Every year the group enjoys the tradition of a weekend away. Wales has been a favourite destination for some time. We've had many a weekend in West Wales, North Wales and on the Gower, land yachting, sumo wrestling, sea kayaking, abseiling and coasteering, among other extreme adventures. As the years and our ailments have advanced, we've sought slightly more sedate pastimes, still tackled with the spirit of daring.
Preparing with welsh cakes and a cup of tea the day before, and after packing the obligatory waterproofs, we found ourselves back across the Severn Estuary, where the skies open out into lush green valleys. A wild breeze blew around Cardiff Bay as we started a treasure trail under the grand Millenium Centre, (www.treasuretrails.co.uk), commencing a windswept frogmarch that tried our travel weary legs, deciphering clues and discovering witty sculptures, sweeping architecture, industrial heritage and street art. We trotted past the boats rocking in the marina beyond the wetlands, scuttled around closed docks and proud buildings, until, trails completed, the call of a cold beer grew too strong and we decamped to Carluccio’s, where we were satiated by the pasta, but disappointed by dessert!
Our weekends provide a rich tapestry of comic moments, the disappointing rum baba only the first. Drinks on our second night were served by a waiter who re-appeared moments later in chef whites behind the carvery, seconds after, he was back at our table with the wine in his waiters’ uniform. How did he change so fast? He revealed it was his twin who worked in the kitchen, with only a slight beard differential to tell them apart. Still, we never saw them both at the same time. In our Travelodge there was one spare room, Room 201. It became another standing joke, a pre drinks and party room for social gatherings, and a place to escape if your roommate snored too much.
As the second day dawned, the forecast rain arrived with a vengeance - it was tipping it down. Wales can get wet, very wet. Yet, the weather did not deter us, and we ventured out to Castell Coch, a Norman castle perched on a hill among lush forest, (we were grateful we’d not taken the option of cycling up there) with pointed spires on its round towers, just like a fairytale. Lord Bute bought it for his wife in the Victorian era and set about transforming the interior with delicate murals depicting scenes from Aesop’s fables, but he had the monkeys in his wife’s bedroom re-painted as he thought them too lewd. What would he make of us we wondered? It was a beautiful Victorian Gothic, with mediaeval influence, creation that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Tallin.
We drove back to Cardiff Castle for the cafe only, then meandered to Pedal Power for the bike's we booked. Lost and rustling through the streets in our waterproof trousers with cycle helmets perched on our heads, we looked like we'd just been let out for the day. It was nice that pedal power had kept the bike seats dry for us, if a little pointless, it was coming down in stair rods. We were wetter than if we'd been rafting on the Taff, the river our route curled along, which gives the Welsh their nickname ‘Taffy.’
After ten minutes cycling we were still optimistic and singing the praises of soft welsh rain on the skin, after twenty minutes, admiring the river and thinking it might make a good kayaking experience, after an hour, our waterproofs are no longer waterproof, the new kit lets in the rain, we turned around and briefly explored some wooden sculptures in a park, raced past rugby fields littered with roaring Welshmen and ignored the cappuccino river as the promise of a hot chocolate at the cycle cafe fuelled our furious pedalling. A Travelodge has never looked so enticing with its provision of hot showers and dry clothes. We reconvened in Room 201, sharing crisps and wine and preparing for our final day down the mine. As the group had reduced to seven in number, we had to be the seven dwarves, re-named (after supplementary trivial pursuit info from Christine) Merkin, ferkin, jerkin', smirkin', gherkin, burpin' and lurkin'.
We visited The Big Pit, National Coal museum in Blaenafon on our final day. Where the winching tower stands proud over a landscape of re-claimed slag heaps and remnants of industrial labour. Our joke about the piano and the mine (what tune do you get if you drop a piano down a mine? A Flat Minor), went down like a lead balloon, almost as slowly as the lift down the shaft. It was dark, wet and cold,and when we turned the lamps on our helmets off, pitch black, we couldn’t see the hands in front of our faces. Unappealing working conditions which were endured by men, women and children for centuries, little better than slavery in the early days, even when conditions improved, health hazards curtailed lives and frequent explosions and gas leaks culled hundreds of colliers at a time. We emerged, relieved, into the air, thanking our lucky stars that we have a choice in our labour and pursuit. The clouds had cleared, and the sun shone on Wales. We’d had another remarkable weekend.