Day 2: The Stranger

I woke to a grey day, the first of many. Without much ado, I breakfasted, packed up my tent and set off. A couple of kilometres down the road was Plas-y-Brenin Outdoor Training Centre. A footpath took me through some of their grounds. Turning a corner, I encountered a curious sight. There appeared to be seven or eight corpses or unconscious people scattered about on the ground. I did nothing to help them. The fact that several of them had contrived to fall onto comfortable camping mats led me to believe they might be faking it. Sure enough, moments later, seven or eight more people jogged round the corner and instantly began attending to each one, followed by a first aid instructor.

Rain and I arrived in Capel Curig, and I stopped at the Moel Siabod café to shelter and post an update on my justgiving page. A man came to sit on the sofa opposite me and, seeing my gear, asked what I was up to. I told him, and then he told me about his love of long-distance cycling. He had come to it late in life. After retiring, he decided, without having done anything like it before, to cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Having enjoyed that, the next year he upped the ante and cycled round the coast of Britain. I am not much of a cyclist myself, but it is good to know the option is available to take it up well into your sixties.

Anyone who has been on a multi-day backpacking trip will know that entering an establishment where food other than camping supplies can be purchased is a dangerous game. Your cravings take over and you apparently forget every other time you have entered a shop. Is is typical to walk out in a kind of daze clutching a tin of peaches in syrup, a loaf of brioche, an unidentified liquid that you thought looked tasty but turns out to be window cleaner, and a single egg. This being a café, I didn’t have quite that freedom, but I still slightly took leave of my senses. The counter was festooned with delicious-looking treats, and I decided an enormous scone was just what I needed. “Do you want jam, cream, or butter?” The lady asked me.

“Um, yes, er, can I have all of it?” I took out my card to pay.

“There’s a five-pound minimum. You could get a banana too.” Fine by me. “Help yourself,” she gestured to one side, then turned back to the kitchen. Oh, right, then. I picked a scone at least as big as a melon from the tray and sat back down. Something felt off. I couldn’t put my finger on what. I lifted my big scone to my mouth, took a bite, and tried vainly to catch the cascade of crumbs in my other hand. This definitely felt wrong. I saw someone come out of the kitchen with a pair of tongs, grab a scone in them, and disappear back again. I looked down at the scone I had just taken a bite out of. Ah. The banana. She meant help myself to the banana. She would assume I would know not to take a scone in my hands because it’s a café and I had ordered it with jam and things anyway. Two days I had been on the road and already I had gone feral.

Embarrassing as it was, coming clean was the only solution that wouldn’t a) make me feel like an irredeemable criminal or b) involve some kind of sitcom-like scenario where I stuffed the whole thing in my mouth like a hamster before my actual order arrived. When the rain stopped, I left the café as an idiot, but one with a clear conscience.

Forest on the way to Betws-y-coed

The sky brightened as I followed forest tracks to Betws-y-coed. Lots of folk were out for a potter alongside the river. As someone who comes to these places in order to spend all day marching up to the summits and back, it is easy to forget you can enjoy mountain views perfectly well from the valleys, and in much more comfort. I crossed a surprising little suspension footbridge over the Conwy and began following small roads southeast. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had planned to follow long-distance footpaths wherever possible, and had discovered one beginning in Pentrefoelas called the Hiraethog Trail, which went more or less in the right direction for me. I was therefore winding my way through countryside to reach it.

Not far on from Betws-y-coed, the walking took on a different feel. I was away from footpaths and walkers, and it was quiet. More than that though, I no longer felt expected to be there. I half anticipated passing cars to stop and ask if I was lost; “The mountains are back in that direction. What are you coming this way for?”

Not that there was anything unattractive about the area. Idyllic was the word to describe it. This is a word we use a lot in Britain to trick ourselves into feeling better about our countryside. Idyllic means: beautiful to someone who has had it hammered into them from childhood that domestic grazing animals, mossy fence posts, and hills under 200 ft high are as close to Eden as fallen Man can aspire. The fjords of Norway have nothing on our furrows. Fortunately, I have had this idea hammered into me as much as anyone else, and could admire the view, particularly where I could see the mountains beginning to shrink beyond the pastures and get a sense of my progress. Showers of rain came and went, leaving everything sparklingly fresh when the sun came out. For several hours my only interactions were nods with passing drivers. My progress was frequently interrupted by blackberries.

A pasturised idyll

That may all sound lovely, but I was starting to feel my lack of fitness. The beginnings of weariness were creeping into my legs, to an extent that would be no bother at all if I was confident in having a comfortable night’s sleep, but really I had no idea where I would end up that night. I also needed to find somewhere to fill up on water. The one time all afternoon that I had passed a farmer outside his house, I had not been bold enough to ask for water straight away, and then the moment had passed. I hoped there would be another. These wants gnawed at my peace of mind.

It was getting late when I found myself passing through the yard of a cattle farm. I had thought I was on a public footpath, but I must have taken a wrong turn. These places can be less idyllic close up to the big industrial barns, electric fences, and tracks churned up by thousands of driven hooves. Being an unwitting trespasser did not help settle me. I came down to where a cow-trodden bridge crossed a stream, and decided that getting some slightly muddy water just in case would be better than nothing.

A little further on, I passed a small farm house with a car outside. This may be a generational thing, but I was reluctant to knock on the door, partly because doing so would involve going through a gate and crossing the no-man’s land of their garden, during which time I would definitely feel criminal. It would be easier and less of a confrontation, I decided, to try to hail them from the track. I tried several times before I realised I was just shouting at an empty house, and moved on.

Darkness was rapidly falling. Back on a public footpath, I passed through another farmyard, where there were lights on in the open barn. A couple were working inside, and two young boys were running about. I called to them. They looked up, startled to see someone standing in their yard in the dark. The woman approached me, sending her boys inside. I said that I was starting the Hiraethog trail and asked if she knew anywhere ahead where I might be able to camp. I added that I was walking to Scotland, as if that explained things. “Quite a journey,” she lilted drily. She went back and consulted her husband. Snippets of Welsh reached me. In that moment, I saw myself as I truly was: a strange man with a strange tale outside a family’s home at a strange time of night. Almost a creature from folklore. “If a hairy traveller approaches your house at night saying he’s walking to Scotland and asking where he can sleep, what must you do to avoid misfortune?” Caution, not trust, was the natural response people should have towards me, regardless of what kind of person I think I am. She came back and described a spot that might be suitable, and gave me directions. I asked if she might be able to fill my water bag too. By this stage the sons had come back out and were cycling round and round while staring at me. She came back with the water, and I thanked her and ghosted off into the night, glad not to be disturbing this family’s peace any more.

Cooking while expecting at any moment to be torn asunder by hungry dogs

Peace was not going to be a feature of that night. I passed another farm, where there was a large cage with a pack of dogs inside, who quickly sensed my passing and began to raise the dead. I couldn’t remember the woman’s directions. A small hilltop that looked promising on the map turned out to be too overgrown and was too close to the ravenous pack for my liking. As I moved away I also could hear an occasional loud bang. A little further on, there was an unfenced field. I scouted round it to be sure there was no livestock. Although I could still hear the dogs barking, I decided I just wanted to stop walking, so I stuck up my tent in the most discreet (and dampest and sluggiest) corner of the field, cooked my supper, and got my head down. As far as I could tell, the dogs barked all night.

Published by Alasdair Robertson

Hiker, birder, conservationist, and occasional comedian

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