Tuesday 20 October 2020

Lovely, Dark and Deep

Llanrwst was still asleep, which I liked.  It was barely eight am and it meant I got to explore it a little more, uninterrupted and unfettered.  I nipped down side streets and across the bridge and back as I tried to decide which house I would retire to.  There was a single cloud on the horizon.  The charming side roads by the river had special metal plates set into the ground.  These were "Dutchdams", a system of flood defences where you unfold metal plates to form an impermeable barrier.  I wondered if Llanrwst's undeniable beauty was worth living in for 364 days when on the 365th a wall of water could turn your living room into The Poseidon Adventure.  It was something to think about, certainly.

I could now safely collect the station.

Down on the platform, it was cool and dark, the seats sheltered by overhanging trees.  British Rail really did the bare minimum here.  What they should've done was pick up North Llanrwst station - perhaps on some kind of low loader - and hoist it all down to this part of town.  Then you'd have a lovely station in an ideal spot.  I realise this is an extremely unlikely situation.  I sat on a bench, alone, and took a drink of water. 

As part of Llanrwst's commitment to being as picturesque as possible, I was soon joined by another commuter: a fox.  It jumped down out of the trees at the side of the track then walked along the irons, casually, not paying any attention to me or the prospect of being mown down by a Sprinter.  Then he leapt back into the undergrowth and left me smiling.

It was the first train of the morning and it was, surprisingly, rammed.  I knew it would be a little busy with it being a Saturday but it was absolutely crammed full of people.  There was an extremely high proportion of cagoules.

This was because Betwys-y-Coed, our next stop, is right at the tip of Snowdonia National Park, and is perhaps the best spot to start your exploration.  It's also beautiful in its own right, nestled in a bowl, surrounded by mountains and trees and with a sparkling river bouncing through its centre.  The train emptied its load of tourists and hikers and climbers and proceeded on to Pont-y-Pant almost empty.

There was a pretty station square outside, and flint covered buildings, half of which seemed to sell waterproofs, the other half selling pointless touristy nonsense - candles and name plates and the like - but I whizzed past them all.  I wanted to get out of Betwys-y-Coed before the rest of that train of people.  I was heading for Llyn Elsi, a reservoir up in the hills and a popular destination, and I suspected a large proportion of the passengers were too.  I didn't want to end up shuffling along a well-used path with the same thirty or forty walkers.  

The path was compacted gravel, solid and built for heavy use, but I got ahead at a fair old clip and began the walk up.  And up.  And up.  Jesus Christ, was this thing vertical?  I began to wish they'd installed an escalator or a funicular or at least provided donkeys to carry you up.  My lick of speed made it worse, causing my desperately unfit middle-aged legs to calves to protest that this just was not normal.  Eventually I reached a cusp, a point where I thought I'd got enough distance from the pack, and I paused against a log and drank a bit of water and got my breath back.

The woods were thick and dark and cool.  No, this was a forest, not a wood; high ancient trees providing a canopy over fern-strewn undergrowth.  The path swept me up and over and round and finally deposited me on the shore of Llyn Elsi, a long stretch of silent water that knocked the breath out of me.  It was stunningly beautiful.  Isolated and quiet.

Llyn Elsi was once two natural lakes, until a dam was constructed to merge them together and provide drinking water for the valley.  I followed the shore for a while.  Now and then I glimpsed an angler tucked in amongst the folds, or other walkers who'd come from a different angle.  I was delighted to see an island.  I love an island.

Beyond the lake, the paths became rougher and dustier and less well travelled.  It was clear that a lot of people got as far as Llyn Elsi and then walked back down to Betwys-y-Coed; going beyond it meant a lot of countryside and not much else.  I felt gloriously superior, a pioneer striking out off the beaten track, away from all these vulgar tourists.  I was a proper walker.

Then I realised I was lost.

The path I'd been following had shrunk and disappeared underneath fallen pine needles and it seemed I'd wandered off it.  I was now in a forest, in Wales, with no mobile reception, not entirely sure where I was going.  I was surrounded by trees and the chirrup of birds and nothing else.

Ok, don't panic.  I could've turned round, but I wasn't entirely sure where I'd gone off-map, so I could've ended up going the wrong way.  On the other hand, I knew that I needed to head down, that Pont-y-Pant, my next station, was down in the valley on the far side of this particular hill.  So theoretically, as long as the slope went downwards, I was going the right way.  Theoretically.

It's easy to forget, when you follow well-marked, historic rights of way, how suddenly wild the countryside can get.  Britain may not have the terrifying wildlife or chasms and peaks of other parts of the world, but away from humanity, it quickly devolves.  Trees are irregularly spaced, on top of one another, sprouting at strange angles, fallen.  Rocks and boulders sprout out of the ground.  The land drops away suddenly, at an angle that's impossible to travel down, so you have to redirect again, find a different route, one that takes you away from the over there you've been working towards.  Obviously, I'm sitting here in 2020 writing about it, so clearly it ended well, but back in 2016 it was a tense time.

Then I had a stroke of luck.  I almost literally fell on a road, probably for loggers.  I slid down the embankment to the crunchy gravel.  A sign of humanity in amongst the wilds, and I knew that at least if I kept walking on this road, I'd end up somewhere with people eventually.  Hopefully where I wanted to actually go.

I followed it for a while, trudging, a little bored if I'm honest.  Yes, it was a nice level way to walk, but it was also a bit dull.  During that period of being disoriented I'd at least felt excited.  So when I spotted a side path dropping off the road, neatly marked with a yellow arrow, I hesitated.  I had certainty on the logger's road.  The side path seemed to probably maybe go where I wanted to be but it could equally go somewhere else entirely.

I didn't have much choice really.  I had to take that path.

It plunged downwards, roughly formed rock steps dropping me metres in seconds.  Finally it levelled off at a dirt path.  It was clear and so much more interesting than the road.  I was back in the dark woods.

Down I went, still descending that mountain I'd gaily skipped up a while before.  I hummed to myself.  I took in the sights and sounds.  And every now and then I'd get a glimpse of a view that would make me stop and smile.

Soon I heard the whisper of cars passing, which got louder and louder, and then there was a stone wall separating me from the road.  For one terrifying moment I thought I was going to have to clamber over it.  Horrifying visions of me tearing my trousers on the sharp stone at the top and rolling into the road flooded my brain, but then I saw a stile, and I was safe.  I was back on the A470, my nemesis from the day before, but this part of it was a lot more peaceful than the busy north-south strip and there was plenty of space on the grass verge for me to walk.  

I paused and referred to the paper maps in my bag (never rely on just electronic ones, folks).  I was able to work out where I was on the road, and where to turn off.  I took a steep road down towards a campsite.  I ended up at a wooden bridge over the Lledr.  Once again, Wales tossed off an embarrassingly picturesque visa, almost yawning as it showed me yet another outstanding piece of natural beauty.  Yeah, we're great, and we're not even trying.

I turned off from the campsite road, walking on a path that followed the river tightly, taking me above the churning waters.  I felt a strong urge to jump in.  I can't swim, not really, and it certainly wasn't deep enough for a plunge, but there was something so attractive about it.  I was probably just hot.  After all that walking I was sweaty and messy and the July heat was starting to come in properly.  

Soon the railway came and hugged me, trapping the path between iron and water.  It was a tight route but I didn't feel hemmed in.  On the contrary, there was something wonderful about it.  I felt like I was in a secret place.  Plus I always like following my railway line.  It's a preview of coming attractions.

As I turned a corner, I encountered a gate, and a strangely out of place No Access sign with Salford City Council written on it.  This was the entrance to Lledr Hall, an outdoor adventure centre built on an old mansion.  Salford Council bought the building in 1974 as a place for its children to stay in the great outdoors, sending thousands of kids from the city out on coach trips to experience life in the countryside and to try new sports and excitement.  It's a wonderful idea and to be honest part of me was surprised it still existed.  I'd have thought the Tory government would've demanded they flog it to reduce the Council Tax.  "Why are you bothering to send these children to Wales?  Can't they just go out with the gamekeeper on their estate when they get home?"

There was another sign here - Gorsaf/Station.  I was close enough to be getting pointers.  There was now a proper road (perfect for the Salford coaches) and I passed over the railway line.  Wales even has picturesque tunnels.  This one looked like it went direct to Middle Earth.

Pont-y-Pant is a funny name.  Sorry.  It's got a bouncy rhythm, it's got the word pant in it, it just is.  There isn't a village nearby - it was mainly built to service a quarry, and continues as a request stop just because it's too much hassle to close it.  In 2016/17, when I visited, it had a total of 812 visitors all year.  The station building was converted into a home a long time ago, and looked well-maintained and cosy.

I'd like to apologise to the residents of that house.  If they'd glanced out of that window they might have seen a chubby man, stripped to the waist, sitting on the platform.  Since I was travelling with all my clothes en route to my next hotel I took the opportunity to take my sweat-soaked shirt off, wipe myself down with an antibacterial wipe, apply some deodorant and put on a clean t-shirt.  It meant that by the time my train arrived I was, if not actually box-fresh, certainly a lot more human than I had been before.  I really hope they didn't see it.  I'm probably on some kind of wanted list in Pont-y-Pant.

Friday 16 October 2020

Prince of Wales

Eight and a half years ago, I got on a train to Tonfanau.  It's a request stop so I dutifully asked the guard to stop at the station.  She corrected my pronunciation.  And thus, another anxiety was born.  

It is the height of disrespect to mispronounce a place name simply because you're a boring old Englishman who speaks only one language.  On the other hand, Wales, give us a break.  My next destination was Tal-y-cafn station, and who even knows?  I stood at the bus stop and ran pronunciations over in my head.  Tallycafn.  Tal-E-Cavn.  Tellistdatnecag.  When the bus arrived, I stood in front of the driver and strongly and confidently asked for a single to Llanrwrst.  I could get off early.

The bus clattered around the back lanes from Glan Conwy.  The quickest route is straight down the A470, but there are hamlets hidden in the hills so the bus went in search of them.  The driver was only paying half-attention the whole time.  He'd propped his phone up on the wheel and was playing a fruit machine game, idly tapping at the arm, watching the wheels spin, then tapping it again.  It added a frisson of danger to every corner, every upcoming tree, every vertiginous drop off the side of the road.  I hadn't really planned on plummeting to my death in a single decker but, hey, sometimes life throws these options at you.  I was glad to ding the bell and jump off at Tal-y-Cafn station.

The problem was that now I had a two hour wait at a lonely station.  The building on the corner, which I guessed was a pub at one point, was being redeveloped into a large grey house.  Beyond that there were a couple of houses and the River Conwy beyond. 

I looked at that old sign.  Firstly I was glad I'd not had to try and say Eglwysbach.  But secondly it made me think: if a railway company added a suffix to the station name in the old days, it was usually a much larger village that was close by.  I brought up Google Maps and discovered that, yes, Eglwysbach was up in the hills, and a relatively short walk away.  I could easily make my way up there, have a look round, then wander back down to the station before my train south arrived.  

About eight minutes later I was regretting this decision.  The roads went up, relentlessly, a steep but continual climb to get me away from the low of the river.  It made my calf muscles tense and my ankles ache.  The reward was, of course, the view, as I caught glimpses of valleys and farm houses stretching into the distance, still wet and green from the morning's rain.

I passed some abandoned farm buildings which will no doubt be turned into a holiday home any day now and then turned into the village of Eglwysbach.  Low bungalows hugged a silent main street with a plain church the only landmark.  It was peaceful, almost aggressively so, with no cars or pedestrians.  The kind of place kids are desperate to leave and pensioners are desperate to go to.  

My OS Map app had shown me that there was a footpath through the woods to take me back down towards the station, so I crossed a stream by a single slab of rock and disappeared into a woodland.  It was a carefully laid out path, with wooden bridges to take me over the meanders and plenty of space to move.  Well-trodden from dog walkers and hikers and, judging by some of the litter, Eglwysbach's more rebellious teens.

Soon I was back on the road to the station, only downwards this time, trying not to slip on the wet tarmac and being able to take in the view.  Wales is an astonishingly beautiful place.  No wonder half of England wants to buy it up for weekend cottages.

That brought me back to the station with plenty of time to spare.  I settled in on the bench and put on a podcast and let myself drift for a while until the train came.

My plan at Dolgarrog was that I would cross the Conwy via the footbridge by the station, then head south via the quiet roads on the far side of the river.  I was out of luck.  The station was swarming with Network Rail employees, all suited in bright orange and politely waiting for the train to pass so they could resume their work.  The footbridge was blocked by a nylon mesh.  It looked temporary, and if I'd hung about they'd have probably packed up and gone, but I didn't want to risk it.  Instead I walked up to the main road. 

The A470 is a busy road.  It joins the two principal routes across North and Mid Wales, the A5 and the A55, and it does so without taking you over the mountains.  It also doesn't have a footpath.

My heart pounding, I wedged myself in the hillside as much as possible.  Brambles scraped at my arm.  Stinging nettles beat at my legs.  Every now and then a truck would go by and I'd cower, dust blown in my face.  Every passing place and driveway was a blessed relief from the relentless stream of traffic.  After a while, a gravel drainage channel appeared on one side of the road, so I darted across and walked on that.  It was uncomfortable but at least the cars didn't need to avoid me.

I was starting to wonder how much longer I could do this.  It was three and a half miles to Llanrwst, about an hour's walk, and the stress was really getting to me.  It was horrible.

And then - salvation!  A bend in the road revealed the Maenan Abbey Hotel, but, more importantly, a bus stop.  I practically ran to it.  There wasn't a timetable that I could see but it didn't matter; there was a point where I could pause and think and decide what my options were.  I was about to pull my phone out to look for bus times when, even more wonderfully, the bus itself came round the corner.  

"Sorry I'm late, love," the bus driver smiled at me.  It was a woman this time, and her steering wheel was free of mobile gaming.  "I should've left Betwys ten minutes ago."  If she'd been on time, I'd have missed the bus altogether.  Relieved, I collapsed into a seat, and happily rode into Llanrwst.

I fell in love with Llanrwst suddenly, and deeply.  I don't think you have an option in this.  Any rational person would see its pretty Victorian streets, its scenic shops and cafes, its happy residents, and immediately think "yes.  This is the place to be."  I walked from the bus stop, through the tightly curved roads, to my hotel.  It was a stone fronted, traditional place, quite the change from my Travelodge of the night before.  Put it this way: there was a suit of armour in reception.  As I checked in, I became aware that the other residents were far better dressed than me; a wedding party, boisterous, joyous, excited.  I went up to my room and found a pair of complimentary ear plugs on the bed.  

I showered and changed so I'd look at least slightly decent then ventured out.  I had one final train to catch.  Despite having a population of barely 3000 people, Llanrwst has two railway stations.  I walked out of town towards the older of the two, North Llanrwst, following an A470 that had been tamed as it passed through, with pavements and curves.  The shops fronts were delightfully old fashioned - tiled entrances, glass curved windows.  There was a Milk Bar that practically made me clap with joy.

It's been four years since I passed that place but I sincerely hope it's still there, looking exactly the same.

For a century North Llanrwst station was simply Llanrwst.  In that arrogant Victorian railway builder's way, they'd put it out of town, and waited for the locals to simply move closer.  It never happened.  Eventually, in the Eighties, British Rail opened a new halt close to the centre of town, and the old station acquired its North prefix.  It's tucked away down a side road, surrounded by industrial works, the only bit of charm in a grimy corner.

The station retains some of its importance as it's the only passing place on the Conwy Valley line, and as such, the only station with a platform on either side of the tracks.  This is why the service is so limited; for most of its length, you can only run a single train.

Llanrwst's inherent loveliness extended right up here.  On the platform it was calm and leafy.  A plaque informed me that it had been adopted by Soroptomists International Dyffryn Conwy; a quick search reveals that they're a sort of female equivalent of the Rotarians, although with a little less nod and a wink favouritism.  It also reveals that it's actually spelt Soroptimists; I can imagine the poor lad at Arriva Trains Wales was so used to red spellcheck underlines in his documents with all those unfamiliar Welsh names he simply disregarded them all.  

The train soon arrived and took me the half a mile south to Llanrwst station proper.  As you'd expect from something built by British Rail in 1989, it was deeply perfunctory.  A single platform in a cutting, no station building.  I left it and kept my head down as I passed under the sign.  I realise this is daft but I'd decided I was going to collect this station properly the next morning, when I left town.  Doing it now would've felt like cheating.

I thought I'd find a shop to buy a sandwich, a little Co-op perhaps, but then I decided to treat myself.  There was a chippy near the main square, wafting the beautiful scent of fried food out at passers by, so I popped in and got myself a sausage and chips.  The teenage girl behind the counter bellowed my order into the back in Welsh, then carried on chatting in English to a customer, switching back and forth so easily it left me full of admiration.  I took the hot package of delicious food and headed down to the river, crossing to the far bank beneath a restaurant terrace, and I sat on a bench and tucked in.

For a while I watched a fisherman in waders idly casting his line.  The sun warmed me and made me sleepy.  I'd been awake for hours, I'd walked and hiked and clambered all over the place, and now my body was enjoying the rest.  I felt the stress fall away with each warm chip.  

I walked back over the bridge to my hotel.  I thought I'd go up to my room and finish my podcast and then maybe some telly.  As I walked in though, I spotted the hotel bar was empty; presumably the wedding had its own function room.  I swerved inside and ordered a beer.  "Take a seat and I'll bring it over," the barman advised, and I stepped out onto a terrace overlooking the Conwy.  He delivered my ice cold lager and I started to wonder if I was too young to retire to Llanrwst.