Thursday, July 30, 2009


Is there a better town anywhere than Aberystwyth? I'm not sure I know of one.

In how many towns can you park for free, then stroll from the high street to a paddling pool in less than a hundred yards? Where shops selling saucy postcards and welsh rock sit comfortably by upmarket delicatessen, specialist book stores and the ubiquitous New Look. Where the crawing of gulls and the smell bladderwrack gives way, as you turn a corner, to grunge music and the whiff of faggots and peas. And round the next corner, a steam railway takes ramblers to some of the least spoiled countryside in Britain...

You might prefer a trip on the cliff railway, which ascends to the camera obscura on the top of Consitution Hill. From here you can look down on the castle, or across to Cardigan Bay; look south and maybe you'll spot a dolphin, or north to pick out Snowdon from the pale silhouettes on the horizon.

Aberystwyth is a farming town, fishing port, university, centre of culture, seaside resort; home to more winos and weirdos and intellectuals than anywhere I've been. It's like Kathmandu in traditional welsh costume, and I love it.

I particularly loved it today because Dylan had cut his forehead when we were out in the hills. It turns out that Aberystwyth hospital has an A&E department that allows you to park by the door, deals with children quickly and even gives them a teddy for being a brave boy or girl.

And I loved it twenty years ago too.

Because it was here, in a hotel by the sea, that Jane slipped on a pair of blue and white pants and tiptoed to the bathroom, thinking I was sleeping. The wallpaper was brown with orange flowers, the en-suite had royal blue tiles and a fan that clattered - and I told her I loved her. I meant it more than ever before or ever could again.

On the mountain railway, complete with teddy bear

Beautiful, unspoiled, irreplaceable, welsh landscape...

Comes complete with planning permission for hundreds of wind turbines.

Elenydd wilderness

The Tiefi Pools - unique welsh habitat

Claerddu bothy - a remote and special place

It was windy here today; brought tears to my eyes.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Seven Veils

Swn y Mor - M Charlton, 2000

I have been tagged by Preseli Mags to describe myself in seven words. I suppose I could take this literally and make this a very short post (why not, I hear you say). But this seems like an indulgent opportunity to write about me, so here is the longer version.

Thinker. I think a lot. I can drive for hours without turning on the radio; I can happily ponder an issue for days; some problems I've been wrestling with all my adult life. I studied philosophy at university which explains it in part, though it's more about who I am than anything I've learned. During my first undergraduate course (it was in ethics), I was struck by how muddled and contradictory many of my attitudes were; and I remember the joy of sorting them out, bringing a little structure to the chaos. Strange to use a word like joy in this context, but I think it's true.

Polymath. Someone on a writing course called me this; I had to look it up. I have lots of interests; too many in some ways. I enjoy writing, painting, philosophy, kayaking, cycling, climbing, entomology (yes, I know)... At different times in my life I've concentrated on one or other of these, but they all remain in the background. I suppose that I'm quite proud to have done them all to at least a reasonable standard. Ultimately, I think all my interests - writing, painting, a love of wilderness (maybe not entomology) - are a way of better understanding myself and my place in the world.

Father. Without doubt the single biggest change in my life. I'm not at all religious, but it was only after having children that I understood the power of the Christian myth, 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son...' I dread the day my boys will leave home and fear the grief it will cause me.

Grateful. I was going to use the word privileged, but that has mixed connotations; lucky doesn't seem right either. Whatever, the point I'm trying to make is that I'm grateful for all I have and the opportunities that have come my way. Sure, I've worked damn hard, I've not been gifted any particular advantage, we make our own luck and all that... But on a big scale, boy am I lucky and privileged and fortunate and more. And I don't just mean this in a glib sense, or because I'm writing this blog post; it's something I carry with me every day and try always to remember. Now, as to who exactly I am grateful to, I'm not entirely sure - you see, there's the thinker in me again.

Nostalgic. I'm terribly nostalgic; my past is always part of my present, good and bad. One of my greatest pleasures is returning to favourite places. I'm sure I could be very happy if, for the rest of my life, I was only allowed to visit half a dozen places of my choosing.

Organised. Lots of people ask how I manage to fit in so much. The answer is a mix of diligence, drive, imagination, prioritisation and a respect for time (or the lack of it). I'm not brilliant at any of these qualities, but I it would be falsely modest not to say I'm good at the balancing act of life. I also have Jane, my hugely supportive wife, without her very little would be possible.

Hopeless. At spelling, at foreign languages, at anything musical, at finding my glasses, at visiting my mother, at letting things go, at listening when I should, at mingling at parties, at using the dishwasher.... I could go on.

And I could so easily have gone on with other words. Interesting that I barely mentioned my career; not something I define myself by, though I like my job and especially the people I work closely with.

Now I get to tag some people, so I nominate Sara, Norfolk Single Dad, Carol, OMG, Grumpy Ken, Cait and Daz who was my first ever blog follower.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Collections 5 - I-Spy books

A nice little collection this one. I bought most of my I-Spy books from ebay, averaging less than fifty pence each and once winning a job lot for 10p. So not a big investment, but I cherish them nonetheless.

Initially, I thought they would be fun to keep at my house in Wales; the boys could play with them I thought, though in practice they were never much bothered. It was me who liked them - so I kept buying them long after there was any pretence they were for anyone else. I don't have large collection, about thirty or forty I suppose, and they are far from perfect; most of them have been scribbled in by children who are probably grandparents now - but I like that, especially if they have the certificate on the back cover, signed by their Mum or Dad.

It's all nostalgia I suppose. The early ones conjure up an era when the News Chronicle was still in circulation and families took Sunday runs to the country in their Morris Minor or in our case a Singer Vogue (huge thing with green leather seats and a walnut dash). Later editions remind me of the Seventies when my Gran would still insist on buying us an I-Spy book at
Christmas, even though we were teenagers and there wasn't an edition called I-Spy Girls - this being the only subject about which we kept records and scored points; that however, is a whole different story.

Some of the items in those early books could be from another world. I especially like I-Spy On The Pavement: gas street lamps; the police boxes; the rat catcher going down a sewer. Imagine what might be in a modern day version: dirty needles; CCTV; steel shutters... It's sobering too to note the points available for spotting certain wildlife - only ten points for a stoat, fifteen for an otter, ten for cuckoo. The same with butterflies and birds, many of them rare today.

The subjects didn't change much over the years: On The Train; In The Woods; At the Airport; At the Seaside. Then the occasional modern addition, such as Football or Spaceflight and my all time favourite I-Spy Dinosaurs with David Bellamy (Fifty points if you spot Dinosaur droppings. Where exactly?). There were specials too - the Code Book for example which includes Big Chief I-Spy's special Order of Merit for I-Spy Braves.

Of course, these pocket money books had fallen out of fashion by the Eighties and though there has been a modern revival, the new ones are not the same. The premise of the books is wonderfully simple, but somehow a remake doesn't do it justice. And we've moved on; lost something no doubt, but gained lots too. Best left as bygones I think.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Weekend jottings

Sunshine and showers the forecast said - and worse in Wales. I want to go camping, but the boys have things to do and we're off to Pembrokeshire next week. Let's be sensible, Jane said, there's loads we can do in Wiltshire. 'Anyway,' she said,'I've bought the ingredients for a stir fry tonight.'

Strange things are stir-frys: you pack in loads of ingredients and salivate over their fusion in the sizzling wok, all the while convincing yourself it's going to be fabulous. Except, more often than not it all ends up a bit flat and I'm left picking out the tasty bits, pushing bean sprouts around the plate and feeling hungry again in an hour. I told myself the weekend would work out fine...

I took Mike to the velodrome on Saturday, the first time we've been since he broke his foot in May. It felt longer; to think, this time last year we were making the trip at least three times a week . Mike doesn't want to race this year and I know in my heart he's losing interest. I find it hard to accept in some ways - partly because there is such vicarious pleasure in watching him, and partly because he is so casual with his talent - a year ago he was almost unbeatable - but that's youth I guess, and the spare time brings other opportunities. I look too at the hollow faced youths on the Olympic Programme, training upwards of twenty or thirty hours a week and I reckon Mike knows what he's doing: too much, too young - and too much invested in a singular, improbable dream.

Dylan came too - absolute star, riding round the track centre on 'big blue', his little bike with stabilisers. The coaches make a fuss of him. 'Go Mikey, go,' he shouts to his brother who's riding the boards at twenty five miles and hour. 'Can I do that when I'm a big boy?' he asks. 'We'll see,' I tell him, not sure if I can go through it all again. Mike won his first race aged seven; it dominated our life for the next five years. Enough I think.

Watched a bit of Le Tour in the afternoon, intermittently playing in the tent that I'd set up in our conservatory for Dylan. Huge fun playing at indoor camping - highlight of the weekend in a way - see my other blog, for pictures. Had a run too - five miles along the ancient byway of Weavern Lane; the sun came out, steaming the roads, butterflies drying their wings on the thistles, a bride leaving the village church just as the showers stopped. Quite a few wedding photos will have sweaty middle aged man in the background, covered in mud and leaning against his car - I was too shattered to move.

We hired the Slumdog Millionaire DVD for the evening. Now am I the only person who thinks this is a pretty mediocre film? I was bored by twenty minutes, surfing on the laptop to pass the time; it got a bit better towards the end - but multi oscar winner? Come on, really? It reminded me of the book, White Tiger which won the Booker Prize - not a bad read, but hardly that worthy. Actually, it seems I'm not alone in think Slumdog is over-hyped and there a lot of informed and balanced reviews making that very point.

Up early from the indoor tent this morning. Made pancakes with Dylan in between downloading pictures on my other blog - all the while knowing I have more important things to write about, but it's a distraction. Jane emerges at nine and we discuss options - it's peeing down outside, so much for the sunshine.

We decide on Bristol zoo; as do too many other good folk of Bristol - it's shuffling room only the interior exhibits as the showers keep up all day. Still, the older boys like it, and there are not that many things which please everyone in the family. Everyone that is, except Dylan, who is bored rigid by the whole experience. A touch harsh perhaps, he liked the gorillas and the giant tortoise got a second glance, but that was about it. His favourite exhibit was the locust cage because it has a glass window he could look through which reminded him of a spaceship.

I'd been cajoling him all morning, and it was only when he started playing in his 'spaceship' that the penny dropped - he's just not interested in animals. His brothers loved them at his age; nothing better than going to the zoo; hours spent watching the penguins, sponsoring animals at rip off prices, and travelling to various farm parks and zoos. Dylan, on the other hand is totally uninterested - now show him a train, or a fire engine, or a cardboard box (see other blog again) and that's another story. Strange how our kids turn out - no one in the family has any interest in mechanical things, and yet Dylan is obsessed by them. I like this really and take a similar pleasure in watching him learn as I did with Mike as he developed as a cyclist.

Back at home Dylan has found another cardboard box to play with. I tell you, we have boxes that go back years, that are now robots, trains, Christmas decorations - some of them will never get thrown out. This time he says, 'Thanks for buying me an aeroplane dad?' holding up the scissors as he sits in the box. Four hours later and he's just gone to bed. 'You won't throw it out, will you Dad?'

No Dylan, of course not...

Caught the end of the latest stage of Le Tour - I don't care what anyone says about cycling and drugs and all that, watching Alberto Contador as good as fly up the mountain today - a stunning physical achievement. Lance Armstrong too, now in his late thirties after three years out of the sport and yet in second place; awesome stuff. Most British people don't 'get' cycling, and see it as a minority sport, but that is far from the case. The Tour de France is the biggest spectator event in the world, steeped in history, courage and romance; it has more TV coverage, more sponsorship, and more worldwide interest than almost any event bar the Olympics or World Cup. But to us, Wimbledon and the Ashes are more important. Oh well, each to their own I suppose.

Went mountain biking this evening with Mike - we are thick with mud after only ten miles. Mike decides to ride home without touching his handlebars - I struggle to keep up. We race the last two miles, tearing round the roads of Chippenham as if riding a criterium, me clinging to his wheel for the fraction of advantage the drafting affords, pedestrians looking twice at the two swamp monsters spraying dirt over the roads. As we approach home, he slows up and we cruise in side by side.

And that's it for the weekend - a bit of a stir fry really, and not too bad as they go. At least it wasn't all bean shoots.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Wind farms

There's been a lot in the press this week about wind farms. I'll try not to get into the political or technical debate, but it does annoy me when people say (as did one commentator in the Telegraph) that they look so splendid on the hillsides.

Well go and stand beneath them! Go take a look at the roads they carve out to service them - or the way they reshape the hillsides to allow for better wind flow. Go and see the trash that's left behind. Huge tracts of the Welsh countryside have been destroyed in the rush to grab cash subsidies and fulfill political targets - sadly, it appears more precious landscape will soon fall victim.

I hear that Wales is committed to significant reductions in carbon emissions, indeed Wales is one of the world's leading countries in making such commitments. It all sounds good; an assembly minister proudly boasted that only two percent of the Welsh landscape would be affected by wind farms. Except as my fourteen year old son pointed out, 'two percent; so that one turbine every fifty yards?'

Sorry, I said I'd try not to get political...

So returning to my theme, anyone who thinks wind farms are just turbines standing elegantly in the landscape is naive in the extreme. Sometimes you have to get up close and personal - and until you do, I say you can't properly judge.

One of the smaller new roads ploughing through the wild Cambrian landscape - actually much bigger than most roads in Wales

Alarm clocks and the best laid plans...

I tend to be quite good with alarm clocks; Jane sleeps through them, but once awake I’m usually up and ready for the off. Helpful when you have an early plane to catch from Gatwick, and as it transpired, even more important as our holiday progressed.

We arrived in Neustift with the usual uber efficiency that is Austria. Less than thirty minutes from Innsbruck airport we were sitting outside our hotel with drink in hand. The Sportspension Elisabeth is lovely, only 30 Euros a night for a gorgeous room with a balcony, a huge breakfast and helpful, friendly staff. I sat on our balcony noting the clear sky over the Elferspitze and mentally plotting our walk the next day. Perhaps I should have looked to the south, and the gathering clouds over the Stubai.

As it turned out the first day’s walk was fine - long, but there was no rain on the steady ascent to the Innsbrucker hut at 2400 meters. Now when I say hut, I should point out that Austrian huts are more like simple hotels: private rooms, showers, a bar and sun terrace - and usually a great crowd of walkers and mountaineers to meet and make friends. Our room was plain but immaculately clean and we went to enjoy a well earned beer.

As we sat in the bar, some walkers coming from the opposite direction started to arrive. They had walked from the Bremer hut, a 9 kilometer traverse over rough ground but nothing too serious and our planned route for the next day. As it was, many of them had taken ten hours to complete this short distance; they were wide eyed and clearly pleased to reach the hut. ‘Lots of snow,’ they kept saying, ‘Too much snow’.

A storm broke that evening and we were joined in our immaculate but simple room by two German lads who grabbed the top bunks. There is a rule that huts never turn people away, and as the hut began to fill up with stragglers and benighted guests, concerns about privacy gave way to finding any spare beds going. Jane wasn’t too pleased at the prospect of sharing, but hey, it was only one night - let’s have another beer.

Next morning, a few diehards were preparing for the traverse but I knew it wasn’t for us; the sensible thing was to retrace our route of yesterday and sit out the storm in the hotel. Except as we were leaving the Hut Guardian pointed out there was another option; we could make a diversion, descend to a different valley and reascend to the Bremer Hut by a snow free route. I shouldn’t have listened...

The Hut Guardian was right, it was a safe route; what he hadn’t fully explained was that it meant a decent of nearly 5000 feet, followed a five mile walk along the valley floor as warm up to a further 5000 ft of ascent. It also pissed down all day - Jane lost three toe nails.

The path was well marked but as the snow gathered, route finding became a little fraught. We eventually found the hut by navigating towards the porch light that glimmered through the mist and snow. ‘This is the worst July on record,’ the Hut Guardian told me as I signed in. He also told me that there were no rooms, only the matratzenlager - a sort of communal bunk bed arrangement which we could share with twelve German climbers. Jane was too tired to care; more beer followed.

The forecast said the storm would clear in the morning, and as it was only a shortish hop to the next hut I thought we’d manage if we got going early. For some reason my watch alarm didn’t go off, but with with all the comings and goings (and other noises) in the dormitory, we were up and ready to leave by seven thirty. We signed the book and set off across the moraine under a clear if slightly greying sky.

And then a strange thing happened, something that I’ve experienced only a few times in my life - a sort of 'inner alarm clock' went off with a very loud clang!

Suddenly, and for no logical reason, I knew I’d made the wrong decision. Everything was as I’d planned - sure there was snow, but we had time enough to take a look and come back if necessary; we knew too that people had come this way yesterday without difficulty and they were no better equipped or experienced than us. So why turn back? I’m a logical person; I don’t generally relent to ‘feelings’, I know a lot too about controlling adrenaline and rationalising our fears - even Jane wanted to go on. Except with every forward step that inner clanging became louder and louder. Until eventually I said, ‘That’s it, we’re heading back.’

It was slightly embarrassing to return to the hut in less than thirty minutes, this time to sign in again and say we were returning to the valley. And yet I somehow knew this was the right decision. Jane kept asking, ‘You’re not doing this for me are you? I’m sorry I’m so unfit.’ I reassured her that this was not the case - it was me who wanted to go back, even though I couldn’t quite explain why.

I said I’d heard that inner alarm a few times before. The first time had been twenty-seven years previous, in the same range of mountains, heading for the very same hut. I was climbing the Wildefrieger mountain, a high snow peak in the Stubai. It was nothing too technical, and I’d completed most of the climb when I spotted some clouds gathering over the summit. I knew something was wrong - couldn’t explain why, it just was - and I insisted on returning, at times running down the mountain, other climbers still plodding upward as I descended with my partner. Two hours later a colossal storm broke and I sat in the Nurnberger Hut counting the lightening strikes and wondering what it was that had urged me to return when nobody else had sensed the danger. Two people died on the mountain that day.

Over the years I learned to respond to my ‘inner alarm’, at times turning away from challenges that seemed well within my ability. I once walked round an innocuous looking rapid in Yorkshire and then watched in horror as my friend lost his a paddle and was caught in a recirculating wave. His body floated down the rapid, limp and unconscious; had I not been on the bank I would not have got to him in time. He spewed up a lot of river, but survived. There have been other examples, though few so dramatic.

In the usual efficient way of Austria we were back at our hotel within a few hours of reaching the valley. A bus, a train and another bus, and by mid afternoon we were sitting on the terrace as the sun broke through the storm clouds and the peaks appeared, glistening with fresh snow. Had Jane and I continued on our route we would certainly have been caught in a storm, and though in all probability we would have made it safely to the hut I was entirely comfortable with the decision to descend. There is no fun in being scarred witless and I’m too old, with too many good reasons to avoid unnecessary risks.

The remainder of our trip was tame by comparison. We took a rest day (the hotel owner kindly washed our kit) then headed back to the hills, this time to a valley at a lower altitude with less snow. It was a delightful walk but on arriving our hut was again beset by bad weather - our plans to go to the glacier were shelved. As we sat in the bar I remembered the first guidebook to the Alps I’d read; it kept repeating that the mountains will always be there, and that most deaths occurred when people forgot that.

On our last morning I was content to stroll down the valley; it poured for the full ten miles but I didn’t care. The mountains were lost in mist and the rainwater trickled into my mouth as I looked to the clouds. It never tasted so good.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Hut hopping in Austria

I'm off to Austria with Jane for a week, on a walking tour in the Stubai Alps. We'll be staying in the chain of alpine huts that form what is known as the 'rucksack route'. If the weather is good we hope to complete a horseshoe circuit of the Stubai valley, staying above 8000 feet throughout.

I think that staying in a mountain 'hutte' is the best way to experience the Alps. The Austrian huts are more akin to simple inns, unlike the climbers' huts in France, which tend to be above the snowline and packed full of mountaineers. Austrian huts are relaxed - they have simple but clean bedrooms, a bar and restaurant, usually a terrace to sit and admire the view - and all for only a few euros.

It's easy to go hut hopping if you know how and I'll let you in on the tips and secrets when I get back. But for now, I've got to pack, catch the flight and walk up to our first hut which shelters below the Habicht mountain. This time tomorrow I should be looking down on the valley, glass of wine in hand, and dreaming of the mountains we will climb.

No Internet access I'm afraid - so this is all you'll hear from me in a while.

Think of me here...