There was a bit of hullaballoo when my mother headed back home and I continued my journey alone. We’d been to Temple Meads Station the day before to arrange for her transport to Heathrow.
The folk at the ticket office told her that it would cost somewhere in the vicinity of £125 ($200 – $250) and it still wouldn’t be a direct journey – that she’d have to change trains (carrying all of her luggage for the first time, mind). The gentleman in the disabled customer service office was very kind and said that he would help her on the train in Bristol and would arrange to have someone meet her at the junction to transfer her bags to the other train. I was still shocked by the cost since for £21.50 you can get a train to Paddington station and take the tube for less than £5 directly to any terminal at Heathrow. I needed to remind myself that it was neither my life nor my money (and clearly not my decision). I think they threatened her with a train and a coach into Heathrow (£41.00 – 126.50) and, given what happened on the coach in the Highlands, she was willing to do pretty much anything to avoid a repeat of that experience. But still, she could have probably found a cabbie who would have driven her directly for that sum.
On our way out of the station, she arranged for a taxi to pick her up at the flat the following morning. Hiring cabs was always dodgy without access to a phone[i]. Early on we had thought of getting burner phones just for our travels but the prices we were quoted seemed insane. I had successfully arranged for a cab online when we needed to get to the train station in Edinburgh but she thought it would be okay to simply alert a cabbie to her need to get to the station by a certain time and he would just show up. He didn’t. By 6 am she was packed and ready to go. I hauled her bags out to the sidewalk and we waited. By 6:10 she was beginning to panic and asked passersby – few and far between at that hour – if she could use their phone to call the cab company. By 6:20 she was fully freaking out and went to the gas station a block away to use their phone. I stayed with her bags. She hadn’t returned 15 minutes later so I locked up the flat and hauled her bags down to meet her and found her in negotiations with a woman getting gas and the attendant. They’d been trying to reach a cab company without success. After another 20 minutes, a cab pulled up and whisked her away. She messaged me later to say that it was a good thing she’d planned to leave at 6 am for a 1 pm flight 100 miles away. Quite.
There are pros and cons to travelling alone. Cons = eating by oneself and pros = pretty much everything else. All alone in the Bristol flat, I finished packing my bags, did some cleaning, planned my route to the station and then to Cardiff, had a final look round to make sure I’d left the flat in better shape than I’d found it, locked the door, put the keys through the letter box, raised anchor, and headed to the bus stop.
My excruciating planning paid off and the trip was uneventful. I was helped in part by the tip I’d received at the Apple store in Bristol about how to take a screenshot on the iPad. I still have about 20 of these screenshots of google directions and bus routes. And one taken at the Starbucks in the basement of Temple Meads station:
My only regret about my time in Wales is that it wasn’t much longer. Like the-rest-of-my-life longer.
When I arrived at the flat, nobody was home so I checked out my room, had a quick shower and went out exploring. I found the local arts centre, sat on the low wall surrounding it, and took a photo:
I continued on and found the Polish shop I’d seen on google maps as a marker that I was a mile and half from the flat. I stopped in and asked if they had any pączki (a doughnut). The lady there was very accommodating and said that if I came in the following day, she’d save a couple for me. So the following day, on my way to the castle, I did exactly that and then continued on to the train station.
It was another brilliantly sunny day. It was warm with the raincoat on. The raincoat I’d purchased in a charity shop in Portobello, Edinburgh. There were about 7 charity shops within 3 blocks of one another and we found the raincoat in shop #6. Shops 1 – 5, in response to our desire to purchase a raincoat, were all, “Uh, everybody in Scotland already HAS a raincoat and no-one would even think of giving one away. Duh.” With just a bit of eye-rolling at the silly foreigners. And if the raincoat hadn’t been mis-sized and on the wrong rack, I doubt we would have found one. Quite a stroke of luck, the raincoat was. You might reasonably ask why I travelled to Scotland without a bloody raincoat. And I would answer that I was travelling for three weeks and there was a finite amount of space in my bags without having to pay for extra baggage (that I would have to haul around). And that answer would be almost 80% true.
So I was waiting for a train, one of several options available on the open return ticket I’d purchased, to go see a castle. On my own. Naturally the train journey was thrilling. And the connection to the bus for the rest of the way was filled with anxiety about finding the right stop, getting on the proper bus, and going in the right direction. So I asked someone. I found a couple of comedians standing a short distance from where I’d come down to the street from the train. They were dressed as train officials but when I asked where I could find the bus stop for the X11, they said they’d never heard of it. I gave them my skeptical, I-know-you’re-putting-me-on face. To this, they said they weren’t sure they should tell me as I was so clearly foreign, and did they really want to share a national treasure, etc. I said I supposed not and since I’d travelled all this way, at least they could let me a take a picture of them, the defenders of Welsh monuments. Oh, it’s just the other side of the bridge where that red flag is: you can see it from here.
The bus driver wasn’t any more obliging. He, like the train dudes, eventually provided the information I’d requested but, also like the train dudes, needed a little more coaxing that I’d expected. He never actually agreed to let me know when we’d reached the castle. I was just hoping he’d relent when the time came. After about 30 minutes of staring out the window at places I’d never seen before, the bus stopped and nobody got on or off. I looked around at what looked like a typical suburban street. “Castle!” the bus driver called loudly. I thanked him, disembarked, and looked around, wondering where the hell I was. It’s a castle so it’s got to be big, I reasoned. I’m sure to see it if I start toward higher ground. It was only a couple of hundred yards away but somehow it was entirely invisible from the bus stop. And for a few anxious moments, the bus driver found his way onto my shit list.
The visit to the castle is one of the best things I’ve ever done.
I remember times in my late teens and early twenties when I shuddered with joy. At nothing in particular, just with sheer happiness at being alive and walking down the street or sitting on the porch, or some other mundane moment. I remember when so many things were new. When I noticed the differences in things more than the similarities. I wouldn’t describe myself as jaded or cynical but I am not young anymore. I’m probably quite a lot younger than others my age – and I think not having kids is a large part of that. (In my late twenties, I expressed the notion that one probably does not fully “grow up” until they’ve had children. I still subscribe to that … for the most part.)
The castle transported me. I felt a bit like a cartoon character in “WOWEE!” mode, all big eyes and dropped jaw. Or like Daffy Duck in one of his rare moments of triumph but minus the next moment where it all goes horribly wrong.
After my first visit to the UK when I was 18, I couldn’t wait to return. The way I described it: “it’s like the colours are brighter there.” It was all heightened sensation from the excitement, newness and slight scariness.
The castle was a bit like that. A lot like that. It was better than real life. It was astonishing and thrilling.
I recommend it.
I took over 400 photos. They can recreate some of the thrill for me but they won’t do the castle justice. You really should just go there.
But would I hold out on you?
After I took some photos of the exterior to get an idea of the moat, I went to the front gate.
[i] I had hoped to call home from London but all of the call boxes I came across were ripe with vomit, urine, and I-don’t-want-to-know-what.