Norm’s Overseas Odyssey 2005 – 2006 – Episode Thirty-one

Thursday 6th April 2006

After a decent frost, I had to get back into ice-removal mode before I left this morning. It did, however, presage a “good weather” day, and that’s how it turned out – at least until early afternoon.

The drive up through Wales was one of the most scenic I’ve done. It was just a wonderful mix of green farmland, dry-stone walls, varied coastline, picturesque villages, soaring hills, rushing brooks and more. It was meant to be savoured – and that’s exactly what I did, taking four hours to cover the 120 miles to Portmeirion. This is when the weather started to change for the worse, getting colder, windier and, after a false start, rainier.

As many of you will know, Portmeirion Village and Garden was the brainchild of Clough Williams-Ellis who began its construction in 1926 to demonstrate how a naturally beautiful site could be developed without spoiling it. Perhaps it was because I’d spent a whole morning enjoying natural beauty, but for me, dare I say it, the mish-mash of multi-coloured buildings had all the appeal of a 20s Hollywood set for that new-fangled Technicolour.

Portmeirion Village and Garden, Gwynedd
6 April 2006
Portmeirion Village and Garden, Gwynedd
6 April 2006
Portmeirion Village and Garden, Gwynedd
6 April 2006

I found my “Sygun Fawr Country House” with no great difficulty, but had some difficulty getting to it along the narrowest road and, later, the steepest drive on which I’ve driven anywhere. The information folder in my room has this to say about it: “the driveway has been called Snowdonia’s ‘white knuckle ride’ but now that you have made it here the views must surely be worth it!” Believe me, they are. But whether I’ll still feel that way when it comes to leaving in the morning is another matter. For whatever reason, no hot evening meal is served here on Tuesdays and Thursdays, (which I was aware of when I booked) but I was more than happy with the offered “cold collation” rather than having to tempt fate by driving the couple of miles back to Beddgelert in the rain and in the dark!
The target for tomorrow is Chester where I’ll be for a couple of nights. I plan to try and get to see Caernarfon Castle on the way but whether I do so or not will depend largely on what the weather’s like in the morning.

Friday 7th April 2006

Why is it that when you drive back from somewhere, it always seems shorter? Shorter or not, LRC and I navigated our way back down that drive and along that road (?) safely.
Having made it to Caernarfon, I have to admit to bailing out on the castle visit. I had to park quite some distance away overlooking the Menai Straits, but the combination of rain, wind and cold was such that I wasn’t about to risk getting a cold – or worse – at this stage. I hope “Charley boy” won’t be too offended. In the end, I think I chose a better option by driving back through Snowdonia National Park via Capel-Curig and Betws-y-Coed to Conwy. I thought yesterday’s scenery was great – despite the rain, by then much lighter, today’s was just glorious.
Having dawdled through that part of the drive, I then just headed along an extremely busy A55 to Chester – and then nearby Rossett, where I’ll be bedded down for the next two nights. My room at “Rossett Hall” is fine and the bed looks as if it will pass the comfort test, but the 24 hours of “free” WiFi time is a real bonus – and couldn’t have been better timed. After two “internet-less” days I was in danger of suffering withdrawal symptoms!

I have just had a really good a dinner – and as you may have noticed, I’ve had a few. The potato and leek soup was a very good starter, but the main of poached salmon, fresh asparagus and new potatoes was better, and what made it special was that really good ingredients had been cooked in such a way that they “spoke for themselves”! Simple, and simply delicious. I am now looking forward to tomorrow night’s offering.

And before I forget,  I must tell you how delighted I am to be having a dear friend from South Australia join me next Friday for a fortnight in Santorini. I met Carol Scott some fifteen months ago as a fellow passenger on the cruise I did before Christmas in 2004. Carol had also lost her partner and, earlier, an only daughter as well. Since then we have kept in touch by email, phone calls and spent some weekends together. Needless to say, I am very much looking forward to her company. We will follow the trip to Santorini with some weeks together in the UK, during which I hope to show her some of my favourite places.

Saturday 8th April 2006

It had rained overnight but looked as if it would be fine enough for me to visit two National Trust properties today. Powis Castle is about 35 miles south of Rossett and what should have been an uneventful short trip there turned out otherwise.

Having pulled into a lay-by to check my navigation, LRC just refused to start again. My first attempt to ring the AA Roadside Assist service was greeted with the message “You have dialled an incorrect number”. Assuming that the number might have changed rather than, heaven forbid, I had misdialled, I tried the AA’s “Helpline” only to be placed in one of those seemingly endless queues. At least with visible queues you can see what progress if any you’re making, and as I didn’t seem to be making any – using valuable “mobile minutes” – I thought I’d retry the Assist number. They’d obviously changed the number back, because I got through straight away.
Having provided all the information necessary to prove that I was who I said I was and was driving the car that was registered for assistance, I was asked what I thought was a redundant question “What’s wrong?” To which I replied, probably in a somewhat “what an idiotic sort of question is that” sort of tone, “I’m broken down”!
Humouring me I suspect, the Customer Service Officer, no less, then asked: “Specifically, what problem are you having? Now, I thought, we’re making progress. Having explained that, although the battery seemed OK, the engine would just not start, and that I had tried unsuccessfully to start it ten or so times in the preceding 20 minutes, she agreed that I did in fact seem to need roadside assistance.

For whatever reason, as she was about to test my positional navigation skills so that help could find me, I turned the ignition key one more time – and, yes you guessed it, LRC started immediately. My Customer Service Officer and I brought to a mutually agreeable end our improving relationship and I proceeded as if nothing had happened which, of course, it hadn’t.

Now, where was I? Oh yes, en route to Powis Castle. Having learnt from the net last evening that the castle would be open at 11:30 am I was a little “put out” to find that whilst the garden, restaurant and shop were open the “house” wouldn’t be open until 1:00 pm. However, the gardens and terraces were sufficient reason to have visited, as I hope these will show:

Powis Castle, Powis – from the Gardens
8 April 2006
Powis Castle, Powis
8 April 2006
Powis Castle, Powis – View of gardens from the Terraces
8 April 2006

The castle, originally built about 1200, began life as a fortress of the Welsh Princes of Powys, but has been remodelled and embellished over more than 400 years by the Earls of Powis (Herberts) and now has a very red-brick Victorian look about it. When the 4th Earl died he bequeathed the property with an endowment to the National Trust. As it is known now more for its collection of paintings, sculpture, furniture and tapestries, I decided to forego a tour and move on to “Erddig”.

With the benefit of hindsight, I’d have been better to have spent all my time here. Erddig was built in the 1680s at a cost which, combined with some disastrous financial speculation bankrupted its first owner, Joshua Edisbury. In 1716 it was acquired by a London lawyer, John Meller, who then proceeded to extend and modernise it, filling it with the finest furniture and furnishings of the period. The property passed to his nephew, Simon Yorke in 1733, and it remained in the Yorke family until offered to the National Trust in 1973.

Now before your eyes glaze over, that bit of history was necessary to explain why Erddig has such appeal. The Yorkes maintained an unusually close relationship with their servants, commissioning portraits of them, addressing them in verse, and preserving all manner of household accounts over the centuries. Perhaps to reflect this unusual relationship, entry is not through the front door but through the estate, stable and laundry yards, so that you move progressively from “downstairs” to “upstairs”.
This is a completely furnished 18th century large country house, so there is much to see both above and below stairs; but as most rooms have no electric light a dull day should be avoided. My luck – or lack of it – was such that it started raining almost as soon as I got there and as the rain got heavier it got darker – to the point that it was almost impossible to see anything. Because of the weather I didn’t explore the park or garden and, to my regret was unable to get any photos.  So, this one is courtesy The National Trust.

Erddig -State Bedroom
8 April 2006

Whoever’s law being what it is, by the time I got back to the hotel, the sun was shining again. If you happen to be in that part of the world, can afford to spend more than just an hour – and the light is good – I thoroughly recommend it. It’s just fascinating.
And just for the record, I had the salmon again – and it was every bit as good as last night’s.

Sunday 9th April 2006

The morning started well. Relatively clear sky and plenty of time to make another “castle” visit before meandering back to Manchester. Half an hour south of Rossett, I pulled in to get petrol and didn’t get any further. LRC failed to respond to all my efforts to coax her into life, so I had to go through the AA breakdown service process again but, this time, although I got through to the AA without too much difficulty, and passed the “identification parade” bit, I was told it would be at least 90 minutes before a patrol would be available.

Having man-handled LRC away from the pumps/bowsers, I then sat and waited… As if on call to match my mood, first the rain and then sleet arrived in strength, further delaying the arrival of the AA Patrol.
When he did arrive, LRC, clearly impressed with the amount of attention she was getting, started again without any assistance at all.
Without, going into too much detail, it appears that the fault lies with the “chip” in the ignition key which is not always “recognised” and, when it isn’t, does what it’s supposed to do and immobilises her.
After half an hour or so, it will reset itself, and this apparently is why it starts “later on”! AA Patrol suggested I have Renault check the key, but, as the second key – which of course I didn’t have with me at the time works just fine, there’s no rush.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the combination of this delay and the weather was sufficient to persuade me that the smartest thing I could do was head for Manchester – not that too much persuasion was necessary as I’d had advance notice of a “lamb roast dinner”, and I was certainly not going to be late for that! I wasn’t…  …and it was “smashing” – to borrow an expression from someone.

Tuesday 11th April 2006

Having been on the road since the middle of January, it was good to have a few days break to catch up on such mundane things as washing and ironing, and getting myself organised for our Santorini sojourn. I even managed to fit in a long-overdue visit to the barber.
I plan to drive down to London on Thursday so that I can meet Carol when she arrives on Friday morning. Our flight for Santorini (via Paris and Athens) leaves at 8:45 am on Saturday and, being Easter weekend, Air France has recommended we report no later than 5:45 am. Although it will be an early start, we’ve been fortunate in being able to get accommodation (with complimentary parking) at Marriott Slough only 30 minutes “shuttle bus” ride away.