Thursday, May 31, 2007

Wales - Day 6

Guess what ?

Give up ? What, not specific enough for you ?

Ok......well I came down this morning and there was The Leeds Weekly News sticking half way through my letterbox. Was I upset ? No. Was I annoyed ? No.

After getting such things off my chest in yesterday's blog post, I was calmness itself and with a fixed smile of resignation on my face, I removed the offending rag and SHREDDED IT INTO TINY BLOODY PIECES AND THREW THEM IN THE BLOODY BIN. GRRRRRRRRRR.

S'ok, the red mist has gone now and I can get back to Day 6, Wednesday last week, of my trip to Wales.

I didn't go far from base this time as we were expecting a wi-fi router to arrive in the post and I was going to set it up for my brother and wanted to get it done before the Champions League Final at 7:45pm which we wanted to watch.

I went right out the gate, direction wise I mean, and headed to Machynlleth. As I approached the golf club, I decided to work up an appetite by going up onto the course and take some photographs.

This first view is from the 2nd tee and looks down on that nameless and numberless road I mentioned in an earlier blog as being one of the most scenic I've ever been on in this country.

I know it doesn't look much like your classic golf course but I'd describe it as an inland links course in some ways. There are no narrow tree lined fairways here.

I initially thought there was little or no rough either but even the munching sheep on every hole couldn't get rid of it all and my brother said it'll grow a lot thicker as the summer progresses.

As I'd not even held a golf club for a couple of years, I was pleased to have such an open course to get back into the swing of things........literally.

This is the view a little to the left of the first photo and shows the 1st green and the clubhouse on the other side of the little clump of trees.

The first is a dog leg and you're not allowed to 'take it on' as that would endanger any walkers who might be on the hill to the left of the clump of trees as we look at them.

Again you can just see the road at the bottom of the photo and driving right to left, it's only about half a mile from here to the town of Machynlleth.

I walked on up the course, which involved quite a climb, and came to the 8th tee. As usual there were a few sheep around and the two on this particular tee looked like they had a story to tell. What a state they were in. I hoped some local resident was suitably shamefaced and racked with remorse......if not a shocking hangover !!

It's only a 9 hole course and so the 8th is also the 17th.

The sheep are so used to the golfers and know they're safe - from most of them - that apart from a quick glance up, they carry on munching and keeping the grass down.

Can't see them being introduced at Augusta any time soon but a lot of lesser courses could make use of these natural lawnmowers.

Back in the car and getting my breath back, I looked at the map and decided where to go for breakfast. My only definite destination was the foot bridge across the estuary to Barmouth and so after passing through Machynlleth, I went along the coast hugging A493 to Aberdovey (or Aberdyfi to be Welsh about it) which was a lovely little seaside village with colourfully painted houses and a very pleasant sea front.

I pulled up at a parking area which allowed free parking for 45 minutes and I was beside the low sea wall which, at this point, had these 2 birds scanning for any morsels of food being handed out or, more likely, being dropped by passing tourists.

As you'll gather from my previous posts, I'm not much good at naming birds so I don't know if the one on the left is a variety of seagull or something completely different.

The wall was on my left so these birds were visible through my passenger window and not for the first time, I missed the electric windows from my previous cars.

Still ,they were so relaxed and content on the wall that they didn't move when I leaned over and wound the window down to take these quick snaps. The one I knew to be a seagull did get fiddigty and just before it decided to fly off, it posed nicely for this 2nd shot.

Across the road, the A493, I spotted The Sunflower Cafe which had a few tables and chairs outside and this seemed a good place to have my breakfast.

It appeared to be owned and run by a husband and wife team from London, but I'm only going by accents and the fact that he talked a lot about West Ham football club !

Their son was helping out as well so it had a nice friendly family atmosphere.

Remembering the proximity of the seagulls, I picked a table inside and passing up on the delicious cold choices on the menu, I went for the less healthy but more filling cooked English breakfast. Yes I know. If it's any consolation, I berated myself for a while afterwards.......with every satisfied burp in fact !!

Full of stomach and slightly lighter of wallet, I left Aberdovey to the birds and continued around the coast on the A493, looking for the foot bridge across to Barmouth. I was pretty low on petrol and after a few miles, the warning light came on, followed by a warning noise that scared the bejesus out of me. One or the other, guys.......I don't need both.

As I was getting over 47 miles to the gallon, I knew I could ignore the warnings for a while and being a 3 week old car. I shouldn't need to worry about the pipes fouling up with the sludge at the bottom of the tank. This gave me a confidence to carry on which was unwarranted as for all I knew, there wasn't a gallon LEFT in the tank. I'd not read that part of the handbook and just ASSUMED you always have a gallon left when the alarm goes off.

I suddenly found myself a few miles from Dolgellau (and numerous petrol stations) which meant I'd missed the foot bridge across the estuary. I turned around and drove back and looked even closer for some sort of sign. When I passed a narrow road to the right that had a small railway sign at it's entrance, I thought that might be it and so I stopped to ask at the next commercial business. I was told that WAS the road down to the foot bridge and so back I went again.

All this time I was thinking I might have made a big mistake not going on into Dolgellau for petrol but hey, call me young and impetuous. PLEASE call me young and impetuous cause really I'm old and quite scared by a lot of the decisions I make these days. This being one of them. Why DIDN'T I go on into Dolgellau and fill up ???!!!

I went down the narrow road a few hundred metres and came to a parking area close to the world's smallest railway station. It was a hut really but then it wasn't a mainline station and didn't need to be anything more.

As usual there were sheep everywhere and as I started on my walk along the side of the line towards the bridge, this little fella kept a wary eye on me.

Not so little actually.

There was an electrified fence on each side of the tracks but it was soon obvious that sometimes the odd sheep decided it was worth a bit of a shock to get onto the line.........or maybe worth a couple of shocks to cross over to the other side completely.

Coming towards me was this railway employee trying to get a sheep off the tracks. Quite how he planned to achieve this wasn't immediately obvious to me as he just seemed to be slowly herding the animal along - maybe he knew there was a gap in the fencing, probably 20 miles away, and was pacing himself.

In any case, the sheep was clearly enjoying this pantomime a lot more than the employee who was probably wondering how to put this on his time card and if he could claim extra for multitasking as a shepherd.

The people behind him had just come off the footbridge and were making their way round past me and on to the car park.

Young shepherding employee had an older colleague who had gone the other way and was walking the line in true Johnny Cash style.
I think there is a task where you hit the actual railway track with a metal rod and listen for the noise it makes and use this low tech method to determine if the train will cross the bridge or leave it.

If I was that interested, I'd Google it but it did seem that this man was doing just that.

Well either that or he was just a vandal with a hard hat and a florescent jacket ( maybe an ex-Easyjet employee ) as every so often he'd take his big rod and smack it against the track.

Stop tittering at the back, Jones Minor.

By now I was well along the elusive foot bridge and so about halfway across the Mawddach Estuary. In front of me, at the end of the bridge, lay Barmouth where I'd been by road a couple of days earlier.

There were raised sandbanks on the left and the beautiful coastline on my right and almost straight ahead on the land was this lovely, if slightly bizarre, house with a speedboat 'parked' in front of it.

What a location ! I thought I was along the California coastline somewhere near Monterey.

Even the mountains in the background helped with that impression.

The sun was out and it was quite a beautiful setting for a home.

I was impressed with the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists who were using the bridge at this time. It was a toll bridge but the only pay booth was at the Barmouth side and so I never had to dip in my pocket. This pleased me enormously of course and I decided the money saved would help pay for the breakdown truck that might be needed to get me to Dolgellau if my fuel starved car decided not to start.

This was the view towards Barmouth which was pretty enough in it's own right.

Again I loved the neat rows of houses seemingly carved out of the sides of the mountains that now protected them.

It was just after midday and the sun was blazing down from an almost cloudless sky. It was very warm and apart from the distant clanking noise of the track bashing railway employee, the only sounds were from the circling seagulls from nearby Barmouth harbour.

I looked over the bridge to the right and it was like a view from a cruise ship entering a Caribbean port. Was I really in mid Wales ??

This photo doesn't really capture the view as I saw it. One of those 'gotta be there' moments really.

I stayed a while longer enjoying the peace and quiet and then went back to the car. Thankfully it started ok and got me to Dolgellau where I had the luxury of passing one petrol station (well it WAS charging £1.02p a litre) and finding another one which just happened to be at a Renault dealership. Sadly no discount.

I wanted to get back to base to install the wi-fi router so once I'd left Dolgellau, I got on the A470 (what else !!) and took this mountain pass route to Aberangell. It's called Bwlch Oerddrws - Bwlch being the Welsh word for 'gap' and what a gap it was.

This link takes you to an aerial photo of the pass and the A470 that takes you along it. This is the photo I took and was taken from the small parking area at the top of the pass which is usually packed with cars as this is prime walking country.

I had to park, blocking in a couple of cars but as I wasn't stopping long, I knew it didn't matter.

I was standing on one of the highest passes in Wales and looking down the Dyfi Valley. The peacefulness of the location belied it's history as three centuries ago, the area was a stronghold for thieves and bandits.

A few miles further down the valley and back on the flatlands, there is a lovely hotel/pub/restaurant called The Brigand's Inn where my brother works a few hours a week and where we had a meal before I went back to Leeds. But that's for the next blog.

Back at the parking area on top of the pass, someone had managed to stick this plant or weed or flower into the top of a wooden fence post. It was a strange thing to do and yet I liked it a lot. I wondered how long it had been there and how long it would remain. Based on it being firmly embedded in the wood and that generally walkers are not the sort of people who would remove such a joining of man made and natural elements ( I'm classing the post as man made here), I think it might be there for years to come. I hope so.

On my way down the pass I stopped one last time as I came upon another example of a tiny community living in the shadows of the mountains. There was another lovely churchyard and this time I suspect that the building in the middle of the village was the church or chapel.

It was just after 3pm and I needed to be back. It was only a few miles along the A470 to Aberangell.

When I got there I learned that the router had not arrived and a phone enquiry informed my brother that it would be delivered tomorrow, for sure, definitely, on pain of death or worse.

As it was a lovely afternoon and sis-in-law had cut the grass and tweeked other parts of the garden, I took one more photo of the front of the house as it was looking particularly attractive in the sunshine. The self contained flat is open for business ( now that I've left it ) so feel free to make enquiries and do yourselves a favour - book in and try a break in mid Wales sometime soon.

End of gratuitous and shameless plugging.

We had an early supper and settled down to watch the Champions League final - sorry Liverpool fans.

The plan for the next day was to go up north to the top of Wales and check out Conwy Castle which looked jolly impressive to me.

Today I'd driven the least miles of any day so far but I had lasting memories of the views from Barmouth foot bridge and the even more stunning views from the top of Bwlch Oerddrws.

I don't care who you are or where you are. That's a good day out by any standards.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Soapbox Alert

I try, I really do try.

I try not to be the classic 'grumpy old fart' but advancing age, living alone and probably having way too much free time on my hands are all conspiring to turn me into the North Leeds version of Victor Meldrew.

One of my constant struggles is to stop myself shooting out the door to confront the free newspaper and unwanted flyer delivery people who can't seem to get it into their heads that putting their rubbish half way through letterboxes is a BAD thing.

I'd no sooner opened my downstairs curtains this morning than I saw what appeared to be my letterbox giving birth to a glossy magazine. However some unseen umbilical chord stopped this magazine from plopping safely onto my porch floor and instead it stayed there, twixt and between as though unsure what to do with itself. As I was on my feet already and so in a good starting position to become 'ACTIVE grumpy old fart', I unlocked the door, went outside and caught up with the delivery man just as he was putting the next magazine....yes, half way into my neighbour's letterbox.

Based on previous events of a similar nature, I knew better than to waste time explaining to him my reasons for wanting items pushed right through my letterbox so I just let rip with "can you PLEASE push these mazazines all the way through letterboxes in future ?" I was met with a blank stare and he slowly removed the magazine entirely as though he thought I was accusing him of delivering an explosive device. As far as I'm aware, not one copy of 'Jewish Life Leeds' has ever blown up or even spontaneously combusted. I may stand corrected of course.

I quickly sensed I was dealing with someone who did not have English as his first language.

I'm not sure he had it as a 2nd or 3rd either. I went into full Jacques Tati mode and with a series of mimes and single words....which as usual I ended up shouting at him as one does when talking with foreigners as though we think that will better help convey the message.......I finally got it through to him that it was a great (albeit novel) idea to actually push the magazines right through the letterbox.

He gave me a smile that lifted the gloom on an otherwise grey morning and we parted firm friends with email addresses exchanged and promises to keep in touch forever.

Well we parted.......that bit was true.

Unbelievable as it may seem, I'd no sooner returned home and removed my semi delivered magazine from the letterbox and transferred it safely into my wastepaper basket, than I saw another delivery happening before my eyes. My letterbox creaked it's initial warning and the start of a plastic bagged package appeared....and then stopped. Even Mother Theresa would've been hard pushed to ignore this 2nd violation of the 'letterbox law'.

This time the delivery boy/man was in a rush and set off like an Olympic sprinter, so giving myself a blast on my asthma inhaler to help me keep up, I shot out the door again ( I'm actually thinking of installing a revolving door if this keeps up ) and managed to catch him just as he got to my neighbour's door. I know this sounds highly unlikely given I live in a semi, but anyone taking the proper route from my door to my neighbour's door has to go back out my drive, along the pavement, round a corner and then along the driveway to their door. I, on the other hand, can scoot in front of our windows and get to the same door in seconds. Very handy in times like this and helps give the impression that I'm not someone to be messed with as I'm obviously faster than Ben Johnson even without the drugs.

I had his immediate attention as for one thing he wasn't expecting anyone to suddenly appear near him out of the shrubbery but mostly because I was doubled up and wheezing heavily as though I'd just taken part in the Pamplona bull run. Thankfully he waited while I regained my composure and my breath and I asked him why he was pushing his 'Yorkshire Cancer Society Clothes Collection Bag' ( to be picked up on Friday ) halfway through letterboxes ???

Again I got the bemused smile of the newly arrived immigrant, this time accompanied by a bit of bowing from the waist. Very odd and somewhat disarming. Still, my well honed mime performance was another hit although I sent him on his way feeling I'd entertained more than educated.

Of course now I'm on tenderhooks waiting for the delivery of the Leeds Weekly News as that unwanted free rag is almost always semi delivered. I know where I'D like to deliver the Leeds Weekly News and Corporal Jones' famous expression might be appropriate.

Writing this account of this morning's events has helped calm me down and saved me having to take a double dose of BP medication. Always a good thing.

I don't usually have any unwanted clothing to give to these collection charities (hey lumber jackets and bovver boots MIGHT come back into fashion and then where would I be ??) but I might make an exception on Friday.

I'm thinking of putting a shirt out my letterbox for them to collect........half way of course.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Wales - Day 5

Day 5 was a Tuesday and weatherwise, the worst of the 8 days I was in Wales. It didn't rain but for all of the morning and most of the early afternoon, the skies were as grey as a Welsh slate mine. As my first destination was to be a town for breakfast, I didn't mind too much.

So after negotiating the 2 gates again, I took the A470/A489 the 8 miles to Machynlleth where I picked the left turn at the A487 T-junction (yesterday I'd gone right, towards Dolgellau) and headed to Aberystwyth.

Speaking of the A487, when I'd been returning yesterday, I was going through the tiny hamlet of Corris and while enjoying the scenery, I noticed the driver of an oncoming car flash her lights at me and give me a wave. It all happened so fast and I glanced in my rear view mirror to have another look at the car and saw it was a small white one like mine. Maybe even a Clio. I was deep in thought wondering why she'd have 'flashed me' and my initial idea was that it was a 'hey, we've got the same car' sort of thing which I know went on with VW Beetle owners many years ago. It was a kind of Herbie Syndrome back then.

Seconds later I passed a white van which had lots of lettering on it and I thought I saw the words 'speed' and 'Heddlu' and knew that meant police. I'd no idea what the speed limit was at that point as it changed so often on those roads.

When I got 'home' I told my brother of the incident and he laughed and said the driver had been warning me of the speed van but he said if I hadn't been stopped by the 2nd part of the sting crew further on, then I was ok. When I got back home to Leeds last Friday, one of the letters waiting for me was a notice of intended prosecution from the North Wales Police saying I'd been caught doing 35mph in a 30mph zone ! Grrrrrrrrrr. I think when I was distracted by flashing woman, I'd pushed slightly harder on the accelerator. Sadly that's going to be my only defence.

Actually I was shocked that I was only doing 35mph !!

Back to Day 5 and back to my drive to Aberystwyth. About 12 miles from the town I drove past an old building with a huge waterwheel on one side of it and felt it was worth going back and investigating it further.

I love coming across something totally unexpected and this was one such case. I'd found the Dyfi Furnace which was built in 1755 to produce iron. It used charcoal from the surrounding woodlands and waterpower from the river.

After only about 50 years in production, it was abandoned. Later on the buildings were converted into use, first as a sawmill and then for various agricultural purposes.

The blast needed to raise the temperature inside the furnace to the melting point of iron was produced by two sets of bellows powered by this waterwheel. From this we get the phrase 'blast furnace'.

Since 1977 the remains have been excavated and conserved. There is no admission fee but the building itself is closed to the public, which is a shame. I walked up the little path at the side of the waterwheel and came upon the upper part of this waterfall.

I had the place to myself partly due to the time of year and partly, I'm sure, because it was so easy to drive past it with barely a glance. It's on a sharp bend in the road with no warning of it's presence and it was only by my turning around and finding the small car park across the road that I ended up there myself.

And what a find it was.

The only sounds were from the waterfall which managed to drown out the occasional noises from passing cars. After watching the falls from this vantage point, I walked down past the waterwheel, onto the edge of the road which at this point was effectively a bridge and up the other side of the fast flowing river. This time a narrow, well trampled grassy path, led me deeper into the woodlands and gave me a much better and more complete view of the waterfall.

Even the overcast skies couldn't diminish the scene - well not that much. Being quite deep in the glade, the sky wasn't really a factor anyway.

I'd climbed, slid and partly fallen down to this water level but the view was worth it. I was only a few minutes walk from the main road to Aberystwyth but it seemed like I was in some storybook grotto and was almost expecting to see some pixies or fairies crossing my path.

I suspect I watch way too much tv.

By now my grumbling rumbling tummy was louder than the waterfall so I went back to the car to continue on my drive to Aberystwyth.

I don't have too much to say about the town. For 9 months of the year it's population is about 21,000 but when the students go home, it's left with 12,000 residents. It has a pretty seaside front and a smart clean shopping area set back from the beach and promenade. And that's about it.

I'd spent some time finding a parking spot close to the pier and when I finally explored it, the pier was a great disappointment as it only housed an amusement arcade - a British 'institution' which should only be seen in museums and labelled 'awful places where those of low mental abilities would spend their time and money on wet afternoons at the seaside'.

I went inland and had another hearty breakfast to help fill my stomach and forget the dreadful pier. Mission accomplished, I went window shopping down the main pedestrianised street trying to avoid the usual tourist traps and shops selling everything from Welsh flags to inflatable dragons. I did see one tourist item which took my fancy as I have a US friend who likes both chess and sheep. Don't ask !

The shop had several chess boards on display in the window and one had dragons and sheep as the pieces. The pieces, especially the cute little sheep, looked like those characters in an Aardman Animation movie and I now know I should've bought it for her.

I left Aberystwyth on the A4120 as on my map it looked like a scenic road.......and it was. It lead to somewhere or something called Devil's Bridge which took my fancy.

It appears that there are Devil's Bridges all over the world, which is understandable considering how far and wide are his evil works.

This one is described on one website as follows -

"From Aberystwyth there is a beautiful road along the Vale of Rheidol to Devil's Bridge, about 9mi/15km to the east. Here the River Mynach flows down through a deep gorge in a series of spectacular waterfalls, with a total drop of 300ft/91m, to join the Rheidol. There are three bridges, the lowest of which, believed to date from the 12th century, is known as the Devil's Bridge. Tradition has it that this bridge was built by a monk from Strata Florida Abbey, 7mi to the south. The two other bridges were built in 1753 and 1901 (the highest one a rail bridge)".

When I got there I found entrance turnstiles on both sides of the road taking you to different parts of the area below the road. I had a choice to make and I didn't like that. I was on holiday and retired and didn't need the stress of having to make a decision......and on a full stomach too.

I took a photo of the sign on top of one entrance and decided - to drive on. I'd seen a lovely waterfall already and anyway I overheard people coming up from the bowels muttering that it wasn't worth the entrance money and that you could hardly see the falls for the vegetation. Nope, my valuable pension pennies stayed firmly in my pocket.

I joined up with the A44 and drove east to Llangurig and then onto the seemingly neverending A470 again to points south. It had cleared up a lot but still quite cloudy.

Now and then the sun would shine through and as I crested yet another hill, it seemed to be lighting up the picturesque scene before me.

I eventually came to Llandrindod Wells and decided it was time to start back even though I wasn't all that far from home as the crow flies.

I went up the A483 towards Newtown and as usual, found beautiful scenery all the way. What is it about this part of the UK ? It does seem to have been blessed.

It was mid afternoon by now and getting brighter by the minute. I looked at the map and tried to find the best route back and as time wasn't really a factor, I looked for roads with a little > or < on them to show they had steep gradients. Unlike for Mr. Custer, the more arrows the better.
I did good.

When I got to the outskirts of Newtown, I decided I wasn't ready to end this trip so I headed south on......yes the A470 again. I swear every 3rd road in Wales is the A470.

I reached Llanidloes and had my first run in with the Welsh language. Let me set the scene while you look at another typical view of the area.

I got to a junction just outside the town and I knew I wanted the B4518 northbound. To make matters simple, the B4518 went the other way too. I just needed to work out from the signpost which road to take........and remember that here in the UK, minor road signs do not give compass points so the sign wasn't being helpful by having B4518 North on it.

I compared the sign to my map and couldn't make it out at all. The sign gave a town name on one road to the right and I couldn't find it on the map at all. It had 2 names on the road to the left but one was "Town Centre" so that was no help. Under that was some long Welsh name and I couldn't find it on the map either.

I was next to a huge furniture store and went in to ask for directions. The owner was a friendly guy who went back outside with me to look at my map and point me in the right direction.

He told me I needed the road on the left and at that point I told him that the town mentioned under "Town Centre" wasn't on my map.

With the sort of look reserved for adults talking to little children, he said that it wasn't a town name but was Welsh for........"Town Centre" !!!

I'd forgotten that in Wales, road signs of all sorts from directional signs to warning signs, are in English and Welsh. I'd never seen one for town centre before and so didn't make the connection.
I mean you wouldn't, would you ? D'oh !

He also gave me a suggestion for the final leg of the drive home as he told me to leave the B4518 before it hit the.......yes the A470 once again and take a road so minor that it didn't even have a number.

The B4518 took me past Llyn Clywedog and the Clywedog Dam. It didn't look impressive when I first saw it at ground level but as I climbed up the steep road, the view to the left became more and more scenic.

For a change there was a viewing area at the top of the hill so I was able to pull off the road and take in this view back down to the dam.

It was one of those occasions when one's eyes take in a lot more than a standard camera lens can manage and it cried out for a panorama shot.

I went and got my tripod but to be honest I've never managed a decent panorama with it and so in the end I just did the old 'hand held swivel at the waist' trick. On reflection I should've used the monopod but forgot about it.

Again it wasn't great but still manages to capture a little of what I was looking at. Better than nothing would be the phrase of choice.

A few miles on and I came to the turnoff suggested by Furniture Store Man and I think I was on the single most visually stunning road in Wales if not the UK. It was breathtaking and so ironic that I can't even tell anyone it's number as it doesn't have one. I tried Mapquest but no joy. Maybe if some UK reader of this blog has an Ordinance Survey map of the area, they could post a comment and let me know the name or number of this road.

First the road rose steeply up to a plateau and presented me with a typical mountain top view. This was very different from the lush green sheep filled valleys I'd seen till this point.

The sky was almost totally blue but the far off fluffy clouds only added to the ambiance.

I could see for miles and on the far ridge I saw the line of wind turbines which I could also see from my brothers house. I'm finishing this post with 2 photos of this view and this first one is a long shot to show how the narrow road wends it's way through this landscape. I'm not sure how long this road is but I had it 100% to myself. Not one other car passed me or came towards me and when I did get towards the end of it just on the outskirts of Machynlleth, I realised that I'd been on this road before.........for a few seconds on Sunday when playing golf.

This was the same road that we had to cross to get to the 2nd hole and again after driving off the tee on the 9th hole. What a small world.

This final photo just zooms in a bit on the ridge with the wind turbines as in some odd way, they didn't spoil the view and actually, in my opinion, added something to it.

In total I'd probably only driven about 130 miles all day but I'd been out and about for just over 8 hours.

The next day was to be warm and sunny and I couldn't wait.............................

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Wales - Day 4

Where are Days 2 and 3 I hear you ask ?

Well they were Saturday and Sunday and I spent the time around the house and garden with bro and sis-in-law and bro and I even managed to get in a game of golf at the very scenic Machynlleth Golf Club.

On the Monday they had things to do and so I set off bright and early to do my tourist thaang. My slow progress down the lane towards the roadside gate was watched with great interest by the grazing cows and sheep........and this cute lambie.

I'd been along the lane the previous day and had befriended the cows - in a purely platonic fashion I hasten to add. I'd petted a few heads and put up with a few licks (you're making up your own jokes now I'm sure) and so as I drove slowly along, trying to avoid the potholes and animal excrement, several of the cows followed behind the car giving me a brief insight into the world of Mr. Piper of Hamelin.

My ultimate destination was to be Portmeirion as I'd always wanted to visit the bizarre but picturesque Italianate village of architectural follies created by the wonderfully named Sir Clough Williams-Ellis over a period of 50 years from 1925. But more of that later.

My initial destination was anywhere offering a hearty breakfast and looking at my map, I decided to try the nearby town of Dolgellau. This took me up the A487 and once again I was taken with the houses and entire villages seemingly built on the side of the hills.

I wouldn't class this collection of houses as a village but as you may see if you click on the photo, there was a cemetery just below the tree line and it took the theme of burying bodies on top of one another to new heights...if you'll pardon the pun.

In this land of hills and valleys, you can't escape them even in death, it seems.

I didn't see a church or other religious building but that became common on my travels around Wales. I often came upon a cemetery with no building of any sort near it.

The A487 was yet another scenic road that climbed up the hills and sped down the valleys and kept my camera busy. It seemed that there was some view to capture digitally around every proverbial corner - and there are plenty of corners in mid Wales I can tell you. Oh I just did.

Half way twixt Machynlleth and Dolgellau, the road climbs steeply and this was the view on the left. Admittedly there is little of any interest in the photo and usually this makes for a dull image.

I just liked the view down to the road below and the white van added scale to the scene. Ireland may be famous for it's 'forty shades of green' but mid Wales must run it a close second.

The only grumble and moan I have to make about the area is that there are precious few places along the roads where you can safely pull over in order to enjoy the views and take some photos.

I guess this is true for the UK as a whole and I understand that on this small island we're lucky enough to even have the road system we have - but with my tourist cap firmly on my head here, I would like places to pull over and stop for a while when the views are like this. Someone please see to it.

I was fortunate as I was being a tourist in mid May when schools were still in session and those not in school were working to support those who were..............mostly. This meant that the roads were blessedly bereft of cars (driven by little old ladies taking their cats out for a bit of a treat) , bikes (ridden by young kamakazi yobs with more tatoos than brain cells) and the dreaded caravans (pulled by underpowered cars driven by geriatric retirees who now think 30 miles an hour is quite fast enough thank you).

Can you imagine living in the house or farm in this photo ? Wonderful. You could crank up the surround sound until Mr. Davies in the next valley complained of the strange humming sounds.

For a city dweller, this would be utopia - although I suspect running out of basic grocery items would be a royal pain in the butt.........and I can't imagine any satellite in orbit would be able to beam my beloved sport and movie channels to me.

The road went higher still and I almost missed the best view of all. Being a conscientious driver I regularly check my rear view mirror and was I glad I did on this occasion as the view behind me was stunning even by the standards already set. The bar had just been raised.

It had the lot; a clear blue sky, mountains rising majestically from the crystal clear waters of a lake, strategically placed trees to break up the lush green fields and even a glimpse of 'modern man' in the shape of the road I'd driven up to get to this point.

It was worthy of a jigsaw box lid or that of a box of chocolates fit for Mamma Gump.

All thoughts of breakfast were put to one side (of my rumbling stomach) and I sat on the roadside wall enjoying this view for some time.

It was just so perfect. I was about 5 miles from a bustling town and yet here was a scene so tranquil, so serene, that I felt I was the only person for miles around.

The view the other way wasn't bad either........and here it is.

Different I grant you, but picturesque in it's own way. I waited for the car by the way - again for scale - and I had to wait quite a while too.

So onwards (and upwards) and breakfast in Dolgellau and I was ready for it. Yummy.

A couple of miles outside of the town, I took the A496 West towards the charming seaside town of Barmouth.

I'd been to Barmouth several times as Sue, my sis-in-law came from there and I was my brother's best man at their wedding there way back in 1876 or some such year. He's my older brother of course !! Much older.

Fortified by my enormous feast of sausage, bacon, egg, beans, toast, tomato and mushrooms (apologies to my long suffering cardiologist), I climbed the steps near the harbour which took me up the hill/mountain behind the town and afforded me this fine view.

Once again many of the houses are nestled cozily into the hillside and the road below wends it's scenic way towards the harbour and the vast sandy beach beyond.

The famous railway line (on the left) runs for 2 miles from Fairbourne on the other side of the estuary to Barmouth and has been in operation since 1895.

I was taking this photo and glanced at my watch and realised my free parking period was almost up and my car was off in the distance by the harbour. I never did make it back in time but once again I think I benefited from it being a weekday in mid May and so any traffic wardens were in hibernation or just didn't care.

The harbour was quite busy though with other tourists milling about and as it was now lunchtime, several were sitting on benches tucking into various sandwiches they'd brought with them or fish and chips bought locally. This attracted the usual scavaging flying rats but this little fella caught my attention as he, or she, made no attempt to get scraps for itself.

It just stood on the harbour wall and watched all the action going on around it.

The body stayed rock solid and only it's head moved from side to side as something of interest caught it's attention.

I liked it but it made me nervous as it was right beside my parked car - in fact I took this photo through the passenger window. I'd had to clear it's colleagues droppings on the bodywork enough times to not want to get any fresh dollops on this trip. I drove slowly away with thoughts of Alfred Hitchcock on my mind .

A few miles north of Barmouth, still on the A496, I came to the sweeping beach that is Tremadog Bay, an inlet of the much larger Cardigan Bay. There may be no roads down to this beach but all I know is that every time I've driven past, this beautiful expanse of clean sand has always been devoid of humanity. It cries out for kids with buckets and spades but maybe they are all indoors with their Xbox 360's or Playstation 3's. It's their loss.

There are, however, several caravan parks around this area which while not being uniquely British, are a regular feature of our seaside life rarely found abroad.

I guess they'd be like an American trailer park transported to the seaside. You have dozens or even hundreds of static caravans clustered together to form 'the park' and these caravans, unlike the ones towed by the geriatric retirees I mentioned earlier, are just like US travel trailers with all mod cons, as they say. A home from home.

Just a few miles further on, I came to the town of Harlech, made famous by it's men (oh do's not in THAT sence) and for the first time, decided to take the road leading up to it's castle.

Unlike most of it's ilk, Harlech Castle is clearly visible from the main road and on previous visits to the area, I'd been happy enough to have glanced up at it on the way past. This time I wanted a closer look and so I followed the signs and soon found that taking a photo would require some luck and the cooperation of other drivers - by basically staying off the road behind me.

The road leading to the castle was almost single track and I fleetingly glimpsed great views of it but wasn't able to stop.

I turned around and gave it another try and decided that if I was quick and luck was on my side, I could slam on the brakes at this particular vantage point, nip out and take some quick pics and get back in the car before anyone else came along. If they did, my no claims bonus would be seriously threatened and my 3 week old baby would be mangled beyond redemption.

Well luck was with me on this occasion and this is the result. No mangled car but a fairly decent closeup of Harlech Castle in all it's glory and some visitors thoughtfully climbed up onto one of it's towers to give scale. Bless.

I drove back down onto the A496 and here is the view of the castle you get if you just drive past and don't take the road less travelled.

It's still pretty impressive and maybe some other time I'll actually go inside the castle !

But time was getting on and I was now worried that I'd not left myself enough of it to see all of Portmeirion village. I'd got a leaflet about the village and it said it closed at 5:30pm and by now it was 2:30pm and I had a ways to go yet.

I didn't help my cause by getting slightly lost and had to go across a bay via a toll road which cost me all of 60p (about $1) to make up time.

Finally I was on the A487 heading West towards Porthmadog and saw the signs for Portmeirion.
I left the main road and took a private one leading down to the village. There was ample parking and so I left the car and with enough camera equipment around my neck to make me feel like the classic US tourist from the 1960's, I headed off to the ticket both and paid my £6.80 and literally entered another world.

It was everything I'd hoped for and more. The weather couldn't have been better and in fact it was almost too hot because there was a lot of steep walking to be done to see all of the village and the gardens around it.

I know a lot of arriving visitors don't know of the connection between The Village and the old tv cult series called The Prisoner, but they certainly should do by the time they leave. There is even a souvenir shop devoted entirely to merchandise to do with the show.

I was totally enchanted and having watched the tv series myself, I had the odd sensation that I'd been to Portmeirion before. It was like being on a Hollywood set or on a Universal Studios tour. But these houses and shops were the real thing. No false frontages here. This was solid stone and real wood. And the colours ! Wow it was an explosion in a paint factory.

Sir Williams-Ellis must've been smoking something and it wasn't tobacco.

Anyway read about the place at your leisure using the link above (or Google it) but here are some of the many photos I took - and given that everywhere you looked there was something to photograph, I've done well to only post these few.

My favourite image is the last one.......partly because I had the view in my mind before getting there and also because it took so long and it took such an effort to get high up into the gardens to take it.

This was the view most commonly used in books and brochures about Portmeirion and I wanted it for myself.

I found out that the 5:30pm closing only related to the shops in the village and the rest of the place was open for much longer. I spent about 3 hours there and was exhausted by the time I returned to the car..........tired but happy.

I drove straight back to Aberangell and 'home' and that night I slept as soon as my head hit the pillow. Fresh air, lots of walking and advancing years will do that for you.

And of course there was more to do the next day.....................

Friday, May 25, 2007

Wales - Day 1

I've been MIA for the last 8 days as I popped down to mid Wales to visit with my brother and his wife. Last year they both retired from teaching in Yorkshire and have spent the last few months turning their new property into a B&B with a self contained flat for those wanting longer visits.

The Old Coach House Cottage

Last week the Welsh Tourist Board representative came and inspected the self contained flat and gave it the maximum rating that the property could attain.......a full 4 stars.

So this seemed to be as good a time for me to visit and explore a part of the UK that I knew little about and also to give the flat it's first 'guest' since the rating was awarded. Although I took my laptop and my brother already had internet access, I wasn't able to create new blogs for some reason - so I'll catch up now.

It was a good 3 hour drive from North Leeds to their place near the Powys village of Aberangell, about 8 miles NE of Machynlleth on the A470. After leaving the motorway system and hitting the Welsh countryside, the drive itself became a pleasure as the scenery all the way to Aberangell was stunning. Once I'd pulled to the side of the A470 and opened and closed the roadside gate leading to the farm track to the house, it was obvious that they had given up town life for pure unadulterated country life.......and then some.

This is the initial view with the roadside farm gate closed behind me. For once there were no sheep or cows on the track which I realise now was VERY unusual as mostly I had to drive slowly shepherding sheep, lambs and cows off the track and into the unfenced fields on both sides of it.

As always, remember that all my photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Their house is the one on the right with it's white side facing the camera. You can see some cows on the left but usually there was a herd of about 10 and very inquisitive they were too - often hard to shift off the track. The sheep/lambs are up feeding near the house...................... can be seen in this close up photo.
The main reason for including these views is to set the show how the house is nestled in the beautiful countryside with hills all around it.

At the end of the short track you come to another gate, their gate, the gate that comes with the to speak.

And suddenly there was the house in all it's glory and showing itself off in the mid afternoon sunshine. This, in fact, set the weather pattern for my whole 8 days there as it never rained once (well a little overnight on my last night but it was dry when I woke up so that doesn't count) and for the most part, I enjoyed lovely sunshine. Sometimes a little too much sunshine but that's another story.

The self contained flat is the part on the left of the house and it has it's own porch covered entrance.

In the middle are the patio doors of the large private family living room and to the right is the main house entrance.

The large cobbled courtyard in front leads to a huge garden which will be shown in later photos.

With the hills behind and a river running past the right side of the house as we see it here, it was truly a picturesque scene of peace and tranquility and a million miles from the city I had come from. Ok more like 153 miles but lets not get picky.

I realise this is becoming an unashamed plug for the flat but fair enough, they are just starting out in this business and ANY publicity has to be good publicity and who knows who reads this blog ! I'll be giving their web site and email addresses at the end.

So in more detail, here is the porch belonging to the flat. You can clearly see it's proximity to the fields and in fact when you look through the side windows (of the kitchen and living room), you see the sheep and cows happily keeping the grass down.

And not a car in sight. Or a street light.

That was brought home to me when I left the main house that first night and made my way to this porch and the door to 'my' flat. With no street lights or light of any sort for miles, the night was as black as any I've ever experienced and I had to feel my way along the house wall to make sure I didn't hit anything vital on the short trip. Vital to me I mean.

After that, I made sure the porch light was turned on in true Motel 6 fashion.

So back to the flat. You enter to the living room which is simply and tastefully furnished. Oh damn, now I'm sounding like an estate agent !! Hey, the living room is comfy and welcoming, right.

I took this pic from the staircase which ends at the front door. Which is just as well otherwise you'd end up out on the cobbles !

I'll just string these 2 views of the room together as they show it better than any words I can use.

As I wasn't a typical guest, being family an' all, I didn't spend any time in this living room but would join my brother (Paddy) and 'the wife' (Sue) in their delightful living room which is private so I won't include any photos of it.

This view from the foot of the stairs shows the doors leading to the kitchen (left) and bathroom (right).

There is a small wooden dining table and chairs on the extreme left and there are 2 modern and very comfortable chairs next to this table.

A large soft settee completes the seating furniture.

The kitchen is modern and very well equipped.

As with the rest of the flat, it has been recently updated and decorated.

Again I didn't have to use any of it's amenities as I ate in the main house.

I've mentioned the views out the window already but here you can see what I meant. If guests have to spend any time cooking in this kitchen, they'll at least have wonderful views to help pass the time. Might not be appropriate to cook lamb or beef though !!

This photo was taken late afternoon on my first day there and the cows are at the far end of the field. In the morning, they and the sheep/lambs would be up at the house end and so I'd wake to their smiling faces. Work with me, people.

No early morning commuters starting up their cars and heading off to work. No kids shouting and bickering on the way to school.

Nope. I woke to a silence broken only by birdsong and the occasional bleating of a lamb that got separated from it's mother.
I could get used to that life. Easily.

Finally, completing the descriptions of the downstairs rooms, we have the bathroom. Bright and almost surgically clean, it WAS used by me several times a day. Nuff said I think.

I can't say much about the window view as the glass was frosted of course. Can't go shocking the animals with my naked body after all. NSPCA, Animal Rights and all that.

The flat has two bedrooms and despite my protests (albeit a little muted), I was given the main one with the double bed.

The other bedroom has a bunk bed which can be broken down to make 2 single beds if that is what the quests require.

Soft inviting bed + many hours of driving and walking daily = guaranteed restful sleep.

I don't think I've ever gone to sleep so fast after turning out the lights each night.

Each day I'd usually set off early (well about 9:30am which is VERY early for me) and would spend the day like a typical tourist - exploring the region and stopping to take hundreds of photographs.

After supper, we'd chat or watch some tv and then I'd leave Paddy & Sue and go back to the flat at about 11pm or 11:30pm.

I'd then watch a few episodes of Greys Anatomy in bed (bless my laptop) and by 1am or so, I'd be so tired I'd barely be able to pull the light chord.

Seconds later I'd be fast asleep.

On the one occasion when that didn't happen, I looked out the window, shone a torch on the fields and counted the sheep till I fell asleep.

Only joking. I didn't have a torch.

This is the view out the bedroom window - you can see the path leading to the house gate (as opposed to the roadside gate further along the farm track to the right) and part of the enormous garden area with the hills to the left of it.

The garden is still being moulded to how Sue wants it and at the moment is taking up a lot of her time.

At the far end are tables and seats for relaxing in the evening sunshine with a glass of wine, a pint of beer or having a bbq with family and friends.
It's a wonderful garden with lots of possibilities and compliments the house so well.

As a relief from photos of fields, rooms and buildings, here is a photo of......well, just a bird.

I include it here as it symbolises the ambiance and atmosphere of the house and it's environs. The bird feeder 'ball' is set up on a hook right outside the main house kitchen/dining room window and the great thing is that one can stand by the window only a few feet from the birds (and the occasional squirrel) and watch them feeding. It's as if they know we pose no threat to them with the glass between us and while they enjoy the food, we enjoy watching them.

This particular bird was trying to stare me out and almost won. It only left when a squirrel jumped down from the porch roof and landed on the top of the ball. With the birds scattered, it managed to get through the 'bars' and so had access to the food.

Birds would fly towards the ball and veer off at the last second when they saw the squirrel inside it. They'd land on the ground or sit patiently on the nearby garden wall and wait while the squirrel had it's fill.

Once it left, the word went out and the birds would descend in a frenzy of flapping wings and chirping cries. It was fun to watch from the other side of the window safe in the knowledge that our presence wasn't disturbing them at all.

Finally, to end this post about my first day at The Old Coach House Cottage, I've added a panoramic view of the house and garden. It's not great as I didn't use a tripod or anything but simply swivelled round taking a series of 4 photos which I then 'stitched' together using software.

It'll help if you click on the image and then enlarge it so it fills your screen. Feel free to copy it off and use whatever image viewing program you prefer.

I gave a link to their website above but it's in the very early stages of development right now (hopefully there will be more whenever YOU go there) but please put it in your favourites and keep returning to it.

More shameless plugging : if anyone would like to actually spend time in the self contained flat (or the B&B rooms in the main house when they are ready for guests) , please feel free to email Paddy or Sue at..................

Hey, just email for info in any case and give my blog as a reference. Then I'll feel useful and it'll go some way to thanking them for putting up for me for a week or so.....and indeed putting me up !

And here endeth my first day. I may not create posts of other days right away but this is a start and although there wasn't much apart from descriptions of where I was staying, I think it's given a taste of what's to come............steep hill climbs , deep scenic valleys, small seaside towns, long sandy beaches, a bizarre Italian style village, castles galore and.....oh yes........a cast of thousands. Of sheep I mean.

Be sure to check back !

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