Wednesday, 13 August 2014

From Lyme Regis to Llantwit Major, then a big wedding!

Home again after an action-packed week, starting in Lyme Regis and ending in South Wales, for a wedding.
     Our first stop was to visit old friend Karol, who we met many years ago in Turkey. Drove down to Lyme Regis on the A303 past some of my favourite place names. Teffont Magna, Compton Pauncefoot, Chilton Candelo, Sandon Orcas.  I have a whole fantasy scenario about life in the Dower House, Compton Pauncefoot.
     'For goodness sake write it down', says Philosopher, 'and make us some money.'
     Karol lives in a beautiful house overlooking Lyme Bay, but we were surprised to see how the trees between her and the sea had grown up since our last visit, to partially obscure the view of one lovely cliff, Golden Gap. We walked down into Lyme, and then heaved ourselves back up again - my, that place is hilly, makes Hastings look flat.
     The sun was out, the sea was blue, throngs of holiday-makers were enjoying themselves in the pretty little town and on the beach.  The beach looks sandy below but I believe that sand is imported from France.

Lyme Regis - packed. I like the ammonite lamp
     Karol has lived there for ten years now, and has been a star in organising and growing the annual Lyme Regis Arts Festival
     She cooked us a lovely meal, and gave us one of her own paintings - of Great Dixter. Next day we set off across the South-West peninsula to the other coast.
     Our first stop was Watchet.  I haven't been to North Somerset since my marriage to my first husband, in 1974, and for Philosopher it was even longer - his grandparents lived in Minehead, and he visited as a child.  On the way to Watchet we were surprised to see a steam-engine chugging over a bridge right in front of us. It turns out that the West Somerset Railway runs down that bit of coast. Readers will know from previous posts how much Battleaxe loves a steam engine, and we saw plenty of great big former Great Western Railway locomotives which are now in regular service.
    Watchet is an old-fashioned little town with a nice harbour. They had a market, and I bought an unusual yellow crocosmia plant, which I then had to keep alive for the next five days. There was a statue of the Ancient Mariner on the harbour-side, apparently Watchet was the inspiration for Coleridge's poem. In a few days time, would I be the Wedding Guest clutched by that skinny hand?
The Ancient Mariner in Watchet
     We scoured the town for a decent cup of coffee, but had to settle for bilge-water. Now for a 'why oh why' moment. Why oh why is it so hard to get a decent cup of coffee in so many of these country towns. For all we know, they have fought like tigers to keep Costa out, but the local offerings are universally terrible. Next, a 'Hastings is better' moment. Well, sorry, in this case, it is. There are numerous really good coffee places here.
    Drove along to Dunster, stopping briefly at the big beach at Blue Anchor, where there was - nothing. We had booked our 'Treat' night at the Luttrell Arms in Dunster. I was a bit anxious about it because in the last year we have treated ourselves to other heritage hotels including the Bear in Woodstock and the Alvaston Manor in Stratford, and ended up having bad nights and grief with the management about surly staff, noisy ventilation shafts next to rooms, rooms with ill-fitting windows in shabby annexes etc. However, this time there was no worry. the hotel is beautiful, the staff were pleasant and helpful, our pretty room overlooked the landmark Yarn Market, and of course Dunster is as quiet as the grave at night. We had a beer and a sandwich in the garden with a view up the steep wooded hills to the castle. It reminded us of Heidelberg. The garden was reached from the bedroom corridor via a Moroccan style verandah.
The Luttrell Arms

Lovely garden

Dunster Yarn Market

Moroccan verandah leading to garden

View from our window
    The hotel is very old and creaky, and you could be unlucky and arrive at the same time as a huge wedding party, but we had an excellent, relaxing stay, including a good bar meal in the evening.
    In the afternoon we went down to Minehead to look for Philosopher's grandparents old house. We found it surprisingly easily, a large 1930's detached house in a big garden, but it was surrounded by huge thick hedges and high, solid gates, and we could not see in at all. Maybe it belongs to a recluse, or a criminal who wants no disturbance whatsoever.
    Minehead itself was a surprise. I thought it would be a dump but it reminded us of a French resort,  with a long tree-lined boulevard leading down to the sea, full of shops and restaurants. We found the station, which, being the end of the line, had many lovely engines gently steaming in the sidings.  We had a tasty cup of bilge-water in the Station cafe.
Minehead - strangely French

What a lovely engine


Battleaxe waits for the train
    Next day, we went to Cheddar Gorge, which neither of us had ever visited. We parked at the bottom and walked up through a pseudo-Swiss tack village, and then up the Gorge itself. It was better than I expected.  We bought cheapie seniors tickets that entitled us to admission to one cave and then a free Costa coffee and cake. We chose Gough's cavern, which is the longest and deepest - again, it was much better than I expected, with arrays of petrified waterfalls, stalagtites and stalagmites that looked like the view on the screen when you have a colonoscopy (too much detail here, I fear). The Costa coffee was welcome. The Gorge was crowded, not surprisingly for a sunny day in August, but not uncomfortably so.
Swiss-style tack shops at Cheddar Gorge
Prettier than I expected

Romantic gorge

Nice strata

Petrified waterfall in the cave
Don't like the look of those intestinal polyps...
   We drove on to Clevedon, where again neither of us had ever been, despite passing the signs a million times on the M5. It is a lovely little Victorian resort - like Malvern-on-Sea. The Pier is very graceful, and has lots of plaques from people who have paid money - an idea for Hastings Pier? I also think Hastings Pier needs a cafe at the end of it.
Clevedon Pier


Tea Pagoda
    I had booked our Crumbling Faded Grandeur night at the Walton Park Hotel, a huge stone pile perched precariously on the edge of the cliff. It was like a cross between a Victorian Health Hydro and a neo-classical banking hall. The old wood-panelled lift had a grille to pull across, and the landing outside our room smelt somewhat of laundries.
    The room itself was vast, with a big window looking straight out across the Bristol Channel to Wales. We didn't even have to draw the curtains, there was nothing out there but sea, and we could lie on the bed watching the changing sky and the ships passing up and down. It was lovely, and the hotel was fine - again, we had a nice bar meal sitting in a bay window watching the sea. There was some tired decor, threadbare carpets and a few damp patches on the walls in the enormous, echoey dining room where we ate our breakfast, but who cares?
Walton Park Hotel

Sunset from our bed...
    The next day was my birthday, and I had some lovely presents, about which more another time.
    We enjoyed a cup of bilge-water in the little pagoda at the end of the Pier, and then hit the motorway for South Wales.
     My old Brum friend Sue's son Tom was getting married to a Welsh girl, Bethan, in Barry on the Sunday, with the reception in St Donat's Castle near Llantwit Major. We checked into the Holiday Inn Express at Cardiff Airport for three utilitarian nights in a quadruple-glazed air-conditioned functional cell.  We could see the planes out if the window but it was totally soundless. In many ways it is a relief to collapse into functionality where you know everything is in place, everything works etc. Well, nearly everything - the breakfast coffee was even worse than bilge water.
Somewhat less romantic view from cell window
      Met Sue and her partner Graham (both somewhat stressed with acute weddingitis), and then other Sue and Alex, with whom we had a lovely birthday meal at a nearby old pub. This was followed by a little birthday party organised by the two Sue's. Cake and champagne in hotel room - very good.
     Next day Sue, Alex and us two went to explore Llantwit Major. The others had never been before but I had. My sister lived there in the 1960s. My brother-in-law was then working on the Aberthaw power station, and my youngest niece was christened in the church. It was hard to believe this was fifty years ago, and I didn't recognise anything. The church is beautiful and very interesting, has a large graveyard to explore, and a collection of celtic crosses in a restored chapel.
Llantwit Major church

Great graveyard

Church interior
     There was much panic afoot because of the terrible weather forecast - the tail end of Hurricane Bertha was due to hit South Wales. Indeed, it was absolutely pouring with rain when we looked out of the cell window first thing on the wedding morning, and very windy. However, by some miracle, it had stopped by wedding time, and then only rained when we were all indoors. It stayed windy though - many hats and fascinators bowling about, and the bride's veil blew off high into the sky and down the street when they left the church. Fortunately I didn't have a hat to worry about.
     The Barry Male Voice Choir actually sang Cwm Rhondda (Guide me O thou great Jehovah) at the service. What a treat.
     The bride looked happy and lovely, the big bridesmaids were elegant, the little ones were cute, the groom looked happy and lovely, the groomsmen were dashing, the church looked lovely, we all looked lovely etc. etc. Sue, the bridegroom's mum, looked particularly fabulous. But what can you say about weddings? 
     There were about 130 guests. These days, Philosopher and Battleaxe rarely go to such do's. It was good to see so many people from Birmingham, and to see us all scrubbed up in our best.
     St Donat's Castle is very impressive - a romantic reconstruction by Randolph Hearst in the 1920s, and now home to something called Atlantic College. We had photographs, fizz and canapes in the sunny but windswept garden, followed by a sit-down meal and speeches in the Great Hall (which looked lovely. We had our place names written on pebbles). The man next to me started to tell me about sailing his boat to Watchet. Eftzoons, the Ancient Mariner! 'Unhand me, grey-beard loon!' nearly quoth I, but obviously didn't.
     The groom made a very touching little speech about Sue, his mum - not a dry eye in the house.
St Donat's Castle

Castle garden
     It was an excellent event, and a credit to Bethan's family, and to Sue, who had organised it all. Although I took loads of photos, I will only post one wedding picture, not mine.  I'll put a couple more on Facebook. Thanks to Anne Tucker for this one.

     After the meal, there was a band to dance to, cones of fish and chips, and ice-creams.
     We returned to our cell at about 10.30pm. I like a band, and love to bop about, but the music was aimed more at youth.
     Next day we had a very wet and incredibly traffic-clogged drive back to Hastings. It took an hour and a half to do twenty miles of M25. Arrived home worn out.