With a last wistful glance at the tiny train station at Tenby on the spectacular south coast of Wales, we are off again across country to…well…we’re not sure where at this point really, but we have booked a nights accommodation at Cardiff, Wales to think about it.
Our sunny days at the seashore have made me lazy. I’ve booked a hotel but didn’t bother to plot it’s location relative to the Cardiff train station. So based on no information other than the name of the place, I’ve decided that it must be at least a cab ride away. And our bags seem to have grown heavier by this point in our travels. In spite of our best intentions to travel light so we can walk from place to place, we’ve been unable to resist the lure of hand-made Irish crafts, beautiful British-made woolens, tiny bottles of Scotch from the Highlands and dozens (!) of decks of playing cards depicting scenes of places we’ve visited. Debarking from the train we hail the nearest taxi, pile our bags and treasure into the boot and within a few seconds we find ourselves apologizing profusely and leaving a big tip as the driver cheerfully drops us off at the door of our hotel…a half a block away.
Our first impressions of Cardiff are very positive but our hotel, which online has given the impression of being ‘cheap and cheerful’ is in real life just ‘cheap’ and completely cheerless, if you don’t count the pub on the main floor. I knew the instant I walked in that this would be a place, like the last-resort hotel where I stayed one wintery weekend in New York, where I would not even think about putting myself between the sheets. On that weekend I slept on top of the bedding for three nights fully clothed, shoes and all, with my coat wrapped around me for warmth. I remember the discomfort well enough to not want to inflict it on my sister. So I came up with an excuse sufficient to avoid the cancellation penalty and undaunted, dragged my luggage and my sister down the street to what looked like a viable alternative. It turned out to be a completely fortuitous choice.
You can just see an edge of the Royal Hotel on the left of this photo, nicely situated on Cardiff’s St. Mary’s Street, in the center of a lovely pedestrian area of shops, cafes and pubs just a few blocks from Cardiff Castle.
In addition to a great location, bright and spacious rooms and seriously cheerful staff the Royal Hotel has an auspicious history. It was in this hotel, in the very room where we munch on eggs and toast for breakfast, that Captain Robert Scott, his guests and the crew of the Terra Nova celebrated before sailing from Cardiff on June 15, 1910 on a quest to be the first to reach the South Pole. The expedition ended tragically. Scott reached the Pole on January 17, 1912 only to discover that he had been preceded by the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen. Then Scott and his entire overland exploration team perished on the return journey from the Pole to the Terra Nova. Just before leaving for our own little adventure I had read Stephen Brown’s brilliant account of Roald Amundsen’s life and explorations The Last Viking, making this brush with a contemporary of Amundsen’s all the more interesting. I highly recommend the book.
The Captain Scott Society meets every year in the wood paneled dining room to commemorate Scott and the Terra Nova Expedition. The same menu is served as was done on the eve of Scott’s departure. A replica of that original menu signed by Scott, the guests and attending crew decorates the program, and it’s part of the tradition for each Society member to sign their menu at the annual soiree.
The meal, now as then, is followed by a rousing sing-along that begins with the Welsh national anthem and includes such favorites as Rule Britannia, Hearts of Oak and as the evening wanes, What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor? I’ve included the words to the national anthem here in case you feel like belting out a verse yourself.
We have a great feeling about Cardiff, the capital city of Wales – population about 350,000 – and now that we are happily ensconced in a great and historic hotel an extra night here seems like a capital idea. We spend the afternoon wandering the lovely shops along St. Mary’s Street and visiting the small but very interesting Cardiff Story Museum on near-by Working Street, with it’s terrific life-sized re-creation of the history of the area. I was particularly delighted to find a number of shopping arcades like those I’d first seen in Melbourne, Australia – covered lane ways between city blocks with a variety of interesting shops and eateries.
We spent too much time and entirely too much money in The Pen and Paper in the Royal Arcade across from the hotel. It’s one of the best stationery stores I’ve come across anywhere. We immersed ourselves with gusto in the racks of gorgeous writing instruments, one-of-a-kind gifts and an extreme collection of wonderful greeting cards and then came back to our room wondering how we would cram our latest purchases into our burgeoning bags. The seriously helpful proprietor of the shop (he has taken my ailing fountain pen under his wing and sent it half-way around the world for attention) remarked that in the UK sending greeting cards is still the preferred method for recognizing special occasions, rather than the emails or e-cards that are more common in other places. I think that says something very nice about the place although as a lifelong procrastinator I confess to finding some redemption in the ability to send an e-card within minutes of the expiration of the important day, just sneaking in under the wire.
The Cardiff Market off St. Mary’s was quiet mid-week but still displayed a nice selection of fresh produce, meats and fish between stalls of genuine leather bags, fluorescent coloured wigs, crocheted tea cozys and souvenirs. We bought warm Welsh cakes and I was completely chuffed to find that they taste very much like the recipe I inherited from my British-born grandmother. If you have never had one they are something between a biscuit and a pancake but a bit sweeter and with currents – delicious with butter or as my mom used to serve them for special occasions, with a dollop of lemon curd topped with whipped or clotted cream. I’ve inserted the recipe here for you foodies. My sister and I get a kick out of the fact that we’ve now eaten Jubilee biscuits at Westminster and Yorkshire pudding in York; we’ve guzzled Guinness while rocking to an Irish band in an Irish pub…in Ireland; we’ve sipped single-malt scotch in Scotland and now we’ve gorged ourselves on welsh cakes in Wales. I can see diets in our futures and I’m grateful that we have no plans to pass through Wormley on our way east.
What we have seen of Cardiff so far gives the impression of a completely attractive city where even the most modern buildings have grace and style. The John Lewis department store and Cardiff Central Library add a futuristic but not particularly intrusive touch to quaint St. Mary’s Street. The stunning sculpture is called Alliance. The hoop is filled with a phosphorescent liquid that glows at night, and that falls and rises with the movement of the tides in the Bristol Channel! A projector in the arrow illuminates the pavement at night with a play on words of the name ‘Cardiff’.
Cardiff is a throughly delightful place and we are supremely happy to have made the decision to extend our stay here. We’re visiting Cardiff Castle tomorrow so get out your hat and gloves and stay tuned!