Sunday, February 19, 2012

Wales in black: of mountains and the night sky

Our lovely cabin at Pen-y-Dre, the next morning
[We start with a bit I wrote mid week's end.]

February 18, 2012

I'm writing from that pleasant valley, on the cusp of a second wind. The endorphins from our hike up Sugar Loaf this afternoon have faded to satisfied sleepiness, slowly perking up now as I drain my cup of joe. I sit at the kitchen table in one of the Pen-y-Dre Farm's cottages in Llanvihangel Crucorney ("Sacred Enclosure of Michael at the Corner of the Rock"); the beams surrounding me are like none I've seen -- almost ostentatious in their rusticity.

We stopped at Raglan Castle the day before
Neither one of us can believe how well this day has come together. We spent last night at the manor house Llansantffraed Court -- more on that in a moment -- and contemplated the grim forecast over their fantastic full Welsh breakfast this morning. As we left for the market hall in Abergavenny, it seemed that heavy rain would indeed dominate the day. Thankfully, Tea was absolutely determined to hike, and so, after a pick-me-up, post-browsing cuppa, we made our way to the tourist information centre for advice on accommodation and hiking in the vicinity.

Llansantffraed Court -- great spot!
It wasn't until we left, with the aforementioned B & B and hill hike recommendations, that we realised the centre had closed minutes after our arrival -- our first bit of luck. And while initially it seemed that Pen-y-Dre Farms was booked up, as Tea chatted with the manager about alternatives he might suggest, his wife piped up to say that they just might have a room, if we could give them a few hours -- Bit of Luck #2. Add that we finished the 5 km hike without so much as a drop of rain, only to have the sky open up as we settled in our cottage -- to say nothing of the beautiful cottage itself, and tea and cake (man-sized wedges at that) that awaited us -- and you're looking at more luck than I can count on a hand. Awww yeah!

My mood of the morning's been turned on its head!

On the way to Sugar Loaf
The summit!

The highlight of the day was probably sitting on a windswept rock two-thirds of the way up Sugar Loaf, feet dangling like I'm a kid in dad's chair, passing a tasty pasty from the market hall back 'n' forth with Tea, watching the shadows of the clouds march across this wide open space like herds of buffalo.

* * *

The Gavenny Valley -- Sunday's hike
Llansantffraed Court was darn near perfect. We'd learned of it through Groupon, and following on from Buttonberg's rave reviews of it last weekend, had us a humdinger of a time. (Until this moment, we've basically retraced Buttonberg's steps, come to think of it, from Raglan Castle -- surely one of the most visually titilating I've seen -- to the manor, to Sugar Loaf.) Llansantffraed Court customised their fixed menu for my lactose intolerance, were consummate hosts through the six courses -- including cured salmon and caviar, confit duck, and loin and pressed shoulder of pork, to name a few -- and stoked an eyebrow-searing fire for us well into the whiskey-filled night.

Oh, and I can't forget the wine pairing: from the riesling (an Australian, from the Pewsey Vale, and Tea's favourite) to the bordeaux on down, each worked beautifully. My favourite was a local red, from the nearby Ancre Hill vineyard: so earthy and yeasty, beetroot in the nose; unlike any wine I've ever tasted. Buttonberg said they never like the same wine and both loved this one. I completely understand; it breaks the mold, and clearly meets in the middle of their tastes.

The end of that story embodies Wales: upon learning of the Buttonberg's gushing love for this local beauty the following morning, the manor called ahead to the vineyard, a few miles down the road, who opened their shop especially for them. They ended up with a case of the stuff.

* * *

On Saturday evening we decided to eat at the Skirrit Mountain Inn, just down the road from our cottage. We turned around almost immediately to grab a torch: there wasn't a street light to be seen in Llanvihangel Crucorney. It reminded me of my last trip to Hare Bay, Newfoundland; I was there for my grandfather's (Dadda's) funeral, and had to make my way back to my Aunt Queen's house each evening by the light of the moon. Now, as then, the constellations popped, as if we were in a planetarium; indeed we had a mobile one seconds later, when Tea fired up her app that labelled the stars (and planets) as you swung the phone around the night sky.

The Skirrid Mountain Inn claims to be Wales' oldest pub, having stood for nine centuries. However, Real Heritage Pubs of Wales puts it at "wholly mid- to late-17th century with major alterations in the 19th century." That said, its crackling hearth, tasty grub -- Tea's baby back ribs were a treat! -- and friendly staff were most welcomed, and we got a good dose of authentic history the following evening when we enjoyed a pint at the Llanthony Priory Hotel: "part of a medieval structure making it the oldest building in [the Real Heritage Pubs of Wales guide] that is now a pub."

* * *

February 19, 2012

The Skirrid, with its chasm of legend
After a nice lie-in, we made our way to the main farmhouse for a big fry-up. It was a fantastic start to the day: blue sky, donkeys and roosters putting their stamp on the morn, sunbeam-sleepy cats lounging in a kitchen so full of life lived.

Tea decided on a nearby hike that would take us through the Gavenny Valley and Cwmyoy -- and the famous crooked church of St. Martin's -- up and around the surrounding hills, along part of the Beacons Way, before circling back to the start. The Gavenny Valley stretched on for miles; such a sight in that crisp morning air. Once we were in it, however, looking up at Cwmyoy, the namesake of the previous evening's inn had our undivided attention:
The Skirrid is the most eye-catching mountain in the area. Shooting up from the Gavenny Valley... gentle green fields climb about halfway up its flanks, giving way suddenly to purple scrub and bracken... [It] has long been held to be a holy mountain; the almighty chasm that splits the peak is said to have been caused by the force of God's will on the death of Christ, a theory that drew St. Michael and legions of other pilgrims... Another theory claims that Noah's Ark clipped it as it passed by.

Inside 'crooked' St. Martin's

The toughest part of the day was still ahead of us: each time we crested a rise, expecting to see the Beacons Way that circled the valley, another hill would present itself. Boy, what a view awaited us at the peak, though. When we made it back to the car, well over four hours later, we were ready for a rest; particularly as we were very aware of the previous day's hike as well.

The last stop of the day was Llanthony Priory, and we made it with minutes to spare. We snapped a few shots as a mist began to fall, briefly taking shelter in the aforementioned hotel of the same name, before heading for home, the sun at our backs and setting the world afire. We soon outran the rain. You could see it in the distance, though; great sheets out near the horizon, tapering to funnels as they touched the earth.

Llanthony Priory

Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the weekend.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Nottingham: The Black Keys!

Tea, in front of the caves in Castle Rock
Well, we almost beat the snow home. With "severe weather" forecast for the day, we thought it best to cut our weekend plans short: we saw the Black Keys at the Capital FM Arena in Nottingham last night -- awesome! -- and had planned to spend the day walking in and around Lincoln; oh well, another time. Ten centimetres is what they're calling for, and while that might not seem like much to my Canadian readership, it's 9.5 cm more than they can handle here; they simply don't have the equipment -- and, frankly, would probably be wasting public funds if they bought it. (If the winters we've seen since moving here are any indication of a colder trend, however, that may not hold true for much longer.)

Tea, at 'the Trip'
We took Friday off and had a leisurely drive to Nottingham, checking in at the Premier Inn around mid afternoon. (It was a really nice room, by the way, although, generally, I'd give it to Ibis by a nose in this category, as I prefer their bathroom layout. Incidentally, discount hotels in the UK are miles ahead of the North American standard.) With a few hours 'til the show, we decided to see what constituted a good cask ale pub in Nottingham.

I hadn't realized that the city is a hotbed of competition for the title of the oldest drinking establishment in England. We visited two claimants: Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem Inn (or 'the Trip') and Ye Olde Salutation Inn (or 'the Sal'). We had a tasty starter in the former to accompany our pints -- the fish cakes were particularly good -- taking in the unique atmosphere offered by the sandstone caves they use as the front drinking rooms. The latter dubs itself a "Rock 'n' Ale" pub, and certainly delivered on both counts: the tunes were nice 'n' heavy the whole time we were there -- thanks to an oversized iPod of a jukebox that was always busy -- and they had eight real ales on handpump! For the curious, here's what we sampled from both pubs:
The impressive array of handpumps at 'the Sal'
Band of Skulls was already on as we took our seats; we hadn't heard them before, but thought they played a decent set. With a capacity of 10000, the arena was downright intimate by the standards of home, while still presenting an impressive sea of undulating heads and arms at the peaks of the light show. The Keys were fantastic. I've never seen them before, but can confidently state that. With the heavy production on their latest album, El Camino, I was a bit worried that the stage would be crammed; happily, it was just Dan and Patrick, and two guys on bass and keyboards -- really simple, with some improv in the bridges. Perfect! They even played Your Touch, kickin' it up to at least double time. (Can't imagine how bored they must be with playing that now.)

We spilled out on the streets around 11:00 p.m., ready for a proper meal. Luckily, most of the kids were looking for a drink, passing the tempting Greek restaurant, Eviva Taverna, by. It didn't disappoint, either: we shared an immense salad with our two skewers of souvlaki each; we were totally stuffed and sated long before we could clean our plates. (I do wish that I'd tackled the raw onions in that salad with a little less fervour, however: when I woke up this morning, my mouth tasted like I'd been using it for things better left unsaid on this blog.)

Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the evening.