Sunday 22 May 2011

Day Two: Coasting

Holyhead's been scarred by its position on the Irish Sea. It's not just the massive hole of the port, right in the centre of the town. It's also the lines of communication that lead up to there. The railway lines have scythed through the houses and factories, and then, a hundred years later, the A55 arrived, a motorway in all but name.

This long history of being the an important terminus is reflected in the size of Holyhead station. It's only three platforms, but it's ridiculously long. If you enter from the cab road, you're right at the end of platform 2, and you can see the enormous stretch ahead of you. Walking along it felt quite eerie, since you're surrounded by station buildings that are blocked off and no longer in use.

There are three platforms, but only two are really used these days: platform one for the Euston Super Voyagers, and two for everything else. It was easy to imagine that there used to be huge steam engines billowing smoke here in a way that you can't at, say, Lime Street: the modern gleaming trains and shops make it look 21st century. Holyhead still looks and smells like an old Victorian termini.

I finally got to the head of the platform, where the railway station and the port have been combined into a single facility: tickets for the trains, check in for the ferries. It's pretty nice, clean and bright and open, and a massive contrast to the empty cold platform area. I could see why it felt so desolate out there - the architects want you to stay by the cafe and the shop.

Of course, far more importantly, I had to get the blog pic of me and the station sign. Annoyingly, there's a massive column outside the port with a BR logo on it, but no station name. Instead I headed for the Celtic Bridge, which curves right into the station from the town centre.

They've built a new steel and glass entrance into the side of the station there, with the double headed logo and a station name plate, so I squatted in front of it and hoped no-one tried to come out:

One down!

My train arrived, a tiny little two coach Sprinter which looked ridiculous against the massive curve of the station. This service was actually ultimately headed for Birmingham International, to which I say, seriously? A naff little two coach train for a service timetabled to take more than four hours? I was glad I was only going one stop - travelling all that way on such a basic train seemed like a horrible proposition.

My next stop was Valley, which was a request stop. I'm always a bit anxious asking for the train to stop, so I approached the guard and asked, "Does this train stop at Valley?" I thought that was a polite way of phrasing it.

The guard sized me up and said, "It does if you really want it to."

Arriva Trains Wales: the home of great customer service.

Valley is such a tiny station, they could only open one door onto the platform. I clambered out as one nice middle aged lady got on. There wasn't much to it - a little grey stone building, a couple of signs, a level crossing. It was unstaffed of course, so I was able to make an arse of myself trying to get the station sign without being watched:

From Valley to the next station, Rhosneigr, by road was a seven mile walk. Which is fair enough but not really much fun. Instead, I'd spotted that the Anglesey Coastal Path passed close by to the station. That seemed like a much more interesting route, a stroll round the edge of the island, so I passed through the very suburban and unexciting village of Valley, over the A55 bridge, and down a side road.

I was rewarded instantly:

A gentle whisper of wind rippling across the grey water of the bay. Green grass growing in patches. A tiny island in the distance, with a white painted farm house beyond. It was an idyll.

Then a jet aircraft shot over my head and scared the shit out of me.

Thank you, Royal Air Force: here I was in a perfect rural setting and the training planes from RAF Valley had to turn up and spoil it all. It was like watching a play at the National while the person next to you munched their way through a bag of bubble wrap: it was just impossible to completely relax and enjoy the scenery. I'd say I was never more than 90% chilled out before another bleeding Hawk came barrelling over my head. You didn't get that in Swallows and Amazons.

Nothing could completely destroy the experience though. I was the only person on the walk as it headed south, across some rocky fields and over a causeway at the top of a wide open bay.

It had rained overnight, so the ground was springy: occasionally I had to detour round a waterlogged section of the path. The term "coastal path" was very literal - it's a bit disconcerting to be strolling along and realise you're between the water and a load of seaweed. Sometimes it vanished completely under the sea, and I had to climb onto a dry stone wall to carry on.

People who know me, and know how ridiculously clumsy I am, will be surprised to hear I fell over only twice: once as I reached the bottom of a wet flight of steps, and my legs decided to jump four feet above my head. I ended up with thick brown mud all down the back of my trousers, two brown smears that looked incredibly unpleasant. Thank goodness I was alone. It soon dried off though, just in time for me to topple over sideways, putting my hand in a load of stinging nettles and slicing my finger open.

I limped manfully on, hoping that the dirty protest on my backside would dry before I reached civilisation again. I didn't have anything to fear. There was no-one around. Occasionally I would pass a single farmhouse, or a little shed, but all there was for the most part was me, the birds, and the jets. I'd spot a rabbit every now and then, its little white tail up as it vanished into the trees ahead. And I walked through the paddock belonging to this horse:

DON'T PANIC: the foal was just having a lie down. It was moving and breathing and everything, I promise.

For a while, the path turned inland, through grassy meadows on top of the cliffs, and then I began to be confronted with strange metallic trees. I'd reached the outskirts of RAF Valley. The Anglesey Coastal Path passes between the airfield's boundary and the shore, and so my walk suddenly became a load of warnings about MOD PROPERTY and KEEP MOVING and DO NOT LOITER. You may be surprised to hear I didn't take any photos for a while, in case an MP came out and shot me in the chin. I did briefly consider hurling myself down a crevasse, in the hope that Prince William would come to rescue me in his Sea King, but I think he was still on his honeymoon at that time. I didn't want to break my spine and get a pleb rescuing me.

I loved that I was so close to the airfield. I could see the hangars and the admin blocks, a couple of private jets, and some Range Rovers marked up with RAF insignia. I found it strange, and yet pleasing, that in these days of terror alerts I can still get within spitting distance of a fighter training facility on a public right of way. An airfield that houses the future heir to the throne, no less.

I'd been walking for three hours before I got my first glimpse of sand. Previously it had all been rocks and moss, but now I was walking across soft sand at a low inlet. It was surrounded by dunes, and I eagerly clambered up them to see what was on the other side.

Gorgeous, uninterrupted beauty: that's what was waiting for me. A long, low sandy beach, utterly deserted, below a quiet bay. The sea rolled in further down the beach, so here it was just a whisper, a rhythmic crash in the distance, while the water here was relatively still. The sun burst out of the clouds as I arrived, and even the jets stopped for a while. I felt like I'd discovered my own private eden.

Walking miles in an anorak with a heavy rucksack had made me tired and sweaty. I had to resist the urge to strip off and jump into the water to cool down. Instead I had a little bit of a rest, and a cup of tea from my flask, before I continued along the beach.

I rounded the headland, and saw a few people ahead, jogging down from the airfield onto the beach. They left barefoot prints in the sand as they ran off into the distance. They were the first people I'd seen in ages, and it was depressing that they were so damn fit.

OK, I admit it: after a while I got bored. The sands seemed to go on forever. It was like being stuck in a low budget remake of Lawrence of Arabia. All that wide open beach meant there were no surprises or twists as I followed it - I could see the path ahead, and the path behind, and all around me, so it became a trudge. A long tiring trudge. I wanted a drink and a sit down, but I was determined to get past the beach first. I could see the village of Rhosneigr up ahead, lovely beachside villas (I played the classic game of trying to decide which one I'd like to own, and gave up when I realised the answer was "any of them"), and the steps from the sands up to the road became a talisman to me. They were calling - not far now, not far now.

And then I hit this:

Hidden below view, a wide flat river estuary - and no way to cross. I'm afraid I may have used some particularly foul language at this point. I felt cheated and frustrated. I had to turn inland, following the river upstream into the dunes in search of a bridge.

I was starting to get tense now, as well. The trains from Rhosneigr were every two hours; I had about twenty minutes until the next one. I could imagine watching the train pass through while I stood on the opposite bank of the river.

The first bridge I came across was closed for repair. More swearing. The second, yet further upstream, came with this warning:

By that point, I'd have walked across an exploding Bridge on the River Kwai if there was a bench on the other side. My tired legs were flagging, but I had to keep up the pace if I was going to get to the station in time.

Past a golf course, onto the main road, and I realised I could see the station platforms. The flat landscape meant that their position on an embankment made them a local landmark. I staggered on, breaking into a half-hearted run when I could, nervous sweat pouring down my chest and my forehead.

Staggering up the gravel path to the platform, I stopped for as brief a period as possible to get the station sign:

then toppled onto a bench. Three minutes to spare. I leaned up against the ugly, bricked up concrete shelter and drained the rest of my flask of tea.

That would turn out to be a mistake...


Jamie said...

A cliffhanger! And with me out of the country with limited internet access for a week.

Cruddy stock on a long-distance service indicates it is a secondary route and people are expected to get the other, better service on the other, better route if they're going the whole way. The train you got will almost exclusively be used for local journeys of less than an hour between intermediate stations on the route. Except for gricers, idiots and Bill Bryson.

gottago said...

I can't believe that in the United Kingdom in the 21st century there is an open bridge with a sign strongly advising against walking over it! I'd have thought H+S would have shut it down years ago!

Robert said...

Two-coach Sprinters are a recent innovation on this route. Not so long ago (until 2000 or 2001) you would get a lovely old-fashioned train with a class 37 locomotive heading up four or five 1960s-built coaches. Indeed, the North Wales Coast became quite an attraction for railfans in the late 90s, as the last place in the UK where "proper" trains could be seen regularly. Example video here - it was filmed in 1998, but could almost have been 1968 were it not for the Regional Railways colours on the coaches.

These days the only vaguely "quality" train you're likely to see in Holyhead is Arriva's once-a-day North-South Premier Service, which comes complete with a chef in first class, courtesy of a generous subsidy from the Welsh Assembly Government. :)

Gavin Kincade said...

I'd vaguely assumed that 'Valley' was a direct translation of the original place name.

Slightly disappointed that it turns out that it's just an anglicised version of 'Vali'.

Still, looking at the photos, I don't suppose that there is actually a valley there.