Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Traveling on through Wales

I'm guessing Ruth and Friends have made their way from Cornwall to Stratford, where they were heading to and around south Wales. Let's celebrate their travels with a few places in this area, before we head north.
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Excerpts from Crazy American Lady: Adventures Through England and Wales, by A.S. DeWitt MacAngel.

A castle’s made of sticks and stones
They’ll last awhile for us to see,
But fill a wall with a Welshman’s bones
An ye’ve got him for eternity.

31 March: We drive to Castle Raglan. Fooh is entranced and no wonder. How titillating this is, what a grand beauty. It has a moat, although there are two soccer balls floating, which messes with my fantasy. There is enough left of this ruin to see how it was and it sits out in the open, far enough away from anything, making it easy to imagine what it had been like to live here. Originally, there was a manor and before that, possibly a Norman castle.  
   In 1432, William ap Thomas began to develop this last true medieval castle to be built in Britain. Times were changing and people desired big houses with more conveniences. This great tower keep and the south gate are the only complete remainders of his castle.
  We enter through the main gatehouse, with ornately machicolated towers on each side. I have only seen one castle so am no judge yet but this is magnificent and the machicolations scream macho! For those who don’t know what machicolations are (I didn’t) they are overhanging masonry projecting from the battlements, through which defenders dropped projectiles or boiling liquids onto attackers. Raglan’s are beyond the call of duty, quite decorative.
  Most of the castle was updated from the fifteenth through the early seventeenth centuries, so there is a lot of the Tudor style. The patched stone court is Tudor and was found intact when the grass was removed in 1947. There are many rooms built around this cobbled court and lovely mullioned windows look out over the green landscape. The fat kitchen tower has two huge fireplaces. There is a dark basement Wet Larder, which is cold year round, probably used for meats, cheeses and dairy, and an array of small, circular gun loops are in these walls. I imagine a small army of men in here with lots of body heat—was this wise? Or even less wise, as Fooh interjects, did one trust so many fellows with one’s cheese and other important foodstuffs?
  The Office Wing holds supplemental kitchen rooms like the buttery, possibly a pantry...I am not sure where the scullery was. The Hall is the most complete Elizabethan space, but incorporates the earlier 1400s Hall. Its large mullioned bay window is unusual in a castle and the 1570 Great Fireplace has a divided flue rising up the wall.
   It is slow at the castle today, only a group of special needs teens who can’t control their giddiness and run around madly, making up for the crowds that aren’t here. The Long Gallery, which was filled with sumptuous tapestries and pictures, has windows looking onto the Fountain Court, where a white, dappled with black and brown cat sits. Eyes closed, left paw up, and still as a statue, he seems oblivious to the shouting and erratic paces the kids make through the masses of delicate daisies.
   The three ranges of State apartments were luxurious, with splendid craftsmanship and masonry of shields and badges. Draped in more gorgeous French tapestries, with paneling and plasterwork ceilings, these rooms and the castle itself comprised a showpiece for its owners, not simply a fortification.
  I take several photos and talk to kitty, who is still balanced like a spotted sphinx but shows an interest in Fooh. Then we head to the tower. The bridge is an imposter, but a necessary one. The original was a double drawbridge; this and the hexagonal shape of the keep were influenced by William ap Thomas’ military travels in France. He was knighted by Henry V and clearly had social aspirations when he built Raglan.
  His son changed his name to William Herbert and he was successful in politics, becoming the first Welsh earl. His wealth afforded him to reconstruct the castle as a grand statement of his position and he lived in high style. Alas, in life as in politics, there is never a dull moment and his life was forfeit for his Yorkist politics.
  Herbert’s granddaughter inherited the castle and married a Somerset. Their son acquired the lead from our beloved Tintern Abbey, after the dissolution of the monasteries —now we know whom we can’t trust. But, because I am half in love with this old castle guy, I must be lenient in my judgment—does that make me a fickle lover?
Original Castle Raglan tower (keep) on left.
  The Somersets also owned the big bad Norman stone castle in Chepstow, on the River Severn, that Fooh and I passed yesterday.

Floor of William's keep, with well on left, garderobe
far right off camera.

   This tower was built by William ap Thomas for the family to hide in, when need be. It still has a toilet in a cupboard, with bars across the hole to prevent slimy intruders of the human kind, and the well is still here. There is very lovely stone work on the ground floor, designed like a cut pie.
  A single large room with a garderobe (toilet) filled each of the six floors.
Garderobe (toilet).
  This was called the Yellow Tower of Gwent, made of pale yellowish sandstone, taken from an area on the River Wye. This color can be deciphered throughout the castle as the early part, whereas the later construction was of local Old Red Sandstone. It adds a prominent wine hue to the castle, which adds richness to the structure.
   The Apron Wall around the bottom was added by the son. He gave it six turrets, one of which has a postern gate with little stairs leading down to the water of the moat.
  The 4th Earl of Worcester is thought to have built the Moat Walk, with its wall niches for Roman figures. In 1600, this with the garden, orchards and fishponds, were all considered to have been quite sophisticated. The family lived in grand style before Charles I lost his head. Before this unsavory regicide, his son, 16-year-old Prince Charles (II), had come a-calling on a fundraising tour for dad and Lord Herbert was a Marquess when Charles rode away.
  This did not bode well when Cromwell’s roundheads (the king’s killers) came a-calling in 1646. Raglan was put under a long siege and the handsome castle was bombarded by heavy artillery. This was not enough to bring the tower down, so the soldiers battered the top with pickaxes until two sides collapsed. The fall of the powerful Raglan is thought to have virtually marked the end of the English Civil War.
  Then the townspeople dredged the moat for treasure and the ponds for carp. It is not known if the books and papers in the prestigious library were stolen or destroyed, but they no longer exist and it was a tragic loss of historical records.
  After the war, the Somersets let the castle decay. It provided a quarry; also, chimneys, window frames, staircases and sculptured accessories were looted. Then it became a romantic ruin...that term is starting to ring hollow, isn’t it?
  I take a photo of the picturesque first-place winner of toilet signs embedded in the rock, say good-bye to kitty, who has turned into a live, romping creature, and we drive to Hay-on-Wye. Passing the raw and magnificent Black Mountains, we look for a spot to stop for a photo. Farmland rolls up the hills and colors range from gray to blue to deep purple, all revealing Old Red Sandstone ancestry that extends back to the late Silurian geological period 443 million to 416 million years ago. This was the time 60% of marine species on the planet were wiped out. Fooh and I are in awe as we stand by the side of the road--here is the sandstone that formed way back then, which neither one of us can realistically imagine.
Middle of Hay on Wye
  We have come to Hay on the River Wye for its books. Over thirty bookstores, mostly used, crowd the village streets, among tearooms and bed and breakfasts in very old buildings that have been fronted with facades. It is charming here and we come upon the high castle site in the middle of the market town, with its mercat cross in front.
  The dilapidated 1070 Norman, 30-foot square keep, may be the oldest in Wales and shows repairs that may just be holding it together. Some stories say Maud de Braose (née Maud de Saint Valery, another interesting family) built up the castle in 1200 but it appears she only added a gate arch. She was, though, a terrifyingly strong warrior woman who was often left to defend the various castles she and William de Braose owned, and in myth, she is called a witch or sorceress.
  The de Braose history is long and fascinating: Blood feuds with the Welsh, complex association with several kings, and famous names galore. The first William de Braose came over with William the Conqueror and imposed his great power and will over the Saxon landscape. There are many castles and ruins throughout this area of Wales that the family was associated with.
  Well, of course there are always the most intriguing legends. This one appears to be true, though varying somewhat. Maud’s husband William, the great-grandson of de Braose, was adept at king-making and king brown-nosing. So, he was familiar with the details of what happened to King John’s nephew, Arthur (Eleanor of Aquitaine’s grandson). Eleanor had gone to stop Arthur from attacking her youngest son, King John, and Arthur locked her up. (The men in her life locked her up quite a bit—remember The Lion in Winter, with Katherine Hepburn--and Peter O’Toole as Henry II?). John captured Arthur and a popular story says at some point in his drunken stupor, he managed to kill him, with de Braose fully aware of the treachery.
   With this knowledge, William de Braose began taking home a lot more bacon, gaining lands and finally becoming the most powerful magnate in the country. Why King John didn’t have him furtively murdered, who knows? Meanwhile, King John was developing a certain paranoia regarding negotiations with wealthy barons, and he started asking for hostages, which was normal when a king didn’t trust the persons he was making deals with--clearly William de Braose being one of them. Maud refused, saying she wouldn’t trust a child of hers with someone who murdered his own nephew.
  Uh-oh. Realizing her faux pas, she tried to send the Queen four-hundred head of her white cattle, which didn’t go. Husband William ran off, leaving Maud with the consequences of her mouth. This infuriated King John to a murderous degree and he had Maud and her son William put into the dungeon at Windsor Castle. Some stories have them walled up inside the dungeon. The family story says they were left with a bit of food, but many days later were found starved to death. A cleric wrote, ‘She seemed to have died kissing his cheeks but closer inspection revealed they had been chewed on.’
  Her runaway husband, William, wound up at the French King Philip’s court, telling the tale of King John strangling the 16-year old Arthur and throwing his body into the Seine. English nobility went crazy. Later, when John was forced to sign the Magna Charta, they added Clause 39, to protect citizens from that sort of thing, ‘except by lawful judgment’, whatever that means when you are in power.
  Hay Castle only stayed in the de Braose family for thirty years, but what a thirty years, and they went out with just a little croak. William and Maud’s grandson, another William, was caught in the bed of Llywelyn the Great, ‘having it off’ as an old record says, with Llywelyn’s wife, Joan. He was hanged a few days later and his Castle Hay and town were burned.
Castle Hay (on Wye)
  They were rebuilt by Henry III, and the townsfolk were granted the right to collect a toll to pay for the stone wall around the town. Through the years, poor old Hay and its castle were burned and used very poorly. In the seventeenth century, the castle was rebuilt as a Jacobean mansion, which has also burned. There is little left of the castle except the walls and stairs and the keep, with the gatehouse next to it.
   I drag us up very steep stairs to the mansion-castle, in the middle of the village. There is a book store inside and that’s all, but we can see the walls. It is disappointing to not be able to see it all, but it is a crickety building and fire-damaged. We peer past ends of bookshelves, trying to see all we can. I’ve read someone who says it looks like a copy of Wuthering Heights patched together with duct tape. An apt description.
Within the castle walls on motte.
  Fooh wants me to tell this story we heard on the radio: In 1961, a fellow named Richard George William Pitt Booth—yes really, maybe—thought he might like to live in a castle. Hay wasn’t very expensive, in ruins as it was. He opened the bookstore in the castle, in 1962.
  By 1977, he must have been reading too much history (I know the feeling). He declared Hay an independent kingdom, with himself the monarch. Wielding an old toilet plunger for a sceptre and riding his horse, by now the Prime Minister, he sold low-cost peerages to tourists. Booth was inspired to turn Hay into a book town and now it is. The ten-day Hay Festival, held every year in late spring, draws over 500,000 tourists and occurs in other countries now.
Lovely Florence Hotel on River Wye, near Monmouth,
with Offa's Dyke (now walking path) across river.
   St. M Hospice Thrift Shop has a set of 4 teacups and saucers, in blue and white, a bit used but lovely, that I must have, along with two Jane Austen books and a roll of old lace.
   Dinner comes from a Tesco store and back to the Florence Hotel. It is a lovely evening meal-- big salad, sandwich and clotted cream, which I eat out of the container. How crude.
  My last evening by the River Wye is spent sitting on the floor downloading photos. I am pleased with my toilet sign and am considering a newspaper article on my fascination with the old loos. I realize in all of the historical British movies I’ve viewed, I have never seen the Virgin Queen or Henry VIII go to the bathroom. Why this avoidance of something so basic, with all of the intimate sex scenes and candid conversation? I say, ‘Up with loos!’ ~ 

1 April: A walk this morning involves snooping around the garden and outbuildings, then up the hill. It is glade-like, under beeches, oaks, wych elms and conifers, with groundcover of wood fescue, lots of ferns, bluebells (I think, having never seen them), snowdrops, and the flower of Wales--the cheery daffodil. Birdlife abounds, though in the forty-eight hours since I left Cornwall, my brain has not sprung forth with the fountain of avian knowledge so I am as inept at identifying them as I was in Luxulyan. I was told the tawny owl, redstarts and different types of flycatchers are here, along with the nocturnal badger, and smaller critters. I do see a rabbit and by gosh, I know what it is. The Wye mosies along, through such lushness of greenery--the Wye River Valley seems a perfect spot to live. Attention anglers: Great salmon fishing.
  I get a little tour around the Florence before I leave. My room was out of the way and I would have preferred to be in the house, as I was alone in the ancient outbuilding. It is a sweet old house in the lower Wye Valley and was the first licensed business here, as a cider inn. The location couldn’t be more beautiful, looking over the River Wye and Offa’s Dyke walking path. They are good proprietors who keep really nice lodgings, in a beautiful setting...but the homey, personal B&B is probably the way for me to go ~
   The A49 drive north, on the borders in and out of Wales and England in Herefordshire, is pastoral and lush. In a ten-mile radius of Hereford are many beautiful gardens, famous and not, to be visited. Hereford was settled on the north bank of the River Wye by the Saxons, in the early 600s. Its rural, unpopulated location has made it a strategic location for military links--it remained safe during World War II and is still used by the Crown for its military. 
   The gorgeous Romanesque Norman cathedral is the main draw here. We are disappointed that the castle no longer stands. One can visit the Castle Green to get a sense of the immense power it must have been. Earthworks and part of the surrounding moat remain, while ruins lie under the grass of this structure that John Leland called ‘the fayrest, largest and strongest castle in England’. 
   Since I want to see Croft Castle, we reluctantly pass through Hereford and onto the A4110 we go. The Croft family has lived here for almost 1,000 years, having come over with the Conquest—Lord and Lady Croft still have apartments. It is a chunky castle, with one turret and four slim castellated towers remaining from the original 1400 castle. After the slighting by Cromwell’s men, it was restored in the late seventeenth century, converted into a mansion. I can see the difference between the old and new construction and windows were installed, in place of slits. In the late 1700s, it was given a gothic makeover.
  The main hall entrance, with its 1930s decor, used to be the carriage track into the courtyard. I love to see what used to be in what is now, not liking the past to be completely obliterated. Through a door, a gentleman waits to hang up coats and I believe this is a good idea, so I give him mine and he gives me a ticket. Fooh is quiet in his nest, behind me. Now down the narrow, Long Gallery, where the many family portraits tell the story of the Crofts. The Oak (paneled) Room is the only room that has a common footprint with the old castle, in the west turret.
  We have a ghost here, whose skeleton was found in the 1930s. The tall medieval man in the wall is thought to be Owain Glyn Dŵr, who ended up in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part I, as Owen Glendower.
  Owain was a living Welsh hero, who represented the old royal houses of Wales. After being hailed as the Prince of Wales, he led the Welsh (or Glyndwr) Revolt against the English for twelve years, in the early 1400s. His main enemy was a crony of the usurping Henry IV. At first it looked like the Welsh would win, but fortune turned on him; then his wife and two daughters were taken to the Tower of London and died there within six years.
  Now that he was a hunted guerrilla leader, Owain went underground and was never heard from after 1412, even though the new King Henry V pardoned him twice. He is still honored for leading the most tenacious revolt ever seen in those days and for the passion and loyalty with which the Welsh people followed him. If, in fact, this spectral figure that appears and fades here at Croft is Owain Glyn Dŵr, hopefully he will let us know what on earth he was doing at Croft to wind up in its wall, as no one here seems to have a clue.
  Down the stairs toward my coat, I see a couple looking into a room behind the stairs. It is a toilet. My gosh, and what a neat one for my loo story. I am not allowed to take photos, but Fooh has no qualms about side-stepping a few human rules and tells me to ‘get that photo!’ I sneak back up the stairs until all people wander away and I tiptoe down to shoot a picture. Just after the flash, here comes the gentleman and gives me my coat. Whew.
  There is a lovely walled garden, even though not much to see yet. Several blue-green doors lead into it. There are rows of grapevines and a wonderful layout of the garden.
    I have soup and cream tea, while Fooh has his favorite chocolate biscuits, then we walk out to see some of the grounds. The huge, ancient oaks and Spanish chestnuts are stunning. This is an important northwestern European site for veteran trees and dead wood invertebrates. There is a group of representatives from Ancient Tree Hunt, who are talking about the trees. As we listen, I look out over the expanse of silhouettes on the hill. The giants are incredible—they embrace the atmosphere around them, reaching, gnarling around themselves, curling in and out, bending ninety degrees, rippling up the trunks, splitting themselves over and over, thick arms stretching upwards, downwards, with broken gashes and ripped off appendages. I find them awesome. The tree they have just measured is 9 meters, so maybe close to 30 feet in diameter.
  In the meadow is the remainder of the excavated old ringwork, which was the first fortified site of timbered buildings here. Looking on the map, there is a plethora of ancient sites for anyone aching to get out and taste a bit of English-Welsh history.
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