Another beautiful afternoon in Aberystwyth. I had my last lecture this morning in the international politics department, and now I’m sitting in my flat with less than forty-eight hours to go before I leave, reflecting on the events of the last few days.
Saturday morning, I found a ride out to the town of Pontrhydfendigaid (or Bont, if you’re a local), and the ancient ruins of the Strata Florida abbey. Strata Florida was built as a Cisterian monastery in the 13th century, and was the setting of many important events in Welsh history until about a hundred years later, when, recognizing the significance of the location, the invading armies of King Edward I destroyed the abbey as part of their campaign to conquer the region. Little remains of it today, aside from fragments of the once-mighty stone-and-mortar walls, a large, fifty-foot high archway at the entrance, and a series of ceramic tiles from the original monastery floor. Walking amidst the ruins on the well-manicured grass, I thought about all those who had been there before. This was the place where the next-to-last Welsh king, Llywelyn the Great, held several of his meetings, where the great Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym and eleven of the original “Princes of Wales” were buried, and where according to the traditions of some (though admittedly, not many), the Holy Grail was kept at one time. Following its destruction, it lay forgotten for several centuries until the mid-1800s, when a main railway line was built nearby and several important individuals took an interest in uncovering the remains of what was once the “Westminster Abbey” of Wales, and promoting it to tourists. During the Second World War, it was used as a playground by British schoolchildren who had been evacuated to nearby towns, and today it attracts a considerable amount of visitors for its great significance – at least, when the weather is better.
The abbey is located in the middle of a small valley in the mountains near the headwaters of the river Teifi, and adjacent to the ruins there is a large cemetery and church of the same name. I hopped the fence and walked past endless rows of gravestones bearing the typical Welsh names of Jones, Edwards, Davies, etc., and looking behind myself, suddenly felt very far away. The clouds had settled in by that point, and gusts of wind blew sheets of mist across the valley floor. I looked around myself at the nearby hills and the random clusters of sheep, and realizing where I was, standing in the middle of a field in rural mid-Wales, felt about as remote and isolated from the rest of the world as I had ever felt before. Soon it began to rain heavily, and I walked back to the entrance and, huddled inside a small phone booth, waited for my ride to return.
The following morning, I went to a service at the local Presbyterian church of St. David’s. It reminded me a lot of a small Welsh church that I went to a few times this past summer, and the people there were very nice and welcoming – surprised, I’m sure, to see a college student in their midst. One noteworthy, and unfortunate, thing happened while I was there, though. Shortly after the sermon we were all standing to sing a hymn when I noticed some activity out of the corner of my eye. An elderly man was having a heart attack, and a few members of the congregation were helping to get him to the back of the sanctuary. Realizing what was happening, the minister asked for someone to dial 999 (the local emergency line) and cut the service short with a blessing, and most of the attendees began to slowly file out of the sanctuary. “That’s Mr. Williams,” I heard someone say to another, “his wife died recently.”
I had my final seminars on Monday, and on Tuesday morning I went back to Cardiff, the capital city, retracing my steps from several weeks earlier. I had wanted to see more of the city before I left Wales, and I spent the afternoon walking through museums and historic buildings, even doing a bit of Christmas shopping while I was there. Late in the day, I walked into a shop across the street from the castle that housed the world’s largest wooden love-spoon (a traditional Welsh gift), and when I got to the front to pay for my gifts the cashier pointed out the window to a site just across the street, and told me that they were working on carving an even larger one. Once evening set in, I hopped a train from Cardiff Central to Shrewsbury, and then traveled down the now-familiar Cambrian line back to Aber.
For several days now, people have been asking me if I’m ready to leave. Until yesterday rolled around, I usually prevaricated and gave different answers to different people, mainly because I didn’t want to give the impression that I was anxious to go but also because, in the back of my mind, there were still things I wanted to do. Sitting in the near-empty car of the train last night as it rattled and swayed and made its way through the Welsh countryside, however, I realized that I was, in fact, finally ready to go. I didn’t know exactly what made me feel that way, other than that I knew my time was up, and that like it or not, I would be leaving in a matter of days. In my almost-three months in Wales, I’ve had the chance to see more or less every part of the country that I’ve wanted to, and as I sit here in my room and look out over Cardigan Bay at another beautiful sunset, I know that pretty much the only thing left for me to do here is say my goodbyes, pack up my things, drop off my key, and go. I’m having a going-away party here in “No. 10 Ceredigion” tonight (yes, that was a reference to 10 Downing Street, for all you non-politicos out there), and on Friday morning I’m taking the train to London via Birmingham, staying with a friend from high school who is studying at a university on the south bank that evening, meeting up with a fellow Willamette student the following day, and flying out of Gatwick airport early Sunday afternoon, bound at last for home.