I am awake but don’t move; quiet morning light streams along rough edges of grey brick walls. I hope the ghost is waking up, too. Maybe she’ll pass my bed as she stumbles to the bathroom? Alas, it seems only living beings stumble around with crusty morning eyes. I rise and do just that.
I’m staying with jolly Uncle Willie and Aunt Val (twice removed). For the better half of a century they’ve lived in this 400-year-old converted farmhouse, named Little Llanthomas, on the outskirts of Monmouth, Wales. It’s a black-and-white village in which much of the populous lives in rural outskirts. I’m intrigued by Monmouth and greater Wales. Most people speak Welsh, a lilting, guttural language. One expects to see gnomes and fairies in the fields.
A local told me that Wales feels “tribal.” To me, it feels wonderfully weird.
I tiptoe gingerly down the uneven stairs to the kitchen.
“Good morning,” Val smiles. She turns back to the antique Aga cooker. Even in my morning stupor I’m impressed by her navigation of the multiple burners and stoves, all perpetually on at their own temperatures. Aga users move food around to the different parts through the cooking process (boil here, bake here, warm here). It’s a memorised system stored in the minds of tall, grey, and proper British ladies.
“Will you have tea or coffee?” Val inquires. Being American, I request black coffee. “We have the same,” she says.
“Normally we take tea in bed at 8. Then we come down at 9 to have coffee with our fruit and cereals.” Her pointed description is my first inkling of the routine and structure that encapsulate their leisurely lifestyle.
After breakfast, I’m asked to prepare myself to run errands. Mid-morning is the time Uncle Willie and Val usually travel to other parts of Monmouth to handle errands like grocery shopping, visiting a friends’ home, or mailing a parcel. Today we plan to visit the petite St. Martin’s Church, founded in the 12th century. My aunt is the Peoples’ Warden and my uncle is the Honorary Secretary of the Parochial Church Council. They’re preparing for a visit from the Bishop of Monmouth at tomorrow’s service. It’s rare that the Bishop of the county wanders to rural community churches, so the council will serve sherry and snacks afterward.
After inspecting the musty interior of the church for bat feces and plugging in an extra reading lamp for the bespectacled bishop, we make our way to the nearest shop.
As we’re driving, the conversation abruptly ends when our tiny English vehicle slams to a halt; a much larger van has come upon us in the minuscule lane. We reverse for a quarter mile until we can edge over, allowing the van to pass.
The shop is full of local goods, British staples, and postage items; the owner, Fiona, also runs it as the local Royal Mail office. I take pictures of warm buns and jars of chutney. Fiona watches me curiously.
“I’m trying to become a photographer, but it’s not going very well.” She tosses her head back and shouts with laughter.
“Time for tea,” dictates Val as we return to the pebbled driveway. Val prepares tea and biscuits on a small platter that we carry to the unattached sunroom. The room is still, warm, and lightly fragrant with flowers in full bloom outside. Aunt Val and Uncle Willie contentedly settle into wicker chairs and unfurl the Saturday Telegraph. Just then I spy a trampoline peeking from behind the wooden sheep’s gate.
“Why do you have a trampoline?”
“We got it for the grandkids.”
“Can I jump on it?”
“Of course. Lunch will be ready at 1.”
An hour later I’m sweaty, exhausted, and pleased. Lunch is the tastiest panini I’ve ever eaten. Perfectly crunchy bread, crisped on the Aga, with sprocket, organic sunflower-oil mayo, home-sliced bacon, and juicy sun-dried tomato spread. Undoubtedly, it tastes much more delicious due to the fact that we eat in the cozy sunroom and drink glasses of chilled white wine.
“Do you always drink at lunch?” I ask. They coyly smile at each other.
“It’s one benefit of being retired.”
“Let me check you,” cautions Willie, turning me in a circle with my hands outstretched. I sport a full beekeeping suit. My Uncle is the appointed head beekeeper for Monmouth and keeps four of his own hives. One time, during a previous visit, he hobbled out of the house during dinner because a fellow beekeeper required his help. I struggle to contain my excitement at finally having the opportunity to join him in beekeeping chores.
Uncle Willie shows me how to conduct a series of checks. Painstakingly, we break down each hive to reveal the nesting, feeding, working bees in the lowest rungs of their stacked abodes. We see honeycombs like alien planets and find the huge queen bees. We see pods of white larvae. I pump an antiquated accordion-like can full of newspaper on the bees, rendering them sluggish enough for us to carefully re-stack their hives without crushing them. I relish the moments, craning my head to follow Uncle Willie’s pointing fingers and listening to his patient explanations.
“Time for tea,” says Val. Again we find ourselves in the sunroom, this time eating Welsh cakes. Between my love for the fruit-filled, sugared bake stones and my bee-induced appetite, I struggle not to eat the entire pack. “Don’t forget about dinner tonight!” Val warns.
For the first time that day I recall the main reason I visited this weekend. Their longtime friends, neighbours, and estate-owning wine sellers are hosting their annual summer garden party. Now a Monmouth institution, the party opens its doors to a gamut of Welsh and greater UK residents, from rich television stars to simple farmers. Guests are expected to arrive in tasteful attire and stay late into the evening, although the bill itself is casual (tapas-style dinner and unlimited wine). I feel like a 16-year-old on prom day, giddy and nervous.
As we park in the neighbours’ drive, we’re temporarily blinded by the light beams of our vehicle shining into the windows of the guesthouse adjacent to the magnificent home. Monmouthshire is infamous for “quaint converted farmhouses,” which are usually ornately landscaped, impeccably executed architectural marvels set among country roads.
Taking care not to snag my vintage silk summer gown on the car door, I step onto the sweeping lawn. The shorn grass stretches around me, greying in the setting sun. We enter a stone passageway in the front room, blinking when we emerge into a wide, redone kitchen. My stomach grumbles when I smell the pungent sausages intermingled with the largest wheel of brie cheese I’ve ever seen. Mint from a basin full of toubbouleh salad and crusty white French bread are crowning scents. Within moments a server appears at my shoulder. “White or red?” she asks.
We mingle our way through the kitchen and the library to the back steps of the estate grounds. The house is a mosaic of original stone and woodwork with modern upgrades. The library is as a great room, books and ceiling-height windows lining a loft around the white walls. It’s exactly like the library in Beauty and the Beast, I marvel. Among others, we meet a couple recently returned from a French cycling tour, university schoolmates, the local Elected Minister, and new parents who migrated to Monmouth to raise their child under a peaceful, rural roof. Their clothes are folded, pressed, and tucked in the nonchalant yet poised method of the rural elite.
I sneak toward the buffet table to find a tabby cat with its face in the sausages. It lights, stealing half a sausage. When I tell the owner, she curses the mischievous cat and announces dinner. I silently thank the cat for its assistance.
Finally, we leave the party. We kiss, and re-kiss, and kiss one last time the cheeks of other partygoers. When we finally file back out the stone entryway, it’s easy to find our coats on the hooks — we’re the last to leave.
I am awake but don’t move, the dim twinkle of stars streaming along rough edges of the grey brick walls. I hope the ghost is bedding, too. Maybe she’ll say goodnight? As my brain relinquishes to sleep, I wonder if I’ll ever meet the ghost Uncle Willie and Aunt Val promise me lives here. Either way, I know I’ll keep coming back to Wales.