In the end is the beginning

I have always thought that it makes a whole lot of sense. What our good man Eliot wrote. Even though another year is coming to an end, there is always a fresh year to look forward to. Wonder what it holds in store for my husband and me. We have new things creeping around the corner. Moving countries, setting up a new home, a new start. Daunting. Yet we gotta make the best of the hand we are dealt in life, isn’t it?

There is a bagful of nostalgia and wistfulness to go with it. The year for my husband and me has been about travel and the accoutrement that comes with it. You know, good food, fumbling jaunts in the many fairytale nooks and crannies of Europe, rambles in our beloved English countryside, attempts at decoding foreign tongues, sharing kindred moments with strangers we might never have known had we not been in a particular place at a particular time. What a delightful prospect 2016 was… I could not help but capture the year roughly as it has been for us, in photographs.

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Ruins of a Roman amphitheatre, Tarragona. In the Catalonia region of Spain.
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Bergamo, Italy
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Torre de Belém, Lisbon. Portugal.
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Park Güell, Barcelona. Spain.
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Castleton, Derbyshire. England.
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Girona in Spain
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Carew Castle, Pembrokeshire. Wales.
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The Pantheon, Rome. Italy.
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Anacapri, Italy.
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Lake Maggiore, Stresa. Italy.
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Malaga, Spain.
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The Amalfi Coast, Italy
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Candy colours, Burano. Italy.
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Lushness of Norwegian towns marked out by stunning waterfalls
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Yachting holiday in Plymouth, Cornwall. UK.
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Hofburg Palace, Vienna. Austria.
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Cimitero Monumentale, Milan. Italy.
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Fjords of Norway
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Jordaan quarter in Amsterdam
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Amalfi, Italy.
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Ravello, Italy.
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Silhouette of the Alhambra in Granada. Spain.
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Bergen, Norway.
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Durga Puja pandal, Kolkata. India.
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Durga Puja that has been celebrated by my family for over 250 years now. Kolkata, India.
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Duomo, Florence. Italy.
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Barafundle Bay, South West Wales.
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Verona, Italy.
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Lake Como, Italy.
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Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, Zaragoza. Spain.
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The Hungarian Parliament, Budapest.
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Hemingway landmarks, Madrid. Spain.
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Sunset upon the Venetian waterfront. Italy.
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Heat haze and the El Tajo, Ronda. Spain.

If you have reached the end of this post, have wonderful celebrations for the end of the year. For us, new year’s eve is always a bit of a dampener because the expectations always exceed the actual celebrations. But this year we decided to have a go at it and make a change. We are in Prague and having a gorgeous time. So here’s to changes and new years and new resolutions and new beginnings. Na zdraví!

 

 

A Chunk of South West Wales

In the midst of all our European jaunts, we had left behind the strong love that my husband and I nurse for our English country holidays. If anybody claims that there is nothing that compares to the countryside in Britain, that would be me. Adi would nod vigorously in assent.

On a Friday noon, we booked a cottage and drove through the cool evening, four hours away from home. It was late at night when we rolled into the pebbled driveway of the cottage tucked into a quiet hamlet in the Carmarthenshire county of Wales. A tablet on the front door announced it to be Penrhiw (pronounced as pen-ru, it means ‘head of the street’). The landlady, Naomi, showed us into a compact annexe at the rear of the house that overlooked a vast network of fields. Outside the door stood a pair of wooden chairs, a small slatted table and a portable fire-pit. Adi immediately started rambling about his visions of jacket potatoes and butter.

There was no wifi, no mobile network. Suited us just fine. Technology is too much with us anyway, you think when you look up at the open sky on a dark night, see the stars grow brighter, more popping up by and by; herds of cuddly sheep that materialise when morning dawns to stare at you warily, cows who chomp away contentedly in herds and horses that trot up to meet you from their patches of green.

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Carmarthenshire
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The road that led to our cottage in the county
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The cottage we stayed in

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The kind of view we had from our part of the cottage
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The woody bit adjoining the cottage where the piglets live
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An adorable twosome and Naomi
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Curious cows
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The two beauties we came across
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The next day we looked high and low for them but our two friends were missing

Day 1

The morning started with a meeting. With Naomi’s two new piglets. Off the driveway was a glade of white and lilac summer flowers and tall trees and walking down its muddy track, we came upon a pen from which emerged the pair of squealing and grunting piglets. One of them had differently coloured eyes – one was blue, the other brown.

Tenby: Our drive along the rugged coastline in the adjoining county of Pembrokeshire led us to Tenby,  a town with a significantly long Welsh name, Dinbych-y-pysgod. It is supposed to sound something along the lines of ‘dinbeekhapusgod’ which means ‘fortlet of the fish’, derived from the nature of the town’s original trade. I thought Tenby suited us fine anyway. Walking in through its Five Arches Gate which are remnants of a once castled town, we came upon a bustling Welsh town. Pastel coloured house fronts spoke of Victorian revival architecture – the town was a picture of abandonment and decay after the English Civil War and a plague in the mid-1600s – till the Victorians turned their attention to Tenby. There was an increasing emphasis in Victorian England on bathing holidays in English towns because the Napoleonic wars of the time made it difficult for the posh crowd to frequent European spa resorts. The man who became associated with reviving Tenby was merchant banker and politician Sir William Paxton. He bought a house in Tenby in 1802 and decided to design it into a ‘fashionable bathing establishment suitable for the highest society’.

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Tenby’s harbour
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St. Catherine’s Fort on that limestone outcrop.
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Ruins of the castle can be spotted in the background

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Pub grub at Three Mariners

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Look ye, someone was spotted knocking back tipples at the Three Mariners
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The owl who puts up with her owner. After all, hers is the hand that feeds her.
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Strawberry and clotted cream ice cream

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Lawn bowling

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Only some walls and a tower of the castle remain of the once medieval walled town of Tenby. Outside one of these walls, by the harbour, an old man with no teeth but a wide smile pasted upon a sorrowful face played tunes on an accordion. The afternoon demanded a good tuck-in at a pub and it was followed by dollops of heavenly ice cream from a small shop. The continuous pealing of church bells as the sonorous background music, we surveyed charming cottages, in vivid colours dominate the harbour of Tenby that hugs the Celtic Sea. Henry VII escaped in a boat from this harbour to Brittany during the War of the Roses.

A fort stands high above a tidal island off Tenby, mysteriously aloof on a limestone outcrop facing the sandy beaches of Tenby. It is St. Catherine’s Fort that was built in 1867 to fortify the British empire against attacks from the French. Your ears would probably perk up if I told you that a couple of years ago Tenby was vying with beaches in Portugal, Croatia and Italy for the most-beautiful-beach-town-in-Europe tag.

Carew Castle: In the industrial town of Milford Haven stands Carew Castle. The castle and its tidal mill overlook a tidal estuary.

This is a castle that has a family home kind of a touch to it unlike its neighbour, Pembroke Castle, which is austere and typically Welsh.

I was transfixed by stories narrated by the woman who walked us though it in a small group. Its cellars, dark kitchens and chapels, and garderobe (cloakroom) came alive with tales of people who lived there. She was a good storyteller, that woman.

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The chapel inside which must once have been furnished with rich, luxurious fabrics

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Hunting grounds in the background of the castle.
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The tidal mill in the distance.

The story that got me was that of Princess Nest of Deheubarth (regional name for the realms of south Wales). Nest was born around 1085 to Rhys ap Tewdwr, king of the Deheubarth. Her famed beauty got her the nickname, ‘Helen of Wales’, and a highly eventful life. She became Henry I’s mistress and then the same Henry I married her off to Gerald de Windsor, an Anglo-Norman baron. She was later abducted by a Welsh prince called Owain who is said to have been her cousin and very much in love with her.

Nest had borne 21 children in her lifetime and lived into her 50s (a ripe old age in those days). “Though she is spoken of in a cavalier manner, I believe Nest was a survivor. In those days, women had to marry to be safe and give birth to seal in their security. She must have been quite intelligent to survive the difficult years she was born into,” our guide pointed out.

Carew Castle was part of Nest’s dowry when she married Gerald, a man who was 40 to her tender 14 years. It was their son, William who adopted the name ‘de Carew’.

As for Nest, she left behind her legacy with the Tudor and Stuart monarchs of England as well as Princess Diana and US President John F. Kennedy.

Skirting past the darkened interiors of the castle, which are home to bats and owls, we heard so many more stories – the ghastly tale of a cruel man called Rhys ap Thomas who took over the castle when the de Carews went broke. Rhys ap Thomas betrayed his friend and backed Henry Tudor when he came back to England to claim the throne. He was rewarded generously when Henry became the king. This Thomas kept a vicious barbary ape in the castle and mistreated it.

At the end of it, the ape ripped his throat apart one stormy night and died in the chamber too.

The castle is said to be haunted by that ape. A visitor to the castle had apparently caught the ape staring down at him from one of the windows. In that very apartment where the ape killed his master, I was deemed a ‘snail murderer’. A loud crunch beneath my boot-clad feet and to my dismay I discovered the remains of a hapless snail.

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The Elizabethan wing
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The drama of Carew

Do look out for the Elizabethan wing which were built by the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir John Perrot. He had acquired the castle after its last owner, Rhys’ grandson, was executed by Henry VIII for treason.

Barafundle Bay: Limestone cliffs and dramatic red sandstone cliffs stand guard over the sandy beaches and jewel coloured waters of Barafundle Bay. It is a part of an old grand home, Stackpole Estate, that is located between the villages of Stackpole and Bosherston near Pembroke. The estate with its property of farmland, lakes, woodland and beaches is now part of the National Trust. It was owned by the Cawdor family, descendants of Thane of Cawdor who is celebrated in Macbeth – Macbeth was made Thane of Cawdor by Duncan in the play.

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We could not help but be mesmerised by the waters here, the collapsed caves in the bay and the various cliff-y walks that always lead to breathtaking views. We only saw a handful of people exploring Barafundle and that made us feel that we had the bay all to ourselves.

St Ishmael:  If you are passing through St Ishmaels, a village in Pembrokeshire, and you see traffic halted on a narrow country road, you shall know that the miscreants are two adorable hunting dogs, running ahead of the cars. A woman is probably running after them trying to get them into the car so that she can hand them over to the Pembrokeshire County Council as abandoned dogs.

That is how we ended up chasing Holly. We were the second car in the line-up and the thought of dogs having been abandoned was awful enough to get us off the car and try to help out the above-mentioned woman.

Both were beagles, one a pure-bred, and the other a mix. The pure-bred beagle pretty easily allowed the woman to pick him up (why walk and run when you can get a ride, right?). The hybrid beagle on the other hand kept on running ahead and even growled at the woman.

After about two miles of jogging behind her – in which time the woman decided to go drop off the first dog at the council – I was stunned to see the dog leap into the arms of an old man. It turned out that, Holly the hybrid beagle, and her friend the pure beagle, have a penchant to run off. They are hunting dogs, so when they catch a scent in the air, off they go.

“They are my daughter’s dogs. She left them with me because she had to move to Cardiff,” said the man with a suitably harassed expression. Quite understandable when you find someone chasing two dogs every other day.

Marloes: After ravishing a bar of Bournville – because chasing a dog is hungry business – we reached Marloes Peninsula. It is a world made up of silence – because you are pretty much two of the four people out there – and prickly yellow gorse bushes and sprays of wild flowers. Jagged cliffs drop off into miles of sandy beaches. A few miles away stands a white 17th century lighthouse which used to be run on coal, funded by the toll charges paid up by ships that passed by.

We walked on that windy peninsula, admiring the various strata of sandstone marking the cliffs and glowing golden in the setting sun. We sat and admired the mine of geological treasures that Marloes is. Why, one of those formations even resembled a shoe. My father studied geology and I could understand his fascination with the subject, seated on the heather of that peninsula as we saw in front of us fractured stacks, folds of volcanic rocks and sea caves.

Across us, over miles of blue ocean waters and headlands that claw their way into the ocean, stood the islands of Gateholm, Grassholm and Skomer, known for their colonies of puffins, choughs and seals.

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On the climb to Marloes

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The walk to Marloes which is a part of ‘Little England beyond Wales’, an area in Wales. The name is a reference to the fact that it has been English in character for centuries despite its geographical distance from England.

 

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Marloes. A peninsula on the western edge of Pembrokeshire.
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Doesn’t that rock formation look like a boot?
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Sunset at Marloes
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Chicken tikka barbecue

When we reached our cottage, we spent the evening barbecuing chicken tikka over charcoal and warming ourselves on that chilly evening by a blazing fire. We smelled thoroughly smoky by the end of that evening, but as we sipped on a rosé wine and snacked on those delicious charred morsels of meat, we were in our own little heaven under a sky bejewelled with stars.

 

DAY 2

St. David’s: We were in Britain’s smallest city – in terms of size and population. In it, Wales’ patron saint, St David is said to have established a monastery and church in the 6th century. That church is no longer there but in its place is the spectacular St. David’s Cathedral. This cathedral goes back to the times of the Normans, before which stood another cathedral that was plundered by Vikings and burnt down.

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St. David’s Cathedral

 

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The stream that runs by the cathedral
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There has always been a church on the site since the 6th century but the cathedral itself dates back to 1181.
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The simple yet beautiful nave of St. David’s Cathedral
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River Alun that flows through St. David’s
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Ruins of the medieval Bishop’s Palace. The palace is said to have been built by a series of ‘builder bishops’ during the late 13th and 14th centuries.

Looking at its grand visage, I could imagine why this cathedral was a much-hailed pilgrimage in the early days when starting with William the Conqueror, many kings and queens had paid it a visit. St. David’s Cathedral is beautiful not because it is bombastic. In fact, it is austere in its wooden interiors which are reminiscent of its medieval past. You cannot help but gawk at the ceilings and floor tiles that crop up inside. Do look out for the remains of St. David which are kept inside the cathedral.

If you have time, spend some time in the city which houses a cute assortment of houses and boutiques. And do fall prey to the crunchy onion rings at The Sound Café. It is worth its batter.

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The charming city of St. David’s
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In Britain’s smallest city (in terms of size and population).
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A lovely café in St. David’s.
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Those onion rings *shuts her eyes and smacks her lips
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Gammon and chips

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And then we met award winner, gentle Alfie, at a horse and dog show in St. David’s. All he wanted to do was catch a snooze before which he accepted Polo.
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Meet Mr. Bojangles. He was a stud. It  also seemed that he knew it.

Brecon Beacons

Walks and drives in the heather-clad mountains (or hills) of the Brecon Beacons National Park are just serene and filled with natural beauty. Once in a while, the tiniest of hamlets pop up along with pubs, but for the most part it is filled with miles and miles of green pastures dotted with sheep. There are more sheep than men out there. I promise.

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In to the Brecon Beacons National Park
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Motorbikers, bikers and hikers are quintessential to the landscape of the Brecon Beacons
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As of course are these beautiful posers who are woven into the fabric of the rural vista.
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Every year I read about a few soldiers dying in the Brecon Beacons. It is a favoured training ground for the British armed forces.
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Hamlets crop up once in a while within the park
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But my favourite thing is meeting the cuddly timid creatures
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The Brecon Beacons are one of four ranges of mountains and hills in South Wales
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The kind of views you come across within the Welsh national park

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Roads that snake past reservoirs
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Reservoir within the Brecon Beacons

There are plenty of trails and drives to choose from within the park. We took the A4069 Black Mountain Road that took us on sinuous, curved roads through the park and led us to the Usk Reservoir. The other route we drove down was the Abergavenny-Penderyn route.

There are six peaks within the park that is supposed to have been named after an ancient practice of lighting beacons on the mountains to warn of invaders attacking.

I am quite ready to relive the magic of south west Wales, all over again. For how often do you have a holiday spending time with curious horses, friendly cows, naughty hunting dogs and charming piggies?

 

 

The Uncanny Welsh Story

I do not essentially believe in the supernatural. Even though I have grown up loving the thrill of those stories that make you curl up with dread and lie ramrod stiff on the bed at night. Most of my supply of stories came from the jhuli (Bengali for bag) of my father’s friend. He used to arrive every evening with a mischievous smile, his eye glinting behind thick black frames and you could see the joy he found in being a storyteller. A storyteller of creepy tales where someone would pull your legs from beneath the bed at night. Hah. You must have heard that one too, right?

My father once came up with the tale of a skondokata (Bengali word for a headless ghost). When he was a wee boy, he was part of a large joint family in Calcutta and they used to live in a place called Mohini Mansions in the southern part of Calcutta. They used to have a separate kitchen where they used to dine together. To get to the kitchen they had to take a flight of stairs that was outside the house. Next door was an old British mansion. One evening my father was going up the stairs for dinner and happened to glance at the lawn next door. What he saw chilled him to the bone – it was a skondokata. Each night after, he would race up the stairs and refuse to let his eyes stray next door.

Then my brother narrated one of his experiences to me. I somehow do believe him. This happened during his boyhood days of living in a hostel. The building in which he stayed at the time faced an old Muslim cemetary. One night he was studying alone in the hall when the windows — which were tightly shut — started flapping to and fro. My brother asked his teacher the next day about it. He was told, “You cannot do anything about it. You have to stay here. There are two ways you can deal with it. You either ignore them or go a little berserk every time they take place.” My brother chose the former.

I couldn’t sleep three nights in a row after that.

Yet, I am rather sceptic of the entire concept. I bet you are too. Which is why you might scoff at the tale I am about to tell you from one of my many Welsh holidays.

This happened one summer in an area called Gwynedd in north-west Wales. Gwynedd used to be a kingdom in times gone by, not that it has any bearing upon my story.

On a bank holiday weekend, I set out on a long drive from Northampton, with my husband in a merry group of six, to Wales. We had rented a converted old mill in the village of Abersoch, plonked right by the Irish Sea. The cottage was tucked away into a corner by a brook and slightly removed from a gaggle of lovely stone houses.

The plaque on the old cottage, latticed charmingly by Virginia creepers, read Melinsoch.

Angling references were scattered across its rambling interiors – an inkling about the locale of the cottage. Abersoch is an old fishing port.

Cobwebs hung in places. Fat candles with strands of wax melted and hardened around them added an eerie touch to the ambience of the farmhouse dining room. At the end of a rustic, pock-marked table stood a piano, its keys yellowed with age.

The living room was strewn with shabby rugs, and a big fireplace stuffed with logs, ready to warm up the cold, stone floors. The fireplace set off the (so far dormant) jacket-potato-baking instincts in my husband. He is just terribly enthusiastic about jacket potatoes. Woe be on that member of the gang who does not fancy a big, fat spud slathered with butter, cracked pepper and salt.

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My delighted husband preps up the fireplace for making his beloved jacket potatoes
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Our hobbit bedroom

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Adi’s flower power

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Bodnant Garden
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Giant Redwood in Bodnant
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A jaunt to Conwy Castle

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After a merry night of quaffing a few pints, and snacking on some deliciously smoky potatoes, we retired to the bedrooms. To our share fell a low-ceiling bedroom that could have readily been home to a hobbit or two. The door had no latch and tended to creak open.

The bedroom which our couple friend had, came with a cracked basin and an enamel jug. I could imagine an Emily Bronte heroine waking up to such a rustic affair and washing her rosy face in that basin.

A full strolley was my measure for wedging the door to our hobbit bedroom shut. During the wee hours, my husband woke me up. He had to make a quick trip to the bathroom which was round the other end of the house. We match each other in our propensity to be brave.

When he got back, the strolley resumed its place back against the door. He promptly fell asleep and I remained in a state of wakefulness. In a while, footsteps thudded above.

“Now, how is that even possible?” I mulled. The cottage had sloping roofs.

Right after, the handle of the door moved and it creaked open. I could not even believe my eyes. My heart beating rat-a-tat-tat, I leapt up on the bed and boomed out, “Who’s there?” In a second, I was at the door. Could it have been a prank? I did not put it past one of our gang – especially one of them who had planned to play the piano the next night, as a prank. But when I crept to the other side of the house, I found the others quite lost to the world.

The husband woke up with a start. Then he went off to sleep again (it is amazing how fast he can do that), after all his cooing failed to have any calming effect on me.

I was ready to flee that morning. But we had another night.

So the next night, I lay siege to the big bedroom in the cottage that had a massive bed and two bunkers. Our two male friends were banished to the bunkers in that bedroom. Also, unwittingly I had foiled the piano playing plans of the above mentioned friend. Only on the second night, we were haunted by the ascending snores of the fourth friend.

Would I go back to Melinsoch? I am in no hurry.