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.


Anonymous said...

Ah so it was you!

David said...

That tunnel looks like a troll should live in it!

You following a yellow arrow down a path brought this short story by Anthony Horowitz to mind. If you've not read it, you're welcome!