Day 12: Llandrindod Wells

23.06.2013. When noted that I will be meeting my next host at the Welsh town of Llandrindod Wells, Austin suggested I head to Craven Arms to catch an interesting train ride into Wales.

When the Garway bus arrived at the Hereford train station, I was momentarily at a loss as to what to do next. Just as I was contemplating on catching a 12 quid train straight to Craven Arms (i.e. the easy way out), a bus with the header ‘Ludlow’ appeared. I had a quick check on the train map and it seemed like there should be a transit bus available to my ultimate destination, thus I hopped on.

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Ludlow high street

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Bustling market

I have always wanted to visit Ludlow, a small market town based in Shropshire quite renowned in the country for its gastronomy scene, a fact I picked up from some BBC TV programme some time ago. The town is quite pretty, with a charming high street which was bustling with activities on the day I visited. Having spent a week in rural England, that was quite a refreshing change. I got my watch (which stopped) fixed in a local jewellery store and sank my teeth into a delicious roast pork baguette, before catching a 10 minute bus to Craven Arms. The cost of both buses were £7, which ended up cheaper than had I took a train; but it was the joy of the impromptu travels which I celebrated.

Craven Arms is a transit point almost reminiscent of a typical American desert town one sees on TV, characterised by a roundabout traffic and a huge petrol station. There is absolutely nothing to do here in other words, but I decided to spend a night here for the sake of it.

The train which Austin was referring to is the Heart of Wales line, which runs from Craven Arms (England) to Swansea (Wales), passing through the Welsh county of Powys. This mid Wales county is also the country’s most rural, easily characterised by images of grazing sheep and houses perched on beautiful green valleys.

The entire train is made up of just a single carriage, which makes it rather quirky, but even with that it was barely half full on a busy Saturday morning. I hope the train will continue to run despite any financial difficulty it may face, for the ride offers fantastic scenes of rural Wales, and it is definitely the most scenic route I have come across in the UK. I tried looking for a post card with a picture of the train to send it to the Keenan family, but so far I’ve been unsuccessful.

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Single carriage train- only in Wales!

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Scenes from the Heart-of-Wales line

I alighted at Llandrindod, but made a promise to myself that I will be back here again to complete the train journey south.

Day 10: Garway

21.06.2013 “My husband will be picking you up at the library next to the cathedral. He will be waiting beside a red Citroen van.” 

I arrived at Hereford from Cheltenham, which transited at Newport, thus marking my first time in Wales. I made a call to Hilary to change the meeting time to 1.30 pm as I decided to take an earlier train, which should leave me with some time to explore the city. It ended up being a slow train and I arrived only with 30 minutes to spare. I grabbed some pasties from the local market and rushed to our meeting place. It wasn’t without challenge as libraries aren’t usually the first thing you will find when arriving at a new place!

I spot an old man in a green sweater, slightly hunched, unshaven, standing by a red van giving me a wave and a rather silly grin. That was the first time I met Austin Keenan.

This is my first experience with Wwoof, which stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It is a membership only charity which links up volunteers with farms or small holdings. The idea is that farmers will provide food and accommodation to the volunteers, who will stay, learn, and help out in these farms.

Mount Pleasant is located at Garway, a civil parish in Herefordshire, which lies in the West Midlands of England, bordering Wales. It is to the west of Gloucestershire, the county of the many Cotswold villages I journeyed from. The ride toward his farm was especially fascinating. As we leave the urban landscapes of Hereford, the only city in this region (one of England’s most rural); what laid ahead of us were narrow roads encroached by overgrown shrubs against the backdrop of serene rolling hills. When we drove past the few pot holes on this un-kept roads, Austin remarked in his slightly throated voice “The Herefordshire council is going to be bankrupt soon. That’s why!“, before breaking out into his silly laughter, a sound I miss terribly already as this gets typed out.

mount pleasant

The Keenans grow vegetables for their own use, and Mount Pleasant, of which name was retained from its previous owner was a mere plot of land bought 18 years ago. The farm of today, which includes an orchard, a poly tunnel, a green house, a woodland, a sheep farm (oversized for 2 old sheeps) and 3 beds of grasses for free range chicken, is a labour of their love. The family is used to Wwoof, but due to several bad experiences, they stopped for several years before opening their doors again. I was delighted to be open another chapter of the farm’s marvellous history.

Life in the family went on. Sam and Faye, who lived close by joined us for several meals and we went to the pub once after a particularly satisfying meal. Frances and Sylvan, the parents of the grandchildren dropped their adorable kids Penny and Abenie with Hilary on a few occasions, who were too happy to leave trails of destruction on the flower beds! I never met Ruth and Ben, but from all the family stories I hear, almost felt like I knew them. For the short time I was there, I had became both a spectator and a participator of their family life.

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I connected most strongly with Austin. Each day seems to be an exact replica of the other: coffee and toast in the morning, hard work in the afternoon, satisfying supper delightfully made by Hilary at night, some lengthy chats over dish washing (and then at the living room), before capping the day off with a visit to the chicken pen, where I will join him to have its shed closed. Austin is a professional story-teller, who has the most peculiar ability to make you sit down and listen. I shared much of mine with him, making a mental note to send him some of the Singapore/ Asian variety when I head home. On the rare chance of sunshine, we went for a delightful 3 hours walk around the beautiful hills of Garway.

garway hil

hill 2

The actual work I did on the farm was negligible, which includes wood splitting, weeding and compost making. Whilst the work was physically demanding and hours were reasonably long, it became a moral cause to me rather than a task imposed. It was no longer a simple exchange between labour and lodging. “You shouldn’t work that hard you know. We don’t pay you here.” What Austin did not know is that he had been wrong. I have received more than what can possibly be measured in dollars and pounds.

I stayed for 6 nights in total, after cutting a day short voluntarily. It became very clear that the longer had I stayed, the more difficult it would be to say good bye. On the morning of my departure, I put on my watch, only to remember that it has stopped working several days ago. Time seemed to have both magically stopped and flown by at Mount Pleasant. Sam and Faye had woken up early to see me off and offered me a packet of spicy crisp as a ‘farewell gift’ (we are fellow aficionados of all things spicy!), while Hilary picked me a flower of the Penelope rose, the significance of which I know because of a story she shared with me during a session of compost making.

log

dinner

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As the village bus to Hereford arrived, I gave my hosts a hug and paid £3 to the driver, with the remaining 10 pence chipped in by Austin who had loads of change ready in his hands in case I haven’t got mine. I found a suitable seat with a good view of the beautiful surrounding, sat down and recollect for the past few days. That was when I start noticing that my eyes had became a bit watery…

Day 3: Stow-on-the-wold

14.06.2013. I was greeted at the youth hostel by the gleeful lady who has the peculiar habit of addressing everyone as ‘lovelies’. Nobody likes living in shared accomodation if given a choice, but traveling for long with no source of income meant I need to stretch every pound in my bank. Hostel-hopping is something I am quite used to by now, and I would like to think I have seen the worst (New York city remains unbeatable). This one seems okay, so I am unperturbed.

Stow-on-the-wold
Stow-on-the-wold

Stow-on-the-wold is the third Cotswold village I have seen, and probably my favourite. Life in this quaint historic market town appears to revolve around its iconic town center, with the towering (by Cotswold’s standards) church peering from a street across it. These beautiful buildings are typical of the region; chipped honey yellow limestone which must have seen better days. I spent the night here and was able to have the quiet village all to myself after the tourist crowds left.

I arrived at Stow-on-the-wold from Chipping Campden on the reliable regional bus, transiting at Moreton-in-marsh. Chipping is old English for ‘Market’, and this Cotswold village, which lies northward has all the characteristic of a great market town. Its high street is incredibly pretty, and at the tail end of which lies the beautiful old market hall.

Old market hall in Chipping Campden
Old market hall in Chipping Campden

Burton-on-the-water was the last Cotswold village I visited, which is also its most touristy. It is not difficult to see why, with charming bridges criss-crossing the calming waters along the pretty houses, it seems to be the physical emodiment of a cute English village everyone has in mind. With hordes of tourists jostling along the queue at the fish-and-chips joint, the whole idea of a ‘quaint village’ is however quite lost with Burton-on-the-water.

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Burton-on-the-water

Whilst waiting for the bus to Cheltenham at the village town hall, I was joined by a middle-aged lady, who was keen to have a chat. In the brief 5 minutes encounter, I gathered she was borned in Stratford, moved to Lemington Spa for 30 years, and was on her way to visit her husband (who had a previous wife) at the Cheltenhm hospital. Village life is indeed real, unassuming, and wonderful. Noting the presence of the few Co-operative supermarket branches on my travels, I can only hope that the onslaught of commercialism and globalisation will stop its track at the boundaries of these remarkable villages, where time seems to have magically stop.

Day 1: Moreton-in-Marsh

12.06.2013. I arrived at Moreton-in-Marsh, the only Cotswold village with its own train station, and thus the unofficial gateway to the rest of the region, or at least for those without a car. The Cotswold is a stretch of area which lies within Gloucestershire in Midlands England. Its name is derived from old English, which means sheep enclosure in rolling hillsides.

The Cotswold conjures images of rolling hills and grazing sheeps; of the romantic and the laid back, hardly a suitable place for a back packer like me. I quickly realised that I had begun my 3 months break from work with the quintessential of English quaint-ness, a very good new chapter after the hectic end of life in busy London. I had looked forward to this for months, and will continue to turn the pages in the next few.

High street at Moreton-in-Marsh
High street at Moreton-in-Marsh

Moreton-in-marsh is alas non-descript, defined largely by a motor way high street lined by pretty limestone houses. In the next couple of days I will be heading to the ‘heavy weights’ of Cotswold villages- Chipping Campden, Stow-on-the-wold and if time permits Burton-on-the-water. I am hoping that the villages are as interesting as their names.

My purpose here is to visit a part of England where I have always wanted to, but failed to for the past 3 years living in London. More importantly, I am using it as a base to transit to Hereford, a town near the border of Wales. From where I will be meeting a smallholding family, who will be hosting me for a few days in exchange of my labour at their farm.

It should be fun.

The tube

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As I slowly get used to my new commute on the Metropolitan line from Aldgate to Finchley Road, old habits recycled. I took out my Kindle book reader, all eye contact averted, sat down and enjoyed the pleasant albeit slow journey back home. It was definitely a lot less crowded than the same trip that very morning…

Visitors to London may amuse themselves with the “mind the gap!” announcement or cheap tourists memorabilia with the ubiquitous London Underground logos imprinted on, but what the tube represent to Londoners like me is not only that of a transportation mean; it defines habits, familiarity and a phase in life.

When I first moved here almost 3 years ago, having resided in East London, I could never get anywhere without the Jubilee line, which despite being one of the newest, had developed some sort of propensity for breakdowns and delays. My work place at Embankment station made me an expert with the Circle and District lines, easily distinguished by the colour of the handle bars (yellow and green, respectively). Lovely weekend weather meant trips to Greenwich park were hard to pass on, easily reachable on the unmanned DLR line.

Whilst training as an accountant, the morning rush hour trips to Angel tube station for classes meant battles have to be won to get into the crowded on the Northern line, which when stops at the busy stations Bank and Moorgate, offers much relief (and space!). And of course, whenever it is time for home holidays, I would drag my luggage to Heathrow airport using the Picadilly line, swapping a 40 pound taxi ride with something 10 times cheaper (albeit less enjoyable!).

There are too many of such stories to tell, each defining a phase of life, what I was doing, and what I was about to do. The London Underground is not just the world’s oldest, it is one of its most endearing.

 

London Open House

For just one weekend each year, many otherwise elusive buildings in London open their doors to the general public in the spirit of architectural discovery. While this is my second year living in the city, this year’s London Open House is my first.

I was thrilled to get tickets to the lovely Kings Cross St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, situated right at the heart of the Kings Cross railway station. Before the tour started, I recounted my first few steps 2 years ago arriving at this marvelous city. I remembered being absolutely enchanted by the beauty of this 1873 building. Well, I still am.

The outside of the hotel

After a £150m restoration, this Victorian Gothic hotel was re-opened only last year. I was quite pleased to be one of its few privileged visitors who did not have to pay for the hefty price tag!

The inside of the hotel is equally splendid, with gorgeous carpet and walls everywhere we walk. Some of these wallpaper was only recently discovered, hidden beneath layers of old paint. The preservation work is tremendous in ensuring that these wonderful designs see the light of the day again.

Ceiling and walls
Floor

My next destination couldn’t be more different: The Beefeater Gin Distillery. Located at Kennington, South London, the journey there was surprisingly short. The London premium gin company is the only distillery still located at the capital of a country, and many actually do not know it exists.

No photography allowed inside, so this was the only picture I took

The funny caveat was that we were welcomed by a kindly looking middle aged men at the counter, who then at the knowledge from the guide some time later, was understood to be master distiller of the spirit. The tour itself was more about gin than the architecture, but no one was complaining! We ended the day with a gin and tonic (of course!) at 11.30am, which was a rather good way to start the weekend!

The charming coastal town of Berwick upon Tweed

Not many people have probably heard of Berwick upon Tweed.

While on a train ride to Edinburgh just over a year ago, I spotted this sleepy village right on the Northumberland coast between England and Scotland. The town had hinted me for a journey, but there wasn’t time then. This time I’m glad there was.

The sleepy town of Berwick upon Tweed

Berwick isn’t going to score high on any tourists’ list, but the peace of the town had on us the effect of a calming break, particularly pronounced considering we travelled from Olympics-mad London. As an admirer of magnificent bridges, of which the town had 3 impressive ones arching over the Tweed river, there were also enough opportunities to work my camera a bit.

One of the bridges over the Tweed river

As one of England’s most Northern towns, Berwick had a turbulent history, changing hands frequently during the country’s many wars with its Scottish neighbour. Contrast this to the love story the famous British painter L S Lowry had with the town, its beautiful backdrops forming the inspiration of his many works.

Scenes which inspired L S Lowry back in those days

While waiting at the queue in one of its charming local restaurants for breakfast, a fellow guest pointed out the English and Scottish flags on display side by side. “Oh we prefer to stay neutral!” chuckled the old lady by the till, her Scottish accent rather betraying.