Thursday 7 June 2012

The High Walk

There's a railway museum at Borth.  The station's been cleaned up, restored, and volunteers now run an exhibition inside.  It's free to visit, though of course donations are welcome.

Not that I went in.  I'd been looking forward to visiting the museum throughout my trip, but my train was also carrying about 4000 screaming, mewling, overexcited young schoolchildren, barely being kept in check by already weary teachers.  They catapulted off the train onto the platform and I realised with horror that they were all headed to the museum.  I left the station quickly.  There was no way I was going to try and take in historic exhibits while little Chelsea and little Jade tried to pick the plaque off the wall with a compass.

Plus - and I'm sorry for being indiscreet - I needed a pee.  I headed down to the seafront, following the public toilet signs.  I'd noticed throughout my trip that North Wales is seemingly overflowing with loos; almost every village seemed to have one.  I'm not an aficionado by any chalk but it was nice to see that the council was still providing some public services, unlike back home, where the question "is there a public toilet near here?" is generally answered with "it was closed in 1988, but there's a shop doorway over there".

I hadn't actually used any of the loos, until now, which meant that the discovery that Borth's public toilets were closed carried with it a sort of two-fingered irony.  I crossed my legs and pushed on into the town.

It was a weird little place.  Nothing seemed to fit right.  The buildings went from 18th Century cottage to 19th century chapel to 20th century terrace without pause or logic.  They didn't match in any way.  The residents were also committed to making their homes as tacky as possible.  When they weren't painting them pink or red or clashing shades of yellow and orange, they decorated them with seashells and butterflies and gave them awful names.  Perhaps there was a contest I was missing.

Most heinous of all, Borth Zoo had been rebranded as the Animalarium, which is a nuclear strike on the English language.  I would happily have burnt down every single sign carrying that nonsensical phrase, before rounding up whatever marketing "expert" conceived it and dropping him into the leopard pen.

Yet here and there were proper gems.  A row of low, crowded cottages provided an atmospheric glimpse into the past, to when this was just a tiny shipping village.  The occasional gap between houses revealed a backdrop of green fields ramping up to suddenly-steep hills.  It just didn't work as a whole.

Down by the harbour, some bright spark had decided that Borth needed a new, glamorous, exciting building.  I imagined the quotes in the local press, the talk of a new "landmark", the plugging and pomp.  What they ended up with was a cylinder with a Nisa in it, which is, let's face it, just one step up from a Happy Shopper.

In a way it was right that in the 21st century, Borth was continuing its tradition of chucking up random buildings wherever there was a spare bit of land.  To me, it just seemed hopelessly over designed.  The only good part was directly opposite was an open public convenience, so I was finally able to relax again.

One thing Borth did get right was its war memorial.  Most towns placed their tribute to the fallen in a prominent square, or by a church.  Borth took full advantage of its position, however, and put the memorial on top of a cliff overlooking the town.  Instead of it being lost, it draws your eye upwards, proud against the horizon.  I headed up to have a look and was impressed by the way a simple stone pillar became epic when placed in the right spot.

Instead of going back down the cliff, I carried on.  There's a coastal path here which takes you from Borth to Aberystwyth, and I thought this would make a more interesting walk than staying inland.  I'd never followed a clifftop path before, so I thought it would make a decent change.

I'd failed to understand that clifftop paths are, well, on top of the cliffs.  I mean right on the edge.  I was constantly about a metre away from plummeting to my death on the rocky beaches below.  Worse, there were fences on my left the whole time, with the drop on my right.  It seemed to be a deliberately provocative statement from the farmers.  You lot can fall off wherever you like, it said, but there's no way I'm letting one of my sheep come to harm.

The path rose and fell, dropping down via rough steps to almost sea level, before steeply climbing again.  Stone slabs bridged tiny cascades of water, plummeting down the cliff side from mountain sources, and giving me a vertiginous head rush as I walked across.

Then I saw a bird, and another, and another, and I realised that the cliffside was swarming with finches.  They nest in the cliffside and they were suddenly everywhere, dive bombing for food, pirouetting through the air and then plunging downwards.  I watched them speed back and forth, tried to capture them with my camera, but all it got were black flecks and streaks as they zoomed by.

My legs started to tire with the constant changes in gradient.  The path was also muddy and hard going in places after a night of rain, sloshing against my boots and splashing my ankles.  The occasional slip and loss of footing just added to the feeling that I could crash off a cliff edge any moment.  I wondered how long it would take to find my corpse.  I'd encountered only a couple of dog walkers, plus a troupe of hardy pensioners in buttoned up anoraks, but that had been back towards Borth.  I was more than halfway to Aberystwyth now, and my only companions were livestock.  I guessed that I'd be well dead with no chance of rescue before anyone even raised the alarm.  I didn't even have a signal on my phone, so any hopes of a GPS assisted location were fantasies.

At Wallog, the view opens out.  A heavy waterfall's been bridged with a bit more sturdiness than the crossings I'd become used to, and a lovely farmhouse keeps guard.  Built on a stone-walled outcrop, it seemed like a fortress more than a home.

Perhaps it was built to protect us from what ever is at the other end of Sarn Cynfelyn.  This is a glacial moraine, a long straight ridge made up of boulders, pebbles and other rocks and only exposed at low tide.  It heads out into the sea like a road, going for kilometres and ending at a reef out to sea.  The unnatural look of this natural feature lead to local legends that it was a road to Wales' own version of Atlantis, a land that was swallowed by the sea.  There is something unnerving about it.  A slight otherworldliness.

There was a different kind of spooky experience further on.  My stomach was starting to rumble - I hadn't eaten all morning, as I'd left Pwhlleli long before breakfast was available - and now it was nearly lunch.  The map showed a caravan park directly on top of the path, so I guessed they would have a shop.  Maybe even a cafe.  I began to structure a fantasy where I bought a hot dog and chips, garlanded with soft onions and a yellow stripe of strong mustard.

It stayed a fantasy.  The caravan park was determinedly empty.  Catering outlets were shuttered, bars locked up, shops closed.  The little funfair for the kids looked like it should have been in Scooby-Doo.  This wasn't just a low season; this was a potential murder site.  I shuffled through, and was nearly out the other side of the park before I saw a sign of life - a teenage girl, wearing too-small hotpants, her hair like a raggedy Amy Winehouse and her eyes coated with thick paint.  She was criminally underdressed for the windy day, and I guessed that she was just finishing up the night before, taking the walk of shame to the bus stop.

The clifftops here were different to the ones to the south.  Instead of being open, they'd been planted with high pine trees, turning the walk into a woodland stroll.  I could still see and hear the water below, but now there was the coolness of the trees, the smell of the forest.  They'd been cut back severely in places, leaving scarred splinters behind.

As I climbed over each hillock, I'd thought, this has to be it.  I'd seen a tongue of Aberystwyth poking into the bay a long time ago, but every time I'd clambered over a rise in the cliffs, the town had remained tucked away.  It was somewhere in the distance, but it seemed to want to stay hidden from me.  Finally I staggered up a path and heard voices round the corner; a group of middle aged tourists, talking about the Queen's Jubilee.  I'd reached Constitution Hill, which forms Aberystwyth's southern border and which was one of the sites of the Jubilee beacons.  The group were just admiring it when I lurched off the side path, startling all of them, not least because after six hours of walking I must have looked like a recently revived zombie.

I mumbled an apology for making them jump and blustered past.  Constitution Hill is a long established pleasure ground, the kind of place that Victorians visited so they could promenade and have illicit rendezvous.  The world's largest camera obscura sits on its peak, while a variety of lesser amusements - crazy golf and the like - have been built in bright coloured sheds around it.  The most important attraction, as far as I was concerned, was a cafe.  I treated myself to a hot chocolate with gooey marshmallows and a pepperoni pizza.

When I was little, and my mum was baking, she would let me gather up all the offcuts to make "biscuits".  After she'd sliced out the jam tarts or the pie crust, I would get all the pieces left over and squish them into a ball.  I'd knead it, stretch it, roll it out with a rolling pin, then do it all again, because let's be honest, it was just edible Play-doh to me.  I'd cut it into tiny shapes with a pastry cutter and then stick them on the edge of the baking tray, where they'd harden into dry, crunchy, occasionally blackened fragments of unpleasantness.  A dob of jam on each one and voila!  I'd made a tray of biscuits for my dad to "enjoy" when he got home from work.  Bless him, he'd labour through them all, while I watched happily as he snapped them in two with his teeth and forced down lump after lump of grey misery.

The reason I am sharing this childhood vignette with you is because I am sure that there's a similar cooking process involved in that cafe's pizza dough.  It was a dry hardened base that shattered when I put the fork into it.  Each mouthful of stodge clung to the back of my throat, while almost rare onion brought tears to my eyes.  The pepperoni was cold, the tomato sauce almost certainly Tesco Value, and I frankly doubt the cheese had ever come from a cow.  It was what pizzas were like thirty years ago, when we were so pleased to be trying something different we weren't bothered if it actually tasted nice or not.  I was so hungry, I forced my way through every claggy piece, pausing only to pull the odd unwilling bite away from my gums with a finger.

With my stomach, if not satisfied, then at least full, I left the cafe and made my way to the Aberystwyth Cliff Railway.  I was spared the walk down the hill to the town thanks to Victorian engineers, who built a funicular to take people to and from the top.  They carved a channel into the rock and laid two tracks into it.

A train had just come in, disgorging a Brummie mum and her three sons.  She was clearly shaken by the experience.  "I'm not doing that again," she huffed.  "We're bloody walking back down."

I'm not sure what terrified her so much.  Perhaps it's the sixty-degree fall down the hillside, a fall so deep the carriage is basically just a series of steps.  I'm a well-known wuss when it comes to heights, but I didn't feel my usual dizziness as the train started its descent.

The funicular was originally powered hydraulically, but in the twenties it was converted to electricity, meaning your passage is silent and stately.  It's so smooth it almost feels as though the town is rising up to meet you, rather than you going down to Aberystwyth.

The second carriage passed just as I was thinking what a great locale for an episode of Casualty this would make.  They've done almost every other kind of disaster; surely there hasn't been a funicular train full of tourists careening off the tracks and smashing into the station.  You could fit a dozen people in the train - enough to ensure a high body count, while leaving plenty of survivors who can reconcile with estranged family members in cubicle four.  Perhaps it's been done.  I'll send my proposal to BBC Wales just in case.

The station at the foot's like a nice Victorian villa, rather than a tourist hub; you get the feeling that the upstairs apartment was occupied by a lady adjusting her crinoline.  The train gently sidles into place at the bottom of the hill, and you let yourself out through the picket fence.  It was a pleasing way to enter Aberystwyth, one that was almost grand; I hadn't just walked into town, or jumped off a dull Sprinter.  I'd been conveyed, elegantly lowered into the streets as though descending from the Gods.  A good start, you have to admit.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic, I really enjoyed that. The MerseyTart in Borth!

And to be fair to that odd shaped Nisa building, it is a lot better than what used to be in its place.

Glenda Young said...

When I win the lottery I'm touring the world, one funicular at a time and riding both up and down on each one.

Anonymous said...

Just found the english translation of an Italian song about a funicular. Suitably adapted for Aberystwyth, could this be our Eurovision entry for 2013?

Yesterday evening, O Nannina, I climbed up,
Do you know where?
To where an ungrateful heart can no longer vex me!
Where a fire is burning, but if you flee
It lets you be.
It doesn't chase you, doesn't melt you, with just one glance!
Let's go, let's go, let's go to the top,
Let's go, let's go, let's go to the top,
Funiculì, funiculà, funiculì, funiculà!
Let's go to the top, Funiculì, funiculà!

Let's go from here below up to the mountain, O Nannina, a step away!
You can see France, Procida, and Spain,
And I see you!
You rise, pulled by a cable, quick as a wink
into the sky.
We'll rise up like a whirlwind all of a sudden knows how to do!
Let's go, let's go, let's go to the top,
Let's go, let's go, let's go to the top,
Funiculì, funiculà, funiculì, funiculà!
Let's go to the top, Funiculì, funiculà!

My head is spinning, O Nannina, It's gone up there already!
It went there, spun 'round, and then returned:
It's always here!
My head is spinning, spinning,
Encircling you!
This heart of mine is always singing
the same refrain:
"Marry me, O Nannina"!
Let's go, let's go, let's go to the top,
Let's go, let's go, let's go to the top,
Funiculì, funiculà, funiculì, funiculà!
Let's go to the top, Funiculì, funiculà!

Scott Willison said...




Glenda Young said...

It's a Mario Lanza song!

Roger said...

Good stuff!

Did you know this?