Castles, Cottages and Houses of Parliament 1 november 2012

A musical box led us to a Welsh castle. This is a story in itself, spanning centuries and involving vanquished otters, fortunes lost and gained, Dr Who and a prayer book. It is a story that I must and will write. But, for now, suffice it to say that this why we are now in Wales. The full version will follow.

Penllyn Castle, the magnet that drew us to Wales

With autumn arriving in spectacular fashion, we left the excitement and ancient grandeur of Penllyn Castle, near Cowbridge, and drove to the snugness of Ferryman’s Cottage in Glasbury, via the Brecon Beacons. This restored eighteenth-century hideaway is literally on the banks of the River Wye. The ducks gather to be fed at the remains of the jetty below the patio and we can watch garden birds from the comfort of the lounge—twenty species so far. And that doesn’t count the hundreds of Red Kites we witnessed this week being fed at Gigrin Farm at Rhyader in the Elan Valley. Red Kites almost became extinct in Britain but are on their way back, thanks to those who devoted themselves to the project. By the way, folk here are actively encouraged to feed garden birds to help them get through the winter whereas we are discouraged from doing that in Australia. Interesting.

I see I have got onto birds again. Sorry! I confess I have binoculars at my side as I write because there is a feeding frenzy at the bird feeder outside the window. The Coal Tit is particularly lovely. But before I drag myself away from ornithological topics, I need to tell you a sad story.

The budgie died. Since mid-September, our home base has been Sue’s house in London. This trip to Wales is a side trip from there. Sue’s budgie, Bird, had not been well and fell from her perch, dead, a couple of weeks after Sue left us to house-sit. With the help of neighbours, Peter and Christine, who knew Bird well, we gave her a decent burial.

Those black specks in the sky are Red Kites coming for a feed. We watched from one of the bird hides on the other side of the hedge

The day before this sad event we celebrated a very happy one, however. We marked our thirteenth wedding anniversary by going to see the classic farce, Charley's Aunt, at the Chocolate Factory theatre. As the plot was all about the joys and perils of love, marriage and match-making, it was apt. We led up to this treat by visiting the Geffrye Museum, which shows how the English ‘middling classes’ furnished their homes over the centuries, as well as preserving a few of the rooms of the widows and the poor who lived in the almshouse that once occupied the site.

Imagining life as our grandparents knew it, at the Geffrye Museum

The day of Bird’s demise, we travelled into central London early. Our friend, Eilidh, a Scottish Nationalist MP, had arranged an official tour of the Houses of Parliament for us. Our small group was shown around by one of the door-keepers, a young woman who is empowered to eject MPs from the chamber and slam the door in their faces if they are late for a division, much to her delight. We then had lunch with Eilidh in the Strangers’ Dining Room. Scotland is topical here at the moment as the wheels are now in motion for a 2014 referendum regarding Scottish independence so Eilidh is kept particularly busy. Geoff asked her what she thought the United Kingdom would be called if/when Scotland leaves. The Disunited Kingdom, Geoff asked? I suggested Little Britain.

While house-sitting in London, we devoted some time being B&B hosts and tour guides. Two lots of friends have come to share Sue’s house with us—Simon and Angela and, later, Ian and Caroline. During these visits, we stumbled onto the changing of the guard during a whistle-stop tour of central London; made a day trip to Cambridge for punting and Evensong; ate in the crypt at St Martins-in-the-Fields and also at a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown famous for the rudeness of its staff. (Geoff was quite disappointed when one of the waiters mumbled, ‘Sorry,’ when they bumped into each other.) More mundanely, but just as critical to life in Kenton, we initiated our guests into the ways of the 183 bus, which like Melbourne trams and bananas, comes in bunches.

Autumn as seen from the River Cam

Geoff’s love of Delius’s music, my enthusiasm for ‘birding pals’, our joint editing responsibilities, and old family friends have taken us to interesting people and places. We stood in an old churchyard in Limpsfield in front of Delius’s grave and learnt that a whole cohort of famous musicians is buried around him. New birding pals, Peter and Jill, showed us the old cress fields in Hertfordshire. It was a wet day and not good for birds but we did watch a Green Woodpecker foraging on the ground and we found our own lovely hot meal in a pub along the way. Preman and Sherina hosted us to a wonderful curry lunch after we discussed the ins and outs of editing Preman’s new book. The meal was topped off by an enormous chocolate cake in memory of the one Preman dropped that fateful day in Hong Kong many years ago when he tripped over a dog and broke his collar bone. It had been Geoff who insisted that the cake be picked up, the top cut off, and the rest eaten by the assembled CCA staff. A fast train took us to Grantham, where we visited an old family friend, Ethne, newly settled into a nursing home, who told us amazing World War 2 stories of love, lost and found. When we return to London in a few days’ time, we will go to Surrey to attend the baptism of little Silas, grandson of my ‘Burmese brother’, Daniel.

We picked flowers from the roadside to leave at Delius’s grave

So that is what we have been up to. Let me know if you would like the story about the musical box and the Welsh castle. I will call it ‘The Vanquished Otter’.

Now it is time to snuggle down and light the fire as the rain is approaching over the hills. We drove up and over those hills the other day, past Hay Bluff. That took a few deep breaths on my part as the narrow road was a bit close to the edge and the car a bit big for my liking. But we did it and the scenery, stunning around every turn, was worth it.

Hay-on-Wye, famous for its thirty-plus second-hand bookshops, is just down the road. As this rain sets in, as it’s likely to do, we will not be short of reading matter.

Hay-on-Wye is the second-hand bookshop centre of the world

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