An early morning start to the HAGGIS office where I got given my free "Lonely Planet Guide to Europe for Independent Travellers". I thumbed through the pages hoping to do some background reading while I waited for departure. However, the destination to which we were headed is apparently not a place for independent travellers so it was promptly buried in the bottom of my bag.
It was on this morning I met Hilary. A Canadian girl who was on the end of her Europe adventure so it was great for her to become my first bus buddy as I got to listen to all of her travel stories. It got me excited for what was to come on this Rock Paper Scissors adventure.
Day 1: London to Abergavenny had begun.
Hana, our tour guide and Garry, our driver, did their standard introductions as did the rest of the bus. There were 18 passengers all up which was a really nice sized group. Hilary, Cari, Chadwick and Craig from Canada, Marion, Daniela and Luzia from Italy, Maria from Columbia, Alex from Germany, Becky from Leeds , Wen from America and the rest of us were Aussies (Candice, Kylie (not me!), Samantha, Cara, Stefan, and Jaci (from Townsville!).
The 3 hour drive seemed to fly past whilst sketching our own self portraits onto postit notes to stick on the windows, and before we knew it the Welsh national anthem was being played as we crossed the bridge into Wales. This just made the experience 10000 times better, almost a little overwhelming. It’s amazing how music just adds to the atmosphere because really, without it, it was just another bridge.
We headed west into south Wales to the Chepstow Castle, the oldest stone fort in Britain.
then we were off to explore the Wye Valley and Tintern Abbey which is supposed to be one of the finest ruins in the country.
I think back in the day when it was full of colourful stained glass windows it would have been magnificent, even more so if you were a Welsh explorer that just happened to stumble upon it because it was built in the middle of nowhere.
I can’t remember what town we were in but we managed to be in Wales and in England at the same time posing for pics in front of the bridge pole that separates the two countries.
Another highlight of the day, situated in Blaenavon, was the “Big Pit” where we got to don a miners’ helmet and descend hundreds of metres into the earth to get a hands on experience of what life was really like ‘down in the mines.’
We had a Welsh tour guide to whom we asked lots of questions just so we could listen to his accent.. oh and learn more about the mine of course. Going into a mine wasn’t really on the top of my bucket list but I am really glad I did it. It was actually quite emotive being down there, especially when we had to turn our head lamps off to experience what it really would have been like for the workers (as they originally only had candles that blew out every time an oxygen door was opened - and it was some time before they used oil lamps). It was a whole new type of eerie darkness that none of us had really understood until that moment. Children as young as 6 years old would sit in the pitch black up to 12 hours a day to open and close the doors for the coal carts to go through. They only had a string tied to the door handle and the other end to their wrist so they knew where they had to go.
The horses that drew some of the carts in the more recent past were, of course, also subjected to the same conditions and became so photosensitive that it was almost more cruel to bring them back to the surface than leave them there to work.
I can now understand the great sense of comradeship that comes from working in those conditions for such long hours, but I can’t understand why anyone would want to do it now with all of the known respiratory diseases that come from it. The guide had worked in the mines for over 20years, he said if he could he would go back tomorrow.
For the night we stayed at the Black Sheep Backpackers in Abergavenny (which I still pronounce Aber-gan-avy) where I won a call out question in Trivia night as well as was in the group that won the overall questioning. We got a bottle of wine on the house. Winners!
Day 2: Abergavenny to Tyddyn Bychan
We went for a walk through the Brecon Beacons and were utterly gob smacked at Gary’s unexpected performance as Gollum from Lord of the Rings. Absolutely awesome.
Next, we were off to the second hand book capital of Britain, Hay-on-Wye. Hana had suggested we each by a book and then everyone on the bus can write a message in the cover as a personalized souvenir. I bought “A little Welsh cookbook” as Cage Bach (Welsh Cakes) were topic of conversation and all the rage for a lot of the trip. Welsh cakes are kind of like thick pancakes/flat scones with sultanas in them. So now I can bring a bit of Wales back home and into the kitchen
In the afternoon we walked across the Pontycyllte Aquaduct at Llangollen. I still find it weird that there are moats in these cities where people just live on elongated houseboats.
Just when we thought Garry had taken a wrong turn into the Wales wilderness (which he did a few times!) we found ourselves in Tyddyn Bychan a real Welsh farmhouse. We wasted no time checking out the miniature horses, friendly cows and chasing the sheep before piling into the ‘Kota’ (a BBQ hut ) pushing feminism aside and watched the boys cook up some steak.
The night ended well into the morning around a fire with a cider in hand.
Day 3: Tyddyn Bychan to.. ah.. Tyddyn Bychan
Yes some of us wanted to shoot the Cockerel that crowed in the morning. I am pretty sure some of us wanted to also stuff it and hang it on the dining room wall along with the creepy Eagle and Fox head. Lynda’s home cooked breaky seemed to kick everyone into gear.
We went to “The UglyHouse” before hiking through the spectacular scenery of Snowdonia National Park. Today was hot so whilst everyone dipped their toes in the cold water, Hilary and Cari decided in the “I’ll do it if you will!” fashion, to take a dip in the lake we affectionately renamed “WOW-sh” lake. Whilst they were freezing their bums off, I opted to spectacularly photobomb Wen’s tourist shot. Hahaha.
Then we had a Welsh language lesson trying to pronounce our next destination which is one of the longest place names in the world – Llanfairpwllgwynqyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch – I just think someone just fell asleep on their keyboard.
After a sneaky stamp in our passports we traveled to Conway Castle. Driving over the bridge towards the castle (with accompanying mood music) was like driving into a fairy tale – complete with rolling mist. My pictures don’t even begin to capture it, but it was a personal highlight of the trip. Conwy castle I think was the most impressive of all the ones we have seen so far – you could even walk around on top of the castle walls surrounding the whole town.
After a quick duel with Becky, we headed back to the farmhouse. A million games of Uno ensued each time having rule variations when different people joined in. We gave the original instructions to Wen so she could clear up our questions as they were only written in Chinese. After a while we figured out that Wen was just playing her own game and only pretending to read the instructions! Stories of Stalker Spiders.. BAM! and Italian vs Columbian counting lessons followed and then more late night yarns by the fire.
Day 4: Tyddyn Bychan to Aberystwyth to Cardiff.
We said farewell to farm life after being spoilt with the second consecutive cooked breakfast. We got to the end of the road and Garry realized he had left the map back at the house so hilariously stopped and asked a cow for directions.
We made it to the seaside town of Aberystwyth. I love sea side towns in the UK everything is so COLOURFUL! They are in such contrast to the drab brown and white that dominate London.
We then headed to the Devil’s Bridge where Hana and Garry told the historical story in character upon arrival. Entry here involved a VERY steep gorge walk amongst the trees to a magnificent waterfall backdrop. The drinks and icecream shop was perfectly placed at the exit when everyone was sweating and had stripped off their layers.
Garry drove us to the top of the Elan Valley trail so we could walk down instead of having to do more walking in the sun.
We made it to Cardiff, the capital of Wales, in time for a big group dinner at a local beer distillery. It was here where we indulged in some good Italian food (go figure) and a continuing joke involving big spicy sausages and an accompanying dance style was born. I shared a pizza and salad with Hana and we introduced others to jugs of Pimms cocktails. Haha.
Then we wandered the streets to find a bar called Flares who sold cocktails as big as your head. It was great here until an alarm went off that put a dampener on the whole vibe so we decided to go back to the hostel for a few drinks and learn a new card game – Marfia. Thanks Sam. This is a game where you have to try and convince others. Everyone said I had an advantage because I could psychologise them. Lol.
Day 5: Cardiff to London.
Free time to do our own thing this morning. I did a bit of shopping, went down to the bay and looked at the Cardiff castle from the outside. I was all castled out. I was a bit disappointed though, that we weren’t here for longer, especially because the Olympic torch runner was passing through in the evening which would have been cool to see.
Nevertheless, we had time to swing by a Roman influenced town, Caerleon on the way back home. We went into the free museum there. I went to the loo where it was decked out like it would have been in roman times… very weird.. and unique! I also made my way down some little alleys where I found statues and artwork and bookshops and cafes. All were very quiet so I had some good conversations with the local shop owners.
On the return trip to London everyone passed around their books for signing and/or contact details. Except for doofus me that left my book in my big bag not my day pack. But I got some messages on just boring lined paper instead. We also did a pin-giving ceremony. At the beginning of the week Hana gave us a challenge to find a pin or little souvenir for a few pounds for the person whose name we picked out of the hat. This was a good way to make us get to know a person a bit more to be able to personalize the gift giving. My person was Marion, one of the Italian girls. I learnt that one of the reasons she comes on these type of trips is so she can practice her English. She was my bus buddy for about a day and half too so I found a pin that had an Australian flag (symbolizing me and speaking English) back to back with a Wales flag. I thought it was pretty clever of me. Haha.
So we made it! 5 big days in the land of the Welsh with a great bunch of people and the beauty of facebook to keep us all connected and be able to share photos. And for the most rainiest place in the UK.. we had a WHOLE week without ONE drop of rain. I think that is some sort of Welsh Explorer record.
I must credit all of the panorama shots to our resident “Pano Man” Stefan who challenges himself to do 100 panoramas of each place he visits – and he’s bloody good at them too.
Thanks for an AWESOME time for my first trip out of London.