Camping in the British Summer – not all is ‘tickety-boo’

It had been many years since my last camping trip. It involved hours of trying to set up a tent, many tangled tent poles, food out of tins, lots of mosquitoes, campsite fires, lots of laughter and a whole in the ground as a toilet (it was in France). It wasn’t altogether terrible but something I’ve been less inclined to do the older I get.
But when two friends from Germany approached me and said they would do a tour around “my island”, intending to stay in Wales for a while and if I’d liked to join them for a weekend, I jumped at the opportunity. Because this would be “first class camping” – they own a motorhome.

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Myn-Y-Don Caravan Park

So one Friday after work they picked me up and we made our way to a beautiful caravan park right underneath Harlech Castle (And the poshest one I’ve ever been to, too. No holes in grounds on this one, I can tell you.) The sun was shining, although being a British summer it was not really warm, we had a formidable corner plot, the views were stunning and our neighbours were quite pleasant too. I learned how to fill up the fresh water tank, connect the electricity, dump grey water and most important of all, how to operate the steps at the door because otherwise it is a really long way down or up. And you quickly get accustomed to the motorhome swaying from side to side like a boat every time somebody enters it or turns around in their sleep at night. But that was fine.

We set up our table and chairs, started a BBQ and with a glass of wine (or two) had a lovely evening.

The next morning we started to have “little episodes” (“Episödchen” for you German speaking readers). That’s what we called the short rain showers that were occurring. So we stayed put until the sun came out and then made our way to Harlech Castle. The castle is a medieval fortification and sits atop a rock. The sea originally came right up to the bottom of the rock but now the shoreline is a short walk away. It was built by Edward I during his invasion of Wales in the late 13th century. It is an impressive sight to behold.

Unfortunately for us, our “little episode” had a come back and turned into quite a substantial one. To make things even worse it was accompanied by quite strong winds. We tried to hide within the walls but gave up after a while and returned to our motorhome. Obviously, half way down the hill, it stopped raining and the sun greeted us with all its might. After some drying off, a cuppa and a short nap (we’re not getting any younger) we went for a pleasant walk along the beach. The views and the light were spectacular and you could see for miles.

But that was all the summer we were getting. During the night it started raining in earnest accompanied by an unrelenting wind. My friends weren’t too impressed, given the fact that the whole previous week hadn’t been too glorious. So they did the one thing you can easily do with a motorhome – they rebooked their ferry, packed up, checked out, dropped me off at home, did some washing at my place and departed for France. They were enjoying ‘proper’ summer sunshine 24 hours later.

This was my adventure with ‘camping’ in Britain. Not sure I will repeat this anytime soon unless it is in the comfort of a motorhome or caravan.

The one thing I can recommend though is Harlech and the Myn-Y-Don caravan park. Having been in Harlech for the last time 10 years ago, I was relieved to see that the village hasn’t lost its charme and the castle entrance and visitor centre are much improved. The castle setting is one of the finest in North Wales and the beautiful village of Portmeirion and the busy beaches of Barmouth are not far away.

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Hidden gems of the Llŷn Peninsula – Plas yn Rhiw and Pernarth Fawr

You have to be a bit determined to get here. Tucked away on the southern coast of the Llyn Peninsula and after a couple of miles on narrow lanes, you reach one of Wales’ prettiest manor houses – Plas yn Rhiw. The 17th century Tudor/Georgian style manor house and terraced garden overlook the beach of Porth Neigwl, Cardigan Bay and Llŷn Peninsula in Gwynned, northwestern Wales. The history of the estate goes back even further to neolithic times and today is under the care of the National Trust .

Now, when you hear manor house you might think of stately homes with columns at the front, lion flanked stairs leading up to an impressive entrance and big windows through which you can see rich paintings and chandeliers. A Welsh manor house in a location like this is somewhat smaller and more solid build but what it might lack in size and grandeur it sure gains in atmosphere and charm. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take any photographs inside but let me show you around the grounds.

The 17th century house was built for a descended from a ninth-century King of Powys and from there passed through the family until 1874, when it was bought and occupied by a series of tenants.
After being abandoned it was finally acquired by the Keating Sisters in 1939 who restored the building and recreated the garden. Big supporters of the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales, they donated the surrounding land of the estate to the National Trust in 1946 and Yn the rest of the property in 1952.

After indulging in a cream tea we headed back home (I was travelling with my parents) when my dad said: “Oh, what’s this with a star on the map, shall we stop there?” (See, that’s one of the perks about travelling old-style with a map instead of a naviagation system, you notice things you otherwise wouldn’t.) It was Penarth Fawr, a medivial hall house with thick stone walls, high ceiling and beautiful timberwork. Today it is under the care of Cadw and was definitely worth our little detour.

 

A walk through time – from a 19th century canal to a medieval castle

So it has stopped raining (for now) and spring is upon us. And what a glorious weekend it was. So out came my walking boots and off I went.

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Trevor Basin near the Pontcysyllte Aqueduc

I started at the Trevor Basin near the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and made my way along the Llangollen Canal towards Llangollen. The Llangollen Canal is a navigable canal linking Llangollen in Denbighshire, North Wales, with Hurleston in south Cheshire. In 2009 an eleven-mile section of the canal including Chirk Aqueduct and Pontcysyllte Aqueduct was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Looking back at the aqueduct

Looking back at the aqueduct

The canal was built when the Ellesmere Canal couldn’t be completed in the early 19th century due to various problems. Lacking a main source of water (the proposed source was at Moss Valley, Wrexham), a feeder channel was constructed running along the Vale of Llangollen to the River Dee and creating the Horseshoe Falls.

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Some art along the way

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That’s where I was heading – Castell Dinas Brân

In the 1980s British Waterways renamed these surviving sections of the Ellesmere Canal or the ‘Llangollen Branch of the Shropshire Union’ as the Llangollen Canal and it has been one of the most popular canals for holidaymakers in Britain ever since.

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Getting closer to Llangollen. Some boats mooring on the canal.

To step back further in time I had to climb up.

Next stop Dinas Brân.

Next stop Dinas Brân.

The ruins of the medieval Castell Dinas Brân stand high on a hill above the town of Llangollen. It is also the site of an Iron Age hill fort.

Almost there. I think the lambs had the right idea...

Almost there. I think the lambs had the right idea…

The castle visible today was probably built by Gruffydd II ap Madog sometime in the 1260s.

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As a reward you get some stunning views

Dinas Brân is a rectangular castle with a steep natural slope of several hundred feet beyond the northern wall and a 20 feet deep ditch around the southern and eastern walls.

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View from the other side of the ditch towards the castle. The remains of the Keep are on the right.

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View towards the ruins of the Great Hall with its big windows.

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Looking back towards the River Dee and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. You can just about make it out in the background.

The two-storey Keep stands at the south eastern corner overlooking a quite easy approach to the castle from the River Dee. Next to the Keep at the north eastern corner is the gatehouse which would have probably been approached via wooden bridge. The Great Hall was sited at the castle’s southern side. Its large windows still look south across the valley and an arched way leads to what once was the kitchens in the adjacent Welsh Tower.

The old gatehouse (I think) with some excellent views.

The old gatehouse (I think) with some excellent views.

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Looking towards the arched way

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It’s impressive that these arches still stand after hundreds of years …

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… and being exposed to some fierce weather on top of that hill.

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You can just make out parts of Llangollen in the valley on the left

Time to head back along the canal.

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Some interesting bridges along the way

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I do like the various stone bridges you find along canals.

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No trip in North Wales without sheep of course.

And when I was almost back at the Trevor Basin I met Harriet the dog, who fell (yes, fell) into the canal. She was more interested in the squirrels on the opposite side than what was beneath her paws. She sounded and looked a bit surprised…

Sacred Wonders of Britain – The Lindisfarne Gospels

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As a fan of calligraphy and The Lindisfarne Gospels in particular I was delighted to read that it will be featured in Episode 3 of the Sacred Wonders of Britain on BBC2. As I mentioned previously I think that The Lindisfarne Gospels are an example of medieval calligraphy at its best. So if this is something you’re interested in make sure you tune into BBC2 on Monday 13th January 2014, 21:30.

Here’s the short description about the episode from the BBC website:
“Neil Oliver examines how the creation of saints by the early church led to a new generation of Sacred Wonders across Britain. On Iona, in the Inner Hebrides, Neil discovers the traditional resting place of Macbeth as well as delvings back through time to discover how St Columba sanctified the island with a tough brand of monasticism, all the way from the Egyptian desert. On Lindisfarne, Neil sees how the epic journey of St Cuthbert led to the writing of the extraordinary Lindisfarne Gospels and the building of Durham Cathedral.

At Canterbury Cathedral, Neil learns how St Thomas Becket’s grizzly murder was harnessed to build its Nave, one of the great glories of medieval architecture, and on Glastonbury Tor in Somerset he investigates layer after layer of powerful legend in the story of the Holy Grail, the sacred cup of everlasting life.”

Medieval calligraphy at its best – The Lindisfarne Gospels

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On a small island off the Northumberland coast a Bishop takes on an enormous task: creating the Lindisfarne Gospels. It’s the early 8th century, the island is Lindisfarne (or Holy Island), where the community of St Cuthbert is located, and the Bishop is Eadfrith, who, with painstaking attention to detail, creates one of the best examples of British Medieval art over the length of several years. Or at least he was credited around AD960 with copying and decorating the Gospel on its own instead of delegating it to a group of several people. The Lindisfarne Gospels show excellent craftsmanship and combine Mediterranean, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic Elements which makes it so unique.

The book is usually on display in the British Library in London but I was thrilled to hear that there is a special exhibition in Durham showcasing the Gospels. Unfortunately still too far for a day trip…

As a huge fan of calligraphy, it was one of my favourite courses at university and I’ve done a fair bit myself, I especially like the intricate initials in these old scripts. The details and colours don’t stop to amaze me.

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The opening of St Luke’s Gospel in the Lindisfarne Gospels
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Page with Chi Rho monogram from the Gospel of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels.

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Folio 27r from the Lindisfarne Gospels, Incipit to the Gospel of Matthew.

So if these examples intrigue you and you are in the area around Durham between 1st July and 30th September 2013, go and see the exhibition. You can find more information here.

And maybe on day I’ll show you some of my calligraphy attempts as well. But don’t expect something like this…