8th of May 2009 - a glorious day in the history of the world marking VE Day, and, some 64 years later, the inaugural meeting of the Viatorae. Special thanks are due to Pauline, for blazing a trail and setting the mark so high with her fantastic Day Out in Abergavenny.
The day kicked off with a rendez-vous chez Pauline at 10 am for coffee. Thanks here to Richard for his most able butlering and valet parking, and to Pepper for her enthusiastic and moist greeting. Thornton 'Classic' chocolates were provided by Pat, who had pinched them from absent-in-Oz-so-she-couldn't-do-much-about-it Bethan. A short tour of Pauline's extensive grounds, with pergola by Capability Richard providing a charming focal point, was on offer for those who were interested.
Donning walking shoes, the morning began with a tour of Y Fenni's town centre, a stone's throw from Pauline's house. It proved to be a highly attractive, traditional - without being stuck in the past in a 'Last of the Summer Wine' kind of way - Welsh market town. Our route to the town centre took us through Bailey Park, where we sadly saw evidence of the town's hooligan element in the form of charred hedges enclosing the bowling green. Once among the main shopping streets we headed for the covered market, a large building with a recently restored roof, where a food and craft market was being held. The standard of the goods on offer was very high, provided the stall selling decorative toilet roll holders was overlooked. And suspended from the ceiling were a number of colourful chickens in mid scoot, retained from the previous September's Food Festival. We dallied over a number of tempting items, including a red mohair jumper, which Julie just managed to resist.
On to Linda Vista Gardens, Spanish for 'beautiful view' as the informative Paul told us, which provided a delightful view of the Blorenge and a number of photo opportunities.Our route then took us across the flood plain of the Usk, covered in buttercups, to Abergavenny Castle, scene of a dreadful massacre, when, in 1175 the dastardly Norman (i.e. not English for once) William de Braose had a number of Welsh nobleman murdered as they slept. Here our day diverged slightly from the itinerary as we headed immediately to the Tithe Barn, a lovingly-restored 12th century barn opened in October 2008 by the Prince of Wales and his flighty consort Camilla, for lunch. The food on offer was very good indeed (not licensed) and was followed by visit to the Abergavenny Millennium Tapestry on display upstairs, where we met one of the women who had worked on it and a rather garrulous man, who would probably be a right pain in the neck under certain circumstances. (The woman who had worked on the tapestry remained silent but looked very bored while he held forth.) There was also an interesting interactive display with high-tech 360°computer graphics. It was slightly hard to make out certain of the elements featured in the tapestry, but the overall effect was most pleasing and the colours were delightful.
Adjacent to the Tithe Barn is St Mary's Priory Church, a venerable 12th century parish church whose many monuments include Jesse (father of King David), a probable 15th-century carving from a single piece of oak (apart from the hand), and the Beadsman, a replica of the original figure found under the right root of the effigy of Richard Herbert of Ewais. It was here that Pauline revealed that she had been a bell ringer in her formative years.
Back to the castle for a jolly romp around the grounds and a climb among the ruins. Oops, there was a sign saying climbing was expressly forbidden - but one of the slit windows in the ruined tower did offer a fine view of the wedding party below from where, had we had a bow, we could have happily picked off the revellers one-by-one - and it would have been no more than they deserved considering they had not offered us a glass of their champagne on arrival.
We then toured the neat little museum with its interesting exhibit on Welsh hats and a button that proved too tempting to Pat who set off the air raid siren. A surprisingly well-stocked museum shop provided a number of gifts including magnetic dress-up medieval men and women - well executed and good value at £5.95.
It is at this point that Pauline's impressive planning skills came to the fore - as Richard arrived with car and dog, leaving us to continue in the car while he walked home with the dog. Pauline drove us up a narrow one-way road to Sugarloaf Vineyards where we sampled 3 of the 5 wines they were selling (£1.50 per person for the tasting) and bought 2 packets of neutral, salted crisps to cleanse the pallet between wines. Plump hens busied about at our feet and the young daughter of one of the women serving in the shop hovered until she found some more interesting people to stalk and went off with them. Judith handed out the crisps parsimoniously one by one, attentive of cholesterol levels and fearful of an unseemly free-for-all. After an animated discussion about whether to buy any wine and since the only person who could have a glass with impunity was Pat, we bought a bottle of their fine (we hoped) sparkling wine to have with dinner - obtaining the promised 85p reduction for nude, label-less bottle and helping ourselves (courtesy of Julie) to an additional 10p, thereby paying a knock-down a price of £15.
Back in the car we headed to the top of the mountain (not Sugarloaf) where we stopped for photo opportunity of the very fine view.We then drove back to Pauline's via Pen Y Fal where Pauline, Julie and Pat had all worked. Previously a mental hospital, it has now been carefully converted into flats and, with the addition of a large number of new houses scattered around the grounds, the whole effect is very leafy and pleasing - offering a bitter-sweet moment of reminiscence for Pauline, Pat and Julie who all claimed to have closed it.
We drove back to Pauline's house to be met by carefully parked cars (4 crammed into the drive was no mean feat) and Pepper who ran off with Jackie's shoe. The ever-attentive faithful retainer Richard offered drinks while we chatted in the conservatory and Pauline prepared dinner. And what a dinner! Hors d'oeuvre au choix, served in pristine white china and featuring yummy home-made kebabs, followed by a wonderful slow-cooked delicate Asian beef, rice and salad (one thoughtfully prepared with no dressing for Pat), followed by the piece de resistance for those with a sweet tooth, a delicious home-made crème brulee. But that was not all, the crème brulee was then followed by fruit salad, cheese and biscuits and finally coffee. We enjoyed the sparkling wine and those who could enjoyed some of Richard and Pauline's fine red.
Among the many subjects discussed around the table in an evening of witty and sparkling repartee was what to call our group. A brainwave led Julie to call her own private genius, Sam, and ask what the Latin for 'lady travellers' is - and hence the Viatorae were born. It is at this point that special mention must go to Judith, whose idea it was for our memorable 2008 weekend-in-Whitby-for -fish-and-chips (in a great hotel selected by Julie), which served as the prequel to what we hope will be the first of many such events.
Next meeting of the Viatorae - 20th June. Julie to supply details.