I was fairly sure I was in for a treat on my day trip to Conwy, as one of the best preserved castles in the U.K. awaited my inspection, as well as one of the finest remaining Elizabethan town houses. But the visit was even more fascinating than I expected, for several reasons.
|Conwy, from the Castle|
Conwy is only about four miles away from Llandudno, but because of the irregular coastline and the way Arriva trains run in Wales, it takes a change to get there and a change to get back. It was quite easy, actually, and timed so that I waited only 7-8 minutes for the train in each direction. The castle, across an inlet from Llandudno, comes into view almost as soon as the train pulls out of Llandudno station. It’s a dramatic sight, and made me all the more eager to explore it. After a brief stop at Deganwy (Pronounced thus: duh-GAN-way) we pulled into Llandudno Junction where a few moments later I caught another train to Conwy (pronounced CON-way – by the way, Llandudno, from what I heard in Wales sounds like this KhLAN-dud-no), only one short stop away. The Conwy train station is only about 100 yards away from the castle proper. Conwy was a walled city in Medieval times, and a good bit of the wall remains standing. In fact, as you depart the train station you are offered two ways to get to the castle: one over a section of town walls, the other through a car park. Who wouldn’t prefer the former?
|Conwy, a walled city|
Having already got a taste of Medieval Conwy from its city walls, I entered the castle complex itself. A bit of the history of the castle is in order. It was built between 1284 and 1289 by King Edward I of England, one of several castles in Wales that formed a “ring of iron” around the country, at the ready to quell any Welsh revolts, also to protect the English soldiers from a revolt that proved stronger than predicted. Conwy Castle fronts on the inlet out to the sea, so that if matters became desperate for the occupying English troops, they could escape by water. Edward I nearly found himself in this position as he and his troops were besieged at the castle, however the siege was lifted before the need to escape to sea was realized. Conwy Castle, in short, was a crafty example of medieval planning.
|The imposing Conwy Castle|
While I’m on the history of the place, Shakespeare buffs will find this castle of interest because Richard II took shelter here as he was gradually losing power to Bolingbroke, who would become the next king of England, Henry IV. It was at Conwy Castle that negotiations took place for his abdication. From there he was taken to Flint Castle, and the rest, as they say, is history. A few years later the castle was taken by the Welsh supporters of Owain Glyndwr, prominent in Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 1 as Owen Glendower. Shakespeare’s Glendower was larger than life: “At my nativity,” he said, “The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes, Of burning cressets, and at my birth The frame and huge foundation of the earth Shaked like a coward.” (Act III scene 1) – go Glendower! Go Shakespeare! If you’re like me, an already exciting site becomes more so when you imagine it as it might have been when Richard II was in residence, or when Glendower’s men took it from the English.
I entered via the west barbican into the great hall of the castle, and using my imagination I pictured the long rectangular hall so typical of castles and stately homes of that period.
|The Great Hall of the Castle|
I should note that there are helpful explanations of the different parts of the castle on plaques in both English and Welsh. There is a lot of climbing to be done, if you’re so inclined, and once up you’ll have great views in all directions.
I should warn you that some of the areas are quite dark and it’s easy to miss a step – you don’t want a miss a step as missing one step can easily turn into an unpleasant slide down the winding staircase – it nearly happened to Dottore Gianni – twice! There is a walkway around the castle walls where you can imagine defenders running to find the best area from which to defend it.
|Another view of castle walkways|
In one of the towers there is a model of the castle as it would have looked in the 14th century, and in the area that housed the castle’s chapel there is an excellent overview on castle chapels with well-documented illustrations; medieval music plays in the background. Also of interest is the exit to the sea. That area (the east barbican) now offers a view of three bridges: the oldest built by the brilliant Thomas Telford in the 1820s. This major engineer picked up the theme of castle towers in his design. On one side of it as a recent bridge for cars and on the other a railroad bridge.
I spent about 90 minutes wandering around the castle, and might have stayed longer, but there was the rest of the small walled town to see, including the imposing Plas Mawr, one of the finest remaining examples of an Elizabethan town house in all of Great Britain.
It was owned by a man named Robert Wynne, a long-lived and wealthy man, and its three floors and outdoor gardens show all the signs of a wealthy man’s home (which in a sense is his castle).
|The Great Hall, Plas Mawr|
The keepers Plas Mawr have taken great care with it, and there are very helpful and friendly guides who are eager to offer insights. A telephone tour is available as well, free with the admission price – if you want to see both Plas Mawr there is a ticket you can buy a ticket for both places that offers a good discount. At the top floor of the house there is a fascinating exhibit on health and hygiene in Elizabethan times, topped (for me at least) by three indoor privies –one which had a lid on it! There are other sights to be seen in the town, a very peculiar one being the smallest house in Great Britain, which is introduced to the public by one of the smallest women in England.
|The self-proclaimed smallest |
house in England
This is situated on the lovely waterfront of Conwy, where you can also buy fish’n’chips, ice cream etc, and book a boat that will tour you around the area. I opted to stroll throughout the town taking in as much of the atmosphere as was possible on a very crowded Sunday afternoon.
In some ways I wish I’d elected to take a B&B in Conwy instead of staying in Llandudno, as there is more history in Conwy, but Llandudno offered much better opportunities to take invigorating walks, to head up the Great Orme, and to take advantage of the many more restaurants and other amenities there.
Three short, quirky stories will cap the weekend, which is almost over as I write. I sit in the Winchmore’s parlour as I wait for my train which I booked at a rather late hour. In a way I wish I’d have left earlier in the day, but the price of the return journey was best at the time I chose, which is why I chose it. I had two encounters yesterday, very different in nature, and a panic. The panic had to do with money and HSBC and me. I tried to get money from the cash machine on Saturday but the card was denied. Panic set in immediately, and when I got back to the hotel to check my on-line banking account I realized that instead of HSBC screwing up (which I’d firmly convinced myself they had), I had taken money from the wrong account at HSBC to pay off my car loan at CFCU. I immediately transferred funds on line, but as it was the weekend it didn’t seem that the money would transfer until Monday (today). I had a twenty-pound note and that was it. So instead of a nice meal Saturday night I bought the least expensive sandwich I could find and sat in my hotel room to eat it. Then yesterday at the castle I tried my HSBC master card to pay for admittance to the castle, and that was denied! So panic began to set in, particularly as I had to pay my hotel bill with the card. Oi! I tried my best to keep calm and to enjoy my day in Conwy. After the castle tour I was starved but could spend only two pounds on a meal. I found a bakery that offered sandwiches for £1.99. They looked very thin, but I bought one and it was full of wonderful thick ham slices. Then I spotted an HSBC there and decided to give the ATM a try, for £50 – and it worked! I walked for a bit and realized that I could get enough cash out of that machine to pay the hotel bill in cash IF it would allow me another transaction. I tried for £200 – and that worked as well. I realized that the transfer had gone through and that I was saved! Feeling much better but still worried about my credit card I asked my landlady (increasingly nice and helpful – yes, I may have misjudged the Winchmore) if I could try to pay up by credit card. She tried and it failed the first time, but the second time the transaction went through. I was so happy I bought her a drink (there is a small bar at the hotel), and was even more impressed with her when what she wanted was a vodka! And then went out to have a tasty Italian meal, which brings me to one of my two encounters.
Having realized that I was temporarily rich, I decided that I’d check out an Italian Restaurant called La Taverna, that had looked inviting, and that turned out to be so. Not so much for me, as it was a real locals place. The husband and wife who ran the place, he the chef, she the head of the waitstaff, knew just about everyone in the place. This makes for a very convivial feel, and even though I was not one of them, the half liter of vino rosso made me feel convivial anyway! I had a very tasty pasta, tagliatelle con salsiccia, and a nice salad. It wasn’t until I ordered a limoncello as un digestif that the couple at the table next to mine began to get chatty. In fact I had been interested in them as she was a rather elegant woman in her late 50s or early 60s, he a slightly younger man, chatty, arty, that I took to be her gay companion. Only when he started chatting with me did I realize they were married. We instantly hit it off and were chatting about New York City, theatre in London and NYC, etc etc. He gave me advice on what to do in Glasgow, where he is from, and when she told me she was from York I told her it was one of my favorite places in all of England. I said good-bye and had a lovely stroll down the Promenade to my hotel, content that, while an outsider, I had made temporary friends and had a good meal, nicely and politely served as well!
For my second encounter I take you back to Conwy, specifically to its tiny train station. After my rambling up and down scary stairs in the castle, throughout Plas Mawr, and all over the town, I found myself out of steam. I was also unsure about the state of my credit card, so I decided to sit on a bench at the platform and either get a second wind, or wait there until the train came, due nearly two hours later. I looked through my photos, aware that a pretty big guy was sitting a few benches away from me, that he was fairly drunk, and that he was the only person in sight. Thinking that this might become a problem I was about to find some other place to stroll, when he abruptly began a conversation. At first I was a bit nervous that we might be about to re-enact Albee’s The Zoo Story, but he was an interesting and intelligent fellow, with whom it seemed I had some things in common. He and I had both been in military service, I in the USAF in the 60s, he in the British Army in the late 80s – his time was spent in Northern Ireland – less pleasant than mine. Neither he nor I are married. I have been once, he has never been – and never cares to be – nor do I. He was born in Croatia, I am Croatian. We had a long, unusual conversation touching on U.S. and British politics, Noam Chomsky (!), our parents, men, women, war, peace, Croatia and the Balkans. We seemed to note a bond of sorts, though neither of us wanted to pursue it, certainly I didn’t. Was he some sort of distorted Doppelgänger? He let me off the hook by saying, “I want to digest some of what we talked about.” He sat there staring at the tracks, I pulled out a book, began reading, and when I looked up he was gone. It was getting closer to the arrival of the train and I thought, too bad, I’d like to have said good-bye. Then he appeared again, asked how long until the train came, suggested that we hit the nearby pub. I politely declined, but said I’d see him on the train. Minutes before it arrived he showed up, clearly drunker than before, slurring his words, seeming more aggressive, though not towards me. We boarded the train, and he asked me to stand with him between the cars, told me he had no intention of paying for a ticket. The conductor entered, checked mine, and asked for his – he bantered with the conductor: “You’re not really going to make me pay, are you?” The conductor, rightly, persisted, and then my new friend (Sal was his name) called the conductor a “fucking Nazi,” and the conductor said that he was going to put Sal off at the next stop, and went on to collect other tickets. Sal looked at me with a strange smile, saying, “I guess I shouldn’t have called him that, right?” I stammered something incomprehensible in response, my stop came up – the conductor had not returned, and we said good-bye. As far as I could tell he was not put off the train. His last words to me were, “I really don’t want to go home.” He lived in Colwyn Bay. Understandable.
And that was my strange afternoon at the train station, certainly the most enigmatic, maybe the most fascinating moment of my long weekend in Llandudno.
Odd way to end, yes? But of all the sites, encounters, meals, Sal is likely to stay with me longer than the others. Or not, who knows? I am now back in London after a rather crazy day on the train. I missed my connection, as did many others, because this morning some urchins were discovered playing on the railroad tracks in Rhyll – again, understandable. Apparently this incident caused back-ups throughout N. Wales, but I was placed on a train in Chester that brought me non-stop to London. Good to be back!
I travel to the Highlands on 11 August. Still with me? If so, watch for more blog posts soon!