This was our last day in London. Since it happened to be a Saturday, we took the students to Portobello market so that they could purchase some last minute souvenirs. They were all a little tired from being up late the night before working on their final papers, but they seemed to appreciate their new found freedom. Two of our group will be traveling to Ghana tomorrow, and the rest will be flying home to Boston. I will be staying in the UK for a couple more weeks to visit family and friends. It’s been quite an adventure these last few weeks, but all great adventures must come to an end….
The forecast indicated there was a 75% chance of rain today, but it was difficult to imagine that we would see a drop of it when we exited the building and felt the warm sunshine and city heat. Today we traveled on the London underground to Hampstead village and Hampstead Heath. “The Heath,” as it is known by the locals, is a large, 780 acre, ancient London park, which occupies one of the highest points in London. It is easy to forget that you are in a city at all after you’ve spent more than 20 minutes on “the heath.” It is an oasis in the heart of London and attracts all those who aim to escape the hustle and bustle of city life: lovers, dog walkers, runners, and writers to name just a few. We were actually astounded by the number of dogs we saw as we walked across the heath to parliament hill where we were able to take in a view of the city on one of the clearest summer days in London I can recall. This was our last hike in the UK.
After exploring the “heath,” we all ate lunch in the picturesque village of Hampstead. Our next stop was the Tate Britain where we viewed works by JMW Turner, John Constable, and William Blake, who had each explored the natural landscapes of Britain in their work. Of course, a trip to London would not be complete without at least seeing some of the most famous sites; so we accompanied students on a walk from Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament to Buckingham Palace. In parliament square, we snapped a photograph of students in front of a statue of Abraham Lincoln: a reminder of the “special relationship” that exists between our two nations…..
Today was our first day in the city of London. We are staying at the University of Westminster, which is located right opposite Baker Street underground station and Madame Tussauds. It has been extremely hot in the residence halls here. After such a tranquil time spent in the countryside in Wales, we all felt a little culture shock when me emerged from Baker Street Station into the clatter and clamor of London.
Class was held briefly this morning at the University, and we spent a portion of the afternoon contemplating the urban wildness of city parks as we strolled through Regents park, North London.
On July 23, we took a train from Abergavenny, Wales to London, England. We had begun to feel at home in Wales, so our departure felt bitter-sweet. Our temporary home near the town of Crickhowell felt like a refuge from the hustle and bustle of city life we’d experienced briefly in Edinburgh. But London beckoned…..
July 22 was our last day at Wern Watkin.
Most of the students spent their last day working on their final papers for the course.
I got up early and took a walk into the town of Crickhowell–to get a better sense of the local community and culture. Crickhowell is a charming little town with some wonderful architecture and an old castle ruin. It is definitely a place I would like to linger….
Another dry, blue-sky day dawned on July 21, and set the stage for a glorious (and final) guided walk in the Black Mountains. As our van wound its way down the narrow mountain road to Crickhowell, we again wondered how on earth folks drive in Wales without encountering nerve shattering face-to-face stands offs with oncoming vehicles or other more serious vehicular encounters every time they venture out. The bravado one encounters while driving in Spain or Italy would result in utter mayhem on these winding Welsh lanes.
Edmund and his fellow guide, Steve, had mapped out a high-level route for us which would offer a gradual ascent into the heart of the Black Mountains which sit on the border with England. The ubiquitous Welsh mountain sheep were out in full force on the slopes, but we ran into few other hikers. The sheep-populated lower portions of the hillsides were covered in close-cropped, golf course-like grass which made for easy walking. The higher reaches were a bit rockier, but nothing like the steep scree pitches we’d scrambled up in Skye. We reached the summit ridge at noon, and sat in the sun eating our lunches and taking in the view. The keen eyes in the group spotted a half dozen para-sailers trying to stay aloft on the thermals, a low flying RAF jet , a pair of gliders silently circling on the horizon, and a beautiful kestrel overhead which would stall, motionless, head-on into the wind as it surveyed the sprawling landscape below.
Steve and Edmund were remarkably tuned into the interests and idiosyncrasies of each member of the group, they remembered all our names, fielded a ton of questions, and kept up a witty, dry banter amongst themselves throughout the day. We were fortunate to have had their company, and certainly benefited from their wealth of information.
July 20 was a day of rest from all the physical activity in which we’d engaged since our arrival in Wales. The students were scheduled to take a quiz on “Dark Ecology,” by Paul Kingsworth, which was the second of the two longest and most difficult readings assigned for the course. The bunkhouse was starting to get low on food, so I went next door to find out if I could use our neighbour’s computer to place another food order from the supermarket. I soon discovered that the local supermarkets don’t deliver on Sundays, but our neighbor was kind enough to drive me into Crickhowell to purchase additional supplies.
When I returned to the bunkhouse, many of the students were still busy working at their computers.
A few of the students helped with some of the prep work involved in making Indian food that night.
Getting out of bed on July 19 was made that much more difficult by the fact that it was raining heavily, and the thought of spending the day paddling down a Welsh river in the driving rain didn’t hold enormous appeal. However, by the time everyone finished breakfast, the rain had turned to a light mist, and then stopped altogether. Our driver delivered us to the put-in on the River Wye where we were met by our guides, Fred and Mick. We donned PFD’s, fit ourselves into either “squirt boats” (very tiny whitewater kayaks) or “Canadian canoes” – as they’re referred to in the UK, and then spent a half hour practicing various strokes, figuring out our “river rights” from our “river lefts”, and learning how to avoid unwanted capsizes. The river was quite low and the current just barely discernable. Numerous other school groups were on the water, and we often had to dodge less experienced adolescent boaters – as well as swans, Canadian geese and assorted ducks. The paddle lasted for about five miles altogether, and then, all too soon, we had to take-out at the town of Hay-on-Wye. The forecasted torrential rain never materialized, and most of us managed to stay pretty dry. There was, however, some swimming hole action at journey’s end along with the obligatory splashing sessions between canoeists. A good time was had by all, and many in the group voiced their readiness to move on to wilder waters.
On July 18 our local guide, Edmund, accompanied us on a walk back through the nature reserve along the tramway that was used to transport limestone to and from the neighboring quarry.
We explored a nearby cave known as the stone church (Eglwys Faen Cave). Edmund informed us that the cave was frequented by those seeking a place to worship and avoid persecution during the reformation. We all wore hard hats, of course…. Edmund gave us the option of leaving the cave via a much smaller, narrower passageway. The claustrophobics among us decided to exit via the easier route.
After visiting the cave, we descended into the valley, through a woodland area, and along the edge of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. We eventually climbed back up via a bridle path (holloway) to the bunkhouse. Along the way, we passed a building that had been designated as a refuge for bats, which are protected in the UK. Edmund explained that the fines for disturbing their habitat are quite severe (disturbing the habitat of just one bat can result in a 5000 pound fine).
Since Wern Watkin is a 45 minute walk from the nearest village or town, we had to have food delivered from the local supermarket, which was scheduled to arrive at the bunkhouse between 9 and 11 a.m. We were all beginning to get a little nervous as the time approached 10:30 a.m., but the van did finally arrive. As the van pulled into the driveway, 10 hungry students rushed to help unload the groceries, and we began the day with an early brunch.
In the afternoon, we explored the immediate landscape surrounding the eco-friendly farm where we’re staying, which is wonderfully named, Wern Watkin. We enjoyed brilliant sunshine and much warmer, and more humid temperatures than we experienced in the northern latitudes of Scotland. The contrasts between south central Wales and Skye are many. Proximity to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream make for a more verdant and biologically diverse ecosystem here on the Welsh/English border. The pastoral atmosphere of the lowland landscape, the heavily wooded valleys and hedge-bordered grain fields juxtapose starkly with the treeless, somber sandstone mountains rising in the background – the Brecon Beacons. On our hike, some challenging route finding and steep scree climbing resulted in an unintentional splitting up of the group, but eventually we were reunited, and returned to the farm in time to prep and cook our first communal meal – Lucy’s recipe for Spaghetti Bolognaise turned out magnificently.