October 11, 2015

Take a walk outside myself

It's hard trying to remember tiny details from your childhood. One wants to zoom in on those fleeting impressions and fragments of memories, but the fog doesn't clear. Occasional flashes of clarity remain throughout, like the distant fog lights on a car; one can recall their intensity and their form. Who can remember , though, whether those lights were part of the lamp clusters or hung underneath the rear bumper?

When I was young I had a book. It might not have been a very thick book, square in format perhaps, paperback or hardback? – no-one will ever know, now. What was its title? Again, details forgotten in time. Pictures inside? Ah, yes. The sparking, fiery white heat of a steam hammer, dwarfing the inevitably flat-capped man standing alongside. Tales of steam ships lost to the seas. Steam engines, and railway bridges. I must presume that my book was about the age of steam. Most clearly in my memories are two illustrations. One was of the stern of the Titanic rearing out of the water, its black hull at a horrible angle, and its rows of portholes still illuminated by the valiant stokers. I was spellbound by the Titanic. Its steam engines were bigger than anything I could imagine, equally its boiler rooms, full of riveted iron mouths with insatiable appetites for coal. Even its propellors were etched into my impressionable young mind, for these were so huge I found them scary. Propellers were meant to live under the water and never be seen.

The other illustration was of a bridge. Not just any bridge but an iron bridge, made of parts that were wrought in those great hot warehouses, the kind that have steam hammers. And not just any iron bridge, and certainly not Iron Bridge, but another, far more spectacular and one that met an untimely end. The book was probably introducing the young reader to the great engineers, if only in passing. The man was Robert Stephenson, and the bridge was the Britannia Bridge. How exciting must it be, I thought, to travel on a train and go through a tunnel, but the tunnel is above the water! A huge, square tunnel, made of hundreds of sections all the same, and the whole structure rumbling and rattling as we pass through. I remember marvelling at the length of the great tubes strung between their stone piers, that they could carry a train and not bend! And at either end of the bridge, too, the train traveller would see two huge stone lions guarding the entrances to the tubes. My mind was also aware, even then, of the loss of those dark, scary and exciting tubes to fire. What an awful awful thing, to have it catch fire and be ruined forever . I don't remember if the book showed me what the bridge looked like after its rebuilding, and my mind is too full—too cluttered, perhaps—of the more technical knowledge gained over the years since.

I would love to know what my mysterious book was called. The images of the steam hammer and the Titanic sinking will be instantly recognisable if I were ever to see them again. Curious, then, that I've never thought until now to invoke the power of the internet. If the mystery were solved, I might find my memories to be wrong; but they are so firmly rooted that I would find it hard to disentangle them from visual evidence to the contrary. Some things are perhaps left buried, and happy memories to remain untouched.

The remarkable thing is that the Britannia Bridge became something of a legend to me. Why so prominent in my imagination for thirty years and more? In the modern era when everything can be found on the internet in a few minutes and nothing is amazing anymore, I did discover that while the bridge might have been destroyed by the fire one piece remained, erected nearby as a reminder. And the lions! The rebuilding of the bridge as a girder arch form was bad enough, but to include a road deck above the railway has always seemed sacrilegious. Cutting great holes through Stephenson's masonry, and hiding the railway below as though it was an embarassment, did no favours to the elegant squared-off piers and treated the bridge as just another resource to be exploited. But worst of all, the lions are no longer the brooding gatekeepers to the journey over the churning Menai Straits, a venture into a booming iron nothingness. The poor lions are vestigial, for the road deck is so low and so wide that the rail passenger can no longer see them from the window.

My book may or may not have also shown me the Victorian wonder that is the Snowdon Mountain Railway. How lovely, and how remarkable, I wondered once, to have little steam engines puffing and lurching their way up a hillside, their boilers tilted down, their gear wheels deeply set into the rack attached to the sleepers. I really ought to visit it some time.

A plan was forming. Places to visit were identified, maps were studied at length, maps were bought, campsites were investigated and bookings were made. So easy to summarise!

After weeks of working nine 'til five, and to be honest getting into a bit of a weary groove with it all, the day the long-awaited summer holiday arrived was a bit of an anticlimax. Did I have any grand plans? Yes, a couple, but they were the kind of complicated expeditions that take weeks of logistical planning: currency exchanges, phrase books, road books, bookings for ferries and motels, toll roads, tyre levers, and replacing the capacitors in my tripmeter. Did I have any smaller, easier plans? Well, no. Did I have any plans at all? I thought about taking off on my motorbike, somewhere less ambitious, but I wasn't sure where. And anyway, motorbike touring isn't so much about the arriving as the getting there. You ride to Italy for the Strada statale dello Stelvio, not because it's just a snaking, switchbacking pain in the bum on the SS38 on your way to Milan. If I had in my mind some destinations in Wales, I could be there in a day, and see them all in the next couple of days. Wales isn't that big, really. What would be the point of rushing from A to B to C and back to A in four days? The point would be in having company along the way, but I didn't have any, and in having the enthusiasm and confidence to be a bit random in my destinations—and I didn't have those either.

Ah, but cycling between those destinations would take time, and would be an adventure. I could throw my bike on the train and be in another world in a few hours. I could spend my day riding, thinking meditative thoughts to myself, pausing at one place to photograph or just look, before moving on to the next. I could give my tent another airing.

During my numerous visits to Yorkshire I decided that for day riding and general poking about, the 1 to 25,000 OS Explorer maps were preferable to Landrangers. That bit more detail on paths and buildings is welcome, not least because of the chronic lack of sensibly designed infrastructure in this country, which for "sensibly designed" read "predictable and accessible". An Explorer map only covers an area of about 20 x 23 kilometres, a bit more or a bit less depending on which one you have, which means it's easy to bike from one side to the other in a day—or about an hour if the roads are straight and you're in a velomobile.

In making my list of Things to See, the bridge at Menai was first. On the way to Menai is Rhyl, which has a tower with a lookout-cum-restaurant deck. That tower was originally erected next to the River Clyde for the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988. I was at that festival, although I have less memory of it than my steam book. There's the castle at Caernarfon. The Snowdon railway. What else?

Michael Portillo, in one of his railway journeys, emerged in another world when he travelled to the slate quarries of Wales. Now that seemed like something worth seeing, even if I couldn't remember where he'd actually visited. Mark Williams, once of The Fast Show and latterly of Industrial Revelations, looked at slate quarries, sand casting and water power. From my Explorer map of Snowdon and its environs I was struck by the immensity of the slate industry around Snowdon. West Lothian is littered with the waste product of shale mining—blaes—left in great heaps known as bings, and I recognised the characteristic shapes of the Welsh inclines and the piles of spoil. There was even a slate museum, I noticed, not far from the mountain railway.

But that was still only a couple of days' activity, and I wanted—in fact I needed—more time away. Time away from work deadlines, away from vacuuming and cat hair and clutter, away from so many people and cars and mobile phones and noise. Time to live more simply. I also know that I can't ride aimlessly, pick a place to stop overnight, then ride aimlessly the next day, and the next. I need a purpose each time. And, it being summer season, there was no guarantee, especially in the countryside, of finding a room in the next town or village.

What I really ought to do, I reasoned, was plot a course around the coast, each day being about 40 to 60 miles (my usual happy touring mileage) and camp each night. Remarkably, this coincided with such sights as the Porthmadog and Ffestiniog Railway, the Vale of Rheidol Railway, Pembroke Dock, Pendine Museum of Speed and Carmarthen Castle. And what better base to use than Chester, a city that to me has always seemed far more familiar than it has any right.

More maps would be needed. I love maps: I read them in the loo and in the bath and everything. My friend Andy very successfully navigated around Scotland using the OS Tour series (1 to 175,000), a mile away from my zoomed-in Explorers and Landrangers. But carrying lots of maps isn't just heavy: it's bulky, and pannier space on my bike has always been limited. In the end, any notions of packing light went completely out of the window. I would bring two Tour maps that covered the greater part of Wales, plus my Snowdonia detailed map, plus three or four Landrangers. I decided that they could take up the space that, back in June, was used by my camping stool. Why not, though? I like paper maps because they don't require electricity or an internet connection to use them.

In a single heroic evening I planned and programmed into my GPS the entire 300 mile route from Chester to Carmarthen. A GPS? Why on earth did I need to carry half a metric tonne of paper as well? Because paper maps are themselves reading material, and if my previous camping trips were any indication there would be plenty of time in the evenings for reading. But I'll take a book with me, too. The next day I booked my trains. And by the evening I had also booked my hostels and a bunch of campsites, even though most of the owners said I could simply turn up on spec. Having bookings is both a blessing and a curse. It gives my tour structure and daily targets, and removes the element of worrying whether or not I'll find anywhere to stay that night. But that structure can also be a burden, for a day when I'm feeling strong and could knock out half as many miles again, and not find myself arriving at my destination in the middle of the afternoon.

Panniers packed, bag packed, tent packed, bike tuned up and off we go!

"The train ride down was lovely. First class on a Pendolino on the WCML, not busy at all either. 158 to CTR was a rattling piece of crap though! I wandered around town to find a meal, ended up in Pizza Express for chicken pasta. OK, not fab. Then a wander home via the River Dee and Grosvenor Park. A nice enough walk, not too cold.

The Bunkroom in Chester seems nice enough. Common room has glass tables and an outside area that is all astroturf, fishing nets and cushions in a sort of soft den arrangement. The hostel is dead quiet, maybe 3-4 people in total that I've seen—and no-one saying 'Hi, I'm so-and-so.' But the bedroom is clean and nice."

My friend K from the USA was in the area, visiting half an hour to the north, and so I had engineered my itinerary to let us meet up in the evening. I was working around future dates, of bookings for heritage railways and museum opening times, and all I had was one evening. But while I was happily jumping off trains and pedalling the familiar roads of Chester, car problems prevented my friend from meeting up. Bloody cars! This was why I was sitting in a cod-Italian restaurant by myself, making small talk with a cod-Italian waiter. It wasn't quite the plan I had in mind.

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