One of the ever-present questions you face when you live on the other side of the planet from all your lifelong friends and family is “What are you doing for Christmas ?”. This year I teamed up with Craig, Kate, Nick & Cindy and went on a Haggis Tour to Wales. And what an awesome plan it turned out to be, too. Without doubt, it was one of the most fun & memorable Christmases I've ever had !!
It all kicked off at the gloomy & uncivilised time of 7:15am, in the pitch black near Victoria Station. I was a little freaked, not only at being up at that obscene time of day, but also because Victoria's the station I get off at to go to work. Fancy being anywhere near the office at that time of the morning ?! Anyway, we boarded the bus and with minimal fuss set off. Getting out of London wasn't too complex at that time of day, and the pain of early morning was assuaged somewhat by the extremely chatty but somewhat absent minded bloke driving the bus, the man known as Adam. It's not that he had ADD, it was apparently just that he's got 3 brains all vying for contention, and it very much seemed that they were all operating in reverse that morning. But hey ho, y'know… it takes a while for a group to find its level. Once we were on the way to the picturesque necessity of tourism – Reading Services** – Adam announced that we would all be coming up to the front of the bus and introducing ourselves over the microphone. So there was the ice broken for us. Good idea though – otherwise it's hard to get to know a bunch of people who are all facing in the same direction. Reading Services is also part of the group who won British Loo Of The Year for 2005. No postcards available, but worthy of recognition, to be sure.
Anyway, cutting to the chase, the journey to South Wales was fairly swift, and before long our first stop was Tintern Abbey, the ruins of a 12th century church built by Cistercian monks. We stopped for the compulsory photo opportunity, a leg stretch, and a bit of a chat with our new companions. We also saw what Adam described as the most pointless roundabout in human history – sadly at this juncture I discovered that I'd cunningly left my camera back in London, so I can't show you the roundabout.
Massive thanks by the way to Craig, Kate, Nick & Cindy for letting me pinch their photos of the trip, viewable in my photo gallery !
Next stop was the town of Chepstow – considered to be a Gateway to Wales (now's probably not the best time to expound on my views regarding gateways to things), as it sits on the River Wye which separates Monmouthshire with Gloucester. It's also home to a pretty awesome castle, cunningly named Chepstow Castle. Chepstow is a Norman castle, meaning it was built following the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066.
Chepstow's also the place where – for reasons which still escape me – I bought a big pink bit of furniture foam. Bit of a bargain, I thought… a slab of pink foam for only 3 quid ! I didn't quite know why I bought it, but I figured it'd more than likely come in handy at some stage of the trip. A big pink bit of foam's bound to, isn't it ?
Next stop was one of the most interesting museumy touristy things I think I've ever been to – Big Pit, a coal mining museum near Blaenavon. We got to go 90 odd metres underground into a real Welsh coal mine, led by a former coal miner as tour guide. It was incredibly atmospheric, educational, and awe inspiring as our guide (Gavin) explained to us the mining techniques of yesteryear and up into the 80's (at which point Thatcher closed down the Welsh coal mines), as well as giving us a picture into the life of a miner. It was awe inspiring to imagine the conditions these guys worked under, the danger that they faced, and the camaraderie that existed due to working in the face of such adversity. There are few feelings quite like that of knowing that you're 120 metres under ground.
Final stop for the day was Abergavenny and the Black Sheep Hostel, where we went to possibly the most inept Chinese takeaway in the Northern Hemisphere (chosen from a disproportionately large assortment of takeaways, given the size of the town!), as well as having our own Pub Quiz, and a Karaoke/Disco party themed around the year 1977 – this included Star Wars, Disco, Punk, and whatever else anyone could think of. The locals got into the theme considerably, with one bloke turning up in full Darth Vader getup and another as a punk, with “ARSE” written prominently across his forehead (although he looked more like Father Jack). The pink foam got a bit of a dance in too. The only other thing I can think of to say about the hostel was that it had possibly the worst shower I've ever been in. Oh, and the beer-de-jour was a creamflow ale called Brains.
Moving on to the second day of the trip (yup, this is gonna be a long one kiddies), we headed back into Abergavenny for some bare essentials, then proceeded on to Llanidloes. No reason, other than that it was on our way, I guess. Llanidloes is a former market town (and as such has a market hall on stilts, which I haven't got any photos of), and possibly the ugliest pub mascot ever constructed. Unless its purpose is to frighten away evil spirits, I'd recommend the landlord have another look at the great monstrosity adorning the front of his building – it's awful. In Llanidloes we also stopped for a bite in the National Milk Bar. Simon, Simon and I wanted to try Welsh Rarebit, which sadly turned out to be glorified cheese on toast, however they also made a pretty damn fine ham & cheese omlette (nowhere near the lofty standards of Bar Solo though !).
I've got to say, aside from being an all-round legend, Adam was also a bloke who knew the good spots to stop at – we had a look at Castell-y-Bere, a Welsh castle built around 1221 by Llywelyn The Great and later occupied by Edward Longshanks. It was a top bit of a walk and a really excellent spot. There wasn't much of a castle there, admittedly, but sometimes imagination is important in these circumstances.
As the evening was getting dark, we only had one more stop before pulling in for the night – at the picturesque town of Beddgelert. Not so much a town, as a group of buildings really, and picturesque is a bit of a guess on account of it being dark and all. But still nice. The significance of Beddgelert is supposed to centre around the grave of Llywelyn the Great's faithful dog, however it appears that that story's bollocks. So what can ya do, eh ?
We arrived at the farmhouse shortly afterward and set ourselves up in our dorms, before heading back in to the White Lion for a few Christmas Eve drinks and a pretty cool music session with a couple of guitar playing blokes. Dre from our group had a bit of a strum too and kept the crowd happy with some Jack Johnson tunes, and overall it was another great night out. Some of the locals seemed a little bemused/put out that a busload of 30 tourists had descended on their pub & taken over the back room, but you've got to have a sense of humour about these things, don't you ?
I'm going to leave it there, as it's bedtime. But that'll do ya for now.
** a Services is the British name for what we'd call a roadhouse. Reading (pronounced “Redding”) is the name of the town that this services is closest to. And for some reason Reading Services seems to be the mandatory stopping point for all journeys out of London.