12 September 2008


There’s a Melbourne group I’m keen on, My Friend The Chocolate Cake, who released an excellent album of orchestral pop music called Brood in 1994. One of the more obscure tracks on that album is the moody song ‘Aberystwyth’, which has the feel of a ballad written by an Australian grandson for his Welsh emigrant grandparents. I was also familiar with the entry in Douglas Adams and John Lloyd's book 'The Meaning of Liff', a dictionary of borrowed placenames, which defined Aberystwyth as 'a nostalgic yearning which is in itself more pleasant than the thing being yearned for'.

Several years later in 1998 I visited the town itself briefly while touring Wales, but didn’t stay long enough to get a feel for the place. But this time around, my pal Lauren from Wellington happens to be doing her PhD at the University of Wales in the town, so it was the perfect opportunity for a quick weekend visit to see a little more of Aberystwyth’s isolated charms.

Yes, isolated. Despite its location in the middle of the sweeping expanse of Cardigan Bay, Aberystwyth (‘Aber’ for short) is just about as isolated as you can get in Britain without heading up to the Highlands of Scotland. Not only is it remote from London – it took me four and a half hours to get there by train, and considerably more getting back – but due to the undulations of the valleys and the fragmented history of Welsh railways, it’s also rather remote from both North and South Wales, particularly if you’re relying on public transport.

Upon arrival Lauren took me on a guided tour of town, along the waterfront promenade and through its side streets. We met up with some of her University friends to see The Dark Knight (which I’ve written about here), and paid a quick visit to a pub afterwards.

The next day after a morning stroll through the remains of the old castle we took advantage of the clear (if not balmy) weather to do a bit of walking with Lauren’s pal Tim. The hills surrounding Aber reminded me of the New Zealand countryside – grass that’s greener-than-green, undulating pastures, forest reserves with soaring pines, and sheep aplenty. Welsh sheep are usually allowed to retain their tails, which makes them odd to the eyes of Antipodeans used to sheep without tails (‘moutons sans queues’ – sounds like a menu item in a posh restaurant).

We walked down into a nearby valley and emerged in Clarach Bay, a pretty little stony beach with rival holiday camps sitting glaring at each other across a brook running into the sea. We hiked back around the cliff path to Constitution Hill with fine views overlooking Aber, and then returned down the steep path to the Aber waterfront, where a large collection of getting-on-a-bit line-dancers were shuffling about in front of the bandstand.

That evening we enjoyed some quality fish & chips from a shop near the station and pitched into a group for The Scholars’ pub quiz (which is at a pub called The Scholars, not a pub quiz solely for academics). It was fun, but let’s just say we didn’t set the world on fire! In fact, the most interesting piece of information I learned in Aber didn't arise in the pub quiz - it turns out that the new mayor of Aber, Sue Jones-Davies, is setting out to overturn the town's 30-year-old ban on screening Monty Python's The Life of Brian. And Jones-Davies is right to make overturning the ban a high priority. Not only is it a great film, but she also appeared in it in a famous performance as Judith Iscariot.

The next morning there was time to wander around the fishing port and to walk southwards up nearby Pendinas hill overlooking the town. An Iron Age fort used to occupy the summit of the hill; nowadays it’s only the home of a lonely 19th-century monument to the Duke of Wellington. Rumour has it that the long-running affair of erecting a memorial was meant to be capped off by placing a statue of the imperious general atop the column, but that this plan was aborted when his later premiership tarnished his reputation amongst the locals. Perhaps the extreme winds at the summit may have had something to do with it too – it was hard to stand up at times.

After a tasty café lunch it was time for me to take the train back to London. Well, the train to Birmingham, where I could change to the train for Reading, where I could change to the train for London, if you want to be pedantic. See what I meant about the isolation? It had been a pleasant visit and a great opportunity to both catch up with Lauren and enjoy some of the splendid Welsh countryside. Plus all that fresh sea air came free of charge!

The Meaning of Liff: Probably illegal (but still funny) transcript
News: New role for Python star - lifting ban on Life of Brian
More photos: Facebook
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