Sunday, 25 December 2011


The longest night of the year merged into a muggy dawn, which I ignored as I was concentrating on the picture I was painting. Come 9 o'clock, I finally got up and opened the curtains, and found a big sky full of blue. 

We just had to go out into it.

Not too long later we were rumbling across the Severn Bridge, admiring the milky sunlight on Avonmouth, glinting on the wind turbine blades. "Open the Cherry Coke, please", I asked Katie as I munched my way through the bag of special offer Christmas pretzels. We'd stocked up on fuel at the Shirehampton filling station.

She put down her strawberry flavoured Wonder Winder for long enough to pass the Cherry Coke. I gulped briefly and handed it back. "Thank you. Just think of all the adventures we've had that started off with us driving over the Severn Bridge and drinking Coke and eating crap," I said. "Remember canoeing round the coast in Pembrokeshire?"

"And me saying 'I'm tired' and lying down in the bottom of the canoe."

"And falling asleep instantly. Dead impressive, that. I was paddling for ages against that tide and getting nowhere. Those were the days, when we did stupid dangerous things together."

"And I was too young to know any better."

"Too young to know that you could say no..."

These days, expeditions are by negotiation. Today Katie's here by her concession, and we use our  history as a tentative shared language, a touchstone.

"That's a rain cloud," she observed. "Sunny in Bristol, look - head to Wales and it starts raining."

"There's a patch of sun over there on Twynbarlwm," I said. "If you don't like the weather, something different will be along in a minute. Purse is in the bag; sort out the toll money, would you?"

I threw the £5.70 in loose change into the hopper on the toll booth. Coins chinged down into the rejected coins bowl. I pulled them out, threw them back in. The barrier lifted, as more coins spat out into the change bowl. "Come on come on come on," Katie said anxiously as I grabbed the change and passed it across. We accelerated sedately away from the toll booths as cars  and lorries hurtled at us from both sides. Scary places, motorway tolls with everyone pretending it's a Le Mans start at the other side. "Whoo, one pound forty. That's good."

"It's an omen."

We passed the waypoints of our westbound journey- the stalinist fortress of the Celtic Manor, the eagerly-looked-out-for Castell Coch- and arrived at St Fagans, the open air museum on the western fringe of Cardiff.

I'd not seen the celtic huts before. We entered the smoky one and crouched near the fire. The woman looking after it was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic. "My flatmates complain I come in stinking of smoke," she said. "It's not so bad if you get down close to the floor; the smoke rises."

They'd had a solstice feast, a few days back. She described the preparations; a chicken, rarely eaten as valued more for the eggs, but killed for the ceremony; spelt flour for the bread, ground twice in the quern because it's so hard. "The stone gets ground into the flour, so their teeth wore away quite quickly."

We wander around buildings that have been familiar to me for over forty years, and see the dark interiors, smell the woodsmoke and polish, miss the tang of the animals in the Rhayader longhouse.
"I like the idea of sharing the house with the cattle; it must have smelt really nice", I say. "If you like the smell of cattle..."

"They'd be kept in over the winter," said the guide. "They'd keep the hay up there in the loft, and milk them. They'd give milk through the winter, then."

We warmed ourselves at the fire. "People say it must be nice just sitting in here all day," he added. "I say, you try sitting here next to an open window..." 

I remembered the first winter I came here with my parents, in the 1960s. It was snowy, and we sat in a settle in a big fireplace and warmed ourselves and talked with the guide. It was a glorious memory, and one I hold on to. Now my past is mixed up with the history.

We went into a recent addition, a small schoolhouse. "It looks very much like my school at Llanfrechfa," I told Katie. She looked pained; I'd already commented on the familiarity of the Workmen's Institute and the ironworkers' cottages. I admired the school room's big coke stove, and recalled the milk bottles ranged round it to thaw out, to the woman sat at the teacher's desk. "Lots of people remember that," she said kindly, pausing from her knitting.


  1. A grand day out!

    In St Ffagans they are keeping the memories of things ordinary, which is important.
    They also do two hour shifts in most of the houses! They need more workers, not just interpreters, using skills not just showing them. More interesting for the visitors, invaluable for society.

  2. There was a time when I got fed up with St Fagans. It didn't last long.

    Last December we were there in the snow - completely magical. The houses are so much more "realistic" in the cold when the staff have to huddle round the fire and you huddle with them, chatting about the past.

    I remember a St David's Day lecture on the composer Joseph Parry and his opera "Blodwen". Given in Welsh, of course. The only bits in English were from Parry's diary as he didn't speak Welsh. It didn't matter in the slightest, hardly understanding a word of it.

  3. The celtic settlement people seem very much in line with that, Gwynneth- actively doing stuff and enthusiastic. The first guide we encountered sat hugely and immobile in the dark parlour of a cottage, so that he seemed on display himself. If I had a job like that, I'd certainly want to be *doing*.

    I find listening to Welsh tantalising, Chris; I'd very much like to be able to join in. Maybe I really ought to get learning. Funny to think that it's now taught in all the schools in the part I used to live in...

    Hi Suzzy!

  4. Nice to see Katie knitted back into your blog.

    That drink will give you authentic rotten teeth to help you get a job as a guide...

  5. A job with my name on it... old crone in the hearth. Must work on the cackle. Cackle cackle....