The last excursion of note on this trip was into Cardiff, the capital of Wales. To this day I don’t think I (hi, it’s John this time) I could accurately explain the exact political status of Wales; what I can tell you is that it has a capital but nobody checked my passport. We’d heard a lot of good things about the city, and thanks to the BBC’s fine selection of programming over the years we’d had a decent look at bits and pieces of it. The time had come for us to see for ourselves. First thing’s first, though – Welsh Mountain Ponies!
The drive to Cardiff to Dursley is simple enough – take the highway to the outskirts of Bristol and then hang a right. Cross the river on a fancy bridge and Robert is your father’s brother. Like most of our drives, it’s not a series of towns and suburbs like a lot of drives in the US. You’re either at your destination or you’re in the countryside. Case in point, we were within sight of the Cardiff waterfront with its repurposed ships piers and new-built event center when we saw Welsh mountain ponies… like, in the roadway. They were grazing, totally at ease, clearly not new to the experience, but they were a mere few feet from the highway, with no sort of barrier or fence to separate them. It was bizarre and lovely all at the same time.
Cardiff, for these visitors at least, is a city in two parts. One part is the aforementioned waterfront. Clearly the subject of intense redevelopment, it must have been a purely industrial area at one point. With a lot of work there are now shopping and tourist venues there, as well as at least two spaces for concerts and sporting events. It is a sort of oasis on its own, with an expanse of barely-developed terrain between the waterfront and the proper city center. Also in the waterfront oasis is the Wales Millennium Centre, or “that building in Torchwood” to a certain segment of the TV-viewing population. Lisa very much wanted to get a picture of “the spot” where the TARDIS once parked and which, in show lore, still maintains an invisibility effect. Alas, there was a family fun carnival… thingy going on, and the exact spot was actually occupied by a cotton candy vendor. Which, really, is its own kind of wonderful but not what we were hoping to find.
If these comments are leading you to believe that we were drawn to Cardiff because of Doctor Who / Torchwood lore more than any ancient history… I mmmeeeeeeaaaaannn…. that could be disputed in court to the point of reasonable doubt, but you’re certainly not entirely wrong. In fact, Lisa had gone on a binge of rewatching Torchwood just before, and during, this trip. I don’t know that she was consciously prepping but it was definitely on our minds to varying degrees. We don’t tend to fly our nerdy freak flags in public much, but indulging in Who-related tourism is not out of our wheelhouse in the slightest. Speaking of which, there is a lovely bit of emergent fandom down on the pier. A character in the show Torchwood, “Ianto Jones” was killed off in a dramatic way; it was a small cast and everyone in it was a crucial part. Fans of the show spontaneously erected a shrine to the character, and it has persisted to this day. In fact, the municipality eventually made it a formal part of the pier and provide basic maintenance to keep it up. Keep in mind, the episode aired in 2009 and the shrine is still a going concern. Nerds, gotta love ’em. Us. Whatever.
As I said, Cardiff’s attractions are in two hubs; away from the waterfront and probably a 10-minute drive is the historic center, where you can find municipal buildings, museums, gardens and so on. We concentrated our time at the National Museum – Cardiff and in particular a really amazing exhibition entitled “Reframing Picton.”
So, first some background for non-Welshies like us. (I’m sure they just love the term “Welshie”, you should use it a lot if you’re ever there.) Thomas Picton has been a favored son in the lore of Wales for a couple of centuries now. His crowning achievement, such as it is, was being the highest-ranking officer killed at Waterloo in the armies opposing Napoleon, having achieved the rank of Lieutenant General; he was noted in his era for his service under Wellington in the Iberian Peninsula War of the early 1800s, but that is hardly recalled today and if you think I didn’t have to look up the details then you’re… well, you’re very charitable.
What he was also notable for, however, was for being a Governor of Trinidad. Or more precisely, a tyrannical despot of Trinidad, so violent and cruel that even in the era of enslavement and genocide he still managed to be called to stand trial for his treatment of the Trinidadians. He used a particular form of military punishment on the people there so frequently and forcefully that it was re-named after him – “picketing.” (I’m not going to subject anyone to surprise torture porn, the wikipedia link included can get you up to speed.) Once he became elevated as a pseudo-martyr of the Napoleonic campaigns, however, it quickly became ‘distasteful’ to even mention his behavior as governor.
In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, however, the curators of the National Museum felt called to action (or maybe they always wanted to do something and this provided political capital – I can’t claim to know the intricacies of Welsh politics). A truly awesome (as in inspiring awe) exhibition was put together that provides both direct historical evidence of the full measure of Picton’s life, but also employs the artist’s eye to explore and provide comprehension to audiences who, after all, are now centuries removed from the truth and only know the name (if they know it at all) for the monuments and portraits that exist of the man. In one truly you-can’t-unsee-this moment, video plays of three different young Trinidadian girls in beautiful dresses – communion dresses in appearance if not in fact – that are shown smiling or simply standing; meanwhile, the transcripts from Picton’s trial, in which girls these same ages testified as to exactly what he did to them, are superimposed upon the girls. Not that the man doesn’t deserve the treatment, but it was almost impressive in how unsparing the whole installation was in its take-down of a purported hero of the nation. As we left, we both couldn’t help but wonder at how much more effective BLM seems to have been in inspiring action in other countries apart from the United States.
This was our day in Cardiff, and in fact this was our trip to England. Our other days were often lovely but they were quiet; cool, often wet, frequently lovely, but not given to long stories (and if I’m saying I can’t be long-winded about something, you know it had to be quiet). We left a nice review of the people we house-sat for, and they did the same for us, and for all we know this might happen again some day. But for now, we’ve had our shot at southern England and we’re glad to be home. Which, actually, is a funny thing to say as I wrap up this post while sitting in an airport lounge, waiting to begin our next adventure. See you soon from North America!