My cousin sister in London, (whom I call Ceemechy) had asked me to go to Newport in Wales, and pick up a small bicycle for her kid from a family friend there. Newport was just about 40 minutes from Bristol, and I agreed to go on Saturday. Not only would I be able to visit a new place, but it would also give me the chance to get on a British train for the first time, since arriving here about 3 months back !
So early on Saturday morning, I set off to the Bristol Parkway station, not too far from where I lived. However, the lines at the station had been closed for a while (due to some engineering works) and there were Coach services arranged to transfer passengers to the nearby Patchway station. I hopped on to one of them and in about 5 minutes, reached Patchway.
Patchway wasn’t too much of a station…..just a couple of platforms on either sides of a pair of railway tracks ! It was almost deserted except for a handful of passengers and about 2 railway officials on duty. Behind the platforms, one could see the sprawling buildings of the Rolls Royce engine factory!
Soon a train approached ….but was nothing like what I had expected to find in England – it was small and rickety ……just 2 compartments long, and moved almost at a tram’s pace ! A ticket official got out…but looking at my ticket, he told me that I couldn’t travel until 9 AM, ‘cos that was the time mentioned on my ticket. I got back and waited. About 10 minutes later, a Virgin train [ to the corrupted/ignorant mind, what it means is a train run by Ricard Branson’s ‘Virgin’ group] zoomed into the station…..Now this was more like it – sleek, aero-dynamic and futuristic ! It was still a few more minutes to 9 AM, but neverthless I got in.
The interiors were as classy as what it had looked like on the outside, but the compartment was almost empty …..The 40-minute ride was entirely eventless, but presented excellent panoramic views of the English countryside……lush, green meadows and fields stretched on into the horizons ….and herds of cattle (I spotted a couple of wild horses too) just stood there grazing on them, without even bothering to move a muscle ! [Just like most Brits, their cattle too seemed to have no sense of figure-consiousness at all! ]
When the voice on the P.A system announced that we were approaching Newport station, I couldn’t resist smirking at myself, at the fact that I had successfully completed this journey in such a perfect and flawless manner……..quite an achievement, considering that in the recent past, whenever I had travelled to a new location for the first time, some adventure or some screw-up had always happened ! Be it the first time I travelled to Cairo, or the first time I flew in to UK, or the first time I went to visit London …….none of those journeys had been devoid of action !!! Probably the law of averages was finally catching up ! Quite content and beeming with pride at my accomplishment today, I got off the train…….. into what seemed to be a relatively larger station…………only to be welcomed by a large board that read “Casnewydd” !
What the ….????? I just couldn’t believe it !!! I rubbed my eyes, and checked the board again. But it still read C-a-s-n-e-w-y-d-d !!! I stood there for a few moments blankly staring at it, trying to come to terms with the reality ….. A number of baffling questions ran through my head ….Could I have heard wrong ? Not really ….. I was pretty certain it had been announced as Newport inside the train ! Was I drunk ? Hardly possible [it was just 9’o clock in the morning] !
………I turned back to see that the train had already started moving ! There was nothing much I could do now, except come to terms with the fact that the universe had yet again conspired against me !
Confused and lost, I walked up to the official at the gates and explained to him my situation …….
But to my surprise, he told me that this was indeed Newport !
[ What ??? …..was this some kind of a joke ? To my knowledge the 1st of April was still about 3.5 months away !] I pointed towards the board that read ‘Casnewydd’ in big, bold letters and seeked an explanation!….he smiled and told me that Casnewydd was just the Welsh name for Newport !
It took me a moment to sink in ……I wasn’t in England anymore….this is Wales ! Newport is a Welsh city and here, they speak Welsh . But I had never had the faintest idea that Welsh was so damn different from English !
[Next time, when I get back to India, I swear I’d refer to my pair of Newport jeans only as Casnewydd jeans !!! ]
I thanked the guy and moved ahead. I checked out the other boards displayed at the Train station ……They were quite amusing …..Fortunately, Wales was bilingual, and hence the boards were all written in Welsh as well as English ! And everybody knew English, so there were no issues in communicating at all.
I later came to learn that Wales itself was referred to locally as ‘Cymru’, and its language ‘Cymraeg‘ (Welsh). Welsh is an ancient Celtic language, related most closely to Breton and Cornish. It had descended from the language that was spoken across most of Britain during the ancient Roman times. Like most languages, it has many borrowed words, but grammatically it is more different from English than, say, French or Italian are.
In fact, recent studies show that the Welsh were the true ‘Britons’ and even today are genetically quite different from the English ! Following the Roman withdrawal in the fifth century, Celtic Britain underwent a form of ethnic cleansing by the Anglo-Saxon invaders. For some reason, the areas around the fringes of Britain like Wales or Cornwall were spared, and while the new language of English evovled among the Anglo-saxons, surprisingly, the Welsh were able to stick on to and preserve theirs !
This was amazing ! Being on the same island of Great Britain and literally right next-door to England, Wales has a language that is about as similar to English as Hindi is to C++ !!! Yeah…..the point is, there is almost no connection at all ! Picture this, a bilingual board outside the Train station read – “croeso i orsaf casnewydd” for “Welcome to Newport station”…….and “Gwybodaeth i Gwsmeriaid ag Anabieddau” for “Information for Customers with Disabilities” !
I waited outside the station for a while …soon the person arrived in a Vauxhall car with the bicycle in its boot. It was small…but not so much that I could carry it…….I had to roll it around anyway!
I decided not to go back home immediately, as this was my first time here in Newport or in Wales, for that matter, and I wanted to look around a bit … I didn’t let the bicylce deter me …I decided to pushed it along and so crossed the nearby subway onto the city centre area, where a few shops were already open and people were just starting to swarm in …..The place wasn’t any different from other city centres in England …it had all the usual set of stores, the usual set of eat-outs – Mac, KFC, Subway etc…. even the customary Indian restaurants, were all there. The only thing different however, was the fact that the boards here were always written in both Welsh and English.
I pushed the cylce across the busy road and walked down to the nearby river front…….There were a few bridges around- that presented a wonderful panoramic backdrop against the river. It was sunny thankfully, but being next to the river, the breeze was cold and stinging !
A while later I returned back to the central shopping area, and explored around the boulevards ! By now, the crowds were thickening and the whole place was starting to get thronged by weekend shoppers……As I cut through the constant flow of pedestrians, pushing the junior bicycle alongside me, I couldn’t help notice the odd stares and smirks from the people around………….I even overheard a small girl cry out to her dad that she wanted to have a ride on it ! Not letting myself get discouraged, I pushed on and tried to explore as much of the city centre as possible ! It was a small place however, and didn’t offer too much variety. A while later, I returned to the station and bought myself a ticket to Bristol.
I caught the 11:39 ‘Firt Great Western’ train and got down at the Patchway station. Here in Britain, the trains are so strictly punctual that they are referred to by their departure times – upto the precise minute ! I remember my room-mate Sameer telling me earlier that when he was once coming to Bristol from Leeds, he had asked for a ticket on the 4 o’clock train. But to his dismay, the official at the counter told him that there was no 4 o’clock train…….[Apparently there only was a 3:58 train !!!]