June 20 2010

Postcards from Anglesey

I absolutely loved my time on the Welsh island of Anglesey.  It’s rather remote, though certainly not hard to get to if you are in the area [I have yet to meet another person who has been to this part of Wales who isn’t from the UK].  It’s also breathtakingly beautiful in a rugged, historical sort of way.  This part of Wales, North Wales to be exact, was known as Mam Cymru (‘Mother of Wales’) during the middle ages because its fertile fields formed the breadbasket for the north of Wales.

The name Anglesey is thought to have come from a Viking place name. Anglesey is probably derived from “Ongl’s ey”, Ongl’s island. Who Ongl was, I have no idea.

Today it has several thriving towns.  The historic town of Beaumaris is the site of one of the castles built by Edward I after his defeat of the Welsh princes.

The town of Holyhead serves as a ferry port for travel across the Irish Sea to Dublin and Llangefni, in the center of the island, is the county town.

 

Anglesey also has the village with the longest place name in Britain:  Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch .  The name, when translated into English, means “The church of St. Mary in a hollow of white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and near St. Tysilio’s church by the red cave”. The name was actually coined in the nineteenth century to attract tourists to the Island. It is abbreviated to Llanfairpwll or Llanfair P.G. by the locals.

I did make it to the town with the world’s longest name whilst wandering about Wales. Thankfully they just call it Llanfair. This one tells you what it means…
This one tell you how to pronounce it… Not that it helps too much.

Anglesey also has a few windmills which reminds me a little Holland than the United Kingdom.  At one time there were 50 or so windmills just on the island; sadly only a few still remain on the island.

Llanddeusant-llynon windmill, Anglesey, Wales

My favorite is the rugged coast of the Irish Sea…

The White Arch and the Irish Sea

 

Baby seal

 

June 13 2010

Wandering about Holyhead

Ahhhh, Holyhead… One of those places where you truly feel like you are at the edge of the world.

Holyhead, located on the Island of Anglesey and Irish Sea, is the jumping off point for Ireland and for nearly 4000 years people have been making the journey from the Welsh outpost to Ireland and vice-versa.  The town is the largest town on the Isle of Anglesey with a population of around 11,000.  It’s a mere hour from Bewts-y-Coed that I featured previously in my post about Snowdonia.  Holyhead is a cute little town located on the Irish sea.  It has been continuously occupied for over 1000 years.  The town center is built around St. Cybi’s Church, which is built inside one of Europe’s few three-walled Roman forts (the fourth wall being the sea, which used to come up to the fort).  There are only three remaining three walled cities in all of Europe.

The church of St. Cybi was sacked by the Vikings in the 10th century, damaged by Henry IV’s army in the 15th century in an assault on the holdings of a Welsh prince and much of the interior destroyed by Cromwell’s army in the 17th century. Despite this, most of the church remain intact.

If you’ve ever been to or seen the Cliff of Moher in Ireland, then you might have an idea of what Holyhead Mountain is.  It is not, as I originally thought, a mountain with subtle gains of elevation.  It is, however, a giant rock formation surround by water.

 

If rock climbing is your groove, this is the place for you.  We all know that that would be an excellent way for me to injure myself, but I do think it’s an awesome sport.

 

On the island where the lighthouse is located… you can see a few of the 400 steps that lead to it
The beautiful and wild Irish Sea at the edge of the world… 
Rocks delicately balancing on each other in the shape of a person… I cannot claim this; it was already there when I made my way down to the oh-so rocky beach.
June 6 2010

All aboard for Aberystwyth

Do you ever feel like you need to get away from it all?  As an introvert, cities easily overwhelm me and while I am a fan of London, think Cardiff is cool, and loved Liverpool, Aberystwyth was like a breath of fresh air.  Just over an hour’s train ride from Swansea, Aber [as the  locals call it; Aberystwyth is just too hard to pronouce]  is a haven for Welsh speakers [of which I am not], mountain bikers [I did my fair share of mountain biking although no mountains were actually biked], and trail walkers [trails were most definitely walked]. Much of the beauty of Aberystwyth lies in its isolation.  Swansea is 70 miles away; Shrewsbury is 75 miles away.  Cardiff is over 100 miles away and London is more than 200 miles away.

So what is there to do in this historic outpost in middle Wales, you may ask?  Allow me to show you…

Aber has a pretty nifty castle.  I think I could see a hundred castles, and still be amazed by the architecture and craftsmanship that went into building said castle.

The stone work is simply amazing
A castle with an ocean view? Yes, please. I am going to pretend that this in my ancestral home as I am am about a quarter Welsh.
Also I love the blue-gray color of the stone used here

Aberystwyth is located on the Atlantic Ocean in the Ceredigion region of Wales, and has an approximate population of 15,000 people.

The same Atlantic Ocean I see back home
 There is something about a small city on the ocean with mountains in the background that will always make  me happy.

Perhaps you are a train nerd, or just want to imagine you are on your way to Hogwarts.  Aberystwyth has something for you as well. [Fun fact:  I actually, at one time, had a hardback, UK printed, first edition copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone because I went to a book store to pick up something to read between Stafford and Edinburgh.  Oh how I wish I had that book now].  It’s a steam engine train that runs from Aber to Devils Bridge, a distance of 12 miles on a narrow gauge track [see, train nerds?].

More into hiking or biking than trains?  That is quite OK, me too, Aber has you covered on that front too.  Just past the borders of the town lie the Cambrian  Mountains, and probably hundreds of different hiking trails, biking paths, sheep roads? that you could take to truly make the hike [bike?] trek your own.  Also, not coincidentally I think, cardigans got there start nearby.

Hiking through the Cambrian Mountains
The Cambrians in all their glory
Think of the sweaters that could come from these guys
Other than cats, this is problaby my favorite animal…. He just looks so sweet and cuddly [I know that he’s not, and those horns aren’t just decoration,  but look at him… I want to take him home with me]

 

May 23 2010

Stopping by Swansea

After starting in the North, and making my way down south via Anglesey and Pembrokeshire, I have arrived in Swansea. Swansea’s, in south Wales,  first settlement was a Norman castle in 1099 during the reign of William the Conqueror. The city developed as a major port for the south Wales coal mines from 1700. Today, it is the 2nd largest city in Wales behind Cardiff. It is located on the beautiful Gower Peninsula – the United Kingdom’s first designated “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”.

 

part of the Gower peninsula
Gower Peninsula

 

With its abundance of high quality coal, Swansea became the copper smelting capital of the world, producing nearly 65% of the worlds copper. When deposits dwindled, the raw copper was then imported from as far afield as Chile. With the number of sailors that had endured the journey around South America, they soon became known as the “Horners” [from having to travel around Cape Horn in Patagonia] and a pub near the docks is still called “The Cape Horner”.

The area known as the Mumbles

Swansea also claims the first ever passenger railway, the old Mumbles railway which skirted its way around Swansea bay, but sadly, this was dismantled in the 1960’s.  However, Mumbles is still quite the destination as it has more than 100 restaurants and shops on the west side of Swansea Bay, and if the timing is right, the Mumbles Oyster Festival is one of the only ones in the United Kingdom.  If oysters are your things, prepare to suck them down.

Brandy Cove

Swansea is also the home of writer Dylan Thomas and there are a few monuments to him.

Dylan Thoma’s writing shed

Although I didn’t spend a lot of time in the city, Swansea was interesting enough to pass a couple of days in on my way to Cardiff.

May 16 2010

Passing through Pembrokeshire

After tackling Wales’ highest [and in my opinion, scariest] peak, I was looking for a little ummm, less challenging hike that would still allow me to experience the best that Wales has to offer.  Enter Pembrokeshire.

A lot of the charm of Pembrokeshire lies in its remoteness.  It seems as if it is a different world.  On the edge of the Earth.  Rocky coasts.  Charming little towns.  The craggy coastal towns on the Atlantic Ocean. Castles. Sleepy little towns.

Some of the best walks on the Wales Coast Path runs through Pembrokeshire.  When complete, the Wales Coast Path aims to link all 870 miles of the Welsh coast by foot path.   I’m not necessarily one who would sign up to complete it, but I like the idea of long distance hiking, especially in an area as beautiful as Wales.

If I had to choose one are of Wales to visit over and over again it would be Pembrokeshire. Cardiff is nice for industry and Snowdonia is mountainous and windy, but Pembrokeshire gets my vote. It is wild. And beautiful. And sparsely populated. And of all the places I’ve ever visited, this land speaks to me more, and I could one day, you know, immigration laws notwithstanding, call it home. I’d even commit to learning as of now the unpronounceable Welsh language.

May 9 2010

Flashback Friday | Anglesey Sea Zoo

The Anglesey Sea Zoo is one of the coolest aquariums I have ever been to.  And the fact that it is called a sea zoo instead of an aquarium just makes it that much cooler.  Let’s just go with awesome.  It’s awesome.

There is a very striking stained glass window in the entrance.

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As you walk in, there are open ponds which contain fish and mollusks.  These first pond contain all fish and such from cold seas like these wolf eels.

asz-7

Wolf eels are not, how shall we say it nicely, cute.  They are quite hideous; only their mothers love them.  Mama wolf eels and their future mates.  We humans could learn a lot from wolf eels. Wolf eels mate for life, and the pair takes special care of its eggs as they develop. Beginning around age seven, the female lays up to 10,000 eggs at a time, then coils around them and uses her body to shape the eggs into a neat sphere roughly the size of a grapefruit.When she’s settled, the male coils around her as an added layer of protection. The female continues massaging the eggs periodically as they develop, helping to circulate water around the eggs to keep them supplied with oxygen. Eggs take about four months to hatch.

Males and Females. Together  for life. Working together to ensure a successful outcome for their children.  All 10,000 of them.  Good thing they don’t have to send the kids to college.

And these well camouflaged flounders merging with the bottom of the tank.

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These flounders are masters of disguise, able to blend into a variety of backgrounds. Their skin can imitate the different colors and textures found on the seafloor. They can look like sand one minute, and a rocky bottom the next.  The can change colors in 2-8 seconds.  The color of the little fishy can also indicated their mood; threatened little fishes are usually pale.  Just like me.  When I’m threatened all the color drains out of my face.  The flounder is an ambush predator. He lays motionless and waits for potential prey to appear and grabs it in a blink of an eye. Little shrimpies have no chance.

The next room contains tanks set into the wall where some striking sea anemones call home.

asz anenomes

And some very fine looking starfish.

asz starfish

Clownfish–made famous in the movie Finding Nemo—I found him…
Anglesey Sea Zoo

In the next room there is a dogfish

And Seahorse-ies.
asz seahorse

Anglesey Sea Zoo was the first aquarium I ever visited. Even now it is still one of the coolest aquariums I have ever seen.

May 2 2010

Scaling the highest peak in Wales

Taking on Wales’ tallest peak

My first weekend away landed me in the charming village of Betws-y-coed, North Wales, a village of about 500.  Bewts-y-Coed is located in the heart of Snowdonia. Wales may not be home to the tallest mountain peak, but it still has some challenging hiking.

It has charming waterfalls.

But really what I came to Snowdonia National Park to see was Mt. Snowdon, and it did not disappoint. You see, I like to think that I’m a bad-ass hiker chic. I have visions of hiking the Appalachian Trail or some other multi-week trek. Or climbing Aconcagua. Or Denali. In reality, I’ve rarely done much more than overnight camping and nothing more than a day hike on my on. Certainly not scaling any peaks anywhere. But back when I spent an entire summer in Great Britain, I was a 19 year old college athlete who thought I could do anything, and anything included climbing mountains without any preparation and only minimal supplies.

You see those little squiggles… that’s the hiking path… It’s none too wide, and a bit scary the higher up you get. I didn’t know that these peaks were also ski paths in the winter.

If I’d known what I was in for, I might have been content to hang around the lake all day.

Tips for Climbing Mount Snowdon

  • Entrance to the park is 100% free.  It costs to park, but some B&Bs offer shuttles to the park so if you can snag one of those, total cost is F-R-E-E.
  • Bring lots of layers! It was quite chilly on the summit and this was in June! — bring a water-resistant parka, gloves,  and a hat.  All I had with me was a light windbreaker, a long- sleeved shirt, and a baseball hat.  Clearly, I was expecting better weather from June.
  • Try to climb on a clear day. Your photos will be so much better.  I got lucky.  With minimal planning or prior knowledge of Welsh weather, I had a great day.  As I have since learned, weather at the bottom of a mountain is no prediction of weather at the top of a mountain.
  • Snacks, water, and for me ibuprofen are crucial.  I only had 1L of water, a few power bars and fruit, and zero painkillers.  I crawled up into a ball when I got back to my room, and finally, after a hot shower or two and 800mg of motrin, I could walk normally again.
  • Believe in yourself.  Before I started, I NEVER thought that I couldn’t do it.  I didn’t research it.  I just heard about it and it sounded like a cool thing to do.  Once I got started, I didn’t think I’d make it.  But I’m too stubborn to quit.

This is Wales’ tallest peak; had I known I’d be hiking a ridge, I probably would not have done it. Balance has never been my strong point.

  • Climbing Snowdon is absolutely worth it. This is one of Wales’s best adventures, and one that you’ll always remember.

Be prepared for anything when you are hiking in the Welsh mountains.  The weather can change in an instant.

The view from the highest peak in Wales–will simply take your breath.

April 25 2010

More to Nottingham than Robin Hood

This installment takes us to the home of one of the most famous thieves of all time–Robin Hood and his home of Nottingham [Forest] England.

I’m getting better at reading train tables and I am making the most of my BritRail Pass by using the trains most days of the week.  Nottingham is just over an hour from Stafford and is an easy day trip.  Nottingham is famous for ties to Robin Hood and two of the world’s oldest:   the world’s oldest football team, Notts County [the team itself is not all that good] and the world’s oldest pub–Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem .  Today, it has a population of over 250,000 and is one of the larger cities in the Midlands region.

First up:  Nottingham Castle and its even more exciting caves.  Nearly everyone has heard of Robin Hood.  Most know that he lives in Sherwood Forest and that’s near Nottingham, but I’d never heard of the caves than surround [underneath]  Nottingham Castle.  Nottingham has more man made caves than anywhere else in the world… OK, maybe not the world, but at least the UK.  As I often do, I took to the local library to read about the history of the caves.  It goes something like this:  The caves used to be dwellings – and at one time it was believed that there were more people living underground than above ground. Many of the caves were inhabited until 1845…that’s when the St. Mary’s Enclosure Act banned the rental of cellars and caves as homes for the poor.  The caves are long tunnels which were used to bring up goods from the Trent Valley, others as storage areas for meat, wine and prisoners (including without doubt Robin Hood). There are some for waste (including human waste!) and some for short cuts to the pub [point me in the direction of that one].  I took nearly 50 photos in hopes of getting a good one of just the caves.  Be prepared for steps though… lots and lots of steps.

The caves are just a little creepy, and said to be haunted

 

Part of Nottingham castle

 

A stroll through Sherwood Forest
Major Oak tree in Sherwood Forest… one of the oldest and largest oaks in the world

 

Nottingham’s most famous resident

One of the caves come out here…

One of the oldest pubs in England and the oldest inn

 

and the oldest football team in existence… [Does anyone else wonder who the oldest team played.  Wouldn’t there have to be two oldest teams for a match to occur?]

April 18 2010

Liverpool is lovely

Let me preface this with the following statement:  I am not a Beetles fan.  I am not a hater, but given the choice, I would almost always choose to listen to someone else.  I do appreciated their contributions to music though.  But here I am, in England, and not all that far from Liverpool [1.5 hours away] so it would be wrong of me to NOT visit the city that brought the world the first Rock and Roll superstars…so off to Liverpool I go to spend the day… and night and take in another awesome English football match [Liverpool FC vs Leicester City anyone?] and see if there is more to this city of >400,000 than just the Beetles.

You know what?  There is… The Albert Dock, a very cool hang-out spot for tourist and locals alike.  There is even a yellow submarine floating in the harbour which I thought was pretty cool, but odd, until I realized that the Beetles sang the Yellow Submarine song.

Let’s all sing along now…”We all live in a yellow submarine…”

Albert Dock–Welcome

Liverpool also has some amazing church architecture.  From England’s largest Anglican Cathedral to a beautiful bombed out building to a futuristic catholic church–church architecture in Liverpool is quite grand.

Anglican church exterior

Metropolitan Catholic Church [which looks like a spaceship to me]

the inside of Metropolitan Catholic Church

St. Luke’s Church… bombed out during WWII

Continuing on my Liverpool walkabout, I discover the Cavern.  Since I am not a Beetles fan, I did not know that this was the club that the Beetles first performed as a group.  Several other bands have played here too, and I wish I could have seen some of them.

Little known facts about Liverpool [2 of them]:  It has the oldest Chinese community in Europe and  Liverpool not only gave us the Beetles but also Edward Elgar–without whom no high school graduation ceremony would be complete. [Pomp and Circumstance anyone?]

Liverpool’s Chinatown

The view from the cheap seats at historic Anfield–home of Liverpool FC…my second favorite team in England.

April 11 2010

Amazing Manchester

Serendipity:  the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for…  Merriam-Webster

It’s so strange how I ended up with tickets to a Manchester United game, but hey–whatever, I will take them.  I was hanging out with my new friends at the PUB when I mentioned that I would love to go to a football match if I could swing it while I was in England.  One of the guys in the pub mentioned that he had two tickets to Manchester United’s opening match against Southampton and his original companion would not be able to go as he would be in NY. Would I like to go with them?  Um yes, please.  So that is how I ended up one amazing day [and night] in Manchester.

One of the best ways to see Manchester is from the water.

Manchester’s Chinatown gates are the largest outside mainland China.

Sometimes it’s just better to go on the tour and take the photos there than trying to get a decent shot when the stadium is full of people–unless you have front row seats–which I didn’t…

I love soccer.  I played it until I was in high school.  My high school didn’t have a soccer team [boys or girls] so I stopped playing it, but I kept up with the sport and refereed it while I was in college.  I wasn’t a Man U fan before the match, but after I most definitely was.  To be fair, I’m loyal like that.  I don’t live in an area with a lot of professional teams. My favorite teams are usually the first team I saw in action which is why I am a fan of  University of Tennessee [1st college football game], Miami Dolphins [first NFL game], Baltimore Orioles [first MLB], Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadians [first NHL games],  and Seattle Sounders [first MLS game].  An odd mix to be sure, but it works for me.

So on August 13, 1997, I went to my first English Premier League match.  Up to this point I was a Real Madrid fan mainly because I was a Spanish major in college, and my Spanish professor and I would watch La Liga matches and converse in Spanish [weird I know…]…  Anyway,  Manchester United vs Southampton.  A young whippersnapper by the name of David Beckham came in as a substitute in the second half of the match, and netting the only goal giving Man U a 1-0 win.  I became a Red Devils fan for life [it didn’t hurt that my high school mascot was also the Red Devils].  Manchester United went on finish the 1997-98 season as runners-up to Arsenal.

As I side note:  Nearly 20 years later, I am still a Man U fan, still go for Liverpool as well, but they have not been great lately, and have added Arsenal to the mix of my favorite English Premier League teams.  Something I am sure no true English football fan would say.