Sunday, 23 August 2015

Cadair Idris, Dolgellau

We conquered Cadair Idris today. I don't really like that term. You can't conquer a mountain. That belittles the mountain. They shouldn't be conquered. I didn't know if I'd even make it out because I felt coldy and stomachy this morning, but I wanted to do it. We got in the car and started off through a grey morning, only forty minutes after we'd meant to leave, It's quite a long way to Cadair Idris from the Conwy Valley. It's down near Barmouth, which is under the armpit of the Lleyn Peninsula. 
It was about one and a half hours in the car to get to Dolgellau, which was a surprisingly pretty town as we drove through. So many of the towns in North Wales, the ones up away from the coast, are built of dour black-grey stone or are very run down looking. Blaenau Ffestinog, for instance, is so run down and unpleasant that even the National Park shy away. It's full of slate tips from quarrying, and the National Park drew a ring around it, exempting it from their control. So Dolgellau was a lovely surprise. Narrow winding streets, but not too narrow, past old buildings that were stone, but not dour black stone. It had a feel of pleasant history, like something from a rural Elizabeth Gaskell novel.

We didn't stop there. We carried on to the car park at the bottom of Cadair Idris, the Chair of Idris, who I think was a giant of legend. I'm not sure why he chose that mountain to sit on. According to dad it's the highest mountain at that end of Snowdonia. Nothing taller between there and the south end of Wales. I think the views should be stunning, but we had no views. Mist abounded. We parked up and the payment machine refused to take the full amount for a day's parking. Dad gave a nice German man with a Japanese wife advice about how he should rely on maps not GPS. Then we struck out, onwards and upwards. 
It was an easy climb at first alongside a rushing stream that was almost big enough to be called a river, under small trees that were a little stunted by a harsh climate. The mist and cloud got lower and the wind picked up a little. We broke out from the trees and bracken onto open mountainside. It's a surprisingly gentle climb. I wouldn't recommend it to the stiff and mobility impaired but it didn't involve cliff climbing. A lot of the way is paved or gravelled paths and steps winding back and forth across the mountainside. But the higher we got the more the weather came down. Sometimes we caught glimpses of the valley floor far below. At one point we saw the sea at Barmouth. We hunkered down behind a wall and ate crisps and then pressed on again. At that point suddenly we were more exposed. We went into a fenced off area that was a nature reserve, and my eldest suddenly got excited because he thought nature reserves have shelters and cafes. This one didn't. This one had a fence to stop sheep getting in. But we found spreads of bilberry bushes across the ground and we crouched down and plucked and ate tiny bilberries, which are like little blueberries. All the taste of a blueberry (not much) is condensed into something three times smaller, so they actually taste, they're tart and sweet and have a tiny hint of mint. My fingers got stained.

We carried on up, donning waterproofs permanently, with mountain clouds driving into our faces as rain. I found it better visibility if I took my glasses off. The path was marked with cairns, and at times we were just moving from cairn to cairn because we couldn't see much more. We bumped (not literally) into a lovely group of Asian men on their way down who discussed the Biblical origins of the name Idris. I think they must have been from Birmingham, and were very nice. I suppose a lot of people would suspect they were on some terrible terrorist team building exercise. We met a mountain rescue man with a lovely golden retriever that ran back and forth and sniffed our hands. For a dark, wet, misty day the mountain was amazingly populated. 
As we climbed higher the weather closed in so far that we couldn't get very far away from one another. The path winds alongside the edge of a precipitous drop, but we couldn't see that either. We just knew it was there, and dangerous. The land looked like someone had thrown down all of the stones from a dry stone wall and evenly scattered them over the ground.

And then we suddenly found we were nearing the summit. The land suddenly became closer to vertical. Instead of a wide rocky path it was a steep rocky climb. My eldest, who had been complaining of coldness, tiredness, of having been hoodwinked into coming, suddenly got a second wind. This was elf climbing, and he's an elf. He scampered up over a jumble of rocks from one false summit to another, and then finally we were there, up at the trig point, where it was so misty we could barely see. We sat in the lee of the rocks and ate Mars bars or Snickers, and then made our way down again. Near the top there's a stone cabin, but we hadn't been able to see that at all on the way up. Apparently if you spend the night on Cadair Idris you come down either mad or a poet, and I must say I was half tempted, but maybe not in that weather. 
The way down seemed so much easier, of course. We met three mad mountain bikers on their way up, pushing, and a little later they sailed back down past us. We met an absolutely adorable woman who was fell-running up the mountain. On her way down she was on an adrenaline high and ecstatic about her progress, absolutely lovely and so well spoken. The weather lifted a little. We saw the valley floor again. We ate more bilberries. Our legs began to tremble. In the car park we met the lovely fell runner again and found she was so pleased with her time, and that this was her first ever run. We got back to the car and sighed and turned on the heater. On the way home I fell asleep. I think I deserved it.

The walk starts off very easy, along a nice stone path.

At the first kissing gate there's a very poignant memorial to Will Ramsbotham, who died while abseiling on the mountain a day after he had set a record time for climbing it. He was a geologist who had almost completed his PhD. He was only 26 when he died.

Over a lovely single slab stone bridge and ever onwards...

Just starting to climb out of the trees onto a hillside of bracken.

The sheep probably wonder what all the fuss is about.

The views were pretty as we got higher, but would be more impressive with less cloud.

One of the many little mountain streams.

Sacks of rocks. There were a lot of these at intervals up the path. It seemed to me like a modern version of the legend about the giant couple walking across the mountains on their way to build a cottage. They had an argument which led to the wife dropping all the stones where she stood. I assume these were dropped by helicopter or something, and are meant for the path.

In the distance we could just see the sea, where Barmouth sits on the coast.

Stone walls, and more of those sacks of rocks.

A couple of bilberries in the hand are worth many in the bush.

Bilberries are usually quite hard to find in the low little spreads of plants, but there were a lot here. Not so many in this photo, though.

Not only bilberries, but carpets of purple heather.

The mist lowered and rose, showing us glimpses of a little lake in the valley.

A lot of the time the view was like this, or worse.

These paved pathways look like they should be in a twee film version of Tolkien.

When this stone was dark and square on the horizon above us dad told me it was a cafe. It's not. It's a rock. The wind started to get stronger past this point, and it turned into a different kind of ascent.

Into the nature reserve area. No cafes there, either.

It got to the point where we couldn't get too far apart because of the visibility.

The pleasant group of Asian brummies, emerging from the mist.

This is where you grab hold of the kids and tell them sternly not to run off. If you could see through the mist to the left, you'd see a steep drop.

One of the many cairns marking the path, but this one had been built into something of a shelter. It doesn't look much, but when you can crouch down out of the wind it's wonderful.

A solitary sheep living its life on the edge.

I loved the ground here. It looked like a Mars-scape that had been grassed over.

The precipitous drop again.

We kept seeing spiky rises of rocks and thinking it was the summit. It wasn't.

A steeper climb now, and we came across this little construction. I'm not sure what it was and what led to quite so much work atop a rather inhospitable mountain. We're not far from the summit.

That construction from a distance. It almost looks like there was something large here.

Finally, finally, after a lot of 'elf climbing' as my son put it, requiring hands and feet, we saw the trig point in the mist. I can't wax lyrical about the amazing view because the view was a cloud. We huddled down in a lee behind a rocky outcrop and ate chocolate.

And so down again... Despite the mist the greens and greys and mist colours really were beautiful.

There were some amazing turquoise and yellow colours in the rocks too, in a surface well-worn by water.

The crazy mountain bikers on their way up. They were very cheerful and pleasant.

And the crazy mountain bikers on their way down again. This part looked like fun, and because there were such good paths it probably wasn't as risky as it looked.

The mist started lifting again as we started down. There's that lake again.

And Barmouth in the distance, with a little golden sand showing too.

At times there was even a little sunshine in the valley.

A lovely stone wall and some heather to end. Goodnight.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Eglwysbach Show, Conwy Valley

This Saturday we chose to go to Eglwysbach Show. It's one of those summer traditions. In past years we've shown goats there, and my sister had taken her pony, but this year we were just visitors.

I don't know how old the show is, and the internet is surprisingly unforthcoming on its history, but one news article talks about two centuries of tradition, so it's not a new upstart. It's held on the second Saturday of August every year, come rain or shine, and rain isn't that uncommon. It's not unexpected to be ploughing through muddy footworn mire in wellies for the Show, so this year we were lucky, with broad, bright sunshine.

The Show is one of those marvellous annual agricultural shows you get in this area. I suppose you get them all over the country in rural areas. In my mind they're something like American county fairs, which have a great air of romanticism for me. I imagine American fairs being full of pies and pumpkins and fat pigs, although I'm told that's not quite the case any more, with the traditional giving way to the crass. In Eglwysbach crass is mostly outweighed by traditional. I didn't see any pigs in our show and we didn't go into any of the produce tents because they were too crowded, and crowds and autistic tendencies don't mix, but in previous years I've been in and seen glorious flower displays, bountiful piles of vegetables, and even farm animals crafted out of vegetables pinned together by children. We watched some beautifully groomed horses with shining coats and beautifully groomed riders being trotted around the field while people watched and lolled against straw bales. We wandered amongst stalls and fairground rides. A ghost train type thing whooped and shrilled. Klaxons went off. There seemed to be small boys with air horns wandering around. We bumped into my childhood friend who was very pregnant and hot and sitting in her small daughter's pushchair.

Up on a gentle slope of a field was a host of tractors. On the way in an ancient threshing machine shuddered and jolted, fixed up to a 1946 tractor by long belts, and my mother reminisced about how just such a machine had been in use at the farm next door when she was a child. I thought how catastrophic and violent a farming accident could be, and how the introduction of this kind of technology must have changed the rural world irrevocably. I imagined limbs being ripped off and flung across the grass. This threshing machine was all of wood, with faded paint, and it shuddered as if it wanted to come apart.

We visited the tractors up on the hill. Rows of vintage Ferguson tractors with shining paint and proud owners, men in flat caps leaning on the metalwork and discussing deep issues. I was taken back to our early days of living in rural Wales, when there were still a few old boys driving their cabless old tractors up and down the lanes with makeshift angle-iron roll bars attached. I don't know how old their tractors were, but I think they would have qualified for this show. Children clambered up onto tractor seats and pretended to drive while proud men waxed lyrical about their machines. But the call of candy floss and rides were too great, so we wandered back down into the main field where they went on a couple of rides and bought garish plastic candy canes filled with jelly beans.

We perused some pens of sheep, where various pure breeds stood patiently in the hot sun. We wandered over to look at some alpacas and admire the soft products made of their wool. There was a sad duck and a few sad hens in small crates, waiting to be taken home. And then we ventured into the sheep shearing tent, because a competition was starting at four. It was a wide white pavilion filled with rickety tables and a few white plastic garden chairs. People lined up along the tables, tried to sit on them, tried not to collapse them to the floor. The ground was strewn with sawdust. Dogs sighed. People saw friends and chatted. We all waited for the shearing to start. Men in sheep shearing vests wandered about fixing up electrical sockets, unrolling banners. Children gathered near the front and sat on the ground with their legs crossed. An astonishingly large amount of people of all ages wore black, branded sheep shearing vests. A baby with a sheep shearing vest over his sleepsuit wailed inconsolably. The compere kept calling out for entrants. Local, women, veterans. It was half past four and no one really minded. Outside shire horses were being led onto the field, and I wandered out and had a look, and came back in again.

At ten to five the compere put out a final call for entrants. 'We're not running too late. Starting at four, it's five now. This is Eglwysbach time. It's only an hour late.'

Then the competition began. I had never realised sheep shearing could be so exciting. The compere read out the names of the entrants and you've never heard anything so Welsh. A stream of Wyns and Geraints, Joneses and Williamses and Roberts. I'm not sure what they'd do with a John Smith, and it's nice to see that no matter what the media might tell you, Welsh culture is alive and well in the farming communities. A flat screen tv was perched at the side to show the score, a single nod to a high-tech world. So when they were ready to go a man wrestled a young sheep out of the pens. Each man brings his own clippers and attaches them to the power supply. I didn't know clippers were so individual, but maybe they like the familiar. Maybe it brings them luck. My dad has seen a sheep bleed to death when the shearing went wrong, so I suppose it's good to be confident in your tools.

The timer is connected to the clippers - when they turn them on the timer starts, and when they turn them off, it stops. And as the man clutches the half-adult lamb between his thighs he runs the clippers over its skin like a sled over snow. It's that smooth. The wool just falls off. A good time is around twenty five seconds. The crowd yells out encouragement. Sometimes the sheep bucks, and people groan, and the compere, who is commentating on all of this as if it's a Formula 1 race, makes jokes about lamb dinners. You get the sense that everyone knows everyone else, and everyone is happy. The sheep is shorn and is hefted back into a pen on the other side of the stage. After a minute three cards are thrust up above the screens by unseen judges - red or green, bad or good. The compere treats us to more banter, and then the next man is up.

After the men had all taken their turns we were tired. We didn't stay to watch the women (I'm not sure they managed to recruit any, despite energetic pleas to the crowd) or the veterans. We ambled back through the crowds, along the dusty tracks and over the road which was busy with cars streaming out of the village. The show was over for another year.

Some of the impeccably groomed horses and riders.

The jacket is as smart as the horse.

Crowds lounge on straw bales, wearied by the heat perhaps.

A little more impeccable horse fashion.

Beautifully turned out.

A honey stall where you could pay a pound to pull three nails out of a bale, in the hope of winning a honey-based prize. We didn't win.

Straw bales continue to make the best seats.

Some intense discussion over the vintage tractors.

A lovely piece of vintage machinery. We remembered seeing something similar in a terribly rusted state, abandoned in a field near our home.

Lovely old Nuffield tractor with very new tyres.

All the ranks of tractors with the showground beyond, nestled in the Eglwysbach valley.

A lovely yellow Massey Ferguson.

I'm not sure what this is but it was a tiny baby tractor that looked like it had escaped from the eighties.

A rather demure grey tractor.

That old and rattling wooden threshing machine, fixed up to a rusted tractor with long belts moving at a swift pace.

A Welsh fair wouldn't be complete without a harpist. There were signs indicating you could slip into the tent for a free paned, or cup of tea.

A very striking young girl on the candyfloss stall.

Some of the patient penned sheep.

I always love to see the rosettes proudly displayed.

Alpacas always look very self-satisfied.

More rosettes, this time on a chair.

More of the sheep pens.

The ubiquitous Japanese tourists. I wonder what they made of it all?

Yet more gaily coloured rosettes.

The cups out ready to present for the shire horses.

A beautifully done up and patient shire horse.

These mane decorations always make me think of darts.

Back inside the sheep shearing tent, a dog waits patiently with its owners.

A glimpse of sky through the top of the marquee.

Only half an hour late so far, and they're rigging up the electricals.

Behind the pen doors, the sheep are waiting too.

Finally the competition is underway...

The wool slips sweetly from a lamb with a nasty bit of fly strike.

The sheep aren't entirely content, but they're not too bothered.

The compere kept things going with a marvellous stream of commentary and banter.

Lots of sponsorship around, and little children at the front all as enthralled as the rest of us.

More expert shearing. Even some of the children were in the sheep shearing vests.

This guy's trousers got an honourable mention.

Even the ice cream vans are all out to support our agriculture.

On the way back to the car, we saw one of the really vintage tractors waiting to be loaded onto a trailer and taken home, wherever that may be.