My travels: Cheshire and west Wales

The last few days have seen me travel what must be the best part of a thousand miles: from Surrey up to Cheshire and back in a day, and out to west Wales, around a bit, and back. The first was a job, for a Mercedes-Benz dealership, and the second was a holiday.

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The trip to Cheshire was to deliver a nearly-new C-class Merc to a customer up near Knutsford, and bring his old C-class back. The return journey ended up taking me ten hours (plus an hour and a half spent in the dealership getting paperwork sorted out). Abu Eesa recently told us about the BMW he had to drive for a day; my experience with this Merc left me wondering why people spend so much money on them. The biggest irritation was the fact that, despite the fact that the vehicle had a cruise control, enabling the driver to set it to do a certain speed and the machine regulates the car’s speed automatically, the driver has nowhere to rest his right foot. The driver has to let his foot hover, because cruise control does not actually disable the gas pedal and the brake will cancel the cruise control. The same fault was present on both the old car and the newer one. Have no drivers complained, or are most Merc owners actually not drivers? I’m sure they are very comfortable for passengers, but I guess you don’t want to set the car to do a steady 70 if your aim is to go full pelt down the Autobahn. So why have the cruise control at all?

I got home from that journey around 10pm, having detoured to Hounslow to get a biryani on the way back as it was much too late to go home and cook. I discovered that night that my parents were not going to somewhere on the Lleyn peninsula for their holiday, as I had believed, but to Tywyn (pronounced like towin’), which is very close to my college town of Aberystwyth. Since I had been desperate to go back there since leaving college, but have never managed it, so I decided to go with them and come back mid week, rather than go mid-week and come back next Saturday, as had been my plan. So the next morning, off I went with them.

The journey there really is spectacular whichever route you choose. Our route was along the A458 from Welshpool, down to Machynlleth, and then along the north bank of the Dyfi (pronounced Dovey) estuary past Aberdovey to Tywyn. The scenery is amazing, but the road from Machynlleth to Aberdovey is narrow and winding and a lot of people don’t treat it with the respect it deserves. When you have some idiot narrowly miss you on a narrow mountainous main road, doing 35mph on an urban main road, for which you can get “flashed” and fined, and eventually banned, seems rather petty. One also notices that the old English place names, like Towyn and Aberdovey, have started disappearing from the signs, to be replaced by their Welsh names (Tywyn and Aberdyfi), which while pronounced the same way, result in them getting mangled by any non-Welsh speaker. I’m surprised nobody has bothered Anglicising Machynlleth (roughly Ma-khan-hleth).

The first day, we headed down to Aberystwyth. During this trip I took great pleasure in pointing out the various landmarks of my time in Aber: for example, the place along the Penglais Hill, the road into Aberystwyth from north Wales, where the Queen was barracked by nationalist students in 1996 when “opening” the National Library and the Welsh pub (the improbably named Coopers’ Arms) where the “alternative” royal event, featuring a drag queen, was laid on. We took a brief walk around town looking for suitable places to eat: the vegetarian restaurant I remember had closed, and become a sandwich bar, which had closed; the other similar place was closed because it was Sunday. We ended up having coffee and cakes at the Orangery, a very plush pub-restaurant which, as the name implies, has a very open layout with a window in the ceiling to ensure that the room was well lit.

We then headed for an Aber landmark which often featured on my walks when in Aber: Pendinas, the hill with a tower on the south side of town where an Iron Age fort stood. The idea was to walk down the other side into the Penparcau suburb, then across the Rheidol valley and up to the arts centre on the campus, where we could have yet more coffee and cakes. The wind, however, saw to that: when we reached the exposed area at the top of the hill near the tower, it became so strong that we could not stay on course, so we had to walk back and then get to Penparcau via a farm track. The rest of the walk, however, went well enough, and we did make it to the arts centre on time to get food. I think it was perhaps the wrong day to hit Aberystwyth, given that it was Sunday and a lot of places were closed. The place had clearly taken some rough weather, as some of the beach sand could be seen on the road pavement.

The next day, we spent closer to home, mostly in the Dysynni valley. My parents often take walking holidays in the spring, usually in the Lake District but also occasionally in Cornwall or the Peak District. They went to Wales because they knew I really wanted to go back to Wales. This time, we stopped at a short circular walk around a native Welsh castle, Castell-y-Bere, built by Prince Llywelyn the Great in the early 13th century, but which was captured by the English and abandoned within the same century after a Welsh revolt. We followed the route through fields around the perimeter of the hill castle for about an hour, before walking up into the castle itself. The castle is of course a ruin, but many of its walls remain, and views are amazing. After having a bite to eat, we headed up the road towards the so-called Tal-y-Llyn lake (actually Lake Mwyngil; Tal-y-Llyn means end of the lake), by which time the skies had opened and rain, and then hailstones, were coming down. We decided to head north to Dolgellau; the views along the road from Tal-y-Llyn to Dolgellau are really something else (as they would be, being right next to the Cadair Idris mountain). The view was even more breathtaking than I remember it from when I did it on a double-deck bus in the mid 1990s. If you’re around there, don’t miss out on it. Dolgellau proved rather disappointing to my parents who called it a day after about 40 minutes walking around it, and we set off back for Tywyn.

The next day (Tuesday), I spend much of the time on the train. The ticket cost £54, and I can’t understand how an advance booking can bring the price down to less than £20. Who is taking such a huge cut? The train out of Tywyn was delayed, and for the price of the ticket you would think they’d lay on extra carriages, given that two carriages come in from Pwllheli and two from Aberystwyth. Why can’t they just couple them and run us all on to Shrewsbury? I managed to hog a double seat all the way to Birmingham, across the table from a law lecturer from Aberystwyth. Looking at Borth across the Ynyslas sands and the Dyfi estuary made me really want to go to Aberystwyth again. I have so many memories tied up in that place.

At Birmingham I got on a Virgin “Pendolino” train, which is their funky fast Italian-style tiliting train. It gets you to London in 100 minutes or thereabouts (stopping only at the airport, Coventry and Watford). I don’t care much for them; they are comfortable enough, but some of the seats simply have no view, which is baffling (I mean an entirely blocked view here). If you’re on a long-distance train, you want to look out of the window (although there is no real eye-catching scenery on that line, but if the same trains end up on the Glasgow line, getting a no-view seat will be a real disappointment unless the traveller is totally blind, and I don’t think the number of blind customers Virgin has matches up to its proportion of no-view seats. What happened to four seats around a table, with one window?

Anyway, I’m back now and I’m glad I went, although I would have liked more time to look around Aberystwyth and maybe I’ll manage a few days in the summer, insha Allah. I’d quite like to just wander round a few of my old haunts rather than take mapped-out walks through muddy fields, and (if they’ll allow me) to sit in the Hugh Owen library and admire the view from there, and take the old walk along the cliffs to (or from) Clarach, and through the Penglais woods, and along the Ystwyth on the south side of Pendinas, and yes, over the top of Pendinas as well. Aberystwyth has a reputation of somewhere people go and stay, but it doesn’t have a strong Muslim community (certainly not when the students are not there), which is one of the main reasons I left in 1998 and did not attempt to stay and find employment. As one of my flatmates commented, most of the work in Aberystwyth is bar work, agricultural work or academic work, and my perusal of the Cambrian News this week did not turn up anything else suitable. But even if moving back isn’t a serious option, a short break there would be something to look forward to.

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