Archive for December, 2011

It’s a Family Affair (Part 2)

Sunday, December 25th, 2011

Nobody else appeared to share my concern over Swansea’s city center and it was time to embark on the next leg of our trip which would prevent me from running down to County Hall screaming and shouting about the abject demise of a once proud regional center. Out of town shopping is not acceptable as an alternative to a city center which should be maintained and nurtured as the flagship of its conurbation. I must be getting delusional in my old age.

Typically it was grey and overcast with a persistent drizzle when we left the friendly confines of Tycoch and headed for the M4 which would take us to our next destination on the outskirts of London. I dropped my wife off in Staines where she was to spend the night with a girlfriend exchanging recent nomadic travel experiences; not to mention consuming copious amounts of chardonnay.

Meanwhile I continued onto Bracknell to stay the night with my son. I traveled through the little town of Ascot and didn’t realize that the famous and historic race track dominates the town. It was difficult to imagine on an overcast late afternoon in November that the monolithic stadium was home to Royal Ascot during one week in June.

I finally caught up with my son and we headed for a local hostelry. I continued my quest for nostalgic meals and promptly ordered a plate of liver and onions. It was slightly congealed around the edges but was palatable enough washed down with a couple of pints of local ale.

I spent a sleepless night in my son’s flat fighting the virus given to me by grand daughter earlier in the trip. During the night I lurched from bouts of shivering and high temperatures. Needless to say daylight finally arrived and I felt much better. Hopefully, my son would change the sheets before reclaiming his bed.

My wife and I were reunited and returned the rental car to Heathrow before heading for our hotel in Shepherd’s Bush which we used as our base for three nights; taking in the sights and sounds of the nation’s capital.

First port of call was Gordon’s Wine Bar in Charing Cross. It is considered to be the oldest wine bar in London and probably the world. It was established in its present form in 1890, having served for many years as a warehouse until the river was embanked and the building became landlocked.

As we entered the bar down a narrow flight of stairs we found ourselves in a room with wooden walls covered in historical newspaper cuttings and memorabilia faded with age. Making our way to the cellar we needed to stoop to claim our rickety candlelit table.

The owners have maintained the original décor, kept music out and sell only wine while providing traditional and well priced pub grub. In its colorful history, the building has been home to literary giants Samuel Pepys (1680s) and later Rudyard Kipling (1890s.) My wife discovered the place on a business trip and was determined to share the experience with me. Wonderful!

We didn’t necessarily have a bucket list, but I wanted to visit the new Wembley stadium to make a comparison with the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Quite frankly I was disappointed. I was expecting “a state of the art” type of structure but was confronted with a concrete bowl devoid of a atmosphere and character. The guide proudly announced the stadium cost a staggering 750 million pounds, but I could not comprehend how they could spend so much money on a nondescript finished product.

However there were a couple of highlights; the Bobby Moore statue at the stadium’s entrance is a lasting and well deserved tribute to a great footballer and captain of England’s world cup winning team of 1966. Luckily we spotted another legend, Bobby Charlton, entertaining members of the Japanese FA in the lower echelons of the stadium. One prominent feature on display in the museum was the infamous cross bar from the world cup final held at the old Wembley between England and West Germany.

My wife lived in London for eighteen months and she loved attending plays and musicals in the West End with her girlfriend. My brother had enthusiastically recommended “The War Horse” to us but it was sold out until next spring. Suddenly I had this brilliant idea of buying tickets for “The Mousetrap” which was celebrating its 60th anniversary. Let me just say this was not one of my finer moments. The play was simply awful; the actors were wooden, and the plot reminded one of cold, clotted custard.

The newest tourist attraction in London is the London Eye which is a cross between a giant carousel and ski lift. It does provide great views of traditional landmarks: The Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey. But the entry fee of 18 pounds and fifty pence for a 30 minute ride seemed exorbitant to me. Come to think of it; everything in London costs at least 18 pounds!

On our final evening in London, we caught the tube to Richmond to reunite with my son and meet his girlfriend and her little boy for the first time. We went up the high street to a pizza restaurant and discovered that my son’s girlfriend and I have a mutual liking for anchovies on our pizza. Unfortunately we were both disappointed to be informed by the waitress that anchovies were not available. Never mind, anchovies have bonded us for life.

I hope y’all have a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful new year. Here’s looking at you Kid!

It’s a Family Affair (Part 1)

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

My wife and I recently returned from a two week trip to England and Wales. We normally fly over for a long weekend at Thanksgiving to visit with my daughter, grand daughter and son-in-law, but I suddenly realized that I hadn’t returned home to Wales in over five years and I was anxious to see the old homeland. It also gave us an opportunity to look up other relatives whom we had not seen in a good while.

The first port of call was Devon to spend the first few days of our trip where the highlight was my 18 month grand daughter who continues to amaze and entertain us. I didn’t realize at this stage but the two week hiatus would evolve into a culinary safari beginning with fish and chips (cod in batter which the Americans can’t quite master) and the inevitable Devon tea comprising scones, clotted cream, strawberry jam, and tea brewed in a teapot.

I played a round of golf with my son-in-law at Teign Valley Golf Club in Christow near Exeter which has the distinction of recording one of the longest holes in one on a par 5. Club member Shaun Lynch achieved the feat in 1995 with a 3-iron on the 496-yard No.8. According to a 2004 article in Golf World magazine, Lynch aimed straight toward the green on a horseshoe par-5 clearing a 20-foot high hedge; then hitting a downslope on the other side. The downslope carried his ball to the green and into the cup. There is a plaque alongside the tee box commemorating his extraordinary effort.

The five days visiting my grand daughter passed too quickly, but it was time to head for the land of my fathers, Wales.  We crossed the Severn Bridge into Wales having paid 6 pounds and seventy pence toll for the privilege of entering my country, and duly arrived in the nation’s capital Cardiff where my brother and sister-in-law live. My brother had arranged an itinerary for our brief visit and upon arrival we were whisked off to the Millennium Stadium, national home and headquarters of Welsh rugby. The visit and special effects were enthralling particularly the audio accompaniment as we emerged from the dressing room into the seething cauldron of 70,000 simulated Welsh voices baying for blood.

My brother had made dinner reservations at a gastro pub with a Welsh theme, and the meal was outstanding. This was followed by a quick tour of the City which confirmed my fears that Cardiff was now light years ahead of my home town, Swansea, but more on that theme later. My brother had not finished entertaining us until the next morning when he cooked a traditional Welsh breakfast comprising laver bread, cockles, bacon, fried egg, fried bread and grilled tomato. Laver bread is an acquired taste but to the Welsh connoisseur it’s an exquisite way to begin the day.

Indeed the breakfast was a splendid way to send us on the relatively short trip to Swansea where I was born and raised before emigrating to America in 1996. I was a town planner for over 20 years based in Swansea and naturally I was anxious to learn what had happened to the “ugly dirty town” in my absence.

In hindsight I wouldn’t have been so depressed if I had avoided the city center (America’s equivalent of downtown.)Alternatively, I should have turned my back on the city and looked out towards the adjacent Maritime Quarter which is a little frayed around the edges but retains a comfortable atmosphere. I believe 20 million pounds was spent on refurbishing the Quadrant Bus Station which looks exactly the same as the original, but with a coat of fresh paint, a moderate number of technical innovations, and no graffiti (yet!)

High Street and Castle Street once provided an integral element to Swansea’s shopping center, but is now generally boarded up and strewn with incandescent posters advertising events that occurred 10 years ago. On Sunday morning, a workforce of bored laborers were erecting a series of wooden sheds along Oxford Street to house a Christmas Fair giving the City Center as much appeal as a steamy night in downtown Beirut. In contrast Cardiff is now a modern and vibrant 21st Century City while Swansea  resembles a third world hovel. It makes me very sad and bewildered.

Thankfully, the Gower peninsula remains relatively unharmed thanks to AONB status and ironically inclement weather. Gower comprises some of the best beaches in the world, but the area is saved from an invasion of tourists of monumental proportions by the beaches’ relative inaccessibility and unpredictable appearances of the sun. Pennard Golf Club with its magnificent views of Three Cliffs Bay remains one of my favorite locations in the world. Not many golf courses include medieval castle ruins with cows and sheep permitted to graze over the links. Playing the 18th hole to a backdrop of a sunset can be quite mystical.

Lunch was partaken in the Beaufort Arms in Kittle and I couldn’t resist ordering faggotts and mushy peas; much to the chagrin of my long suffering wife.  We had a good visit with my cousins; catching up with family gossip. At one point we thought we were in the middle of a live episode of Gavin and Stacey but only funnier! Following a breakfast comprising “bacon butties” my cousin gave us a quick tour of the “SA1 Project” which is intended to breathe life into the “ugly dirty town.” I do hope so, but don’t hold your breath.