Posts Tagged ‘Wales’

Fawlty Towers – the Welsh way

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

I’ve just got back from a whirlwind trip to Wales. We were accompanying my husband on one of his overnight jaunts there – the girls have finished school for the summer and we thought – well why not? Why not indeed. I wasn’t anticipating writing a blog post about it, but the trip turned out to be so much fun and so eventful that I couldn’t resist. Especially after all my tweeting, which if you read it, gave some insight into our hotel. But I am getting ahead of myself.

We went to Wales via Berkshire to collect my eldest daughter from her father (I’d messed up the plans a bit) which meant that I had done her packing for her. I looked around her room, considered what she might want to take with her – and ignored it. She got: clothes, a toothbrush, a cuddly toy, three books, a notepad and a pen. I was determined that she was not going to watch endless films in the car or play her DS or listen to music, she was going to USE her IMAGINATION. Unfortunately I forgot about her intelligence and bartering skills which, when used in conjunction, meant that she spent the entire time “…just completing a level…” for the younger daughter on her DS Lite. Big sigh.

Once we were over the Severn Bridge we headed straight for Caerphilly.

Caerphilly Castle and moat

It was my husband’s choice, and not once did he let us forget it. For those of you that have never been, Caerphilly Castle is very beautiful. It’s big, for a castle; in fact it’s the biggest castle in Wales and one of the biggest in Britain. It’s surrounded by a huge moat which had about a hundred geese swimming on it, and the grass everywhere was completely covered by daisies. In the warm sunshine of Sunday it was idyllic. It’s currently in the process of being restored however, which for me spoiled it slightly. When I drew comparisons it lacked the atmosphere and raw beauty of Corfe Castle which is one of my favourite places in the world. Caerphilly seemed a bit more gentle, somehow. It also had very little in the way of information about the various rooms. There were an awful lot to look at but they all seemed exactly the same after a while which was a shame – if you don’t know the purpose of the room you can’t create the vision of what might have happened in there, who might have walked through there and why and imagine what they would have been wearing, etc. But it was a bit more child-friendly than Corfe which was appropriate for the girls; they made daisy-chains and ransacked the shop.

And from there we went straight to our hotel. I’m never particularly bothered about where we stay, as long as there’s a decent bar for us to sit in, a nice restaurant and it’s clean then that’s fine by me. And our hotel looked very impressive when we drove up. It was a sprawling, white-painted, eighteenth century house with extensive grounds and surrounded by fields full of sheep and grazing horses somewhere just outside Abergavenny.  It was also very nice when we walked in; very clean, very fresh and very new. The floors were wooden and there was an unspoiled cream carpet stretching up the wide staircase. Some leaflets about weddings had been artfully arranged on a nearby table – and the place was silent. There was no reception desk or office or indeed any sign of life. So my husband wandered a bit further into the hotel and found someone after peering through a doorway – which turned out to be the bar. The bar that clearly doubled as reception. It seemed odd at the time – but not for very long.

We went up to our room, noticing as we did the doors to the other rooms upstairs were all propped open. Again, it seemed odd, but our room was all lovely, with bunk beds, and a double and single bed. My eldest daughter enquired whether the latter bed would stay free – we laughed at the time but by the end of our stay I was simply grateful that it had. My husband’s eyebrows shot up when he saw the price of the room service food that we would need to feed the girls with, but we had little option. By this point it was almost 6pm and they were hungry. When he ordered, my husband was told “It’ll be at least half an hour, as he’s only just got in.” We naturally assumed that the proprietor was talking about the chef, but as things turned out it could well have been the cat. Anyway, the girls ate, we put the tray outside the room for collection as is the norm in hotels, and then it was bedtime – they were sleeping in bunk beds for the first time and as I exited the room to go downstairs all I could hear was my younger daughter yelling “Stop wobbling my BED!”. It was then that the vague unease started. It was also viciously light in the room despite the curtains being drawn – I would discover the reason for this in the morning.

Downstairs, the bar was full. Of one family as far as I could make out. They had pulled all the available chairs into a circle in the middle of the room which left us with nowhere to sit. It didn’t really matter because we had requested to move our restaurant booking back by half an hour as we were running late but we were told that we couldn’t because “He only works two hours on a Sunday.” Fair enough. I was quite pleased to see other people as up until this point I hadn’t seen another guest. So we went straight through to the restaurant and it was then that the proprietress appeared for the first time. I was pleased about that too, it all had a League of Gentlemen feel to it up till then. We ordered a bottle of Sauvignon from the wine list – and were met with a perplexed gaze – “Oh right then. Oh, OK.” She chewed her thumbnail for a bit. “Right you are.” And she scurried off – outside. Very far away from the bar. But wherever it came from, the wine appeared so that was all right. Then the menus arrived. At first glance they were very good – there was a very extensive range of meals. But as my husband pointed out afterwards – it was a little too extensive. We should have known. But we didn’t. We also thought nothing of the fact that the restaurant was deserted but for us. I ordered smoked haddock, though I was a little confused by the description, which was “a pot of smoked haddock on a bed of spinach”. A pot? A pot of fish? This didn’t sound quite right. So I asked the proprietress what a ‘pot’ of fish was and she answered “Well – it’s just the haddock on the spinach.” I said that I understood that but why was it called a pot? She repeated again that it was haddock on spinach. I tried a third time with no luck and then gave up, I’d have to take my chance.

In under seven minutes our meals were on the table, which rang immediate alarm bells – and probably meant a more literal bell had rung – that of the microwave. And seven seconds later my fears were confirmed, the food was ghastly. Inedible. From this point onwards the whole thing was a rather funny disaster. I had managed to overlook the fact that the restaurant was empty but for us, the fact that no other rooms seemed to be occupied upstairs and that the owners were a bit vague. But I could not overlook the fact that the haddock tasted exactly like boil-in-the-bag fish, it was so tough it was like chewing rubber, and the spinach (if indeed it was spinach) looked like it had been put through a garlic crusher. I’ve never seen spinach in such tiny pieces in my life. You could have got a good five or six on the head of a pin. After eating half I gave up, it was just too awful. When the proprietress arrived to collect the plates she looked rather doubtfully at mine and said “Was it all right?” in tones that implied she knew it was not, but I lied of course, like a good, polite, British girl, and said yes, it was lovely. And with the food gone, there was nothing else to do but drink the wine. Which was unfortunate for my husband because no-one had furnished him with a wine glass. We sat there and waited…..and waited….and waited. There were no staff anywhere in the building at all, it appeared. Meanwhile all sorts of raucous noises were coming from the family next door in the bar, over the top of which we could distinctly hear some bleating. Some sheep-like bleating. It was so loud it surely had to be in the room. I looked at my husband aghast. Are sheep allowed in hotels? I doubted it, but then this was Wales. Perhaps there are different rules about sheep? There was obviously something odd going on, the bleating continued for ages. My husband then went to check on the girls and while he was gone the proprietress appeared again, did we want desserts? I said yes, I thought we might and mentioned that I didn’t usually eat dessert (missing out that the reason I might tonight was because the main course had been so awful.) And that set her off:

“Oh no, me neither. I did at lunchtime today and now I just feel so fat” – puffs out cheeks and stomach and pats with her hands – “and it was lovely but I am starting to get a bit heavy and I don’t like it, not at all.” I muttered something about life being short. “Well yes, it is but when my belly starts hanging over my trousers I really don’t like it, and I look at people like Judith” – who is Judith?? – “and she’s so reckless about her weight, she’s getting ever so big but she doesn’t care and I just don’t want to be like that. They say you shouldn’t eat potatoes and things don’t they? I wouldn’t mind that, but I can’t give up wine. I drink ever such a lot of wine, I do. I love it. And salad. And rice. Do they count as carbohydrates?” I said yes, rice does. “Oh I can’t give up rice. I got two dishes back there I’m going to eat in a minute. Anyway, what can I get you?” It was after this little speech that things started to slot into place for me, the small oddities I’d noticed suddenly seemed totally in character with the people that ran the hotel. My husband came back, we ordered dessert and after she had disappeared he told me that they were all in the bar watching a programme about sheep-shearing, in favour of actually looking after us. Can you get any more Welsh, I wondered?

By this point it was long after eight thirty and I assumed the mysterious chef had gone home. It appeared not when she came back ten minutes later with the cheese board my husband had ordered and said apologetically: “That’s all he’s got, I’m afraid. He’s run a bit low.” ‘All’ was a huge chunk of cheddar and two tiny, oozing, possibly decades-old, pieces of Brie.

“Is that all right?” I whispered to  my husband, who was looking a bit shell-shocked.

“Er – well – it’s a bit over-ripe,” he said, tactfully.

“Do you mean it’s off?”

“Yes. I think I do.”


He ate some of it manfully, nonetheless, but gave up in the end and went to the bar to get a wineglass and another bottle of wine. However it turned out that the hotel only had that one bottle of Sauvignon. It was literally unbelievable. After some discussion we deduced that the place wasn’t really set up for guests like ourselves, they were interested solely in making money from weddings – the clues were everywhere. Like the fact that we were the only guests. And to be fair, it was a beautiful place to hold a wedding reception. But can you make enough money from that to sustain the entire hotel? Well – with a few weddings per year, economising on cheese and the price of room service food, I suspect that the answer is yes.

Our suspicions were further confirmed in the morning when we opened our bedroom door to find last night’s food tray still sitting outside, congealed remains of lasagne untouched. It showed that there were no rats around, I suppose. No rats – and no staff. When the proprietress came to serve us breakfast in her pyjamas, there could be no doubt about it. There was clearly no-one else around but the lady and her husband – and a few sheep – to run the hotel. All these references to the mysterious ‘he’ were nothing more than a feeble façade; there had never been anyone else around. It was just too Fawlty Towers-esque for words. They were genuinely very lovely people and I would have hated to offend them by complaining, but I certainly wouldn’t go back to the hotel. It was all very amateur, I suspect this may be their first season there; they have a LOT to learn. As do I where windows are concerned – in the morning I discovered the window shutters that I should have used the previous night to block out the light so that my children could actually sleep. I thought the curtains were a bit flimsy. In a different hotel you wonder whether they might have mentioned it, but there wasn’t a hope of that in this one.

We did go on to have a lovely day in Hay-on-Wye (oh the books!) and Brecon, but that is a whole other blog post…..

room service - the morning after

Cymru am byth

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

This is a brilliant opportunity to write and I’m wasting it. One daughter is away and my husband and the other daughter have gone to watch cricket for the day – “I suppose there’s no chance I can persuade you to come with me?” he said hopefully this morning. “Absolutely not,” was my reply. I couldn’t let there be doubt over the issue. Call me a heathen but I just cannot appreciate this extraordinarily timeless game. I don’t understand it at all, there are too many people on the field to keep up with, the scoring is beyond me (as it is for most girls I suspect) and the slang that goes with cricket is impenetrable. And one game goes on for days. Literally. Yesterday my husband  ‘liked’ a facebook page that basically makes fun of girls asking “Who’s winning?” during a cricket match. Well what is wrong with that???? It’s a completely natural question to ask of a competitive game. Someone will win (even though it’s becoming increasingly un-PC to do so). But I think the point is that you don’t know who will win until the last, tense, nail-biting second of a game that’s had you riveted to the seat for the duration. Did anyone spot the sarcasm there? No, there’s only one good thing about cricket and that’s the players in their whites look surprisingly sexy, and that is not enough to sustain me through a game. Anyway, back to me wasting time.

I’m so bedazzled by being alone for this length of time that I can hardly decide what to do first; I can’t apply myself properly to anything. I dream of time like this. I am almost always thinking oh if only I had a few clear hours alone I could do so much housework/ironing/sorting/tidying/writing, and now that I have it do you know what I have done? I have read yesterdays papers and I have eaten a bowl of pasta. Pasta is the devils work but I just cannot stay away from it. My friends are amazed by my ambivalence towards desserts, I don’t care about them at all, it’s bread and pasta that are my vices. You will be able to tell from this that I am the kind of girl who lives life on the edge. I did try Pimms ice-cream last night though. Only because I’d never seen it on a menu before and I was intrigued. It was OK.

So, Wales. Wales was great. It was my first time in the country and I thoroughly enjoyed every second. I survived the surfing! It’s harder than the blond, dreadlocked, very svelte instructor made it look. We ended up exhausted and bruised by flinging ourselves against the boards, ‘catching’ the waves, falling off and dragging the boards back out to waist-high water where we repeated the process. This went on for two hours and honestly we were absolutely shattered. And freezing. The Gower coast is very beautiful but it is not the warmest of climes to be surfing in. Definitely Calfornia next time. But it was fine because afterwards we had the luxury of the outdoor, lukewarm showers that I detest with a passion. I can’t bear my feet on the floor of those places, I will never remove my flip-flops. Even the thought makes me shudder. But it did warm us up and rinse most of the sand off. The rest of the sand was spread liberally around the flat, our beds and the seats of my friend’s husband’s Jaguar that we were borrowing. This last did not go unnoticed, unfortunately. And apart from surfing, we ate in some very nice restaurants, we visited some very beautiful places, we drank a lot of wine and Malibu (not together) and caramalised ten onions. Badly. We had a wonderful, relaxed, ramshackle few days – there were seven of us staying in a two-bedroom flat – but somehow it worked. I think mostly due to the laidback attitude of our lovely host, Gill, my friend’s mother. She didn’t seem to mind her home being overtaken by someone she barely knew (me) and three girls obsessed by first catching and then grooming her petrified cats, sand being sprinkled everywhere and the smell of ten onions lingering for days. I cannot say that my own mother would have been as relaxed….

And disappointingly my review copies have not arrived. I emailed my publishers to check on progress to be told: sorry, we’ve only just sent the book to the printers, the copies will be another 2-3 weeks. It doesn’t really matter, it just means that my carefully planned and rigidly stuck to promotion campaign gets a little behind. Which in turn means working very hard in September. Not a problem. In some ways this is fortunate, I’d be limited in what I could do, practically-speaking, because I shall be away again this week, at my mother’s house in Berkshire. Myself and the girls will bump the household up to ten, which is bound to cause tension around eating and sleeping arrangements so I can report on that next time. It won’t be like Wales, that’s for sure. But on our return, myself, plus husband and a couple of friends are going to a Burlesque night at a local theatre, which should be interesting, so I have that to look forward to.

And now that I have this written, I can return to the dizzy heights of my solitude! The excitement is wearing off now so I might be able to calm down and do something constructive. It won’t involve Twitter though because despite my efforts I still only have five followers. This does not bode well.

Next time: my mother’s house and stockings, I suppose. Not together I am at pains to add.