Monday

And so it is that, at 5.00am, the alarm goes.  As usual when there is an early morning call the alarm is unnecessary, as we have both spent a broken night more awake than asleep.  That will come back to haunt us later, I have no doubt.

We have showers and pack up the last of our belongings, in the certain knowledge that we are bound to leave something behind, and head to the kitchen to perform the sustaining coffee/tea/toast ritual.

Nicky, God bless her, comes in and we chat about the preceding days and the fun we’ve all had together.  It’s always so much fun to be here and this year has had the extra excitement of being in at the start of JD and Una’s trip.  I can’t wait to hear their updates and news.

We get ourselves loaded into the car, more hugs from Nicky, and we are on the road to Dublin.

Of course, at this hour of the day, there is very little traffic about, but as we get to Naas and various routes from the west and south converge, the Monday morning rush hour begins to build.

This time we aim for the tunnel, not the route along the Grand Canal and our journey is much quicker, less problematic and much duller. The tunnel takes you right beneath the City and into the heart of Dublin Docks.

As we drive up to the check in booth we take a decision to book a cabin on this crossing.  We are already exhausted and the thought of battling for chairs and trying to get comfortable is too much to bear.

Before we head up to the quiet of the cabin deck our first stop is the restaurant for a full slap-up breakfast: the works.  Bacon, sausages, eggs, tomato, toast, coffee, orange juice.  Delicious and much needed.

We find our cabin and for a 3 hour crossing it is surprisingly well equipped and well presented. We pull the top bunk down, I climb up and in a very short time we both doze off, lulled by the gentle movement of The Irish Sea and the far distant hum of the diesel engines.

I’ve no idea what happens for the next two hours, so you may as well go and make yourself a cup of tea or something.

When we do both wake there is still a short distance of the journey to go, so we make drinks and turn the tv on.  There is a film showing: ‘Bell, Book and Candle’, a strange thing starring Jimmy Stewart about witches.  We are both brought up short when the character played by Kim Novak is revealed to own a Siamese cat, so like our dear Kipling at home that he is almost in the cabin with us.

We slowly come to again and leave the cabin ready to join our car.  One huge bonus of paying the extra for the cabin is that our boarding and departing of the vessel is due to be expedited and we have a specially coloured tag dangling from the driver’s mirror to show everyone the fact.

We smugly sit in our car, looking sorrowfully at all of those with the standard, non-coloured tags.  Poor them.

The bow doors open.

We watch as a line to our left is waved off.  A line to our right is waved off. Lorries are waved off and some coaches are waved off.  Eventually and somewhat reluctantly our row of cars is permitted to leave the ship.

Actually it makes no difference whatsoever as the line of cars is completely stationary in the dockyard.  The entire payload of two ferries from Ireland is held up by one small set of traffic lights in the centre of Holyhead.  As the residents of the town go about their daily routine so drivers of cars, lorries and coaches sit fuming and impatient.  Presumably this scenario plays out each morning.

Even when we clear the town centre and set off along the A55 across the centre of Anglesey, we are still not free. 

To leave the island and rejoin the mainland there are only two, very old, very narrow, single file bridges and the line of cars and lorries which first became acquainted in Dublin at 8.00 this morning, are once more bumper to bumper.

Actually the delay doesn’t really have any significance for us, as there is nothing to rush for today.  In fact I have no real commitment until tomorrow evening, but it is extremely frustrating all the same.

At last we are released from Alcatraz, sorry, Anglesey, and begin the most beautiful day’s driving we could ever have wished for.

We are driving towards Llandrindod Wells, in the heart of Wales where I am due to perform at the Victorian Festival .  If this were a normal booking I would be driving from Oxford using the motorway system, but because we are driving from Holyhead the route take us through the heart of Snowdonia and, what is more, the sun is shining which is not always the case in North Wales.

The single-track roads wind this way and that, past farms, over rivers, alongside narrow-gauge railways.  We drive alongside the lower slopes of Mount Snowdon – at least we think it is Mount Snowdon: it appears to be bigger than all the surrounding mountains as well as being sort of pointy.

We amble on, occasionally getting stuck behind caravans and other holiday traffic, but we have not a care in the world.  At one point we are running behind a Dutch couple on an historic motorcycle and sidecar.  It looks terrifying from where we are as, being ‘left hand ride’, the rider is forced close to the slate wall marking the edge of the road, whilst the passenger is stuck out in the path of any oncoming traffic.

At around lunchtime we decide to find somewhere to stop and turn off the road into Dolgellau where we find a little café.  The town looks pretty but we are both feeling tired and want to get on, so it is back into the car and on towards Llandrindod Wells.

The Victorian Festival is due to be officially opened this evening and I have been asked if I could be up on the bandstand for the opening ceremony.  Speeches will be made and I am terrified that I will mispronounce Llandrindod Wells.  I have been practicing for weeks but am still convince that at the pressure-filled moment when I have to say ‘I am delighted to be in Llandrindod Wells…..’ I will actually say something completely insulting in Welsh and probably spit all over the Mayor.

We drive on and arrive in town at around five o’clock.  We have been booked accommodation in the amazing Metropole Hotel, which looks like it has been plucked from the slopes of the Alps.  All of the staff there are very attentive, helpful and polite.

At six I get into costume and head to the little park across the street where the opening ceremony is to take place (‘Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells’). 

Straight away I see David Hawes.  David is a good friend of many years standing.  In a previous blog post I called him an old friend, which he took exception to, so we will stick with good friend.

It is thanks to David that I am here.  He has been coming to Llandrindod for a few years now and has used his theatrical costume expertise to help dress the festival.  After last year’s event he  suggested to the organisers that it would be a good addition to the programme to have me performing.

Fortunately for me, they agreed

Since last I saw David in Rochester he has had a major medical scare and undergone a serious operation.  For a long time it was assumed that he would not be well enough to come to Llandrindod, but he’s here – as ebullient as ever.

David introduces me to the various people in the party that will parade to the bandstand.  Most importantly I am presented to Queen Victoria.  It is immediately apparent that the folks here take the festival very seriously indeed, as we are given our parading orders by a gentleman in a uniform of the Coldstream Guards.

“We will parade from here to the bandstand, where we shall assemble.  Speeches will be made. When the speeches have been heard and appreciated there will be photographs after which we will form up and process back here where you will be dismissed!”

Goodness!  I’m even more scared now and spend our entire parade, which isn’t very long admittedly, whispering to myself: ‘Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells’.

There is small crowd awaiting us and they cheer and clap.  We stand on the bandstand. (‘Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells’).

The chair of the festival committee makes a speech, and as she winds up my mouth is dry and my stomach in knots.

‘And now, to officially open the festival I am delighted to welcome our very special guest this evening…..’

(‘Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells’)

‘…..please give a round of applause for The High Sherriff of Powys.’

Of course I had completely got the wrong end of the stick: I had never been asked to say anything, nobody had ever expected me to say anything, they just thought it would be nice for me to be there.  Oh, happy day!  At least I could now say the name of town correctly.

We all finish up and go back to the hotel where we are formally dismissed.

Liz rejoins me from her place in the crowd and we have a lovely quiet dinner in the hotel’s brasserie. 

After coffee we decide to take a brief stroll around the town before retiring for an early night.

 

Tuesday

After breakfast on Wednesday morning I spend a couple of hours going through the lines for Doctor Marigold, which I am due to perform tonight, whilst Liz has a massage in the hotel’s spa.

When we meet up again we still have plenty of time to walk through the elegant town and take in various aspects of the events going on: craft stalls, a fairground barrel-organ, a marquee hosting ‘The Great Voltini and Madame Electra Sideshow’.

We go into the Church where there is the most magnificent collection of flower arrangements and a coffee shop selling delicious cakes of which we avail ourselves.

We continue our walk and make our way to the park containing the original chalybeate springs and Victorian bath houses that brought such prosperity to the town during the 19th century. Heading back to the hotel there is an opera singer performing on the bandstand and everyone seems involved and happy.

In the evening I am performing Mr Dickens is Coming and Doctor Marigold in the Albert Hall Theatre and we have arranged to meet David there at 5.45.  We are soon joined by Keith, who will be looking after us and the theatre tonight.

Oh, it is magnificent!  What a gem of a theatre. A beautiful stage, with all of the paraphernalia that you would expect to find backstage.  There are gently raked stalls and an elegant balcony.  At each side of the stage are large semi-circular panels, which had been designed to hold pipes for an organ but which are now filled in with the stained glass.  I am going to enjoy this evening.

 

The props, as usual with my shows, are minimal, so I’m soon set up and Keith has focussed the lights for me.

As 7.30 approaches the audience start to arrive and I am backstage peeking through holes in the curtain.  Liz is going to watch the whole first half from the wings, so that she can close the curtains at the interval.

Suddenly there is a fanfare and my friend the Coldstream Guard announces the arrival of Queen Victoria.  Everyone solemnly stands as she takes her place in the centre of the front row.  This suits me very well for a running gag in the show is Dickens’s repeated refusal to meet the Queen. 

David then stands to make an introduction and he gets a round of applause before he’s even said anything – this promises to be a good audience.  It is clear how fond everyone here is of David, for as he says that he really hadn’t expected to be able to attend the festival this year due to his operation, the whole audience begin to clap.  I’m welling up in the wings, so heaven knows how he is coping out front.

He keeps his composure, completes the introduction and I am on.

The audience are with me from the start, they know the characters and passages I use, they appreciate the jokes and love the byplay with The Queen.  There is a wonderful, warm, friendly feeling in The Albert Hall tonight.

During the interval Liz and I clear the stage.  I change into the Doctor Marigold costume and soon the house lights dim and I’m on again.

Marigold is a perfect piece to perform in a small Victorian Theatre and, as is becoming the norm now, people warm to a tale that they have never heard before.  They feel close to this kind man entrusting them with his life’s story.

It has been a lovely evening.

When I am changed and back into the 21st century I start to move the furniture and props to the front door, where we load the car.

David has arranged for us all to descend on the house of one of the regular festival participants where we tuck into a Chinese dinner ordered and collected after the show.  We all chat, eat and slowly wind down until it is time to get back to the hotel and bed.

 

Wednesday

This adventure is almost over and I have just one more duty to perform before we head for home.  This morning at 10.30 I am due to appear at Dickens Wine Bar, which is a basement establishment just off the gardens which form the hub of the festival.  The wine bar has not been open long but, as the name suggests, is completely Dickens themed, with character prints and quotes from novels hanging on the walls.

Even the bar’s mission statement is a quote:  ‘Whatever we have tried to do in business, we have tried with all our heart to do it well; whatever we have devoted ourselves to, we have devoted ourselves completely; in great aims and in small we have always thoroughly been in earnest.’  I’d love to tell where that is from….but I can’t!

The wine bar is owned and run by Chris and Denise Hartley who, for the period of the festival, are appearing as Mr Bumble and Nancy. Their son (now THAT is a plot line Dickens never thought of), is The Artful Dodger, aka Evander.

I am sat at a Victorian clerk’s desk, complete with inkstand and quill pen and there is a nice steady stream of people coming in.  We have brought my DVDs of Doctor Marigold; David sold plenty at the show last night and a good many more sell this morning.  There are photographs and lots of friendly chat.  It is a nice way to finish our week long trip.

At 12.00 the final pictures are taken outside the bar and we go back to the hotel where I change out of my frock coat and back into civvies before getting into the car and heading home to Abingdon.

It has been a remarkable trip.  It has been lovely to spend so much time with Nicky in Ireland and it has been a treat to be part of such a warm welcoming festival as the one in Llandrindod Wells.  We have had a lovely time but now it is certainly time to go home.

 

Epilogue

After returning home on Wednesday afternoon our first task was to pick up our two cats, Ruby and Kip from the local cattery.

On Friday I was away again, performing in Leicester, so Saturday was really the day we were finally all at home together.

I flopped and Liz worked in the garden throughout the day.  The cats, enjoying the freedom of the garden again, accompany her.  In the late afternoon Kipling began to struggle to breathe and although we rushed him to the vet who performed an emergency operation, he died that night.

He was not yet two years old but had become so much a part of our home that he leaves an immense hole in our lives.

We posted the news on Facebook and were overwhelmed by the support and love we received from friends all over the world for which we say a heartfelt thank you.

Kipling, you will always be here with us.

 

 

 

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