North Yorkshire – Wensleydale

Yorkshire Postcard

At school holiday time there is always the threat of an extended visit from the grandchildren which can be a stressful experience as they spend a week dismantling the house and trashing the garden.

Since 2011 I have lived in the east coast town of Grimsby and every so when they visit it is my job to arrange entertainment.  This can be a challenge because to be honest there isn’t a great deal to do in Grimsby

I like the town but it has to be said that it is an odd place.  It is a community in decline.  On the south bank of the Humber Estuary it is so far east that the only place to go after this is the North Sea and there aren’t any ferries to Europe as there are in Hull on the north side of the river.  It is a dead end.  It is a place that you only go to by choice.  No one visits Grimsby by accident.  You cannot stumble upon it while taking a leisurely drive along the coast as say in Northumberland or East Anglia.  It can never be an unexpected discovery.

This year I decided to rent a holiday cottage elsewhere and let them trash someone else’s place instead.  I chose a cottage in the village of Thornton Stewart in North Yorkshire and drove there one busy Friday afternoon along the A1 – The Great North Road, which many people claim is the only good thing that comes out of London.

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The A1 route used to be a real chore with inevitable traffic jams and frequent hold-ups but recent investment has seen it upgraded to a three lane motorway which in theory should make it much easier to drive.  Unfortunately, what happens when a road is improved like this is that lots of extra traffic decides to use it so after a very short time the original problem is back again and so it was on this particular day and the journey took far longer than anticipated.

The village of Thornton Stewart is in Wensleydale (one of only a few Yorkshire Dales not currently named after its principal river) and it was immediately obvious that it was rather remote with no local facilities so it was lucky that I had had the foresight to pack food provisions and a few bottles of wine.  And it was severely challenged when it came to communications as well with no Wifi and no useable telephone signal either.  Only forty miles from Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle and no phone signal!

Thornton Stewart Yorkshire

Never mind, we unpacked, picked our bedrooms, Sally and the children rearranged their room in the way that they like it – rather like Belgium after the German Panzer division had passed through on the way to France in 1939 and then we explored the garden and settled down for the evening.

The next morning we planned to drive a route along Wensleydale as far as Hawes in the west and set off early and stopped first at Aysgarth Falls about half way along the route.  Aysgarth Falls is a natural beauty spot where thousands of gallons of water in the River Ure tumble, leap and cascade over a series of boulders and broad limestone steps.  It was featured as the location for the fight between Robin Hood and Little John in the film ‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’ and in 2005 it was included in a BBC television list of seven best natural places in Northern England.  The other six were The Lake District, River Wear, Whin Sill, River Tees, Holy Island and Morecambe Bay.

I had visited Aysgarth Falls before, around about twenty years ago with my children…

Aysgarth Falls 1997

And now I was back with my grandchildren…

Aysgarth Falls North Yorkshire

After Aysgarth we continued to Hawes which was swarming with visitors, too many visitors to make it a comfortable experience and unable to find a parking spot we just carried on to the Hawes creamery factory which is the only place in Wensleydale that continues to make the famous Yorkshire cheese.  A few years ago the owners tried to close it down and move production to next door Lancashire but no self respecting Yorkshire man or woman would allow that to happen – make Yorkshire cheese in Lancashire, whatever next! – so after a management buy-out the staff resumed production for themselves.

For a modest fee it was possible to visit the factory and a small museum and an inevitable shop where we overspent on dairy products described sometime before by T S Eliot as the “Mozart of Cheeses”, with a variety of unlikely ingredients – ginger, pineapple, blueberries etc.

Aysgarth Yorkshire

On account of just how busy it was we declined to stop in Hawes and drove back instead to Castle Bolton where there is a magnificent castle where Mary Queen of Scots was once imprisoned with tall walls, crenulated battlements and expansive views over the Dales but admission was quite expensive and not certain that the children would appreciate the visit we decided against it and after we had gate-crashed the gardens without a ticket we drove back to the cottage stopping briefly in the town of Leyburn for some grocery supplies.

I had visited Castle Bolton before, around about twenty years ago with my children…

Castle Bolton 1997

And now I was back with my grandchildren…

Castle Bolton Yorkshire

Entrance Tickets – Jameos Del Agua, Lanzarote

Jameos Del Agua Lanzarote

“Wherever he saw a hole he always wanted to know the depth of it. To him this was important.”  –  Jules Verne –  ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’

After the drive to the west of the island to Timanfaya we had the knackered old jeep at our disposal for another day and this time travelled north along the eastern coast to visit the volcanic caves just north of Arrecife.

It is a rather odd thing but people seem to like to go below the surface of the earth and go down caves and caverns, grottoes and mines and I have to say that I am no exception.  I used to live near the Peak District National Park in Derbyshire (UK) and would go down the Blue John mines near Buxton pretty much every year.  Well, the guide book pointed out some caves in Lanzarote so that is where we made for today.

Jameos del Aqua Lanzarote Canary Islands

La Cueva de los Verdes is what is known as a lava tube and was created around three-thousand years ago by lava flows from the nearby volcano Monte Corona, flowing across the Malpaís de la Corona toward the sea. The lava streams cooled on top, developing a solid crust, before the lava drained away leaving the top part as the roof of a cave. In a number of places along the tube the roof of the cave collapsed, forming a cavern known locally as a jameo.

The cave system at Cueva de los Verdes is around six kilometres long and claimed to be the longest lava tube in the World but I am willing to wager that somewhere else in the World will be making exactly the same claim!

Visitors can take a tour along about a kilometre of illuminated path and so we handed over our money and prepared to leave the sunshine and like Otto Lidenbrock in ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ * descend below the surface.

We followed our guide through an intriguing maze of gigantic caves, carved by lava and gnawed by erosion, through a succession of caverns and galleries with lighting displays arranged to illuminate the colours of the rocks and the eerie shadows that they cast.  As usual in underground caves he kept pointing out natural sculptures that, with a lot of imagination, had a resemblance to familiar icons – the Madonna and Child (several times), Bulls, Matadors and famous Spanish Kings and Queens.

Lanzarote Postcard Multi Picture

After an hour or so we returned blinking to the surface and drove the short distance to nearby Jameos del Agua and prepared to go straight underground again.

This time we descended steeply down a flight of steps and arrived in a rather gloomy café area where we stopped for a drink and an overpriced bocadillo before continuing into the cave.  There was a walk now along a narrow path on one side of a flooded cavern where in the water the main attraction were hundreds of blind albino crabs, apparently the only ones like it in the World, which is another claim that I am unable to confirm.

Jameos del aqua Lanzarote Canary Islands

We didn’t spend nearly as much time underground at this cave because it opened out quite quickly into the collapsed cavern where the afternoon sunshine was pouring into a luxurious tropical garden with exotic plants and scarlet flowers, fish ponds with turtles posing obligingly for photographs and a brilliant turquoise swimming pool and recreational area.

At the end of the day we drove back to Puerto del Carmen and as we were running low on fuel we were forced to find a garage so we pulled into a filling station where the smiling attendant approached probably in expectation of filling the tank and a big sale:

‘Si Seňor?’ he beamed,

‘two hundred por favor’ , we said calculating that this would be enough to see us through until we returned the vehicle to the car hire office.

‘two hondred?’  ‘two hondred?’  the man pushed his black beret up over his forehead scratched his head in that puzzled sort of way, twisted his face into a squint, wrinkled his walnut sunburned face and looked thoroughly confused as he searched for clarification, finally he just said – ‘not enough room in tank!’

We looked confused and then we realised what he meant and were more specific, ‘no, not litres – pesetas!’

Now, this was the equivalent of about seventy-five pence so this required great precision on his part to deliver only just the required miniscule amount into the tank.  We handed him two one hundred peseta notes and he walked away shaking his head and repeating over and over to himself ‘two hondred, two hondred…’

This had been my first time visiting the Canary Islands and I liked Lanzarote even though I have never been back but for the next few years I did make it an annual event to visit some of the others.

Do you like going underground? Which is your favourite cave?

Puerto Del Carmen Lanzarote 1983 

* Rather interestingly in the book the Professor and his assistant search for the Centre of the Earth by entering a lava tube at Snæfellsjökull glacier in Iceland and eventually comes back to the surface through another one on the slopes of Mount Etna on the island of Sicily.

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Other Cave Stories:

Drogarati Cave and Blue Lagoon, Kephalonia

Cueva del Aguila, Spain

Altimira Caves, Spain

Blue Lagoon, Capri

Krakow, Wieliczka Salt Mine

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Entrance Tickets – Timanfaya National Park, Lanzarote

Entrance Ticket - Timanfaya Lanzarote

“The camel and his driver — each has his own plan.” – African Proverb

“On the first day of September, 1730, the earth suddenly opened near Timanfaya.  An enormous mountain emerged from the ground with flames coming from its summit. It continued burning for 19 days. Some days later, a new abyss developed and an avalanche of lava rushed down …”  –  Father Andrés Lorenzo Curbelo from Yaiza – an eyewitness.

In the early eighteenth century more than thirty volcanoes exploded on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, spilling fire, smoke and huge deposits of magma onto the surrounding landscape, engulfing entire villages and destroying once fertile agricultural land.  Today this is Timanfaya National Park, a desolate and lifeless place of barren landscape and arid volcanic rock.

Vesuvius Postcard

The eruptions transformed as much as a quarter of the island into a sea of solidified lava, multicoloured volcanic rocks, copper coloured sand and a thick layer of course grey ash and nearly three hundred years later there is still hardly any vegetation in this place.  Black lava ribs of the mountain spill from the top and in the occasional sunshine the colours  were ever changing, the rocks were black, brown, purple and umber with a sulphurous yellow crust like fine filigree lace and all over there was vivid green copper oxide and some hardy mosses ferociously clinging on to life in a highly improbable location.

Lanzarote Timanfaya National Park

Together with a group of friends I was staying near the coast where the December temperature was comfortable but it soon began to plummet as we drove into the interior of the island and started to climb and we weren’t prepared for that and it wasn’t long before we began to regret not bringing more clothes along because it was soon very, very cold indeed with frequent rain squalls and a stinging wind that lashed our legs and faces.

As we had a four wheel drive we thought we might test its capabilities to the full so rather than sensibly follow the tarmac highway we went off road and tried to plot our own course.  We got hopelessly lost of course and at one point came across a surprised islander, a whiskered, toothless old lady in rusty black clothes and with a lined face that could easily be mistaken for a road map so we stopped and asked for directions to the park.

I can’t be absolutely certain but I think she said that the really sensible thing to do was to go back to the main road because this was safer and even though she was quite insistent about this we ignored her advice and carried on along a boulder strewn track that tipped and lurched the vehicle for the next few kilometres until eventually we came to the boundary to the Parque Nacional de Timanfaya marked by a sign carrying the mischievous El Diablo (The Devil) logo.

Timanfaya Lanzrote Fire Mountain Canary Islands

The significance of the demon emblem of Lanzarote is that the early settlers interpreted their first experience of a volcanic eruption as the work of Satan himself.

It was so cold today that we would have welcomed some sort of volcanic activity I can tell you!

We arrived at the visitor’s car park and that was as far as we could drive into the park and there we tagged on to some coach party trips and watched several demonstrations by a sun gnarled old man with a face of leather and twisted knotted hands of ‘how hot‘ the area is because temperatures just a few metres below the surface here reach between up to 600° centigrade!

Fire Mountain Lanzarote SpainLanzarote Steam Geyser Timanfaya National Park

Happily the volcanic craters are dormant now but vents by the vantage point at the Islote de Hilario give out super-heated air at 400° centigrade which comes from a boiling chamber of magma – estimated to be safely four kilometres beneath the surface at this point.

First of all he threw dry brush into a harmless looking hole in the ground and it immediately burst into flames and then he demonstrated the geyser which he made perform by pouring cold water into a bore hole and then retreating swiftly as it erupted seconds later in the form of steam and a brief but satisfying ‘whoosh’ and he finished this incendiary display by demonstrating a natural gas vent that doubled as a natural BBQ for the nearby restaurant.

Lanzarote Fire Mountain

Due to the fragility of the rocks and the possible danger of collapsing lava tubes and gullies it isn’t especially advisable to go wandering about by yourself or poking the surface with a sharp stick and quite sensibly unescorted walking is not permitted.

“I distrust camels, and anyone else who can go a week without a drink” – American comedian, Joe E. Lewis

The really prudent way to proceed further was to use a coach tour into the National Park and around the volcanic craters but instead of the restful seat option in a heated bus we choose an alternative camel ride which involved a twenty-minute circuit of the craters on a form of transport that even made the Jeep seem comfortable and we were jolly grateful when it was all over and we could make our way back to Puerto del Carmen in the beat up old hire car.

Have you ever taken a camel ride?  Did you enjoy it?

Parque Nacional de Timanfaya

Twenty Good Reasons to Visit Wales

Wales LandscapeCastell y Bere WalesWales in the RainBorth and Snowdonia in the DistanceAberystwyth from Constitution HillAberdovey BeachNorth Yorkshire SheepWales LandscapeAberdovey WalesWales Sheep RainBorth SunsetBorth Beach WalesHoliday Beach Shop Borth WalesA Caravan HolidayCaerphilly CastleLake Bala Wales

Wales – The Submerged Forest of Prehistoric Borth

Sunken Forest Borth Wales

After fish and chip lunch at Aberystwyth we returned early to Borth because we knew that this was the right time for low tide and we wanted to see the submerged Bronze Age forest which, thanks to the restlessness of the sea, can only be seen once a day.

There is something primeval and bleak about Borth.  Something essentially Welsh. Fishermen’s cottages alongside Victorian grand houses. None of them used now for their original purpose.  A barren, soulless ribbon of houses and small shops, a community built at the side of a road along a storm beach overlooking a vast bay punctuated by decaying wooden groynes and lapped in Summer by an endless sequence of lazy rollers but in Winter lashed by frantic Atlantic storms.

Sunken Forest Borth Wales

The submerged forest is a prehistoric woodland, an eerie landscape of preserved trunks of hundreds of oak, pine, alder and beech trees that died more than four and a half thousand years ago and which has been revealed by the recent ferocious storms of 2010 which stripped thousands of tons of sand from beaches in Cardigan Bay.

The shin-high stumps were once part of a forest that before rising sea levels stretched for many miles on boggy land between Borth and Ynyslas and covered the whole area before it turned into a peat bog and was eventually overwhelmed by sand and seawater and they have been miraculously well preserved due to the conditions in the bog which are deprived of oxygen and usually have a high alkaline level.

Lucky probably because if people had found these two hundred years ago they would no doubt have chopped them up and burnt them on a fire.

Sunken Forest

This was absolutely wonderful, we walking in a place where our ancestors lived thousands of years ago and here’s a thought,  it doesn’t even make the Tripadvsor list of top things to do in Borth.  Sad that it cannot get an entry on a list which includes the RNLI lifeboat depot and the railway station waiting room.

Things have to be very special to get into my top ten life/travel experiences and this one immediately elbowed  its way in because I considered it a privilege to be able to walk in this ancient primeval forest which is estimated to extend twenty miles out into Cardigan Bay and which some naturalists speculate that it covered an area of land from Anglesea to Cornwall.  What a true sense of history an experience such as this provides.

Actually, my top ten now has about a hundred entries and is bulging at the seams.

Somewhere amongst the stumps (we didn’t see this) archaeologists found a timber walkway made from short lengths of coppiced branches, held in place with upright posts.  It has been dated to between three and four thousand  years old, built as the local people found ways to cope with living in an increasingly waterlogged environment.  Two years ago human and animal footprints were found preserved in the hardened top layer of peat, along with scatterings of burnt stones from ancient hearths and at about the same time some beach walkers discovered a set of four thousand year old red deer antlers, four feet wide!

The skeletal trees, twisted roots and black stumps are said to have given rise to the local legend of a lost kingdom, Cantre’r Gwaelod, drowned beneath the waves.  The Welsh Atlantis.  Also known as the Lowland Hundred, the kingdom was first mentioned in the Black Book of Carmarthen, the earliest surviving manuscript written entirely in Welsh from around the year 1250. In folk-law the kingdom was believed to have been flooded when a forgetful or distracted maiden named Mererid allowed a well in her care to overflow but we know now of course that it was as a result of the end of the last great Ice Age when sea levels rose and consumed the land.

Beach Groynes Grimsby

It may have been exposed because of changes to the sea defences.  When I came on holiday to Borth fifty years ago there were timber groynes extending out to sea but due to the cost of maintenance these have long since been abandoned and allowed to rot away into the sea.  With no defence against the power of the waves the 2010 storms did extensive damage all along this coast.

“In time, the protection afforded to Borth by the shingle bank will disappear, leading to a general collapse of the bank itself, resulting in major economic losses to residential properties, businesses and the tourist industry, as well as the disruption to, if not the loss of the village and transport infrastructure as it currently exists, and as a result, the local community.” – Ceredigion County Council

As a consequence new replacement stone defences have been installed at a cost of seven million ponds and a local archaeologist, sensing our interest, told us that they were now waiting to see if the forest will soon disappear again for another four thousand years.

Borth old groyne stump

It was our final evening in Borth, I prepared evening meal (chicken cooked in red wine and vegetables with Pembrokeshire potatoes) and then I made a last visit to the seafront where I was rewarded with a second magnificent sunset.  So magnificent that I began to question why I insist in travelling to the Greek Islands to see something that is equally as good here in Wales.

It was the day of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom so after a final visit to the camp club house and half an hour of average cabaret I returned to the caravan to watch the television.

I didn’t expect to stay up for very long but soon it became clear that there was going to be an unexpected leave vote so I stayed up into the small hours to watch the drama unfold.  Earlier today on the beach I had experienced ancient history and tonight I was watching modern history being made and I was a part of the moment.

The following morning we planned to leave early but we were so absorbed by the result of the referendum vote we stayed longer than planned and then as we left it started to rain so with only a brief stop for breakfast at Aberystwyth we drove straight home to Grimsby without stopping.

I had enjoyed my week, before we arrived I didn’t expect to I have to say but it was good fun to go back to a place of childhood holidays and I have to confess that my pal, Dai was absolutely right when he predicted that after this I would be a fan forever of caravan holidays.

Wales Borth Sunset

Wales – The Devil’s Bridge

Aberystwyth Postcard

The morning weather was wonderful, blue sky decorated with billowing clouds like white linen sheets, fresh from the laundry drying in the breeze so we hurried our breakfast and then set off in the direction once more of nearby Aberystwyth.

I drove carefully because last time I was here five years ago I was landed with a grossly unfair speeding ticket and today I found the sneaky camera that got me and I at last understood how I missed it!

We didn’t stop at Aberystwyth but drove straight through along the Vale of Rheidol alongside the narrow gauge railway line until we reached the station at the top at Devil’s Bridge.

Railways in Britain are a national obsession.  When the Victorians weren’t building piers they were building railways.  And by the time that they were nationalised in 1948 there were simply too many of them to be economical.  So in the 1960’s, based on a document called the Beeching Report’, the Government set about a reform programme which resulted in thousands of miles of track being dismantled and hundreds of stations being closed.

Railway enthusiasts everywhere went into collective shock but quickly rallied and almost immediately started organising themselves into preservation societies and very soon they were relaying railway  lines almost as quickly as British Rail contractors were tearing them up.  Now, every weekend these devotees of track and steam gather together to stoke boilers, grease points and polish name plates and to run engines on restored lines or on narrow gauge railways all over the country.  It is almost like an act of shared defiance against the policies of the national government.

Welsh Island Railway

The Devil’s Bridge is at a dramatic point in the landscape where the River Mynach tumbles ninety boiling metres in five steps down a steep and narrow ravine before it meets the River Rheidol and is unusual in that there are three separate bridges each one built over the previous as though one by one they have slipped into the gorge.

The most recent is an iron bridge (1901), which was built over a stone bridge (1753), which was built when the original bridge was declared to be unstable.

Devil's Bridge Ceredigion

According to the legend the original bridge was built by the Devil, as it was too difficult for mere mortals to achieve this feat of engineering.  Probably because of the weather the Devil had never been to Wales before but sometime around the eleventh century he dropped by.  As he wandered about admiring the scenery (no one has satisfactorily explained why he didn’t go somewhere even more scenic, such as Snowdonia for example) he came across an old lady who seemed rather upset.

 ”What’s the matter?” he asked (or possibly roared).

“Oh, I’m in such a terrible muddle and I don’t know what to do! My cow has wandered across the river and I can’t get her back”.

“Ah!” said the Devil “What you need my dear, is a bridge, and I am just the man to build you one. Why don’t you go home, and in the morning there will be a bridge waiting for you. All I ask in return is to keep the first living thing to cross the bridge!”

“Very Well then” she said “It’s a bargain. I’ll see you in the morning. Nos da, Goodnight”

That night she wondered about this stranger who would build her a bridge. ‘What a strange request!  Why should I cross the bridge to get my cow back if he gets to keep me in exchange? Mind you it is very tempting offer”

Devil's Bridge Wales

The next day she got up and called for her faithful dog. Together they went down to the river. “Well well” she couldn’t believe her eyes. In front of her was the best bridge that she had ever seen!

“I told you that I would build you a bridge” said the Devil. “Now it’s your turn to keep your side of the bargain”.

“I know, you get to keep the first living thing to cross the bridge” and she started to walk towards the bridge. But just when she got to the entrance, she stopped, took out a bone from her apron pocket and hurled it across the bridge. As quick as a flash and before the Devil could stop it, the dog chased after it.

“Aaaaaaagh!!!!!” screeched the Devil. “You stupid old woman, I don’t believe it! Your smelly, hairy farm dog has become the first living thing to cross my bridge. It’s no good to me”  he screamed and then he vanished and I can understand that because I am not what you call a dog lover myself.   After this the Devil was never seen in Wales again – some say it was because he was so embarrassed at being outwitted by the old lady but I suspect that it more likely had something to do with the weather!

Actually, it turns out that Satan is quite a prolific bridge builder and Wikipedia lists at least a hundred Devil’s Bridges, mostly in Europe.

Read here about how the Devil walked in Devon

Vale of Rheidol Light Railway

The gorge and the waterfalls are probably best described by a previous visitor, the poet, William Wordsworth:

How, art thou named? In search of what strange land
From what huge height, descending? Can such force
Of waters issue from a British source,
Or hath not Pindus fed thee, where the band
Of Patriots scoop their freedom out, with hand
Desperate as thine? Or come the incessant shocks
From that young Stream, that smites the throbbing rocks
Of Viamala? There I seem to stand,
As in life’s morn; permitted to behold,
From the dread chasm, woods climbing above woods,
In pomp that fades not; everlasting snows;
And skies that ne’er relinquish their repose;
Such power possess the fitmily of floods
Over the minds of Poets, young or old!

We stayed a while at the station and watched the stream train arrive and then we returned to Aberystwyth for lunch and had seaside fish and chips and sat in the sun on the promenade to eat them.

Borth Fisherman

Wales – Postcards

Aberystwyth PostcardWales Sheep RainCastell y Bere WalesNorth Wales CastlesVale of Rheidol Light Railway