Saturday, September 30, 2006

Running out of time...

Last week’s blog talked a lot about visiting ruins...well...this week’s blog is no different but the emphasis is on Roman ruins this time.

After finishing up in Caernarfon, I headed to the town of Llangollen, to the East of Wales & near the English border. It’s a nice, little town, nestled in the Welsh hills & great place to ‘chill’. There are a number of things to do there including a visit to the ruins of the Valle Crucis Cistercian Abbey (I thought it was much nicer than Tintern Abbey in the Wye Valley). It’s a pity that the local council allowed a caravan park to spring up right next door...kind of distracts you from the Abbey.

Llangollen is famous for a series of canals that run through the area; the most famous part is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. It was build in the last 18th Century, is over 300m long & carries water (& canal boats) 38m (it looks more like 50m) over the river Dee. There is a tow path that you can walk along beside the canal (it does require you be OK with heights). If you think the view from towpath is scary….spare a thought for those people on the canal boats……look over the side & all you will see is a 38m drop to the valley floor below. Still….the aqueduct looks very impressive.

Another thing to do is Llangollen is to take a 20min steam train ride to the town of Carrag through some amazing Welsh countryside. Unfortunately…the day I decided to go, the steam strain wasn’t running (d’oh !!)...they had a powered railcar instead. The views really were amazing though.

With my time in Wales finished (& time running out in general)…….it was time to head north. I stopped in to Chester for the day to: walk to Roman Walls that surround the city; to wander through the Roman Amphitheatre ( can’t actually do have to stare at them from behind a fence) & checked out the Grosvenor Museum. I would’ve liked more time in Chester & I would’ve liked to have visited on a day when it wasn’t the Chester Race Day (D’Oh !!).

The highlight of this week has been exploring Hadrian’s Wall. I only had 2.5 days to explore the length of the wall so I concentrated on seeing some of the more famous sites. That included:

The Roman forts of Birdoswald, Vindolana, Housesteads & Chesters. The ruins are quite extensive & some are out of the way but the museums that were attached provided a fascinating insight into life on the frontier.

The Roman Army Museum (a bit ordinary I thought...the Tornado bomber aircraft flying 100ft around the area was far more interesting).

The mile castle at Cawfields & the Brunton Turret

The temple to the god Mithras at Carraburgh

The Roman town at Corbridge.

The wall itself is quite impressive. To think of the effort expended all those years ago to build a 4m tall, 2m wide, 189 mile long wall (with castles/towers every mile), fortresses every other 5 miles (or so) + a ditch to the north of the wall & a ditch to the south (to highlight the extent of the military zone) is truly mind-boggling.

The days up on the wall would inevitably start off cold, misty, windy & looking as though it would piss down any minute. It was at times like this when you get a sense of what it must have been like for a soldier posted here...protecting the frontier from the ‘barbarians’ from the north (that’s what the Romans thought of anyone to the north). When the sun came out, it really highlighted the beauty of the place.

The wall is very popular with walkers: I met so many people walking the entire length of the wall (carrying all their possessions in packs or with support crew taking their packs to the next destination) or people like myself, with limited time who would go to certain places & just walk a short length (about 1 mile or two) of the wall.

It was at Housesteads that I had a brush with fame. While wandering amongst the ruins, I ran into Julian Richards, the presenter of the BBC’s ‘Meet the Ancestors’ program. He was quite a nice chap & was very happy to talk about a book he’s writing about the wall. He was there with his cameraman taking photos of the wall for the book.

I’ve met some really great people along the way…a special mention to John & Cindy from Canada...a couple of drunken nights with locals Jane & Philip at ‘Black Bull Inn’ in Haltwhistle made for interesting times.

Most memorable hotel: ‘The Twice Brewed Inn’ at Twice Brewed...what a great name !! It’s right on the wall & is a bit of mecca for walkers of the wall. It’s a place to base yourself for touring the wall & somewhere to stop in for a pint (or three) before continuing on your walk.

One last brush with fame...I saw Pat Cash (Australian Tennis star) on the tube yesterday with a pretty, young, Asian lass who didn’t look like his wife. Is he still married ??? Was he ever married ??

Culinary Experiences.

The blog wouldn’t be complete without mentioning what’s happening in the food world.

This week’s ‘experience of the week’ goes to the Bridge End Hotel in Llangollen, Wales. I’d popped in there to try out the Pork in Pepper Sauce. I’m quite partial to a nice cut of pork so it sounded good.

I placed my order & imagined a plate with 4-5 small scaloppini of pork (pounded thin), floured, seasoned & pan-fried...arranged in an overlapping stack; a nice pepper sauce (with whole peppercorns), poured over the top & served with vegetables/salad & some potatoes.

Can you see where this heading folks ????

The salad & potato were as expected but imagine my surprise when the plate with the pork turned up. What was sitting before me was a bowl of diced pork, drowned (not drowning)...we’re talking the lifesavers were too late & the body is floating face down in the water & the rip is dragging it out to a creamy ‘soup’ with ground pepper (no whole peppercorns here). Obviously my imagination went a little wild with too much expectation.

One thing that I’ve forgotten to mention the simple fact of being able to purchase bananas (at a reasonable price). I can get three in a bunch here for less than 30p. For those non-Australians reading this blog, a little bit of background: earlier this year, a cyclone hit the north Queensland coast around a place called Longreach...this area happens to be the banana growing area of Australia. The crop was devastated & prices (in Canberra anyway) shot up to about $18.99/kg

Oh !!! Before I forget...I have found the best coffee shop in London ( !!) It’s the closest I’ve found to the sort of places anywhere in Italy. It’s called Caffe Vergnano at 62 Charing Cross Rd. Their Torino Mocha is to die for !!! They use an Elektra Coffee machine that looks like a small thermonuclear device & has as many levers/buttons as the Tardis on an episode of Dr. Who. These Elektra machines are apparently the Lamborghinis of Italian coffee machines & it’s the only one in the UK.

Well...that’s it from me for this posting. The next post will be from the continent where the emphasis will be more about the food experiences (at least I’ll be eating decent food from this point on).

Take care & until then...


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Losing it in Wales (Part 2)

Since my last post, I've gotten more active & have done a fair bit of walking around the place. I left my friend's place in Penpaedriol & headed west to the little town of St. David's. Well……'s actually a city 'cos it has a cathedral. It's a quaint little town. It has a cathedral & the ruins of the Bishop's Palace but not much else. It is a good base to explore & walk along the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path: a meandering path that follows the Pembrokeshire coast (derrr !!!) for about 299km. I met guys in the pub (as one does) who were walking the entire length (taking approx. 15 days).

I only did a 9 km stretch between St. Justinian's & Porthclais (then caught the bus back to St. Justinian's……..a 2.5hr walk but a 5min bus ride back). The views were spectacular, it was a sunny, warm day & I even had a seal pup, from the Ramsey Island sanctuary, follow me for about 10 min (probably never seen anyone from Canberra before).

St. David's is also where I met three lovely people from Wales & Manchester (Cerri, Emma & Nigel). By the end of the evening, we were debating (as one does after several pints) the fact that the human race is descendent from just seven females. Don't ask me where we got the facts from….it was late & I'd already had quite a few pints !!

Next on the agenda was the seaside city of Aberystwyth. It's a typical British seaside town with a typical British beach (brown) & an over-the-top pier with the usual selection of amusement parlours. Nice enough town though….it was nice to sit on the boardwalk & watch the sun go down over the ocean. Aberystwyth is a good place to use as a base to go out to & explore the Mynach Falls….well….you simply follow the path down to the bottom of the falls & then follow the path back up to the top. Nearby….there's the Devil's Bridge. Well…actually, it's simply three bridges built right on top of one another: an 11th Century bridge, a 17th Century bridge & an early 20th Century bridge.

Just down the road from the Devil's bridge are the ruins of the Strata Florida Abbey. As with a lot of churches, it's set in an isolated valley with great views. This one, however, was punctuated by the sounds of a trail-bike competition approx. 100m down the road. Talk about mood killer !!

The next part of the trip sees me in Caernarfon with it's truly impressive castle. It's a really amazing place to explore (lots of towers, a maze of wall tunnels & spiral staircases). The views are stunning…overlooking the Menai Straits, Anglesey Island & (if the weather's good), Snowdonia.

I've spent the last two days exploring ye ancient monuments on Anglesey (burial cairns, churches). Anglesey was the centre of the druidic culture in Britain. The druids influence over Britain was considerable & the Romans saw them as enough of a threat that they launched an attack on the island (in AD60) & wiped them (& the sacred groves) out. The attack was led by one Suetonious Paulinius, who had no sooner wiped the druids out when he had to race back down to the midlands to quell an uprising of the Iceni tribe (led by a certain warrior leader called Boudicca).

The weather has been good until I got to Caernarfon. It's been quite blustery & there have been instances of horizontal rain a few times these last three days.

Negotiating the small roads around Wales has been "fun" to say the least. I've had to negotiate my way around goats, sheep, cows, ponies, cars, vans, tractors & one the odd occasion….fully loaded lorries that couldn't possibly fit on such narrow roads !!

Food experiences

There have been some quite nice food experiences this last week…two of them in St. David's.

There's a restaurant in St. David's called "the Bench" that I highly recommend. The service was great & the food was excellent.

Entrée: Canapé selection consisting of rocket, normal lettuce, sliced prosciutto, sliced chorizo, canapés of marinated eggplant, peppers, artichoke & I think tuna. Very nice way to start the meal.

Main: Pizza Arrabiatta which needed some more "Arrabiatta".

Dessert: Bread & butter pudding with Marsala Mascarpone ice-cream . Yum !!

Now…after my comments about the Rhossili "beef" burger….I have another beef burger story. This one was (again in St. David's) & was a good hand-size pattie with cheese, mustard & sauce….plus a decent side of salad. Yum !!!

Now……I love my Indian food & my favourite dish is Butter Chicken. In Aberystwyth….I was seduced by the smell of Indian emanating from this particular restaurant as I was walking along the street. I popped in & ordered the Butter Chicken. It turned up with grated Cheddar Cheese in it !!! I kept tasting the cheese to make sure I wasn't imagining it. What's the story with that !! Is this some local variety I've never heard of ??

Well….that's it from me. The internet café is about to close so I have to sign off. I'll be leaving Wales in the next few days to head up to Hadrian's Wall.

Watch out for the next posting.

Take care.


Thursday, September 14, 2006

Losing yourself in Wales

Now…this title is not speaking figuratively but comes from actual experience. The number of times I’ve managed to get myself lost travelling around Wales, yet still I manage to find the place I’m supposed to be going to.

Now….if you’ve not had exposure to Welsh names, it gets a bit tricky navigating your way around the place. Inevitably, the place you’re looking for will have two L’s, a “y”; a “w” & a silent “q” in the name !! So…….word of advice…… off to remember the first five or six letters of the name + the route number. Now….at this point I wish to point out that I’m not having a go at the Welsh but it is confusing to those of us not used to it.

The weather has been great: warm, sunny days for pretty much all of this last week. The locals keep saying that it will turn at some point soon. I kinda hope it stays this way for a bit longer.

This last week has been about exploring ye-olde-ruins that dot the Welsh countryside.


The town of Caerleon was known to the Romans as Isca. It housed the elite 2nd Roman Legion (approximately 5500 soldiers) who used it as a primary base to help police the countryside. These days, there’s not much left but you can see part of the barracks complex, you can wander through the amphitheatre & take a look over the baths.

On the road to Chepstow (coming from Newport), take a side-trip to the town of Caerwent. In Roman times, it was known as Venta Silurum and became the tribal capital of the Silures (a tribe from the region). These days, it’s a sleepy little village that contains the ruins of a temple, a basilica, a house & some shops. Did I tell you that the village is surrounded by a wall (up to 5m tall in some places) that you can walk across ?? It’s pretty cool !!


There are plenty of churches scattered all over the place. The most impressive ruin is that of Tintern Abbey in the Wye Valley. It is a beautiful place, serene & picturesque place. The ruins loom up from the valley suddenly as you’re driving along a narrow, winding road. The abbey was one of the largest Cistercian monasteries.

Another church I visited was Llanthony Priory. It’s an Augustinian church sitting in a picturesque valley in the border regions of the Black Mountains (part of the Brecon Beacons National Park). The priory isn’t much to write home about but there’s a pub that’s been built in the old abbot’s home. It’s quite amusing to see people sitting on the ruins, eating lunch & drinking a beer.


Wales is full of castles…some more impressive than others. I’ve only been to see two so far. Caerphilly Castle is pretty much like you expect a castle to be: lots of towers, a great hall, situated on an island & surrounded by a moat. There’s even a display of medieval catapults. What made the visit all the more interesting was the fact that the BBC was filming a kid’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. It was very funny to see all these actors come out of the Great Hall, dressed in their costumes (we’re talking tacky “Dracula” costumes), having lunch.

Cardiff Castle wasn’t that impressive I have to say. A tour of the castle is more about the family who owned it & the extravagance they went to in the 19th Century.

Wandering the countryside

Wales is such a great place to wander around. If you go to Llanthony Priory, take a walk up Hattererrall Hill. The walk up is a bit of a killer but the views of the valley & of the Brecon Beacons more than make up for it, especially if it’s a great day when you go up.

Today I went for a bit of a wander around the Gower Peninsula. There’s a village there called Rhossili that’s sits above the bay & has a long, sweeping beach going off into the distance. The beach seems quite popular with the surfers. There’s a pub that has a beer garden overlooking the bay…….it was pretty spectacular to see.

Culinary tips

At the above-mentioned pub in Rhossili, don’t order the so-called “beef-burger”. It’s just a pissy little beef pattie sandwiched between two pissy little buns & that’s it !! The chips that came with it were far more substantial & took up most of the plate.

Well…that’s it from for me for this posting. It’s getting quite late.

I’m off to the west coast tomorrow, heading to St. David’s before heading north to Aberystwyth, then Caernarfeon & finally Llangollen.

Until next posting, take care.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Ceremony of the Keys

It's night…..about 2145 hrs. All I can hear are the sounds of the river traffic on the Thames, planes coming into Heathrow (of which there seem to be a lot) and the sounds of the Queen's Guards (the guys with the bear skin hats) marching purposefully towards us from the left. The party consists of the Chief Yeoman, four Queen's Guards (armed) and our guide.

I'm standing in front of the gate to the Bloody Tower; Traitor's Gate is behind me. I'm within the compound of the Tower of London. What I'm about to watch is one the oldest ceremonies in the world……The ceremony of the Keys (the securing of the main gates of the Tower).

Suddenly….to the right, the other guard has assumed the on-guard position, bayonet drawn and shouts out his warning that echoes across the stones (the guys doing the shouting was Scottish so imagine this in a thick Scottish accent):

Sentry: HALT !!!!! Who goes there ??

The party come to a halt…….six pairs of feet come to attention.

Chief Yeoman: The keys.

S: Whose keys??

CY: Queen Elizabeth's keys

S: Pass Queen Elizabeth's Keys. All's well.

At the end of the exchange, the party makes its way through the gate & into the fortress (with us following closely behind). At the top of the stairs is another armed party of Guards. The guards all presents arms, and the Chief Yeoman raises his hat, proclaiming:

CY: God preserve Queen Elizabeth.

S: Amen!

He then takes the keys in for safekeeping, while the Last Post is sounded.

That's the ceremony, one that has been repeated continuously, at the same time, for over 700 yrs.

We were told by our guide that there have been only two instances in living memory where the ceremony was late: once during The Blitz when a number of bombs exploded near the party. The party was knocked unconscious for a brief period of time. When they came to, they dusted themselves down and continued with the ceremony….eight minutes late.

The Tower apparently holds a letter from the Officer of the Guard apologising to King George VI that the ceremony was late and a reply from the King which says that the Officer is not to be punished as it was due to enemy action that the Ceremony of The Keys was late.

The second time was recently (in 2003) when a young officer of the Grenadier Guards serving on a gap year commission, fell asleep at his post whilst acting as Escort of the Key. He fell asleep in front of the television we're told. I don't want to know what sort of reprimand he received.


I can't say that I've had many culinary experiences so far (it is the UK after all). I can say that I'm already sick of the English breakfast. I did manage to track down Antonio Carluccio's restaurant (“Neal Street Restaurant”) and shop (“Carluccio's”) in Covent Garden. The shop was great……the smell of the deli, the freshly cooked bread. Yum !!!

I'm currently in the village of Penpedairheol in Wales, staying with friends. It sits on the southern borders of the Brecon Beacons National Park. The area around is really beautiful. We went to the local “Tesco's” yesterday & to give you an idea of what it's like……something as simple as the view over the carpark: green (yes….it is raining here), rolling hills with Welsh villages dotted all over the place. I could stand there & stare at it all day.

Well…..that's it from me for the moment. I'm off to explore a bit of Wales.

Stay tuned for more postings.