Disclaimer: Storm chasing is not a joke and it is not like the movie Twister. Also, tornadoes may be very pretty but they also kill people, so proper respect must be shown for these most dangerous of weather phenomena.
In the town of Tuttle, Oklahoma (population just over 6,000) we stop at a gas station and I grab a stack of neon orange leaflets titled 'Are You Ready For a Tornado?' Giggling, I hand them out to my fellow storm chasers, thinking about how clever I am. Haha, of course we are ready. We're here on a 10 day storm chasing tour. We're with an expert. We know the drill - we've all seen Twister. The wind starts whipping through our hair really fast, we all hang out of the windows of the truck and start yelling 'tornado on the ground!' while taking photos and not smudging our make up or getting dirt on our Helen-Hunt-Perfect white vests. It's going to be EPIC. *
Two days later there actually is a tornado on the ground, and we are speeding along a road in northern Texas trying to get a good view of it. I am in the front seat, sinking lower and lower, trying to make myself completely invisible, in the hope that this will stop from happening the thing that I know is about to happen. They didn't mention this in Twister and there is also no help to be found in the leaflet, which is stowed safely under the folded sun visor in front of me. Are YOU Ready For a Tornado? it asks. And the answer is no. No I'm not. I thought I would be, and I have tried to be all badass about this moment, picturing how it would be when I saw my first angry wedge tornado spinning away in the distance, and how I would be ready for it and not do or say anything stupid. But I'm not ready. Because I am about to wet myself. And I am very angry with Helen Hunt for not portraying this reality when she was flicking her perfect hair over her shoulder and getting ready to shower at her aunts house in Wakita. NOWHERE in that scene did she go to the toilet seven times in the space of three minutes because it might be the last time she saw a toilet all day. Because THAT is the reality of storm chasing, and right now, I am about 27 seconds away from forcing my entire tour to screech to a halt on the side of a dirt road, in the pouring rain so I can run into a bush and squat in the presence of a real twister, and hope the driving wind doesn't cause me to wee in my own face.
We will miss this tornado. There will be two more today, but this one is a nice stovepipe shape and others will get pictures of it and post them to all the storm chasing groups on Facebook. We will look on in envy and tell ourselves we were on the wrong side of the storm, it was obscured by rain, we would never have got close enough and we had to let it go, yadda yadda. But the reality is that we will miss it because I am weeing, for the seventieth time today, seriously wondering if I have some kind of infection, because really exciting, weather related things are happening out there, and I have paid several thousand pounds to be standing here right now, and my bladder is RUINING it for everyone.
Chasing storms is a serious business. Weather can happen suddenly and move quickly, and in order to stay on top of it (or in this case - behind or to the side of it) you have to be alert and ready to move at a moments notice. There is not always time to be faffing around in the toilet queue, which is a shame, because on severe weather days, the plains are crammed with every Tom, Dick and Helen trying to pursue extreme weather, meaning that the line for the loo at every gas station is bladder-achingly long. Tom and Dick are alright, they can nip behind the toilet building and do what they need to do, having a conveniently shaped appendage for weeing on the hop in the middle of a field. Helen on the other hand - Helen is screwed. If Helen wants a slash, and there are no actual toilets available, she will have to squat down glamorously behind the last chase car in the line, and hope that nothing else is coming down the road - because they will see Helen's bum. And sod's law, halfway through the wee, the chase leader will decide it's time to MOVE MOVE MOVE and everyone will leap back in the cars and drive off. Meanwhile. Helen is still trying to drip dry and get her shorts up without falling sideways into a ditch.
I mean - people - this is NOT EASY. They should really send you on a course before you are allowed to do this sort of thing. Many people have said to me, both in the run up to my storm chasing trip and in the aftermath - 'isn't it SCARY?' and the answer is yes. Yes it is. The storms aren't scary - I couldn't give a stuff about those attempting to kill me because I've got bigger things to worry about. What if someone catches me with my pants down on the side of the highway? Now THAT'S terrifying. At least, it's terrifying at the start of the trip. By the end, every girl on the tour will just be lining up in broad daylight and letting it all out without fear of anything or anyone. Because after a while - after 10 days of roughing it out there in the middle of nowhere, where the earth is so flat that you can SEE it curving, being pelted with lemon sized hail and zapped with sixteen bolts of lightning a second, covered in dirt during a sixty mile an hour dust storm that just WILL not come out of your ears, and having scary fog and darkness descend on you in the middle of the day where only seconds earlier there was bright sunshine - you just DON'T care anymore.
And that's when you know that you can sincerely answer the question on the front of the leaflet with an affirmative. YES, I am ready for a tornado. I have squatted down behind seven cars, including Reed Timmer's, a nodding donkey in an oil field and a line of gas tanks with Peanuts characters on them. I have squatted down behind a mobile phone mast, down the side of a rural railway track and behind the First Bank of Oklahoma. I have squatted down while people were walking past, and while a Tornado was raging on the ground 5 miles away, in my field of vision. I have wee'd on my shoes and that time when outflow winds came out of nowhere at just the wrong moment, on my own neck. Everyone on this tour is annoyed with me for needing to wee more than a camel with a full hump and a UTI. And yesterday, while squatting for the millionth time, during a violent lightning storm, I let out a little fart that I tried to pass off as thunder (nobody bought it). So YES. I am ready. I am ready for extreme weather. Bring it on.
Ps next time, please remind me to invest in a She Wee.
*In all seriousness, it was a very good leaflet and it's important to prepare yourself for extreme weather out there. Well done Tuttle, for being so community minded and safety conscious.
All photographs in this post Copyright Christina Owen 2017.
So that's 2016 over with, then. I took some photographs, although not many. And even fewer that I actually liked. I've always hated pretty much every photograph I take - but I can't stop practicing this infuriating art, because I love it. In my quest to photograph the things I had seen, done and thought were nice (usually this is REALLY COLOURFUL stuff but not always) I got away with some shots that could pass at half decent.
I intend to work on improving upon this in 2017.
I just bought a second hand Canon EOS 5D MKII and 24-105mm f/4 kit lens (more on that another time) and I'm SO excited to see what this year brings, photo-wise.
For now, here are the photos I took in 2016 that I look back on and think 'yeah...yeah, that was alright, that was'.
We lost a legend in January 2016, and in Beckenham, Bowie's hometown, the tributes piled up. So many thousands of people headed to Brixton to pay tribute and create a makeshift shrine, but down in Beckenham we flocked to the site of his first ever show, and the bandstand in the park where he organised a summer festival in the 60's.
All photos were taken with my trusty little compact Sony RX100 M2. I've dropped it a fair few times and now it makes a sad little whirring noise whenever I use it. I wonder if it will meet it's maker in 2017? Time will tell....
All photographs Copyright Christina Owen 2017
The title of this blog post comes from a poster I saw on the London Underground once. I don't know what it was advertising but I remember the slogan very clearly. It made things sound so simple. I wasn't feeling like things were going so well at that time, so the idea of being able to change my life just like *that* stuck with me.
I like my life, as it turns out. I have a fiance and a cat. The cat and I are very well fed thanks to the cooking skills of the fiance. We have a roof over our heads (for now - oh the uncertainty of the renters market...) and we have health and friends and things to do. Money is coming in. We spend it on the things we need and I buy quite a lot of gin. And we carry on in this manner and it is not unpleasant. But that doesn't stop me thinking sometimes about breaking out of routine and convention and this comfort zone I'm in.
In September, on the shore of Loch Ness, I came across a man living in a converted mobile library, right on the beach, next to a pub. He had left his home and job behind many years ago to move from the south of England to the Highlands and pursue his dreams of becoming a Loch Ness Monster spotter. He calls himself the Nessie Hunter and he watches the waters every day for signs of the unusual. In his spare time, he makes Nessie models using clay and smooth stones that he finds on the beach. He sells them, and one now sits on my windowsill, to remind me of this brave abandoning of a comfortable existence in favour of the unknown, and the pursuit of happiness.
At the time, standing on that beach, I thought 'how wonderful, I'd love to do something like that'. But it doesn't seem possible when you start to think of the logistics of it. The unknown seems terrifying. But at this time of year especially - during this 'lost week' between Christmas and New Year, when nobody knows what day it is and can't move due to abundance of chocolate coins and Paprika flavoured Pringles, I often sit and think 'this is fine but what am I doing that's INTERESTING? Worthy of note? Fun??' and then I feel like crap. And this is the time when I think about my own hare-brained schemes for leaving my conventional life behind. I've come up with many over the years and I daydream about them sometimes, as if they could be turned into reality. I could take Dan with me easily enough. For some of them though, bringing the cat along might be tricky. Here are my favourite three:-
Idea One:- Move to Wales and open a B&B with a gin bar in it
Of the three ideas, this is the most likely to one day become reality. I love Pembrokeshire and all it's hidden beaches and dramatic cliff faces. It's full of quaint little villages set so far away from main roads or trainlines that you have to be pretty dedicated and armed with a hardy set of wheels to reach them. In one of these villages I will one day open a B&B with Dan. We will be unconventional and awesome. I will at last be able to dye my hair blue and show off my tattoos without fear of getting sacked, because I will be my own boss. We will provide bedrooms decorated with rock and roll memorabilia and the breakfast room will be light and airy, maybe with a big window at one end, overlooking the sea, or a nice field of cows. I will bake muffins and my cross stitch cards and photography prints will be on sale in a little display box. In the evenings we will put on good music in the communal lounge and I will obtain a bar licence so I can serve gin from a little vintage bar cart, and people will come from miles around to marvel at my extensive gin collection. Dan will teach at a local school, because he's a teacher and it would be silly and unfair to make him give that up, and my little B&B would become famous for being really cool, and I would have a fantastic Tripadvisor rating. The reason this is the most likely to become real is because people actually DO open B&B's, so it's not that ridiculous. I think I could be a good hostess. And, well, when you read my other two ideas, you'll see why this is the least Mad.
Idea Two:- Take a Year Off to Drive Around the American West, Photographing Abandoned Places
Now, this idea is something I've had in my head for over half a decade, ever since I discovered this Photographer, who photographs abandoned places in the deserts of California at night, playing with light to create eerie effects. How fantastic would it be to sack off work for a bit, up sticks, fly to Los Angeles, buy a beat up camper van I could sleep in the back of, and drive, armed with cameras, wherever I felt like, finding ghost towns, abandoned gas stations and the like and photographing them?
This idea comes with a minefield of problems though. Firstly, a US tourist visa is only valid for 90 days. But even that would be cool. Better even, because I'd only have to find 3 month's worth salary. But - where would that come from? How on EARTH would I fund this lifestyle? And also, what would be the point of it? What would I do with the photos once I'd taken them? Would anyone want to see them? Or would I just be left with a huge portfolio full of snaps of falling-apart sign posts and lens flare?
It would be great though. An isolated existence, sure, but think of the tunes you could play as you drove down the old highways with the sun blazing down on you! Heaven.
Idea Three:- Get My Walking Boots On And Go On A Really Long Hike
This idea has been inspired by all the travel books I've read that have involved ordinary people thinking 'f**k it! I'm turning my back on life and walking 3,000 miles with absolutely NO training!' Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which tells the story of a woman in the 1990's who dealt with the death of her mother and the break up of her marriage by walking the Pacific Crest Trail, having never had any experience of long walks. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, detailing how the travel author tackled the Appalachian Trail, which traverses 14 states of America, and is full of bears. Again, he'd had no training. And Walking Home by Simon Armitage, a story of how the poet walked the Pennine Way from north to south, giving readings in pubs alone the route to pay his way. I'm not saying that none of these books contain tales of hardship and overcoming adversity, but they do somewhat make it sound easy to say 'bollocks' to your every day grind, and run off to the wilderness to devote your life to the pursuit of walking. Imagine it - being so focussed on getting from A to B that nothing else really matters.
I nearly signed up to do the Coast to Coast Walk once, which runs from the west coast of Cumbria to the east coast of East Yorkshire. But it turned out to be this big faff whereby most people just hire a 'sherpa' service to shuttle their luggage between accomodations, and of course, a different hotel every night adds up. It's a very middle class pursuit. I'm sure that tackling one of these huge trails in the USA is also an expensive kerfuffle nowadays - I've read that people spend a fortune on GPS trackers and the like. It's not as simple as throwing on a baseball cap and hitting the road. But oh, wouldn't it be nice if it was?
So in my darker moments, I think about saving up enough money to last me 3 months in the wild, completing one of these trails. I could have a trail name and everything. I have even read about how you dissuade different types of bear from eating you, so I'm all set.
The trouble with most of these ideas is not time, it is not even motivation because I could definitely find that in spades - packing up a job to go on a bit of an adventure is no stranger to me, I did it briefly in 2014. It's money really, isn't it? And the bravery to realise that although you aren't *quite* sure how you would afford to do these things, dammit you're going to find a way. As long as nothing is really tying you down, why NOT get out there and seize the day? When I have a mortgage and/or a baby, it will be harder.
But, as always, it's far easier said that done. Dan and I have put things into motion in the most sensible and practical way we know how - we've set up an Online account with the National Lotto and play every week. It's been a couple of months now and we have not won yet, which seems quite unreasonable really. You would have thought it would be easier than this to score a jackpot. But we'll keep trying. And maybe soon, one of these wild ideas will become reality. Or all of them! Think of what a great blog post they would make!
What are your 'get away from it all' fantasies? Do you think you'll ever make one of them a reality?
All photographs Copyright Christina Owen 2016.
And so here we are - the conclusion of a most epic road trip. I know you've been waiting on tenterhooks to hear about what happened when we reached our ultimate destination at long last - Barometer World in North Devon. I had been wanting to go for so long and finally the day of our visit had arrived! We had driven all around the British Isles to get to this point. We'd walked in Roman footsteps at Hadrian's Wall (sort of). We'd found the Loch Ness Monster (again, sort of). We'd promenaded along an old Edwardian seafront in the Lake District and discovered Dylan Thomas in Wales. We felt as if we had uncovered so much of what Britain has to offer but now it was time to do THE quintessential British thing and spend the day talking about the weather. Or at least - ways of predicting and measuring the weather. With an expert! This was so exciting! I cannot tell you anything about the journey from Wales to Devon. It was lost in an anticipatory blur.
The sunshine followed us to the south west of England. Indeed there had not been a day on this trip where we had encountered bad weather (except for the rainy drive through Scotland I suppose). This was very Un-British indeed! I imagined that all the barometers at Barometer World would be set to 'fair' and we would have nothing to talk about (it is much more exciting to roll one's eyes and say 'honestly, what about this weather then? Typical!' than to say 'oh haven't we been lucky this week!' because we are pessimists at heart). Then I remembered that I had e-mailed the owner of Barometer World saying essentially 'please let us in to see your exhibition, we are such big barometer fans!' and began to panic. Would he be expecting some level of knowledge on my part? I didn't know anything about Barometers! Except that there had been one in my Grandmother's hallway and I was fascinated by how it knew what the day ahead was going to be like. In fact, having worked as a Paramedic for several years and having ventured into many many hallways in the course of my work, I can confirm that the Barometer appears to be a feature of all that are owned by persons over a certain age. I think this is charming, and something that should be retained for future generations. Except they probably won't be - now being steadily replaced with those canvasses you can buy in Wilko that say 'live love laugh!' all over them, or something similarly impersonal and vague.
If I am waffling, it is because I have no idea how to do justice to what happened next. There's no point in building up any suspense at all, I may as well go ahead and let you all know right now that Barometer World was one of the best places I have ever been. There is just nothing like it, anywhere else that I have seen.
First of all, it is not open to the public. Why have an exhibition that is not open to the public, you say. I think it's a marvellous thing to be in a position where you can build up such a collection of the thing that you love, and information about said thing through the ages, and then open precisely as much or little as you want to. Barometer world is also a workshop, and so actually, it does not HAVE to be open to the public. Philip, the owner, was very kind to respond to my e-mail and let us in. Thanks to my increasingly frantic messages over the past few weeks ('Hello!!!! Please can we come and see your barometers?' 'HI THERE! I realise it's only been 2 hours since my last message but I really really really hope you'll let us come to visit you!' 'PLEASE LET US IN OR YOU'LL BE CRUSHING MY DREAMS' and so forth) he was expecting us at precisely 2pm, and at precisely 1.43 we rolled into the car park, me having an epileptic fit brought on by too much high excitement in the passenger seat.
Barometer World is located in a fairly nondescript cream coloured one storey building in LITERALLY the middle of nowhere, not too far from Dartmoor. There is a barometer shaped signpost hanging out front, and this is how you know you have arrived and will soon be surrounded by weather related JOY.
Trivia: Michael Fish attended the opening of the Barometer World exhibition in 1995. Now we were going to follow in his footsteps.
Philip let us in and said something to the effect of 'oh yes, you're the Barometer fans from London'. I replied with my pre-rehearsed line about not being an expert but wanting to learn as much as I could. Then began babbling, because I just COULD NOT keep the excitement (and common sense) in any longer. 'I have a barometer at home, well, it's not mine, it's my landlords but it hangs in my hallway and I think it's broken, it only points to rain...well, it's in French so really it only points to "pluie"...'
Philip fixed me with the sort of disapproving stare that made me believe I was about to be thrown straight back out again and not allowed anywhere near his barometers. 'That's not very much use, is it?' he muttered, then handed us some leaflets, charged us an incredibly small fee (it was something like £4) and pointed us in the direction of the museum rooms, with the Quite Important Tip that barometers in fact do not measure weather, they measure atmospheric pressure, and that without having taken a previous reading from your trusty barometer, you won't know what's actually going on and therefore it is useless. I already knew this from reading about Barometer World in the book Bollocks to Alton Towers, which is a book full of odd British places to visit that my friend had got me for Christmas. This was how I had come to know about this amazing place originally, and I am happy to report that it is the only museum for Barometers in the world. At least, as far as the first 3 pages of a 'barometer museum' Google search are concerned. The book also seems to think that it's the only one, reporting that there was a barometer museum in Holland, but it has now gone. We were now standing in a completely unique place (probably).
Over the next 45 minutes we learned as much as we could about barometers and the people who invented and developed them. Barometer World, as well as being full of traditional barometers, also has an impressive array of alternative means of predicting the weather, including pine cones, leeches, frogs and the rather strange 'Weather Glass' which is essentially a test tube with liquid in it that becomes different textures according to what's going on outside - or more to the point, what may be about to be going on. Pioneered during the Victorian Era, notably by Admiral Fitzroy who sailed with Charles Darwin and founded the Met Office in 1854, the liquid in the glass goes foggy if it is going to be cloudy, and stays clear if it is going to be...well, you get the idea. If small stars appear in it, thunderstorms are expected. I found the Weather Glass to be enchanting in it's simplicity, and I was pleased to discover there were some for sale in the shop for £50. Philip explained that of all the instruments for sale, this was the only one for which he could provide no guarantee whatsoever, as the science behind it was questionable at best. I thought this was the most excellent thing I had ever heard, and bought one immediately. I now own an unreliable contraption of Victorian origin ( I suspect this one was made significantly more recently) and I couldn't be happier. I have hung it in the hallway in place of the broken barometer and so far it has proved to do nothing except become full of ice crystals when the hallway gets cold. I couldn't love it more.
I had wanted to buy a beautiful new barometer, perhaps one by Negretti and Zambria, but until I win the Lotto, I can only dream of owning such an instrument. Having said that, there would be nowhere to put it - and I'm not taking my wonderfully useless weather glass down. No, I'll have to wait until I live in a mansion with more than one hallway. We soaked up all that we could, and when we were done, we thanked Philip for letting us come in and look around. I asked to take a photo of him and he looked suspicious. 'It's not for publication, is it?' he asked gruffly, and I, being too chicken to tell him that I write a really informative and terribly successful travel blog, shook my head and said 'no, it's just for posterity, I promise'. So I can't show you what he looks like. I can however, bring you an exclusive look at the toilet roll holder in the visitors bathroom, which I found really incredibly charming and wish to replicate at home.
And so we left. And that was that. I was in awe of what we had just done. I had also learned from Philip before we left, that Admiral Fitzroy of Met Office and predicting-storms-while-at-sea fame is buried in a churchyard in Upper Norwood, and is therefore residing almost literally around the corner from me. I resolve to pay him a visit one of these days. I must let him know I am using one of his weather glasses.
Our trip wasn't quite over - we had one more night of our trip left to enjoy and so me made our way to Okehampton where we discovered with some happiness that we were staying in a Wetherspoons hotel. I didn't know such things existed! We both had pleasing visions of spending the evening becoming quite, quite drunk on really cheap alcohol before stumbling upstairs and passing out. After all, it was Friday. In the event though, we decided we were pretty tired - because driving nearly 2000 miles around the entire country will take it out of you. We were in bed by 9.15. I regret nothing.
The next day we realised we weren't quite ready to hang up our 'going to offbeat places' hats and so made a small detour to House of Marbles, where I, having spent the morning having a panic attack to the tune of 'I have to go home now and I don't want to', decided to, well, Find Mine. It was quite an extraordinary place, full of intricately made marble runs, including one that is quite possibly the biggest in the world. There was an exhibition on the history of marbles and an enormous gift shop. Really, it was a whole day out. We contended ourselves with watching the marble runs for half an hour or so, then I chose 27 beautiful marbles to buy and take home and hang by my bed, just in case I should need them. I think that, being an anxious depressive, it's probably quite likely.
Then, dear reader, we went home.
I think that life will quite possible never be the same again now. I've seen too much, I know too much. Was that really a leaf, for example, or WAS it the Loch Ness Monster? What of that murder grave in the middle of Wales? And come ON - I know at least 15% more about weather than I did previously! How do I go back to normal life and carry on as I did before? I think that there is a high chance I might become like Steve, the man we met on the shores of Loch Ness, and any day now I will up sticks and move to a caravan on the shore of some distant body of water, or even travel around the UK telling people how lucky they are to be having such nice weather. There's a whole world out there, right on our doorstep. We should explore it! On the other hand, I might go to Spain to sit on a sun lounger. Because it was a LOT of driving and I'm pretty tired.
All photographs Copyright Christina Owen 2016
Click on the links throughout the post to actually learn things about barometers and history and other things besides. You are unlikely to learn anything from reading this post alone, although if you do you win some sort of prize (probably a barometer that doesn't work and always points to 'rain').
Welcome to the 5th part of our unexpectedly long road trip to find Barometers in Devon, via just about everywhere else in the UK. Read parts 1 to 4 here, here, here and here.
After driving from London to Scotland via Northumberland, we had come to south Wales via The Lake District and now we were going to visit Dylan Thomas. Way back when we had first decided to go to Barometer World, we had wondered if we could squeeze in some other offbeat destinations as well, and Erica came up with Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas once kept a home. I didn't ask questions. After all, she had accepted without question my burning desire to visit a whole exhibition of air pressure measuring devices. And as someone with an English Literature A Level and degree in Drama and Theatre Studies, of course I knew all about Dylan Thomas.
Well never mind, because Erica knew.
'I don't know anything about him' Erica said in offhand tones, on our first morning in Wales. 'I just know his house is there. I think I went on holiday there when I was young'.
A phone call to her Dad revealed that this may not have actually been the case.
We shrugged and decided to go anyway. After all, we had travelled all the way here and were staying in a B&B only about 13 miles away. The day dawned bright and sunny (it was not raining. I repeat: IT WAS NOT RAINING IN WALES) and after several choruses of 'haven't we been lucky with the weather?' like true Brits, we set off to learn about the poet and playwright who kept a home in a small town on the south coast of Wales - and wrote plays in an old boathouse on a hill (YOU SEE, I HAVE LEARNED ALL ABOUT HIM NOW).
We arrived in Paradise, or so it seemed. The sun was beaming down on us as if it wasn't a day in late September on the British Isles, and a thousand sparkles bounced off the still waters in front of us. We parked in a car park that I was later told became submerged under water at high tide. We arrived in Laugharne early, before the bus loads of pensioners descended. We were greeted with a castle, a statue of Dylan Thomas and a row of quaint looking pubs and corner shops, some of which sold gifts, and which I could hear calling out to me ('Christina! You need to buy seven tea towels and a book of Welsh recipes!')
By the calm, marshy water was an information board with a poem on it. It turns out that one October day in 1944, Thomas went on a walk up a hill in Laugharne (it was his 30th birthday) and looked out over the calm of the sea and the land and wrote Poem in October about getting older. It is now very famous. I had never heard of it. I can also now exclusively bring you the news that it's a lot of waffle. So maybe read something else instead, like Heat Magazine. Anyway, you can retrace his steps by going on the Dylan Thomas Birthday Walk which is a 2km walk all around Laugharne. If it is actually your birthday when you do it, and you can prove it, then you get some sort of prize (probably the chance to write a better poem). It was neither of our birthdays so we contented ourselves with walking up a hill to the boat house where he did his writing and looking out over the water. It was a peaceful experiences and we felt, once again, very lucky to be here, viewing this part of the landscape of the island we live on for the first time.
Just down the hill from the boat house was the actual house, and peering over the railings, we could see it was full of people spilling out of the front door or artfully reading poetry on the balcony while wearing berets (yes really). We wondered if we should go in, but a sign post telling us the cost made up our mind for us. We wandered back into town and went to the pub instead, where we toasted our new favourite drunken literary figure with gin, and had lunch. Then we retired next door to the gift shop where true to form, I spent next month's rent money on souvenirs. Among these was a book of the Great Works of Dylan Thomas. I can safely assure you that 2 months later, I am yet to open it. Although I am sure it is very very good.
Then Erica went to guard the car from the incoming tide while I trekked up a hill for about a mile and a half to the edge of town to find the man himself. Because, fan of his work or not, if he was buried here then I was not going to leave without seeing his grave.
I found him on the side of a valley, decked out in heather and standing out from the crowd by sporting a bright white cross bearing his name and the name of his wife. Up here, as down by the water, all was calm, and I thought as I often do when visiting a grave that is pleasantly situated - 'what a lovely place to spend all eternity'. I stayed on the hill for a bit, refusing to apologise to Dylan for not liking his work, then some other people came trekking up the road towards him and I left them to it.
When I got back to the car, I discovered that Erica was also pretty unmoved by poetry about herons and winged trees, but was enjoying the town very much. We were glad to have seen it. The Stagbeetle had by this time been joined in the car park by approximately seven coaches, and the waterfront was teeming with retired people eating sandwiches. We decided it was time to go.
One more night in Wales and then we would be off to Barometer World! There had been some question over whether it would be open for our visit, but I had received an e-mail during the early part of our trip stating that they would certainly permit us to go in and look round. I could hardly wait. Now an expert on Hadrian's Wall, The Loch Ness Monster and Welsh writers of the 1940's, I was looking forward to becoming an expert in weather too.
Stay tuned for the final part of our magnificent UK road trip adventure!
All photographs Copyright Christina Owen 2016.
Click the links throughout the post if you would actually like to learn something proper about Dylan Thomas or Laugharne.
Part 4 of a legendary journey around the not-so-small island we live on...
Read Part One of our road trip tale here, in which we plan a road trip to Devon, but only if we can go to Scotland first....
Read Part Two of our road trip tale here, in which we discover what makes Hadrian's Wall so unique among walls....
Read Part Three of our road trip tale here, in which we come face to face with Nessie (sort of)....
In Scotland I had expected it to rain profusely, and aside from the sodden journey up to the Highlands, it hadn't. The lady who ran Foyers House Hotel had joked 'oh, don't worry, it NEVER rains in the Highlands', and I, being slow and stupid, had thought she wasn't being heavily sarcastic. Well, if no-one had pointed it out to me, I would have left Scotland believing it to be true. The sun even came out! More than once! It was glorious. But that's all over now, I thought, because we'll be in Wales soon, and then it will p*ss down continuously until we leave. Because: Wales.
We had decided to make an overnight stop between Scotland and Wales - in the Lake District, because Erica had never been there. Well, I'm sorry to tell you this Erica, but you've still never been there. We stayed in Grange-Over-Sands for approximately 14 hours and it turns out that despite being only 7 miles from Windermere, historically it's in Lancashire. By the time we arrived at our exceedingly posh hotel, complete with shaped hedges and a lawn covered in rich people having tea out of china cups, the weather was doing a very odd thing. It was positively balmy - not like September in the north of England at ALL, and the light was casting a lovely orange glow over everything. It was like being in the Caribbean! Sort of. We decided to go and find the 'sands' that Grange-Over-Sands is presumably quite famous for. But first: some gadding about on the lawn, pretending to be Alice in Wonderland:
Here is what I have learned about Grange-Over-Sands: there is very little sand (that is safe to walk on). On skipping down the hill to the sea front in order to promenade along it just like I am convinced the Victorians did once, we discovered an expanse of boggy, grassy marshland that eventually gave way to goopy looking mud that seemed to extend on forever, or at least until Morecambe, which was faintly visible on the other side of the huge bay. It looked like the kind of place where one foot wrong causes you to sink into the gloop, never to be seen again. It turns out this is not too far from the truth, and you can actually walk all the way across the bay to Morecambe, although you have to take a guide with you. There is quicksand out there and without an expert, you will drown in it. Or get washed away by an unpredictable tide. But once you get over there safely, you can pose with a statue of Eric Morecambe, which I have done once before, and I can tell you that it is a very joyful experience.
But back to our side of the bay. The view from where we stood, with a mellow orange sunset cast over it, was beautiful. Off to the left we could see gently rolling green hills, dotted with tiny white puffs that we knew to be sheep. Some 'baaaa'ing reached us on a light breeze. We stood and surveyed all that was in front of us and thought 'well, this is quite good, isn't it?' There was something quintessentially English about it, and apart from a lone runner and a couple of dog walkers, there was no-one else to have to share this view with. For a few minutes, this part of the world felt like ours and ours alone.
I have since learned that Grange Over Sands WAS a popular Victorian sea side resort. It even had piers. Plural! By the Edwardian era, it was known as 'the Torquay of the north'. Also, in 2015 some people did nearly drown in quicksand here, so we can safely say that the sands are treacherous. The Victorians may never have discovered this because they, as a collective, were about as ambitious as a cardigan. Having said this, from the 13th century until the 1850's, the major route between Lancaster and Cumbria was across the sands. Now thankfully, there's a train.
How can you leave somewhere so peaceful and tranquil? It was with some sadness that we dragged ourselves back to the car the next morning, and pootled off onto the M6, where we pointed ourselves in the direction of Wales. We entered north Wales near Wrexham (or Wrecsam if you're Welsh and like things spelled ever so slightly differently) which always strikes me as a particular bleak part of the universe, then carved a path straight down the middle of Wales towards Pembrokeshire in the south west. I have never driven right down the middle of this charming little Principality before. I wasn't aware that you COULD do this - I always assumed the area was too rife with ravines and dragons for anything as mundane as a road to be present. We zipped along, across a great expanse of rippling green, passing through tiny villages with increasingly tongue-tying names devoid of vowels. Surprisingly, it wasn't raining. But it was only a matter of time.
As is always the case on our road trips, around 1pm we started realising that we were going to have to stop for lunch. This can be a minefield on a road trip. Especially on a heavy driving day. Do you risk stopping and losing an hour of precious journeying time purely to fill up on something that ISN'T Haribo? We were unsure whether or not to simply carry on. Then we saw this sign:-
I mean, really, the sign speaks for itself. But I will tell you that on one side of the road was a creaky looking pub and on the other, a church, a graveyard and a selection of ancient trees, any of which could have been the 2,300 year old one. It was so hard to know which delight to pick from the list first but in the end we went to the Bloody Good Pub, where we got a reasonably priced, perfectly good meal, then when our stomachs were full, we enquired about the murder grave. The pub landlord told us that it was in the graveyard but that it had suffered some damage over the years and was virtually unreadable. He gave us a complicated set of instructions for how to distinguish it from other, less murderous graves, and we nodded competently, exited the pub and promptly forgot everything he'd told us. The upshot of this was that we were both too embarrassed to go back and ask him to *show* us the murder grave, so we stood about looking confused for some moments, then I took photos of every single gravestone just to be on the safe side, and we got back in the car again. It was one of the most interesting lunch stops I've ever experienced whilst on a road trip and I am very pleased indeed that it occurred in the middle of rural Wales, although as to the specifics of the murder and it's relation to this grave, I still have no idea.
We arrived at Lamphey in the late afternoon, and found ourselves checking into a very handsome Georgion farmhouse which was now a B&B. We had come to Pembrokeshire because Erica had expressed a wish to take a look at the town where Dylan Thomas lived, but it was too late in the day to go there now. Realising that we were minutes from my favourite stretch of coastline in the entire world, I shepherded Erica back into the car and embarked upon the 20 minute drive to Manorbier, a place so rural and cut off from virtually everywhere else that to get to it, you must drive along increasingly narrow country roads and through tree tunnels until you become sure you cannot be on the right road, or on a road at all in fact, and any minute now you will end up in a field full of cows. But eventually we emerged into the tiniest of tiny seaside villages, complete with castle. I drove up onto the nearby headland where there is a car park, and we decanted ourselves onto Manobier's narrow, sheltered beach with cries of delight. The Pembrokeshire Coast with it's sheer cliff faces and rock stacks that jut out dramatically into the Bristol Channel is a thing of wonder. It's full of hidden bays dotted along it's length. Many are accessibly only via a rocky path, and this was the case now. We scrambled down onto the sand and darted between tidal streams, seaweed banks and rock pools to access the expanse of uninterrupted sand exposed by the ebbing tide. I cannot describe to you in words what it felt like to be stood here. Now, more than at any other time on this trip, I felt like I was standing on the edge of the world.
We spent a long time on the beach, gazing out to sea. The sun cast a warm yellow glow over the waves and I felt very lucky to be here. I'm not sure I'd know how to put the feeling into words, but I liked it very much. And when we finally tore ourselves away to climb back up the rocks to the car, Erica said 'thank you for bringing me here' and I knew that she had liked it very much too.
We were stopping for two nights in Wales, so that we could spend a full day exploring the hometown of Dylan Thomas, an author neither of us knew much about. I was very much looking forward to becoming an expert on this literary figure in a very short time. Then we would finally be off to Barometer World, where, with any luck, the owners would be there to let us in.
All photographs Copyright Christina Owen 2016, except for 'Idiot Runs Across Posh Lawn' and 'walking artily towards camera on beach' taken by Erica Slater, Copyright 2016.
Part 3 of a most ambitious road trip adventure...
Read Part 1 here, in which we plan a road trip to Barometer World in Devon and then decide to go via Scotland
Read Part 2 here, in which we encounter a village in the north east of England with more than one name...
We arrived at Loch Ness late in the day, after a drive of 7 hours from Northumberland, the theme of which was 'gloom'. We had approached a very grey, sullen looking Glasgow and bypassed that only to proceed into the damp and misty highlands - mountain tops hidden by a bank of low cloud. We had lunch at Loch Lomond, which was the first time I really realised that a Loch is a lake. I got wet standing out on a pier trying to take photographs of the majesty of a large body of water that is currently being rained on. Then we piled back into the car and, gently steaming, pushed on towards Inverness. Eventually we turned off onto a tiny road that brought us out right next to the mysterious Loch Ness, and found our hotel for the next few days - Foyers House Hotel. Family run, this hotel provided us with a large and comfortable room, extra fleecy throws for our beds and electric blankets. We also had a magnificent view of the Loch from our window, which is just as the hotel web site promised us. When I started writing the Tripadvisor review for the hotel in my head (I do this during my stay in any new place, I cannot help it. I wonder if other people do this too?), it was very favourable indeed.
The hotel has a bar that boasts over 100 different brands of Scotch Whisky. This would have been fantastic if I liked Scotch but unfortunately, all previous experiences with it have taught me that it tastes like a bonfire. I asked about local gins, which seemed ungrateful given the huge chalkboard packed full of whisky's, each one with a flavour palette laid out next to it. They had Gordon's only, which upset me. I disapprove of Gordon's because it tastes generic and has an ugly bottle. I ordered a vodka and Coke which was delivered to me with the sort of look that is followed by the muttering of 'southern pansy' under one's breath. Later on, when choosing a Scotch to try, I was instructed that acceptable ways to drink the stuff are neat, or with a few drops of water, to bring out the flavour. I was further informed that if I asked for it with Coke, I would be thrown from the building. I nodded meekly and opted for something that claimed to taste like chocolate, banana and pear. I dripped the recommended amount of water into the glass and took a sip. It tasted like burning. Not burning with a hint of pear drops, just pure burning.
Well, I can say I tried.
The next morning we got into the Stagbeetle and drove round the entire Loch. We stopped on the north shore to visit the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre at Drumnadrochit , where I learned some rather good trivia. Loch Ness is the largest body of water by volume in the UK and at it's deepest point, it would submerge The Shard. Which is good, because The Shard is ugly and needs submerging. It also contains enough water to cover every person on Earth 3 times. With this much water, it's little wonder that people have such a hard time finding that elusive beast known as The Loch Ness Monster. We walked through an exhibition dedicated to the legend of Nessie, what she might be and where she might be. Unfortunately, the exhibition poo-pooed most known photographs of the monster by pointing out that due to camera trickery or the quality of camera lenses available in 1930, it's likely most of the photos showed a duck back-lit to look like a plesiosaur, or a whale-shaped bit of wood. It was all very disappointing. We were hoping to pick up clues about how to find Nessie but we left feeling as much in the dark as when we arrived. Luckily, there was an amazing gift shop in which to drown my sorrows - nothing pleases me more than souvenirs. I spent roughly all my rent money on socks, postcards, marmalade and badges that read 'I found Nessie' which is a blatant lie but I intend to take this version of events and run with it.
Before lunch, we paid a visit to Urquhart Castle, where I was hoping to take some shots akin to the ones on the walls of the hotel - wonderful landscapes showing hills, trees, shadowy water and a lone castle jutting out from the land and standing veiled in the shadows of a majestic sunset. Unfortunately it cost a tenner to get anywhere near the castle and when I did, it was 11am, gloomy and the place was crawling in tourists. I got in a huff. Things are ruined by tourists. I, a tourist, stamped about for a bit, then we had the world's most disappointing and expensive lunch and left to pursue some peace and quiet.
The afternoon was better. Once we got back to the south shore, away from all the touristy nonsense that seems to exist along the south's north counterpart, things seemed to calm down and appear more tranquil. We drove away from Loch Ness to visit some of the smaller and lesser known Lochs behind it, and trudged up a hill to gaze out at the landscape. Feeling calm, we vowed to come back at 6am the next day to watch the sunrise.*
We discovered a World War One memorial standing alone, high above the road on a rock. We drove through woods dappled in late afternoon sunlight and glimpsed a type of squirrel with a stripy tail that I have not been able to find any record of (a mystery Loch Ness squirrel?). Just before sunset, we arrived at the village of Dores, home to the Loch's only beach. This is where we discovered the Nessie Hunter.
*At 6am the next morning I refused point blank to get up and go anywhere. I am 32. Sleep is more important than finding myself on a really cold hill before breakfast.
Steve Feltham left his life in Dorset behind in 1991 to move to The Highlands and become a full time Loch Ness Monster spotter, fondly recalling days spent learning about Nessie during holidays to the area as a child. He now lives in a converted mobile library on the shores of Loch Ness and waits for the monster Herself to appear. There are presumably a lot of days when all he sees are strangely backlit ducks.
Steve has been recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records - he's kept the longest continuous vigil for the mysterious beast, and he shows no sign of giving up. I asked him if he'd had any luck, to which he responded that there had been some mysterious sightings he couldn't explain, but nothing concrete yet. In his spare time, he makes clay Nessie models using stones from Dores Beach. Fascinated, I bought one and then wondered if I too could leave my life behind to follow something unconventional like this. It must be wonderful to live here, surrounded by so much peace and beauty. We sat on the beach for a while and gazed up the length of the Loch. 26 miles long, it faded into the distance. We had learned at the exhibition earlier that a reason people see strange things out there is because the Loch often appears distorted in size and distance - meaning that what you think you're looking at it in fact nothing like what you really see. We realised this was true - looking out at the water, we weren't sure how close or far away things appeared, and ripples caused by a bird or the wind took a long time to fade. The water looked foreboding and disturbed by unknown forces. It was easy to believe something foreboding was hiding just underneath the surface.
Shortly after that, I got excited by something dark in the water that turned out to be a leaf. Looking for Nessie isn't easy.
Returning to Foyers that night, we came across a silent graveyard, half hidden by trees and overlooking the Loch. The light was failing, but I went to have a look anyway, and thoroughly freaked myself out wandering through centuries-old crumbling gravestones. The next morning we returned to get a look at the place in the daylight. The sun was shining brightly on the Loch, and up here, in the shade of the trees, the graveyard seemed an advantageous place to be. Oh, to spend all eternity gazing over something so spectacular. If these graves could talk, I'm sure they could tell us a thing or two about what they've seen down there in the water.
Our mystery-filled two days at Loch Ness had drawn to an end and we were leaving for England without so much as a sniff of sea monster. Not even a flick of a tail or a smooth, curving, scaled mass emerging from the water. We had seen three boats, a duck, a bit of wood, and my leaf. But oh, the mystery and majesty of this part of the world - it was like being in another Universe. Neither of us wanted to leave.
Luckily, we didn't have to return to London just yet. We were off to the Lake District, where the Victorians promenaded in the sunshine of a hundred lazy summers away from the cities and factories of the North. Windermere was only 5 hours away, or 7 when you count the two hours we spent languishing behind a tractor on a single carriageway road. We were getting closer to Barometer World all the time...
Conversations About The Weather Part Two: London to Scotland. Via Hadrian's Wall and a Village With Two Names.
The second part of a most unusual road trip tale...
It was some time ago now that I decided I wanted to go to Barometer World, which is in Devon. I had read about it in a book I had got for Christmas, which is all about quirky places to visit in Britain. An exhibition of instruments used to measure air pressure and forecast the weather seemed too good to pass up. Especially as, being British, I am forever looking out of the window doubtfully, before exclaiming to my family/work colleagues/total strangers that it looks like rain, or aren't we lucky that's sunny today, or what awful weather this is, you'd never know it was summer would you? My friend Erica volunteered to come with me to Devon, and we spent months excitedly planning our trip.
And so it came to pass that at 6am on a chilly Saturday morning in September we loaded ourselves into The Stagbeetle and hit the A1(M), bound for....Scotland.
The great thing about a road trip is that you can go anywhere where there are roads. We thought why worry about going directly to Devon? We'll get there eventually. But first, let's see the rest of the British Isles and talk to everybody we meet about the weather. And this is exactly what we did.
As you may remember from my last post, I had contacted Barometer World to ask if we could come and have a look round and they had got back to me saying they might not be able to open on the requested date (the exhibition is only open by appointment). It looked as if the whole purpose of our road trip might cease to be. I needed to find a replacement weird attraction for us to visit. I brought my book of British oddities along on the trip, hoping to find something equally as excellent whilst en route. In the meantime, we had some other things to get done.
We struck out for northern Scotland, to look for Nessie. We had realised in advance that London to Loch Ness is too much for one day, so we had scheduled a stop in Northumberland on the way. After a full day of driving resolutely upwards, passing signs declaring the looming presence of THE NORTH, and then across the majesty of the North Pennines in the blazing sunshine, which reminded me strangely of the desert in New Mexico (probably would not have reminded me of said place had it been pissing down), we arrived at our destination for the night - the tiny village known variously as either Once or Twice Brewed. I had read that it used to be that if you approach from one direction, the sign reads 'Welcome to Once Brewed' and if you approach from the other way you are welcomed to Twice Brewed. Having immediately seen the appeal in a village that cannot make up it's mind how many times it has been distilled, fermented or otherwise mixed together, I had proposed that we stop there to try and get to the bottom of it.
The village consists of a backpackers hostel with camp site, as well as a hotel, also used by backpackers along Hadrian's Wall and the Pennine Way, and a sign reading 'Hadrian's Wall this way'. We arrived at the hotel (we're not much for camping) at around 6pm, at about the same time as all the hikers were piling in from a day out on the trails. The first order of business was to locate and photograph the two different signs, which involved an impressive trek up and down a rural highway for several miles, before it got dark. From this we learned that either the story is made up or someone has replaced the sign. Both read 'Welcome to Twice Brewed', indicating that at some point, extra brewing was needed in order to really make the village ready for visitors. The hotel is also called The Twice Brewed Inn, which settles it really. I did find a smaller road sign marked 'Once Brewed' but in general the area seemed to be denying it's singular brewed status altogether. The second order of business was to check in to our room and then find the bar.
The bar was full of hikers, celebrating with carbs and alcohol. I was pleased to note the presence of some local gins (Hepple Gin and The Lakes Gin) and we got down to the important business of drinking. Later on, realising that the incredibly famous Hadrian's Wall was visible from the hotel and that, in actual fact, we were right next to it, I went outside to view the thing. I must have appeared confused because a strapping hiker with an accent of unknown origin (but it was Geordie-like in nature) asked me what I was looking for. 'Hadrian's Wall' I answered. I felt a bit cheated. Clearly it wasn't in view, otherwise surely it would be obvious. Miles high and flashing with neon lights reading 'Romans Were 'Ere' or something. 'See that wall over there, the falling down one?' the hiker said, pointing. I looked. I could see several stone walls in various states of Falling Down. 'Yes...' I said, truthfully. 'That's it' he said, and I attempted to look really happy at viewing this titan of historical significance, whilst really having no idea which wall he was referring to. I still maintain that it could have been one of about fifteen walls dotting the landscape in front of us. You sort of think the Romans might have made a bit more effort.
The next morning we got in the car and followed the 'Hadrian's Wall This Way' sign in order to get a closer look at the thing. We parked in a car park on a hill, and got out, refusing to let ourselves be foxed by the presence of less important walls. Twenty minutes later and quite fed up, we got back in the car, none the wiser about which wall had been built as a marvellous feat of engineering to keep barbarians away from the Roman Empire and which walls had been built to stop sheep from escaping. Maybe some things are just not meant to be discovered.
Above our heads, the previously clear blue sky was slowly being replaced with a thin sheen of high, white cloud. This indicated an atmosphere on the change, meaning that rain would soon be upon us. If I had had a barometer with me, I am sure it would have confirmed the situation. There was nothing else for it. Flummoxed by walls and having greatly enjoyed our stay in the land of multiple brewing, we got back in the car and drove towards that towering blockade of fog sometimes known as Scotland.
To be continued....
All photographs © Christina Owen 2016
Conversations About The Weather Part One - In Which We Plan a Trip to Barometer World in Devon. Via Scotland.
It started when I decided I wanted to go to Barometer world.
I love barometers. There is one in my hallway. It doesn't work, and always forecasts rain, which is pretty pessimistic. But then again, being an anxious depressive, it's probably quite fitting that my barometer always thinks the worst is going to happen.
My friend Katie gave me a book for Christmas called Bollocks to Alton Towers - Uncommonly British Days Out. It contains suggestions for trips to places as varied as The British Lawnmower Museum and Mad Jack's Sugar Loaf, which is a large, stone conical structure in a field in the middle of the Sussex countryside (I went there. It is just a big cone. That's literally it). I was drawn to Barometer World because in the book it sounds like a genuinely original place to visit. The book details how it's not a museum but instead an exhibition and workshop, and how the owner explained to the authors all about barometers and gave them a tour. I thought 'this is somewhere worth going. I can learn about barometers. I can become a barometer EXPERT! Maybe I can even find out why my own barometer never predicts summer!' So I began to plan a road trip down to Devon, where Barometer World is located, and next I needed someone to come with me.
I wrote a status on Facebook. It said 'I want to go to Barometer World. Who will come with me?' It got a lot of responses of the type that makes you wonder why people bother replying at all. 'What?' 'Barometer World, what is that?' 'You've made that up' etc. Then my friend Erica wrote 'I'll come!' and just like that, a road trip was born.
The thing with Erica is, when she says she will come with me on journeys I have decided to do on a whim, she means it. In 2012 I read an article in Cosmopolitan Magazine, which was based purely on the fact that cowboy boots were In that season. It was about Nashville in Tennessee, and all the great things you can do there. Mostly the things it listed that you can do there were 'buy cowboy boots' and 'remember to pack your checked shirt - also very Now!' But I was intrigued because I was feeling pretty depressed at the time and country music is always so cheery in the face of Very Bad Things Happening. So I decided I was going to go there, and then hire a car and drive down to Memphis to visit Graceland because now THERE'S a pilgrimage. And Erica was the one who did not dismiss my idea as totally insane, and came with me. And we had a GREAT time!
We planned and embarked upon a 3 week road trip along Route 66 in 2014 and next year Erica is coming storm chasing with me in Tornado Alley, because she recognised the greatness of this idea (and possibly is denying the dangers of being swept up into a Twister). And when I floated this quite frankly bizarre notion, she jumped at the chance to see a room full of what the book describes as 'wall-mounted Michael Fish''s. And so we sat down, and began to plan.
Somewhere along the way, we worked out that if we took a couple of extra days off work and extended our trip a fraction, we could also take in south Wales, and visit Dylan Thomas's favourite town. Because that was something Erica wanted to do. So we factored that in, and then someone mentioned Loch Ness, and before you know it, our modest day out to Barometer World had turned into an 8 day tour of Britain which would see us travelling to the Scottish Highlands via a tiny village in Northumberland called Once Brewed (or Twice Brewed, depending on which direction you approach it from), then down to the Lake District and from there to south Wales. And from there, finally, to Devon, to take in the original point of the trip. What can I say? It had got out of hand quite quickly. We decided we would drive, because my newish car - The Stag Beetle (because it is large and black, and my last car, which was small and black was called 'The Cockroach'. Look, this is really a story for another time) - was aching for a good old fashioned road trip. Our friend Mandy gently asked us if we were sure we weren't being slightly too ambitious. And we laughed. Because travelling all over the UK and visiting 5 National Parks in 8 days is not at all ridiculous! Right? Right??!
At some point, in between finding a hotel in Grange-Over-Sands that had a pool and was within our price range (the holy grail! Hooray!) and wondering aloud if we should spend 2 nights in The Highlands just to make it absolutely Worth It - I realised it might be quite a good idea to check the web site for Barometer World.
And this is how we came to discover that Barometer World is a private collection that is only open by appointment. Something that Bollocks to Alton Towers completely fails to mention. Thanks guys! I e-mailed them and the owner, Philip, messaged me back to say that they might be able to open on the day we were passing through, but I should get in touch again nearer the time as there was a chance they would be shut to attend a family event that week.
And now it is a week to go until our giant road trip and I am at this present time waiting to hear back about whether or not the original purpose of our trip will take place. Or if we will be replacing the lofty heights of barometers with trying to spot the Loch Ness Monster. We leave on Saturday at 5am. Wish us luck and most of all - wish us BAROMETERS!
All photos Copyright Christina Owen 2016.
Climbing a Mountain in a Rainstorm in Wales, and All That It Signifies (Hint: Life is a Bit Like Climbing a Mountain in a Rainstorm)
'THIS IS GOOD FOR THE SOUL!' the mountain leader is yelling somewhere to my right. I nod and hope I am not required to say anything in response. I am too busy putting one foot in front of the other and concentrating on not dying. We are halfway up Mount Snowdon, it is 3am, and the reason he is yelling is because the wind is hammering itself so heavily against our bodies that it is all we can do to not get knocked off our feet and blown into Ireland, which incidentally, you can see on a clear day from the top of Snowdon.
Tonight, when we eventually get to the summit, I will not be able to see more than an arm's length in front of my face. In fact, it will be so foggy at the top of this relatively tiny mountain in north Wales that I will squat down on the path and do a wee only feet away from the rest of my walking party. And it won't matter, because they won't be able to see me. The alternative is holding on for the next 3 hours as we try not to get swept away by a river that was once a path. For months leading up to this climb I had rose-tinted visions of myself, rosy cheeked and bright eyed, triumphantly arriving at the top of my Welsh Everest as the sun rose, lighting the glorious hills spread out below me so that I might gaze down on all humankind, bathed in this warm morning glow, as I reflected on all that I had achieved in the last 4 hours, and the last 5 months. And the last forever.
Of course, real life is not like that, and my moonlight mountain climb was not like that. On the ascent, the wind did it's best to hurl us off a cliff and on the descent sideways hail burned my face and my walking shoes became lakes of rancid mountain water. My knees cried out in agony as I forced them to steady me against the slippery rocks that had become our way back to safety. And when I arrived back at base camp there was not a part of me that was dry, and I looked like I had recently fallen into a ravine.
The whole time I had not seen a single gorgeous view - just a few shivering sheep and the light from my head torch falling on the craggy ground in front of me. And rain. So much rain. The week leading up to this was glorious sunshine and the week following it would see temperatures rising to the high 20's and skies as blue as your hat. But here, on this night, it was freezing, apocalyptic and there were times when I wanted to give up and not move another inch until the weather improved and the helicopter came to get me. But it's not supposed to be easy, is it? I guess if that climb had been a lovely stroll up a big hill on a balmy summers eve then it would have been fine, just fine. But not as satisfying, and less of an achievement. Is that like life? Is it going to be more satisfying in the end because it is not easy? I don't know. But at the point where I heard my mountain leader utter those words - 'this is good for the soul' I knew he was right, because despite being convinced we were all going to be killed by adverse weather, I'd still rather have been there than curled up in a warm, dry bed.
I know people who have travelled to Africa and Asia and spent 3 days trekking up peaks that make Snowdon look like a hillock. Those people are excellent and amazing and I wish I could do that but the truth is that while physically I could, I'm not sure my brain could deal with everything involved. Just travelling to our base camp at the foot of Snowdon (a large tent in a wet field) turned me into a wibbling mess. So much so that when they served us huge slabs of chocolate cake in preparation for our Quite Long Walk Up The Equivalent of 369 Flights of Stairs In a Wind Tunnel, I couldn't eat mine. But when I look at it objectively and in relation to the rest of my life (and nobody else's) - it turns out that I may as well have trekked across the Andes. Because 5 months ago I was too scared to leave my house. And now I was getting ready to climb up things! In the dark! In the rain! Wearing really unflattering headgear! And 5 hours later I managed it, even if we nearly did get turned back because the batteries in the radios went dead and our mountain leaders, despite putting on a brave front, were actually pretty terrified of the weather conditions we were ascending high things in. It's one thing to make it out of doors when you are in the middle of spiralling Anxiety, but quite another to travel 300 miles away from home to zip up a mac and go on an actual adventure. And I did that. I did that in a HURRICANE (okay, I'm starting to blow the story out of proportion now. But it really was very windy indeed). And guess what?! After doing all that AT NIGHT and then coming down the mountain in the gathering dim light of a very foggy, grey, rainy morning, I STILL got sunburnt on my forehead. Mountain weather is so weird.
But before I start getting too self-congratulatory and smug - I know it wasn't all that really. Everyone is fighting a really hard battle every day. And mine was just a really bizarre physical incarnation of a mental struggle - one that I could manipulate into words for the purposes of a blog post later on. And the added dimension that we were walking up Snowdon to raise money for a cancer charity makes it even stupider to start patting myself vigorously on the back. Nothing any of us went through that night was as bad as cancer can be. But after it was all over there was a little part of me that thought 'well, you see, so you CAN do things. So stop telling yourself you can't. Now get in a warm bath before you get pneumonia'. And that was pretty sweet.
The other reason I don't want to get too smug is because I know it could all have been different. Anxiety may be all in the mind but guess what? IT'S ALL IN THE MIND. It ebbs and flows and it never really 100% goes away. If I had been having a bad time in my life right then, when I was supposed to be climbing a mountain, I would have cancelled the trip and stayed in my safe zone, which would probably have been my bed in London, quaking gently and persistently. I'm no hero, and you can't overcome things just like that. I was there because I was having a relatively GOOD period in the life of my brain and I was able to do what I did. Also, I have a working set of legs, for which I feel incredibly grateful. But the point is, I guess, that the next time I find myself unable to go to Tesco to get milk because of that impending sense of dread that I can't explain, I can remind myself of this experience, and hopefully it will help, if only a little bit. I can add it to the bank of Good Things to help me fight the war against the Bad Things that hide in the corners of my head.
If you too would like to climb a mountain but aren't sure how, here is a Beginner's Guide, by Me:
1.) Pick a little one to begin with. Wales has some little ones and also the Lake District in England. I mean, they are still pretty big. But not as big as those ones in Nepal and that Matterhorn one (can't remember where that is).
2.) Do not go when it is dark. You won't be able to see anything. Although actually, maybe this is a good thing. Looking down and seeing a sheer drop might put you off.
3.) For the love of all that is good and beautiful, do NOT go up a mountain when it is hailing sideways. That is no fun. If it starts hailing sideways, retreat to the nearest cafe for a scone and a cup of tea instead.
Oh and if you make it up Snowdon can you please tell me what it looks like because I've still got no idea. Thanks :)