Monday, August 23, 2010

Cardiff Part 2: The Castle

As I mentioned before, most of my time in Cardiff was spent at the Castle. It seems really weird to be walking down a modern day street, turn a corner and see a castle, however that's pretty much what Cardiff is like. A road runs right nest to the castle wall and the city literally is right next to the grounds. The back edge faces a park, so the castle looks a little less out of place.
While it may appear like there was less to see at Cardiff Castle than Tower of London, I was not disappointed and I LOVED it there. It rained off and on throughout my visit, but I enjoyed wandering and listening to the audio guide's stories as well as walking through the interior of the wall and watching the rain pour down outside. 

I entered the castle by the Black Tower. This tower sits along the outer wall and when it was constructed, there was a wall which stretched between the tower and Norman Keep. That wall was destroyed during a rebellion when much of Cardiff was burned and destroyed. Years later, a small wall (somewhere between 3-4 feet high) was built and now sits where the old wall used to be located. Along the side of the Black Tower, you can see where the first wall would have been attached to allow guards in the wall to be able to to retreat into the keep. 
Norman Keep sits on a hill in the middle the walls of the castle. Surrounded by a moat and sitting high up upon it's grassy mound, it really is a beautiful site to see. You are actually able to climb to go inside it and even climb to the top where the flag flies from! I of course chose to do this.
Now the audio guide, did warn me that it was over 100 steps to get to the very top, but it did not warn how steep and crowded those stairs would be. Regardless, it was definitely worth it.  After climbing the initial set of stairs to get to the keep, you arrive in a big grassy area.
While the walls appear circular, if you look very closely, you will find that it is actually a dodecagon (12 sided polygon). You can also tell that the walls would have had rooms along the edges at one point.  After wandering around this you are able to climb more stairs, first to a small room, then a landing, then to the top of the tower.

From the top of the tower you can look across at the grounds and the surrounding city, and is quite odd to see modern buildings so close to the old fortress. 

As I was on top of the keep, it began to rain, so I worked my way back out of the keep and took a wander through the walls. Yes, that's right, you can walk around inside the actual walls. Parts of the wall date back to Roman times as early as Emperor Nero.  And it is pretty neat to walk through the walls glancing outside at the pouring rain.

Once the rain cleared up a bit, I wandered outside again. On the corner of the wall, you can see the clock tower which is very  ornamental and has brightly painted figures which are actually larger than real hman beings! The tower is built on top of a Roman Bulwark. The colors were recently restored a bit during a conservation project.
Along the western wall of the grounds is a palace. You are able to tour through a lot of the palace at your own pace and it is really quite exquisite.

Most of the rooms in the palace are intricately designed and decorated. The banquet hall was my favorite as the walls were covered with beautiful drawings and moldings which gave the room life and character. These also had been recently restored to bring back some of the color.
In the castle grounds also sits a trebuchet. I unfortunately found out that if I had done a little research and come on a different weekend that I could have watched it be fired! Which would have been AWESOME. Also, if I wasn't going home this Saturday, I could have returned in September for the cheese festival. Though it would probably be much more crowded on an event day, and I liked that it wasn't overly crowded on my rainy visit. 
Inside the visitor center area, if you go down to the basement, you will find a museum entitled 'Firing Line'. It is all about the history of Welsh Soldiers and has many neat uniforms, swords and badges from Welsh history. You could even try on some replicas of various uniforms, and feel the weight of old guns and army packs. While it was relatively small and seemed unnoticed by most visitors, it was definitely worth the time to look around it.
I spent a little more time wandering around the grounds a bit before departing, and enjoying the view and structures:
I left through the Northern Gate into Brute Park,

and took a brief walk around the outside of the Castle before continuing on my way through Cardiff. Overall, definitely my favorite place I saw in Cardiff, and one of my favorite places so far this summer! Cheers!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Cardiff Part 1: Centenary Walk and Other Wanderings

Yesterday, I spent my day in Cardiff, Wales, exploring the sites and dodging raindrops. Upon arriving I stopped at the Visitor's Center to see if they had a map and a guide to the Centenary Walk. I had read about the walk online, but unfortunately not soon enough to have access to a printer to print out the guide.

The walk is 2.3 miles long and contains 41 landmarks as well as 20 other sites of interest to see. It is 'marked' by golden circles in the ground that point to the object of interest.

The one above is from the first stop at the Old Library, which has been converted into a visitor center. Luckily the guide also gave you a map, as I think I only saw a total of six of the big circles while following the map's path. Occasionally I would see one of the little circles with an arrow (like to the top right of the big circle above) but you really had to search to find them.

In short, the path takes you to see:
  • 8 historic or 'famous' sites
  • 5 arcades/markets
  • 5 things related to the castle or city walls
  • 5 famous streets
  • 5 modern city places
  • 4 places dealing with Cardiff University
  • 4 statues or memorials
  • 3 churches
  • 2 gardens
These are of course my categorizations, not anything official. Sometimes I found that the other points of interest were more exciting than some of the main forty-one sites, but I guess that's why they mention both of them!

Of the famous and historic sites, I was surprised how many buildings were not being used for anything close to their original purpose. Like I said earlier, the first stop, the Old Library, was made into a visitor center, and most of the other places were made into shops or department stores. One old townhouse known as the 'Park House' was made into a little restaurant.

The Park House was originally made for the engineer who designed the Docks in Cardiff, and is said to have revolutionized and had great influence on the architecture and styles of many other buildings in the city.

When I said that there were five arcades or markets on the journey, I don't mean arcade like we traditionally think of arcade (or I traditionally think, perhaps I shouldn't generalize). Instead of being a room full or ridiculous games and  such, an arcade is an enclosed alleyway of shops.

The market, however was exactly what I would have expected, as it was very much like Camden Market or Covent Garden.

Cardiff Castle was by far the best part of my journey, and was where I spent the majority of my day, so I think that will deserve a its own post. However, several of the old city walls and gates were marked along the journey, and I particularly enjoyed the animal wall next to the castle:

Much of the sidewalk next to it was under construction, but the animals ranged from seals, to monkeys, to bears!

The famous streets I often found a bit uninteresting, or not overly spectacular, however some of the things along the streets were pretty neat. On Womanby Street, the guide book instructs you to 'Go up the street a little bit and look through the archway on your right'. It took me about three times wandering the length of this tiny street before I figured out where I was supposed to look.

The 'arch' was an entrance to a car park, and there was only one little spot along the covered gate that you could peer through, but those buildings are what make up Jones Court. Built as workers' cottages, they are the last of 50 or more from their time. Apparently the lack of hygiene in these little two room apartments with no drainage or water are part of the reason that nearly 400 people died of cholera around 1849.

When I group things together into modern city places, I don't mean to say that the buildings themselves were all that modern. I was meaning things like City Hall and the Courts of Justice, which both have beautiful buildings:

Though, a much more modern structure along the route was the Millennium Stadium which was originally built to host the 1999 Rugby World Cup. However, it hosts many other things now, with its massive amounts of seating and retractable roof.

I also stopped in the National Museum of Wales, however did not wander through much of it. Nothing that I saw was that extraordinary, but I also didn't go very far into the museum.

Cardiff University was pretty, however I've seen lots of college buildings before, so was not overly impressed with what I saw of the University. However the Glamorgan building had some neat statues out front.

From places that were specifically stops to see statues or memorials, I saw Aneurin Bevan who implemented the National Health Services program, a memorial to the Falklands Campaign, the Welsh War Memorial and a Dock Feeder from the area which used to be a canal.

The Falklands memorial (above) was one of the sites that made me feel like I was on a scavenger hunt instead of a guided walk, but playing hide and go seek with monuments can be great fun!

St. John's Church, St. David's Cathedral, and the Tabernacle Chapel were the main listed churches to see. These make up the oldest church in Cardiff, a place bombed during WW II, and a church which once hosted a one-eyed preacher. Each was very different in architectural style, however I found Ebeneser Chapel which is across the street from St. David's to be the most beautiful.

The stones on the face of Ebeneser are from all over the world. Apparently RG Thomas wrote to every head of state in the world asking for a stone. He wanted every nation represented to show God's universal power.

Following the path, it points out two specific gardens: the Friary Gardens and Gorsedd Gardens. However while walking on the path you pass through Alexandra Gardens and by Brute Park as well. Like I said, some of the things that were not the main 41 sites were just as exciting, if not more. I saw a building John Wesley preached in, the old Institute of Engineers, a few more statues and some neat architecture.

I still had some time after following the path and visiting the castle before I would have to catch my bus back to London, so I did a bit of wandering elsewhere on my own. That's where I came across my favorite statue from Cardiff:

I dunno why it's my favorite, I just thought it was really neat. I also loved some of the random graffiti:

It's also very hard not laugh when you step off a bus and the first thing you see is a large pillar with the word 'BRAINS' sprawled down the side:

I later saw an advertisement and found out that 'Brains' is Cardiff's brewery and brand of beer, which made the pillar a little less random and funny, but it was great thinking for a minute that I had found the zombie headquarters.

While I had packed my lunch, I ate dinner out and tried a place called Wok to Walk. Basically you could pick whatever you wanted stirfried and whatever sauces you wanted and they would cook it, shove it in a box, and hand you a pair of chopsticks. It was really really yummy.

It poured off and on all day, so when it started pouring even harder less than an hour before my bus came, I decided to finish out my day in a local coffee shop, where I treated myself to a latte, curled up in a big leather chair, and read a few chapters of a book I had brought for the bus ride.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Time is beginning to fly by as my return to the States is approaching. When I was typing about Salisbury on Sunday morning, I realized that I only really had three days of being a tourist left! So Sunday afternoon I went to the train station and hopped on a train to Brighton. 

Brighton is along the coast of England, (around the southeast corner along the bottom) and was originally a fisherman village. Interestingly enough, the beaches there have NO sand. The entire coastline is rocks!
The rocks were gorgeous, and in a way I think I liked the rock beach better than a sand beach. It wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as it sounds, probably due to the stones all being smooth from years of the ocean beating down on them.

Technically speaking, I think that Brighton is considered to be along the English Channel, not the Atlantic Ocean. So, I got to step in the English Channel!!!!!!!!! Which I think is pretty awesome.
After strolling along the coast a bit, and dipping my poor toes into frigid, salty waters, I walked to Brighton Pier. The pier is very similar to places like Wildwood with carnival games, a few little roller coasters, and lots of little shops. 

However, I walked out on the pier for the sole purpose of getting better pictures of the coastline.

Wandering into the town a bit, I went to Brighton Palace, which is easily the most bizarre looking building that I have seen while in England.
Yeah... its style has been labeled  "Indian Gothic with a flavour of Chinese", basically John Nash was asked to turn an existing villa into a palace. He decided he wanted it to have an Eastern style, but had never been outside of England before. 

Nash, while he designed many things, was apparently not the best architect seeing as the roofs of this 'palace' failed within ten years of being built and had to be restored. He also designed the Marble Arch in London. However, this arch was originally supposed to be a triumphal arch along the Mall near Buckingham Palace. Nash failed at designing the arch wide enough for the state carriage to fit through... so it ended up being moved to Hyde Park.

 After walking around the gardens in the palace, I continued meandering through the town, and stumbled across a folk and blues festival. During the time I stayed and listened, two different groups played, and they were both quite good. Definitely an awesome thing to stumble across.
Before hopping on a train to go back to London, I stopped to get a snack from the grocery store. For the past 7 weeks, I have been trying to collect recently minted coins. When the 1,2,5,10,20 and 50 pence coins from after 2008 are placed together, they form a shield with Britain's Royal Coat of Arms. When I got my change from my snack, I ended up getting the last coin I needed to complete the design!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tour Part 3: Bath

When we left Stonehenge it was just raining, but not very hard. However, as we moved on toward Bath, it began to pour.
It continued to rain as we came into the town, but our first stop was the Roman Bath which is mostly an indoor adventure. We were given an hour and a half to explore the Roman Bath and anything else we wanted to see before getting back on the bus. 

The Roman Bath was the part of the tour that I was most excited about when I signed up. Having taken 5 years of Latin growing up, I had heard lots about Roman culture and structures, but had never had the chance to visit one.

The bath in Bath is arranged so that you first go through a bit of a museum of some of the ruins from the site, and learn a bit about the Roman customs, before moving in to the visible floor remains and pools of water. Throughout the whole visit, you have an audio guide which narrates and tells you more about the things you are viewing.

In the museum part one of the first things they show you is how the layout of the pools was arranged, so you can get an idea of how everything you see fits together.
Then you get to see artifacts from the site such as pillars, pottery, and even a skeleton of a Roman General that was buried there! Many of the ruins that were just partial pieces, were fixed to the wall with a projector pointing at them that would slowly fade in and fade out a projection of what the piece would have looked like originally.
Once you finish exploring the museum part, you find yourself approaching the baths. The first one you encounter is the pool of Minerva, which is still visibly boiling from the hot springs that fill it. 

Bath was originally known as 'Aquae Sulis' which means 'The waters of Sulis'. Sulis is a Celtic name, so the Romans in the area would have referred to the goddess as Sulis Minerva. She was considered a goddess of wisdom.

Near the pool of Minerva they have a nice display about how the bath was also a temple. People would write requests and petitions to Minerva and then throw them into the boiling pool. A few examples of these were available to look at, and the translated into English so you could easily read them.

You are not able to walk right up to that pool (I guess they want to keep you from burning yourself) but once you pass it, you are shown how the clever Romans had designed the baths so that the runoff from the pool of Minerva would be transported to other locations. You can see the water pouring over a drainage system and feel the heat and steam of it.

From here you move on into the area of the main bath. It appears green due to algae growth, but would not have been during the time it was in use.
Walking around the main bath, are people who are dressed as Romans and able to answer any questions you may have about what you see in the Bath. From the main bath region,  you are able to visit both the east and west sections of the baths and see the remnants of the rooms that used to make up this social bathing area. 
Each room contained a description of what would have went on in that room and your audio guide provides you with even more information. The design of the baths is absolutely extraordinary. Looking at the picture below, you can see lots of stacks of stones that look like little pillars. These would have supported the floor and created a region for steam to be pumped into to heat the room, creating a sauna.
Exploring the Roman Bath took a little more than an hour of my time, but luckily it had stopped raining. While I was not able to wander very much around the actually city, what I could see was absolutely gorgeous! 

Bath is periodically banned from the 'Britain in Bloom' contest due to the number of times it has won, and I can easily see why.
That lion is made out of cacti. No, I'm not kidding, that is a cactus topiary in the shape of a lion. Pretty cool isn't it?!

Bath also contains one of the few bridges int he world that has houses on the bridge:
One of the odd thing that you'll notice about Bath is that all the buildings look very much the same. There are rows of attached tan colored houses where each one looks almost exactly like the next.

Apparently the reason for this, was a combination of the fact that many of the buildings were designed by the same person, John Wood, and the influence of William Beckford. Being the richest commoner in England, Beckford held great influence over what was 'popular' and 'acceptable' and so to be in good social rankings and be invited to social events such as dances, people did not dare deviate from the accepted patterns.

Also, for you those of you who may be obsessed with books like Pride and Prejudice, you should know that Jane Austen lived in Bath for a few years. We passed one of the houses she lived in while on the bus, but I was not able to snap a picture fast enough of it.

Another neat set of buildings that I saw from the bus window was a circle of houses. There are many little crescent shaped rows of houses in Bath, but this one was a full circle! The column design on it was also in the style of the Roman Colosseum. Unfortunately, I also learned on this journey that taking pictures out of the window of a moving bus is not one of my talents. Oh well.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Tour Part 2: Stonehenge

A lot of the stories that our tour guide told us while we traveled through the countryside actually related to the sites we were going to see, even though at first they did not seem to. Since a lot of stories tied in or partially related to Stonehenge, I'm going to tell a lot in here (or at least what I can remember of them, there is only so much one brain can absorb in a day) and sprinkle pictures of Stonehenge throughout to break it up a bit! One of these stories was about 'sky burials'. If you are easily grossed out, I suggest skipping ahead to the picture of me with the lovely Stonehenge and then continuing onward with the paragraph following it.

Long ago in England forts were built at the tops of hills for defense purposes. These forts usually consisted of a large earthen circular mound that sometimes also had a wooden fence. However, during times of peace, these forts were also great places for giving people a 'sky burial'. This literally meant you took your deceased loved one up to the top of the hill, into this lovely fort, and let the birds take care of the rest. Yes, people would take their dead loved ones up to be eaten by birds... apparently it was an honor.

Even during peace times, every fort in England had a man of the fort who was in charge of keeping track of what went on and such. Another interesting thing about English people is a lot of times people's names described what their occupation was. So the men that were in charge of forts near a sea, often carried the surname 'Merddin' which meant 'sea fortress'.

The name Merddin is awful close to a French word (merde) that is, a bit of an unpleasant term. Therfore it is rumored that Geoffrey of Monmouth, who first recorded tales of a prophetic man named 'Merlin', may have just changed the middle letters to avoid unfortunate ties to not so nice French words.

But I digress, you were expecting to hear about Stonehenge not about random old forts. But wait, I told you they might be related! So there is still TONS of debate about what Stonehenge was technically used for in its day, but archeology has shown that before all of the big stones seen today were put in place, the area first had a large circular ditch surrounded by a mound of earth and containing bones.

Interesting isn't it... and then at another point a little further on in history, the circular dirt mound and burial site was replaced with wooden posts. There is no easily visible evidence of these posts anymore, but the remains of cremations and then remnants from the wood were found in post holes in a circular arrangement in the Stonehenge area.

Moving onward from these wooden posts, a set of 'blue stones' were added.  However that circle seems never to have been completely finished. Then a bit later in time (maybe 200 years or so?), the extremely large current stones arrived in addition to the blue stones.

Legend has it that the stones were 'magicked from Ireland to England in a day'. However, most legends tend to be a bit exaggerated. The stones instead match those of a place in Pembrokeshire which is in Wales, but relatively near Ireland, and the stones were probably transported by canal.

 It is interesting how the stones are arranged though, as the entrance was changed when the stones were added, and a rough stone known as the 'heel stone' lines up exactly with the midsummer sunrise which is the day of the year with the most sunlight.

The stones also seem to have been rearranged  a few times since when they were originally constructed, and a tale by Geoffrey of Monmouth actually attributes the building of the stones to Merlin.

The exact use for the constructed stones is still not entirely known. The most commonly accepted idea is that it was a place of worship. The arrangement seems to give way to having processions in and out. The entrance also seems to be in such a way that it would make a path between Stonehenge and a similar but much larger stone circle in Avebury. 

The inside face of the rocks are smooth so would have allowed sound to resonate very well during chants and prayers. This was actually tested by a guy who tested sound related things in prehistoric caves.

Also, throughout a few historic works there have been mentions of people who worshiped in circles. Our tour guide made a connection between a passage of the Odyssey and another historic writing which 'could have suggested worship in stone circles like Stonehenge'. 

Regardless of what it actually was used for, the stones are definitely really neat to go see. No, you can't walk all the way up to them and touch them, but I kinda think it's better that way. You're able to see the whole site a little better, and you aren't kept that far away from it. (It also means you can get pictures of it without having people blocking it as much, which is definitely a plus!)