Sunday, 12 August 2007

Our family is sleeping in prison. St. Briavels Youth Hostel, almost in Wales, gave us the keys to the prison, their family room. It is equipped with four bunk beds, thick stone walls, a creaky wood floor, and two tiny windows. We’ve been able to experience what it must have been like sleeping in a real castle in the Middle Ages, the bathrooms are just a step above a garderobe (a hole that leads to the moat), it’s a bit drafty and damp, (our clothes never did dry, after hanging all night long), and there’s no internet access. I’ve gotten very creative in the stringing of clothes lines to hang our wet things on. An intruder to the castle would have looked up to see five pairs of underwear swinging inside the window, the only place I could find hooks to fasten the line.

There are certain sounds I associate with each place we have stayed. In London, it was the traffic. At the farm in Southern England, it was the birds, from chickens and ducks to song birds. Here, it is the squeaks. Everything here squeaks. The doors, the floors, the windows, the ceiling. It is very old. When Nate jumped on the carpeted top step of the staircase a dust cloud flew in the air, the communal stove in the kitchen has decades of splatter stains, and the wood floors are worn into big dips in the middle of rooms.

We found our way here with only one wrong turn. I have mastered the art of reading the British road atlas and we didn’t’ even use the GPS. Yesterday, on our way to the castle, we went to a place called Longleat. We drove through a safari park in our rent car where a monkey chewed on the car’s antenna, we found our way through the longest hedge maze in England, we saw baby meerkats (the cutest itty-bitty-witty things you ever did see), and took a boat ride to see a 47 year old gorilla who lives on an island with a television to keep him company,  two friendly hippos, and a couple baby sea lions. Now read that last sentence fast and you’ll know how we feel at the end of our busy day. We left with just enough time to get to St. Briavels for the medieval feast.

When we arrived the kids picked out medieval party clothes (from an old dusty trunk) for everyone to wear, and we joined 50 other decked out people in the castle’s dining hall. We were given only a knife for a utensil and dined medieval style (with our fingers) on baked potatoes, soup, chicken, corn on the cob and more. Two people were chosen as “Lord” and “Lady” of the feast, and the rest of us were told to supply the entertainment.

One man stood up and claimed, “I’m a bit of a joogler (juggler)”, and then attempted to juggle two baked potatoes. Very poorly. He never caught them, they went skittering around the table and across plates. Clay stood up and volunteered his services for the Lord and Lady and successfully juggled three potatoes. Nate and I told jokes and got good laughs. Everyone launched into songs spontaneously, stood up and recited bits from plays or poems, it really did feel like a feast.

Everyone else there was very English, except for a crazy French guy and a family from Australia. I was surprised by the songs that everyone seemed to know, even though we had never heard them before. It was the first time I really felt like a foreigner with other people. Everyone has spoken English wherever we’ve been, and even though it’s sometimes hard to decipher with the British accent, we can still understand. Last night it was painfully obvious that we did not have a clue, as they sang their ballads and told jokes that flew way over our heads. I guess I expect to feel that way in Morocco or Vietnam, but not in England.

We took a day trip to a place in Wales called The Big Pit today, an old coal mine. We wore hard hats with lights on them, and heavy belts with battery packs and oxygen, and then descended down to explore parts of the 28 miles of coal mines, where young children once sat in complete darkness for twelve hours, pit ponies were treated better than the children because they were given candles to light their underground stalls, and birds were used to test whether there were dangerous gasses in the air (the birds will die from high levels of methane before a human). I left wanting to write the story of a child who worked in the pit. The kids left wanting a souvenir, a constant plague as we find ourselves at so many tourist destinations. They did give me some good ideas for my story, we’ll see if anything comes of it!