Thursday, 24 September 2009

Chasing the Sun

Imbued with the spirit of adventure after our walking holiday in North Wales, we were itching to get away again, but not for a week this time, just a short break of a few days to fit in with our weekend commitments. We checked the weather reports to see where the sun was destined to shine over our beautiful island and decided to chase after it instead of being at the mercy of clouds and rain over our little patch in Northamptonshire. We Ebay’d our way through cottages, B&B’s, static caravans and log cabins that offered so much or indeed too little for stonking great wedges of greenbacks for what amounted to a short let of two nights, where even worse, our furry friends were mostly persona non grata.

“When did things get so damn complicated and expensive?”, I asked Himself as I sloped off to make us a coffee and to rethink our options. I thought back to the ease of my teenage years where camping was a de rigueur requirement of the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme of which I was working my way through the achievement levels. The excitement of leaving one’s parents to partake of an adventure of sailing, canoeing and rock climbing sent us giddy with anticipation. Each day was an adventure of hanging precariously backwards over the side of a yacht, holding steadfastly to the jib rope, as the sail swung dangerously low overhead, changing our direction as we sailed round at a superbly fast rate of noughts that would have the fainthearted heaving up lunch overboard. If it wasn’t sailing it was canoeing in the icy cold waters of the lake where learning to roll your canoe, wait three seconds and tap the now upturned underside to say you were still alive took your breath away as you almost expired from hypothermia before any thought of drowning entered your head. No matter that we returned to base camp soaked and cold through to the bones, for a hot shower, beans and sausages for dinner with a mug of hot chocolate. We could sleep for Scotland under damp canvas on a mountain of building site rubble and with our supple, mouldable young bodies experiencing few bouts of agony before embarking on another days exciting activity

Many years later, foot firmly placed on the bottom rung of the career ladder and somewhat financially challenged, I experienced camping as an activity once again. Only this time, there was no joie de vivre comparable to the experiences of my earlier youth. The cheap inflatable beds deflated overnight and were about as comfortable as an MFI flat-pack; the ground sheet wasn’t attached to the tent and all manner of creepy crawlies found the inside of our tent much more favourable than the howling soaking conditions just outside. The piece de résistance was to discover that as we had pitched the tent in darkness, we were perilously close to the edge of a cliff with a sheer drop of heart stopping proportions. Obviously we relocated and re-erected the tent somewhere less life threatening but I spent the rest of a two week vacation in that bloody hell hole. Why we stayed is another story, but I vowed that as long as hotels and B&B’s were in existence I would never spend another night under some flimsy piece of canvas masquerading as a holiday home; where the toilet and shower block looked like something out of Tenko with turds floating in toilet pans whose previous incumbents hadn’t enough brain cells to work a flush handle; where the only thing missing was a tower manned with a search light, machine gun and a barbed wire fence to complete the ambiance of the camp site from hell. And so it was, that in the intervening years of international travel staying in top class hotels, apartments and villa’s, I kept my word never to holiday like a refugee and having been spoiled to within an inch of my life, had become somewhat even more precious.

“Where’s the coffee then?”, Himself asked, as he slumped down at the kitchen table and interrupted my trip down memory lane.

“I don’t think it’s worth shelling out a week’s money for a two to three night stay”, I said, as I passed him his coffee and sat down, resigned to shelving our mini break for the time being.

“Well, what about we take that tent I bought a few weeks back?”, he proffered carefully, knowing I’d rather poke my eyes out with a hot poker than go camping again in this life time.

“Camping! Bloody camping in that 3 man tent you bought for your road-trip with D?” The shrill tone of my voice wasn’t entirely unexpected but it made him sit back in his chair nonetheless. “You mean the tiny effort you bought at Asda for forty quid that hasn’t seen the light of day because ‘it rained a bit’ and you wallowed in comfort in a B&B with gastro food on the go and Guinness at three quid a pint keeping the smile on your face? You must think my head buttons up the back”, I threw as a final shot at such a ludicrous suggestion.

“Nah, didn’t think you’d go for that, I’ll keep looking ”, he said with a cheeky grin as he picked up his coffee and headed towards the study, leaving me mumbling to myself about what it was to be living the dream.

As I prepared lunch my thoughts turned to the girl and woman I had been who’d embraced life and was up for a challenge. Somewhere along the line I’d lost sight of the tomboy that loved the outdoors; that often rose to any dare my five brothers would throw at me. I winced at the time I lost my footing and fell out of a tree; gasped at my foolhardy actions when I swam the Margin in the river Clyde knowing that the dangerously strong currents could whisk me away in a moment and smiled at numerous other calamities that befell me. But eventually I mourned the woman who had travelled the world on business and holiday, never worrying about my destination or the people I would meet. All those years of childhood devouring my mother’s National Geographic magazines instilled in me a need to travel far and wide and I’d achieved more than my wildest dreams but it had lain dormant for too long. Too many business trips over a 25 year period, initially exciting and fun had eventually become a chore and long left me jaded, dulled my inquisitive nature and quashed my spirit of adventure. In short, I was a bore.

“Okay, you’re on”, I said, with eyes shining as Himself raised his fork to his mouth.

“On for what?”, he asked, eyeing me suspiciously .

“Camping, what else? It was your suggestion, okay? So let’s do it”.

“Yeah right,” he said, almost choking on his lunch at my sudden change of attitude.

“The weather’s great here today”, I continued, “but fantastic down south tomorrow so if we get packed early morning we can be in the New Forest by lunchtime, that way we can maximise the amount of sunshine we get over the next few days. And, if the worst comes to the worst and we get flooded out, we’re no more than two hours journey back home”, I offered, convincing myself that nothing was irredeemable.

“Yeah, right”.

And so it came to pass and we found ourselves pitching our all-in-one tent with attached ground sheet – no scary hairy monsters sharing our sleeping bags then - in the New Forest, a national park and an area of exceptional beauty. History records that the New Forest was created as a royal hunting ground in 1079 by William the Conqueror, the Norman king who trounced King Harold at the battle of Hastings in 1066. In time William handed the New Forest over to the commoners for the pasturing of ponies, cattle, pigs and donkeys and those royal concessions remain today. We walked our dogs alongside ponies and donkeys of all shapes, sizes and colours; an equine mishmash synonymous to the area and with the freedom to roam wherever their hooves take them. In a surreal moment we shared a pavement with a donkey in the picturesque town of Brockenhurst as it ambled its way from one end of the town to the other, perhaps looking for this season’s horse shoes by Manolo Blahnik.

The camp site, populated by enormous oak, elm, monkey puzzle, silver birch, willow trees and many more, too numerous to mention here, provided the camouflage needed to protect us from the elements. Bordering the campsite was a vast field, home to some of the equine population and provided the ideal place to walk the dogs sans leads. As we strolled onwards we entered a continuation of forest providing long walks of great stillness and serenity where the only sound was the crackling underfoot of twig and leaf as we traversed the designated paths in warm sunlight recharging our sun starved souls.

On our second day we took a trip to Milford on sea and discovered to our delight the Hurst shingle bank, a mammoth shingle barrier and natural feature that runs from Milford alongside the Isle of Wight. Cascading downwards in a seamless flow of shingle, bank became beach, to meet the Solent, a sparkling azure sea with the stillness of a millpond. Waves broke gently on the shore as Beach-casters cast their lines wide hoping to catch Mackerel, Scad and Black Bream. We watched as they gazed out to sea, lost in thought and turning only infrequently with a companionable nod to their fellow fisherman in acknowledgement of their shared solitude. As we scanned East of the shoreline we could see Hurst castle, where Charles the 1st was kept captive during the English Civil war; situated in the narrowest stretch of water between the mainland and the northern shores of the Isle of Wight, the castle was the first line of defence from ships entering the Solent from the west. Scanning westwards from the castle, we couldn’t fail to see the Needles, a famous trio of distinctive formations of chalk that rise out of the sea to the west of the Isle of Wight.

Further west and a short drive along the coast we alighted at Barton on sea. Hovering precariously close to the edge of the cliff top, the Solent below us had taken on a hue of brilliant aquamarine and melded perfectly on the horizon with a clear blue sky in a panorama reminiscent of Italy's Amalfi coast. Our high vantage point afforded us a spectacular view to Milford on sea in the west and to Christchurch and Hengitsbury Head in the east. With a sky so immense and a vista so extensive I willed myself to absorb every single detail my eyes could see as I inhaled the smell of fresh seaweed and listened to the seagulls cawing mournfully as they flew gracefully over the sea.

Each night we’d return to our temporary home on a beautiful campsite so far removed from Dante’s campsite for the criminally insane that I’d stayed in all those years ago. The shower and toilet blocks were clean and modern. We met people from all walks of life who were fun and interesting; the most surprising a group of senior citizens in their 60’s 70’ and 80’s for whom they claimed camping was a way of life and who were strong advocates for how the outdoor life kept them fit, healthy and vibrant. Our dogs behaved impeccably as they sat snuggled in the open tailgate of our people carrier, backed onto our area where we sat in surprisingly comfortable camping chairs. As the hot sun soaked day gave way to a balmy dusk, we sat drinking red wine out of plastic beakers and talked about so much that was important to us and what the future could hold for us too. A quiet hush descended upon the campsite around 10pm as weary campers retired for the night. With one last look at the star encrusted sky, so very clear without the light pollution we are used to, we too retired exhausted, dogs in tow into our small tent with the most comfortable blow up bed ever.

“So, what do you think of it all now, Mrs Mob?”, Himself asked, as we snuggled down for the night.

“Brilliant”, I replied. “And surprisingly romantic too. What about you eh, what do you think about it dearheart?”

“Ditto”, he said, seconds before a gentle snore told me this was the best thing we had done in years.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

How green is my valley?

Well just about as green as it gets. We took a holiday in Wales, on the edge of the Snowdonia National park. I’d been to Wales over thirty years ago and remember its beauty then. We’d planned to go away but couldn’t decide from the many great areas around Britain and Ireland. In the end we plumped for a beautiful cottage in a lovely village called Llanrug, ideally placed at the edge of the Snowdonia national Park. Now folks Llanrug is one of the easier Welsh names to pronounce but forgive me any Welsh Gaelic speaker who may be reading this but let’s face it, when it comes to naming places, someone just chucks a pile of letters in the air, lets them land and that’s it, named. A pile of consonants spewed out one after the other that only another Gaelic speaking nation could understand. To make matters worse, there’s rarely a vowel in sight and before you know it you are hoarse trying to pronounce a bunch of names that require the skill and dexterity of a voice coach on the X-factor teaching the tone deaf to throttle out a note or two. It is the closest I came to getting a grip on what it must be like to be severely dyslexic but it just ads to the quaintness and uniqueness of this wonderful country.

That aside, what an amazing place to spend a week of your life; Snowdon as the highest mountain in the UK outside of Scotland, is fairly impressive and it can be walked up in four hours and down in three. But knowing my lack of ability to walk back down without tripping over some weedy twig, losing my footing and rolling down at a thunderous speed threatening to wipe out flora and fauna, wildlife and eventually a human or two as I bowl on into them, I’d do it in a fraction of that time. Alas none of us were fit enough for the descent let alone the whole climb but we shook on oath that next year we would return and take on the challenge. So, as a compromise we took the Snowdon Ranger trail, a gentle rise named after a ranger John Morton who was an early mountain guide, and walked as far as our unfit bodies would take us, just to say we’d done it. I stopped before the others and sat on a rock surrounded by mountains nestling a valley with a lake of tremendous proportions. The colours of the flora and fauna and in particular the purple heather were outstandingly beautiful. The silence and exquisiteness of that moment will stay with me forever. And the sheep, dear God, the sheep! I think there must be more sheep in Wales than there are people. That reminds me of an old joke...

Q - What’s the Welsh for foreplay?
A - Here sheepie, sheepie, sheepie!

And just in the spirit of fairness here’s a couple more.
Q - What’s the Scots for foreplay?
A - Urrr ye sleepin’?

Q - What’s the Irish for foreplay?
A – Brace yerself Maureen

And just to end the theme of sheep...

Q – What’s the Scottish version of Silence of the Lambs?
A – Shut up yous! (Ewes, geddit?)

Jokes aside, I discovered that North Wales is truly one of the most beautiful parts of our country. Time and again I found that I could have been home in Scotland as so many places reminded me of its breathtaking scenery and in particular my beloved Loch Lomond which is only a short drive from the city of Glasgow. Each day was a discovery of wild rugged beaches with huge arching waves the hue of slate grey edged with blindingly white foam surging towards the beach carrying surfers brave enough to embrace the icy cold water of the Irish Sea. We walked for miles in warm sunlight and sometimes bracing winds, foraged in the sand dunes with the dogs, poked around the rock pools for signs of life and I imagined a heroine nestling a broken heart taking the same route as she came to terms with her loss and need for solitude. And so it was for my lovely sister in law who had come with us and is indeed searching for answers with the sudden, unexpected and unexplained abandonment of her by her paramour.

And castles! We drove into pretty town upon town, unspoilt and basking in the glory of a majestic stronghold. We regularly stopped for lunch in cafe’s that welcomed our canine friends and the quality of the meals were surprisingly good in these tourist areas. We all agreed that a must see was the village of Portmeirion which is located on the coast of Snowdonia on the estuary of the river Dwyryd, (see what I mean about those names? Not a vowel in site and God knows how you pronounce it). For those of us in our fifties and over it was the location for the filming of the cult 70’s TV series The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan. It was a pleasant surprise to discover the architect of this wonderful coastal village of Arts and Crafts style constructions which were later contrasted by classical and Palladian constructions was devised and designed by a Mr Clough Williams-Ellis, a great environmentalist who was born and grew up Northampton, a town where ‘Himself’ was born and not far from us today.

At the end of each day, dogs exhausted and able to be left in our homely cottage to snooze, we strolled somewhat stiffly and slowly to the local pub, a mere one hundred yards away, to imbibe is some amazing repast and a couple of glasses of wine where to Himself’s delight the extra cold Guinness was only £3 a pint! We talked easily; read books, looked only at the TV for the weather reports to adjust our plans for the next day should storms of driving rain be expected. But we were very fortunate indeed as mostly the sun shone warmly just sealing the deal on one of the best holidays we have ever had.

And so we are home, rested and in awe of a country of hardy unique people who cling to and celebrate their language and individuality, a country of sheer beauty where progress meets tradition and is seamless in its execution. My sister in law found no real answers for only the absconder can give her closure but she came back with more understanding of perhaps why he ran away; returned with a sense of family and friendship to retreat to whilst her heart heals. And us? Well, it’s back to the diet and into the gym on Monday because we shook on a deal to climb Snowdon next year and it’s going to take that long to get in shape.