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.