Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Pembroke, Wales: kingdom by the pond

Spring blows its announcing trumpets! The wonder | wander | women had our first sunny days and are ready for more. Right now we're all a little too busy for the wandering part though, so here's a look back to a trip to Pembroke, Wales some time back.

It was pouring rain when the train left London's Paddington Station, and for most of the six-hour journey. But by the time we crossed into Wales, a watery sun was starting to shine.

We passed our first stop, the charming coastal city of Swansea, with no incident. But an hour away from Pembroke the train stopped in a silent grove of blackberry hedges, and did not start again. Eventually we needed to be pushed back by a maintenance car to Narbreth Station, where it was another hour or so wait for a shuttle to pick us up.

Pembroke is a small town with a population of a few hundred, a single main street and fascinating buildings ranging from medieval times all the way back to the Stone Age.

I stayed at the Coach House Hotel, an old coaching inn converted to a pretty B&B.

This marked a number of firsts for the London base of wonder | wander | women. It was the first trip I had ever planned, paid for, and taken entirely on my own. Here was the first real life experience of the 'common room' (which we only knew from Harry Potter books), and since free breakfasts were included in the booking, I got to taste my first serving of fried bread - like the savoury meat pie, a wonderful British invention. I'm only sorry we didn't know about Welsh rarebit at the time.

The main attraction of Pembroke is its castle and mill pond. It's one of the oldest spots in Britain, having been a Pict settlement in Roman times, then an Anglo-Saxon fort before being rebuilt in stone. It's mainly famous for being the birthplace of Henry Tudor (Henry VII, the first Tudor. Not his son Henry VIII, who is the one with the TV series and the terrible marriage history).

Being full of fried goodness, I thought a gentle walk around the old millpond that served as a moat would be a good digestive before proceeding to the castle itself. I'm glad I did, or I would never have known that pigeon racing exists and is an actual sport in the UK.

There is a Mill Walk that goes completely around the castle and lake...

...and a river walk that goes 87 miles out to sea.

Today Pembroke Castle is a fully set up tourist attraction with concerts and exciting events such as Falconry Day, and charging a visitor's fee of £6.60. I chose a date with no special occasion, and the visitor's fee for the castle was only £3 back then, so there were a lot of return trips. It was fascinating for a history fan and fantasy reader: wandering along hallways...

up and down the dim, winding tower stairs...

enjoying the view from the battlements (and just the word 'battlements')...

and exploring every room, doorway and dank little hole that beckoned the curious.

Stripped bare, with only a few furnished rooms to hint at its former life, the castle crates a hypnotic atmosphere. After several excursions, one could imagine becoming the ghost of some princess who had been locked away and left to die of protracted maidenhood.

From the top of the turrets you can see the whole town and the surrounding fields and hills.

Travelling alone in 2007 had some difficulties - having no smartphone and selfie stick, how does one take a selfie? Find a flat, small space and position your camera in it. Set the timer and voila! You didn't even have to disturb another tourist.

Moving downward through the levels was like traveling in time.

The further you descend, the more decayed and ancient everything looks. If it weren't for the safety railings, the castle ruins would be right out of an Alan Lee drawing.

At the bottom of a long stairwell you find a big, dripping natural formation called Wogan's Cave, full of nesting pigeons in the daytime and bats at night. It had had a thriving native community in the age of the Romans. Later the cave was used as the water entrance for boats bringing prisoners into the castle.

The castle became an object of fascination for the three days in Wales. Its shadowy bulk lurked under the thousands of stars during night-time stargazing excursions, or featured heavily in sketches and photos. I even had a favourite spot along the walk from which to observe it. I couldn't take a proper picture of the spot, but here is a view of the castle from there.

On an evening walk I finally managed to get one good picture. Suddenly the crumbly grey structure took on the colour of the sun; weathered stone can be surprisingly reflective. The wind died down and the lake went still and flat.

Sometimes we travel for excitement and adventure, to see one new thing after another. This trip felt almost monastic, like a pilgrimage to a holy site. It was a surprise to find something so endlessly compelling on such a little trip, but sometimes, without knowing it, silence and stillness are just what the traveller wants.

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