Flight between capitals

A criss-cross copse, paths meeting at some clearing in the trees, is clear as day from seat 18A. Down there the wood is a maze, a mysterious place where unseen arrows may fly, or a deer appear, hoof raised as it scents the air.


The Home Counties of England sprawl in fields of autumn gold and chestnut, some dark-brown turned-earth and patches of pale-washed grazing green or the seedling flush of winter crops. Their curving, erratic boundaries were laid down by centuries of strip-farming, irrigation or plague, Enclosure and the machine-demands of agri-business. The hedgerow-decimation has not made them tidily square, though right-angles at the edges of woods, ruler roads and arrow-straight railways, shout out beneath the shifting cloud shadows.

Hamlets cluster on the flatlands, placed at seeming random; the niceties of fordable streams, convenient look-outs or other magnets for settlement invisible from the air. Village positions are hallowed by time, proud of their Domesday legacy, jealous of Tudor mansions, reliving the tides of civil war or Napoleonic defense. Iron Age forts, meanwhile, are shrouded in long grass on forgotten tumuli. Sacred wells are mere springs beneath a boggy corner. History acknowledges the Romans, remembers the Saxons and got going with the Normans. Conquest; assimilation and now urgent defense against imaginary enemies trump realities of escapees from  contemporary invasions.

The Dartford Crossing is a toy with spikes as a container ship inches up-river, the water muddy and opaque. Tilbury is left behind as our wings tilt again, turning back towards the reaching roads and crescents, passing the armadillo hats of the Thames Barrier. The dense City reaches up at our undercarriage while docks and roads alike glitter in September sun. Churches sit in their green graveyards and trees flourish in municipal heartlands and wealthy enclaves. Our shadow crosses the roof of Excel before we swoop, low and loud, over Galleon’s Reach.

We have arrived in that fifth country of the Union. London.


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Stand your ground: on having opinions

My pal Chris is a good man. He’s moral, thoughtful, concerned, rational. And he is sounding a bit desperate about the impossibility of ‘having a well-founded opinion on most things’. He says that when he strips his opinions to the bare metal, he finds elements of fear and clannish news and prejudice and guess/gut operating, as well as stronger planks of argument and some ‘facts’ The quotation marks are his.

This dismaying realisation, alongside time-starvation, leads him to wonder about the impossibility of having opinions. But of course that leaves the field clear for Mensch and Hopkins, let alone senior politicians who don’t seem to have noticed that the Eire/NI border is a land frontier for the UK.

What to do about this? Let’s start with the experts, so chillingly dismissed by Gove. This week (during one my endless train journeys) I talked to a 41 year-old  woman who has had a hip operation, her original ambition to avoid surgery overtaken by the unanimous voices of her medical team. Looking supremely chic on her crutches (my opinion), she said ‘I listened to the experts. That’s what they’re there for.’  As for me, her opinions are in part (a large part) based on sources she considered authoritative.

What makes for authority?  Prof Brian Cox is an expert on a a number of subjects including advancing the public understanding of science. That makes his view relevant in how to think about difficult, complex topics which require substantial study. He  said (in a Guardian interview on  2 July ‘The way we got out of the caves and into modern civilisation is through the process of understanding and thinking. Those things were not done by gut instinct. Being an expert does not mean that you are someone with a vested interest in something; it means you spend your life studying something. You’re not necessarily right – but you’re more likely to be right than someone who’s not spent their life studying it.’

This  distinction between studying and vested interest is fundamental and clearly profoundly confused in the current public ‘debate’ ion both the UK and US. Behind his words lie the importance of the scientific method, the development, falsification and re-development of hypotheses based on rigorous and repeatable experimental data. Of course, exploring the surface of Pluto doesn’t involve the unacceptable ethical cost (or sheer impossibility) of testing social theorems but that does not invalidate the findings of social science, psychology or even economics. It means we need to understand better the restrictions on the testing, we need to achieve a basic literacy in the scientific method.

So, yes, I base some of my opinions on people I judge to be experts in the relevant field. I wouldn’t ask Clive James his opinion on climate science but his views on poetry have my respect.

Then those pesky ‘facts’. Chris seems to doubt there are such things, in a rather more everyday and urgent fashion than Bishop Berkeley or Wittgenstein. There are facts out there. Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty explicitly requires the Council of Ministers to act unanimously in agreeing the accession of a new member state. That hasn’t changed. Of course, one day it might change but it is vanishingly unlikely – but today, mid-2016, that is a fact. The last 70 years have seen one of the longest periods of peace across the continent of Europe ever known. We might well argue about the reasons for that, and there are many I’m sure (not just NATO, not just Mutually Assured Destruction or solely the EU, but all of them contributed) but that long summer in which I have lived is, if not unprecedented, extremely unusual.

We can check those facts. Go and look up the Lisbon Treaty, ask an expert, conduct our own experiments in the kitchen if you wish. But (in my non-philosopher mode) I will stick up for facts and their importance when we are being fed such a shed-load of lies.

And, of course, we can see what people we respect think about something. We cannot fact check everything, take the time to read the Labour Party Constitution or understand the way traffic flows work in your local road bottleneck. We cannot find the trustworthy expert every time: there may not even be one. So we can see who we respect and understand their opinion. Treated with care that’s a perfectly valid approach it seems to me.

I tend to use some bellwether issues in considering some of my choices. For me, continued opposition to the UK’s departure from the European Union is fundamental. Oppostion to Trident is pretty important too, and for some people the single most important thing. (I’d like to be absolutely certain it would not cost us the permanent seat on the UN Security Council, by the way.) Such an approach can be helpful in assessing a complicated mixture of ideas, right now epitomised in the Labour Party leadership debate.

It has two traps, though. Just because I agree with you on most things doesn’t necessarily mean we concur on everything. We might diverge on Trident, or the best way to lose weight or how to encourage your child to love maths. Or the other side of the coin – by talking only to people we agree with, we operate in a bubble which doesn’t enable us to learn or understand other points of view. I am sure I am guilty of that, and I cannot simply blame the algorithms of FB or Twitter. I too have to get out more.

Despite those traps, though, understanding something about people’s value’s is central. If I know you to be moral, thoughtful, concerned, rational, if I think you too believe in evidence and enlightenment, in compassion and uncommon sense, I will give your opinions and insights more weight in forming my own. Of course, many people we might disagree with passionately consider themselves to be moral, rational and right.

We need too, to understand our own biases, the limits of our experience and perception, and the uncomfortable truth that individual anecdote does not equal a valid hypothesis. I am certainly on the upside of the long destruction of communities that started with the miners’  strike; for instance I have a degree along with other privileges of race and class. There are many experiences I have been fortunate enough to be spared – for example, I have not been raped or had an abortion and I have not had to endure poverty for long at a time. In thinking about my gut-instinct, what stands to reason or I take as common sense, all those biases are part of the evidence, need to feed into my evaluation of my opinion. Do I believe this commentator rather than that, privilege one experience over another (which may be a reverse snobbery of course). Again, understanding the prior limitations of the evidence and one’s analysis are part of basic literacy in the scientific method.

Not having an opinion is often to take a position. Doing nothing, saying nothing, is also an intervention. The exhortations to speak out in the face of evil can feel overblown sometimes, but nonetheless supporting  rational, adult conversations about the mess we are in has seldom been more important. So for those of us who do care, who worry about the handbasket in which we are careering towards the flames, we want to have opinions, for them to be well-founded and defensible. Leaving the field to the anti-rationalists, the can’t-be-arsed and the haters is not acceptable.

All the same though – it’s not essential to have an opinion on everything. (Memo to self: remember this point.). We  can’t all be on the barricades and writing the undying literature of protest or the poems defining a nation, while  toiling in  the trenches limiting the worst of the damage as best we can and  raising the heroes of the future.

We do what we can, those things to which are best shaped, where our dreams and lives take us. We pick those battles where we uniquely may make a difference. Sometimes it is ok not to have a view, but some of the time, on something we must stand our ground.

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Stepping up, not moving on: #artistsforeurope


The boundary between cultural and political leadership has always been vexed and unclear. Right now, it’s pretty meaningless as Westminster descends into unmannered chaos and no-one (except Nicola) has a plan. On the streets xenophobia is becoming commonplace and our workplaces, schools and pubs, even our family dinner-tables, are fraught. No-one knows how this is going to end, but it’s not looking good for that central, enigmatic character ‘the country’.  It’s time for the artists – writers and photographers, film-makers and dancers, all of us – to step up. 

Let us make #artistsforeurope, a movement to weave us into patterns that sustain us, to draw us together and consciously create the future. That is, after all, what we do.

18 days in

Two weeks on and the absurd nightmare just seems to get worse, the list of political humiliations getting longer by the hour. The urgent question is what should the 48% do next? And of course I’m interested in my roles, as a writer, a networker, an activist, as something of a governance nerd. A stereotype of the middle-class remainer who could not believe that the sky would fall on her bubble of conformity and convenience.

How can I simply move on, as the comments threads urge? The tone of sneery bias and belittling nastiness sticks in my throat, as if this was the end of an adolescent fling or a lost football match. I am a UK baby, with Welsh, Scottish, English and Jewish blood. I was born and brought up in Kent and now I live just outside Caerdydd. I’ve always been a proud European: I was too young to vote in 1975 but campaigned for a yes vote, to the surprise of my family who were secretive about such matters.

Rather than cowering behind the sofa, watching the unfolding drama through spread fingers like a ten-year old in Doctor Who, we need to find other ways to come together and change the ending. Waiting for the nice woman to settle herself in the armchair and ask if we are sitting comfortably is not going to work.

Who are our leaders now?

We all want our political leadership to sort itself out, for the adults to take back the nursery. To me, though, the leadership battles are a bit of a sideshow, a distraction from the grim reality. The ongoing quest of the Labour party to eat its own backside, the  Queen of the Cage tory fight and the Green’s efforts at collectivism are all taking up precious time, while the world watches and Brussels (understandably) fumes. Of course, focusing on the Eaglet and women-in-suits rather suits the chatterati, who can go on sitting on sofas stoking up enmity rather than getting out a bit.

I want to see leaders who will build alliances, represent all of us (including the half who voted to remain), seek to rebuild the tattered economy, community and countries in which we live. I’m not seeing many of those fluttering around Westminster at the moment, though there are stronger signs in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff. (As I prepared this Andrea Leadsom stood down: although we have been forced to accept Theresa May as preferable, she is hardly a unifying leader.) I want to understand what May, Letwin and the rest of the as yet un-named team will do to include me, to represent the 48%, when they talk to Brussels.

So far, though, I’m waiting in vain.

The practicalities

I have not given up on the marriage yet. I do not believe that Brexit has to happen. Whether or not it does, there is work to be done, detailed practical work, over the next few months.

We have seen many petitions and the legal battleground is taking shape. Philosophers and  lawyer-historians are pointing to the real constitutional and legal hurdles to implementing the will of the 52%. We will even struggle to negotiate: about 40 years ago we decided to share the work of negotiating trade deals (as so many lower levels of government are urged to share services) and we haven’t kept sufficient resource in-house to deliver the tasks ahead.

Some interest groups are already pulling together. The Arts Councils of England and Wales, like Scientists for the EU, and I am sure many others have asked for evidence of impact. We already know about funding pulled or deferred, travel risks affecting teams and companies, and overall uncertainty. Archant Group did an impressive job of producing the pop-up New European so fast: I wonder if we could do such a thing specifically for Wales?

The practical work must be done. We need to know what’s going on, whether it’s the Tata talks hitting Port Talbot, or Seimens nervousness costing Hull new investment. (Both areas voted over 58% to leave, by the way.) We need the information which helps the negotiating teams at all levels to seek the best outcomes for the UK as a whole and for its constituent nations. We desperately need those negotiations to contain some facts that our UK leadership can understand and use for good, so that they are not conducted with faragist brutality, but rather in the spirit of the man in seat 123.

But it is not enough. Where are the bigger visions, the weaving together that might bring us all to a better place?

Planning taking shape

Whether Brexit happens or not, we are not returning to the dewy-eyed comfort of three weeks ago. The volcano has erupted, with plenty more lava still to spew. The landscape has changed, not just for us but across Europe and beyond. Which future are we living in? Who owns it?

There are political leaders urging thought. Vince Cable’s article last week was at least the beginning of a manifesto. He talks about fighting recession and developing a tough industrial strategy, about immigration and local power. All good stuff. I’m glad someone is trying to set out the glimmerings of a plan. Corbyn, too, has at last started to spell out the importance of building alliances across parties and movements. Some people’s movements are emerging around these arguments, moving beyond the party-based stalemates.

Cable also  talked about inequality. No less a neo-capitalist than Christine Lagarde has been banging the drum about the impact of inequality within countries for some time; her speech last June spells out the issues the IMF sees but which the UK government seemed happy to ignore in the name of austerity and rolling back the welfare state. This week, I listened to an artist talking about people in Blackburn who won’t go to Preston to shop, for whom Paris is a different world, who might see the fancy baubles on the screen but have no reason to believe that such opportunities will come to them any time soon. Inequality led to the referendum outcome.

Any substantive plan for the future must address that inequality, should look at jobs in the Valleys and coalfields, build education and pathways to real employment, improve our care and health system and encourage investors from all over the world into our poorest areas. I’m not holding my breath, though, for the overwhelming narrative remains metropolitan and backward-looking, focused on short-term fights rather than long-term gains. Even the eruption has not changed the paradigm.

Changing the ending

That curious entity, the United Kingdom, may not survive. The bigger project, the EU, may fail too. Whatever the institutional projects we believe in, these islands will stay anchored in the North Atlantic mud. We have roiled in founding myths of Arthur and Agincourt, of Windrush and Kipling, the stories of border wars and the soil of northern France. Opposition in Europe and aggrandisement beyond has become our definition, our excuse and now our failure. We need to change the ending.

We – the story tellers and dreamers, the weavers and painters, the designers, singers, musicians, the curators, producers and poets – are the creative myth-makers. My friend Marcus Romer says the future story of this country is in all of our hands.’ Like him, I have spent a lot of time with artists in the last fortnight, and I share the imperative to listen, to reflect and to rebuild.

We need not only a plan but a story, or rather, many, many stories. We need to reimagine who we are who we will become. In Gwynedd or Glamorgan, Caithness or London/Derry, in Cornwall, Lincolnshire or Sunderland, from Liverpool to London, who are we and where are we going?


I would like to find a way to create an Artists for Europe, a movement coming from the well-springs of creative practice. We need both the work we are already making, and the new material that we are driven to make now.  We need to be both hyper-local and focused, while looking outward across the UK and the continent. I’d love to see us all, in our creative work, in our political practice and in our institutional strategies, find ways to re-weave, re-dream, reimagine what it means to be here, on these islands, in the twenty-second century rather than the nineteenth. I’m not moving on, but I am stepping up.

If you are interested in this nascent idea, then share and like this. Use the hashtag. I can be reached on info@artistsforeurope.org. (There is no website yet: so far this is only me.) I am curious to know what happens next.

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#sailingtoantarctica in 2016

It’s been a while but for a good reason. On 1 March I am off to the other side of the world. I will be joining the three-masted tall ship Europa and sailing to Antarctica and then Cape Town.

For this adventure, I’ve set up a separate and specific blog at www.sailingtoantarctica.com.  Come on over and have a look.


Bark Europa-panoramio.com

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#yesuntiltheend @dignityindying

Dear Mr Doughty,

I am writing to ask you to support the Assisted Dying Bill when it is published next week and comes before Parliament.  I understand from your reply to a friend that you will not be considering this till it is published on 11 September; given it has been widely trailed please take this as a plea for your support when you do come to consider the matter.

Last year my mother died. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2003, although she was showing symptoms in 2002. She lived with it a long time before she died at 84. Over those years she lost her balance, her voice, her dignity and her courage, though not her wits. From a brave and physically active woman she became increasingly paralysed and bedevilled with anxiety and depression, but she always knew what was happening to her and the prognosis for her illness. For the last 18 months she was confined to a chair, unable to stand, walk, eat or drink without help. She had dedicated friends and carers and so, in a wheelchair and with difficulty, she was able to get out regularly. 

More than anything she loved horses and her greatest pleasure to the end of her life was driving a pony trap; for the last five years she relied on a local charity to make it possible, and she would celebrate her expeditions every Monday in the summer months.  One Friday in July she told me she wouldn’t be going the next week as she didn’t think it was safe any more.  That Sunday she stopped allowing herself to be helped to get up and she stopped eating. She took liquids for another 20 days till my brother, who lives abroad, could come and see her, by which time she was unable to speak but clearly knew what was happening to her.  As soon as he left she stopped drinking. She died 7 days later, having taken 28 days to go.

In the last year or so she had repeatedly asked me to take her to Switzerland, or to help her die at home.  I had refused, not because I didn’t believe in her right to die but because she was much too ill to travel. I was not prepared to risk a prison sentence by helping her in any other way. So she really only had that one choice. She could not collect drugs, or jump off a bridge, or drown herself. She was absolutely powerless. 

I know she would have preferred to die suddenly, in full health, doing something involving a horse and having reach 100. She didn’t have that opportunity. Given how ill she became, her options were very limited.  Maybe she wouldn’t have taken the poison. Maybe she would have preferred to go the way she did anyway. But it would have been her choice.

Everyone should have that choice. This is not about disability or religion or euthanasia. It is not even in itself about illness or age. For each individual, it is about their own choice to end their suffering, and only each person can decide when enough is enough. 

Please remember this story, and the many others like it you will hear during this debate, and vote to give people their choice to die with dignity.

This is the email I sent earlier this week to my MP in advance of today’s first reading of the private members bill that will get its first reading today.  (You can read more, including commentary from those opposed, here.) I;m not even sure it would have covered my mother; you can linger a long time, hallucinating and paralysed, with Parkinson’s Disease and maybe they would not have accepted her illness as terminal within six months. I profoundly believe she should have had the choice.

I did write about Celia’s death at the time and many people were supportive. Now is the time to think of the many stories in your lives and take a few moments to send the details to your MP. This bill is not about a bogey man of euthanasia or mercenary pressure. It is about the real monster of dying by inches, among strangers, with no remaining dignity or self-determination.

The picture below is my mother at the reins about two years ago. Thank you to Driving for the Disabled who gave her so much pleasure.


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The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper

P1210413Machynlleth is home to the rather wonderful Museum of Modern Art (more a gallery really as you can buy the work) and their annual show took this quotation (from Eden Philpott) as its starting point. This very beautiful piece by Martin Wenham is in the newly restored Tannery sculpture gallery. It stands on a piece of old slate too soft for roofing and is made of two timbers from a traditional prawner called Helena II which is being restored in Conwy. The sculpture includes the nails, each one individually made, which held it together. The quotation is carved in English on one side and Welsh on the other, using a font Denham has devised to enable both languages to be used in sympathetic and complementary ways in his work. He hand-draws the script and then carves the letters with great precision. The timbers still retain paint from Helena II, and he has used long-lasting red ochre to highlight the words. The work is called Pethau Lledrithol, or ‘magical things’ and it is beautiful.

Conwy, in addition to the castle and Plas Mawr is home to the Royal Cambrian Academy, the oldest artist led organisation in Wales. I was lucky enough to catch their 133rd Annual Summer Exhibition which had some fantastic work. The town is littered with galleries, including Oriel y Crochenwyr, the Potters’ Gallery. I had to be very disciplined or I would have left the town with a car full of new pieces. My flat is already overfull!

Ruthin sets a new, high standard for weaving art and making into the town, both encouraging artists to sell and attracting visitors. They have a comprehensive art trail which encompasses the very wonderful  Craft Centre. When I visited they were showing an P1210258exhibition of contemporary jewellery. From there you can follow the trail of Spy Holes by Lucy Strachan and Fred Baier. These are each set into walls around the town and when you peep through you find amazing visions. I could not capture them with my camera and they are not on the website: you will need to go to Ruthin to see them. In one, Landlocked, they give you an astonishing 3D fish-eye view of the hills around the town, lush and roomy, making you stand with your eye pressed to the wall yearning to enter fairyland.

P1210257Even the tree guards and benches are artist-designed. They are sturdy, attractive and
enjoyable. If wee Ruthin can do it, why not all of us? My many friends concerned with place-making, culture, regeneration and design, I offer you Ruthin as an outstanding example.

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Calanques, copper and stonechats

P1210353Amlwch on the north coast of Anglesey is now a small, depressed town with an obviously struggling economy. I talked to a young woman of 16 and her 12 year old brother, who were both itching to leave rather than hang about the dock on a sunny but deserted evening, and I couldn’t blame them.

Olwyn must have been here, for it is right on the coastal path. I walked a short stretch, P1210335seeing no other humans.  I heard lots of stonechats and finally saw one. She started up from the carpet of heather and gorse, her clacking cry warning me away, and she winged along the path below the height of the vegetation for several strides before she flew high and beyond my sight.

P1210349Yet Amlwch (pronunciation here) used to be the biggest copper exporting port in the world. The magic metal was mined in nearby Parys Mountain in the Bronze Age and by the Romans, and then in 1768 the ‘great discovery’ started the copper rush. It lasted about 100 years until mining was suspended. By then ship building had become more important and that kept the port thriving until about 1913. Since then, Amlwch has depended on small scale fishing and limited tourism, but not much else.

P1210345The harbour is thin, squeezed between cliffs and running back to a small beach. I can only find it described as a ‘natural creek’ but it is reminiscent of the calanques on the French coast east of Marseilles. (I’ve sailed there: you can find more about that here.) Those are deep fissures in limestone rock caused by differential erosion and very deep. Of course, they’re not affected by tides, but Amlwch is, and has had a hefty breakwater in place for a long time.

Of course, to today’s eyes this is a town on the edge of things, peripheral in so many ways. Look at it another way. It is 277 nautical miles to Dunvegan on Skye, the seat of the McLeods, 102 to Belfast, just 65 to Dublin and 56 to Liverpool. It is only 44 to Douglas (and you can even see the Isle of Man on a clear day). Contrast that to nearly 300 miles to London and almost 200 to Cardiff and 82 to Ellesmere Port. Of course, timewise those are closer now but not when your transport was a horse or your own two feet.

IMG_1804Barry Cunliffe’s majestic examination of the maritime history of the western edges of Europe Facing the Ocean puts it into context. He focuses on the Atlantic Arc from Greenland to the Canaries, and points to Irish Sea (despite tides and atrocious weather, as the ‘inner sea’ of the British archipelago, and a key highway from the rich fishing and hunting grounds of the north to the luxuries of the south. The presence of passage graves all along the Welsh coast support this.  And closer in, the connections are even more obvious. Yet Amlwch didn’t punch its weight for long. At its simplest that natural creek simply wasn’t big enough. North Anglesey needed a river that could stretch inland in the way of the Dee and the Taff. It’s wee harbour, great for protection, for beaching boats and loading barges, could not compete without one.

We are rethinking industrial transportation and manufacturing as 3D printing, exotic materials and customisation become the norm. Can long-marginalised spots rethink their centre of gravity? We should find ways to reimagine what can be offered from a little harbour in the middle of the inner sea on one of the most beautiful islands I’ve ever seen.

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An up-to-the-minute castle

P1210295When Edward I built Conwy he was into shock and awe. It was the mid 1280’s, he’d just won great battles and he was, by all he held dear, going to hold North Wales. In four years – four years! – he built this enormous castle and the huge city walls on the banks of the eponymous river. He put a lot of modern stuff into it, though he retained the basics of thick walls and a well.

The castle had its own moorings, two keeps, one inside the other and security in depth, splendid royal apartments, big windows and big fires, and a massive field of firepower if anyone did manage to creep up close. He abandoned the older fortified site on the other P1210297side of the river, which straddled two camel-humped hills but with a poorer view of the estuary. He kicked out the monks, sending them to Aberconwy, though their clock tower still stands proud in the town. He didn’t stay there much though, and indeed only he, the next Edward and Richard II ever did sleep in the place.

The only time the castle was taken it was not brute force but guile. The castle garrison were all at off at mass one day in 1401 when two Welsh men, pretending to be carpenters (and presumably godless with it), rocked up at the gates with ready tongues and disguised weapons. The only two guards let them in and were killed for their troubles. The rebels, well fed up with their Anglo-Norman overlords by then and under the inspired leadership of Owain Glyndwr,, held Conwy Castle for 15 weeks before being overwhelmed by superior numbers and firepower.

P1210309The whole place, even in ruins, has the unmistakable stamp of authority, the white-hot urgency of new technology and brute force of the mailed fist. You can even tell its power in the pouring rain, as I know to my cost. Its plastered white walls must have shone for miles to tell the locals who ran the place now. It is a very fine example of the military architecture of its time and is a deserved World Heritage site.

Nonetheless, it cost the king the equivalent of £45m in today’s money and left him too strapped to finish Beaumaris or Harlech. Think on this, as we push for infrastructure investment.

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Sunshine, towers and Tudors in Plas Mawr

P1210322I was not suddenly transplanted to Cadiz, taking pictures of one of their torres, where they watched out for returning ships. This lookalike was built by Robert Wynne, who had travelled widely in the train of one of Henry VIII’s ambassadors, and brought a lot of his ideas home. Late in life he married again and sired seven children. And he built his dream home, the delightful Plas Mawr (or ‘great hall’) in Conwy.

The Wynnes had no need of social climbing: Robert was a third son but he had grown up in Castle Gwydir and both he P1210326and Dorothy were descendants of the old Princes of Gwynedd. They were fervent supporters of the Tudor regime and took conspicuous consumption to its outermost limits. Elaborate plastering, much of it done with Continental pattern books and painted in garish colours: huge windows in all the family rooms: a big hall decorated with the most modern wall hangings; rush carpets and wicker fans in front of a faux marble fireplace: dinner served on real silver. Nothing was too much trouble if it went to consolidate their status.

By the standards of the late sixteenth century their staff had a large kitchen and pantry,P1210317 and also this lovely room in which to brew beer and bake bread. Water of course was unsafe and Robert had a penchant for wine, but beer was the everyday staple for family and servants alike. There was a distinct social stratification. Robert’s ‘man’ had his own room. The rest bunked on straw palettes in the attic. .And the family got posh beer and white bread instead of ale and rye.

They also made a delightful garden, set across three courtyards and including a formal parterre of herbs and vegetables, many potted plants and trained trees and space enough to walk and talk.  All this was enclosed within the walls of the mansion, making the whole house a ‘fine and private place’ obviously full of life and energy when it was built. I didn’t know the Plas existed before I went to Conwy and it was a wonderful surprise.

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The Translators’ Cathedral

The little town of St Asaph, Llanelwy in Welsh, sits on the pilgrim trail from Holywell on P1210260the north east coast to Holyhead on Anglesey, the leaving point for the holy island of Bardsey. It was an useful stopping place so when the Scot Kentigern founded a See there, on the banks of the River Elwyn, he knew what he was about. His successor was the eponymous Asaph who built up the church. The building has suffered since, being burnt by Edward I for being too Welsh and by Owain Glyndwr for being too English, followed by the standard pillaging of the reformation and finally the Victorian romanticisation of the ubiquitous Gilbert Scott. Nonetheless it is charming.

P1210268The cathedral is famous for two things, one being its size. It is one of the smallest in Britain at just 182 feet long and 68 feet wide. Perhaps more importantly, it is the home of the earliest translation of the complete bible into Welsh. William Morgan, then vicar of Llanrhaeadr ym Monchnant but later bishop at St Asaph, took 11 years over the task; he is credited with producing a bible of great beauty and power which reflected many of the different usages of Welsh, and being pivotal in preventing Welsh dying out. The cathedral holds on the original 800 copies produced. It also has a Chapel dedicated to translators and in the grounds this rather stern monument.

Despite this history, the cathedral itself is oriented eastwards, rather than to Wales. Almost he only Welsh on display, apart from the chapel sign (above), is that required by current law, translating leaflets and the like. Flags of the British Legion display the Union flag but there is nary a dragon, not even a wyvern, to be seen.It is rather the opposite of the usual act of translation, where prominence is given to the text and the agent is unseen.P1210272

The town also illustrates that monarchs make cities, not god. There has been a site of worship here since 560AD and cathedral for some 1000 years. Queen Elizabeth II made it a city in 2012.

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