Monday, 30 May 2011

Day Three (Concluded): Underworld

Edward I must be spinning in his tomb. Welsh flags over Conwy Castle? All those years of oppression for nothing.

I headed out of town. It's a sign of how difficult it is to cross the Conwy estuary that there are three bridges here, each one within a few feet of another: a Telford suspension bridge, a Stephenson railway bridge, and the main road bridge. The Telford and Stephenson bridges were both trial runs for their larger efforts over the Menai Strait - it was a nice bookend to the day. I was on the newest bridge, which is much quieter than when it was originally built.

For a long time, traffic was forced through the tiny medieval streets of Conwy; anyone heading from the North to Holyhead would have had to compete with narrow, 13th century roads. It seems like a nightmare. Fortunately, in the late 80s, they finally decided to do something about it.

Running underneath those boats is the Conwy tunnel, a dual carriageway that bypasses the town completely. It was the first immersed tube tunnel in the UK - sections were floated out into the bay and then lowered into the riverbed.

I know right now there are a whole load of railway people reading this who are rolling their eyes and skipping ahead, and fair enough. I'm not a trains vs roads person. The country needs good railways and good roads. There's far more romance in the railway - it's difficult to get misty eyed over a Vauxhall Astra - but the roads are a necessary, valuable part of the network. The tunnel under the bay is a brilliant feat of engineering, and I find it fascinating. If it were up to me there'd be road tunnels all over the place, sending motorways under city centres and everything. But that's going back to my deep seated Freudian tunnel issues, so let's not dwell, shall we?

One last glimpse of Conwy Castle and then I was into the town of Llandudno Junction. After the scenery across the river it was a bit of a shock. Ugly industrial units. Messy road layouts. Fences everywhere. It was as though Conwy had deliberately farmed all its unattractive parts over here - the picture in its attic.

Also, for a town actually named after a railway station, they go out of their way to hide it. I expected it to be signposted as soon as I hit the bank, but no; I had to follow my instincts, trying to keep the railway line in sight and hoping I ended up outside it.

The path stopped suddenly, and forced me down some steps and into an underpass. They'd done that classic municipal trick of allowing graffiti artists to paint a mural on the inside, as a deterrent to further painting; personally I can't stand it. I know it gives young people something to do, deters crime, blah blah, but I'd prefer a nice brightly tiled tunnel when I'm skulking under a dual carriageway. The heavy purple of the paint, combined with the poor lighting, made it oppressive. It was all well done, and there was a nice cameo from the railway junction, but I still rushed through.

I finally found the station, entirely by luck, and I staked out a spot in the car park for the photo. Unfortunately my camera's lens wasn't wide enough - you'll have to imagine the final 'n' for yourselves:

It was a strange little station. I was there for twenty minutes, and there was almost no activity whatsoever. No trains came through. Then, in a five minute period, we seemed to get about four hundred of the things.

When I'd planned this trip, Llandudno had very much been on the agenda. I was going to take a train from here to Deganwy, next on the branch from Llandudno to Blaenau Ffestiniog, then walk to Llandudno itself so I could take a ride on the tramway. Then a regular train back to Colwyn Bay. My love in with the various towns of North Wales had put paid to that idea, though. It was pushing four o'clock; the tramway would almost certainly be closed by the time I got there. I decided to leave it for another trip, sometime. Maybe.

Instead I took a seat on the platform to wait for the Colwyn Bay train. There were a couple of teenagers further down, teasing a seagull with some Pringles. A group of pensioners arrived, and were dismayed to find that the coffee shop was closed; the man disappeared and returned with some Capri Suns from the Netto over the road. I put in my iPod to blot out their bleating. I was listening to Ian's superb album Come to Metro-land; the evocative lyrics and very British music were the perfect soundtrack for a peaceful train station platform.

And so to Colwyn Bay.

I had a minor frisson of excitement as I arrived on the platform. An ALF! Well, a semi-ALF. Tucked away at the far end of the platform was a Welcome to Colwyn Bay sign with a dragon on it. It's not really an Attractive Local Feature - not unless there really is a dragon with a magic wand somewhere in the town - but I'll take what I can get.

The station meshed Victoriana with Eighties red brick, not entirely successfully; while the lift shafts were necessary and unobtrusive, the octagonal customer services building with its mirrored glasses was too much. Too brassy and low class; Miami Vice in amongst Upstairs Downstairs. On the plus side, we had a working, staffed ticket office, and even ticket gates. Wow. I'd assumed that Arriva Trains Wales had given up on revenue protection as throwing good money after bad. What next, a pleasant, friendly member of staff? A clean train?

Ignoring the stares from the drivers in the taxi rank, I took the station pic:

The town was pretty and busy. The shopping day was winding down, but the pedestrianised precinct was still thronged, and the shops looked well patronised. The WH Smiths, in particular, had a nice metal canopy with WHS formed in the ironwork.

The Travelodge came with a surprise: The BF! He'd driven down to Colwyn Bay to meet me, and to take me out for a dinner. This was a wonderful treat, not least because the town's culinary options seemed limited - if you didn't want KFC or a kebab, you would be out of luck. With the Bf's arrival I could justify going to a proper restaurant. Eating out on your own seems like a ridiculous extravagance.

We ended up in what seemed to be Colwyn Bay's sole non-takeaway eatery; Virgilio's or, as it's also known, the Restaurant Time Forgot. If you bundled up every Italian restaurant cliche, scrunched them into a ball, and threw them into 1976, you'd get Virgilios. Plastic vines crawling over a terracotta indoor roof; plastic tablecloths and laminated menus; red, white and green fairy lights thronging the ceiling. We were the only people in there and ate our pollo cacciatore and seafood pizza inbetween whispers. The owner lurked behind a wall, chatting to her friends, but keeping a firm eye on us; we'd barely put our knives down before she whisked our plates away. It was cheap, it was cheerful, and it was a lovely end to the day. It beat a Morrison's sandwich in my hotel room, anyway.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Day Three (Continued): Love Profusion

Up until this point, my feelings on Wales had been mostly distant admiration. Previous visits had convinced me it was a bit of a miserable place - that soulless strip of grey buildings that hugs the coast from Shotton to Prestatyn; rough houses and abandoned factories and miles of tin caravans. The trip so far had shown me some astonishing beauty (on the Anglesey coast, crossing the Menai Bridge) but also ugliness (Holyhead, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch). I had been impressed, and sometimes enthused, but I wasn't captivated.

That was about to change. I was on the train from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch to Llanfairfechan, which sounds like someone trying to say the first one but giving up halfway through ("Llanfair... feckin' hell, can't they just speak English?"). Onboard I noticed this little notice, which fascinated me:

To save your eyes, it says "It is an offence to consume alcohol on trains and stations on the following routes: Ponytypridd to Treherbert, Aberdare, Merthyr and Caerphilly to Rhymonsey". To which the obvious question is: "why?". What goes on at those stations? What scandal erupted and turned them dry? I wondered if this was part of that Welsh Temperance Movement, still clinging on to the railways through some antiquated by law. It's probably more likely that it's to stop marauding rugby fans from tearing up the carriages.

As was becoming the norm, I was the only person to get off at Llanfairfechan; I didn't take it personally. The station was squeezed under the A55 which lead to an interesting contrast. I was stood on a deserted country station, but all I could hear was a drone of traffic whizzing past behind the retaining wall. It was like being back on Anglesey, with the jets interrupting your contemplation.

On the other side of the station is a small park, which runs down to the promenade, and blessed be: a totem sign! I hate having to use platform signs on this blog. It's just cheating. I grinned madly under the BR logo, and only got one pitying look from a passer-by, which is a result:

Under the A55, and I got my first surprise: a very scenic river, cascading down the hill towards the coast. It was pretty in a sort of ridiculous way, like it had been designed for a Disney film; it was so perfectly tranquil. I headed up the hill towards the village proper, becoming increasingly gleeful as it unfolded in front of me.

The thing is, Llanfairfechan is wonderfully, brilliantly, amazingly gorgeous. It is one of the most charming places I have been to in my life. I was absolutely smitten. The high street was heralded by a round tower, and after that it was a parade of tiny, valuable shops: a carpet store, a bathroom fittings store, a hairdresser, all local businesses, not chains. Interspersed with them were greystone cottages and little patches of green, with the mountains rising above me. And behind it all I could hear the cascading water as it made its way down the slopes.

Rather than push on, I took a table in the Castle Bridge Cafe, and had a pot of tea out of the kind of glass cup and saucer that I thought had vanished in the 1970s. The Cafe seemed to have some kind of nautical theme going on; there were plastic starfish in the windows, and my tray was encrusted with all sorts of barnacles.

The only other people in the cafe were the owner, a man sat at the counter, and a table of four: three old ladies and an old man. I could have listened to them forever. They must turn up every day, for their tea and cake and gossip, and stay here till it closes. The man at the counter was doing a crossword: they offered to help but he refused, because they'd spoil it for him. In the meantime, I leaned back and eavesdropped. Anyone disgusted by my behaviour should think again - eavesdropping is the best free entertainment there is, and more people should do it. Especially when the conversation was as good as this. Among the gems I unearthed in my half-hour in the cafe:

- Lady No. 1 was out in her dressing gown last night because of a disturbance over the road. The police were called because someone had tried to break into Alistair the Artist's shop. (Woman behind the counter, horrified: "The police came?")

- Lady No. 1 regularly goes on holiday with a lady named Rhoda who, for reasons best known to herself, refuses to go to bed unless she's wearing a cardigan.

- "I was watching Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? It was his last film. No, not Sidney Poy-ti-eh [sic]. Spencer thingy. With the hat."

- "That trip to York was awful. Morse died while we were away." (She meant John Thaw, but apparently none of them were fully cognisant of the fact that Inspector Morse was fictional).

- The man brought up the topic of football, which they all agreed was rubbish and a waste of time. He complained: "Manchester City won the FA Cup and there was a picture of them celebrating in the paper. They all had their mouths open - it was disgusting."

I texted The Bf. "We're moving to Llanfairfechan. Start packing."

Only part of me was joking.

There are two ways to get from Llanfairfechan to Penmaenmawr if you're a pedestrian. The first is to walk up the mountain, round the back of the summit, and back down again, via the North Wales Coastal Path.

The second way is to get a bus.


Sod it, I was tired and lazy and the cup of tea and the interesting chat had made me a bit dozy. I figured I could do without a hike through the foothills of Snowdon. Plus the bus stop - a tiny little one in the Welsh countryside, remember - had a shelter and seats and an LED Next Bus indicator and a service every fifteen minutes. That's better than Merseytravel offer me in Oxton. There's a shelter at the top of my road with no seats or timetable, and the buses only turn up every half hour on days during the Spring Equinox when there's a rising star in Cancer. And even then, they don't go anywhere you'd actually want to go. I took up a seat in the shelter and watched the people in the bus stop opposite stroke a horse in the field behind. It was all so wonderful.

The bus was clean and efficient and on time. I was sat across from two people talking Welsh. Surprisingly, this was the first time I'd actually heard people talking Welsh on my whole trip. Previously, I'd found it a slightly annoying language - all those extra l's and f's, and the occasional throat clearing noise, and their absolute refusal to use the letter 'x' ("tacsi"? Really?). Now, in my new fondness for all things principality related, I wondered if it was difficult to learn. It probably is, but I figured that I wouldn't be able to truly consider myself a productive member of the Llanfairfechan community until I was able to ask for a pint of bitter using only consonants.

I was close to choosing wallpaper patterns for my new Welsh home when I realised the bus was heading for the Penmaenbach tunnels. The A55 swings through two tunnels here, one built in the 1930s and now only used for Eastbound traffic, and one built in the 1980s for Westbound traffic. In line with my general love for massive engineering projects, I have an unhealthy fondness for tunnels. I think it comes from reading too many adventure stories as a kid, and growing up loving anything secret and hidden. I still get a thrill when we use the Mersey Tunnels (true fact: the night I met the Bf, I got him to use the Kingsway Tunnel, because I'd not travelled through that one. And he still came back for more!) I was ridiculously pleased as we disappeared into the darkness.

The downside of buses is that if you've never been somewhere before, you don't know where your stop is. Train stations have a certainty about them. They're fixed, unmoving points in the world. Like God. Except they exist.

As it was, I had to just jump off when I estimated I was in the centre of Penmaenmawr. If I was wrong, I apologise, but what I saw looked gorgeously centre-ish. Again, I was entranced. This had a different feel to Llanfairfechan; that had been mostly about nature, with trees and the river capturing me. Here it was the buildings and the people. Penmaenmawr was busier, and its high street was wonderfully Victorian - thick solid buildings with ironwork and glass out front.

The sadness was that the village centre had seen better days. Most of the shop windows were empty, but strangely, it didn't seem frighteningly bare. There wasn't an air of decay. It seemed like they were temporarily between tenants - not so much abandoned, more "resting". I decided to have another cup of tea to compare and contrast the gossip with Llanfairfechan's. I picked the Light Up Pen Cafe which was, I thought, the worst pun-named cafe in the history of the universe. "Light Up Pen"? That's just rubbish.

Turns out, the reason for its strange name is this cafe is a community run venture: all the profits go to funding the annual Christmas lights. I felt the sense of local pride while I was in there - the staff and the customers were bantering back and forth like old friends. I should however report that the level of gossip in the Light Up Pen cafe couldn't compare with the Castle Bridge, so I'm afraid Llanfairfechan wins that battle. The best Penmaenmawr could manage was a couple of blokes earnestly discussing the football, and who cares about that?

It was a very pleasing walk down the hill to Penmaenmawr station, past one of those miserable looking Victorian monuments to Gladstone. Apparently it was erected from local donations - I'm not sure why they bothered, since he doesn't look very happy to be there.

On the plus side the station itself is lovely...

...or it would be if it wasn't shuttered and boarded up. Sigh.

I'd trekked all the way from Anglesey, and I'd only encountered one working station, at Holyhead itself. That was mainly because they were sharing facilities with the ferry terminal. What gives? (Though in fairness, Bangor might have been staffed once they finished the building work). How hard is it to lay on a single ticket office, with one man who can answer questions and sell you a ticket. He'd be an oracle, a salesman, and a security guard.

Because I got thinking: this would be a great place to commit a murder. A nice open space. Not too many people around. The ability to come and go without raising suspicion. Time it between trains and no-one would ever know. You could get a couple of hours of bodily mutilation without being bothered.

Although thinking about it a bit more, it'd be better for an affair. You want a discreet place to spoon with the person of your choice, without having to pay out for a hotel room. Here's your spot! It's got parking, it's got places to sit down, it's undisturbed. Far better than doing it in the back of a car on a lane somewhere. And if you're of an exhibitionist bent, you can coincide with the express trains and give them all a flash of your arse as they speed through.

With my mind firmly in the gutter, I got on board the train and headed off to Conwy. I'm not being English-centric - this used to be called Conway, didn't it? That seems to have fallen out of favour completely. I'm not complaining. Conwy sounds much nicer, and in my new pro-Welsh stance, far prettier.

It's a testament to the power of the railways in Victorian times that the trains brush right up against the skirts of the castle itself. No-one dared tell them that it was a bit close to the heritage, or that they might endanger the artefacts, or it didn't look as pretty. They built the line where it was practical and that was it. Something the HS2 planners should perhaps bear in mind.

Conwy's another request stop, but I didn't need to worry: the platform was teeming with tourists waiting for the train. I wasn't the only one to get off for once, either.

I know this isn't exactly a newsflash, but Conwy is very pretty. Ridiculously pretty. Obscenely pretty. Castle + walls + tiny streets + more history than most countries forget = gorgeousness.

Just look at that. That's the square right outside the station; that's before you've even ventured into the town proper. Like most tourists, I wandered round with a delighted smirk on my face. It was all so lovely.

But - well, there had to be a "but" - it was all a bit fake. Not the history, but the feel of the town was that it had become a tourist destination, and that was it. The shops were almost all tourist tat or tea rooms. Or banks. No matter how small the village or town was in Wales, there always seemed to be a representative from each of the big banks: perhaps the Assembly is secretly funding it.

It meant that while I liked it, I couldn't love it. It was a bit too theme park for me.

On the plus side, it did have somewhere I could buy one of these:

so obviously it's not all bad.

No, actually, it was a wonderful little town. Perhaps after Penmaenmawr and Llanfairfechan my joy muscles were all tired out. I'd come to expect - not expect, take for granted - that this corner of North Wales would be beautiful and scenic and lovely.

I leaned back in the pub and let it all wash over me. The barmaid brought me a prawn sandwich that was about four hundred times better than the mangy one I'd bought in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, and for half the cost. The man next to me rustled his paper. The sun streamed in from the beer garden.

I thought, I could stay here. I could just settle in and relax and have a few pints and be happy. Contentment.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Day Three: Problems With Young People. And Old People.

Alright, I admit it: I was wrong. I may have waxed lyrical about anonymous Travelodges versus little B&Bs. I stand by that to a certain extent. But the Menai Hotel in Bangor was far better than the white cube I stayed in the night before. I was given a large comfy room, with a double bed and plenty of space. The TV had Freeview - proper Freeview, not the bizarre compromise the Travelodge had, where you got Russia Today but not BBC Three - and I had a view of the Menai Straits from my window:

My only complaint was the hotel bar and restaurant. Once I'd recovered the night before, I'd showered and headed downstairs to get some food in the bar. I discovered, to my horror, that it wasn't just a bar: it was a student bar. There were groups of young, happy, clever young people sipping their drinks, playing pool, having fun.

I hated them, the cheery, youthful bastards. They were just about young enough to be my children. They were noisy and boisterous, while I sat in the corner, lonely, fat and sipping a pint of lager. I may as well have had "SEX PERVERT" stamped on my forehead. I decided to skip having food there before they surrounded me and pulled me to pieces.

Bangor as a whole was very pretty, but absolutely dominated by students. I nipped to Morrisons for some cash and snacks, and all I saw was a mass of purple hair, pierced eyebrows and boots. Youth everywhere. I wondered, how does the town cope with this mass influx? How does it exist in the summer months, for example? And how do the students themselves cope with it?

I experienced something like this when I studied in Ormskirk. That's another small town with a big Uni. I remembered how you'd go to the pubs in town and see the same faces - one group in the Queens Head, one group in the Golden Lion, one group in the Buck i' 'th Vine. (We used to hang out in the Plough, which was off the beaten track and suited our sad loner personalities). The same people showed up at sporting events, at club events, and trips out. On one boring afternoon, my friends and I compiled a Saliva Trail map, a kind of Six Degrees of Snogging, and were disturbed to find that we were all a lot closer to one another than we'd hoped.

I know all universities are like this - communities within communities, tight knit worlds. But in Ormskirk, we had the option to leave. You could study in Ormskirk, but live in Liverpool or Southport or Preston or Wigan without any hassle. You didn't have to drink in town - one Merseyrail ride and you were in the city. Yes, there were loads of intermingling relationships, but there were also a lot of outsiders (in my entire time at Edge Hill, I only copped off with one fellow student. And that's quite a record given how slutty I was).

I thought about Bangor students and how they must spend three years bumping into exes. There's no escape. Where are you going to go that isn't Bangor? Llandudno? Colwyn Bay? Hit the hot nightspots of Rhyl? The nearest big city, accessible by public transport, is Chester, and that's an hour away. Imagine living in a world where your best hope of a good night out is Chester. I couldn't help but think that the students were missing out on something - missing out on the chance to mix with other people like them from outside their enclosed world.

And goodness only knows what it must be like to be gay there. No access to the big city pubs and clubs. Just the same faces at the Uni gay nights, in the LGBT Society. I got four propositions on Grindr that evening, which is four more than I've had on the Wirral in the past year - they must have been overjoyed to see a new face.

All this was swilling around in my head as I walked towards the Menai Bridge. Yes, it was a beautiful location, and a good place to study academically. That's not all university is about, though.

These thoughts were all because I was concerned about the good of the students, and not at all because I'm jealous of their youth and opportunity. It's not based on anger either, despite them riding their bikes on the pavement and constantly trilling their bells to get me out of the way. If you were on the road you wouldn't have this problem, cyclists.

I was actually feeling pretty content. The views over the Straits were truly beautiful. There was a kind of fragility to the human parts, the epic stretch of water and the rising hills overshadowing the tiny towns and boats.

Every now and then I caught a glimpse of the blue steelwork of the suspension bridge, until finally I was on the approach path. This was the original bridge, Thomas Telford's magnificent feat of engineering. The eddies and currents beneath the bridge are notoriously strong. The narrowing strait causes water from either side to gush through at a frightening rate, which caused all sorts of nightmares during construction - not helped by an edict that they couldn't use scaffolding as this would impede shipping. It's no longer the main route to Anglesey - that's been taken by the Britannia Bridge, further down - but it's still extremely busy, and struggling to cope with today's traffic.

There was a disturbing reminder of its second use as I got closer. On the side of the carriageway was an orange telephone box, like you'd see by the side of the motorway, with a sign above it:

Feeling desperate? Please ring the Samaritans. Free phone here.

It gave me a chill - a disturbing reminder of people's frailties as I stepped onto the walkway.

Regular readers (hello you!) will know that I have no head for heights, and that I'm regularly terrified by bridge crossings. Strangely, this didn't happen on the Menai Bridge. Unlike the Runcorn Bridge, for example, this felt strong and secure. I didn't feel as vulnerable as I did on that one, even though this bridge was 125 years older. At least, I didn't as a pedestrian: I wouldn't have fancied being on that bus.

Perhaps it was because I was so close to the naked steelwork and I could see how solid it was. When the bridge was closed for repairs a few years ago, it wasn't because Telford's brilliantly engineered metal works had failed: it was because the roadway had become weak and tired.

I stopped halfway to take a photo (which shows you how calm I was: normally I'd have my head down, practically running across). As I snapped the gorgeous view, I wondered which side of the bridge was more popular for suicides. There's always one, and it's generally the side with the prettiest view, which is a depressing fact in itself. I thought of the horror and torment and pain you suffer to want to die, and how even in those final moments you want one last glimpse of beauty.

On the one hand, you had the small town of Menai Bridge itself, and the hills of Bangor:

On the other side, the curve of the straits and Stephenson's Britannia Bridge:

I decided that if was going to throw myself off the side, I'd pick the second view, but that's because I have a fondness for bridges and big engineering projects. Handy to know for future reference, anyway.

There's a little exhibition space on the island side of the bridge, with informative boards and a couple of benches. There's also a column erected by the Institute of Civil Engineers to pay tribute to the genius of Thomas Telford. He really was a brilliant man, and I'd urge you to read up on him if you get the chance. Don't let the fact that the town of Telford is named after him put you off.

I dunked off to the side and into a public car park behind a Waitrose in search of a footpath. The Anglesey Coastal Path resurfaces here, and it took me through some woodland, which was a new experience for this trip. It was still early, about nine am, and so the only people I encountered on the path were dog walkers and schoolboys bunking off.

When the path finally reached the coast properly, it was beside a tiny spit of land, leading to an island with a church and graveyard on it. I loved it - it was like something out of Enid Blyton. I could just see the Famous Five discovering working class smugglers in the cemetery, and making sure they were sent back to the slums where they belonged.

From there I trekked up the hill and onto the A5. It's difficult to believe this was once one of the main roads in Britain. It's just another two-lane country road, high above the water, dug into the hillside. The A55 whizzes everything off to one side now, carrying the traffic to and from Chester without it ever having to see a single carriageway.

There was a lay-by at the side of the road, with a couple of benches, so I took the opportunity to pause and take in the view of both bridges - one to the left, one to the right. The second bridge, the Britannia, was built by Robert Stephenson to carry the railway line. I'd already seen the famous stone lions that guard the entrance, travelling back and forth on the trains across the bridge.

It's probably the only bridge in the world where being destroyed by fire did it a favour. Some schoolboys accidentally set light to the bridge in 1970: when it was rebuilt, a second deck was added, carrying a carriageway across the Menai Straits and taking the strain off the Telford Bridge.

Even so it's still not up to current standards, causing a real bottleneck, and the Welsh Assembly is looking into ideas to improve the crossing, including perhaps building a third bridge across the Straits. I'm guessing whatever's built won't have the grace and beauty of the existing bridges.

(I should say, in passing, that this lay-by was very busy considering the time of morning. It was full of people sat in their cars doing nothing. I have therefore assumed that this is a dogging spot. It's my automatic conclusion whenever I see an unlikely gathering of cars in one place: they're doggers. I've never actually seen a bare arse pounding away through the windscreen, but it's still where I go to.)

Continuing on a smutty theme, I walked past the Marquess of Anglesey's Column (erected 1816 - snerk) which sadly was hidden by trees. I do like a good tall erection (steady).

I was finally reaching the town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. I say town: it's more like a tourist centre with some houses attached. I'd been here once before, a couple of years ago, but that was by car so it doesn't count. As it was lunchtime, I decided to join the hordes in the visitor's centre before my train.

The experience was educational to say the least. I'm no stranger to tourist tat. I've done museums, galleries and so on the length and breadth of Europe. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that the visitor's centre at Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is one of the most miserable experiences on British soil.

Firstly, it's not a visitor's centre: it's a market for pointless tat. Do you have an urge to buy candles, fleeces, or comfortable slacks? Do you need a Gracie Fields CD? Do you want a tea tray with some flowers on it? Come on down! The price is almost certainly ridiculously high.

I went to the back of the centre, where there's a cafe. Sorry: a "restaurant", because microwaving lasagnes makes it a cut above a caff. Shuffling into line behind two old ladies who had no concept of what they wanted, I clutched my Coke Zero and sandwich for the best part of five minutes while each pensioner debated each item they saw. It was like the real life version of this:

- though that is, of course, one of the finest pieces of comedy ever.

At the end we presented our meagre offerings to the world's least pleased customer service representative, and she pronounced a clearly made up amount that we ungrumblingly paid because at least it meant we could stop queueing.

I settled in and opened my sandwich. Ham and coleslaw. Yes, in 2011, the most exciting sandwich they had was white bread ("Granary? With my molars?"), a slice of ham and some bog standard coleslaw. Pret a Manger has nothing to fear.

It was dry and meagre. I swilled the Coke around to try and stop it from sticking to my gums and considered better ways I could have spent £4.90.

All the while I was being watched. As a single male with all of his original teeth, I was clearly out of place in the restaurant, and I caught people just staring at me. I hadn't come in on a coach. Where was I from? Was I one of these "hoodies" they'd read about in the Express? Was it time for a citizen's arrest? Then a man with learning difficulties cried out, and their laser sharp judgement beams were turned on him and his carer instead.

Suddenly, as if an invisible order had been given, the eatery emptied. Everyone just got up and left, scattering their discarded food behind them ("Self-clear? You didn't have that at the Lyons Corner House."). The order had gone up that the coach would soon depart so they fled, to be replaced by another swarm of grey and polyester, like superannuated orcs flooding the battlements. I burped up a mouthful of nasty coleslaw and took it as my cue to leave as well.

I'd thought I'd be able to spend a half hour or so in the centre before my train arrived but that wasn't going to happen. I had a brief look at the Hornby shop. I've long thought about building a model railway layout, but I realised a while back that what I really want is someone else to do the layout for me and then let me play with it.

So, it was off to the train platform. The best thing about Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is that it's the only place in the world that I can take my picture in front of the station sign and not look like a twat. Well, no more of a twat than usual.

I sat on the platform and watched the old dears arrive. None of them even looked at the train station. The whole time I was there at most half-a-dozen people made their way over. What were the coaches visiting if it wasn't the train station with the longest name in the world? The sign? They all wanted their pic taken outside the visitor's centre. It was like going to the Tower of London and spending all your time in the gift shop.

It could be different. The station house is boarded up. Wouldn't that make a great little exhibition centre? A history of the station, the reason for the ridiculous name, a room devoted to other places with long names. Some stuff on Welsh railways, or Anglesey railways. Stick the Hornby store in there, to really cater for the gricers; it'll mean Ponden Mill would have more room. It's one of the most famous train stations in the world - it should be more than just a candle store with a coach park. It could be good.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Day Two (Continued): Thirsty Work

One of my biggest fears on this trip was inadvertently insulting the Welsh. I don't mean by wheeling out tedious sheep gags or referencing Tom Jones. I don't even mean winding them up as I used to with my friend Debbie, by telling her that Wales shouldn't have a football team because "it's not a real country".

It was down to the language. I didn't want to say the wrong word, or mispronounce it, and accidentally call people a wanker. My default option was to use the English name - Valley, not Y Fali, and Holyhead instead of Caergyle. Sometimes however, the Welsh frustrated me by having no English equivalent.

My next stop - a request station - was called Ty-Croes. Eh?

In the end I chickened out and said to the guard, "Can you stop at the next station, please?"

Ty-Croes was a proper, old school, country station. Nothing but fields around but there was still a tiny halt with an old fashioned station building. Of course, it was closed and boarded up, but you can't have everything.

Here's a fact about the human body - if you sweat a lot, you get dehydrated. You get thirsty and tired.

I'd been sweating all morning. My new anorak, bought specially for the trip, turned out to be one of those plastic cocoons that turns into a sweat box with the slightest moment of exertion. I'd been trudging up and down hills and dunes, clambering over fences, jumping across puddles. And my current round of antidepressants cause ridiculous amounts of sweating as a side effect. (Plus, let's be honest: I'm carrying a few more pounds than I should).

As I left Ty-Croes, I was still recovering from the dash for Rhosneigr. The flask of tea had momentarily satiated me, but now, as I started following the country lanes for my next station, I began to feel the thirst. I was tired and dry.

I'd not travelled far on the train, but without the noise of the jets overhead, it felt like a completely different world. The landscape was flat and deserted. Fields of green pasture. I was walking on the country roads but there was no traffic, none at all. I ended up strolling down the middle of the roads - Highway Code be damned. Sometimes a mud-splattered car would roll past, no doubt ferrying a farmer or worker from one field to another, but they were a moment of noise in a sea of calm.

My OS map had various settlements marked on them, but they were at best hamlets, and at worse, just a single farmhouse. My dream of finding a village store for a bottle of Coke (or better, a pretty little pub) seemed just that: an unfulfilled dream.

Worse, I had the railway line within sight the whole time. It was a constant reminder of where I was headed, but in the worst way possible. While it takes a straight, direct route across the island, the roads I was following twisted closer, then away. At one point I was taken close enough to see the tracks, then the road turned left, and it receded into the distance. A couple more turns, and there it was again. I saw the steps running up the embankment, and I really had to resist the temptation to clamber up and simply walk along the sleepers to the next station. Instead I passed under the bridge in search of another pathway.

An even more obscure lane got smaller and smaller and smaller until I was presented with a locked gate and some hedges. There was meant to be a path here, a public right of way, but it seemed impassable.

Nope - there was a sign, old and bare. And buried under all those thorns and leaves was a stile, covered up and abandoned. Clearly the farmer here wasn't keen on people passing over his land.

Well, tough. Somewhere on the other side of that field was a potential drink for me, and nothing would stop me. I had an Ordnance Survey map on my side. So with weary limbs I pulled myself over the fence - having a moment of panic when it wobbled under my weight - and then splashed into the thick mud on the other side. Nice.

On it went. The path wasn't a path, just muddy rivulets beside the hedge. I even had to scramble through a ford - a full on stream crossing my way. (Come on - how hard is it to stick a couple of planks down as a bridge?). I eventually ended up in the farmyard, squeezing past a truck parked in the centre of my way, and all the time cursing the farmer. My great-uncles had a farm, so I have a lot of sympathy for them, but the sheer obnoxiousness of this particular landowner towards people who had a right to be there made me hope he went bust and his farm was turned into a holiday home.

I was thirsty, tired and riled up now, and things weren't going to get any better. I crossed a lane for another path, this time with a sign from the Welsh Environment Agency. It seemed that my fantasy of a lazy stroll by a lake was to be ruined by an infestation of poisonous blue-green algae. I had no plans to dive in and swallow half the contents, but it's a blow to the image of a rural idyll.

Again, the path was barely there, grown over with thick long grass and nettles. I wondered how long it was since someone had come this way. I felt like Stanley in the jungle, thrusting my way through the undergrowth and hoping there was nothing nasty lurking below. Admittedly, I was more concerned about hidden bogs, not poisonous creatures, but it's the principle that counts.

That bridge, incidentally, is the winner of the 2011 Prize for Most Useless Handrail. It was rusty, thin, and wobbled the minute I touched it: I thought it best to just risk it and do without.

I stopped for a moment in a field to check my map and take a breath. The sweat was still pouring off me, and now I was desperate to get to the next station. I just felt so exhausted. In retrospect, I probably should have done some exercise - any exercise - before deciding to embark on a ten mile hike. The longest I had walked in the weeks immediately prior was from Sainsbury's car park to the store.

At least I was closing in on the railway again. As I crossed a field, the Holyhead bound train passed by. It was like a joyous portent: when that train made its way back this way, I'd be on it.

I'd hoped that Bodorgan station might have some shops nearby. I wasn't exactly expecting an MtoGo, but it was a train station - that's a centre for people right? There were houses, yes, but nothing remotely commerce related. No shops, no pubs, nothing. The station house, once again, was just another home.

On the plus side, it had seats. I collapsed on the bench and peeled my anorak off. My t-shirt was soaked through; it still wouldn't be dry the next morning. I leaned back and let myself fall away.

The train turned up half an hour later, by which point I was at least semi-human. Semi.

My next stop should have been the legendary Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, the final station on Anglesey before you cross to the mainland. But I was too tired. Sod it. I'd come back tomorrow. So I cruised past it and got off at Bangor, which seems to be in the middle of a major refurbishment, unfortunately.

Even more unfortunately, it was built at the bottom of a hill, and my hotel was at the top. Whose idea was that? They need shooting. Finally I was checked in, and I dropped onto the bed with relief. And then I had the first of a dozen large mugs of water.