and we know as the Isle of Anglesey. A green and fertile island, once the breadbasket of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, and before that a stronghold of learning and lore for the Druids.
The history is deep here. There are burial mounds dating back 4,000 years, ones you can enter from a farmer's field after a brief walk on a wonderful path lined with blackberries, blueberries, and wild rambling roses. There are sacred circles and lone standing stones, so common that they hardly bear noticing as you drive, lapping the island, stopping for a bit of lunch at a three-hundred year-old pub in a fishing village. There is the great rise of Holyhead on the western tip, massive here in this flatness, though it would barely warrant notice among the mountains of the mainland. There are the beautiful country parks, vast marshlands, walking paths, and quiet little ponds where the old men sit and play with their radio-controlled sailboats.
The history is deep here. There is Beaumaris, one of the finest examples of the great Edwardian castles, controlling the Menai Straits. But there is also Penmon, an Augustinian priory with roots dating back to the 6th century, mostly now surviving as ruins. And there, behind the ruins, is the healing well of St. Seriol, covered in 17th c. stonework, but the original basin is there, and the water is still cool and energizing to the touch.
The history is deep here. From the small town of Aberffraw, which had been the home of the Princes of Gwynedd, including Llywelyn the Great, to the Victorian invention of Llanfair P.G. Wanting to generate a little 19th century publicity and thereby attract tourists, someone created a name no one can pronounce: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, which ostensibly means "St. Mary’s Church by the white hazel pool, near the fierce whirlpool with the church of St. Tysilio by the red cave."
The history is deep here. This is the Isle of Anglesey, what the Welsh call Ynys Môn.
This castle is a ruins. There aren't great, restored walls, impressive towers you can climb through, all-weather displays explaining the layout and history of the castle. It sits on a modest lump of rock in the middle of the wide Afon Dysynni valley. The treeless hills on either side of the valley are much higher, and close off what you can see from even the castle grounds. But you're high enough to see all that happens in the valley, to watch the cattle and sheep graze, and the feeling you have is of being protected by those higher hills, like being in the arms of a mother or lover. In many ways, this is the essence of Wales, and of Welsh history.
Llywelyn the Great built Castell y Bere in the early 1220's. Edward I captured it in 1283. There really isn't much else in the way of history to the place that you can find. But it is a wonderful castle, with its odd shape which reflecting the natural contours of the land. There is the characteristic Welsh 'D' shaped tower at the main entrance, but otherwise the design of the castle is eclectic, almost organic. As you wander the grounds, and what is left of the castle walls, there is a sense of peace, of harmony, of home.
St. Cybi's Well
Standing at a stile at the northwest corner of the churchyard wall in Llangybi, drop down into the field. There is a clear path leading down into the valley, first running along the field's edge, then through a kissing gate and descending through a bit of forest before emerging into the open. Across another field are the ruins. To the right is a small stone cottage which was probably used by the caretaker for the Well, perhaps as a dorm for those receiving the cure. To the far left is a latrine building, a sort of stone outhouse. There in the center, adjacent to the cottage, is the Well Room.
This is St. Cybi's Well on Pen Llyn, or the Lleyn Peninsula, the long arm of North Wales that sticks out into the Irish Sea. St. Cybi was a 6th c. Welsh saint, though the oldest of the structures at the well can be dated only to about 1200. For centuries, this place was famous for its healing powers. Now it is almost forgotten.
Do a cursory examination of the cottage, but then walk behind the Well Room to find the source of the stream which feeds the pool there: it is a spring, bubbling up in a stone-ledged pool complete with small steps, perhaps four feet across. Kneel on one knee, left hand on the cold stone slab, the right reaching down to caress the surface of the water. From the palm upwards, feel the electric thrill, allow the tears to come, gently, and fill you with joy.
Return to the Well Room in the front. This is a substantial room, all the walls mostly intact but the roof missing. Perhaps 15 feet on a side, the pool in the center 8 or 9 feet across, fed by a stone conduit from the spring in the back. Again, there are stone steps leading down into the pool. In the thick stone walls are several niches for sitting, perfect for contemplation. Sit. Just feel that place, feel the faith and devotion that shaped it, and the deep source that fed it. The pool is quiet, the surface a mirror for looking up into the open sky. Share the sense of communion with all the souls who had entered that pool. A moment that stretches back centuries. With the silky texture of worn stone sliding under fingers, rise and leave the pool, pausing only to pat the dark stone of the doorway and give thanks.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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