Y Twwryppch Ddysccvyrnngh y byht uf Cymru

The richness of Britain is quite something. Not richness in an economic sense, that measure upon which so much weight is given – wander any town or city and it will quickly become apparent that financial riches are far from universal. No, it’s the sheer abundance of Britain. There’s so much in so little a space. Everything here is dense, whether that be the number of council houses clustered together in a cul-de-sac or the profusion of single-track lanes crisscrossing rolling green countryside. How can this small rock in the Atlantic host so much of everything? A tardis of a nation.

I feel like you could spend a lifetime and still not discover every corner of Britain. This is a task even more challenging when you don’t live there anymore, and you are largely content to frequent familiar fishing villages and creamy countryside on home turf. Why the need to go anywhere else?

Even the sands underneath me have felt my footsteps before, though I’m sure never in such a glorious glow. And under this clear air emanating from Blackpool, a horizon of land appears as alien to me as Timbuktu.

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North Wales is a corner of Britain that seems to pack more punch in its acres than most. I think it’s largely explained by the proximity of the coastline to the jagged peaks just a few miles inland. At times the uplands appear to roll directly into the sea. And where they don’t, valleys, towns, forests and lakes squeeze in to fill the gaps. I could spend a month here and still not discover it all.

But I did at least have three days to explore new terrain and it commenced with a surprisingly seamless and pleasurable drive from Lancashire under continuing blue skies. Smoothly cruising through Cheshire, the terrain elevated somewhat into Wales, with snatched views of the Wirral and – in the distance – the conglomeration of Liverpool. At one point I could see the prominent rise of Snowdonia, clearly denoted by the only patch of cloudy sky in the whole of the British Isles. And I was heading straight for it.

The car came to a halt beside Llyn Ogwen, a sliver of a lake hemmed in by the A5 and two hilly clumps of land – the massifs of the Carneddau and Glyderau. To the north, the rolling, open uplands of the Carneddau shimmered gold in the sunshine while the rockier Glyderau was grazed by cloud. And guess to which one I was heading…

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Passing a popular National Trust outpost, a gentle and well-worn path crossed the moorland towards Llyn Idwal, a small lake hemmed in by precipitous cliffs, popular with climbers and school parties vaguely attempting to do something related to Geography. While the landscape was striking, at times it was difficult to stand up, such was the wind howling through this giant bowl. And in late September, a hoodie was barely sufficient protection.

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Thankfully the wind eased a little in the lee of the cliffs, a shattered barrier which seems insurmountable from below. Apparently a cleft proclaims to lead through something enticing called The Devil’s Kitchen and up to the top, via a small track rising from the lake.  A few mountain goats appeared to be running up this in a ridiculous quest called exercise. I walked up a bit, feeling slightly breathless and a tad light-headed with each step. I figured it was a passing touch of wooziness that was quelled by a handful of Jaffa Cakes. And frankly, this view was a good enough one from which to turn around.

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With overnight rest, the next day became a jam-packed whistle-stop exploration of the valleys, towns and bays of this corner of Wales. It started with the promise of early cloud and mist lifting in the small town of Llanrwst. Here, the River Conwy was spanned by a delightful arched bridge leading to what could possibly be one of the most photographed buildings in the principality. Having done very little research prior to this trip, I had no idea such a sight existed and that I would have timed things perfectly to coincide with the flourish of autumn. Turns out it’s a tea shop that – at this time in the morning – was closed. Otherwise clotted cream could have again been in the offing.

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Further up the valley, the river widens towards the Conwy estuary and the countryside softens somewhat to resemble that of South Devon. The environment is a haven for birds, something I deduce from parking at an RSPB centre across the river from the town of Conwy itself. Ever a tight-arse with parking, I decided on the spur of the moment to walk over to the town, taking in splendid views of a majestic castle and surrounding hills across the water.

I became progressively enamoured by Conwy. Obviously its castle is a dominant – and splendidly preserved – feature of the town. Beyond this, much of Conwy is walled, with various towers and steps and ramparts in a crumbling state, the least crumbly of which can be explored for free. And within the walls sits a charming array of old cottages and colourful terraced houses, leading down to a sedate harbour cove. Everything seems peaceful and at peace. And somewhere within this is a massive slab of coffee and walnut cake that is so gargantuan it eliminates the need for lunch.

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Walking back to the car in glorious sunshine I did my best to change into shorts without revealing my arse to any curious twitchers. This of course precipitated the onset of cloud as I drove further west, the A5 cutting under barren hills plunging into the sea, Holyhead across the water.

At Caernarfon, another castle straight out of a lego box impressed. Yet maybe it was the cloud and the coolness, but I found this place lacked much of the ambience of Conwy. It seemed a bit more touristy and try-hard, and the car park surrounding one side of the castle – like some kind of glass and steel moat – distracted from the scene. Meanwhile, the generator from a Mr Whippy van nearby disturbed any tranquillity.

I headed on hoping for a break in the clouds along the coast towards the Llyn Peninsula – the pointy out bit of North Wales. It seems a remote, sometimes bleak place, undoubtedly exposed to the elements throughout the year. I suspect Welsh is the first language here, all hacking throats and largely devoid of vwls. The small towns and villages tend to be off the beaten track… spots like Trefor, where I paused to survey a picturesque cove, one of the few visitors in the car park.

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More popular with curious outsiders like me is Morfa Nefyn and, in particular, the bay-side hamlet of Pothdinllaen. Literally a pub and a few flowery cottages parked by the sand, it can really only be reached by foot, passing through one of those golf courses blessed in its occupation of prime links real estate.  Some of the holes looked ludicrously unfair but the enviable setting, with water on all sides, cannot be denied.

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Following an obligatory pint in the Ty Coch Inn I ambled back towards the car, stamping prints in the sand as the tide shifted out. The salty sea air had put me in a fish and chip mood and I thought Pwllheli might prove a good bet. But it looked a tad depressing passing through and I saw no obvious contenders, instead stopping further east in Cricceith, which satisfied requirements entirely.

It’s a shame the sun never materialised post-Conwy, just to add that sparkle and extra splendour to the sights. And it proved in more ways than one that Conwy simply put everything else into the shade that day.

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Of course, the famous BBC weather forecast had been changing its sunshine symbols into white cloud ones as proximity to each day in question neared. My final day in Wales was, perhaps, the most promising online. Not that it looked especially good first thing, but surely such mist and cloud is to be expected as October nears?

Leaving early under grey skies, I was uncertain how this day would pan out. My intent was to hike proper good somewhere in Snowdonia. And as I reached a viewpoint towards Mount Snowdon itself, the magic happened. The magic that is lifting plumes of mist, evaporated by the laser-like sun of dawn.

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In a matter of minutes it was if cloud had been consigned to the pages of history, and the decision to attempt an ascent on Mount Snowdon was an easy one to make. Rather than regurgitating every single step of this walk here, you can – should you wish – read more about it in this shameless cross-promotion for yet another blog page I have been working on when lulls in work strike me down with boredom.  In summary: epic, awesome, enjoyable…enough of a challenge to provide reward without being too challenging to annoy. Though at times the train to the top did feel like the sensible option.

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It really is remarkable to have such genuine mountain landscape concentrated alongside all the other facets making up this part of the world. Yes, the mountains lack altitude compared to, say, the Alps, but they have every characteristic col, ridge, tarn and peak required. They are mountains worthy of the name.

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However, this is Britain so I guess they are mountains not entirely untamed. At lower levels, a few crumbling mining outposts remain, and slate quarries persist in other parts. And then there are sheep, lovely fluffy inevitable sheep, appearing when you least expect them on a rocky ridgeline, one hoof away from a plummet down a cliff.  It would be remiss of me – negligent even – to be in Wales and not mention sheep. Lovely.

What a glorious day to be a sheep in the green, green grass of home. Now I was seeing sheep everywhere. Sheep to the left of me, sheep to the right. There were sheep even revelling in the field behind my little Airbnb bothy. As with many other things, Britain possesses such density of sheep (though nowhere near as dense as witnessed in New Zealand).

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Sheep were dotted on the fields the next morning, as I woke up overlooking the valley of Penmachno one last time. More acquainted with a pocket of the country that had been unknown, ready to head off back to the familiar. But not before passing through and pausing among new discoveries along the way.

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Driving Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

Waterfalls

It was always going to be hard for me to steer clear of a road named The Waterfall Way. Linking the tablelands of Australia’s New England to the mid north coast of New South Wales,the twist and turns down to the ocean are regularly punctuated with a chocolate box selection of falls. The stops from west to east are a story in climate and geography. Commencing in a parched landscape of wild gorges and dry bushland, thin strips of silver white water spill off cliff edges and into unseen creeks. High plateaus offer wild flowers and cool forests through which rivers gather speed and depth to forge their way down steps into deep gullies. Moisture picks up closer to the coast, where rainforests form to offer crystal cascades and lush fern pools, and the water speeds into the coastal plain before mellowing broadly to the sea.

With such excess there is a danger of waterfall fatigue: parking up, strolling to a lookout, taking a picture and hopping back in the car for a short journey to the next stop. In fact, the waterfalls continue north in pockets of rainforest tucked amongst ancient volcanic plateaus all the way up into Queensland. In the wonderful natural surroundings of Springbrook National Park it is as if there is one final grand culmination before water sweeps over the Great Dividing Range and into the horror of a Gold Coast horizon. Plunging pristine water toppling over the edge before being becalmed in a complex of gaudy cashed up retirement waterways.

Tucked away before the Gold Coast looms, in the quieter western side of the park, another waterfall tantalises the traveller who crosses the border by the back way. Nestled within a beautiful green valley is the once more imaginatively named Natural Arch, replete with shady pool and shimmering cascade plunging through a tunnel of rock. It’s midway round a processional loop walk through the rainforest, where sun rays filter hazily through the tree ferns and parrots chirp away in the canopy. On a humid summer morning, the cool shade of the forest and continuous thrash of crystal water is the perfect gin ‘n tonic.

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What is it about waterfalls that are of such appeal that we seek to recreate them in garden features the world over? On balance they are usually very pretty, from elegant slivers to bubbling tiers and tormented torrents of foaming fury. They are, as much as anything, a break from the ordinary…where a placid river or lake suddenly comes to an abrupt halt and decides to throw itself over a cliff. There is an unparalleled feeling of freshness and purity and, often, invigoration from getting close to gallons and gallons of tumbling water. It can make you feel alive. It can make you want to pee.

The power of waterfalls is compelling and is why they are often best viewed after rain, or sustained snowmelt. Yosemite in May is very different to Yosemite in October. Postcards of massive gushing falls in northern Australia can tell a lie for the trickle that often dwindles in the dry season. In the UK, the weather is usually more reliably conducive to year round falls, with new ones springing up across high streets during supposedly exceptional but all too regular winter storms.

W_wales2013 was one of the better British summers and I felt slightly aggrieved to catch only the tail end of it. Nonetheless it was a balmy 20 degrees or so when I found myself in South Wales towards the end of August, on a different kind of waterfall way. Situated in the Brecon Beacons National Park, this literal tour de force was completed on foot along the Four Waterfalls Walk. For pronunciation lovers out there I can make your day by telling you that this commenced near Ystradfellte and took in a wonderful meander to view (brace yourselves) Sgwd Clwn-gwyn, Sgwd Isaf Clwn-gwyn, Sgwd y Pannwr [1] and Sgwd yr Eira [2].

It sounds like a trite cliché (hey, who doesn’t love a trite cliché), but each fall (or, I assume, sgwd) had its own style and character. Each one builds to the next and the final stop on the itinerary offers the ultimate white water thrill for not especially adrenaline seeking junkies. For, at the curtain falls of Sgwd y Eira, it is quite possible to walk behind the voluminous mass of water plummeting down, and – for some – to take your dog reluctantly along for the ride too. Inevitably there is plenty of spray and you will get wet, but – well – you are in Wales and you will get wet in Wales sooner rather than later. Why not make it here and take the chance to really appreciate the forcefulness of nature. Why not take your ear drums to the brink, pleading for mercy from the explosive, monumental thrash of the gigalitres of water that descend before your eyes? Amazing.

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Like Wales, Oregon is pretty familiar with rain, confronted as it is with a moist pacific airstream and climatic battle between deserts and mountains. One early October day in Portland is restricted to bookstore meanderings and coffee shop escapes, ducking out between downpours to make it to the next warming hipster refuge. Traversing wet sidewalks through a tangle of black umbrellas and beige raincoats, the city seems enveloped in the cinematic monochrome of a film noir. There is oppressiveness to the rain, something which is accepted and wholeheartedly embraced by its citizens but causes frustration to time-limited visitors like me. There are only so many lattes to sup and bookshelves to roam.

The next day shows marginal improvement – overcast but dry – and seems as good as it will get for an escape into the wilds. Passing the quite possibly interesting town of Boring, there are no views of Mount Hood to be had, rising Fuji-like out of the farmland and forests of the horizon as depicted so tantalisingly in the Lonely Planet picture. Brief glimpses are snatched beside Mirror Lake, with little reflection other than that internalised in relation to being potential early morning bear fodder. Further sneak peeks appear in the rain shadow of the mountain to the east and, here, the sun returns for a while to transform the colours of the fading autumnal forests.

With Mount Hood now somewhere behind, the road ends at the huge barrier of the Columbia River, carving a broad swathe through the Cascade Mountains and splitting Oregon and Washington States. The river has created a mammoth gorge lined with cliffs north and south. And so, with a large river system, significant rainfall, and high cliffs, there is a certainty of a quite spectacular run of waterfalls.

This particular waterfall way is undoubtedly a more developed road than that back in New South Wales, as dual lane sweeping curves follow the river in what is a dream to drive. Of the frequent cascades, it is Multnomah Falls that offers the most iconic sight. For once it seems a human element, an unnatural structure, has enhanced a natural spectacle. Splitting the precipitous double-decker descents of white water is a pedestrian arch bridge, where humans can run from bears and so effectively offer a sense of scale and perspective. Indeed, even the bears would look small opposed to the streaks of water tumbling from somewhere unfathomably high up in the sky.

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Finishing a convenient circumnavigation of the globe here I am now back in Canberra. There are few falls here, other than watery concrete features around the angular constructs of the parliamentary triangle. But in a couple of days I will be going up to Sydney and, with time on my hands, I will make it scenic, detouring to Fitzroy Falls in the Southern Highlands. An old reliable favourite, fed by a reservoir and plunging off sandstone into a gum tree valley. A lyrebird may well be imitating the sounds of crashing water and a strong minty eucalyptus scent will pervade the senses. Again, it will be splendid. Because waterfalls are always splendid. But for now, I must come to a halt and stop this gushing about gurgling water and thrashing torrents, soaked in a spray of swirling liquid currents and dramatic downpours. Because now I really, really need to pee.


[1] For anyone with a customised 2014 calendar Christmas present…this one is the front cover!

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Wales tales

Church Stretton. So says a sign on a railway platform midway between somewhere in the Midlands and somewhere in Wales. It has very little relevance to my whole trip apart from the fact that this railway line I have never before taken has stopped briefly in a town that looks so cosily cosseted in the Shropshire Hills that I want to remember it. And perhaps come back and stop and walk atop its hills and meander back through its vales to refresh with a pint of cider in a beer garden of an old stone pub with whitewashed walls and hanging baskets and the noise of contented sheep bleating nearby.

Cwmbran is the station sign at which I disembark, situated in the South Wales valleys and a landscape not without its own hilly charm and abundance of bleating sheep. It can also lay claim to having a supermarket on every roundabout, one of which – Morrisons – is swiftly visited for a few day’s provisions vital for picnic lunches and delicious home-cooked dinners. With me, Dad and Aunty Val, taxi driver and cook, pivotal cogs as ever in creating a fine few days.

Where there are valleys there are hills and it didn’t take long to get amongst them. A drive through a warren of lanes led Dad and I to a spot below a big hill with a Welsh name. This is where I refer to Dad’s Facebook pictures and check what on earth it was called. Twm Balwm, which means top of hill to catapult sheep at English. A short but steep walk confirmed its prominent position for attacking folk, with hazy views over the South Wales coastline, across the Bristol Channel to Somerset and Devon, and north and east back in the direction from which I had come.

Amongst this landscape much water runs and – in places – runs to dramatic effect. The next day, in a corner of the fabulous Brecon Beacons National Park, we followed the course of the Afon Mellte as it made its way from underground to plunge over several rock ledges, each as unpronounceable as the next. Anything billed as the Four Waterfalls Walk is bound to be of appeal, and the falls of (wait for it…) Sgwd Clun-gwyn, Sgwd Isaf Clun-gwyn, Sgwd y Pannwr, and Sgwd yr Eira provided a showcase of white water spectacle.

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wal01From our approach at Glyn Porth the cascades increased in drama, culminating in Sgwd yr Eira, a curtain of water that has carved an overhang through which walkers can walk behind water. Sure Jesus, it’s not quite walking on water but it’s the next best thing. The sound of roaring water over your head, spray peppering clothes and camera lenses, slightly dubious slippy-looking rocks, and small dogs reluctantly getting in the way all add that exciting touch of adventure. And hopefully this adrenaline can just about get you back up the hill for a tasty sandwich and the onward march back to the car.

Considerably less exciting is a stop in a fishing shop in Pontypridd, but it wasn’t too long and Dad got a few birthday goodies so all was still well with the world! Nearby though there was more drama of the Winterfell kind, courtesy of a couple of hours in Caerphilly and its castle. This had everything a good castle should with moats and ramparts and crenulations and spiral staircases up lofty towers and banquet halls and dungeons and catapults. Parts had been restored and renovated, others remained ramshackle, which meant you could really get a sense of what it was like back when Welsh people were catapulting sheep at the English and devious plots of intermarriage and murder were being concocted over a feast of wild boar and spicy cheese on toast.

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No such scheming over dinner, though the roast pork was a welcome substitute for wild boar. Extra potatoes could be justified by the walking earlier in the day, but I think so much was eaten that another walk was to be encouraged the following day. Especially after a tasty slice of cake and a passable coffee in Abergavenny in the morning, prior to a different kind of sugar high.

wal04A walk up to the Sugar Loaf involved some notable uphill drags, cutting across unruly bracken and withering woods, and striking out for the top. Up here, the slight sunniness of the valley in which we started was no more, with a windy, cool bleakness emerging with every step. The clouds were scraping the tops of the Brecon Beacons to the north, and only occasional hollows of pasture glowed with the rays of the sun. But this is high summer, and several other people were still in shorts atop the loaf.

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wal06Of course, the views were far-reaching and rewarding, but it was quite nice to have gravity on your side for a while as others battled up. Down steeply at first but then a gentle descent along a ridge and through an ancient wood, emerging out into some kind of civilisation with farmhouses and tractors and manure. Unfortunately on this circular walk the car was still a fair way around the corner and it suffered (as did we) from that final, unrelenting drag.

Still, it was something of an accomplishment with which to finish this short sojourn in South Wales. Well, not quite finish, for there was a rather large trifle to try and finish back at Aunty Val’s that evening. Already it seemed that much had been achieved off my bucket list – roast, trifle, upland walking, history, trips to Morrisons – in just a couple of days. Indeed, Wales offered a well concocted taste and teaser for the crème de la crème, the emergence into a blue sky Devon. I’m sure the main will be just as good as the starter.

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