The Garth

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After my night-time hike up Pen y Fan on New Years Eve, I was definitely up for putting my walking boots back on as soon as possible (or as soon as my legs stopped aching, at least). My wish was soon granted when a friend said she was looking for people to join her on a walk up Garth Mountain organised by Cardiff Council. For all the things we have to moan about our local council, we are lucky that they organise a programme of free events throughout the year. Part of that programme is a series of 3 hikes guided by the council rangers.

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At 307m, Garth Mountain is more just a big hill. ‘Garth’ in fact means ‘hill’ in Welsh, and locally it is simply known as ‘The Garth’. Only a twenty minute drive or train journey from Cardiff, it provides accessible walks from the city where you can enjoy incredible views over South Wales. We started our walk from Taffs Well train station. There are a number if routes up The Garth, and the one we took was a steep ascent with a more gradual descent. The path uphill was mainly stones underfoot, with steps cut into the hillside. We also followed the tarmac road for part of it. The route down was slippery thanks to the damp, grassy ground. I knew we had definitely taken the right route when we met a young man covered in mud at the top who was walking in the opposite direction to us. Sliding downhill on the mud may be a challenge, but it’s a lot harder to climb up a muddy slope.

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The weather in South Wales can be, shall we say, unpredictable. We were so lucky to have an almost perfectly clear day. On the city side of the mountains we could see the whole of Cardiff right down to Cardiff Bay. On the opposite side, looking up the valley, the skies were clear up to the start of the Brecon Beacons. And, towards the border, we couldn’t quite see the Severn Bridge. Some of the other walkers in our group are incredibly knowledgeable about the geography of the area. This really helped me as I’m short-sighted and I wasn’t wearing my glasses. They patiently answered my questions such as ‘What’s that white blob?’ and ‘Are they all wind turbines over there?’

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Experiencing adventures isn’t always about travelling thousands of miles and visiting other countries. Sometimes it is simply exploring what’s on your doorstep.

 

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Travel theme: Details

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I’ve decided to use this picture for Ailsa’s travel theme this week (click here to see more entries). I was camping near the beach at Port Eynon in The Gower, South Wales with some friends. In between bouts of heavy rain, the sun would come out and I’d grab my camera to take a few shots of the stunning scenery that The Gower is famous for. I loved the detail on these rocks, so I bent down to get a better look. This is what the beach looked like from a more usual angle…

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Big Pit

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One of the great things about having family and friends come to visit me in Wales is that I get to go to all the places that I usually wouldn’t find time for. So, when my dad told me that he’d never been down a mine, I saw it as a great opportunity to spend a perfectly nice (and very rare) hot, sunny day underground.

DSC_0321Big Pit, in the beautiful surroundings of Blaenavon in South Wales, was once a working coal mine and is now a fantastic museum that not only teaches you about the history of the area but also gives you a glimpse of what it was like for miners working underground throughout the ages. Like all the national museums in Wales, Big Pit is completely free of charge, although it costs £3 to use the car park and there are opportunities to make a donation should you choose to.

We began our day with a descent into the old colliery, 90m underground. This was a new experience for me. Although I have visited mines before, they were all drift mines in the north of England that you walk into. Never before had I travelled down in a lift. There was no conning myself into believing that we weren’t that deep this time, that rickety old lift reminds you just how far under the surface you really are. Before entering the lift you have to be kitted out with a genuine miner’s helmet (complete with lamp) and a safety belt should anything go wrong whilst you’re underground.

Unfortunately, safety rules at the mine mean that you’re not allowed to take a camera down with you. In fact, DSC_0329you’re not allowed to take anything that has a battery so watches, phones and other electricals have to be left on the surface. Although the mine has been cleared of all dangerous gases nowadays, they don’t want to take any chances.

If you are at all scared of entering the pit, I assure you that the worst part is the lift journey down. You’re crammed in like sardines, and you start to envy the canaries because at least they have a bit of personal space in their little cages. It’s all part of the experience, though, and this is how the miners commuted to work every day.

All the guides at the pit are ex-miners, and our guide Andrew was incredibly entertaining and informative as he led us around the labyrinth of underground tunnels. Originally from North Wales, Andrew is from a mining family who moved to the south for work. Hearing what it is like to work beneath the earth’s surface from a real miner is fascinating, and Andrew was also able to help us experience what it would have been like for his ancestors. He told us about the young boys, sons of miners, whose job it was to open and close the fire doors as the carts full of coal rolled through. Unpaid, working purely for the hope that one day they would too be given a paying job in the mine, the boys would sit in the darkness waiting for the rumble of the carts to come along. Only the lucky ones, whose families were wealthy enough to afford one, would be given a candle. Andrew told us all to turn off our headlamps, and we were in complete darkness. I can only imagine what those young boys went through, sat in such a lonely atmosphere for hours on end.

DSC_0323It’s not only humans that worked under the ground. The canaries, once used to test for dangerous gases in the mines, now have a happier existence above ground in another part of the museum. We also got to see the underground stables where the pit ponies lived whilst they were at work. Walking along the stalls and reading the names of the ponies still chalked onto a small blackboard next to each one is a stark reminder of the sacrifices that other species have made for us at our command.

Above ground, original buildings from the pit head continue the experience. The locker room features individual stories of people who worked at the mine, not just the miners but also support staff such as those who ran the canteen. The canteen is also still there by the way, and not only sells traditional Welsh treats but also offers the most amazing view of the valley and is well worth the climb up the steps to reach it. You can even walk through the shower block where the men would wash away all the dirt and coal dust.

Halfway back down the hill, between the bath house/canteen and the pit shaft, is DSC_0337the mining galleries. Probably the most modern part of your visit, this multimedia experience is a must to learn about mining techniques through the ages.

I am so glad that I made the time to visit Big Pit. If you do manage to find your way there some day, you should also visit the other Blaenavon World Heritage attractions such as the ironworks, steam railway and the canal, not to mention the town of Blaenavon itself. DSC_0338Faced with the loss of their main income, the locals here have refused to just sit on their backsides and complain. Like a lot of communities in similar situations here in Wales, they have created a new industry and in the process jobs for their town. They have transformed Blaenavon into a tourist attraction that is a must for visitors to South Wales, and I cannot wait to return.

Bank Holiday bliss in Brecon

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Last weeked was a Bank Holiday here in the UK, so most of us were lucky to get an extra day off work. I was incredibly lucky, as this is the scene that I woke up to.

I love camping, and usually go a few times in the summer. This year, however, it’s been difficult to fit it in. My godson and I usually take our first camping trip of the season at Easter, but the weather was so bad earlier on this year that there was no hope of us being able to sleep in a field. The weather evetually picked up in June, and was glorious for the whole month, but my friend’s wedding kept us all busy. So, when another good friend of mine suggested that we head to Brecon for the August Bank Holiday weekend, I jumped at the chance. As well as taking my godson with me, who is now eight years old, I also got to take my two year old goddaughter camping for her VERY FIRST TIME!!!! I was so excited. I’ve been waiting to take her for ages, but various obstacles have stopped us. I was also a little nervous, but I’m pleased to say that she loved it and took to camping as well as her brother did when I first took him three years ago.

We stayed at Bishops Meadow, a really nice family-orientated site. It’s one of the warmest welcomes that I have ever had at a British campsite. I quite often get looked down upon for being in my 30s, straight and single, even when I have my godson with me (do they really think I’m going to start a riot with a child in tow?). But the staff at Bishops Meadow were nothing but friendly and professional. They also have a really clear, good-value tariff system that makes booking a lot easier. My only criticism would be a mistake that a lot of campsites make. They put the toilets closest to the caravans. Most caravans have their own toilets, and those of us who are sleeping in tents have to walk the furthest. It can be tricky, especially travelling on your own with two children, one of whom is toilet training.

Although a little cloudy, the weather was generally really nice for the whole weekend, and the kids made good use of the outdoor swimming pool.

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Virtually on our doorstep, the Brecon Beacons are a stunningly beautiful part of Wales and a perfect destination to get away from the city for a while. Even where we stayed right at the northern edge of the Beacons, it still only took us just over an hour to get there (which I appreciated as the kids argued over a pillow for the whole journey!).

Travel Theme: Peaceful

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

Whenever I need to feel peace, I head to the coast. Looking out to the horizon helps me to clear my mind.

I took this photo from the coastal path when I camped at Churchdoors last week.

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Pen y Fan (Almost)

Just a 40 minute drive from Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, is Pen y Fan, the highest peak in South Wales. Standing 886 metres (2,907 ft) above sea level, Pen y Fan and it’s neighbour Corn Ddu are also known as Cadair Arthur (‘Arthur’s Seat’). On Saturday, I found myself with a group of my colleagues, attempting to walk to the top of this stunning hill.

Later this year, one of our managers is climbing Ben Nevis to raise money for charity. As part of her training, she is aiming to climb one mountain a month, and asked for volunteers to join her in Brecon to attempt Pen y Fan.

We had been warned about the adverse weather conditions up there at the moment. Although we have had nowhere near as much snow as our neighbours in North Wales, there is still snow on our hills left behind from January. We decided to push on though, and we couldn’t have picked a better day to do it. The sun was shining, it was not cold (I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was actually warm) and it wasn’t raining.

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Looking down the valley, towards Cardiff

As we started to see the first signs of the snow, it dawned on us just how bad the conditions might be nearer the top.

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Looking towards the border into England

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Corn Ddu in the distance (Pen y Fan is behind Corn Ddu)

Quite a few people were using crampons and ice picks to reach the top of Corn Ddu. Most, like us, scrambled bambi-style and tried to stay in previous hikers’ footprints to avoid sliding all the way back down to the bottom again.

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The view of Pen y Fan from Corn Ddu

Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to the top of Pen y Fan on this occasion. As you can see from the above photo, there was quite a lot of snow. It wasn’t fresh snow, either, so was very hard-packed and like an ice-rink in places. We considered carrying on to Pen y Fan, but figured that, although we’d probably get to the top, we’d struggle to get back down again. I’ll definitely be going back in the summer to give it another go.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Unique

Meet Snowy:

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Snowy is a wallaby, and he lives at Manor House Wildlife Park, a brilliant eco-zoo that I would recommend for anyone visiting South West Wales.

What makes Snowy unique is that he is the only albino wallaby at the zoo. He doesn’t look, or act, anything like the other wallabies:

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Because he is albino, Snowy cannot see or smell as well as the other wallabies. This means that he has to come really close up to you to check if you have any wallaby food for him. This also makes Snowy super friendly.

I first met Snowy when my godson and I visited Manor House for the first time two years ago. My godson immediately decided that Snowy was his favourite. It wouldn’t have really occurred to me that Snowy is so unique, only as we were leaving the wallaby enclosure my godson turned to me and asked ‘Do you think that Snowy knows he’s different?’

This is my contribution to this week’s Photo Challenge: Unique. Click here to see more entries.