Thursday, 6 August 2015

An adventure in Wales

So the holiday season is upon us and my social media pages are full of glorious sunshine shots of faraway shores and lakes, people straddled awkwardly across grumpy looking camels and endless photos of exotic looking drinks. It’s a voyeurs’ fantasy land, where you can look into the downtime worlds of your workmates, marvel at the hot dog legs that you’ve only ever seen encased in tights at the office and for the first time see what Marg from Accounts looks like in a bikini... And if the pictures are of your real life friends, you look further into the photographs – that gorgeous man in the background, your trendy mate has gone holiday mad and decided to get her hair braided, the obligatory sweaty drunken shot that is deleted too late the next morning, and the cocktail shot before the mayhem started.

And to be fair, I was one of them a couple of weeks ago – off on a tried and tested break in Mallorca, land of sun, sand and sangria, and more importantly, some of my best and oldest friends.  It was glorious, the weather was hot and the food was perfect. The kids all got on, and the husband discovered a blonde German (we are talking beer here…) that had more body than the Spanish lager.  Nuff said.  Some things are better left to the imagination.  And all too soon it was over, and the second phase of our holiday began, in Wales.

Wales, famous for its singing and sheep (we have yet to discover a singing sheep) and with a landscape as varied as the people who live within its shores. For a relatively small country it has produced a large number of celebrities – Tom Jones, Katherine Zeta Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Katherine Jenkins, Michael Sheen, Shirley Bassey, Rob Brydon, Charlotte Church to name but a few. And no matter where they live in the world, they always come back to Wales. And why not? You have the countryside which ranges from the tumultuous seas and mountains of Snowdonia in the North, to the glorious sandy beaches of the Gower, and the wind blown landscapes of the Brecon Beacons.  Gorges, secret waterfalls and caves contend for attention with metropolitan cities, and slick modern buildings stand amongst old miners stone cottages, impervious to both weather and change.
First ever sighting of sheep for our half collie...

And so it was that we headed en famille and dog to Llwyd Llwyn Cottage, hidden in Aberyscir in the Brecon Beacons.  We had found it on line, after receiving an invitation to the wedding of a dear friend at nearby Buckland Hall, and we booked it for the week as a family holiday. It was an eventful journey, entailing a tyre change on the M4, and getting lost several times, and we were relieved to see the smiling faces of Lise and Ian Chesters, the owners of the cottage.  They lived on site in an enormous farm house with outbuildings, and from the start were unobtrusive but extremely helpful, from the welcome bottle of wine and welsh cakes on arrival, to suggestions about things to do, to walking the dog on the days that we had booked activities, giving us a lift to the wedding and refilling the baskets of logs for the wood burning stove.

Llwyn Llwyd Cottage
A short walk out of the back door and we were into the hills, where startled sheep ran out of our way, countless wild blossoms swayed in the breeze and the landscape stretched out beneath us in a patchwork quilt of 50 shades of green. I couldn’t sleep on the first night because it was simply too quiet – no distant sound of a motorway, or planes flying overhead, or even the milkman on an early morning delivery. Nothing.  And the skies were clear, the distant stars sparkling crystals in the crisp intense darkness. And my cup of tea felt hot, and my feet felt cold in a total sensory overload.

Boys having fun in the Brecon Hills
Bit puffed out!
And then it was morning and with it came a first time adventure for us all – canyoning, or gorge scrambling.  Cries of ‘Mum, where’s my swimming costume?’ combatted my desire to look like Bo Derek emerging from the water as I swept my hair back into a casual ponytail and applied a little waterproof mascara. We were met at Pontneddfechan by a likeable young man from Adventure Wales called Jake – we instantly forgot his name in the horror of trying on rather damp wetsuits in a social club car park, and for the rest of the 3 hours he was called Jack, Jacques, John, and at a rather panicky point, Tim (no, I don’t know where that came from either).  He made sure we looked as unglamorous as possible with buoyancy aids and helmets adding to the whole Teletubbies effect. 

He then marched us down to the gorge and proceeded to yell at us to jump in the water ‘to get over the shock’.  I went first, and on surfacing from the icy cold river was privileged to see the reactions first hand of the rest of the family.  G’s face went grey, as he realised that he had cajoled us into this and he had to go on, Eldest Son looked resolute, Little Man screeched and Middle Son looked as if he was going to puke. It was a day that tested all of us – caves that had to be squeezed in and out of, ledges no thicker than my arm to be scrambled, dark tunnels of 10 foot high to be scaled, and ducking in and out of waterfalls, jumping into dark pools from 20 foot precipices into rushing currents. The kids took it all in their stride, hanging from rocks with their nails and leaping across gorges ten feet in the air. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
At the end Jake strolled back to his car as if he had been out shopping for the day, whilst we all dragged behind him, knock kneed and at least two of us in great need of a gin and tonic.  As we disrobed in the car park – all modesty forgotten – he revealed in his lilting accent that he and his brother were saving up for a trip to Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia in October.  His mother would miss them, but she had only ever left Wales once, and she had regretted it, and so backed them up in their adventure.

We sat in the car on the way to the nearest pub.  I looked in the visor mirror.  My hair was plastered to the side of my head and my waterproof mascara wasn’t.  I looked more like Derek than Bo Derek.

It was definitely going to be a large gin day…

They did all right!