25th September 2018

For our first full day in Wales we decided to explore Cardiff, and then in the afternoon take a drive down to Swansea, Wales's second largest city. Although it had a reputation of being an industrial city, we were told Cardiff had changed dramatically in recent decades, and so we decided to take a walk into the city centre and check it out for ourselves. What we found is a lively and modern capital city, with plenty of history, and with significant differences to other UK cities, perhaps as a result of the influence of Welsh culture.

Downtown Cardiff

The traffic seemed to be a little more chaotic than we expected, and it's the sort of place where GPS directions are handy unless you are familiar with the place. Even approaching the city centre on foot, as we did, it was good to have Google Maps there just in case ... Our apartment is a 20 minute walk away, the weather was pleasant and we were able to walk around at our own speed and take in the sights.

Cardiff Castle at the end of the street

The main street of Cardiff - St Mary's - is an interesting mix of 18th and 19th century architecture, but the most interesting part was to see Cardiff Castle right at the end of the street in the middle of town. Debbie and Steve thought this would be a bit of a shock, had they not become accustomed to these "little surprises" which are so typical of the UK.

We enjoyed a hearty lunch at Cardiff then went back to our apartment and made ready for the 55 minute drive to Swansea. As it was when driving around Cardiff, the traffic between Cardiff and Swansea was much heavier than we expected. There is not a single main road between the two cities, but a series of freeways interlinked by scary roundabouts.

The roundabout signs are in English and Welsh, which is understandable but not helpful when your in-car navigator and iPad Queen, Rona, declares the name of the next town in English, but all your eyes seem to focus on as you battle other incoming traffic is a mass of unpronouncable Welsh names. To include the name "Swansea" on every relevant sign would have been logical, but since when do the people responsible for such things use logic?

Swansea Castle

Much of Swansea city centre was destroyed in wartime bombing. Still, there are large pockets of the historic centre that did survive, and these have painstakingly been restored in recent times. Some of the best examples of Georgian and Victorian architecture can be found on Wind Street (pronounced Wined), with Salubrious Passage (linking Wind Street with Princess Way) being almost exclusively Georgian - though the accolade for oldest buildings in that area goes to Swansea Castle and the Cross Keys (inn), which are respectively relics of the 13th and 14th centuries.

Clyne Gardens

Clyne Gardens and Country Park is without doubt the gem in the crown of Swansea's parks. Originally a private garden, Clyne is bursting with flora and fauna meticulously collected from across the world. It is has an internationally-recognized collection of rhododendrons and azaleas which are at their spectacular best in May. The Japanese-style pond, complete with willow trees and oriental bridge is a great place to relax and watch the clouds sail by.

At Swansea, we set out for a stroll along the docklands and came across the city's Waterfront Museum. On the way we passed the Dylan Thomas Theatre and a statue of a very young-looking Dylan Thomas, the famous poet and resident of Swansea, who died at age 39. We saw an interesting, high stone wall that seemed to go nowhere and there seemed to be no apparent reason for it being there. Even the Museum staff could not give us a satisfactory explanation.

A highlight of our visit to the Waterfront Museum for Stephen was spotting the exact model pedal car he drove when he was five years old - a light blue Austin. We all were taken by the detailed information on pirates at the museum, and the fact that entry to the complex was free.

26th September 2018

Ah! The joys of of freshly-washed clothes!

Aberfan, South Wales

With the weather looking quite promising, we decided to take a drive through the inland areas of South Wales to the north of Cardiff and Newport, a once prosperous coal mining area. In October, 1966, in the tiny mining village of Aberfan, an avalache of coal mine tailings obliterated everything in its path, coming to rest on the Pantglas Junior School where lessons had just begun. A period of heavy rain had led to a build-up of water within the tip which caused it to suddenly slide downhill as a slurry, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

Aberfan memorial garden

The only survivors were the students and teachers who were absent from school that day. The repercussions on them, and in fact the whole village that had lost almost a complete generation of its population, were horrific. We visited the beautiful little memorial garden on the site of the tragedy - very unassuming but so poignant.

Merthyr Tydfil from Cyfarthfa Castle (don't ask us how it is pronounced!)

Our next stop was Merthyr Tydfil (pronounced as though you have a New Zealand accent - Merther Tudful). At Cyfarthfa Castle we were given an informed look at the mining industries of South Wales, as well as some local history, in its informative museum in the castle's basement. Wales seems to be predominantly working class and the eventual closing of the last mines at the end of the 20th century brought with it strikes and a lot of unrest.

Cyfarthfa Castle

It was time for morning tea so we headed for a little cafe in the castle which, on first appearances, didn't look like a particularly good choice. This could not have been further from reality - in fact our visit to Julie's Kitchen was one of the highlights of the day. Our host, Julie, a chirpy welsh lady with a charming disposition and ability to spin a yarn with the best of them, suggested we take a seat and enjoy a cuppa while she whipped up a batch of scones which would be ready in a few minutes. Twenty minutes and numerous anecdotes later from our host, we were told for the third time that our scones would be ready in a few minutes.

Scones, jam and clotted cream ... yummm!

When they finally arrived, they were well worth the wait. Eight scones and an endless supply of strawberry jam and clotted cream later, we said goodbye to our jovial host and we were on our way.

A local keeps an eye on the tourists passing across Brecon Moor, within Brecon Beacons National Park

Our next destination was Blaenavon, a mining village adjoining the Brecon Beacons National Park which lays claim to having set in motion the Industrial Revolution. That's quite a claim, so we decided to check it out. Our first stop was The Big Pit National Coal Museum. The site still retains many features of its former life as a coal mine, standing high on the heather-clad moors of Blaenavon, the tunnels and buildings that once echoed to the sound of the miners now enjoy the sound of the footsteps and chatter of visitors from all over the world.

The Big Pit National Coal Museum

Within its grounds is The Big Pit, a former mine pithead that still operates, though these days it takes visitors rather than miners down to the coal face beneath. The museum conducts tours of the mine, with Mining Galleries, exhibitions in the Pithead Baths and Historic colliery buildings.

Blaenavon Ironworks

The Ironworks on the edge of the town were fascinating. Apart from detailed information about the workings of the place and its significant role in history - it pioneered the use of pig iron to make high grade steel, and in so doing revolutioned the steel industry. Steve observed that the operation was very labour intensive but produced high quality steel. The site included the remains of a number of blast furnaces and associated infrastructure.

Replica of the world's first successful steam locomotive, designed and built in 1804 by Richard Trevithick, in the Swansea Waterfront Museum

The success of the operation inspired the invention of the world's first steam powered railway locomotive at nearby Merthyr Tydfil in 1804 made by Richard Trevithick, three years after the road locomotive he made in 1801. Trevithick's steam train was used to haul coal and iron.

Blaenavon Ironworks cottage - 1944

There was also a fascinating insight into the lives of the ironworkers in the form of actual living quarters which have been restored on the site. The earliest example was from 1790 - the year in which the ironworks began operation - and the last was from 1967. The homes were cramped, and the living conditions would have been noisy and dirty.

Blaenavon Ironworks

Our adventures today highlighted the friendliness and unassuming nature of the working class welsh people.

Stephen Yarrow and Debbie Hall

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