August 22, 23, 2016: Originally I had thought to use Wales’ narrow gauge steam railways as transport, sleeping in Porthmadog and day tripping to the Italianate village of Portmeirion. Then it occurred to me that using a narrow gauge carriage for transport of luggage, on an August weekend, was not one of my better ideas. Plan B was to day trip by narrow gauge from Conwy, but the timetables would have left me only a short time in Portmeirion. Next trip, maybe. Instead I used Conwy as a base for Beaumaris Castle on Anglesey, Bodnant Gardens and Llandudno.
Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate with my plans for Anglesey. When I woke up and saw the rain, I nearly canceled my visit, but there was always the chance, this being the UK, that the weather would clear up. I took a bus to Bangor, and a second on to Beaumaris via what I believe was the Menai bridge. The bridge was completed in 1826, and I was amused to notice that the driver took his bus through the narrow archway very, very slowly, with only centimeters of clearance to either side. He didn’t have a lot of clearance on some of the roads – maybe lanes would be a better word – once on the island.

I reached Beaumaris, I drank coffee in a cafe opposite the castle, I bought my entrance ticket, still rain, in fact heavier rain. But while I watched the introductory video the day cleared enough for me to walk through the castle and half way round the battlements without recourse to my umbrella (which might not have withstood the wind). Beaumaris was designed as the perfect defensive castle, and though never finished (Edward turned his attention north and the money dried up), photos taken from the air show it to be exactly that, with moat, double defensive walls, and towers. Unfortunately, it is not so obvious on the ground, and after seeing Conwy on this trip, and Caernarfon on earlier trips, I found Beaumaris not worth the trek, although I did rather like the red Welsh dragon emerging from the ground inside. Afterwards, I ate lunch in the Bull’s Head, which had been recommended (whitebait and deviled kidneys, quite good).

My plans for Anglesey had included a visit to Plas Newydd, but this would have required a fifteen to twenty minute trek from and to the bus stop, and it looked like there was going to be more rain, so instead I went back to Conwy, wrote a blog post over coffee, and walked the walls. Skipping Plas Newydd, along with missing Lulworth Cove in Dorset, was one time when having a car would have made a difference.

In complete contrast, the next day featured bright sun. I was able to take a bus (although not one of the Arriva buses covered by the day pass I had just bought) right to the gates of Bodnant Gardens. The absolute best time to visit Bodnant is when the laburnum arcade is in flower, but there was still plenty to see. The site was big, and it was quite a trek to the Far End, mostly through trees and alongside a stream. Some of the trees were remarkable, including the tallest yew and the tallest redwood in the UK. The flowers were back near the entrance, on terraces and round lily ponds below the house, which was not open for visits.

Another bus took me from Bodnant Gardens to the center of Llandudno, on a peninsula north of Conwy. I have distant memories of visiting Llandudno back when I was a child, and I wanted another look at the Great Orme, the massive limestone headland at its far end. A lot of other people also wanted to have a look at it, and the line for the Victorian Tramway, with just one small carriage, was long. I could have ridden the new cable cars, but I have a decreasing tolerance for heights and felt safer on solid ground. Besides, the tram was more fun. The best views of Llandudno’s sweeping half-circle of sand were from the halfway point, where we changed trams, and the tourist clutter at the top was disappointing. If I had felt more energetic, or it had been earlier in the day, I might have walked down, taking in the Bronze Age copper mine on the way, but I didn’t, and it wasn’t, and I rode the tram both ways. The Ormes (there is a lesser one on the eastern side of the bay) are covered with short grass and are good places for hikers and picnickers. I even saw gorse and heather on the way up.

August 20-24, 2016: From Shrewsbury I rejoined the Birmingham to Holyhead train to reach Conwy, on the north coast of Wales. The rails ran quite close to the shore in places, and I enjoyed the views. My B&B was just uphill from the small, on-request station, and the whole town was easily walkable. The B&B, the Gwynfryn, run by friendly hosts busy expanding their operation into a former chapel, was a little frou-frou for my taste, with cute decorations on every available surface and trailing draperies at the window. (I don’t necessarily count the extra pillows and bedspreads, I seem to be always removing those.)
Back when the Welsh were periodically fighting to remain independent of the English, Edward I built a number of castles to keep them quiet. Conwy has not only retained its castle, roofless and floorless but otherwise impressive and in quite good condition, but an almost complete circuit of protective walls around the town center. Visiting the castle costs money, but walking the walls is free. I did both, although while I walked the castle’s battlements, I only went up one of the towers, as the wind was trying to blow me off and I didn’t feel secure enough to take photos, which required two hands. I did see enough to appreciate the castle’s strategic position.

After the castle I visited Conwy’s two house museums. The National Trust property was small and rather bare, but Plas Mawr was big and well decorated. The elaborate Tudor plasterwork had been renovated, and painted in the original colors. Ornate chests flanked four poster beds, a good sized kitchen was next to a scullery with game hanging from the ceiling, and the main bedroom even had its own toilet in a small closet.
Three bridges cross the river Conwy right below the castle: the railway bridge, the modern road bridge (currently partly hidden while renovations are in process), and between the two, Telford’s 1826 suspension bridge, anchored actually into the castle walls at one end. Admission to the NT house included admission to the toll keeper’s cottage at the far end, and I got to walk the bridge as well. I was surprised to learn that the position (and the accompanying cottage) had been auctioned off every three years. The winner got to keep the tolls, and apparently made enough money, and enough of a reputation as a reliable worker, to move on to other things, as records showed continual changeover.

My splurge meal in Conwy was at Watson’s Bistro, just up the street. This turned out to be an excellent choice, for both service and food. I had made an Open Table reservation, as I was eating there on a Saturday night, but the reservation had not made it into the Bistro’s system. Fortunately, my reservation was early, at 7:30. I ate my main course at one table, reserved for 8:30, and my dessert at another, vacated at 8:00. Meanwhile, several couples were turned away. The main course, tender lamb shank with potatoes and vegetables, was delicious, but too much meat given I wanted room for dessert, an excellent Welsh cheese board, complete with descriptions. The house port was quite drinkable and went well with the cheese. My other meals in Conwy were not memorable.

August 19-20, 2016: Getting from Worcester to Shrewsbury, my next stop, by train required at least one change. I chose to make the transfer at Birmingham New Street, and the change, facilitated by elevators, was easy. However, the ride to Birmingham was not. The train was made up of only two carriages, and both were packed. I had to stand until the first stop, where I was able to claim a jump seat previously occupied by a young woman buried in her newspaper. In contrast, the four carriages on the next leg, Birmingham to Holyhead on the eastern edge of the Isle of Anglesey, were largely empty. The back two were dropped at Shrewsbury, where for the first time this trip I opted to take a taxi to my hotel as it was raining. A local sharing the elevator with me advised avoiding the cabs in the station forecourt and crossing the street to Vincent’s Taxis.
After the lovely Crown in Worcester, I had high hopes for the Shrewsbury Hotel, also above a pub and also run by JD Weatherspoon. What a disappointment! I was so surprised I checked on line to see whether Weatherspoon was a franchise operation (it wasn’t). My full review is on Tripadvisor, but my first room was so miserable I complained. The second was only somewhat better and I was very glad to be staying only one night. I didn’t care much for the look of the bar either, and only ate breakfast there.

I had thought I might visit Ludlow and the iconic Feathers Inn while I was in Shrewsbury, or even take a hike in the Malvern Hills. I had had a good view of the Malverns from the train to Hereford, rising steeply from the plain. However, the weather did not cooperate, and I stayed in Shrewsbury. A pleasant enough town, I suppose, although with some pretty steep streets, but not much to do besides admire the Tudor buildings. I did fit in a stroll by the river during a break in the weather, and wondered what to make of a large arch commemorating Darwin’s birth in the town.

Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael mysteries had originally interested me in visiting, but little is left from the medieval period. The Benedictine Abbey suffered badly in the Reformation, and only the church is left. It was closed when I went by after visiting the castle. I’m afraid the regimental museum in the castle failed to hold my interest. St. Mary’s church had a very nice roof that had been rebuilt after a major storm in the late 1800s, but the City Museum was about as interesting as the regimental museum… I regretted not spending an extra night in Worcester.

Happier in Hereford

August 18, 2016: Hereford was an improvement on Gloucester, although I still preferred Worcester. The train station was far enough out that I took a bus to the cathedral, and I certainly got plenty of exercise in town. Again, I had a personal tour of the cathedral, this time with an elderly lady. My first impression of the cathedral was that it was a good bit smaller than the other two, and this was confirmed by my guide. She regretted, several times, that the space was not really big enough for the Three Choirs Festival and especially, the loss of the westernmost bay, where the tower had collapsed in 1786 (ironically on Easter Monday) and not been replaced. Much of the cathedral had been rebuilt in Victorian times, and most of the stained glass was also Victorian.

However, an unusual, and rather beautiful, golden crown hovered over the main altar, there were Norman arches and even a few repurposed Roman columns, and some misericords, which I always enjoy. But the cathedral’s real claims to fame are the Mappa Mundi and the chained library. I had seen several reproductions of the 14th century map of the world in books on early cartography, and really you would need a magnifying glass to see the details on the real one. A medieval mindset, for which Jerusalem was the unquestioned center of the world, and therefore the center of the map, would also help. The UK was squashed in down at the bottom left.
I’m afraid I was disappointed with the chained library. The books were certainly chained, and there were certainly a lot of them, but they were housed in a new, purpose built room. Perhaps I would have found the display more interesting had I not so recently seen chained books, and had the system explained to me, in the Bodleian.

After lunch I visited the Cider Museum. As a student in England I drank a lot of cider, and I have visited quite a few vineyards, but this was the first time I had seen a cider production facility. Originally, farmers made their own, as some probably still do, and the early wooden cider presses were on display, along the with the horn tumblers used for drinking it. So were a number of pieces of beautiful early glass. I spent long enough reading labels and watching videos that I didn’t make it back into town in time to visit Hereford’s other tourist site, the Old House, but I was able to take pictures of the outside.

August 16, 2016: I had had thoughts of visiting Tewkesbury on the way to or from Gloucester, but on closer examination the bus timetables didn’t work terribly well, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to a lot of trouble to see an abbey when I was already seeing three cathedrals in the neighborhood. The trains to Gloucester weren’t very user-friendly either, basically only running once every two hours. Still, they did run, although Gloucester station was a bit out of the center, and the walk wasn’t through the nicest part of town. I was glad I wasn’t doing it with luggage.
The cathedral was my main target, so I started there, beginning by walking the big cloth labyrinth just inside the west door. The labyrinth was on loan fron the US, and I suspected I had already walked it when it was in Duke Chapel. Next I took a look at the very Norman crypt, along with four other people and a volunteer guide. The crypt had, of course, been holding up the very heavy weight of the cathedral for nearly a millennium, and necessary repairs were often visible. After we resurfaced, the other people took off, and I had a guide to myself for the body of the cathedral.

While much of the fabric was Norman, later Perpendicular windows provided more light than was usual in a Norman church. Most of the stained glass was later still, dating from the Victorian era. The cathedral was an impressive 426 feet (130 meters) long, but the view was interrupted by the installation of the organ above the choir screen. Notable burials included Prince Arthur, Henry VII’s oldest son and first husband of Catherine of Aragon, and Edward II, deposed in 1327 and murdered in Berkeley Castle in 1330. The presence of his remains in Gloucester Cathedral led to royal patronage and maybe saved the building (then a Benedictine abbey) from destruction at the time of the Reformation. The abbey’s cloisters were still intact and boasted some very nice fan vaulting.

My afternoon options included a canal boat ride and the folk museum. Unfortunately, I made the wrong choice, as the boat ride was quite uninteresting, and the folk museum closed too early for me to see it as well. The boat used for the cruise turned out, much to my surprise, to have participated in the small boat rescue of the troops at Dunkirk in 1940. I wouldn’t have thought it capable of service in the English Channel. I could have visited the Docks Museum, but it looked like it was mostly devoted to machinery and I visited the City Museum instead, which included a special exhibition of robots from film and TV. I also took a look at the “Tailor of Gloucester” shop, and some nice Tudor buildings on the main street, but I wound up killing time before the next train back to Worcester.

Wowed by Worcester

August 15-19, 2016: When I decided to head north from Oxford through the Welsh Marches, visiting the three cathedrals of Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford, my first thought was to stay in Gloucester, which was also the home of Beatrix Potter’s “Tailor of Gloucester”. (BTW, that is “Marches” as in borderlands, not a misspelling of marshes.) But Lonely Planet was really quite firm in suggesting that Gloucester was not a good place to stay, although fine for a day trip, and my second idea was Cheltenham, which Lonely Planet described as “the most complete Regency town in England”. Then I was talked out of Cheltenham by posters on fodors.com. Instead I based for four nights in Worcester, and was really pleased with the decision.
Although the docents in the two house museums I visited were loud in their condemnation of 1960s town planning, which had meant the loss of some of the historic buildings, and the erection of some monstrosities, I found the town to be a pleasant place, with a lively center, a nice collection of old buildings, and several worthwhile sights. Unlike Oxford, it was not overrun with day trippers, or, indeed, with tourists in general. I also appreciated that the station was quite central, thanks, no doubt, to the fact that the platforms were built at the same height as the bridge that spanned the main street. Fortunately, the forty plus steps needed to reach the trains were supplemented by elevators.

I started my sightseeing at the cathedral, reaching it by a walkway along the River Severn. Unfortunately, there was no shade, and I didn’t fully appreciate the walk until I did it one evening, taking time to enjoy the ducks and swans. Not being a fan of King John, I was less interested in the fact that the cathedral held his tomb, than in the building itself, its architectural styles ranging from Norman through to Perpendicular Gothic, and especially the choir, with its interesting painted ceiling and nice misericords. I went back later for the lunchtime library tour. The medieval library, first organized in the eleventh century but containing older documents, held so many treasures the tour took a full hour, and I was stunned to be allowed to hold some of the early manuscripts – not full books, but sheets.

Since I am always interested in house museums I made sure to visit the two nearly opposite each other on Friar Street. The Tudor House Museum was run by a group of enthusiasts, and included information on Worcester during WWII, when the building was an Air Raid Warden’s Post. Originally three separate houses dating from the 1500s, they were combined in the early 1900s by a grandson of the founder of the Cadbury chocolate firm.
Greyfriars, run by the National Trust, was much bigger, although slightly older it was also built in the characteristic black and white style associated with the Tudors. Different rooms had been furnished to represent different periods in its history, and I especially enjoyed the sitting room of the last owner, which retained his library. I had a nice chat about the books with the docent (room steward) on duty.

I then had time for only one more sight, meaning I had to choose between the Royal Worcester Porcelain works, and the historic Commandery. Considering the fact that I am not particularly a fan of Royal Worcester, I opted for the Commandery and found it an excellent decision. The Commandery started life as a monastic hospital in the eleventh century, on a site that had held a Saxon chapel. Much extended in the fifteenth century, it became the home of a wealthy merchant family, before being commandeered by Royalist forces as their headquarters in August 1651, prior to the last battle of the Civil War. It went through a number of changes of fortune, finishing up as a printing works before becoming a museum. While the building was interesting as a building, what made it a must-see destination was the audio guide, which offered six different “tracks” through the house, for six different periods. With insufficient time for all six, I mostly followed the Tudor track, with some pieces on the medieval hospital and the Civil War, and a quick bit on the printing works. I could definitely have used more time, and did not regret the porcelain.

In addition to interesting sights, I enjoyed a very good hotel in Worcester and some reasonable food. I had been a little dubious about the Crown, run by the JD Weatherspoon pub group and occupying what remained of a seventeenth century coaching inn. No need, the rooms had been beautifully redone, with an elevator, AC, walk-in showers and good beds, bedding and towels. Breakfast wasn’t included in my rate, but breakfast in the pub was good and cheap. Dinner there was not such a good idea, but I ate somewhat better if not entirely memorable food at Bill’s Restaurant, the Cafe Rouge and the Slug and Lettuce (half price on Mondays). Caffe Nero, just across the street, provided good macchiato and good wifi.

Overcrowded Oxford

August 11-15, 2016: The last time I stayed in Oxford, I slept in Keble college, booked through universityrooms.com. Keble is a relatively new college, founded only in 1870, but I got a good-sized room with a big attached bathroom looking over Liddon Quad, and I ate breakfast in the impressive great hall, the longest, although not the highest, in Oxford. The college was just out of the center, but there was a bus stop nearby if I didn’t feel like walking. It was April, and the town seemed fairly quiet.

Tom Quad

This time, Keble was booked, and with a choice of Magdalen or Christ Church I chose Christ Church, although with some concerns about tourists traipsing through. While I would return to Keble, I will not return to Christ Church. True, their great hall is stunning (just look at the Harry Potter pictures), and I got to eat my breakfast sitting at the high table (I assume that the dons, if any still live in college, ate in the Senior Common Room). I had also bought dinner there the one night it was available (the food did not live up to the surroundings at dinner or breakfast). I also had the beautiful and historic cathedral all to myself for half an hour one morning. But that was the extent of the good news.

Fan Vaulting in the Cathedral

Christ Church admits visitors from 10:00 until 17:00 (14:00 to 17:00 on Sundays) and there were camera-happy tourists around every time I left the private Blue Boar Quad during those hours. Apparently the same hours are in effect during term time: it would drive me nuts if I were an undergraduate. The Blue Boar buildings were built in the 1960s, and had no view, but I’m afraid I didn’t care too much for the historic Tom Quad either, huge, and all too obviously unfinished. My bedroom was a reasonable size, but furnished with a cot instead of a bed, and I had issues with the windows it took two days to fix.

Blue Boar Quad

But my real problem with Oxford had nothing to do with my stay at Christ Church. The place was just too popular. I suppose it has been quite some time since I visited in the summer, and now it seems to be on everyone’s itinerary. Certainly the crowds on the High Street and St. Aldates were overwhelming, and the river was crowded with people who didn’t know how to punt. Happily, some escape was possible, especially if you spent a little money.

Take the Bodleian. The courtyard was jam-packed. But the tour I took had a maximum of fourteen people. Or the Botanical Gardens, where only a handful of people shared the trees and flowers with me. And I had Magdalen College, with its beautiful and historic quadrangle, and it’s extensive grounds, almost to myself. I also noticed that the town seemed a good bit emptier in the evening – I was able to get a table at Nandos on the Saturday night with barely a wait. Given the number of coaches I saw lined up along St. Giles, it appears that many of the visitors are on day trips.
I had four nights in Oxford, but I spent one day visiting family, so only two full days for sightseeing. I started at the Botanical Gardens, which I had missed on earlier visits, and which are mentioned in Dorothy Sayers’ “Gaudy Night”. I always enjoy gardens, but I felt that these had changed a good deal since Sayers’ time, as some sections looked almost wild, and there were several beds of medicinal plants. I spent that afternoon at Magdalen, where I even got a look at the deer in the water meadows. The next day I visited the Bodleian in the morning, where I was pleased to get at least a glimpse of the Duke Humphrey Library, which also features in “Gaudy Night”. In the afternoon I took a look at the exhibitions in the new Weston Library, which included a First Folio Shakespeare. I finished up at the very busy Ashmolean Museum, where I avoided the crowds by paying for an exhibition on underwater archaeology around Sicily. I very much want to return to Sicily, so I was glad to see the exhibition, and was also interested to learn that a pioneer in underwater archaeology had been a British woman, Honor Frost.

I had bought a copy of the Good Food Guide 2016 over the internet before I left home, marveling at how much bigger it had grown since the early editions, and as a result my splurge meal for Oxford (not counting dinner at Christ Church) was at Branca. I needed a local bus to get there, but it was worth the trek. My first course was a very good pate with ham and saucisson, and the second a correctly cooked risotto with smoked salmon.
When I had arranged my itinerary, getting from Weymouth to Oxford by train had required just one change, at Southampton. But when I checked the routing nearer my departure, I saw that the line was out between Didcot Parkway and Oxford, and I would have to do the last stretch on a bus. This was less of a problem than I expected, as Didcot Parkway had an elevator, and the “rail replacement bus” was a large and comfortable coach. I did find it a bit annoying to have to do the transfer twice more on Sunday when I visited my family. However, a notice at Oxford station informed me that the outage was to allow work on flood protection, which has to be a good thing.