Kenyon College

Friday, April 23, 2010

Wales, Week 1

"This is my office," the young guide said to us in his thick Welsh accent, gesturing from the back of his horse to the packed sand, the ocean, and the sun sinking its golden light over the hills and cliffs of Pembrokeshire. The wind was cold and persistent around us, but the four of us were riding strong, dependable horses on the beach in the evening, and there was little that could detract from the beauty of the moment.

Our shadows stretched across the sand, and I wondered why, when asked what I thought of Wales, I could only say, "It's beautiful." I hoped that, given time, I could put words to this experience, these two weeks that truly feel like a wrapping-up. Each field of sheep and lambs that I pass, each sudden view of the hazy blue ocean, each trek to each ruined castle makes me think about the finality of it all. What I'm leaving, what I'm going toward, the final impression of all that I've seen on my year abroad. These deserve words. Luckily I have one more week to puzzle this out, and there may be no neat answer. I think that would be okay.

Sights & Destinations

We have been seeing Wales from the windows of a coach, from the tops of cliffs and crumbling castle towers, and through the eyes of coal miners, painters, poets. A camera cannot adequately capture the broad expanses and deep crags of the part cliff-jagged, part sand-smooth coastline, or the calm green emptiness of the rolling hedgerowed fields.

Wales shows itself best in the morning or evening sunlight, when the countryside goes yellow or gold and lengthens into shadow. As we depart in the morning, the air is cool and shot through with pale beams of sunlight. In the evening we look for dinner amongst old stone buildings made warm from the sun. (The weather has been good to us; no rain so far.)

Firstly we stopped at Tintern Abbey, and were even able to hike to a location quite some ways above Tintern Abbey. If you forget about the parking lot and tourist shop nearby, you can easily transport yourself to the end of the 18th century. I pictured myself on a boat going down the Wye, an experience I think I would quite enjoy.

Another place we went that I enjoyed was Hay-on-Wye, which is known as being the "Town of Books." This means that it is full of bookshops. It is a town taken over by bookshops, and is the location of a writers festival, about which Margaret Atwood has written. Of course it was a beautiful afternoon when we arrived, and I enjoyed a cookie and an iced coffee while we visited the bookshops. They were so prolific, some were inevitably skipped by us. I particularly wanted to visit the poetry bookshop, though most of the books there were expensive. I did manage to purchase a copy of Great Expectations, as well as Isaac Asimov's Foundation.

Later on we arrived at the best hotel in all the galaxy, fondly called the Dru (short for Druidstone), which is a sort of friendly haven for artists and eclectic characters, being a cafe/bar/restaurant as well as a hotel. It has a wonderful view overlooking an expansive beach, a beach on which a few of us got to ride horses. That was a marvelous experience, and cantering through the surf is a pleasure I won't soon forget. Talking to our guides about their experiences in Australia, and their disdain over their friend who went to Colorado and learned the Western style of riding, which is much more laid-back, and being able to find out more about Pembrokeshire slang, and the satisfaction of working with horses and people; all of this, plus walking the beach, climbing around on the cliffs by myself, eating fabulous dinners with the rest of the group, and passing the time on the gorgeous Welsh coast, it all added up to a delightful two days.

I will miss that place, but today we were leaving Aberystwyth and arrived, quite suddenly, into the midst of mountains. I am from a place that is cradled on both east and west by mountains, and they mean quite a bit to me. So, to find myself among them where for seven months before there had been only rolling hills was striking, and I thought of home. The mountains through which we drove were brown-green and covered in some places by pine trees, dotted with sheep, lambs, and small clusters of stone buildings. It was peaceful to look out the window.

We will shortly be heading to the Lake District; expect more.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Honiton; the Sea Tractor

I was walking down to St David's train station today, taking the wooded footpath and weaving through a residential area, and everywhere there were daffodils in bloom, and profusions of other colorful flowers, and the air was a perfect balance of cool and warm. It is finally starting to feel like summer could be around the corner; yesterday I didn't even have to wear a jacket into town! That is a first, believe it or not.

I took the train into Honiton, a weary old town that still has a unique charm. I prefer this sort of charm to Exeter's, which is loud and attracts everyone. Honiton seems to know that it isn't as popular, and is in fact a little crumbly around the edges, but the shops are small and friendly, and it has, most importantly, a Boston Tea Party. The purpose of my visit to Honiton today was to visit this Boston Tea Party, the last on my list to visit. I've sat and had a coffee, whether by myself or with friends, at every Boston Tea Party in existence, the one in Bath, the two in Bristol, the one in Barnstaple, and the one in Exeter.

I wouldn't keep going on about this cafe if it didn't hold such an important role in forming my experience abroad. I would go to the BTP in Exeter whenever I could, and I would always order the same thing: a large Continental. I experienced a moment of joy when one of the servers there was able to predict what I would order the other day. Me: "Can I have...." Her: "A Continental of some sort? Large?" and it was good.

Most of the time I would take my reading for class there, or I would work on a creative writing assignment. Sitting, a little oasis of calm on the edge of a bustling, happy room of people sharing conversation over coffee and food, I could relax and feel like a part of everything. It was as though I could connect, if only for a little bit, with the energy of the city and the people in it. In this microcosmic state, it was easy to let my mind wander to creative tasks, or to concentrate on and really understand what I was reading. It may sound silly, but by seeking out this place in Exeter, I felt like I could let go of my identity as an American student for a little bit, and become, perhaps, a British student, or just a person living and working in Exeter, taking their lunch break at the Boston Tea Party.

To commemorate the importance of the Boston Tea Party, and of visiting the last one on my list, I bought a mug emblazoned with the tea-sipping gent of their logo. The great thing about these cafes is that each one is different, having carved out its place in a strangely shaped building, with its own array of tables, chairs, and sofas, perhaps an upstairs, perhaps a back garden for nice days like today. Like the cities and towns they inhabit, each Boston Tea Party has its own character.

On Tuesday, Claire, Logan, and I went with Professors Laycock and Carson to Bigbury-on-Sea. There were surfers in abundance, as well as the occasional kayaker and windsurfer. It was a beautiful day that day, as well, and an excellent time to ride the sea tractor! The sea tractor is a large-wheeled beast that trundles folks across the sandy causeway between Bigbury-on-Sea and Burgh Island, when the tide is high enough to cover the causeway with water.

After spending some time on Burgh Island, and getting lunch at the Pilchard Inn, which was manned by an eccentric Italian (?) bartender, we took the sea tractor back across the causeway, which, as the tide receded, was becoming traversable by foot.

Another walk along the coast followed, in which we saw sheep, and lambs! The wind was strong, and both I and my sniffles were thankful for the hot chocolate and warm car at the end of the excursion.