Me on Mount Snowdon

Northern Wales Journal

Friday, April 30th, 1999 - Not Quite Wales

Since I have moved to England I have been getting out to see a bit of the country as well as the rest of the United Kingdom. I spend most weekends out and about doing things. Most of the time this is in London since it is so close but I am rapidly running out of things to see there (that I have not seen already) so my focus is turning a bit more afield. I tend to reserve the more extreme distances to travel for long weekends. Well, May has two of them, this is the first so I chose to go visit Northern Wales which I have visited many times in the past but only to visit one site – Portmerion (near Porthmadog). I have always loved the scenery so I thought that spending a bit more time there might be a good thing to do (and to also get away for a little while, hopefully, to relax). As a bonus, this weekend is supposed to have extremely good weather – sun and warm temperatures – perfect for exploring the outdoors (take advantage of the FEW days that are like that in this country).

Yesterday started out as normal with my one hour daily drive to work near Gatwick airport. Of course, by that time the car had been packed with all that might be necessary for the coming weekend. Ok, as it it just me there was not all that much to pack…

Why is it that whenever you have no time there is the most number of things to do? The days I have oodles of time, there is nothing to do. Oh well, it would only happen when the only other person capable of covering the support aspect of my work would happen to be moving so, therefore, not there. All his work came to me to do…

I left work nice and early to begin the long drive. Just because I am going away from the weekend does not mean I am the only one in the country who does not think of the same idea (or even the same destination). Typically around the long weekends the motorways are jammed with traffic very early on Friday afternoons. This was no exception. It took me about an hour to cover a distance that I would normally cover in about half of that. Frustrating but I did not let it disturb me too much. The only concern I had during the drive was really getting to the Bed and Breakfast at a reasonable time (I had advised them that I would arrive between 8 and 9 at night, allowing for about 6 or 7 hours of driving).

The drive itself was not that bad after I had left London, and eventually, Birmingham, behind. I only stopped once to fill up the car and grab something to eat (ok, ok, it was Burger King but you can't be TOO picky when you stop beside the road). This was actually the first meal I had that day as I also had to leave quickly in the morning, missing breakfast.

Entering Wales is really like entering another country. All signs switch immediately to primarily Welsh with English appearing second. The scenery changes too, reverting to a much more green and lush surroundings with rolling hills and winding roads. The motorway changes to a smaller motorway then a dual carriageway then finally a two lane road with roundabouts and small towns (with low speed limits).

Eventually I found the road leading to the small town where my B & B was located. Driving along a particularly winding and narrow road for about 20 miles I eventually arrived at Blaenau Ffestiniog which has some incredibly unusual surroundings. As you come over the final hill approaching the town from the north the hills you notice are barren of any foliage but are simply large mounds of slate for this town is well known for its slate mines.

If you look at a map of Wales you will see the Snowdonia National Park as a large green area in the northern parts of Wales. Looking closer you will see that a small area right in the middle of the park is not green, Blaenau Ffestiniog. The area is fairly industrial yet charming in it's own way.

The guest house I am staying in is very nice. I was quite concerned when calling around for somewhere to stay since there were no rooms and I only found this one by taking a double room. I made a good choice though – the house is very nice (except for the dog – I am allergic to it) and the room is quite large and comfortable (with the obligatory television though with satellite – which is nice).

The day ends fairly late but it does not matter, I am here. Only thing left is to decide what to visit in the coming days (lucky they have a lot of brochures at the B & B).

Saturday, May 1st, 1999 - Blaenau Ffestiniog, North Wales

The day started nicely with a large breakfast (got to love the B & B breakfasts, much different then what I normally have for that meal), best meal of my day.

The one thing I had to do which most people talk about doing here is to go to Mount Snowdon (the largest mountain in Wales), climbing to the top and admiring the view. Well, I am not all that keen on climbing 1000 m mountains so I decided to combine it with taking a train to the top. The Snowdon Mountain Railway leaves from the base of Snowdon at Llanberis and provides a unique way of getting to the summit on it's antique trains. It is the only operating rack and pinion train in the UK (it uses a central track with a series 'ledges' in it that is used as a ratchet for pulling the train up or down the mountain). A bit of a jittery ride to the top but very nice.

Mount Snowdon Railway

Unfortunately, they do not provide service to the top of the mountain until the middle of the month so we were let off at the second highest station – only about 3/4 of the way to the peak which is about a mile further – up hill. The view as we climbed was quite something as we passed through the small down at the base and up past a few farm houses, some deserted, all made of haphazard collections of stone including the ever-present slate. Looking out the windows we saw the ever-present sheep clinging to the faces of rock as well as grass. Not much of a life…nice scenery though.

We were let off the train (many chose to continue on the return journey back to the town – given half an hour to look around before the train returned) and I proceeded along the slate trail to the summit. It was quite a climb, and I was not the only one. It was surprising to see the number of people climbing to the top. I gathered that it takes about three hours to climb the complete distance from the town to the top. Even with the ride it took me another hour to get to the top from where it dropped us off. I had a really tough time climbing since the path is made of loose slate and stone and is very steep so it is difficult to get solid footing. The good news was that this really only lasted for about half a mile when it became a bit more level as I was walking along the top of a ridge continuing towards the summit.

I finally made it the last distance to the top with, it seems, the rest of Wales. The place was crawling (literally) with people sitting around eating their packed lunches and taking pictures, generally just sitting around. I picked my way through the crowd to stand at the top and look around. The view is quite spectacular from up there. This had to be one of the best days to be up there – sunny and clear for many miles. I could see all the way to Portmadog and Criccieth about 10 miles away, and even further.

I sat and relaxed for a time, simply watching the seagulls and admiring the view. It was really surprising to see the number of people climbing up to see (but with the weather so good perhaps it is not so surprising).

Mount Snowdon - Looking Down

I made my way down the same way I had climbed up, finding the trip down much easier than the short walk I had made earlier. I did not have a return ticket on the train so I continued all the way back to the town. My feet (and back) were killing me about an hour and a half later when I arrived in the town, crossing over a few sheep fences and down the final stages by public road. A great walk, if a bit tiring. I must admit I did treat myself by having a cold drink from the snack shop there (nothing beats a slurpie).

Next up, I knew that there was a 'Top 10 Attraction' in Caernarfon only about 10 miles away so I decided to go visit. Caernarfon is an old town that is now based around a castle built by Edward the 1st when he was seeking to consolidate his conquering of northern Wales. I parked just outside the city walls and walked through the central square (which was holding a market) to the castle. It was already about 3 and the castle closed at 5 so I looked around quickly before picking up a tour at 4 to get the most of the final hour. The tour was very good with just me and four others from California in the group. It was interesting to hear that the castle has been used for the crowning of the Prince of Wales for many years, including Prince Charles who also presented Diana to his people hear after their marriage (though the window that he presented her at overlooks the public lavatories I am SURE that she was pleased).

Caernarfon City and Castle

Interesting also was to learn that the castle was never completed since they ran out of money. That is why, looking on the interior, there are jutting stones in regular patterns from many walls, these were the sites for future walls that were never built. The defences were quite considerable including the three-direction arrow slits looking out on the inside of the town walls (evidently, the first version of the castle and town had the inside wall of the castle unfinished since the town itself was walled, however, when that was breached the attackers simply marched into the castle – later when the town was recaptured, that wall was built and the arrow slits added).

I wandered around a bit more and was eventually kicked out when the gates closed for the night. I decided it would be interesting to walk around the outer walls of the town (it is not THAT big) so I did so, sampling a bit of the local culture in the process, a few older ladies gossiping while seated on a bench, a Chinese tourist couple feeding the seagulls with the remains of their fish and chips, local pleasure boat captains discussing where they should get groceries…

By this time, the town was silent and was much nicer. I helped myself to some fish and chips (I felt guilty for not having them yesterday – the traditional day for fish) at a local chippy.

I took the back way to the B & B (as if there is any way BUT a back way) via the north coast and Conwy (say CON-WAY), through a series of (surprising) tunnels through coastal mountains. It was a nice trip.

The evening ended nicely by reading in the front room of the B & B (with sofas, books, and coffee tables – great place to relax).

Sunday, May 2nd, 1999 - Blaenau Ffestiniog, North Wales

Quite a different day today. Started off by leaving the car behind and walking to the local train station where the Rheilffordd Ffestiniog Railway offers service between Blaenau and Porthmadog. I limped down the main street (if that is what it can be called) of Blaenau though most things were closed – Sunday, before 10 in the morning. Found my way to the ticket booth and purchased a return ticket to Porthmadog.

This railway uses old locomotives and stock to provide tourist service between these towns though they do also supply some secluded houses along the line (where the train is the ONLY access). The track was laid originally to deliver slate from Bleanau to Porthmadog where it was loaded on ships. I boarded the train and I was very fortunate that a volunteer that works for the train line was in the same carriage (we were the only ones) so for the whole hour and a half trip he gave me a lot of information. Many of the volunteers are in this area this weekend since it is the yearly Annual General Meeting and they are also unveiling a number of newly restored locomotives and have opened up a number of their yards to the public. Needless to say, it is quite busy this weekend for them.

He was an older gentleman who has been helping them for about 40 years - - when the line was first opened to tourists. He assisted with the telephone poles along the line (which actually transmit information used for switching along the line). There are quite a number of trains that are running (especially today) and most seemed to be full of passengers.

Rheilffordd Ffesiniog Railway

Among the interesting things he was telling me was that when two trains pass (for example, at a station) on the same line they exchange a 'pipe' that provides the other train access to the track ahead (it is used in an electrical switch that opens/closes the appropriate connection for the train to continue). Another thing which was interesting is that he said the whole line is downhill (from Blaenau) so that no power was required to deliver the slate to Porthmadog, just a brakeman. Now, they have had to redirect the track since the installation of an electrical power plant so they have to (briefly) go uphill.

There are many volunteers for the line, including all the drivers, staff at the stations and the catering staff (and many others). The facilities were surprisingly well maintained considering that they are volunteers. Many do not even come from this area but from many miles away (he was from Leeds, if I recall correctly).

The trip was wonderful, all along the sides of various mountains and through a number of tunnels. The scenery was gorgeous and the views spectacular. We eventually arrived at Porthmadog and it was crawling with people. My fellow passenger had been urging me to trade in my return ticket (and pay a bit more money) for an unlimited pass which would include access to all the exhibits so I finally had him find me a brochure but I decided against it since most of the events were geared to the extreme enthusiast and since I am not such a person…

I wandered briefly around Porthmadog. Surprising since I have been through the town so many times I have never actually set foot there. Not much really to see other than a few (closed) book stores and fresh veg and fruit stores. I did manage to see the unveiling of a new locomotive before I caught the next train back to Blaenau.

Blaenau Ffestiniog - Near the Slate Caverns

Next up was to visit the Llechwedd Slate Caverns located just down the street from where I was staying so it was just a matter of walking from the train station past the B & B and continuing to the Caverns. I had talked to the lady that runs the hotel (with her husband) and she had suggested that there was a small opening in the fence which would lead to the caverns instead of having to walk along the road up a steep hill to the main entrance. After walking a ways I noticed that the road all of a sudden had no more pavement (sidewalk) and I would have to walk on the road which was even better considering that it was an extremely narrow road with stone walls around it. Lucky the hole in the fence was just a few meters along so I climbed up over the sheep fence and up the narrow path cluttered with slate. Interesting to think that two hundred years ago there would be no slate on the surface and now there are mountains of the discarded slate from the mines.

I climbed over a back fence into the caverns area and picked up a ticket. They had two main exhibits (or 'rides'), the first one I visited was the 'Miner's Tramway' which took us on a miner's tram (hence the name I would suppose) through a series of caverns where we disembarked and a guide talked to us about how slate was mined back when the mine first opened. It was extremely informative and ended with a demonstration on how slate is split and trimmed to be used for roofing. Evidently this is still how it is done – by hand, the only allowance for technology is a revolving drum with blades that trim the slate to size.

The next exhibit was a 'deep mine' journey which took us down about 500 hundred feet (only about 7 'floors' down, there were evidently 8 more below it) and through a series of caverns discussing how the miners lived in the mines. Evidently they operated in teams of four (generally a family) with three working in the mine and the other performing the trimming on the surface. The conditions must have been horrible working by candle light in damp, cold massive, caverns using the most basic of tools – a pole that they lifted and repeatedly dropped to 'drill' a hole so that gunpowder could be used to blow it apart (holes were drilled at 90 degree angles so that the slate would not shatter). Gunpowder was used because it was 'softer' than other explosives and would not blow the slate into small pieces.

After the two exhibits, the remaining displays were pale by comparison. They consisted of an 'old-style Victorian Village' – two shops selling some old-style candy (oh, and a pub). Not terribly interesting though they did have an old cottage that was the home of some miners and, in particular, a blind miner's child that was a famous harp player – evidently harps were very common and used in the mines (they were not taken when a loan was defaulted so important they were to the miner's life). Additionally interesting was the prevalence of religion in their lifestyle - church three times on Sunday (where Sunday-school was were many learned to read and write) and quite often a few times in the week. Better than I do in a year…

After finding a few small pieces of slate (I seem to be acquiring various minerals from around the UK – chalk from Dover, flint from Surrey…), I returned to the B & B. After asking the lady owner where to go to eat, I realized it was still early enough to go for a bit of a walk so I got directions to a local pub and to the local electrical dam (the same one mentioned above).

I had passed the main entrance to the dam, the generators at the bottom of the mountain, on the train so I had a good idea where it was. You have to get the key for a lock on the gate just up the road to allow you to drive to the dam, unfortunately, the visitor centre which had the key was closed so I had to park and WALK. Ok, after yesterday, you would think I would have had enough of walking up mountains, but oh well, I am here so might as well give it a go…

The walk up the road was quite easy, passing a few mountain climbers clambering up the side of some rather nasty looking rocks. Of course, I was not alone, there were a few people walking down (none, disconcertingly, going up) though the sheep seemed to be ambivalent about going up or down. They seemed to be always wanting to be on the road, most likely because it was warmer and the sun was going down. I was wondering why one particular sheep was just standing there as I walked by (most ran away) then I noticed a particularly satisfied look on it's face (if that is possible to notice) as it went to the toilet. Must be a difficult life…

Eventually, after not seeing anything for quite a long time the dam all of a sudden appeared. It is interesting to think that this dam just serves to provide electricity during peak demand and off-peak the water that flows through the turbines at the bottom is pumped back up to the top. Basically a giant 'battery'. Seems wasteful to me. Evidently the electricity generated is fed through the UK electrical network and could be used in London.

The dam is not terribly large, as dams go, but very impressive so I walked past a few cars (where they got the key, I don't know) and continued along the top of the dam, walking half way around the lake. The water was so clear you could see down quite a distance, down to the slate that lie along the bottom (and the small fish that inhabited it). It was so quiet that I sat down for a few minutes to enjoy it, putting my hand in the water and discovered it was cool but not that cold. For a number of years I have always wanted to skinny dip. I don't really know why, it is not a sexual thing, I think it is just something that seems so silly, ridiculous and perhaps a bit reckless (it seems I am not noted for such things, can't think why). Looking around I noticed that there was NO one around, it was getting late and everyone was (sensibly) most likely having dinner so, before I knew it I was down to my nothings and up to my chin in the water. Well, not for long as I realized I had my watch on and returned to the shore and continued my relaxing bathe. It was a LOT cooler than I suspected but I did enjoy it after the long walk up. I had been on my feet for most of the day so I enjoyed it, ignoring, of course, the goosebumps appearing all over…

Getting a bit concerned about being a bit long in the water, I clambered back to the shore and got changed, noticing that I was NOT alone as I suspected. High up on an overlooking ridge there was a lone hiker who seemed to be watching something, I wonder what? I quickly changed and he/she(?) moved on. I was aware that most likely I was in breach of a few laws (polluting a public resource, scaring local wildlife, littering (hey, a guy can accumulate a LOT of dirt in a day…), etc) so I hastened my return back down the mountain. Ok, I was concerned I could find a police escort at the bottom, yeah, I am a bit paranoid, but I must say, I did feel good for getting up the money to actually do it (admit it, you have done it, haven't you? What do you call taking a bath then? Well, perhaps not quite as public…). There were no police at the bottom.

Following the directions given by the B & B I proceeded to the town where I was told a pub served magnificent food. I found it. Scary. There was EXTREMELY loud music playing and the place was crawling with drinkers, they were even cascading out the doors onto the street! So, I elbowed my way to the bar, placed my order, sat down with my Pepsi and waited, for quite some time. Eventually, going deaf with the music blaring from the (impressive) stereo equipment, I realized there was a lounge area that was MUCH quieter so I moved over there, sharing a table with a group of four others until another table became available. They managed NOT to find me for quite some time before I made myself known to them again and I feasted on my chosen dish. Nothing impressive though. Perhaps I picked the wrong dish. The place was just crawling with people though, this is supposed to be the best pub in the area and it certainly seems to have the clients to bear this out.

Returning to my car I found that someone was using the back of it to place their beers on it (and the side of it to hide their impromptu 'loo') so I high-tailed it out of there. Nothing like drunk 20 year-olds to scare the willies out of most people…I headed off, in the wrong direction, mind you, would not be able to turn around with the narrow two lane road having cars parked on both sides (yes, it was effectively a single-track road – a narrow one at that). It was a good night for a drive so I continued along the road, eventually crossing a single-track bridge to return back to Blaenau.

It is interesting to note that most people speak Welsh in this area, from what I have been reading this area in particular has about 69% of it's population speaking this language. A few years ago, it was considered dead and it is quite good to hear it in use, though a bit odd. Of course, everyone speaks English as well so it is easy to get around, but, if you listen at the pub or anywhere in public all the locals speak Welsh to each other. Very weird sounding language, sort of German, if I can think of something that sounds like it, very nasal a lot of the sounds but a lot of long 'l's.

Sunday, May 2nd, 1999 - Guildford, Surrey

It has been a busy day of driving for me. I was expecting, of course, the return back to Surrey but I also did a lot more travelling to see a bit more of the area that I had not already seen.

After helping a group at the B & B in the morning, giving them suggestions for their one day (!) visit to the area. They wanted to get a train ride and I can't see that happening in the time they have…but, oh well. Many people (myself included) think that you can visit an area in a short period of time but you have to learn to spend more time to actually get a better understanding of the site. Today really proved this to me. I started the day with a drive to Anglesey which is to the extreme north west of Wales, actually, they call it an island. To get there I travelled through an area of Snowdonia that I had never travelled through before, an area that reminded me a lot of the Scottish highlands: little significant foliage, tall scraggy mountains, the dull brownish nature of the landscape with winding roads. Unfortunate that there were so many hikers around, with various campsites and hostels, many of them did not seem to know how to accurately dispose of trash. Hard to say who did it but they seemed to be the only choices…Despite that though, the area was quite striking.

Snowdonia National Park

Then I crossed over into Anglesey, following the road to Hollyhead where you can catch a ferry to Ireland. The main road was quite busy but once I turned off it to follow a much smaller road around the northern part of the island it was quite quiet. It took quite some time but it was startling to see the difference in the landscape from the area of Snowdonia that I had just been in, this area was all seafront and small villages, a lot like the atlantic areas of Canada. Quite surprising.

Anglesey North Coast Seaside

I proceeded again across the stretch of water separating Anglesey from the rest of Wales and across the northern part of Wales to Conwy. Conwy is a very interesting place, home of another of the major castles in Wales, Conwy Castle. This castle was another one built by Edward the 1st and is built in the same manner as Caernarfon, a main castle with a wall around the city containing his English allies. Conwy is separated from much of the mainland by a stretch of water spanned by only one bridge and a tunnel (both for cars, there is also a train bridge). I drove into the city, parking just outside the city walls. What is unique about Conwy is that you can walk along the top of most of the wall, for about 1/4 of a mile.

Conwy Castle and Seafront

The castle is much smaller than Caernarfon and certain portions are not in nearly as good condition though it seems that Edward actually visited this one. I took another tour from a free-lance guide and he was quite good, giving a good idea of what it was like to live in the castle and a bit of the history (though he did seem to want to tell anyone we passed or that passed us about the fact that he was running tours for £1, do you want to go on one?). Of course, the two castles are very similar including many of the defences and even the layout though Conwy does seem a bit smaller.

After the castle, I visited the older bridge that crosses the strait. This bridge was built in the early 1800s and was used right up until the 70s though it had become SO congested with traffic they built the newer bridge beside it. The bridge is a suspended bridge with single lane traffic only and was controlled by a traffic gate when it was finally closed (a toll was also paid). I visited the ticket house which now houses a bit of a museum (where everything is laid out as it was when the house was in use). I like the way that the National Trust properties do not seem to preach to you about their historical nature but they seem to always be set up exactly as they would have been when in use and they allow you to walk around freely. Little, if any, write- ups but plenty of information available by talking to the people that mind the properties.

I walked away from the bridge along the water past a number of sail-boats and a large number of people enjoying the absolutely fantastic weather we had today – lots of sun and very warm. As with many people in the UK going for a picnic they seem to have packed everything you would want in ANY meal - wine, hot dishes, salads, etc. Can't remember ever having something that elaborate as a kid…

Conwy Castle and City

I followed the castle wall to the furthest point from the castle, walking along the top. Of course, only the wall really remains, none of the roofs or interiors (wood) that would have been present are in place anymore. It is quite surprising to see how intact everything is though, it could have been a hundred years ago, looking out over the town. Ok, perhaps a few less cars then…

I grabbed fish and chips from a local chippy that were VERY good (evidently, the best in Wales a few years ago). Time was now getting short and I had hoped to get to an exhibit a fair distance away so I got moving. Ok, a bit of background, this is a Dr. Who exhibit that I have been trying to get to for quite some time as it is an awkward location, enough of a distance from where I visit normally in Wales that I always seem to get there when it is closed. Today, this was not to be…again. Despite taking a 'short cut' the traffic got the better of me and I only arrived five minutes before the exhibit was to close. Disappointing. Even worse when I consider that I could have spent the time I was in the car trying to get there (about an hour and a half – the distance is normally covered in about 45 minutes) I could have spent doing something else. I am only glad that I was able to see Conwy. I did enjoy that.

I stayed at the Dolawel Guest House in Blaenau Ffestiniog, hosted by William and Ann Gee. Dolawel, Rhiw, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd LL41 3HS, phone: (01766) 830 511.

From their brochure:

  • Dolawel Guest House, is the former residence of the towns slate quarry Manager. The house was built over 100 years ago, and has now been sympathetically modernised. The house is set within large grounds that provide peace and tranquillity for all our guests. Parking is provided within the grounds, in an enclosed parking area. Dolawel offers very comfortable and spacious accommodation combined with a relaxed atmosphere. All rooms are equipped to a high standard, including beverage making facilities, Colour T.V, H & C, Central Heating, Shaver points and Hairdryers.