Travel theme: Pathways

Ailsa’s travel theme this week is Pathways. Click here to see more entries.

This theme really got me thinking. Ironically, I guess you could say I had two pathways to choose from. On the one hand, I could go down the literal route and choose images of pathways I’ve physically walked down. On the other hand, I could take a philosophical approach and consider the pathways in life that I have had to choose from in the past.

The latter of the two options gets incredibly complicated for me. I have taken so many pathways in my life, and create many new options for myself on a daily basis. At the moment, for example, I’m trying to decide on a career change. There are about 10 different jobs that I’m researching and considering, all in different industries.

So, I decided to go down the more literal route.

One of the things I’ve tried to do more of this year is walk. Although the Welsh weather has been against me, I’ve managed to get out a few times already. Below are some photos of pathways I took on recent walking trips to Brecon and Bala.

The Bala Challenge (Almost)

If ever I needed proof that us Brits are conditioned to persevere in adverse weather conditons, my adventure in North Wales last weekend is it.

A good friend of mine, Catherine, invited me to join her on the Bala Challenge, which she has completed three times in previous years.

There are a few different options to taking part in the challenge, and we opted to attempt the most difficult, a 20 mile (32km) mountain walk with a total ascent of 1250m.

Cath’s fiance Ant decided to come along for the weeked as well, and whereas they opted to drive up on the Saturday morning (the day of the challenge), I travelled up on the Friday evening and booked myself into Bala Backpackers. Even though I live in Wales, I always forget how long it takes to get anywhere here. The equivalent distance of Cardiff to Bala in England would only take you a couple of hours. As we don’t really have motorways in Wales (certainly none in mid-Wales) and a lot of areas are very remote with small, winding mountain roads, when you’re travelling around the Welsh countryside it makes it feel a lot bigger than it looks on the map.

The consolation to the long drives is the breathtaking scenery. Bala is situated on the southern edge of Snowdonia national park, one of the most stunning landscapes we have here in the UK. Even though I was running (very) late, I couldn’t help but be calmed by the colours of the mountains as the sun disappeared behind them. Four and a half hours later, I arrived in Bala with a huge smile on my face. After apologising to the lady who owns the hostel for my lateness (who by the way was very lovely and understanding), she gave me the guided tour and I settled in to get some rest before my big walk the next day. It’s very rare that I come across a hostel so well maintained and organised as Bala Backpackers. I’ve stayed in hostels all over the world, and there’s nothing more annoying than finding everything you needed on the last day. At Bala Backpackers, nothing is left to chance. The hostel has excellent facilities, comfortable communal areas with books and games and is generally very clean. There are lots of extras you can add on to your stay should you choose to. Are your room mates snoring too loudly? Then buy some earplugs at reception. Forgotten your shopping bag? (we don’t use free disposable bags in Wales) These too can be bought, proceeds going to a local charity. You can rent bedding, left over toiletries are available in the bathroom and there’s even a drying room to leave your wet and muddy gear after walking/climbing/kayaking… (delete as appropriate). I didn’t know it yet, but the drying room was going to come in very useful to me.

The town shares its name with Lake Bala, the largest natural lake in Wales. Bala Lake is surrounded by three mountain ranges – Berwyn, Aran and Arenig, and the challenge takes you on a circuit around the whole lake.

Lake Bala
Lake Bala

At 7am the next morning, I got up, ate breakfast and got ready for the walk. The weather forecast had predicted spells of sun and rain, and it was already looking cloudy so I layered up with thermals and waterproofs and put spare hat, socks, gloves, thermal top and waterproof jacket in my backpack.

The 20 mile walk is expected to take 7-10 hours, and you have to start between 8 and 9am. There are three parts to the challenge – 8 miles along one side of the lake to Llanuwchllyn, 6 miles to the summit of Aran (600m) and back down again, and a further six miles back round the other side of the lake to Bala. This last six miles includes something known as ‘death hill’, allegedly the toughest part of the route, especially after already walking over 15 miles. If you are late for any of the checkpoints, you have to pull out and be driven back to Bala as there is a strict time limit of 10 hours.

I met Cath and Ant at the leisure centre, the start point, and at 8.25am we set off. The weather was against us from the start. Although there were patches of sunshine, those threatening clouds soon started to release rain on to us which made the already tricky terrain almost impossible to cross in parts. Add to that the fact that Wales has already had too much rain this year, and that the snow only melted off the mountains a couple of weeks ago, and the boggy marshland that Snowdonia is famous for was like its own little lake district. I started off trying to avoid getting my feet wet. I soon gave in, though, and my boots had about an inch of water in them from mile 5 onwards.

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We soon realised that we’d made a rookie mistake. All the other walkers had those handy plastic map wallets to keep their directions in. We didn’t, and it wasn’t long before the rain started to dissovle the paper in our hands. Not that we could understand the directions anyway. The organisers of the event seemed to assume that everyone would understand the code they used.

AH 200m. LS, BR then diagonal across field to G.

eh?

After a couple of miles we’d figured out most of the abbreviations:

Ahead 200m. Ladder Style, Bear Right then diagonal across field to Gate.

After 8 miles of squelching through bogs, traversing barb wire fencing, balancing on logs and sliding down muddy slopes, we made it to the first checkpoint at Llanuwchllyn railway station. Whilst we stopped to eat our sandwiches and change our wet clothes, the sun patch that we had seen making its way around the lake decided to shine on us for a bit.

I couldn't resist taking this shot - how often do you get to stand right in the middle of the track for long enough to take a photo?
I couldn’t resist taking this shot – how often do you get to stand right in the middle of the track for long enough to take a photo?

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After spraining his ankle on the first stage of the walk, Ant decided to drop out at this point and head back to Bala on the steam train. Myself and Cath battled on and set off to tackle Aran. As we knew we were already running late, we decided to push ahead and get to the summit as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the Welsh weather had other ideas. It took every ounce of energy I had to try and step forward whilst the horizontal wind seemed intent on pushing me to the left. The rain didn’t stop, and was sooned joined by hailstones. It was like trying to walk up a mountain whilst someone threw gravel at your face. We started to get a little nervous when the thunder started, and prayed we were near the top. Just as I was about to give up hope, we spotted a two-man tent about 200m ahead. The checkpoint! According to what little was left of our directions, the views are stunning from the top of Aran. I’d love to show you some photos, but even if I had been able to see much, it was just too wet to get the camera out.

The walk down was just as tricky as it had been going up. The ‘path’ was more of a river and the marshland was getting wetter by the minute.

We’d decided that although we were wet, cold and tired, we wanted to continue on the final six miles when we reached the bottom of Aran. Sadly, we were met by two volunteers in Llanuwchllyn who informed us that we’d missed the checkpoint by over an hour and would have to be driven back to Bala.

Before leaving the next morning, I stopped to take a photo of Aran in slightly clearer weather
Before leaving the next morning, I stopped to take a photo of Aran in slightly clearer weather

Although I was disappointed to not have completed the challenge, I was determined to not let the failure get me down. I will return next year, and I will complete the walk. All 20 miles of it.

Cardiff and the Live Music Scene

One thing that South Wales is passionate about is music. Since I first moved here almost fifteen years ago, I’ve been fortunate to attend many gigs, concerts and impromtu jams. There are fantastic live music venues all over the place, from hidden corners of the city to country lanes in the valleys. They all have their own legends to tell, about now famous bands that were discovered playing in a back room and rock stars who still choose to hang out in a local pub when they’re in Wales.

A handy 20 minute walk from where I currently live in Cardiff is the Royal Oak pub on Broadway. Sunday night at the Royal Oak is Open Mic Night, when this traditional British boozer plays host to a talented bunch of singers and musicians consisting of all ages and different musical tastes.

Not only a great live music venue, the Royal Oak is also famous for it’s boxing gym on one of the upper floors. Whereas most pubs and clubs cover their walls with photos of musicians who have played there, the Oak is wallpapered with images of iconic boxers who trained above the bar whilst the locals supped their pints below.

What I love most about the Royal Oak is the atmosphere. You make friends from when you first walk in the door, and before you know it you’re singing along with everyone else. You might even find yourself with a tambourine in your hand.

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For those of you that want to see some of Cardiff’s musical talent in action, but are unable to make it to South Wales, check out the video below which was shot in another local pub, The Roath Park:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=V0Ef4g8WFbY

Top Tips for Camping

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1. Without wanting to sound like a girl guide or your mother – BE ORGANISED! Have a place for everything and make sure everything is put back in it’s place.

2. When packing your clothes, be prepared for any weather. Pack your bag, empty it and re-pack it at least twice. You’ll get rid of something you don’t need every time.

3. Things that can be compacted to a smaller size are best for camping. Try and save space in any way you can. Think travel towels rather than normal bath towels, sleeping bags with compression straps and foldable water carriers. My friends tell me everything I own comes in it’s own little bag.

4. If you’re travelling by car, it’s a good idea to have a camping box. Make sure the box fits comfortably in the back of your car, and fill it with all your camping pots, pans, crockery etc. That way, all you have to do is put the box in the car.

5. Keep a camping list in the top of your camping box, with everything that you need to go camping on it. That way you’re less likely to forget something.

6. Remember – not every camp site has toilet roll. Always keep a spare roll on you.

7. My brother always asks me ‘What is it with women and wet wipes?’. Wet wipes are handy to carry with you, and come in useful in so many situations, including camping.

8. If you’re camping with children, I highly recommend you buy some glow sticks to take with you. They’re only a couple of quid for two, and they’re great to give to kids when it starts to go dark. It saves on batteries for the torch/flashlight, and they can even hang them in the tent as a night light when they go to bed.

9. If you go into any outdoors store these days you could probably furnish a small house with all the items they have designed for camping. They have thought of everything to make camping accessible for even the biggest nature-phobe. I even saw a peg-puller in my local store, which was essentially another peg on a piece of string. If you’ve never been camping before, and you’re not sure if you’ll go again, all you basically need is a tent and something to sleep in. Obviously, how much you can take depends on how you’re travelling. My advice is to let common sense prevail. If you can pull the pegs out with one of the spare pegs you already have, you probably won’t need the peg-puller.

10. Check if there’s any local information you need to know about the area where you’re camping. I’ve camped in North America where I had to learn what to do if I came across a bear. That information isn’t much use to me here in the UK, but what I have learnt here is to be careful what you leave out overnight when there are animals like foxes around (I had a bad experience as a child when a fox stole my rainbow trout in the middle of the night).

Port Eynon and The Gower

Exploring new places is one of the things I love most about travelling. Seeing new landscapes, finding different subjects for photographs and discovering those little oddities that make places unique are all things that excite me. So when one of my best friends announced that she wanted to celebrate her 30th birthday camping in Port Eynon, somewhere I’ve never camped before, I jumped at the chance. I had briefly visited Port Eynon once before, but I hadn’t had the chance to explore much. During the winter, I’d offered to take my mum and dad on a drive around the Gower so they could see a bit more of Wales. The weather was pretty dire that day, so our experience of Port Eynon was nothing more than running from the car to the fish & chip shop for dinner and then back again. It was so grey that I didn’t even realise there was a camp site less than 100 metres away.

My second trip to Port Eynon, I am happy to say, was much more successful. I wouldn’t recommend Carreglwyd camp site, though. They are very insistent (on their web site, on the booking form, face-to-face) that their camp site is for FAMILIES ONLY. NO GROUPS are allowed. If, for any reason, you do not understand this rule, they will kindly repeat it to you at every given opportunity. Our party was mainly my friend’s family, all age ranges included, and then a few more of us who booked in as pairs. So as not to disturb anyone, we camped at the very far end of the campsite (a 15 minute walk to the toilets, which were next to the electrical hook-ups – the only people on a campsite that don’t need a toilet?!). It turns out, however, that as long as you’re part of a ‘family’ (which apparently can include school groups and families where every member is about the same age), you can make as much noise and disturbance as you want. Members of our party were quizzed every time we walked through the site. Were we staying there? As the only other reason to be there was to walk the coastal path which runs through the site, I did point out that I’d be unlikely to be hiking wearing shorts, sandals and a vest top and carrying nothing but toilet roll in my hand. Members of my friend’s family were stopped from entering the site and we were generally made to feel very unwelcome. The only people in our party who weren’t treated this way were a gay couple. In the UK, it’s against the law to discriminate against someone because of their sexuality, and rightly so. You can, however, choose to make assumptions about and discriminate against people because of their age and who they choose to travel with. I think it’s time that businesses need to stop assuming that ‘groups’ are going to be disruptive and realise that anyone can make a disturbance if they put their mind to it, regardless of age, race, sexuality or how many of them there are. My tent-mate and I did make a trip to another local caravan park, as they are the proud owners of the only supermarket in Port Eynon. I have to say we were made to feel very welcome there, so rest assured there are nice places to stay in the area.

The accommodation issues did not dampen out weekend, though. Although we had the weirdest weather, bright sunshine interspersed with sudden, dramatic rain showers, once we’d pinned down all the tents in the strong winds we had a really nice, relaxing time. Port Eynon, like all of the Gower, is beautiful. Here are some photos that I managed to take between the rain showers.

The Rules of Camping

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As I’ve been talking about camping this week, I had to share this with you because it is sooooo cute. I first took my godson camping when he was 5 years old, and he wrote these ‘Rules of Camping’. If you’re having trouble reading it, here’s a translation:

No eating in the sleeping area.
No shoes in the sleeping area.
No leaning on the tent.
Don’t go near the fire or BBQ unless grown ups are with you.
No running off or around the tent.
No breaking the tent.
Don’t touch the sharp knives.
No hanging off the tent.
No climbing anywhere.
No eating when grown ups aren’t saying. (I’m not sure where this one came from, I’m honestly not that strict)
No going to the toilet on your own.
Don’t go to other people’s tents.
Don’t break other people’s tents.
Be careful of cars on the road.
Don’t break the glow sticks.
Don’t wake other people up.
Don’t break the sleeping bag or mat.

Whitesands

One of the things I love about being a godmother is that I get to introduce my godchildren to new experiences, things that they would otherwise maybe not have the opportunity to try. Even I was apprehensive, though, when I decided to take my five year old godson camping for the first time in summer 2010. As a child who’d spent his whole life in the city, I don’t think he had any concept of what camping was, and I wasn’t sure if he’d love it or want to come home after five minutes. So I decided to test the water by starting with just a one night pitch at somewhere far enough away from Cardiff to make it an adventure, but close enough that we could drive home if it all went wrong. I spoke to his other godmother, who suggested we meet her and her two nephews in Whitesands, Pembrokeshire. I’m embarrassed to say that, in all the time I’d been living in Wales, the furthest west I’d travelled was Swansea, so it was going to be an adventure for both of us.

A better spot for camping could not have been recommended for us. Whitesands, as with most of West Wales, is off the beaten track. You’re not going to trip over it by accident, so only people who know it’s there tend to visit. If it’s luxury camping and great facilities you’re after, then you’re probably better off staying in one of the bigger sites closer to Tenby. If, however, you’re happy to rough it a bit, then I’d definitely recommend the drive out to Whitesands.

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No matter how busy the traffic gets in the summer, and don’t underestimate how popular the beaches of West Wales are, the roads down to the coast will never be more than a single track. So be prepared for a slow journey once you leave the main road, and watch out for pedestrians, cyclists, kids racing on scooters and everyone else who uses the roads. The directions I was given to find the campsite were ‘drive west until you can’t go any further, and when you see the two white houses, the campsite is on your right’. Believe it or not, I found it first time. If you like more precise directions, though, from St Davids follow the Whitesands signs on the A487, and then turn left onto the B4583. If you can’t be parted from your sat-nav, the postcode is SA62 6PS.

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If you do experience any road rage from battling with all the other road users on the drive down to Whitesands, it will soon disappear when you catch the first glimpse of the beach in front of you. As the campsite is situated virtually on the beach as well, everyone has a room with a view. And it’s probably the cheapest sea-view in the world, as the owner only charges £5 per adult and £2.50 per child. In typical West Walian style, the campsite is run in a very relaxed manner. Pitch your tent wherever you want, and the owner will either come and find you, or you can pay at the parking booth. This is where you can also buy shower tokens and ask any questions you may have about the area.
I’d recommend Whitesands campsite for any laid-back campers looking for a beautiful setting in which to relax and take in the beauty of West Wales. It’s so quaint that it made it into the ‘Cool Camping Wales’ book.

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Just in case you’re wondering, my godson thankfully took to camping like a duck to water. Before I go, I wanted to leave you with this anecdote. It helps to remind me that when you’re with children, you need to think about things from their point of view:

When we first arrived at the campsite, there was some confusion over the difference between the tent and a sleeping bag. When I told him we sleep inside the sleeping bags which would be inside the tent, he looked at me like I was crazy. It’s only when I stopped and thought about it that I realised, when they’re packed up in the car, the tent and the sleeping bags are both actually the same size.

My godson and I have been on lots of camping trips together since, and I hope they will continue until he’s too old and embarrassed to hang around with his aunty.

Roath Lake and my 5k training

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I’m not going to lie, I’m terrible at running. I always have been. I used to dread cross-country at school. I had no stamina, and I would usually end up falling in a ditch (my old school is surrounded by them as our whole village is built on reclaimed marshland). Come to think of it, my form weren’t good at sport at all. Our form teacher was just glad if we turned up for sports day. The school had a rule that students could only compete in three events each, to give everyone a fair go at participating. They had to make an exception to the rule for our form, because we didn’t have enough girls willing to compete in anything. I remember one year when only three of us turned up on the day. One girl had to run the first and last legs of the 4x100m relay.

This year, my aim is to do more and one of the ambitions on my list is to run a 5k. I’m aware that 5k sounds like a pathetic distance to most people, but as you can see from my (non)athletic past, to me it is a challenge. Besides the fact that I am just plain terrible at running, I also have problems with my feet that cause me pain on a daily basis. I’m sure you don’t want to hear the details, but basically I have flat feet, short calf muscles and odd shaped bones. In most people, the bones in your feet slide past each other effortlessly without ever touching. In my feet, they scrape against each other and make it feel like someone is holding on to each end of my foot and twisting with all their might.

I’m not sure which 5k I’m going to do yet, or where, but I started training for it properly in January. I am incredibly lucky in that I have the perfect training ground right on my doorstep – Roath Park. Twice a week I run around the park – past the football and rugby pitches, the children’s playgrounds, the rose garden and the stunning Roath Lake.

Although I have to dodge the geese when I get to the lake (I had a bad experience with one that bit me at Lake Windermere when I was a child), there isn’t a ditch in sight for me to fall in.

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The light house on the lake was built to commemorate Captain Scott’s ill-fated voyage to the Antarctic from Cardiff in 1910.

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There are about 100 swans that live on the lake, plus lots of geese. I do my best to avoid them, including running off the path in big semi-circles. They also leave ‘deposits’ on the footpath that can make jogging interesting!

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One of my favourite features of the park, and there are many, is the sculpture inspired by Roald Dahl’s The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me situated in one of the children’s play areas. Dahl is one of my favourite authors, and a local hero here in Cardiff.

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A classic bit of British memorabilia. We don’t have much call for them anymore (excuse the pun), but I wouldn’t like to see them disappear from our landscape.

 

 

Hidden talents

A few weeks ago I told you about a new activity I tried – pottery! This week I went to collect the pieces that I made in the workshop, all ready after the tutor had fired and glazed them for us. As promised, here is a photo of the finished product.

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OK, I’m no sculptor, but they turned out better than I expected!

Rainy Sunday

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One of my big things this year is to do more. I don’t want to run myself into the ground, but I do want to get involved in as many community activities as possible. I’ve got lots of exciting events coming up over the next few weeks that I can’t wait to tell you about.

Yesterday, I ventured into a Cardiff neighbourhood that I hadn’t really been to before and visited one of our local community gardens. Projects like the community garden are perfect for people like me. I really want to learn about growing my own food, but no plant will live longer than a few days in my damp, mouldy, one-bedroom apartment. Yesterday I helped to plant some daffodils, which will hopefully be blooming ready for St Davids Day at the beginning of March, but generally there isn’t too much to be done in the garden at the moment. I’m really looking forward to when the weather gets nicer and I can get stuck in to some of the fantastic projects they have planned.