Can I come out now !?

So, it didn’t END then.  After all that huffing and puffing, waiting and fretting, the world has just damn well carried on the same old way.  So much for thinking I wouldn’t have to worry about those bills !  The ‘end of the world’ came and went with me travelling to the big city.  One of the Junkyard Angels from Trecastle Antique Centre asked me if I would accompany her on a trip to deliver a box-van load of items to a restaurant in Paddington, London W2.  I felt somewhat obliged as she wouldn’t ask me if she wasn’t really in need of my help.  However two major concerns hung over the trip, firstly it was the day all was due to go into chaotic meltdown and it was also the last working day before the holiday and hence hoards and multitudes would be fleeing westward out of the metropolis on the very route we had to travel !  It was such an absurd proposal, especially for a hater of traffic queues like myself, that those I told were absolutely dumbfounded and incredulous, “are you mad ?” and “you must be mad!”, being the common response.  I was and so was she but in that manner so typical of the fairer sex, no thought of impending problems even entered her mind.  The problem was compounded even further by the fact – which she didn’t tell me until I had agreed – that the said box-van could not be collected until 8 am on the morning of the trip.  The van was in Merthyr Tydfil and hence she would not be back at the Antique Centre until at least 9 am (despite her assertion of being back no later than 8.30 !) which meant by the time we had loaded the large quantity of furniture and bizarre items such as a very large butter churn and an old 1950s French moped, it was gone 10 o’clock before we set forth.  Fortunately only she could drive the hire vehicle and so I sat back, shut my mind to what lay ahead and enjoyed as best I could, the journey.  One of the advantages of riding ‘shotgun’ is being able to gaze out over a landscape which normally is unavailable for perusal whilst driving.  Also, the large van had a high seating position and thus I was able to see out over hedgerows to view that which I had never before seen.  It was a real eye-opener especially for a person like myself who just loves looking at countryside and farms.

A sky we have seen little of lately.

A sky we have seen little of lately.

For once the day dawned bright and dry and such was the strength of the sunshine it was actually quite difficult to see as we drove eastwards.

The crossing of the Severn Bridge was the first for me in a long time, visits to England are generally few in my normal routine.  Strangely, only the week before I had made a similar journey to deliver my ‘house guest’ back to Heathrow so she could fly home for the holiday – what an eye opener that was for me, how many thousands of people were flying that day !!

Because of some strange politico/economic arrangement. travelling out of Wales via the bridge is free of any charge but to enter the Principality it costs a stupid amount of money.  Now whilst in some respects I understand that people should have to pay to come into such a beautiful place, the fact that we who live here have to pay is irksome, is medieval, is unjust.  Especially as to enter Wales by any other route costs nothing. Worst of all the money collected – Lord knows how much that must be given the tens of thousands of vehicles per day which cross  – goes not to benefit Wales, nor even the U.K., but some egalitarian French company !!  The fact that I drive what is technically a commercial vehicle – a Ford Fiesta van with a 1400 cc engine,  two seats and just about enough room in the back to transport said house guest’s luggage ! – I have to pay the commercial tariff, the assumption presumably is that I am making money out of crossing their bridge.  That means each time I want to return to my homeland I have to give the Kermits £12 or thereabouts !!  I refuse to do it and instead I use the old Roman routes and travel via Cirencester and Gloucester to cross the river Severn and slip into Wales via Ross-on-Wye and Monmouth.  It is actually less miles and also avoids the most heavily congested section of motorway in the country as the M4 runs past Bristol and into Wales and then attempts to by-pass Newport – it is always a total bottleneck.  The bridge tolls and the ridiculous congestion levels are major limiting factors to economic and social development in the most heavily populated industrial south of Wales.

‘Vive la Revolution !’

My 'Angelic' junkyard driver takes us majestically over  the water to England.... what a dumb day !

My ‘Angelic’ junkyard driver takes us majestically over the water to England…. what a dumb day !

Onward we drove at a steady 70 mph, fast enough in such a large vehicle or so I thought.  The motorway was actually not busy at all and we made good progress as we hogged the middle lane and quietly crept past the large lumbering lorries as they trundled their heavy loads.  The problem comes when one of those delightful truck drivers decides he wants to overtake one of his fellow drivers.  Now generally those laden monsters are driven at a fairly ‘flat-out’ rate which is normally around 50 mph, thus when one decides to get past another, also travelling at or very near to 50mph it can be a lengthy business.  I can’t be bothered to work out the mathematical explanation but it is similar to those old school tests we had to do; “one driver leaves point ‘A’ at 11 0’clock travelling at 40 mph, driver 2 leaves point ‘B’ at 11.15 travelling at 42 mph, when do they crash into each other…..?”

On several occasions we had to endure such overtaking displays as one truck struggled to gain ground on his slower fellow trucker.  I clocked the distance it took one such happening at over 7 miles !  The overtaking lorry must have been doing .0001 mph faster than the one being overtaken who clearly did not want to give in as more than once he managed to draw level and even nudge ahead for a while.  As we were incapable of high speed we were unable to enter the faster outside lane and were forced to sit behind the overtaker and watch the nonsense with not a little frustration.  It is one of the biggest causes of accidents (as fast cars come upon the slow moving trucks) and traffic jams.  It often occurs on a gradient which causes an inordinate amount  of speed reduction for these heavily laden trucks and one decides he can get past by doing slightly more mph.  Two trucks (often more) running side by side, taking up two lanes of a fast three lane motorway, driving at around 40mph or less, can be a real nightmare for cars approaching at 70 plus mph !

The high sitting position I occupied allowed me to see into many of the cabs of those huge vehicles and I was astounded how many of the drivers were not fully concentrating on the road ahead !  I saw countless numbers using their mobile phones, several stupidly reading books, even more looking at lap-tops or note-books and dozens having a cuppa !!  Oh my, the joys of motorway driving …

Horizontal butter-churn

This large and beautiful horizontal butter-churn was one of the items heading out of Wales into England – shouldn’t it require an export license as it is part of our heritage and culture !?

As we approached the Metropolis my ‘chauffeuse’ began to get a little stressed, wondering if I was able to find our destination..

As neither of us are given to great journeying, the modern technological assistance for drivers, the ‘sat-navs’, the ‘i-phone’ with gps, nor indeed the highly advanced A-Z map book, was something we possessed.  She had wisely printed out a page or two of directions which began once we got to the end of the M4 and it turned into the ‘Great West Road’ and I had put my (little) faith in my ordinary road atlas.

As someone brought up with using maps and natural aids to direction finding I was assuming, given the printed directions we had, no huge problems would occur……ahem.  Immediatley we hit the Great West Road or A4 I began to read the instructions – ‘second exit at roundabout; 300 yds first left, straight ahead sign-posted Paddington; 300 yds take third exit off roundabout…… Oops !!  “Which is the straight ahead?”, “Where should I go?” (voice of alarm and panic from her in the driving seat) “Don’t know” says me.  Before we knew it, like a twig in a swirling river, we had been swept off course, dragged by the uncompromising flow of  ‘they who knew the way’ onto a route that was not on my directional flow-chart.

It is many years since I carelessly roamed around the roads of London, since I absent-mindedly flitted from lane to lane in the certain knowledge of how to get to where I was going.  My first journeys were as a young student working a holiday job for a Fruit and Veg wholesale firm based in my home town of Cwmbran.  Now and then I would be despatched, in a large Ford Transit van, to the bustling and mind-blowing market of Covent Garden.  That was in the days when the M4 went only as far as junction 18 east of Bristol and thence it was onto the  A4 to follow the old coaching route through towns like Marlborough and Newbury and on into the city via the exciting flyovers of Hammersmith and Chiswick.   Both of which had a certain aura as the resting place for several victims of the Kray gang who had, supposedly, been tipped into the concrete supports as the readymix was being poured.  How or why they, my employers, thought I was equipped for that journey I do not know, but I did it.

I would leave Cwmbran at around 11 pm and drive through the quiet deserted towns arriving in the city as the clubs were emptying and the night-life of London was still buzzing.  Imagine, me, a rather naive valley lad who had never been to the big city save on a school trip at the age of 13, driving all that way (200 miles) and navigating my way into the very heart of the Capital to a place I had only heard of through the pained outpourings of Doolittle and his dear daughter Lisa.  How well I remember the great portico of the Opera house from both the film and my ‘in-awe’ drives past.

Covent Garden was the heart of the fruit and vegetable trade for hundreds of years.  Now it is gone out east to a more modern market but then, in the closing years of the wild Sixties, it was there, in the very heart of London.  The market stalls were erected around the great square and many of the ground floor shop fronts were also stalls.  The ‘barrow-boys’ rushed around and the noise and bustle was infectious.  The sub-terranean part of the market was given over to shady night-clubs which were spilling out their clients as I arrived at around 4 am.  I would park on the side of the road to the south  and there, on a dark night in August, I was suddenly in the middle of an all out fight as men came out of one of  the cellar clubs shouting and kicking and punching.  It seemed to go on forever, right in front of my van with several men crashing onto the bonnet or into the side of it.  To say I was scared is something of an under-statement and when one chap was pushed backwards onto the old sloping bonnet of the transit and stabbed …… I maybe needed to change my trousers.  As I’m writing this it is all so clear to me, even now; he slumped over, face down onto the dark blue bonnet and began his long slow slide to the ground.  Out of my view once he had reached the floor, I saw two others grab him and haul him away.  Soon there was nothing and no-one to be seen.  The police eventually arrived,  I remember well they drove Jaguar cars which I was well impressed to see.  I said nothing and got on with gathering my fruit, anxious to be gone by first light.

The only reason for my journey to the Capital was to get certain fruits which were difficult to obtain from our usual source, the Bessemer road market in Cardiff.  Most days would see me driving at around 5.30 am to that western side of Cardiff, past the foreboding Victorian edifice of the prison and the stadium where the wild supporters of the Bluebirds (Cardiff football team) raged their weekly war of attrition on visiting supporters.  Most of the normal fruit and vegetables we needed to supply the shops and super-markets which were the customers of Monmouthsire Fruit and Veg, were readily available from Bessemer road.  Covent Garden had items I had never even heard of, fruits of such exotic nature as to have been absent from my school dinner menu and certainly never stocked at my grandfather’s grocery store.  Pineapple, kiwi fruit, lychee, vegetables such as aubergines and squash and some other items which I later discovered were pornographic films disguised in wooden cases and transported from London to the  Cardiff market.  One item I had certainly never heard of back then was an important ‘bribe’ for a supplier of strawberries that we frequented at Goodrich near Ross-on-Wye.

Summer soft fruits were sourced locally in those days, not flown in from Africa !  Strawberries were a common cash crop out on the rich farms of the border country as were apples later in the season.  One gentleman farmer, a retired army Major, was fond of avocado pears but was unable to find them anywhere locally.  We would purchase several hundreds of pounds of strawberries off him at a price negotiated weekly by my boss.  For the simple expediency of supplying the Major with a few avocados regularly, a reduction of up to 2 pence on the pound could be negotiated and that alone made my trip to Covent Garden worthwhile !

I digress – as is my wont !  Meanwhile, back in Chiswick, we were lost !

Now I mentioned that I use natural aids to navigation, and it so happened that morning the moon was still bright in the eastern sky as we headed to the City.  So too the sun was bright in the south so I had ample guides as to the direction we were heading.  I knew full well where Paddington was in relation to our last known position and thus I directed, much to her disbelief, my driver in the direction of that lunar light.  She was growing ever more fraught and despair was setting in.  I was trying to appear calm and knowledgeable though often I just had to admit, as she once again screamed at me “which way do you want me to go !!” as another roundabout loomed ahead or a division in the road cast us off north or west, I didn’t actually know !  Eventually we came alongside Kensington Gardens which I recognised and I knew that we were close to Paddington.  More by accident than design we found ourselves outside the Great Western rail terminal (where thousands of irate travellers milled around frantic to get to Heathrow or westwards by means other than the unfortunately closed railway; this due to a fire in a strategic signal box !) and soon I began to see names of roads that were in fact on my printed directions.  We made one phone call to the gentleman who awaited us to finalise the road and, after an hour or so of wandering, arrived outside the restaurant.

I have to say my jaw dropped when I saw the place.

Assaha Restaurant, Paddington

The amazing Lebanese restaurant, Assaha, in Craven Road, W2. It is a rebuilt medieval sandstone temple !

The building was a typical grand hotel type Georgian mansion.  It had been transformed by the man who met us, into a Lebanese medieval castle or temple using stone and artefacts imported from that damaged land.  The stonework was exemplary, especially the vaulting which matched that to be found in any medieval church.  The whole effect was dumbfounding and the wall adornments and floor pieces turned it into a museum.

As is the custom with people of that historic land, their courtesy and dignity was humbling and when we were offered the traditional tea we gratefully accepted.  It came served in the customary small glass and was taken without additions.  I was fascinated by the work of that extraordinary mason, he had rebuilt the walls and roof in a manner that matched anything I had ever seen.  The arches and vaults left me literally speechless.

Vaulted ceiling in the Assaha

The vaulting in the Assaha restaurant was quite astonishing having been rebuilt by one of the family from stone brought from the Lebanon which had once been a medieval building in that beautiful land.

Having seen the quality of the stonework I turned my attention to some of the artefacts.  One, a stone quern used for grinding corn into flour, was of a style I knew to be Roman and indeed so it turned out;  Mohamad Ahmad confirmed that it was indeed of Roman origin along with a number of others he had brought out of the Lebanon.  I asked no questions !  Another item, hanging from the ceiling I also recognised; it was an ancient corn humeller, a long board into which had been driven sharp flints which, when dragged over the corn, crushed and detached the husk.  A similar item was used here during the medieval period.

There were old granite troughs, muskets and even some ‘foreign’ items in the form of a heavily carved wooden door which originated in India.  The whole restaurant was a museum, a cultural deposition there in the heart of London.  The place was ‘classy’ and elegant and not the sort of late night take-away joint or curry house which so often represents overseas food culture.  No alcohol was served, it being a Muslim establishment, the food was mostly vegetarian though some lamb dishes were available, the menu, we were told, was typically Lebanese.

Quern stone of  Roman Asia Minor

A Roman quern stone standing in a London restaurant, quite a surprise !

We spent an hour in that amazing place listening to how it had come about and the plans they had for the strange collection of items we had brought them.  We both agreed we could not understand why they wanted such ‘tat’ given what they already had.  It transpired that the ‘Welsh’ antiques were to be shipped out to the Lebanon where a hotel was being built in which themed rooms, 9 of which were to be ‘English’, were to be furnished with genuine articles from the relevant country.  I pointed out that Wales should also have a room, a look of confusion was the response !

Wooden wheels

Solid wooden wheels with square axle holes which are like those which the Scots used for their early carts but these are more likely from eastern Europe as they had ornate artistic carving in the wood and the rims were of modern steel.

In a typical gesture of friendship and politeness we were both given gifts to bring away.  Two large carved pieces of stone which had once capped columns of sandstone in some far away grand building, perhaps seen by the Crusaders, now sit in our respective homes.  It made an otherwise fraught day one we shall remember for a long while, for more pleasant reasons than we may have imagined.

And so we made our way westward, the traffic had begun to build but taking to the M40/A40 instead of attempting to get back to the M4, our journey was bearable.  The A40 is, in any case, the main road to Wales.  It was built to join Marble Arch in central London to Fishguard on the western tip of Wales.  It carved its way through the Cotswolds and into the Forest of Dean before winding its way up the Usk valley to Trecastle, the very place from which we had set forth. From that highest point it drops to the Towy valley and Carmarthen before passing the old seat of Hywel Dda at Whitland and on to Haverfordwest before heading along its final northerly route to end at the port of Fishguard.  Its purpose was to provide a fast, all weather road to take the Royal Mail to Ireland via the port.  Later Isambard Kingdom’s Great Western Railway did the job but the road remains the main arterial route into the heart of west Wales.

We journeyed east along the M4 and entered England via the Severn Bridge.  We got lost in west London, ended up in Paddington where the Great Western link to Wales terminated and ran the A40 home through High Wycombe, Oxford, Cheltenham and Gloucester before buying fish and chips in Ross-on-Wye and then to Monmouth, Raglan, Abergavenny and home.  Quite a day, quite a story, quite a precursor to the Christmas holiday.  Tales of which I may include in my end of year review which I have already started.  Welshwaller continues to find interesting stories of stone even if he is not actually building with it.

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