Weekend visit to Cardiff, April 2011 Weekend visit to Cardiff, April 2011

While Norfolk apparently basked under a mini heatwave, a coach-load of Staff Association members and friends set off from UEA at 7.30 on Friday morning to enjoy similar good weather, as it turned out, in South Wales.

On the way, it was a good opportunity for some of us to learn a few useful Welsh phrases found on the Internet in between playing games.

Our first proper stop was Windsor and we arrived outside the Castle just in time to watch the Guards band march down the hill on their way back to barracks. As the various parties dispersed to explore the town in their own different ways, our group embarked on an open-top bus tour, which included Eton public school and playing fields, the nearby village of Datchet as well as Windsor itself. Although the sun shone, it was a little breezy on the top deck and it may have been more sensible of the guide to warn against the overhanging branches at the beginning rather than half way round! Dodging the swinging foliage added to our amusement, though, and it was a great way to see the sights.

On leaving the bus, we enjoyed a stroll along the river where we seemed to attract an ever-increasing following of swans, joined by a few ducks and geese. Fortunately, they stayed on the river and did not attempt to fly so were far less lethal than the local pigeons!

After lunch in the conservatory of a delightful hostelry, we left Windsor at 2.30pm wearing freshly purchased, gaudy, striped cowboy hats aimed to capture the attention of the TV cameras covering the football on the next day.

We crossed the Severn Bridge into Wales and, as we approached the hotel, Celtic Manor (venue of the last Ryder Cup golf contest) stood out against the hillside…..

…..however, we were not staying there and arrived at the Hilton in Newport just after 5 o'clock. Sounding grand, it was pleasant and comfortable enough with spacious rooms and appetising food. One or two people took advantage of the facilities and enjoyed a swim while others just chilled after the long journey.

On Saturday morning there was a wide choice for breakfast – fruit, cereals, a fry-up, or toast for those with the patience to wait for the toaster to finish its task.

We left the hotel at 9.15am for an excursion into Cardiff. Our coach waited outside the Castle, whose wall was decorated with an array of beautiful carvings of wild animals and birds. We then picked up a Welsh-speaking tour guide (those phrases came in handy!) who could obviously also speak English. He was a retired policeman and lovely man who was justifiably very proud of his city.

After the brief coach tour, our guide took us around some of the landmarks on foot, including the impressive Millennium Building and Millenium Fountain (often seen in Torchwood), the Parliament building and the Oval Basin, now known as Roald Dahl Plass. The regeneration of the area has been planned and executed brilliantly with a sensitive mixture of ancient and modern, while also retaining the heritage of the former docks which operated there.

The second part of the tour was by boat, which took as around Cardiff Bay encompassing the former Tiger Bay (Shirley Bassey's birthplace) and Barry Island (Gavin & Stacey land). We were fortunate enough to witness one of the sluice gates and a bascule bridge on the barrage actually working.

In the afternoon, the various groups went their separate ways to indulge their own specific interests – many attended the RHS Flower Show in the grounds of Cardiff Castle, one or two others engaged in further exploration of the city, while the rest of us caught a train for the hour-long journey to Swansea to support Norwich City in their televised match (hence the striped hats).

It would have been good to have time to look around Swansea but, instead, we made the half-hour trek from the railway station to the modern Liberty Stadium and refreshed ourselves in Pizza Hut in the neighbouring complex. After the match (best not to dwell on the game itself and the result), we had to run to catch the 8 o'clock train back to Newport where Lenny, our wonderful and obliging coach driver picked us up. Much to everyone's surprise (including Lenny), roadworks prevented us getting straight back to the hotel from the motorway so we took a ‘little' detour and ended up in Usk. I am sure Usk is a lovely place but, unfortunately, it was too dark to appreciate it. We did come across a couple of locals though, who seemed bemused at the sight of a bus!

Arriving back at the Hilton at around 10pm, we had missed dinner. However, we were treated to a choice of whatever sandwiches we wished accompanied by a bowl of chips each.

We enjoyed another good breakfast before checking out at 9.30 on Sunday morning. Before departing, the winnings from the previous day's Grand National sweepstake were distributed. Congratulations to Helen for picking the race winner. (Who organised it, by the way?) 

The weather stayed fine for our visit to St Fagan's, the museum of Welsh life featured on Antiques Roadshow a couple of weeks prior to our trip. We had about 3 and a half hours to explore churches, houses from all ages, a farm, different mills, as well as the castle with its stunning gardens. The lambs entertained their spectators and we saw the largest pig imaginable! Entry was free and a visit is highly recommended. We could have easily spent a whole day there – what a fantastic facility for the local people to enjoy on their doorstep. Knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides could be found in each building and all were only too willing to impart some history and background to anyone who asked. Many of us gained a real sense of what life was like for people centuries ago – aside from the labour intensity of earning a living, has progress had a positive effect and do we really need today's perceived luxuries to be comfortable and content? In those days gone by, people seemed far less insular and genuine communities existed.

And finally… Anne Robinson take note! We met quite a few characters in a variety of settings and the general consensus of opinion was that the Welsh people could not have been friendlier, polite, jolly or more obliging if they had tried.

We departed at around 1.30pm to make our way home. Following a couple of brief breaks, we arrived back at UEA at 8 o'clock.

Overall, this was an excellent and smooth weekend, providing the freedom and flexibility to satisfy a diversity of interests, yet maintaining a group togetherness. A big thank you to the organisers – looking forward to the next one already.

- Carole Grimes (ex-UEA employee)

June 2011