Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Bounce Below

A triple decker of trampolines inside a cavernous slate chamber; it has to be experienced to be believed. I stepped onto the middle deck some 60 feet above the floor and my 60 years felt like 6. Falling over was effortless and so too the laughs that followed. Getting from one end to the other was a piece of cake with Neil Armstrong type moonwalk strides. Pretty soon and despite the constant year round temperature of 8°C I was sweating from the exertion and nervous excitement.

From here it was up the netting gangway to the top deck 20 feet above. No steps but as you walked upwards, the side netting closed in on you, keeping you safe and secure. Slight tinges of vertigo as lighting revealed how high we were. Then down the slide, so steep at first but quick deceleration through the net tunnel.

This is going to be a smash hit with visitors. Something for everyone from aged 7 upwards; a train ride through the mountain then bounce to your heart’s content. The capacity of the cavern is up to 100 people at a time with as many as 60 on the middle trampoline.  Introductory offer is £15 for a 60 minute session. Further details at

Redstart Potty Practice

For a couple of weeks I enjoyed watching a family of redstarts nesting in a gap above the front door, conveniently opposite a bedroom window from which to film. Looking back at the footage I was surprised to see the ‘potty practice’. Daddy redstart landed in the nest, delivered food then waited a while until one of the chicks turned round, raised its bum into the air and pooped out a white sack. Amazing!

Monday, 23 June 2014

Making a coracle

‘Happy Birthday’ and my present was a coracle making course at the Woodland Skills Centre in Bodfari, near Denbigh. Our tutor was James Mitchell and the coracle design was the Boyne, as in the Irish river. Apparently the Welsh design, with cleft ash, is a bit tricky for beginners, hence the Boyne, based on hazel rods or any old withy.
James, always making things look easy
We selected our rods from several sheaves and tidied up their stems, removing knots and small branches. Next we made a cross, measuring 5 by 4 feet, and inserted ribs and runners; ribs along the sides and runners at either end. 8 rods or poles went down the length of one side and another 8 along the other side with 6 poles at each end. A bar was used to sink a hole 8 inches deep, into which each rod was secured.

Next came the weaving of pairs of twisted rods threading through the 28 rods planted into the ground and after two circuits of twisted pairs, then the seat was prepared. An adze was used to finish the surface of the seat giving a rustic look as distinct from the teeth of a chainsaw. Nicks were sawn and chopped at either end to fit the seat snugly between the middle 2 rods at either side resting on the twisted rods. Then a further 2 pairs of twisted rods secured the seat and poles into a rigid position. 
Bending those rods

Next came the tricky bit of bending the rods to meet their counterparts at the other side or end. The motion was a pull and a push with the occasional twist and bending over the knee. There were many ominous cracks and sometimes the rods would snap and need to be replaced. Sometimes they would split, which James referred to as ‘de-laminating’, with 1 or 2 years of outer growth separating from the rod. We were advised to stick to narrow rods of less than an inch thick; the thicker they were, the harder it was to bend them. Shaving some layers on the inner side of the proposed bend helped to make the bending process a bit easier.

At the start of day two we finished off the bending and trimmed the narrow ends of rods to squeeze through the weave. It looked very ungainly and impossible for the runners to neatly lash into the ribs, but they did. James demonstrated the ‘square truss’, an elaborate way of lashing a rib to a runner, and then I had another 47 to do. Getting a slip knot effect was an efficient way to leave both hands free and, with one and sometimes two feet on the runners, the runners were forced down to touch the ribs and secured with sisal, a length of about 2 metres per knot.
Upside down basket or
coracle growing out of the ground
Tying seemed to go on forever and then it was time to insert the Spanish windlass, a double thickness of sisal with a rod twisted in the middle, just to keep the tension between the sides beneath the seat.

After this we needed to lever the coracle from out of the clutches of the 28 rods sunk 8” into the sandy ground. Slowly the coracle rose out of the ground, like an awaking armadillo, and then the weave was tamped down. Unnecessary and sticky-out bits were pruned out including the bottoms of the rods. Any sharp notches or blemishes were smoothed and then the coracle was set on top of a length of canvas.

Norman the seamstress
We were instructed in how to sew with an upholstery C shaped needle; the sort used by Victorian surgeons. A series of 1 foot chunks were sewn at the top, then bottom then both sides, the four corners and then we filled in all the gaps; all the while pulling the canvas tight. Then the coracle was lifted onto a table, upside down, ready for bitumen. The first coat was thinned and went on easily; I say this because I was at home enjoying a beer and some supper while James our diligent tutor was painting into the solstice dusk.

Paul applying bitumen
On the start of day 3 we turned the coracles right side up and painted the rim. Then we turned them upside down once more on top of tables and applied a thick dollop of bitumen. You think you’re doing a thorough job until you look from beneath and see all the ‘stars’ which will leak water. For this stage you needed to team up with a fellow student; the ‘star gazer’ would lie on his or her back beneath the coracle pressing a stick at any stars or constellations whilst an extra dollop was applied to block the light. The freshly painted hulls were left gleaming in the sun whilst we went into the shed to make our paddles.

A stout hazel rod with a bend was inserted into a shaving horse and with a draw knife I made a smooth and level end onto which a paddle-shaped piece of marine ply could be affixed.  A crude handle was affixed to the top end and linseed oil applied to the paddle blade. 
Coco sculling 

After lunch we headed off to a lake and James instructed us in the 3 essential skills; getting in, getting out and sculling. Sculling was nothing like those narrow rowing boats with sliding seats and a pair of oars, it was more like sticking a food mixer into the water in front of you and wiggling it around in a figure of eight. It took a while to get going but once moving, the sculling motion propelled you along quite smoothly. A single stroke with the paddle down the side had the effect of setting off a spinning wheel. 

This course was my 60th birthday present and I don’t think I will ever forget it. Thank you Sue and thank you James for your patience.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Badger sett to fox's den

On Friday (6th June) Hazel and Dave, who were on holiday at Campbell's Cottage, set up their wildlife camera on the nearby badger sett in the hope of getting some badger footage; there were 18 good film clips over the weekend, but none contained a badger.

A couple of months earlier, maybe March or April, I saw a dead badger on the bottom lane and my neighbour said there had been a second one. Was that the nucleus of the sett wiped out? I think this is a satellite of a much larger sett about half a mile away.

Nature abhors a vacuum and foxes have taken up residence. In the YouTube film the latest time they returned to their adopted den was 07:34 and the earliest time of leaving was 20:40. About 1 minute into the film an adult is carrying something in its mouth and a few seconds later there are the terrified or outraged screams of some creature(s). A squirrel maybe? Anyone got any ideas?

Thanks Hazel and Dave for sharing this with us.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Circumnavigation of Mount Snowdon by Train and Bus

In the nineteen twenties and thirties, the real hardcore railway fanatic would attempt the ‘Circumnavigation of Mt Snowdon by Rail’, it was often referred to, probably sarcastically, as ‘The Grande Tour’. Having been present by pure chance at the official re-opening of the first part of the Ffestiniog Railway, and keeping an interest in the gradual reopening through to Blaenau Ffestiniog, I vowed to do the journey myself as soon as possible after the re-opening of the Welsh Highland through to Porthmadog. There was just one snag, there is no longer a railway between Bangor and Caernarfon. After much studying of timetables it looked to me to be possible. I outlined it to my wife and she was keen to try it.

Why would you want to repeat our exploit? Well, if you don't already know the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways it's a marvelous way to experience them for the first time, it's also a good way to see the Conwy Valley line which is worth it for the scenery. If you are any kind of railway enthusiast you don't need an excuse, it's just there to be done.

Staying at Campbell's Cottage is a help as you can do part of the journey using the Campbell's Platform weekly pass. You will need to check the timetables as those for the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland have different service patterns on different days. I found that for all of the Summer 2014 timetables, on yellow days for the two narrow gauge lines, it could be done starting at Blaenau Ffestiniog at just gone half past eight in the morning.

As well as the scenery being quite different on the Welsh Highland compared to the Ffestiniog you will also discover how different are the locomotives and coaching stock of the two lines. What follows is a commentary on our journey.

We got ourselves to Blaenau for just gone 08:30, there was plenty of space in the car parks so we put an all day ticket on the windscreen and walked towards the mainline platform. If it is raining it's worth knowing there is a waiting shelter on the platform, hidden from view the other side of the old building. About ten minutes before its allotted time a two car Arriva Trains unit rolled into the station. Tickets are bought from the guard, don't forget your travel card, they might not all be as accommodating as ours who overlooked the fact that unlike my wife I'd left home without mine. The train left exactly on 08:46 and for the first few minutes picks its way through the slate strewn slopes around Blaenau. It then dives into a two mile tunnel before coming out at the top of the Conwy Valley which is as full of greenery as can be. For the next hour or so the train speeds downhill between stations stopping for some, slowing then accelerating away from others which are request stops. Sometime around 10:00 you'll arrive in Llandudno Junction.

The next stage is fraught with difficulty. You need to find the correct bus stop for the X5 to Caernarfon. No matter how many people you ask and no matter how likely they should know, you'll get a different answer from them all. It's the one on the approach road to the bridge over the estuary, not the bridge over the railway. The bus numbering is unfathomable; ours was an X5 which morphed into a 5C when it changed drivers at Bangor. I don't know what it is about Arriva buses, but like every other one I've travelled on it's best to sit at a seat with an adjacent grab rail. On arrival in Caernarfon it's a walk straight ahead to the T junction, turn left and walk ahead again until you can see the castle across an open square on your right, then take the road which slopes down to your left at the foot of the castle wall and you'll see the railway station straight in front of you. Take care as you walk down the slope, traffic emerges on your left from the old railway tunnel. You should have time to purchase sandwiches and drinks and consume them in the square, before buying your tickets and boarding the train.

The Welsh Highland station is on the trackbed of the former main line heading west out of the town. For the first couple of miles the railway uses the old trackbed which it shares with a cycle/footpath. At Dinas the line abandons the old mainline, does a short sharp wiggle to the left, and picks up the course of the original Welsh Highland Railway, and its predecessor the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railway. The line snakes from left to right affording a view of the locomotive at its head as it struggles to gain height, the landscape on the way to the summit is mainly boggy moorland. On the descent towards Beddgelert the loops are bigger and at one point the track is parallel to two previous sections higher up the hillside, and the whole area is wooded.

From Beddgelert the train passes through the Aberglaslyn Pass, on a ledge cut into the rock high above the river. This short section is the jewel in the crown of the Welsh Highland. Don't waste your time photographing it, look and take it in, there are better photographs of it than you will take on sale at the stations. The train leaves the pass by a short tunnel and makes its way first across and then down the Glaslyn estuary. On the Approach to Porthmadog the line crosses the Cambrian Coast line on the level, the only place in the UK that a narrow gauge railway crosses the national network. The line threads between river and the car park before the train halts with the locomotive at the side of the main road out of town. Sirens sound and lights flash and once all of the traffic has cleared, with much hooting the train snakes forward, across the road and into the long platform of Porthmadog Harbour station.

The Welsh Highland and Ffestiniog trains stand on either side of the platform, looking at them it's difficult to accept that  both run on the same track; by comparison to the WHR trains the FR ones are minute. The first surprise for those new to the FR is that before departure the guard comes along checking tickets and locking the doors. There are warnings above the windows not to put your head out. They mean it! In places there's barely six inches between the train and solid rock or stone walls. Whereas the Welsh Highland crossed open moorland and wooded slopes the FR is very different. It starts crossing the wide embankment known as the Cob, which it shares with a road and a footpath. Then it swings left on top of a vertical slate wall with no space between the sides of the carriages on the drop to the road below. There's a halt for the company workshops at Boston Lodge then it's narrow cuttings, squeezing between buildings and crossing the tops of more vertiginous walls, constantly climbing. In places there are extensive woodlands all around but on the right hand side the train is at the treetop level giving views over the whole of the Vale of Ffestiniog.

At various stops along the way the train crosses with one heading down hill to Porthmadog, shortly after crossing at Tan-y-Bwlch you will pass through Campbell's Platform, don't miss it, climbing trains can't afford to stop here, then at Dduallt comes another unique in the UK feature; to get back to the original route the train needs to gain height to pass above the lake created for the Tanygrisiau pumped storage power station. It does this with a spiral, curving round through a full circle passing above the line just traversed, before striking off towards a higher ridge. A new tunnel was needed to breech the ridge, fortunately they made it a bit bigger than the original, which dictated the small size of the original trains. Out of the tunnel the train passes the back door of the power station and threads its way through the houses and slate mines to arrive in the station where this journey started all those hours ago.

For all those who just want to get on with it, here are the times using time tables for the summer of 2014.

  • Blaenau Ffestiniog – Arriva Trains 08:46 to Llandudno Junction.
  • Llandudno Junction Arriva bus X5C to Caernarfon via Bangor. There are two or three buses per hour and there's plenty of time. The bus may be numbered X5 or 5C. The one we got was an X5 which got a new driver at Bangor and became a 5C.
  • Welsh Highland Railway Caernarfon – 13:20 to Porthmadog. Summer 2014 timetable, yellow day.
  • Ffestiniog Railway Porthmadog -15:50 to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Summer 2014 timetable, yellow day.

This blogpost was contributed by John Williams in June 2014. Many thanks.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Zippedy doo daa!

Hazel and Dave take the zip
During our week's stay at Campbell’s Cottage, we noticed in the Guardian that a new attraction had just opened the week before at Llechwedd Slate Caverns near Blaenau Ffestiniog.  A company called Zip World has built a series of zip wires over the slate mines.

As it was only a short distance away from the cottage and I love doing new challenges, this was a great opportunity.  My partner, Dave, was not bothered but when we got there I was pleased that he decided to join in.  Unfortunately, the rain that began as drizzle when we left, changed to the heaviest downpour of our holiday and we spent a few minutes deciding whether to leave it for another time.  However, we were encouraged by the staff to ‘go for it’ and as we were both psyched up for this experience, we decided to do just that.

After we were introduced to the instructors, eight of us were kitted out with orange flying suits, harnesses, helmets, goggles and most importantly, the trolley. This piece of equipment would be attached to each of the three zip wires as we got to them. There were three levels, the first being the longest but slowest, the second the fastest and the last brought us back to earth.

After we boarded the bus which took us to the highest point, we walked with our instructors to the first of the zips.  Each run had four zip wires so you were not on your own. We decided amongst us who was going to be in the first four and then each chose a lane. We were hooked up and our straps tightened.  Not being a lover of heights, I felt quite apprehensive at this point!  A cry of “three, two, one” - then the gates opened and we were off into oblivion!

Wow! Initially, we couldn’t see a thing as we went headlong into cloud which was an incredible feeling but as we dropped lower and the clouds disappeared, the vista of Snowdonia became apparent and there was time to take in the whole panorama.  As there was a headwind, some of us didn’t quite make it to the end on the first run and I had to be rescued by means of a rope!  There was then a short walk to the second run which was shorter but much faster.  In fact, I was told that you went even faster if you rolled into a ball which I did but then a scary moment when I didn’t think I was going to stop but, of course, I did with the help of the brilliant mechanism.  The third zip was just as exciting and by then we felt confident enough to race each other. Dave even managed to get a movie with his iPhone! - see below.

After a short walk back to the cabin, we disposed of our gear and thence to the lovely café for a drink and hot food.

In all, I felt safe and secure and completely trusted the staff and instructors with what was a memorable experience. It wasn’t as scary as I thought, the camaraderie was great and I would definitely recommend it in any weather.

Whilst at Llechwedd, the slate caverns and accompanying workshops are well worth a visit and a new attraction called “Bounce Below“ which was featured on a recent episode of Countryfile, is soon to be opening.  There are also downhill mountain bike trails for the experienced.

Just to clarify that at Zip World Titan at Llechwedd there are three zips and you sit in a comfortable armchair position. You ride at about 50mph – 60mph and it is the largest zip zone in Europe.

This isn’t to be confused with the same company’s Zip World Velocity at Bethesda which is the one where you are lying in a prone position. This is the longest and fastest in Europe but only has one zip wire.

To avoid disappointment, we recommend booking in advance if you can. [Many thanks to Hazel and Dave for this contribution to the Campbell's Cottage blogspot]

Monday, 9 June 2014

To point, or not to point, that is the question

Fortunately I didn’t get round to re-pointing this side of the house and we were rewarded with a beautiful redstart nest just opposite a bedroom window.

Mr and Mrs Redstart were busy ferrying food into the nest and keeping the inside neat and tidy. Will I manage to see the chicks fly off?

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Aberdaron and the Wales Coast Path

We had the coast path to olurselves
If you’re looking for an add on to your stay at Campbell’s Cottage you could try what we just did, a pilgrimage to Aberdaron at the tip of the Llŷn Peninsula, staying right on the beach and walking sections of the Wales Coast Path.

Our room at the Tŷ Newydd had a mini balcony overlooking the beach beneath, with the sea just a stone’s throw away at high tide; could probably skim stones from the bedroom. Falling asleep with curtains and door wide open was great. The crab salad, with a shared portion of chips, was luxury; best crab we’ve ever tasted.

We walked the coast path from Whistling Sands back to the hotel, about 9 or 10 miles, with a few bits of up and down. After cappuccino at Whistling Sands we didn’t see a soul for the next 3 hours. Along the way so many wild flowers, birdsongs and sounds of the sea, snails galore and stunning blue butterflies in one section. A pair of peregrines swooped along the cliffs and as we approached Mynydd Mawr we were into the land of the chough, with their bright red beaks and legs and cat-like calls.

Caterpillar of Lackey Moth in a Sloe Tree
By the time we made it back to the hotel a pint of the local brew, Brenin Enlli, was most welcome. On the second day we walked a section around Penarfynydd, where we saw a hare run across the top of the mountain, and a bit later we walked along the surfers beach of Hell’s Mouth or Porth Neigwl.

So close to home yet a world apart and a great break.