Monday, 14 May 2012
Escape from Shell Island
Unlike most of the other stations on the Cambrian Coast Line, Barmouth is a significant presence in the town. Like most of them, however, very little of it is actually used for railway purposes. The 19th century building on the southbound platform has been lovingly restored, but it's now used for a tourist information office.
The opposite platform - because this is another rare spot where there are two tracks - has a fairly recent redevelopment on it, "Cambrian Court" - an L-shaped building with shops and cafes and a public toilet. (The food place next to the loos was called the WC Cafe; unsurprisingly it seemed to have gone bust). Again though, there's nowhere you could, I don't know, buy a ticket, or ask about services elsewhere in the country, or anything else you might want to do in a railway station. Sigh.
The station has been prettily enhanced by photographs of the town, supplied by a regeneration company, along with potted histories of important places. It gives you something to read while you wait for your train, which I always appreciate.
It was half seven in the morning, and I thought that my train would be unoccupied; most holidaymakers stay in bed until gone nine, after all, and this isn't exactly prime commuter land. I hadn't realised that the 07:51 service was a school train. Slowly the platform filled up with hyper teenagers, bouncing around with far too much energy for that time of the morning, getting it out of their system before they reached school. It was fascinating watching the hierarchy of the station, the way the smaller, younger boys moved to the far end, while the sixth formers noisily occupied the centre. I imagined the excitement every September when you moved up a spot.
It seemed that I had unknowingly occupied the territory of some 14 year old girls by sitting on a bench. They strode in confidently then did a double take at me, their faces assuming that look of disgust that only teenage girls can adequately convey. They were forced to stand a couple of feet away from me, throwing me evil glances now and then, teetering on vertiginous heels they hadn't really planned on standing on.
The train arrived and the schoolkids swarm all over it, annexing the table seats and throwing down bags of Haribo for the journey. I was inwardly tutting at their consumption of sweets at this time of the morning (child obesity crisis!) until I remembered that I used to do the same thing myself. I went through crazes - there was a time when it was all Trebor Softmints, then there was the XXX Extra Strong Mint phase (sadly not named after Major Amasova), and there was a whole term of watermelon Nerds. I don't approve of Haribo though, largely because they have the worst commercials ever made.
The guard suddenly appeared, the nice jolly one who'd been on a few of my trips the day before, but who was in gruppenfuhrer mode. "I don't want a mess like yesterday," she scolded. "There are bins in this carriage - use them. I won't open the doors at Harlech until you tidy up."
Fortunately I was only in this mobile Grange Hill for a short while, as I was getting off at the next station. Llanaber felt like a world away from the relative buzz of Barmouth; a small platform set into a hillside, built on top of the sea wall. The salt water spray was turning the metal shelter brown with rust. I got off and a solitary schoolgirl got on; I felt sorry for her, waiting alone on this platform every morning. It must be awful in winter, when it's still dark and the wind whips across the Irish Sea.
My plan had been to walk to the next station, Talybont, along the shore. There was a slight problem with that.
The tide was in, meaning that the only way I could walk along the shore was if I had a scuba tank tucked in my back pack. I did not.
I returned to the platform to get the station sign and to reconsider my options. My OS map didn't seem to have much in the way of paths to Talybont, unless I was willing to go out of my way into the hills above the village. I was afraid that would mean I'd end up missing my connection at the next station, so with a sigh, I realised it was time for another bus. The Traveline Cymru app I'd downloaded said there was a bus from the stop outside the station, so I pushed up the rough track to the main road.
After an hour of sitting on a wall, the bus arrived. The driver was mad, of course, silently resentful that I'd interrupted his slalom around the mountain roads by becoming his first passenger of the day. I took a place on the empty bus so I could experience life as it is lived by a pair of underpants in the rinse cycle of a washing machine. I was hurled left and right, almost toppling out of my seat, until I was able to get out at Talybont and experience the pleasure of stillness again.
The village was pleasing and well-kept, with a post office, hairdresser and a little village green with a public toilet tucked behind the bus shelter. It was all very ordinary, with only an Italian restaurant called "Tony's" hinting that there might be more to it that just another farming community.
This is prime caravan park territory. I shouldn't sneer, because my parent's first home after they married was a mobile home, and so the first eleven months of my life were spent in one (yep, I really am trailer trash). I just don't get them. I don't get why people drive a couple of hundred miles to spend their weekends in a tin box listening to next door's stereo.
They talk about getting away from it all, enjoying the peace and quiet, but these parks are just housing estates. Your neighbours are always going to be the same, the staff are always the same, your caravan's in the same place. It's just like that semi you left behind, except here you have to empty a chemical toilet every other week. Caravans are such an odd halfway house. You're not getting back to nature, as you can in a tent, because you've got a roof and a telly; but at the same time, it's still cold in winter and hot in summer, and you have to shower in a block along with everyone else on site.
I pictured an evening at the Sands Leisure Complex, sitting in the corner of the bar where the same faces are singing the same songs on the karaoke while you tuck into your burger and chips. It'd be the same on the fiftieth visit as it was on the first, only without the element of novelty. Perhaps some people like that. Perhaps some people like the reassurance, the saminess, the idea that you know exactly what you're getting. No surprises.
I walked past a field of lambs; the charming pastoral scene was slightly ruined by the smashed bottles of blue WKD and Carlsberg in the grass. The station's tucked under a bridge at the head of the parks, and had just recently had a new coat of paint, ready for the summer season. They hadn't bothered wiping the bird shit off the perspex roof of the shelter, but nice effort anyway.
The bus trip meant I had a while to wait for my train. I leaned back on the seat and let myself relax, as best as you can relax in a turquoise box with metal seats. Some of the stations didn't even have a seat, just a metal bar, which is only any good if you want to do a particularly low rent production of Sweet Charity.
Suddenly the payphone started ringing. I never know what to do in these circumstances; it's not going to be for me, is it, so what's the point in answering? It seemed particularly insistent though, so I finally picked it up and said "Hello..?"
It carried on ringing. I was stood with the receiver in my hand but the phone was still clanging away. Memories of Acorn Antiques came rushing back; I felt like I should be wearing a jersey two piece. Before I could ask them if they had Leonardo da Lisa's Mona Vinci at a very reasonable price, the phone stopped. Whoever it was, they didn't call back.
Two of us got off the train at Dyffryn Ardudwy; me and a young pretty girl. While I stopped on the platform to take a picture of the old station building (now a house of course), she crossed the tracks to hug a girl who looked exactly the same. Either they were sisters or there's a sinister cloning facility hidden inside one of those mountains. Frankly either explanation could be valid.
The station's on a very minor road in the middle of fields and dunes; it probably would have closed years ago if it weren't for the presence of another holiday park down the road. It was one of those days where the clouds would dearly love to rain, but can't quite manage the effort; instead the grey skies just sat there, casting a pall over me. It certainly wasn't a day for the beach, but that was where I was headed.
I had to actually walk through the holiday park, past what I suppose would be called "chalets" in the brochure, but just looked like double glazed sheds to me. It was deserted, unsurprisingly, with just a tractor slowly tugging a new caravan into place providing any excitement. There was a minor pleasure in a K8 phone box, the none-more-sixties updating of the classic red booth. It's a very rare sight these days, and I was pleased to see it still in service - though it also had the effect of underlining just how dated the holiday park felt. I wouldn't have been surprised if the manager was Peter Butterworth.
Out the other side, and soon I was clambering over the high dunes of the Morfa Dyffryn Nature Reserve. The dunes here are shaped entirely by the wind, and are constantly shifting; signs warned you to stick to the paths, as there were fences buried beneath the sands.
The expanse of sand seemed hopelessly huge; a flat plain of yellow, rubbing up against the clear blue Cardigan Bay. I was completely alone in every direction. There weren't even birds, just me and the empty shore. It felt exhilarating and, at the same time, humbling; I was a tiny pin prick in the mass of nature.
Morfa Dyffryn is famous for something else beside its stunning natural beauty; gratuitous nudity. A stretch of the sands form Wales's only naturist beach. They're very keen to "warn" you that, yes, there may be naked bodies in view. Personally, I think the signs are too polite; they should just have "Look out! Minge!" in big neon letters. Do people have to be warned about nudity, anyway? I've been to parks in Berlin where there are testicles everywhere you look, and it didn't cause me lifelong psychological damage. Not even the man just wearing a pair of chaps.
Apparently wardens have to regularly drive men out of the dune area; there's a proportion of gentlemen who stand up there and, ahem, "enjoy" the view a bit too much.
Being entirely alone, you'd think it was ideal for me to drop my pants, but it's actually more intimidating to take your clothes off when there's no-one else around. A group of naked people makes a naturist beach; one naked man on his own is just a pervert. Did I take all my clothes off? No. I left my boots on.
Not the first dose of crabs to be on that beach, etc.
The wind whipped across the sand with increasing ferocity as I rounded the headland; I was getting a facial scrub I really didn't want. Thankfully my glasses protected me from the worst of it, but it still started getting distinctly boring. I turned inland, back into the dunes, and walked towards my next station, Llanbedr.
The dunes seemed to go on forever, one difficult to climb hill after another. I thought I must have reached the end, only to crest a mound and find a view of more sand ahead of me. Finally I scrambled down to a well-made road, and I realised I was on Shell Island.
This is one of the largest camp sites in Europe, though it's rather more back to basics than you might expect. Shell Island is laid out in such a way that it discourages tents from being too close to one another, and has few facilities. This is a place for wild camping, a chance to experience a more rough and untempered world of canvas.
I was surprised to find there were actually people there, bravely pitching up in the little copses, the flaps whistling in the strong winds. It can be hard on you here - I passed a giant wheely bin with a torn tent poking out the top. I imagined an Oxo dad shoving it in exasperatedly with a "sod it - we're going to Majorca next year."
There's an old air force base at the island's eastern perimeter, which restricts your access, but I'd seen a pathway that circled it and would get me to the station in plenty of time. Except... it was closed. The council had blocked it off for refurbishment works. It meant I had to double back, through the way I came, and onto the campsite's established roads.
I was frustrated and angry. The double back meant I had wasted a massive amount of time, and now it looked like I was going to be late. I walked over hills and through fields, passing through what seemed like dozens of empty camping sites, just trying to find a way out. Then, in the distance, I heard the parp of my train passing. I had missed it. That meant the end of my carefully planned schedule for the day.
Seething at Gwynedd Council, Shell Island, campers and humanity in general, I located the way out, through the facilities complex. Perhaps it was just my negative mood, but it all seemed a bit too wholesome to me; the sort of place that cults set up for special weekends of worship, and which are then blown up by the FBI because it turned out they were stockpiling AK-47s in preparation for the end of days. Put it this way: I bet they sold Kool-Aid in the supermarket.
The site is accessed via a causeway, which floods at high tide; it means the landscape is flat and brown and dull. The sea waters trickles through channels. I must have looked a pathetic sight, my jeans still covered in sand around the bottom, my backpack dangling off one shoulder, the only vertical in a horizontal landscape. The causeway just added to the end of the world feel. You weren't just camping here - you were ready for the apocalypse.
I passed round the other side of the RAF base, dark and empty, with signs saying "warning: unstable roof" on the asbestos huts. The only sign of life was an air cadet centre; I wondered where on earth all the cadets came from, because the area seemed completely unpopulated. Maybe they helicoptered in.
Then, blessed be, there was Llanbedr station, a little blue speck in the distance that got bigger and bigger. It wasn't much to write home about, but it didn't matter by then. It was a place where I could have a nice sit down and a drink. That'd do.