Thursday, September 17, 2009

War and peace

It must be the English in me that makes me enjoy so much stories that discredit the French.

The last invasion of Britain was in February 1797 when 1400 Frenchmen came storming ashore in Fishguard, having mistaken it for the Bristol Channel, and routed the locals. All was going swimmingly until they came across a hoard of Portuguese wine liberated by the Welsh from an earlier shipwreck, which they appropriated until roaring drunk. The locals were then able to turn the tables on the invaders. The heroine of the hour was Jemima Nicholas, a sturdy and determined woman who rounded up no fewer than 12 Frenchmen, with the help of her trusty pitchfork. The Frogs surrendered two days after arriving, signing a treaty in the pretty Royal Oak pub in the town centre; and nothing much has happened there since.

Things were pretty quiet at the top of Constitution Hill in Aberystwyth this afternoon, too, when we hummed up on the Clifftop Railway, an old electric cable car that in its day was standing-room only. Today we were the only passengers, able to hear the robin singing on the bridge over the line which was scattered with windfall apples.

At the top of the hill is the Camera Obscura, a quaint Victorian novelty that still has appeal: there's something fascinating about watching the waves breaking on the beach below, and people walking along the Promenade in real time, sort of through a glass darkly, with no sound: beats CCTV hands down, even if the controls are all mirror-image. I was the only person there, too, enjoying the splendid view on a warm and sunny afternoon; and the girl in the shop would clearly have welcomed some rampaging French sailors. When I left she was untangling a plastic Slinky from the display. I suspect she'd tangled it up herself, deliberately.

The gentle green hills of South Wales have disappeared: now it's all muscly, looming highlands with rocky outcrops fringed with heather. Ahead we've already glimpsed the peaks of Snowdonia, and tomorrow we'll make our own assault on the highest peak in Britain. By train.

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