Last week I spent a beautiful weekend in the seaside town of Aberystwyth, on the west coast of Wales. I took the train up to Cartmarthen and there transferred to a bus, which took in a beautiful part of the coastline on its way to Aberystwyth. I had been told that it’s probably the most “Welsh” town there is. It reminded me of Brighton, mostly because of the sunny weather and the candy-coloured houses, but yes, it was undeniably Welsh: the red Welsh dragon was ubiquitous. I even saw somebody wearing suspenders with the Welsh flag on them!as it’s closer to the north than Swansea, there is a higher number of people who speak Welsh. Signs and menus were nearly all bilingual.
I staying in an Airbnb with a retired Malaysian lady who was perfectly sweet and would babble in broken English while I made breakfast. Then she would sit and watch me eat, ask what I was going to do that day, etc. I think she was a bit lonely. She told me all sorts of things about her life that I did not necessarily want to know, but the room was brilliant.
One of the chief attractions of Aberystwyth is the National Library of Wales, the archives of everything to do with Welsh literature: personal memorabilia of famous Welsh people, medieval manuscripts, the works of Welsh artists, you name it, they’ve got it. I popped in here just after my arrival, but it was nearly closing time, so I didn’t get to see all of it. I visited the exhibition on Mametz Wood, where, on 10 July 1916, nearly 4,000 soldiers of the 38th Welsh Division were killed, wounded or declared missing. Photos of what Mametz Wood looks like today by Aled Rhys Hughes were on display; Hughes tried to answer the question if the landscape “remembers” this important episode. I thought his work was simply amazing; the photographs reminded me of the battle scars I saw in the Bois Jacques in the Ardennes earlier this year. Hughes was also inspired by the poem “In Parenthesis”, written by Welsh poet David Jones who served and was wounded at Mametz. In the poem, Jones tries to comes to terms with the harrowing experience of battle. It did not become as famous as the works of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, who also served there, but is firmly embedded in the Welsh national consciousness of the war. The photographs were paired with Jones’ letters, early drafts of the poem, photographs and other personalia.
I walked out of the Mametz Wood exhibition, which had given me chills, into the blinding sunshine, down the seafront from the foot of Constitution Hill on the right to Aberystwyth Castle on the left. The promenade was teeming with people taking a seaside holiday. The architecture is absolutely charming. I visited the ruins of Aberystwyth Castle, a 14th century castle which was built at great expense, but kept in good condition only until 1343, when it fell to ruin. Next to the castle is a monument to the men from Aberystwyth who fell in the Second World War. There is a beautiful former cinema which is now a museum (with a fairly disappointing collection about local Welsh life); on the third day after the Second World War had broken out, this was the only operating cinema in the UK, and from my dissertation reading about London during the Blitz, I recall that during this period, the cinemas in London bore notices that said: “Sorry, we’re closed; nearest cinema in Aberystwyth.” In the evening, I had dinner in an Italian restaurant where the waiter had such a heavy Welsh accent that every time he spoke to me I (embarrassingly) had to ask him to repeat himself.
On my second day I walked up the hills of Penclais Nature Park, a lovely wooded area, and on to Constitution Hill, which to me seemed like one of those valiant attempts by the British to turn anything remotely interesting to visitors into a Fun Day Out, with entertainment for children. What I find most attractive in the UK are the rugged, unspoiled landscapes; but I remember seeing The Needles in the south of England on holiday once, which had a complete carnival attached to it. Similarly, Constitution Hill, which provided a beautiful view over Aberystwyth, had a bowling alley and an arcade, as well as a restaurant. I sat down for a few hours to sketch the beautiful view, and then walked a little way along the coast to the next town and back. I went back up the hill after dinner because I wanted to photograph the view of the city at night. It was super windy and a little rainy, and I must have taken fifty photos trying to keep my tripod from blowing away (yes, it’s a cheap tripod). There was a wedding reception taking place in the restaurant, and an adorable chubby girl came to make with friends with me. She helped (or tried) by pressing down firmly on my camera to keep it still during the long-exposure shots. Sadly both our efforts were in vain; I couldn’t get a completely clear picture. “I wish there was no wind and no rain and no blurry!” she exclaimed, but I’m afraid the weather gods were deaf to her pleas. I got a few okay shots in the end, but I left soon after because I didn’t want to walk down the hill in complete darkness.
On Sunday, I had to take the bus back to Carmarthen at 2 PM, so before I had to leave I squeezed in a quick hike on the east side of town, going up Pen Dinas hill, an ancient hill fort from the Iron Age. It has a distinctive chimney-like monument on top, dedicated to the Duke of Wellington, victor of Waterloo. (Why there’s a monument dedicated to him on a hill in the middle of Wales is another question.) It was super windy on the top of the hill, but the views over the surrounding valley were more than worth it.