Grey, rainy days often remind me of Cardiff. I spent just one day there, but we were granted only about ten minutes of sunshine- which is why I returned home thoroughly in love with the city.
Fresh from the Yorkshire moors in December 2011, I went to visit a friend in Bristol. The ten days I’d spent at Leeds had been more or less gloomy, but as the train pulled out of the station on its way to the south-west, the sun broke out and the sombre winter landscape turned cheery. Make no mistake, I love the rains, but I would have liked one sunny day in Yorkshire. But I’m not complaining: now that I’ve seen Yorkshire, nothing else matters.
Of course, the rain descended upon Bristol within a few hours of my arrival. Nothing could dampen our enthusiasm, and one morning we took an early train to Cardiff. Cardiff! Wales! I was thoroughly excited. I kept my eyes peeled for the England-Wales border. Never mind that it wasn’t the north or the spectacular Middle Earth-like environs of Snowdonia, I was just happy to be setting foot in Wales. Land is land anywhere you go, the sea and the human nature don’t change either, but there is a fascination in the names and languages that create geographical distinctions. I looked forward to hearing a bit of Welsh (which desire proved just as futile as my search for Gaelic in Edinburgh), and to making sense of the script. I have always wondered how those delightful chains of consonants are pronounced. Take Cymru, the Welsh version of Wales, for instance. I’m sure it isn’t pronounced the way I read it. I know I have to go back there some day to learn how to say Cymru. I could ask the Internet, of course, but it isn’t the same.
Biting, blustery winds and cold rain greeted us as we stepped out of the station and struggled over the bridge across the river Taff. On one side loomed the walls of the rugby stadium; on the other side lay the grey river, its edge lined by a row of almost identical houses, the grim resemblance softened by bold colours. Skeletal trees stood guard, and I almost wished for snow. I soaked once more in the pleasure of being in a cold country and seeing things that have inspired generations of writers. The rain drummed on the bridge, the wind blew hard, and we felt fresh and alive. Not once did I miss the tropics, I assure you.
Large hoardings at the stadium announced an upcoming six-nation tournament. We peeped over high barries for a look at the lovely green pitch, then walked on to the wonderful Cardiff Castle (Castell Caerdydd), a Norman castle which sits gloriously in a time warp in the midst of a modern city. The grey stone walls have several rather dispiriting stories to tell. On what was originally the site of a fort built at the time of the Roman conquest in the 1st century AD, the present castle was built by the Normans in the 11th century. Much later, it served as a shelter during the Second World War. In the dark passages are locked cells and relics from the years of the War. A framed poster on one of the walls carries a chilling message: “Hilter will send no warning- so always carry your gas masks”. On the board are other black-and-white pictures of shelled houses, soldiers and wounded men, bringing to life the terror of the citizens as they cowered in these very passages. I was reminded of Fort Siloso on Sentosa Island in Singapore, and the terror of another people against another enemy. Those were cold, cruel years.
On the vast castle grounds is a keep with a moat. We climbed up the steep, narrow steps to the top for a view of the city- a dense line of trees away lay what seemed to be the cricket ground (all we saw clearly were the floodlights). Descending, we made our way to a mansion now maintained as a museum, its rooms richly furnished. The exit was through a gorgeous library with stained-glass windows, busts and paintings- it wasn’t difficult to imagine a stately family or an honourable ghost in those surroundings. We stopped to speak to a kindly old staff member, whom I asked about the Welsh flag flying atop the keep. Unfortunately, I remember his answers only vaguely and it wouldn’t be right to reproduce them here without being certain.
From the castle, we took a bus to Cardiff Bay. Now this is probably one of the biggest tourist draws of the city, but one of the most important sights for me, standing on the pier as the sun struggled through the clouds and gave the rippling waters a mysterious steely-grey colour, was the the white church in the distance. This was the Norwegian Church where Roald Dahl was baptised. As you see now, Cardiff is indeed a place of pilgrimage.
(To be continued)