WalesA Scaryduck re-print for the masses
When you’re a student, only one thing matters in life. Drink. Lots of it, and prefarably as cheap as possible. So it was a throwaway remark by Clive that started it all off.
“Do you know how cheap beer is in Wales?”
We didn’t. He told us. We decided to go to Wales on holiday.
The whole affair was planned like a military operation. We were to take the train to Merthyr, and walk through Wales, climbing over three of the biggest mountains we could find. It would be a healthy two weeks of hiking and camping, set off with the desire to get rip-roaringly drunk whenever the opportunity presented. We bought piles of military-style dehydrated meals, and meticulously planned our route down to the last footstep. It was going to be hard work, but fun. You heard me: FUN!
It was late July when the six of us took off. Two hippies Steve and Martin, two slobs myself and Clive, and the brothers Pat and John. It was a blazing hot day when we finally got to Merthyr in the late morning, real T-shirt weather. It was just a shame we’d dressed for a crossing of the Antarctic. Our packs were so heavy with food, clothes and tents you’d have thought we’d have packed anvils. Then there was the small matter of the route march to the youth hostel near Brecon, about fifteen miles away. After about thirty minutes, we had reached the cemetary on the outskirts of Merthyr, half dead with exhaustion, we were more than willing to join the inhabitants.
Words cannot express the hell of that day. But I’ll give it a damn good try with “Bloody fucking awful”. We arrived about seven hours later, having taken a pointless “short cut” that had got us hopelessly lost 400 yards from our goal, sweating like pigs and about ten pounds lighter.
You think THAT was bad. You should have seen dinner. It came out of a vacuum sealed bag marked “risotto, just add water”. We did. We got cement. Cement that would block up your arsehole for weeks to come. We had bags and bags of the stuff too. They looked like torn up cardboard and became known as “Ratpacks”, on the assumption that only a rat would eat them. Or worse still, that was what they were made out of.
The next morning we dragged ourselves out of bed and hopped around on blistered feet. We had a mountain to climb. The idea was that we’d climb Pen y Fan, go over the top and arrive in Brecon in the late afternoon, happy wanderers singing the joys of summer. Bollocks to that. Up the mountain with minimal gear and back down again, and stuff the those plans we’d spent weeks putting together.
With the sun still pelting down, it was a hard old slog up the mountain, I can tell you for nothing. And what did we do when we got there? Admire the view? Slap each other’s backs on a job well done? Nope. We threw stones down the side to see how far they’d roll. I had the find of the day - a large round boulder, about the size of a basketball and weighing about fifty pounds.
“Hey guys! Look at this!” I shouted, heaving my find over the edge. I fully expected it to fall about twenty yards and stop. Instead, it shot down the mountainside like shit from a goose gaining momentum as it went. About 1,000 feet below us there was a squad of soldiers on a mountain route march. Like a silent movie, we watched in horror as one of them pointed up the mountain at the guided missile approaching, and they scattered in all directions, quite literally for their lives. We hid.
For a full five minutes, the boulder of doom thundered on. At one stage it ripped through a flock of sheep, miraculously missing every one of the panicking beasts. Then it chased a horse for a full hundred yards before slamming into a dry stone wall, sending shards of shattered rock in all directions.
I was in fits of laughter. The lads weren’t. Steve the hippie, despite thinking the law was Babylon itself, was all in favour of handing me in to the police if I’d had killed anyone, and continuing the holiday without me. The others were in full agreement, and Pat and John already had me in an armlock, just in case I tried to make a break for it. Cheers, guys.
“You TWAT!” was the politest comment that the usually laid back Martin offered, though he was finally beginning to laugh by then. Back at the hostel, I was put on ratpack duty. For ever.
That night, exhausted, we decided that the over-optimistic itinery was going in the bin. Huge, boring slices of walking were to be cut out and replaced with busses and pubs. The next morning, we flagged down a bus outside the youth hostel which dropped us in Rhayader, cutting out three day’s walking.
Ah, Rhayader! A crossroads, five churches and more pubs than you could shake a shitty stick at. That’ll do nicely. We pitched our three tents at a ridiculously cheap camp site populated by a bunch of snotty kids and sheep, cooked another meal of shredded cardboard and hit the town. Village. Whatever.
“Six pints of your finest, Landlord!” shouted Pat, who when not eating cardboard usually existed on a liquid diet. “That’s me sorted, what are you guys having?”. Years late, when he finally got a job, he asked that his paychecks be sent to a pub in Farnborough “to cut out the middle man”.
I have to admit that we got very, very drunk. Outstandingly so. There were more pubs in Rhayader than seemed physically possible and we tried them all. All I can remember of this night is the fact that one pub was SO full of young laydez desperate for our attention, they were spreading themselves across the pool table while Pat and Clive were trying to line up a shot. Even if they were naked and holding up signs saying “Get it here”, we still wouldn’t have been interested. I look back on that night with a certain amount of shame.
We eventually regained consciousness the next afternoon. Steve had somehow come into possession of a tap, so presumably the centre of Rhayader was on the verge of flooding. We had to get away, and fast. With heads pounding, we struck camp and ambled for two miles up the River Wye towards our next objective, a youth hostel halfway up a mountain in the middle of nowhere.
We never made it. Each step was a sickening lurch in exhausted hangover-land. We broke through some trees to find a beautiful bend in the river, completely secluded from human contact. Sod the youth hostel, this is real Marlboro country. We're going to live like cowboys, true heroes to the last. We’re going to sleep on the dried up river bed on the inside of the bend with a whopping great camp fire to keep us warm.
Yeah, right. There were one or two details us ignorant, drunken townies failed into account...
1. The dead sheep lying fifty yards upstream in the river whose “crystal clear” waters we were so readily drinking from.
2. Lighting a fire directly onto a dried up river bed of large pebbles does tend to make the stones explode with extreme sleeping-bag-burning force.
3. When it rains heavily during the night, dried up river beds have a tendancy to become raging torrents.
And that’s what we found out. Come dawn, all six of us were cowering in a hastily erected two-man tent, beating off half the sheep in Wales as they tried to join us in the only piece of shelter for miles around. See? The females of Wales were throwing themselves at us, and we still didn’t get the message.
Later that day we reached the Youth Hostel. It was from another world. The only water they had came from the previous night’s rain. They didn’t have any electricity either, and all the light came from olde-worlde gas lanterns. All very nice, but even halfway up a mountain in Wales it’s not what you come to expect. Another meal of shredded cardboard, and after the best part of a week on the road, it emerged that only one of us had managed a crap.
We grimly struggled on. Walk. Bus. Pub. Walk. Bus. Mountain. Pub. Train (just to be different). Pub. Walk. Bus. And we soon found ourselves at the foot of Mount Snowdon the tallest mountain in Wales. We’d planned a simple ascent up the Watkin path, which was fairly gentle until you reach the last few hundred feet. Then it turns into a wall of rock that saps any energy you may have had left. At least we were no longer carrying cardboard food rations, and we were pretty much used to our backpacks by now.
As it turned out, it was a nicely leisurely first couple of hours to the summit before the path suddenly lurched up on the steep final ascent. Then, in the noon-day sun, it was a killer. We scrambled up as best we could, the only thing on our minds was a pint in the bar on the mountain summit.
“I hope it’s still open by the time we get there” I commented.
“No sorry mate, it’s just closed” came the joking reply from a hiker going in the opposite direction.
That was too much to take. “If it is”, I said, “I’ll come after you and rip your bloody head off and use your brains to paint my house”. I was rabid and only half joking, and it took the rest of the guys to physically restrain me from carrying out my drink-crazed threat.
In the end, there was no problem with the bar being open. The problem lay with the quality. Fizzy keg rubbish. The lads were outraged, but they drank it anyway, and we passed the time watching some idiot accidentally drop his rucksack down the side of the mountain. It was very much like the Boulder of Death episode much earlier on, except with this person’s entire worldly goods. Luckily for him, it caught a sheep square in the side, saving him a trek of several miles. The sheep was OK, and spent the next few minutes savaging the rucksack until it was a mass of clothes, sheep shit and saliva. How we laughed.
All we had to do now was get off that mountain and get out of Wales. Easier said than done. We arrived in Bangor-on-Dee of a Saturday afternoon just as it was closing. What we didn’t realise that this part was Wales is VERY religious, and closing meant CLOSED. Everything. Even the station, and we’d missed the last train until Monday morning.
The worst bit was, and we didn’t know this either, was that after to weeks on the road, we smelt funny. Sure, we’d washed at some stage - if your idea of washing was jumping into a river fully clothed seven days and two mountains ago. And no-one had had the front to come out and tell us. We were students. Personal hygiene was for people with jobs.
So, there we were, trapped for two days in the most closed town in the world. What could six foul smelling students do? The youth hostel took one look at us and told us they were "full" and politely let us sleep in the grounds, but come Sunday we were on our own. Of course, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. There was always the streets.
Idea! We’ll go to church! The local clergy will take care of us, paupers that we are. Free bread and wine, too. So we went. They threw us out because we freaked out the old biddies. Come on, Jesus had a beard and hung around with blokes that stunk of fish, and I bet he never got thrown out of church. By a stroke of luck we found a tea room that was open for the Devil’s service on a Sunday. It was full to the gills. But not to us. “Sorry, we’re closing”, said a waiter with a clothes peg on his nose. Several elderly customers, I noticed, were already wearing gas masks.
We took the hint. They were definately trying to tell us something. In the end, we managed to beg some food from the back door of a restaurant like a bunch of tramps, which was, in effect, what we had become. That Sunday was the most boring of my life. Monday couldn’t come fast enough, and bright and early we were on the first train out of there.
Funnily enough, for a Monday morning commuter train, there were an awful lot of empty seats around us. However, we were totally unprepared for a smart, clean shaven young man to come and sit among us.
“Sorry mate, that seat’s taken”
“Whaddaya mean ‘taken’ you bastards?”
It was John. He’d had a wash and a shave. Even his own brother hadn’t recognised him. When I got home, my dog chased me out of the house. I took the hint. I had two baths, and my clothes actually walked their own way to the washing machine, where they dissolved into a brown sludge.
As far as I know, there are still court orders barring me from Wales. Lovely place. Smells funny.