We’re in Wales now. Not a fact that could be easily missed - all those huge signs, twice the size of their English counterparts, to direct and inform bilingually. Of course, such multi-culturalism is a good thing and the renaissance of Welsh as a living language is nothing short of miraculous. but the poor Englishman trying to navigate tricky road junctions, deal with aggressive drivers (for I feel that since we descended the valleys and approached the city the laid back rural attitude to driving has steadily disappeared) and make intelligent lane choices doesn’t always have the attention required to scan huge swathes of bilingual text to parse out those bits he desperately needs.
No, it’s not the road signs but the little things that mark the territory. Get air-dropped into any pub in northern England and the barmaid, if local, will tell you exactly where you are. If the transaction ordering your pint is terminated with a “Ta, luv” it’s a pretty safe bet you are in the vicinity of Merseyside. “Cheers ducks” and you are further inland at Manchester. Here in Cardiff last night’s transaction culminated in “There you go, my lovely”. The barmaid, a pretty young thing, was, like all other South Wales women, endowed with that beautiful sing-song siren-lilt of an accent; the slight rise in tone on the first syllable of ‘lovely’, a pause not quite long enough to signify the need for a hyphen and the gentle downward tone on the elongated second syllable. A lesson in how to turn the simple ordering of a pint of beer into a deeply erotic experience.
Anyway just in cased I missed the fact
It’s a 15 minute walk through Bute Park, past the site of the old Blackfriar’s Priory and its Victorian bricked-out floor plan and on past some modern stone standing-circle, over the Taff Bridge and you are there - at the animal wall. Now quite why the Victorian Marquess of Bute wanted an animal wall I have no idea but it is both iconic and impressive.
Mind you, crossing the Taff bridge the one thing we did not expect to hear was bagpipes. Three months in Scotland and we hardly heard them, our first morning in Wales and there they are skirling in the background. How odd! Anyway the castle tour just has to be done, despite it not being maintained by CADW (the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage) nor National Trust Wales, so we have to fork out real cash. Still we are pensioners, so at least we have the satisfaction of concession rates.
The castle’s seen a bit of history. Originally a roman camp (and the original walls are still in amazing nick) then a classic Norman motte and bailey with 12m steep mote surrounded by a 6m deep moat, then sacked by Owain Glyndwr, then changing hands during the English Civil War and finally restored as a Victorian home, tribute to medaevial times, by the aforementioned Marquess of Bute. One final war, in Victorian times the space between outer and recently discovered inner roman walls had been restored as an interesting curio walk - but the space was an ideal bomb-proof shelter for Cardiff’s citizens during WWII and the outer wall was deliberately breached to allow the addition of wooden access ramps where the good folk could find run to safety when the siren sounded.
We didn't opt for the additional tour of the Victorian dwellings so it was just the castle itself. Apart from the visitor centre (with its excellent little film of the castle's history demonstrating how to overcome the need for multi-language soundtracks) there were no real rooms as such, so just the walls and keep. Surprisingly the audio commentary made this last 2 hours. Mind you a 12m mote doesn't sound much, but stick a 12m keep atop and its over 100 steep steps to be able to admire the view. I found the WWII shelters fascinating for their orginal 1940's artwork reminder folk to "Keep Mum". "Join the Land Army" and that "Coughs and sneezes spread diseases". There was quite a large collection of these along the shelter walkway, some familiar and many much less so.
We didn’t explore too much of the city other than to get the idea that this was indeed a capital city and one that has recently undergone a significant renaissance. So many nightclubs and trendy bars jostle for space against upmarket shops and the new stadiums (world class cricket, rugby and football stadiums within a mile or so of each other). A bit of a contrast to the castle and the magnificent Georgian civic centre (which is on tomorrow's to-visit list).
None of your high street shopping here (er, well, except for Greggs, which is everywhere) but big name shops with big bold storefronts. Oh, and pubs everywhere. After meandering around John Lewis looking at Android tablets, sewing machines and the inevitable things for grand-daughter we took refuge in the Brains brewery craft pub/brewery tap. Brains being THE Cardiff brewer. I recall my first every Great British Beer Festival decades again in Covent Garden - it was so long ago I seem to recall, through my drunken haze being evacuated because of an IRA bomb scare. However I was with a friend from Cardiff and despite the dazzling array of beer from all around the UK this emigree from Wales found that taste of home and drank nothing else but Brains SA all night (this story might not be the exact truth - alcoholic hazes do that to memoirs).
But you know, perhaps that’s it. Wales appears to have an even stronger sense of nationalistic pride than even Scotland. I’m sure it wasn’t just the complete outclassing of their English counterparts at the recent Football (Soccer should any Americans be reading this ) European Cup that could provide enough income for two stalls in the market selling nothing but red shirts and Welsh memorabilia.The same market had two bakers, pride of stall on both being Welsh cakes, one even having a 3 lady production line making the lovely little delicacies whilst we watched, so our order of 10 were distinctly warm. Those flags adorning the high street and bilingualism everywhere aren’t some faux pretension of national pride in the same way St George’s flags appear to be in England but a real deep sense of belonging to a culture worth preserving.
Sometimes this goes a little too far; close to the campsite and en route back is Y Mochyn Du pub. It is unashamedly Welsh, English definitely seems a second language within its walls. It has Welsh folk music evenings, Welsh quizzes, and even opera!. It attracts a lot of Welsh speakers and even sponsors 3 Welsh choirs. So when I asked the difference between the two brews Cwrw and Cwrw Haf I supposed I should have expected the withering look from the barman and the almost sarcastic reply that the Haf was a lighter summer brew. Look, I’m English, I knew ‘cwrw’ meant beer and that was ‘mochyn’ was pig - give me a break for not knowing ‘haf’ was Welsh for summer, eh! Chwarae teg, I’m trying to learn, man.