Hey, Chris, I've been thinking...
Yeah, Scooter Bob? What about?
Well, you know, I don't want to sound ungrateful... I mean, I appreciate your letting me stay at your place for so long and keeping the fridge stocked in beer and everything... but, well, since I'm a wooden scooter I don't really drink beer. Or anything else for that matter. And I'm not really a homebody, either. I'm a travelling sort, Chris, and I'd really like to do something.
Like what, SB?
Like go somewhere. We're here in Wales, aren't there any interesting places to go?
Sure. Loads. Arguably, Wales is home to the best motorcycling roads south of Hadrian's Wall.
OK, that sounds like my sort of thing. Let's explore some of those roads!
Good idea, SB. We'll head up to Aberystwyth, about 100 miles north and west of Cardiff. Hop on the back of my V-Strom. The road to Aberystwyth takes us first through the post-industrial towns that line the Welsh Valleys. Coal, steel and all other sorts of useful things used to pour from these valleys. To a certain extent, it could be said that the Industrial Revolution started here. Certainly it could be claimed that the labour movement got its start in Wales. Legend says that the reason socialists choose to be represented by the color red comes from a blood-soaked flag that was waved during a workers' riot in Merthyr Tydfil many centuries ago.
Wow. Interesting! Why aren't we stopping to take any pictures?
Because it's depressing. There are many warm-hearted people in the Valleys, but I honestly can't understand why they stay here. I'd rather be dead than wake up every morning to find myself "living" in some of these Valleys towns.
That's pretty extreme. Ooh, where are we now?
This is Brecon Beacons National Park, one of Wales' three national parks. Not too long ago it was awarded Dark Sky status, which means it's a place to try to escape the light pollution that blights so much of the UK. Even out of the park, though, Mid and West Wales offer good stargazing. My wife and I were up here for my birthday back in March. The temperature fell below freezing but I stayed out, staring into the night sky, until I couldn't feel my toes.
The roads that curve and roll over these hills are pretty fun.
They are. Well, they are when the sun is shining, at least. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen nearly enough.
I have roots in Vancouver. Don't talk to me about rain! So tell me about Aber... uhm... What was it called?
Aberystwyth. The name means "Mouth of the River Ystwyth." Its claim to fame is that it was a popular seaside town during the Victorian age. When the weather's good it'll still draw a decent number of day visitors. As you'll see when we get there. But in modern times it has also transformed itself into being the cultural capital of the Welsh language. The bulk of Welsh-language artists and writers and such went to university here. To the extent that it's sort of a cliché.
Didn't you get a degree in Welsh, Chris?
I did. Two of them –– a bachelors and a masters. But I went to Cardiff University. I figured a big city and a big university would offer more chances to fit in. I was wrong. I didn't know at the time how much of Welsh culture is centered in Aberystwyth. I often wonder how things could have gone for me. Anyway, look, here we are. The town lets motorcycles park for free, right on the promenade.
Ha! Wow! This is so cool. There are some pretty nice bikes here.
Yeah, it's definitely THE thing. Riders from all over the place like to make a trip here, then they'll make their way back to wherever they started by following the roads that hug the coast. It's a pretty nice way to spend a Saturday. Or you can just lounge around and talk to people about their bikes; all the riders are friendly. And because many are Welsh they will never run out of things to say.
What are all these different flags along the promenade?
Well, those are the flags of various nations that are seeking independence or, at least, some form of greater recognition from their governments. There's Brittany's flag, the Catalan flag...
The Quebec flag...
Yup. There's a fair amount of separatist sentiment here. As I say, Aberystwyth is the capital of Welsh culture and a lot of people within that culture are, or at least purport to be, in favour of leaving the United Kingdom. Further along the seafront you'll see a mural dedicated to Owain Glyndwr, who rebelled against the English crown in the 1400s.
And what does this say?
"I ble gei di dy gludo pan fo'r haul yn suddo?" The fact that it rhymes should clue you into the fact it's a verse from a poem –– I don't know which one –– and as such, translating it is somewhat tricky because of the issue of interpretation. Roughly, I'd say it means: "Whence shall you be carried when the sun sets?"
What does that mean?
No clue. It's poetry, SB. You can interpret it to mean whatever you want it to. Welsh-language culture is stupid for poetry. They even have their own wholly unique form of it, known as cynghanedd, which manages to turn poetry into some kind of mathematical equation. I can't stand it.
You certainly have a lot of negative things to say about Wales.
Yeah, I guess I'm pretty jaded. A lot of bad things have happened since I moved here and I guess I can't really let go of how angry and hurt I am about them.
Bad things. Like meeting your wife, Jenn?
No. That was a good thing, obviously.
Oh, so you must mean something bad like getting your motorcycle license?
Well, no, but...
Or maybe it's the free healthcare that upsets you about Wales? Or those incredible roads we took to get here? Or those dark skies you mentioned? Or this seafront? Or those mountains I can see in the distance?
OK. I get your point, SB. Want to hit the road? We can take a different route back to Cardiff.
I hate to go. It's so pretty here. The sea looks so nice. I'll bet it would have been a lot of fun to attend university here.
Maybe. Maybe. It's pretty isolated from the rest of the world; that might get lonely. But, see these houses along the seafront? A lot of that is student accommodation. Imagine being a student with that view.
Indeed. OK, let's get rolling. If there's enough time we can stop for chocolates at a place I know in Llandeilo.
Sounds good. Hey, what's that by the roadside?
Ah, this is the "Cofiwch Dryweryn" wall. In Welsh that means "Remember Tryweryn." It's something of a rallying cry for the separatist movement. Tryweryn was a little village that the government cleared in the 1960s, then flooded the surrounding valley to create a reservoir for water to serve Liverpool. Needless to say, flooding a Welsh village to provide water for English people fuelled the separatist fire. The wall itself has earned its own kind of iconic status. Activists make sure it's repainted regularly.
You live in a place with so much beauty and unique history, Chris. You're very lucky. You really need to remember that, rather than holding onto whatever negative experiences might have happened here.
I'm trying, Scooter Bob. I'm trying. Now hold on tight, this next section of road is pretty curvy...