Thursday, March 13, 2008

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving” ~Lao Tzu (Founder of Taoism), 6th century BC.

Dinas Mawddwy

Neither of us is big on itineraries…partly because we’re incapable of actually sticking to one, but mostly because they seem to be the surest way to reduce traveling to a strictly utilitarian affair.

In which case, why leave home?

After all, it’s not what we’ve planned to see, but rather what we’ve seen accidentally that we remember most poignantly. It’s the little surprises between destinations, often far off the beaten track, that make traveling among the most rewarding of all human activities. It’s all the happy little mistakes, the fortuitous wrong turns and dead ends that rigid itineraries simply do not allow for but make traveling sacrosanct.

Moel Bendinas

So we rambled north, drifting down sundry roads, through deep valleys and across long, windswept ridges.

Wales was even more beautiful than I’d hoped. Green valleys and brown peaks, flora and stone in perfect counterpoint. An almost paradoxical mixture of rugged and quaint. This apparent contradiction wasn’t manifest in just the landscape, either. It was expressed in everything from the language, to the architecture, to the very Welsh themselves.

We passed slowly through mile after mile of ridiculously scenic countryside. Through fantastic backwater villages like Pant Y Dwr, Llandinam and finally Dinas Mawddwy. Welsh villages are, as a species, remarkably picturesque. Dinas Mawddway, however, is freakishly so. Set in a narrow river valley between peaks inside Snowdonia National Park, Dinas Mawddwy is…well…perfect. Perfect on September 25, 2006, anyway.

We left the car next to Gwesty’r Llew Coch (The Red Lion Inn) on Main Street and started walking. We followed a narrow lane down into the lower valley and across the Dyfi River. We spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening wandering the larger Dinas Mawddwy area on foot.

The sun had already set behind the mountains when it finally occured to us that we hadn't found a place to spend the night yet. In the waning light, we walked back to the Red Lion Inn, hoping to score a room there...strike one. Next, the Buckley Pines Hotel...strike two. Then, the Brigand's Inn...strike three. I had pretty much resigned myself to sleeping in the car next to the woolen mill, but Shauna wanted to try one more place before giving up.

The Ty Derw (Oak House) B & B seemed the least likely place in town to have any vacancies. It was far too quaint not to have been booked months, years, decades in advance by The International Jane Austen Fan Club, or the Anne of Green Gables Appreciation Society (Welsh Chapter).

I pulled up the drive expecting to be scolded by some unnaturally stiff lady wearing an empire waist dress for having arrived so informally attired ("Will the shades of Pemberly be thus polluted?"). Instead, we were greeted by a cheery, casual English couple and a pair of truly gigantic greyhound dogs. One of them (no, not one of the dogs) asked if it would be just one room for the two of us and Shauna said "Yes!" without so much as looking at me (apparently the idea of sleeping next to the mill wasn't as romantic to her as it was to me).

Ty Derw

I have to admit, our accomodations at the Ty Derw were better than the back seat of a Vauxhall Astra. For like 6o quid we got a spacious, nicely decorated En-suite room and a pair of really, really comfortable twin beds; by far the best lodging value of our trip.

Of all the places I've ever been, Dinas Mawddwy, Mid-Wales, is my single favorite. I often imagine myself there, in that deep green valley between rocky peaks, next to the quietly chattering Dyfi River. It's ancient waters whispering the same words it uttered to a thousand generations of my ancestors. I cannot imagine a place more ideallic. If I were to wander the earth from this day to my last, I would not expect to find a place where I felt more instantly at home.

I can say very few things with any degree of authority, but, of this I am certain...I will return to Dinas Mawddwy.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The fog was still thick outside as we made our way downstairs for breakfast. We took our places at a long maple or cherry wood table expecting to be joined momentarily by a throng of other guests. They never came, but that didn't stop us from eating more food than two people should be allowed to eat in one sitting.

I ordered a full breakfast which came served on a plate the size of a man hole cover. There was bacon (fried ham), eggs, two kinds of sausage, potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms and I’m absolutely sure I’m forgetting something. They also brought out a fruit tray replete with grapes, oranges, bananas, grapefruit, and like three different kinds of melon. I wouldn’t have made myself so completely uncomfortableif it hadn’t been so good. It was hands down the best breakfast I had ever eaten, or eaten since.

We were eventually joined at the table by Justin, co-owner of Porthmawr House, and I pounced on the opportunity to pick his brain about the area. His command of regional history was impressive, and I began to suspect that there was more to our new friend than he was letting on. I wasn’t too surprised to learn during the course of our conversation that he was no less than the mayor of Crickhowell. We chatted for the better part of the morning, and he gave us a personal tour of the grounds, including the 15th century gatehouse. In the end I felt like we needed to tip him for having been so generous with his time.

Taking one of Justin’s many suggestions, we headed out of Crickhowell, crossing the old bridge and motoring up the far side of the valley towards Llangattock in the car. We were looking for a road that would take us into the hills south of town, but the lingering fog made it tough to get our bearings.

We never found Justin’s road, but followed a small lane that meandered through the Usk Valley, instead. The fog lifted about 20 minutes into our drive, revealing a deep emerald landscape set against a bright cerulean sky. Dew clung to every surface, even the backs of little ponies and shire horses, and the whole scene glistened in the morning sun.

The little lane eventually brought us back into Crickhowell, and we decided to try another of Justin’s suggestions; a short trail connecting the old bridge to a different (though equally ancient looking) church. I only wish I could remember the church’s name…I can’t find any mention of it online.

The walk was nice, and the church was beautiful, but we were back at the car too quickly. We sat there for a few minutes, debating whether to move on while the day was still young, or attempt the most ambitious of all Justin’s suggestions before quitting the area.

One of the Brecon Beacons, Crug Hywel (Howell Rock) is a tall, flat hill that towers above Crickhowell and the Usk River Valley. According to Justin, it was once the sight of a large fortress built by Hywel Dda (Howell the Good), The 9th C King of Wales and author of the original Welsh Common Law. It’s also the feature from which Crickhowell derives its name. Justin assured us that it was well worth the strenuous hike to reach the top, so we pointed the car north on Llanbedr Road and followed the signs to a low field where we started our climb.

From the bottom, Crug Hywel looked like a piece of cake. The slope near the base was gentle and we found ourselves practically jogging up the incline. I thought we’d knock it out in twenty, twenty five minutes max. About halfway to the top, though, the gentle slope became a steep bugger. It took us about three times longer to ascend the second half than it had the first. I’m not sure how long it actually took us to get there, but we reached the top pretty winded.

The view from the summit was certainly worth the exertion. Crickhowell sparkled below, and the Usk River snaked its way through the valley for as far as we could see into the distance. That there was once a fort there was obvious, too. The mounds and earthworks were still very much discernable despite centuries of erosion.

Earthworks near the top of Crug Hywel.

The day was perfect and we lay down in the grass to soak up a bit of the early afternoon sun. After about a half hour on our backs making cloud pictures, we stood up and petitioned a fellow climber to take a picture of Shauna and I together.

We eventually made our way off the mountain and back to the car. It was on our minds to return to Porthmawr House and thank Justin and Simone for everything they had done to make our time there so memorable. I can't imagine Crickhowell without them. By the time we had gassed up and devoured a pair of service station sandwiches and a couple bags of crisps, though, it seemed a little late in the day. In the end we determined that a well worded letter and a little plug in cyberspace would be even better.

We left Crickhowell not really knowing where we were headed next. North, was about all we had decided. There were vague and unformed notions about Snowdonia, but little more. We didn't have a route, a timeline, or a reservation. In fact, we didn't have a single thing we had to do for nine days.

Nine days to Edinburgh...

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Shauna was up early in Crickhowell, and instead of trying in vain to get back to sleep, or tiptoeing around until I decided to stir, she grabbed the camera and walked into the morning mist.

She took a ton of really cool photos of Crickhowell and the grounds around Porthmawr House in the fog. Here are a few of them.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The landscape changed as we motored west. Slowly, the gently rolling hills and shallow glens of the Cotswold’s gave way to stony mountains and deep river valleys. We didn't need a sign to tell us that we were entering a different country, but, Y Ddriag Goch (The Welsh Dragon) welcomed us at the border nonetheless.

I was surprised how much different Wales felt than Southern England. The whole scene was rougher, wilder, more forbidding. While still relatively quaint (and certainly no less beautiful) it seemed welsh rivers were just a little swifter, its forests a bit darker, and its people a touch less domesticated than their counterparts in lower England.

We didn’t have much of a plan for Wales. People who have visited the place are always eager to point out how beautiful it is, but, when pressed about specific locations or favorite activities, they aren’t always so helpful. Our guide books seemed to really like Brecon Beacons National Park, so, we decided to start there.

We pulled into a little market town called Crickhowell, just outside the park, about an hour before sunset. Dark clouds were rolling in from the north so we ducked into a B&B called Porthmawr House, praying for a vacancy. Ten minutes later we were watching a storm roll down the face of Crug Hywel from the window of our little room, grateful to be inside.

The rain was over quickly, so we stepped outside hoping to spend the last few minutes of daylight taking in what we could of our new environs. We moved pretty quickly through town, making our way past High Street and onto the football green. On the edge of the green stands the ancient ruins of Crickhowell Castle.

Crickhowell Castle.

A ruin as old as Crickhowell Castle would be a state park or a national monument in the US. Yet, there it stood, next to a playground, scarcely a sidenote to a bloody football field. Sites like this litter the Welsh countryside, standing silent testimony to a long and tumultuous past.

We left Crickhowell Castle, momentarily losing ourselves among the little roads and alleys off High Street, finally emerging near St. Edmunds Church.

St. Edmunds Church was built in the 12th century, and it looks like it. We wandered the yard for a while, snapping photos of gravestones of people with my last name. In truth, our decision to stop in Crickhowell wasn't as random as I make it sound. One of my oldest family lines hails from Powys County, and Crickhowell in particular. These are the graves of my ancestors.

High Street at dusk.

We left St Edmunds for The Bear Hotel at the top of high street. There we enjoyed lamb chops baked in apricot marmalade as the sun set over the black hills.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Let’s see…where were we? Ah, yes…The Saracen’s Head Inn, The Village of Highworth, Wiltshire County, England. Sunday, The 24th of September, 2006. And not an altogether English morning at all, according to the inn keeper.

The sky was pale blue and decorated only occasionally with little white clouds. The air was crisp, still, and smelled lightly of fall. The world around us glittered with dew, and a flight of crows made its way north, to points unknown as we lugged our bags out to the car.


It was a fairly late morning, despite having been sound asleep by 9:00 the previous night. I was still a little jet lagged, I think, and there wasn’t a huge English breakfast calling us downstairs early like there had been at St. David’s (I believe we made due with granola bars and bottled water in the car). We’d have been moving much earlier if we’d known what lie in store for us.

We’d glimpsed a small portion of the Cotswold’s (at light speed from the train) the day before and thought it might be worth a little detour en route to Southern Wales. We consulted a few guide books that we had dragged across the Atlantic with us and decided to head north via the A361, then drift slowly through the countryside to the village of Bibury.

Somewhere near Coln St Aldwyns it became clear that we hadn’t budgeted enough time for this place. Each little village was as charming as the next and the soft green hills that surrounded them begged us to get out of the car and have a good long stroll. In the end it was too much to resist. We pulled into Bibury around noon, parked the car about a block off the main street and headed in the direction of a church tower we could see in the distance.

From the honey-stone cottages that lined the way, to the crystal waters of the River Coln, the entire place looked as though it had been torn from the pages of an English folk tale. The most incredibly picturesque town I have ever visited.

Saint Mary's Church

We wandered the church yard for awhile, reading grave stones and snapping photos until a door in the perimeter wall snagged our attention. It was small, weather beaten, ancient looking. It was like something out of a dream we had both had. Or, maybe one of those creepy Tim Burton-esque children’s books people read to their kids these days. It was archetypal, irresistible. The idea that opening it and stepping through to the other side might amount to trespassing didn’t occur to us…nor did the thought of not doing so.

Beyond was a spectacular garden with roses and apple trees, green paths and climbing flowers in full bloom. The sort of place one could imagine wandering for the rest of one's life. But the garden was scarcely a side note to the massive Ivy covered stone mansion that sprung into view. At any moment I expected to hear someone yell from somewhere inside “Jeeves, release the hounds…there are trespassers on the lawn!”

We stayed for as long as we dared (maybe 15 or 20 minutes) before sneaking back through the little hole in the wall. It turns out we could have stayed as long as we liked. A local later informed us that the big house was actually a hotel called The Bibury Court. The grounds are apparently a public right of way.

In any event, sneaking through a little hole in the wall of a very haunted looking Saxon churchyard, and wandering through a secret garden in the shadow a 12th century manor house had made the whole scene a little surreal. And it was about to become even weirder.

As we rounded the front of the church we bumped into the first people we had seen in nearly an hour, another couple that was filing out the main door. The woman was tall and quite thin, while the guy was short and fairly broad. They were followed by an older woman who was acting as their tour guide. We walked slowly behind them until we arrived at the ornate wooden gate at the front of the yard.

At that moment Shauna grabbed the back of my arm and whispered something that I couldn’t quite make out.

“It’s…*insert inaudible whispering*" she issued discretely.


“It’s...*insert more inaudible whispering* ” she hissed a little louder, but still too softly to understand.


“It’s Nicole Kidman!” she said just loudly enough for me (and I suspect everyone else) to hear.


I looked at the tall, thin woman standing a couple feet in front of us and there could be no mistake…it was Nicole Kidman. Apparently the diminutive fellow next to her was Keith Urban.

There was a short, uncomfortable pause as they looked at us, and then at the camera around my neck. They were clearly expecting us to ask for a picture with them, or to start clicking away without their permission. All at once I felt sorry for them. I could tell Shauna did too. They were, after all, just two people trying to have a quiet day in the Cotswold’s together like we were (I can’t imagine what it must be like to be recognized and approached every time I went out). Moreover, there were suddenly enough people on the street that a couple pictures might have turned into a bit of a scene.

I think I said something very clever like “uh...hey guys" as we pushed past them, and then down the lane. I don’t think they said anything in reply. And so ended our perfectly awkward Cotswold’s celebrity encounter.

Yeah, people used to be much smaller...

From the church we found our way back to the center of town and strolled up Arlington Row, the single most photographed scene in the Cotswold’s. Maybe all of Britain (outside of London and Stonehenge).

Arlington Row

Arlington row was built sometime in the 1380’s as a place to store wool, but converted into weavers cottages sometime in the 1700’s.

I find it very difficult to explain to people how perfect, how idyllic these little towns and villages are. Every angle of every dwelling seems to be expressly designed for maximum aesthetic value. Truly, every fallen leaf and every blade of grass appears to have been individually placed by god, or elves, or disney imagaineers.

We wandered the paths and trails that surround Bibury for another hour or so, finally taking a late lunch at a little diner next to the trout farm. Hoping to avoid the events of the previous night, we hopped back in the car and made for The Brecon Beacons, Southern Wales while the sun was still fairly high above the western horizon. We left Bibury wishing we had a week or more to spend there. Our next trip to the UK will likely be a self guided walking tour of the Cotswolds. I find myself eagerly counting the days.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Shauna was feeling really ambitious today and created a new blog dedicated just to Lucy. She moved all the baby related stuff that had been posted here to

I think she posted a bunch of new stuff as well.

Feel free to head over that way...

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Stonehenge isn’t the only cool historical landmark in southern England. A quick glance of our AA road atlas revealed dozens of historic houses, churches, castles, roman antiquities and prehistoric sites in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire alone. Places like Woodhenge and Old Sarum, Silbury Hill and Chisbury Chapel. Layer after layer of human history stacked one on top of the other. We didn’t have time to see even a fraction of what was around us. We had to content ourselves with hitting a few noteworthy highlights before moving on.

From Stonehenge we made our way north, towards Marlborough and Swindon. Perfect little English towns like Manningford Bruce, West Stowell and Bishopstone flashed by as we drove. Then, finally, we arrived at the vale of the White Horse.

The White Horse is a huge, highly stylized figure cut into the side of a chalk hill near the village of Uffington, Oxfordshire. Evidence suggests that it was carved sometime between 1400 and 600 BC, during the height of Britain’s Bronze Age. Who commissioned it, and why, remains largely a mystery.

The white Horse of Uffington...Click the image if you want to actually see it.

Though not as photogenic as Stonehenge, the white horse was impressive. There were fewer people there, and the whole scene was rather more tranquil than Stonehenge had been. To say nothing of the fabulous views to the north. We would have stayed longer, probably hiked to the top of the hill, but the sun suddenly seemed very low on the western horizon and shadows were growing long across the fields below. As the setting sun turned the landscape gold around us, a sinking feeling settled in the pit of my stomach. We had hotel reservations in Stroud, some 30 miles to the northwest…we’d never make it before nightfall.

Back home, a 30 mile night drive through the country would have been little more than an excuse to roll the windows down, turn the radio up, and ease the seat back just a tad. Not in England! The thought of navigating those tiny, twisty rock and tree lined bike paths for roads in the pitch black scared the hell out of me. It was tricky in broad daylight!

We pulled into a little market town called Highworth, just as the last red and purple rays of day were falling on the old stone buildings of Lechlade Road. Instead of pushing ahead into the darkness, we checked into a little inn and pub called the Saracen’s Head Hotel.

The Saracen's Head.

We tried to cancel our reservation in Stroud, but no luck. We ended up paying 200 quid (about 400 dollars) for a bed we never slept in!

We eventually wandered down to the pub, where I savored one of the finest steaks I’ve ever eaten. If ever you find yourself in Highworth, Wiltshire County, England at dinner won't regret checking out The Saracen’s Head Pub!