Mid-afternoon in August. I wanted to go up Tal y Fan, a reasonable but strenuous walk from my back door. I’d wanted to go up there all day, but I felt sluggish and inert, and I had a blister on my foot from walking two days before. It was a lovely hot, sunny day, but humid and rather oppressive. It wasn’t until about three in the afternoon that I finally got myself going.
I had been learning about rock cannons, a Welsh quarrying and mining tradition of drilling holes in rocks and setting off gunpowder in them as makeshift fireworks, to mark celebrations. I’d found a rather impressive one a few days before, in Cwm Eigiau, and had heard of one on Tal y Fan, but not been able to find it. The drive to find it was stronger, in the end, than my inertia, so I harnessed up the dog and started out up the hill.
It was hot, humid, stuffy. There was low cloud over the mountaintops, over Drum (760 metres) and Tal y Fan (610 metres), drifting slowly. I made reasonably good time, I think, puffing up the lanes in the humid heat. I got up to Cae Coch, which is a cottage on the side of Tal y Fan sitting at 400 metres above sea level. That’s where you leave the road to go up the mountain. So I climbed the stile and started up the mountainside.
Part of the way up the slope I became aware of how dark it was getting. It was about 4pm, but seemed as dark as dusk. It felt weird, almost like the build up to a total eclipse. It was growing darker and darker. I looked around and was amazed to see mist behind me. The whole valley had disappeared without my realising it. There was mist in front of me now, too. I was alone in a little bowl. I felt a few spots of rain spattering down.
I carried on up, higher, over the second stile and the third, where the mountain changes from grass and gorse to lots of bilberry bushes, heather, crowberries, and rushes. The rocks start pushing through the skin of the mountain like the bones of a starving person. I was almost up at the point where you can cross a stile to descend the other side of the mountain, a little pass high up. From there there’s a lot of steep rocky stuff to traverse to get to the summit.
That’s when it really started raining, when the thunder started rumbling. It was impressive, if a little scary. The thought of being caught in the mountains in a thunderstorm is always in the back of my mind when I walk. And here I was. It was coming fast. The rain started really coming down. I could hear the thunder rumbling all around, ricocheting through the higher mountains that rise beyond these ones on the edge of the valley. Lightning was flashing, and then the thunder would come afterwards, rolling across the sky.
The rain started in real earnest. It was hard to know what to do. I didn’t want to be the highest point around. I didn’t want to turn back and walk across the open fields and be the one lone thing standing above the gorse. So I moved a few yards further up the hill to where there were two outcrops of rock, a big crag that forms the start of the ridge of Tal y Fan, and a smaller one on the other side. I thought if I could make myself low and small then I would be as safe as I could be. I was afraid of trying to find shelter under something – which would have to be rock – and have it be hit by lightning.
So I huddled down, foetal position, on my side on the grass and heather. I didn’t think I could get much wetter, and at least it wasn’t too cold. The rain was driving through everything. I took my rucksack, with its metal walking pole, off and put it aside. I took my glasses off and put them aside. I pulled my hood over my face and waited.
I thought that being separate from the dog would be best. I thought if one of us was hit, the other would be spared. But after a while I realised how scared she was. She was huddled down, shaking. The thunder sounded like something mythical by now, like the wars of the gods being played out above me. It would rumble over, slow and languorous and brutal across the sky, up in the clouds. It seemed to go on for so long and fill so much of the space above me. It seemed so present, so immediate, even though, when I saw lightning flashings, counting for the thunder put the lightning some miles away.
I pulled the dog in against me and huddled over her, trying to keep her warm, to give her reassurance. I think it helped, but she shook the entire time. We lay there and I got wetter and wetter. Every inch of me was wet, down to my underwear, all of my skin, inside my boots. The rain just seemed to come through everything. I wondered about the likelihood of being hit by lightning. It must be an extremely small chance. But it seemed so powerful and ubiquitous. I felt a sense of peace, a bit like when I’d been stung. The feeling that there was nothing I could do either way. I could just lie there through the storm.
Eventually it started to ease off. I could feel it getting lighter almost as much as I could see it. The rain started lessening from torrential to heavy. I was starting to see light places in the clouds. There was still thunder and lightning, but it was moving on.
In the end I got up. It felt safer now. It felt as if the storm had passed. It’s funny how quickly this enormous storm faded. There were a few blue bits in the sky. The mist was gone. We, the dog and I, got up and carried on up the mountain. I was determined to find my rock cannon. Everything seemed refreshed and beautiful, all the purple heather flowers more purple than they had been. There were rays of light coming down in the west, puffy towers of cloud catching the sunlight. We got up to the top, drenched, and searched for the rock cannon.
I searched high and low and could find nothing. I was afraid it was buried under moss and bilberries and heather. I could feel rocks in places, hard under the moss. I had rudimentary directions – about twenty feet east away from the trig point, on the south side of the wall. Eventually I found it. Of course it was the place I’d first looked when I was up there a few weeks ago. It was the place that instinctively looked right to me. But it was such a tiny, modest thing that I hadn’t seen it then. Two holes drilled in the bottom of this big outcrop of stone. That was all. Two little holes.
Perhaps the quarrymen of Penmaenmawr were less exuberant than the ones of Eigiau, where the rock cannon was large, impressive, and complex. But, I found it, at least. Perhaps they got more adventurous elsewhere on the mountain, but if they did, I haven’t seen it. At least I found that one, and that’s enough for now. Meanwhile, I feel as if I’ve passed some kind of trial, perhaps gone up a mountain an ordinary mortal, and come down a poet. Something happened to me on that mountaintop, at any rate, that might never be repeated.
[Later, I discovered that these two small holes are not the rock cannon I was looking for. The actual rock cannon has seven holes. I found it later, on a beautiful September day, with not a thundercloud in sight. Here is my account of that day.]