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Wrapping Up Wales

Posted by Shakeisha Gray '14

September 3, 2014

Category: Student Blogs

EDITOR'S NOTE: Students in the Honors Course "Dylan Thomas's Wales" traveled to Wales during spring break, March 7-16, 2014 with Dr. Janice Fuller. Student Shakeisha Gray '14 reflects on her experiences there and shares photos from the trip in this final blog.

Day Three: Finding Buddha in Wales (Monday, May 12, 2014)
The jet lag has worn off and maybe it is because I have settled into the fat that I arrived safely, my kids are safe back at home, and for once, I have nothing to worry about. Just show up when I'm told to show up and have fun, enjoy the time I'm allowed to spend here. Going into day three and I am completely relaxed, and I cannot remember the last time, if there ever was a time, that I felt this Zen, which surprisingly came full circle today, but more on that later.

Our day started with a drive out to Anglesey Isle and a packed lunch prepared by Gavin, one of the wardens, or caretakers, at Ty Newydd. Taking a packed lunch is fantastic as it saves money and time. I chose cheese and onion, which sounds odd to Americans, but is actually very good. (In days to come, I will try ham and cheddar with pickle…the cheddar is always white and so much more delicious than anything I've been able to find at Harris Teeter since my return, and it's grated, not sliced, which is something I discovered again after ordering it at a restaurant for lunch one day. It's messy that way too. And the pickle is not what we would commonly refer to as pickles here in the States. Our idea of pickle is cucumber that has been pickled in vinegar, pickle in the U.K. refers too something like a vegetable and fruit preserve, which is sweet, but not as sweet as jam or jelly. IT IS AMAZING! Here's a good explanation of it as written in a blog post by an American Linguist, Lynne Murphy, living and working in the U.K.

After the amazing Will squeezed us through a couple of very, very tight bridge openings (I am not exaggerating, ask anyone on the coach, they were tight squeezes), we stopped at Beaumaris Castle. I don't think I will ever tire of seeing castles, which is great because we will see a decent amount. More information about Beaumaris can be found here… After Beaumaris we had time to visit the high street and do some shopping. This is where I hit the local charity shops (or second hand stores). I found some fantastic deals, the most celebrated of which was a cashmere scarf for £1.50. In another charity shop, I bought a painting a two Maasai, a group of people from Kenya and Tanzania. This was particularly interesting because the woman working in the shop and I enjoyed a conversation about Africa. I sit on the board of a non-profit organization that raised funds to build a school in South Sudan and work closely with Lost Boys from Sudan, the charity shop actually is run by a group called Annie's Orphans which financially support orphanages and schools around the globe, including in several countries in Africa. (

After shopping, I had a chance to mail a postcard I picked up yesterday from Plas Glyn-Y-Weddw to the boys. I hope it makes it home before I do!

For today to have started out so relaxed, it sure became a challenge during our visit to Harlech Castle. Large coaches like ours are unable to make it up the steep, winding road to the part of the village that's at the top of the hill, where Harlech is located. No worries right? The weather is gorgeous and the castle offers so much history, history which we've studied about in class for weeks now, and I'm eager to see the castle. But the eagerness doesn't last long. No wonder coaches can't drive this road, it's amazing any vehicle can manage it, let alone we walk it! There were times when you'd feel as you were standing straight up, yet you could stick out your arm in front of you and touch the road. Steep indeed. I kept trudging on though, and I'm glad I did because the castle was wonderful. Once we were inside, several of the students found a turret and were waving down to us from the top, they said the view was fantastic, so I figured, why not? Perhaps it was a second wind, or pure determination, or selfishness to take in everything, whatever the reason, I climbed the 154 dizzying steps to the top. I was not disappointed. Fantastic was an understatement, the view was magnificently glorious.

Towards the end of the day we visited Portmeirion Village, a quirky little artists community that mimics a Mediterranean village, built by welsh architect Clough Williams-Ellis. And Portmeirion my friends, is where I found Buddha. In Wales of all places. It was a happy little reminder to take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy all that Wales is offering me. That evening we met poet, songwriter, and performer Twm Morys, who serenaded everyone into the evening of what had been a very full day. In more ways than one.

Student Athena Bless practices her “air archery” skills at Beaumaris Castle in Anglesey, Wales.

Bilingual sign in Welsh/English.

A giant Buddha statue at Portmeirion n Wales.
A previous visitor left the flower in his hand.

Harlech Castle, at the top of the hill.
On our way up.
The reward at the top of the turret.
Twm Morys telling bedtime stories and singing us goodnight. 


Day Four
After such a full day yesterday, we slowed down a bit today. We visited a lot of places, but most of our time was spent on the coach, taking in the views of the countryside, and when we did stop, the pace was more relaxed and we had to time to wander and shop.

We drove through Snowdonia (a region in Wales most known for Mount Snowdon and the slate industry) some yesterday, but today we went right through the heart of it. Mountains with stone walls creeping up the sides of them, waterfalls and lakes, and spots of debris left from slate mining were our views for most of the morning. When we made our first stop, it was at a pull-off for tourists so we could all get out and take pictures in front of Mount Snowdon, definitely a very touristy moment, but well worth the views. Our first official stop was at the National Slate Museum at the Dinorwig Quarry in Llanberis. The slate industry was very important economically to Northern Wales, and is akin to the coal industry in America.

Next we visited Caernarfon in North Wales and Caernarfon Castle, where Prince Charles was invested as the Prince of Wales. (More info can be found here… Our main appointment in Caernarfon was Palas Print (an independent store that sell items primarily in the Welsh language) ran by the very kind Eirian lames. We had a private session with storyteller Eric Maddern, originally from Australia, but now living in Wales, Eric specializes in bring the Mabinogian (Welsh folk tales equivalent to King Arthur, or the Book of Kells, actually found in ancient manuscripts) to life for his listeners. But before our tea and cake in Palas Print, we had the chance to wonder around the town. I should pause here to tell you that Allison Bumgarner, Sydney Smith, and I have become our own little trio. It's common for us to break up into little groups, still using the buddy-system so we're never on our own. Our group had a delightful conversation with the owner of an ice cream shop where we stopped for a treat. She informed us that the ice cream was made with Welsh cream, from Welsh cows, and made by a Welshman who happened to be her husband. Getting to know people is the best part of traveling for me! We also stopped at a few boutiques where I scored two pairs of handmade earrings for £10. Conversation pays!

After Palas Print, we made our way back to Ty Newydd for our last night there. I'm excited to head down south, but part of me dreads leaving the north. It is so beautiful here, but I know more adventures await us in Swansea.

Mount Snowdon

Scarring leftover from the mining of slate.

Mugs in a gift shop that say, “chocolate,” “tea,” and “coffee” in Welsh. 

Student Shakeisha Gray points to the spot in Caernarfon Castle where Queen Elizabeth II stood during the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales.


Image taken at Caernarfon Castle from Prince Charles's investiture.

Student Sydney Smith listens intently as storyteller Eric Maddern retells tales from the Mabinogi at Palas Print bookshop.

The sunset from an upstairs window at
Ty Newydd on the last night there.


Day Five: Making Our Way South
Today has been another slow paced day. Keep in mind that even though I say slow, our days are still jam packed with amazing things to do. On our way to Swansea, in South Wales, we stopped at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth to look at the collection of ancient texts which contain the stories of the Mabanogian dating from as far back as the 13th century. We also viewed an exhibit on the life of David Lloyd George (b. 1863-d. 1945), the only Welsh Prime Minister England has ever had, who happened to own and live at Ty Newydd and is buried just down the lane from the house. Some of us went off in different directions to view other exhibits that were at the Library, collectively we saw exhibits on Welsh Landscapes, Welsh Women in Art, and the Library's collection of historical artifacts centered on Welsh poetry and performing arts. (You can learn about the National Library of Wales here…

After we had lunch in Aberystwyth, we continued down the coast making our way to Swansea. We are staying at the Devon View Guesthouse, part bed and breakfast, part hostel, part hotel. I don't even mind sharing a bathroom with other guests on our floor, it's very common in most countries (besides our own)!!

Catawba students in front of the National Library
of Wales at the University of Aberystwyth.



Day Six: Fangirl Moments Galore
We're up early to catch the train to Cardiff. If you're a fan of the British Sci-Fi show Doctor Who, or its spin-off Torchwood, then you'll understand my utter excitement at visiting Cardiff. Plus, Roald Dahl, my second most favorite writer from childhood (behind Laura Ingalls Wilder), writer of such great stories as The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach, was born in Cardiff and spent his early childhood years there. Even though the fog in the early part of our day at the Cardiff Bayfront blanketed any views of the water, it did not hamper the Doctor Who Experience, which was so much fun.

If you have kids, especially preteen boys, then you have probably heard of Doctor Who, at least the “new” Doctor. The show is currently on its 13th incarnation of the character, so you may even be familiar with it from your own childhood. Anyway, the Doctor Who Experience was on my “Mom Must-Do” list, so I couldn't disappoint (and as a fan myself, it was pretty cool to see various items on display from the show's past). If you're in Cardiff, even for just a day, I highly suggest a visit to the Cardiff Bay area. There's a Cardiff Bay Visitor's Centre, but we managed fine on our own. The area is home to the Wales Millennium Centre, the National Assembly of Wales, the Norwegian Church Arts Centre, the BBC's Welsh branch, and of course the Doctor Who Experience.

We had time to wander before our mandatory meet up time of 2pm to see a production of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood performed at the New Theatre which dates from 1906. Okay, here comes another total fangirl moment…while watching the production, I think I recognize one of the actors, but as I had refused to previously pay the £2 for a program, I waited until intermission to borrow Sally's program to see if the actor is who I thought they were, and I was right…Kai Owen, who plays Rhys on Torchwood, was in the play. So of course I went and bought the program then, or else my son (who is just as big a Torchwood fan as he is a Doctor Who fan) would never believe me!

It was neat to see an actor from a television show my kid loves performing in a play that our class had read and was written by a man who we've studied the past few weeks. Circles like this keep happening during my time here in Wales, has anyone seen a police call box nearby?

Wales Millennium Centre

A replica of the 10th Doctor's T.A.R.D.I.S. at the
Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff, Wales.

Day Seven: A Day Filled With Dylan Thomas
Our day began with a long walk along the waterfront to the Dylan Thomas Centre which houses a permanent exhibit on Dylan Thomas's life and works, along with hosting other literary events throughout the year. An actual door from Thomas's famous writing shed is here and they encourage visitors to gently touch the door. The centre is highly interactive and a number of displays that you can watch or listen to. A very unique item on display is a table cloth from a NYC restaurant that Dylan and his dinner guests wrote and doodled on during one of his few visits to the United States. Will arrived with the coach and we headed to Laugharne where Dylan Thomas lived in the last years of his life and is buried at St. Martin's Church. We toured the Thomas's Boathouse, looked in Dylan's writing shed, ate a traditional Welsh cawl (a type of stew) at Browns Hotel where Dylan and his wife Caitlin frequented, walked to the castle, and all in all, had a great little visit in Laugharne.

After Laugharne we made our way to Carmarthen and the Falcon Hotel where we had a very nice meal and subsequent poetry reading with Menna Elfyn, one of the writers we have studied in class. Allison Bumgarner was particularly pleased with meeting Ms. Elfyn as she had become quite the fan of her work.

Dr. Coggin and student Shaun Cammick pose in Browns Hotel in the same spot where Dylan Thomas sat.

Inside Dylan Thomas's writing shed,
as he left it. 

Dr. Steve Coggin, Associate Provost and Professor of Biology, and his wife Diane are in the background of this photograph that captures a moss covered wall on the side of the road leading down to the Thomas family “Boat House.”

Dylan Thomas (and his wife Caitlin's) final resting place in St. Martin's Church, Laugharne.


Poet Menna Elfyn reads from her collection to students in the Dylan Thomas
Wales course during dinner at The Falcon Hotel in Carmarthen, Wales.

Day Eight

Today we explored more Dylan Thomas. We visited his childhood home and met his grand-daughter Hannah Ellis, who is perfectly charming. ( We went to Cwmdonkin Park where a few of us read Dylan's poems at the fountain in the park (which he actually wrote about). I had the pleasure of reading his poem, “Hunchback in the Park.”

Hunchback in the Park by Dylan Thomas

The hunchback in the park

A solitary mister

Propped between trees and water

From the opening of the garden lock

That lets the trees and water enter

Until the Sunday sombre bell at dark


Eating bread from a newspaper

Drinking water from the chained cup

That the children filled with gravel

In the fountain basin where I sailed my ship

Slept at night in a dog kennel

But nobody chained him up.


Like the park birds he came early

Like the water he sat down

And Mister they called Hey Mister

The truant boys from the town

Running when he had heard them clearly

On out of sound


Past lake and rockery

Laughing when he shook his paper

Hunchbacked in mockery

Through the loud zoo of the willow groves

Dodging the park keeper

With his stick that picked up leaves.


And the old dog sleeper

Alone between nurses and swans

While the boys among willows

Made the tigers jump out of their eyes

To roar on the rockery stones

And the groves were blue with sailors


Made all day until bell time

A woman figure without fault

Straight as a young elm

Straight and tall from his crooked bones

That she might stand in the night

After the locks and chains


All night in the unmade park

After the railings and shrubberies

The birds the grass the trees the lake

And the wild boys innocent as strawberries

Had followed the hunchback

To his kennel in the dark.


After our time on Cwmdonkin Drive, we drove out to the Mumbles to enjoy lunch on our own, then made our way to Gower Peninsula for what would prove to be a gorgeous end to our time in Wales. (More info on The Gower is here… All of these areas of recent, we have studied in our course and were important places in Dylan Thomas's life. But Wales, and our course, was much more than Dylan Thomas. It was inspiring and reflective, and opened up a world of poetry and writing that many of us did not know about prior to the class. 

Student Shakeisha Gray stands between Geoff Haden, who runs 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Dylan Thomas's birthplace, (on her R) and Hannah Ellis, Dylan's grand-daughter (on her L) while reading Thomas's poetry.

Cwmdonkin Park Swansea, Wales

The birthplace and childhood home of Dylan Thomas.

The Return Home
Our leaving Wales has been bittersweet. I made friends with Sally Baker, Christine Evans, Gwyneth Glyn, and Hannah Ellis. I hope to return so I can explore more in depth the Welsh culture, history, and language.

Returning home seemed to go smoothly, until we made it back stateside and ended up stranded in Washington D.C. for two days. What a grand adventure that was! We were shuttled from one airport to another only to be told all flights out of either airport were cancelled. We were able to secure hotel rooms to accommodate all of us after spending our first night in two airports, on and off planes, and in a shuttle bus that skidded on the ice. The most entertaining thing was that our luggage made it back to Charlotte before we did. Most everyone remained in good spirits though and considered it another learning opportunity. I missed my kids, but I remained patient and hopeful and knew it would resolve itself in the end. Everyone flying out of D.C., not just our class, was in the same position, so complaining about it wouldn't get you very far. But it did require a certain amount of endurance and stamina to put up with the dueling airlines who kept sending us back and forth, literally at opposite ends of the terminal.

Looking back, it seems like something you'd see straight out of a comedy and though at the time, not all of us were laughing, now it's very comical. We had a fantastic time exploring Wales with glorious weather the entire time, only to return and face a snowstorm that disabled the capital city while our luggage somehow made it back home before we did. Again, the trip came full circle, it was snowing when we left and it was snowing when we returned. The important thing is, we all made it home safely and we will have lasting memories of our “Week in Wales.” 

Students wait and try to rest while stranded during a snowstorm upon
their arrival back into Washington D.C. from Wales.

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