Share the Vision training weekend – Snowdonia

After a superb Indian summer, it was with a little disappointment that Caz and I set out  from Worcester, on Friday morning, in the rain. We were the advance party heading to Snowdonia, preparing camp for sixteen students, some of whom were visually impaired, and who were due to arrive in the evening. However, our fears of a wet weekend were unfounded, for, as we approached Snowdonia, the skies cleared and we were bathed in warm sunshine. The campsite at Llyn Gwynant is superbly placed on the lake shore, surrounded by mountains. Unusually, the ground was dry and firm. It took us about three hours to set up camp and make ready for the arrival of the group.

This gave us time to enjoy a pizza from Jones’ Pizza Co., a mobile pizza oven on site and only open at weekends this late in the season. With many weekend campers arriving, they did a roaring trade, and certainly filled an ever increasing hole in my stomach.

At 8.30 the NCW group arrived with Phil, and the King’s group arrived half an hour later with Russ. Sitting in the mess tent, drinking hot chocolate, broke the ice for the two groups who have, so far, had limited experience of each other. Eventually, the group drifted off to their tents, to sleep under a star filled sky and high hopes for good weather in the morning.

Perhaps it was too much to hope that Snowdonia would display herself in all her glory for us. We woke to cloud shrouding the summits of the hills but the forecast assured us that it would clear during the course of the day. At least it was dry.

Resting at the side of the pavement above the second lake

Resting at the side of the pavement above the second lake

Fortified with bacon butties, we travelled the short distance to Pen-y-pass where I was to lead the group up the Miner’s Track while the rest of the staff shuffled vehicles down to Llanberis where we were finishing, and then catching up. The students, despite some of them having a disability, set off at a good pace, making good time over the well manufactured path. It is some years since I had walked this route and I was saddened to see such a well maintained path. While it makes the walking a lot easier, it degrades the mountain. There were a lot of people walking the route but nothing like the numbers we would encounter later in the day.

Guiding in the mists of Snowdon

Guiding in the mists of Snowdon

Caz, Phil and Russ eventually caught up between the second and third lake and we continued as a group. Phil now took the lead while I became the back marker, particularly useful on the steep section leading up to the Pig Track, where there was greater need for care and attention. We were now entering the cloud and it was important that we maintained ourselves as a group. It was not always easy when other walkers, not realising we were a unique group, mixed in with us. The cloud, while not really producing rain, gave a moist hew on our clothing. By the time we reached the Pig Track there was a constant stream of walkers heading for the summit, while others were already on the way down. Many were representing a variety of charities as they toiled up to raise money. Some were even rattling buckets.

The crowded summit of Snowdon

The crowded summit of Snowdon

By the time we reached the obalisk and more paths converged for the final pull to the summit, the numbers were unbelievable. We now encountered fancy dress costumes, Spider Man and the like. Others were clearly not properly equipped for mountain walking, and into the melee came triathletes running to and from the summit. While most were good natured and politely asked for clear passage there were a few who were aggressive and bullying, thinking that they had absolute right to the mountain. Visually impaired people cannot see as well as the rest of us, particularly in murky conditions, and, because of their uncertainty with their surroundings, they do not always react as quickly as others. They have as much right, perhaps more so, than triathletes. Whatever your activity on the mountain you should always be aware of the need to share the space. Perhaps, the organisers should have had a lesser used route closed to the general public so that there was not a clash of interests.

High achievers!

High achievers!

Having lunched close to the summit while avoiding the crowds queueing in the cafe, we took the straight forward descending route to Llanberis finishing at 3.30. The Snowdon traverse had taken us six hours, an hour quicker than we anticipated and gave credit to the fitness and skills of both groups of students. The NCW students stuck to the task and never once complained about the pace or the murky conditions. The King’s students readily accepted the challenge and their responsibilities to look after their partners, maintaining high spirits throughout. They all thoroughly deserved the reward of a hot drink at Pete’s Eats, a Mecca for all climbing and walking enthusiasts.

Back at camp we ate well before the students gathered round a camp fire under the starlit sky and exchanged stories, getting to know each other and to appreciate each other’s company.

Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny, although the clear skies forced the temperatures to dip quite severely during the night. At least one boy discovered that his sleeping bag was not up to the task as he shivered the night away.

Having provided them with sausage butties for breakfast, I waved goodbye to the group as they headed out for their second day of walking. I was remaining in camp to take the tents down, dry them and pack them and all the kit away, in the hope that by the time they were finished it would be simply a matter of heading back to Worcester.

Negotiating difficult terrain

Negotiating difficult terrain

Driving over to Llanberis, they headed out to climb Moel Eilio and following a circular route over Foel Goch and around Llyn Dwythwch. Although they were not going as high as they did on Snowdon, they were still gaining about the same height and it was going to be a challenging walk, but at least without the crowds. In places the path was narrow and it gave the visually impaired, who are often fiercely independent, an understanding of the need for support, and the guides the importance of making sure that the journey was achieved in the safest manner possible.

By the time they returned to camp, it was struck and packed away, and they were buzzing with excitement for all they had achieved over the weekend.

I bet they were tired by the time they got home but I am also sure that they are looking forward to our next outing on the Long Myndd next month.

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Three Castles Walk

If August, during this otherwise glorious summer, has been a bit of a disappointment with more rain and cooler temperatures, it certainly decided to go out in a blaze of glory as ten of us tackled the Three Castles Walk on the last two days of the month.

David and I set out to establish camp at Meredith Farm at Llancloudy on Friday afternoon. It is called a farm but feels more like a menagerie. There are two large fields, one referred to as the ‘very quiet field’ and the other the ‘games field’. We were pitching in the games field with rope swings hanging from large trees and numerous animal pens housing pigs, sheep, goats, ducks, chickens, guinea fowl and a play area with guinea pigs among the plastic toys. A ‘Wendy’ house tucked under trees provided toilet, showering and washing facilities as well as a library of books and a chest of children’s toys. A real family orientated campsite and clearly popular as there were several families having a final treat before the start of the new school year. In the early evening the farmer, Dr Neil Wheeler, would come to feed the animals and he would have a following of children, and parents, as they were all encouraged to become involved.

David sporting the 'Lobster of Laughter'

David sporting the ‘Lobster of Laughter’

It was quite breezy as David and I erected our two shelters, which would form the kitchen and dining areas, and it took rather longer than expected to put them up. Tents were still being erected when the first of the group members began to arrive. Thankfully, friends, Richard and Anita, arrived to collect some pears from me, and got roped into helping put tents up. It remained dry throughout but as we settled down to evening drinks and pasta bolognese we had spells of light rain. After the meal, David was presented with the ‘Lobster of Laughter’ for omitting to pack the gas rings before he left home. Thankfully, Annie, David’s wife, came to the rescue. The plastic lobster was found in the toy chest and he would have to look after it throughout the next day.

Skenfrith Castle

Skenfrith Castle

The morning dawned reasonably bright and dry, although the light rain of the previous evening would guarantee that long grass would hold its moisture for a while and give our feet a good soaking. There was no great rush as we were only hoping to cover a little under ten miles and we needed to move a car to the finish point at Lower Green. While that was happening the rest of the group enjoyed exploring Skenfrith Castle, the church and the church yard where there were lots of ripe and juicy plums fallen from the trees but kept moist in the damp grass. As a result it was shortly after 10.00 that we set out on the walk.

Skirting round the edge of a newly prepared field

Skirting round the edge of a newly prepared field

The walk proved as delightful as it had been three weeks previously although there were obvious signs of progression with the farming year. What had been fields of cereal crops were now fields of stubble and those that had been stubble were ploughed ready for use again. Bales of straw, which littered the fields earlier, were now carefully stored in barns. Thankfully, we encountered very few fields of long, damp grass so our feet remained comfortable throughout.

DSC_0004As the day progressed the weather improved further and it proved quite warm. The strong breeze of the day before had gone. Occasionally we came across information boards giving an insight into the history of the area from the medieval, castle building, era through to more modern times. Part of the route we were taking was a major coaching route from London to Ross to Abergavenny to Milford Haven. We passed a now ruined coaching in with attached blacksmith forge, neither used since the early 19thC and with the passage of time and the changes to the landscape it is difficult to imagine how they were ever reached by coach. The descent to the inn is fairly precarious on foot.

White Castle from the gateway.

White Castle from the gateway.

Soon after lunching in a field with a view we reached White Castle, the most complete of the three and the only one that requires you to pay an entry fee. The woman on the kiosk looked dreadful and complained of feeling ill for the last three weeks. As a result she wasn’t very welcoming and should not have been there at all. We declined the opportunity of going into the castle, largely because we did not expect to see much more than we could see in both Skenfrith and Grosmont, both of which are more easily accessible.

The Skirrid and Sugarloaf with a hint of autumnal colours in the foreground

The Skirrid and Sugarloaf with a hint of autumnal colours in the foreground

The scenery on this walk just gets better and better. In the morning we had views of Blorenge and the Skirrid but as the afternoon unfolded and we moved slightly north of the Skirrid, Sugarloaf came into view along with the rest of the eastern side of the Black Mountains with Pen y Gadair Fawr poking its summit above the ridges in the foreground.  Even further afield, through the haze, the Brecon Beacons began to show. It was a glorious day.

We reached Lower Green at about 3.40pm and although the cars were there to take us either back to camp or to the White Castle Vineyard there was no Angela to drive the second car. David had to go and rescue her, she having been misdirected by a farmer and thus not intercepting us en route. By the time we were ready to pile into the cars a cup of tea and some cake was far more enticing than a glass of wine, so we headed straight back to camp for leisurely cups of tea and a variety of yummy cakes.

I made the mistake of going for a shower at about the same time as the menagerie were to be fed. The small shower cubicle had a window overlooking numerous tree swings and adjacent to a pen containing two pigs. The only thing separating the shower from the outside world was a net curtain. As I am drying myself lots of children and their parents came to feed the pigs. One mother came to lean on the windowsill two feet from my naked body. One worries at times like this just how effective net curtains are. If she saw anything it did not register. When I had finished I just had to check and, yes, net curtains are very effective, she saw nothing. Phew!

The farmer persuaded us to buy twenty lamb chops off him for our meal that evening and at £1 a chop it was good value. They were reasonably sized and probably belonged to the sheep that greeted me when I went to book the site a couple of months previously. The rest of the evening was spent in amusing chatter and another wonderful poem from Ann, who is becoming Adventure Guide’s own poet laureate. We had touched on the theme of forgetting things in our conversation the previous evening , particularly in the light of David forgetting the gas rings. Bearing in mind the reference to Thomas, Walton, Angela Treks (T.W.A.Ts) on Hadrian’s Wall she quickly put together the following:

ADVENTURE V DEMENTIA

Apparently I’m at that funny age
When arthritis steps in to where my hormones once raged
My face is all wrinkled (tho I was never a looker)
I’ve lost all my marbles. Thank God, not the cooker (sorry David!}
My blonde hair’s turned grey and I’ve lines on my face
And my body looks like a sack in a race
I forget where I’m going, forget names and places
And can’t find things in the simplest of places
I once tried to phone with the TV remote
Put T-pots in fridges and forgot when to vote
I snore when I sleep, and I’ve started to dribble
Johns caught it on film… so that fact, I can’t quibble
One day, I read that to ward off Dementia
Exercise loads…. take a walking adventure
It keeps the brain going…. sharp as a tack
Go walking for miles and still find your way back
So I bought all the gear, with boots firm and stout
Now I can walk for as long as my bladder holds out
I’m fit, refreshed and ready for grub
And don’t have to dither ‘tween tea-room or pub (pub!)
I’m sharp and alert and now fully aware
I’ve proved to myself I’ve still got it up there
I’ve stopped having to search for purse, keys or phone
My husbands impressed I can find my way home
I’m living proof Adventure cures all your ills
So swap potions for oceans, and pills for some hills
Walking is good for you, I’ve studied the facts
So start getting active by walking with T.W.A.Ts
                                                                                 Ann Jones

Brilliant! I am always full of admiration for anybody who so easily puts poetic pen to paper. As we adjourned to our tents for the night we marvelled at the night sky, ablaze with stars and the very distant explosions of fireworks over in the general direction of Hereford.

The chapel at Upper Green

The chapel at Upper Green

The morning dawned bright and clear and after another leisurely breakfast we drove to Lower Green and our finishing point of the day before. The walk today was going to be that little bit harder with two decent hills in ever increasing temperatures. The chapel at Upper Green stands completely surrounded by fields, trees and rolling hills. It is in such a beautiful setting and on this particular Sunday morning seemed to be full for a service and flower festival.

What a view!

What a view!

The first test of the day was the ascent of Edmund’s Tump. It was sufficient to get the heart pumping and sweat dripping from our brows. However, it was worth every effort as the view revealed itself on a glorious day. Before us lay Blorenge and the whole of its accompanying ridge hiding the once industrialised valley where Blaenavon nestles, the Skirrid, Sugarloaf, the whole of the Black Mountains ending with Hay Bluff and, in the distance, the Brecon Beacons. It was a pleasure to take time to recover from the effort of the climb and just soak in the view. We could not have seen it looking any better.

The climb continued a little way into the woods lining the ridge of Edmund’s Tump before we followed its line and eventually began the long descent into Grosmont. Occasionally, through the trees, we were given glimpses to the east of Penyard Hill overlooking Ross-on-Wye and May Hill. Similarly, gaps in another direction gave us views overlooking Grosmont, a most attractive village with its castle turrets rising just to the right of the centre. The many roofs with solar panels gave the village some modernity.

The battlements of Grosmont Castle

The battlements of Grosmont Castle

The village has retained its shop and post office and the pub is still at the heart of the village. The church is large and well worth the time to have a browse around. However, on this occasion we bypassed the church, the shop and the pub and headed straight to the castle for our picnic lunch. As we approached the people in the house adjacent to the castle were pottering in their garden and I couldn’t help think how lucky they are living in a beautiful village next to a medieval castle. I wonder if they appreciate it?

We had now visited all three castles and all that was left for us to do was make our way back to Skenfrith. The route dropped from Grosmont along the road for a while before beginning a lengthy climb through fields and woodland, only to drop down again. From our descent we now had views looking across to the Malvern Hills. It was hot in the still air with the sun beating down.

When I did the walk three weeks ago I made a slight error in navigation and instead of following the official trail followed one that ran slightly higher but parallel, but ultimately ending up in the same place. Thinking I knew how to avoid a similar mistake and did not need the map to hand, I fell into the same trap and we found ourselves similarly off track. This time we endeavoured to correct it. It did not diminish or detract from the walk as a whole. However, I felt slightly uncomfortable at one point. When you enter a field of cows, they often stop what they are doing and stare. They are not always standing the same way but their heads are turned in your direction and as a person you are never sure whether they will stay where they are or take a closer look. I had gone to look for the best route to pick up the trail and when I finally met up with the group who had avoided climbing a barbed wire fence, and thus made better progress, they were standing in no particular uniform direction and their heads were all turned towards me. Would they accept me into their group or would they shun me. The similarity between the two scenarios was uncanny and, as I say, for a moment I felt slightly uncomfortable. I am pleased to say they accepted me back into their herd and did not trample me to death!

Tea and cakes bring a really good weekend to an end.

Tea and cakes bring a really good weekend to an end.

Angela was waiting for us in Skenfrith and after an ice cream we headed back to camp for tea and cakes. It was good to relax a while in camp, to spare a little thought to the two days of walking, to appreciate that we had been walking in a stunning area of border country and that we were justifiably tired. With that thought we struck camp and headed home, this time for a shower without a stranger standing eighteen inches from me.

 

 



				
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Three Castles Walk – Recce

In three weeks time I shall be taking a group around the Three Castles Walk over a weekend. I needed to have a look at it myself so set out to complete the 19 miles or so in one day.

Skenfrith Castle

Skenfrith Castle

It was a beautiful Saturday so I drove over to Skenfrith, the site of the first castle. Setting out, I had a number of thoughts going through my mind. I had heard that the route was not very well way marked. I had heard that farmers like to put their bulls in the fields you have to pass through. I thought of all the protective dogs I was going to have to pass and I thought about the distance I had to cover. It is not a huge distance but I am beginning to find, as age catches up with me, that long days have a negative effect on my joints.

With the exception of the last thought I need not have worried. The route was well way marked and the couple of occasions I did go wrong was down to me not following instructions closely enough. Hardly a cow, let alone a bull, was to be seen and those that I did see saw no interest in me at all. Even the dogs had signed a non-aggression pact for the day and simply rolled their eyes as I walked past.

The harvest in with Blorenge and the Skirrid

The harvest in with Blorenge and the Skirrid

It was a thoroughly good walk with some outstanding views of Blorenge, the Skirrid, eventually Sugarloaf and the whole of the Black Mountains all to the west, and in the closing stages of the walk distant views of Penyard above Ross, May Hill and the Malverns.  As good as the views were, it was the smaller pleasures that I came across that made this walk so good – the birdsong from the abundance of birds in the hedgerows, many too camouflaged to identify, a family of buzzards circling on thermals above a newly harvested field with the young mewling their plaintive cry, dragon flies darting in the air, rabbits dashing for cover as I approached, sheep so busy eating that they did not notice me until the last minute and then scamper in fright, grasshoppers playing dare, seeing who could wait the longest before my foot stepped on them but always making an escape, butterflies in profusion of every size and colour, some camouflaged for protection while others were vivid blue, thistle down floating lazily in the breeze looking for somewhere to settle and the sound of farm machinery bringing in straw or harvesting a bumper crop of oats. It was beautiful and there was always something to take your mind off the ever increasing aching limbs.

The patchwork of fields with the Black Mountains in the distance

The patchwork of fields with the Black Mountains in the distance

The walk to White Castle was relatively easy, never particularly hilly but undulating. It was warm, particularly in the lea of a hill so it was always a welcome relief to expose myself to the breeze every-so-often. It took me a little under three hours to reach White Castle. With a group it will take longer as I took no breaks at all and they won’t be under any time pressure as they won’t be doing the full circuit. The only pressure they may feel is if they wish to visit White Castle Vineyard at the end of the day, before it closes at 5.00. Of the three castles, White Castle is the only one that demands an entry fee and it often has weekend activities. While there I saw wandering minstrels and maids, who, sadly, I discovered won’t be there in three weeks time.

The village of Grosmont with castle to the right

The village of Grosmont with castle to the right

Moving on the route began to get more hilly, but by the time I reached the finish point between Lower and Upper Green for our next venture on this walk I was satisfied that it would be a good day well within the capabilities of the group. However, I was beginning to feel less comfortable. There are so many stiles on this walk that I was beginning to get cramp every time I hoisted myself over. I was slowing down, so this middle third, supposedly slightly shorter than the first third, seemed to be taking a long time. The hills became longer and steeper and I was beginning to run low on water. The climb up to Edmund’s Tump was hard work but it was followed by a long ridge walk through woodland, which helped cool me down. This was followed by a long, knee jarring descent into Grosmont. By the time I reached the village, I was not interested in the castle but the village shop where I bought water and immediately sank 2 litres. The village pub was a few doors away but I had to resist; I knew that if I sat down for a pint I would not want to get up again. I still had the final third, all be it slightly shorter again, to complete.

Grosmont Castle

Grosmont Castle

There was another long and punishing climb out of Grosmont with numerous cramp inducing stiles. Leaving the fields the route takes you through woodland, still climbing, but eventually brings you into another field, whereupon cresting the hill you can begin to think about the finish. The path then follows the ridge line before descending to the valley floor. It is on this section that you begin to come across another way mark for the Monnow Way, and the last couple of miles brings you in touch with the River Monnow, a delightful stretch of river before finally returning to Skenfrith. As I sat by my car eating the remains of my lunch the noise of children at play behind the castle walls could be heard. Or were they at play? I suddenly found myself under attack as a football came flying over the castle walls, bouncing a few feet from me. I was too tired to send it back and eventually a dad came from the castle to retrieve it. This just highlights the differences between Skenfrith and Grosmont with White Castle. How fabulous that families can play unrestrained in a medieval castle.

It took me nine hours and fifteen minutes and I can only have stopped for a total of twenty minutes throughout the day. It is right to do this over two days; I certainly would not do it over one again. Remarkably, I saw not another soul all day!

As I eased myself into my car the raindrops began to fall bringing a damp end to a glorious day. Hurricane Bertha was on her way.

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Iceland – Mt Hekla and the Laugavegur Trek

Eventually the flight from Heathrow to Keflavik took to the air forty minutes late. Once we had climbed above the clouds we were heading towards a perpetual sunset that only disappeared when we descended through the cloud covering southwest Iceland where it was perpetual twilight.

There were only three of us on the flight, the other members of the group having arrived earlier. Progress through the formalities at the airport was rapid and we soon joined Oskar waiting to take us to our city centre hotel. The other group members had long retired so it was only a matter of getting to our room and getting some sleep.

After breakfast the following morning we all gathered in reception where Oskar was waiting for us. Our kit was loaded into a trailer to be pulled by a vehicle with very large tyres and driven by Siggy, while we piled ourselves into a super jeep for the journey to Mt. Hekla, a journey of about two and a half hours. We were all expecting the ascent of Hekla to involve 1000m of climbing. However, the advantage of having a super jeep was that it could get much higher up the mountain, thus reducing the effort needed by us. Parking at over 900m we were left with only 500m of ascent.

Climbing Hekla

Climbing Hekla

The route took us up steep slopes of very small, loose volcanic ash, across boulder fields of sharp edged volcanic rock and up snowfields. We were soon in cloud, seriously restricting any views we might have had. Known as “the Gateway to Hell”, Hekla is Iceland’s most dangerous volcano because of the regularity of its eruptions, generally speaking every ten years. It is now fourteen years since it last erupted and one is expected any day. The mountain showed signs of getting ready to erupt earlier in the year when the northern slopes began to bulge as the magma chamber filled. For a time the mountain was closed, anticipating an eruption was imminent, but when it didn’t happen it was reopened. It is being closely monitored for increased volcanic or seismic activity.

On the summit of Mt. Hekla

On the summit of Mt. Hekla

Our route, from the north, took us by recently formed, small craters, now dormant but capable of erupting at any time. The lava was predominantly jet black with splashes of rust coloured rock. To pick up a large piece took no effort at all as it was a honeycomb of sponge looking post eruption debris. It was all totally devoid of vegetation, plants finding it impossible to gain a foothold in the sterile conditions. As we approached the summit and the edge of the main crater the clouds parted and we were given extensive views all around but particularly to the west. Lunch was taken on the top in almost calm conditions and in pleasant temperatures, nothing like the experiences we had in other nearby locations last year. Stored in a watertight box on the summit is a ‘visitors’ book for summiteers to comment in. I obliged and commented on behalf of the group.

DSC_0043Descending by a slightly different route we spent more time descending and traversing more extensive snowfields. Stephen took the easier but slightly more precarious option of tobogganing down the snow on a survival bag.

Returning to the super jeep the ascent of Hekla had been much easier than expected, largely because of the higher start and finish point. It is a stunning landscape of new earth. It is an environment completely devoid of vegetation of any kind and the regular eruptions mean that any possibilities of vegetation taking a hold are seriously hindered. I look forward to hearing of Hekla erupting again, knowing I have been there.

A bumpy two-hour ride in the super jeep took us to Landmannalaugar for our first night in a hut. It was incredibly crowded and, when we rounded the corner, had the appearance of Glastonbury with the number of tents filling the camping ground adjacent to the hut and a ring of vehicles of all shapes and sizes parked beyond.

Wallowing in the hot spring

Wallowing in the hot spring

The camp facilities were stretched to the limits as people cooked, ate, washed up, washed, showered etc. steam rose from the stream behind the hut and a little distance away a crowd of people bathed in the hot waters. After sweating our way up Hekla it seemed the best way to wash away the sweat as we wallowed in the stream before dinner. Dinner, grilled trout, potatoes and salad, was taken on bench tables outside our hut as the temperature was pleasant enough to sit outside. It really was a busy place and it was a relief to know that not everybody would be on the trail with us in the morning.

After dinner we had our first nominations for the daily award, the Puffin of Shame, awarded for words or acts so ridiculous that they deserve the responsibility of looking after a puffin while the rest of the group try to steal it at every opportunity. Grumpy Steve, so called because we had three Steves in the group, was awarded it this evening. While we were travelling to Landmannalaugar we stopped above a lake where Steve noticed a potential nude bather on the water’s edge. He could not get his binoculars out quick enough and having established the fact continued to watch.

That night we all slept in the same room on bench beds either side of the room. The events of the night, and subsequent nights, would fuel conversation for days to come. Amongst us were light sleepers, conscious to any sound or movement in the night hours. Others were more vocal in the night, snoring, mostly gently, on and off throughout the night. As gentle as it was it was enough to disturb some. I had the finger of blame pointed at me as one of those who snored. Speaking for myself, I never heard me snore but I did hear the others, who shall remain nameless for their own protection. The third group heard nothing on account of the fact that when they went to sleep they effectively died!

Leaving crowded Landmannalaugar behind

Leaving crowded Landmannalaugar behind

Crossing the hot spring the following morning, we climbed out of Landmannalaugar and left the bulk of the crowds behind us. Looking back there were so many tents it was impossible to count and we were pleased to be leaving for quieter places. We were heading into the Icelandic Highlands, an area of outstanding beauty and thermal activity. The valley floors, where water flowed freely, were covered in vegetation, largely mosses but some grasses also, and a myriad of colourful flowers. The slopes were mainly of bare rock with such a variety of colours from pale greys to yellow ochres and orangey reds. Gullies were streaked with snow left behind from the winter and, now, unlikely to disappear before they are added to by the onset of next winter. There was significantly more snow than we experienced last year.

Passing areas of thermal activity

Passing areas of thermal activity

All along the route were pockets of thermal activity with plumes of steam rising from small vents in the earth’s surface. As you drew closer bubbling water could be heard, often appearing above the surface in little cauldrons surrounded by toxic stones and mud. From a high point we were able to look back at the wide riverbed flowing from Landmannalaugar with its braided rivers intertwining and threading their way through the stones. Beyond, conical hills rose pointing their summits at the clouds above.

Bizarre volcanic ridge

Bizarre volcanic ridge

The further we delved into the highlands the more spectacular they became; bizarre shaped rocks, once molten but now frozen in time, dotted the skyline on craggy outcrops, vegetation became more sparse, revealing the vibrant colours of rock and earth and, as we gained height, we were able to look across a sea of rounded hilltops disappearing into the distance. There was very little evidence of wildlife, no telltale droppings or holes for small animals to scurry into, just the occasional birdsong. The lack of food on the ground probably accounted for the lack of large birds circling the skies above. We did come across a family of ptarmigan, a mother and numerous chicks, apparently unphased by our proximity to them. Perhaps that is why they are easily shot in the hunting season and decorate many an Icelander’s dinner table, especially at Christmas.

DSC_0103Snow became more widespread and we trudged our way across numerous snowfields littered with wind-blown volcanic dust across their wind-sculptured surfaces. It was stunning. However, the stunning vistas did not last forever as we were engulfed in cloud the higher we climbed. By mid afternoon we reached our overnight hut at Hrafntinnusker, perched just below the prow of the hill of our high point of the day.

Fire and Ice

Fire and Ice

Feeling it too early to stop, I went to explore the surrounding area, making sure not to stray too far from the hut in case I became disorientated in the limited visibility. To one side of the hut was a scene of contrasting environments. Piled high against the north facing slope was deeply set snow, undercut in places creating an arch and snow caves with sculptured roofs. Adjacent to this cold scene were hot springs of bubbling water with plumes of steam rising to mix with the enveloping clouds.

DSC_0130Vivid moss grew adjacent to the streams, adding contrast to the vibrant colours of the earth where nothing could grow. It was an enjoyable environment to explore and only the lure of tea and latticed tart filled with jam could tempt me back to the hut.

As afternoon drifted into evening and evening into night the drizzle began to fall and it became quite unpleasant outside. We were all confined to one room in the roof of the hut with mattresses laid out side by side on the floor. Again the night chorus disturbed some more than others.

After dinner we had the customary nominations and awards. This time it was Young Steve who disgraced himself during a conversation with Caz. On discovering that Caz worked at New College Worcester, a school for blind and visually impaired children, he said, “I guess that means teaching things like sign language?” Need I say more?

Permanent snow and ice fill all the hollows

Permanent snow and ice fill all the hollows

In the morning the hut and surrounding hills were shrouded in mist and the drizzle continued to fall. It may have only been light rain but it was the sort that was instantly very wet. Expecting the worst we all geared up for a wet day with layers covered with waterproofs and gaiters. No sooner had we started our descent from the hut the rain eased and the clouds began to disperse. All the waterproofs succeeded in doing now was making us hot and wet from the inside.

Stunning

Stunning

Realising the weather was improving, we divested ourselves of waterproofs and began to enjoy the walk much more. It was such a reward because, had the clouds remained, we would not have had such a superb day’s walk. The scenery was stunning and the contrast between the snowfields, of which there were many to cross, and the highland desert landscape was fantastic. The route was undulating without being too arduous and there was plenty of time to enjoy being there.

Big Steve's hand waves at us through the ice

Big Steve’s hand waves at us through the ice

Crossing one small gully filled with Snow, Fraser’s foot went through into space below. Fortunately, he reacted quickly enough to avoid any more than just a foot going through. Big Steve, as opposed to Grumpy Steve or Young Steve, ventured into the cavern beneath the snow, located the hole and stuck his hand through, looking like something out of the Adams Family. The rest of us gave the weakness a wide birth.

Descending toward Alftavatn

Descending toward Alftavatn

We stopped for lunch in the most idyllic spot at the top of a gully on the edge of the highlands with the expanse of moss covered valleys, conical peaks, blue lakes, all overlooked by distant extensive glaciers. The contrast of colours was superb and it was a place you could never tire of viewing from. Eventually we did drag ourselves away and began our descent to the greenness below and the hut at Álftavatn on the lakeshore. Before we reached the hut we had our first river crossing. These are not a major event as the water tends not to be any deeper than knee level and the distances across are not too long. Most people manage unaided but when there are couples in the group it is nice to see husbands taking good care of their wives. Big Steve was very attentive to Elizabeth and guided her all the way across. Fraser, on the other hand, started out well, guiding Julie with care and attention, but when half way across he shrugged his shoulders, let go of Julie and left her floundering in the middle of the river while he strode manfully to the bank. While Big Steve’s approach was sickeningly slushy, Fraser’s behaviour towards his wife was inexcusable, so later, in the evening he was awarded the Puffin of Shame.

Through the eye of a needle

Through the eye of a needle

Again, we arrived at the hut in good time, so after a brief rest and time to sort out our kit, we ventured up a hill on the east side of the lake. I don’t know what sort of activities go on on this hill but its Icelandic name, when translated, means Porn Hill. I had been up it eleven months previously with the mixed group of visually impaired and sighted students from Worcester. As we left the hut and approached the hill we were plagued with flies, not the kind that give you nasty bites but ones that get everywhere. There were thousands of them, mostly about the head and face, and it was so easy to breathe them in. Fortunately, by the time we reached the ridge leading up to the summit there was sufficient breeze for them to disappear, thankfully.

Low cloud shrouds the peaks viewed fro Porn Hill

Low cloud shrouds the peaks viewed fro Porn Hill

The walk up the ridge is fabulous. Not only do you have extensive views to either side, to verdant green pyramidal peaks, glass like lakes, streaks of silver depicting where the rivers weave their way through the landscape and glistening glaciers, but there are some stunning rock formations thrust up from deep inside the earth before being molded and sculptured by the elements. These formations are worthy of any art gallery. The summit is one of those places that you could easily spend many an hour just absorbing all that is around you.

Back at the hut Fraser was duly awarded the Puffin of Shame for his callous treatment of his wife.

The first river crossing of the day

The first river crossing of the day

Leaving Álftavatn the next morning we were due to walk to the hut at Emstrur but it was fully booked and had been long before we committed to this trek. Instead, we were going to walk to a small hut at Hungursfit, about 10km out of our way. The walk started off well undulating over green ridges, with just one river crossing, for the first hour or so. Eventually we left the green behind as we crossed a relatively flat volcanic desert with little or no vegetation to break the grey monotony. At least the green slopes of volcanic cones rose steeply out of the greyness. By now we were walking along the dirt road and several kilometres of this began to get a little tedious.

Lunchtime waterfall with rainbow

Lunchtime waterfall with rainbow

Lunch was taken by a thunderous waterfall where the water was being squeezed through a narrow gap and down a ledge in the rock. As long as the sun was out a permanent rainbow hovered above the fall.

By mid afternoon we reached our hut, a small building with just a single room off the entrance. Bunks were on three sides of the room with a long dining table in the middle of the room. The wall without bunks was almost entirely window overlooking a stunning view. Below a river disappeared into a gorge with mountains rising above it. In the distance the glacial icecap shimmered in the afternoon sun.

Learning that there were some French trekkers joining us in the hut Mike and I decided to camp rather than disturb those in the hut. Putting up my tent became a bit of a mission. It was a tent I was not familiar with and this unfamiliarity, along with a fairly strong wind provided the group with some amusing entertainment. Fraser took pity on me and came to help but things did not improve until Caz came and took control of the situation. I feared I was in danger of seriously challenging for the Puffin of Shame. Caz also decided to camp but had her tent up before I could help her.

While I sorted myself out and maybe closed my eyes for a minute or two, most of the others ventured down to the gorge below for an explore. When they later returned they were full of enthusiasm for the gorge and the waterfalls that marked the beginning of it. I promised myself that I would make the time to go there for myself before we moved on.

Late evening sunshine lights up the hill

Late evening sunshine lights up the hill

That night, when it came to nominations and the presentation of the Puffin of Shame, I knew I had to deflect attention from myself. I pointed out that so far only men had won it. It was about time it went to a woman. For some reason Big Steve nominated his wife, Elizabeth, and suddenly the attention was deflected. Remarkably, despite the nomination being very flimsy, the vote went against Elizabeth and she had the privilege of being the first female custodian of the Puffin of Shame.

Young Stephen standing by the waterfall at the start of the gorge

Young Stephen standing by the waterfall at the start of the gorge

Following the best night’s sleep of the trip, we prepared for our walk to Pórsmörk. Rather than walk the extra 10km that our change of hut would entail, Siggy took half the group to Emstrur in his land cruiser while the rest of us explored the gorge the others had visited the previous afternoon. It was as impressive as they had said, and more so. A small waterfall, shortly followed by a larger one marked the entrance to a dramatically deep and narrow canyon. As I climbed down to a shelf closer to the water thousands of fritillaries fluttered from the grass and mosses dampened from the costant spray. The noise from the larger of the falls was deafening and it was dramatic to be standing on a rocky ledge at the side of it, feeling slightly giddy as the water raced by.

Looking down the gorge

Looking down the gorge

Climbing back up to the top of the gorge I ventured further downstream to where the river turned sharply away from me. From my vantage point I watched the river disappear, reappear and disappear again as it twisted its way through the norrowest of gorges.

Soon Siggy returned to take us to Emstrur to join the others.

The walk from Emstrur to Pórsmörk was beautiful and took us through a variety of landscapes, including, towards the end, a forest of miniature birch trees.

Soon after leaving Emstrur we dropped steeply to cross a river freshly released from the glacier a little further up the valley. Already the water is raging down, cutting a deep cleft in the rock and carving a gorge for itself, which gets deeper the further downstream it goes. It would be impossible to cross without a bridge from where we climb back up the other side.

The Unicorn

The Unicorn

The route continued undulating through stunning scenery as, gradually, a most noticeable peak came into view. It is called the Unicorn but it bares some resemblence to a rhinoceros and even more to a scarab beetle with horns at either end of its arched ridge. It is such a fascinating shape that it is hard to take your eyes off it, particularly as it changes the closer you get.

We were gradually losing height and in the distance you could see the ribboned river leaving Pórsmörk with the sea some distance to the south. Cloud was hugging the summits of the higher peaks to the east and occasionally they would drift towards us shedding rain as they passed over.

A rare Icelandic forest

A rare Icelandic forest

The question, “What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest?” is often jokingly asked. The answer is, “Stand up!” That is almost true of the trees we encountered on this walk as we crossed a couple of low ridges on our journey into the main valley where our hut was situated. Oskar gave us the chance to climb a peak just to the south of the path and while he, Young Stephen and Caz climbed it, the rest of us went in the opposite direction straight to camp. This part of the walk required us to walk up the river bed for a couple of kilometres and included our last river crossing. As we walked up the river bed the showers came and went, but the sun never stopped shining, so we were treated to some wonderful rainbows arching across the valley with green and snow encrusted mountains behind.

Grumpy Steve, the pot of gold

Grumpy Steve, the pot of gold

I always thought that there was a pot of gold at each end of a rainbow, not that I have ever been able to find them. However, it was on this day that I learnt something new. You will have to look at the adjacent picture to understand. Rainbows emanate from the head of Grumpy Steve! If only he were worth his weight in gold!

Despite the facilities at the Básar being some of the best of any hut, our sleeping area seemed very cramped for the number of us wanting to sleep there. To make life more comfortable half the group chose to camp, almost guaranteeing that everybody got a good night’s sleep.

We sat outside enjoying a little beer in the evening sunshine awaiting our feast of barbequed legs of lamb. Unfortunately, just before the meal was served it started to rain and we had to dive indoors. That did not detract from the taste of the lamb, which was so succulent and tasty.

Throughout the day we could not help notice how Big Steve was always on hand to give Elizabeth help, or words of encouragement, or perform little chores for her. It was sickening to watch a grown man crumble in such a way. It was, therefore, no surprise that Elizabeth nominated him for creeping to her in the hope that she might forgive him for nominating her the previous evening. We all had to agree, so Big Steve was awarded the Puffin of Shame.

A wonderful lava arch

A wonderful lava arch

Our last day of trekking was by far our hardest. We were trekking up to the new lava fields created by the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano that caused such havoc to air travel. Unfortunately, the rain of the previous evening had continued, on and off, throughout the night and looked set to continue for much of the day. We had little choice but to don our waterproof gear and get on with it. We had been incredibly lucky so far with the weather; to have just one wet day in a week of trekking was a bonus. Two members of the team, realising that the day was going to be hard, opted to take a ride round to Skogar with Siggy and enjoy a restful day. It was also an opportunity for us to say our farewells to Siggy and Hannah who, having delivered our kit to Skogar, were heading back to Reykjavik. They had been good company.

Heads down

Heads down

Caz and I were crossing familiar ground for the first three hours as we had taken this route with the group last year, only to be forced back by bad weather before reaching the top. This year the pace was much faster, not having blind students to guide over difficult terain. The combination of wet from the outside and sweat from the inside made the going difficult. It was only as we gained height, when the temperature dropped, that I began to feel more comfortable. Sadly, when it mattered, we were shrouded in cloud and it was impossible to see very much. The rain continued to fall heavily.

The steep climb up to the hut

The steep climb up to the hut

As we reached the top between the Eyjafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull Glaciers we walked on contrasting jet black lava fields and white icefields. We were so grateful to have Oskar with us to guide us through the desolate, shrouded world. Even he had to resort to his GPS when it appeared that some of the marker posts had disappeared. Our direction was also thrown by the fact that the ice bridging a remarkably large river so close to the summit had collapsed and we had to detour some distance to get around it. Oskar was aiming for the hut just below the summit so we would have some shelter for our lunch. In finding it we were faced with an almost vertical cliff climb of about 20m up very loose volcanic ash dotted with what looked like firm rock outcrops but, in fact, turned out to be boulders resting on the surface of the ash. It was a fairly intense moment of scrambling for us all as it was impossible to gain a firm foothold and there was nothing reliable for the hands to hold.

Making the most of some warmth and the dry

Making the most of some warmth and the dry

Eventually we all made it, unscathed, and piled into the warm hut for some lunch. To greet us was a friendly warden and an even friendlier husky dog with one brown and one blue eye. They were there, not only to look after overnight lodgers but also to rescue people lost in this desolate place.

It was with some reluctance that we donned out wet socks, boots and waterproofs to, yet again, face the elements, which, if anything, had deteriorated further. Fortunately our departure from the hut was much more straight forward than our approach and we picked up the trail without difficulty. We crossed a few more icefields and lava flows before beginning our long descent to Skogar. By the time we began to emerge from the clouds we reached a second hut and picked up the stoney road, which made walking easier, if less interesting. This was the road that many an Icelander drove up when Eyjafallajokull first began to erupt harmlessly. It was only after a couple of weeks that the eruptions became more devastating.

The road soon drew alongside a large, fast flowing river disappearing into and reemerging from tunnels of ice. Thunderous waterfalls dropped it dramatically over lava flows as the weather showed signs of improving. The rain had stopped and we were able to start drying off.

two of the thirty five waterfalls on the Skogar River

two of the thirty five waterfalls on the Skogar River

Leaving the road, we crossed a bridge and picked up a path that followed the Skogar River. What we saw for the final few miles was so unexpected, so welcome and took our minds off our increasingly tiring limbs. The Skogar River, a fast flowing body of water, has cut a slit in the rock forming an impressive gorge with many thunderous waterfalls crashing over vertical shelves of lava. There were thirty five in total, all in excess of 20m and hardly a soul in sight to admire them. Many people visit Skogarfoss, the last and highest waterfall on the river, before it reaches the sea, but few venture up stream to see the other delights of this river. I couldn’t help think that if this was the UK we would have had walkways constructed, railings to protect visitors and tea shops. The Icelanders are so understated about what they have, thank goodness.

The triumphant group in front of Skogarfoss

The triumphant group in front of Skogarfoss

It was with a tinge of sadness that we descended the final steps from the top of the 62m Skogarfoss and the end of the trek. It was a fittingly impressive conclusion to such a fantastic day’s walk and trek. Although it was not quite over. We had another kilometre to walk to the hotel where we would find Julie and Elizabeth suitably shrivelled having spent most of the day pampering themselves in a hot tub and spa. They would have done had this been the right hotel. Oskar had thought we were staying there but we after a phonecall we continued for a further kilometre to a former school, now a hotel without a hot tub or spa. It was a relief to take my boots off, to release my wrinkled feet from their wet socks and climb into a hot shower.

Over dinner the beer helped soothe the aching limbs and there was a huge feeling of satisfaction and achievement. Big Steve had done a good job in looking after the puffin and we had our final ceremony after dinner. Claire had confessed earlier in the day to having had some difficulty going to the toilet when we stopped for lunch. The only receptacle she could find was a men’s urinal so it was with some difficulty that she performed. Her confession was sufficient for her to be awarded the Puffin of Shame.

The remains of the 1973 emergency landing with the Myrdalsjokull Glacier behind

The remains of the 1973 emergency landing with the Myrdalsjokull Glacier behind

We had a leisurely start the next morning while we waited for the super jeep to be dropped off. We were not in any rush to get back to Reykjavik as the hotel would not be available until the afternoon. Oskar wanted to show us the wreckage of an American Dakota, which made an emergency landing on the beach during a storm in 1973.  Rather than rescue it in its entirety the Americans decided to just take the important bits away, leaving the fusilage. Now children, and bigger boys, can clamber over it and imagine.

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

Heading back towards Reykjavik we made one more stop at Seljalandsfoss, an impressive waterfall with a path going full circle behind it. The wind catches the water easily, varying its descending pattern and sending spray into the path of those walking round it. Here it was crowded, being one of the highlights for touring groups travelling around Iceland. I wonder how many of them would consider venturing to some of the stunning waterfalls we had seen yesterday? Very few, I suspect and I am grateful of the fact that tourism has not spoiled Iceland.

The back of a minky whale

The back of a minky whale

Back in Reykjavik, a number of us decided we would like to go whale watching. It was a very pleasant evening, gloriously sunny and a flat sea. Sailing out to sea we saw a number of puffins scurrying across the water. I never realised just how small they were, much smaller than our puffin, which we had carried throughout the trek. We saw three minky whales in total but it was not at all exciting. They hardly rise out of the water and their dorsal fins are remarkably small. Whilst it would have been good to see whales leaping or displaying their flukes as they dived it was not important. It was just a pleasure to be relaxing on a boat in glorious sunshine.

A Reykjavik sunset taken at 11.15pm

A Reykjavik sunset taken at 11.15pm

Our last night together in Reykjavik we celebrated an excellent trip with a meal at the Argentine Steak House. We thanked Oskar for his care and attention throughout and for guiding us through some stunning Icelandic scenery. We rebuked Claire for being a poor custodian of the Puffin of Shame, leaving him in her room and not looking after him at all. The puffin is now in the capable hands of Oskar who will look after him until next year. Yes, there will be another trip next year to explore the beautifully remote north east.

The following morning the group began to split up. Mike and Catherine picked up their campervan to explore other areas, while the rest of us visited the Blue Lagoon en route to the airport. Grumpy Steve, Young Stephen and Caz headed back into Reykjavik to explore lava tubes, Big Steve and Elizabeth to continue their extended tour of Iceland and the rest of us to catch our flight home.

The more I see of Iceland the more I like it. I like the people who are warm and friendly, the scenery is unique and stunning and the travelling companions are a lot of fun. Without wishing my life away, I cannot wait for next year.

 

 

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Wall Weary

During the course of our week on Hadrian’s Wall, David Thomas, John Walton and Angela Walton who organise and managed treks were given a name based on certain letters as highlighted above. We became known as the T.W.A.Ts.

Towards the end of the week one or two people put pen to paper and wrote a poem based on W H Auden’s Roman Wall Blues. Below is the work of Ann Jones. What a star she is.

Wall Weary.

I’m cold and alone sitting on this stone
Watching the sky and people passing by
They all have strange faces and speak a strange tongue
And I dream of my home, the place I belong

I stand on this wall of cold, hard grey stone
And wish for my family….. I’m so far from home
Why am I here in this bare hostile place
Another hard day I am dreading to face.

The wall is my prison, the land is my jail
And I dread what will happen if my duties I fail
The food it is sparse and strange to my tongue
I pray I’ll go home to the place I belong

I sleep, If I can…. on cold dirty floors
Never kept warm by windows or doors
I’m covered in lice and pestered by rats
So never again am I booking with T.W.A.Ts!

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