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.

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