Black Rock Sands & the Festiniog Railway

I’m sure the first thing that pops into anyone’s mind when they think of the U.K. is the beach…what with the endless sunny days and the balmy, tropical climate.

On a morning that was forecasted to be sunny and mild, we packed a picnic lunch and headed to Black Rock Sands to lounge about, soaking up the warmth of the sun:



It’s a wind baby!


As we walked along the beach looking for a place to have our picnic, I was literally shaking violently from the cold. Not being a very stiff-upper-lip kind of person, I decided I would forgo the picnic and hang out in the car until the rest of my crazy family was ready to leave. I watched them trudge off into the dunes, their bodies bent over at right angles as they battled the winds. I felt ever-so-slightly guilty, but mostly gleeful as I settled down for a nap in the car, which we had parked right on the beach. After just a few minutes, my husband came back to drag me into the sand dunes, insisting that it was  “almost warm” in the shelter of the dunes…IMG_4572

Almost warm? Possibly to an Eskimo! Nevertheless, clad in our finest beach attire, we kept calm and carried on with a picnic on the beach. IMG_4580IMG_4581

Our picnic was a little rushed, because the tide was coming in and we were afraid our car was going to be swept out to sea. Oh, and also because it was freezing cold and had begun to rain.

We drove on to our next destination…a train ride on the Festiniog Railway.

IMG_4599Unfortunately, the driving rain prevented us from seeing anything but the odd cow from our windows. On the bright side, the company was pleasant and we were out of the rain!



The Festiniog Railway holds a special place in my husband’s heart. During his gap year before starting college, he spent some time working in their archives. They gave him this World War I document as a parting gift:


Perhaps they gave it to the promising young historian about to embark upon his studies at Cambridge as a reward for his exceptional work in the archives. Or perhaps they gave it to him for pitching in to help with the buffet cart whenever they were short-staffed. My very tall husband makes me laugh every time he reenacts how he would carry trays of scalding hot tea through the aisles of a swaying train, his head bowed to avoid hitting it on the top of the train carriage.

He and his brother were waiting to pick us up at the station at the other end. The first order of business was to find a cup of tea – the sine qua non for life in the U.K.!

As we drove through Canaerfon and past Canaerfon Castle, my father-in-law pointed it out as the place of Prince Charles’ investiture… i.e. where he became the Prince of Wales. That’s when my mother-in-law broke out a story about her own personal encounter with Prince Charles…

My in-laws were living in St. Andrews, close to Gordonstoun, the boarding school in Scotland where the young prince was studying. My mother-in-law was asked to be his external examiner in French and German.

I didn’t know how I should address him…Prince? Your Royal Highness?

Wait a minute…First of all, I can’t believe you never told me this story before! Second: so, what did you call him?

Well, I don’t think I called him anything at all. I just got on with the examination.

And how did he do?!

He was very nervous! His French was not bad, but his German was hopeless! For some reason he got onto the topic of wine-making, but he couldn’t remember the word for grapes in German so he kept referring to them as “little black balls”!

We stopped in a newly-opened café in Porthmadog.



Hot cocoa for a change of pace!

The proprietor came over to ask us a favor…”I can tell you’re not from around here, and as we just opened today, I was wondering if you could put a pin on our map to show where you’re from.”

So there you go…a little piece of Charlottesville in Porthmadog, Wales. IMG_0921

We’ve been back home in Charlottesville for a couple weeks now. Yesterday our one missing suitcase was finally delivered to our doorstep!


With the last bit of our belongings safely back in Charlottesville, and my last U.K. story posted, that lovely interlude has now really ended. I will remember the glorious walks, the beautiful scenery, and the ghastly weather. Most of all, I’ll remember the precious time spent with family, who – while far away – are ever close to our hearts.

Cwm Idwal in the Ogwen Valley

From the cultivated beauty of Bodnant Garden, we drove on to the wild beauty of Cwm Idwal…IMG_4450IMG_4452IMG_4458A stone path guided our steps…IMG_4466IMG_4465IMG_4488IMG_4494

…to a lake:

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It was a bit windy…


Actually, it was CRAZY windy!

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Brooding Heathcliff moment.


No brooding here. This is the face of a man in his element.


Bodnant Garden

Bodnant Garden is an impossibly beautiful 80 acre garden in Wales. It is probably most famous for its Laburnum Arch. We missed its peak, and could only imagine its splendor in May and June:


We didn’t have to imagine the splendor of the rest of the gardens…IMG_4289IMG_4294IMG_4297


“Stop!!! You’re not allowed to pick the flowers!”


The hydrangeas, especially, were glorious:IMG_4314IMG_4315IMG_4319IMG_4326


The agapanthus heads were literally the size of soccer balls.



I can’t exactly articulate why, but this fine tree reminded me of my husband.




IMG_4370IMG_4369We ended our visit to Bodnant with an epic game of tag on the perfect lawn:



My husband and his brother…


Penmaenmawr, Aber Falls, & Gladstone’s Ghost


We saw this bust of Gladstone at the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight.

When my husband was a young history major in college, he wrote a thesis on William Gladstone (1808-1898), a British prime minister with a long and storied career. Over the years he has told me a lot about Gladstone’s politics. Was he a liberal? A conservative? I couldn’t tell you…For some reason, the only thing I can ever remember is that Gladstone had a somewhat suspect penchant for finding prostitutes on the street to “rescue,” and that he would engage in self-flagellation afterwards…each incident faithfully recorded with a drawing of a whip in his daily diary. On our trip to the U.K., the ghost of Gladstone kept dogging our steps.

In Wales, we drove through Hawarden and past the grand Hawarden Castle, the estate where Gladstone lived . My husband pointed out Gladstone’s Library, where he had spent a summer doing research for his thesis. Towards the end of our trip, we decamped for a few days to Penmaenmawr, a seaside resort town that became popular when Gladstone began spending time there. The Airbnb flat we rented happened to be in what was once Gladstone’s summer villa:


The view from our balcony was stunning from morning till night…IMG_4213IMG_0927On our first evening there, we took a short drive and had a lovely after-dinner stroll to Aber Falls:


Shortly after this picture was taken, the heavens opened and it started raining and thundering. Fortunately, we made it back to the car just in time!


The Queen of Clubs

On one of our last days in the U.K., we drove up the Great Orme, a sheer, sheep-dotted limestone cliff, which serves as a dramatic backdrop to Llandudno, a seaside resort town in Wales.


Trying really hard to not be blown into the void by the howling winds!



Wish I could read that stone graffiti!


We drove back down to Llandudno and wandered around, looking for a place to have lunch.

IMG_4674IMG_4677IMG_4676As we drove around the streets, I spotted an imposing statue in front of a church and realized it was the Queen of Hearts!IMG_4672


Have mercy, your majesty!

There are Alice in Wonderland statues all over the town. In fact, you can download an app, which will guide you through a whole Alice in Wonderland tour. Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired the book, spent time in Llandudno, because her family had a vacation home there. There’s some debate as to whether or not Lewis Carroll visited them there, but the town has, in any case, enthusiastically embraced the connection!

As we were driving around I was thinking about all the card Queens connected to popular culture. Besides the Queen of Hearts, there’s the Queen of Spades (from Pushkin’s short story and the Tchaikovsky opera based on it). The Queen of Diamonds gets a cameo appearance in the Eagles song Desperado. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t think of any Queen of Clubs. I was completely stumped.

Yesterday, it occurred to me that the answer had been in front of my face all along! Here she is: The Queen of Clubs! Yesterday, our daughter turned 12 and we played a celebratory round of putt-putt to celebrate her birthday:

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The truth is: the Queen of Clubs has always been the Queen of our Hearts.


The Rest of Us

Some of us are visiting stately homes…

Some of us are deciding which jaunty beret to wear today…

Some of us are wandering around in beech hedge mazes:

Some of us are in Wales visiting Castle Conwy…

and picturesque waterfalls:

Some of us are taking a leisurely tour of the Lake District:

And the rest of us?

Well, the rest of us are up to our usual no good…