(29) Menai Bridge, and (30) Conwy

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The last of the Welsh trilogy brings us right up to North Wales, although I wish I’d made space for the interior. I had to weigh up whether I needed to include Wrexham, but later on leave out Sunderland? It’s a weighty issue, and I’d only be including Wrexham because they knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup that one time. I really enjoyed this spread though, I hope it shows. It was a very enjoyable virtual journey, very peaceful. It was still a couple of days or so before our flood, when I was still at the desk downstairs, and so it’s funny that two bridges ended up on these pages. Or not. But I imagined myself walking these areas, like Tony Robinson in that TV series I have watched a lot of lately. I’ve been thinking a lot about walking the UK, planning out hikes, right down to deciding which walking poles to bring. Of course I would need to factor in sketching time, so each walk would take a lot longer, but I draw pretty fast, and can always do half and finish the rest at the local pub in the evening, listening away for accents and dialects. I studied the history of the English language, and one of my popular-academic linguistic heroes lives up this way, David Crystal, on Anglesey. I have read many of his books, and I’ve always wanted to meet him and talk language and its history and future with him.

So, let’s have a butcher’s at the first drawing then, this is the mighty Menai Suspension Bridge, which crosses high above the Menai Strait that separates the mainland from the island of Anglesey (Ynys Môn in Welsh). The bridge was built by the great civil engineer and architect Thomas Telford and was opened in 1826, and the road that goes across it is actually the A5 – the very same road that links up what we call Watling Street, although that Roman road did not come out this far, although in that Watling Street book I started reading the author does continue past Wroxeter and up to Holyhead, but fails to talk about this amazing bridge. So technically this links it up with the first spread of the book. Now, this sketch was drawn on the Anglesey side of the Menai Strait, so technically it is not on the island of Great Britain – exception to the rule – but you can see the island of Great Britain in the drawing so no rules broken. The name “Anglesey” is likely of Viking origin, but the best place name on the island is unmistakably Welsh: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. It means “Stmaryschurchinthehollowofthewhitehazelneartotherapidwhirlpoolofllantysiliooftheredcave”, which is easy for you to say. It’s where you go to take a picture of the train station sign using panoramic mode on your phone. I have to go there.

It’s North Wales, so another castle was needed, and I like the one in Conwy, mostly because Caernarfon would mean backtracking again, and I’d already done that, or putting the first sketch on the bottom of a spread, and I had done that already. I’m trying to make the book interesting to pick up and look through. Not that I have any interest in publishing, this is just a curio to bring to events in future, but it’s good to mix it up. I get it right a few more times, and less right on a couple, but mostly I’m very happy with the spreads from Wales onwards, and this one more than most. I love a bridge, I love a castle. So for Conwy I needed to find a good angle, and so I went across the River Conwy and found a nice spot next to a little cottage, I can imagine standing here sketching, maybe with the brolly sticking out my coat, saying hello to a local old fellow who passed me by, and nodding while I pretended to understand what he was saying to me, and complementing him on the beautiful countryside as if he was personally responsible for it, and him telling me something about how when he was a kid he’d catch cockles and cook them up for breakfast but that his grandkids just want to listen to records and go to London and work at desks, but they come back for Christmas and they always want cockles for breakfast, but I’m a bit old to get out there now with my back the way it is. Nice chap, this completely imaginary passer-by. Now the castle itself is another one built by Patrick McGoohan from Braveheart, and it is a World Heritage Site. It is a proper example of a proper castle, one that if you have kids and they like castles you should take them to this one.

There’s a lot more in North Wales to draw – coastal towns like Llandudno, which always reminds me of Neville Southall, the great Wales and Everton goalie (and a great follow on Twitter), the peaks and valleys of Snowdonia, and resort towns like Rhyl to draw caravan parks, chalets and chip shops. But as it is, we had to get back to England, to the Midlands, to draw yet another bridge – the very first one made of cast iron…

(26) Swansea, (27) Portmeirion, and (28) Harlech

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Part two of the virtual trip through Wales, Two of three. Wales is not a big country, although there is a lot to draw and you could fill whole books just on the castles. But I am on the clock, so whistle-stop it is. It’s a beautiful place, and I had to totally miss out Pembrokeshire. But here is a spread of three interesting places. Well, I assume Swansea is interesting. I liked their football team being in the Premier League. So that city is first up: Swansea. I went around the town virtually looking for something that would make a good illustration. One spot there was a bloke who looked he had fallen over, and as the virtual camera went down the street, all you see looking back is this guy just lying on the ground, nobody helping him. It looked like it was early morning  and perhaps he was getting over a night out but seeing someone just lying on the ground in Google Street View was a bit disturbing. I couldn’t virtually help, so I just felt virtually guilty. I remember once years ago in London, down near Leicester Square, I was on my way to the night bus stop after visiting friends in Notting Hill, and this old man who had been at the pub walked nearby me, tripped and fell right onto his face on a doorstep, CRUNCH. Good job I was there, I stayed with him until the ambulance came. Anyway, on this virtual occasion I kept wandering virtual Swansea, and this old boarded up run-down theatre building opened its legs wide and held out its chest and roared “whooooOOOOOAAAAAHHHH TO BEEEE or not to beeeee….”. It looked very dramatic. I just had to sketch it. Swansea is known as “Abertawe” in Wlesh, that is, the “Mouth of the River Tawe”, and it is Wales’s second city. Because of its copper smelting past Swansea has another nickname, “copperopolis”. I grew up very near to the police training school at Hendon and that’s what we called that place too. One of the most famous people from Swansea was the poet Dylan Thomas. I’ve not read much Thomas, I know a few lines, but they all make me think of that one guy lying on the pavement in Google Street View, unhelped and helpless.

So I moved on from Swansea up the coast, missing out the impressive Pembrokeshire coast, Carmarthen and Cardigan, Aberystwyth and Dolgellau, and stopped in Portmeirion. I have wanted to visit Portmeirion since my brother showed me the TV show The Prisoner when I was a kid; this was “The Village”, the place you couldn’t escape from, ebcause you would be chased by large white balloons (why didn’t Number Six carry a knitting needle?). While the show was a bit mad, I loved the music and those opening credits, and the colourful locations, and McGoohan’s indomitable, suspicious, suppressed-sense-of-humour personality. It’s always amazing to me that Portmeirion is a real place, and most people I know who have been there say it’s a nice place to visit. It was the bright idea of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis who back in the 1920s wanted to build an Italian style coastal town on the breezy banks of a Welsh estuary. It reminds me a bit of the town in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I just want one of those jackets that Number Six wears, the black one with the white trim along the lapel.

Next stop, I actually had to backtrack a bit and go back across the Afon Dwyryd to the coastal castle town of Harlech, on Cardigan Bay. I used to think it was called that because it gets a bit cold sometimes. I like the look of Harlech, the landscape around the castle and town looks like it could inspire an epic poem. Lot of steep hills in the town as well, but I drew the castle, another one started by Edward I, the English conqueror of Wales. Wales has a lot of castles, largely because of English kings such as Edward I building them to keep the Welsh locals in check. You’ll remember Edward I if you saw the mid-90s fantasy movie Braveheart which of course wasn’t based on true events except those that are an unintended coincidence. In that made-up drama there were a few ‘real’ historical figures such as Edward Longshanks, the villainous English king with an indomitable, suspicious, suppressed-sense-of-humour personality, played by none other than Patrick Number Six McGoohan himself. He also played the prison warden in Escape from Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood, who in turn also played the Outlaw Josey Wales, thus coming full circle.

Next up on the virtual tour of Great Britain in 66 sketches, the final leg of Wales, and then we turn back to the midlands of England.

(24), Tintern Abbey, and (25) Cardiff – Wales!

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And so to continue the virtual tour of Great Britain, we have passed into a land i have never been – Wales. It’s quite amazing I’ve never been to Wales, but maybe not that surprising. It’s quite far, and I’m told it rains a lot. I suppose like a lot of places I always figured, it’s not going anywhere, I will get there some day, and then I moved to America and all those places were suddenly thousands of miles away.  I have only ever flown over Wales, on the way to Ireland, or back from America. After spending a good deal of time Google Street-Viewing my way around, I really want to go to Wales now. Looks beautiful there. Plus, we just learned that my wife’s family dates back to this part of Wales several hundreds of years ago, and some fairly historically prominent figures too, so now we want to go there and explore where they were from. Some day. We watched some videos earlier about Welsh food, and now I want to eat Welsh rarebit. Or maybe just cheese on toast will do me, I’ve not had that in a while. One of the first places I found in Wales was the lush Wye Valley, specifically the grand ruin of Tintern Abbey. I really want to do a walking trip around there. The abbey is a crumbling heap, but spectacularly evocative. It dates back to the twelfth century, but after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries it fell into ruin. Looks like it’s been literally dissolved. Henry VIII and his big bloody ideas. Good job we don’t have leaders like that now eh. Great poets and artists would come here over the centuries and do their thing. Turner did a series of paintings, one of which is called “The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window”, which I totally get, thinking up a snappy title is really hard. Thomas Gainsborough did a nice graphite sketch of the abbey which is also at the Tate. Wordsworth wrote some poetry about this place, called “Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey“. He probably had drones and a camera, I doubt a helicopter could get a few miles into the air. My point of view was just outside. It was just like being there.

I let the sketch spread across the bottom of the page, which meant that the next sketch above the top would have to be constructed carefully. The next stop was Cardiff, the Welsh capital, and I didn’t know what I wanted to draw. I wandered lonely as a crowd, until I found an interesting view in a narrow street looking up at a church, next to a pub with lots of Welsh flags outside – perfect. So this became my favourite spread yet, I was pleased with this one. I quite like the Welsh accent, though I’m not super able to discern all the differences between the Welsh accents, that is another reason I’d like to travel there and learn more about. I really like listening to Elis James, a Welsh comedian who is often on my favourite football podcasts (he’s a Swansea City fan; we’ll be in Swansea next time), he has a lovely soft lilt in his voice. When my son was small he was obsessed with Fireman Sam, the Welsh kids cartoon. Often kids shows from the UK such as Bob the Builder were dubbed into American voices, but for some reason they kept Sam in the Welsh voices, so he’d always be doing the voices of Norman Price or Elvis Cridlington. I know a few words in the Welsh language but that’s it, although I did used to watch “Pobol Y Cwm” when I was a kid. That is a Welsh-language soap that was on S4C, a Welsh channel in the UK. I also had a teacher at school whose first language was Welsh, he was my history teacher and he ended up leaving the school to focus on his career as a Welsh-language rock singer (if I remember rightly his band was called Ian Rush, although I cannot remember his name). The Welsh do like singing, traditionally. He did say to the class right before leaving though that “some people in this class are not going to pass this A-Level”, meaning specifically me, which turned out to be a true prediction, because I gave the history A-Level up after a difficult first year, although it felt a bit too dismissive at the time and was probably the reason I quit. I remember my GCSE English teacher saying something similar when I was 16, she said that I would not pass that class and put that in my report, but only when another teacher, the awesome Mr Hedgers, stepped in and disagreed with that assessment, tutoring me and encouraging me, did I turn around and pass English GCSE; I went on to get an English A-Level grade A and later on a Master’s in English – medieval English at that, where you need to be a historian – so I’m glad for Mr Hedgers who said actually no, actually you can do it. Certainly made me believe I could.

So one day I’ll get to Wales in real life, have some of that delicious looking cake they have there, do some more sketching, and maybe even do some of that writing they do there, or maybe if I don’t get time I’ll just look out of the window of the plane going to London and write a few lines from a few miles above.

Nest up – more Wales! Swansea, Harlech and a place I’ve wanted to go for a long long time, Portmeirion. Be seeing you.