Wednesday, June 29, 2011

In Which We Climb a Hill fort, and Enjoy the Welsh Accent

Like most of the UK, this area is rich in history. There are more castles here than you could shake a Great Day Out brochure at, as well as any number of pre and post industrial revolution sites like old mills, mines, brickworks, and factories. If your tastes run to the more ancient, you don’t have to go far to find an old Roman encampment, a standing stone, or an iron age hill fort. As a child, I remember my dad taking me on walks up hills that looked like any other hill to me, until he would point out the ditches that ran around the top of the hill and show me where old fortifications would have stood. I find it fascinating to see evidence of these ancient tribes living out their lives: hunting, travelling, marauding, calling each other on their rune-phones. Nah, I’m only joking about that last bit. They didn’t have phones then. Just the runes.

Anyway – there are some great hill forts near here and so we set out for Brecon Beacons National Park to climb up Pen-Y-Crug.

Brecon is a great little town. The River Usk runs through it and there is a beautiful cathedral.


Not sure about the Witch, but I liked it.

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The visitor centre gave us a map which looked easy enough, but, as with most directions over here, is not. We got the first part right (‘Climb the stairs beside this building”) and then managed to turn left then right at the appropriate intersections, and then ran into a spot of trouble locating the bridge, even though we were practically standing on it. I asked a man walking by and he said it was just up ‘past his car’ without bothering to say where his car was. And so it went like that for awhile until we finally broke free of the town and found ourselves on a footpath heading up.


This hill was the site of an old brick and tile works in the 1800s. The red mud was dug up in the winter and left to dry out over the winter. In the spring it was fashioned into bricks and tiles, fired in kilns that were built right up on the hillside, and then taken by horse and cart into town.

But now it is just a breathtakingly beautiful spot with the added bonus of having one of the best examples of an iron-age hill fort around.


Here you can see one of the rows of trenching that surrounds the hill-top. There are about 4 rows of these ditches before you get to the top of the hill.


When we go to the top, the kids collapsed

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It was beautiful up there and we could see for miles


Those are the Beacons in the background. This is Tolkien country and much of the setting of Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit is taken from this area. I can see the Black Mountains out of my bedroom window and it is said that they were his inspiration for Mordor. At any point in the countryside, you could be in the Shire, and on our drive home we passed through the town of Crickhowell, which sounds a lot like Crickhollow.

We had a picnic, watched and listened to the world’s cutest Skylark, then made our way back down the hill.

There was, of course, a herd of sheep on the hill with us. One of the lambs still had its tail:

Jacob (looking at the lamb with amazement): What’s that!?

Me: A lamb…what do you mean? It’s a lamb, honey.

Jacob: It has a tail!

Me: Sheep have tails but the farmers take them off when they are little as they tend to get in the way

Jacob (his entire world shifting slightly) Sheep have tails????


We walked back to town and left Brecon for Merthyr (Sounds a bit like Mordor) where we wanted to take the Brecon Mountain Railway Narrow Gauge Steam Train. It was a short little trip through what seemed to be mostly bracken (causing me to rename it the Bracken Mountain Railway) with a few wild Welsh Mountain Ponies thrown in for variety. The real highlight, though, was the brilliant Welsh accent of the conductor and engineer. I could have listened to them for hours. I had a conversation with the engineer who wanted to know where I was from, and then remarked that he had friends who had just moved back to Wales from Canada. I asked where they had lived and he said, with great delight, “Moosejaw!!! When they first told me they was living in Moosejaw, I thought they were winding me up!”


The conductor and engineer discussing tea.


The Hogwarts Express Lite pulling into the station

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The kids got the jump seats on the way back and we listened to the conductor sing his way through various conversations.

On the drive home, we were behind an ‘Ambiwlans’ for awhile. The Welsh language laws would put the Quebec Sign laws to shame.


Although some of the signs are perhaps not necessary…


The day ended with more monopoly, and some fishing, which was more like ‘snagging’ but who cares.

Last day in the cottage tomorrow.

Thanks for reading-



In Which I Take on the ‘Rapids’, and Lose.

Today was one of those irritating days when the air feels cool when the sun is behind a cloud, but turns into a sweltering hot furnace the minute it comes out. I do not do well in this kind of weather and it seems I have passed this gene to my kids who turned into scowling, sweaty, whining excuses for children for most of the morning.

We spent the better part of an hour seeing how much annoyance we could dish out to one another, an endeavour that was helped along by a malfunctioning internet hotspot in the village. I decided to get home and see if we could chill out in the river.

There is a rocky ‘beach’ across from us that is tantalizingly close , but might as well be 100 miles away when you are trying to get your 70 yr old mother and 9 yr old daughter across through the surprisingly fast moving water. Plus there is the picnic issue and how do you get your stuff across etc etc. And so we packed up and drove across the  bridge and down what I think was actually a drainage ditch, but is referred to here as a ‘lane’, to get to the beach. We have walked here before but tempers were running high so I decided that the sooner everyone was immersed in cold water, the better.

The area is called ‘The Warren’ (which I keep mistakenly calling ‘The Burrow’) and is home to a herd of sheep and a large colony of moles. it’s a great place for kids, and dogs, and other creatures who don’t mind cold water. Within seconds, Jacob and Zoe had stripped and were in the water. The lifeguard in me reared its head and I was tempted to start barking out commands and orders like “No Splashing!”, “Take your shoes off, “No Diving!” and “please stay off the lane ropes” but  I’m pleased to say I  didn’t. This is the problem with having been a lifeguard for 15 years or however long it was. I can no longer enjoy bringing my kids to any kind of water without envisioning their watery death, which could come about in any number of ways. In this particular situation, I was sure they were about to be swept away down stream, never to be seen again. To be fair, the water level was much higher than usual, and it was moving at quite a clip, but still the risk was low and clearly I also needed to stop fussing and chill out.


Anyway, to make a long story longer, The kids soon took to wading upstream 25 metres or so, and then speed-floating downstream to a point just above the ‘rapids’. This they did over and over, laughing hysterically, and grabbing at what or whoever was close by, usually me. This soon led to attempts at navigating the rapids, and then much laughter as they slipped and swam over the rocks and into the pools on the other side where they would drag themselves out giggling and coughing.

It all looked like so much fun that at some point I grew tired of being No-Fun Mum and thought I should probably have a go at the rapids myself. How hard could it be? They look like baby-rapids from the shore and besides the kids were doing it just fine. I had seen many people do exactly this many times and none of them had been taken out on a stretcher so really, just get on with it. Even June and Tony were just up stream and they were fine, June’s sensible shoes sitting at the edge of the river, Tony sitting in a deck chair sipping tea from a thermos.

I waded out to the ‘starting’ point and tried to take a few graceful strokes into the water. I realized, after about .5 of a second, that there was going to be nothing graceful about this at all. I tried to bring my legs around behind me thinking that I could use my arms and hands to manoeuvre through the rocks, which were coming up much more quickly that I had planned.  Another .5 of a second passed by during which time I was swept up onto the first rock, arms and legs going every which way. I vaguely heard Jacob yell something about a ‘sliding rock’ but the words took too long to register and anyway it didn’t matter as a dead octopus would have had more control than I did. I slid off the first rock, into a small whirlpool, felt my legs turn 90degrees away from me to the right, which left only my ass between me and the next set of rocks.  As the river merrily splashed along I careened off rocks left and right, much like a pinball  but with less style. With one final bounce, I slammed into the wretched ‘sliding rock’ (which I will here re-name the ‘ass-smashing rock), and shot into the recovery pool where sometime later, clutching at my left hip, I could be observed struggling out of the water, bits of river-weed stuck to my face. The kids were of course, screaming with laughter, and I tried to keep my game face on while the side of my leg turned blue as I watched.

Needless to say I then declared it to be picnic time (diversion) which provided an excuse for me to sit and recover and reflect on exactly HOW pathetic I was. It is clearly time to hit the Gym, or pool or whatever, and get some muscle control. I’ve never seen an octopus with rigor mortis before but I’m pretty sure that’s what I looked like. A wooden chair would have handled that better than I did.

I’m sure you get the picture so I will leave it there. I decided it was time to get out my new bubble wand and spent the rest of the afternoon sending huge bubbles across the water, which the kids used as target practice.


At this point, the sheep showed up for a drink.


Yes, those are the so-called ‘rapids’. I know what you are thinking: the blind baby from that maze at Hampton Court could probably manage these just fine…

The rest of the evening was spent with dinner, fishing, and then a ruthless game of Monopoly in which Zoe emerged as an early leader, scooping up properties with a keen eye. I managed to get Old Kent Road for which I was able to demand 2 pounds rent. Whitechapel eluded me and I was soon in serious trouble as Zoe loaded up Regent, Oxford and Bond Streets with houses and then hotels.

I retired with the fishing rod and watched as dogs, geese, and stumps floated evenly over the rapids without so much as a bored look in their eyes. Huh.

But the swallows were swooping above the river, and the hills were a lovely colour as the sun went down, and there were more wild strawberries, and life is good here.

Thanks for reading



Monday, June 27, 2011

In Which I see my Lovely Cousins and Play Pooh Sticks


My cousin Julie and I are only a year apart in age but we live thousands of miles apart so it’s tough keeping in touch in any kind of a meaningful way. I did get to see her here in the UK four years ago when her little boy was only four months old, but that feels like such a long time ago. So it was great to spend today with her and her husband Simon, and their son Oliver, who is now 4 years old.

We met halfway between Preston, where she lives, and Hay, at a National Trust site called Attingham Park near Shrewsbury. It is one of those lovely old homes that you see in movies with the sweeping grounds and rivers running through. It was actually a nice day today so there was no need to huddle under umbrellas while running from one building to another. We could actually be outside and not freeze. In fact, it felt a bit warm at times. It was probably only 21 or 22 but we are all so used to feeling cold and wet that it was a bit of a shock to the system. We looked like a pack of vampires, white-faced, throwing our arms up in the sunshine to shield ourselves from the burning rays.

Anyway. We had a great visit and some laughs, and Oliver was as cute as a button and seemed to love meeting his cousins too.

And of course, there were things like this, as well


Ummm. Did you say ‘Wigloo’? And who exactly is going to sit in this?

Tony: June? Juune? JUNE? Where are you, June?

June: I’m just here, Tony, in the Wigloo

Tony: The whot?

June: You know, the Wigloo. In the middle of the labyrinth. It’s just the perfect shape and size for sitting in…

Tony: Well can you get a move on. I want to pop down and see the Eel Underpass.

June: The whot?

And so we follow Tony and June out of the labyrinth and down the river where we see this:


How thoughtful. And did you know baby eels are called ‘Elvers’? Neither did I until I came across this helpful poster which goes to great lengths to explain exactly how, when and why, this eel underpass will be built. Fascinating. North Atlantic Oscillation clearly has a great deal of explaining to do.

I could go on and on about it but I will instead encourage you to pursue this topic on your own should you so desire. Otherwise, you can come and join us on the bridge for a game of Pooh Sticks.


If you are not familiar with Pooh Sticks then you must go and read some Winnie the Pooh stories.

I am pleased to say that I won.

Pooh sticks was followed by a new version of the game invented by Jacob which he called Pooh Rocks which, I will venture to say, may not hold the same universal appeal that Pooh Sticks enjoys. I suspect Tony and June will have an opinion on this.

Interesting thing about Tony and June is that I keep seeing them all over the UK. June is about 60, with a striped bias-cut skirt, blouse, oversize glasses, and raincoat, and Tony is a few years older, a few inches taller, wearing a short sleeved shirt, cardigan, beige slacks, balding and carrying an umbrella. He usually has a slight hunch, and June wears sensible shoes. I’ve seen them in the airport waiting to get on a plane, I’ve seen them waiting for a train, They are always having tea and biscuits wherever we go, and I often see them discussing the price of a cooked ham, or a head of cabbage, in the grocery store. Weird.

Anyway. Can’t wait for the cousins to make a trip to Canada, which they promise me they will do.

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We drove the two hours back to Beatrix Potter world and went for a swim in the river. It was a bit muddy. and cold, and fast moving. But we tried our best.

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Zoe and Jacob spent the rest of the evening torturing small minnows by swooping them up by the hundreds in dip nets, marvelling at them while they squirmed and gasped, before being returned, at high speed, to the river.

The evening was complete with a trip to the wild strawberry patch.




Thanks for reading. More tomorrow-



In Which I Discover the Miracle that is Welsh Cheese. And Bread. Also Fudge. Oh and Cider. Strawberries, too. Did I Mention the Ice Cream?

Hay-On-Wye hosts a Food Festival twice a year and today was my lucky day. The festival is meant to be an opportunity for local food producers to showcase their wares but it feels more like a really really good farmers market. And if you know me, you know that I have a bit of a thing for Farmer’s Markets.

I had heard a rumour that the strawberry season had been a poor one this year in England due to an early spring, lots of rain and a non-existent sun. Well if these strawberries are considered ‘poor’, I’d like to see the good ones. I can’t eat enough of these. They are amazing.


That’s Zoe going in for another sample…

The baker at this stall told me he was looking for a way to “keep things interesting in the bakery”. I’d say he has been successful.


I spent a rather long time at the first cheese counter I came to. This may not surprise some of you. I sampled everything in sight but my favourite was the Welsh Perl Las. The sign says ‘Lovely’ and it really is. Perfect texture and flavour.

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Love the logo…


I also liked the Bishop’s Tump although it does sound a bit like something the choirmaster has come down with.

Anne: “No I’m sorry Nigel can’t come to the concert tonight. He has come down with a nasty case of Bishop’s Tump”

Sharon: “Oh, what a shame. My Brian had one of those a few years back. Right terrible it was. Couldn’t get his hat on for months”

I also came away with some smoked Caerphilly and no, I did not make that word up, although I could have!

Next was a short stop for ice cream from a local creamery. Zoe chose Blackberry and Apple crumble and it was to die for.


Then, as luck would have it again, there was another cheese counter. The Gods were smiling on me today.


I thought this was bread, and then I thought it was mouldy bread, and then I realized it was a huge round of cheese. Fabulous!

Equally amazing were these creamy little rounds of goat’s cheese


and these charcoal dusted logs of sheep’s milk cheese. One of these came home with us. Delicious.


In his spare time, this cheesemaker also bakes Pasties and pies.


These are traditional famers food and were meant to be taken out into the fields for lunch. One half has meat and potatoes, and then there would be a baked apple of something sweet in the other half.

All this sampling was making me thirsty so good thing Ralph was on hand with samples of his Welsh Perry, a sweet cider made from pears. Amazing. I had a couple samples, just to make sure it was as good as I thought.


Zoe tried the Perry but did not enjoy it. The local apple juice was more to her liking


This guy was selling all sorts of old-recipe drinks like Dandelion and Burdock, ginger beer, and Sarsaparilla.


Charcuterie is alive and well in Wales, and looks delicious, if a little puzzling. What, for instance, do you suppose is a Smoked Bath Chap? What is a Bath Chap smoked or otherwise? The imagination takes over in situations like this and I’m afraid it might be bad for business. Anyway, I’m sure the locals know what it is and I'll just stay out of it.

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Also on offer in the meat department was Welsh Black Beef, sold here by this fellow, who proudly  showed me a picture of his Welsh Black Cattle. Apparently, it is the best beef anywhere. I will report back after I have some.


I could also have bought Duck, lamb, or scotch eggs had I so desired.


Actually, I have no idea what a Scotch Egg is. What is it? Apparently there is an egg in there somewhere but I don’t get the ‘Wrapped in …” part. Does the egg have a shell on it? How do you wrap an egg in cheese? And why bother?

How about the Home-reared duck leg. Sounds to me like it was a pet…And I’m not sure I want just the leg. Sounds a bit…boney.


Fortunately, we had come upon the baking and desserts and they looked amazing


Say no more …


Zoe’s favourite. Make my teeth ache to look at them.

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These were both outstanding and I think the caramel ripple marshmallow would be fabulous in S’more. Unfortunately I will never know if this is true or not as I have eaten it already.

As we came out of the tent our bags were full and our wallets empty. And as if on cue, there was a group of Welsh Singers doing their thing. Perfect!


We made one more stop at the fudge shop…

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We had planned to take a trip to the so-called ‘Black and White villages (or, as my mother calls them, the Dark Villages) but I ended up getting spectacularly lost on some remote country back-roads and as my navigator (Jacob) didn’t seem to have a clue, I decided to head home and go for a walk instead.

As in most of England, there are posted walks all through the country-side and this is the case near our house as well. This time, we walked back to town, and then under the bridge and back across the other side of the river to the meadow that we can see across the river from our house.


On the way I found The Secret Garden…enchanting.


Our house from the other side of the river, which is quite high right now due to so much rain.


The kids involved in a bit of mole-hill vandalism.

And home for the night.

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Thanks for reading-