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Well, they shouldn't have rented us a Jeep
It was cold in the room when I woke. I had set the thermostat on the heating unit (think old fashioned radiator, except it was electric and I think oil-filled), and turned it on, but had managed to forget that I had to also flip the switch on the outlet where it was plugged in (this is standard for electrical outlets now in the UK, I gather). But it was colder outside, and there was frost on the windows. Looking out from our second-floor room, we had a great view of Dinas Bran, the Welsh castle ruins which surmounted the tallest mountain around. Or, rather, we would have, if it wasn't for the mist and light rain. No way we'd be climbing up there first thing this morning. I went back to bed.
An hour later, the room had warmed, we switched on the TV to see if we could catch some info about what the weather was likely going to do. It wasn't promising, though there was a hope of it clearing off late in the day. We got showered & dressed, went downstairs for a big breakfast, full English with all the trimmings (including the damned nasty pasty tasteless lump that they call a 'sausage' in the UK). Decided that we'd just explore a bit, see what developed with the weather. Climbing up to Dinas Bran was one of the things we had wanted to do this trip.
First thing was to check out nearby Plas Newydd, home of the World Renown Ladies of Llangollen. What, you say you've never heard of them before? Uneducated heathen. Well, neither had I. And I wasn't going to learn much about them either, because we got there to discover that it was still closed for the season. We could walk around the formal garden grounds for free if we wanted, even though they too weren't really up to snuff yet, it being 'before season' and all. In the cold driving rain.
Then we decided to go check out the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, over the River Dee, about four miles upstream from the town. It was still pouring rain when we got there (after a quick trip to find an umbrella and a hat - it seems I have to buy a new hat for each trip to Wales, and Alix has to get a new umbrella - in the nearby town of Chirk), but I've never seen an aqueduct before, let alone one still in use for "narrow-boating," so this was much more tempting than the unfinished formal gardens at Plas Newydd. Yeah, I'm strange that way. We parked the car, grabbed the umbrella, and went for a stroll along the canal which would become the aqueduct.
The Llangollen Canal is part of the network of early industrial-age canals that predate the railroads in Britain. In the last couple of decades there has been a renewed interest in the canals, and now "narrow-boating" (so called because the boats really are very narrow - say just six feet wide - but up to 60 feet long) has become quite popular, even as a vacation (in a houseboat version). What got us interested in this canal in particular was that it was designed by Thomas Telford, famous for his civil engineering in that era, and that there is a thousand-foot span over the Dee Valley on slender stone arches some 125 feet above the river. Wikipedia has a nice entry on it, if you're interested. So we walked along the tow-path (the boats were originally towed along the canal) to the aqueduct, passing several moored narrowboats in various states of repair, their owners sitting and playing cards or watching telly while waiting for the rain to stop and the tourist season to start. There is a connection there - early spring sees a lot of rain in varying degrees of solidity in Wales, and most tourists avoid the place until after Easter. Obviously, we're not most tourists. Damn - failed my intelligence roll again.
Anyway, got to the end of the tow-path, and the start of the aqueduct. Wasn't much of it you could see from this vantage, just the long thin line of the canal running out into the mist. And when I say thin, I mean that: there was almost no masonry on our side of the thing, just enough to hold the cast iron trough which was about the width of a narrow boat, and a skinny little walking path & rail on the other side. That's it. OSHA would not approve.
We walked back to the car, got in, and found our way down to the river below the aqueduct. And there, beside a sheep-field, Alix got a great shot of the aqueduct, looking up. Cool. But now what?
Back to town for some routine stuff: check email at the local library (I did notice that there were fewer 'Internet Cafes' available this trip, but just about every small town has a local library, and all those will let visitors use a computer to check email), then get some lunch goodies at a nice little deli. I made the mistake of thinking that a sausage roll would have like a real sausage in it rather than another one of their beastly breakfast lumps. Ugh. I vowed to avoid anything called a sausage for the rest of the trip. We did some shopping, got postcards and stamps, wandered about the small downtown area a while.
Then the weather broke, and there were actual patches of blue sky. We looked up at Dinas Bran. Hmm. The castle was visible, which was good, because that meant that there wasn't a cloud parked on it. But in addition to being able to see the ruins, we could also see snowpack. Not a lot of it. But enough to make one pause, particularly given the amount of rain which had fallen, and the likelihood that the trails up to the top would be muddy before they became snowy. Hmm.
We decided to use our Landranger map and drive up to the various starting points for the hike to the castle, scope out the possibilities for either a hike that afternoon or an attempt the next day.
Dinas Bran is only a thousand foot up. But it is a steep thousand foot climb, enough so that even the early commentators remarked on it (and undoubtably one of the reasons it was chosen as the site for the castle). There are two main ways to approach the castle - from the city (Llangollen) or from the opposite side, starting from Offa's Dyke. We figured that we'd see how close we could get to the top using roads, which would minimize how much mucking around on a muddy/snowy trail we might have to do.
Starting on the city side, we followed various local roads up the hillside, looking for the footpath/hiking conditions, parking sites, and glimpses of the castle. These are the narrow little roads I mentioned in the first travelogue, barely big enough for a fair-sized car or small truck to navigate, with the occasional turn-out or driveway used to allow oncoming traffic to slip by. With our little car (we had a Kia Picanto - four doors, but essentially no trunk and very little engine compartment - and all the ground clearance of a Cooper Mini), and experience with driving in Wales, we did just fine, allowing for a few moments of nervousness about turning a blind corner (thanks to hedge or a farmer's wall) or meeting a delivery truck headed our way. We noted several possible places to start a hike from, but the pathway conditions and parking options were never encouraging.
So we decided to try the other approach, around the north, where the Offa's Dyke pathway came close to the castle. Our guidebooks indicated that this approach, while the shorter of the two trails, was the steeper, and almost entirely consisted of climbing up the side of the steep hill through a sheep pasture.
Well, when we got north of the town, then turned off the highway onto the little local road, I instantly knew we were in for a bit more than we had been dealing with on the south side. The map warned us that the road had several steep inclines. Uh-huh. Alix was driving at this point, but she's good with a standard shift and knows her way around the small roads of Wales. Still, I mentioned to her that it might get a little tough. Particularly given that there was a noticeable amount of snow as we quickly climbed up. Oh, it wasn't bad on the road, since there had been traffic going in and out of the various farms. But when we passed the last of these, and rounded a curve headed up a 15% grade and hit about a foot of undisturbed hard-crusted snow, we had problems. Particularly since backing up, around a curve, on a steep incline, with stone walls just inches from us on either side meant certain loss of our damage deposit. Right. She plowed through in second, downshifting smoothly into first as the poor little car struggled. We made it around the curve. Over a rise, then down into a saddle before another rise. Where, of course, the snow was even deeper, having drifted in the low spot. The front of the car dug into the snow. The wheels churned. The engine died.
Charming. She looked at me. I looked at her. "You wanna take another try at this, or do you want me to see if I have any better luck?"
I wasn't just being a macho dickhead. I have a lot more experience with four-wheeling than she does. And even though the little Kia wasn't a four-wheeler, some of my experience could benefit. Fortunately, she knows this, and didn't think that I was being a dickhead, either. "Hey, you're welcome to take a go at it."
She slid over. I got out and walked around to the driver's side, checking to see just how much snow we were pushing in front of us as I did so. "Could be worse," I said as I got in. Then I nodded across the way. "We could be over there."
'Over there' was the pasture on the side of the hill going up to Dinas Bran. Yeah, even the sheep were staying low in the field, away from the combination of churned-up mud and banks of snow. Jeeze. It looked like you'd need climbing gear to have a chance to stay upright on that stuff. "I don't think we want to try going up this way."
"Um, no. Provided we can get out of here."
We looked at the wonderfully-detailed Landranger map. It looked like our little road would meet up with another trail in about a hundred yards, with only one other really bad climb past our current hill. "Well, there's no place to turn around. So we'll have to go on."
I managed to back up the hill behind us enough so that when we went forward again there was sufficient momentum to keep going and climb the next hill. At the top the Kia slipped a bit sideways, as the road made a sharp turn to the left, but we avoided bouncing off of the wall and were then past the worst of the snow, actually getting on top of the crusty stuff for the run up the next hill. That went fine, and soon we came to a gate. The trail we saw on the map was, in fact, Offa's Dyke. Fortunately, there was enough room at the intersection, and the snow was shallow enough, that turning around wasn't a problem. The drive back down the road was fairly uneventful, excepting for the fact that we constantly felt like we were going to slide right off the road into the dry slate wall. In this situation brakes are, of course, almost useless . . . and even downshifting and letting the engine act as a brake has minimal effectiveness. In other words, I wasn't so much driving down the road as I was sledding down it. Ah well. When we had cleared the last of the snow, and I only had to worry about meeting some farmer on a tractor coming around a blind curve at the bottom of a steep drop, Alix commented on how well it had gone.
"Well, if they didn't want us driving on these kinds of road conditions, they shouldn't have rented us a Jeep," I replied.
Tired from the excitement, still adjusting to the jet lag, we didn't feel like going out for dinner. We stopped at a small market and picked up supplies of fruit, cheese, munchies and drinks, and went back to our room. We ate, watched a little telly, and crashed, hoping for better weather on the morn.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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