We’re on holiday in Tenby, Pembrokeshire this week. This intriguing town is called Dinbych-y-pysgod (little fort of the fishes) in Welsh. Yet Tenby has been an English speaking town for the best part of 900 years.
Look at the map of South Pembrokeshire above. You might think you can’t learn anything about the state of the Welsh language in a region from a map. But think again. Look at the place names. They are all in English. There’s nowhere else in Wales that the landscape and place names are all in English.
Now look at the map above, showing Pembrokeshire place names just a few miles north of Tenby. All the names are in Welsh. The border between Welsh speaking and English speaking Pembrokeshire is often called the Landsker line. That name in itself echoes the history, as it comes from a Norse word meaning divide. South Pembrokeshire has often been called little England beyond Wales.
We’re looking at the impact of events 900 years ago. The Normans and Flemish conquered this part of Wales and unusually changed the language of the landscape as well as that spoken in the market place. By contrast, the Vale of Glamorgan west of Cardiff was similarly Anglicised but was later re-Cymricised.
Take this modern Ordnance Survey map of the Vale. Welsh was banished here many centuries ago as in South Pembrokeshire yet yr hen iaith was resurgent in the 18th century. As a result, the place names returned to the old Welsh versions. In time, however, especially in the 20th century, the tide turned once again, and the Vale became overwhelmingly an English speaking part of Wales. But intriguingly the names on the map largely remain the Welsh ones.
Welshness is not just defined by the language spoken. Tenby is a very Welsh town, regardless of the language spoken on the streets by locals and visitors. At my mother’s funeral in 2018 I talked about the old saying that the dragon has two tongues. in other words, Wales isn’t solely defined by language. Our country has made enormous strides over the past 60 years to restore the status of our ancient language. Whether you recognise Tenby or Dinbych-y-pysgod, you have equal status as a Welsh person. Cymru am byth.
We were meant to fly to Florida on Friday, for an amazing family holiday in Walt Disney World. It was obvious months ago that the dream would have to wait. So we booked an Airbnb in Tenby in West Wales so we’d have a holiday to look forward to. We were so glad we did.
We arrived in the rain, but it soon passed and we were revelling in a night walk around the old town and along the Castle beach.
I have so many happy memories of Tenby. My father Bob took me on a tour of West Wales at the end of my upper sixth school year and we called in to Tenby on the way home. A few years later I enjoyed a weekend in the historic town with my sister’s family when Siân and Ria were small. I fell in love with Tenby that weekend: it was endlessly fascinating yet also had the small town charm. I spotted the flat we stayed in – Troy House – near the harbour this weekend as we arrived. I must find that photo of Ria at the round table in the bay window overlooking St Julian’s Street leading to the harbour.
This is the beach I remember from those long-ago holidays. I built dams across the streams running down the beach with the girls. I was intrigued by the fort, which dates from the 1860s – so not quite the redoubt against Napoleon Bonaparte that I misremembered!
We enjoyed a boat trip to (but not on) Caldey Island. This lovely island houses a Franciscan monastery. My good friend Anthony Beer and cousin Rosemary Dymond have both enjoyed retreats on this special piece of land. I can imagine the tranquility and solitude. Intriguingly, the island is a mix of sandstone and limestone, giving a contrasting coastline.
Tenby is a remarkable example of an ancient town that has kept most of its ancient town wall. Here you can see the wall as it ends at the cliff. Below is the gate we drove through to get to our Airbnb at Scarborough House, The Paragon. (Highly recommended .)
We climbed to admire the views from Tenby castle over the sea and the town.The weather was perfect for exploring today. I remembered the fun I had hanging from the canons at Fishguard and Tenby in 1984, and naturally had to recreated the fun… Needless to say, Owen, 12, had to do the same…
We drove to Wales the old way today, along the A40, before cutting down to the Severn Bridge on the M5. There was a bonus: discovering the wonderful Gloucester services.
Most motorway services are awful: overpriced identikit Burger King, Costa and Starbucks. Gloucester is different. A farm shop with local food and drink, beautifully presented.
We had brought a picnic with us so we bought some cakes and drinks to go with it. Had it been a fine day we’d have eaten outside the building, which is beautifully set into the landscape. Such a contrast with the usual ugly buildings at motorway services.
By a strange coincidence, today’s Guardian carried a feature about good places to stop for a meal away from the motorway. It featured Tebay M6 services. There’s a wonderful story behind it: John and Barbara Dunnings owned a hill farm in Cumbria that was cut in half when the M6 was opened. They saw an opportunity and opened a cafe serving home cooked, local food. It became a much loved M6 institution. Later they opened a similar venture on the M5 at Gloucester. I saw that the food and drink came from Gloucestershire and neighbouring Wales.
This felt so different from Leigh Delamere (westbound) or Stafford, my previous favourite services. Judging from the VW California parked with awning up, this is a destination in its own right. The ethos is right – a family run firm that thinks local is best, and global mass produced fast food is best avoided.
What better tribute than this family firm of motorway services featured in that Guardian article headlined ‘Skip the Services’!
Is this a sign of the future? Welcome to Cambridge and its new cycling-friendly roundabout, inspired by the Netherlands’ superb provision for people-powered transport.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Britain had a network of proper cycling routes in our towns and cities?
Sadly, the reality today is far worse. I’m a confident cyclist but many are intimidated by heavy traffic and put off by badly designed cycle routes built on the cheap. It’s infuriating when ill-infomed people question a cyclist’s right to use the road rather than one of these monstrosities.
Take my closest cycle route, opened 10 years ago to provide a route from the outskirts of Chalfont St Giles to Chalfonts Community College on the edge of Chalfont St Peter – so barely a mile. I gave it 6 out of 10 when it opened in a blogpost. We call it the expressway – somewhat ironically.
This is an early section of the route, barely wider than my handlebars. Yet you could encounter walkers, people with prams and joggers here.
Even worse, there is a sharp slope down onto the road so if you misjudge things while avoiding a walker, you could fall onto the road. (There was once a ford here, and the road often floods as a result. The footpath is raised to keep it dry.)
Costa may not be everyone’s cup of tea – or coffee – but we were pleased when the recently closed Crown pub in Chalfont St Giles became a Costa in 2014. In the months before lockdown Owen, 12, enjoyed meeting his friends there for a frappuccino.
However, the branch has become a victim of coronavirus, closing permanently. The familiar Costa signs are gone, and the interior stripped bare.
Perhaps this was inevitable. Since the branch opened, Costa opened a bigger cafe in neighbouring Chalfont St Peter. If it has to be Costa, you can visit branches in nearby Gerrards Cross, Amersham and Beaconsfield. Since getting a Nespresso machine for Christmas, I’ve made my own latte and flat white rather then popping into Costa before my day’s work begins. Even better, we have the thriving Deli in St Giles, which has flourished despite Costa’s arrival. It does ‘proper’ food, rather than Costa’s microwaved panini. In recent months, we’ve enjoyed the Deli’s excellent Friday takeaway dinners.
There’s a history to the building. It starred as Captain Mainwaring’s bank in the 1971 film version of Dad’s Army, the comedy about the Home Guard in the second world war. We had lunch here in the Crown pub the Sunday after the September 11 terrorist atrocities, still in shock at those appalling events. Later, we enjoyed birthday and anniversary dinners at the Crown.
I’ll end on a poignant note. Just after Costa opened in St Giles, we bumped into Owen’s grandmother Aline there – you can see they were delighted to see each other. Sadly, Aline died just five months later. Some losses are much greater than the closure of a coffee shop or pub.
At the end of the 19th century, a photographer called SWA Newton documented a unique event: the creation of a new mainline railway from Sheffield to London. The Great Central Railway tore through the medieval heart of Leicester and Nottingham, and as a student in 1980s Leicester I was fascinated to find Newton’s photos of familiar sights being built just over 80 years earlier. Sadly, almost all that magnificent line was closed in the 1960s.
The Great Central was the creation of Sir Edward Watkin, who dreamed of a high speed railway linking the north of England with France through a channel tunnel. Ironically, the politicians who pushed HS2 scrapped a link between HS2 and HS1 – the channel tunnel rail link – to save money. How desperately short sighted.
I thought of SWA Newton and the birth of the Great Central in 2010 when I learned that the new High Speed 2 (HS2) railway would pass through our village. As you’d expect, there are few supporters of the line here. That’s partly because of the disruption that the construction will cause (though for me that’s been minimal so far) but also because people in Buckinghamshire won’t get any benefit from the line. It will still be quicker for us to get to Birmingham via the Chiltern line than going to London to get a train on HS2.
The line will pass through our village in a 10 mile long tunnel. That will spare the Misbourne valley although part of me thinks it’s a shame that travellers won’t be able to enjoy the beauty of the southern Chilterns. Railways blend in to the landscape unlike airports or 12-lane motorways.
I’ll never be a 21st century SWA Newton, but I do want to witness and record the work being carried out on HS2 around our village. So over the past couple of weekends, I’ve been to see the two main sites: ventilation shafts for the Chiltern tunnel.
To get to the Chalfont St Giles site, I cycled down a lane for the first time, even though it’s barely a mile from our front door. I wouldn’t like to drive down Bottom House Farm Lane in a big car (it’s very narrow and badly potholed) but it was wonderful on a mountain bike. In the photo above, you can see spoil from the works. I was captivated by the forgotten valley, with its handsome farm buildings and classic Chiltern rounded hills and woodland – and with now ubiquitous red kites circling overhead.
HS2 has published a lot of information about the project and its impacts on its website. See HS2 in Bucks and Oxon. Ironically, some of the places mentioned such as Calvert, Twyford, Finmere and Brackley were on the route of the Great Central Railway. I blogged about this irony in 2012 here.
The contractors are building an access road alongside Bottom House Farm lane to take the construction lorries to the site of the shaft. You can see that it’s like a dual carriageway alongside the narrow country lane, although it will be restored to nature after work is finished.
I had no idea that this tiny lane and valley were so picturesque. This is a few hundred metres from the main London to Amersham road.
As I said earlier, the HS2 route passes under the heart of our village, Chalfont St Giles. This is the Misbourne in the centre of the village; the tunnel passes under here.
This is the other major site near our village. The HS2 contractors have built an access road for construction traffic to the the Chalfont St Peter tunnel shaft.
Closer to London, HS2 is forcing the closure of Hillingdon Outdoor Activity Centre (HOAC). Our son Owen has just enjoyed a wonderful summer water sports course at HOAC, and previously camped at HOAC with Chalfont St Giles Scouts. Owen and Karen were distressed to see the destruction that HS2 is causing at HOAC. We hope HOAC will move to a new site, as seems to be the case. Meanwhile, this is what the HS2 viaduct in the area will look like.
Back to where I began. The remaining parts of the Great Central (and the Great Central and Great Western Joint line through Beaconsfield and High Wycombe) blend beautifully into the countryside. Admittedly, electric lines with their overhead wires aren’t quite so unobtrusive. But I recall my view of the West Coast Mainline in the fells of northern England last year, contrasting with the eyesore of the parallel M6. True, it was better looking in the days of steam, but I knew which I preferred.
I’ll end as I began, with a couple of wonderful SWA Newton images from the birth of the older high speed rail line, the Great Central and associated joint line with the Great Western. Those construction workers – navvies as they were called in the past, recalling the men who built the canals – were photographed at Wilton Park, Beaconsfield.
I respect the protests of those who object to HS2. (Do read the comment below from Janey, who lives on Bottom House Farm Lane, about the impact the work is having on her family and other residents.) And the claims that this is Britain’s new railway are strained – it will do nothing for Wales. But I think it’s time that the country that invented railways moved beyond the Georgian and Victorian network that shaped and the constrained the nation. It’s almost 60 years since Japan introduced the Shinkansen bullet train, and 40 years since France began TGV services. Great Britain is catching up.
Cliveden is one of my favourite local places. I missed my regular bike rides here for tea and cake during lockdown. It felt strange cycling past those closed gates. Happily, the National Trust reopened Cliveden although you need to book tickets online in advance. (The house itself is a luxury hotel.)
We visited today with my niece Siân, and spent several hours exploring the estate. Cliveden is famous as the main stage of the Profumo scandal – as I blogged in The Shadow of Profumo in 2016. But the estate has better kept secrets; it was the site of a Canadian Red Cross military hospital in the Great War, which treated 24,000 people.
The hospital saw service during both world wars, and became part of the NHS in 1948. It closed in 1985.
There is to this day a moving and tranquil war memorial to the small number of men and one female nurse who died at the hospital. Many of those buried here were from Canada, although there are a few from Great Britain, Ireland and Australia. I certainly didn’t expect to find a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Cliveden.
Cliveden today is a tranquil place with wonderful views over the Thames towards Cookham and Maidenhead. It’s well worth a visit. And your visit is unlikely to shatter your career, in contrast to John Profumo’s.
I loved my childhood go-kart. It was such fun racing down the hill near my Cardiff home in the 1970s.
I’ve had an echo of that childhood excitement today, riding my ICE Adventure trike to Maidenhead. This is one of my favourite rides, crossing the Thames at Cookham and following the river to the riverside town.
I admit I had a craving for speed today. Not overall – I’ll never be as fast on the trike as on my road bike. But I was pining for speed on the swoop downhill to Wooburn Green, and knew it would be safer on three wheels than two. So it proved: 37mph!
It’s always fun crossing the Thames at Cookham, and it was no exception today on the trike. The trike was faster than I expected on the exposed road over Widbrook Common. Two years ago, I saw a herd of cows here cooling in the water from the heatwave!
I always think of my late in-laws Aline and Terry as I pass Boulters Lock. This was one of their favourite places. We celebrated their golden wedding here in 2011, and had a happy breakfast at Boulters just two months before Aline died in 2015. The famous broadcaster Richard Dimbleby lived on the island, and there’s a blue plaque on the bridge to commemorate him.
I pressed on to the park overlooking Maidenhead’s historic bridge. Usually I’m looking out for a bench, but that wasn’t necessary today – I’d brought my own, on the trike!
I loved the 18mph swoop round the roundabout on the Buckinghamshire side of the bridge. The ICE Adventure was geared to cope with the climb through Taplow towards Cliveden. A cyclist on a mountain bike overtook me but I caught up with him at Cliveden. I’m looking forward to my first visit to the National Trust gardens at Cliveden on Tuesday – my first since the COVID-19 lockdown.
You notice more on a trike. I’ve never noticed how striking the Beaconsfield church of St Michael and All Saints (see above) is before.
I am starting to think of my next cycling challenge. Last year’s Land’s End to John O’Groats ride was unforgettable. I’m dreaming of even crazier adventures, such as London-Edinburgh-London and London-Wales-London. A trike would be so much more comfortable, but would it be too slow? Decisions, decisions….
On Saturday, I clocked up a series of firsts. My first drive over 10 miles since March. My first motorway journey and trip to another country – Wales – since lockdown.
I was on my way to see my father, Bob Skinner, for the first time since his care home closed to visitors in March. (I have blogged about that unforgettable visit here.)
I loved the drive – I treasured the time listening to music and Jack Thurston’s Bike Show podcasts. All things I used to enjoy on my daily commute. Working from home has been enjoyable but I have missed these audio moments.
Crossing the Severn Bridge into Wales, the motorway signs proclaimed: WELSH COVID RULES APPLY. It was a graphic reminder that Wales has, sensibly, taken a more careful approach to relaxing lockdown rules. The only reason I was able to make the journey to Cardiff was the scrapping of the Welsh ban on travelling more than five miles, allowing Dad’s Sunrise of Cardiff care home to allow visiting. It was nice seeing the familiar Welsh road signs: gwasanaethau (services), Caerdydd (Cardiff) and canol y ddinas (city centre).
I was very happy to drive the 300 mile round trip to see Dad for an hour (the maximum visit) but thought it would be nice to see something of my hometown after saying goodbye to Bob. So I hopped on my Brompton folding bike, and headed along Cyncoed Road and down Pen-y-lan hill towards the centre of town – canol y ddinas…
The roads were quiet, and I made up my route as I went along, threading through the streets of Cathays and emerging by the National Museum in Cathays Park. Cardiff has closed the roads around the castle to cars, and it was a pleasure to arrive at the imposing gates of the castle.
Entry to the grounds is currently free, so I wheeled my bike in, and enjoyed a few tranquil moments, reflecting on my visit to Dad.
I made my way back to Cyncoed via childhood spots such as Roath Park Lake, and past my childhood home in Winnipeg Drive, Lakeside. My Brompton is the electric version, so it made the climb back towards Cyncoed Road very easy.
I’m looking forward to a longer Welsh bike ride when we’re in Tenby in August.
I popped the Brompton back in the car, and enjoyed another easy drive (no queueing past the Brynglas tunnels at Newport). A memorable and enjoyable day.
None of us will ever forget living through the coronavirus pandemic. But for me the sweetest memory will be visiting my 93 year old father, Bob Skinner, in his care home, Sunrise of Cardiff, on Saturday. This was our first meeting since February – I was due to visit on 20 March, but Sunrise closed to visitors the day before. (Dad and I had already agreed a visit was not wise given the fast escalating COVID-19 crisis.)
We meet again!
Mine was one of countless family reunions happening around the country as lockdown restrictions eased. But, unusually, ours was featured on television. After Bob so eloquently praised care home workers on ITV’s Good Morning Britain in April, the programme asked to film him meeting his first visitors since March. Virgil from the Sunrise team in Cardiff filmed my visit for ITV. Then Bob’s granddaughter Ria visited live on Monday’s show. You can see it here.
Dad and I reunited – as seen on TV!
All smiles: Bob meets Ria
Ria and I both loved the experience of seeing Bob face to face (two metres apart) after months of Zoom calls, phone chats and emails. I noticed how well he looked – the Sunrise care has done him a power of good! Viewers to the show will have been struck by his energy, enthusiasm and eloquence. (Kate Garraway referred to how positive Dad had been throughout.) He started a blog – Bob the Blogger– about his coronavirus experience back in March, and blogs almost every day. You can read his post about his latest TV appearance here.
I couldn’t give Bob a hug – that was tough, but I gave myself a gentle hug as Dad came towards me as a symbol of affection. Good Morning Britain presenters Ben Shephard and Kate Garraway spotted that and commented that we can’t give the hugs we want to. Dad said how much better it was to see family face to face. It is the start of better times.
Kate recalled Dad comparing the coronavirus crisis with the Second World War during his earlier GMB interview. Bob explained the key difference today is we are fighting a totally unknown, deadly enemy, and don’t know how to deal with it. He discussed this contrast in more detail in a blog post yesterday.
Dad talked about how happy he has been at Sunrise. It was a blessing that he moved from his home in Penarth six months before the COVID-19 lockdown began. It would have been a huge worry had he still been living alone, although his former neighbours in Penarth such as Therese and Brian would have been wonderfully supportive. As Dad said, he has had no worries and has been happy from the moment he moved in.
Later in the interview, Ria stepped onto the ‘stage’ to say good morning to Bob and to the presenters. It was a wonderful moment, live on national TV. As Ria said, it was rather overwhelming seeing Bob for the first time for many months. “It’s marvellous to see you!” Bob exclaimed with a broad smile to Ria.
You can watch the Good Morning Britain segment with Dad, Ria and me here:
Monday’s edition of Good Morning Britain was an emotional one for other reasons. Writer Michael Rosen spoke with huge affection about the care he received as he recovered from an almost fatal encounter with COVID-19. Talking about the NHS staff who saved his life, he explained: “Just massive and incredible, they saved my life several times.”
Interviewing Michael was an emotional experience for presenter Kate Garraway. This was her first day back after a four month break while husband Derek Draper was in intensive care and came close to death from COVID-19. Movingly, Michael said he hoped his experience gave Kate hope. Welcome back, Kate, and heartfelt best wishes to Derek and Michael.