Waking to the chimes of Elegia by New Order usually heralds the start of another working day but today is different. My weekend alarm clock is rarely turned on, and my circadian rhythm gets me up at this time anyway, but the ethereal tones of one of Manchester’s finest (made famous by the hit television series Stranger Things) today brings a smile to my face.
I turn to hit the snooze button for the mandatory nine-minutes of lethargy but realise that time waits for no man (or woman) and head for the shower, knocking on my sons door first. Our aim is to get on the road for seven o clock so we can start our foot journey through several parts of Snowdonia, an area quickly turning into my second home.
We convene in the kitchen for a travellers breakfast of cereal bars and coffee and place our backpacks in the boot of the car and head for the Welsh border. Motorway travel is overly tedious and repetitive but thankfully we only need to take it for twenty miles before we start on the smaller roads, and with that the first sight of digital detoxification.
The Clwydian range is only forty minutes from home with a prevailing wind and as we pass over the border we see Jubilee Tower atop Moel Famau, a family favourite we head to each Boxing Day in an attempt to walk off the calorie overload from the day before.
The weather report for the weekend does not look great but the highly paid folks at the BBC and Met Office rarely get it right these days and as Snowdonia approaches, the dark clouds do seem to be gathering ahead so maybe they have it right this time.
One of the main things about leaving the city behind is the attention to detail returns away from the noise of everyday life and it never surprises how quickly the stress levels diminish as red blocks are replaced by green carpets. This is apparent as we pass through the small town of Llanwrst. Whilst admiring the quaintness of the village we pass by a church on the other side of a small river, a church I have seen many times before except this time I notice an ancient stone circle in the foreground, for me a sign that the complexity and noise of city living is already wearing off.
We pass through the beautiful Betws-Y-Coed without incident. The last two times I have been here has oddly put me into situations with the locals, neither of them my really fault. On the first occasion, a driver pulled out in front of me sharply and I had to slam hard on the breaks, subsequently beeping my horn in disgust. I made my way to a nearby garage to stop and check that the kids were alright, I turned to face the other driver who had me followed me, jumping out of his car to threaten me as I fixed my three year old daughters seat belt. He quickly backed down when I asked him did whether he really wanted to start a fight in front of a little girl, the situation presented to him thankfully made him stop and splutter, followed by a quick retreat to his car, put in his place rightly by his wife who calmly whispered in my ear that her husband was an idiot and the incident wasn’t my fault.
More recently when we heading over to Snowdon for an ascent with the children, I took a wrong turn down a narrow road and started to make a U-turn across what I thought to be some wasteland, which turned out to be a locals front lawn, a front lawn which was apparently being seeded at the time. As I went to pull off, the house owner threw himself in front of my car and started screaming at me, literally frothing at the mouth. I wasn’t sure whether he had recently been bitten by a rabid dog or whether he hadn’t finished brushing his teeth but either way I didn’t feel the urge to stick around so I waved an apologetic hand and got back on the road.
We arrive at Llyn Gwynant campsite at eight-thirty and check in, the clouds beginning to clear already. My son has recently finished part one of his Duke of Edinburgh (DofE) Gold Award and has stayed at the site before, I did try to persuade him to wild camp but he didn’t seem overly keen and I was happy for the company so I didn’t push it this time.
The site is right at the edge of the lake deep in an almost crater-like valley. I look around and notice a middle-aged man dressed in regular hiking gear sitting at the edge of the lake meditating, becoming one with his surroundings.
“Looks like a great place” I say to L.
“That’s why we are here” he replies, spouting wisdom beyond his years.
We decide to move all of the hiking equipment into one backpack so we can lighten the load and share the burden and start making our way around the edge of the lake, nearly losing our shoes to the mud in the process. My intent was always to park at Rhyd Ddu and hike to the campsite with all of our camping gear, but the overnight parking rules in Snowdonia prevent that so we are left with little alternative but to take the Snowdon Sherpa bus from the campsite to Beddgelert and get a connection to our starting point from there.
We arrive in Beddgelert at ten-past-ten and wonder if waiting the one-hour-ten for the next bus is the best option. I see the sign for the train station and I wonder whether it is an operable one as my research of transport in the local area yielded no results on the train network website. As we make our way over to the station we hear a loud peep and come to the conclusion that the train is in fact a steam train and we see it moving ahead, as if it was just leaving. Luckily a local couple advise that the train will stop suddenly and wait for around five minutes for passengers, so we quickly head over to the ticket office and secure two tickets to the village we were pronouncing so woefully, Rhyd Ddu is not “Rid Doo” we are politely informed but “Rith-the”. Rudimentary Welsh language lesson one complete.
As we climb aboard, we are both quietly excited, me more so, as we have never been on a steam train before. This was a new “modus iter facio” for us and as we depart for our destination, we place our heads out of the windows (right above the sign which advises us to do the contrary) and take in the alien yet strangely aromatic smells of the steam and soot mix and get an eye full of black particles in the process.
An at-seat trolley service serves us both up a cup freshly brewed instant travel coffee which we quaff without a quality assurance discussion, taking in the views of nature, including free range chicken farms, fast running streams and of course the many Furths and Hewitts of Snowdonia.
The train pulls into our destination station and we gather our things. As we walk down the platform we see the First Class Pullman carriage which looks rather cosy and admire the steam engine, a fabulous machine and truly historic way to travel.
Our path starts across the road from the station and as self-proclaimed leader of the pack, Luke beckons me to follow him which I dutifully do. Although he has trodden the path weeks earlier with his DofE comrades, my road today is a journey between nowhere and nowhere with a bunch of nothing in between and I kind of like that.
The trail takes us to the base of Y Garn but we don’t take the mountain path and instead head for the trees of Beddgelert Forest passing several runners, ramblers and riders as we go.
It’s times like these that I value the most. Modern life is far too complicated and filled with distraction, walking through the overhanging canopy with the sun shining through the cracks seems to evaporate all remaining pockets of stress and memories of the commercial model.
Luke opens up too and quality one-to-one time with him always reveals his inner thoughts even though at times I still have to tease them out of him. Amongst the opulent foliage, a rural tapestry backdrop, our conversation quickly turns to the meta-physical concept of happiness and I ask him what truly makes him happy. A semi-closeted response reveals that travelling and reading are the main things that make him happy. He reveals his future plan to travel over land from the UK to Japan, snaking through Europe and Northern Asia swooping down through Malaysia, the country where he spent his formative years.
I concur without challenge and admire that as a sixteen year old he has such drive and ambition to see the world rather than read about it in a book. We discuss my latest blog which covers the twenty-eight countries I have been to and talk of my experiences, a lot of which he also shares, all of which seems to turn a light on in him as he subsequently rattles off all of the places he intends to visit and the reasons for doing so.
As the sun beats down I notice that his left arm is becoming slightly inflamed and I tell him to cover up. The fact that he is here on the path today is a real bonus for me, as things could have been very different.
A number of years back he started his own exploration of Mother Earth by commencing with the DofE program and it was whilst he was on his first mission that disaster struck.
I recall in detail the phone call I received from the DofE Leader as I was travelling back from a business trip to London. He relayed the news that Luke had been involved in an accident and “as a precaution” he was on his way to Wrexham General hospital. I remember at the time, time slowed down and something in the pit of my stomach dropped a few feet, all external sound was extinguished and my inner dialogue went into overdrive. He asked me could I get to the hospital to pick him up once discharged and I advised my current travel plans and that I would enlist the driving services of the wife.
Brokering that deal was never going to be easy and although I tried to lessen the impact and emotion I was not very successful. She drove at breakneck speeds to the hospital as I diverted my route home to meet them all there.
I got to the hospital as soon as I could, neither knowing the finer details of the injury nor how it had happened. Seeing a thirteen-year-old child with skin and blisters dripping from an arm was a tough thing to see. As he took pauses from Entonox intakes (gas and air to the uneducated) he let his unfortunate story unfold. As the group were preparing the evening meal, one of his comrades circumvented the safety procedures and filled up the stove not with the safety bottle, but from a 5 litre canister of paraffin oil. This was passed on to Luke who then proceeded to fill up the stove not knowing that the flame was not yet out. The resulting splash back engulfed him with flames and but for the quick thinking of another comrade who pushed him into a nearby stream, the injuries I saw before me that night could have been a whole lot worse.
We live in a society which mocks and ridicules those who do not look like models in glamour publications and as an aspiring actor, if it was Luke’s face that was covered in flames and not his arm, then his future career would likely be over and with that all manner of psychological problems and days like this may not have taken place. Thankfully over time he recovered and all that remains now is a tea-stain which flares up when he has had too much sun.
What does show the measure of him and his sheer determination is by taking his Silver and Gold DofE Awards and that real-life experience gives valuable insights in what not to do at times.
Running low on water supplies we stop off at a small waterfall in the forest and try out the new MSR Trailshot which is a hand-pumped filtration device for those on the move, all very successfully implemented.
“So what is your favourite book?” Luke asks randomly.
“Well as you know” I say rather embarrassingly “I’m not a big reader but there are several books that come to mind.”
“Just one will do.” comes the response.
“If I had to narrow it down to one desert island book it would probably be the book I’ve never read.”
“I’m currently reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and I already have a feeling it will be that.”
“So what is it about?”
“So far it’s about a guy who embarks on a motorcycle journey across America with his son, and through it discusses numerous philosophical discussions around materialism, metaphysics and his own mental health after thinking far too much about the first two M’s.”
“You really are a pseudo-hippy aren’t you?” he says accompanied by that sarcastic smile he casts from time to time.
“What exactly do you mean?” I question, slightly annoyed.
“Well here we have a man who says he loathes capitalism and commercialism, burns joss sticks, takes yoga lessons and reads books on consciousness and metaphysics, who works in the oil and gas industry, drives a Jeep and owns property in the UK and USA.”
“Hey that sounds like me.” I say, trying to diffuse a potential negative vibe from occuring.
“It is you, and then there was all that Yoga Mike crap where you created an alter ego for Facebook so that people you didn’t want to connect with couldn’t find you, you do realise how hypocritical that was right?”
“Let’s just say that I had my reasons at the time, and as an intellectually enlightened youth who has obviously lived this life before” said with an equally sarcastic smile “you showed me the error of my ways and ‘It’ no longer exists.”
“Yeah right.” he smugly concludes.
We continue walking through the forest after this amusing exchange with no aftermath of bitterness, but I smile inwardly knowing that he was totally correct and possesses a very wise head on young shoulders.
As we near Beddgelert the friendliness of the passer-by diminishes as is the way with most places, the further away from humanity one gets the more humane it becomes when you do see fellow man (or woman).
Beddgelert is a lovely little town and always a vibrant place whenever I visit, full of ramblers passing through the wonder of Snowdonia, stopping off briefly to take in local ice creams and locally brewed ales.
We take a slight detour to take in Gelerts’ grave, and according to legend, the stone monument in the field marks the resting place of ‘Gelert’, the faithful hound of the medieval Welsh Prince Llewelyn the Great. The story, as written on the tombstone reads:
“In the 13th century Llewelyn, prince of North Wales, had a palace at Beddgelert. One day he went hunting without Gelert, ‘The Faithful Hound’, who was unaccountably absent. On Llewelyn’s return the truant, stained and smeared with blood, joyfully sprang to meet his master. The prince alarmed hastened to find his son, and saw the infant’s cot empty, the bedclothes and floor covered with blood. The frantic father plunged his sword into the hound’s side, thinking it had killed his heir. The dog’s dying yell was answered by a child’s cry. Llewelyn searched and discovered his boy unharmed, but nearby lay the body of a mighty wolf which Gelert had slain. The prince filled with remorse is said never to have smiled again. He buried Gelert here”.
The weather is hot today so we are not surprised to see the local “squad” bathing and swimming in the deeper parts of the Afon Colwyn and a part of Luke is eager to get back to Llyn Gwynant to the exact same.
We head out on the trail towards Llyn Dinas which follows the river and pass a delightful collection of Welsh cottages as we leave the village. As the town disappears out of view behind us, we follow the river trail and I stop a while to talk to a group of ramblers who are foraging deep in the hedgerows for wild blackberries. Our energy so far had been kept up by Luke’s mandatory sponsor for the trip, Haribo, but I quickly deselect this as the travelling snack of choice and stockpile on the delicious and free fayre served up by Mother Nature herself.
We look to press on around the lake but our path is blocked by a herd of black cows, with a particularly aggressive looking bull complete with a golden ring through his nose goading us for a confrontation which he is not getting from us today.
Up ahead we see the main road again and with it a stop at the Caffi Gwynant for our second coffee of the day, a caffeine boost required for the final push, which as Luke advises, involves some scrambling.
Instead of taking the leisurely path that takes us through farms, we instead take the alternative route next to the river and nearly lose our shoes for the second time today. We cross a bridge next to the opening of the lake and proceed through the trees to the side of Gallt Y Wenallt where indeed our path up is strewn with boulders and rocks which adds to the whole experience and for me is the highlight of the hike.
We reach base camp at three-thirty and set up the wild camping tent in a not so wild camping location in minutes and decide it is in our best interests to drive back into town to pick up some supplies for the evening, namely cider, a towel for Luke’s swim back at Llyn Gwynant and some joss sticks, not for the pseudo-hippy shopper, but as a deterrent to the thousands of midges and gnats that dance in the descending sunlight above our tent.
As this trip also serves as a test for my recent purchases, I fire up the impressive Coleman PCS FyreStorm stove which heats the water for our Adventure Food evening meals within a ridiculously short amount of time, the ensuing pasta the perfect accompaniment to the on-site pizza we have just purchased from the travelling trattoria, and with the quaffing of cider to wash it down against a backdrop of spiralling smoke signals from the joss sticks, it is a perfect way to round off another perfect day in Snowdonia for me, for Luke a quick swim in the lake which doubles up as his shower for the evening rounds off a perfect day for him…