“From yon prospect now I’ve ventured down
And stand delighted in my native town;
But whence the noises that assail my ear?
What crowds before me with their goods appear?
‘Tis market day- loud dealers strain their lungs
And High Street echoes with two different tongues:
The Welsh and English their alternate cry
‘Rhai’n, rhai’n, yw pethau rhad’ - Come buy, come buy!”
~ John Jones (called Poet Jones), Holywell
Bangor will always stand as my introduction to Wales, and it had been for my mother a half-century ago. For me, it had been by bus, two flights from New England, and a train trip from Cardiff; for her, it was a ferry from France and a train trip from southern England. Of course, I wanted to begin in a place about which I’d heard so much for so many years. As well, there were people expecting me that I hadn’t met in person before. From the small north Welsh coastal university town, I began my pilgrimage of paths, roads, views, and words. Indeed, it was also clear to me the travels had somehow begun during all the planning, preparation, and packing.
Bangoreans liked hearing about how much I admire their city (playfully referred to as Bangorai, which sounds like“Bangor-aye”), but seemed generally surprised at my enjoyment of the occasional rainy weather. Well, I come from a similar- though colder- climate, and I happen to thrive under shadowless overcast and all manner of cold precipitation. Falling back on “it’s fine; I’m from Maine,” reminded me of another time I used that excuse when Russian tourists gawked at me for wading through a cold stream in eastern France. My honest answer to the weather apologists was that everything I saw and experienced was better than fine. And the wavering skies presented themselves assuringly and familiarly.
Rainy spells lend well to writing. Getting acquainted with a town does require a balance of interiors, and indoor venues invite great opportunities for conversations. One of my favorite shops in Maine displays a sign that reads,“Enter as a stranger, leave as a friend,” and this came to mind during my month in Wales. Somehow, having had so many introductory descriptions of Bangor from my mother, along with those awaiting me, I was never quite the “stranger” -at least until my accent was detected. But that invited still more conversation. A local journalist and I compared notes about our respective home towns, each in beautiful parts of the world. In response to my praises of northwest Wales, he observed, “we don’t always appreciate what we have at our own doorsteps.” Indeed, we can surely remind each another.
with the wonderful staff of the Bangor Public Library
collecting thoughts, and thinking of my mother, at the Bangor University Library
Just as pilgrimage manifests in numerous ways, the benefits and effects do so as well. By definition, this type of travel finds its meaning at many levels: the destinations, the unique attributes and histories of these places, and the careful journeying as well. Often, the purpose centers around discovery and experience. We may arrive with specific addresses, but the serendipitous demands margins of its own. While I followed my mother’s footsteps, saw places she knew, and met the family that remembers her, there was also a town and region to explore. Pilgrimage travel is to be savoured and cannot be hurried. There must be time to observe, to listen, and to interact.
Bangor Cathedral (Saint Deiniol's Cathedral)
Thankfully, with a month to experience three regions of Wales, there was enough time to find some favorite places and writing perches. As it is publicized, the city of Bangor is a center of study (Dinas Dysg, in Welsh). The city has a centerpiece in the steeply situated upper town’s gothic university buildings, paralleled by Bangor Cathedral in the lower town. The cathedral’s foundation dates back to the 6th century, was founded by Saint Deiniol its patron saint, and is the place of Owain Gwynedd’s tomb. The cathedral is along the Pilgrim’s Way across the north coast of Wales. (I covered the portion between Llandudno and Caernarfon, but that will be a topic for a later essay.) Woven through Bangor’s center is a colorful High Street, lined with small shops, with a clock tower at its center- a few blocks from the Cathedral.
Gromit followed me out of Gerrard's Bakery,
and took interest in my typewriter.
A roving BBC Wales reporter interviewed me,
asking about writing and typing. I was sure to speak about the Typosphere.
Provisions on the Bangor High Street.
One of my Maine friends likes to say, “you can live anywhere, as long as you’re near a good bakery.” Bangor’s High Street has that aspect well covered, along with cafés and tea shops (including a good one at the end of the scenic Victorian Bangor Pier). Of Bangor’s Blue Sky Café, one of my Welsh friends offered, “that’s as good reason as any to live in Bangor!” Fair do’s, as the local parlance goes; I couldn’t disagree. In between visits, forays, and spells of sun, the loftlike Blue Sky made for a great writing perch.
Feasting and writing at the Blue Sky Café
The Blue Sky during a rousing Folk Night
With Bangor Cathedral, the city’s sacred spaces include an array of historic chapels, parish churches, and a downtown Quaker meeting house. A circle of large standing stones faces the Menai Straits on a sloping field, and across the straits on the Isle of Anglesey- among many ancient sites- is the 12th century Penmon Priory (built on a 10th century foundation). Aside from the Menai Straits, Bangor’s proximate perimeters are determined by the mountains of Snowdonia.
For a writing pilgrim, I found essential comforts and hospitable spirits in a city I hope to visit again. Now having some experiences of my own in Bangor, to go with my mother’s stories, I have some modest strata upon which my musings can build. This voyage concluded barely a week ago, and with thoughts hardly settled, the whole experience is as yet undistilled. One of my neighbors looked at me and said, “the dust of Wales is still freshly on your shoulders.” During several days in Cardiff, on my way home, I visited an extraordinary sacred space- the celebrated Cardiff Tabernacl, which is an elegantly plain 19th century Baptist chapel in the big city. When the ministers asked about my travels, I regaled them about my personal history in Bangor, and how I found the small city amiable and beautiful. At these words, an elderly gentleman strode toward me, shook my hand and said, “I’m a Bangor man, and you’ve truly made my day.”