Mistress Agnes goes Wild in Wales – of Castles and other History Bits

Well, our date with the photographer has come and gone. He wanted to photograph some Clovelly documents in my kitchen. Oh dear, if my kitchen is to be a ‘set’ I really ought to do the spring cleaning; that would be the spring cleaning for 2007. I enlist Chris’ help. One of his tasks was to polish up the outside of the hob kettle. Said kettle had already had a couple of unscheduled encounters with the quarry tiled floor to its detriment but it could at least be clean. Chris does such a good job that he polishes a hole in the kettle and it now leaks. Just hope the photographer doesn’t want a cup of tea. See the result here.

 Now we are heading Wales-ward in anticipation of the Guild of One Name Studies conference at the weekend. I seem to have picked up a cold, probably from one of the young people I have encountered in the C17th. I am sure Mistress Agnes would be getting out the hyssop but I am sticking to proprietary brands in the vain hope of appearing healthy. Across the Severn Bridge where we are told that the speed limit through the toll gate is 30 mph. Could be interesting if vehicles are passing through at 30 mph, hurling their tolls at the staff as they go. Newport, the sign tells us, was the host town of the 2010 Ryder Cup. Is this really the best it can do as a claim to fame?

We arrive at our caravan site. It is on the grounds of what purports to be an hotel. It doesn’t looks as if anyone has stayed there lately but we are told we can use the facilities in the evenings. Not this evening though, nor tomorrow when there’s a funeral, nor it turns out Friday either as it is still sporting a ‘closed today’ sign then. Not feeling fit to go out, or indeed do anything much, we stay in the caravan for the afternoon. Watching tea time TV, I am ridiculously excited to have come up with ‘gavilkind’ as a pointless answer to ‘words ending in ……ind’. There are advantages to being a history person.

The next day we meet Martha and Rob at St. Fagan’s National History Museum. This is a brilliant place to go but verges on being an out door activity and it is snowing. Quick calendar check – yes it’s April. The museum is fascinating, with reconstructions of many Welsh buildings, furnished to reflect different historical periods. The only slight disappointment was the absence of the advertised crafts persons at work and of course we would have preferred to see the staff in appropriate period costume. The leaflet advises that a visit takes two hours and we spend six without even trying. If it had been warmer we would have stayed longer still. There is a traditional red farmhouse, a slightly different hue from the pink Essex houses. The red ‘whitewash’ and the accompanying rowan tree were seen as protection from witchcraft. I am more familiar with keeping witches at bay with bay trees. ‘Keeping witches at rowan’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. We keep losing Chris but soon work out that he is usually to be found chatting by one of the many open fires in the cottages.

Some of the buildings have thatch that can be viewed from the inside. We take note in preparation for our forthcoming Neolithic house building experience. We see a round, stone pig sty – apparently pigs like to burrow in corners and the lack of corners in this structure solves the problem. There is even a gorse mill, designed to mill gorse – obvious really. The milled gorse was used for animal feed. The effort required to process the gorse was considered worthwhile because gorse is an all year round crop. The church has impressive wall paintings and an enormous parish chest.

Here we are on the site of the Battle of St. Fagans. I am sure I should have heard of this. It is billed as the most important Welsh battle of the Civil War – maybe they didn’t have many. Fought on the 8th May 1648, this counts as part of the 2nd Civil War. It was another defeat for the Royalists.

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We set off to find a food outlet that can cater for Martha’s dietary needs. She’s done some internet research and we negotiate a narrow alleyway to park behind Cayo. In we go and ask for the allergy menu. It seems they don’t have an allergy menu. ‘There’s one on the website’ we say. No, it seems their website caters for allergies but not the actual venue – helpful. There is a notice on the door offering special deals if we order before 5.00pm. It is before 5.00pm. So we can take advantage of this, Martha agrees to have a jacket potato. Ah, they don’t serve food before 5.00pm. We cut our losses and head for venue two. This time the single staff member looks less blank when we mention an allergy menu. He hunts high and low, rummaging through cupboards. He disappears and his queue grows ever longer. Martha gives up and checks the allergy menu on her phone. He does eventually return having printed off pages of allergy menu from the website. This menu seems to disagree with what Martha can see via her phone! This venue does have free wi-fi so we find something that is gluten free on both versions of the menu and order. I attempt to link to the wi-fi only to find that there is no internet access. When Martha’s cheese and bacon jacket potato turns out to be tuna we start to think we must be at Fawlty Towers. The waitress does do a quick potato swap and our day draws to a close.

On the way back to the site we divert for some diesel and to try to purchase some lip balm. Of course I have masses of lip balm at home but neglected to bring any and in a cold wind with a streaming cold some would be handy. We put some in our basket with the rest of our shopping. Chris is quite indignant to be asked to pay 5p for a carrier bag. When we get to the van I am anxious to apply lip balm and rummage through the hot cross buns and bird seed (yes bird seed – keep reading over the next few days and all will be revealed) – no lip balm. We check our receipt and it turns out we never took it out if the basket.

Day 2 in Wales. There is some sunshine but a biting cold wind sees us dressed in hats, gloves, scarves and thermals. We set off for Caerphilly Castle. Dilemma, do we follow the sat nav or the green CADW symbol? We decide to go with the sat nav and end up on what is described as a mountain. Strange that a castle is not sited on a hill top. We find a car park. We are on time – no sign of Martha. Martha, being Martha will have arrived half an hour ago so we ring her and find she is in another car park. We change car parks and struggle through the wind. To the largest castle in Wales. It is certainly very imposing, with a scary looking wall that leans out at 10 degrees – a greater angle than the leaning tower of Pisa. The castle was originally built by Gilbert de Clare, also known as Gilbert the Red, Marcher Lord of Glamorgan, who was also responsible for nearby Castle Coch (or the Red Castle). Although earlier than other concentric castles, it does follow this pattern and amazingly the bulk of it was built in just three years 1268-1271. It formed part of a defence against Llywelyn ap Gruffudd.

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Gilbert’s daughter Eleanor was married to Hugh Despenser the younger, favourite of Edward II and the Castle passed to them. The Castle had fallen into decay by the sixteenth century, when its stone was used for building projects elsewhere. This is an extensive castle with interesting features such as the ‘in the round’ AV display of events on the castle’s history – requiring 5 projectors and a projected portcullis that goes up and down. I did somehow feel that some opportunities were being missed however. There were some replica siege weapons and the inevitable spiral staircases, mostly going the correct was, giving defenders free use of their sword arms. Spiral staircases, as I have learnt to my cost, are not best accompanied by varifocals. Thus I struggle up and down these. The restoration of the castle took place in 1929, when Lord Bute commissioned repairs to give work to miners, unemployed due to the Great Depression. Now off to the conference – more news from there when I can get an internet connection.

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One comment on “Mistress Agnes goes Wild in Wales – of Castles and other History Bits

  1. Caro - Claire Wiles says:

    HI Janet
    You are a terrific writer and I feel as if I am traveling right along with you.
    Thanks for sharing your adventures

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