PAUL K LYONS
JOURNAL - 2000 - AUGUST
6 August 2000
Sunday, but not such a lazy one. This morning Ads and I cleaned out the garage, re-sorting all the garden, decorating, bicycle, car, motorbike and game appliances into their respective places. I even cleaned the window which was so covered in cobwebs one could no longer see through it. I also threw out a number of bits and pieces thus leaving more space - I may now buy a table-tennis table which can be rolled into the garage for storage. Sadly, I chucked out my racing bike, the one I bought at a Tring auction ages ago (for over £100), more than 10 years perhaps. Although I had used it last year, stupidly I had left it leaning against the one wall in the garage which is damp, and this had led to a lot of rust and I couldn’t see any point in trying to rehabilitate it - if Ads had been a few years older, I might have given him the task of restoring it to health. After lunch (sausages and potato salad) we drove to the dump to dispose of the bike and a few other things, and then went on to Guildford volleyball club’s annual tournament. We watched for half an hour and then came home. Ads is now playing tennis with Richard over the other side of Elstead.
For 10 days, from 10 to 5, Adam worked with 14 other teenagers at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre under the direction of the resident youth theatre director Nic Paris. He loved the course; he found the other children really friendly, and enjoyed the working together on dance and songs, and character to produce a show. Every day he came home saying how much he loved it. Some evenings we talked about how to develop a character, and he expressed concern that the director had given him the character of a gay barman, and required him to speak in an effeminate way. I wasn’t too happy at that either, but I explained that that’s what actors do, they have to play parts they might not like. We also talked about how he could add some slight bits to his own character if he wanted to make it more interesting.
On Saturday, the 14-strong cast performed Nic Paris’s music ‘Panic’ twice. Barbara, my mother and I went to the second performance.
I am off to Corfu tomorrow evening. I will have to endure hours and hours - up to eight perhaps - of herd travel with package tour families before arriving in the middle of the night at my package tour studio in a package holiday resort in the north of Corfu. I would have preferred simply to have taken a flight and then found my own accommodation, but the only flights available would have landed me in Corfu at 2 or 3 in the morning. I suppose I could have just walked through the night - it would have been warm enough - and then found a hotel the next morning, but I didn’t really think about that at the time, nor did I consider that I could have booked a room by phone by using a guide book. I did, though, think that the island would be pretty full, and that accommodation might be difficult to find. So I went to Lunn Poly and let them book me into a £550 holiday. It will be absurdly hot; absurdly crowded; and I shall probably hate every minute of it. But, at least I’m getting away for a week or so, and, hopefully, I’ll be able to swim in the sea lots. I shall be stuffing my bag with books: a thriller, ‘Prospero’s Cell’, a Corfu guide book, ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’, which I’ve never read, and ‘Zen and the Art of the Motorcycle Maintenance’, which I haven’t read for 20 years, and since when I have actually owned a motorbike. A and B are going to Devon or Cornwall for a few days.
7 August 2000
I am returning back to the house, and I am hoping to see that someone I am expecting has arrived, but instead, as I cycle back along the road, I notice an awkwardly parked car in the front garden. Then I see a whole group of people in white throwing a ball around. I remember that I have offered to host a volleyball match. The players are everywhere, even in the neighbour’s garden, some of them seem to be children running riot. John, from the volley club, is there trying to arrange for the pitch and net to be set up, but it won’t fit in the garden, or the ground isn’t level enough. I suggest we can play on the recreation ground which is just around the corner, and that, in fact, we have played a match there before. As we go and look for a suitable place to play, I recall that we played on a proper laid-out court. I tell John I am going to Corfu later, and he tells me all the girls (from the club) are going there too. I go ‘Oh no’, and I mentally project to the embarrassment of meeting them (none of whom I like particularly), at the airport perhaps, and having to explain I am going on holiday alone. I keep searching for the court, but the recreation ground appears to be busy. At one point I am caught in a crowd of people in an alley who have just come back from the main road to watch a pop star drive by. Eventually, I find the court. John, or perhaps it is somebody else from the club now, I can’t tell, goes straight to an old fashioned phone that is hanging on a pole, and makes a call. I assume he is trying to get permission to use the court. But when I approach him, I hear he is talking about something else entirely, about his job, I suppose. When he finishes, I examine the phone and see a number of buttons. Why don’t you try this one, I suggest, in an effort to get him to try and get the match sorted out. But he’s not interested. Then, suddenly, people starting dragging in what look like huge mats and covering the ground, then the next time I look the court appears to be a bedroom with several people tucked up in bed - it must have been mattresses and sheets they were dragging. I ask John, or whoever it was with me, what the time is. He says 8:30, and I start running in a panic, since my flight leaves at 9:30.
Unbelievably, I seem to be in reasonable health at the moment. No fungus, no knee problems, no cold. There may be a problem with the tooth that broke, and which Richard appeared to mend so easily, as it has started to become slightly sensitive again, which indicates to me that maybe he didn’t fill it properly or cleanly. I haven’t managed to get the yoga going daily, but it does take a while to get back in the habit.
I’ve been doing my accounts this last week. Although I haven’t kept an accurate record, it seems that I made around £35,000 in investment profit.
DIARY 64: August - November 2000
21 August 2000
Dear Diary, I have spent a day, yesterday in fact, trying to think about my future, and I might as well give you the benefits of my attempts at approaching the problem logically.
EC Inform: 1) Stop in January 2001; Cost - £10,000; Financial risk - None. Action: Immediate decisions needed on closing down the newsletters, on returning Brussels flat, on what physically I will do next. Comments: Quickfire decision, creating a rapid turnaround in my life, and forcing me to face up immediately to the problem of what to do with the next 20 years. Nothing new is likely to emerge within my journalistic role in Brussels this year or next - if anything my profile has diminished in recent years (no calls to speak at conferences, and only Eurelectric offering me freelance stuff). Specialist EC news is now carried by a large number of media outlets.
2) Stop in January 2002; Potential savings - £10,000; Financial risk - None. Action: Decision to close newsletters must be taken by January 2001; clear idea needed of what work I would do thereafter. Comments: This is a cost-free option, and gives me a year to sort out what I might do instead, and whether I should move house, and what I should do with my money. However, it will mean that I have to kick my heels somewhat for 18 months.
3) Stop in January 2003/4; Potential savings - £50,000; Financial risk - None. Action: Decision to close newsletters must be taken by January 2002/3; clear idea needed of what work I would do thereafter. Hard look at moving house, with Ads leaving school in June 2003. Comments: This option allows me to save a bit more money, and exploit more of the potential (i.e. built up investment in the company), and gives me plenty of time to sort out what I might do in the future. However, I will be over 50 before I instigate any change. This option allows me to remain a stable pillar for Adam until he finishes his GCSEs.
4) Don’t stop in foreseeable future - carry on alone; Potential savings - £120,000 over five years; Financial risk - None. Action: Beef up website, occasional marketing, rethink on delivery mechanisms. Not much. Comments: This is by far the safest option (not counting my psychological well-being). But the fact that there is, and will not be, any change in my rather static working life, means that I am likely to become increasingly introverted and unable to find new social avenues. I may have financial security, but what will I do with it.
5) Don’t stop in foreseeable future - expand again; Potential savings - Not for some years into the future; Financial risk - £100,000 or more. Action: Advertise for new person or two. Consider renting office in Godalming or near station. rethink on delivery mechanisms. Consider third newsletter. Comments: I am not very enthusiastic about this option. I feel somewhat cautious after the Krysia experience, and I am also acutely aware of how tricky it is to get the circulation of a newsletter up to a point where it is actually profitable to employ someone to run it. I am also very conscious of the problems of employing someone in my house; I was lucky with Theo, but I might not be so lucky next time. I should, perhaps, accept that my idea of EC Inform as a thriving little publisher, employing a small team, has not been possible, because I never managed to get the circulation of the newsletters up to a point where I could afford to be more expansive.
Key changes desired: 1) Partner. Action: LH ads; continued membership of LH club; joining new club; taking part in courses where there might be potential for meeting someone. Comments: However able I am to be alone, life will never be as meaningful as it is when one can share the highs and lows with someone else. Whereas, I might have no ambition to do anything, achieve anything alone; a partner might spur me, either deliberately or simply as a consequence of wanting to keep myself interesting for a partner.
But this is an area fraught with difficulties and dangers. 1) I cannot think of anyone I have ever met that I would want to share my life with; 2) I am nearly 50; 3) I meet almost no one nowadays, so what chances are there of meeting the right sort of person; 4) I have become more shy and more introverted in recent years; 5) and less needy. I am so far away from even meeting people, that the chances of meeting someone who might be the right person are so extraordinarily small, that it might be better to accept FULLY (rather than partially as I suppose I do at the moment) that I will not find a new permanent relationship. If I could find a partner, this would resolve, in a jiffy, any social life problems as in no 3, either because the partner would instigate a social life, or because it wouldn’t matter.
2) Non-business writing success: Action: Give up EC Inform; decide on a project and work hard at it for years to come. Comments: Like my ‘dream’ of finding a partner, I suppose I dream of being some kind of successful writer, and that this would transform my life in some way. The most likely scenario, however, is that I do manage to get a contract or two, but that I fulfil them, and my life remains as empty and as small (Adam apart) as it is now.
3) More varied/busy social life. Action: I don’t really know. Comments: I think this one really depends on achieving 1 or 2.
Key moments in my life so far: 1) Deciding to go travelling - 1974. Pluses: Fantastic experience which has enriched my whole life; giving me an understanding not only of geography, but of cultures; and brought me into contact with a large number of people who probably affected my development in all sorts of way. Negs: Took me out of sync with all my contemporaries, leaving me with no friendship network at home; also delayed any kind of career choice way beyond the normal time. Possibly over-enriched my expectations for life.
2) Leaving MORI/Going to Corsica - 1979. Pluses: Took me out of a business/work environment for which I was not yet ready; allowed me to discover that I was not capable of being a writer; ultimately, paved the way for my entry into journalism. In retrospect, this was a bold decision, and without it I would not have found my way into a more interesting line of work. Negs: This was the decision that led me to a very heady time at first, but then a very difficult period, culminating in a nervous breakdown. One might argue that if I had stuck it out at MORI my life could still have taken a more ordinary path, and that I might have married, had kids etc, and been a reasonably successful businessman, with position, by now.
3) Leaving McGraw-Hill/Going to Brazil - 1985. Pluses: This led to a superb experience of living in Brazil for two years; it allowed me to expand my journalistic scope; and I earned an interesting amount of money. Negs: The loss of a potential managerial position at McGraw-Hill (Trotter was certainly planning to make me his right-hand man, and replacement), with a career and good salary. As for my relationships, the break-up with Barbara had already taken place, and my sojourn didn’t really affect any friendships back home, as far as I can remember.
4) Leaving FT/setting up EC Inform - 1993. Pluses: A huge amount of personal freedom; the chance to be around throughout Adam’s schooling; the chance to own and operate my own business. Significant, if not massive, financial rewards. Negs: The loss of a permanent position, and regular salary and benefits; job security (but no real career path). The loss of being part of one of the most important media outfits; the loss of a social environment in which I would always be meeting people.
5) Closing EC Inform/freelance book writer - 2001?
Having completed this self-analysis, I had a long chat with my mother. Because I would have to try and explain the problem and the potential solutions/responses, I thought that would be useful. And it was. Of course, she can’t really give me any advice, but it is the talking over the problem that can be so useful and can help crystallise certain ideas, and legitimise and undermine others. This morning, I am wondering if I haven’t arrived at an intermediate decision - and for this reason, I’m going to ramble a bit. Not surprisingly, it is a decision similar to one that, in fact, has half-crossed my mind before. Although, I have to say, in fairness to me, that there was no prejudice overlaying the above analysis, nor even any consciousness that I had a preference for one route or another; and, indeed, I deliberately avoided thinking carefully about any of this until yesterday.
My life has gone flat, very very flat. How do I stop it being flat - by taking a risk. The only alternative path open to me, and therefore the only kind of risk that would be worth taking, is to shift my working life from EC Inform to a more precarious existence as a book writer. Deep inside me, I suppose this is what I have always wanted, but there has been no point, and would be no point, if I can’t be such a writer, and be reasonably successful; i.e. by having an agent, by being published, and by having sufficient projects on an ongoing basis. How do I know whether I can make a success of such a life - I don’t, not without trying, and it can’t be done while I’m servicing EC Inform. I need to be free and focused; I need to be plugged in to a different world. Hence, the idea of dumping EC Inform, and taking the risk. My history, as above, shows me that every time I’ve taken a risk - four major ones - I have, in fact, moved on and made a modest success of the new opportunities. Managerial opportunities and long-term job security have been available on several occasions, and I have eschewed them each time, in favour of moving on. Without leaving MORI, I would never have become a journalist, without going to Brazil, I would never have extended my journalistic range; and without leaving the FT, I would have been stuck as a newsletter editor for ever. Now, without closing EC Inform, I will be stuck again. The only real chance, that I can perceive, to make the latter part of my life more interesting is to become a general writer - pressing further with my fiction perhaps, but making money from some kind of non-fiction books.
I need to backtrack slightly. When I took the decision to start EC Inform it was in the hope that I could expand it to become a small publishing business, with a core number of staff: four or five newsletters, each with an editor, a marketing person, and admin/accounts person. I certainly didn’t envisage staying a one man band for ever. EC Inform-Energy never proved as lucrative as I hoped it would, and I didn’t start my expansion for three years, until I’d managed the move out of London. Then, I found Theo, and started EC Inform-Transport. Well this newsletter never proved any more lucrative than EC Inform-Energy, and, during Theo’s years, my income went down. I did try once, hard, while he was still here to expand with a further member of staff, and that proved disastrous; I then tried hard to replace Theo, and found that more difficult than I had expected. The facts, therefore, are that EC Inform has not worked very well. In the face of the available evidence, I think it would be a mistake to try and expand it now: any expansion would only extend my workload hugely in dull areas: marketing, admin, database, accounts etc; there would be no guarantee of any success (especially without a presence in Brussels, which I’ve always felt would undermine EC Inform in the long run).
The conclusion, therefore, is that I should close down EC Inform. The question, then, becomes when. I considered this too. Although thinking about the idea of closing it immediately, this January, gave me a rush, I cannot believe this would be the right way forward. There seems to be a far more natural moment to do this - i.e. the year Adam finishes at Rodborough, by when he will be 16 and require no morning/evening supervision (although of course he will still require a home base, and a family life). This means that, then, I could, for example, take up a full-time job without worrying about Adam, or I could go abroad even for longer periods of time, leaving Ads to live at B’s.
Interestingly, the time periods between the three major decisions I’ve taken in my life are, in order: five years, six years, eight years; and it is now eight years since I started EC Inform. It would seem right that the period gets a bit longer each time, so if I were to make a life-changing decision now, it might be a bit early, and too forced, whereas in a couple of years time, I will have given myself 10 years of EC Inform, which seems a nice round number. What else. Oh yes, there’s the money too. I should certainly be able to add to my coffers a little bit in the next couple of years, giving me an additional cushion after I shut down EC Inform.
Having decided that EC Inform is defunct. There are problems with waiting two or three years: my own impatience to get off the flat plain of my life; and the idea that I’m never really going to get my social life moving, until I change my working life (and I will be well over 50 by the time such a change comes - plus the years it will take to establish my new modus vivendi). But, I don’t think these outweigh the advantages of a considered orderly close down over two or three years.
If I proceed on this basis, the decision to close down EC Inform will need to be taken in January 2002 (less than 18 months away), if I close it before Adam’s GCSEs (i.e. during his last year at Rodborough); or in January 2003, if I decided to close it in January 2004, i.e. after Adam has left.
The decision to take the decision to close down in one or two and half years is, itself, quite an exciting one. It releases me - not to worry about marketing, or to have to think about how to keep the subscriptions up; not to worry about the editorial content so much; not to have to do one of those EU policy books ever again; to use any free time in the four week cycle to have some fun, take some holidays, spend some money - and most of all to meet people. It means I can stash my money away somewhere secure for a few years - for so long I’ve kept it ready in cash, in case I needed to invest it; but it now looks like I’m never going to be brave enough to invest a lot of money in anything - I’m far too cautious by nature.
27 August 2000
Sunday morning. Ads has gone over to B’s house, and I am washed, tidied and relaxed. I have five days of Snowdonia with Ads to write up now. I need to go shopping at some point, but I’m also expecting Andrew and Susie to call to confirm they are driving down later today.
Ads wanted to go to New York. I made enquiries but I couldn’t find any reasonable air fares, and I was not confident about enjoying New York in August. Next, he expressed a desire to go to Amsterdam. So I gave that some thought, and decided we should bike there. I devised a plan, whereby we could drive the bikes to Harwich, take the ferry and then cycle to Amsterdam, and stay with David, before cycling or catching the train back to the Hook of Holland. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get hold of David, and had to abandon that plan. My reserve plan was to go to Snowdonia to do a bit of real hiking. Ads, as always, was happy to go along with my idea. Having packed the bikes and bags in the car the night before, we left at 4am on Tuesday morning. I am always surprised, when I look at a map, to discover how far away and how far north North Wales actually is. After leaving the M54 round about Telford, we began looking for breakfast, but this was much easier said than done. Although I diverted off the main A5 road to drive through one or two towns, we found nothing open. Then, as if by magic, at 8am, we came across a cafe - a cross between one of those dodgy looking caravan cafes, and a promenade sweet kiosk - just opening. A middle-aged lady, who turned out to live in the house up the hillside and was the creator and owner of the roadside stand-up cafe - was just putting up the ‘Open’ sign as we pulled into her layby. Hot steaming tea and delicious bacon butties, overlooking a green pleasant valley. Soon, other cars and vans started pulling into the layby, and it became clear this lady had her regulars and this cafe was something of an oasis for early morning travellers.
Betwys-y-Coed was our first real stop, a gateway into the Snowdonia region, and I needed to buy a torch, and a guide book or two to help devise some walks. The village seems to contain more outdoor activity shops than all the other kinds of shop put together; moreover, they are all large and in well-kept buildings, often in contrast to other buildings. I took us through all of these outdoor shops looking for the best guide books, and to check there was no variation in prices. There wasn’t. I bought several books; I chose one walk from one of the books that looked suitably mountainous, and not too far away, and drove to the relevant car park at the western end of Llyn or Lake Ogwen. As I had chosen this walk somewhat at random, I was surprised to see so many cars parked, and so many walkers around. Still, we set off encountering, very shortly, our first of many many ladder stiles, and made our way along a path. On arriving at a Llyn Idwal (or perhaps a bit before), it dawned on me that we’d gone the wrong way - so we ended up walking the circular tour in the wrong (from the book’s point of view) direction; but, by the end, we were both agreed our way was best. We stopped by the lake shore to talk to three men who were rebuilding a stone wall protruding out into the lake. Across the other side of the lake and stretching high up into the sky were rather forbidding looking crags and cliffs. It was far from clear that it would be possible to walk/climb through them, and I wanted to reassure myself that we were walking in the right direction (this was before I realised how good a path had been constructed for this very popular walk). One of the men, who turned out to be a national park warden or ranger, pointed to an area of scree and a zig-zag therein. We also asked him if we could swim in the lake - we don’t encourage it, he said, but people do! We didn’t as it happened, but only because we had only just begun our walk, and were not yet hot. There had been - it turned out - no need to ask the ranger’s advice, since the path around the lake continued up the mountain, with good steps constructed from the large boulders most of the way. Nevertheless, it was a steep and strenuous climb nearby the Devil’s Kitchen and up through the so-called Black Hole; but made easier by the glorious views that slowly revealed themselves the higher we climbed. At first it was just of the lakes below, then of the sea over towards Conwy Bay, then of Anglesey and Caernavon Bay. This was a Snowdonia I had never seen.
To sidetrack for a moment. Ten years ago, in 1990, I had taken a short trip to Snowdonia - I knew this for a fact. I knew I had climbed Snowdon in the fog, but I could remember little else about the trip. I kept thinking I had seen and done different walks but I couldn’t be sure about them. I had thought, for example, that I must have driven around the area. In fact, I took the train to Llandudno. But then I looked at my journal account of that trip (surprisingly lucid and interesting, I have to say - much better than now), and was astonished to read about the walks I did and the places I stayed, for I had no recall at all of them.
It might be that that trip to Snowdonia was the start of my revisiting the whole hiking experience. I remember there was an editor at the FT - whose name I forget now - an interesting woman with a Pakistani father I think, who I liked and was quite friendly with. She talked of going hiking, and that triggered a latent desire in me to re-experience the kind of walking holidays I had done as a teenager and young adult. I went out and bought boots and decided on Snowdonia as the only major walking area in England I had never been to.
As we continued to climb up the rocky paths, the views simply got better and better. Also, Llyn Idwal, with its mini-beaches and texture-rich areas of rushes, changed in character, colour and form with each new angle we viewed it from. At Glyder Fawr (big), 1,000 metres above sea level (of which we had climbed 700 metres from Llyn Ogwen), we stopped to eat bread and cheese, and let the wind cool our sunburnt cheeks. Strange natural pinnacle rock formations and many man-made cairns gave the place a kind of outer space atmosphere. Between the Glyders there’s an area called Castell y Gwynt (the castle of the winds). We walked on along the ridges above the lake to Glyder Fach (small) - where a large flat rock overhang makes for intriguing discussions about how much weight it would need for overbalancing - before finding the somewhat treacherous scree walk down towards Llyn Bochlwyd. Walking/climbing on steep slopes of scree and loose rocks is not something I remember doing with Adam before. Although Ads had a tendency to move a bit too fast at times, he actually negotiated this climb, and all other similar climbs with confidence and ease; hardly ever stumbling, falling or losing his balance. I intervened now and then to suggest he slow down, and to explain the side-to-side stepping down technique and the need to avoid any kind of running or over-balancing, but, in fact, he’s a natural.
Although there had been only a few other people on the ascent path, there were dozens and dozens of other pairs and groups of walkers on the ridge and on the way down from Glyder Fach. For a time we walked on a river - in the sense that the river ran down the mountainside underneath the boulders we were walking on. Only by looking hard between the boulders could you see the liquid, dark and mysterious by virtue of the lack of light, racing, flowing, bubbling and trickling between the rocks and stones. But you could hear the gurgling underneath the rocks all around. Ads decided he wanted to swim so, further down, where the water emerged into a more ordinary mountainside brook, we headed off the path to find a place where he could at least get wet. Of course, I wanted to go in without any pants on, but every few minutes someone came into view. This river swim was, though, to set a trend for the rest of the holiday.
We found light refreshments and information on camping at the car park tea hut, before driving back round Llyn Ogwen to a small farmhouse campsite just off the road. It cost £2.50 a night, and, although there were no showers, there was a toilet and fresh running water and sinks. We set up the tent. Ads liked the fact that Jim (our name for a sheep and for sheep) were all around munching at the grass (and pooing on it). There was no one around to pay, so we simply pitched, and then left. It had been my vague idea that we would do beaches as much as mountains, and so, with the day still hot, the natural place to head for was the coast. Unfortunately, I didn’t study the map closely enough for we found ourselves driving along an ugly stretch of road - the A55 - between Bangor and Conwy, which totally dominates the coastal scenery. When we did finally find a beach, we had to park on one side of the dual carriageway in a small forgotten run down town called Dwygyfylchi - which, by the evidence of the architecture, must have once been a modest Victorian beach resort - and walk through a grimy tunnel under the road to reach a promenade and wide pebble beach - like Brighton perhaps - lacking any kind of character. We swam for a short while, and tried to ride the short spineless waves, and then headed back to the campsite.
There was nowhere within walking distance of the campsite to spend the evening, so we drove to Capel Curig in search a pleasant pub - but failed to find one. We had an over-expensive supper, in a scruffy hotel - I chose badly this time. We should have stayed longer, reading and writing, but we were well bushed from having started out at 4:30am.
I have never been a great fan of camping, but as the weather was fine there was no real reason not to camp. I didn’t sleep that well. I’m not sure why. I may have been a bit cold in the night - but I don’t see why I should have been when my sleeping bag was fine, and the temperature never dropped very low. Having a pee at night when camping is a pain, requiring all that opening and closing of the tent, the putting on of shoes, and the kicking of your camping partner in the face.
Wednesday was our day for ‘doing’ Snowdon. I had bought a little booklet about the mountain, and I had two separate walking books that recommended ascending by the PYG Track, and returning by the Miners’ Track, basically because they both start/end at the same place, thereby creating a circular walk. I didn’t much like that idea, since we would be experiencing the mountain from only one side. I decided we should walk up the PYG track, and, if we were fit, to then walk down the Watkins path, and hitch back to the car. In fact, when we got to Pen-y-Pass, the start of the PYG and Miners’ Tracks, we found a small crowded car park with parking charges pegged at £4! No way. I see the need for the charge, I can justify it being set that high; but I don’t have to pay it. I decided instead to park at the end of the Watkins path, and to hitch at the start rather than the end. We drove round the mountain, found a free car park (with a fantastically clean and tidy toilet), and then cadged a lift from the very first car that passed us. Oddly, the driver and his girlfriend had gone to Cardiff University, and the girl, like me, had got in through clearing. I felt a bit guilty when the guy drove into the car park and saw the £4 charge sign - briefly I considered offering to contribute, but it really didn’t seem right to do so.
We set off almost immediately marching swiftly, and overtaking what turned out to be the only people in front of us, on the Miners’ Track! Yes, I went the wrong way again, and again, just as on the first day, did not discover the mistake until it was too late (in the sense that we had gone too far to want to retrace our steps); and again it turned out to be a serendipitous mistake, for the Miners Track took us up past the two lakes Llyn Llydaw and Glaslyn, and the old copper mining and ore-crushing works. (On the previous day, I had commented on the weight of the stone and the rusty colour that signalled the presence of iron, and Ads had spotted some green in the rocks and asked whether there was copper too). Despite the grandeur of the mountains before us, and beautiful setting of the lakes, it was a bit disappointing to find that the path was wide and well constructed (with stone chippings) for much of the way, and, in fact, only gave way when the path rose up a steep scree slope (similar to the one we took down the Glyders) to join the PYG Track. Thereafter, a real mountain path rises up to the ridge, which astonishingly suddenly open up the whole vista of Anglesey and the North Wales Coast. The Snowdon railway, with its unique ratchet system and 5mph average speed, is there too, and the Llanberis path; and a little further up, the tea room/shop, and the concrete summit block which Adam says was constructed by the Victorians who wanted a real pinnacle to the highest mountain in England and Wales - with its throngs of people brought there by the 100 year old railway.
After a rather late breakfast (tasteless pasties and sausage rolls - but a reasonable cup of tea) in the welcome teahouse, and the posting of some postcards with a special Snowdon stamp, Adam insisted on joining the throng at the top, and half-climbing onto the concrete block so that, just for a few seconds, he could be the highest thing in England and Wales. My previous journal confirms that on my last ascent I was completely surrounded by fog, and saw nothing, absolutely nothing. I had walked by the Watkins Path and had intended to descend by the Miners Track, but I was so wet and hungry and fed up, I marched down the easy Llanberis path to find food and shelter in Llanberis. But, on this occasion, the sky was cloudless, blue and brilliant. The views were great, although with some haze on the horizon, I don’t think we could see the Wicklow Hills outside Dublin, or the famous Lake District peaks.
The Watkins Path, too, had a scree scramble near the top, before settling down to a more regular and well-kept path for most of its route. It was pressing on for midday by the time we set off down the hill, and we passed a lot of hot, sweaty and tired people coming up the other way. One oldish man I remember with a long beard and a long stick (oh so many of these hill walkers carry sticks - I do think they are a pretension for most people; one needs arms and hands free to provide balance and climbing grips) was soaked in sweat we could see dripping off him. To keep myself cool, I soaked my head and neck regularly in cool stream water; Ads was more concerned about drinking it. He loved the idea of drinking the water straight from the mountainside; I gave him a few tips about how I would decide whether to drink water neat, so to speak; however, I’m sure that one would have to be very unlucky to suffer any unpleasant effects from drinking any reasonably clean looking river or stream water above the habitation or commerce line.
Towards the back end of the Watkins Path, and after the Gladstone Rock, where Gladstone apparently gave a speech to 2,000 Welshman (for which the road/track was built specially), we dovetailed towards Afon Cwm Llan (Church Valley River I think). We soon found a place to swim although it was in sight of the path and I had to use my swimming trunks. This was a wonderful swim - we had been so hot coming down the mountain, and here was a cool, crystal clear pond in which to bathe away our tiredness. We stayed here some time. I commented on the fact that, of a 100 people who walk the Watkins Path, probably only one stops to swim in this pool, even though it is one of the most glorious experiences.
However, no sooner had we dressed and begun to make our way along the rest of the Watkins Path than we discovered more fabulous pools, bigger pools, better swimming pools in the river, and waterfalls, and cascades. We also found a few people who had come to the river to swim. We didn’t stop again, but we noted the beauty of the river and the swimming possibilities; the idea of having, on another day, a River Poolathon began to emerge in our chats.
The next ‘event’ of our holiday occurred by chance. From the car park, I drove to the nearest village - Beddgelert - in search of petrol. I could have enquired for a station in the direction from which we had come, but I chose to accept the route to the nearest which happened to be south and away from our campsite. Thus, we landed in Porthmadog - a real town - where we took tea in a funny little tearoom overlooking the estuary. I found a bookshop and bought a cheap book of cycle tours. Ads wanted to go to the beach, so we drove out west from Porthmadog to Black Rock Sands, where we could literally drive out, along with all other beachgoers, onto the sand. The tide was out, and it was difficult to get sufficient water depth to swim. Also, after river swimming, I was not too keen on getting sand and salt everywhere - I don’t have much time for huge great flat sand beaches - they’re great in the winter for walking on, dreaming and thinking about the future or past, but not for swimming. Give me the coves of Cornwall or Devon with rocky outcrops at the edges where one can redress in a sand-free environment, or the pebbly beach of the Old Fort in Corfu with its concrete benches and grassy banks.
I was intrigued to find we were near Portmeirion, made famous by ‘The Prisoner’ series. I was telling Ads about it, but he kept on asking questions I couldn’t answer. Did I ever know who had taken Patrick McGoohan prisoner? Did the series makers ever know? I don’t know. But Ads insisted on questioning me as though I did. He twigged eventually, when he realised there was no true arc plot, as with ‘Babylon 5’, only a kind of pretend one (i.e. the audience was invited continually to guess at the overall meaning of the story but never given any answers) and that, therefore, there was no need for the makers to ‘know’ where the overall story was going, or what would eventually happen to the characters. I thought Ads and I might take a peak at the strange and fanciful architecture, but I hadn’t counted on it being like a large National Trust estate or garden, completely walled off with a hefty entrance fee. Any way, it was closed when we arrived, although I doubt whether I would have been so interested as to pay to go in.
That was about it for Wednesday. We stopped off at Betwys-y-Coed for a meal. Back at the same campsite, I was going to leave Ads writing his diary in the tent while I went for a walk down to the lake, but this did not seem right - in fact, we never seemed to find any real time for Ads to write his diary and for me to read. I think this is partly because we are not used to camping, and I wasn’t comfortable simply sitting round in the tent or outside at dusk when the midges congregate, and because we only just had enough energy to go and find a meal, play a couple of rounds of rummy and then retire. With only one smallish torch, lighting in the tent was a problem also.
This, our second night camping, only confirmed my distaste for this form of accommodation. At about 4:15 I was woken by some loud voices, chattering away in a nearby tent. I thought they were simply going to bed having come back drunk (I didn’t know it was 4:15 then). But they carried on and on. I got up to go for a leak (as Colin would say) - not a leek because I didn’t see one during our whole trip, not even in the greengrocers - and on my way back I went up to one of the party standing outside a tent and I told him there were a lot of people in these tents around trying to sleep. He had on a forehead miner’s lamp and I couldn’t see his face. He ignored me completely. I went back to bed (if that’s what it can be called), and the voices only increased and became louder. I started shouting out answers or responses to some of the questions and comments I was hearing, in an attempt to demonstrate that they, whoever they were, were disturbing others. I was quite angry. Adam was awake by this time. His view was that it was part of the fun of camping to chatter all night long, and I shouldn’t say anything. I didn’t. I realised that this was a group of, probably, pot-holers who were packing up for an early start on some expedition. In fact there were a dozen of them, and for an hour and a half we had the noise of their chatter, their breakfast cooking, and their packing up. Just before 6, they left, leaving blissful silence behind them. It was just our bad luck that we happened to be at the same campsite, and that they pitched their tents near ours. Nevertheless, they should have been more considerate - speaking habitually in whispers perhaps, or choosing to park their tents away from the main area.
Thursday was Poolathon day. After the Glyders and Snowdon, we realised that we had ‘done’ the two major walks in Snowdonia - I had chosen the Glyders at random without realising it was the second most popular walk after Snowdon. A third mountain Tryfan, which we heard people talking about, and which we could have climbed for a third walk, turned out to be next to the Glyders (and right behind our campsite in fact). It didn’t seem worth doing a walk so close to our previous one. Instead, we decided to go back Afon Cwm Llan and spend a relaxing day exploring the river and swimming in its many pools.
We drove round Snowdon (again) to Beddgelert where we found a large campsite in walking distance of the village; it was also rather spacious thereby reducing the chances of a repeat of the previous night. The cost, however, was more than twice that of the farmhouse campsite, and we had to pay 50p if we wanted a shower (of which there were only two). Moreover, there was no place to take a cold shower, or to wash without paying 50p for a hot one. I counted well over 100 tents in this campsite, giving rise to probably £500-1,000 a night. And what are the costs of running the site: renting of portaloos and skips; insurance perhaps; one man at the entrance to take the money (probably the owner). Gold mine campsite, I think it was called!
For the first time, I took the bikes out of the car. We cycled into Beddgelert for a full English breakfast - I called it the Full Monty just because all the breakfast constituents were obviously displayed (i.e. with no extra bits of bacon under a sausage for example) and because there was just one of every item. To say Ads is very keen on full English breakfasts, would be like saying Jim is keen on grass.
One of the reasons for choosing to camp at Beddgelert was its proximity to Afon Cwm Llan. It took only 15 minutes or so to cycle back to the beginning of the Watkin’s Path, where we left our bikes, and another 20 minutes of walking to reach the river. Before long, we found our first pool, well below the cascades. Since it was some way from the main path, and a little hidden, I was able to swim nude. We had discussed at some length a sophisticated points system by which we would compete in the Poolathon; it was subsequently adapted several times. Basically, we got one point for a full single breast stroke across the pool; a second point for four full strokes; a third point for three strokes swimming under water; a fourth point for a surface dive, i.e. from standing in the water; and a fifth point for diving from a rock i.e. with one’s feet out of the water. There were also bonus points to be had: Ads got one for a somersault for example. We both achieved full points on the first pool. A little further up, we removed our shoes again, but this time for only one point each - later this seemed a waste of time, since points were to come so easily further up.
It is hard for me with words to do justice to the joy of this experience. It was a glorious day, with the sun masterful in a cloudless sky. The water in the river was as clear as I have ever seen water in a river - there was no mud or moss or sand or slime to make it murky. Although it was mid-summer, the river was full with a good strong current and plenty of water to fill the pools and swell the cascades. But the river was not so big that we couldn’t walk through it, and along it, and up it. Indeed, rather than having to return to the path, we managed the challenging climb and scramble up through the cascades. In the middle of the cascades, there was one small pool - about two metres across - with the potential for five points. But I was rather reluctant, cautious, scared even of it; and Ads too was therefore cautious. On one side, the water was cascading vertically down into the pool below, on the other it was flowing strongly over a shallow lip. The pool had vertical sides, like a cylinder, and was at least a metre deep. Ads achieved two points here, and I only got one - his extra point eventually proving decisive. Our cautiousness was partly because the sides of the pool seemed to give way underneath in some parts, and partly because we were still river pool novices.
Above the main cascade, we found lots of bigger and better pools all in a row, often with cascades or little waterfalls between them. We also found people at all the best pools. As I did not want to swim, unless I could do so nude (having been spoilt, so to speak, by being able to do so several times in the river already), we simply left our bags at a quietish spot, and explored upriver for a while. By the last waterfall, we did find a large pool where we swam and achieved a further five point each. Later, I gave way and put on my trunks so that we could swim and dive in a whole series of pools - thereby greatly increasing our Poolathon scores - which were, unfortunately, in view of other people enjoying the river. We lunched and read a chapter of Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Scoop’, which we are both finding very funny. Eventually, with the sun heading behind the hills and threatening to throw us into the shade, we decided this glorious day had to come to an end. We made our way back down the hillside, to our bikes, and back to Beddgelert for tea and a stroll around the shops. Whereas Betwys-y-Coed gives the appearance of a real walkers’ village with its large and impressive shops selling every kind of gear for outdoor pursuits, Beddgelert is much more an ordinary pretty tourist village, with the kind of souvenir shops and restaurants you might expect in a Cotswolds or Devon village. There was very little sign of hikers or climbers in Beddgelert. Call Betwys-y-Coed the hard option, and Beddgelert would be the soft option. That said, however, I was surprised how fantastically busy with pedestrians Betwys-y-Coed was when we returned there on Saturday for the start of our last walk, and how much car traffic there was in the early evening when we finished the walk. Our evening meal in Beddgelert was OK; the pub where we played rummy had comfortable lounge seats; and the campsite was quiet all night.
Friday was bike tour day. There were two tours in my new book, both passing through Caernavon and crossing the road between Beddgelert and Caernavon which I thought we could do, but neither of them was ideal. I therefore decided to leave our route open, and see what happened. We set off early because I wanted to be able to rest through the hottest part of the day, if it was anything like the previous days. There was a long uphill section out of Beddgelert, and then the road evened off a little. By Waunfawr, which is really outside of Snowdonia and two-thirds of the way to Caernavon, we were ready for breakfast, but only the village shop cum post office was open. I was drinking orange juice and studying the maps trying to decide whether to fly straight into Caernavon for breakfast or start on one of the two bike tours, when a local country warden stopped, and asked if we needed any help. I said we were desperate for breakfast, and asked if there was anywhere nearby. He said there wasn’t but that the best place for breakfast was Pete’s Eats in Llanberis. I certainly intended to pass through Llanberis sometime during the day, so now seemed as good a time as any.
Unfortunately, the route to Llanberis was back towards Snowdonia, and up steep hillsides. The cycle down, though, into Llanberis was enthralling - steep stony curvy tracks with fantastic views across the valley to the slate-scarred mountainside, and the town and all its infrastructure below. We rode straight into the middle of Llanberis, and straight to Pete’s Eats where we ordered, finally, breakfast. This was a Hard-Working Modest breakfast, much the nicest of the week - as far from the kind of pretentious over-arranged breakfast of the B&B circuit that you can imagine - good wholesome ingredients, cooked properly and thrown onto the plate. (Since then, I have established that I actually ate in this place 10 years ago on my first trip, but I didn’t remember it at all.). Pete’s Eats is the real thing - it reeks of outdoor pursuits, of men and women who take climbing/caving/hiking/biking deadly seriously. The ads on the noticeboard, and the photos and posters on the walls all reinforce this feeling, as do the people sitting at the crowded tables and their conversations. Even the tea - with a ‘large’ one provided in a mug the size of a jug, and small one in a cup the size of a mug - demonstrates this is the real mccoy, the hard-working climber’s equivalent of the truckers roadside cafe. On the following day, we almost made a long car diversion simply to have another breakfast here.
I had promised myself a trip to the Welsh Slate Museum which I felt would give a little more than the average heritage kind of entertainment. I was not wrong. This is a cute museum which makes an effort, and gives a realistic idea of the slate industry at the turn of the century. Interestingly, though, there is a schizophrenic attitude to the industry. The 3D film we watched was called ‘To Steal a Mountain’. On the one hand it slated (oh awful!) the big landowners who set the industry up and ripped the mountains apart leaving long-lasting environmental scars, but, on the other hand, glorified the workers of the industry and the skills that grew up within it. The museum, which is housed in the actual building which was used as a resource base for the mining industry on the hill-side, contains the largest working waterwheel in mainland Britain - and it is huge. Although, because it is made of metal, it is not as impressive as some of the large wooden wheels you find in agricultural mills. It was particularly useful, though, to demonstrate to Adam how the energy of the wheel was transferred to the machine rooms through gears and rods. I bought a small book about the slate industry with a few old photographs, but I was surprised not to find, in the inevitable shop, a better book with old photos of the industry. It seems it was too busy to stop and picture itself at the time. Such handsome stone, slate, all that geometry, that regularity of line, and near symmetry in form; it makes for very handsome buildings when used in blocks.
The sky had clouded over by lunch-time and there were strong strong gusts of wind which I thought were coming from the east. This worried me, since any trip back from the coast to Beddgelert would be both uphill and against a strong wind. We rode on to Caernavon, stopping only briefly for a quick swim and splash in Llyn Padarn. The rode to took us downhill and downhill and downhill. We seemed to go so far down, that it seemed obvious how difficult it would be to come back. I did formulate a plan whereby we could lock the bikes up and take the bus back to Beddgelert, returning the next day in the car to collect them.
Caernavon proved a horrible place. I never want to go back. It is ugly. The castle is preposterous, with no sense of position; and the unkempt, poorly planned town has been built up all around it, creating a dense urban claustrophobia. Ads wanted to go into the castle, and I wanted him to go as well. But, he was refused access because he needed to be 14 to go in alone, and I certainly did not want to go in. I felt a bit guilty about this - since Ads expresses so few wishes. But he wasn’t at all concerned about it; and, by the end of our brief stay, I had argued him out of even wanting to go in.
The wind seemed to have abated, and as Caernavon had not held us for very long, I decided we should try to continue our cycle tour. I gave Adam the map and the tour text, and let him lead us home. He took about half an hour to find how to leave the central car park. I was a model of patience. Since there was a cycle shop in the car park, and since it was a cycle track he was looking for to leave the city centre, I simply cannot understand why he didn’t ask. Still we stumbled over that hurdle without any argument or recriminations. It took us a while, but eventually we were back in the countryside, climbing, climbing and climbing a backwater country road, out past Bontnewydd and back towards Waunfawr. This was a pleasant enough cycle. Ads was getting well hungry and thirsty (we had no water by this time), so when it started to rain, we stood there, holding our apples to the rain, and then cleaning them on our shirts. They tasted good, very good.
At Waunfawr, we bought additional food and drink from the village shop, and then cycled to Lyn Cwellyn to, finally, eat our late picnic lunch (it must have been after 5pm). We were so lucky in that the wind did not seem to be against us, and the really difficult uphill passages towards Rhydd Ddu were nowhere near as bad as I had expected. Oddly, we found our little picnic place surrounded by pink and white orchids we had seen earlier in the day - although I don’t know which kind. Oddly, because, on the way out of Snowdonia in the morning, on this same road somewhere, I had smelt a very sweet smell, and I had stopped to look to see what it might have been, and picked a flower, which turned out to be an orchid - but it didn’t have any fragrance, and I never found the source of the smell. From Rhydd Ddu back to Beddgelert it was downhill almost all the way. My speed rose to 30mph at one point, even though I never pedalled once during the whole descent - quite the reverse, I had to brake to keep within safe limits and so as not to set a bad example for Adam.
This evening we ate in another of the village restaurants. I think I had a Jim pie of some sort, and another poor salad without any access to a proper dressing. Afterwards we debated going back to the pub, but I was so full, I really didn’t want to drink anything, nor did I really want to sit around in a pub. Instead we walked home very slowly - until that is the rain started. We got back to the tent just in time, for then the thunder and lightning and rainstorms - that were to go on all night - began in earnest. The lightning flashes seemed like someone had let off a magnesium flare just beyond the canvas; the thunder seemed to reverberate backwards and forwards in our small tent; and the rain’s noise was magnified by its drum-like beating on the canvas. Fortunately, when I woke to have a pee outside, the rain was not too heavy and I managed to get back into the shelter without getting too wet.
I gave Ads a certain amount of freedom to choose what we did on our last day, Saturday. Initially, he had wanted to do another mountain, but the less-than-clement weather, and the lack of any real interest in the one significant mountain walk left in our book of walks, decided him to choose a river walk instead from Betwys-y-Coed. There was the packing up to do first, which was not difficult since the rain had stopped, and since I didn’t feel any need to fold the tent up properly into its bag. We cycled into Beddgelert where we had an Overbearingly Greasy Breakfast before striking camp finally and driving off to Betwys.
The walk up the left bank of the river was not very interesting, but we were looking forward to the Swallow Falls (I had not remembered that I’d actually visited them on my trip 10 years earlier). With about a mile to go, Ads revealed that the riverbank path gave out and that we would have to walk on the road for a while. I objected. Instead, I looked to see if could cross the river somewhere - it was a very rocky river. But, because of the storm on the previous night, it was raging quite strongly, and wherever I tried there was a middle section which could not be stepping-stoned (to make a verb where none exists!). However, by taking off my shoes, I did manage to find a path through. A lot of the rocks, just under the surface had a covering of moss, which made them comfortable to walk on, and far less slippery than the bare rocks. Even so, with a strong current and deep sections, it proved somewhat tricky to get Ads over as well - but we managed. Soon after, we found our way along the narrow, high-up, right bank path to a little resting place, complete with bench, with a perfect view of the falls. Finally - for we were both well hungry - we lunched there.
I had intended to head us straight back to Betwys (and certainly not to walk the two kilometres up to the bridge and back down to the hotel on the other side of the river), but the guide book said there were closer views a bit further upriver. Not far along the path, we found we could walk out on to huge rocks above the falls; and then it seemed, because of the many rocks and stones and outcrops, we might be able to cross the river here too - and thus achieve a cup of tea at the hotel without the 2km walk. In fact, crossing the river proved a real challenge - it was like a maze with only one possible answer. We had to keep trying different stepping stone pathways, arriving near the middle of the river before realising we couldn’t make it, and then retreating back the way we came. But each new time we tried, we could see another potential route of stones further up. It could not have been better designed to provide a difficult but solvable challenge. Eventually, I got over, but Ads had to remove his shoes to make it safely. On the way back, we had to take almost exactly the same route, there were no others that would do, only Ads managed the return without removing his shoes.
From there it was an hour walk to Betwys, where we changed by the car, bought some supplies, and then headed off back to the smoke. It was around 11:30pm when we arrived at Russet House, after a relatively hassle-free journey.
Paul K Lyons
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