The first time I had a jacket potato was in Warwick in the Warwick Castle cafe. It was a special treat. Warwick was a food oasis. We were hiking and staying in hostels and so we cooked our own meals – mueslix for breakfast, canned hash or peanut butter for lunch, hot dogs. We had eggs once. Warwick was the castle cafe and dinner at Toby’s Carving Room. No idea if it’s still there, but that was delicious.
It may have been the food on the go that made this jacket potato so amazing, but it stayed in my head for years; decades. It was simple and it was delicious.
It was simply a baked potato with stuff in and on it. I can’t remember what it contained. I have a vague memory of melted butter, freshly shredded cheddar, and sour cream, but there may have been bacon and there were definitely chives.
It became bigger than life in my memory.
When my family went to Wales a few years ago, we ate at a wonderful cafe that I had eaten at on my solo trip in 2009, The Bell Tower Cafe, and I ordered a jacket potato with a salad. It was amazing. It lived up to the memory of Warwick Castle. It was laden with cheese, and honestly on baked potato even with stuff in it doesn’t look like much, but it fills you up, and you’re set for the day. With all my instagramming, I still can’t believe I passed up the opportunity to take a picture of it!
Recently for dinner, we had roast beef, and instead of making my usual leftover meal of Shepherd’s Pie (I know, it’s cottage pie, but my mother in law was from Antrim in Northern Ireland, and if she could call it Shepherd’s Pie, then I can call it Shepherd’s Pie). But I digress. I decided instead to make jacket potatoes with the leftovers.
I baked large russet potatoes in the oven for an hour or so at 400, and when they were finished, sliced them open, added butter, an already warmed up mixture of roast beef, gravy, peas & carrots, onions, and Worcestershire sauce, topped with shredded cheddar, sour cream and chives.
There are no such things as coincidences. I was reminded of that on Wednesday while on a Celtic Day of Reflection retreat. Carl Jung called these synchronicity. Some of us refer to fate and destiny. Whatever we call it, the world is interconnected in so many ways and those random occurrences float in and around us from who we sit next to in grade school to joining a book club, and including the world of the internet which has only brought us closer together, gathering with people who share the same hobbies, music, art, and so many other topics and then quietly moving beyond them.
In 1986, I was a college junior. I was dating a boy. Until I wasn’t.
Later that year, my friend who was student teaching in England invited me to join her there for winter break. Other than a lack of money there was no reason to say no. It wasn’t like I had a boyfriend. So I joined her. She made all the plans.
I arrived on the last day of 1986, ringing in the New Year in London’s Trafalgar Square, and we were off. Wednesday’s Celtic retreat talked quite a bit about thin spaces and in a place as old as the island of Britain they are everywhere the eye can see, and more likely beyond the eye’s sight. You will instinctively know them if you’ve ever experienced them. Stonehenge is one of those places. From the first sight of the giant monoliths, I felt something. The past swirls around it and blends with the present, and in the cold dusk of January with my breath visible amongst the stones, it was almost as if I was in another time long, long ago but also right now. It was visceral, and it defies description. Indeed that is another story for another time.
From there our itinerary had us traveling west to Wales. All of it was wonderful. Adventurous, thrilling, exciting with newness around every corner. I took it all in, and enjoyed every moment in every space.
And soon we arrived in Wales. Up until that moment I thought of Wales as an extension of England – don’t tell that to the Welsh – the thought is an unforgivable sin. The sun was setting, we were walking, trying to arrive at the youth hostel before it got really dark. However, something changed. The air? The sky? The way my foot fell on the pavement? All of the above?
From the minute I set foot in Wales, I felt something beyond anything I’d ever experienced before, including that recent excursion at Stonehenge. I’ve always believed in the supernatural, the spiritual, I’ve seen ghosts and Wales was…I don’t know what Wales was, but it changed my life completely in those few moments.
It was piercing, this strong feeling that permeated every fiber of my being. I felt an ache, a calling to me as if I’d returned to a home I never knew. There was something special and the word special wasn’t enough to describe the wonder. In that moment, I became Welsh in my own way. Something mystical changed in me. Magical.
It set me on a path of a mental immersion into Wales, the Welsh people, the land, the culture, even the language. It was through the language many years later that I met a native speaker who helped me translate some fiction I was writing and through that friendship that he was able to guide me where to go when the sudden opportunity to travel appeared, and this was a key in one of those not-coincidences. He recommended Caernarfon and visiting its castle. This suggestion shaped my whole trip. I stayed at a hostel within the remaining walls of the walled town. Emerging out from under the stone arch onto the Promenade, sniffing the sea air of the Menai Strait, turning just a tiny bit left, and there, right there in front of me was the huge stone wall of one of the towers of the Castle. It was spectacular.
While Caernarfon Castle is in Wales, it is not a Welsh castle; it was not built by the medieval Welsh. A few days later, upon leaving Caernarfon I went to a truly Welsh castle, Dolwyddelan. While the castle wasn’t there at the time, this was the land where Llywelyn the Great was born and grew up in the 11th century. This was one of his many strongholds where he commanded most of Gwynedd, in the North of Wales. He built the castle in the 13th century and over the years it has been added to and restored until finally falling into disrepair.
The mist and the rain of that day only added to the mystery and the mystical. Everything is green and there are gatherings of sheep in every corner of every field or so it seems. Some were so close to the road that I thought the car would hit one or two and I honestly don’t know how they were missed. They were close enough to touch their wool from the window.
In the interim, between this solo adventure in 2009 and our family visit in 2017, I went through some emotional upheaval and through that (a much longer story than what will fit here) I joined the Catholic Church, going through the RCIA program and receiving all the sacraments of to become fully joined with the church. Like the 2009 trip to Wales, my path as a Catholic was filled with an open mind and no regrets; no second thoughts about my conversion. It is the only thing I’ve done in my life that did not foster second thoughts and questions of my conviction. That in itself was an important sign in support of my choice.
But the coincidences were not through with me yet.
While going through the RCIA process, I had need to choose a saint for confirmation. It became my predisposition to find a Welsh saint. There are not that many but I felt strongly about my Welsh connection. I had narrowed my decision down to three saints (one of whom was Welsh) and in choosing St. Elen, her patronage of travelers and introducing the monastic church to Wales were both high on my list to affirming that she was who I wanted the connection through my confirmation. There were two things that really sealed it for me. The first was something that should have stood out to me from the start and that is that Ellen is my mother’s middle name. How I didn’t see it from the beginning is beyond me. The second is how the saint is known in Wales: as St. Elen of Caernarfon.
That place I’d never heard of before my friend suggested it seemingly out of the blue.
It only cemented my choice.
I tried to do research about St. Elen, but sadly there is very little. She is often conflated with St. Helena of Constantinople, mainly because of their similar names and their sons’ similar names, Cystennin and Constantine the Great. In this research I discovered a holy well named for St. Elen and was shocked and astounded to find out that its location was in Dolwyddelan, just down the road, walking distance from Dolwyddelan Castle where I’d actually been five years before.
When we made our family trip to Northern Ireland in 2017 I decided that we would add in a pilgrimage for me to visit St. Elen’s holy well in Dolwyddelan.
It had come full circle. Arriving for the first time in Wales in 1987 at Betws-y-Coed by train and taking the pilgrimage to St. Elen’s Holy Well in Dolwyddelan in 2017, thirty years in between and a mere six miles apart reveals that coincidences do not exist, but providence does.
Today is the feast day of my own saint, Saint Elen. There is little known about her, but I still find what is available about her fasinating. It’s taken me more than a few years to complete this project, and hopefully next week, I will have actual cards made for anyone who wishes one, but for now, I’d like to share with you the prayer card I made for my patron: St. Elen.
[Note: As I began to write this, I thought it would be an emotional look back at an important pilgrimage that I undertook last summer. However, as I began to write, it seemed that before I got to the actual pilgrimage and the feelings that it conjured, I had to wade through the logistics of discovering the well, and finding that it was important for me to visit it. The coincidences that have crossed my life’s path and Wales astound me every time I discover them.]
Caernarfon was not a place I’d ever heard of before it was suggested that I visit the town. My friend lives near there, and offered it when I asked for recommendations for my 2009 trip. He mentioned the Castle and the Strait and the nearness to other Welsh attractions, and we could meet for lunch or dinner in nearby Bangor.
I picked Caernarfon from his recommendation before even reading up on it.
I’d be arriving on Monday morning and driving in. I’d stay at an international hostel. I had stayed at a youth hostel my first time in Wales (in 1987), but they had a maximum age of, I think it was 25. This hostel took all ages as well as families. I’d have to find my way around, but on Tuesday, I’d get to Bangor for our dinner.
So far, those were the only plans that I made.
I wasn’t exactly flying by the seat of my pants, and I would eventually have some sort of plan for the week, but it was nice to have a base for the first half of the week, and Caernarfon was perfect for that.
Caernarfon was wonderful in so many ways. I hadn’t planned on returning in 2017, but we did manage to pop in. I was happy to be able to show my family a place that I could kind of get my way around, and share my experiences with them, not to mention creating new ones with them.
Here are a few of my recommendations of places I visited in and around Caernarfon and a few on my list for next time. Please use the links to make your own travel plans. It is well worth the trip.
This and the above photo: Caernarfon Castle, taken in October 2009 in Caernarfon, Gwynedd, North Wales. (c)2009-2017
I didn’t do the spiral journaling while I was overseas, but I thought it might be a nice idea to go back and just do the three days I spent in Wales. Some of it is the basics of where we were and the towns we visited, but there were also some reflective moments that came through despite the small writing space. It was also amusing to find that I wrote more as the days went on despite not really having done more. I think I got more comfortable in describing my thoughts and feelings, and on the last one, I really ran out of space.Continue reading
What I call my “relics”. These are not historical or sacred in any way except to me. 1. (Top left): Dried flowers and rock along with holy water from St. Elen’s Well in Wales. 2. (Bottom left): The top and bottom of a rock from what is still standing of my mother-in-law’s uncle’s house in Northern Ireland. 3. (Top right): A shell and a rock (or a fossilized rock) from Ballintoy. 4. Middle right): Holy water and pebble from St. Olcan’s Holy Well and a rock from the Cranfield Church ruins as well as the top and bottom of the rocks from the site. 5. (Bottom right): The dried flowers and rock from St. Elen’s Well without the holy water pictured. (c)2017
I will usually use 1 1/2 large potatoes, but use your judgment for your appetite.
Take the potatoes, wash, dry, and poke holes on four sides with a fork. Bake for 1 hour at 400*.
When the potatoes are ready, cut them in half. Put two or three halves in a cereal or soup bowl.
Keep the potato flesh in the skins, but mash it a little with some butter.
Add to the potato whatever you like. my personal preferences are:
chopped up chives,
bacon pieces (real bacon, not bits),
shredded cheddar cheese (or your favorite flavor), and
a dollop of sour cream.
Jacket potatoes are very versatile. You can smother them with chili, leftover hamburger meet, pasta sauce with meat (I’d recommend mozzarella for that one), broccoli, beef stew leftovers. The options are endless.
They make a great lunch, and pair them with a hearty salad, and they can be very filling for dinner.
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Recently, we had jacket potatoes for dinner. We’d run out of groceries except for a 5lb. bag of potatoes, and some odds and ends in the fridge. No one wanted to make dinner. When I suggested potatoes for that dinner, my husband thought I was being crazy, but since he didn’t have to make the meal, he went along with it.
It’s funny how the simplest thing can seem like the best, most wonderful, unique food on the planet. The first time I had a potato as a main dish like this I was in England in the eatery at Warwick Castle. My friend and I were on a three week adventure through the UK, and we were watching our pennies. We still had another week to get through with the cash we had on hand, and as any tourist place, even twenty-odd years ago, the castle’s food was expensive.
Looking though the menu, we both chose this odd but very interesting sounding thing called a jacket potato. It really was an oddity. A baked potato with stuff in it. It was huge. It was like the size of two potatoes with what looked like four ounces of cheddar cheese on top. I loved it. I came home that spring and started making them for my lunches.
Many years later, upon returning to North Wales, I visited another castle. This one was Caernarfon, 13th century built by Edward I to subjugate the Welsh. They had a gift shop, but no place to eat on site. It didn’t much matter; there were enough places to choose from in the small town.
I ended up in an alleyway, called Hole in the Wall. Too narrow for a car, but perfect for walking or bicycling. There were several places along the small lane, and at least three restaurants all on the same side of the lane, and I chose the cafe across from where the bell tower used to be. The stones that made up the tower and surrounded the bell were still there but half of the stones were missing so one side was open.
Appropriately named The Bell Tower Cafe, it was a tiny place, maybe ten tables, mostly filled with regulars, a variety of ethnicities all speaking the lyrical Welsh language. They were all getting a good, hearty British breakfast. It looked amazing, but I had already eaten breakfast at the hostel, toast and jam. I watched as the steam rose from the white tea someone had ordered. In searching over the menu, I discovered that old favorite from Warwick – the jacket potato. I had that big potato covered in cheddar cheese with a salad and a soda, and it was delicious. I went back the next day and had the exact same thing.