Saturday, December 02, 2006

Creoso I Cymru

For Americans, traveling in the United Kingdom differs from travel anywhere else in the world, in that every tourist experience is influenced by preconceived notions gleaned from the mountain of British literature we consume from childhood onwards. British writers have historically dominated children's literature; for every Lemony Snicket, there are several E. Nesbits, John Masefields, C.S. Lewises and now, of course, J.K. Rowlings and Philip Pullmans to form images of the streets of wartime London and plant an awareness of the house system at Eton in the minds of small inhabitants of rural Michigan and Pennsylvania. Later, long before we actually see the Houses of Parliament or the spires of Oxford, we have visions of the dirt and squalor of Dickens' Victorian London; we understand the distinctions between earls and barons and their implications for the desperate social climbing depicted in Jane Austen and Trollope; we know about the elitism and superciliousness of Waugh's Oxford ("I expect you’ll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir. That’s what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour"); we see Dublin through the eyes of the Blooms. The result of these years of inculcation is that Britain often seems vaguely familiar when we finally arrive - almost, as Alison Lurie says in her tremendously witty transatlantic comedy Foreign Affairs, "an experience of déjà vu."

Wales, though, is underrepresented in the British literature that crosses the Atlantic and forms pictures of the isles in our innocent Yankee heads. We arrive with perceptions, accurate or otherwise, of England, Scotland, Ireland, but what do we know about Wales? We've read some Dylan Thomas, and devotees of epic novels featuring characters with really long names might have come across John Cooper Powys. Laura's vision of Wales comes almost totally from a set of children's books by Susan Cooper called The Dark Is Rising, set partially in Wales and portraying it as a place of ancient secrets and violent magical forces. So, in our vague imaginings, Wales appeared remote and isolated, a place of dragons and fog. Who knew what we might find there?

We left Paddington Bear behind in the morning, still waiting patiently for his rescuer, and began the winding journey westward, collecting some basic facts about Wales along the way. The political identity of the area has been quite fluid right through the twentieth century, and its national character is by no means as assured as Scotland's or Ireland's. The southeastern part of Wales for which we were headed, despite being identifiably Welsh culturally, was until recently not considered part of Wales at all; before 1974 it was unclaimed by either England or Wales, and maps of the region were titled "Wales and Monmouthshire." Cardiff was only proclaimed the Welsh capital in 1955, and the revival of the Welsh language dates only from about the 1960s. Although the Free Wales Army and Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (Welsh Defense Movement) were responsible for a series of bombings protesting the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales in the 1960s, enthusiasm for Welsh independence was often somewhat attenuated and in 1979 the Welsh decisively rejected the idea of a Welsh assembly in a referendum. (It was mooted again and passed with a very narrow majority in 1997.)

Wanting to see some of the countryside before getting to Cardiff, we disembarked in Newport and caught a quick glimpse of the Norman cathedral where the fifth-century founder of the church, St Woolos, is supposed to be buried. It's also the site where the Chartists, protesting for parliamentary reform, were gunned down by British soldiers in the massacre of 1839; Queen Victoria later knighted the mayor who ordered the shootings. Having hit the high points of Newport, we ran back down to the station and boarded the next train towards Gloucester, then alighted (as they say here) at Chepstow, where we caught an extremely rickety local bus going towards Monmouth. (The driver seemed somewhat surprised to have two new additions to what was clearly a fairly constant clientele.) As we careened around a sharp curve in the country road, the stone skeleton of Tintern Abbey rose up before us. The ruins of this Cisterian monastery manage to convey much of the asceticism to which the industrious members of the Benedictine order aspired; on a chilly afternoon in late November, it was easy to get a sense of all the isolation any self-respecting, self-flagellating monk could ask for.

A short train ride got us to Cardiff in time for a stroll up Cathedral Road and dinner.We had a great time hanging out in the bar at the Churchill Hotel, where logs were piled up around the fireplace, people chatted in Welsh on the couch, and lights flashed on a Christmas tree decorated in the height of Celtic kitsch as everyone downed pints of Brains. The name of this popular Cardiff ale makes for some startling coincidences on Welsh menus, like "Steak and Brains pie." When the Brains-sponsored Welsh football (soccer) team plays in France, where alchohol advertising on uniforms is forbidden, the players wear jerseys that read "Brawn" instead of the usual "Brains." Clever, no?

While a breakfast of eggs and kippers(!) was certainly a treat, the culinary highlight of our adventure was easily lunch at the Armless Dragon. Specializing in contemporary Welsh cuisine, the set menu included game terrine and chutney (plated with sprouts and mixed greens), spiced aubergine soup (served with a drizzle of créme fraîche), mackerel and crab sauce (on a bed of baba ganoush-like aubergine mash), braised lamb (with a turnip mash - a modern take on hotch-potch), and sticky toffee pudding.

(A note on the dessert: the British word "pudding" refers to any number of foods that are prepared by mixing various ingredients with a binding agent. A British pudding may be sweet or savory, and can be baked, steamed or boiled. Colloquially, "pudding" in the UK may also refer to dessert generally, as may "sweet" or "afters." Specifically, sticky toffee pudding is a British dessert consisting of sponge cake made with finely chopped dates and covered with toffee sauce. As one might expect, its origins are in dispute, with claims to its invention made from Millington to Newburgh, but there is some consensus that Francis Coulson popularized and shared the recipe at his Sharrow Bay Country House Hotel in the Lake District. We like it with vanilla ice cream. Oh, and "aubergine" means "eggplant.")

We walked off lunch with a stroll through Cardiff Castle, a somewhat bizarre structure which was rebuilt and redecorated, incorporating Roman and Norman remains, in the late nineteenth century by the fabulously wealthy and apparently somewhat eccentric Earl of Bute. He acquired the property through marriage and, in collaboration with the decorative artist and architect William Burges, created a romanticized Victorian version of a fairytale medieval castle in which he and his family spent six weeks every year pretending to be feudal lords. This odd monstrosity encloses a large area of grounds and a twelfth-century Norman keep, surrounded by a moat, in which Robert, Duke of Normandy, was imprisoned in a most unfraternal way by his brother Henry I. It's a splendid place from which to direct battles or watch the sun set over Cardiff.

Maybe next time we'll see a dragon.


p said...

Rugby, male-voice choirs, Dyman Thomas, and seaweed (as food). Wales is wonderful.

d said...

Dylan, that is. Sorry!

g said...

You've written welcome wrong! Its Croeso! >.<