The planning started nearly a year in advance, and didn’t have anything to do with Bill or his past. Not at first anyway. The plans were as general as walking parts of the country’s 870-mile coastal path and as specific as tipping pints in parlors with shepherds named Jones (the name of my great-grandfather who emigrated from Wales).
But when I went two houses down from mine to tell Bill that I’d be going to Wales, he looked me in the eyes for maybe the first time in 11 years. “Wales. That’s where I’m from, you know.” Yes,I did know.It’s one of the few things I knew about Bill.
“Will you be near Pembroke Dock?” he asked. And that’s when the plans changed. Bill never spoke like that, with any kind of desire or inflection. It was always how the yard guy was late or how the food stank in the hospital during treatment for a urinary tract infection. Once, shortly after his wife of 45 years, Celia, died in 2004 he told me with- out emotion how his only remaining family connection (a sister-in-law) had rebuffed his idea of visiting her in Wales. “I’ll never go back.” He sniffed, not out of mourning for a lost opportunity but as if the subject were nothing more than dust to him. And then he called his cat over.
So when Bill suddenly showed a glimmer of interest in his old home, I had to show some interest back. Perhaps I could tack a few extra days onto my itinerary and retrace some of his steps, 60 years after he moved from Wales. For him it might provide a lift. For me it might provide a little treasure hunt. If only Bill would open the door to his past and give me something to chase. Anything.
Bill finally does crack the door, three months before my trip. "Carew Castle," he says somewhat reluctantly in his still-thick British accent. “I used to go with a friend, Moffat, when we were boys. We walked there, perhaps a mile from Pembroke Dock. It was just us, playing in a castle in the middle of nowhere. I doubt it’s still there. You could find out, I suppose.”
On the outskirts of Pembroke Dock — and about a mile from Carew Castle by Bill’s calculation — I rent a bike near the Ferry Inn. Like most pubs around here, the place seems to specialize in beer, potatoes and peas. “If the food isn’t pretty and it comes from the ground,” one patron tells me, “it’s Welsh. We aren’t fancy. We’re hardened.”
Wales is a lump on the western hip of England, and some people in the country would say they’ve been treated by the English with all the respect of a bloody cyst for 1,000 years. Their taxes go over the border to London. Their language was banned in schools as recently as the 1950s. Their voice is just a whisper in the U.K.’s governance. Until 30 years ago, coal mining strafed land and shortened lives in Wales while the owners of the mines built palaces 100 miles to the east. Yet most people in this part of Wales still revere the Queen and consider themselves British. Most.
“When you’re riding that bike in the hills,” says the man at the Ferry Inn, “if you see the dragon [the Welsh flag], it might belong to someone who still has more than a little resentment.”
Rabbits scatter in front of me and the bleating of lambs fills my ears. That is, until my lungs start to erupt. Bill misjudged the “perhaps a mile” distance to Carew Castle by five miles. Worse, he also neglected to tell me that the route would include a hill more befitting ropes and harnesses than bikes. At the top I’m in full wheeze under a sign reading “Anaddas i gerbyd fodur” (unsuitable for motor vehicles) when a man approaches. He’s built like a fire hydrant, which a few decades back would have cursed him to a life deep in the coal mines. Parry is his name, and he has emerged from a tiny stone cottage that happens to be flying the dragon. I try to greet him, but he goes first. The words he speaks sound impossibly Welsh. That or he’s trying to loosen raspberry seeds from the walls of his throat and back molars. Politely, I let him finish, figuring I’ll wipe my face off later.
“Carew Castle,” I say. “This way?”
“Oh no,” he says, switching to clean English. “You’ll wind up in the river. Take the lane over here. You’ll pass the Old Mill Pub. The castle is next to the Milton Brewery.”
That’s how directions are done in the old country. The routes are single-track lanes and the waypoints are pubs. This one takes me blindly through a three-mile tunnel of ferns and wild garlic, and squirts me out in a clearing where I see the outside wall of a castle next to a pond. I pedal closer and, after paying 41⁄2 pounds at a gift shop that wasn’t here in the 1930s, I step into the courtyard of Carew Castle. Nobody stops me from climbing the original stone-and-mortar stairs, or from pretending to shoot invaders through the castle’s arrow slits. I even jump up and try to touch the coat of arms that Bill had mentioned, carved high into a cracked wall.
“Carew Castle is still here,” I write in an e-mail to Bill. “You walked? It’s 12 miles here and back to Pembroke Dock.”
Six weeks before the trip Bill does something totally not him: He produces a picture, and a story. In the picture is a man of about 20 on a humongous beach. He’s wearing a suit and tie, and holding a swimsuit wrapped in a towel. “That’s me after a swim at Tenby. I’d go there or to Freshwater by locomotive. Sometimes I’d walk. They’re both a few miles from Pembroke Dock. I remember them being beautiful, but I suppose they’ve changed. If you go, you’ll have to dash into the water. It’s quite cold.”
Bill never saw a car in Wales, which might explain why his internal odometer is so badly calibrated. I decide to bag the bike at the Cleddau Bridge Hotel in Pembroke Dock and drive a rental car to Tenby. (Sure enough, I clock “a few miles” at 11 miles, or 22 miles round-trip.) “It wasn’t unusual for miners to walk 20 miles a day,” says David Blackmoor, a historian in Pembrokeshire. “We were poor. We ate what we picked or caught. And we walked.”
On a lookout at Tenby, across the road from a 700-year-old church that towers over sea-foam-colored apartments, I see as wide a field of sand as I have ever seen. Above the beach a blue flag denotes that Tenby has reached the apex of European ecological standards. On the beach, dozens of boats lie on their keels as if sunning in the sand, a good quarter-mile from the water. The 29-foot tide, one of the highest in the world, is out. So I have plenty of time to grow some nerve, and maybe a few layers of skin, on the long walk from the lookout to the surf. I simply want to get a picture to show Bill that Tenby is still beautiful, the sea is still here, and his neighbor is in it.
I don’t get far. By the time the icy water reaches knee height, every- thing below my ribs has tightened into a ball of pain. My calves cramp. My knees and hip seize. I walk out of the water as if on stilts, and stuff my feet deep in the golden sand to warm them. There's a splashing sound far over my shoulder. It's a woman, backstrocking in water the temperature of a slushie.
"Tenby is colorful and amazing," I e-mail Bill. "Picked up a couple shells. Took my feet for a swim too.”
Bill’s back in the hospital a month before the trip. Another urinary tract infection. It’s so bad this time that he clenches his eyelids and grimaces on every other breath. “Remember where I’m going, Bill?” I ask, holding up a map of Wales and hoping to change his focus. “That ... island ... near Tenby,” he says between breaths. “They...made something. But I never ... went.” And then, looking at the hospital wall, he asks, “Who’s in the kitchen?” He’s hallucinating. I fold the map and put it next to a plate of food that he hasn’t touched.
Graham Waring has both hands on the old ship’s wheel as he navigates the narrow-hulled Nemesis across wind-whipped water between Tenby and Caldey Island. He’s made this 30-minute crossing 10,000 times. When I tell him about my Welsh neighbor who never made it once, he glances sideways. “You tell him it’s a pretty island,” he says. “But it was prettier back in his day, before they built a road from the beach to the lighthouse. The last thing you do to a little island like this is dump a strip of bloody concrete onto it.” Caldey has been the isolated home of monks for 1,500 years. But ferries didn’t start bringing visitors over until 1952, the same year Bill left Wales to find work.
Yes, I could see an island from Tenby,” Bill told me once, after much prodding. “It was unreachable. Caldey? Is that the name?"
The monks will not come out to play these days. But Graham tells me where they used to rappel by rope to a monk-only beach. To get there I walk through brambles, scraping my legs on briars and being careful not to smash buttercups. At the edge of a cliff, I sit in a patch of cow parsley and listen to the sounds of rumbling waves and nesting gulls. Down on a spit of sand cornered between red rock bluffs, I can only imagine how the men of peace used to cut loose.
The beach is among a maze of dichotomies on Caldey. In a chapel about as old as the stones holding it together, I light a candle with matches from Jaspers Bun in the Oven Restaurant in England. At the little island shop, I buy chocolate and some monk-made perfume. And I notice a footnote at the bottom of every sign: Find us on Facebook! “Caldey Island is an interesting place, Bill,” I write. “Didn’t meet any monks. But I picked up some chocolate bars.”
Bill is sitting up in his hospital bed two days later. When I walk in the door, he unfolds his reading glasses. “Your trip,” he says, unprompted. “Perhaps we can look at that map.” He locks into the smallest print and points to a speck. “Manorbier Newton — there isn’t much to it.” His voice softens. “Mother and I went to a farm there when the bombing got bad during the war. I remember chasing rabbits and picking blackberries. It was at the top of a hill. Two ladies owned it. The Pryce sisters. I doubt you can find it.”
Bill appears to be right this time. According to the GPS, I’m in the general area of Manorbier Newton. In America we would call this a big hill. There’s nothing here but a view, and it’s a spectacular one of distant castles and hedged-in pastures that look like pieces to a puzzle that never ends. Next to a concrete post stamped with the words “Fern Hill” is a long gravel driveway. I turn into it, just for the heck of it. A farmhouse sits at the bottom of the slope, with toy cars for kids and dandelions for winemaking. I start walking to the house, when the back door opens. “May I help you?”
I’m frozen for a second because the crazy question I’ve been rehearsing for the past month suddenly seems really, really ridiculous and, wow, the young lady is sorta wrapped in a white robe. A handshake is out of the question. “Yeah, I’m ... hi ...” Words randomly spill out of my mouth. I start to ramble on about Bill and blackberries and World War II and, “... um, have you heard of the Pryce sisters?”
“No, I haven’t. I’m sorry.” The door closes. I mindlessly pluck some blackberry blossoms on the way back to the car.
The ice has been broken, so a quarter-mile up the narrow road, I decide to pull down another long drive. Fred Edwards is outside feeding some dogs. He’s fully dressed, and I’m more coherent when I ask him about the Pryce sisters. “Ah, Pryce, you say?” Fred says. “They’re not here any longer. That was a long time ago, you know? They used to own the farm just up that way. The one called Fern Hill.” Fern Hill? The place where I stumbled all over myself a few minutes ago? That’s the farm where Bill and his mother went during the war? I took pictures there, and flowers. “You won’t believe this, Bill, but I found Manorbier Newton,” I e-mail. “Found the farm too. Amazing scenery. Picked a few blackberry blossoms.”
It’s three days before I leave for Wales. Bill is home and he’s decided to swing the door wide open. “I enjoyed the family gatherings the most,” he says. “The Sunday lunch in our little house. But the war changed everything. Oil for the Allies came through Pembroke Dock, so it was a target. We’d hide in the cellar during air raids. One time [May 1941] someone was yelling, ‘The street is gone!’ The Germans had dropped a mine. One of my friends was killed. Our roof was blown off. That’s why we went into the country.” He looks at me, waiting for a question. “Do you remember the address of your house?” Without pause Bill says, “It was 55 Laws Street.”
The rain is steady. The sidewalk is empty. Pembroke Dock is quiet because it’s Sunday and the pubs haven’t opened yet. Laws Street is an easy find. It climbs up, up, up, against a row of terraced houses shoved together like panels on a fence. The house is easy too. It’s the only one with a white door, lace curtains and the number 55 screaming at me. There I stand, ready to knock. If nobody answers, I’m off to the hills. If somebody does answer ...
“Yes?” A man appears in the doorway, eyeballing this wet stranger who could be up to just about anything. How do I explain in five seconds that my neighbor in Florida lived in this house 70 years ago, played tiddlywinks on the dining- room table, hid on the cellar stairs during World War II, got bombed out of the house, returned two years later to a cat that never left, moved for good in 1952, won’t admit to missing the place, and I’m not trying to sell anything?
The man waves his hand and stops me with the most classic oxymoron ever: “Get out! Come in!”
Inside, the smell of chicken curry fills the house. “I’m fixing Sunday lunch,” says Stuart Ward, 67. He tells me he’s lived in this home since 1972. I tell him Sunday lunch, according to Bill, is supposed to be wild rabbit, turnips and potatoes. “Oh, they called that ‘the poor man’s Sunday lunch,’” says Stuart. “Everyone in Wales ate it. Some people still do.”
He shows me the cellar, with the 5-foot-8-inch door clear- ance. “When I moved here, the coal dust was up to my knees.” He shows me the front den, which used to be the dining area. “It was very small, barely big enough for a table and a family. But I suppose there were a lot of memories made here.”
When I mention that Bill talks about a bomb blowing the roof off in 1941, Stuart’s eyes turn to full moons.“Look up here.” He points to crown moulding that’s badly offset because of a crooked ceiling. “And here.” The door into one room is also askew. “They refurbished the house, but some of the bomb damage couldn’t be fixed.”
And now Stuart wants to know about Bill. His family. His past. His hobbies. Things I don’t know about Bill. Stuart writes down his e-mail address, a souvenir for Bill. “Tell Bill to contact me,” he says. “And tell him he has a friend in Wales.”
I placed Stuart’s note inside my backpack with the shells from Tenby, the chocolate bars from Caldey, the flowers from Manorbier Newton and a flag with the dragon. On my camera are a thousand pictures from home. Hey Bill, it’s still here.
Want more? See our Best of Wales: Why You Should Visit.