And the cross-country travels begin! We woke up this morning and caught a car to the train station where we hit the seemingly minor snaffoo of my credit card not registering as having tickets. Chalking it up to the glitches of modern technology, we went up to the counter to discuss with an actual human being how to get our tickets. Well, turns out we had tickets…booked for yesterday (this was Saturday). Basically, my arch nemesis–that would be technology in case anyone was not aware of my long standing vendetta–attempted to foil my plans once again by inducing a website glitch that booked our tickets for the wrong day. But we were not to be foiled, not this time! The woman at the counter graciously printed us out excess cards that may have forced me to present an entire stack of stubs every time the ticket collector walked by, but at least we got on the train, off to Wales to meet our 86 year old cousin James Anwyl of Harlech.
The day’s complications were not over yet, however. While on the first leg of our train journey, we were sitting across the aisle from these women who for some reason completely annoyed me, the American especially. I can at least partially attribute my irritation towards her being from the sheer volume of her voice. Grating and loud, they all kept shouting about dogs for an hour! As it so happens, this weekend in Birmingham is some famous dog show called Crufts that they were all (in fact everyone in Birmingham International Station) associated with in one way or another. Thankfully that ordeal only lasted an hour and the remainder of our journey by train through the Welsh countryside was peaceful, uneventful, and full of beautiful scenery.
Wales really is a stunning region. It looks exactly as I imagined it would: rugged but quaint, with craggy hills on one side and a gray sea on the other. It seems slower paced, especially as it isn’t tourist season, so everything closes at 4 pm as we found out while wandering the High Street in Harlech. To be fair, the High Street is basically the only street in Harlech, so there wasn’t much need to gather alternative evidence.
The owner of Castle Cottage where we are staying picked us up at the rail station and drove us up the Guinness Book of World Record’s Steepest Hill to the hotel. After settling in, we tried to find James. We knew which house was his, but were both a little afraid to ring the doorbell or knock too loudly. Part of that was just natural apprehension at meeting someone you had no idea existed until 2 months ago and the rest may have been utter terror that we would literally straitly him to death. Honestly the man is 86 so it was a completely valid concern! Eventually we did meet him (alive, I might add) and he told us all about the family tree of the Anwyl’s. He has so much information and kept repeating himself over and over again (he’s old) that it sounded like he was reading off of a script and if you broke this script’s run, he had to start all over. But he really was a dear old man and gave us a lot of information.
After that we walked around a lot in search of a cream tea, but every place seemed to be closed for refurbishments or some derivation of that excuse. We ended up as the last customers of this deli that only had caramel shortcake, banana bread, or cherry almond cake, which both of us opted for along with tea (Earl Grey of course!). The cake was really tasty and the waitress was uncannily like Keira Knightley. We henceforth called it Keira’s Place.
After tea we just walked around Harlech and the surrounding hill. There isn’t much to the actual town, especially when everything closes at mid-afternoon, but we walked along some really beautiful country paths and were afforded some stunning views of the sea and valley.
We also ended up coming across a field of pastures crawling with Baaaaa-ing shell. The closer we got, the more noise they made, until we were literally almost at the gates to their enclosures when we turned and saw this SWARM of sheep running down the hill at us, practically sheep screaming at us! It was actually really scary and freaky, and I kind of wanted to run all the way back to the hotel. I’m pretty sure that I had nightmares after that. I’m never using counting sheep as a method for curing insomnia ever again. I’ll stick to my pills!
On our first morning, we had breakfast at the hotel, and it was such a good hearty breakfast that felt fit for the region of Wales. That sentence probably makes no sense, but I can’t really describe the feeling it gave us, that of being strong and hearty, ready for a day of fresh Welsh air and walking. Okay, I guess I just did describe it, though it looks better as an image in my head. Regardless of how I will fail to describe the breakfast, we headed first thing into Harlech Castle where I played Audio Guide Voice by reading off the information given in the guidebook we bought for the castle.
Fun castle history! (For what would a vacation post of mine be without the traditionally exasperating history lesson?): Harlech Castle was built by Edward I in 1283, my 34th great grandfather, as a stronghold against the Welsh warriors. The castle was sieged multiple times over the following centuries, most famously in the War of the Roses, when the Lancastrian-aligned Harlech was the last Lancastrian stronghold to surrender after a seven year siege that inspired the song “Men of Harlech”. Throwing in some of my family’s history, dating back to I believe the 1700s, the Anwyls were constables of Harlech Castle up through 1915 when the last Anwyl to rent the castle, who had been using its grounds to raise her sheep, died and the family let the castle revert back to the crown.
We spent quite some time at the castle. As we were the only ones inside, we felt free to take our time and savor not only the ruins, but also the views afforded by the turrets and the outer curtain. Castles are always amazing to me, but this one had an incredible view of the cliff below and the sea in the not-too-distant-distance. Having exhausted corners of the castle to discover, we returned to call on Cousin James, and were informed that he was taking us for a light lunch at this nice restaurant that he sometimes goes to for lunch after church on Sundays when he is interested in a change though he usually cooks lunch after church but sometimes a break from the routine is nice. Yes, he said that all in one sentence. But he was right, the restaurant was lovely, and we had soup and scones (finally a cream tea!) in the conservatory, while continuing to learn about what life was like in Harlech back during James’ life. Random fact that no one else will care about (isn’t my blog just full of those?) James still lives in the exact same house where he was born 86 years ago. As in, midwife style, actually born in, and has lived there his whole entire life. Incredible.
We took our leave from James and walked down to the beach, maybe a mile and a half away from the base of the hillside. It was so bizarre walking on a beach in the cold, bundled up in sweaters, jackets, and my boots, something that would never happen in California.
I’m sorry that I can’t say that anything interesting happened on this walk, but it’s Harlech and I get the impression that the most interesting thing that happens there is the bank being open for two hours. Still it was a lovely, if long, stroll along the beach and back up that famously steep hill, before I went back to the hotel to read a book while Mom said our goodbyes to James. Then we had nothing left to do but lounge around in our room and eat a makeshift dinner of Welsh cheese and crackers and a flapjack before retiring (I know that retiring as a word for going to sleep is rather old fashioned, but that really felt the most apt).
We woke up to a thankfully less hearty breakfast at the hotel, and then caught the trains back on our way to Oxford. I got a ton of reading done in those 6 hours, but not as much statistics learning as I would have liked (read: none). Then Mom and I walked a bit more around Oxford, essentially killing time before meeting up with Partner at the Eagle and Child Pub for dinner. Yes, as in the pub famous for it’s associations with Tolkein and CS Lewis and all of the Inklings. But for us, it was simply the pub closest to Dan’s place that we knew Mom would like as well. And what a lovely dinner it was. The three of us get along smashingly and before I knew it, the clock struck 10 pm and we all had to run, because as I said, the cross country travels are just beginning and I have yet to pack.