Thursday, 19 July 2012

Challenge Number One – Climb Snowdon (By Train Is Allowed)

I set myself this challenge simply to give us an excuse to visit North Wales, where I had never been. I don’t know why I hadn’t managed to go before – I suppose we always ended up going to visit our family in the Lake District whenever we felt a need for northern hills. Obviously, the real challenge would have been to actually walk up Snowdon, since my grandfather of the tarn-bagging and mountaineering fame would have skipped up it before breakfast, then probably gone on to do Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis before dinner. But this year I have bad knee on top of the bad knee I’ve had since I was a teenager, and I also have a Charlotte, who currently won’t even go upstairs without insisting on being carried. So by train it was.

Discovering (via Facebook) that I had a long-lost school friend who owned a B&B in North Wales spurred us on to make a reservation and arrange ourselves a long weekend in the vicinity of Snowdon. My friend advised us to book the train trip up the mountain in advance, as it is understandably popular. This meant a gamble with the weather, since I had to choose a day based on a long-range forecast. So what the heck, I thought. Given that it’s chucked it down all summer, we might as well pick St Swithin’s Day.

Miraculously, the gamble paid off. Having driven over to Wales in torrential rain on Friday, we had very low expectations. Saturday also brought huge black sodden clouds over Snowdonia, which thankfully we were stood watching from the coast and were nowhere near. But Sunday dawned beautifully sunny in Clocaenog, where we were staying. As this was about an hour’s drive from Llanberis, the Snowdon Mountain Railway’s base station, we didn’t dare get our hopes up too much, but the weather was also fine over there when we arrived. (“Fydd hi’n braf?” “Bydd. Mae hi’n mynd i fod yn sych”, the locals would have said. Oh, yes.) We collected our tickets, and then the most challenging part of the challenge began.

Living in York, I spend every single day trying to persuade Charlotte that we DON’T need to go to the National Railway Museum AGAIN, and that really once a week is more than enough, especially if I throw in a trip to the station to meet Daddy from work in between. She adores Thomas the Tank Engine, and Chuggington even more. She reads her Freight Train book over and over. She makes a beeline for the train set at playgroup and snatches the tunnel off anyone who dares pick it up. In short, she is a choo-choo fiend. But not, it transpires, when faced with a real-life huffing, puffing, whistling steam train. Thirty seconds on the platform waiting to board and Charlotte had gone ballistic. The compartments on the tiny train are also very cramped, as they ram eight people in a space that would only be properly comfortable for six, with knees touching opposite knees. 

Suddenly, we faced the prospect of an hour with a kicking, screaming, arched-back monster, who was so distraught that she kept bringing up bile. The train guard was incredibly kind and let us get off the train until a few seconds before its scheduled departure, which also gave Daddy enough time to run back to the car to pick up Stripey, Charlotte’s now really quite manky snuggle monkey, who she grows ever more worryingly obsessed about, and who normally isn’t allowed out in case we lose him.

Thankfully, the presence of Stripey and about a hundred readings of Theo Learns To Roar calmed Charlotte enough for us to be able to relax and finally start to enjoy the view. We could see for miles, out to the coast and beyond, and the peaks and valleys all around us were simply gorgeous. The train crept up the mountainside, working the same rack and pinion way it always has since the railway was completed in 1896, though apparently the carriages only got roofs in the 1950s.

When we finally got to the top, the summit itself was encased in swirling cloud and freezing cold. The train pulled in to Hafod Eryri visitor centre and we then had half an hour to nip up to the very top and warm up in the cafe. (You have to get the same train back down or walk.) It was such a different experience to other mountains in the UK – in the Alps it’s normal to scale huge peaks by cable car or train and then have a cup of tea when you arrive, but we’ve never really gone in for that sort of thing over here, preferring our hills au naturel. The summit is just a short scramble up from the station, and as we didn’t trust Charlotte on the verge of a precipice, Dave and I took turns to head up. So thank you to the poor woman clinging to some steps with vertigo who I made take a photo of me to prove I was there. Though not with the same sense of achievement I’d have felt if I’d used my legs all the way of course.

The journey down was uneventful, apart from the summit cloud suddenly lifting when we were about halfway down. But we weren’t going to complain – given what most of the summer has been like, we were truly grateful that we hadn’t had to spend £50 on train tickets to only be able to see mist and downpour. We’d seen plenty en route. The pictures speak for themselves. We had more space in our compartment on the way back too, as four of our original fellow travellers had obviously decided that walking down would be preferable to spending another second with our bawling toddler.

The summit finally visible!

Although the purpose of the weekend was to climb Snowdon, being in North Wales gave us plenty of bonus activities – a trip to Conwy Castle, a quick spell in Llandudno, and a visit to another island for challenge number 26, Anglesey. We also spent the wettest day imaginable in Chester Zoo during our return trip to York on Monday, when the rain had set back in with a vengeance. It’s a telling sign that Charlotte has started referring to outside as simply “pouring down”.
Conwy, looking towards Llandudno

Conwy Suspension Bridge

Conwy Castle

Plas Newydd, Anglesey

Looking towards Snowdonia from Anglesey

Bridge over the Menai Strait to Anglesey

Wet elephants at Chester Zoo
This blog entry would not be complete without a shameless plug for my friend’s B&B, the Old Rectory in Clocaenog. It is a beautiful house overlooking rolling hills, and is immaculately clean and light and airy. The cooked breakfasts are superb. You get greeted with chocolate cake. They had left toys in the room for Charlotte. It had a lounge where we could hang out once Charlotte was in bed, rather than being confined to the bathroom or lying on the bed in silence. There was a play park at the end of the drive. Charlotte’s strops and appalling table manners were tolerated with good grace. We had a lovely time.

But given Charlotte’s reaction to the steam train, it looks like I’m going to have to rethink challenge number 31, Take Charlotte On The North York Moors Railway. All suggestions for a replacement challenge welcome!

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