A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
11 December 2015
Back in the spring, I spent the best part of a week travelling around North Wales with a few friends. It was a road trip that would lead us into equal measures of disaster and discovery; from failed entry, broken equipment and sleeping in bushes at the lowest points of our quest, through to moments of revelation and seemingly profound synchronicity.
I have wanted to feature Wales on this blog for a long time – often I get so carried away with remote and exotic destinations, that it becomes easy to overlook the breathtaking scenery and peculiar charms that lay so much closer to home. With this post I’ll go a long way towards righting that wrong, I hope, by featuring a wealth of oddities from across the region: including an abandoned cruise ship, a derelict castle, mountains and lakes, mine shafts and power stations, sheep and stone and liquid fire.
Y Ddraig Goch ddyry gychwyn…
In the beginning, there were three of us – myself and two others, who I’ll refer to here as B and R (the former, a spatial geographer; the latter an explorer in both the cartographic and philosophical senses).
We set out with a plan. B had constructed a map, a series of notes and co-ordinates shared between us in advance of the trip. We’d be crossing the Severn Bridge into Wales before picking up the trail of red pins, through the Brecons and on to a series of wonderfully weird destinations scattered about the mining regions of Snowdonia.
As it turned out though, Wales had other plans for us… and soon enough we’d see our meticulous map reduced to proverbial ashes.
The first red pin took us to Newport, just past the border. Here we had hoped to scale an old transporter bridge, an archaic structure that spanned the River Usk. Beneath its looming frame, a platform dangled from a winch for carrying freight from one bank to the other; above us, metal stairs led tantalisingly up toward the topmost deck. Weather allowing, B had suggested we might even sleep up there, wrapped in bags on the upper platforms of the bridge.
We arrived in Newport after dark, ditching the car to approach the bridge down a quiet road past offices and warehouses. The structure’s support cables extended taut above us, against the night sky, like the mooring chains of some vast cruise ship. Past the first row of barriers we went, into the shadow of the looming skeleton; until we reached the foot of the staircase itself.
For B and myself this all came as second nature – but R, despite having scaled frozen mountaintops, endured some of the harshest conditions on the planet, was out of his element when it came to slinking past Keep-Out signs and then shinning over spiky fences on an industrial estate in Newport.
Whatever advantage our experience granted us would soon be snatched away, though. The entrance to the bridge was not only barred, but fitted with boards that extended out like a collar in all directions to prevent anyone from climbing past, onto the outside of the structure. We brainstormed every conceivable way of getting from the land to the bridge frame – but with a twenty-foot drop to water beneath our feet, there was limited room for creative solutions.
Eventually we gave up; we still had destinations to spare, and so we moved on swiftly toward our next red pin.
We drove 40 miles north from Newport, across the Brecon Beacons – through views that ought to have been quite spectacular, had it not been pitch black outside. Through Cwmbran, Abergavenny and Llangattock we went, then past Talgarth looking for our back-up accommodation for the night: the ruins of a long abandoned hospital. In pictures, the place had looked perfectly suitable for a night of urban camping – quiet, secure, soft with moss and most importantly: dry.
But we were destined for another failure. Our directions led us to a fully functional hospital, and though we trawled around the premises for some 40 minutes – cruising slowly between wards and facilities, trying hard not to look incredibly suspicious – at last we gave up on finding the ruin.
There was some talk of keeping on, heading north… though a leaden tiredness was creeping up on us, and so – an impromptu Plan D – we decided to hunt for a campsite where we might pitch up for what remained of the night.
By 2am we’d found nothing and our driver needed rest. The small car would never comfortably sleep the three of us though, so we parked beside a lane somewhere near Llanfilo and searched for shelter in the nearby bushes. The weather was mild, dry, and we reasoned that four hours stretched flat beneath a thicket would do us better than a night cramped up inside the vehicle.
R, deep in his rural shaman trip, went looking for a holloway to sleep in. B and myself meanwhile, climbed the gate to a neighbouring field. There in the corner we found a trailer, an old thing made of wood and rust that nevertheless promised dry shelter in beneath.
From our initial plan of conquering an industrial-era giant, we had been reduced to sleeping under old farm equipment in a sheep field – but this surrender of material control would prove fruitful yet, in preparing us for the unexpected adventures still ahead.
Sometime after dawn, the gate dragged open and a John Deere tractor rolled noisily into our field. The farmer busied himself carrying feed to animals in a neighbouring plot. He passed right by our hiding place at one point, and I wondered what he had made of the empty car on the road outside – or if he’d spotted the two pairs of boots, tucked neatly beneath the corner of his trailer.
Ten minutes later we were brushing our teeth, squashing sleeping bags back into their cases, when the farmer came around on another pass. If we had feared vitriolic rhetoric from this red-faced Welshman though, we were quite mistaken: we attempted to explain our predicament but the man only laughed, as though two foreigners lost in the night and sleeping beneath his trailer was the funniest thing he’d ever seen.
(ii) LLEOLIAD GYFRINACH
The following day, the ashes of our burned egos would be dissolved in water; or rather, in a stagnant soup of rust and rotted rubber, festering in a mineral cauldron beneath the earth. After our morning encounter with the surprisingly jovial farmer we were headed for Lleoliad Gyfrinach, and the peculiar spectacle of an automobile graveyard inside a disused mineshaft.
I had been to Gyfrinach before. Six months earlier I’d seen photographs of the vehicles in their watery tomb, and tracked the site to an abandoned slate mine in Wales. But while I found the right network easily enough, I hadn’t given much thought to the possibility of multiple entrances… and we tried four different shafts that day before we discovered the cars.
Two of those entrances – unnaturally square caves cut into the rock face, one of them even hidden behind a waterfall as if lifted from some fairy tale – had culminated in dead-ends; the third had been hell itself.
I had read warnings that there might be a climb involved in reaching the subterranean lake… but back in autumn 2014, after two of us clambered down the narrow shaft, we’d found ourselves peering off a ledge into the abyss. I shone my torch down the pit, but it didn’t reach the bottom. It didn’t even reach the far wall. My companion threw a stone over the edge – and we waited an uncomfortably long period before hearing it fracture on rocks somewhere in the darkness below.
From that rocky platform, God knows how many hundreds of feet above the cavern floor, I spied a narrow lintel cut into the wall that arched away beside us. We had to hop across the pit to reach it, a gap of some three feet between the two ledges, wet slate slipping beneath our boots on landing. However, this lintel too turned out to be a dead-end – coming to an abrupt and sudden stop a little later, a smooth drop down to depths unknown.
I was frustrated… but mostly confused; after all, I’d seen the photos. Other people had managed this, but from where I stood the climb looked nothing less than lethal. Nothing but smooth rock, impossibly deep. It wasn’t until later that I realised where we’d gone wrong: we were in the right mine, but we had mistakenly entered it at the top – rather than the bottom – of the mountain.
My second visit to this Lleoliad Gyfrinach, accompanied by R and B, would prove a good deal more successful. We headed straight for the easy entrance, low down on the mountainside; splashing through the water that flooded the opening, and into the yawning darkness beyond.
After a while the passage opened up, and even without light there was a sense as of walking into a vast and open chamber. Water splashed and gurgled down a far wall somewhere, while beneath us the ground tumbled away down a steep and sudden drop.
On closer inspection though, the climb ahead was not a difficult one; once, this had been a track for workers and wheelbarrows. I could still make out the oscillating path, cut out of the rock many decades earlier. The walls had deteriorated since then, the slate cracking and crumbling, but by taking the descent just one slow step at a time – half climbing, half creeping – soon enough the three of us hit the cavern floor.
From there we simply followed the passage, another square shaft that took us all the way to the water’s edge.
It was like stepping into a surreal dreamscape, coming face to face with some bizarre, post-apocalyptic scene hidden beneath the green fields, the rocks and sheep of the Welsh countryside; a post-industrial Gollum’s Cave.
A single beam of white light fell through a crack in the rocks, high above us, to illuminate a pyramid on the far side of this subterranean lake; a tower of tin and rust and twisted metal. It was impossible to guess how many cars built the stack – or how many washing machines, fridges, wheels and bathtubs.
Gyfrinach Mine was closed in the 1970s, and for a long time it was used as a secret dumping ground for scrap metal and wreckage from road accidents. The mountain of cars was piled so high that it now blocked the shaft they came in through, plugging the entrance to allow nothing more but light: sealing the tomb.
I looked into the water and saw my reflection as a white glow on the murky green surface. There was no knowing how deep the pool went, what hidden material lay sunken on its bed.
R gazed in awe, and from time to time would scribble some presumably profound observation into his little reporter’s notebook. B meanwhile, was dusting off an inflatable boat he’d found in one corner of the grotto.
We took turns to float around the pyramid in that little dinghy, paddling frantically with broken planks for oars. Then later we climbed back out of the mine, we dried ourselves and hit the road, coming before too long across a real campsite this time; we made a fire and slept content, exhausted but warm, beneath the austere ridge of Cadair Idris.
(iii) AFON TRYWERYN
Dawn appeared as a luminous blue mist above the mountain. We rose early, paid for our stay and packed up camp. It had been a good sleep, far better than a dewy night beneath a trailer.
From the majestic folds of Cadair Idris we followed the course of a lake – Llyn Tegid – as far as Bala. We were well into the north by now and when we stopped for refreshments or supplies, increasingly it was the Welsh language we’d hear people speaking.
Our next destination was Afon Tryweryn – a river on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park, its course stopped-up halfway by the reservoir Llyn Celyn so that from above, on a map, it looked like a serpent had swallowed a ram.
Afon Tryweryn was dammed in the early 1960s, the resultant body of water measuring a mile by some two-and-a-half across. The dam itself was grown over with turf, discretely holding back the water to make space for fertile farmland further down the valley. Sheep grazed naively on what ought to have been a lakebed, oblivious to this process of separation. We weren’t here for the nature though, but rather a curious feature built into that reservoir: a giant plughole.
This overflow drainage system was installed into the southern corner of the reservoir, rising from Llyn Celyn as a thirsty concrete mouth – a floodgate that could redirect excess water through drains beneath the dam and safely out into the valley below.
We walked along the dam, bisecting the valley toward the corner closest to the drain. B wanted to explore inside the plughole… though not with his own body. He had brought a drone with him, and as he prepared his gadgets at the waterside I went to peer into the portal. There was an observation gantry extending from the earth, which passed directly above the structure in the water. It was blocked by a security fence though, a set of bars and ferrous spikes that caught at the folds my jacket as I pulled myself past along the outside of the walkway.
R was talking about underworlds – figurative, mythical and literal – as we approached the massive drain. “Xibalba,” he whispered, peering over the edge into a deep, mossy chasm that looked as though it could be the very navel of the earth.
There was a sudden buzzing noise, and the drone was airborne – motors whirring, gyroscopes spinning, stabilising, self-correcting, as it got a feel for the Welsh air. On the drive up here, B had been talking about urban space and frontiers; he’d said how public space was becoming politicised, covertly privatised, and how the next battle would be fought in vertical dimensions. Drinking beer at our campfire he’d gone further still, suggesting that drones were more than just technologically or politically significant, but moreover, an anthropological milestone; that in relaying live footage via cameras, even sound, it was the first time humans were able to remotely pilot their own senses – their consciousness – into the skies with unlimited freedom to soar.
His drone rose just a few feet above the ground before it developed a consciousness of its own. The hovering device suddenly banked and veered, away from the water, flying at high speed into a neighbouring field. The wind carried it in its belly… and it disappeared into the trees of a nearby paddock.
When B located his drone it was chipped and scuffed, one rotor short of a blade. It wouldn’t fly again this trip… and once again our well-laid plans went up in smoke.
Instead, we went to Trawsfynydd and paid homage at the statue of Hedd Wyn – a poet, bard and wanderer from this town, who died in the mud at Passchendaele – and then we sat in the town museum to update our route. Today had been scheduled Drone Day, but now we’d have to amend our plans and advance to the next earth-bound destination. But B was still thinking about flying, researching model repair shops in the area, and he proposed a theory for the drone’s manic episode back at the reservoir.
Manufacturers sell drones with the coordinates of ‘no-fly zones’ built in, he explained. Airports, military bases, try flying a private drone over one of these and it’ll more than likely disobey you. There was a nuclear power station just outside Trawsfynydd – and at Llyn Celyn, the drone had wasted no time in getting as far away from it as possible.
It gave the power station a strange and terrible mystique, to imagine it controlling objects in the air around it like some dread sorcerer. Our plans for the day now scrapped, we improvised – and decided to visit the power station instead.
The Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station, presumed architect of our morning’s misfortune, was designed in the 1960s by Sir Basil Spence – two Magnox reactors housed inside imposing concrete cubes. We went as far as the staff car park, but drove no closer. Although the power station was decommissioned in 1991, there was still a busy stream of cars and heavy goods vehicles moving in and out through security barriers; and so we admired the pale twins from afar. A brutalist tyrant, the inert station still casting its influence over the skies of Snowdonia.
We turned our backs on dreams of flying and headed north instead; stopping off first in Blaenau Ffestiniog, a small town at the heart of a once-thriving slate mining region.
There was a time during the 19th century when Blaenau Ffestiniog was the second largest town in Wales. With the decline of the slate industry however, the population shrank to just one third of what it had been. The place felt quiet, subdued, as we walked along the train tracks, over bridges and under the mounds of shingle that rose about the town. Everything here was made of that same lesser stone, slate walls and slate roofs and slate pillars and slate doorsteps.
Tiny chips of slate blew across the pavements like sand would at a seaside town. And it was to the seaside we were heading next; driving all the way to the end of the country, the northernmost point of mainland Wales.
We passed through Betws-y-Coed along the way, looping past Rhyl, Prestatyn, and along the coast as far as the Point of Ayr. We stopped at Talacre, a grey and rather sad-looking resort town; the amusement arcade blasted noisy jingles out towards the empty beach, the smell of fried onions filled the air from a burger stand. The place was dead though, and I wondered briefly how many onions would be cremated before they managed to lure in a customer. The tide was out and we walked along the beach as far as the lighthouse.
The first lighthouse was built on this spot in 1776, a sentinel that watched over the crossing between Llandudno and Liverpool Bay. The place was abandoned in 1840 though, and according to the stories it’s haunted by a lonely spirit – visiting mediums have identified him as ‘Raymond,’ a broken-hearted lighthouse keeper. Some tourists claim to sense his presence, coming away from the place with a feeling of unease.
Though inactive, the lighthouse was refurbished last in 1994, surviving now as little more than a landmark. If we’d harboured any hopes of getting inside though, we’d be out of luck; the place was tightly secured against unscheduled visitors.
Instead we walked around it, felt its cold stone, admired the bittersweet beauty of its red and white paint gradually flaking away. There was something out-of-place about this maritime relic on the wet sand, a haunted finger of stone framed as it was against the sleek white flowers of the offshore wind farm just visible out to sea behind it; a confusion of the old and the new. There was an anachronism here, though I found it impossible to tell which it was.
Behind the lighthouse I walked alone through grass and sand dunes – a conservation area, the signs told me, a breeding ground for endangered toads – and then we returned to the car and followed the coast along. Not far from here was another site we hoped to visit: another nautical abandonment only this time it was the volatile, a seaborne vessel, that had become fixed.
The Duke of Lancaster was a 4,450-tonne vessel with berth for 1,800 passengers, now sat growing rusty at a fenced-off dock on the coast of North Wales. We parked up at a nearby pub, bought three paper cups of awful-tasting coffee then headed down a turn-off from the main road, beneath a low-hung railway bridge and toward the ship on the horizon.
I’d heard stories about the ship’s decorated interior, and as we came close the three of us ducked behind bushes and began plotting a way onboard the derelict craft. There was a fence around the dock, and though the barrier wouldn’t have proved much of a challenge, beyond that lay three greater problems; a small security hut, what looked to be a camera attached to a post, and finally the hermetically sealed vessel itself.
The only obvious route inside would have been to climb the anchor chain; it lay pinned to the dock, stretching taut up to the higher deck. We each had gloves, and climbing harnesses too – it would be feasible, if we clipped ourselves onto the links and took it slowly, hanging like sloths beneath the chain.
What might prove more difficult though was the barbed wire lining the railings at the threshold. I tried picturing how it would work, hanging upside-down from a slippery chain while trying to climb headfirst through a bush of barbed wire. Still, I believed it could be accomplished; just not in a hurry.
Ultimately, it all came down to the question of security. If that little guard hut was empty – a scarecrow – and if we had all the time we’d need, then this could work. But if not…
We were still weighing up our options when there was a creak, the hut shifted on its stilts and then the door swung open. A man perhaps in his late fifties stepped out, neon-yellow jacket and grey hair, and began to light a cigarette. Infiltration was no longer an option and so we spoke with him instead, asked him what he knew about the ship.
The TSS Duke of Lancaster had sailed her first cruise in the 1950s, the security guard told us; working routes to Scotland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Spain. That came to an end in 1975 however, and after a brief stint running the ferry crossing between Wales and Ireland she finally came to a rest.
At the end of the 1970s, the Duke of Lancaster began a new life as ‘the Fun Ship.’ Her decks were fitted out with bars and shops and clubs, a floating tourist mecca; but the venue would be cursed by an ongoing battle between the ship’s new owner – John Rowley – and the local council.
The council made life hell for Rowley, blighting him with fines and threats, a lengthy court case and a total of 13 enforcement notices. One of the chief problems, according to the authorities, was that emergency vehicles couldn’t fit beneath the railway bridge to reach the venue… but the owner claimed there was more to it than that. The guard pointed us towards Rowley’s own pamphlet on the ship’s history in which he cites elaborate council plots, a gripping story of fraud and conspiracy.
In 2004 the Fun Ship closed up for good. The council demanded that private security be posted on the dock at all times – an expensive final condition – though Rowley would still have the last word; in 2012 he commissioned a team of European graffiti artists to decorate the ship, with scenes that stank of institutionalised corruption and fascist police states. Dystopian images of pigs and chimps and cameras now form a permanent landmark on this sleepy corner of the Welsh coast.
That evening we drove back to Prestatyn. Our three was becoming a four, with the addition of P. An actor by trade, he knew these towns, their secrets, and in many ways this conjunction was our turning point. So far we’d tried to access eight locations from our map, and only truly succeeded at one – a little local knowledge would carry us a long way.
Night fell and P led us up a hillside overlooking the town. We sat in a car park high above Prestatyn, watching the lights blink on the coastline down below; and beyond that, another constellation: the winking red beacons of the wind farm out at sea.
We drove around Colwyn Bay the next morning, P guiding us through some of the highlights of the coast.
He pointed out the salty rot of the old Colwyn Bay Pier, derelict since 2008. The pier was costing the local Conwy council an estimated £100,000 a year, just to keep it from collapsing; only a ‘Grade II listed building’ certificate stood between it and the Irish Sea.
Passing through Rhyl, P told us stories of ‘Little Venice’: a defunct subterranean water ride, gondolas and canals that charted a course beneath the streets. They had been built in the basement of a venue that only existed until 1907, and now these lost, watery tunnels had passed into the realms of urban myth.
Nearby he led us down beneath the road to a grimy grotto, all dirt and pillars and graffiti. What had seemed like solid ground from up top was revealed as an overpass; the drivers above having no idea that they were traversing not flat earth, but an elevated tarmac bridge over this hollow space.
Our divine inspiration would arrive of its own accord, though. We were on our way along the coast – I don’t even remember our destination – when we turned a corner and suddenly a medieval castle reared up above us. Taking a detour for the sake of a closer look, we came to the further realisation that the place was quite deserted… and so we cancelled our plans in one mercurial moment, and parked up close to the walls of Gwrych Castle instead.
Exploring an abandoned castle was a new one for me. I had seen fortresses and mansions left in this state, but never a literal castle complete with towers, battlements and a portcullis.
While the structure – or rather, group of them – had no security detail as such, the stone buildings were fenced off from the public path that crossed in front; and as we drew closer we found a team of contractors busy pulling weeds from what might once have been a lawn.
The four of us passed on by, beneath the walls and fortifications, around the final ivy-clad tower and up into the forest behind. Here a path led straight into the castle, through a stone arch barred by a metal gate. We began to forge a path, instead, through the thick brambles that grew beneath the walls – hoping to get close enough to scramble over and in.
It was hard work, stamping down creepers and thorns, slowly pushing closer until we were almost within touching distance of stone; when suddenly someone called to us from within the castle. R stepped into view. While we’d been busy in the bushes, he had managed to climb the gate and squeeze through the gap above. We retreated, and followed his route – the smooth, vertical bars didn’t make for the easiest climb, but soon enough we were all over and inside.
The castle covered a series of flat levels on the side of the hill, open spaces and courtyards surrounded by towers, stone keeps and battlements. Up this close though, the cracks began to show. Some of the towers were just for show, hollow facades built over natural outcrops of rock; doors opened onto empty spaces, or to interiors bricked off altogether.
Reaching the centre-most cluster of towers, we climbed through a window and down to the lower courtyard; coming level with the gardens at the front. Here it became more interesting, as we passed into a series of covered halls and keeps: wide stone stairs grown over with moss; what could have been bedchambers, but now felt more like dungeons; and a green space filled with deep alcoves, that might as easily have served as a wine cellar or a tomb. In one dark chamber, pseudo-satanic glyphs had been scrawled across the walls in brightly coloured paint, a pentagram traced on the floor beneath.
But the real treasure of Gwrych was to be found inside its broken tower. The inner wall of this circular structure was a patchwork of yellow stones and moss, its top end open to the sky; like peering into a kaleidoscope in all the colours of a peacock’s tail. Staring up the tower I soon became mesmerised and I lay down to admire it, on a bed of bricks and moss, watching as ravens circled the distant portal.
Here was the plughole at Afon Tryweryn, but in reverse; a gateway not to the underworld, but into the sky. Gazing into the aether I felt at times almost dizzy, ungrounded, a volatile sense of having become unfixed from the material world… and I thought back to our conversation about drones, about consciousness ascending into the sky.
Eventually we left this tower of flints behind, and soon discovered a path that led from within the castle walls back out, unhindered, to meet with the footpath in the forest. Our athletic entry over the gate had been unnecessary, as it turned out; still, I thought, as we walked back through the trees, the excitement of a tricky climb had only sweetened the reward.
On our way back to the car, R struck up a conversation with one of the men working on the grounds. He was happy to take a break, and tell us what he knew about the castle’s history; other dates and details, I’d fill in later through my own research.
Gwrych Castle was built between 1819 and 1825, by one Lloyd Hesketh Bamford-Hesketh. According to the local story, he had always dreamed of living in a ‘castle in the sky’ – and so, coming into his wealth in later life, he decided to create one. The castle was inherited by his granddaughter, the Countess of Dundonald, and it stayed in the family for over a century. During WWII it sheltered Jewish refugees, and in the decades that followed it remained open to the public; as well as hosting sports tournaments, rallies and medieval re-enactments, even a 1961 festival for the Young Communist League.
The decline of Gwrych Castle began in 1985, however, when an American businessman bought the land for £750,000. He had planned to renovate the place, but ran out of money – and the castle was left neglected, open and unguarded. A period of serious looting and vandalism followed during which the interiors were stripped bare, the structure severely vandalised until little more than a shell was left behind.
Later a hotel chain bought the property, with the intention of converting it into a 5-star, 90-bedroom complex; but this £6 million project was also destined to fail, and Gwrych remained untamed.
Now the cycle had begun again – new developers, fresh planning permission, and the first tentative steps on the long road toward rehabilitation. This contractor didn’t seem to care much for grand hotels, though; he told us he was simply happy to be part of any project aimed at restoring the castle.
“I grew up near here,” he said, “we all know this place, and we just want to see something done with it at last.”
And so, with that, we left him to his work – and we drove south to Betws-y-Coed. There we ate fish and chips, fresh from the coast, and quenched our thirst with the fruits of fermentation.
Betws-y-Coed was like walking into a postcard… or rather, like walking into a postcard that two hundred other people had also decided to walk into that day.
We crossed a stone bridge over the river, squeezing through crowds to get to water’s edge; where the stream bubbled and churned around a maze of boulders, crashing in miniature falls beneath the arches. Children splashed about near the rapid waters, leapt from rock to rock with parents frantically chasing after. On the edge of the crowd, two men stood watch dressed in black shirts labelled with ‘community welfare officer,’ or some bureaucratic title to that effect.
On a bench outside the melee, three cyclists sat with their packs to enjoy the view. Two of them lit cigarettes, and we saw the blackshirts watching them intently. They waited until one of the youths had finished, dropped his butt, and the moment it hit the pebbles the officers were upon him. It was like seeing a trapdoor spider snare its prey.
I had no idea what the fine was for dropping cigarette ends in Wales, but B, unable to contain his curiosity, barged straight into their conversation to find out; we learned that these cyclists – young foreign tourists – had been handed a fine running into three figures. I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of commission the officers would earn on that.
Betws-y-Coed may have looked like the distilled essence of rural tranquility, but it was noisy, filled with tourists and soured by an overzealous authority presence. Our spirits would soon rise again though, as we left the low waters and turned instead towards the mountains. We drove to Capel Curig, and from there to Tryfan: a rugged giant that rises to over 3,000 feet in the heart of the Ogwen Valley.
At the foot of the mountain, a farmer was charging £1 for parking in his driveway. We rambled from there across the grass and rocks, to reach the lower slopes of Tryfan; where a handful of people were already ascending and descending the smooth face of the mountain.
There was a sense of camaraderie here, of trust, that created an atmosphere quite the opposite of what we’d encountered at Betws-y-Coed: expensive climbing gear, cameras and smart phones were left on the rocks at the bottom as their owners scrambled, carefree, up and down the ropes.
R was the first of us to ascend; he followed a route up through a crease in the rocks to a plateau perhaps some hundred feet above. There he secured a rope and as he tossed it back down to us, we fastened our own harnesses in readiness.
B took the rock next, and then I followed. It was a pleasant route, not difficult so much as puzzling; searching for hand- and footholds on the smooth cliff face, shuffling across the rock, testing ledges and making the occasional leap of faith from one grip to the next. Behind me P attached a GoPro camera to his forehead – a third eye – and then followed us up.
The climb was not so different from the mineshaft at Lleoliad Gyfrinach; a similar height and gradient. Sitting in a perfectly formed stone nest at the top of the rope – my own castle in the sky – I looked out over Ogwen Valley and thought about the lonely pyramid of Tryfan, the hidden pyramid of cars in the sump of Gyfrinach.
When I’d had enough of the views I stood up with my back to the ledge, looped a rope through the device on my harness and leaned backwards over the cliff until I was perpendicular to the mountain… and then I loosened my grip, and began my descent.
We took it in turns to abseil down the rock face, the sun on our faces as we hopped, jogged and swung in defiance of gravity. Reaching the bottom we’d catch our breath, then climb straight back up – rising from earth to heaven, then descending again to earth in a loop of constant motion.
Eventually the four of us grew tired and when the sun began to set, we removed our harnesses and stowed the ropes away. We drove into the nearest town to pick up supplies – cider, sandwiches and a big bag of flammable material – before stopping beside Llyn Ogwen for our evening meal.
We sat on the bank of the lake as we ate, and talked, and during that time the sun disappeared below the horizon. In time the moon rose over the lake, bringing with it a bitter wind that swept in from off the water. Our next destination was going to somewhat warmer, though; it was the last night of our tour, and we were planning to celebrate the occasion with fire.
It was getting late when we arrived at our destination near Bethesda. P led us to a place he’d been before, inside the hill, the grand, secret and subterranean space afforded by a disused Victorian rail tunnel.
We took a short walk along the quiet country road, only the occasional passing car to light our path, and then we were there, at the perimeter fence. We climbed up and over in the dark. There were no train tracks on the other side, only a level space where they might once have been laid – this tunnel was never put to use but rather built, paved, then fenced off and forgotten altogether.
Back at Lleoliad Gyfrinach, the earth had swallowed us into a void of darkness; but at Bethesda we passed from darkness into light. From an inky Welsh night, nothing but trees and distant rustlings, we trod quietly inside the tunnel and the light from four torches fell immediately upon the stones around us. We were about to make that tunnel a whole lot brighter still.
We had brought with us – in addition to a few leftover cans of cider – an egg whisk, a bottle of paraffin, a climbing tether and a bag of fine grade steel wool. The wool went inside the whisk, the whisk attached to the tether, the whole thing was doused in paraffin and then set alight; one after another, we took turns at loading, lighting and spinning.
Under heat, the metal filaments would melt and as the whisk span in its orbit it spat fierce globules of lava. At first, the patterns we made were simple. In the thirty seconds or so it took for the metal to combust, we could etch a pretty solid circle on the air; then the fire would die, the molten metal coagulating into blackened lumps that were tapped out of the whisk before reloading, and starting the process again.
Soon we began to experiment – drawing figure-of-eight patterns, or rotating in place as we span. R rained fire from overhead, P exploded a flaming tornado; B cocooned himself inside an intricate web of glowing fibres and when my turn came, I turned through 360 degrees while tracing the symbol for infinity. It was exhilarating beyond description… to stand in the fire and guide the orbit of my own personal sun; to create a second body from the sparks, a body of golden, coalesced light.
We wove that liquid light until the early hours of the morning, until we’d burned through all our fuel and then at last we returned to the Welsh night, rising empowered from the tomb; and leaving the old stones of the railway tunnel heavy with the oily stench of hellfire.