Every other Tuesday, C has been meeting up with the Hertfordshire Mountaineering Club at one of our local pubs. I was glad to see him forming his own social ties, but was a bit nervous about what they'd be doing when they weren't drinking warm beer. So he signed us all up for a group camping trip at the end of August to Snowdonia in northern Wales, a place that, to my mind, evoked fantasy novels and violent weather. Wales is to the United Kingdom much like Washington is to the United States: Represented by a small contingent in the Houses of Parliament in London, but very much in charge of its own affairs. It has a Celtic heritage that dates back to Roman times and is one of the only places left in the world to speak a Celtic language.
What our GPS told us initially was the journey could be expected to take about 4 hours but pretty soon it (or she) was warning us of 6 mile backups ahead. We didn't yet trust our digital co-pilot enough to transfer to an alternative route and since we hadn't found our UK gazetteer we suffered in second gear off and on for miles and I fretted that weekends away might be more driving than they're worth. Fortunately, England's large motorways are dotted with service areas that consist not just of gas and toilets but groceries, hot food, and often, Starbucks. They also have vast rooms of slot machines and other blinking gambling games where you can avoid sitting in traffic and lose all your money. I've convinced Z you have to be 18 to enter. Actually, I'm not lying to him, I'm just surprised he believes me. We like these service stations for the chance to give our clutch foot a rest but also because the grocery is frequently a Marks & Spencer which does a bang up job of catering to the fussy eater (I'm referring to myself) by providing quinoa, broccolini and roasted beet salads, tarragon chicken sandwiches, breaded Scottish eggs and enormous chewy oatmeal chocolate cookies (and that's not counting the dozens of other options). Way better than settling for a salad at Wendy's.
It took us over 6 hours and we didn't find the group that night since we arrived at the campground after 10pm. C discovered in the morning that we were actually at the wrong campground and there was another one 1/2 mile up the road with nearly the identical name where the others were staying. In Wales you can expect to be confused with names like Tywyn, Tynllwyn, Betws yn Rhos, Pontllyfni. It's fascinating listening to natives speaking Welsh, and in the north over 60% of the population can speak it. The Welsh language is being fervently promoted after census figures over the years had seen its usage decline to below 20% overall. Now Welsh is compulsory in schools and all signage has the Welsh first, English second. You would have to start young for any hope of proficiency. It's one of those languages where, if you don't learn to speak through your epiglottis from an early age, you'll never be fluent nor understood.
Chris was on hiking duty the first day and I got to relax with a whiny 4 year old. Actually, Z was a great hiking companion, as we didn't stick around the camp site but chose a 3.5 mile hike accessed, as so many hikes are in this country, near the local pub. Even though the UK doesn't stock Annie's bunny crackers, traditionally dolled out by the "Trail Fairy" when hiking with a preschooler, I was able to coax Z along by pointing out the potential hiding places of forest nymphs and trolls and bringing out the occasional chocolate. We mosied up a verdant pasture which gave way to vast rolling hills, craggy outcroppings of rocks and trickling creek fingerlings crossing the path. We climbed the remains of an old sheep herding shelter. When we crested the saddle at the end of the valley we were treated to a lake view about a mile down the other side. We also saw several wild ponies chomping at the grass not far from our perch and were told later what luck it was to catch a view of them.
On my hiking day, I joined 3 others to scramble up Mt. Tryfan, barely 3000 feet but standing like a sentinel in the Ogwen Valley, tall and pointed and the 15th highest peak in Wales, though you get a sense of how little these mountains are when you consider that "Tryfan is one of the very few mountains in Great Britain apart from the Cuillin of Skye, to require the use of hands (as well as feet) on the ascent." This quote came from Wikipedia and should stand in bold letters at the outset of the hike to discourage flip flop wearing, bikini-clad dog owners who go up on a whim. No joke, after 2 sweaty hours of pull ups and toe holds, and feeling very accomplished for a nearly-50 year old, down came a threesome of under-20's who looked as though they had been sun bathing at the summit and had a long-haired little rat dog in tow.
The folks on the trip were a great bunch, good humored, and not as intimidating as I'd imagined. They were mostly close to middle age, (I guess that means our age) though very fit, and imbibe enough to get silly but not so much they can't belay you the next morning. Z was fortunate that another family with a kid came along, though Max was half his age. They still managed to bond over cars and used the tent wall as a race track. Max cried when he had to leave his older playmate and when the 2 year old left, Z concluded that everything was boring and could he play with the iPad. Instead we pulled out "Findus Goes Camping" and enjoyed the afternoon sunshine waiting for dad to return from looking for his dropped iPhone in the hills a few miles away.
On the way home, again with all of Britain circumnavigating along the winding roads of the countryside for this last long weekend of the summer, we decided to take our honey-voiced Sat-Nav guide up on her detour suggestions. It was a good decision. We whizzed along smaller but much faster country roads, marveling at the old stone villages, ancient barns, and pastures of sheep and goat. It's hard to believe that Britain is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe when you're in the countryside, but part of the appeal of living here is the stark contrast between urban and rural and how quickly you can go between the two. Alas, because of the lack of motorways once you leave the urban areas, it takes an achingly long time to get anywhere and we realize that our weekend jaunts will almost certainly be limited to Southern England. But since you can hardly throw a stone without hitting some historic landmark, I doubt we'll grow bored any time soon. At least not those of us over five.