Thursday 31 May 2012

One Off

Even the grapefruit pink wash of the sunrise couldn't make Pwhlleli look pretty.  Instead of bathing it in a glorious glow, the light seemed to catch on the ugliest features - the satellite dishes, the pebble dashing, the stained concrete.  It was barely six, and I was deeply regretting my decision to go to a hotel that was mainly a pub with rooms.  Sky Sports had echoed up through the floorboards until closing time.

My train was humming on the platform, letting out those odd diesel pops and grinds.  I treated myself to a table seat and wedged myself in, with only one thing on my mind: Aberech or not?

Yesterday I was clear - no.  I couldn't be bothered to go back and collect Aberech.  After a shower and a pint, my mind started to shift, and then the intervening hours had created a clammy hand at my neck.  The knowledge that I was just one station away from perfection.  The overwhelming desire for completion and closure.  I needed to go there.  I needed to just collect that one station, or I would always, always regret it.

Problem was, the fates seemed to be against me.  It was the first station after Pwhlleli, not far outside the town, and the train seemed to be speeding along quite happily with no intention of stopping.  There was no sign of the guard either.  That prickly feeling of anxiety began to crawl up my throat - not just because I was nervous about asking for the train to stop again, after the sneery woman the day before.  That request stop seemed to be slipping away.

"Good morning."  The guard appeared, professional, calm.  His blonde hair had been efficiently spiked and his uniform was clean and newly ironed.  I handed over my pass and he asked where I was going to.

"Aberech?" I said hopefully.  Pwhlleli was almost gone.  I didn't know if we had time.

"Aberech!" he exclaimed.  His efficient exterior self-destructed; he was suddenly as sweetly camp as Alan Carr at a Pride parade.

"Am I too late?"

"Just in time.  We'll have to go to the middle though."  He sped down the aisle, the increased pace giving him a mince that John Inman would have rejected as over the top, and rang the bell by the door.  We stopped only a few moments later.

Aberech looks like another country station; there are fields and trees and the twitter of birds waking.  The sheep were already excitable, making their presence felt with loud calls to one another.  Under it all though, an ambient backdrop, the gentle whisper of waves crashing.  I turned away from the platform and headed south, up and over high dunes, and reached a wide, empty beach.

The beach was rough with stones, which made it somehow infinitely more interesting than just another wash of sand.  There was a texture to it.  I walked to its centre and watched the water rise and fall.  My sleepiness had fallen away; the combination of the view and the sea breeze shook me awake.

Finally I turned back.  As I reached the top of the dune I saw another train headed for Pwhlleli, roaring past, the driver taking advantage of the early hour to open it up to maximum speed.  The station was in the distance, quiet and undisturbed.

I stumbled down the hill, trying not to slip and cover myself in the slightly moist sand.  There was a child's sock half buried at its foot.  No doubt a visitor from the neighbouring Aberech Sands holiday park; its neon sign glowed, still prominent in the half-light.

Click.  Photo taken, sign in shot, station collected.  And that was the Cambrian Coast Line completed.  Every station between Pwhlleli and Dovey Junction visited, photographed, written about.  I should have felt a sense of achievement, but I didn't.  Possibly because it had been so easy.  The whole line had been so charming and different.  This time last year, when I'd finished the North Wales Coast Line, I was a physical and emotional wreck.  Today I was aching for more.

Which was lucky actually.  Because I was heading back to Dovey Junction - probably the only person in history to have alighted at that station twice in one week.  I still had a branch to collect.

Monday 28 May 2012

Ease On Down The Road

There's something deeply pleasing about the name Criccieth.  Just say it: Criccieth.  I don't know why, it just clicks away inside your mouth.

The station's just as nice.  It's been adopted by Criccieth in Bloom, and they've done a sterling job making it an attractive, comfortable place to dwell.  There are painted murals, some from the local school, some a little more professional, all reflecting the local area.

It's a great effort from a dedicated band of volunteers.  There's a part of me that's annoyed that Arriva Trains Wales can make a profit on subsidies and ticket prices but can't be bothered making their property pretty, but that seems churlish when Criccieth in Bloom are doing it so well.

Their efforts extended to the noticeboard, where there was a lovely Regional Railways poster stored under glass:

Basically, Criccieth had me right from the start.

The main street through the village was as desperate for tourist cash as Porthmadog had been, but in a much more middle class, understated way.  There were cafes and antique shops, but they weren't quite so shameless as their cousins down the line.  In the early evening spring sunshine, everything looked pleasing, charming, dappled.  I rounded a corner and came across a tiny square shaded by trees.  It reminded me of small towns I'd been to in Europe - the heart of the village, a place where old men gather to play chess.

A couple of turns through the streets, and I could see the beach in one direction, and the castle in the other.  I didn't even know Criccieth had a castle so that was a bonus.  There was a medieval square at its base, with brightly painted houses and shops.  I was being romanced.  The only downside was more Criccieth in Bloom planters and posters.  I suspected that my somewhat laissez faire attitude to garden maintenance would not be tolerated here.

Down on the front itself there was a row of tall houses, pastels and creams, looking out over a perfect view of Cardigan Bay.  I'd have loved to have lingered and taken it all in.  Perhaps bought a Ninety-nine and sat on the beach.  But it was gone five o'clock, and I still had two more stations to get, so I pushed on.

The seaside road narrowed to a track, then to a path, then I was walking through fields and between hedgerows.  I was following the Llyn coastal path, which circles the whole peninsula, and which had been carefully signposted and laid out.  One of the glories of this country is our dedication to walkers; the way we are careful to lay out paths and routes for us to enjoy.

Annoyingly, I wasn't alone on the path.  A middle aged man joined it just before me and, even more irritatingly, he walked at more or less the same speed as me.  It meant that I was shadowing him, unable to speed up and overtake, unwilling to slow my pace and fall back.  If I was him I'd have been a little nervous.

Of course, standing behind him and taking a photo didn't make me look any less psychopathic.

Fortunately, he turned off the path, wandering onto a deserted beach and standing at the water's edge.  How nice, I thought.  How pleasing.  Then I suddenly thought of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, where Tracy attempts to commit suicide by walking into the sea on a deserted beach.  I kept glancing over my shoulder, hoping he didn't suddenly pull off his shoes and leg it into the water.  I wondered what I'd do.  Given that (a) I can't swim and (b) I'm not exactly the strongest guy around, I couldn't see myself dragging him out to safety.  Finally I turned a corner and he was left behind, gazing out over the bay.  I hope he's ok.

Now I had a few miles of coast walking ahead of me.  It had looked fine on the map, but now it seemed like something of a slog, with a rucksack slung across my shoulders and a day's stomping around in my legs.  The path rose and fell, sometimes practically in the water, sometimes high above it.  I clambered over stiles into fields of cows, who moo'd loudly as I passed.  I don't know if it was a greeting or a warning.

I rounded a hill, and came across a man pulling a t-shirt on, while his girlfriend stood to one side with dry clothes.  It seemed that he'd been swimming in the river and was just changing back.  Of course, I'd missed a sneaky glimpse of penis, as always.  I have an unerring ability to walk in just after anything interesting happens.

A couple of bridges over lacklustre streams, and then I was crossing the railway line again.  I'd already seen the train from Pwhlleli passing in the distance.  Across the railway, a farm had carefully screened off the public footpath from their yard, building a big wall and putting up clear signs to stop misguided ramblers.

It was something of a relief to finally reach a metalled road, and with it, a clear open footpath.  My ankles were starting to ache from the trudge across the wet soil, so to clump along a proper path was a pleasing change.

It was short-lived.  Lawks but that was a dull road.  It was new, so there were no old trees or hedges along it.  It was in a dip, so I couldn't see the hills behind, and it was too far inland to see the coast.  There weren't any farms or villages along it.  It was a two lane highway designed to bypass anything interesting.

I was starting to panic now.  I wasn't sure if I'd make it to the next station, and it was getting on for seven o'clock.  At this rate I wouldn't be in Pwhlleli until nearly ten.  I was sweaty and tired.  I'd run out of water, so my throat was parched.  And this damn road was so uninspiring, I could barely muster up any interest in it.  I was flagging fast.

Time for some music.

Never underestimate the power of a driving beat in your ears.  I hadn't bothered with it for the majority of the trip, choosing to enjoy my surroundings and let my mind wander, but right now all my mind was saying was "YOU'RE GOING TO MISS THE TRAIN."  I jammed the earbuds in and put on my Movie Music playlist.  The Indiana Jones theme buoyed my spirits; Anything Goes made me smile; Night Fever put a spring back in my step.

I hate to conform to the cliche, but a run of musical theatre songs that cheered me immensely.  Since I was alone in the countryside, and the cars that passed seemed to think a speed limit was a suggestion rather than a prescription, I filled my lungs and sang along.  One Night Only from Dreamgirls, I Move On from Chicago (I did both parts - like most people, I'm a better singer than Renee Zellweger and less robotic than Catherine Zeta-Jones), and, most inspiring of all, Ease On Down The Road.  The Wiz is a horrible, horrible film.  It's probably the most joyless musical ever made; everything is made as grim and unpleasant as possible.  It's impossible not to love the soundtrack though - with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Quincey Jones all working together you couldn't achieve anything less than genius.  I had to bounce along, singing the chorus, a demented munchkin who escaped from the asylum.

I was in full song when I saw the familiar and welcome sight of a double-headed arrow.  I had about ten minutes to spare.

I'm guessing that the road has become a haunt for doggers.  The council had posted signs warning that there were CCTV cameras along it - usually you only get that at the station itself.

Penychain was once the main access for holidaymakers to the Butlin's holiday park behind.  As such, it has a rather more impressive shelter than you'd expect for a country station.  A long brick building would once have held dozens of suitcase-clutching vacationers, ready for their train back to reality.

In its full 1950s pomp, I expect there were seats for the ladies, but they're long since gone.  Instead it's like being in an open shed; it feels like there should be hay on the floor and a donkey pooing in the corner.

Butlin's are gone as well.  It's now branded as a Haven Holiday Camp (they have the same owner), which isn't as evocative as Butlin's, but is also less Hi-de-Hi!.  I doubt they get many people arriving by train these days, either.

I collapsed on the platform, exhausted.  My plan had been to get the train from here to Aberech, and then walk from there into Pwhlleli.  That was before I'd been forced to incorporate Tygwyn and Talsarnau into my schedule, though.  The idea of walking along the coast as the sun set was distinctly unappealing now.  The idea of walking anywhere was unappealing.  I took a decision - fuck it.  I just wouldn't bother getting Aberech.  It was just one station - you couldn't deny that I'd earned the right to abandon it.  Three days of travel had got me every other stop on the line.

There were only two of us on the train to Pwhlleli.  We arrived as the sun turned to gold, bathing the town in a shiny sparkle.  The other passenger noticed me hanging back and asked if I was lost.  It was very nice of him but I was actually waiting for him to leave so I could take some photos.

Pwhlleli station is a shed.  Not a bad one.  It's been painted and it's been cleaned but it is, at the end of the day, a shed.  Its one feature of interest, a cafe, was closed at that time of night, leaving a big open space with nothing of interest - not even a bench.

Obviously there was no ticket office.  I should have expected it by now, but it still surprised me.  Pwhlleli is the terminus.  It's a destination in itself.  They can't scrape to a single ticket window?  Not even a machine?  I find it utterly baffling that ticket offices are seen as some kind of luxury - they help raise revenue and stop fraud.  They should be everywhere, especially at the ends of lines.

The town didn't make a great first impression; opposite the station was a giant empty department store.  It had clearly fallen on bad times, but here and there were signs things were changing.  The Ethel Austin was still vacant - not a good sign, given that they went bust years ago - but there were local shops dotted amongst the empty fronts, signs of a gentrification coming.  Around it were good working class businesses and pubs and homes.  Weirdly, it reminded me of St Helens; that same solidity and efficiency, a town that had been humbled and was rising up again.  The most incongruous parts were the new, regeneration money projects, stuck in the centre of the town and too shiny to fit.

My hotel was The Crown, a real boozer in the centre.  Its bars were filled with men watching the football on two screens, knocking back pints of lager; I was tempted to stay because Jamie Redknapp was one of the pundits, but I guessed that wasn't why they were watching.  I was checked in by a solid barmaid in her early twenties, a woman who radiated efficiency and capability.  She was feminine and calm, with a blonde pony tail and a laptop behind the bar with a fashion website on it, but I knew that if a fight kicked off she'd be in there in a moment, pulling them apart without a thought.

I headed up to my room, tired, hot, moist, and started the shower.  It was my last night in Wales.  Tomorrow I'd be heading home.  Eventually.

Sunday 27 May 2012


There's a rift slicing through Minffordd.  You get off at a perfectly normal, ordinary Arriva Trains Wales station.  Platform, road bridge, turquoise shelter.  It's even got a semi-ALF.  I was sharing the train with a load of schoolchildren, and they bundled out onto the platform, yammering into mobile phones and with iPods in their ears.  Traffic noisily passed by.

I followed the kids up the ramp to the exit, pausing for a couple of photos and letting them get ahead.  Then I passed through a dark archway and went back in time.

Beyond that arch it's no longer the 21st century; it's sometime in the Thirties or Forties.  It's a time when men wore hats, and women wore hats, and people were casually racist and smoked like chimneys and had tuberculosis.  It's a world of repressed emotion and cinders in eyes and almost but not quite throwing yourself under the express train.

Minffordd is part of the Ffestiniog Railway, probably the biggest of Wales' "little railways", and certainly the most well-known.  The crossing lines form a sort of interchange in time, like a particularly odd episode of Goodnight Sweetheart.  It was charming, a little museum piece to remind you that train travel used to be a pleasantly homely experience.

The narrow gauge train had left just before my train arrived; I suppose the timetable's been built to accommodate people heading home in the afternoon, rather than arriving for a trip.  I walked outside and got the station sign, making sure to get both the old and new versions in one shot.

The road heads down the hill from the station, threading above and below the railway to Porthmadog.  I passed the entrance to Portmeirion on the way.  I have to admit I wasn't particularly tempted to look round.  I knew from a previously aborted visit that it was pretty expensive, plus I didn't think I'd have enough time to give it justice.  In addition, I have never seen a single episode of The Prisoner (I can hear Jamie gasping in horror at this point).  I haven't avoided it, but I just haven't got round to watching it, so I feel that I'd miss an extra dimension of the Portmeirion experience.

To my right, the mountains were being torn apart by machines, systematically quarried for the slate.  Tall terraces marked the progress of man into the side of the solid heft of the earth.  It was awesome and a little frightening.  As I walked I thought about all that rock being chipped, mined, shipped out, never to be recovered.  All those bits of the earth that we'll never get back.

Porthmadog is reached via The Cob, a long embankment built across the estuary of the Glaslyn river.  For decades this was the main route into town, but a newly opened bypass further north means that it's been relegated to a local road.  The Ffestiniog Railway also uses the Cob to get to the town, on its highest point, while pedestrians are walled off on the interior.

It gives you wonderful views across the estuary, to the mountains beyond.  Tired cyclists, baked in the sun, passed me on the road.  Lagoons formed in the reclaimed land, filling with sea birds.  I could see the low profile of the new bridge in the distance - clearly it was built to try and be as unobtrusive as possible.  That disappointed me.  A good piece of engineering and design can enhance a landscape.  Though admittedly, improving this landscape would be like putting lipstick on Angelina Jolie - you had a pretty good start.

At the end of the Cob, there's a bridge to give access to the river, and the station of the Ffestiniog Railway.  There were several portly men with grey hair sunning themselves trackside, leaning against the wall and drinking tea.  I imagined they were all retired BR engineers, who'd taken all their knowledge and pushed it into the volunteer railway.  Their poor wives, imagining that after forty years they'd be able to wash their husband's shirts without presoaking it to get the oil out.  I was tempted to shout up to them and ask if they knew where the proper train station was, but I feared being beaten to death with a sleeper.

I was three metres inside the town when something suddenly hit me: "Porthmadog" and "Port Madoc" were the same place.  I don't know how this fact sailed over my head for so long.  Probably because my uncultured English lips had assumed Porthmadog was pronounced as it was spelt, with a soft "th" and a "g" on the end.  I felt thoroughly stupid.

I liked Porthmadog less the more I got to know it.  At first, it seemed thoroughly enchanting, with its pretty harbour and that heritage railway.  As I walked round I realised that it wasn't so much a town as a tourist fleecing machine.  The presence of "Cymru Crafts" and, oh Christ, an Edinburgh Woollen Mill spoke volumes.  This was the kind of town where the coach parties are frisked on exit for their small change.

Having to make an escape from a drunk didn't help.  He lurched towards me on a side street, an alcohol soaked zombie seeking out change from a tourist.  I stowed my camera and made a quick getaway before he could spit out his request.

I'm not sure where he got drunk, though, because I couldn't find a pub.  I'd decided to treat myself to a pint, but the only places I could spot seemed to be gastro first, pubs second.  I didn't fancy a sneering waitress when I explained all I wanted was a bitter, not an overpriced plate of fish and chips, so I finally fell into the Cafe Portmeirion.  It was part coffee shop, part kitchen shop, but it had free wi-fi and good lattes so I installed myself in a corner by the cake decorations.

Again, I was the only English person in there.  Ahead of me a schoolboy sat with his Granddad, shouting conversational Welsh at him and getting the occasional nod in return.  I imagined his mum thrusting a tenner in his hand, telling him to take Gramps out for a cup of tea and letting him keep the change.  I had no idea what they were talking about until "Everton" was suddenly there in amongst all the weird phrases.

Outside I saw some familiar faces.  On the train that morning I'd been sat behind The Most Middle-Class Family In Existence, and there they were, taking photos in the street.  Dad had a wispy hairdo and a thin beard; he wore a t-shirt with Thai characters on it, no doubt bought in a really genuine street market somewhere untouristy you'd never have heard of.  Mum was pregnant, and wore a tight black frock with a flatteringly simple cardigan that probably cost a silly amount.  Their two adorably tousled children played around their knees.  The family had caught my attention because of their choice of entertainment on the train; Mum and Dad had pulled workbooks out of their wicker beach bag, a sort of "I Spy: Seaside Edition", with illustrations of what they might find in a rock pool.  "Look at this x-ray of a mollusc!" Mum had exclaimed, and I'd sniggered behind my hands.  When I went on a trip with my parents I was bought a Beano Summer Special to keep me quiet; it wouldn't have occurred to them to give me homework.

This wonderful Art Deco Coliseum cinema was on the way to the station; I was sad to see that there was a banner asking for help to save it.  Even more depressingly it was opposite a Tesco superstore roughly the size of Bristol.  When did shopping become a leisure activity, a way to pass your time?  And when did going to the supermarket become part of it?  Wandering round looking at clothes or shoes or DVDs in your spare time I can sort of understand, but where's the entertainment in staring at Cup-a-Soups?

In one last frustration, it turned out that Porthmadog's station building has been preserved.  As a pub.  If I'd just walked a couple of hundred yards more, I could have had that pint, inside the proper station.  I was extremely annoyed.

It was a passing annoyance, though, a momentary anger with myself.  Standing on that platform, it was hard not to smile.  I was on the final stretch of the day, and I just had a couple of trains and a little bit of walking and I would have finished the whole of the Cambrian Coast Line.  Or so I thought.

Thursday 24 May 2012

Language Barriers

Bright blue skies.  A gentle breeze.  The endless glitter of diamonds on the sea.

I pushed away my breakfast plate, half of it still unfinished - there was just too much good.  My lips were tangy from the salted Welsh butter and the crisp bacon.  The only sound was the noise of the man at the next table turning the pages of his newspaper.  It was the perfect start to the day.

It was the end of Barmouth for me.  My rucksack was at my feet, ridiculously over-stuffed, as usual.  When I was at school I used to get through a bag a term because I just can't help filling them to capacity.  I sipped my tea and wondered if I could stay a little longer.  If I could contrive a reason to sit on the front for the rest of the day, listening to the waves.

Finally I got up and walked lazily to the station.  It was a much later train than I'd been used to; nearly ten o'clock.  I could have got the earlier one, but I thought, why bother?  Why leave before I had to?

"Where are you going to?" the guard asked me as she checked my Rover ticket.

"Tygwyn, please."

She pulled a face.  "Tygwyn?"  She pronounced it as though it was a sexually transmitted disease.  I nodded hopefully, and she swept away.

That face made me wonder if Tygwyn was some abandoned hellhole, a blight on the landscape.  It wasn't.  It was a perfectly acceptable country station - a dinky platform, a shelter.

It was just that there was nothing else around it.  Once again I wondered why they'd built the station - there were no convenient villages, no industries.  There wasn't likely to be a Metro-land style upswing in house construction.  Again, British Rail planned on closing it in the mid-nineties, but somehow it just never happened.

I struck out along country lanes for the next station.  The sun was baking my face.  I realised that I was going to be really quite red by the end of the day; I didn't have any suncream on and the heat was merciless.  If only this had been the weather the day before, on the beach!

I hummed cheerily to myself, occasionally stepping into the verge to avoid an Astra, but otherwise unbothered.  It was just me and the landscape and the odd disinterested sheep.

Talsarnau village rose up on the horizon, first a couple of houses, then a school, then a hotel.  For some reason the architects of the Estuary Lodge decided to base its look around the Bates Motel - an interesting decision, if you're hoping to attract customers who don't want to be cut to ribbons by a homicidal transvestite.

The rest of the village had seen better days.  The church was midway through renovation into a home; the post office was permanently closed.  There was a car showroom on the edge, bringing up visions of a Welsh wideboy in a sheepskin jacket - Jones the spiv, if you will.

People didn't visit Talsarnau for its shopping though.  If indeed, they visited at all.  I walked past the station and headed out to sea.  At low tide the water recedes to leave an open vista of green, slashed diagonally by brown rivulets.  The fences dividing the fields were decorated with seaweed bunting, like it's the Mer-Queen's Jubilee party.

The constant watering made the ground springy and soft as I set out for the edge of the land.  There was something curiously exciting about walking on the river bed; I pictured the tide rushing in, water swilling around my ankles, before dragging me under.  Up ahead was the mound of Ynys Gifftan, a rocky island that rises up out of the estuary.

I spent my childhood consuming Enid Blyton books.  I loved the derring-do and the adventure; you can see how I graduated from there to James Bond.  Both Blyton and Fleming understood the primitive thrill of the island - its hidden mystery and spark.  The Island of Adventure is full of forgers, while The Sea of Adventure gives us dozens of islands with dirty foreign spies.  George the lesbian heroine from the Famous Five actually has her own island, the lucky cow, though she's hopeless at security - it's forever being overrun by criminal types.  Fleming, meanwhile, gave us Mr Big's voodoo Isle of Surprise, and more famously, Dr No's Crab Key.  The Doctor even quotes Clausewitz's principles, saying that an island is the perfect place from which to begin a war.

The Ordnance Survey map warned: Public rights of way to Ynys Gifftan can be dangerous under tidal conditions.  Yet there it was, a few hundred metres of naked sand leading to an isolated mound in the bay.  I was so tempted to cross over and visit the magical place, but how can you cross to a rarely visited island and not explore it completely?  I'd have had to dive in and out of caves, clamber over the rocks, follow every path.  Knocking back lashings of ginger beer all the while, naturally.  I'd have had to own the island, and I just didn't have time for that.  Instead I sat on the shore, at the point where the grass petered out, and drank some of the water from the flask.

Directly opposite me, on the other coast, was Portmeirion.  Its eccentric follies poked out of the trees, some visible, some hidden, a hint of insane humanity in the natural world.  It looked like a Bavarian mountain village, picked up by a tornado and dropped on a Welsh mountain.

I headed back to Talsarnau station.  I hate going back the way I came, preferring to find a new route, but I didn't want to wander too far from the path - that Ordnance Survey warning was in my head.  At least I got a good view of the station building (which is now, naturally, a house).

I'd say this was the first station house I could imagine living in.  Yes, you'd have trains rattling past at all hours, and people staring at your underwear hanging on the line.  Yes, you'd probably get people knocking on the door demanding to know why the 14:20 wasn't on time.  Look at that position though. The mountains behind, the sea in front of you, a wide open sky above.  It'd be worth it.

I arrived back at the station just as the southbound train pulled in.  I adopted my "no thanks" look of disinterest, honed at bus stops, where I glance down at my feet and pretend I don't even notice them.  He was stopping anyway, dropping off two overexcited cyclists who reminisced about visits to the pub up the road. She posed up against the station sign and he took a photo.  What a pair of losers.

The guard on the train was the same one I'd had earlier that day.

"Where to now?"

"Llandecwyn, please."  I'd like you to note I was utterly polite.  She sighed.  "You'll have to go to the middle of the train."

We slowed for the next platform and she looked at me with undisguised disgust.  "You're not going to be on my train coming back, are you?"

"I don't think so.  I'm heading that way."  I pointed ahead of us, meekly.  "They aren't request stops from now on, are they?"

This didn't pacify her.  "Hmph.  I'd best warn the next lot just in case."

Here's the thing: I hate request stops too.  I hate hunting out the guard, I hate drawing attention to myself, I feel bad about making the whole train stop just for me.  I get nervous every time because, as regular readers will know, I'm not very good at talking to strangers.  I'd been getting better at it though. Most of the guards on this trip had been fine with me.

And then that cow talked to me like I was the stone in her undergarments and put me right back where I started.  I felt really bad for asking her to stop the train.  I got off at Llandecwyn, blushing, mumbling a "thank you" as she glared at me.

Let's not forget, I was absolutely within my rights to ask the train to stop.  I had a valid ticket.  It was an advertised request stop.  The timetable is designed to accommodate these pauses, so I wasn't causing a delay.  I made a perfectly legitimate request and yet I was made to feel bad about it.

I took a seat on the platform and watched the train depart.  I felt a bit stupid, a bit embarrassed, a bit of an idiot really - an overreaction, perhaps, but she was clearly gunning for me.  Writing it now, I'm furious that I was made to feel this way.

Dwelling on the positives, Llandecwyn's in another beautiful spot.  It's right by the edge of an estuary, with sheer rock cliffs above it.  Behind it was a narrow road leading to the Pont Briwet - the listed Victorian bridge across the river.

I'd been looking forward to the Pont Briwet.  It's a privately owned bridge, a real rarity on British roads, and the only place to cross the river for miles.  The structure dates from 1860 and has one lane for a single railway track and one for a single carriageway; traffic takes turns going across in each direction, controlled by traffic lights at one end and the tollmaster at the other.

One thing the bridge doesn't have, I realised to my horror, was a footpath.  The route between the wooden fences is barely big enough to carry a car, never mind people as well.

I stood at the head of the bridge, ready to make my way across.  I decided I would try and time my crossing so that I was in a gap between cars; I reckoned I could make it over the bridge before the southbound traffic barrelled towards me.  I stood on the blocks, waited for the green light, then followed the last car though.

I was doing my patented speed walk, but it became clear that I might not make it across in time.  I couldn't run, not with the heavy backpack over my shoulders threatening to topple me over.  Worse, traffic appeared behind me, because the light was still on green, and I was right in their way.  I pushed myself against the barrier but they didn't want to risk overtaking me while I was walking.  I had to stop.

The cars crept past me, drivers nodding thanks for my pause, while I cringed.  A woman in a Land Rover wound down her window and called out "Think thin!".  Grand, I thought.  The cars passed me with just a couple of centimetres to spare.

There was another gap and I made another dash for it, hoping, praying, I could get to the other side before the southbound traffic passed through.  I could see the last of the northbound cars passing through the toll gate.  The cars coming in the other direction would follow any minute.

I practically hurled myself onto the dry land at the top end of the bridge, just managing to avoid the first car coming the opposite way.  I stood on the gravel, grinning at my tiny victory.

The toll house was old and dishevelled.  A valiant worker was trying to repaint the white lines on the sleeping policeman between cars; he kept dashing out, sticking a quick daub of paint down, then running back inside.  I asked the stout woman who guarded the bridge (I could make a troll reference here, but that would be unnecessarily cruel, even for me) if there was any charge for pedestrians.

"No," she said, with the air of a woman who didn't see many people who weren't on four wheels.

The Pont Briwet isn't going to be around much longer.  Having a privately owned part of the highway is an anachronism in the twenty-first century.  Worse, the wooden bridge is far too delicate to allow lorries or even ambulances across; they have to make a long diversion inland.  The Welsh Assembly has approved plans for a two-carriageway replacement, with space for the railway, a cycle path and, yes, a footway.  There won't be any charges for users of the new bridge, either.

I'm glad I got to see it in its pomp before it is demolished in the name of progress.  It's a curiosity that really pleased me, even if it did also cause a certain amount of nervous sweat.

"First Networked Village In Wales" - what a proud boast!  I imagined a linked internet community, with everyone swapping e-mails with their neighbours.  Pensioners fighting youths on Halo, people ordering their Chinese takeaway through a dedicated portal, wi-fi access in the church.

Turns out "first networked village in Wales" means "we got broadband ages ago".  Which doesn't sound quite so impressive, especially since it seems to have problems working.  It wasn't quite the village of the future I'd imagined it to be.

Penrhyndeudraeth was, however, a contender for the best community I'd visited so far.  It had a busy high street, plenty of shops, people bustling around.  It was also the most foreign place I'd been to so far.

A lot of Wales can, let's be honest, feel like England with an accent.  By and large, its natural features are more magnificent, but its residents are still reading Heat and watching EastEnders and talking about football.  They're wearing t-shirts with Puma and Nike on them, they look just as pasty as English people, they have just as many flaws and virtues as the people across the border.

Penrhyndeudraeth reminded me that I was in another country.  This place was unapologetically Welsh first.  The chippy was called Halen a Finegar; the newsagent was the Siop Dewi, with no translation for us types from the East.  The dragon flag flew from most of the buildings - the ones that weren't flying the red and gold of Owain Glyndwr.

I settled on a cup of tea in the Caffir Ddraig, with its plastic tablecloths and wooden chairs and a Welsh flag on the wall with CROESO stencilled over the top of the dragon.  Two old ladies sat in the corner and stared at me in that completely unashamed way that only the elderly can get away with.  As they were also conversing in Welsh, I felt my paranoia levels notch up a little.  It's daft, I know, and totally self-centred - I'm not interesting enough to have a discussion about.  But I also know that it's exactly what I'd do if I could get away with it.

A man came in and asked if anyone knew where John Osbourne's cafe is.  Suddenly the air was ablaze with consonants as everyone joined in the discussion; I could almost reach up and grab the words as they passed over my head.  I had absolutely no idea what anyone was saying, and it was brilliant.  It was like being submerged in a strange tank of liquid, warm and alien all at once.  I beamed as I drank my tea, just letting all their odd phrases clatter round me.

It was the week of the local elections, and Penrhyndeudraeth had been plastered with posters.  They were pretty much all for Plaid Cymru; pleasingly, the local candidate was called Gareth Thomas.  He ended up beating the other candidate, Olwen Ford representing "The Voice of Gwynedd" with 71%.  I don't approve of the Plaid logo though; it's a bit 1970s Sixth Form art students.

The station's at the bottom of the hill, right next to the estuary, and the old building's a little less posh than the one I'd coveted at Talsarnau.  Perhaps it was the clothes horse in the yard, perhaps it was the scrapyard/wasteground next door, but I didn't fancy making this one my home.  It was a thoroughly ordinary little halt.

Perhaps Penrhyndeudraeth's best virtue is that it's not a request stop.  I suspect this is because no-one can pronounce it.  My blushes were spared.