Sunday, April 08, 2007

Greetings from Aberdyfi

Saturday was a glorious day, both in terms of the weather and our activities. We got up very early and left the cottage in High Littleton for Dudley, a city near Birmingham with a zoo containing one spectacular and unique feature: a castle. However, this was not our reason for visiting: last year had adopted one of the penguins there for younger son as a birthday present, and when we realized we would be in the vicinity of the zoo, I had written to the marketing manager, who had offered to arrange for son to meet his penguin, Arkwright, while we were there. The zoo really went above and beyond the call. Not only did son get to help zookeeper Mark feed the penguins and pet one of Arkwright's week-old babies while a zoo photographer snapped pictures for their newsletter -- I gather that they don't get many Americans who have adopted animals visiting them at the zoo -- but they also arranged a private tour of Dudley Castle led by "Brother Dudley", ostensibly a medieval monk who told us about the castle's history from the Norman conquest through the execution of onetime owner John Dudley, who lost his head for supporting Lady Jane Grey, up to the fire that destroyed the castle in the 1800s.

There are beautiful views of the castle from all over the park, but from inside the walls, you forget that you're visiting a zoo (well, unless you are fixated on penguins and sheep, since the latter can be seen and heard all over the area). fter a visit to the castle armory and a quick walk through the zoo, which is beautiful -- there are paths through the wallabies and lemurs where the animals can run right next to zoo visitors, plus a little amusement park and gorgeous views of the entire city from the castle keep, the highest point in the Midlands -- we drove through the Welsh countryside to Aberdyfi on Cardigan Bay. We passed steam trains, magnificent mountains and thousands of sheep on the way to the shore, discovering that our bed & breakfast at Tyddyn Rhys Farm was an extremely steep quarter of a mile uphill from the water...nearly as strenuous a hike as Glastonbury Tor!

I am starting to think that rumors of bad weather in England and Wales are made up to scare away American tourists, because it was warm, brilliantly sunny and clear the entire afternoon and evening. After walking down to the shore, we had dinner at Walkers Fish & Chips outside facing the water, where a handful of boats were coming and going, and local kids were racing crabs which scuttled to the waterline and buried themselves in the sand as quickly as possible. The B&B where we stayed had several cats, one of whom came through our open bedroom door and made itself comfortable on the bed between the kids, as well as dogs, chickens and sheep in the fenced areas around the house. We watched Doctor Who in the evening -- the Shakespeare episode, filmed at the Globe in London, in which the Doctor explains to Martha that the seventh Harry Potter book was unforgettable and 57 academics punch their fists in the air at having Shakespeare's sexuality confirmed for them.

We were awoken Easter morning when a Jack Russell terrier came upstairs and whined until younger son opened the door to the room in which the kids were staying, where it proceeded to jump on the bed and lick older son awake. There were cats mewling and sheep bleating just outside our window. After eating the huge breakfast prepared by the woman who owns the B&B where we were staying, we hiked up to Carn March Arthur and the Bearded Lake in the hills far above Aberdyfi -- again in weather so gorgeous it seemed unreal. The path winds up past hundreds of sheep and alongside a farm into Snowdonia National Park, surely one of the most beautiful places in Britain. The lake isn't very bearded at this time of year because the water lilies that cover it in the summer have only started to spread across the surface, but it's still a gorgeous little lake surrounded on all sides by grass and rock-covered hills which I have wanted to see since I first read Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising books in elementary school.

We stopped briefly at the Talyllyn Railway station in Tywyn to see the train museum and to watch the steam engines come and go. In Thomas the Tank Engine movies based on Reverend Awdry's series, this line became Skarloey, and while we were at the station, the red Thomas train Duncan pulled in. (The kids were at this stage less impressed than we were!) Nearby is Tal-y-llyn Lake, also known as Llyn Mwyngil, the Pleasant Lake, at the foot of Cader Idris -- another place I have wanted to see since reading about Susan Cooper's Wales in childhood. Yet again we missed any hint of the Brenin Llwyd; it was spectacularly bright and sunny as we drove into the valley, just as it had been since we arrived in Wales. However, keeping to the King Arthur theme, we went on to King Arthur's Labyrinth in Corris surrounded by a local artists' colony. The Disneyland-type history of the Mabinogion is mitigated by subterranean boat ride and walk through the caverns beneath Braichgoch Mountain used for decades by Braichgoch Quarry to mine slate. It was very dark, quite chilly and moody in the caverns and the exhibits in that setting were quite enjoyable. We had dinner at the Brewers Fayr in Telford.

The Dudley Zoo's penguin enclosure has an advantage over every other in the world: Dudley Castle.

Adam, zookeeper Mark and baby penguin at the Dudley Zoo.

The zoo also lets visitors get up close and personal with the animals.

The beach at Aberdyfi.

Adam had a lovely time with the cats at the bed & breakfast where we stayed.

Carn March Arthur, reputed to be King Arthur's horse's hoofprint.

The Bearded Lake, not very bearded at this time of year.

At the Talyllyn Railway Station in Tywyn.

Duncan, one of the trains from Thomas the Tank Engine, at work on the railway.

Llyn Mwyngil and Cader Idris -- probably "the chair of the giant" rather than Arthur's seat, but I love Cooper's version.

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