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|Wales - October 2000|
|Part 1||Part 2>|
30/9 - I
woke up before the alarm and went straight downstairs to sit and
meditate and try and calm down. It didn't work and I soon gave
up. I don't normally eat breakfast but imagined that I would
probably need it today and couldn't think of the already old eggs
in my fridge going to waste, so I hastily breakfasted on boiled
eggs and toast. I filled a Tupperware container with a couple of
pasties from the freezer and a bag of crisps, because that was
easy, and filled up a thermos flask with coffee. Stuffed into a
small rucksack and added to the couple of waiting bags I had
packed the night before, by the time Martin arrived in his long
wheel base Land Rover I was as ready as I was going to be. We had
one last cup of coffee to use up the last of the two pints of
milk that would have been very stiff had it been left to await my
return. As we drank and chatted, Martin revealed that he hadn't
got round to making up a packed lunch, so I suggested that he
should have a couple of the potato cheese and onion pasties like
I was taking, since I had some more in the freezer. I dug a
couple out and hastily wrapped them in a plastic bag with a bag
of crisps and added them to my small rucksack.
By a little after nine we were on our way over to Martin's to swap Land Rovers and load up his stuff. I was devastated to find that I had forgotten to bring my trusty plastic bottle of drinking water. I'd left it in the fridge, all ready to go. It's only refilled from the tap but I've got used to carrying it with me whenever I go out on a walk or the like and it makes all the difference occasionally having a sip or two here and there when the need arises, as it always does. Knowing from experience what it would be like passive smoking all Martins cigarettes as well as my own, I knew I couldn't easily do without . . . and I'd forgotten it!
I waited by the open garage as Martin went to get the short wheelbase Land Rover that was his 'off-roading' toy. A couple of minutes later he returned saying that it wouldn't start! I said very little but recalled a conversation we'd had earlier about how I didn't understand people who left things until the last minute. What had prompted my comments was the news that Chris and Sue and Tucker their dog wouldn't be driving up to meet us until the next day because Chris was still busy at his workshop working on his car. Don't get me wrong. I can appreciate how difficult it must be to find time to do everything when you are self employed and have to work long, long hours and have recently moved into an old house that requires 'improvement', but . . . well it just isn't MY way.
It always used to be the same when I was in the bike club. You knew that every bank holiday there was going to be a bike run so you made sure that the bike was all built and road tested, with any problems ironed out a week or so in advance. Or at least I did. Maybe with hindsight it was just a case of me not being able to stand the thought that it could be me who might break down and suffer the embarrassment of holding everybody up, and the feelings of humiliation and rejection I would suffer as a result. It never seemed to worry any of the others who would often suddenly feel obliged to do an engine rebuild the day before the run! How many times we were made to stop and wait as someone tried to fix a rebuild oversight or run back to retrieve some untightened part that had fallen off, I can't remember. There was that one time when someone at the back of our roaring charging group, who had only just put the bike back together, disappeared with a break down. We eventually realised someone was missing and all pulled over onto the hard shoulder to wait for them to catch up. We all waited there quite some time! In those innocent days, before the 'Police Stop' videos, and ignorant and perhaps uncaring of the dangers involved, I took it upon myself to volunteer to go back and see what the problem was. I headed off up the hard shoulder against the flow of the speeding motorway traffic at sixty miles an hour or more. I don't remember what the problem was, but for sure, a short test ride before the run would have revealed it as in need of easy correction.
Martin dug his jump leads and an old spare battery out of the garage and we went back to the road. I stood around feeling rather useless as Martin set to work. I expected him to raise the bonnet and reveal the battery, at which point I thought I could help by attaching the leads, but before I realised what was happening the spare battery was on the road next to the Land Rover and was attached to the battery that was actually beneath the passenger seat.
Waaa . . . waaaaa . . . waaaaaaaa. It wouldn't start. By now I was filled with impending doom, and had visions of the whole off-roading idea being shelved and the week turning into an on-road touring holiday using one or other of Martins other vehicles. Unperturbed Martin jumped into his long wheelbase Land Rover and quickly had it pulled up alongside. The cables were connected and the engine revved a little to force some current into the tired battery. Back into the SWB and straight away it started. With some relief he re-parked the LWB and backed the SWB around and up to his garage. Following orders about what was to go, I helped quickly load all the waiting boxes, tools and diesel filled jerry cans into the back. It seemed as though we were taking an awful lot. With Martins mass of luggage all added, there was just enough room to squeeze in my meagre collection of bags. By about ten thirty we were on our way, and roaring and rattling down the motorway towards the new Severn crossing. From the blue sky between the mountainous white clouds the sun shone down, and the bridge and the treacherous muddy water of the Severn estuary spread out far below, looked shiny bright and glistening. Across the bridge we rattled on and pulled into one of the queues at the tollbooths. Typically we seemed to choose the wrong queue and had to wait, impatiently, as the old woman in the car in front signed for her receipt and took her time putting it safely away in her purse. On we went as I entertained myself by following the route we were taking in the road atlas that Martin had brought. We left the motorway at junction twenty-four and headed north on the A449. It seemed obvious to me, looking at the map, that this was a strange route to take and was actually doubling back on ourselves and was rather further, but Martin dismissed my concern explaining that he always went this way. On we travelled past a golf course that, glimpsed through the trees, bore testament to the amount of recent rain we'd had. Each of the holes of the course looked as though it had been cunningly designed to sit upon it's own island. A boat rather than a golf cart would have been a vital part of the equipment needed for a game that day.
Carrying on to join the A40, with the huge dark looming shadow of Raglan Castle off to the right in the distance. Stuck briefly in a traffic queue as we squeezed our way through Abergavenny and on through the Brecon Beacons national park. A479, A470, I stopped following the map and simply watched as the world rolled effortlessly by. Effortless for me that is. Martin seemed to be forever busy, working at keeping the car going at a reasonable speed, changing multiple gear levers and double-d-clutching all over the place, and wrestling with the steering wheel around the winding roads as we climbed up over the hills. Off in the distance the sky had forgotten it's lofty place and had fallen to earth to shroud the tops of the hills with sheets of wispy white.
As we carried on we saw coming in the opposite direction the majestic form of an old Rolls Royce, and then another. As the miles rolled by, around every bend it seemed as though we were bound to see more. More and more! Travelling in stately ones and twos and impressive larger groups. Rolls Royces of every age and style. Martin seemed to have the ability to tell which model was which, but to me, suffice it to say it was a Rolls Royce. There was obviously a rally on somewhere and it seemed as though from warm dry garages all over Wales, old wealthy couples had taken to the road in their polished pride and joy, all wearing the same intent expression, as only occupants of a Rolls Royce seem to know how.
Near the crest of a long winding hill we pulled off the road and into the parking lay-by for a break, a drink, and a bite to eat. It was the same familiar lay-by that we had stopped in perhaps a year before, on the way up to the same part of Wales. The silence was deafening after the hours of roaring clattering road noise. I was by now really quite hungry and pulled out my packed lunch, and handed Martin the plastic bag containing the hastily grabbed pasties from my freezer. Martin didn't seem too impressed with my offering, and after a couple of bites announced that they were still frozen in the middle. Mine were definitely cold, but my stomach and me have long since reached an understanding about such things. I'm a skinny chap with no reserves of fat. If my stomach urgently demands food, it is best to give it some as soon as possible before I start going light headed, sleepy, weak and shaky. Hot or cold, especially with pies and pasties and the like, doesn't matter to me one bit. What matters more is how soon I can fill my stomach.
Martin has reserves. He stopped eating, got out and set about unfastening the bonnet of the Land Rover, before disappearing underneath with the half eaten frozen pasty. I don't know quite where he put it. Perhaps those clever people at Ford included a small oven on their Transit engines, but not long after he was happily eating the now quite warm if ever so slightly diesely pasty.
The heat from the oven or engine was somehow flowing through the bulkhead to one particular piece of the dashboard metal in front of me, and whilst it was uncomfortably hot for my knees jammed up against it, it certainly made a good hand warmer and drier for damp window wiping rags.
We got out briefly to stretch our legs. My attention was drawn over the road and up the steep green covered hillside with it's bare rocky outcrops by the far off eerie cry of a buzzard soaring in wide circles high over the heads of the dotted sheep. "I'd like one like that" Martin said, drawing me back down to earth as yet another Rolls glided almost silently by. I wondered what it must be like to always want so much. I pondered and imagined that I would be more than happy with a modest little Ford Fiesta, as long as it reliably got me wherever it was I wanted to go, or maybe just a decent pair of walking boots!
On we went following the A470 up towards Llanidloes where it was agreed we would take the more direct cross-country short cut route along the B4518. We turned left and headed up higher into the hills. Glimpses of distant views occasionally revealed themselves in breaks in the hedges and then there, over to the left, was the vast blue grey expanse of the Llyn Clywedog reservoir. At a small lay-by, a father wearing his fishing hat complete with cocky birds feather, was excitedly unloading an enormous amount of fishing gear from his car as his son, miserable faced looked on, perhaps dreading the long loaded walk down to the cold waters edge. On we slowly climbed past the panoramic viewpoint as faster, newer, lighter cars impatiently jockeyed for position behind us, before racing past, with a sneer, in a safe enough place. Way up on top of the hill in a small out of the way lay-by, someone was parked up in a camper van enjoying the space and the peace and the views, and perhaps a cup of coffee and a meal and a sleep. Fuelling my fantasy of someday buying a camper van myself, I remarked what a great place that would be to park up for the night for free. Martin assured me it would be no good and that the police would move you on in the middle of the night. It seemed rather strange to me that the police should have a special unit to go scouring the out of the way roads and hills at night to move on people who needed to rest, but Martin was adamant and spoke so he said from experience.
The short cut we were taking may well have been the more direct route, but as it turned out it was probably very much slower. The road narrowed and tortuously twisted and turned and Martin was kept busy constantly wrestling this way and that with the wheel. Over a rise and down a slope, a small group of people were stopped, huddled together on a grassy verge, and watched us intently as we went by. Meeting their gaze as we passed, it appeared that they were a large family of perhaps six or seven with several small children, and all of them were draped dangerously over the mudguards seat and tank of a single quad bike! It seemed unlikely they were in training for some motorcycle acrobatic show, and instead perhaps was an indication of how tough it really is for hill farmers and their families in today's, much publicised, hard economic climate. Maybe they were just taking their 'car' to the shops!
At last we reached the junction with the A470 and turned left. It was time to get the paperwork out that Martin had been sent when he booked, and study the directions about how to find the place. We were getting close. I studied the maps that Martin had printed out on his computer and read the instructions and concluded that the directions were for someone coming from the opposite way, so I had to try and figure it all out in reverse. We agreed that as far as we could tell it was turn right at the Cemmaes Road roundabout and it would be somewhere only about a kilometre or so off on the right. Our nervous anticipation increased somewhat as, turning at the roundabout, we saw off to the right the clutch of unattractive concrete buildings that seemed to loosely form a little out of the way almost local authority type estate. We carried on down the road eagerly looking for the signpost that was supposed to show the name of the place. Just up ahead in a field to our right I spotted an old derelict brick built structure with roughly boarded up windows, and was momentarily convinced that this was it. We drove on, over the river and past the roadwork signs and large excavations that were being done in the fields on either side of the road. At last, just as we passed a small opening in the hedge and a narrow driveway leading up the hill, we saw the name plaque of the farm building. 'Troed-Y-Ffridd'. We'd missed it! Just up ahead on the left was the entrance to a track so we pulled in, down the slope and turned around. The road was not busy but it was quite fast, so Martin was quite careful about pulling out. The car stalled. With a little cursing he started it up again and we began to pull out. Again it stalled. More cursing. It stalled once more before we managed to get moving and it was clear to Martin that there was a problem with the vehicle.
We pulled up next to the driveway and, rather than have the difficulty of driving a car with a problem up what was perhaps the wrong driveway, I said I would go and try to confirm if this was the right place. I leaped out and walked up the steep slippery moss covered drive way, through the open wooden gates half way up, and on up to the flat area at the top. To the right through some ornate metal gates was a parking area in front of a bungalow that nestled between the overgrown shrubs in a walled off area cut into the sloping field. All the windows were ajar as if for airing so, more confidant that this was the right place but still a little nervous in case I was wrong and was prowling around someone's home, I knocked on the glass back door that lead into the modern looking kitchen. There was no response. I tried the door handle and found it unlocked. I gently eased the door open a crack and called out hello. To my great relief there was no answer. I closed the door and walked back out of the yard and across the drive, trying to gesticulate to Martin down below that I was not sure and was going to try to find some life at the adjacent farmhouse. I walked down the gravely path past the ornate fish pond set in the lush green lawn beneath the mature trees, and walked up to the large old farm house. Almost all the windows were open or ajar and I felt sure that someone must be in, but knocking at the old porch covered entrance door there was no reply. Off to the left there was another house and a line of stables and outbuildings but there was no one around and I couldn't see any easy way of getting through that way to look, without perhaps appearing like a burglar. If I had been a burglar I could never have been accused of 'breaking' and entering. There was no need!
I walked back to Martin waiting at the road and explained that there was no one around but I thought this had to be it. He waited for the road to clear and then pulled the Land Rover out and around and through the narrow entrance and up the steep drive in a very low gear, and parked.
We walked around a little getting our bearings but were uncomfortable about exploring too much without having announced our presence. Thankfully, moments later a car came up the drive and the woman driving it started pulling into a shed along near the farmhouse. As we walked over a man was walking up the driveway after having collected his daily papers and post from the half hidden concrete pipe near the entrance that was presumably his letterbox. We all introduced ourselves and I joined in making some appropriate small talk as the owners' wiry Airedale puppy leapt around us wagging it's short tail so hard it could hardly stand. The dog's name was Judy and she was SO excited and happy to see us, but just couldn't stop still long enough to let me give her a stroke. As she bounced around we teased out some of the details we needed. Like how we should leave the drive gates however we found them as we come and go. How we should settle up for electric usage at the end of the week after a meter reading. How we could use the garage if we wanted. How the central heating was all included and was timed to go on morning and afternoon. How our friend's dog, when it came, should make use of the small fenced off area below the bungalow for its convenience. How walking into the horses' field was ok and that there was a gate around the back. How there was a nice walk for the dog over the road and down to the river. How the open fire was made up ready and that if we wanted more wood we only had to leave the container outside for them to fill for a pound or two.
They were genuinely pleasant and soon left us to unpack the Land Rover and settle in. The bungalow was just amazing. All spacious bright clean and airy. It was much better than home! On a worktop in the fitted kitchen was a tea tray with what looked like a set of the best dainty china, all set out with a welcome note.
"Dear Mr ******** + party
We hope that you enjoy your stay.
There is milk in the fridge for you to make a cuppa.
I will be over shortly to see you
It was a very nice touch. It was impossible to resist the urge to start looking through cupboards and drawers. Everywhere there were plates and dishes and cutlery. More than you could ever want and much of it real silver! Amazing. The only thing we couldn't find was a vacuum cleaner. This was of some concern since, from experience, we knew only too well we were going to need it.
The lounge was a large 'L' shaped, window filled room with a dining table in one area and the fireplace, bookcases, a settee, two comfy chairs and a television in the other. The main window here gave a view of a small yard area bounded by overgrown trees and shrubs with a wooden bird table placed right near the window with empty nut containers hanging on hooks. Only just visible through the undergrowth you could make out the high lush green sheep dotted hills across the river valley in the distance. It seemed a little strange that the owners hadn't cleared the shrubs back to exploit the wonderful view, but I guessed living amongst such scenery they were used to it and it hadn't occurred to them. The view from the other windows was the bright green of the adjacent field which rose sharply up the hill on which we were perched, with lines of trees and a pine forest off to the left over by the farm. A couple of horses and a donkey were munching the grass nearby. It was VERY nice.
Just outside the back door was a bench, and it was good to sit there in the sleepy warmth of the sun for a while, finishing off the coffee from our thermos flasks with a cigarette or two.
We brought all the stuff in out of the Land Rover and settled into the room that had the two single beds. Martin made himself at home on the bed, next to the radiator and the window, and amazingly seemed to produce huge amounts of 'stuff' which quickly spread over the whole room as he sorted out his bedding and clothes and multiple bits and pieces. I contented myself with stuffing as much of the little I had that I could, into a small bedside cabinet with one or two things thrown on a shelf in a fitted cupboard. I didn't want to have to start paying any extra for bedding and wasn't really sure what the arrangements would be, so with a quick wave of my arms, my sleeping bag was unrolled and thrown on top of the bed with the pillow I'd brought set up top. I was sorted.
As Martin continued unpacking I tested out the seating in the lounge and ended up in one of the two odd chairs next to the fireplace that had the best view of the windows and of course the television directly in front of me in the opposite corner. I felt at home.
Martin marched purposefully into the room and started moving the furniture! He grabbed an antique looking set of slender stacking tables and carried them over and placed them next to the sofa on the other side of the room. He then pulled out the smallest table from the bottom, placed it right in the middle of the room and piled up a stack of Land Rover, Off Road and Caravan magazines on top. I commented that this was slightly strange behaviour and that certainly when Tucker the dog arrived it would be knocked over for sure, but I guess that made him feel at home too. Not to be outdone I decided the other chair with it's back to the television was more comfortable so I too moved some furniture. We were rather concerned that we hadn't broached the subject of smoking with the owners but it wasn't long before our addiction overcame our concerns. We found one china ash tray amongst the crockery and another ash tray like brass ornament on the mantelpiece and decided it would have to be ok . . . we'd leave a window or two open.
We had to go and shop. I'd brought what I considered absolute essentials like coffee, milk, sugar, chocolate biscuits and salt, but we needed to buy food so got ready to drive to the shops at Machynlleth. Before we went, Martin had the bonnet up and was trying to figure out what the problem could be, but I hadn't a clue and was of no use at all and perhaps more of an irritant as I peered over his shoulder. We were soon down the drive, pulling gingerly out between the hedges onto the road and heading off on the short five-mile drive to town. Driving once through the town from end to end to get a feel for what shops there were we spotted a rather large pet shop and decided that a bag of peanuts for the bird table would be a good idea. Inside, the shop was stacked with all manner of strange animal foods. In one corner was a tub containing a huge mountain of bones! They were all rather dark in colour and were presumably cooked and would have drawn a drool from any dog, but it seemed a very strange unhealthy thing to have lying around for long. For a pound or two we were soon back on the road with a large plastic bag of peanuts bouncing around on the floor of the open backed Land Rover as we headed for the Co-Op supermarket we had spotted on the way through. We parked up in the car park behind, grabbed a trolley and went shopping.
The readily agreed idea of cooking our own food rather than eating out, was of course because it was cheaper, but I guess through necessity I have learned to live cheaper than most. Cheaper and simpler. So when it actually came down to deciding what we were going to buy and eat together, things got a little strained. Peeling the cheapest of economy potatoes and making my own French fries almost every day for the last twenty or more years, has somewhat dulled my imagination when it comes to buying for a balanced diet like Martin is used to. It seemed very much easier to more or less leave the choices up to him although I started to get a bit anxious and argumentative when he consistently refused to go for the cheapest lowest quality brand of whatever it was he was choosing. With me pushing the trolley and arguing with him over what he was going to cook for our dinner we must have looked like a right couple of old women, or maybe just a 'couple'!! Our strange drama acted out in front of the fruit counter drew the attention of an equally strange looking local who felt obliged to come over and talk. I can only assume he was a fan of American TV soap operas and thought he recognised the 'acting', but we assured him no, we weren't Americans and were actually just up from Bristol for the week. We quickly escaped up the aisles.
It wasn't a bad supermarket and had a reasonable range of stuff with the exception of bottled water. Nevertheless it wasn't quite what we were used to back in the big metropolis and the prices were certainly a bit higher. An exception was the large pack of strong cheddar cheese that we bought. It was marvellous stuff, really strong and had to be half the price I've paid at my local supermarket for worse. Strange? I wondered if there was a conspiracy amongst farmers in Wales, news of which hadn't yet got out, that maybe genetic engineering trials were being conducted in the hills on milk producing sheep!!
We paid for our groceries, cheese, eggs, bread, butter, corned beef, crisps, mushrooms, potatoes, milk, etc. and returned to the Land Rover. Martin wasn't happy but I managed to persuade him to turn back into town and stop, with some parking difficulty, outside of a busy Spar store. I managed to find and buy a small bottle of water. Thank goodness.
We headed back to the bungalow discussing in depth all the way what could be wrong with the Land Rover. Of course I knew nothing about it and every time I expressed an opinion about the possible cause of the symptoms I was most definitely wrong! Martin was suspicious about the fuel filter that hadn't be changed for a long time and decided it needed changing as soon as possible. Never having a particularly optimistic outlook on life, I was convinced that if he tried to change it something would go horribly wrong with a stripped thread or something and we would end up in a worse position than if he didn't touch it. Such a possibility seemed to him totally out of the question and he decided to ask to borrow a yellow pages from the farmer when we got back so that he could find a local Ford parts supplier where he could buy the new filter.
We got back and unpacked the shopping and spread it around the fridge and the generous shelves of a large pantry type fitted cupboard just inside the kitchen door, which already contained one or two left over bits and pieces from previous occupants. I needn't have worried so much over making sure I brought a container of salt in my luggage. As I was sorting some of the stuff out Martin disappeared outside with a handful of carrots and made friends for life of the two horses and the donkey who had wandered over to the fence to see what was going on. We then both went around to the front of the bungalow where the bird table was, and spent a while filling up all the nylon mesh containers with peanuts before going back inside to watch from the other side of the living room window. It wasn't long at all before the birdy word got out and there was a collection of finches, tits and sparrows all practicing their acrobatics and hanging upside down and sorting out their pecking order. It was rather a surprise to learn that recognising some of the more common species of bird was not an ability that everyone had, so I tried to explain and point out the difference between a Great Tit, a Blue Tit, a Green Finch and a House Sparrow as Martin consistently got it wrong.
The cooking and washing up arrangements were already understood from previous trips away. Martin was in charge of the cooking and I would wash up afterwards. That rather suited me down to the ground and feeling rather peckish to say the least, was delighted when Martin announced he would be starting to cook the potatoes, mixed vegetables and Chicken Kievs shortly. It was clearly going to take quite a time and already feeling rather in need of getting away on my own for a while, without wishing to offend the cook I announced that I was going to go for a quick walk and see what the river was like. Martin didn't seem to mind too much so I put on my boots and headed off down the drive and over the road, along and down the track the farmers wife had suggested was a good dog walking route. Within a hundred yards it was patently obvious that this was no route for the dog we had coming to stay. In the fields on both sides of the lane, and in most of the other fields in the distance all around, were sheep. Lots of them. This was no good at all. Tucker the dog likes sheep. Apparently he's an Alaskan malamute crossed with something else. I suspect from his behaviour last time I saw him let loose near a sheep, he's crossed with a Wolf!! I for one was not going to be walking him down this way!
I followed the track down and round past the farm buildings and couldn't figure out where I was supposed to go to reach the river. I had no idea whose land this was and didn't relish the thought of wandering in between the buildings, so I veered off towards a gate that looked promising. To my right was a huge stack of bulging black plastic bags with foul smelling liquid oozing along the ground from beneath. Silage? The smell was appalling. And right behind this mountain of stench was a mobile home! Maybe it was the accommodation for the hired help at lambing or shearing time but I couldn't imagine what sort of a person could suffer staying there, and quickly and nervously walked on through the gate and into the field. The track here was built up above the level of the grass and on both sides recent rain had collected and it was as though I was walking a causeway through a lake. In the distance only a little lower I could at last see the river although surprisingly it was fenced off. Walking around the boggy lake and finding a slightly firmer grassy footing I made my way to the wire fence. There was no way over. The river was wider than it had first appeared cut shallow between the green fields and was flowing black and fast with an occasional flurry of white where hidden rocks dared to hinder its race to the sea. On the opposite side some distance over the field a farmer was using his tractor to trim the summer hedge growth back ready for the winter, the sharp cut of which was already in the air despite the low rays of the sinking sun still thrusting through between the clouds. There was a lot of sky there and it was a joy to behold. Too long cooped up in the dark depths of a city can make you forget how big and beautiful and ever changing the sky is. I briefly felt I was glad my sky wasn't sunny, clear and blue. It's only when you have clouds that the full splendour of it all is so overwhelmingly revealed.
The tractor started coming closer and I felt a little awkward and as though I shouldn't have been there. Trying to appear relaxed and unthreatening I pulled out my handkerchief and blew my nose. Why on earth I thought that would show me to be a nice chap out to do no harm I have no idea, but it seemed to work and the tractor turned around and carried on trimming the hedges. I rolled a cigarette and slowly wandered along the fence next to the river. I glanced at my watch and was amazed to find that I had only been gone for about fifteen minutes. I decided I'd better head back. It wouldn't do to be gone too long. I didn't know what sort of soap opera scene would ensue if the cook had to ruin my dinner by putting it in the oven because I was late home. I was hungry. I didn't want to end up wearing the meal.
By the time I got back things were well in hand with wonderful smells pouring out of the open kitchen door and sizzling onions and mushrooms in one of the pans on the stove. As I walked in, the cook spotted the farmer up in the field walking his dog and immediately deserted his creations and ran off to attract his attention. He didn't come back for ages and I started to panic at the stove not knowing what stage everything had reached. I lamely prodded the onions and mushrooms with a spoon as they hinted at burning and happily caramelised them just like I prefer. Eventually the cook reappeared and I was introduced to the dining table all laid out with tablecloth, cutlery, place mats and a glass ready to accept a small beer from the fridge to wash down our feast. Martin had done us proud. What luxury to be waited upon like that. The only criticism I can offer is the amount of food that he prepared. Huge amounts. I had figured a Kiev per meal but no, we had two each and mountains of vegetables. It was impossible to finish it all, but I really did try and was still eating when martin had long finished.
Perhaps it was something about the speed he ate. Maybe it's just the way I've been brought up but I really was amazed at how unbashfully he loudly belched throughout the entire meal. Yes, yes, yes, I know in some foreign lands such a thing is allegedly a compliment to the quality of the food but . . . well . . . I don't live there and I think it's just unpleasant, especially when I'm eating! I tried desperately to turn a deaf ear but eventually HAD to have a conversation about manners when the farting started!!!
Left over vegetables were put back in a pot for later recycling and left on the stove to cool. The farmer turned up bearing a yellow pages and the vacuum. It seemed reasonable to put the vacuum in Chris and Sues room since it was really them that were going to use it. Tucker the dog has the most amazing fur coat. Inexhaustibly detachable it seems. No matter where he goes he will leave great bundles of fine light hairs everywhere. Within a couple of days it was inevitable that the whole bungalow would be covered in a layer of fur. Martin and I had already agreed that where possible we would keep the door to our bedroom firmly closed to avoid ending up going out each day wearing a matching ensemble of fur coat and fur combat trousers and of course coming home at night to sleep in a furry bed. Sue, constantly faced with the embarrassing problem of having furry legs, always seems to have about her person somewhere a strange sticky roley thing with a handle that you can run up and down your clothes and which the hairs will stick to it. You then tear off the sticky papery bit and throw the mass of fur away. Very clever.
After letting my stomach recover for a while, sitting with a cigarette or two, I set about doing the washing up. Strangely I rather enjoyed doing it. It was even an enjoyable challenge to try and clean Martins thermos flask, apparently for the first time ever!
With the washing up done we sat around for a little while, me watching TV and Martin reading through the Yellow pages and plotting his repairs. By nine o'clock it was clear Martin expected us to try out the local pub the farmer had recommended, so we left the increasing warmth of the bungalow now that the central heating timer had come on and got into the Land Rover. The drive gates were closed so I had to leap out and open them to let Martin through. As he came sliding down the damp moss covered incline I almost got hit and ended up having to jump to safety up onto the grassy bank next to the gates. By the time the week was over, with all the coming and going and frequent opening and closing of the gates, my safe standing place had been turned into a well-trod muddy mess amongst the grass.
Five minutes later we were pulling up and parking opposite the pub. Entering the bar we seemed to be of great interest to the people at a table who stared intently but did at least have the decency to say 'good evening' to make us feel a little more welcome. Martin had a beer but I was definitely not in the mood to start getting all blurred, tired and waterlogged so ordered up a short gin and orange. Minding our heads below the low beamed ceiling we went into the rear lounge area and I installed myself at an empty table in the corner next to the brick fire place with my back to the wall as is my preference in pubs. There was a strange quiet atmosphere there. It felt almost old but then closer examination of the decor revealed that at least some of the wooden beams and posts were quite new and had been put in during some recent renovation. The attempts to distress them and make them look old hadn't really worked. Opera music was playing gently over the PA speakers and people were coming and going through the nearby corridor to the very busy eating area. We had a look at the menus thinking that later in the week we would probably end up here for a meal or two but it seemed to me that the prices were really rather high, even if it was 'gourmet' food. We sat and drank and chatted and smoked and looked at the other few customers there were. It was impossible not to notice the woman at a nearby table. She was with a man friend, but looking at her wrinkled face he was very noticeably younger than she and they looked a little out of place. What was most noticeable were her legs. Whatever age she was she really did have the most amazing pair of legs and she was making the most of it. Short skirt, high heels, light coloured nylons, it was impossible not to have a quick look every now and again . . . as men do. Glancing up and over her knees at one point I became aware of a couple of women in the opposite corner and from their hushed conversation and shifting in their seats to have a look, it was obvious they too had noticed the show but their expressions indicated disapproval. Our eyes briefly met and with some embarrassment as I quickly looked away, we all smiled, but I'm sure were all thinking very different things!
Martin wanted another so I went to the bar and ordered whatever beer it was he was drinking and with my usual embarrassment a pint of strong orange squash for myself. I was briefly trapped into having a meaningless chat with some local at the bar but my attempts at humour seemed to stun him into silence and he quickly withdrew looking very confused.
By about twenty past ten we were pretty bored and decided to have a quick drive up the road to see what other pubs there were that would maybe have a better atmosphere. We drove through the dark for several miles and found two more villages but neither had a pub. I was feeling rather tired and was perhaps a little relieved but it did seem strange there were so few pubs around. Perhaps the alleged Welsh tradition of religion and temperance had made their mark thereabouts.
We eventually gave up our search and made our way back, just managing to find the driveway in the dark. I'd had the foresight to put a small torch in the arm pocket of my coat, so closing the gates and finding my way up the treacherous slope to the unlit bungalow wasn't as difficult as it might have been. We both stopped briefly outside the kitchen door and surveyed the sky. There was much less light pollution out there in the hills and despite the wisps of high cloud that were occasionally revealed by bits of the sky disappearing, it seemed as though the whole of the universe was there for us to behold. I don't think we tried to spot and name any recognisable constellations. There was just so much of it, there seemed to be little point in trying to pick out any one bit to lay false claim to. They twinkled and shimmered like diamonds in the cold velvety black. I tried to express how insignificant I felt we were with our hopes and dreams and petty short-lived lives. How in this, amidst all of this we were next to nothing. Martin didn't say much but I imagined he was thinking about doing the fuel filter change on the Land Rover before doing some serious off-roading. We retreated from the damp cold night air and went back into the warmth of the bungalow. It was very warm. Very comfortable. We sat and watched a little TV before Martin retired. I stayed up with the TV for a little longer until I felt comfortably myself, relaxed and alone.
01/10 - I crept into the bedroom as quietly as I could but all the lights were out and I couldn't see a thing. I tried desperately not to disturb Martin but I couldn't find my way to my bed, and knowing it was really rather close to Martins, didn't want to make any embarrassing mistakes so had to warn him I was briefly putting the light on. Having found the small bedside light switch I undressed and got into my sleeping bag. It was hot and stuffy in that room. I'd earlier managed to reach an agreement with Martin that the bedroom should be a no smoking area. Thank god for that! Nevertheless the day's heavy, stress-induced smoking had taken its toll on my nose and lungs and I felt I could hardly breath. The central heating radiator had done its job but I hadn't banked on having such luxury when I decided which of my two sleeping bags to bring. I'd brought my best one that was more suited to outdoor winter use in the snow. I used to regularly eat 'boil in the bag' Kippers. I now knew how they felt. I'd made my bed. I had to lie in it. I tried and tried to sleep and may have for a while, but was soon woken up by the snoring. I was wringing with sweat, could hardly breath and now the orange squash was demanding it's leave from me. I laid there for as long as I could not wanting to wake Martin up but eventually it had to be done and I crept out of the room, fumbling in the dark and went to the loo. Ahhhhhh . . . what a relief!
I'm sure I must have woken him and felt awfully sorry for having done so, but returning to my 'sauna' bed the snoring continued with hardly a pause so I assumed we were ok. Well . . he was anyway. I became hooked on the snoring. I'm sure I must snore too but that is never any consolation when enduring the 'Chinese water torture'. I tried to ignore it but of course I couldn't. I tried to breath in unison but just when I thought I had it, he'd change pace. What is it those dentists assistants use to suck the saliva out of your mouth when you go for treatment? I swear, one of these days I'm going to get me one and some poor soul is liable to find it stuck up their nose one morning, or worse as it turned out!
I tossed and turned and every time I did, the sleeping bag rustled like a howling gale and the headboard of the bed banged on the wall! More and more uptight I tried to toss and turn more slowly and quietly and even tried strange muscular contortions to somehow try and inch the mattress away from the headboard. I guess it worked a bit because at some point I got to sleep.
'BAARRRRRPPPPPPP!' I was woken from my short light sleep by frankly the loudest fart I have EVER heard! How on earth was that possible? Maybe he really couldn't help it!!
I was in a foul mood and despite only having had about three hours sleep, got up, left the room and made my way outside with a cup of coffee and cigarettes. It was misty, cold and damp after the night's rainstorm, but it was wonderful. I sat on the bench near the back door and noticed the small metal plaque screwed to the bottom rail.
"This seat contains Teak from H.M.S. Valiant
Jutland 1916 - Cape Matapan 1941
R.A. Lister + Co. Dursley England"
How strange! How strange someone would buy such a seat. I couldn't help but think that it really was rather likely that the total amount of 'Valiant' wood in the seat was probably enough to just about make up an average sized match and the hole thing was a bit of a con just to sell highly priced garden seats to poor sentimental souls who had some personal connection with the ship. What tale it had to tell as to why it was there I could only guess. I sipped my coffee and smoked my cigarettes as bird song filled the air and a red-breasted robin nervously eyed me from the fence before taking flight as I said hello. A pigeon effortlessly hurtled down all streamlined and silent from high up on the hill heading off down into the thick mists of the valley and who knows where, almost mocking the labouring noisily flapping crow that seemed to have difficulty flying up the hill. As I stood and looked after it, from along the field and over a rise that was just visible in the mist, the sound of galloping horses drew my attention. The two fine looking brown mares all steaming breath and rippling muscle came galloping straight over to the fence and stopped as if to say good morning. Lumbering along behind at a more authoritative walking pace came the obvious leader of the herd, the scruffy grey donkey with the ridiculous ears, enormous teeth and the lost voice. Try as he would he never seemed to quite be able to make whatever sort of a noise such a donkey should make. All he ever seemed to achieve was to almost silently mouth the words with an embarrassing squeak! Poor little chap. It occurred to me that cockerels are sometimes mutilated to make them less noisy and I wondered if that may also be done to donkeys, but I figured no one could be that cruel. Could they?!!
It seemed quite likely they were on the scrounge for more carrots but they were sadly forced to make do with me just saying 'good morning' and 'you're a fine looking fellow' and equally silly Doctor Dolittle small talk.
'BAAaaaAAAaaaaRRRrrrrRRPPPPPPP!' Oh good grief!!!!! What was it about this morning? I did consider it but there seemed to be little point in having a conversation about manners with the horse.
More coffee and cigarettes later with the chill of the morning miraculously successfully clearing my headache, I retrieved my mobile phone from the bedroom. I knew from tests the day before that despite our location it was quite possible to get a reasonable signal if I extended the little aerial. Sat on the seat with my bemused equine audience I rang my father as is our custom and valiantly sang 'Happy Birthday to you . . .happy birthday to you . . . ' a couple of times. The card I'd especially gone out and posted first class late on Friday night hadn't arrived! Typical!!! It felt strange to be sat there wherever I was and yet still be able to phone 'home'. I'm not that old but can remember only a few years ago when such a thing was out of the question. The excitement and awe I felt as a child when my grandfather turned up one day with a couple of illegal walkie talkies that could just about exchange an almost unintelligible word or two from the bottom of the garden. I've not had a mobile phone long and have hardly used it since I have. I still regard every call and every word I say on one as something of a miracle despite the fact that the majority of the world now thinks nothing of it and most children have one as a play thing.
With my duty done and starting to lose feeling in my freezing hands and feet I retreated to the warmth of the sitting room. Although I felt it would be a struggle I decided to attempt to keep up my recently restored daily practice of sitting in quiet meditation in the hope that it would help me remain calm and in control of my feelings whilst unusually so consistently in the company of others. I arranged a cushion in the middle of the floor and crossing my legs and closing my eyes, 'sat'. Within minutes Martin had got up and armed with a bowl of breakfast muesli stumbled upon this strange unknown behaviour. He accepted it rather well and gave me the space to carry on but it was more than I could do and it seemed almost rude to continue when he sat on the settee nearby obviously trying hard to be quiet while loudly slurping his muesli.
I took my turn at a muesli breakfast as Martin made up some sandwiches for lunch and as the farmer went on his regular morning walk up the field with Judy the dog bouncing all over the place and jumping up harmlessly at the flanks of the horses as he sneaked them a tit bit or two. With sandwiches and flasks of coffee stowed in my rucksack on the back seat of the Land Rover and with my vital bottle of water within reach on the dash, we were on the road a little after ten o'clock and heading for Halfords at Aberystwyth. It had been agreed that today was going to be a gentle day of just a bit of driving around sight seeing if all went well, so I wore my 'tidy' set of clothes and comfortable white training shoes. With his amazing ability to almost photographically memorise half the roads in the country, Martin knew the way from past driving jobs he'd done up this way. Without a glance at a map and despite the thick mist and layer of condensation that formed on the windscreen it wasn't long before we were driving past all the University students going to classes and then along the perimeter road of some out of town type retail estate and Martin was asking me if I could see Halfords. Before I'd even had a chance to say I couldn't, even though the mist had cleared, he'd spotted it over by some tall elevating tower that was being tested in the car park by the fire brigade. We parked up and Martin rushed inside. He looked a little disappointed when I said I would wait in the Land Rover but I really couldn't face the thought of the likely walking up and down the aisles talking about different car parts that would have almost inevitably occurred if I had. I sat and smoked and watched a nervous looking fireman go up on his platform. He stayed up. He didn't seem happy at all. I wondered whom a fireman calls when he is stuck up a 'tree' but whoever it was I think they may have been doing it.
Within minutes Martin was back with painlessly just the part he needed. We drove the extraordinarily tortuous route out of the car park past the elevated tower and groups of skyward looking, arms folded firemen and headed for a large gravel covered car/coach park we had passed on the way in. Whatever was involved in changing the filter it would apparently certainly mean that a fair amount of diesel was going to hit the floor and a gravel surface was likely to afford the best harmless soak away.
We parked up in an empty corner away from any audience and with an increasing sense of foreboding for me, Martin unloaded some of his gear from the back of the Land Rover and smoothly turned into a mechanic complete with coverall overalls, a very comprehensive tool kit and jerry cans of diesel fuel. As Martin disappeared under the bonnet I stood around feeling pretty useless and simply doing whatever he told me to. Amazingly to me, within minutes and with the minimum of spills the new filter was fitted, the throttle arm was adjusted, a jerry can of fuel was added to the tank and Martin was revving the engine. Brilliant. What a relief!
Everything was packed away and we were off, with hardly a trace of us having been there although every time I blew my nose my diesel smelling handkerchief was a reminder. We drove through the town and once again Martin's amazing memory eased us effortlessly around the busy one way systems and out onto the sea front road and looking for a parking space. I would have carried on looking but Martin skilfully squeezed the Land Rover into the impossibly small gap in front of the rank of grand looking sea front buildings that were undergoing massive renovation and rebuilding. It is sad to admit that the whole area had an air of a classic example of the many run down Victorian seaside resorts around the country dieing a slow death, finding it impossible to compete with cheap foreign package deals to guaranteed better weather. Where renovations were under way it was our suspicion that the finance was local authority because it appeared from the evidence of occupants possessions at the odd window here and there that the buildings were being converted into student flats.
The huge, beautiful, almost gothic looking building exposed at the end of the sea front that had helplessly born the full brunt of countless Cardigan Bay storms was sadly still derelict and barricades had been erected at a safe distance in the roads all around and signs warned of the dangers of falling masonry. Tragic.
Walking next to the barriers and trying to look through the poorly boarded windows at the secrets of the dark corridors of the building we began to climb up Constitution Hill away from the promenade and headed for the rather shabby building that was the lower station of the electric cliff railway. It was no more than a couple of pounds for the ride so seemed worth a go. We bought a ticket and boarded the waiting carriage.
The free leaflet says "The Aberystwyth Electric Cliff Railway is the longest in Britain and the only one in Wales. It's 778 feet undulating track and tilted carriages are the unique work of Croydon Marks. It opened in 1896 operating on the water balance system but since 1921 a powerful electric motor and 2 high tensile steel cables have hauled the carriages at a stately 4 miles an hour. This gives you time to enjoy the panoramic views as you climb to the summit station and marvel at the Victorian's ingenuity.
Safe? Of course it is! Four independent braking systems, maintained to the highest of safety standards, will give you peace of mind."
The trouble with the safety assurances was that I didn't get hold of the leaflet until later when we were leaving. Despite the best efforts of the charity that operated the place it looked to me as though it was all about to fall to bits at any moment! With the theatrical blowing of a whistle, the terminally bored looking student operator set us in motion and slowly, slowly we were cranked upwards as the counterbalance carriage came down towards us. Creak, creak, rattle, bump, we ground our way up. If the cable and brakes ever do fail it was very obvious looking down there would be no survivors. The view I admit was rather good over the rooftops and across the bay but then we went under a footbridge or two and the view was largely obscured. Grinding to a halt in the dark oily upper station I was none too impressed and happy to be back on foot and walking up the path to the summit in the strong and chilly breeze. How different a Victorian life would have been. We made our way towards 'The Summerhouse', allegedly the oldest café in Aberystwyth, as we admired the far-reaching views out to sea and over the flood plain and hills behind us. The building looked sad and almost derelict with it's rotten wood and peeling paint but it was surprisingly open so we ordered up a mug of coffee and went back outside to drink it and have a smoke at one of the benches. By the time we'd finished it I was rather cold despite the thinly veiled sunlight that was reaching through the clouds and was more than happy to go and inspect the nearby Camera Obscura, just to get into somewhere warmer. Entrance was free so in we went and after a brief look at the walls covered in old photos and information we climbed the stairs and found the door that lead to the outside balcony. We walked around once admiring the view but it was cold and windy and we didn't stay out there long. We located the dark room and went inside. The brochure says "The huge 14" lens takes a bird's eye view of more than 1000 square miles of land and seascape in a 360 degree sweep around Aberystwyth - a view reflected onto the circular screen in the darkened viewing gallery below." It was definitely a darkened viewing gallery. Beside the view of outside on the big screen in front of us I couldn't see a thing and stumbled around until I bumped into something and found a rail to hang onto. A couple of other people were already in there and were controlling the motorised lens from some control stick or other. They soon left and Martin took over at the controls but I still couldn't see a thing and couldn't figure out how he had even found where the control stick was. We stayed for a while peering at whatever we could find of interest but our interest soon waned and we headed off back to the railway summit station and the rickety descent.
Back in the Land Rover we decided to drive along and have a look at the harbour and the beach on the other side of the town. Past the impressive castle remains, through some of the one-way system, we were soon pulling into a new looking road that formed the entrance to new blocks of flats. Another expensive harbourside development with apartments built right up to the waters edge with splendid views of the bobbing boats. A sign on one advertised the luxury apartment for sale for around £80,000 and that was about £5,000 cheaper than it had been only weeks before. That didn't seem bad considering . . . if you liked boats. As far as I could recall something similar in Bristol would have been at least three times that price. Trapped in the development parking areas and looking rather conspicuous amongst the expensive sports cars we turned around and drove out, eventually turning up a small anonymous looking road that lead up and round to a seafront car park. An unsurfaced dirt track ran along from the car park parallel with the dark pebbly shingle beach on one side, and with a river on the other. Full of pot holes and large muddy puddles and with only the odd four wheel drive vehicle having dared to drive along it visible stopped exercising dogs in the distance, it was too much of a temptation. Off we went bumping and splashing. We drove almost to the end before Martin suddenly turned right and started heading straight for the small drop that fell away to the beach and the sea. I breathed again when just at the last minute before we would plunge down into the beach, Martin stopped with only inches to spare. Commanding a tremendous view of the hills behind and the broad expanse of sea in front with gentle wind blown waves breaking over the pebbles it seemed an ideal place to stop and have a bite to eat and a drink. In the summer this must have been a busy popular place for picnics and barbeques but now it was empty and unspoilt with only the occasional buttoned up dog walker or jogger venturing along in the chilly breeze. Strangely then we noticed coming along the track behind us, bumping and jostling in the potholes the unlikely image of an old Mini van. On and on he laboriously went until he made his way to the very end of the track up by the rocks at the end of the beach. Not your usual idea of an off road vehicle!
We sat mostly in silence taking in the views and supping our coffee with a cigarette or two. All of a sudden there was a strange noise. It was coming from me! I was so unused to receiving calls on my mobile phone that it took quiet some time to realise what was happening. Fumbling awkwardly with the buttons on my pocket I pulled the phone out and rather embarrassed, answered the unknown number that was being displayed. It was a friend. I was glad to hear from her. I'd known she was going into hospital for surgery this week and had sent her a couple of cards of best wishes before I left because she seemed so awfully worried. She'd been on my mind rather a lot these last few days. She'd rung up to tell me that she was undergoing surgery at three o'clock the next day and she hoped that I, as well as all the others that cared about her, would send her our thoughts at that time. I assured her I would but couldn't find the right words to say with Martin sat next to me and the call was too soon over.
Bumping and bouncing back down the track the Mini van passed behind us. Ah ha . . . loaded in the back of the 'seen much better days' van was a pile of driftwood. He'd been collecting all the driftwood from the beach. Perhaps he was a woodcarving artist, or perhaps he didn't have much money and was supplementing his winter fuel. Seemed like a good idea whichever.
Martin called Sue at some point to find out what was going on and when they were likely to be arriving. Things didn't seem to be going too well at their end with their cat trapped under the shower and all so they said they'd be up later! With plenty of time to kill Martin suggested we should maybe take a look at Devils Bridge. I was definitely all in favour never having seen this famous attraction so off we went out of Aberystwyth along the A4120.
As we drove down the narrow road that lead to the sights it was clear that the main season was over. The air was damp and there were few people around. An empty parking space opposite a hotel before we reached the falls seemed an opportunity not to be missed and we parked up. We'd misjudged it rather and the walk down to the entrance to the views was much further than we had imagined. Martin decided to go back and get the Land Rover and re-park it in the half empty free car park. I waited by the entrance and was dismayed to find that the car park might be free but there was an entrance fee of several pounds to actually see the views. It didn't seem right that here where there were amazing views of natural beauty someone should erect a fence around it and charge dearly for the privilege of seeing it. It just didn't seem . . . 'right'. Deciding I would take the opportunity of waiting for Martin to return to use the toilets, I was dismayed to find that they weren't near the entrance at all. "They're a bit of a walk up that way," said the man in the ticket booth. That was an understatement. It must have been about a quarter of a mile all the way back up the hill. I waved Martin on as he passed by but if I'd known how far it was I would have waived him down! It must be said that when I did eventually find the large toilet buildings they were rather good. They'd won awards and everything but it did seem likely, and something of a cheat, that they were so clean and in such good nick because few people ever made it all that way back up to them in time to put them to use! By the time I got back to the entrance Martin was looking very bored peering over the bridge as if considering throwing himself over.
We paid our entrance fee and started the long circular scenic walk through the woods. It really was an amazing sight to see three different aged bridges all built one on top of the other with the white cascading river cutting it's way through the rock beneath and eventually finding it's way to the valley floor hundreds of feet below. The steep muddy, rocky path that wound it's way through the green broad-leafed trees and clung precariously to the hillside was surprisingly difficult to negotiate . . . especially wearing white training shoes! Whatever the entrance fee money was spent on it didn't seem to be the path. It wasn't long before evidence of some of the investment was revealed to us. Here and there amongst the trees were deer. Huge great beasts with broad antlers and all made out of fibreglass!! What feeble-minded individual had thought that one up? Ridiculous. Ruined the natural beauty of the place.
On we climbed ever down into the gorge with here and there a cigarette stop at seats positioned wherever the trees afforded a glimpse of the falls. It was breathtakingly beautiful but would perhaps have been more spectacular in the winter when the trees have dropped their cover.It was impossible to resist taking photo after photo but as ever the camera failed to do the reality justice and half a film was wasted. I tried to take an amusing picture of Martin with shaky legs and a worried look descending the oh so steep flight of stone steps that disappeared way off into the depths below, but it didn't work out, perhaps because I was trembling a little too. And then there was the old arched metal bridge at the bottom that was so rusty it looked very obviously unsafe. I kept on calling to Martin as he crossed it trying to get him to look back and smile for the photo opportunity but he was having none of it and head down, gritting his teeth walked across as fast as he could without actually breaking into a run. When it was my turn to follow I appreciated his anxiety. The metal plates of the bridge underfoot appeared to have missing rivets and as you walked the decking sprang up and down like a little trampoline! Not right.
The climb up the other side was long and hard and we stopped more than once to cool off and recover, admiring the views as the drizzle sneaked down through the canopy of trees. At long last we made it back up to the exit turnstile and popped out back on the road right next to where we had originally parked the Land Rover. Typical. We walked back along the road, down the hill to the bridge and up the other side into the car park and recovered with a coffee in the Land Rover as the rain began to fall more heavily. We sat in the peace and quiet listening to the birds and the rain patter on the tarpaulin of the Land Rover as new arrivals got out of their cars and put on their shower coats and set off on what they presumably thought would be a nice gentle scenic stroll. Ha!
Martin seemed bored and turned his radio on! The peace and quiet was torn to shreds as some bass booming pop rap type thing boomed out across the car park and drew disapproving stares from passers by. I bit my tongue but couldn't help but show my irritation and relief when he decided that he couldn't get the station he wanted and turned it off.
As we started up and made our way to leave the Land Rover stalled. It was still playing up. The fuel filter was not the problem! For the rest of the week, here, there and everywhere, off road and on, right when it was most awkward for it to happen the engine would often stall when he tried to pull away. Martin coped with it amazingly well and never really cursed all that much considering.
Despite our concern over the engine's intermittent behaviour it was decided we would take the scenic route back. We headed off back up into the hills and briefly stopped in a car park in the woods at Nantyrarian near a spectacular hilltop lined with huge white electricity producing windmills turning in the breeze. Quickly on and with a quick stop for fuel with Martin out in the pouring rain it was decided we would take the scenic road past the Nant-y-moch reservoir and maybe check out one or two of the off road routes that according to the map were nearby. I took the opportunity to practise my rather poor map reading skills and spotted what I thought might be an interesting little detour near the dam. Instead of going along the road across the top of the dam we could turn off and follow a smaller route down across the river below it. Martin didn't seem over keen but as we approached the dam it became clear that like it or not we had no choice. The main road was closed because work was being done on the dam and the little traffic that was liable to come that way was all being diverted down the narrow track below. Carefully we wound our way down with the dam looming ominously over us. It was silly to be fearful that it may give way right at that moment but I couldn't help being just a little silly! The track passed over a low bridge as it crossed the river and despite the rain and my white shoes and the possibility of imminent death by being washed away by dam failure I just had to get a photo and leapt out and scampered and slipped along the river over the rocks to get the best shot.
Happy to be once more above the dam we carried on, looking for the nearby off road route that was marked on the map. We rounded a corner where forestry vehicles had been recently clearing trees. A huge scar lay on the hillside with the amazing vehicles all wheels and tracks like something out of Thunderbirds stood amongst the stumps and branches, left for the night wherever they happened to be when the working hours were out. Around another bend and there was the track we were looking for that lead off across the hills. We turned onto it and drove along the edge of the broad boggy valley scaring the sheep for a few kilometres with me jumping out from time to time to dance over the puddles and mud in my much less white shoes to open and close the gates. And then our way was barred. Just over a river the track disappeared through another gate and up into the forest and the gate was chained and locked. With some difficulty in the narrowness of the track Martin wrestled the Land Rover round and we retraced our tracks as the rain poured down outside and through a hole between the door and the tarpaulin just above me. Leaning over towards Martin in my seat I could avoid most of the drips but was rather more concerned about the affect the pool of water on the floor could have on the vehicle. Martin was none too concerned and seemed happy that it should find it's own level and flow out somewhere!
That little abortive run seemed to fuel Martins lust for a bit of proper off roading and we were soon leaving the road again to do a little cross-country route that he seemed quite familiar with. Off we set out into a broad wet grass covered valley with hills on all sides in the distance, following the strip of mud, rock and water that was our tortuous route. The rain seemed to ease off a little but it had made its mark and huge pond like puddles of hidden depth seemed to hold no fear at all for Martin. In my mind it seemed as though any one of them could have been bottomless and the Land Rover's grave and I'd end up having to walk miles for help in freezing rain across the wilderness, in white shoes! Without any hesitation in we would go steaming, driving a bow wave before us, and thankfully much to my surprise, every time, out we came on the other side still moving. Still moving until rounding a corner we found our way blocked! I don't recall what sort of a car it was, maybe an Astra or something, but it was hard to tell with so much of it underwater in a huge great muddy puddle facing us right in the middle of the track. At first glance we assumed it was stolen and dumped so we looked at the ground on either side to see if the Land Rover could perhaps climb out of the ruts of the track and go around it. The lower ground to the right hand side was boggy and waterlogged and would have surely spelt disaster so going around on the high side was the only option other than being defeated and going all the way back, perhaps even in reverse! Martin cut the engine and we both got out to take a look. There was something very strange about this. Looking up the track from where it had come it seemed incredible that an ordinary road going car could have made it so far out into the middle of nowhere on such a rough, waterlogged track. Skirting the huge puddle it was sat in we peered through the windows. The driver's door was locked but the keys were in the ignition and the passenger door on the shallower side of the puddle was unlocked. Inside were . . . things! This wasn't a stolen car. It was still filled with personal effects, a disabled sticker, a tax disc, loose change, all sorts of stuff in door compartments and floating in the foot of water that was resting in the passenger side foot well. On the back seat neatly piled up were a tie, a reflective yellow safety waistcoat, a coat and more clothes all covering an interesting looking metal case.
It is a horrible thing to have to admit but I was very much aware of my desire to loot! It all seemed very strange and a little spooky. We talked and scratched our heads for a while and then decided that it wouldn't hurt to maybe try and move the car. If we could just drag it out of the puddle and a few yards up the track and slightly off to one side we could leave it on a higher area to dry out a bit, which could only help whoever might come back for it. We should also then be able to get past. Martin climbed inside and turned the key and amazingly it did turn over a couple of times but the amount of water that gushed from the exhaust pipe didn't seem to be a good sign. I started considering taking off my shoes and socks so that I could wade in with the tow rope and shackle to find the submerged tow hitch but thankfully Martin produced his Wellington boots from the back of the Land Rover and was up to his elbows in water before I had time to offer. Miraculously he put his hand straight to the tow hitch and in no time the rope was attached to both vehicles. Climbing carefully over the water and onto the passenger seat I made my way into the drivers seat and got ready to steer as Martin revved the Land Rover and efficiently and swiftly pulled the car out and on to 'dry' ground. I couldn't resist and had a bit of a rummage! Hidden amongst the clothes on the back seat was an SLR camera. I did have a look but it wasn't a particularly expensive sort. I wouldn't have left that there?! On the dashboard was an envelope from the House of Commons addressed to 'Jason King'. Martin found this amusing and I did wonder if the clothes on the back seat might have included funny shirts and flared trousers but enough was enough. I had visions of being watched from some far off hill through a telescopic lens or even ending up on some 'Crimewatch' program after having been filmed with hidden cameras rifling through someone else's car. We packed up the rope and got back in the Land Rover and with little ado squeezed past the car and drove straight through and out of the huge great puddle and carried on our way. By the time I thought of it, it was too late to take a photograph. It occurred to me that I should have taken a couple with the camera that was in the car. That would have been fun when the owner developed his film. The opportunity was lost. So too was perhaps the camera because a few kilometres up the track we met a group of mountain bikers who had seen the car in the distance and were presumably going that way. We told them what we had found and what we had done but who knows if their defences against the desire to loot would have been so strong. Martin chatted comfortably with the cyclists from the drivers seat as they stood outside in the pouring rain, and let them adjust some loosened cycle part with one of his tools. One of the group who seemed to know about such things began discussing off roading and recommended that we should try a particular area that was well know for difficult slopes. Martin hungrily made mental notes as I imagined we were being set up, and were being directed to meet our maker!
Meeting our maker seemed to be what Martin was set on in view of his next intention. Perhaps enjoying the attentions of the incredulous audience he announced he was 'just about to go up there'. That rocky crevice that arose above us which it was surely almost impossible to walk let alone drive! I hung on to the metal dashboard for grim death as off we went bouncing, slipping and tilting at terrifying angles. Once again he knew what he was capable of and we made it without too much problem. The track turned into well-laid forestry roads through the tress and all of a sudden we were back on proper roads and racing back to the safety and warmth of the bungalow. I couldn't help wondering if somewhere out there amongst the hills in the cold was some poor chap in a wheelchair battling against the puddles and mud trying to find his way to a garage to get help for his stranded car. I wished I'd taken a note of the registration number so that I could have reported it. I wished I'd looked through the stuff more fully so I could have called someone. I didn't do what I should have done. It prayed on my mind much.
Perhaps because of all my whining about my white shoes and because I was doing all the leaping out and gate opening, Martin generously offered to attend to my combat boots. His recommendation that I too should buy a pair of £30 waterproof socks was very quickly rejected. How much?! For socks!!
He spent a good hour or so applying some unknown waterproof grease like substance to the leather of my boots with his bare hands. I was rather doubtful that it would make much difference and ungratefully complained when I found he had taken out both laces, but I have to admit that whatever I did for the rest of the week, I didn't get wet feet. Nice one.
Sue rang from the mobile and announced they were on their way. At last.
The chef's special that evening was cheese and baked beans and left over vegetables on toast, and all in huge quantities. The usual consequences of baked beans did occur but it did seem that saying 'Pardon me!' afterwards was at least some acceptable improvement on previous behaviour. Difficult not to join in, in fact!
At about eight o'clock Sue phoned to say they were almost there so Martin and I went out onto the road in the dark, me armed with a small torch and Martin with an unusual blue torch, to indicate where the entrance to the drive was. Way off in the distance you could hear the roar of the approaching vehicle, not from its engine but from the noise the knobbly off road tires were making on the tarmac. Alerted by our flashlights, as were all other passing motorists many of who seemed to panic, swerve and accelerate away, they were soon pulling up the drive. The noise, smoke and smell of their car made me think that the clutch had gone or the brakes were binding but it seemed instead that it was the noise of the turbo and huge twin cooling fans and that the smoke and smell were just the burning off of oil and the like from the recent rebuild. They certainly hadn't hung around on the way up. It was sort of a Lada but it was heavily modified and looked like something out of Mad Max in the dark with all the luggage and tools and stuff strapped to the roof.
Everything was quickly unloaded and we all rushed off down to the local pub in Martin's Land Rover before it was too late for them to get something to eat. The pub was all but empty but food was no problem even if the chef had banked on going home early, so we all sat and chatted as the staff waited exclusive on Chris and Sue. The food looked excellent and indeed was. Sue couldn't finish a large piece of Chicken and I just couldn't let it go to waste. Delicious. Thankfully I wasn't made to pay my share. It may have been good food but I wouldn't have paid twenty pounds plus, each! Gourmet food . . ha! Give me a three pounds fish and chip lot or a doner kebab any day.
Poor old Tucker the dog had to stay in the car but he did at least get a doggy bag of a cooked sheep bone for later. I thought that was maybe not such a good idea given the number of sheep in the nearby fields. I didn't think I'd be taking him for walks at all.
Obviously keeping the landlord up later than he wanted, we eventually said our goodnights and made our way back to the bungalow and settled down with some TV. Once again I took the opportunity of being alone for a bit and finally got to bed in the early hours. The bedroom was cooler. Martin had thankfully opened some of the windows and I had secretly turned off the radiator earlier. I slept well.
02/10 - I awoke at about seven thirty after having had quite a good night's sleep to the sound of the wind and the pouring rain lashing down outside. I got up and sat inside with breakfast TV, coffee and cigarettes, watching the flocks of birds that had learned of the 'easy' meal available at the bird table although the strong wind blowing the bags of nuts around and ruffling feathers still made them work pretty hard for it. As if the view from the window wasn't proof enough, the breakfast TV weather forecast was BAD! As everyone slept in it was good to be alone with my thoughts and I decided to have another go at meditating for a while. The moment I'd sat and closed my eyes as if on queue Martin got up to act as my distraction. I decided I'd have the rest of the week off. Enlightenment could wait a week and doubtless would for a lifetime.
As Chris and Tucker appeared Martin decided that he was going to treat us all to a croissant breakfast from the tins he'd brought. Chris was enthusiastic but not knowing how anything in a tin could be turned into pastry croissants I awaited the results, intrigued. As it turned out the tins contained the ready made pastry and all that had to be done was to cut it up, roll it into appropriate shapes, put them on a greased tin and put them in the oven for a while. I have to admit that once again our own cordon bleu chef had done us proud and although I can seldom stomach any sort of breakfast let alone a cooked one, they were delicious all smothered in butter and blackcurrant jam and there just weren't enough. Mmmmmm . . . . Sue having a bit of a lie in had her share left out in the kitchen uncooked and under a damp kitchen wipe for when she got up. I was rather concerned that the kitchen wipe Martin had draped over them was the very one the night before I had been using to wipe down all the greasy, dirty, soapy surfaces in the kitchen, and which had seen some action on the floor! There seemed little to be gained in causing any fuss. What you don't know can't hurt you and all that? Sue enjoyed them too.
With breakfast out of the way and having a slow start to the day, Martin and I decided to take Tucker for a bit of a walk over the horse's field, despite our nervousness with him. Clad in our rain gear and with my amazing water proof boots all re-laced we set off round the back of the bungalow through the little fenced off doggy area and over towards the style that was set into the wire fence. Obviously accustomed to the farmer's daily tit bit offerings and showing little concern for the wolf that was straining on the short leash that was firmly wrapped three or four times around my wrist, the horses and donkey came sauntering over. Martin leaped on the style and over the fence and proceeded to produce pieces of cut up apple that were gently taken from his hand, equal shares to each. Tucker was fascinated and strained and strained, poking his nose through the wire fence as far as he could and barking and barking and barking. Pulled this way and that I had trouble keeping my footing on the damp grass. The horses and donkey didn't seem at all perturbed, perhaps because their only experience of dogs up to now had been the friendly bouncing Judy, and all crowded around and even had a sniff or two at Tucker. Sadly I didn't know him well enough to trust him too far and kept the leash short and taught. Martin tried to encourage the horses to move away from the style by walking away up the field hinting with his body language that he may have more apples so that I could try and get the dog over. It worked. Tucker tried once or twice to go directly through the wire but with a little encouragement and snapping of fingers above his head he soon got the idea and leapt over the style and into the field. He then of course proceeded to run straight for the horses as I was dragged over the slippery style only just managing to keep my footing and hold him back as the nearest horse finally showed some sense and flinched and shied away a little. Sue and Chris were watching apparently amused from the bungalow window. I wasn't having so much fun. Wearing my rain soaked rubber waterproofs I was quite sure that if I lost my footing and fell over onto the wet slippery ground I would end up being helplessly towed around the field on my stomach behind the rampaging dog, behind the fleeing horses and donkey, like something out of a Keystone Cops movie!
As the misty rain fell we made our way on the sloping ground across towards the small ridge that hid the furthest end of the field from our view. Tucker still hadn't learned about walking to heal and wandered this way and that beneath my feet, sniffing at everything and pulling all the time. Out of necessity I was merciless in making full use of his choke chain but he hardly seemed to notice. Reaching the ridge we realised that the field was very much larger than we had thought and that explained how the horses and donkey often seemed to disappear for long periods of time over the sloping 'horizon'. Suffering from the exertion and the last couple of days of chain smoking I was having a hard time, coughing and spluttering, but it was agreed that we would make our way over to the boundary fence a little way off so that we could see all the earthworks and excavations that were being done. Stopping by the fence and watching the hardy band of workers all covered in rain and mud, working with heavy equipment in the middle of nowhere we could see that they were laying some sort of a pipe. The broad muddy scar that had been cut into the hill in which they were working stretched off in each direction over the hills and into the valley as far as the eye could see. Way off in the distance below we could make out the scar either side of the river. The scale of the work was astonishing and try as I did, I just couldn't figure out how they were going to lay the pipe across, under or through the river. Mind-boggling!
We stopped and watched for a while perhaps not so much out of interest but more because we needed a chance to recover somewhat. Tucker took the opportunity to eat some horse dung he'd found nearby! Making a mental note not to let him lick my face that day I dragged him away and we headed back, weaving this way and that towards the warmth and dry of the bungalow and a nice cup of coffee.
Sue and Chris needed to shop for provisions at some point so it was decided that we'd have a nice gentle day with just a little bit of off roading before going to the shops. We made up flasks of coffee but didn't bother with sandwiches because we thought we'd probably end up eating out somewhere.
We set off with Martin in the lead in the direction of Forge only seven kilometres or so from Machynlleth with the intention of perhaps having a look at the area that had been mentioned by the mountain biker the day before. We missed the turning and had to turn around and come back. I leapt out and did my normal gate opening trick happy to find that the rain had stopped. The lane lead up the hill across a field full of sheep up to another gate. Through and on we went following the very narrow rather overgrown lane that made it's way around the side of the hill, higher and higher as it went. There were no passing places here at all and it was a little worrying to think what would happen if we met someone coming the other way. It would have been a very long way to reverse both vehicles. We carried on up, skirting the edge of a forest to our right with a long, long steep drop into the valley on the other side. Broken bracken and twigs hanging out from the overgrown hedges showed that someone had used this lane quite recently. On we continued until all of a sudden we ended up in someone's farmyard! The map said Rhiwluryfen, which was definitely more than I could say! A gate blocked our way and it really wasn't too clear whether or not the route we were following actually carried on or if that was just the entrance to a field. This was a little awkward. It felt more awkward when the farmer appeared. Martin and I got out and went over to talk but of course Martin did most of the talking going on about 'RUPPs', and rights of way, and how no one else was as considerate as us, and that sort of thing. The farmer who seemed to have a Midlands accent was actually quite pleasant despite perhaps lying that there was no route through that way across his field. He did however suggest that just back along the track a ways was a track that led up into the forestry and that he knew people had gone that way not so long ago, so maybe we should try that. He also warned that the way out in one direction was through a particular farmers yard and that farmer was none too nice. We over politely thanked him for his help and decided to do as he said. As we got back into the Land Rover he seemed to conclude we really were quite nice and wanted to chat a bit longer. He came over to the passenger window and told tales of how off road motorcyclists had come through that way in large numbers at lambing time, terrorising the stock and that as a result he had found thirty dead lambs in his field. I could find no reason to disbelieve him and had to agree with him that it really wasn't right that people not as nice as us should do such a thing! He also spoke of how there were moves afoot by the powers that be to reclassify all the off roading RUPPs en mass as simply footpaths. This hearsay was of great interest to Martin since if it came to pass, all the routes we were exploring would be closed to vehicular traffic. Oh calamity. Rather convinced by the farmer's tales of woe and imagining chaotic motorised scenes from Mad Max being acted out all over his fields I couldn't help but think . . . well fair enough. Maybe Martin's thirty pound socks and hundred pound walking boots would prove to be a wise investment after all if he intended to continue exploring the hills in a pedestrianised future.
Bidding him farewell we left the farmer to watch from his doorway, stroking his cats as we turned both vehicles around in his yard and with Martin once again in the lead headed off down the lane looking for the route he had described. Only a little way back and on a bend in the lane a muddy slope disappearing up into the dense dark forest caught our eye. There was a signpost fallen over in the undergrowth so, as Martin stopped to get out and 'lock his hubs' ready for the off road action, I climbed up into the foliage and had a look. It warned of tree felling in progress! Apart from the wind in the trees and the sound of sheep there was silence so there seemed little point in worrying about it although I did feel obliged to stand it back up so as to be visible to anyone who came along that way. . . just in case.
Off we went up into the darkness of the trees. Muddy and rutted we slipped and slew from side to side but it wasn't too steep and the going not too bad. Densely packed trees stood high on either side of the narrow track with hardly any light reaching the ground save for where the track had been cut through. Beneath the trees was permanent twilight, all dark eerie brown with a deep carpet of fallen pine needles covering and smothering everything that may have dared to grow. Along either side of the muddy track was a narrow band of lush green spongy moss with only here and there a little grass and some other young growth where the sun's light had made it through. Deep in the ruts with steering impossible and almost unnecessary, the car leaned over at a stomach churning angle as if at any moment it would plunge down over the hill into the darkness and be lost forever beneath a layer of pine needles. I jumped out and ran along trying to capture the atmosphere but the photos came out dark and brown as though they too had been suffocated by the lifeless man made forest. The track rose up over a slippery muddy ridge to join another that ran off in both directions almost at right angles. The nature of the slope meant that there was no choice but to go straight on up and turn right but having done that it was clear we were going the wrong way and needed to turn around. We carried on for a short time until we found an area that was perhaps 'just' wide enough to turn both vehicles. I got out to maybe assist by calling to Martin when his wheels were right on the edge of the track and to warn that an inch or two more would see him over the edge and lost. It wasn't easy and seemed to involve driving the Land Rover straight into the side of the hill a couple of times but amazingly it worked with the heavy treads of the tires clawing at the earth. Chris too managed with perhaps a little more difficulty. The Lada certainly had lots of power but somehow the tires didn't seem to have the same grip as Martin's and were more prone to slipping, clogging with mud and flinging mud into the air in all directions as they spun. Facing the right direction we headed past the way we had come up and took the long steep muddy slope that lead up to a gravel surfaced forestry road. This road lead along a short way through a clearing and up over a ridge where it petered out and we were faced with another muddy track that was full of water disappearing into the darkness. Huge deep debris strewn puddles and ruts stretched out before us and it was decided that we'd stop here for a coffee and appraise the route ahead to see if it was anywhere near possible. The engines were stopped and we all got out to wander around in the damp eerie quiet of the darkness as the wind danced with the tops of the trees above. Martin grabbed a branch and leaning over the water tried to test its depth and see if the submerged ruts beneath, were solid rock or layers of grasping mud. Tucker the dog thought this was a marvellous idea and valiantly leapt in to assist. There was a lot of shouting but it was all too much of a temptation for him and it was soon clear there was little point in trying to stop him. After all, how much more muddy could he possibly get? In and out of the puddles he ran grabbing sticks and small trees and generally doing what dogs do best. He was soon soaking wet and absolutely plastered in mud, and really rather happy about it. I decided to walk on ahead a little and see what there was to be seen, the way we intended to go. On up the track down a slope and round a bend I met up with another track. Up or down? Up looked really muddy with very deep ruts so I decided to go down to the right just a little. As I set off I spotted in the distance coming towards me a man and a woman out walking. As I sauntered towards them it was clear that they were uncomfortable having suddenly come upon such a strange figure deep in the dark eerie woods. I guess I did look rather strange. Mud covered combat boots, black combat trouser legs tucked into my black army socks, black combat jacket, green woollen army cap, black fingerless gloves. Martin said later that when I cut through the trees to rejoin them I could hardly be seen such was my camouflage in the darkness. I thought it only right to try and ease their apprehension as I approached so I said a cheery 'Hellooo' and joked 'Isn't that just typical. You go for a walk up in the hills to try and get away from it all and you still end up bumping into someone'. From their expressions they didn't seem to find it funny and perhaps with hindsight unfortunately thought I was serious and complaining. The trouble with me when I try to put on my best smile in such situations is that I actually end up giving a frightening grimace. It feels like a friendly smile to me but it just doesn't seem to make it that way to my face. I've experimented in a mirror just to try and find out why so many small children have been reduced to tears by me trying to give them a reassuring 'I'm no threat' smile. I've seen the result. Scary! Trying desperately to reassure them I wasn't liable to end up chasing them through the woods wielding a chain saw or something I asked them if the way they had just come was passable and if one could easily get out that way. They confirmed it was quite ok, no problems. I gave them my thanks and they hurried off and soon disappeared up the muddy track no doubt with a backward glance or two. I cut through the trees and rejoined the vehicles. Without too much difficulty we drove down the track to the 'Y' junction and I reported to Martin what I had been told. He decided to turn left into the deep furrowed mud and follow the route the walkers had taken. I rather hoped that they were long gone and enjoying the peace and quiet of the forest well away from our roaring engines.
The track in this direction was much wider than the other, but was very, very muddy. Thick sticking mud that made the going quite difficult and necessitated lots of stopping to examine and plan the best way ahead. Walking a little distance ahead on my own at one point I spotted a cut through the trees that lead to a dry stone wall with a fence across the top. I couldn't resist the opportunity to explore, and climbing over the wall and dropping down on the other side found myself outside of the tree line. A short walk up onto a rocky outcrop and I was presented with an impressive panoramic view that even included the sea between some hills in the distance. The sea looked rough. It was rather windy all exposed up there and cold too but it was well worth it for that view. I climbed back down to the wall and called to the others to come look. Eventually everyone was over the wall and stood on the rocks taking it all in. Climbing back over the wall was rather more difficult. Sue in particular had trouble and with Chris on top of the wall helping her up it seemed the simplest thing to get down on my hands and knees in the grass and let her just step onto my back and thence up onto the wall. Down I went on all fours feeling a little silly. Sue presumably felt silly too and didn't seem to want to stand on me so there I was on all fours next to a wall on a Welsh hill trying to persuade her to 'go on . . just do it!'. What a picture. What on earth must the sheep have thought?
Back in the vehicles we carried on up the track slipping and sliding and spraying mud everywhere. Eventually we stopped. The mud seemed to just get deeper and deeper and up ahead there were huge great puddles all over the place. It didn't look good at all. We all walked ahead and to me it seemed suicidal to carry on. The mud was deep and the water even deeper. So much water was lying between the raised muddy furrows that it seemed obvious if one of the furrows was removed on the lower side a lot of the water would drain off down the slope. I grabbed a fallen branch and started scraping away at the mud trying to make a channel. Eventually it worked and water began to flow out and cascade down the slope beneath the trees like a river. So large was the lake like puddle that this torrent just went on and on with little noticeable effect on the level. Chris fearless as ever was all ready to give it a go but Martin thankfully was less enthusiastic and after some discussion it was eventually decided that it was too dodgy. Turning round was pretty dodgy too with the Lada having to be towed out of a muddy hole. This was apparently made more difficult by the fact that the Lada had powered steering and gave less feel for what the wheels were doing. As the Land rover pulled on the rope Chris unknowingly had the wheels of the Lada pointing the wrong way. I shouted and waved and pointed and gesticulated trying to indicate to Chris that he was pointing the wrong way but with all the revving and concentrating I'm not sure he saw or understood what I meant. Nevertheless eventually he was towed out and we were struggling back down the way we'd come which was now even more difficult due to the deep ploughing we'd given it on the way up! Any walkers coming up that way after we'd gone were going to have a real tough time. Sorry!
Back past the track that we'd originally come up on, we carried on down the way the walkers had come from. The track sloped downhill a little here for some distance before it passed through a large puddle on a bit of a curve which detoured around an area of waterlogged bog and then down into more puddles. It was a nasty little section but nothing that we hadn't done before and the Land Rover happily pulled through. We paused in the middle of another puddle waiting for the Lada to catch up. It didn't! It was definitely stuck. No amount of revving or moving backwards and forwards could shift it. He needed a tow. The Land Rover was backed up and the towrope attached as rushing and screaming towards us low on the horizon and then very, very close overhead roared the unmistakeable hawk like form of a Harrier jump jet on a low flying training mission. Spectacular!
Turning back to our own drama I watched as Martin and Chris revved and pulled and tried to free the Lada. Once again it seemed clear that the front wheels were pointing the wrong way. Jumping up and down in the mud I shouted and waved and pointed and gesticulated again and this time Chris definitely saw me but seemed from the angle of the wheels to do nothing about it? He then poked his head out of the window trying to see where the wheels were facing. He looked at me and shook his head. Martin ceased pulling with the Land Rover and got out to find out what was going on. My worst fears about doing this off roading thing had been realised. The Lada was broken! The steering was gone!! Here we were high in the cold lonely hills along some un-navigable track in the middle of who knew where and we were stuck!!!!!!!
What was worse, we were stuck without any sandwiches!
It was agreed that nothing could be done with the Lada parked nose down in a hole full of clinging mud. Chris leaped back in and with a roaring of lots of revs of the engine eventually managed to get the Lada to violently reverse out of the hole and a few metres backwards up onto a slightly dryer, firmer part of the track. The steering did its own thing as he did so but luckily the wheels were facing in such a way that as he went backwards the offside rear of the car ploughed neatly into the mud and moss and undergrowth of the bank that rose on that side of the track. Martin and Chris started breaking out toolkits and equipment and began to look at the steering beneath the bonnet and from the ground underneath the car. Sue looked on looking only a little worried as Tucker ran around having a great time finding out what was beneath the surface of the water in puddle after puddle. Knowing I would be of no help whatsoever to the experienced mechanics and because it looked as though the way we had come was now blocked by the broken down Lada I thought that I might be of more use scouting ahead to see what our chances were of being able to drive the Land Rover out of there. Glancing at my watch it seemed like a very good idea so announcing what I intended to do I set off picking my way carefully around the huge puddle that Tucker was stood in and over a small stream that was flowing over the track and headed off down through the trees. Tucker thought I was maybe up to something exciting like perhaps finding another big muddy puddle and started to follow me but I didn't want the worry or the company so I called to Sue and got her to call him back. I marched off down the rutted track that narrowed between the trees and was soon out of sight. Trying to pretend I was a Land Rover I paid attention to the ground and was relieved to see the mud and puddles largely giving way to stone and puddles and decided that this would be no problem at all. On and on I went until at the end of the tree line I passed through an open gate. The track here split into two and disappeared out onto a bracken-covered hilltop. One track went across and up, to disappear over the crest whilst the other snaked off down hill disappearing over an undulation. Tyre marks in the mud confirmed that some sort of vehicle had been through both ways so I arbitrarily decided to look at the lower route first since that would hopefully be the most direct route down and off the hill. I began walking down through the bracken with an increasing sense of foreboding as the bracken closed in and the track seemed to become nothing more than a footpath. I kept going since the Land Rover could easily have pushed it's way through, and even managed to jump over the small stream that dissected the path. But then as I crested the ridge that was before me all I could see was the path disappearing steeply down below over yet another ridge and out of sight deep into the valley below. It didn't look good and it seemed that there was little point in carrying on. Nevertheless the view was amazing. A huge valley lay before me with a river and far off roads snaking through with here and there some tiny cars inching their way along. All around the undulating hills of mottled green with angular patches of man-made forestry or grassy bare dotted with sheep. The breeze blowing cold and fresh in my face and slowly turning the distant glinting white windmills. The occasional rumble of unseen jet aircraft quiet and far off in the distance as though the hills were talking. Billowing white clouds parted and from a patch of deep blue sky the sun streamed through and covered the hills in gold.
It was three o'clock. I thought of my friend in hospital. I thought a lot.
I set my thoughts adrift on the sun-warmed breeze and dragged myself back to where I stood.
A Beatles tune popped into my head.
"Day after day alone on a hill, the man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still.
But nobody wants to know him, they can see that he's just a fool And he never gives an answer,
but the fool on the hill sees the sun going down and the eyes in his head see the world spinning round."
I needed to snap out of it and remembered I was carrying my mobile phone. Would I get a signal . . . here? I pulled it out of my pocket, switched it on and lo and behold a full signal. I rang my parents, just because I could, and scared them to death with tales of being broken down and stranded on some distant Welsh hill top. We didn't talk long and making excuses about the cost of the call I soon hung up and left them to worry, as only parents do. I retraced my muddy steps, jumped the river, climbed back up the hill to the gate and turned up the other track and headed off to explore along that way. The track wound it's way up the hill to a fence that marked the boundary with the trees, and turned into a deeply rutted muddy quagmire before disappearing over the top of the hill in the distance. It seemed very unlikely the Land Rover would get through that way and I guessed all the tyre tracks I'd seen had been made by a tractor. I gave up. I retraced my steps once again and set off back through the trees and up the rocky track in the direction of the breakdown. All of a sudden as if from out of nowhere a mountain biker appeared ahead of me plummeting down over the rocks almost uncontrollably towards me wearing a very silly looking pointy helmet. Only wearing a woolly hat myself I thought I would probably come off worst in any collision so I leaped to one side and said 'hello' as he rattled and bumped past through the puddle, too teeth clenched to utter a reply. Brushing off the muddy water splashes he'd made on the legs of my trousers I carried on walking. I was tired, I was cold and I was definitely hungry but I did at least incredibly have dry feet thanks to Martins magic waterproofing. On the way back I wrestled with what I would tell them I had found. I really didn't think it was going to be at all easy if at all possible to get out the way I'd been but of course I was always wrong about what I thought the Land Rover was capable of doing. Thankfully when I did rejoin them and try to factually explain what I'd found, subtly hinting I didn't think we could go that way, Martin decided that if at all possible he would prefer to return the way we'd come.
Chris had managed to discover the problem. A thick metal pin about the size of his thumb had sheared off the steering. He'd skilfully managed to remove the broken pieces from the vehicle and on examination it really did look as though the part was faulty in the first place. The rough faces of the metal fracture made it look as though the pin was solid for only half of its intended width. There was some conversation about how the Lada just wasn't built as strongly as a Land Rover and how the Land Rover just seemed to deal with the off road terrain much better. After all the Land Rover had happily towed the Lada out of several 'sticky' bits already. Understandably Chris was showing signs of strain and was making comments about being sick of the thing and wanting to just dump it there, although of course he didn't really mean it.
Martin and Chris both remembered some garage we'd passed, I knew not where, where they had seen lots of Ladas on the forecourt and thought that was the best chance of trying to find a replacement steering pin. Given a replacement Chris knew he could fix it. First things first we had to get out of where we were. The narrow bit of track that was clear between the boggy waterlogged ground and the Lada was almost wide enough to just about squeeze the Land Rover through, but not quite! It was agreed that if we lifted the front of the Lada around and pushed it right into the bank it would be possible. All well and good but inexperienced about such things I had no idea at all how we were supposed to manage it. Chris pulled out his £80+ high lift jack. An amazing contraption, all heavy duty steel and ratchets and levers. Martin and I steadied the Lada as Sue shouted at Tucker who was helping by searching a nearby muddy puddle that was dangerously close for comfort. Chris positioned the heavy metal jack under the front of the Lada and began raising the whole front of the car completely off the ground. Once teetering in mid air on only the back wheels and the jack, the idea was that you push the front sideways so that the jack falls over and the car pivots round and lands on it's wheels further over in the direction you want. It worked. It worked rather well and only took a few goes and a nasty injury to Chris's thumb before it was hard up against the bank, 'parked'. Martin inched the Land Rover past in reverse and we were ready to figure out how many muddy people, muddy dogs and how much muddy equipment you can get into the back of an old short wheel base Land Rover and still drive, off road in reverse!
All the tools and things were packed away and most of Chris's equipment was stacked on top of Martins in the back of the Land Rover. The huge high lift jack, that may have been a temptation to any off roaders that might pass by, was hidden in the undergrowth. All other bits and pieces were left in the locked abandoned Lada. Sue and Chris and the unbelievably wet muddy Tucker all clambered into the little remaining space in the back of the Land Rover. The tarpaulin was left rolled up so that Martin could look back over his shoulder and see through, to reverse back up the track. Despite it's dejected load, once again the Land Rover did us proud and clawed it's way back up through the mud to the junction with the other tracks where it was just possible to turn around. Back up at the gravel clearing we stopped very briefly for Martin to leap out and peer underneath checking for oil leaks and damage that could have been caused by the boulders that had bumped and ground their way along the underside of the loaded down vehicle. As we approached the muddy slope we'd earlier come up I remembered the difficulty we'd had turning round and suggested we should reverse down so that we could then easily drive straight down the joining track that lead to the road. Martin seemed understandably miserable at the prospect and complained of his stiff neck and how he was sick of going everywhere in reverse but he saw my point and we slowly slipped backwards down the incline until we had just passed the junction with the lower track. Crunching into a low gear, off we went down through the mud leaning over at horrible angles. Poor old Tucker was stumbling this way and that as we bounced along, but so cramped in the back was it with all the tools, crammed in between Chris and Sue's legs he couldn't fall over or do himself any damage. Unfortunately he was managing to transfer much of the water and mud he was caked in onto their clothes and all over everything else!
Back down onto the lane we were facing the wrong way. Martin didn't want to suffer the embarrassment of turning around in the farmyard up ahead again and certainly wasn't gong to do miles more of reversing so he pulled up past a nearby gate and with inches to spare and a huge drop into the valley stretching out in front, managed to do a nerve wracking five or six point turn.
Off we went back down the lane and eventually back to the roads and headed off to whatever garage Martin and Chris had a picture of in their minds. As we travelled the roads that lead out of the valley, nestling at the foot of the hill that we had been on, we passed a golf course! It seemed a very strange place to have one. I wondered if their golf carts were maybe four-wheel drive with big knobbly tyres. Looking up high above I could just make out the hint of a track that lead tortuously all the way down to a nearby gate and concluded that must have been the one along which I had walked. It looked scary and none too passable at all and I was very pleased that I'd hinted we go back the way we did.
We ended up driving almost in silence for about thirty kilometres or so along the A44 to some little place called Goginan or thereabouts before pulling up in the pouring rain next to a forecourt full of Ladas at around four thirty. The place seemed open but deserted so everyone got out and wandered around looking for signs of life. I wasn't feeling good and decided to stay sat where I was and hold onto Tuckers lead to stop him leaping out into the passing traffic. He really seemed to want to and tugged and whined.
I was very hungry and this was affecting my mood. I'd lost a little weight of late and had slipped back to a very unhealthy ten stone or just over which for a man of just over six feet tall isn't much. Having no fat reserves, having run up and down tracks and over hills, and having not eaten for quite a while my head was aching and I was trembling and feeling cold, tired, miserable and very, VERY hungry. I really needed to eat, something . . . anything . . . SOON!
I couldn't believe their luck. Other peoples luck is often a source of absolute amazement to me, with mine! The part Chris needed was in stock, was the last one on the shelf, and he'd bought it for only nine pounds. If he needed anything else if it wasn't in stock the garage owner assured him they could come to an arrangement and he'd strip it off one of the vehicles on the forecourt. All we needed now was a trip to Halfords in Aberystwyth to buy some grease and WD40 and he'd be able to fix it.
All crammed back in the Land Rover we quickly headed back to Aberystwyth 'on a mission' as I sipped my water and tried to wash away the taste of the Anadin tablet I had chewed and crunched up between my teeth in the hope that doing so would relieve my headache quicker than swallowing it. It usually worked but didn't on this occasion. I needed food!! Getting stuck behind a slow moving tractor towing a trailer full of someone's three-piece suite for a mile or two was a bit of a spanner in the works. There were times when the temptation to jump out of the slowly moving Land Rover, run ahead and try and sleep off my headache on the comfy looking settee in front was quite strong. Martin's frustration got the better of him as the road widened into two lanes at a traffic light junction and he veered around the tractor. I'm sure he accidentally misjudged it but the result was that we cut the tractor driver up a treat! No one dared to look behind as we stopped at the red light, except perhaps Tucker, but thankfully the light changed to green and we were racing off before the lumbering, looming tractor could catch us up. I couldn't see Halfords perhaps because I was looking for the fire department elevating tower, which of course was gone, but Martin spotted the shop after we'd passed it and we soon turned around and parked up. Minutes later Chris was back in the car with whatever he needed. Despite how I felt I assumed we were going to race back up into the hills and rescue the abandoned Lada and was all ready to go. Everyone else seemed to have had enough and Chris made it very clear he had. Do it tomorrow? Leave the Lada abandoned, over night, in the middle of nowhere, at the mercy of whoever might come along? I found it very difficult to understand. It was still light and had stopped raining. I tried to show enthusiasm for doing it right then but I was fighting a losing battle and my hunger meant I didn't fight too hard.
On the way back to the bungalow we stopped off in a village at a Spar shop to let Sue buy some provisions. Martin popped in too and reappeared with an emergency packet of Jammy Dodgers which were shared between us and which with a swig of coffee from my thermos were very, very much appreciated.
Re tracing our earlier route I knew we were going to pass a fish and chip shop and applying as much pressure as I possibly could, thank goodness it was agreed we would stop and get our tea. We looked a very strange group all covered in mud and leaving trails of it as we walked but I couldn't have cared less what anyone thought and rushed in and quickly ordered a large sausage and chips. Sat back in the Land Rover I was half way through eating them before I realised the rest were intending to eat theirs back at the bungalow after reheating them in the oven. I didn't want to be the odd one out but could see no reason to delay and carried on stuffing my face as we drove back. By the time we arrived, with food in my stomach, my headache was gone, the trembling had stopped and I was feeling back to normal. When I need food I really NEED food!
Back at the bungalow we attempted to get ourselves inside without covering the place in mud. The hosepipe was pulled out of the garage and Sue produced a bottle of baby shampoo. Poor old Tucker was held still as Chris hosed him down and applied the shampoo. He was in an awful state and it took a lot of hard work and a lot of water to get him anywhere near clean. The farmer out walking his dog came over to the gates to watch the show and have a bit of a chat. Somewhere behind his friendly expression I couldn't help thinking that he must have been horrified at the state we were all in and fearing for the condition we might leave the bungalow in. We did try to reassure him and made jokes about how we had changes of clothes and were being very careful and he politely told us not to worry as we all ran for cover each time Tucker got free and tried to shake himself dry. My boots were thick with mud so before the hosepipe was put away I tried to wash them off and give them a wipe over with my cold hands. The waterproofing had done its job and even when subjected to this sort of abuse my feet remained dry. The one draw back that made itself apparent was that the mud had somehow mixed with the waterproofing and try as I did it was impossible to shift all of the mud and my boots have to this day a permanent hint of welsh brown which no amount of polishing will cover.
With poor old Tucker locked outside until he was dryer, we all retreated indoors. Sue had sorted everything out and bin liners had been placed near to the front door on which to put our muddy boots. A nearby radiator was heavily laden with drying clothes. As the rest of them set about warming up their chips and sorting out their food I announced that I was going to take the opportunity of having a long hot bath and get into some clean clothes. Martin seemed to want to take charge of the filling of the bath and warned me that I would get chilblains if I didn't do as he suggested but I ignored him. I'm sure he is an expert on chilblains from some personal experience but never having been bothered with whatever they are before, I didn't see why I was liable to get them then. I locked the door, filled the tub with steaming hot water and submerged in bliss, washing away the chill that had penetrated my fingers and toes. Wonderful!
For the rest of the evening all warm and cosy I sat in 'my' chair in front of the television and hardly moved. Well, warm and cosy that was until Martin decided that it would be nice to light the log fire which was right next to me. Already prepared by the farmer or his wife, complete with hidden firelighters, coal and dry logs it sprang into life almost instantly and turned the room into a sauna. No one else seemed to mind, least of all Tucker when he was finally allowed back in from the cold, who laid out to dry in front of it on his favourite rug. I can't imagine what it is that a smell tells a dog but Tucker seemed to be able to see so much in the hidden aromas of that rug. Every now and again he would push his nose so hard into the deep plush pile that his nose would bend upwards and reveal his teeth and he would almost hold his breath with delight, finishing with a grunt.
Perhaps it was because I'd had such a hot bath but I was incredibly hot as we all sat and relaxed and watched the television. University Challenge was something of an embarrassment as one by one we got almost all of the questions wrong or didn't even know what the hell they were talking about.
After that I managed to get agreement that I could change channel and watch a rather strange program with Louise Theroux seeking enlightenment in India. I found it fascinating stuff but the rest were not so inclined. Chris took to reading his book and Sue ended up going to bed early. Martin was away to bed at about eleven after agreeing that we would all get up early to go and sort out the Lada.
As Chris sorted out the dog and retired I could stand the heat no more and ended up sitting outside in the dark, on the bench in the damp night air, listening to the strange animal sounds and owl hoots from the woods up on the hill, and tried to get cold so that bed would be nice and warm. It worked.
03/10 - I slept quite well and awoke just before Martin's alarm announced it was seven o'clock. I got up straight away and sat watching the birds have breakfast as I had mine of coffee and cigarettes. All too soon Martin and Chris were up and all clad in mechanics overalls were getting ready to go. I hastily made up some corned beef and mayonnaise sandwiches for Martin and I and put them in my rucksack together with crisps, flasks of coffee, an apple and a couple of chocolate biscuity things. I wasn't going to be caught out hungry today!
By eight o'clock Martin, Chris and I were silently on our way back up onto the hill in the Land Rover. The weather was cloudy and very windy but it wasn't too bad and was at least not raining. With little difficulty we followed the route we had done before and rounding the bend . . . yes! There was the Lada exactly as we had left it. I was SO convinced that we were going to find a smashed up burned out wreck that I was very, very relieved. I rather think Chris was too. Especially since he'd left his mobile phone with all it's vital stored numbers in the drivers door pocket. Everything was ok . . . to work! Using the high lift jack retrieved from the undergrowth we eased the front of the Lada over onto the track so Chris could work on it. With a large plastic tarpaulin spread on the ground Chris got to work beneath the car. Chris knows very well what he's doing. After all, that's what he does. He's a mechanic. With the smallest amount of minor help like turning the steering wheel or hitting this or that with a hammer from above, he had fitted the new part and all was done within an hour. I'd hardly had time to enjoy the early morning wind whistling through the tops of the tall trees that dwarfed us all around. Or the wisps of dense white cloud that was curling over the tops of the grey green hills in the distance. But never mind all that. He'd fixed it. Now would it start? It did straight away more or less. It was a tremendous relief all round. All packed up and cleared away we retraced our tracks yet again and were back at the bungalow, warm with coffee by ten o'clock. Very nicely done! As if on cue my mobile phone rang. It was my poor worrying parents wanting to know if everything was all right and whether or not they should call out the helicopter mountain rescue teams! They were joking of course . . . I think! Rather embarrassed I briefly put their minds at ease as Martin, Sue and Chris had to listen to my end of the conversation.
Eventually we decided it was time to go and have another go at some off roading but first Sue and Chris needed to call into a bank and a shop or two in Machynlleth. They'd apparently forgotten their waterproofs and perhaps after getting so wet and mud covered the day before had decided they couldn't do without some. On the way we were going to have to pass the lay-by that had a large caravan type snack bar with signs saying 'Dot's Diner' and we all agreed that we would stop there and see what Dot had to offer. As we pulled in and had to park on a grass verge it was clear that it was a popular place especially amongst the cross-country pipe laying fraternity. All the tables and seats inside were occupied and mud covered people were stood overflowing outside, supping cups of tea and coffee and having a chat. Inevitably Martin got involved in a conversation with someone all about Land Rovers and what engine he had in his and that sort of thing. I'd heard it all before and still didn't understand it so I went in and queued and waited my turn to be served at the counter. So busy was it, by the time Martin had finished giving the poor man the benefit of his experience with Land Rovers and Ford engines and combinations of the two, I still hadn't been served. Chris and Sue apparently weren't hungry and only wanted a drink but Martin was game for a breakfast so we both ordered full English fried breakfasts. Chris and Sue had their drinks outside on a couple of white plastic garden chairs and then suggested that they should go and do their shopping whilst we were eating and that we'd all meet later in town. All armed with mobile phones and being a very small town that seemed fair enough so off they went.
Dot and presumably her husband had their work cut out. It seemed like chaos. In the cramped space behind the counter they were franticly frying and coffee making and buttering slices of bread and desperately trying to keep pace with the seemingly never ending stream of customers who had bits of their ordered breakfast missing! When I'd ordered mine I'd asked, as is the custom in most places, if I could swap the tomatoes for an extra sausage or piece of bacon. After a while I was pretty convinced that I'd be lucky to actually get the breakfast at all never mind an 'awkward' one. At last a table became available and taking our by now almost finished cups of coffee, Martin and I squeezed into the corner and sat down. We waited and waited and waited as the chaos continued. The wall next to us was covered in lots of shiny new looking pictures of motorcycles of all sorts and was of some interest for a while. The cat that was sat on some blankets next to me allowed me to stroke it for a while before deciding that it couldn't be bothered with me pestering it any longer and it calmly walked across my lap, dropped to the floor and walked away between the feet of the queue. A newspaper on the table offered some distraction for a moment until I realised it was an old one and put it back down indignantly exclaiming the date. Such was the chaos that something of the Dunkirk spirit seemed to be kindled in the crowd and a worker at another table leant over and kindly passed me that morning's paper. I thanked him and read all the bad news until at long, long last it was my turn to be summoned to the counter by a shout of "BREAKFAST. No tomatoes!!!!!" I wasn't given any bread and butter so following the lead of all the others I'd seen doing the same, I went back and asked if I was to get any. I waited while the man refilled a sugar bowl from an enormous container spilling it all over someone's buttered sausage roll! He safely buttered two slices of bread without mishap and I returned to my seat to start eating. I indeed had no tomatoes and as I had suspected nothing in place of them. I just ate what I had. Martin's breakfast followed shortly afterwards although somehow he ended up with four slices of bread but with only three of them buttered. He didn't want them all so I had more than enough to wipe my plate clean. I have to say it wasn't bad. It was actually very good and certainly set me up very well for the rest of the day. I felt I'd made up for the day before, although I'm sure food doesn't quite work out that way.
Glad to be 'off the beaches' we got back in the Land Rover and headed into Machynlleth. We drove right through and out the other end before some way up behind us I spotted the unmistakeable shape of the Mad Max Lada nestled in between some cars. We turned around and incredibly amongst all the busyness and bustle managed to park in a recently vacated space a couple of cars up. We said hello to Tucker through the slightly open window and waited for Sue and Chris to appear. Chris walked up looking annoyed. Asked where Sue was he reported that at great cost they had bought some waterproofs only for Sue to leave them in another shop somewhere. She was gone so long in her frantic search that he eventually went to find her but thankfully she'd found them and was on her way back. What had made her even longer was our request that she could buy Martin and I a loaf of bread and a container of milk since she was going to the shops. She'd had to walk all the way back up to the Spar supermarket for it! Ooops.
Time for some off roading. We set off along the A487 into Talybont and turned left back up into the hills.We'd all been up here before. It seemed to be one of Martin's favourite haunts and I could well see why. Certainly on the map there were tracks and RUPPs leading out all over the place in this area and the scenery was stunning. A narrow country lane lead up, exposed, along the edge of a deep wide valley with a frightening drop on the left. Gravely muddy tracks snaked across the valley to far off lonely farms dotted here and there in isolation. Streams tumbled down over the hills in glistening threads as the breeze parted the clouds and let the sun break through to bathe the hills in golden light.
It was beautiful but the cold autumn wind blew strong through the valley, threateningly warning a naïve town person of the unimaginable hardships that winter would bring to any who thought they may dare to live there. On we drove bumping noisily over a cattle grid, here more aptly named a sheep grid, following the narrow road wide enough for only one vehicle, looking way ahead to it's route around the hill in the distance to make sure no one was coming down. Here and there were small passing places carved into the hill but there weren't very many and planning way ahead was the only way to prevent some long, unnerving reversing. On and up we went slowly making our way to the head of the valley where a small stream had carved a route through between the hills. Looking out the window to my left and down, the whole majestic beauty of the valley lay before me. It filled me, and literally took my breath away, as driving along I leaned out of the window and tried to capture at least a sense of it on film, but I knew I was wasting my time. I guess there are times when you really do just have to be there to fully appreciate it. Whether or not Sue was appreciating being there was another matter. She doesn't like heights and I could only imagine what she was going through. There really was absolutely nothing to stop us from tumbling and tumbling down to the valley floor, and our end, if we went off the road. Leaving the view behind we climbed through the narrow pass between the hills and soon turned left to take to the gravel road that headed around and up towards the wide gravel crossroads. Different off road routes were available in all directions here but we headed straight across intending to make our way into the forestry land and to the old mine workings that lay there. As we headed down a long slope that lead to the entrance gate a dark blue Volvo estate car was pulling away and slowly drove past us, it's multiple aerials attracting our attention. It was an unmarked police car containing a couple of uniformed police, but rather strangely considering our vehicles' unusual appearance, they gave us hardly a glance. It seemed a strange lonely place to patrol. It seemed strange they didn't pull us over for a check or at the very least a 'chat' to glean if we were maybe up to no good. I can only guess that crazy off roaders up in these parts were quite a common sight and they'd seen it all. It was almost a disappointment!
With the gate closed behind us we carried on down and into the large rock and gravel covered clearing set between the trees, dissected by a river, that was once a mine of some sort and which we had all played in some time before. The derelict remnants of the old building were still there. The enormous, deep, strange coloured rock pond was still there. The off road tracks were still there snaking off in all directions but a lot looked different. Much work had been done there and almost everything was now fenced off with thin strands of wire slung between newly cut wooden posts. Where we had once careered around on the gravel and driven down the river and charged up and down slopes, all was fenced off and no longer our playground. I wondered what awful thing might have happened there to make it necessary to little more than symbolically say keep out and to then have the police patrol the area.
The start of the off road track we were going to try, that disappeared up into the trees, had been left open but was a tight squeeze between the two lines of fence posts. Chris was first to go, leading the way through the slippery mud up over a ridge and then down the other side splashing through a narrow stream and struggling to climb out over the steep bank on the other side with wheels spinning and mud flying. Martin followed ably, at a slower pace with his more cautious driving style. The narrow muddy track wound it's way up along a dark dense tree line on the right with a brighter area of severed stumps from a clearance on the left, before widening out with trees on both sides as it approached a steep rocky ridge. The bare rock rose high out of the mud in front of us sloping dramatically down to the left where deep furrows in the waterlogged mud showed where others had lost their nerve and tried to go around. Martin and I watched with bated breath as Chris gunned the engine and fearlessly threw the Lada up the slope with the engine roaring! All four wheels slipped and gripped, slipped and gripped but he was making it and heading for the ridge albeit terrifyingly sliding a little off course down to the left. As the tyres found traction and the Lada lurched all sideways towards the summit I wondered what was out of sight on the other side. For all we knew there was a sheer drop! Chris maybe had the same thought since he could see nothing below the top of the bonnet but tree tops, and right at the last moment, discretion being the better part of valour, eased off the power so as not to perhaps go launching off into space! The slippery rock face, the slope off to the left, the angle the Lada was lying, he couldn't stay there for long and gradually very carefully he rolled and slipped back down to the bottom. We all got out and climbed the slippery rock to see what may have happened if he had carried on and to see if there was another way round. On examination it appeared that they probably would have survived, but it didn't look as though the Lada would have to me. It wasn't so much the height of the slope down on the other side, more a case of the angles of everything and the way the Lada had been facing when it would have gone over. I was awfully pleased he hadn't done it. I think ashen-faced Sue was too. Tucker was eating some mud.
The lower alternative route alongside the lower edge of the rocky outcrop now came under scrutiny. From where the cars were parked, deep muddy waterlogged ruts ran along round to the left, right next to and sloping down towards the trees. Some of the trees bore scars and torn bark and revealed where the upper bodywork of passing vehicles had made contact. Further round and just past the extending finger of the rocky slope there was a puddle. A huge, deep puddle. Probing with a branch proved it was a very deep puddle in deed with very soft ground beneath. It seemed ridiculous to me but assuming that we were going to be crazy enough to try it I scraped away at the downhill side of the furrows and finally breaking through sent cascades of water flooding down between the trees. Actually quite satisfying.
Chris decided to give it a go, and back in the Lada on his own, valiantly ploughed through the mud and straight into the trees. The mud was so soft and the ruts so deep, steering was useless and whatever he tried the poor trees always leaped out and stopped him. No way. We all agreed that it wasn't really possible to carry on up this way and it was decided that we should turn around and head back and find another track. First of all though Chris had to get the Lada out of where it was. He escaped the clutches of the trees but succumbed to the deep clinging mud. The engine roared, the wheels spun, mud flew into the air in all directions but he wasn't moving. The towrope was brought out again and hitched to the front of Martins Land Rover and the back of the Lada. Assisted by the force of gravity Martin was going to reverse down the slope and drag the back of the Lada across, down and out of the ruts. It worked very nicely but there was a bit of a communication breakdown about how far Martin should keep going. With the Lada out of the ruts and quite ok Chris sat in the drivers seat hanging onto the steering wheel with all the brakes on wearing a very exasperated expression as Martin dragged him another twenty feet backwards down the hill. Why he hadn't called a halt by blowing the horn I have no idea. After all, we all knew the horn worked. I don't know where the horn button was positioned but wherever it was it was easy to reach. Almost every time Chris reached for something in the back of the car or got out or got the dog out, the horn would sound. Tucker was pretty good at finding it too whenever he was left in the Lada on his own. Almost every time we stopped somewhere, on a deserted hilltop, in the silent depths of the forest, at some point the horn would go. It amused me.
With some little difficulty the vehicles were both turned around and we headed back the way we'd come, the Lada leading the way. The Lada got stuck again. Driving back through the stream the steep, muddy, sloping bank, criss-crossed with slippery tree roots up which we had to climb, forced the front wheels of the Lada over and it slipped sideways down a hole and into the river bed. A couple of small fallen trees lying across the banks were supporting the weight of the vehicle and stopping it from sliding down further. It ended up at an awfully precarious angle with only two or three wheels on the ground. It wouldn't budge and all attempts at driving it out resulted in it tipping over even further! Chris climbed out so that Sue could gingerly climb up, across and out of the driver's door. Tucker wasn't happy at all having to almost stand on the side windows in the back and was barking and struggling to climb out over Sue. Chris was clearly unhappy perhaps out of embarrassment at getting stuck yet again and couldn't stop himself barking at poor Tucker. We all got out and admired how well the Lada was stuck. Nice one. A photo opportunity not to be missed but it was too dark and there was too much mud around to adequately show how much daylight could be seen under the wheels, no matter where I crouched dry footed in the stream.
Once again the towrope was hitched up and with little bother the Lada was pulled out. Carefully avoiding the same bit of bank we were all soon past the obstacle but Chris discovered something wrong with his brakes. A quick examination revealed some leaking brake fluid and although nothing major, a top up was needed. Trouble was we didn't have any. Chris decided that he would have to go and buy some and it was agreed that he would head off back towards Talybont the way we had come, to the nearest garage he could find and he would then come back and join us. We all drove back along the tracks, past the old mine, through the gate and on up to the high narrow head of the valley where Martin and I were going to wait for their return. We parked up just before the head of the valley and let the Lada carry on to disappear around the hill out of sight and head off down the long, high narrow road with the views. How Sue was coping with her fear of heights and the now real possibility of some sort of brake failure, I can only imagine! I didn't envy her.
It was very relaxing looking at the view through the 'V' the hills made at the head of the valley, smoking a cigarette or two, sipping a cup of coffee from the thermos, the sun breaking through the clouds and warming me through the glass. With the wind whistling around the Land Rover and the trickle of the nearby river it was difficult to resist the pull of sleep. Martin alert as ever said he'd spotted smoke drifting across the valley in front of us. I looked and looked but couldn't see it and hoped he'd imagined it. He was adamant and decided to get out and walk along to the corner of the road where it curved left around the hill and gave a sweeping view of the valley stretching steeply out below. Imagining the brakes may have failed and that we would see the burning remains of a Lada in the valley floor below, I reluctantly decided I'd better join him. The wind was howling through that gap between the hills. I pulled off my hat, stuffed it safely in my pocket and forced my way against the wind to join Martin on the edge. It was an awfully long way down. With our eyes blurred with tears from the wind, we scanned the valley and hills but could see no trace of any smoke at all. I was awfully relieved my rampant imagination had played me false yet again.
Off to our right the river was cascading white over the rocks cutting down through the hill in a stepped sequence of waterfalls. Looking over the steep grass covered side from the road I could see a car upside down in the water! Either it had been dumped there or someone hadn't negotiated the corner and had driven straight over. It was quite a steep climb down but I couldn't resist it and struggling against the wind that was clawing at my hair and clothes, I left Martin up above and scrambled down to look. As I made my way I glanced up at the beauty of the river cascading over the rocks and spotted Martin's 'smoke'. So fiercely was the wind howling up through this narrow gap in the hills that it was picking up a good portion of the river and blowing it back up the hill and into the air in a fine white spray. Spectacular. As I clung to the rocks and pointed, and shouted back up at Martin, he understood.
The car had clearly been there for a while and thankfully no one was still strapped upside down in it. Anything of value that could have been removed from that awkward place was already gone as far as I could tell. Wheels, radio, that sort of thing. It seemed awful that in this place of such natural beauty it was just left there to rot, but I guess it would have been a mammoth task to remove it. I wondered how many years it would take for the elements to do their work on the exposed underside of the engine and release all the oil into the virgin river and what havoc would then be wrought on all in the valley below. However difficult, getting it out of there would have been a priority to me if I lived thereabouts. I climbed back up towards the road and reached it just as a couple of cars passed by. I felt awfully guilty that I had been seen climbing up from the wreck, as though I had somehow had a hand in its being there. What the passers by thought, I can only imagine, especially when back in the shelter of the Land Rover I glanced at myself in the mirror. My long hair had blown about all over the place. A frightful sight! Up there, windblown was an understatement. This day was definitely a bad hair day! After stuffing my voluminous hair back into my hat we relaxed again with more coffee and cigarettes.
Sooner than we imagined he might, Chris returned from a successful sortie. Having studied the maps we'd decided that we were going to head off along some tracks through the forest and around the hills that should eventually lead to a reservoir and a place, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, called 'Anglers Retreat'. Back down past the old mine we went and carried straight on for a while until we realised our mistake at a closed gate. Back we went and checking the map soon found the turning on the right that we should have taken. Down we went snaking through the trees until all of a sudden the track disappeared into a river. This was no little stream. This was a proper river. I'm sure I must have looked horrified but Martin announced he'd been through this way before when the river was much higher and with a lurch we were in! With a few more lurches and with lots of gripping of the dashboard on my part we were soon slowly creeping out on the other side and parking up. Phew! Even my magic waterproofed boots wouldn't have coped too well with that if we'd got stuck in the middle.
I leapt out and made ready to take photographs of the Lada coming over since I imagined that, true to form, Chris would be 'going for it!' Unfortunately that wasn't what Chris was going for at that particular moment. With much shouting and blowing of the horn Chris and Sue were jumping out of the Lada. Oh dear. Apparently poor old Tucker had been so upset at all the funny angles that he'd had to endure earlier in the day that cooped up in the back of the Lada he'd got a bit unmanageable and there had been a bit of shouting. He'd got a bit nervous and had done a pooh all over the place! Chris and Sue spent a while cleaning up as Tucker had a great time biting the river. He looked in his element here. With the wonderful views of forest, hills and river all around he really did look like a wolf or a husky or something else, at home. His antics in the deep, cold, brown, peat stained river made it look as though he was hunting for salmon as he nosed beneath the water and occasionally drifted downstream with the current.
Chris and Sue finally got back in the Lada and had a go at the river. I got my photo.
After coffee and a couple of sandwiches we started up again and followed what we thought was the track. It wasn't entirely clear because of all the mud and water and ruts that seemed to go off all over the place but it soon became clearer and we carried on. I really couldn't figure out the map at all because as far as I could tell we shouldn't have been leaving the river and really should have somehow crossed back over it and stayed close to the edge of the forest. As always Martin knew best and we carried on the way we were going, through deep muddy puddles away from the trees up onto a hill.
A small hut, incredibly marked on the map if I was reading it right, sat next to the track on the right. It was a tiny dilapidated wood and corrugated iron affair little larger than a portaloo and certainly not as tall. What possible purpose it had other than being a billboard for a couple of illegible, wind torn pieces of paper that were pinned to the sides was impossible to imagine. Could it be that in the depths of winter, so harsh were the conditions up here that it was a survival hut for anyone caught out in a blizzard needing shelter? Passing by and looking into the shadows through the doorless opening it rather looked as though it had been used as a portaloo. I'd have taken my chances with the blizzard!
On up through a gate, we followed the track as it began to ascend the foot of the hill. Tyre marks could be seen running off through the grass next to track and as we stopped and got out to look ahead it was obvious why. It was a 'wash-out'. Rainwater flowing off the hill had found it's way into the deep ruts in the mud made by passing off roaders. Trapped between the sides of the ruts the rainwater had been concentrated and forced to flow down the hill along the track like a river. The abrasive action of this flow, over time, had worn away the thin layers of mud and soil and exposed the rocks beneath. Like a rolling snowball growing in size the more that was washed away, the more would be washed away the next time it rained. The track before us left nothing to the imagination about the power of flowing rainwater. A huge, deep, rock-strewn crevice had been cut into the hillside and looked like some dried up riverbed. It was clearly impossible for any vehicle to drive on any further. Martin decided to drive on further! I got out and ran up the gully and stood ready with my camera. A lone walker suddenly appeared from over the hill and passed on by with a hello, picking his way with some difficulty around the wash-out. I had to confess I was rather impressed. We were in the middle of nowhere. He must have walked a very, very long way and had probably even further than that to go, and all exposed, out there on the hills, alone. And how was he going to cross the river?! Impressive. One day, I thought, one day maybe I'll try that but I guess it'll take a while for me to save up for my waterproof socks.Martin gave it his best shot and slowly began to inch his way along, straddling as best he could the rocky channel. He definitely got a lot further than I would have dreamed possible but eventually slipped and spun and could climb no further, no matter how much the engine roared. The Land Rover ended up at a stomach churning angle almost resting on the bodywork of the passenger side with each axle impressively twisted in opposite ways as the suspension valiantly fought to put wheels to the ground. Eventually after we had all stood around and admired Martins handiwork he backed out of the wash-out and pulled off to one side so that Chris could have a go. As usual with great gusto, Chris charged up through the rocks but he got about as far as Martin had and eventually he too was forced to give up and back down. Both vehicles took to the grass alongside the track and not being the first to have done so, followed the muddy tyre marks that lead around the wash-out to join the track further up. It occurred to me that it would surely only be a matter of time before the rain did its job on those new ruts and a new wash-out would grow from them, damaging yet more of the fragile hillside perhaps eventually making this route impassable for vehicles and certainly difficult and dangerous for walkers. My concerns over the legitimacy of off roaders claims that they should be allowed to pursue their sport were increased and I silently debated the arguments as we carried on.
We gained a little altitude and I could make out the lake in the distance to our left and could even just see the far off building of the Anglers Retreat. How could that be? As we jostled and bumped along I studied the map and eventually managed to figure out exactly where we were. The route we had been looking for we most definitely had missed and we were on another, which took off at right angles and wound away over the hills. I was convinced I had been right and the route we should have taken was somewhere down by the river perhaps overgrown and hidden by the tall marsh grass. It didn't seem to matter because we were off roading and apparently having fun and studying the map further, I figured out that the track we were on should eventually meet up with some forestry tracks and that those could lead us back through the woods to the retreat.
Up and down we went through mud, through streams, over rocks, climbing around the foot of the hills surprising deaf sheep who never seemed to hear us until we were almost upon them and who would then panic and run along the track in front of us rather than just step to one side. It was a long, long track with deep ruts and grass covered, black, peaty, waterlogged soil on either side but we were making good headway. That was until the wash-outs got worse and finally the track ahead was nothing more than a deep, deep gravely crevice stretching off way into the distance. We stopped and walked ahead. Not even Chris was going to attempt to drive into this lot. The damage to the hillside was extreme. Here and there were even traces of someone's desperate attempt to perhaps stop the hillside from falling into the canyon by half burying some wire mesh in the soil and rocks, but natures hand could not be held by that. To his credit Martin did express considerable concern about taking to the peaty grass and having to drive the newer route around this obstacle that others had already begun to carve before. Nevertheless it was clear we had no choice if we were going to proceed and although I firmly believed we shouldn't, I became impatient at his long hesitation and urged him to 'just do it'. With some little difficulty the Land Rover climbed out of the ruts where others had before and headed off along the waterlogged slippery grass leaving dark muddy tracks behind for Chris to follow. It wasn't all that far before we could climb back down onto the track but a little later cresting the brow of a hill the way ahead looked very similar so we parked up and took a walk ahead to see how bad it was.
It's one of those things when you walk ahead that you never really know quite when to call it a day and walk back. Every step you take allows you to see just a bit further ahead and always that particular bit looks awkward and you think you'd better go and take a better look, and so it goes on. Somehow quite effortlessly Martin and I had walked ahead down the hill, over a stream and up the side of anther hill before we realised that the Land Rover and Lada in the distance were really quite small and we could hardly make out Chris and Sue who had given up and gone back to wait in the warmth of their car. Our survey had confirmed the track was really in quite a state and Martin was clearly of the opinion that enough was enough and that we should turn the vehicles around and head back. First of all we had to walk back to them! Turning around and starting to head back it became clear why the long walk we had just made had been so effortless. The wind was blowing a gale and had been pushing at our backs. Now it was blowing in our faces and holding us back to such an extent that it really was quite a battle to make any headway at all. Runny nosed, with chilled fingers and toes, yet sweating from our exertion we rejoined the others and Martin and Chris conferred. Martin made it clear he didn't want to continue but somehow didn't actually come out and say it. Chris made it clearer he did want to carry on, so off we went occasionally taking to the grass alongside or carefully straddling the deep wash-outs. This went on for a couple of kilometres more with the beautiful scenery of sheep dotted wind blown hills, forests and forgotten reservoirs and lakes all around until we reached a very boggy area with a farm building visible a little way off in the distance. Admittedly the track here appeared very difficult but it seemed to be the farm building that was the deciding factor. Martin did not want to go through the farmers yard. This intrigued me somewhat since Martin was a friendly gregarious chap who normally seemed to delight in going out and maybe meeting people, but the prospect of driving legitimately along a track that went through a farm seemed to unnerve him. Looking at the map it seemed to me that we had come so far that we just HAD to carry on the last half a kilometre or so since we could then take to the other track that would lead to where we were heading. I even bravely offered to deal with whatever farmer we might meet by doing my practiced, exaggeratedly polite, nice guy act. After all this wasn't the Wild West. 'Deliverance' was only a film. What could he do other than maybe complain a little and tell us to go away? That was what we were planning to do anyway given that we were just passing through. Martin wouldn't have it and was certain that there was no point anyway since the forestry tracks would be closed off with locked gates. He 'knew' they would be. He was adamant. The prospect of having a big argument and maybe ending up being a hill walker earlier than I had imagined, was an incentive to bite my tongue and simply say 'ok'. After all, I was just a passenger! We all set off back the way we'd come.
Any frustration I was feeling was soon blown away when we had to get out and hitch up the towrope because the Land Rover ended up stuck in some very deep ruts and was resting on its axles with all four wheels of the ground. Chris joked that he wanted a photo of the rare sight of the Lada rescuing the Land Rover but so quickly and smoothly was the job done that we didn't get a chance to get him his trophy. We retraced our ruts and were eventually back at the river and stopped, studying the confusing map looking for the route we should have taken. The more I looked at it the more I was sure the track was here, outside of the tree line, next to the river, overgrown and lost. Everyone else seemed convinced that it was over the river, back up the way we'd come and up in the trees somewhere. I climbed back in my 'passenger' seat and bit my tongue as we splashed our way back over and up into the trees looking for the track that, much to my silent satisfaction, was not there!
We wound our way back on the gravel forestry tracks up through the mine area, through the gate and up to the gravel crossroads and turned right. The map showed that this would take us directly all the way through the forest, around the reservoir and up to the Anglers Retreat. As we drove we passed Heath Robinson signposts with arrows and a handwritten 'Lakes' signs confirming we weren't wrong. I carefully followed the map as we went, managing to more or less keep tabs on where we were from the turnings that we passed. As we approached a gate I readied myself to leap out and open it but all of a sudden Martin turned left and carried on. I protested we'd gone the wrong way but Martin said he knew the way and that there was nothing down through the gate. My poor old tongue was starting to be painful with all the biting it was receiving.
The track we had taken soon ended at a small low bridge that dissected a couple of lakes and a clearing, spectacularly hidden in the hills nestling between the surrounding trees. I had to accept that I'd got it all wrong and we were at the retreat when Martin said 'there we are then'. We all got out to have a look around but it was very cold and very windy and as Martin and Chris began to walk along a bit of waterlogged muddy impossible track that lead towards the trees, to see if it was passable, I stole away back to the shelter of the Land Rover for a warming sip of coffee, a calming cigarette and to enjoy the view and some much needed time alone.
Chris got stuck in the mud and had to be towed out by Martin. Not in their vehicles but in Wellingtons! There was no way we were driving through that way! Looking at the map and the view before me I couldn't for the life of me figure out where the actual retreat building that was marked was located. I couldn't see it anywhere. Making full use of my 'expert' map reading skills I looked on the map for anything that was coloured blue and wet looking. Aha! We weren't at the reservoir or the Anglers Retreat at all. We were actually at a couple of smaller nearby lakes that were joined by a stream.
As we set off back down the way we'd come and approached the junction near the gate we discussed my conclusions but Martin didn't want to drive down to the retreat because he said there was nothing much there anyway. He did say we could come back and have a look another day but I was convinced we wouldn't. We'd come all this way, we were so close, and yet he wasn't going to bother? For some reason seeing the Anglers Retreat seemed to be the most vitally important thing to me at that moment. It was just down the road, it HAD to be seen, and yet we were driving away!!!! I couldn't believe it.
The truth was, I suppose, that I was beginning to feel a little trapped and powerless. I'm used to living on my own and pleasing myself and hardly speaking to anyone sometimes for weeks on end. All this being with others, having to accommodate their wishes and desires, being a passenger, being pretty useless at most things that were going on and not being in control of anything was a bit of a strain for me. I was starting to fray. I was getting annoyed with silly little things. I was aware of it. I worked on it in silence.
continued . . . Part 2>
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