There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 13 August 2010

Manchester, Llantrisant and Beijing

Last Thursday to Manchester to hand in our Chinese Visa applications. The comfortable, spacious offices of the new Visa Centre mean it is no longer necessary to queue – usually in the rain - outside a pokey little room at the Consulate in Didsbury; and as the Centre is in Manchester’s Chinatown, it seemed a good idea to book a morning appointment and follow it with lunch.

Arriving a tad early gave us time to look round a Chinese supermarket and make a few purchases before ringing the bell at the Visa Centre the approved ten minutes before our scheduled appointment. Perhaps because of the appointment system, perhaps because visas can now be obtained by post, not only was there no queue, but we were in and out in five minutes.

With an hour and a half to kill, we were pleased to discover the city art gallery – a most un-oriental building – squatting on a Chinatown corner. It houses a large collection of mainly British paintings. We saw a couple of Lowrys and several memorable Manchester cityscapes by his onetime teacher Adolphe Valette. The Victorians are well represented with the obsessions of Rossetti and Holman Hunt, curly-haired ginges and God, respectively, fully explored. There is also John William Waterhouse’s uncomfortably sexy Hylas and the Nymphs, a copy of which I recently encountered in a Malvern B & B, where its prolonged contemplation was unavoidable by anyone taking a bath. Finally, there are as many eighteenth century portraits and landscapes as one could wish for.

Julius Caesar Ibbetson’s A Distant View of Llantrisant Castle is actually less remarkable than his name (he was born in 1759 by Caesarean section and was, allegedly, acutely embarrassed by his exotic monicker). In such small dark landscapes it is difficult to make out what is going on - I do not know if they were supposed to be like that, or are in need of a clean, or the paint is deteriorating. A view of Llantrisant from the south is well known to anyone who has driven along the M4; its church is clearly silhouetted on a hill, but we had never seen it from the west and never knew it had a castle. Maybe, we mused, it had existed in the 1790’s but was there no longer.

As fate, or luck, would have it, we were in South Wales the very next day visiting Lynne’s extensive but aging tribe of aunts and uncles. Our last visit was in Llantwit Fadre, after which we made our way to Peterston to spend the evening with a friend. Our route, inevitably, took us through Llantrisant, and yet again we had an hour to kill.

Modern Llantrisant sits on the flat land below the hill and has dual carriageways, irritating road works and a huge Tescos. Turning off the main road and winding our way upwards we found an older, quieter Llantrisant centred on a small square at the summit of the hill.

The car park was free and offered us a suggested walk through the old town, including a visit to the castle. The coffee shop was less welcoming: “No, you can’t have a cappuccino, we close in forty five minutes.” We were graciously allowed a filter coffee, though it was not very good.

Me and William Price, Bull Ring, Llantrisant
The square is still called the Bull Ring though the bull baiting that gave it its name was banned in 1827 - not for reasons of animal welfare, but because it attracted unruly crowds. It is home to a statue of William Price, surgeon, druid, chartist and eccentric. Price could hardly claim to have invented cremation, but it was not practiced in England or Wales between the Roman Empire and the death of his infant son, Jesus Christ Price in 1884. He was prosecuted for burning the body, but argued that as the law made no mention of cremation it could not be illegal. The judge agreed and within twenty years the practice had become established.

Price had another son whom he named Jesus Christ II Price (he later changed his name to Nicholas!) Although invariably described as an eccentric, Price was actually a 24-carat nutter. In his statue he wears his druid’s tunic and a fox skin hat and looks every inch a man marching gloriously to the beat of a drum only he can hear. This alone could have made him a hero in Wales, but he also gave freely of his medical expertise to help the less advantaged members of society, and espoused the Welsh language, and his own idiosyncratic version of Welsh culture, at a time when the professional classes were determinedly aping everything English. When the time came for his own cremation in 1893, a crowd of 20,000 turned out to watch.

Llantrisant Castle
Twenty metres down the road, beside the old Weight House, is the entry to the castle fields. A shattered remnant of one tower is all that remains of the stone structure built in 1246 by the Norman Richard de Clare, Lord of Glamorgan, to replace an earlier wooden fort. The rebellious Welsh damaged the castle in 1294 and 1316, and it may finally have been destroyed by Owain Glyndwr in 1404. It was certainly in ruins shortly after that date, but has deteriorated little since Julius Caesar Ibbetson came here over two hundred years ago. Where he stood to get his ‘view from the west’ is a mystery, his angle apparently requiring him to hover fifty metres above the plain and be able to see right through Llantrisant’s substantial parish church. Such is artistic licence.

The positioning of Manchester Art Gallery on the edge of Chinatown is, doubtless, coincidental, but from the number of Chinese faces looking at the paintings, the coincidence is appreciated. Our subsequent arrival in the Little Yang Sing restaurant was less accidental, but we were equally appreciative. We went to Manchester for a visa and a lunch and discovered Julius Caesar Ibbetson and Llantrisant Castle. Ibbetson also visited China; in 1787 he was official draughtsman on the very first British embassy to Beijing, producing watercolours of the plants and animals encountered on the journey. Small world.

[and having acquired our visas we duly set off for China. Kunming and the Stone Forest, the first part of that story, is just a click away]

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