Date: 24 January 2015. One week away from my first London anniversary.
Location: The evening Great Western Rail train from Cardiff Central to London Paddington.
I jolt awake to Justin Bieber at 6am. A drunk Alex, having a laugh at future sober Alex and vaguely contrite about how many glasses of picpoul she'd just consumed at The Hoxton, had set 'Sorry' as her alarm around five hours ago. It was less funny now. The last thing I want to do is get dressed, take a bus and then the tube and meet Twiggy and Paris at Paddington for the 7.30am train to Cardiff. I have a brief, brutal conversation with myself about not letting work or my injury get to me — and remind myself that I can sleep on the train — then push my cat off my chest and get up. Two hours later we're rushing westward and, mollified by a bacon roll, train coffee and good company, I'm glad I came.
In Cardiff we're staying at just about the cutest hostel ever, Mrs Potts. I'd had mild concerns when, upon making our reservation, we were allocated into a 'female women's dorm for ladies only (only women permitted)'. Had we booked bunks in a man-hating feminist cult BnB side project?! But no, it's utterly normal and sweet, its walls robin egg blue trimmed in white, its hipster decor antique chic — framed retro comics, bunting, a rickety rocking horse, floral curtains — its staff trendy, young, worldly women (one of whom loses points for telling us she was 'too old' to go out any more, at the gouty age of 24, but regained points with happy hour recommendations.) Our room is the nicest hostel room I've ever seen. No plastic beds and scratchy thin sheets here. We feel like princesses in our giant bunks that are complete with crisp white sheets, scatter pillows and frilly curtains for the lady who prefers her privacy.
Armed with suggestions of things to do and eat, we head towards the castle in search of food. Pettigrew Tea Room had been suggested and, as we felt wildly amenable to cake and finger sandwiches, we ferreted it out. Pettigrew's is a dainty little place chocked full of bouquet-bearing tables, pretty china sets, frenetic waiters and cakes. It's nestled in at the fringe of Victoria Park, looking back towards the castle. It would be difficult to find anything nicer than taking tea — even out in the cold where we just managed to squeeze in — looking at a medical castle, verdant park and meandering river. And we did it properly: ordering a Welsh cream tea each and finger sandwiches to share. You know you've done it right when the waitress eyes off the table speculatively and then has to strategically remove the sugar bowl to accomodate all of your food.
We work it off (sort of) by meandering around Cardiff castle for a few hours. In my case it is more of a pathetic hobble. We learn about the Scottish Bute family who 'made' Cardiff. It was the second Marquess who recognised that Wales was rich in coal and invested in the city's port. However, it was the third marquess, who had struck up a friendship with architect William Burgess, who renovated Cardiff castle. One can only think that they must have been proper drunk at the Prince of Wales pub when they started sketching because the place is a — beautiful — overstated, flamboyant masterpiece. Each room in the castle has a theme to which it pays gaudy homage. For example, in the smoking room the theme is 'time'. In that small room the roof is decorated with frescos depicting signs if the zodiac, the four walls are painted to show the four seasons, each corner of the room bears a bust holding a sun or moon representing a time of day, and the windows are stained glass depictions of the 7 norse gods who gave their names to our days of the week. It's… a lot. The best part of the tour is the rooftop garden which is ornately tiled and inscribed with Hebrew text (the marquess being somewhat of a linguist and a lot of a show off) and features an ornate fountain with beavers holding what, to us, looked a lot like fish guns. We also learn that the Welsh are mad about their dragons. I get it. They're pretty cool, and the squishy soft toy versions in the gift shop were adorable.
It gets cold and dark very quickly. However, we are warmed by the signs advertising £10 bottles of prosecco and 2-4-1 cocktails. The uber trendy hostel girls send us in the direction of Ten Feet Tall where we meet a bartender whose niceness rivals that of Twiggy and my much-loved much-obsessed over Edinburgh Brew Dog 'why are Londoners so mean and Scots so nce' barman. We have the best of intentions: one drink, move on, find Welsh food for dinner. But Paris blows that out of the water when she kicks us off by ordering two Strawberry Hepburn cocktails for herself rights off the bat. With style. And then we find out that there's a Greek pop-up restaurant upstairs and, well, kebabs and chips and hummus it is. At one stage a lovely young Welshman decides that he'd quite like an Aussie bride and he and his taciturn mate join our table. Their plan to charm us explodes when they start trying to guess our ages. At first they're well south (good!) but when we nudge them up they guess that I'm 30, Twiggy 29 and Paris 31. This goes down about as well as you'd expect. Meanwhile, upstairs, there's a David Bowie tribute night happening and Ziggy Stardusts keep wandering down for a smoke. Cocktails, Welsh cobblestone street, the dusky aroma of Greek lamb, fussily delicate city cocktails and Lycra with facepaint: the collision of cultures is all a bit surreal.
Around midnight we stumble home in the rain. Twiggy and I share a joke and somehow start discussing the sorts of things that make us laugh.
“Dark inappropriate, a bit borderline,” I diagnose myself. “Family Guy, Black Books, Blackadder — obviously.”
“Yep, dark and dry,” Twiggy says of herself. “Paris, you love American style humour.”
“No, I have a dark sense of humour too!” Paris protests, throwing herself into her little cave of a bunk bed with phone in hand. She belies this statement stunning quickly when, just a moment later, she giggles loudly — she's found the Top 25 Dog Memes — and offers to send around the link. I introduce her to 'Dog Shaming' posts and, from the darkness of her bunk, I can her snuffling regular giggles. Yep, a real dark soul.
The weekend ends with a train home in the dark – one change at Bristol, which we use to drink a mini bottle of M&S's finest red wine each and play 'Shoot, Shag, Marry' using the names of of mutual aquiatances … like the grown ups we are.