It's warm today but not sunny, the kind of high overcast day with the sun breaking through every now and then. We drive north through the Welsh Valleys of Brecon Beacons National Park. There are still slag heaps that look like mountains. That's the result of the coal mines. David remembers when he was a boy hearing about a bad accident in 1966 when a slag heap slid and crushed part of a town and killed many children in a school. There are still places where the small crowded rows and terraces of houses built by the mining companies for their employees still stand. Mining is a dying industry and there are only two mines still open in Wales.
We have a short break in Brecon. The scenery is getting prettier now as we leave the slag heaps for the area along English border called the Marches. We are heading for a lunch break in the market town of Ludlow. The castle in Ludlow used to be the household of the Prince of Wales. Oh, not now, but Henry VIII housed his son, Edward VI there, for one. Ludlow is full of half timbered Tudor style buildings including an old hotel called the Feathers where Cromwell was said to have stayed during the Civil War. I bought some rolls and cheese at a bakery and wandered the open air market before sitting at a bench in a park by the castle to eat. Bought some stamps as well for my postcards.
Heading in to North Wales and the scenery is getting more dramatic. The mountainsides are cut into by the slate mining but the valleys are vast and long and the sun has come out from behind the clouds. One of the "optional" outings that I had purchased was an afternoon cream tea in Ruthin Castle which is now an hotel. Not really worth the money but you don't always know until you do it. There is a little dining room where we all sat at large tables and had tea and scones. Time for a wander around the grounds which are impeccably kept. There I saw peacocks for the first time, the plain brown female and the gloriously coloured male in all his splendor. The bus nearly got stuck coming back through the town of Ruthin where one street was particularly narrow and a truck partially blocked the way. The wooden signs on the sidewalks had to be taken inside the shops and our driver, wheels on the pavements, came within inches of the buildings on either side of the bus!
We drove back to the hotel through the Horseshoe Pass which had spectacular views. Our hotel is the Wild Pheasant and is situated at the bottom of a hill about a half hour's walk outside of Llangollen proper in a very pretty setting. The hotel was comfortable and the food again was excellent. We arrived back after tea in the late afternoon so some of us got a lift into the village as the bus driver was going that way to fuel up. We had a look in a shop that sold needlecrafts and cross stitch patterns and I bought some nice Celtic designed jewelry. We walked back to the hotel along a path that runs along the Dee river, a wonderful photo spot with a church along the banks of the river and the stone bridge in town showing in the distance. We could see the old narrow gauge steam train in the station as well. That train, I hear, can be taken into Snowdonia National Park.
Our first stop on Day four is Chester, a short drive from Llangollen. It was originally a Roman base and through the years occupied by many, including the Saxons and Normans. Lots of half timbered houses in the historic center although many of them are Victorian recreations. You can tell the difference because the medieval version is plain with doorways and ceilings that don't measure even 6 feet high. The Victorians carved the half timbers and decorated the outside of the building more and the doorways are higher because they were taller by that time. Many of the "Rows" have Roman ruins in the basements but now the buildings are all shops and covered arcades. Also, the street plan inside the city walls is still exactly the way the Romans laid it out!
Chester is a very touristy city and is also a popular horse racing center. There is a Victorian clock, called the Grosvenor's Clock which is the second most photographed clock in Britain. (Big Ben, did you guess?) We had a quick walking tour along the walls of the city and through the historic cathedral and were allowed several hours for lunch. I wandered in and out of the shops and the cathedral, had a pint at a pub and a bowl of soup at a crowded cafe near the Cathedral square. This is Saturday and race day although it didn't get very crowded on the streets until after 11:30 or so and then it seemed like all of a sudden it was *too* crowded.
Driving out of Chester the landscape flattened out. We could see the spires of Liverpool in the distance and we passed an old viaduct but it was a fairly monotonous drive until we arrived in the Lake District. This part of England, in the north west, is a series of very craggy mountains, etched out by glaciers with cold clear lakes in the valleys. We stopped in picturesque Grasmere where the poet Wordsworth once lived. The buildings are now mostly made of stone and slate instead of mortar and timber! There was a 300 year old cottage that used to be a schoolhouse but now houses a bakery where the specialty is gingerbread. Talk about a cottage industry! The gingerbread has been made in this building for about 140 years, in fact!
The scenery again flattened out as we neared the Scottish border to rolling hills and power poles. The weather is getting more overcast and dark and I think we may get some rain. We were warned that the hotel in downtown Carlisle isn't as nice as the one in Wales. Well, it was ok, the County Hotel, and older building but clean inside. The neighbourhood looked a little scruffy with a number of shops closed and boarded up and there wasn't a lot open that evening other than a pub a couple of doors down. Three or four of us popped in but the clientele didn't look particularly tourist-friendly so we returned to the hotel. As usual, the meal was good and a large group of us sat in a circle well into the evening and talked or paired off to play pool in the lounge.
The buildings now are made predominantly out of sandstone which absorbs the smoke from years of coal burning fireplaces, making the buildings look quite black in some cities. Some more impressions. The hotels have been clean, the food at the hotel dining rooms all been quite good. It's become a challenge and a running joke among us to figure out how the shower works in each hotel as every single one has functioned differently.
One thing I have noticed is that there are flowers everywhere! Even if a house only has a few feet between the front doorstep and the pavement, or road, there is a flowerpot there and another one hanging from a window sill. There are gardens and flower pots hanging from lamp posts and buildings, businesses and residences. One of the stereotypes of England is that it's a nation of gardeners and I can see why! It's so pretty.
In Scotland, David tells us there is a woolen mill at every coffee shop and a coffee shop attached to every woolen mill! There will be plenty of chances to buy woolen goods, tartans and things so not to buy the first thing we see. I know he must get a percentage of our sales if he takes us to a particular place but he also tells us if there are cheaper places or nicer goods elsewhere. He's a great guide, very informative and cheerful. He set the tone the first day when he introduced himself as Irish, and told us the Irish are well known to regard rules as meant to be bent, broken and twisted! He's traveled to many places but focuses on the UK now.