Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Harlaxton Adventures -- North Wales

In the middle of February, I went on a school trip to North Wales. The trip was absolutely wonderful, and the views in North Wales were among the most fabulous ones that I've seen in the United Kingdom so far. The beginning of our trip, however, was somewhat less epic: rain and clouds conspired around Chester, our midway stop along the way. For some unknown reason we spent two hours at Chester, during which Paul and I did our best to seek out some pretty spots in the city. We found some, though the views and our appreciation thereof were somewhat spoiled by the wind and the rain. For once in my life I was early for the bus, and quite ready to get away from the rain and the city.

We arrived to Llandudno, our base camp for the remainder of the trip, early in the evening. Llandudno was a small pleasant town, surrounded by mountains and the ocean, with beautiful views emerging in every direction. After arrival, a group of us wandered around the beach, marveling at the unusual seaweed plants and looking for pretty sea shells. Then, before it got completely dark, Paul and I separated from the group and went to explore a shore-side cave that we had seen from a distance. The cave turned out to be more of a tunnel, possibly leading to a castle above, but it was too dark to proceed inside it by more than some twenty feet. The walk to the cave, however, proved to be quite beautiful, and the sound of the ocean provided us with a soothing melody along the way. We remained on the ocean shore for quite some time, listening to the waves as the surrounding mountains morphed into progressively dimmer shades of gray. When the full blackness of the night had arrived, we headed back to Llandudno for a quick stop at a supermarket to buy some food.

[Social commentary composition: Nature Crushed by Humanity (where Nature is represented by a tree-like seaweed plant that we found at Llandudno, and the crushing Humanity is represented by Kirby's menacing shoe)]

But as we passed by our hotel on the way to the supermarket, I suddenly remembered that I had left my rain poncho on the shore. Since the place where I left it was only minutes away, we decided to fetch it before heading into town. When we arrived at the beach, however, a surprising sight met our eyes: where once there had been sand and stones, and where just three hours ago I had left my rain poncho on a tall inland rock out of harm's way, the whole area was now covered by the ocean. I had no idea that high and fast-rising tides could occur on such scale in Britain! As I stood there, not so much disappointed by the loss of my now ocean-drifting poncho, but rather more amazed at the unpredictability of its occurrence, I tried to trace the previous location of the jacket and guess its fate. I had no doubt that the rock was already covered in water, but the rising tide meant that the jacket could still be swimming among the incoming waves. Sure enough, as I approached the water, I spotted my poor jacket floating only several feet away. Through a combination of good timing of the waves and an amazing acrobatic feat, I managed to snatch the jacket out of the water, and present it -- sand-drenched and fish-smelling -- to a much amused Paul.

After that successful rescue, Paul and I proceeded with our trip to the supermarket. We celebrated the jacket's good fortune by each buying a cheap marked-down sandwich at AZDA (Wal-Mart's British Branch), and later lavishly meandering through the quiet town. The town responded to our merriment with a plethora of closed shops (including "Probably The Best Giftshop in Wales"), but the quiet streets and the darkened shops were all I actually needed to enjoy a town! Our festivity complete, we headed back to the hotel for some early sleep in preparation for the next day.

* * *

Saturday rewarded us with beautiful weather for almost the whole day, along with amazing sights to behold. Our first stop was at Caernarfon Castle -- an old monumental castle with fantastic views surrounding it. The castle was comprised of a number of towers, complete with narrow staircases, small doorways, and countless small rooms and passageways. All of this was open for exploration, along with the tops of towers and the narrow wall passages between them. As for the views that opened from the tops of the castle's towers, they were of far-off mountains, churches, and the ocean nearby, all of which blended into a picturesque scene of a Welsh countryside.

[Behold: a castle door guarded by a MODERN squire (alas for the good old days of knights!)]

From the castle we rode the bus for another hour or so to our next stop. While I'm normally not too fond of bus rides, the mountain views that we observed from our windows actually made the bus ride an enjoyable part of the trip. Particularly picturesque were the stone enclosures that ran up and across all the surrounding mountains, with sheep and cows grazing peacefully upon the green fields. The wooded valleys along the way, along with creeks and rivers that ran through those valleys, were also quite pleasant to view.

Portmeirion Village greeted us with remarkable charm. It was a fairytale village: a village of beautiful Italian buildings that must have gotten lost in a storm and accidentally landed on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean as opposed to their familiar Mediterranean Sea. The village stood on a hill overlooking the White Sands Bay, with plenty of shrubs and trees due to its mild coastal climate. Its homes and gardens were fabulous to see: colorful, filled with arches, and intricately built, the homes and gardens were the very model of affluence and high-class Italian architecture. So powerful was the fairytale illusion enshrouding Portmeirion that it was surprising to think that real people -- not fairies and elves -- actually lived in those idyllic houses.

Having sufficiently marveled at the Italian village (which took the better part of an hour) and having ordered some food at a nearby cafeteria, Paul and I took a trail that led down to the beach. The trail ran through some near-tropic-like vegetation, with green hills and blue water as its background. The beach that the trail led to was likewise beautiful and serene, with shallow water rippling across the sunlit bay. So contagious and rejuvenating was the day that a group of us took off our shoes and frolicked barefoot on the cold moist sand!

From Portmeirion our trip departed to Llechwedd Slate Caverns -- a Victorian slate mine. After putting on bright yellow hardhats and descending into the dark mine on a tramway, we were led through a dozen chambers where an audio tour guide proceeded to tell us stories about those who had once lived and toiled in this mine. The stories were supplemented by an artful timing of sound effects and spotlights that shone upon various elements in the caves. The tour -- albeit rushed -- was quite interesting, and the mine poignantly conveyed the hardships and sorrows of the hundreds of workers who toiled in this mine. At the same time, the mine also spoke of amazing human achievement and courage -- the resilience of man in the battle against unyielding rock.

In the evening, having arrived back to Llandudno, Paul and I went star-watching at the beach. As we walked along, Paul proposed a "Lava Game": a challenge where each of us were to jump from rock to rock without ever touching ground. At first we played the game over land -- but then, as the tide continued coming in, Paul dared me to play "Lava" over water. Paul himself remained on the shore as an observer, but I bravely marched fourth. Leaping from one slippery rock to the next, often held up by little more than a heavy dose of gravity-defying hubris, I managed to make it all the way to a rock that I was heading for; then, as I triumphantly turned around to face Paul, my exuberance sank a little: the rocks that I had just stepped on minutes ago were going underwater with the incoming tide! For a moment I remembered a wise DEmotivational Series poster: "In a battle between you and the world, bet on the world". The world and the lava were indeed taking over! Still, I had no intention of becoming a wiped-out dinosaur -- as a wave washed back before completely covering the closest rock in the next sweep, I lunged ahead and kept my balance only by leaping along a series of rocks. Hubris was no longer holding me up: now it was sheer momentum and a determination to prove the DEmotivational poster wrong. The adrenaline high that I felt after reaching solid ground was enough to keep me jumping and running in a way that made Paul seriously wonder about the mental health repercussions of my "Lava" endeavor.

After getting back to the hotel, Paul and Kirby and Hannah convinced me to go to a pub with them. I am still not sure why I consented: the atmosphere in the pub was smoky, loud, and largely uninteresting. While there, however, we met a local artist who randomly drew a portrait/caricature of me on a small cardboard coaster. The most prominent and recognizable feature of the portrait turned out to be my long curly hair, but it was still quite interesting to talk to him and to have such a unique souvenir to keep from a wonderful trip to North Wales.

* * *

On Sunday morning, Paul, Hannah, Kirby and I went to the ocean shore one last time to part with Llandudno. We skipped some stones on the ocean shore, and then climbed up the hill for a misty view of the morning mountain across the bay. As we walked along, admiring the scenery, we also noticed a "Bardic Circle" -- a circle of rocks surrounding a prominent stage-like rock -- built into the side of the hill. Seizing the opportunity to hone our Harlaxton Choir skills in front of the bedazzled seagulls, we performed "Aya Nigeza", "Trees Grow Tall", and a couple of other songs before having to turn back to get on the bus.

Along the way to Harlaxton, we took a small detour to Swallow Falls and its adjacent village of Betws-y-Coed. Swallow Falls was a very pretty and impressive waterfall, though the railings and pathways around it detracted from the naturalness of its beauty. The water from Swallow Falls ran directly into a creek that passed through Betws-y-Coed, several miles downstream; when we stopped at Betws-y-Coed for lunch, I decided that rather than sitting around in town, my time would be far better spent exploring the charming creek nearby. I walked along the creek for a good half hour, occasionally straying from my path to walk atop fallen trees or to climb up the sides of boulders. When I noticed a tiny island arising in the middle of the creek, I hopped along a series of rocks to get to it, and then sat on that island for the remainder of my time. Peacefully I listened to the murmur of the water, watching the reflection of the sun and the shadows of trees strike the water's ever-moving surface. So tranquil, so natural, so beautiful was the creek! -- and so representative of the North Wales trip as a whole!

With this serene image of a quiet creek, allow me to conclude my tale of a wonderful trip to North Wales. Hwly (Welsh for "goodbye") to all. Until future posts!

- Michael

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