1983 was an important year, because I bought a lightweight backpacking tent. About twelve months previously, I was seriously considering constructing a home-made shelter from a length of polythene tubing, an idea found in a book I had read. Tie a knot in one end, use two canes to support the other end, and hey presto! I now knew from experience of Welsh rain and winds, not to mention condensation, that to have ventured out into the mountains with no more protection than that would have been suicidal.
In choosing the Ultimate “Tramp 1”, I was influenced a great deal by their advertising material, which I quote here from the copy that I still have: “The first British tent to combine mountain features with backpacking weight. Its low profile lets hill winds flow over it without buffeting, and the sleeved A-poles spread the load on the fabric. A huge bell end shelters the cooking and storage space, and its wide stance and side pullouts give good sleeping area. Ideal space for a solo camper.” The weight, at 2.1kg/ 4lb 10oz, was a tad heavier than I would have liked, but the price was generously low at £69 (it was heavily discounted as an end-of-line model, just before the introduction of the Ultimate “Peapod”, one of the first tunnel tents) and with my wife now in part-time work the money was available. An excellent choice it turned out to be, for it gave me good service for a great many years, the only weakness being the groundsheet, which was replaced twice.
I ordered the tent by mail order from a reputable company just one month before I was due to go away. Two weeks passed, no tent arrived, and I was getting anxious. A telephone call was made to the suppliers, who confirmed sending it, while Royal Mail did not have it with their undelivered parcels. Forms were filled in and passed around. Then, after a further week, a knock at the door revealed an Eastern gentleman from number 36, across the road. “Is this yours?” he enquired, holding up a tent-shaped package that was oh-so-clearly addressed to number 39. I asked him when had it arrived? “Erm, it came before the weekend,” was the reply. The postmark suggested it had taken him over a week to bring it across the road for me.
So, on Monday 3rd October I set off at 10 o’clock at night, after my wife had returned from her evening class. Never again do I want to drive a long distance in the middle of the night. On the unlit motorway, it was so difficult to gauge how far ahead lorries were. Half a mile? A quarter of a mile? And which lane were they in? Were they all on the nearside, or was one overtaking the other two and occupying the middle lane? Service area cafeterias in the small hours were, I found, frequented by all manner of insomniacs. Once I was off the motorway and on the A5, the country was populated by countless cats that strolled across the road. The land itself was invisible in the blackness; on a coffee break in a lay-by, there was naught but the roar of water and the sound of the wind, but whether I was surrounded by lofty hills or open moorland I had no idea
I arrived at Aber at 3:30 a.m. and drove up a narrow lane where I found a wide patch of grassy verge on which I hurriedly pitched my new tent. It soon became apparent that it was very windy in the vicinity, for although I was fortunately quite sheltered, it was making a constant roaring noise. What with that plus the fact that I was trying to get to sleep when grossly overtired, I tossed and turned for the few remaining hours, not helped by someone driving what sounded like a Land Rover past, and back again, before dawn.
When I eventually surfaced at around 8:30 a.m., I discovered the reason for the loud noise of the wind: I had pitched my tent directly beneath some overhead power lines! Driving up to Bont Newydd car park, I made breakfast and washed, using water from the adjacent river. The sky was leaden and the trees were swishing in the breeze. The walk along the track towards Aber Falls was OK until I emerged from the far end of the wood, where a stiff westerly wind cut mercilessly across the open grassland. After picking my way along a loose, stony path that runs diagonally up a steep scree slope, and then inching my way cautiously around the wet and narrow rock ledges above the side of the waterfall, where one slip would probably have been fatal (I believe it has claimed a life or two in the past), I followed a faint path steeply up the Afon Goch valley. It was now raining, a flurry of small hard drops that spattered off rocks and ground and me, and as I climbed to over 1,000 feet above sea level the wind became tremendous, buffeting me and my pack about.
I paused to rest for a few minutes behind a rock that was barely large enough to shelter me, but the rain and wind continued unabated and I was beginning to feel cold, so I rather reluctantly continued on my way. I had not gone many yards when a fierce gust toppled me, and down I went, banging my hip on a rock. “Right, that’s enough!” I thought, “I’m not carrying on in these conditions,” whereupon I turned and headed back the way I had come. From the height I was at, I could see across to the island of Anglesey, where five large ships were moored off its east coast because of the gale.
Not completely put off, I made the decision to carry on with day walks coupled with wild camping, starting from the Conwy valley, sheltered in the lee of the Carneddau mountains. I spent the night somewhere near the end of the lane that runs up towards Llyn Eigiau reservoir, which is a beautiful, desolate area. What was very apparent, though, was my extreme reluctance then to camp very far away from my van! It had to be just about in sight, and even though I eventually overcame that fear, for the next few years I used to find it an enormous wrench to break myself away from it and leave it behind. (Nowadays, my only worry is whether it will still be there, and in one piece, when I return.)
The following day I did a circular walk up to the twin lakes of Melynllyn and Dulyn. The latter lake I had read about in a library book in the 1960s (a book whose title I have long forgotten, and I have never again come across in spite of being a regular visitor to book fairs and second-hand book shops), which told the tale of how wartime planes would fly into the cloud-covered crags at the far end of the lake, thinking there was a gap there, and how on a still night the cries of the downed airmen could be heard calling across the water. In June 1985 I revisited the area with my wife and young sons. The weather was unusually hot and dry, and the level of the lake had fallen by several feet, exposing a large table-topped rock close to the edge. In the clear water below this rock could be seen the tail fin of an aeroplane!
On my way down this time, I could see my little van over half a mile away, parked near the end of the lane. A Welsh Water van, homeward bound at the end of the working day, pulled up beside it. Three men emerged, peered into my van windows, tried the doors and the bonnet, and then proceeded on their way. What can I say? I suppose my van must have been an unusual sight, miles from anywhere. I learned in later years that my employers occasionally received phone calls from the North Wales constabulary enquiring about my company van being in some remote spot, from where it had been reported to them by the National Park wardens, to which reassurances were given that I was on holiday up there. Nowadays, of course, I go to lengths to leave it in conspicuous, well-lit spots in the thick of civilization.
Thursday 6th October found me contouring at around 1,500 feet along the coastline behind Penmaenmawr. It was still very windy, and shipping was still at anchor in the lee of Anglesey. Whilst I was huddled behind a wall having a late lunch, three gentlemen in their seventies and eighties came along, all wearing shorts! They paused for a brief conversation before continuing on their way, leaving me to feel a bit of a wimp. I spent that night, not too far from my van again, twenty feet from a stream just to the south of the old Roman Road near Bwlch y Ddeufaen. It rained torrents in the night, and in the morning I found that the stream was now only a yard away from my tent door. And it was STILL windy! I needed no further encouragement to to go home.
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