Welsh sketches. From Aberystwyth with love

Aberystwyth is a coastal university town in Ceredigion county of West Wales. If you decide to go there, please do not forget to bring a bit of cultural curiosity and a sense of humour with you. Be ready to meet nice locals there: witches, ghosts, deities, fiends, druids and courageous detectives investigating mysterious crimes. Louie Knight is one of them. He is the best private detective in the town and the main character of the Aberystwyth noir novels by British writer Malcolm Pryce.

In the fifth book of the series, Louie deals with the long-time disappearance of Ninochka, a daughter of Uncle Vanya, a Soviet museum worker from Ukrainian Hughesovka where Ninochka was possessed by the spirit of a dead Welsh girl named Gethsemane Walters. Uncle Vanya, or the man who introduced himself in that way, came to Aberystwyth to ask Louis and his business partner Calamity for help in search of Ninochka. As a fee, uncle Vanya suggested a very valuable sock worn by Yuri Gagarin during his first flight into space.

‘What a story!’ you may say. And you will be right. The Aberystwyth noir novels nicely convey the atmosphere of the town. They can be a good start for learning about its weather, places and legends.

Once you are in the town, go to the Pier from where a beautiful view of the promenade and the Constitution Hill is revealed. The sounds of the blowing wind and crashing waves may combine with the songs of starlings and cries of seagulls there. In evenings if the weather is clear, wonderful sunsets can be seen from the seafront.

In late November, when I happened to be in Aberystwyth, the weather was mild and changeable. Sometimes it was sunny, sometimes rainy, sometimes cloudy, sometimes windy, but always welcoming.

Rain or shine, people walk along the Prom edged by colourful buildings of the student dorms, hotels, pubs, cafés and small workshops. Once you get to the northern end of the Prom, kick the bar. ‘Kick the Bar’ is a local ritual of kicking the railings performed by students to attract love. However, nowadays not only students but also town dwellers of different ages kick the bar as tradition says.

From the northern end of the Prom, you can easily get to the top of the Constitution Hill either by following a winding path surrounded by small shrubs or by using the Aberystwyth Cliff Railway. Students enjoy going up Consti, as they call the Hill lovingly, and observing picturesque sunsets in evenings and looking at stars shining at nights from the top. One sunny morning after the rain, I was enjoying coffee with the fresh air and the gorgeous view of the bay in the Consti café on the top of the hill. Time stopped and it was nice just to live the moment.

Meanwhile, my new acquaintance, a student from the Aberystwyth University, told me that locals do surfing in the bay all year round. However, by doing this they have never met mermaids or sirens. Well, you do not need to surf and even dive to get to know these magical creatures. Just go to the Ceredigion Museum near the Prom and you will know much not only about them but also about many other spirits of the town.

Situated in the former building of the Edwardian Coliseum Theatre, the Ceredigion Museum provides its visitors with an opportunity to dive into the past of the local area. The Welsh folk costume and tall black hats from the 19th century evoking associations with witches, vintage figures of a little Welsh lady from the 1950s, dolls and toys with scary eyes from the 1960s, longcase clocks manufactured in the 18th century, spinning wheels and sewing machines, harps and fishing hooks, paintings of sailing boats and hunting. All these items telling vividly about the folk culture of Ceredigion can be found in the museum.

After exploring the North beach, go to the South one that is less busy and quieter but offers no less fascinating panoramic views of Cardigan Bay and the coastline. On your way, you will find the ruins of Aberystwyth Castle. Edward I, King of England, built the Castle as a fortress in the 13th century to repel the Welsh attacks. However, Oliver Cromwell ruined it later in the mid 17th century. The World War I Monument is situated right there.

If you go along the South beach, you will come across the Bookshop by the Sea with a cosy atmosphere, a small café and a nice view of the harbour. The Bookshop holds cultural events, such as harp concerts, poetry readings, writing workshops and book presentations. One morning, I spent some time there drinking coffee and reading old magazines from the 1950s with folk music.

As far as I was curious about folk culture, I asked a shop assistant to recommend me something to read about it. The smiling young lady showed me the bookshelf with reads from local writers and suggested choosing what I like.

My hand reached for Gods and Goddess of Wales by Halo Quin, a writer and a ‘practising witch, living in the heart of Wales’, as she introduces herself on the back cover. Quin’s book tells not only about the Mabinogion, the ancient collection of Welsh myths and legends, but can also be used as practical guidance to Welsh deities. For example, from this book, you will learn how to create an altar for Rhiannon, the deity of love, and make offerings for her.

In our conversation with the shop assistant, I tried to practice some phrases in Welsh that I learnt during my adventure, like ‘bore da’ (English ‘good morning’) and ‘diolch’ (English ‘thank you’). When I was about to leave that lovely spot, the older Welsh lady who just came into the shop told me something in the Welsh language that was hard to translate into English, as she said, but that was close to the meaning of ‘God bless you!’ With this in mind, I went to Aberystwyth cemetery because I thought it was part of its cultural landscape and environment.

The town cemetery is old and compact having graves and tombs from the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as from the recent decades. In some of its parts, it is possible to find family graves with the dates of birth and death of family members. Some graves will tell you even more, for example, the names of the streets where the buried people lived, their occupations and familial roles, like the following detailed inscription does:

‘In loving memory of Ann beloved wife of Thomas Morgan Aberystwyth, who died April 3rd 1895 aged 69 years. Also of Thomas Morgan, butcher, Son of the above who died Sep. 19th 1908, aged 46 years. Also of David Jones, Shipwright, Yardley, South Road, Aberystwyth, who died April 29th 1924, aged 65 years. Also of Elizabeth Jones, beloved wife of the above who died September 22nd 1932, aged 73 years. Mae’n dawel yn y nefoedd. Erected by his Fellow Tradesmen’.

In some folk cultures, such places are often associated with the spirit world and ghosts. In Aberystwyth cemetery, I did not meet any ghosts but came across sculptures of angels and Our Lady statues, whilst knowledge about spirits of the town and the country is kept in the National Library of Wales located just a short walk from the cemetery.

Apart from rich collections of archives, printed materials, manuscripts, photographs and maps, the Library offers a wide range of activities, including art exhibitions, cultural events, research and education. During my visit to the Library, I was lucky to attend a temporary exhibition ‘On Paper’ presenting sketches, collages, drawings, watercolours and paintings by some prominent artists of Wales. During my adventure, I also did pencil sketches of Aberystwyth to explore its visual landscape. And it was awesome to see works on paper by the local artists and find some similar feelings in them.

***

On my way back to Manchester, I was reading From Aberystwyth with Love by Malcolm Pryce. The train was moving fast across picturesque valleys and mountains. At one station, a group of Welsh men in their mid-30s got on the train and took seats around me. They were celebrating their friend’s birthday and suggested joining them. They had lots of canned beer. One of them said that they were from the local area. In their childhood, there were only two options where to go: either to Aberystwyth or to Shrewsbury. But on that day they were going to Birmingham.

The smiling guy asked me where I came from. When I replied that I came from Russia, he said, ‘You have Putin in Russia, don’t you?’ and added jokingly, ‘I don’t like him. But you may love him’. At that moment I thought whether it was the Aberystwyth love magic at work. If yes, then it worked in an unexpected way. We moved on to talking about the Welsh language and the guy taught me one more word: ‘shwmae’ meaning ‘hello’. The train stopped in Shrewsbury and I changed it for Manchester.

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