Sunday, June 24, 2012


This weekend was my first of two overnight trips with the University of Westminster (the next is July 14th/15th to York and Northern England), and we went to Wales.  Let me just say how absolutely beautiful Wales is!  When you go to England, take a few days out of your schedule to visit Wales, it's well worth your while.  It's about a 3 hour bus ride from London, which really isn't that bad at all.

Our first stop of the weekend was Caerleon (pronounced "Care-leeon"), old Roman ruins from when the Romans spread all the way up into Great Britain and built impressive structures such as Hadrian's Wall.

The amphitheater at Caerleon is one of the largest excavated Roman amphitheaters.  Before it fell into ruin, it could fit upwards of 6,000 spectators and was used for events such as animal fights, gladiator fights and public executions.  Now you can walk around it and everything, although it doesn't look like anything more than an oddly shaped grassy hill unless you get a closer look at it.

Also at Caerleon is one of the finest examples of Roman barracks, used to house legionaries as they traveled very far from home to expand the boundaries of the Roman empire. 

All that's really left now is the foundation of the buildings, but it's still pretty impressive to see.  From the standpoint of a history student/potential teacher, seeing this was amazing.  Actual Roman soldiers used these a few thousand years ago and called them home, temporarily, like the dorms at school (although the dorms at school are probably just a little bit nicer). 

It blows my mind that these buildings are still standing, in part, thousands of years later.  How could I resist, I had to touch it (don't worry, you're allowed that would stop me).  I touched something from the Roman Empire, it was amazing!

After Caerleon, we went to Caerphilly Castle (pronounced "Ka-filly") in southern Wales.  Caerphilly is the largest castle in Wales and the second largest after Windsor Castle (where the Queen lives).  Wales has more castles per square mile than anywhere else, and to them, castles are no big deal.  Of course, to a tourist, it's the complete opposite.

Caerphilly is in a state of semi-ruin.  Some of the rooms don't have roofs and are overgrown with plants.  To me, that just made it look so different, it gave it so much character.  There were other parts that were preserved extremely well.

What made it so interesting to me was that the book I'm reading right now takes place in a castle (as do a lot of my books, that's just what I tend to read).  While the castle in the book I'm reading is a little later and in Scotland, not Wales, it still gave me a sense of reality.  Seeing the dark rooms with the huge fireplaces, the tight, winding staircases, the amazing view, it helped me picture everything in my book so much better.  And let me tell you, the view was amazing!  It was also cool to see all of this, because my students this past semester were learning about castles when I finished up at the end of the spring, so I got to see what they were learning about.  Now, when I teach about castles in the future, I can speak from experience, not a textbook, which, in my opinion, makes history so much more interesting.

After a little bit of a delay, we were off to our final destination of day one in Wales: St. Fagan's Museum of Welsh Life (the name reminds me of Oliver Twist).  We didn't have much time there unfortunately, but we did manage to explore a little bit.

They dismantled old houses from all over Wales and reassmbled them right on the grounds of the museum, so you could walk around them (think like Colonial Williamsburg).  It was really cool.  They were so dark inside and the farmhouse pictured above had the barn right in the house, just like another room, so you had the kitchen, living area and barn, all right there like it was no big deal.

There were also sheep all over the place, not only at St. Fagan's but everywhere.  Wales has a huge sheep population (like New Zealand).  I believe the precise ratio of sheep to humans in Wales is roughly 5 or 6 to 1!  It's amazing, you'll just see the countryside dotted with them all over the place.

Day two of Wales was just as exciting as day one.  Our first stop was the Big Pit Mining Museum.  Now this was something I was looking forward to a lot.  Back home, I've done the Lackawanna Coal Mining Tour...twice, but this one was better in my opinion. 

My family's originally from coal mining country Pennsylvania, so I'm fairly familiar with coal mining, and I almost wrote my immigration research paper this past semester on coal mining at immigrants, but I changed my mind at the last second.  Anyway, I digress.  The tours at Big Pit were lead by men who used to work in the mine (it closed in the early 1980s), so they had their own stories.  For a lot of them, mining was in the family, so they had stories from their fathers and grandfathers about what it was like in the early 20th century working in the mine, when it was an even more dangerous job.  One tour guide even said how his grandfather worked in the mine as a little boy opening the doors to let the horses with the carts pass.  When he fell asleep one day, the miners blew out his candle (his only source of light down there) and took it, leaving him to his own devices to get back to the surface in the pitch black.  Just having a random tour guide wouldn't have gotten such a personal experience.  We got to see the stalls where they kept the horses who worked in the mines (the last horse left the mine in the early 1960s), the differences between mining in the early and late twentieth century, etc.  What I liked about this tour was it's realism.  You wore a helmet with a headlamp and battery pack.  Other than that, there was very little light down there.  At the tour I did in Pennsylvania, there were a lot more lights, but this, there were very few and they were scattered throughout the mine.  You got a sense of what it was really like to work down there.

In order to get to and from Big Pit Mining Museum, located in the Rhondda Valleys, we had to drive through Brecon Beacons National Park.

Now, the scenery might look a little familiar to you.  That's because this is where the movie Stardust was filmed (starring Michelle Pfieffer, Rober DiNero and Claire Danes; if you haven't seen it, rent it ASAP).  The scenery was gorgeous, and I can see why a fantasy movie would be filmed there.  The rolling hills were gorgeous, and everything looked untouched by civilization like it is back home.  It was peaceful and laid back and gorgeous.

For lunch, we stopped in Monmouth.  Monmouth is the famous birthplace of Henry V (conveniently a Shakespeare play...that I haven't read), a famous king in medieval history.  Henry was the second king to come from the House of Lancaster.  He was a successful military leader in the Hundred Years' War, eventually beating the French at the Battle of Agincourt where he almost conquered France.  The French king, Charles VI, signed the Treaty of Troyes, which recognized Henry as the heir-apparent to French throne, and to seal the deal Henry married Charles' daughter, Catherine of Valois.  Henry died suddenly in France from dysentery, and his infant son, Henry VI, took the throne.  So, there's your mini-history lesson of the day.  So, we went to Monmouth, where Henry V was born for lunch.

There, they had an old medieval bridge.  The part in the photo above was the toll, where, just like they do now, they would stop you and make you pay to use the bridge.  You can't drive across the bridge, but you can walk across it, which is cool.  Just across the bridge, kind of hidden by some trees, was an old church.

This is the St. Thomas the Martyr Church, named after St. Thomas Becket.  Alright, time for history lesson number two.  Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury (basically the head guy in England when it came to the Catholic Church) from 1162 to his murder in 1170.  Thomas was fighting with the English king at the time, Henry II, over the power of the church (kings like power, and this was LONG before the infamous break with Rome under Henry VIII that gave the English king so much more power).  So, some of Henry's loyal followers decided to show their devotion to their ruler by murdering the Archbishop in Canterbury Cathedral.  Well, that kind of backfired, because Thomas was canonized by Pope Alexander III.  His shrine is also the destination of the pilgrims in the famed Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

The inside of the church was just as beautiful as the outside.  The outside looked more like a medieval church while the inside reminded me of something later, more like an 18th century church, but that's just me.  ?Who am I to complain?  It was still gorgeous, and it would be amazing to hear mass there one day.

Speaking of churches, the last stop in Wales for us was Tintern Abbey.  Tintern Abbey was built as a Cistercian Abbey in 1131.  It has since fallen into a heavy state of disarray and ruin, but that makes it so gorgeous.  In fact, it's such a beautiful location, that it inspired the poet William Wordsworth to write the poem "Tintern Abbey," which you can read by clicking here

The painter J.M.W. Turner also painted the gorgeous painting above of Tintern Abbey.  As you can tell, the roof is gone, although the main frame of the structure still remains.  The abbey is absolutely massive, far bigger than I thought it would be.  Words can't even begin to describe how gorgeous it was either.

Even though everything was overgrown, it was so easy to picture how this had once been a huge, gorgeous abbey for monks to live.  You could see where they had mass, where they ate, where they slept, so easily, as if they'd just been there.

On our way back to London, we got a somewhat nice view of the biggest castle in Britain, Windsor Castle, home of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Phillip.  It's not the best view in the world, it's taken from the highway.  Even so, it was the perfect way to end the weekend.  I guess it's back to reality tomorrow.  I have to figure out what exciting plans I have for this week, so until next time!  And I'm sorry for the long, picture-heavy post, there was simply so much to share, I couldn't leave anything out.

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