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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 78

Just as it begins to rain, a man arrives in a van to water the hanging baskets which adorn the Guildhall. He’s very Welsh and very helpful; the two seem to go together.

“Is it just as hilly? Well, I should say it’s thirty eight miles of ups and downs and another thirty eight miles of side to side.”

“The woman in the shop said some people don’t like the road.”

“She’s telling the truth. A lot of people avoid it if they can. It’s not just that it’s hilly and full of bends, it gets all the holiday traffic as well, see. You’ll be sick of the sight of caravans by the time you get to Aberystwyth. Still, it’s not as bad as the road you’ve already travelled. You’ve done well to be here by now. Keep going at this rate and you’ll be fine. Good luck to you and mind how you go.”

Despite the rain, which is falling in a soft Welsh way, I promenade the town once more. Earlier I had been seeking sustenance, now I was trying to put off the hills that lay ahead. Cardigan is compact, diverse, historically fascinating and from what I could tell, a rather good place to live.

People of my age learnt the names of the counties at school and any that have changed since the sixties cause us problems. (Baby boomers have lived through greater change than any previous generation; but we still find it hard to cope with). We refuse to recognise Merseyside and Cleveland even though they make sense and are not unpleasant names. We disliked the name Salop so much (even though it was an ancient one) that it was got rid of. We never did learn all the Welsh counties but we have an idea whereabouts they were. Montgomeryshire on the border with England, Flintshire in the north and Cardiganshire out there on the west coast. Modern Welsh counties have ancient and appropriate names. We English haven’t a clue where they are. We cannot distinguish our Gwynedd from our Powys. The only one we have a chance with is Glamorgan and that is because of the cricket. Originally the county and the town were both known as Cardigan. The “shire” was added to avoid confusion. In the 1990’s the county became known as Ceredigion which is the Welsh spelling of Cardigan. It means Ceredig’s land. The Welsh know the town as Aberteifi (the mouth of the River Teifi).

The Norman’s built a castle here and it became one of the strongholds of twelfth century warlord and patron of the arts Lord Rhys. He held the very first Eisteddfod here in 1176. The town twice held the international Eisteddfod in the twentieth century and has a fine tradition of celebrating and preserving Welsh cultural traditions.

For over two hundred years during the industrial revolution, Cardigan was the most important sea port in South Wales, handling seven times the goods as Cardiff and three times as much as Swansea. Like Wexford across the St George’s Channel, the port declined through silting of the river and the changing sands of the estuary. Shipbuilding was another important industry. But it is as a market town that Cardigan has long prospered and continues to do so. It serves a huge area and has always been able to provide skills and services to the forge and to the field. In 1830 there were four blacksmiths, two tanners and a miller, but there were also no fewer than thirteen bootmakers in the town.

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The river drew me. I’m always drawn to rivers that flow through towns. Here the morning peace of the modern Cardigan contrasts strongly with the historic bustle of a major seaport of years gone by. I sit and absorb. I love to read history books but have learnt every bit as much through just sitting and looking around me. It is yet another place that I feel the need to return to.

Among the famous people who were born in the town is a favourite name from the sixties. Brynmor Williams was perhaps the most poetic sounding of all the great Welsh rugby players of that golden era. He was a very good player too. He was without doubt the second best scrum half in British rugby for many seasons but only won three caps for his country. He had the misfortune to have a playing career that coincided with one Gareth Edwards. Once Gareth Edwards retired from the game the Welsh half back factory produced another master in Terry Holmes. Holmes eventually went north to earn some legal money with Bradford Northern playing the greatest game. By that time Brynmor Williams was coming to the end of a magnificent but sparsely capped career. It was one of the treats of gallic fusion to hear his name being pronounced by Scottish commentator, Bill McLaren.

It’s only a passing shower, but the sky promises one or two more, so I decide to take advantage of the dry conditions to get back on the bike and roll out of town. The ride begins with a hill. It doesn’t look steep but it makes me feel that the bicycle and the panniers have doubled their weight while at rest. Any enlivening of muscles and lungs is used up on the slope.

Past terraced rows and schools. Past discount supermarket and Ford dealer and, as the houses begin to give way to fields, and the slope changes from gentle to severe, I pass a Tesco and the urban street becomes a major road.

Cardigan Castle

I now have a map that tells me most of the main roads of Britain. It doesn’t give any smaller routes. The main road hugs the coast. It has a cycle lane to keep me separated from the growing volume of traffic. I really don’t see any choice. I’m Aberystwyth bound and I’m starting as I will go on; struggling against fatigue and gravity. I have 38 miles to pedal to get to the great university town. We have universal measurements. A mile is a mile whether it is in Oslo or Oregon. It just seems that a Welsh mile is a little bit longer and an awful lot steeper.