January 19, 2016

Eyes are focussed on some far off galaxy

The BBC weather forecast had reckoned it was going to chuck down overnight, cloudy and wet on Sunday and, as if that wasn't weather enough, thunder and lightning on the Monday, when I was planning to resume the cycling bit of my tour. The wind was certainly up that night, and as a result, so was I, watching my inner tent flapping around and listening to the unending patter of rain on the outer tent.

Morning came at long last, though my heart sank a little when I realised that it was still blowing a gale out there. I opened the door a fraction to survey the situation. Other tents were still standing, as was the motorbike, so it hadn't been that bad a night really. Not exactly Hilleberg-in-the-Alps, here in the Fisher Price hills of north Wales. I ate my breakfast while still wrapped up in my sleeping bag. The good thing about it being the height of summer and cold enough to make you wear all your extra clothes is that milk doesn't go off for at least 48 hours.

I'd had the idea to bring my new sandals with me, to save me walking everywhere in my cycling shoes with their steel cleats crunching over every little bump on the pavement. There'd been room to stow them at the bottom of a pannier, although that meant not bringing my folding seat. The grass was sodden and quelched as I left my tent for the road down to the village. I decided that my socks would dry out quicker than bike shoes. With my skiing baselayer on and my fleece and my Goretex jacket, and my lycra legwarmers keeping my calf muscles warm after a fashion, I realised that my body heat was being sucked out through my feet. There was nothing for it but to get cold. I couldn't buy extra clothes because I didn't have any more room on the bike to carry anything. I waved goodbye to my motorbiker friend and padded my way down the hill. The clouds were overjoyed to see their Mistress of Moisture again, and began drizzling.

I arrived at the Snowdon Mountain Railway ticket office. 'I'm afraid,' started the lady behind the counter—and I already knew what was coming because I'd spent some time the day before studying the printed out weather forecast in the window of the outdoors shop—'that we're not going to the summit today. The wind is gusting to 60 miles an hour up there, so we're going to take you as far as Rocky Valley. It's too dangerous to go any further.'
'Mmm, I thought that might be the case. And after yesterday afternoon, as well! Where's Rocky Valley?'
'That's the platform five-eighths of the way up. There's a good view over the side if the clouds don't come down too far.'
'Well let's do what we can. Thank you,' and I wandered off to waste half an hour.

"I'm beginning to want to go home. Supposedly the weather will be better by Wednesday/Thursday. This is me having better weather by taking my annual leave earlier in the year."

I parked myself in the station cafe and bought some overpriced coffee to warm myself up a bit. Eventually I took myself over to the platform where a small green steam engine was hissing happily to itself, behind a neat wooden coach with brass handles and no double glazing.

'Tickets please,' said the assistant, '…thank you. You can board now if you like, and you can sit anywhere.'

Little Padarn I went down the platform to say hello to the little locomotive, No. 6 Padarn, with her tall chimney, sloping boiler adorned with pipes and valves and even a gauge glass, and square water tanks in front of the cab. The boiler slopes down towards the front so that on the mountain it is more or less level, otherwise it wouldn't generate steam properly. Ahead of the platforms are the water column, the coaling stage and workshops, and a network of points made complex by the central rack. No ordinary engine no matter how powerful would be able to climb a railway that averages 1 in 5, even with sanders on full. Wheels would simply slip uselessly. On a mountain railway, the rails are purely for trundling on, and all the driving is done using gear wheels mounted on the axles of the locomotive. The gear wheels engage with a staggered rack between the rails, and a gripper, a little like the system used by cable-hauled trams, runs either side of the rack. This way it becomes almost impossible for the locomotive to run out of brakes or to derail itself. With all that knowledge safe in my head I took a seat in the carriage.

I'd opted for the "Heritage" experience. Why would you go to Snowdon and be taken up the mountain by a diesel? Smelly, droning things those, full of bluff and bluster and conceit. Not like a steam engine, who works hard for a living and becomes immortalised in small books for children. The Heritage experience also buys you wooden slatted seats that don't even come with cushions. The carriage filled up gradually, and our departure time came and went. It seemed we were still waiting on some more people. The more people who took seats, the more the windows steamed up. So now we were having a trip up an improbable railway that wasn't going to the top, but that wouldn't matter because we wouldn't be able to see anything anyway. I switched on my GPS so that I'd at least have the evidence.

A peep from the whistle signalled 10.50 precisely, and with a hefty jolt as the brakes came off we powered out of the station at all of five miles an hour. The track rose up at a crazy angle in front of us, and driver opened the regulator. We crept up to seven miles an hour, eight, almost. Padarn began breathing heavily as she took the weight of the carriage in front of her and pushed it up the hill, her gear wheels digging deeply into the rack and her exhaust darkening. The drizzle had turned to torrential mist that in the wind battered the windows of the carriage. But the weight of the passengers held us firm on the track, and as we left behind the gorges, spanned by small viaducts that looked not a million miles away from the lift hill on a roller coaster, the mountain started to open out beside us.

Padarn made slow but surprisingly steady progress up the mountain. I looked back as we passed Waterfall Halt and wasn't entirely sure that I couldn't see Llwyn Celyn Bach in the distance and perhaps even my tent, a tiny green blotch on a hillside. After ten minutes we slowed to walking pace, at the passing loop of Hebron Station to let a train descend. Another ten minutes and we came to Halfway Station. Padarn came to a stop because she was almost out of water. Her builder was the Swiss Locomotive Company, highly experienced in rack railway engines, but they didn't give her very big tanks. Even her small cylinders and superheated boiler weren't enough to compete with the full length of the Snowdon railway.

Wending our merry way Down the hill to the right was the Llanberis Path, also known as The Pig Track, and it was busy with hundreds of fell runners with numbers on their backs. Some in tracksuits, some in shorts, all of them stick thin and designed for running up hills. The weather was horrible and I didn't envy them.

It only took six minutes to fill up Padarn's water. Another jolt and her throaty exhaust note filled the air. I hadn't realised until now that the windows of our carriage were see-through again, and I pulled my fleece as high up my neck as it would go. The cloud was still above us, while the wind seemed to have died down along with the rain. At 11.23 we stopped again.

'Ladies and gentleman, this is as far as we can go today,' our conductoress announced. 'This is Rocky Valley. You can see why if you look to your left.'

We were at 680 metres (2230 feet). If you stepped out five feet from the railway at this point you would plummet 500 metres into a rocky green nothingness, and end up on the Pass of Llanberis. The Victorians certainly had guts. As I looked around I noticed that the grass and the shrubs were all bent over at an angle, waving around as the wind tugged at them. In fact if you tried to step out five feet from the railway at this point, you'd've been blown off the edge before you'd covered three feet.

The celebrated railway photographer, Henry Casserley, recalled the story of the very first passenger trips up Snowdon in April 1896. His account was slightly fanciful, if no less alarming than the truth. The inaugural train up Snowdon was propelled by No. 2 Enid. Her journey to the summit was made successfully, with a carriage full of passengers. Two more carriages were put on the next train, controlled by No. 1, an engine called LADAS, short for Laura Alice Duff Assheton-Smith, who was the local landowner; Enid was her daughter. LADAS the steam engine was to have a very short life.

LADAS took the first return journey and set off down the hill. As she neared Clogwyn Station she lost her grip on the rack. Her handbrake failed against the rapid acceleration, and her driver and fireman managed to jump to safety. As LADAS hurtled down the line she derailed on the next turn and plunged over the mountainside. Her carriages, having their own automatic brakes and a brakeman, brought themselves to a stop and all aboard were uninjured. But not before a passenger, Ellis Roberts, expecting the worst when he saw the enginemen jump clear, did the same. As he landed he cut his head badly, and he later died from his injury.

Worse, as LADAS left the track near the station she tore through the signal wires. After waiting 45 minutes in thick fog at the mountain's summit, Enid's driver believed the line was surely clear and started down the hill. As Enid reached the point above Clogwyn Station she too lost her grip on the rack, and ran into the carriages that LADAS had left behind. The impact jolted Enid back onto the rack and her driver was able to bring her to a stop, but the brakes on the carriages were overcome and they were derailed at the station.

An inquiry discovered that both engines lost their footing, not because of any problem with the rails, but because the rack had settled since the track was constructed. This, they believed, was caused by subsidence resulting from melting snow and possibly poor transitions in the gradient, for each piece of rack was several feet long and as straight as a ruler. Following the incident they installed the gripper arrangement on the steepest parts of the railway. While no harm came to Enid, LADAS had landed upside down 2000 feet below and she was completely destroyed. No engine at Snowdon has carried her number since.

We stayed at Rocky Valley for about ten more minutes before setting off back down to terra firma. I changed seats to be closer to Padarn and to get a better view over Llanberis and beyond. Perhaps understandably, our brakewoman declined to tell us the story of the little engine that went over the side.

After the station I still had almost a whole day in hand and it wasn't even lunchtime. It was raining as I rounded the shores of Llyn Padarn and Llyn Peris, dodging around the fell runners who were seemingly going in both directions, some towards Snowdon while others, the faster ones perhaps, were heading around to the marquees and the finishing line, and possibly a space blanket or two. With my memories of Mark Williams (the Brummy one on The Fast Show, and more recently, Father Brown) enthusing about ye olde tyme slate industry, I headed towards the grand arched entrance of Dinorwic Slate Museum.

A date with some slate Of course slate is grey, but nothing quite prepares you for the incredible greyness when every building is made from it. They call Aberdeen 'the granite city', in its coarse grained, ever so slightly sparkly but otherwise unyielding monotonality. But slate is a darker grey, perhaps polished and shiny, perhaps matt and roughly squared, and even darker in the persistent rain of Snowdonia. It was a grey day alright.

The tour of the museum, such as it is laid out in a rather nicely produced little map, took me from the centre of the enclosure to each of the rooms and workshops in turn. At first I wandered around haphazardly, trying not to look at everything too quickly, then deciding to follow the route. Just to be contrary I ended up doing the first bit back to front. The museum wasn't always a museum, mind you, not with that gigantic water wheel and casting shop and legions of massive machine tools. It was the epicentre of Dinorwic quarry operations, where men were men and Things Were Made. Now though you can buy souvenirs so heavy they'll strain your shoulder and cut a hole in your bag. That wasn't a problem because my bag was already full to bursting.

After seeing most of what there was to see I was freezing cold and aimed myself at the cafe. Some encouragingly thick leek soup and a pot of tea warmed me up, and some of the moistest banana loaf I've ever had gave me some energy. I finished off my visit watching a short film about the history of the quarry, and how one can bring to bear the power of black powder and coal and steam upon the land and by golly carve away the whole side of a mountain.

It was still raining, on and off, as I returned to Llanberis high street—as if there were many other streets to wander along—by which time I was cold again. 'Outdoors shop, now!' I said to myself, with waterproofing being my newfound interest. Not just out of becoming fed up, either, for it would put a real crimp on my holiday if my down sleeping bag became wet while it was stowed in my pannier. I did wonder whether it might be afforded some protection from my sleeping mat and everything else that was stuffed alongside, the way tightly packed paper files in an archive are surprisingly fireproof, but my panniers were only water resistant. I didn't particularly fancy repeating my earlier experience of riding through two thunderstorms and finding my plane tickets home were becoming soggy. I did learn something from that holiday, because at least all my maps (and train tickets home) this time were carefully sealed in plastic bags. However I only had with me my woolly hat and my cycling cap, and a waterproof hat was suddenly terribly attractive. Alongside browsing titanium cooking pots and USB powered lamps and a hundred other cool things I didn't need, it only took me an hour to decide which hat to buy.

It was then that I realised I'd forgotten all about the ticket office at the mountain railway. After all, I'd paid (in advance) to go to the summit, and we had all been promised a partial refund. My grey day continued when I discovered the ticket office was now shut, and I stomped back along the road again.

The supermarket cheered me up slightly on account of having chocolate milk on the shelf, along with the most expensive punnet of raspberries I'd ever dared buy. Back at Camp Bex I made more tea, and then really pushed the boat by having cold sandwiches for dinner, having saved them from lunchtime. And with no cream or yoghurt to make dessert more exciting, I ate all my raspberries au naturel.

"I can understand why people go to hot places and drive cars. It just keeps RAINING!"

I sat inside my tent with a tummy full of my ultra-low frills dinner, and started worrying. It was a strange mix of fear, of trying to be too ambitious and coming a cropper somewhere (the rain, plus or minus my planned daily distance), and hope, that I would able to tough it out all the way to Pendine. The notable lack of a) a hairdryer, and b) a tent door that didn't drip every time I opened it, really did start to get to me. It's not like I didn't have any shampoo with me, but were I more into the whole rufty-tufty camping thing, I probably would be wearing my hair much shorter, instead of my untidy plait down one side to try to keep it all out of the way.

Pulling out my map, for I was still on my well-thumbed OS Explorer—we were nowhere near getting onto Landranger no. 124—the railway lines started to intrude into my oh-so-carefully programmed itinerary.

'What if I go a different way tomorrow?' I asked myself.
'Now you've done it,' my brain said to my heart. 'You've only gone and started thinking of excuses.'
'Well I'm fed up, you know. I'm sick of feeling cold and wet. This is my summer holiday and I just want a little bit of sunshine.'
'Well you'll have to make a decision. Tabitha and I are going to ride to Caernarfon Castle tomorrow, and then the road goes to the left and Porthmadog, or to the right and back to the Britannia Bridge and Bangor, and you'll have to tell us which way to turn the handlebars.'
'I've made all these plans, booked all these places to stay, I've got myself to the middle of bloody nowhere in fog and wind and rain, and now I don't know what I want to do.'
'Porthmadog isn't really that far, you know.'
'But I'm not staying there, I'm in the campsite on the far side of the valley. It was hard enough riding over the top to Llanberis yesterday.'
'What kind of rubbish cyclist are you? You've got a pannierful of Jelly Babies and chocolate milk, and those big velomobile muscles. I dare you.'
'I know, I know. It's not that bit I'm worried about, it's afterwards: that big diversion I might have to do if I miss my train. It's an extra 24 miles. And after Aberystwyth the railway runs out. I have to make that bit work too.'
'What's 60 miles? You're supposed to be an expert at this stuff.'
'It might be 70 miles. I think I miscalculated, and it might be hilly again.'
'Pedal for Scotland was only 65 miles.'
'I wasn't hauling a metric tonne of stuff with me that day.'
'Well if you turn right you won't be doing any more little train rides or museums. Where are you going to stay? And you'll have to buy another train ticket to get home.'
'I know. Shut up, I'm thinking.'
'I'm just saying.'
'Shut up!'

The weather was delighted that I was still in Snowdonia, so it was drizzling the next morning. My bike was still propped against the stone wall which was still affording no protection from the elements whatsoever. At least the wind overnight hadn't managed to dislodge the plastic bag I'd put over the seat cushion. In a rare few minutes when the weather calmed I managed to tear down my tent and pack all my bags. I was already hugely enjoying my new hat. At first my gears didn't work; thirty-six hours of wet probably wasn't good for them, and my front brake blocks sounded like they were made from sandpaper. My first port of call was that outdoors shop, where I added to this season's waterproof collection with a pair of rucksack covers. A mile or two down the road I decided to use them.

Whistlestop castle Caernarfon was actually only a few more miles from Llanberis and I covered the distance in fairly short order. I managed a faint and rather ironic smile because now that I was near the coast again, I'd left that no-good mountain weather behind and it wasn't raining. In fact, it was almost sunny. I did a circuit of the castle, immediately got lost and rode the wrong way down a one-way street. I could see the coast and the Menai Strait, and Anglesey beyond. I sighed heavily at the loss of my itinerary and started out for Bangor.

The first few miles were along the trackbed of an old railway line, in fact the very one I'd been told about two days before. Once upon a time this was the London & North Western Railway's Bangor and Caernarfon Branch; to the south one could travel to Pen-y-groes and the quarries by Tal-y-sarn, and on the south coast, Pwleheli and Criccieth. Later it all became part of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway; in 1972 the tracks east from Caernarfon were torn up. Now though it was pretty efficient by bicycle and quietly scenic. It was better than belting along the A487 amongst the car drivers. On the outskirts of Bangor I passed the road that led to the long grind towards Llanberis, and then I took the wrong exit on a roundabout. Had I known where I was going I wouldn't have worried, but with some dead reckoning and a conveniently appearing short lane with hairpin bends I was able to rejoin the road past the Britannia Bridge. Everything was becoming very familiar as I hauled myself to the top of the town. It's so built on now that for the passing traveller there's no view over the Menai Straits anyway. Next stop: Bangor railway station.

The train was late, and I was now cold again, sitting on the platform for about 45 minutes. Presently my ride home arrived and I shoehorned my bike onboard. After emerging from the long tunnel under Minffordd the scenery jarred. It was fun, but galling too, to see the paths I'd ridden along only two and three days earlier. So much for adventure. Conwy tubular bridge was welcome, and if nothing else I could tick off another item on my 'places to go' list. All too soon I was back in Chester station, so I enquired about a ticket home, and then shuffled off to think about the rest of my day, riding around the block the long way and checking out possible places to spend the night. I returned to the railway station, my mind made up, and bought an 0630 reservation for the direct train.

I was only a week early in dropping by at my friend's house, but it was good to see her and catch up for an hour or two. With the last few electrons in my phone, whose ancient battery was so completely awful that two phone calls would flatten it completely, I called a couple of hostels, booked myself in, and then cycled over there to dump my bags and my bike. I looked like hell, quite honestly. I made the best I could in the meantime, unpacked and then flopped for a while. I met my friends at the station, and we ambled around the old town for a while to find somewhere to eat, deciding in the end on cheap fish and chips in an even cheaper cafe. It was OK, all things considered.

After fond goodbyes it was back to the hostel for me, an early night, rubbish sleep, and an early morning in which my evening of careful packing and re-packing enabled me to creep out of the dorm without waking anyone. I wasn't there long enough to get to know anyone, of course, but good manners cost nothing and I suppose it all counts.

By lunchtime I was home. I unpacked in a half-hearted manner, laid out my tent, and wondered where on earth it all went wrong.