Friday, 15 August 2014

Butterflies and bugs

We leave at 10 for Aberystwith with two planned stops on the way. First we go to the Centre for Alternative Technology. Its declared mission is to inspire, educate and inform on lower impact ways of living. To be honest, I’m disappointed. The exhibits are interesting but it’s all too homespun and unkempt. I’d like it to have a little more polish, that way it would have a chance of engaging the mainstream. As it is, only those who already embrace low-impact living would respond to it.

The next stop is the Magic of Life Butterfly Farm, which is run by an old school friend of Simon’s. Neil welcomes us warmly and refuses to let us pay the entry fee. He starts by introducing us to some of his bugs, including rhinoceros beetles, stick insects (more like branch insects in some cases!), mantises and tarantulas.

We’re amazed to find out that the enormous moths sitting quietly on a block of wood on the desk, that we thought were replicas, are actually real live moths. Then we go through to the butterfly house, and Neil explains about the origin of the different species and their habits.

Some of them are really tame, and quite happily move on to a proferred finger, others are more skittish. There are some spectacular species – one looks like an owl, another like a dead leaf – at least on the outside, the inside of the wings are brightly coloured. There are pots of sugar water that you can dip your finger in to attract the butterflies, or you can use the sprigs of buddleia that are provided.
We spend much longer here than planned – Neil is easy to get along with and so knowledgeable about the butterflies and bugs, so we chat for ages. We leave with three atlas moth caterpillars – the atlas moth is the huge one we mistook for a model on the way in – and a plan to meet later for a drink in Aberystwith.

Our hotel is right on the seafront, and although there’s a cold wind it’s a beautiful evening. We have dinner and then go out to meet Neil. The bar we choose doesn’t allow children after 10pm so we return to the hotel for a final drink, and then turn in. I’m lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves breaking on the beach. We leave tomorrow morning.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Sea day

Today we have declared a sea day, which means we stay on site. The weather forecast was not promising but it’s sunny and warm and I manage to get Alex out of bed and down to the pool. He goes in the water while I sit and read the autobiography of Clough Williams-Ellis who founded Portmeirion. Alex persuades me into the water, which seems colder today than last time, but I soon return to my sunlounger. As we leave the pool Simon comes down to meet us. I’ve realised that there’s a route from the corner of the pool area to the viewpoint adjacent to the Gate House, and we walk back that way.

Lunch is whatever we can find in the fridge – we’re eating out tonight so apart from tomorrow’s breakfast this is the last meal in the cottage. Then we go back out to try and walk out onto the estuary. It’s pretty time-sensitive – it’s recommended to leave the estuary at least two hours before high tide – but at low tide it appears to be possible to walk right out to the island.

The tide is going out but we can’t see a way across yet. Instead, we walk around the peninsula and explore the beaches we find on the way. I head for an impressive beached tree, only to find two enormous Portuguese man o’war jellyfish beached nearby.

We make it almost to Portmadog but there’s a deep channel that means we can go no further. There are warnings of quicksand posted along the beaches and in places we sink to above our ankles, which deters us from venturing too far from the firm sand. As we walk back along the shoreline the water is noticeably lower and we think again about going further out into the estuary. But there still seem to be deep areas and we’re not certain enough of our way ahead.

Arriving back at the hotel we notice people out on the sandbar in the estuary. It’s still not clear how they got there, but another person sets off from near White Horses and wades across. It seems quite shallow but at one point he seems to be up to his chest. It seems quite a risky prospect and in the end we decide to stay put – actually, the sand bar is quite featureless and wouldn’t compare with the rock formations we saw walking along the shoreline. There were even sections of pure white marble sandwiched between the rocks.
We have to pack now, ready to vacate tomorrow morning. Then we stroll down to the hotel for dinner, stopping on the way to record the 7pm chimes of the clock which plays the Welsh National Anthem. The water is even lower now, and as we sit on the terrace with pre-dinner drinks the clouds are reflected in what’s left of the water – it’s stunningly beautiful.

The food is excellent. After dinner we head back to the Gate House for cheese and a final drink. It will be a wrench to leave this place.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The place with the longest name

Today we go to Anglesey, where we will meet up with Jonathan and co again. We arrive via the new bridge, designed by Robert Stephenson, but we want to see the old one. We find a viewpoint where it’s possible to see both bridges, as well as a fish-trap in the middle of the Menai Strait.

We walk down to the river for a better view, then double back to Llanfair PG – as the place with the longest name is called for short. Alex has been wanting to come here for ages, and has worn his T-shirt from the name of the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano specially. We buy one from Llanfair PG, naturally. The railway station still operates, but the station house has been bought by a retailer and it has become a shopping destination.

Next stop is Beaumaris, where we have another castle to explore. This one becomes my favourite. It has plenty of round towers and double skinned walls full of tricky little passages. We enjoy exploring those for a while, then look for somewhere to have lunch before meeting Jonathan. The smart hotel on the seafront has just finished serving lunch and we end up in a pub called the George and Dragon.

 It starts raining as we leave, so I go back to the car for jackets while Simon and Alex skim stones from the beach. We’re meeting Jonathan on the jetty to go crabbing, and he soon phones us to say they are there. They’ve kindly bought Alex a crab line so we get stuck in. It’s easy enough to catch crabs, using a string bag full of bacon, but it’s harder to land them – it’s a long way up from the sea to the jetty and they drop off on the way. We manage to catch an impressive number of crabs between us, and Alex is particularly proud of catching the largest crab, who he dubs The Beast.
Alex, Cerys and Rhianon take the crabs to the beach after to release them and watch them race to the water, but they just sit there in a clump. The children pick them up one by one and nudge them in the right direction. We’re keen for them to reach the water before the gulls get them.

Next stop is the Red Boat ice cream parlour where Jonathan buys ice creams for everybody (except Simon, who doesn’t like it) – Alex chooses Ferrero Rocher and I choose strawberry, marscapone and balsamic. They’re excellent. Then we say our goodbyes and return to our respective holiday homes. The weather has been changeable all day but it’s a lovely evening and I go out to find the viewpoint from which our picture was painted. I find it, at a gazebo near the top of the wild place. This is our last evening eating in, and we have the rest of the chilli Simon made earlier in the week, then a game of crib before bed.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Castles and Cousins

Today began somewhat surreally with four men dressed in identical red tabards jogging down the path beneath our cottage with a photographer in tow. No explanation was forthcoming. Our destination this morning is Harlech, just a short drive away – or it should be. The toll bridge is closed and diversions are in place to the next bridge up which adds considerably to our journey.

Arriving in Harlech we are lucky to find a space in the car park. We explore the castle, which is on a rocky outcrop that used to be on the coast but is now someway inland although still exposed to the wind which is out in force. The walks along the top of the castle wall are too blustery to enjoy so we confine ourselves to the inside of the castle and its defensive wall. It’s not a large castle but considered important by Unesco, which has declared it a World Heritage site.
Leaving the castle we explore some of the surrounding streets which drop steeply down to the level of the new coastline. There are great views of the castle from below and some pretty cottages, one of which enjoys both a stunning view of the castle and a graveyard in its garden. We buy some cheese for dinner – Simon’s cousin Jonathan and his wife and children are coming to dinner, as well as Jonathan’s mum and dad. Returning to the car we realise that the traffic in the direction we need to go is stationary and everybody is turning round. We decide to follow them and find a route that skirts the bottom of the castle and avoids the blockage.

We make a brief stop at Portmadog to see The Cob, which was built to enable land to be reclaimed. We are fortunate that a steam train is in the station when we arrive – the line runs along The Cob and then down the high street in the strangest level crossing I have seen. We are searching for proper Caerphilly cheese, which we finally find in a little deli, then we stop at Tesco for the ingredients for tonight’s dinner. We have 9 to cater for, in a cottage designed for 5, and given the cooking equipment on hand we’ve decided to make a chicken and leek pie – there’s a huge rectangular Portmeirion dish we can use.

We have a couple of hours before our guests arrive so we go for a walk in the part of Portmeirion known as The Wild Place. We follow the paths along the coast as far as the lighthouse and then inland through the woods, taking in the Dog Cemetary and the Ghost Garden as well as the Chinese Lake. Alex is most impressed by the enormous ferns that are taller than him, and many of the trees that are spectactularly twisted and misshapen. On the way back we stop at the gallery and Alex and I both admire a picture of the village with the island and mountains in the background. Simon says we should have bought it, so we go back and get it.

Jonathan and co arrive about 6 and we have a walk in the village before dinner. We manage to find just enough chairs for everybody, by re-purposing a towel rail with attached seat from the bathroom. The evening goes well; Jonathan and Alison’s two girls are delightful and chat very confidently. They are on holiday in Caernarfon, so it’s great to have the opportunity to meet up with them.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Aberdaron and Caernarfon

We were planning an early start today but managed to sleep in and didn’t get away till nearly lunchtime. First stop was Aberdaron, the end of the north west peninsula by Bardsea Island. The weather is looking unsettled but by the time we arrive the clouds have cleared, although the wind is cold. The car park is full and there’s literally nowhere else to park; we drive on a little and find a lay-by but can’t park without blocking others in. From there, we have a great view of the car park from here and notice a couple of cars leaving, so we drive down and manage to get a space.

It’s a pleasant beach with a small river running through it but the graveyard behind it is a bit offputting. The biting wind means there are few people and those there are nestle beneath windbreaks or huddle below the overhang of the hotel where we have lunch. While we’re eating the clouds gather and our walk on the beach doesn’t last long, although Alex insists on taking off his t-shirt because we’re on a beach.

We set off for Caernarfon but my interest is piqued by signs for the whispering sands and we turn off to find them. We end up at Porthor Beach, which is much more sheltered than Aberdaron and quite beautiful. There are fabulous rock pools at one end and a long crescent of sand, although we don’t manage to make it whistle. Alex enjoys exploring the rock pools and trying to find a sea anemone with its tentacles out.
We push on to Caernarfon which turns out to have the most spectacular castle. It’s well-preserved and has several towers intact as well as the entire outer façade. We spend a couple of hours exploring and Alex amuses us by providing an idiosyncratic guided tour. It’s close to closing time so there are few other visitors, and they have to let us out though a small door in the huge gates when we leave.

Returning to Portmeirion we spend a little time exploring the areas that are only open to residents, then cook dinner, light a fire and settle down to watch Twelve Monkeys. Given the current Ebola outbreak, it seems scarily appropriate.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Llandudno and Conwy

We awake to a grey day and can see people passing below the gate house with raincoats and umbrellas, although the rain is light and drizzly. We decide to go out anyway, and leave shortly before lunch for Llandudno, one of the iconic Welsh seaside resorts and arrive in blustery rain. We take a brief look at the pier – the longest in Wales – and then find a restaurant on the seafront for lunch. It’s a good vantage point from which to watch people’s umbrellas blowing inside out as they try to avoid the horizontal rain. It’s not a great day to be by the seaside, so after a brief shopping expedition we set off for Conwy to see the castle.

It’s still raining when we arrive, but stops as we explore the castle which occupies an imposing spot controlling the river crossing. The town was fully walled and much of the wall remains standing. The castle’s towers are also fairly intact so we enjoy some splendid views of the town and the harbour. We walk a portion of the town walls and then go to look at some of the other buildings, including the smallest house in the UK. On the way we stop for an ice cream – a hugely frustrating experience as the guy behind the counter was incapable of fulfilling the simple task of selling us one. By this time the heavens have opened again so we head back to the car.
Driving back we stop briefly at Betws-y-coed, a busy little town doing a booming trade in outdoor wear and hiking equipment. I like the buildings here, all made from the local granite which makes them seem an integral part of the landscape. Then back to the Gate House to light a fire and get ready for dinner. The sunset tonight is stunning.

Saturday, 9 August 2014


It’s a beautiful day, and we have marvellous views from the Gate House across the estuary. We’ve checked the weather forecast and this is probably the best day we’ll have to we’ve booked tickets on the train up to the summit of Snowdon. I’m up first, and spend some time reading the autobiography of the architect of Portmeirion on our terrace. I still have my pyjamas on which confuses one of the early visitors who spots me. After a leisurely breakfast Simon drives to Snowdon – the roads are narrow and winding and have glorious views. We pick up our tickets and retire to the Royal Victoria hotel for lunch. The car park is full but there is only one other table occupied in the bar where we have an adequate lunch. Many of the other guests are there for a wedding.
The trip up to Snowdon is quite spectacular. The single carriage is pushed up the mountain by the engine along a narrow gauge railway. The landscape is stunning and travelling at 5mph you have time to take it in. We’re amused by the sheep doing “extreme grazing” on precipitous slopes with apparent indifference. There are streams and waterfalls, dramatic rock formations and, as we get higher, distant views of the coastline.

At the top we emerge onto the cold and windy summit and make our way to the peak. The wind makes it hard to stand upright but the views are incredible. There are a few clouds but visibility is pretty good. We only have half an hour to enjoy the views before the board the train for the return trip. It’s an hour by train and two by foot – there are many walkers and I think I would have enjoyed walking down.

We make a supermarket stop on the way back to Portmeirion where the clouds look quite threatening. The weather forecast says that we’ll have rain and high winds due to the tail end of hurricane Bertha. Alex is keen to swim and Simon says he’ll cook dinner while we go to the pool. On the way we pass guests arriving for a wedding that’s being held in Portmeirion’s “town hall”. The pool is outdoor but heated – Alex says it’s pretty warm but I’m not sure he’s a reliable witness. We have to register at the hotel before using it and they tell us it’s closing in 10 minutes at 8pm. That’s fine by me! As we swim it begins to rain. We arrive back at the Gate House quite bedraggled. Alex and I have baths while Simon cooks dinner and while we eat the wedding party has its firework display – unfortunately right at the peak of a heavy rain shower. The beginning of the tail end of Bertha? Simon has decided to prepare tomorrow’s dinner tonight so we’re up pretty late as he puts the finishing touches to the chilli. We don’t really have a plan for tomorrow, the weather will probably decide.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Portmeirion - arrival

We leave after lunch for the drive to Portmeirion, which with a clear run could take as little as four and a half hours. On the M40 warnings appear of long delays on the M6, so we take a detour to avoid it and manage to keep moving, albeit not always at the maximum speed allowed. As we near our destination we disturb an eagle feeding on some roadkill. We finally roll into Portmeirion at around 7, some five and a half hours after leaving Reading.

Simon and I have both been here before, just for day trips, but it’s a first for Alex. We’re staying in the Gate House, one of the first buildings you encounter as you walk down into the village. It sits above an archway through which visitors walk, but the front door is tucked away to the right. We offload our luggage and go for a walk through the village before dinner.

I love it here. The architecture is quite bonkers, but everywhere you look there’s something beautiful to see. It’s a lovely evening and the day visitors have left, so we encounter very few people. We walk all the way down to the hotel by the beach and then make our way back up to the castle for dinner.

The weather is mild enough for drinks outside, before we move inside for dinner. The food is quirky – my sun-dried tomato tartlet starter comes with goats cheese ice-cream - but excellent.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The saga ends

We’d planned an early start this morning to give us plenty of time in Reykjavik, but we can’t resist using the hot tub before breakfast. We start breakfast with boiled eggs cooked in the hot spring and feel obliged to try the rye bread, home-made cake and preserves – orange and carrot, and rhubarb. We still make it to Reykjavik before 10. We park next to the Hotel Klettur, where I stayed with Simon and Alex, as I can easily navigate from there.

We had considered a visit to the phallological museum, but it’s not open yet so we go to the cathedral and take the lift to the top of the tower for the views. Mel is impressed by the architecture, which resembles the natural rock formations at Garđur, and also by a tiny red house she spots from the tower. We decide to walk around the lake, and on the way there stumble across the red house – such serendipity doesn’t surprise us anymore.

At one corner of the lake we find ourselves in the city hall where there is a huge relief map of Iceland which really brings to life the massive scale of the glaciers and the inaccessibility of the interior. Continuing round the lake Mel chooses a house and we return along the main shopping street where we stop for hot drinks and cake at Sandholt where they bake their own, and also have 5G wifi which I had never even heard of. All too soon it’s time to return to the car and drive to the airport.
Handing back the tiny hire car, which has survived 500 miles over some pretty rough roads, we check in and buy a final skyr to eat on the plane. The approach to Heathrow was rather hair-raising for reasons we can’t fathom. And then we’re home.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Doing the Thing thing

Another early start, to complete the Golden Circle with a visit to Thingvellir. We begin at the visitor centre where a friendly – and enormous – raven peers down from the top of the information board while we plan our visit. We grab a hot drink before setting off to walk along the rift valley where the two tectonic plates are drifting apart at a rate of 1.5cm per year.
There are few people in the northern portion of the valley, but there are plenty at the waterfall which Mel observes we are unfortunately visiting too early for lunch. We continue up to the top portion of the site, then over the rift and down to the valley floor to visit the church and the mansion house. There’s a pool nearby which is so clear you can see how the bottom falls away at the edge of the rift. We have a chat about what we’ve got planned for the last 24 hours and Mel says she would have liked to have seen a turf house but a quick bit of research doesn’t reveal any historic ones within striking distance. We decide to keep our eyes peeled and hope to see on en route.

We continue around the lake and find the southern portion is a dirt track with a gravelly surface which makes it rather like a rally stage – you need enough speed to skim the top of the corrugated ruts but not so much that you skid on the gravel. It’s fun but requires a lot of concentration and I’m relieved to hit asphalt again. We find ourselves on another dirt track as we approach Keriđ, although this one is less gravelly I am amazed at what our little car has had to put up with.
Unfortunately Mel has to put up with a view of a volcanic crater for lunch today – not quite a waterfall but still quintessentially Icelandic. The bench we sat on during our previous visit was surrounded by water this time, apparently an indication that the water table is fuller.

From here it’s a relatively short drive to Hveragerđi and we check in at Frost and Fire before deciding whether to go out and find some more things to see. The receptionist shows us around – thermal pool, thermal hot tubs by the river, relaxation room … unsurprisingly, Mel opts for not going out. We book a table for dinner at Varma restaurant – a new addition since I stayed here before. There are more bedrooms, too – apparently it has changed hands and is undergoing an ambitious expansion.
We make some tea and sit outside for a while, then decide to explore the hillside on the other side of the river, which is steaming in several places. The footbridge is next to the hotel, and we begin by walking towards the biggest cloud of steam which turns out to be coming from a broken pipe which is supposed to carry thermally heated water to the town. Walking in the other direction we find many natural thermal springs and signs warning of thermal mud pools. We decide to take a route from the map provided by the hotel which takes us past the university’s horticulture department, some thermal baths and a strange wooden tripod that has a smaller sibling on the other side of the river. We speculate that it might be the support for some kind of pulley system for getting cargo across the river.

 We find another waterfall and take a footbridge back to the town side of the river which ends up in a public garden. From there we find our way to the town’s geothermal park which had just closed for the night. Looking through the fence we see numerous sources of steam, many of which seem to have been “tamed” by the construction of concrete surrounds. Hveragerđi is famous for its hot springs which made it the horticultural capital of Iceland due to the ready source of heat and water. The River Varma runs hot further upstream (its name means “warm”).
Adapting the route, which would have taken us through the now-closed geothermal park, we double back past the former domestic science college, the old dairy and the oldest house in the town, now offered as a residence for artists and writers from Iceland and beyond. We’re delighted to find a turf house, which Mel had been hoping to see. We’ve been fortunate this holiday because things seem to have a habit of turning up when we want them.

Back at Frost and Fire we use the pool and the hot tubs and marvel at the forces that are at work just below the surface of the earth. We shower, dress for dinner and start to pack before dinner. The restaurant looks lovely and has a large conservatory overlooking the gently steaming hillside.

The menu has more choice then I’m used to in Iceland, although neither of us can bring ourselves to order foal (even though we never hesitate over lamb). Mel opts for the arctic char and I choose the fish stew with rye bread cooked in the hot spring. Before our main courses the waitress brings an appetiser, which is rye bread pudding with dandelion syrup – unusual to have a sweet appetiser, but it’s delicious. Our main courses are excellent and the presentation makes them seem better value than other meals I’ve had in Iceland. Everything is so expensive compared to the UK that it often feels like you’re paying fine dining prices for canteen food. 

Dessert is just as good; Mel has a selection of local ice creams and I have skyr mousse, blueberry sorbet and dandelion syrup. It’s all gorgeous. We finish dinner, make tea and take it to the candle-lit relaxation room which we have to ourselves. This has been a lovely way to spend the last evening of our trip.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Various states of water

After breakfast we set off for the glacier Mel spotted yesterday, to see whether we can reach it. The road is a dirt track, which isn’t a problem for our little car until we reach a large puddle that spans it. We decide to park up and try to walk the rest of the way. We reach the end of the road and set off along the trail to the glacier, which looks enticingly close – although distances can be deceptive in such an expansive landscape.

We manage to reach it and it’s stunning. The ice is covered with a film of volcanic ash which creates a dramatic monochrome landscape. In the sunlight, the ice twinkles through the ash. As we walk up from the leading edge we find a perfect arch of ice, dripping water droplets that glitter as they fall. We catch some in our hands and drink – it’s astonishing to think it may have been frozen for thousands of years.

We were the first to reach the glacier today, and we leave as the others begin to arrive. The path snakes back along the meltwater river which begins as a modest stream and broadens as it gathers more water from the other streams that emerge in the valley. The bed is still much wider than the river, which presumably becomes much larger during the spring thaw. There’s a café at the end of the track and we enjoy a hot drink with a view of the glacier before heading back to the car.
Next stop is Skógarfoss, where we begin by taking the path up to the top of the fall. There are around 500 steps, so we’re pretty exhausted when we reach the top. After a pause to enjoy the view (and get our breath back!) we walk further upstream, where there are more falls and rapids. I didn’t get the chance to do this last visit. (In fact, I’m not even sure we noticed the path – we had our work cut out just remaining standing against the wind!) Back at ground level we settle on a bench with a view of the falls for our lunch and Mel jokes that she’ll be expecting another waterfall view to accompany lunch tomorrow.

On the drive to Geysir we stop briefly at the Eyjafjallajökull information point so Mel can bottle some ash to take home, and also make a stop to fill up with petrol and buy food for dinner. Mel is fascinated by the hot springs at Geysir and especially by Strokkur, which seems to be putting on an extra-special display today. A couple of enormous explosions have the crown shrieking and retreating, and it does some double and triple eruptions too.
We continue on to Gullfoss, where we begin at the lower viewing point. A path that was closed on my previous visit takes us very close to the falls and makes us acutely aware of its enormous power. We’re alarmed to see that somebody has climbed down over the barrier to have his girlfriend take his photo inches away from the spume. He would be pulverised if he fell in.

Mel prefers the upper viewing point where the awesome power of the water is less threatening. She obligingly poses on the site where Alex built Snowy the Snowman last trip; luckily for her there are fewer people up here, probably because it’s after 6pm although still broad daylight. We finish with a visit to the shop, where we marvel at the ridiculous prices, then drive on to Laugervatn where we are to spend the night.

Our studio apartment is spacious and a view between adjacent buildings of the lake. After dropping off our luggage we walk down to the lake and are amazed to find it warm. There’s a spa on the bank and information boards tell us that the town has long been a popular retreat. It only takes a few minutes to walk right round it, returning through a small wooded area. Mel’s delighted to find Coke bottles with Olaf on them in the supermarket. We return briefly to the apartment so that we can change into flip flops and go down to paddle. The sand is black and the water temperature is patchy, changing from tepid to unpleasantly hot with the tiniest movement.
We cook a surprisingly good meal of marinated lamb, powdered mash and instant sauerkraut, followed by fresh raspberries and vanilla skyr, then we pop across the road to the hostel for a nightcap. A polite sign asks us to remove our footwear and put on the slippers provided and we walk up the stairs and apparently back  to the seventies; Mel has a Baileys and I have a birch liqueur with prosecco while we review my photos before a cup of tea and bed.