Towns / Cities Visited: 103
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 10,220
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,896,981
Today would take us into the heart of Wales, but along the way we would be visiting a few sights around the outskirts of Cardiff. With our things packed back into the car, we headed out to the first pair of historic locations. Parking the car on the side of an out of the way country road, we passed through the marked gate into a paddock towards our destination. No matter how many times we step into farmland on our walks it still feels like trespassing, despite the country’s freedom to roam laws which allows members of the public to pass through privately owned land to reach important or significant areas. After a short walk down the well trodden track, along the edge of the field, we passed through a second gate and found ourselves at the Tinkinswood Burial Chamber. This rather unassuming jumble of large rocks is actually a megalithic burial chamber built during the Neolithic period some 6000 years ago. Originally it would have been enclosed completely with rock, having only a small stone covered entrance hole in which to enter the dark and death filled chamber, and the entire structure would have been covered in soil and grass. Given its age, it can be forgiven for looking a little run down, and part of its massive 40 ton capstone being held up by a small brick pillar. The stone is so big that it is believed it would have taken around 200 people just to lift it into position.
When the chamber was excavated in 1914, 940 human bones were discovered within its small space. Forensic research found that there was a mix off all ages and genders buried here, meaning that, unlike a lot of old burial sites which were used solely for important figures, this chamber was likely used by the entire surrounding village at the time. As with many ancient sites, this and the other burial chamber we would soon visit, come with a good sprinkling of ancient myths. For example, it is said that if you spend the night here on the evening of May Day, St. Johns Day, or Midwinter Day you are bound to either die, go mad, or become a poet. A rather vast difference between the three options, but I guess you could take your chances. Despite my skepticism regarding the supernatural powers of the location, I will admit there is a feeling of ancient mystery which hangs in the secluded air surrounding the remains of such a prehistoric burial place.
From here we made the twenty minute trek to the other burial chamber nearby; St. Lythans. Although this chamber is much more prominent in its much taller dimensions, it too was built some 6000 years ago. As we passed into the paddock, we found ourselves in the company of a small tour group, and a handful of lazily grazing cows. Despite the fact that the mound of earth which would have once covered it has since eroded away, somehow this ancient balance of stones has managed to survive the rigours of time. With that being said, it seems almost impossible, the way that the capstone hangs precariously on a slant atop the three megaliths propping it up. Yet again on this trip, we left with a great respect for the engineering ingenuity of our ancient ancestors and the longevity of their creations.
With the prehistoric sightseeing out of the way, we made the journey to an attraction constructed a little closer to the present day; Castell Coch. This 19th century castle sits atop the site of a former Norman castle from the 11th century. A stone fortification was built here in the 13th century, but was destroyed during the Welsh rebellion of the 14th century. Eventually, in the 18th century the ruined castle was acquired by the 3rd Earl of Bute, and later inherited by the 3rd Marquess of Bute; the same man who owned Cardiff Castle. The Marquess spent a large sum having the castle rebuilt and decorated as a summer dwelling in a gothic revival style with a medieval interior, much like Cardiff Castle, and by the same architect; William Burges.
Despite the fact that much of the exterior is clad with scaffolding due to conservation works, the castle still casts a rather imposing silhouette in its somewhat hidden location in the forest, and resembles a much older style of fortress, despite its somewhat recent construction. Stepping through the wooden gate, we purchased tickets, grabbed our audio guides and began our tour of the sight. The castle is made up of a shell keep style inner courtyard, surrounded by three large round towers.
The tour takes you around the interior of the towers, and as you pass through, it is easy to spot the similarity in design to the castle in the city; with the same bright colour palette and the use of hand painted wall decorations, as well an many murals and painted statues in the medieval art style. The banquetting hall is a great example of this with its statue of St. Lucius and its mural on the far wall depicting scenes from the saints life.
Another fascinating example of the medieval art is the drawing room; an octagonal room with its walls painted entirely in fantastical images of animals playing out Aesop’s fables. Aesop, for those of you who do not know, was an ancient Greek slave and storyteller from around 600BC who told a series of tales of interactions between animals, designed to simplify and depict social, political, and moral problems in human life in an easily understood medium for the masses. Take the story of the Fox and the Stork for example; the story tells of a fox which invites a stork for dinner, and serves him soup in a bowl, which is easy for the fox to lap up but the stork can not eat it with its long beak. The stork latter invites the fox for dinner and serves him soup in a narrow necked vessel, which is easy for the stork to eat but impossible for the fox. The moral of the story being that if you trick someone you should expect to be tricked in return, and that you should act toward others as you would want them to act toward you. Above the fireplace there are also three more painted statues, this time depicting the Three Fates; a depiction of the three Greek goddesses attributed to life. The first is Clotho, who spins the thread of life, Lachesis who measures and dispenses it, and Atropos who cuts it, thus ending life. Despite the rooms rather beautiful and playful looking interior, it is, in fact, an in depth look into the finer details of life and how to live it.
The other hugely impressive room is Lady Bute’s bedroom, which is richly decorated in a love theme, with paintings of monkeys, pomegranates, and grapevines on the ceiling, an nesting birds atop the pillars. Apparently Lord Bute thought the monkeys to be too overtly sexual when he first saw the completed room and asked to have them changed, although by today’s standards I’m sure they probably appeared much more conservative than what you’re imagining. Aside from the central bed, the other most striking feature is the washbasin with its dragon tap, and hot and cold water cisterns in the shape of medieval towers.
The other bedrooms and the kitchen are equally as medieval styled as the rest, and there is even a display at the top of one of the towers showing some of the stained glass windows which used to adorn a small wooden chapel which was once pitched on the corbels still visible on the outside of the tower, but was removed as it was thought to be a dangerous design and at risk of collapse. Despite the fact that this castle was not around in medieval times, the Marquess still had a few features added to give the feel of authenticity, including a winch room to lift and lower the gate, and a murder hole which used to be used in medieval times to pour boiling fat on attackers.
With the castle visited, and our stomachs rumbling, we stopped in at the on-site café for a spot of tea, accompanied by a slice of rather delicious chocolate cake, some buttery shortbread, and a couple of Welsh cakes. From here, we piled back into the car and made our way to the town outside of which we would be staying; Hay on Wye. This quaint little town might not have much, but it does have one thing; a high density of book shops. Walking down the streets here is a bibliophile’s dream, and it made our hearts sing. Ducking inside an antique map shop, we took a long moment to flick through the last few hundred years worth of maps; back to a time when our home wasn’t even charted. It was surreal to see how borders and countries have changes in Europe even in the last century alone. From here, we popped next door into a truly massive second hand book store and lost ourselves in its pages for a good half an hour or so. With the air thick with biblichor and a fair few rare and first edition books on display, part of me didn’t want to leave, but instead wanted to hide in a corner and just read.
By the time we reached our accommodation, fixed ourselves some dinner, and made ourselves comfortable, my mind was once more within the billions of pages which filled the shelves of that book store. There is something indescribably magical about books and the art of writing. The fact that a series of arbitrary squiggles on a page has the power to transport us to distant lands; or teach us new skills; or change our entire mindset on the world, and all who dwell within it; is something otherworldly. Some find power in money, or in materialistic objects, but there is no truer power than knowledge, and no more powerful people than those who dare to ask why, even when the world answers decidedly, ‘Because that’s just the way it is’.
The fate of the world has always rested in the hands of those who wielded the greatest knowledge; it is the very reason learning was withheld from the masses, women, and minorities, for the majority of human history. Its the reason they don’t teach us the finer points of the political system in school; it benefits leaders if the people remain ignorant. With fewer and fewer people choosing to pick up books as a source of entertainment in this world of screens and instant gratification, we seem destined to have a generation of people for whom the majority of their education will cease at the moment they put the pen down in their final exam. Their only teachings will come in the form of bias media productions and the personal opinions of others. Without books our minds wither; our imagination which would build worlds in our heads from the words on the pages lays dormant, while those worlds are built on screens for us from the visions of others. This fact is one which leads the book worms amongst us to so fervently adore the books over the cinematic representations of their beloved tales; for in books we get to create the perfect world as we see it.
As my partner and I near the completion of the first novel of our fantasy pentalogy, I often think of how much this book means to us. We have written our very being into its pages, its words hold the essence of who we are, and who we hope to be. In writing it, we have discovered the immutable power of the creation of literature as a human endeavour. In the pages of a book we can be whoever we want to be; in the pages of a book we can be better than we are; in the pages of a book we are immortal.