Day 07 – Mon 2 May 2005 – Off to (old) South Wales

Out of London at last. Left hotel and caught Bakerloo Line tube to Victoria to catch the 1140 service to Reading. Normally the train to Swansea, my ultimate destination, would leave from Paddington, but it is a long weekend and the route between Paddington and Reading is closed for engineering works, with alternative services running via a different route out of Victoria. It’s the first day I use my Britrail Pass.

Interminable London suburbs from the train

The train passes through Twickenham and Richmond, which have reasonably pleasant looking suburbs. Twickenham is on the river with nice frontages, boats and houseboats/barges. Have been meaning to note that British trains are quite small. Now I can remember reading as a child how model trains in OO/HO gauge are made that way so that Australian/American trains and British trains can run on the same model layout without looking odd. The former are done in HO (3.5mm = 1 foot), while the British trains are done in OO (4mm = 1 foot). Apparently when railways were pionererd in Britain the sizes of tunnels and bridges (built by engineers like Brunel) were fairly small; which effectively limited the size of rolling stock from then on. The low footbridges across tracks in particular  have an almost toy-like look.

Past Twickenham and especially past Ascot, the countryside opens up quite a lot. It’s fairly flat, with combinations of forest and open grassland. Occasionally there are market gardens. Sometimes you can’t see through the trees adjacent to the tracks. Arrived at Reading on time (as usual) and transferred to the 1311 Swansea train on a nearby platform. It’s an XPT style train (or should I say it’s of a type on which the XPT was based) and only about half full. I start hearing Welsh accents for the first time. On the platform is a girl who looks exactly like Jolene K. I almost went up to her and said ‘What are you doing here?’. Then I heard her speak with a strong Welsh accent and noticed she was maybe a couple of years younger; otherwise a complete double.

Swansea town

Reading station has plenty of staff directing passengers arriving on our train on a terminal platform to a nearby ‘through’ platform where we will pick up the train to Swansea. Reading itself is reasonably large. It’s about as far out of London as Campbelltown is out of Sydney and the lay of the land is similar, but not the vegetation. It is also probably a bit more up-market than Campbelltown, though that probably says a lot more about that latter than Reading.

The Swansea train is quite fast, probably doing 120 to 160 kph most of the time. Certainly it’s much too fast to enable you to read station names as we whisk through them. The countryside is picture perfect; bright green fields with gold flowers contrasting to fallow stretches. Lots of little villages and farms. Narrow roads bordered by hedgerows. This is what I was expecting of Britain, and it is delightful.

Swansea houses overlooking the sea

We pass a big coal fired power station and I can see a chalk figure carved on a grassy hillside well to the south. After about a half an hour we arrive at our first stop, Swindon. For some reason I always pictured Swindon as being a bit grim (maybe because it has a railway museum), but it’s a not unpleasant country town with an interesting mix of old and new. About 15 to 20 minutes out of Swindon there is a large military airfield with fortified hangars (large concrete structures covered over with earth and grass). Later I look it up and discover it is RAF Lyneham.

About three minutes later we went through a long tunnel, subsequently arriving at Bristol Parkway, the junction where trains to Bristol itself turn off. From there it’s only a few minutes to run through to two long tunnels, one of which goes under the Severn River to emerge in Wales. Lots of little villages and old churches give way to a passing steelworks and the industrial city of Newport. It reminds me a little of Newcastle (NSW). Speaking of ‘castles, I knew there would be some; but, oh my god, there’s a ruined castle sitting nonchalantly right among the city buildings on the riverbank!

From Newport it’s a short run to Cardiff Central. Again it’s Newcastle-like, but with some taller modern buildings. There’s a big stadium just north of the station (we’re in rugby territory now!). There’s an old but recently burnt out hotel just near the station. A group of young guys get on at Cardiff and later alight at Neath (just before Swansea). They were noisy and spirited, but unlike some in London, are not intimidating: mainly just putting shit on each other. They often talked in Welsh and I am later surprised to hear it being used very commonly. Even many local TV shows are completely in Welsh.

Swansea Beach (with real sand, not shingles)

Arrived in Swansea. It’s an interesting town; something like a cross between Queanbeyan and Wollongong (umm, maybe not). It’s set by the sea with a large, pleasant, ‘real’ sand beach. The shopping centre is fairly modern and looks much more like Australian equivalents than I have seen elsewhere. There are hills behind the city with lots of traditional British style houses. They must have great seas views, but I’d like to think they are occupied more by working people than yuppies.

In the middle of the town is a ruined castle; very old and looking like an elaborate set from a Bell production of Hamlet. Some parts of the town appear quite vibrant. It has many more pubs, clubs and entertainment spots than I would expect for a town its size – including one catering specifically for Australians. (Obviously one for the locals to avoid; Aussies are even more of a pain in groups than Americans when abroad.) Other parts are dilapidated; especially near the railway station; lots of broken windows, doss spots and vacant properties.

Swansea Castle

The Welsh seem much more like Aussies than the English They have little trace of class distinction are much more relaxed in dress and manner, and the girls are sort of similarly skankier. Swansea is a great location and could be a great place to live. Seems to have some social problems though. There’s begging on the street, often by fairly young people, and lots of properties that are obviously brothels (again many more than you might expect in a town this size).

I had a look around at the mostly closed shops for ‘something Welsh’ for Jolene K. The trick is to find something genuine and not too tacky. I noticed a few girls here wearing belts with large circular celtic motifs; something like that might be suitable. Will check out one shop that sells Welsh tartans and accoutrements tomorrow.

Another view of the castle

I stayed at the Dragon Hotel, which is a bit pricey, but I can’t be bothered searching out an alternative. The receptionist was a girl with a Polish accent. Seemed very nervous about the idea of being paid with a Travelers Cheque. Swansea is a bit noisy at night. Lots of kids are on the street, even after midnight on the Monday night of a holiday weekend.

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