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My Week in Ireland with a Welsh Rugby Team

This essay came from a letter written to my parents from Middle Mille, Wales.  It was completed from memories of what I left out.  Back then, I was too embarrassed to tell Mom and Dad the rest of the story. 

April 24, 1978

Dear Mom & Dad:

Well, it’s been some time since I last wrote so I thought to dash off a few lines to keep you up to date.  By the time you receive this letter, Scott (Hamilton) should be back in the States, although not necessarily in Washington.  I’ve been here at Scott’s since my last letter, save for a brief sojourn to Ireland where I met up with a Welsh rugby team and toured around with them.  They were really friendly and a lot of fun.  I got to see my first rugby match and did a heck of a lot of something that Welsh rugby clubs do best – drink beer.

In the pub after the game with the Welsh rugby team.

Actually, it was a very strange week.  I met these guys my first night in a pub after I’d ferried from Fishguard, Wales and made my way to the town of Wexford on the southeast coast of Ireland.  They were staying in a big hotel and one of the mates said, “There’s plenty of room at our hotel, so why not come stay with us and go on tour?”  That sounded fine so I did.

I kind of became their mascot and they all called me “Yank,” never bothering to learn my name.  I endeared myself to the club (guys about my age) after their first match.  We were all sitting in the opposing Irish team’s pub.  We were drinking beer, lots of Irish-made Guinness, and eating sandwiches and drinking more beer and singing songs, and having a cracking good time.

The Tonna boys wore red and white.

The Welsh love to sing and we sang almost every song they knew (no not really, there is no end to the number of songs they know).  So, one of the Tonna boys (as they called themselves being from Tonna, Wales near Neath Port Talbot) challenged me to lead the guys in song.  He was a big, fat, long-haired, red-headed oaf named Daffy, but a heck of a nice guy too.

The Tonna Rugby Football Club emblem.

With cheering and jostling they stood me atop this heavy wooden table.  I had to do something and started singing the one song I was guaranteed to remember all the lyrics.  I led them in a rousing rendition of “If I Had a Hammer,” which they all got the biggest kick out of.  After that, I became “one of the boys,” as they’re fond of saying.

Love, Bill

Note: The letter to Mom and Dad describing my time with the rugby team ended here, leaving out the untold story of the rest of my week.

We continued traveling up the east coast of Ireland stopping at small towns along the way.  They played rugby in the late morning; we drank beer in pubs each afternoon; then back to our hotel for more drinking and some nights playing poker.  I even taught them a game or two.  The pattern continued for several days: big hotel breakfasts, sandwiches and Guinness at pubs, then more frivolity until falling to bed.  By this time everybody liked me so much I was almost one of the team, primarily as ‘Yank’ their lucky charm.

The Tonna Rugby Football Club (RFC) photo after a match.

Our final destination was Dublin where they’d catch a ferry back to Wales and I’d tour the Irish capital.  So far, my sightseeing in Ireland consisted of rugby pitches and public houses.  In Dublin fair city we found ourselves in Temple Bar, a lively district where patrons poured themselves from one pub to the next.  Many have street-side windows which open fully guaranteeing easy camaraderie between those in pubs and those passing by.

We’d been good mates for several days and planted ourselves for a sendoff glass to conclude our camaraderie.  After a couple pints, I begged forgiveness and bid farewell. With travel bag in hand, I said my goodbyes to each and wandered the streets of Dublin in search of lodging for the night.  Temple Bar has a confusing hodgepodge of meandering streets and alleys where it’s easy to circle back around.  After surveying several cheap hotels and B & Bs, I found myself walking past the very pub I’d left an hour before.  Cries of “Hey Yank!” were shouted and I laughingly saluted my old friends.  They waved me in and no sooner seated than a pint appeared.  One led to another, and soon I was thoroughly soused.

Relaxing after a ruby match and an afternoon in a pub.

The hours rolled by as we laughed and drank into the night.  They’d be catching the midnight ferry to Holyhead for the long bus ride back to Tonna.  My mind was a muddle – do I leave the pub, drunk as a skunk to find lodging?  Or cast my lot with this scrum and travel back to Wales?  It was late Saturday night and frankly, I was in no position to walk a straight line let alone find shelter.  Choosing the path of least resistance, I stumbled on the bus for a short ride to the ferry.

The Irish seas were choppy that night.  The ferryboat listed in rhythmic patterns perfectly calibrated to agitate a drunk’s equilibrium.  The details of my seasickness are as shabby as I felt and shan’t be detailed here.  The ferry landed and we were back on the bus for the 200-mile journey south along twisting roads to Tonna.  The all-night trip was gruelingly slow and sleep agonizingly fitful.

Upon arrival, Richard, one of the footballers offered a room in the row house where he lived with his folks.  We hit the rack that morning and slept until 2 pm.  I awoke that afternoon with a monstrous hangover.  I drank plenty of water trying to salve my aching brain.  Richard’s mum was a sweet lady who fixed us tea and biscuits.  It was the finest cup of tea I’ve ever tasted.  Oh, that lovely cup of tea, how it soothed my throbbing skull.

In small Welsh towns, locals gravitate to their clubs for the evening’s entertainment. Richard, his dad, and I wandered along to the Tonna RFC clubhouse.  It’s somewhat akin to an Eagles lodge in the U.S.  The largest room was filled with trophies in display cases surrounding tables where young and old rugby players socialized.  Not just the boys I’d traveled with, but their fathers, uncles, and townsfolk who played the sport a generation before. Another pint of ale was probably the last thing I needed, but being a polite young man I good-naturedly accepted and thus began another evening of drinking.   Being Sunday night we left at a reasonable hour.  Early the next morning I bid adieu to Richard who was off to work.  I then enjoyed a pleasant cup of tea with his mum before heading to the town’s station.

My week with this Welsh rugby team thankfully came to an end.  It was time for me to dry out and find my bearings.  I caught a bus to Haverfordwest and made the one-mile walk to Middle Mille for several more days with Scott before his planned departure and mine.  My next stop was London town.

Scott Hamilton’s home in the tiny village of Middle Mille was once the town’s public house, now called pubs.

Postscript: Seven years later, I realized alcohol was not my friend.  The story of May 26, 1985, the day I quit drinking is still being lived. It was the second-best decision I ever made. 

 

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History

Hitchhiking to Haverfordwest

St. Patrick’s Day has always been special for me, though my heritage is Welsh. That day in 1978, I hitchhiked from France to Wales to visit a friend living near Haverfordwest.  There’s no Irish blood in my veins, but surely on March 17, I had the luck of the Irish.  Here’s the letter I wrote home a few days later describing the adventure to my parents.

March 21, 1978

Dear Mom & Dad:

Well, as you can see by the postmark and card, I’m now in Wales.  Last Friday I took the train from Paris to Le Havre on the coast of France.  I had planned to take the ferry to Southampton. I arrived at 11:15 am and fiddled around the train station for a while, only to find I had missed the noon ferry.  I walked to the ferry docks and saw the next ferry was at 11:30 pm.  It was about 1:30 in the afternoon.  There was only one other person hanging around, a French boy a couple of years younger than me.  I asked him where he bought his ferry ticket and he said something in broken English about hitching a ride on a truck.  He asked me if I wanted to go to town so we stashed our luggage and went to town for the afternoon and early evening.

My letter to Mom
My letter to Mom, postmarked March 21, 1978, Haverfordwest, Wales.

We got back about 8 pm, checked out ticket prices, played pinball and whatnot.  He related that the truck (i.e. lorry) drivers were allowed to take one passenger with them in their lorries.  Almost all the lorry drivers were English so I started asking them if they could give us a lift across on the ferry.  The ones who were in line said they couldn’t since they already had their tickets.  By this time, we were pretty despondent and figured we would have to buy tickets.

Then I decided to see if I could find someone who hadn’t been able to get his ticket yet.  I found a lorry driver and he said, “Well, I suppose that would be quite alright.”  He and a friend got us tickets, and onto the ferry we rode in their trucks.  Then to my astonishment and good fortune, I discovered we’d have beds for the 8-hour crossing, in a room with three other truck drivers.  You see truck drivers are treated royally on the ferries and since I was now a ‘truck driver’ (by virtue of my ticket) I was entitled to the same treatment.  We had a huge dinner, comfortable beds in a four-man room, a shower, plus breakfast in the morning.  All these lorry drivers were the friendliest people imaginable.  They treated me just like one of the boys.

My handwritten copy
Back then my cursive penmanship was small, neat, and legible.

Well, to make a long story longer, I made it to the docks of Southampton where my lorry driver friends (John and Ted) dropped me off and found a good place for me to hitch a ride (at the exit gate from the docks).  I waited there, talked to a policeman, and attempted to find Brawdy, Wales on a map I had purchased.  It wasn’t on the map, so this very nice bobby (English policeman) called the U.S. Embassy in Southampton and asked them where Brawdy was.  They said it was near Haverfordwest, which is in the middle of Wales on the west coast.  The same policeman (who was guarding the checkout point from the docks) then proceeded to ask every exiting lorry if they were heading to South Wales.  He asked for a couple of hours in the early morning cold, but no one was headed for South Wales.

One chap was headed north to the M-4 at Newberry (a major east-west thoroughfare to Wales), so I hitched a ride on his lorry.  He dropped me off at the M-4 and no sooner had he left, another lorry stopped to drop off a rider and motioned me to hop in.  I did and he took me to the Severn Bridge at the border of Wales, where he dropped me off.   Waiting there was a car with a Welsh driver who had stopped for a cup of coffee.  He motioned me over and took me about half of the distance that remained to Haverfordwest.

This time I wasn’t so lucky.  I had to wait a whole five minutes before two men who looked like coal miners just getting off work, picked me up.  As it turned out they were Irish and worked for the telephone company laying cable underground (which accounted for their appearance).  We headed down the freeway only to come upon an accident.  My Irish friends saw it would be a while.  So, back onto the freeway, and back to the exit we’d previously taken, and all the way back to where they had picked me up.  We then took another route.

Since they were Irish and it was March 17th (need I say more) we decided to stop off at an olde pub and celebrate a bit.  We had some pints and a good talk with the bartender who used to fish off the coast of Washington.  Soon enough we were back on the road and feeling a whole lot finer this Friday night.  That’s when these two Irish workmen who were heading back to Ireland for the weekend decided they might just as well take me to Haverfordwest, then continue to their own destination.  They did and that’s how I arrived here.

Middle Mille, Wales
My first view of Middle Mille, where I would spend the next month of my life.  Scott’s home was across the bridge in the center of the photo.

I called the U.S. Naval base at Brawdy and asked for Scott (Hamilton), but the sailor on duty said he’d gone home.  He gave me Scott’s address and I took the bus to a town one mile from Scott’s house walking the rest of the way.  He lives in Middle Mille, a tiny village of half a dozen homes.  Scott had just received my letter three days before (even though I mailed it from Vienna nearly a month ago) so he knew I was coming.

Today’s weather is sunny, but cold.  Happy first day of spring (today!).  Talk to you later.

Love, Bill

Note: Scott Hamilton was a longtime family friend, serving in the Navy and living in Wales.  I stayed a month at his home.  Here’s how I described it in my letter.

“Scott has a beautiful, old English house (formerly a pub) made of stone and 50 feet from a creek.  It’s in the middle of a group of 5 to 6 other houses which make up the Village of Middle Mille.  It is fully modernized with two upstairs bedrooms and a large front room and smaller kitchen and bathroom downstairs.”

Scott Hamilton's home
Scott’s home was formerly a pub and occupied the central location in the tiny village.

Most days I toured the countryside often on foot or bus while Scott was at work.  At night we ate dinner, watched BBC, and messed around with his Ham radio equipment, a teletype machine, and perhaps 20 different connections and components.  With his knowledge of electronics, Scott devised a way to pick up wire service broadcasts and print out those news dispatches.  Sometimes we’d stay up reading press releases from TASS, the Soviet Union’s new agency, the Associated French Agency (in English), as well as the Associated Press (AP).  One night we “watched” (i.e. read) live new dispatches from South Lebanese Conflict involving that month’s Israeli-Lebanese- Palestinian hostilities and U.N. responses.  In this tiny corner of Wales, what Scott had devised was a primitive form of the early internet.  I was fascinated by the experience of it all.

One day, I walked the local countryside with two neighbor boys which I recounted in “A Walk in Wales.”  A few weeks later, I crossed over to Ireland, met a bunch of guys my age, and traveled with them up the Irish Coast, relating that adventure in another letter home titled, “My Week With a Welsh Rugby Team.”

King boys in Middle Mille
The two boys who lived next door and joined on “A Walk in Wales.”      
Categories
Musings

A Walk in Wales

How many walks do you even remember?  Walks to school as a child?  Your walk at graduation? Strolling home from campus late at night?  Walking down the aisle towards your life of marriage?  The solemn pace of the pallbearer when that dear uncle passes?

Some of life’s most memorable moments are seemingly mundane.  So it was with my walk in Wales in the spring of 1978.  I was 24-years-old and spending four weeks of my five-month pilgrimage to Europe, living with a friend in a tiny village of western Wales.  Scott Hamilton was in the service, stationed at a nearby U.S. Naval base.  Scott was something of a loner and rented a stone cottage far off the beaten path.  Middle Mille was no more than six homes and an abandoned mill.  A small creek that once powered the mils flowed through the town.  Remnant water wheels of rotting wood and rusting iron dotted a maze of surviving channels and canals. 

Middle Mille, Wales, April 1978. The old mill is to the left and Scott’s stone cottage is center. The stream is seen below.

A portion of the old woolen mill had been converted to a home.  A family lived there with two young boys, perhaps five and seven.  Most days I was at loose ends so made the acquaintance of their mother.  She was in her thirties and glad for the company in this isolated place.  On occasion, I’d share a cup of tea with Mrs. King.  The King family traded woolen goods from their storefront which doubled as the front room of their rambling stone house. 

The King boys (whose names I’ve forgotten) were game for an adventure so one day, with their mom’s approval, I proposed a stroll up the creek as far as we might go.  It was a typical spring day in western Wales with light breezes and sunlight broken by passing clouds.  The valley was mostly unkempt fields and broken-down fences.  It was a vestige of Wales that time and prosperity left behind.  Without plan, map, or lunch we began our trek with the creek as our guide.  We hopped fences as necessary and crossed stone bridges where sheep once roamed.  The stream grew smaller as we pressed further up the valley.

The King Boys ready at the village church.

The King boys reveled in discoveries and played imaginary games, while my mind drifted back to a childhood hike some two decades before.  The summer of my fifth year, we climbed the mountain just east of my grandparent’s house.  They lived in what was left of a coal mining outpost once called Hiawatha.  Only three homes remained identical miners’ cottages on the Kanaskat-Kangley Road. My dad was born in the middle house 35 years earlier.  The St. Clairs lived next door.  My climbing partners were Barry, age seven, and Billy and Dickie St. Clair, ages nine and ten. 

The Kombol kids the summer Barry and I climbed the mountain: Billy, Jean, Danica, and Barry at our home in Elk Coal, August 1958.

We crossed over the old railroad tracks and followed a creek up the forested hillside. Our first stop was a primitive dam where Pa Kombol maintained the water system which fed the three homes.  We played near the pooled reservoir then continued our climb through dense stands of fir, hemlock, and cedar covered with moss.  There was a trail of sorts but the path was steep.  Determined as only the youngest really knows, I struggled to keep up yet never admitted weakness.

The creek became a trickle but we climbed still higher.  When the creek was no more we determined the summit was reached.  A view appeared within a narrow clearing.  The sun shone down upon us which added to our sense of glory.  To memorialize the accomplishment a knife was produced from which shirt buttons and shards of cloth were cut.  We attached theses badges to the stump of a fallen tree.  The four of us stood in solemn camaraderie.  Our sacrificed tokens echoed a hope that one day we’d return to find proof of the ascent and reclaim our hidden treasures.  Little did I realize that future treasures will one day be found in memories.

Exploring the graveyard with the boys.

Back in Wales, I pondered, “Might these boys one day experience a similar feeling?”  Several hours into our hike the creek forked.  Neither branch provided sufficient flow to keep our interest.  Clouds gathered behind us and it was time to head home.  We left the valley floor climbing the upper ridge.  A trail led us back to the village.  By the time we reached Middle Mille, we’d rambled maybe five or six miles.  I deposited the boys with their mother with promises to explore again. The King boys and I undertook several more adventures during my stay.  We examined a nearby church and graveyard.  We found an old water wheel where I tried coaching the older lad to snap my photo.  He fumbled with the camera asking, “Which button do I push?”  As I leaned forward the shutter clicked. 

At the old water wheel in my trusted pea coat.

My time in Wales was coming to an end.  There was only so much to learn in Middle Mille.  My visits to the nearby market town of Haverfordwest began to grow stale.  London was calling, but I yearned for a piece of this green valley to take home.  Mrs. King helped me choose a Welsh-made woolen blanket.  It cost a pretty penny and I shipped it home in time for Mother’s Day.  Both of my Mom’s parents were children of Welsh immigrants, making her almost pure Welsh. When she died the red plaid blanket came back to me.  It reminds me of my walk in Wales.

Back at Middle Mille 37 years later standing by a water wheel

In October 2015 after visiting our son Oliver at Cardiff University, Jennifer and I spent a night in Haverfordwest before boarding a ferry to Ireland.  We drove along a narrow path barely wide enough for our car to reach Middle Mille.  I wanted to show her the place I’d stayed 37 years earlier.  There were a few new buildings but the village was mostly unchanged.  Scott’s stone cottage looked the same.  The old mill complex still sold woolen goods.  We wandered about the grounds.  Jennifer snapped my picture standing beside a restored water wheel.  We hadn’t time for a walk, for there was a ferry to catch.