DM and MM's Britain 2009 Diary

Day 9 - Cardiff to Rhymney

Monday, 8 June, 2009

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Rhymney House Hotel, Rhymney, South Wales. 20:40

We've just had a delicious dinner at the Rhymney House Hotel, which is a pub on the outskirts of the small and anonymous Welsh town of Rhymney. We don't think many tourists come this way, and even fewer foreign ones. The pub is in an old house converted into the bar and dining areas on the ground floor, with a few rooms on the two floors above. Our top floor room overlooks the quiet country road and the babbling stream just beyond it.

Rhymney with a View
View from our room at Rhymney House Hotel, Rhymney

We're here because we left Cardiff quite late, at about 16:00, and wanted to drive north a bit before ducking into some accommodation. We targeted Rhymney at the top of one of the valleys leading down from the Brecon Beacons highlands and turned into the town looking for a pub or similar. The town looks grey and drab and we found nothing promising at all until we passed beyond its borders intending to cut across the ridge to the larger town of Merthyr Tydfil. But as we drove out of Rhymney, we came across this place and pulled in. The friendly barman showed us to a room and we took it, thankful to have found somewhere welcoming to stay.

This morning we were still at the Holiday Inn in Cardiff. Breakfast was a large buffet as you'd expect from a well-patronised hotel with many rooms. I avoided any hot food at all and ate muesli mixed with all-bran, followed by a banana. I also gave in slightly to temptation and had a small pastry - some sort of nutty danish. The juice selection included the ruby red cranberry juice which finally identified the red juice back at Tintagel for us. M. had muesli and bran flakes, and then an egg on toast. We also grabbed a couple of apples for later in the day, and I took a couple of small individual cheeses for later, to have on bread rolls - a camembert wedge and a sausage of smoked cheese.

Breakfast done, our next job was to find a laundrette and wash as many of our clothes as we could get away with not wearing at the time. Last night when we came in, we asked the woman at reception where one was and she rather reluctantly drew the position on a photocopied map, but only after we'd explained that we would be leaving in the morning before the hotel laundry service could be returned. We figure why spend £5 per garment (or more) when we can wash a whole bag full of clothes ourselves for not much more than the cost of one item?

We walked across the river and south down Clare Street until we found the laundry. It was a dry cleaner too and did a full service as well as providing a few machines for people to do their own laundry. We used a big machine which cost £6 to load, and then spent a bit over £1 in 20p increments for four minutes of drying each. The total time there was probably close to an hour. While doing the wash, we waited with a TV showing a trashy confrontational chat show in the vein of the American imports we get back home, except with local British people.

Back at the hotel, we packed our bags full of clean clothes and checked out. A man at reception asked if we had a car in the car park and we said yes. He then validated our ticket for us at no extra cost - contrary to what the woman yesterday had implied about having to pay for the parking! So that was good.

The parking was valid until almost 17:00, 24 hours after we'd arrived, so we spent some time browsing and exploring the shops and the famous Victorian-era arcades of central Cardiff. They were quite interesting architecturally and contained a wide variety of shops - within the space of a few paces were a bridal boutique, a harp maker, a modern music and band equipment shop, a tattoo parlour, and a novelty and costume shop. M. browsed several shops while I took some photos. At one point in the Castle Arcade a stern looking man came racing over and asked if we were tourists or commercial photographers. When we said we were tourists he brightened up and said we were free to continue taking photos.

Castle Arcade, Cardiff
Castle Arcade, Cardiff

With a couple of arcades under our belts, we decided to see what the Cardiff Market marked on our map was. This was a good decision since it proved to be a gorgeous Victorian covered market, two storeys consisting of four aisles of permanent stall-type shops on the ground floor, surmounted by an encircling balcony above which housed cafes and more shops, looking out over the stalls below, and a large clock tower in the very middle - all this covered by a wrought iron and glass roof. The architecture was superb. The stalls mainly consisted of fresh food - fruit and veg, butchers, bakers, cheesemongers, nut shops, with a few other things mixed randomly through - cloth, lollies, hot food, books, toys, pets, etc. The whole effect was charming.

Cardiff Market
Cardiff Market

We bought some brown bread rolls from a baker and some dried dates from a fruit stall. Out on the High Street we sat on a bench and ate our rolls. M. put Vegemite on one, and I used the camembert from breakfast. The time now was just after 12, so this was a light lunch.

Buying dates
Buying dates at Cardiff Market

Next stop was a stationer to buy some paper and crayons to do some rubbings at various places as souvenirs to take home for my mum, who'd requested these. Then we picked up a souvenir key-ring for M.'s dad with their family name - the very Welsh Morgan - on it, and a family crest design containing a dragon. These items procured, we returned to the car to dump some stuff before heading for a tour of Cardiff Castle.

Cardiff Castle Clock Tower
Clock Tower, Cardiff Castle

The castle is a large square wall with battlements and arrow slits surrounding a green containing a small round keep. Built into the south-west corner of the curtain wall is a grand old house. We bought tickets for the "premium tour", which included a 50-minute guided tour of the most magnificent rooms of the house. It turned out we were the only people on the 14:00 tour, so we got personal attention from our guide, who let me take all the photos I wanted despite there being signs at the entrance that photography wasn't allowed on the tour. He gave us an almost non-stop chatter about the design, architect, and inhabitants of the castle house. It was refitted and furnished in the late 19th century for the Marquess of Bute who liked the idea of medieval romance, but tempered by modern luxuries including flush toilets, central heating, and electric lighting. So the decorations were of pseudo-medieval appearance and extremely lavish, with extensive use of gilt, painted tiles, and wooden panelling.

Cardiff Castle Library
Library, Cardiff Castle

The first room we saw was the winter smoking room (there was a different one for the summer!). This was inside the castle clock tower and had a strong theme of time guiding the decorations. The signs of the zodiac were painted on the roof, divided into four seasons. The four corners of the room showed Apollo and Luna in poses representing Dawn, Noon, Sunset, and Night. The six stained glass windows represented the gods of six of the days of the week: Luna, Tyr, Woden, Thor, Frigga, and Saturn. The Sun was represented at the peak of the roof, in the middle.

Cardiff Castle: Season Room
Four Seasons Room, Cardiff Castle

Next we saw the nursery, where the Marquess raised four children. The walls were painted lavishly with figures from popular children's stories - Robin Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Puss in Boots, and several others. One fascinating one represented a story known by the title painted underneath, but since lost to all knowledge - nobody now knows anything about the story alluded to.

Cardiff Castle: Children's Room
Nursery, Cardiff Castle

Next came the "Arab Room", which was decorated with gold and lapis lazuli in a style borrowed from the Alhambra in Spain (literally - the architect copied it). The next room was the Marquess' private bedroom - a room he used for solo naps as opposed to the bedroom he shared with his wife. It was also lavishly decorated and had a well-appointed en suite bathroom with a bath and a toilet. There were numerous small mirrors set into the ceiling - 199 according to the Lonely Planet. Above that in the main tower was a room containing a small garden exposed to the sky above (although the plants were now gone - subject to debate by the castle administrators as to how best to restore it), and a bronze fountain, and a statue of the Virgin Mary and child Christ. This was arranged so the last rays of the setting sun would enter through an arrow slit in the west wall and illuminate the statue.

Arab Room, Cardiff Castle
Arab Room, Cardiff Castle

We continued on into the dining room, which contained the original dining table built for the room. It had a hole in the centre through which a live grape vine could be inserted to provide fresh grapes off the vine during meals. Our guide then took us to a portrait room and then on to the library. The library was decorated in a religious man's response to the theories of Charles Darwin. Monkeys adorned the doorways, shown to be destroying books (a comment that monkeys would never be able to figure out what to do with a book). And one of the monkeys had a face that was a very good likeness of Darwin. Finally, since we were Australian, our guide pointed out the small wooden carvings of kangaroos and platypuses on the ends of two of the bookcases.

Darwin Monkey
Darwin-faced monkey, Cardiff Castle

There the guide left us and we were free to tour the rest of the castle ourselves. We were in a bit of a rush to clear the Holiday Inn car park and get going, so we did a quick inspection of the castle courtyard, got some photos, and then departed.

Welsh dragon at Cardiff Castle

We stopped off in the bar of the Holiday Inn for some water and some coffee for M. and to use the loos, then we returned to the car and pulled out of Cardiff just a little short of 24 hours there. We took the A469 north into the industrial heartland of South Wales. The plan was to drive for about an hour and find some place to stop for the night.

We passed through the town of Caerphilly, briefly admiring its castle from the car as we drove past. We had also stopped at a lookout point on a hill overlooking the town to see the town and castle from afar. A tiny hut there bore a sign proclaiming it "Probably the Oldest Snack Bar in the UK - Established 1957".

Driving north up one of the valleys leading to the Brecon Beacons, we passed Bargoed and come to Rhymney, where we had to turn off the main road to pass through the town. The only interesting sight in the town was a large old churchyard full of old gravestones and a tiny parish church. After finding our accommodation a bit further down the road (a room for just £50), we returned here to take some photos and do some rubbings of the gravestones for my mother. Unfortunately, doing a rubbing off rough, eroded stone turned out to be very difficult, with the first attempt showing no detail of the carved words through the texture of the stone itself. We had another go with a smoother stone and produced something legible, but not brilliant. We may need to try more later. As it was, we had to flee quickly as a cold rain began spattering down out of the leaden sky.

Welsh grave
Gravestone, parish church at Rhymney

Back at the Rhymney House Hotel, we sat for a bit in the bar area. M. got an Appletiser, while I tried a genuine Welsh ale - a Brains Dark. The chef arrived just before 19:00 and we ordered our dinners - a starter of potato skins with dips followed by a goat cheese and red onion marmalade tart for M. and chicken with garlic and mushroom sauce for me, plus veges on the side. There were some rough and tumble English guys drinking at the bar as we ordered and they pointed out that we'd better ask for vegetables on the side, because if we only asked for what was written on the menu, that's exactly what we would get! They also wondered what on Earth we were doing in a place like Rhymney.

Rhymney House Dinner
Dinner at Rhymney House Hotel

The food was excellent and left just enough room to squeeze in some home made apple pie and ice cream for dessert. The dessert menu was handwritten on a scrap of paper - the guy apologised, saying it was handwritten because the desserts changed so often. A photo in the dining room showed Prince Charles meeting the staff here. Who knows why Charles ever decided to visit this place in the middle of nowhere - but apparently so.

Done for the day, we returned to read and write diary before signing off for the night.

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