I bloody love Wales. I’m not really sure when it started. Actually it was probably pretty early on if I think about it. As a child I loved fantasy so to find out that within a few hours drive there was a country with mountains, forests and waterfalls was pretty damn captivating. A short family holiday revealed it had it’s own completely unpronounceable language written on the roads, clouds that were so low you couldn’t see the hills behind and it was not in the slightest bit glamorous. A good indicator of that fact is that we could afford to go there. It was definitely the sort of place for an adventure. There is even a bloody dragon on the flag.
Upon passing my driving test it was one of my primary destinations. There were many Nissan Micra adventures in North Wales and I’m sure I’ll get round to writing them up eventually.
I’d done a long cycling tour with Freddy, fifteen days, fifteen hundred miles across Britain a couple of summers ago. I managed to survive without being more than a few meters away from him for over two weeks and he didn’t get on my nerves at all. That’s another blog update in the queue. Anyway, Freddy is a tough guy and one that I don’t see regularly enough. He developed a cycling related knee injury that meant he had branched out into touring without chainrings or saddlesores. When Wales was suggested for a two night, two feet tour, the map was immediately unfolded and sprawled across the floor. This would not only be a great opportunity to check out a new bothy but also get to perch on top of Lord Hereford’s Knob. Who could refuse?
It was wonderfully sunny when I left school for the drive down to Cheltenham. Greeted with some arrival coffee (damn good as ever), slung one big bag in the boot and off we went. The low, now setting June sun struck the insect bowels smeared on my windscreen and dazzled me as we rolled and turned our way towards an extended gateway where we were to unload the car, twist a bottle of wine into the side of a rucksack and forget something crucial before lacing up boots. My right boot is already starting to crack in the toes from where an adolescent injury ensures that I prefer to kneel on my right leg. Freddy’s boots don’t show such signs of wear yet but judging by his enthusiasm I’m sure they will.
As we wound our way up the footpath onto higher ground I enjoyed that familiar feeling of how metaled road turns to potholed gravel, to brick strewn muddy lane, to narrow bridleway, to dirt track and finally to the faintly flattened yellow grass that signals arrival in a place of your own.
We chatted endless crap about cycling and it got dark.
We found the bothy. It was at the head of a reservoir, had been used for the construction and maintenance and it was exactly as small as I expected. I unclipped the small sack of kindling that would provide our warmth for the night and began moving my things from one place to another in a dusty game of tetris that I feel is my equivalent of when a dog circles round in it’s bed several times before eventually settling down. This time I’d forgotten the methylated spirits so had to get busy splitting the kindling into splinters so that it would catch in the old bothy stove. Out came the wine. Which meant that urination was necessary and frequent. Our little stone box warmed up quickly and the wind gently buffeted the roof and the moon came out and reflected on the black onyx waters of the reservoir. The moon was yellow and the clouds that intermittently shrouded it were also yellow. The grass was yellow but was as black as everywhere else. Usually I have a feeling that anyone could turn up at any time when staying in a bothy but the thought didn’t cross my mind in this one. It was ours.
In the morning we brewed some coffee and then spilled it all over by bare thighs. The blister was excellent and the mess a little shameful. We did our best to clear it up, had a cool wash and enjoyed seeing last night’s scene in full colour. There is something really quite real about that feeling in the morning. When it is green and the dimensions and uncertainties that were hidden in the night are revealed and then combined with the complete lack of faffing around to actually get out there and be where you want to be. I find it exhilarating.
Up, up and away. We walked across some round, yellow hills and chatted more crap. It was a cool, windy day of watching large clouds project black shadows onto pale yellow hillsides. We were rained on a few times but not enough to get properly wet.
The shadows entertained me all day and paired with the map and compass it was fun to orientate myself in an area I am less familiar with. The Black Mountains are aptly named. Their steep, scooped- away sides ensure that the midsummer lighting casts dark shadows that appear as temporary blind spots, moving across your picture of the horizon.
Whoever left this here really did tickle me. Finding it in the swirling mist when your actual phone has dies, your map has been shredded by the wind and your swollen ankle is turning blue underneath your soaked trousers might not be so funny.
We had seen a handful of people out in a full day of walking. We decided to head for a large forested area in a secluded valley to find a place to camp for the night.
We walked for a long time through this dense, sweet smelling pine forest before reaching some flat land just before the bottom of the valley. We were out of sight, just inside the woods, about a hundred yards from a small stream at the bottom of the valley. There was a narrow lane on the other side of the valley that led to a lonesome farmstead. It was quiet. We set up the tent and cooked up some more instant pasta.
It was getting dark and the stillness was making me sleepy. I had carefully foraged for dry fallen wood and had removed an area of turf and lined the site with stones to have a small, leave no trace campfire. It was to be another peaceful night in the isolation of a Welsh forest.
A yellow hatchback playing dated dance music from two entirely rolled down windows arrived on the scene. Just some boy racers probably. Lads. It drove straight past in the direction of the farm and disappeared. Eventually it reappeared and went back to where it came from. Ten minutes of sitting on brown pine needles sipping whisky from my aluminium cup and the yellow car was back complete with the same dance track. We were hidden in the darkening forest whilst the little Fiat was illuminated by the orange glow of the sunset. There was no way we would be seen. Behind this car rumbled a white Transit, a Combo and a few other hatchbacks. They parked up on the entrance to a firebreak, immediately opposite us and proceeded to obliterate the tranquility of the dim summer’s evening with incredibly loud everything. Freddy got a little cross. I smiled.
These guys were taking the piss. Their dog ‘Scrappy’ immediately ran off after some sheep and caused the mob to spend a good forty five minutes shouting ‘Where the fuck are you Scrappy?!’ Scrappy ran right in front of us once, having the time of his life chasing a sheep that nearly ran straight into our tent. The dance music is still being emitted from the little yellow Punto.
We had diligently chosen our campsite as cause as little impact on the environment as possible. They proceeded to pour petrol onto an already blazing campfire. Out came the Gazebo. Out came the remote control helicopters complete with flashing LEDs. Out came the generator, amps and speakers. The Punto’s music was replaced by fully fledged happy hardcore from the sort of sound system that gives wannabe DJ kids a wet dream. Freddy grew more angry and I more incredulous. Then the chainsaw came out. I looked across to the hour of careful work that was my pile of sticks, collected for a modest fire that we could now never light, it would have definitely revealed our location.
Then another car pulled up. We saw, peering through the vertical black stripes of the pine trees that shielded us, that they were a group of four girls. They had a chat with the other group and decided to cross the river and set up their camp just a few meters from us. It was when they spotted the carefully placed pile of wood that I had left them that they decided exactly where to camp. We were now sitting completely still, leaning our backs against the trees, dressed in our black down jackets, talking in whispers. They set up their ASDA tents and set fire to my pile of wood and scattered the burning embers everywhere as they slowly got stoned. Meanwhile the group across the stream activated their laser lighting.
Incredible. I was enjoying the spectacle. It was a wild camp like no other that I had had before. We were voyeurs. They were enjoying the freedom of the outdoors just as we were. They may leave some more traces but they were also probably having more fun. I became increasingly concerned that the group of stoned girls would eventually find out that there were two men just a couple of trees away, hiding in the shadows, dressed in black, watching them and whispering to each other. Then all hell would break loose and understandably so. I told Freddy that I needed to just go over and explain what had happened in a friendly way. He said that would make matters worse. He was probably right.
I held my breath as one of them, illuminating her way with her iphone, crouched a few meters in front of us, peeled down her H&M leggings and urinated on the detritus.
As our whisky ran out we climbed into our bags and began to win the fight against the happy hardcore. At around 2am the Transit van must have produced a microphone because one of the scallywags proceeded to MC over the tracks.
The morning was over quickly. As we walked past the sleeping girls, wrapped in the cheap blue nylon of collapsed tents, one of them stirred, looked confused and went back to sleep. The scallywags were all inside their vans and later on as I lay in the sun battling sleep deprivation and a whisky tarnished stomach I felt like we with our heavy bags and aching knees had misunderstood something fundamental. A transit van would have gotten us there much sooner.
We parked at Capel-y-Finn at the side of the road for free.
I ate packets of pasta and drank wine and whisky found in kitchen cupboards.
There was already some petrol in the car. I think that this weekender was free?