Sunday, 20 October 2013

Under the Mountain, Over the Mountain...

Miners path "the zig zags"

 Simon – We need to bear off to the left soon or its going to be a very long run
Me – Here's a path, should we follow it?
Simon – whats the worst that could happen?
Me – we fall off a cliff or down a mineshaft?
Simon – After you….

Despite the less than stable ground that we found ourselves on we picked our way down the slate strewn mountainside back to our little cottage at Blaenau Ffestiniog without incident. Our “run” over the hills had taken us past what used to the heart of the welsh slate mining industry when 4000 men from the village would make their way up the various miners paths to begin their working day – 12 hours of hard labour underground in complete darkness, the only light coming from explosions as the slate was hewn leaving cathedral sized caverns within the mountain. Surrounding us were hillsides strewn with heaps of slate, the waste product of this industry, along with many disused buildings, crumbling structures and rusting machinery. Where once upon a time the place was a hive of industry, now all is quiet save from runners and walkers exploring the area. 

Slate fence posts

Inevitably tourism has taken over as the major industry, slate mining no longer profitable with increased competition from abroad and from more cheaply produced building materials, and the mine has been turned into a fascinating tourist attraction where you are taken deep underground. The tour guide switches off the light “to give you a sense of what it was like”. This, somehow, I doubt. I don’t think anything can replicate the long dangerous hours of back breaking work, the noise, the smells (no toilet facilities) and children as young as 12 were working in this environment. The workers were allowed every Sunday off as well as two or three days holiday a year one, of course, being Christmas day but lest you thinking Sunday was for a little R&R the church had got that one covered – chapel had to be attended three times on a Sunday and woe betide anyone who didn’t show up especially if their foreman did.
A little train journey into the mines
Descending into the depths
Instead of building materials and roofing slates the ubiquitous gift shops now sell little gift items and souvenirs such as place mats, coasters and wine racks all crafted from slate. On the mountain itself tracks have been formed for mountain bikers and a new mountain bike centre and cafĂ© now lie next to (and on top of) the mine and for £5 a van will drive you and your bike to the top of the hill so all you have to do is pedal back down. We settled for running over the tracks. 

The steam railway was constructed to transport the slate....
....and is now a tourist attraction as it weaves its way precariously over the hillsides

 Well it had to be done. Snowdon. Everyone who has been to North Wales has climbed it (or so it seems) and there is nice variety of routes to the top ranging from epic and scrambly to a huge “motorway” and, if you really can’t be bothered to walk, you can always get the train to the summit. Yes, really. This narrow gauge rack and pinion mountain railway was built in 1896 to carry tourists up and down the mountain and its steam and diesel powered engines still do this today.
I wanted to go for the epic and scrambly route over Crib Goch but I spotted other walkers heading in that direction fully equipped with ropes and helmets and other mountaineering paraphernalia and as neither of us were equipped with anything like that a swift revision of plans was necessary and we settled for a less than technical ascent via the “Pyg track” and a descent via the “miners track” (copper mines this time).

It was a nice warm morning and I was looking forward to a leisurely stroll but within five minutes of setting off Simon had appeared to have decided that this was to be a forced march. I think the crowds of people that we were sharing the trail with were annoying him but lets face it, it is Snowdon, probably the most accessible mountain in the country, if not the world and on a lovely late summers day you are not going to have the place to yourself. Not a chance.
As so often happens within 20 minutes of leaving the car park the crowds had thinned out so I had no need to voice my reservations as to the pace of the walk as fortunately it had slowed and we soon reached the summit. It may be an accessible mountain but it is still spectacular and breathtakingly beautiful and just to remind us that it is still a high mountain and subject the same vagaries of the weather as any other mountain there was a cool wind and swirling mist shrouding the summit.

Race the train up!

Not only can you get a train to the top of this mountain you can also buy a coffee in the restaurant and… a souvenir in the gift shop. Last time I climbed Snowdon it was with someone who considered himself something of a mountaineering purist and shunned all things deemed to be “touristy” and so that time I hadn’t been allowed into either the restaurant or the gift shop so this time, in a fit of childish rebelliousness, I marched straight into the gift shop and bought myself some genuine, bona fide, tourist tat.
The descent by the miners tracks and over the causeway between the lakes didn’t take long either but by the time I got back to the car park my feet were on fire, I should have just gone for trainers and not big walking boots on such a warm day. Once my feet had cooled off it was straight to Pete’s eats for tea and cakes…a day on the hills in Llanberis cannot be finished any other way!

Wednesday, 16 October 2013


Hamish, my Heb Half Nemesis

It was all that dratted Ewen Rennie’s fault. He posted a picture on Facebook – a picture taken at a hill running training camp somewhere near Crieff and somewhere in the region of 18 years ago when I was young, enthusiastic and loved hill running. Looking at the picture it dawned on me that I hadn’t raced in over 5 months, unheard for me apart from during a bad bout of plantar fasciitis 3 years ago and what was worse, even getting out of the door for a run was getting progressively harder.

Now I’ve noticed that there is a difference between not going running and NOT RUNNING. Not going running describes the odd day when a training run is missed due to pressures of work/ pressures of life/niggly injury/ feeling poorly/stinking hangover/just can’t be arsed and is generally followed by a week of doubly hard training fuelled by guilt and self loathing.

NOT RUNNING is what happens when not going running goes unchecked. At first it’s a day or two of missed training for no good reason, then a week or two and before you know it you are NOT RUNNING. You have to be careful as it’s a sneaky thing, it creeps up on you and is dangerously comfortable.

A year on from my Himalayan odyssey and I found myself gazing forlornly at that photo taken 18 years ago and realising now that I was most definitely NOT RUNNING. I’m not entirely sure why really, maybe the upshot of a disappointing year where I haven’t made it to the start line of many events that I intended to do and those that I did manage were mediocre attempts at best leaving me wondering if it was worth the bother. Life was at times seriously getting in the way of training. Maybe it was a post Himalaya reaction, after all racing in the Himalayas makes most other things rather dull in comparison..

After enough pointless analysing it was most definitely time to extract a digit, after all I love running….don’t I?

So what was it to be? Training wasn’t working so how about racing at the weekend. How about a 2 mile cross country race? The 5 hour round trip was a tad off putting, maybe justifiable when fit but at the moment…? How about Meall a Tarmachan? A munro so likely to be big, rough and difficult. Maybe next year.  How about The Pentland Skyline? Forget it. And then I spotted it…perfect…the Aberdeen Parkrun. 5k on road, a few friendly faces to chat to and, if the weather gods played ball and kept the usual beachfront hurricane at bay (they did), it shouldn’t be too traumatic. 

It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty but it wasn’t too traumatic and I didn’t feel the need to take Ewen’s name in vain once during the race. It was a slow start and I had to pick my way past rows of children, dogs and octogenarians who had started in front of me and it was over relatively quickly although I’d have been happier if it had been a minute and a half more quickly. During the race I had spotted Geoff up ahead but hadn’t spotted Hamish, my heb half nemesis until I had finished.

After a nervous moment where my “barcode” had disintegrated in my sweaty hand and wouldn’t scan it was off for coffee and birthday cake to celebrate Aberdeen Parkrun’s second birthday. A fine way to spend a morning, this running lark isn’t really so bad. I wonder whats on next weekend…?

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The wonderful, weird and wacky world of Clough Williams-Ellis

In 1925 the “Architect” Clough Williams-Ellis bought a coastal site to the south of Portmadog in North Wales and spent the next 50 years creating an Italian coastal village there complete with bell towers, churches, cottages and a town hall to accompany the existing structures on these wooded slopes which were Castell Denrduth, first mentioned in 1188, and a large mansion house, now the Portmeirion hotel.  It is widely believed that Williams-Ellis based his design on the village of Portofino in Italy, a claim Williams-Ellis strenuously denied.

Portmeirion is now famous for two things. Firstly as a setting for the 1967 TV series “The Prisoner” and although I admit haven’t seen it by all accounts it is a bit surreal and weird so Portmeirion is probably an appropriate enough setting. Secondly, Portmeirion is famous for its pottery and although no pottery is, or has ever been, manufactured on the site, the “Botanics” range launched in 1972 is amongst the most easily recognised design of pottery in the country. Susan Williams-Ellis, his daughter, founded Portmeirion pottery in 1960 in Stoke on Trent and in 2009 Portmeirion pottery purchased the famous names of Spode and Royal Worcester, both founded in the 1770s and the manufacture of these was returned to the UK. Although no manufacturing takes place at Portmeirion there are no shortage of purchasing opportunities.
"Botanics" range
 Clough Williams- Ellis is always described as an “Architect” but in fact he only stayed at architecture school for a few months (too non-conformist for that apparently) before setting up his own practice and it took him 4 years to find and purchase the appropriate site for his master plan. He wanted to prove that it was possible to build beautiful colourful housing without defiling the natural landscape. The obvious influences of “rusticity” and “picturesque” shine through with the inevitable result being a certain crudeness that comes from mimicry rather than the result of the natural complex evolution of a village over the centuries reflecting social, economic, technological, environmental changes and adaptations and these are slow and subtle.

We decided to have lunch in the rather grand building called "The town hall". I was a little disillusioned when this turned out to consist of a school canteen style stainless steel serving counter, the ubiquitous brown plastic trays and the instruction of "cutlery and ketchup are over there". No doubt an essential way of dishing out hundreds of lunches to the peak tourist season crowds but it did somewhat take the shine of the grandeur of the place.

The end result is a theme park, a fun place, a charming and entertaining tourist holiday attraction and certainly worth a visit…. There’s even a mock Sistine Chapel ceiling painting….and a fake shipwrecked boat….and a fake light house…. It’s the sort of architectural equivalent of eating ice cream – sweet, tasty, fun at the time but ultimately not totally satisfying. It’s all fake!!!

Michelangelo would have been proud.

A fake lighthouse
Boat at the shore....
Going nowhere!!