Have Bag, Will Travel
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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.
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.
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”
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.
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.
Delighted with the results of my early morning sleuthing I returned to the caravan where my pal was ready for the planned trip to nearby Aberystwyth.
The journey took only half an hour or so and I drove first to the car park of the Vale of Rheidol Light Railway and my plan was to take the one hour steam train ride up the mountain to Devil’s Bridge at the top. At the station booking office however all enthusiasm was washed away as though by a tsunami when we horrified to discover that the return fare was just short of £20. I can travel a thousand miles on Ryanair for £20. I would rather swim with sharks, wrestle alligators or jump out of a plane without a parachute than pay £20 to go on a steam train ride.
I had been on this train ride before so it wasn’t a really big issue for me so we left the railway station and drove towards the harbour where we parked the car and strolled along a concrete jetty which gave fine views of the elegant town and lush countryside beyond.
It was rather cloudy and there was a keen wind so we didn’t stay long and instead drove into the town and the Promenade and Constitution Hill where there was some late morning parking difficulties to overcome.
I am not very keen on paying for car parking either so we drove around for a while in a futile attempt to find a free parking space but eventually had to concede defeat and pull into a pay and display Council car park and begrudgingly pay the £2 charge.
We were now at the lower station terminus of the Aberystwyth Cliff Railway, which at one hundred and twenty years old is the longest funicular railway in England and Wales. Not Scotland however because they built an even longer one in 2001.
A return trip on the Cliff Railway was a lot cheaper than the Vale of Rheidol Light Railway so we didn’t grumble when we paid the modest charge, took the best spot in the carriage to give us views over Aberystwyth and then waited for the ascent to begin and within just a few minutes we were at the top and enjoying the panorama set out below us.
Aberystwyth is a fine looking town from above. The town is situated near the confluence of the rivers Ystwyth and Rheidol and is built into the folds and undulations of the hills and valleys that surround it and the really good thing is that the Promenade and sea front cannot really be extended and spoiled because the geographical limitations north and south prevent any further development.
I visited Aberystwyth with my parents in 1966 and I recall that I didn’t like it very much (don’t ask me why, I don’t remember), I applied for a University place here in 1972 and they turned me down and I resented that and in 2011 I drove through and was caught on a sneaky Powys Police speed camera and I raged about that but I liked it today as I looked out over the attractive town nestled gently into the topography of the natural landscape just as a protective mother might hold a child in her arms.
Half an hour or so at the top of the funicular was long enough so before we blew up with excitement we took the train back to the seafront, picked up the car and drove to the Promenade for a fish and chip lunch. Actually, after a large breakfast I wasn’t especially hungry so I strolled for a while along the seafront back towards the harbour and past the ruins of the castle and the original University buildings, now fallen into shameful disrepair.
We were done with Aberystwyth so we drove back to the caravan park at Borth and prepared for a home cooked meal of chicken stuffed with goat’s cheese wrapped in Parma ham (a speciality of mine) and an evening of important football on the television because tonight Wales were playing Russia in the European Championships.
We made different predictions and gripped in a wrestling hold of extreme pessimism my companion was certain that they would lose but I was a lot more confident of success and after Wales had won the match 3-0 I went for a final walk to the beach while he calmed himself down and rediscovered his composure.
There was a bit of a sunset but nothing to get carried away by so once the last strip of red sky had finally been extinguished and I was confident nothing more dramatic was going to happen I returned to the camp but instead of going directly back to the caravan I went to the clubhouse bar where there was entertainment and singing and dancing.
I enjoyed it, it was good fun and as later as I made my way back to the accommodation I looked up into a moonlit sky and thought that maybe I could finally get the hang of this caravan holiday business!
I always say that I will never go to Wales ever again. It always rains in Wales. I always say that I will never go to Wales ever again.
In 1975 I went to University in Wales and over a period of three years spent 90% of my student grant on raincoats, wellington boots and umbrellas.
In 1986 I went to Wales for a holiday to the Hoseason’s Holiday Village in Carnarvon in North Wales and it was so cold and so wet that we gave up on the fourth day, abandoned the holiday and drove all the way back home. I said that I would never go to Wales ever again.
After staying away for a quarter of a century I went to Wales in 2011 and it rained (and I got a disputed speeding ticket in Aberystwyth). I said that I wouldn’t go ever again. In 2015 I went again and it rained and I said that I would never go again.
In March this year a good friend phoned me and invited me to go to Wales with him for a week in a caravan in Wales and I agreed. I had clearly forgotten about the rain.
I might not have agreed to go except for the fact that this was at the mid-Wales beach resort of Borth and I remembered going there on a family holiday when I was about ten years old and even though I knew that it was almost certain that it would rain I was interested in returning and the prospect of seeing what it looked like fifty years or so later!
My pal was already in Wales, he had spent the weekend there with another friend and the plan was to meet him in Llandudno on the north coast where we would exchange him like a secret agent on the Bridge of Spies so on the appointed day I set off from my home town of Grimsby and drove through drizzle towards the almost certain prospect of rain in Wales. If I was a betting man I would have gone to ‘Betfreds’ and put a £ on it!
It was a truly horrendous journey. It rained continuously. It rained relentlessly. Over the Pennines creeping clouds dragged drizzle like a plough over the morose moors. Even the soggy sheep were looking for shelter. On the motorways around murky Manchester visibility was about two inches, possibly less. Progress was slow. Then something strange happened and around about Liverpool I left the black clouds behind and by the time I got to Chester the sun was beginning to show its face.
This sort of meteorological phenomenon occurs only about once in a thousand years because normally you drive to Wales in good weather and it rains when you get there, never the other way around.
This was not what I was expecting at all and my spirits soared as I drove to the place of appointed exchange and took possession of my travelling companion and his luggage in a McDonalds car park, an appropriately shifty sort of place to do business.
My travelling companion lives close by to me in Grimsby which is just about as far away from Wales that it is possible to get in the United Kingdom but he remains a true Dragon fire breathing patriot and on the drive south to our caravan accommodation he was keen to take me to the village of Llanystumdwy near Criccieth because there is the grave of the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.
He grew up here as a young boy and this is where he chose to be laid to rest. A magnificent spot in a shady glen and overlooking an excitable river with wild water tumbling down over rocks from the soggy mountains inland. A great boulder marks his grave but there is no inscription. A monument designed by the architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis surrounds the grave and there is a simple plaque to inform visitors who may not realise who is buried here.
David Lloyd George is the only Welsh man to ever hold the office of Prime Minister, but wait, hold on a minute, although he had Welsh parents he was actually born in Manchester which must surely make him part English? 50% English I would say. This is like the Wales football team at the European Championships. They did ever so well but a third of the squad were born in England including the three goal scorers in their famous victory over Belgium. That is why that despite the fact that in Wales (including the 30% English squad) they shamefully cheer when England lose we (the English) by contrast always celebrate a Wales victory!
We left and drove around the west of Snowdonia and Cader Idris and then through the towns of Dolgellau and Machynlleth, where we stopped for groceries and then continued directly to Borth which I was pleased to see hadn’t really changed a great deal at all in the last fifty years since I had been there.
It is not an especially exciting place it has to be said. Tripadvisor lists only lists only six things to do, a list which includes the RNLI lifeboat depot the railway station waiting room, the golf course restaurant and an unlikely zoo.
We checked in, found our caravan accommodation, moved in and settled down for the evening, later I walked to the beach to enjoy the unexpected but most welcome end of day sunshine.
It rained in Welshpool, it rained in Newtown, it rained in Llangurig and it rained in Aberystwyth as we reached the coast and the road swung south towards our destination. To our right the sea was grey and uninviting, lashed with spiteful squalls of stinging rain as wave after wave of dark clouds swept in from the Irish Sea and it was about now that I was forced to concede that we probably wouldn’t be having a barbeque this evening.
Because the weather had been so appallingly bad it was difficult to imagine that it could possibly get any worse (unless the World had slipped of its axis overnight and Wales was now in the Caribbean hurricane belt) and inevitably (even the met office could have predicted this) there was some degree of improvement in the morning when Molly woke me at six o’clock and declared it time to get up. It was still unseasonally cold and the sky was cloudy and we needed the heating on in the cottage but at least it was white cloud and the only dampness was a bit of early morning sea mist.
“Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales?” – Sir Thomas More – ‘A Man For All Seasons’
I was surprised that I was so easily persuaded to book a holiday cottage in Wales because most of my holiday memories of the Principality involve precipitation.
When I was a boy we used to go on family holidays to Borth in Mid Wales and stay in a caravan. It always rained and all through the night there was a steady pitter-patter of rain on the biscuit tin roof and everywhere seemed damp, musty and cold. Later we used to go the Plas Panteidal Hoiliday Village near Aberdovey and although the accommodation was an improvement the same could never be said for the weather.