When I was a little boy I was fascinated by lighthouses and all I wanted to be “when I grew up” was a lighthouse keeper. Growing a bushy beard, wearing a white sweater, smoking a pipe and telling outlandish tales about hidden treasure and sea monsters to passing groups of four children or more with their dog. Sadly the vast majority of lighthouses in the UK were undergoing an automation process so lighthouse keeping was, it seemed was a dying vocation.
When I was about 10 I went on a holiday to my favourite part of Wales. On this particular visit my parents took me up to see the view over Bardsey Sound and the lighthouse on Bardsey Island from Mynnedd Mawr. It was there that we came across this curious little hut, inside of which was a man, with a powerful telescope and radio equipment.
The man explained to me that he was a Coastguard lookout and his job was to lookout for ships in distress and report on wind and sea conditions. This, I decided immediately, was what I wanted to do for a job when I grew up. Sit in a cabin and look out to sea all day while telling tales of seafaring, pirates and giant squid to passing groups of four or more children with their dogs.
Sadly these days coastguard lookouts are as rare as dodo sausages and, as government funding decreases and technology improves, coastguard lookout has become a job similar to coal miner, fax machine sales man or VHS librarian — virtually non-existent. Indeed, when a few years later I would talk to school careers advisors about a job in the coastguard they would often counter with — “Sorry I don’t have a card for that career” or “You’ll have to ask at the library” or “But you can’t swim very well” or “Have you considered a YTS (low paid apprenticeship) at the local Ford factory?” and instead I became an unemployed multiskilled generalist.
Fortunately the little hut is still there and every year when I go back to this part of Wales I like to visit. Of course the man is probably long dead and his little hut is stripped of telescope and radio equipment, replaced instead by displays of local history, wildlife and birds. But I still think about how, for that brief moment in my life, I knew what I wanted to do in adulthood. I look out to sea and try to spot a ship in distress. But of course boats don’t tend to travel through that stretch of water as much now and you get put on a list when you’re a male and talk to children….
100 years ago the coast around the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales was a hive of industry. Parts of the area was dotted with manganese mines and associated shipping docks and winch houses. It’s hard to imagine what it was like as these days it is an area of serenity and eerie beauty peppered with these industrial remains.
The winch you see in today’s picture would have brought manganse ore from the mines in buckets and then down to the waiting boat below the cliffs behind the photographer. Although the photographer, me, wasn’t born when this was a working winch and when I took the photograph, there was no ship waiting.
The building you can just see to the right was probably the office of the foreman who would have kept an eye on the winch workings incase of a problem. Now abandoned to the elements, spiders and sheep, it’s quite a draughty building now but the view hasn’t changed.
When I was a young badger, my Uncle had a lovely cottage in Wales that my dad would help do up in return for being able to spend occasional weekends and holidays there. Slap bang in the middle of acres and acres of grazing land on the side of a mountain in most rural, rugged North Wales.
The cottage was accessible by either a long walk up a very steep hill (rhiw in Welsh means steep) or a short scary trip up a muddy track in an old decrepit Land Rover. It had a coal fire (unusual to someone from suburban pre-millenial Liverpool), a lot of spiders and an upstairs accessible only via a ladder (a crog loft).
As my Aunt got older she became concerned about being stuck up the mountain without access to medical emergency services and encouraged my uncle to sell the place, which he did shortly after I started secondary school. Still, happy times were had and memories were made.
In 2004, Mrs Gnomepants V1.0 and I revisited the area with my parents to see how the place had changed. The Land Rover having been long turned into a tin of beans and chancing a bit of trespass, we walked up the newly lain CONCRETE roadway up to the cottage. It had been completely renovated and was looking well loved by the new owners.
I’ve been a few times since and it now seems that it is no longer a holiday home but an actual home for someone remote working – I bet they have better internet than I do.
Rain. It comes and washes away the summer dreams like a proper spoil sport.
My calculations that the time between Wimbledon and the Olympics yet before the school holidays would be a gloriously sunny time were completely out. Beyond out.
And so it came to pass that on Saturday 14th July I loaded up the car for the next leg of my annual Welsh Costal Walk with Nick. With the car laden I began the four hour journey to the north west of Wales via Betws-y-Coed.
Omens and foresight should have shown me that the weekend was to be a tricky one. When I was about an hour into my journey to my first port of call, a text arrived from my colleague to announce he was running late and would be setting off shortly. Fine, I thought, this will give me a chance to mooch about the camping shops in Betws-y-Coed and therein maybe purchase some gas canisters for the camping stove.
On my arrival the rains began. Fair enough, I thought, this is Betws-y-Coed which is renown for rain as the clouds empty their load onto the Snowdonian foot hills so a bit of precipitation is bound to occur in these here parts.
Two hours, a very expensive bacon sandwich (£4.50 for two bits of soggy bacon between cheap slices of bread) and a cup of tea (£1.50 for an egg cup with a splash of milky brown liquid) and several Radio 4 programmes later, Nick arrived and negotiations began for further travel to Porthmadoc where we could buy provisions for the break and some beer. Before following Mr Sat Nav’s directions to Aberdaron and the campsite.
A few days before departure I had placed a reservation as usual at Mynnedd Mawr Campsite only to be told “Just turn up”. So we did. And managed to get one of the last good spots for the tent. The majority of the campsite seemed to be taken up by two very large 10 men trailer tents pitched slap bang in the middle of the site. The thoughtful owners (two Jewish couples in their late fifties/early sixties) had blocked out the lovely view so I didn’t have to look at it. That was very kind of them.
The following day, glorious sunshine blessed our walk which commenced from the end of the last walk (Porth Oer) up the coast toward Porth Tywyn. A good 15 miles of coastal path. The weeks of torrential rain over the previous weeks had made the going quite boggy and our initial steps seemed thwarted but following a brief detour along the beach we were back on the trail in no time.
Glorious views were beheld. Glorious weather too.
Nick enjoying a well earned break
There are many mysterious places along that stretch of coast. For example these stairs cut into the hill side and seemingly inaccessible static caravans.
Or you would be trudging along and have to follow the path through a field of cows…
It’s such a lovely piece of coast line. But the weather there can be unpredictable. By 3pm the clouds were already gathering and the wind had picked up. On our return to the tent it was decided that it was too cold to sit outside drinking beer and that we should retire to the interior of the tent, therein to play dominoes.
I was winning, 10 rounds up, the wind brought with it rain and clouds to further darken the skies. By morning the tent had nearly taken off had it not been laden with the previous evening and early morning rain. The outlook seemed bleak. Further bad weather due.
Rain stopped play. We decamped and returned to our respective homes.
Coming soon – Holiday 2012: Part 2 Devon and Cornwall.
The first day of walking was most enjoyable. Tired by evening we dined on barbequed steak and salad. Not as straight forward as it should be. Partly because the crappy Tesco Instant Barbeque was impossible to light in the light breeze that had picked up during the day but after an hour of cooking later the still rare steaks were ready.
Wednesday’s plan was simple. Turn out of the campsite, left along Lon Uwchmynydd and turn right along the coast before heading north towards Porth Oer. Now we were entering completely virgin territory for me. The lack of accessible roads and paths in this part of the country meant that I was unfamiliar with the scenery on this part of the route.
However the mist was rolling in from the sea.
For those of you unfamiliar with this area of North Wales, the weather here is bizarre. You could be stood in blazing heat in one field and then in the neighbouring field shrouded by an eerie cloud of cool sea mist. So while walking through dramatic scenery here the bizarre mists shrouded the views of the sea. Occasionally we would enter into sloping valleys with babbling streams and haunting bleats from hidden sheep only to hear the gentle lap of waves from the sea against the shore.
Eventually we rose above the clouds by climbing Mynydd Anelog. Blazing heat seared our souls as we strode across Welsh coastal moorland. Views over to Porth Orion and Mynydd Carreg enhanced by gorse and heather covered terrain complimented by hazy blue skies.
An hour or so later, limbs aching and skin tingling with sunburn we reached Porth Oer where we dined in the beach cafe and discussed plans for the remaining day of the holiday. By evening we were both very tired and following a slightly disappointing meal at the local seafood restaurant Pen Bryn Bach opted to walk the 2.5 miles into Aberdaron for a pint returning to the campsite by walking dark lanes.
The next day was hat hunting day. Scouring the local towns and villages for a shop that sold suitable hats. Pwllheli and Abersoch provided no bounty except for beer, money and cider. A new hat seemed an impossible dream.
Friday arrived and we decamped. We drove to Porthmadoc wherein, following the successful attainment of a new hat, we gorged ourselves on a mighty cooked breakfast. Fully sated we parted our ways Nick heading back to Crosby and I returning the long way back to Leamington Spa.
6 hours drive later…I arrived. And so began the second leg of my holiday.
So following arrival at Nicks in Crosby nr Liverpool at 1am in the morning I managed to squeeze out a couple of hours sleep. My head raced with the reality that I would be in Wales later that day. Think I was more excited than Nick.
Several hours later we were on the road in separate cars heading to Aberdaron. Traffic wasn’t that bad and the weather looked promising. Stopped off at the traditional staging posts (Tesco in Caernarfon and Snowdonia Camping Stores in Dinas) arriving at the campsite shortly before 1pm.
Lunch was at the Ty Newydd – I had scampi, Nick had a burger and plans and itinerary hatched.
After a brief tour of the village, the beach and the church, a warm up walk on top of Mynnedd Rhiw and a visit to the top of Braich-y-Pwll to see the view followed.
Tuesday arrived and so commenced the walk. Turning left along the head land we followed the coastal path towards Aberdaron soaking up the views before us and testing our map reading skills to the full.
Now, I’ve been coming to the area for many years and I knew that walking the Coastal Path would provide me with new and exciting sights; I wasn’t wrong. Places I had gazed at longingly on Ordnance Survey maps were taking shape in reality: Porth Felen, Pen-Y-Cil, Bychestyn, Parwyd, Hen Borth. Glorious views, glorious weather. Strange remains of an industrial past.
But woe! I lost my hat. My time worn hat. The hat I have owned for over 8 years. Gone. No more. Even though later in the evening a brief walk back to possible places it may have been left produced no fruits meaning that I had to wear my ill fitting Hard Rock Cafe cap until such time as a proper hat could be purchased…
(An edited version of a post previously made on Livejournal in 2007. Now with pictures taken recently)
Recently I have been thinking about the sodden holidays we used to spend in my Uncle Nat’s cottage.
Uncle Nat sold the caravan in favour of a ramshackle husk of a cottage half way up a soggy Welsh mountain. This meant that instead of ending our holiday journey at Porthmadog we would travel the extra 20 or so miles to a remote and (then) little known area of North Wales called Rhiw.
My dad is very handy, DIYwise. So it came as no surprise that Nat would require his assistance when fixing up the cottage. My first journey to the cottage was on a rainy night in March with just me, my dad and Uncle Nat. My dad had a Ford Orion at this time which was a lot more comfortable than the yellow Escort of old but Nat had a lovely comfortable Volvo estate . Initially (and probably because we didn’t know any better) the route would take the same direction of the way to Porthmadog only continuing along the A497 through Criccieth, Pwllheli and Llanbedrog then a quick dash down the B4413 through Myntho and turning down the unclassified road behind the church in Botwnnog until reaching the telegraph pole with the crab on it and turning once again this time up a steep hill to the telephone box and post box which used to stand (until someone drove into them at high speed) at the bottom of the mountain driveway. The first night travelling was straight after school/work and as a result we were both very hungry by the time we got to Criccieth. So we stopped off at a fish and chip shop set back from the road and thus a new family tradition was born, Sausage, chips and Onion Gravy.
Sausage, chips and onion gravy you may think tastes the same the whole world over. It does not. I have travelled far (well at least to the tip of Cornwall and the craggy highlands of Scotland) yet no where have I ever tasted sausage chips and onion gravy as delicious as at that chippy. I defy anyone to tell me otherwise but unless you too have dined there then your opinion on such matters is moot. But since then I have tried to stop there when Aberdaron bound as a homage to the days of travelling to the cottage. Of course, traditions are meant to be forgotten and a further tradition would evolve which I will relate a bit further into this post.
Anyway, on arriving at the telephone and post box at the bottom of the drive it was clear that this would not be a caravan holiday. Far from it. For a start it was pitch black dark. Darker than dark itself. Had someone switched off the dark it would still not have been anywhere near as dark as it was that first night. The drive way was nought but a mud track and taking the Volvo up the mountain side would probably have tested the skills of even the most hardened rally driver. Even the Royal Engineers would have stood round scratching their head for a while trying to work out how to get the blasted car up the hill. My dad tried with the Orion on a future visit but was thwarted by gravity and lack of traction. Fortunately everything was not lost. With the cottage came a Land Rover (old style) so we would unload the bags into the back of the Land Rover and ascend the mountain through the pitch black using the power of 4 wheel drive. Mynnedd Rhiw really lived up to it’s Welsh name. (Mynnedd = mountain Rhiw = Steep).
Arriving at the cottage the coal fire was stoked into life to dry our sodden boots and clothes and I was introduced to the crockloft bedroom. A ladder in the living room led up to a door midway up the wall behind which was the bedroom consisting of two single beds and a very slanty “mind your head” roof in which a single frame window allowed the pitch darkness of outside to leak in. Hot drinks were consumed and the boys own adventure began with bedtime and the promise of mystery come the daylight.
Daylight battled with darkness and at 6am finally won the war. Fingers of light thumped through the little window like a hammer and woke me up. Accompanying the light came the faint sound of far off tractors and the not so far off sound of sheep bleating. I scurried down the ladder into the living room and switched on the old black and white portable TV so that I might watch some breakfast TV (either Wac-a-Day or something with Roland Rat). My disappointment at the black and white picture was soon joined by confusion as the people on the TV were talking in Welsh. I realised this was S4C (a channel my Nan used to watch regularly) but the confusion was brought about by the lack of any other channels. So remote was our location that TV signals refused to come there. Looking out of the window all I could see was grey. Grey and green. Through the grey was the black outline of the Land Rover and the occasional white blob. Closer inspection revealed these white blobs were sheep. The fog was bad but through the fog came the occasional blast of solar energy so it wasnt that bad.
After breakfast and a warming cup of tea I was allowed to go out into the mist (but not far) and explore what I could find. The neighbouring cottage had a swimming pool and the back field had a view of the slope down into the valley disappearing into the fog. Despite the outlook it was very exciting and on my return to Liverpool I told everyone and anyone that would listen about the cottage and how fantastic it was. My dad gave me a police issue whistle with the instruction that should I get lost in the fog or stuck in somewhere up the mountain then I was to blow as hard as I could on the whistle so that the Mountain Rescue could find me. I still carry that whistle on my keys. Just in case I get caught on the moors or somewhere remote.
We took several other trips to the cottage over the following years. Alternating the route through Porthmadog with a much quicker route along the A55 and the craggy North Wales coast. As the A55 route did not take us through Criccieth we would struggle to find a chip shop of equal quality. Instead it would take us past a Little Chef roadside cafe. For years I had wanted to stop at a Little Chef and our first stop was at the one just outside Conway near where the road goes through the tunnels in the mountain side. To celebrate my dad and I would always have the Early Starter Full English and to be a little bit different, a plate of maple syrup pancakes. This sustenance would put us in good stead for the continuation of the journey and heighten our spirits. Of course my Mum did not approve of greasy spoon cafes and so whenever she was with us we would be unable to dine in such salubrious surrounds, opting for sandwiches and juice at a road side table.
On future visits we were joined by Uncle Nat, Aunty Mary and their son Christopher (who, having spent a good deal of time there himself was able to show me where all the secret hidey places where and all the exciting nooks and crannies), my mum, my school chum Dominic Smith, my childhood friend Paul Midgely and my middle brother Chris. Furthermore my mum and dad would head off there for holidays with their friends Freda & Jim and Bill & Lil. So popular was the little cottage that we spent as many holidays as we could there. The cost took the form of renovations with my Dad doing what he enjoys the most – DIY.
On my third or fourth visit it became clear that the fog was low lying cloud. A trip into the nearest town, Aberdaron, revealed that while the mountain was shrouded in fog the rest of the world was enjoying glorious sunshine. That part of the Llyn Peninsula enjoys a micro climate of outstanding weather were when the rest of the UK is having piss poor weather and wearing cagools and wooly jumpers the Llyn would be walking round in shorts and tshirts enjoying the sun and the crystal clear waters of the sea. Indeed, this discovery lead to exploration of the locality by car and there upon we discovered some delightful parts of the world. Aberdaron with its tiny cafe and spectacular beach; Nefyn and Porthdinllaen with its golf course and pub on the beach; the various unspoilt beaches dotted about the coastline and Braich-y-Pwll over looking Bardsey Sound and the remote and holy Bardsey Island.
Braich-y-Pwll still to this day holds very fond memories for me. I try to take as many of my friends there as are willing to share the spectacular views, the peace and serenity of the locale. It is there that my father and I descended the unstable cliff top steps to St Mary’s Well, a natural fresh water well in the treacherous cliffside. In the well other brave tourists had cast coins of all denominations. Now to get to this well you have to be really careful. I get petrified when I go down there and I refuse to let Mrs Gnomepants go there knowing how unsure footed she is. One slip could result in certain death on the sharp and bastard rocks at the bottom of the cliff or failing that drowning in the nasty currents, swells and eddies of Bardsey Sound. Regardless, people to this day brave the journey and still, to my knowledge, cast coins into the well. On discovering the contents of this well, I am ashamed to say, my father and I fished about as best we could to raise £4 from its ice cold depths. There was still a substantial amount of coinage left there. I do not think anyone actually empties the thing as there were old pennies, shillings and farthings lurking at the bottom of the pool. Never the less we took our £4 and spent it in the cafe resturant down the lane.
Pen Bryn Bach is a fantastic restaurant. Owned by Roger, it specialises in locally caught fish. Years after the events I relate here I went there with Mrs Gnomepants and sampled their seafood mornay which is, as you know, my favourite meal ever! They used to do cream teas at lunch time but this practice seems to have ceased. But at the time of the great Well raid they did cream teas and the scones and cream were the best I have ever tasted!
Just as things were getting to be a habit, my Aunt Mary decided the prospect of having a stroke or diabetic event on top of a remote Welsh mountain was too scary for thoughts so, persuading Uncle Nat, the cottage was sold. It lay empty and nearly became derelict once more for almost 10 years after until about 1999 when somebody bought it and installed a tarmac road up to the cottage (the Land Rover having rusted away long ago). They also took down the wire fence my dad had placed around the cottage to keep the sheep out with a horrid wooden thing. They demolished the kitchen and built a new two storey thing and basically ruined the place fitting Velux windows into the crockloft and them nasty faux cast iron carriage lights on the gate posts.
Still, however, the area has a special place in my heart. I have begun my own traditions and discovered my own special places that I like to visit time after time. I try to visit when we can even if it is only for a day out from Anglesey. I hope that when I have children they too will hold the area in equal regard. I hope they too will be able to dine in Pen Bryn Bach and on Sausages Chips and Onion Gravy at the Chippy in Criccieth. But our family holidays became less of a family thing and I had nearly a ten year break from going away with my folks. Indeed, I had a break from going on holiday. It wasnt until 1998 when Mrs Gnomepants took me to Scarborough that a regular holiday period would once again arise. The following year I treated Mrs Gnomepants to the Solar Eclipse from the top of Braich-y-Pwll which inspired us to hire a cottage of our own there with Philip from Brighton and Stef from Cardiff in the summer of 2000 and again many times later breaking tradition briefly due to me going to university.
I rekindled my love for the area in 2010 when for the first time I went on my own. My fond memories clouding my judgement when it came to the weather as, following a couple of delightfully clement days, it turned nearly causing my tent to take off and glide towards the sea. I was there once more only this week, this time with old friend Nick. Nick hadn’t been to the area before and I hope that he ended up falling for the area as much as I already have. In fact, I challenge anyone to spend a week there and not fall in love with the place.
Way back when, in the time of never-never. Before sinister government face recognition software trawled tagged helpfully pictures on Facebook adding your face to the giant database that “does not exist”. Before the twin towers fell. Before the millennium of anti-climax. A much anticipated event occurred. Warnings in the estoteric press and from hippies and floaty vagina types about how the world was going to end because of the event were abound. The foolish paid daft wads of cash to observe the event from the furthest point south they could get to. Boats and aircraft were chartered. My pre-wife and I headed for relative isolation equipped with tent and telescope with solar observation module attached.
The main intent was to follow the hordes to the overpriced traffic jammed Southwest to observe the total solar eclipse of 11th August 1999. Common sense, however, reigned. Travelling south with all the holiday traffic to Cornwall, the Guardian destination of choice was utter madness. However, I knew of a relatively quiet place. Not many people went there for it was relatively undiscovered. It faced south over the sea, took about the same amount of time to get to and promised to be an adventure and a half.
So it was agreed, we would head to North Wales and to Aberdaron, camp, then ascend Mynnedd Mawr to observe the eclipse.
We packed our stuff and set off in the green nasty. Long term readers will remember the green nasty as the car that was killed by fire. It was a good car. Handy for camping. It had a cassette player and a selection of cassettes were chosen for the journey. I even compiled a “eclipse” compilation. Driving over the hill and into the village with Aberdaron and the bay before me while today’s song was playing burned itself into my mind. Whenever I hear today’s song, I am there;
Brain Damaged/Eclipse by Pink Floyd
….Driving down the hill into the village….just as….”and the sun is eclipsed by the moooooooooooo-ooooooooooon” is sung.
It was quiet there. Few people about. This was, of course, before being popularised in the Guardian and other such papers as the area to go because “Cornwall is too expensive, far away and full of awful tourists like yourselves”. We pitched our tent in a relatively unpopular field and the next day ascended Mynnedd Mawr. With, it seemed, everyone else who had the same idea.
Usually that place is quiet with few visitors. We got there early with the campsite being literally at the base of the mountain and as we set up and prepared ourselves for the event more and more people arrived with the same idea. Indeed, the look of horror on other people’s faces echoed mine as it meant that I was not alone in the realisation that that part of Wales was becoming more well known than before. Coach loads of people started arriving, all up the old army track way people had parked their cars blocking the passing places and being horrible and common. I was pleased because we had got there relatively early and as a result we were able to park right at the top by the coastguard view point.
Of course, with all these young types in their flash cars there, the radio seemed to be playing in unison. Which ever station it was….was playing today’s song too. Everywhere you went that week you would drive or walk past other cars also playing the album that today’s song is from. Collective imitation? Who knows? What I do know though….it was a bloody good eclipse enhanced by the beauty of Bardsey island. Sure there were lots more people than I had expected but I understand that there was nowhere near as many people than who were trying to get into cloud covered Cornwall. And when ever I hear today’s song, I am there….on top of Mynnedd Mawr, with my telescope with solar observation module…Total eclipse of the Sun 1999…Fantastic.
I had intended this trip to be one of solitude. Solitude is overrated.
Zoe left at lunch time and shortly after I went for a 3 mile walk on the top of Mynnedd Rhiw.
As you can tell from the pictures the weather had turned in sympathy to my mood. Grey and miserable. The rain fell. And fell. And fell. And fell.
The wind. Blew. Blew. Gusted. Bellowed. Huffed. Puffed.
Wales missed Zoe as much as I did.
Cold. Damp. No radio. Not the holiday I had envisaged. I cooked burgers in the living area of the tent looking through the small window overlooking rain sodden fields watching the peaceful surroundings turn into a violent maelstrom.
Campaggeddon postponed for the post rain period.
“Thundery downpours” – said Thomas Shaffenacker on the car radio.
Stuff this. Time to call it a day and head to Zoe’s.