Summit Fever

Ahead was a wall of broken rock, covered in ice. To my left, a drop steep enough to give my acrophobia a phobia of its own. To my right, the scrambling route was covered in ice like a glass waterfall. The wind was gusting unpredictably and had just tried to push me off the path. I took a moment to recall why I liked walking in the hills and mountains. I looked back along the way I’d come and found the answer. In a 180 degree panorama were a range of snow topped hills and mountains stretching away into the distance. Immediately below me was a beautiful valley with the remains of slate quarries and the associated ruins covered in snow and ice. The sky was blue and despite the wind, the sun was warm.

The wind, taking offence at my ‘despiting’ it, nudged me closer to the drop.

Rewind a few days. The long term forecast looked good, so I booked a few days at a cheap hotel near Bangor and settle down with some maps and my planning head on. More mountains, more training – I knew I had to get some longer walks in with more serious climbs to prepare for trekking in the Atlas Mountains.

They day before I set off the forecast suddenly started talking about snow and more importantly, heavy drifting snow along the route I’d use to drive to North Wales. Although the days I was due to spend there were going to be cloud free, I knew that conditions might be more difficult that first thought. But on the other hand, it would give me some experience of winter walking in challenging conditions, which was what I could expect in Morocco. So with some trepidation about the driving conditions, I set off early in the morning to head north. The road conditions weren’t as bad as I was expecting but there was a lot of snow, and I could see it beginning to form drifts in the wind. Nevertheless, I managed to get to Snowdonia earlier than anticipated and with time to spare before I could check in, I parked in the Ogwen Valley and strolled up to Cwm Idwal to get some photos of the snowy conditions. A cold wind blew along the valley and in the cwm, but I was wrapped up warm and enjoyed the short walk to the lake. By now the snow had stopped and the clouds were beginning to break up. The waters of Llyn Idwal were a cold grey and very choppy. Ice formed on the grass and reeds at the water’s edge. Ahead, the Devil’s Kitchen looked decidedly frozen.

The hotel was warm and comfortable and, coffee in hand, I settled back to plan the next few days. Tomorrow, I would climb Snowdon on the Watkin Path. This I had first done 11 years ago when I met up with two fellow trekkers to train for my first Everest Base Camp trip. We’d set off along this route, one of the longest paths and one with the greatest height gain, full of confidence. We were all well into our training routines and very fit. At first it was clear but as we neared the top the mist descended and the last 100m or so was a steep, slippery and pathless scramble in near zero visibility. Similarly, on the way down we struggled with the steepness and the lack of firm footholds. Only later did we find out that we’d missed the path and scrambled up a near vertical face with ridiculous drops beneath us.

This time, I knew the route I was going to take and it definitely didn’t involved scrambling. The correct path went off to the left and I was determined to follow it, not being good with heights. I set off in cold sunshine and followed the lower part of the path through an ancient woodland to a valley and waterfall, before reaching a gateway which featured in the film ‘Carry On Up the Khyber’. Much of the film was shot in and around the area. Beyond this, the path rose steadily into slate mining country and I passed a number of ruined buildings, inclines down which the slate bearing trucks dropped, and water mill workings. A large rock bears a memorial to commemorate the opening of the path in 1892 by William Gladstone, who was 82 when he addressed the crowd here. He didn’t go on. I, being younger, did.

Now the snow began to make a difference. Until this point, it had merely been a coating on the mountains, making them even more photogenic than usual. Soon, I found the going underfoot was slippery and as the depth of snow increased, it became tiring too. I found myself wading through knee deep snow for large parts of the ever steepening pathway. I was the first person up this way since the snow and while it was great to be walking in no one’s footsteps, it made route finding difficult as the snow was deep enough to obscure the twisting route. In places, ice had formed beneath the snow and while the deep snow prevented me from slipping too far, it was like walking in sand with every step forward resulting an a slip backwards. This became tiring very quickly and I found I was out of breath far quicker than I would normally expect.

On one of my rest stops, I was passed by another walker who, without pack or poles, was making light work of the conditions. His foot falls were confident and I guessed he was very familiar with the route. Although I couldn’t keep up with him, his foot prints were a useful guide to the route. I was careful not to follow blindly (after all, he could have walked off the edge of a drop) but it gave me some clues as to which way to go.

It was getting warmer now and eventually, the gradient dropped off as I reached the saddle between Snowdon and Y Lliwedd. I remembered this from the first time I came this way, and also from the time I walked the Snowdon Horseshoe, when at this point I found I’d run out of water. Now I stopped for a rest and a snack, and to enjoy the views East down towards Glaslyn and Llyn Llydaw. Ahead, the bulk of Snowdon disappeared into low cloud and I spent a few minutes identifying the route up the steep scree slope to the top. It was difficult to make out the path as it disappeared amongst the loose rock and snow. I could see a diagonal line of snow leading up before fading out. Then there seemed to be an outcrop of rock before another, fainter diagonal heading into the cloud. There was no sign of the walker that had passed me.

As I set off from my rest stop, the wind hit me from the east. Cold and blustery, it nearly knocked me off my feet. The next gust overbalanced me and I only stayed upright by grabbing onto a nearby outcrop of rock. The wind, mist and the lack of obvious path made me feel a bit nervous. I’ve walked in these conditions before but only once with such a drop to one side, and I didn’t enjoy the experience. Carefully, I set foot on the scree slope and made my way up. It was steeper than it looked and the wind was now gusting in the opposite direction – towards me. Now I was battling against the wind steeply uphill and at any moment, the wind direction could change again and I’d be left leaning in the wrong direction. And then the scree slope stopped abruptly against a wall of broken rock covered in ice.

As I stood and looked at the vista before me, I was thinking about what move to make next. Although I had crampons and an ice axe with me, I was not experienced in using them. The ice axe wouldn’t help as it would probably be torn from my hands if I fell down the scree slope. With my inexperience, the crampons were more likely to cause a fall than prevent one as I would probably catch the spikes clumsily and take the express elevator down. The mist made finding the route after the first few hand holds nearly impossible and without visibility it would be difficult to plan a safe line. Finally, I was very tired after ploughing through the deep snow. So reluctantly, but knowing it was the right choice, I decided to turn around and make my way down. As if to confirm my decision, the wind gusted once again and pushed me down the first few feet of the scree path. Then it tried to push me over the edge.

At the saddle, I turned to look back to see if I could spot the path again but I still couldn’t see a clear route and, disappointed, I made my way back down the path. By now the snow as melting and beyond the deepest drifts of snow, the path was becoming more and more defined. I passed another walker who had turned back before me and another who was heading up. I stopped and chatted to him and he said he was having doubts about the final part of the climb. I left him heading up and made my way down the the quarry ruins. By now the wind had dropped and it was beginning to feel like a summer’s afternoon. The countryside was beautiful and the views down the valley magnificent. But I was feeling deflated after the turn around and some of the magic was gone as I finally made it back to the car, tired and hungry.

Back at the hotel, I went through everything again in my head, and came to the same conclusion. It had been the right choice to turn around. But I also decided to try again the next day, using a different path.

This time, following the Llanberis path, I made it to the top of Snowdon with the aid of crampons. The conditions just past the Clogwyn station were extremely wintry and ice on a difficult slope threatened to let me slip down and over the Clogwyn Dur Arddu cliffs. I used my crampons and while they did give me the ability and confidence to manage the ice, I was clumsy in them as I got used to the front spikes catching in the ground, and I was glad I hadn’t tried using them the previous day. I made my way down in a much better mood, only briefly stopping to wonder at the people making their way up, having ridden half way on the train, and totally unprepared for the conditions ahead.

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Tits and secrets

Ok, lets get the tittering out of the way. The tits are, of course birds. Feathered birds. The court order doesn’t allow me to keep any other kinds of tits in the garden any more. This morning after I’d had breakfast, I watched as a number of Blue Tits, Great Tits and House Sparrows flitted back and forth between the bushes and my bird feeder. I managed to get some photographs of them too.

After yesterday’s walk, Rufus was struggling a little with his knee. So today, I decided that he should have a rest from walks. I explained this to him but he didn’t seem that impressed. So I had to tell him a little white lie. I said that I was going shopping. Which I sort of did, but then set off to explore a couple of parts of Gower I haven’t been to before. He still doesn’t know and thinks I’m a particularly hesitant shopper. Don’t say anything. It’s our secret.

A book on local history I have been reading intrigued me about a few places on the Gower Way. The book is ‘Real Gower’ by Nigel Jenkins and is worth a read if you’re interested in little histories of Gower told through anecdotes by a local writer. A friend had mentioned Carmel chapel, a ruin near Cilonnen, as being potentially photogenic and I read some of the history of the place in this book. So that became my first point of interest. I thought I knew where I was going and I headed off the north Gower road , past the place where my car was broken into, and on through the anonymous, tree-lined little lanes towards Cilonnen.

At the T junction, I headed west, wondering if I should have turned right instead. About a mile later, I wished I had as I had to negotiate a partially blocked road where a lorry was unloading scaffolding. Helpfully, they had put corrugated iron and wood in the ditch to allow vehicles to crawl past. Unhelpfully, the corrugated iron was ready to slice into my tyres. Helpfully, one of the guys offloading the scaffolding came over and rearranged the wood and I managed to get past. But it quickly dawned on me that I had gone the wrong way. Rather than turn around and risk my tyres again, I drove on along through new parts of Gower and enjoyed the drive despite ever narrowing lanes and pot-holed roads. Eventually, I emerged into familiar territory near Llanrhidian and turned back towards Fairwood Common again.

I left the north Gower road once again and this time stopped at Gelli Hir woods. Here, the book said, were the remains of an old colliery, also called Gelli Hir, which in its last year of production, 1948, brought 15,000 tons of coal to the surface. Spoil heaps lie on the common around the colliery site but trees ease the view. A brief walk through the woods reminded me of how lucky I am to live so close to such an abundance of unspoilt countryside as I listened to the rustle of leaves, the multitude of song birds and the gentle crunch of gravel beneath my boots. Back at the car, a Robin was checking out my wheels and wary of the previous theft from my car I wondered what it’s intentions were. I soon found out as it flew away into the branches of a tree to watch me leave.

Back on the search for Carmel, I turned east at the T junction and within 100 yards, there was the ruined chapel at the side of the road. This chapel was built in 1885 for the workers of the nearby colliery and was considered a satellite chapel of the main church in Three Crosses. I stopped to take photos as it was, as my friend had suggested, very photogenic.

Then it was off through Three Crosses to Dunvant and a portion of the old Mid Wales line that ran through Clyne Valley and which has no been turned into a cycle path. Here, the book told me, we were wandering through an industrial landscape of collieries and brick works. Several paths left the main cycleway, which is also a bridle way here where horses have the right of way over cyclists. I followed one signposted for the brick works, which climbed eastwards out of the railway cutting. In the distance I could hear horses neighing and all around birds continued to sing. Above me, a squirrel lost its nerve and scurried from a low overhead branch onto a tree to my left, where it stopped to look at me watching it. It darted across another branch, demonstrating it’s agility for me and then stopped to check I was still watching. It continued this stop start show off routine until I moved on.

The clouds were gathering now and I was conscious of the forecast of rain for the afternoon, so I turned back for the old railway line. Walking back tot he car, I noticed the old brickwork support for the cutting. Below it an orange stream flowed, where iron ore from the coal seam stained the stream bed. The wall was bulging and in several places trees and bushes grew from gaps in the brickwork.

Back home, I didn’t mention my adventures to Rufus and he seemed content to chew on a couple of carrot sticks and roll over for me to tickle his belly. Normal service has resumed then.

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Rufus and I tend to visit the same places when we go walking. I try to vary our routes as much as I can and I’m always on the lookout for new places to go. I like to make sure that Rufus is walking (ideally off the lead) for longer than we are in the car. It’s usually easy enough to manage.

Today we tried a new route. We’ve been to the Forestry Commission wood at Penllegare before but today we walked further into the forest alongside the railway line and then turned left to follow an almost invisible path between the trees as it climbed up and away from the rails. Before long we could hear the unmistakeable sound of waterfalls. Both Rufus’ and my ear twitched. Rufus loves the water and I love waterfalls so we were both happy when we suddenly came across a series of steps in the river that made for a picturesque cascade. It looked semi natural, as if someone had enhanced what was already there. I guess this bit of the woods was once part of the Penllegare estate before the artificial barriers of the railway and the motorway chopped the forest in two.

Not having expected to see anything worthy of more than a snapshot, I only had a point and shoot camera with me. It’s a great camera, but for scenes like this I prefer to take my time using a DSLR or similar, and a tripod. So I took some snapshots and made a mental note to return as soon as practical with something that would give me more control. Rufus, with no such considerations, paddled and splashed and waded like a pro, which of course he is.

We climbed up above the river and followed it’s little valley for a bit before leaving it behind and heading back into the trees. Now we were walking through a wild looking forest, following a hint of a path through mud, brambles and over fallen trees. Then we emerged onto a wide forestry track. The sun was out and despite a cool breeze, it was warm as we climbed the gentle slope along the track. We had the woods to ourselves as we ambled along and I let Rufus decide the route when we came to forks in the path. Finally, after another squelch along a narrow path, we came to a gate and although there were no signs forbidding entry, I decided it was time to head back to the car.

The journey back was a bit quicker and we stuck to the track when the turning into the woods came along. By now we were passing other dog walkers, joggers and would be joggers. We dropped back down into the car park and after some reluctance of Rufus’ part to get into the back, we set off for home and a well earned lunch.

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Barn 3: King Charles’ bedroom, secret passages and ghosts

I woke expecting rain this morning, and with a mild headache following a sip or two of cider last night. But it was clear and there was blue sky visible as I chased away the sleep with a strong mug of coffee. Then it was off in the car with Rufus up onto the hills again for our morning stroll.

There were grey clouds by the time we got to the car park, but we’re used to that. We headed off towards Hurley Beacon again but very quickly we spotted a cow making its way slowly along the path towards the trig point – our route. As we got closer, we saw more cows, strung out in a long line with 100 yards or so between them, slowly heading off to the stile that led to the Beacon.

We decided to detour around them. Cows are unpredictable and I’ve been followed by them more than once. On walks in Scotland, I’ve had a whole herd follow me. Once I was taking photos of a stone circle and I turned around to find about 20 cows stood three or four feet behind me, as if they were checking the camera angle. I was surprised and a little nervous as I’d herd (ha ha) stories of them trampling people, albeit accidentally. But this lot were happy to just watch. When I left, they called after me.

We headed north on the hills today and were treated to a gorgeous view across the Bristol Channel to home.

Back at base Bruce (the cottage owner) suggested a local dog kennel for Rufus, as he had managed to escape from the garden several times. As we had planned to visit Dunster Castle, it seemed the best thing to do. Rufus seemed happy enough to be there and we left feeling better about leaving him there.

Dunster castle was built in the 13th Century and has been lived in by the Luttrel family for 600 years. The current building is more manor house than castle, although the original gate house still exists. We spent some time inside viewing the rooms, including a bedroom in which King Charles spent a night or two. Behind the four poster bed was a secret passage and the room is reputed to be the most haunted room in the building. We didn’t see any spirits but the guide told us that another guide had felt a presence, including a hand on her shoulder, while standing outside the room.

After a stroll around the village, we had food and headed back to Flora’s Barn. A well earned coffee was enjoyed, and we fed the little pony in the top field with some carrots. She loves to be groomed too, so we brushed her coat as she ate grass and posed for my camera. Then it was time to pick up Rufus, and we went from the kennels to Blue Anchor beach to explore and throw stones for Rufus to chase.

As we walked along the pebble beach, a steam train from the nearby West Somerset Railway chuffed past. The engine driver waved and the train sped past on its way to Minehead. We walked back, occasionally eating a blackberry fresh from the bush. A great way to end the day.

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Day Off 1

A day off with no fixed plans is scary and great at the same time. Scary because I might waste it by doing lots of little things and getting no where or achieving nothing. Great because anything is possible.

After weeks of being unable to get out, I wanted to do things today. I got up at 7am (it’s a lie-in for me) and by 7.45 I had decided to go to Cardiff by train. I was leaving the station at 8.28. Not long afterwards, I became aware of the conversation of two young ladies sitting behind me. It was about boyfriends, and who was seeing who, and how Jane, who is pregnant (‘I didn’t know that’) had downed a whole bottle of Jack Daniels (other whiskeys are available), and how David was now dealing, according to Steve. All of this was interspersed with some lovely swear words. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the swearing was occasionally interrupted by conversation.

Then, two different passengers had a long conversation about umbrellas (ella ella eh eh eh) – how the one she had made her hair swirl around in the wind like a snowglobe and the one her friend had fitted into her handbag but was a bit heavy and that Diane always had really nice umbrellas (ella ella eh eh eh). After that, the hours I spent in Cardiff were a bit of a let down.

I had always planned to take Rufus out in the afternoon. I was home in plenty of time to collect him and head off to the river. We like the river. Even the weather looked as if it had cleared up, with sunny spells and blue sky. We left the car and made our way down to the river. I should have realised the dark clouds to my right were destined to find us but the wind was blowing from ahead and I thought that was where the weather would come from. We managed to get about 20 minutes from the car before the first few hail stones floated down. I managed to get my waterproof trousers on but by the time they were zipped up, it was raining and hailing hard.

Rufus doesn’t mind the rain but he’s not partial to hail so we both looked for some shelter. Rufus found a boulder and stood behind it. I joined him but it wasn’t really big enough for me. Rufus cuddled in during the worst of the hail, which started to drive at an angle because of the wind. When the worst of it was over, we  had a quick discussion and both agreed that heading back to the car would be the wisest action.

Of course, as we got back to the car, the downpour stopped and the sun came out. So with just a look, we both agreed a little more exercise was in order. We headed off up the other side of the valley to a standing stone that can be seen from the road. It was a short up hill pull, ideal for both of us as we were out of practice a bit, and at the stone, the sun was warm and beginning to dry us out. But in the distance, another dark cloud bank was heading our way, so we quickly headed back to the car.

Alas, we weren’t quick enough and with the car in sight, the heavens opened with heavier hail and rain than before. We could have done with an umbrella (ella ella eh eh eh) – any design, any shape, heavy or light. Rufus was glad to get in the car (he usually makes excuses not to have to leave) and I joined him. Pools of water started to form in the footwell as I struggled to get the soaking wet weather gear off. By the time we were ready to leave, hailstones covered the road like a thin coating of snow. The noise of them hitting the car drowned out the radio. I decided to wait for a while before setting off.

And as usual, by the time I dropped Rufus off, it was a glorious summer’s day again!

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