Traveling through the United Kingdom presents a certain excitement that all the other countries can’t provide. It’s to do with the fact that, as an Australian surrounded by British and American culture, there is no foreign country that one can gather knowledge about more than the UK, perhaps with the exception of the United States.
This sounds counter-intuitive, because it should be the countries that one knows the least about that are the ones providing the most excitement. But turn it around and look at it in another perspective and you’ll see that these places that are supposedly well known are the ones with the most potential to shock by defying the expectations – particularly when those expectations have been created only from exposure to television and sporting conflicts.
Sure, undiscovered countries hold the potential to surprise upon visiting, but they can’t shake up your world by showing you something contrary to your pre-constructed vision of the place, because you barely even possess a pre-constructed vision yet.
In this vein, there was a lot of excitement (albeit less than that experienced upon arrival in other countries) upon arrival in the United Kingdom.
The next stop on the itinerary held hope as it was to be crossing borders from England into Wales, more specifically the capital, Cardiff.
This is where the UK trip begins to get exciting because up until now there’s not really much knowledge about Wales and the Welsh. They’ve played some cricket matches in Cardiff, so it’s assumed that they like the cricket just as much as the English. From watching previous World Cups it can be seen that they’re a proud Rugby Union nation that very much likes to separate themselves from the English in this regard.
As far as celebrities go, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Tom Jones are the only two that come to mind, and that doesn’t really hint at anything about their culture, except for the fact that Jones is likely a common surname here.
So Wales held intrigue, and although not in the deepest reaches of the country, Cardiff seemed a likely place to discover it.
If you’re lucky enough to travel into Cardiff by bus then you’ll well and truly know when you have arrived as the bus passes by the unmistakeable Cardiff Castle, which is undoubtedly the biggest attraction of the city.
And for good reason.
Even through the window of the bus, one can get a pretty accurate gauge for how immense and significant the castle is. This is also not some kind of castle that sits ten kilometres outside of the city either – it’s smack bang in the middle and the city of Cardiff has clearly been built with it as the focal point.
The Cardiff Castle is also a very historic site – it’s current form took shape around the twelfth to fourteenth centuries. It’s this kind of historic, relic of a kingdom that had been sorely missed in London. It becomes even more impressive when you discover that it has Roman origins beginning in 55 AD.
Today the Castle is a major tourist attraction, and quite a good one at that. As with most tourist attractions, there is a cost involved, and it’s not cheap. I mentioned in a previous article that I am pretty tight when it comes to forking out for tourist attractions – four or five euro is usually my limit. Cardiff Castle hits you up for twelve pound.
There was a real hesitation for purchasing the ticket or not. There was the possibility to just sit on the lawns outside the castle, lean up against the castle walls and admire it from there for free. There was also a real possibility to slide on in without paying as the security was next to none and a trip through the gift store would put you into the castle where nobody seems to check for a ticket from there onwards.
Eventually honesty and curiosity got the better of me and the twelve quid was forked out for a ticket. Even from outside, by looking through the main archways, you can get a pretty good impression of what the castle consists of (which is why there was such a great sense of curiosity) so after getting the ticket you basically wander around at your own free will.
This was great. It’s my preferred method of travel. You may recall when a previous article complained about the Alhambra in Granada because of it’s many barred access routes and restrictions. Cardiff Castle was the exact opposite, allowing you to freely explore every crack and crevice on site.
And it was superb.
The Norman Keep, a small castle of it’s own right built on top of a mound surrounded by a moat, was the highlight, but walking around (and inside) the exterior walls was also a delight as not only did they provide a glimpse of history, but also a great view of the city of Cardiff.
One of Cardiff’s other major attractions – the Millennium Stadium – is very visible from almost everywhere in the castle’s limits as it’s spires rise about from only a few hundred metres away.
The stadium itself is impressive and given that it is now almost fifteen years old, the condition is immaculate. Stadiums have a tendency to be largely unmaintained by cities but not the Millennium Stadium, that still appears to be brand new. It’s also perfectly located in the city centre and in a way symbolises the new and modern Cardiff.
Cardiff took by surprise a bit because it was so modern. Besides the state-of-the-art stadium that it boasted, the commercial centre of Cardiff was also quite newly renovated, with some modern shopping complexes and a brand new library showing off it’s class.
Cardiff really balanced history and modernity near perfectly wherever you went. Whether it was the aforementioned combination of the millennia old castle next to the decade old Millennium Stadium, or the futuristic Wales Millennium Centre not far from the distinctly Welsh-red Pierhead Building at historic Cardiff Bay.
It was also an exceptionally clean city and the array of parklands on offer was impressive and very well maintained. A walk along the Taff Trail in Cardiff was a delight and the parks were peaceful and relaxing.
Undisputedly, Cardiff is an impressive city but it lacked the one thing that was being searched for – a Welsh uniqueness to the rest of Britain.
Don’t doubt for one second that Cardiff is proud of it’s Welsh heritage – that is unquestionable. The multitude of Welsh flags flying above the Cardiff Castle and through the centre of the city prove this. The Welsh scripture on the street signs and marked on buildings back it up.
It all looks impressive, but talk to the locals there and you’ll be lucky to have a conversation with them in Welsh and that’s not necessarily because you don’t know it, but because they most likely don’t, either.
Hypothetically, if a Welsh man or woman spoke no English, he or she would find it difficult to search out a supermarket where they could shop in their native language.
This, in their own country, remember.
It seems strange to think of it like that, but this is what the English influence has done to Cardiff over many centuries.
Locals will tell you that Cardiff may be the capital, but it’s not really the place you should be if you want to immerse yourself in Welsh culture. They talk of the northern and western lands being more true to the Welsh lifestyle and culture.
A visit to the nearby St Fagans National History Museum is supposed to provide the perfect insight into Welsh culture and life. A large, open area reconstruction of Welsh farms and housing over time, it provides the best indication that perhaps Welsh culture just isn’t as different to English culture as had been imagined – or perhaps hoped.
It does make perfect sense, given their proximity and influence on one another, that Welsh and English culture would turn out to be very similar, but the realisation of this put a dampener on the excitement that surrounded the potential to discover something surprising for me in the United Kingdom.
Putting this sobering realisation aside, Cardiff proved to be a tremendous city that is well worth putting on any UK itinerary.
Just don’t expect it to be a single place to learn about Wales and the Welsh.