Caerphilly, Castles and Cheese

Caerphilly Castle

When I arrived in the UK last spring, I realized I had one major flaw in my trip: I hadn’t planned to visit any castles.  Cardiff has a castle in the center of town and my hotel was right across the street from it.  However, I visited this castle on my last trip and remembered much of it: the Roman wall in the basement, the ornate room in the clock tower, the nursery painted with scenes from fairy tales, and the view from the keep.  Looking for a new castle to visit, my guidebook recommended Caerphilly.

Caerphilly is a twenty minute train ride north of the center of Cardiff.  It is a small town and features a castle begun in 1268.  In addition, the guidebook noted that the town is noted for Caerphilly Cheese, a mild relative of cheddar cheese.  As I love cheese, especially cheddar, Caerphilly was an appealing destination to satiate my interest in castles and cheese.

So one morning, I went down to the Central Cardiff station, purchased an open, round-trip ticket to Caerphilly for just a few pounds and enjoyed the short train ride through the Welsh country-side.  Cardiff is very flat, but Caerphilly and the surrounding area are quite hilly.  The castle wasn’t visible from the train station, so I started walking in what seemed the most promising direction: downhill on the main commercial street.  After a short walk, the road made a bend and the shops stopped on one side, leaving a wide view over a green park to the castle and the valley and hills beyond.

Views from the Castle's Keep Views from the Castle's Keep

Views from the Castle's Keep

A Welshman once told me that the only real castles are those in ruins.  Ones like Cardiff Castle that have been fixed-up, renovated, or refurbished in any way are not real.  I thought that he would have approved of Caerphilly Castle.

When I finished exploring every corner of the castle, I returned to the town looking for cheese and lunch.  There were no signs of Caerphilly Cheese anywhere.  There were lots of tourist-y areas and signs directing the way to tourist-like attractions, but none mentioned cheese.  Wikipedia claims that there is a cheese sculpture somewhere in town, but I didn’t see it.  I ended up choosing a quaint little diner (of the early 20th century style, not the 1950s/60s style we think of in the US) as the place to eat my lunch in the hopes that perhaps they used Caerphilly Cheese on their sandwiches, but they did not.

Feeling let down in my hunt for cheese, I returned to Cardiff shortly after my lunch.  Caerphilly’s castle was well worth the trip, but I was beginning to believe that Caerphilly Cheese was a myth.

….

Seven months later, my family and I were visiting New York City for Christmas.  On our last day, we made the requisite visit to Zabar’s.  I had been particularly looking forward to this stop on our trip as the last time I was in Zabar’s I was a kid who knew that there was something special about the shop, but didn’t understand why as I thought the height of culinary perfection was Kraft Mac’N’Cheese.

The first thing that caught my eye on entering Zabar’s was the cheese display.  I quickly went over and scanned the names of all the various cheeses, looking for the exotic one that I was going to take home to try.  Most had names that sounded familiar.  On my second look through, my heart stopped.  There on the shelf right in front of me was Caerphilly Cheese!!

I was shocked.  I had gone to Caerphilly to get their cheese and been disappointed.  Now, months later on the other side of the ocean, in a small store in NYC, I’d found it.  Needless to say, I purchased a brick.  It was a nice cheese, almost like a cross between a mozzarella and a mild cheddar: smooth, almost creamy, with a slight hint of the cheddar kick.

Erie Churches

Erie has a variety of attractive church buildings.  As I walked around admiring them, I was surprised to see that they were all still used as churches.  I did not find a single adaptively reused church building.  Given Erie’s location, relatively close to Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, I assumed it had similar significant population loss creating a need to either abandon, demolish or adapt some church buildings.  It turns out, that at least on the county level, this assumption was false.  Since 1900, the population of Erie County has grown every decade, except from 1980 to 1990 when there was a slight (1.5%) population loss, from 98,509 to 280,843 (2000’s population).  Allegheny County (Pittsburgh’s county), on the other hand saw growth from 775,058 in 1900 to 1,628,587 in 1960 after which the population has declined steadily to 1,223,348 in 2010.

I could not find statistics for the population change of the city of Erie; it is possible that there was a different trend within the city.  There were signs of abandonment and decay in other buildings and aspects of the town.  Yet the churches are still intact and appear to be thriving.  In fact, one of the larger churches was undergoing a major renovation while I was there.

Whatever the reason for the churches’ continued use, I enjoyed my treasure hunt chasing down as many steeples as I could in two hours:

Unknown

St. Patrick's Church 1903

Russian Old Believers Church of the Holy Trinity 1984

Russian Orthodox Church of the Nativity of Christ (Old Rite) 1987

Unknown

St. Peter Cathedral 1872

Cathedral School

St. Paul's United Church of Christ

Unknown

Methodist Church

First United Presbyterian Church of the Covenant 1929

The Union Project: Engaging Community

The Union Project

Every adapted church building I’ve come across has something that makes it unique.  Of all the ones I’ve come across so far, the Union Project used the most creative method in restoring/adapting the building.

In the late 1990s, a small group of people came together and said that they wanted a “space for art and faith” in their neighborhood.  (The quotes in this post are from one of the founding members, who I interviewed for a school project.)  By 2001, this group and this sentiment had grown and they purchased the vacant, former Union Baptist Church at the intersection of Negley and Stanton Avenues, two major roads in the East End of Pittsburgh, to convert it into a community center.

When the community center acquired it, the church was still considered active, but it had not been used regularly for two to four years.  The building was in very poor condition: the roof leaked, there were broken windows, and pigeons and rodents lived inside.  It took four years to prepare the building for occupancy and an additional six years to completely restore the structure.

The part that I like the most about how this building was adapted, was the alternative method they came up with for restoring the stain glass windows of the structure.  All the windows needed restoration, which I’m sure would have added up to a colossal expense.  Instead of giving up or attempting to raise all the funds to pay for a professional restoration, they offered community classes in stain glass restoration using the church’s windows as the class materials.  Some of the windows needed to be completely reconstructed in which case the instructor, a stain glass professional, created the new windows.  Beside these, all the windows were restored by community members at the classes.

Stain Glass Restoration

Stain Glass Restoration

I took one of the classes a few summers ago.  It was a lot of fun and quite interesting to learn how stain glass windows are put together.  At least a couple of the people in my class were taking the course so they would be able to restore the stain glass windows in their homes.  Much of the housing stock in the neighborhoods surrounding the building feature at least one stain glass window, so this was a useful skill for the local homeowners to learn.  A 2012 article in the Post-Gazette announces the completion of this restoration project.

Over the years since the Union Project began, the building has slowly been restored one piece at a time.  The former classrooms behind the sanctuary were restored first and converted into office space.  Several of these offices are used for the administration of the Union Project, while the rest are rented out to other community groups including a church group.  The basement was converted into an art space.  This is where the stain glass restoration classes were held.  There is also a pottery studio which offers classes.  Hula-hooping classes are held in the atrium, or out on the lawn in nice weather.  The sanctuary is used as a rental hall for receptions, community events and the like.  The narthex is a little coffee shop.

Restored Sanctuary

By the summer 2012, the building finally looked like a completed project: the stain glass windows were restored, the sanctuary was finally completely repainted, and the black soot was cleaned off the stone facade.  Because of Pittsburgh’s past as a major industrial city, all stone facade buildings collected black soot–many of these buildings have been cleaned in the last ten to twenty years.  In cleaning the soot off the Union Project, the crenellations on top of the towers were left black, leaving a respectful reminder of the past, while the change from a black building to white brightened up this corner of the neighborhood.

This is a project that showed me, and the group who completed it, that “anything is possible.”