Weird monument in Wales has interesting history


If you’re staying in Aberystwyth, Wales, you can see it from pretty much everywhere–a tall tower on a bluff to the south of town. At first it’s hard to see what it is, so my wife, five-year-old son and I decided to walk there and have a look.

It was an easy two or three kilometers from town through a wooded trail up a fairly steep slope. What greeted us once we made it through the trees was rather surprising–a giant stone cannon pointing at the sky. The bluff gave a commanding view of the town, a horse racing track, and the open sea. A little plaque declared that this was a monument to the Duke of Wellington, who beat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo with some timely help from the Germans. It was erected c. 1852.

WalesBut. . .why? What’s the connection between a Welsh seaside report and one of the British Empire’s greatest heroes? There isn’t even a statue of the Duke duking it out with the undersized French dictator. From town it looked for all the world like the smokestack of some Victorian factory.

The owners of our B&B, the Seabrin Guest House, told us the tale. It’s called the Derry Ormond Tower, after the local landowner who first came up with the idea of the tower. Ormond was a veteran of Waterloo and wanted to honor the general he served under.

Originally the cannon was supposed to serve as the base for a statue of the Duke of Wellington astride a horse, looking suitably imperious. Money ran out, however, and some say the statue languished in a stonemason’s yard in Cardiff until someone with deeper pockets took it off their hands.

So Aberystwyth is left with half a monument. Ah well, at least the view was nice.

What’s your favorite odd monument? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Flags without countries

flags
Do you recognize this flag? Neither did I. It’s the flag of Lapland. Lapland isn’t a country, but a region in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia where the Sámi (Lapps) live. Only Norway recognizes this flag, and it’s flown throughout the country on February 6 to celebrate Sámi National Day.

I discovered this flag in Aberystwyth, Wales, of all places, while walking along the seaside promenade. It was flying proudly in the stiff breeze and caught my attention because I’d never seen it before. Then I noticed a whole line of flags I’d never seen before. A sign explained that because the Welsh so rarely see their flag flying in foreign countries, they decided to fly the flags of various European regions that are seeking autonomy or independence. The display of flags without countries was an interesting lesson in European politics and history. Several are shown in the gallery.

%Gallery-129478%Europe is a patchwork of different languages and cultural groups. Many are subsumed into greater national entities and this causes friction. One of the deepest divides in Europe is between is in Belgium, where Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south may very well become two different countries. Luckily this debate has been nonviolent, although not always civil.

Many regions are looking for greater linguistic recognition. France’s strict one-language policy has raised the ire of groups that speak other languages, such as the people of Britanny and Alsace. Some linguistic regions, like Occitania, run across more than one country, further complicating any attempt at greater recognition.

Some independence movements are small, like that in Sardinia, while other are marred by a radical extreme that has undermined the legitimacy of the general movement, like in Corsica and the Basque region.

While none of the flags shown here represent actual nations, they do reflect the feelings of vibrant cultures that enrich Europe. Many of the people who fly these flags probably realize they won’t ever see true independence, and some may not even want it. They fly these flags to show the world who they are. And you never know, when the monument was set up in Aberystwyth, it included the flags of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, and they’re real nations now!

If you’re interested in flags, check out the amazing Flags of the World website for lots more.

Riding the rails in Wales: a steam train into the Welsh hills

Wales, steam train
If you like old trains, you’re going to love Wales. The region has several narrow-gauge steam locomotives. The website Great Little Trains of Wales tells you about ten of them traveling various routes around the country. Most are clustered in the north and west, which most travelers say has the best scenery.

Having never been on a steam train and knowing it would be a guaranteed hit with our five-year-old son, we took the Vale of Rheidol Railway from Aberystwyth up into the Welsh hills to Devil’s Bridge. Our train, the Prince of Wales, dates to the 1920s and has been lovingly restored. It makes the 12-mile run in about an hour.

We set off to much chugging and hooting, which was taken up by all the children on board. As we cleared the station we saw that strangest of British animals, a trainspotter, filming our departure. Leaving Aberystwyth and the trainspotter behind, we picked up speed and soon started to ascend into the hills. Parts of the route are very steep and winding, which is why a narrow-gauge is used, and goes along the southern side of the Vale (Valley) of Rheidol. To our north the valley opened up to view, a gleaming strip of river winding far below, and here and there a farm. Only a few farms and houses stood near the rails and most of the time we were in countryside. A Red Kite flew by looking for prey. The engineer said that buzzards are a common sight too.

%Gallery-129371%One thing that was very noticeable was just how loud steam trains are. Our forefathers did not get a quiet, relaxing ride!

We continued to climb up the side of the valley past a few farms, thick woodland, and fields covered in wildflowers until we made it to Devil’s Bridge, where the trainspotter from Aberystwyth was waiting to film our arrival. There’s a beautiful waterfall tumbling through thick greenery here, and three bridges passing over it. The lowest bridge is said to have been built by the Devil in an attempt to get an old woman’s soul. The woman was too clever for him, though. You can read the story here. Two trails offer views of the falls.

There’s also a Robber’s Cave that local folklore says was used by three thieves–two brothers and their sister. The cave was a great hideout and they managed to live a life of crime for many years until they accidentally killed one of their victims. The locals came out with dogs and traced them to this cave. The men were hung and the woman burnt at the stake.

If you’ve never been on a steam train before, it’s a fun novelty and a great way to see the countryside. Our son loved it, of course, and all the other kids seemed to be entertained too!

Exploring the Welsh coast: Aberaeron and New Quay

Welsh coast, New Quay
Yesterday I mentioned that Aberystwyth is a good base from which to explore western Wales. On our second day in Wales my wife, son, and I hopped on a local bus and went south down the Welsh coast to the ports of Aberaeron and New Quay. Aberaeron is about 40 minutes from Aberystwyth and New Quay is only about 20 minutes further south from Aberaeron.

While we didn’t have long in Aberaeron, we liked this tidy little Welsh town with its brightly painted houses and fine view of the sea. There are plenty of shops, restaurants, and pubs and we got the impression that it might be a better place to stay than Aberystwyth. Like in Aberystwyth, we heard a lot of people speaking Welsh. Most signs are in both languages. It’s nice to know that the language is surviving in the age of globalized English.

At New Quay we stopped for lunch at a pub on a cliff overlooking a sandy beach and broad harbor. The view was nice but service was slow and the food substandard. Sadly, this was the case with all too many of our meals in Wales, even though we usually followed local advice as to where to eat.

%Gallery-129265%The famous writer Dylan Thomas lived here for a time and New Quay was the inspiration for his fictional town of Llareggub (“bugger all” spelled backwards). Visitors interested in literary tourism can follow the Dylan Thomas Trail.

We’d come to take a boat trip instead. My five-year-old had never been out to sea so we decided to remedy that by going on one of New Quay’s many dolphin tours. Dolphins are abundant in these waters; we’d seen several from the window of the Seabrin Guest House in Aberystwyth. We chose a tour run by the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre, which uses its profits to fund research into the sea life on this part of the Welsh coast. The sea was calm and the sun shone fine so we weren’t worried as we stepped aboard an inflatable motorboat with a half dozen other people.

This good weather was our undoing. The calm conditions had made the fish move further out to sea, and the dolphins had followed them. As we made our way down the coast on our one-hour ride we saw exactly none. Oh well. It’s best to remember that nature isn’t there for our amusement.

This stretch of Welsh coastline is beautiful, with jagged rocks rising high out of the sea. The strata of the rocks is clearly visible, which allowed me to give the kid a lesson in geology, and the cliffs are dotted with numerous caves that smugglers (our boat captain called them “pirates”) used to elude the customs agents. My son was more disappointed about there being no pirates than he was about the lack of dolphins! All was made better when he got to sit in the captain’s chair.

One local told me that New Quay isn’t the most pleasant place to be at night in the summertime. A lot of rough people come into town to get drunk and start fights, and two of his friends got knifed in one incident. We saw a big fight in Aberystwyth too. This isn’t unusual in the UK. When I lived in London, I regularly saw fights on the street on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s just a sad fact of life in this part of the world.

Still, we had a nice day and the kid had a great time and got to experience something new, which is what really matters. Tomorrow I’ll be blogging about a steam train we took through some beautiful Welsh countryside. Unlike my last two posts on Wales, this one will be entirely positive!

Aberystwyth: Exploring a seaside resort in Wales

Aberystwyth, Wales
When deciding where to go for a beach vacation, Aberystwyth in Wales probably isn’t the first place you think of. It wasn’t ours either. My wife and I picked it on the advice of an English friend who had never been there and about an hour’s research on the Internet. We like to travel by the seat of our pants because it usually leads to a great experience. Usually.

Since this will not be an entirely positive article let’s get the downsides out of the way. First, the beach is stony and smells of rotting seaweed. Second, in four days of eating out at restaurants recommended by locals the only decent meals we had were at our B&B and a Sunday roast at The Fountain Inn. Third, there’s no nightlife outside the pubs and we saw a bunch of football hooligans fighting on the street outside one of them. Blood flowing, police sirens wailing, the whole nine yards. I feel bad mentioning these things because the locals were generally very nice. Most of those football hooligans were actually Scottish. Let’s get on to the good things.

Aberystwyth has been a popular seaside resort for a century, although now it’s suffering from competition from easyJet and Ryanair. In the days before £100 round-trip fares, working class people could only afford to go to places like Aberystwyth or Blackpool. Now they can go to Cyprus or Spain. While this is bad for the local economy, it does bring prices down, making Aberystwyth a good spot for budget travelers. Our B&B, the Seabrin Guest House, was a ridiculously cheap £55 a night for me, my wife, and son. We got a delicious breakfast and a huge bay window overlooking the sea. Some of our best moments in Aberystwyth were lounging in front of the Seabrin drinking beer and watching the sunset with the owners.

%Gallery-129146%Aberystwyth has ancient roots. There’s an Iron Age hillfort just outside of town and the remains of a castle founded in the 12th century stand picturesquely on the seaside promenade. This promenade is good for some lazy strolls, especially in the late summer evening as the last rays of sunlight turn the sky a faint pink and the water a rippling cobalt. Many locals build fires on the beach and hang out enjoying the view.

Museum goers will want to see The National Library of Wales, which has exhibitions of rare books and manuscripts.The regional museum, called the Ceredigion Museum, makes the understated boast that it’s “sometimes described as probably the most beautiful museum interior in Britain.” Housed in an old converted music hall, it features displays of archaeological finds and historic artifacts from the area. While I was here I had the weird experience of showing my five-year-old a record player and having to explain what it was. A few minutes later I saw another parent doing the same thing!

My son loved the Aberystwyth Cliff Railway that rides up the steep slope of Constitution Hill and affords a sweeping view of the town and bay. At 778 feet it’s the longest cliff railway in Britain and is an electric cable train with tilted carriages. Once on top of the hill he got to unwind in a bouncy castle before we went to see the Camera Obscura. This is a clever device that uses a rotating rooftop mirror reflecting onto a white disc inside a dark room to give a view of the surrounding countryside. This gave me the chance to give the kid a quick lesson in optics that he then repeated to everyone who came in, especially a certain girl he’d met in the bouncy castle.

Despite my crack about the local pubs, I have nothing but good to say about The Ship and Castle. This is what all pubs should be: fun, friendly, and serving up great local real ales. It’s won awards for best regional pub in 2007 and 2011. If you go to Aberystwyth, don’t miss it.

Aberystwyth is also a good base from which to explore the rest of Wales. Tomorrow and the next day I’ll be talking more about what to see in the region.