Thursday, June 30, 2005

Dolgellau - Climbing the family tree

My main mission today is to get to see the registrar at the local Council chambers. As I have an hour or so to fill first, I browse in a book/gift store and pick up some odds 'n' ends. I pick up a history-oriented map of the town and look for "Union Square" which is the address given for my family on various census reports from the 19th century. I ask the proprietor for assistance too. As I'm asking, I realize that this is probably a transliteration of "Wnion Square" [pronounced oo-nion] after the local river Wnion. She cant recall the location and enlists several passing acquaintances to help out. One of the ladies knows and takes me a couple of blocks, down a street that I had mistakenly entered the night before (and being a narrow dead-end, had to back out a good way) and as we turned a corner, I saw the label 1-2 Wnion Square on a fence. Success! My new scout knows one of the residents Margaret, who comes out on a crutch to get my account of the family. Between the two of them, they recall that the Williamses were just around the corner and point to the end of another tiny cul-de-sac. That building was built in 1903 so must have replaced the family home.

Wnion "Square" is the where the street gets marginally wider.

I learn from my historical map that the term Square was often given to minute spaces where the buildings are slightly set back from others. Dolgellau's narrow winding streets are rather unique, having evolved haphazardly over many centuries. The town has the highest concentration of listed buildings in Wales. Dolgellau means water meadow (Dol-) of cells (gell) where the cells may refer to monkish quarters or more likely market booths. The cell/gell would seem to be the same as the kil prefix used for churches in Scotland e.g Kilmartin, Kilpatrick.

At the council offices, I leave Bondi in the hands of throngs of council workers and sit down with the registrar. I'm hoping to get the missing details of my great-grandfather's family: his parents' deaths and his 4 siblings' marriages/deaths. It's rather dispiriting as details fail to emerge for any of the siblings: all I know are their names and approx year of birth. His mother disappears off the census between 1891 and 1901 but even she fails to show.

Finally some details emerge, his father Ellis passed away in 1922 at age 76 and brother Ellis (now based in London) is listed as contact, so is at that point, aged 45. Those three new details help fill in some more pieces of the puzzle. I can take these to the National Library at Aberystwyth next week where they can be cross-checked against bishops' transcripts of parish records, and more national census reports. If I return to Dolgellau after September the full records section available in the library will give the possibility of checking school records and mission registers.
Before lunch I scout through the headstones at St Mary's church in the town centre, but it's very overgrown with bracken, weeds, Williamses and Joneses - but none that I recognize. There are more Williamses on memorial stones inside the churc itself, but none I could personally identify. An hour of browsing in a local second store (where the owners were very enamoured of you-know-who) is more productive, and I come away with an interesting gothic fantasy by Quentin Crisp about a large dog. I'm interested to see what his fiction is like, as the only other fictional work of his that I have is a rare wartime collaboration with Mervyn Peake titled All This and Bevin too, and that's really a glorified pamphlet. Lunch is a simple affair at a local cafe.

After this we head towards Barmouth on the coast - not far away at all. The scenery continues to amaze, including the first extremities of Barmouth clinging between sea and slabs of rocky coast. I follow the narrow stone-walled road along the coast - shuddering through brief Blackpoolish resort-town ugliness and under the shadow of high Harlech Castle. More scenery on each side - I really want to stop and take photos all the time - but it's a one-lane busy road and there's nowhere to pull off onto a verge.

Finally we end up in Porthmadog/Portmadoc and have a stroll and I do a bit of email checking and then food shopping at Tescos. When I get back to the car, I realize my mobile phone is missing. F***. I'm thinking it might be at the place I checked email ( closed now it's after 5:30) or else at the cafe in Dolgellau where I'd lunched. I race back along an inland road but the cafe's also closed. Deep breath: I'll deal with it in the morning. I distract myself by checking headstones at the town's main cemetery up the hill: more legions of Williams, Evans, Jones and Lewis folk stand at ragged attention on this sunny hillside, boxed in by the same slate that sheltered them in the town below. No obvious relatives here, but I take photos of most Williams headstones anyway in case one of them turns out to be a 2nd cousin I've yet to nail to the tree.

The B&B for tonight and the next night is a lovely country house off the road outside of town. My room is 4 times the size of last night's. I try to relax and not worry about the phone.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Dollgellau with a non-silent "th"

Driving to Wales today. For the first night or so I'm staying in or around Dollgellau in Snowdonia where my great-grandfather was born in 1874. I intend to visit the National Library of Wales aka Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, in Aberystwyth to return his library books (I hope your cheque's good for the library fines Grant!) and check family history in their archives.

Elocution lesson: Listen. Say it: Dolgellau[dOlgeth´lI, –gel´I] . Spit. Repeat.

Geography lesson: How far is Dolgellau from Panty Hill, Booby Dingle, Penishapentre, Three Cocks, Menlove Gardens and Bottom Flash? No guelling, now.
The Welsh border between Chester and Queensferry came unannounced - no "Welcome to Wales", only the sudden switch to bilingual signs indicated we'd left England. From Balas onwards, the countryside was stunning; increasingly lush as we approached Dolgellau - much more green and overgrown than Scotland: I was reminded of parts of Bali.

We got into town just after 3.30 crossing a stone bridge over a rivulet of shallow but swift running water, into the town centre, winding through the very narrow streets of stone buildings of more-or-less unifrom height, framed by an intensely green hillscape. The streetscape here is different to north-east Scotland, where the streets were very wide but were lacking in any vegetation to contrast and soften the stonework. The tourist office was in the town square, and I wanted to get there first to pick up some accommodation leaflets as I only had one night sorted before leaving. I told the officer there of my quest for family history, and he said that the local county office was just across the bridge, and that I should check their registry office.

We headed there quickly to check opening hours, just in case the records were only available on certain days. It was actually worse - apparently the records were in the process of being transferred to another facility and were not available till September. I was nevertheless enjoined to contact the registrar when his office was open between 10am and noon. A council officer asked if I was researching the Jones family. I indicated that Williams was my main interest although my gggmother was a Jones. She smiled, "You've got your work cut out for you."

After that we headed out to the farm-based B&B on the edge of town, which had possibly the smallest room I'd yet experienced in my travels. The double bed took up most of the floor area, and any room in which one might have swung a cat had been sacrificed in a subdivision which added (subtracted?) a tiny en-suite to the room. Whath was left was barely sufficient for a malamute to lie down. A thunderstorm drove Bondi onto the end of the bed anyway, where he quivered for the next few hours. I leafed through a booklet with historical photos of Dollgellau, every other photo had one or more Williams in it, one photo listed ten. A 1937 photo of a Jane Williams standing outside a store caught my eye - perhaps my ggfather's sister? Although the photo celebrates George VI's coronation, it was also the year my ggfather died, later to be interred in a cliffside plot in Waverley Cemetery. He has a golf-course named after him - Williams Park - which sits along the cliffs of North Bondi. It seemed appropriate that I bring my own Bondi back to his birthplace.

I also checked though some of my books of historically-themed walks for local paths. One is connected to the Quakers, who left this town several centuries earlier to settle in Pennsylvania. There's also a Quaker museum in the town. Apparently the prestigious US women's university Bryn Mawr is named after a farm on the hill above the town.

I popped out for a while to go to a supermarket, to collect some fruit, yoghurt and drinks. It was interesting listening to locals conversing in Welsh, which was also the language that phones were answered with when I called B&Bs to arrange the following nights' accommodation. When they did switch to English, it was a very clear, and to my ears, almost unaccented strain, and a welcome relief from having to listen so carefully to various "English" and Scottish dialects.

Late night tonight. Because of the delayed arrival of my car, I have to work with my Australian car bookers to extend the booking of my current rental for another three weeks. I'd already extended the booking, but they keep asking for more names for staffers at the rental agency here to confirm the details. I'm up past midnight so I can phone Driveaway during business hours, and then can't get to sleep until after 2am.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Catch up day

Today has been a slowish catch up day. My hayfever caught up with me around Inverness, and I finally had to see a doctor for some prescription goodies to bring me round again. Bondi's had an expensive trip to the vet for a glucosamine shot for his joints - in Australia the jab is ~$44, here it's closer to $100.

Paperwork arrived from Australia to deal with my supposedly impending car arrival. The papers say it's on a ship due today in Suffolk, but after contacting the local shipping agents, they're sure it's on another ship, not due for nearly 3 weeks. After a lot of toing and froing, it seems that - issues with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs aside - it will be closer to 4 weeks before the car is actually on the road. Drat. I'll have to extend my existing car rental and rethink plans for July.

Another two ticks fell off Bondi.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Return to Wigan

Long chatty breakfast with my Edinburgh B&B hosts, Annie & Robert. Piled into the car at 9.45am and made our way down the A702, via Lamington to the M6 and back to Shevington/Wigan in 3.5hrs. Entertained on the radio by excerpts from Glastonbury festival and Ruby Wax on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs. followed by some inspired silliness with I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue. I remember hearing this show last Sunday while walking the Great Glen Way: one of the panellists had been asked to sing The Smiths' Girlfriend in a Coma to the tune of Tiptoe through the Tulips, which made me weep with laughter. Other clips here:

Another recent radio highlight was a little tribute to jazz great Stephane Grappelli, with sometime collaborator, guitarist John Etheridge providing anecdotes and hilarious impersonations of Grappelli. Also on TV, an Irish commentator said that the new smoking bans in pubs mean that a new (Guiness generated?) odour previously hidden by tobacco was now quite apparent...ew.

In lieu of photos, a map showing my Scottish travels. Points 8-13 show the segment walked.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Edinburgh Day 2

Gorgeous weather today for more traipsing around Edinburgh Old and New Towns. Lunch in the Grass Market and nap in the afternoon. Locals are making the most of the weather, eating outdoors, lying around in parks and meadows. Bondi inspected the grave of famous terrier Greyfriars Bobby, who remained by his master's grave for 14 years.

Thought I passed the new Doctor Who, Christopher Eccleston on Market Street, but I heard on the radio the next day that he's actually been spotted at the Glastonbury Festival. However, not many minutes later, I did pass a pram-pushing Dylan "Black Books" Moran.

I'd like to spend much more time here. The buildings seem to be an organic part of the landscape, crumbling castles seem as right as tors on the hillsides. Cafes, music and book stores dress every street, and the original livery of older buildings has not been replaced by corporate neon as it has in other cities.

I had a chance to play piano at B&B during the evening while my hosts were out. It's a month today since I left Australia, and the first time to exercise my fingers on a keyboard. Also watched Richard Curtis' Make Poverty History-inspired telemovie The Girl in the Cafe.

Friday, June 24, 2005


I meet the other guests at the B&B at breakfast. All Australians, in at least 4 independent parties.

It's not far to Edinburgh but the drive over the Firth of Forth is very slow. I park outside my B&B and we head into the old town. I love what I've seen while driving around. Architecture new and old is very appealing. And I've finally found a good internet cafe!!

Aussies everywhere.

Not many photos today as it's been sooo wet and I left my camera at the B&B.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Aberdeen, Stonehaven, Dundee, St. Andrews

It's a quick drive to Aberdeen today, but we stay no more than an hour due to remaining time required to drive to Tillicoultry. It has a very wide main street but the buildings seem even more uniformly grey than other northern towns. We also bide a wee while in Stonehaven, a few miles south, with a photogenic harbour. Bondi wants to play in the sand with some local dogs, but he'd be in the water in no time, and I didn't want to have to desalinate and desandinate him, even if the means were available.

Next we pass through Dundee, cross the Firth of Tay and stop in St. Andrews, royale & anciente hoome of that worldwide phenomenon: the golf widow. Earlier today, young William Wales graduated from the University here with an MA in Geography (aka What lands will I own?). The BBC reported that his new stepmother congratulated him with a Well done! Twice! I hope the reporter was well-congratulated for such earth-shattering news.

I don't even look for the golf club: there are enough Americans buying really ugly troosers in the town centre. We survey the old cathedral and castle, and wander through throngs of jubilant graduates and impoverished parents. The university here is Scotland's oldest, and in the UK only predated by Oxford and Cambridge. I made a final desperate attempt to find accommodation in Edinburgh (it's the Highland Games that's flooding the city with weekend visitors) - and strike it lucky on my second call: an inexpensive room within walking distance of the old town, available for two nights!

Settling in for the night at a very character-filled mill-owner's house (nearly a mansion, with large grounds).

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Pennan, Findhorn & Lossiemouth

Slept in today. I'd had some problems with my mobile phone SIMM card, so after a quick brekkie, headed back to Elgin to find an O2 dealer. I get the problem sorted, but it means buying a new SIMM card and 2 days before I have access to my old number and details.

Now we head east again along the coast. My real destination is the tiny hamlet of Pennan, where Local Hero (1983) was filmed, butwe begin by tracking a bit further to the most north-easterly town along this coast, Fraserburgh. Along the way, I notice how the names of small villages differs slightly from English names. Where the sassenachs might opt for Flossing Nightly or Winning Scratchie, up here the tendency is for phrases like Moss of Barmuckity, Hill of Maud, Noyse of Caralarms or Get of Yerhairyarse. Disappointingly, Fraserburgh is a couple of words short of anything interesting. It's a drab fishing port, buildings lined up like granite pews facing the sea, itself an altar to a silent pagan god. It does have a Lighthouse Museum, but this appears to have only one lighthouse in its collection. Maybe the curator is only just getting started, but I appeal to you all to send in your spare lighthouses.

Pennan is a delight, accessible only by a narrow road curling into a deep cove. The Pennan Inn is for sale, but I lunch on some bacon & leek soup out the front, next to that red phone box. Pennan is smaller than I remember, but I'm sure the camera adds 20 houses.

After lunch it's a rapid trip back to Lossiemouth and slightly further west to Findhorn. I want to get to their Heritage centre, only open 2-5pm. We pass Kinloss RAF base (is that where all those noisy planes are launched?) and initially turn into the Findhorn Foundation community, looking somewhat like a new age caravan park. A resident with new age driving skills cuts in front of me without signalling and then pulls up abruptly at the intersection of the trunk road to change clothes at the wheel. She's oblivious to surrounding vehicles, so I scoot around her and along to the main village. We get to the Heritage Centre at 4.30 and talk to Tom, a volunteer manning it today. Findhorn has been settled for about nine centuries and the small centre tries to reflect the human and natural contributions to the area. I add a Sydney pin to the wallchart of visitor origins, and Bondi is big enough to qualify for a pin on Seattle. Tom's wife takes me through the nearby Icehouse, built in the mid 19th century to store ice for packing salmon to London.

I pop into Findhorn village's Kimberley Inn for dinner, and Bondi is welcomed inside too. There are several dogs at tables around the bar. A fox's head mounted over a doorway sports a cigarette in its mouth. Over dinner I call around B&B's and guesthouses in Edinburgh. Some event in the city has filled them up, so I widen my search to surrounding shires. Fife is very expensive - too many wealthy golfers courting the fairways of St. Andrews - but I find a house in Tillicoultry Clackmannanshire, about 20 miles NW of Edinburgh.

Even though the temperature has not yet cracked 20C, everyone in Scotland thinks it's sooo hot. Hoo doz yer weee bonnie doggie cope wi' tha turrible heat??

A second night at Lossiemouth (our new record northern latitude). We walk around the harbour area and go home early, so I can sleep more before tomorrow's drive south. I turn in too early to see it, but apparently the moon is bigger than last night, and is the largest apparent size of the moon in twenty years.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Inverness & Lossiemouth (Summer solstice)

We're still both pretty exhausted and looking to spend some more time in the area before returning south. Removed some nasty ticks from Bondi - I hope that's the last of them, but the tick repellent drops he's had seem to have had no effect.

No agenda today. Just rest rest rest rest rest rest rest rest rest rest rest rest rest rest rest rest rest rest. I want to stay another night in Inverness, but my current B&B is booked out and I can't locate an alternative in the area. I look forty miles east to Lossiemouth, a small town in the shire of Moray*, and call a B&B more or less at random: it's dog-friendly, inexpensive and there's a vacancy!

I look around downtown Inverness in the morning. A guy at a market stall has a young malamute pup "Odin" and is keen to learn about Bondi. I scratch one of his ears and a tick comes off in my hand. Ugh. I spend the next 15 minutes with some tweezers and tea-tree oil removing more of the buggers. The anti-tick measures I'd taken have clearly had no effect. I'm sitting astride Bondi - who is remarkably calm - making for quite a sight in central Inverness. Finally I think I'm done and head to the tourist information centre next to Inverness Museum for some touring tips, and more importantly get my first real espresso in over a week from the Italian restaurant on the street one level below. We visit a vet to get some more Frontline for the ticks and head out of town.

We pass castles and forts, history to the right and left, and even forgo Cawdor Castle - linked forever to a certain Scottish play. Pollen count is high and I sneeze through Nairn and into Elgin. I finally get a late lunch, pick up groceries and then it's a quick 6 miles to Lossiemouth on the coast.

It doesn't take too long to locate the B&B on an eastward facing bluff with a remarkable view. I'm smitten, looking down to the beach. The weather is great, we're both tired: surely we can stay for two nights. Bondi hits the floor and I pass out too until late evening. When I awake, I set out Bondi's food but he doesn't seem interested. I scratch his belly - and oh no - another tick. Another hour of searching, and I'm almost beside myself with another 9 removed. After being rather patient through the search and extraction, he's now ready to go out.

It's nearly 10.30pm and a great sunset is developing. We hobble west, zigzagging down one street to get a clear view, chasing the sun. The buildings here are remarkably uniform in colour and height, as though they had been hewn out of a single block of stone and minutely decorated. Sometimes the only colours on a street are the reddish tones in the paint of the window frames. Following the sun, we see the red sky caught in some window reflections, and finally a view across the water towards Inverness and the Great Glen.

11pm and still quite bright. Yellow sodium streetlamps are turning on, a striking contrast against the ultramarine waters of the western beaches. We return to the B&B slowly, Some kids are sitting in the central city park, with a car radio blaring a remix of Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang". Back onto our street, and I can see the hint of a big yellow moon on the horizon, and the town below the bluff really looks like a model village set below an indigo screen. It's a beautiful night.

*Moray is ancestral seat to the Murray Clan, whose motto is "Always ready". Hilarious ;-).

Monday, June 20, 2005

Great Glen Way Day 6: Drumnadrochit to Inverness

Leaving Drumnadrochit, we walk past the little plesiosaurus statue at a pond next to the Nessie 2000 exhibition. A busload of tourists is being disgorged into the grounds, and some Australians appear startled at Bondi's presence by the pool. I explain that due to a lack of real monsters in the area, it's strictly BYO.

Changed from boots to my trainers for today's walk, which made a difference for the first 10 miles, but the pain in my left shin unremitting. The first glimpse of Inverness from a hilltop was inspiring, but we still had a couples of miles to get into the city. When we hit the Caledonian Canal again on our way, Bondi immediately threw himself in to drink and cool off. I can actually envisage thirsty malamutes as an alternate lock mechanism to the hydraulic systems in place today.

We got to Inverness Castle at around 3.15 to the final half-bitten ice-cream rock; through ourselves on ground. Bondi is understandably hard to budge for a half hour; we're both thoroughly knackered.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Great Glen Way Day 5: Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit

Another day of pretty hard going. Rolled into Drumnadrochit, which is the centre of Nessie activity, around 2pm. Caught a 4pm bus back to Fort William - after a very painful mile run to the busstop - to pick up my rental car and was back to "Drum" by 7pm.