May ’09

The Untamed United Kingdom

I climbed the highest mountain in Wales and England … in the rain. I drank local ales and the finest Scottish whiskey. I explored castles and coves. I slept in the rain. I danced in the sunshine, in a skirt. I had lunch with sheep. I attempted conversations with country folk whose accent I couldn’t understand. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. So let me start at the beginning. Get online to Google Earth or haul out the dusty old atlas and follow me around the United Kingdom for some culture and fun.

I arrived in London one morning in early May. It was surprisingly sunny and warm. I caught up with a friend before heading off to Birmingham and to the nearby village of Lapworth where the birds tweet merrily. It was a pleasant change from the hustle and bustle of the city as I stepped onto the short, quiet station platform. As the train pulled away with an effortless swoosh, myself and the only other to disembark made our way onto the welcoming streets of this quaint English village. The overcast sky gave the many different flower colours an even more passionate hue. Leafy trees lined the lanes, a lush accessory for the dark tarmac. Pink and white falling petals reminded me of confetti as they fell to carpet the pavements. Retired men leave their pixie-houses to fetch the morning paper from the gate at the front yard. Residents pop into the local village shop to buy milk, walk their dogs along quiet avenues and swop niceties with those passing by. The yellow patchwork fields of rapeseed create breaths of openings in amongst the compacted greenery of the country. The atmosphere is relaxed. A weekend getaway is what comes to mind.

Canterbury was next on the list to see another good friend who I have worked and travelled with on a number of occasions. But we weren’t there for long as we had a little road-trip planned. So the next morning we packed Tickle (the little purple Ford Fiesta that was to be our transport for the next ten days) with our camping gear and hit the road – the plan was to do Wales! Which we indeed did, but the first day of our trip saw us stopping off at Stonehenge for a bit. Wow! It was entrancing to be so close to such mystery and magnificence. The highway and sheep in the background did not distract us one bit as we were spellbound every second. By the time we got back to the car we were chilled to the bone so the flask was an extremely welcomed sight … a cup of hot chocolate warmed us up sufficiently and we drove into the beautiful city of Bath in high spirits.

I paid the equivalent of R140 to see the Roman Bathes, a Heritage Sight in Bath, but it was worth every cent. A few hours were spent taking photos and taking in all the information, of which there is almost too much. At the end of the visit you receive a ‘free’ glass of spring water from the sacred pool, but you have to keep in mind you spent a fortune on entrance in the first place. It was the most expensive water I have ever paid for so I asked for a full glass, not the half full one I was initially handed. Well, this was a schoolgirl error of the highest degree … the water is very sulphuric (obviously, being a natural hot spring and all) and tasted like warm fart. Kyra could not even finish her half glass. But I drank it all, bloody R140 glass of water! And I felt queasy for a little while thereafter.

Once my stomach had settled we traipsed through the city, admiring the architecture and Roman influence. We also spent hours in the Abbey. It is like a mini cathedral, marble walls with different inscriptions lining every inch of it. And the floor, and the windows, and the size … we were totally lost in time, with organ music as the background sound to add to the whole experience. Once outside again, we went to the well manicured gardens, followed by a walk over the Pulteney Bridge, a shop-lined street over the Pulteney River, and lay on the widest pavement in Britain. And, yes, it’s really wide! Satisfied and saturated with Bath, we headed to Wales that evening and had a good night out in the university town of Swansea.

Wake up. Coffee. More coffee. Excitement dawned. We had the whole day to explore the Gower Peninsular in southern Wales. The sun was shining and we were wearing skirts (it was that warm, really)! Our first stop was The Mumbles. We planned to get there at low tide so as to walk across to the lighthouse, otherwise an island at high tide. The Mumbles is also home to Wales’ local ice cream, Joes. We went to THE shop for THE vanilla ice cream made freshly on the premises daily. It was just like a summers day should be … looking out over the sea onto Devon and Cornwall, eating our ice cream, body parts other than just our heads and hands exposed to the sun. The Oystermouth Castle on the hill behind The Mumbles presented us with yet another fantastic photo opportunity. This castle is a relatively small one but extremely interesting. Built by the Romans, the history here is one of power and blood-shed. We chatted to a gentleman working there who was very knowledgeable and he allowed us into a different section of the ruins not for the public as he could see we were genuinely interested. He informed us about an archaeological dig which was to take place there the following month as they suspect there is more to the sight than has already been discovered. He also had his own private collection of Roman coins. For a small price he parted with one, making me ecstatic as it was for a 10th of the price as the coins being sold in Bath, the centre of touristy Roman history.

The gentleman at the castle told us about a secret beach only accessible on foot. So after a picnic in a field of sheep we continued driving through the country lanes, trying to find the area. We stopped to ask someone in a little village called Parkmill and, without realising, that was exactly where we had to park the car to walk down to Three Cliff Bay. It was a half hour walk to the beach, over rolling hills. On route there is an amazing ruin of a castle up on a cliff edge. It was like being in a fairy tale … the castle, the forested parts of the walk before the coastline, the sea. We swam in the most beautiful bay with a cliff backdrop and played scrabble until the light began to dim. The tide had come in quite a bit since we arrived and we were trapped from going back the same way we came because of the tidal river between the beach and the path. We went back over the hills and down the country lanes, taking many photos in the fading light and chatting to the sheep as we went. Then it was back to Swansea where a big event, Carnage, was taking place. Because it was a friend of mine who organises these events, we were given the red Carnage t-shirts to wear as we wished and VIP passes. We proceeded to hit the closed-off party street for a night of dancing and vibrant Welsh university culture.

We were a bit hung over the next day but that didn’t stop us from making the most of the sunshine once again. We made our way to the point of the Gower Peninsular, to Rhossili Beach. Wow! We parked on the cliff and walked down to this seven kilometer stretch of sand. We were in absolute awe of the vastness of the beach contrasted by sheer cliff walls. The air was cold. A strong breeze chilled the flesh even more. The breaking swells rolled in, endless pulses of energy, making this spot a hit with surfers.

On our way back to the car we stopped to ask some locals if they knew any campsites in the area. One of them offered us his front lawn to camp on for free. When we arrived he said we could us the wood cabin that he rents out. What a steal – we had our own rooms, there was a fully kitted out kitchen and a bathroom with the best shower! He even offered to make us some supper but we were exhausted so politely declined. And that was our night in the small seaside village of Horton.

Horton needed to be explored the next morning and we ended up in the next village, Port Eynon, by mistake. Both villages are quaint little places with vegetated lanes and hobbit-like houses. The map book took us on to Carreg Cennen Castle near the inland town of Llandeilo. It is situated in the Brecon Beacon National Park. Unlike southern Africa, one doesn’t have to pay to enter a reserve or park as there are public roads, farmers and towns in them, but you are charged to enter and see a heritage site or something of that nature. We spent a long there and just couldn’t get enough of the place. Situated up on a hill amongst rolling green meadows, the castle ruins offer a majestic view. In the castle walls there is a natural cave which goes relatively deep. We read that if you bring torches (or rent them from the entrance gate) you can explore as you wish. So, with our camping head-torches we went caving until we were too cold to bear it any longer. Outside wasn’t much warmer (we actually wore shorts that day hoping that positive attitudes would turn the air warm … all in vain), but we could at least run around a bit in an attempt to heat up.

Once we were saturated with old stone walls and mystery, we headed to Pembrokeshire, another peninsular in west-Wales. It is known for its beautiful beaches and stunning coastal cliff walks. We stopped off in Tenby, the tourist town of the area. It does have a great location and amazing beaches, but we were looking for a smaller place with a country feel to it. After exploring for a bit and buying some proper toffee as only the Brits can make, it was onto the next small bays on the map. Up and down the coastal lanes we drove until asking another local for advice. And would you believe we ended up staying for cheap, camped out in a ladies back yard in Johnston. The tent kept us dry from the rain that night and although we were both a bit chilly and uncomfortable from sleeping on the ground, we survived our first night out in the Welsh elements. We did, however, plan to drink more red wine and brandy on our next night in the tent.

We woke up to typical bad British weather! We found a quaint little church once again and had an eerie photo session in amongst the grave stones. After checking out more incredible coastline at Broad Haven Beach and an island of stacked rock called Stackpole Head, we were chilled to the bone. The closest coffee shop was at a small village called Boscherton. Once again we stumbled upon a cheery little place with a unique touch. We walked in to a small room with two large round tables squashed into it. Each place was already set and visitors sat together in what appeared to be the living room of a house. There were black and white pictures on the walls of the coffee shop back in the day, as well as a few pictures of someone’s grandchildren graduating. The sweet old lady who served us needed to turn her hearing aid up while talking to us. It took a while to place our order due to all her good-intentioned faffing, but when the coffee and scones came it couldn’t have been more fitting and welcomed. A real old-fashioned setting with country cooking and hospitality, we left a lot warmer and happy. Locals and tourists alike have shared stories around these tables, and I’m sure our hostess would’ve been able to tell a few herself. She certainly looked as if she had been around for a while.

Castlemartin was our next stop on the coast, by default … we came over a hill, saw a whole lot of people and activity happening on yet another beautiful stretch of beach and stopped to ask what all the commotion was about. Turns out it’s the set of the last Harry Potter film which was being filmed. We got a bit closer on foot, along with many fans, to steal a peek at the set’s house built out of shells just off the beach. A stones-throw away from the excitement, in the city of Pembroke, we admired and walked around the base of the massive castle in the centre of the hub. It has the grandeur, the name, the history, but was too perfect for us. No crumbling walls, not enough to allow the imagination to run wild with.

Carrying on with the coastline we stopped at a quaint little coastal village and took the flask to the beach. The next few coves were just our thing – small, beautiful, peaceful and quaint. So we stopped in at the only hotel/bar in a little place called Norton Haven to enquire about camping. The barman phoned up a resident and pointed out the house to us where we were to go. The lady there said we could camp on the grass in front of her shed for free! It was stunning, with a view of the cove as well! We pitched tent, opened a beer, and started the fire. Yes folks, we actually BRAAIED. And it was blerrie awesome. With some red wine from South Africa and a bietjie brandewyn we slept like the dead.

Newgale and Solva were the last two coastal coves we stopped off at the following day before moving on to mid-Wales. We attempted to look for the bottlenose dolphins at the Mwnt point, but it had started to rain again so we just sat in the car and pretended we were watching them jump out of the water in front of us. We hit the road again, heading north towards the area of Snowdonia. Heading inland meant the views became even more spectacular. We drove through mountain ranges and valleys. There was a lot of cloud so we only got a glimpse of the peaks every now and then. We drove through the area where slate is mined. The architecture also changed dramatically as well as the style of the villages. I got the feeling we were somewhere in the Alps. We took out the flask again for a cup of tea at the water’s edge of a huge lake flanked by mountains. The overcast drizzle gave it a magical feel. That night, because of all the rain, we splashed out on our limited budget and stayed in a hostel just outside Dolgellau.

It was now our last day in Wales. We conquered Mount Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales and England! And we did it in the rain! A seagull actually followed us up all the way. From about half-way up we couldn’t see anything because the cloud was so thick. But when we could see it was majestic. Water runs into three terraced lakes below the peaks. I had a swim in the last one – a crazy moment. I kept my beanie and gloves on though, that is how cold it was! And I won a beer off that stint. The warming-up ale at the tiny village of Chapel Carig thereafter went down like a home-sick mole. And that night, in Llangollen, Kyra and I enjoyed many a drink and conversation at the local pub. Our last night in Wales was perfectly topped off by the Welsh hospitality.

Back in England, the next few days we toured the province of Kent. We went to the south, east and north coasts, exploring the streets and villages. We also did Canterbury, which is a beautiful and historically important city. The highlight, though, were the white cliffs of Dover. We spent a whole day walking along the top at the cliff edge from Dover to St Margaret’s Bay and back, followed by an extremely refreshing swim in the sea! The huge chalk cliffs were accentuated by the blue sky that day, making them even more impressive.

Scotland … having had a farewell party the night before, the hangover I was suffering was a blessing in disguise for the 10 hour bus trip to Edinburgh. I drifted in and out of a world I was not partial to at that moment, taking note of the rain against the window and the dreamland I was about to slump back into. The time passed relatively quickly and before long I was standing, big backpack on my back and a smaller one on my front, in the bus station. I had met another passenger on leaving the bus who was from Botswana. She offered to give me a lift to a backpacker hostel after promises of staying at her friend’s house fell through. A hot shower and Cupa Soup prepared me for a night in one of the many beds in one of the many warehouse-size dorm rooms.

Waking up momentarily to the trucks and party-goers on the street throughout the night left me a little less refreshed than I hoped for. But this was over-ridden by excitement, once again … Edinburgh Castle loomed out at me through the window as I packed up. Setting foot into the busy atmosphere of the city sent a rush of thrill through my body. On route to the grandeur up on the hill, an art piece of a water-fountain stole my time as I clicked away merrily with my camera at the water sprouting from the stone angles in the sky. The camera called once again as I passed through the graveyard gardens of a humble church. The sun peaking past the clouds every now and then changed the eerie mood with its warmth. The castle blew me away. And so it should have for the steep entry price. Oh, the joys of being a tourist! The ‘free tour’ given by well-informed Scottish men in their full tartan quilts, helped me to understand the foundations of such a masterpiece. One area which was particularly impressive was an entire building constructed for all British soldiers who have served in battle. This War Memorial outshone any other physical dedication I have seen in Britain. Arthur’s Seat was next and as I strolled through the streets making my way to the hill, students were already well into their beer outside the many pubs lining the road. It was a pleasant evening and many others were out getting some exercise.

I made my way to family which I only recently discovered I had in Edinburgh. They were very accommodating, considering they had never met me before and we were a little different. I had the opportunity to try the traditional haggis dish as well as some fine Scottish whiskey. Not ever having acquired a taste for whiskey, it was unfortunately lost on me and I had to politely leave the majority of my generous glass.

The next day I hopped on a train to Glasgow, followed by a bus further south to Ayr to visit a good friend. It was cold and windy; our brisk walk next to the waves after supper chilled us to the bone. I filled the next three days running, walking and cycling. My visit via ferry to Arran Island just off the west coast was a highlight. I attempted to walk Goatfell Mountain, but the weather was so extreme that I had to turn back a little bit from the top. As I couldn’t see anything and it was icy cold, wet and windy I didn’t mind that I didn’t stand at the top this time. I still managed to have a good day’s walk.

After saying my farewells to the home I was accepted into for a few days, and to the wonderful coffee machine in the kitchen, I was off on yet another train, this time north bound to Crianlarich. The Western Highway Rail extends far into the highlands, to places unheard of by most and some even unreachable by vehicle. The journey was beautiful. Clouded peaks flanked the tracks and lochs peeked through indigenous forests. I decided to get off at a small town I had read about and walked along the Western Highland Way, one of many such walks in the highlands which are done over a number of days, depending on the route, area and weather. I looked and felt like a tortoise on two legs with both my backpack and daypack attached to my back. Needless to say, stunning mountainous scenery accompanied my every step, rather wet ones if I might add. I walked until I reached a rather intriguing farm on the route which had wigwam accommodation. As it was getting late and the next stop was still a while I left my bags in the hobbit-sized wigwam with mattresses on the floor and attempted a run. I got absolutely soaking wet and this resulted in smelly wet shoes and socks for the next few days.

The following day it poured down none stop – so much for walk I had planned. I eventually got a lift south to Stirling with a gentleman who was passing through on business. He dropped me off at a fuel station which was on the wrong side of the road. I only realised this once I had asked about 50 people if they were going to Glasgow (south of Stirling) and the answer was always “Naw, heading norf, luv, sorry.” So I managed to get a lift to the bus station back the way I had already come. Here I had to ask other people on the bus to help me out with ticket money to Glasgow as the driver did not have change for my rather large note. I made my way to a crummy backpacker hostel eventually, but only after another 40 minute walk with my whole load. There were even more interesting people there, as one is bound to meet in such places. Exhausted and fed up from with the rain and Cupa Soup I had to have again that night, I fell into an uneasy sleep for a few hours.

Onto London the following day … and the worst bus trip ever. It was on a par with the 18 hour bus trip I once undertook to Botswana (City-to-City style). Hot, sweaty, babies crying, a chav talking way too loudly on his phone to his “babe”, the driver getting unruly with passengers for bringing hot food onto the bus, etc. The bus change at Victoria Station for Canterbury had been long awaited, but finally it was back to smiles and fun with a good friend, in preparation for the festival taking place in Rochester which we had planned to visit the following day.

The Rochester Sweeps Festival was a festive event from a time gone by. There were people of all kinds there to enjoy the atmosphere. It is a three day festival which takes place on the last weekend of May and is one renowned for the local folk who dress up like characters from Oliver Twist. They dance, they sing, and even act out some of the scenes from the musical. The main street is for those on foot only and is a shoulder-to-shoulder slow trundle through the festivities. With the castle and cathedral flanking either side of the fun, a medieval ambience is created.

The United Kingdom has some truly majestic areas. From the inland mountains to a rugged coastline with pristine stretches of sand and cliffs. The tradition and hospitality are certainly worth spending some time there.