Seven Peaks

A long, beautiful, sobering walk yesterday. A stupid walk. I’d tried to plan for it but my anxiety made me flipflop at lightning speed a thousand times about doing it. In the end the only way I walked at all was by taking the dogs out and then getting K. to bring me my rucksack once I was already out. Because of that I was walking up to the Roman road, instead of up the Dulyn valley as I’d meant to, so I ended up going up Drum, Foel Fras, Carnedd Gwenllïan and Foel Grach before heading up Carnedd Llewelyn as I’d meant to. Then on to Carnedd Dafydd and Pen yr Ole Wen. So, seven peaks instead of the three I’d meant to do.

Going up Drum I didn’t think I’d got enough fitness back after being ill. I had to keep stopping and sitting to get my energy back. I missed out the secondary peak of Drum and just made for the top. There were people there, in the cairn, so I sat on the outside and ate a little lunch.

On the way up Drum

Then I pushed on up Foel Fras, which is the most dragging, punishing slope; just a constant slog up and up and up over the smooth, rounded side of the hill. At the top it turns into a moon landscape – maybe more a Mars landscape – of chaotic, tumbled stones. There were people there too, some British, some American, one man in a Royal Mail baseball cap. I had a bit more lunch and carried on, down to the little stony crown at the top of Carnedd Gwenllïan, then up to Foel Grach. Somehow I’d forgotten about Foel Grach. It’s not the same slog as Foel Fras, but just enough.

The slog of Foel Fras

Then up Carnedd Llewelyn, second highest mountain in Wales, another minor slog over mountain grass and through more tumbled stone, onto another Mars-scape, a big flat top with views of everywhere; the mountains spreading away south, rain coming down in little veils over the Llŷn, the curve of Yr Elen. Gorse fires, the scar of industrial quarrying to the west, towns and villages sparkling in the sun. A mountain rescue helicopter was buzzing around.

The helicopter below

So then I carried on along new ground, down and along the ridge to Carnedd Dafydd. There was a river in the valley that looked like a dropped ribbon of silver. On the other side, Ffynnon Llugwy, a bottomless blot like black ink. Up to the shelter on Carnedd Dafydd, again with people in it. Getting tired now. I was scared of descending Pen yr Ole Wen, but the only other option would be to backtrack up Carnedd Llewelyn and down the Melynllyn track. Maybe that would have been sensible.

Pen yr Ole Wen is a flat, featureless top with no real summit. I knew there were two options down, one with shale and one with scrambling. I wasn’t confident in my ability to scramble, at the end of a long walk, so I took the other.

On the edge of Pen yr Ole Wen

It was awful. What felt like a sheer slope, picking my way down a trodden path between loose rocks and heather. My thighs and knees giving out, using walking poles all the way. All I could see was how high and precipitous it was, how far the lake was below. It seemed a long, long way to fall. I wasn’t on the path on the map but it seemed to be the only path, so it was all I had to trust. I was afraid of leaving it to track sideways and finding myself in a position I couldn’t get out of. So I kept on downwards, grateful for every foot lower. I did a lot of it sitting, sliding very carefully. Then the path disappeared.

I could see the awful loose rock dying out not far below. I needed to get down to that. But what if the smooth areas ended in cliffs? I felt sick with exhaustion. My legs barely worked. I ate half a granola bar but I felt too sick to eat the rest. I was trying very consciously to make good decisions but I didn’t know if I could trust myself.

There was a lot of bottom sliding over heather and bilberries. A lot of wobbling and easing myself down over stone. I deliberately didn’t look at my watch because I knew that K. was waiting at the bottom and I didn’t want to feel hurried. I knew I had to take it as slowly as I could.

Still a long way down

I got out onto a spongy flatness. I was grateful for it – but what if there were cliffs at the other side? A sheep felt like a friendly presence. There weren’t cliffs, just another section of heather and shale, which I slid down, hardly able to stand.

The lake was suddenly very close. I saw K. pacing on the road. The land was flat and it was easier to walk. My legs didn’t work for going down but they seemed to work for the flat. I’d had visions of having to crawl to the car. So I walked, leaning on the poles, until I found K., white faced, filled with worry. A final struggle along a rocky path, a moment of anxiety crossing the road, where cars and bikes rush along at 60mph, and I was in the car. Sick. Broken. Full of guilt and self loathing for all the worry I’d caused. But I hadn’t had to call out Mountain Rescue and I had got myself down.

On safe ground

I never want to climb that mountain again, up or down. But at least I’ve done it.

Advertisement

Ice

Grass is frozen under a pane of ice, still looking as if it’s caught in the flow of water.

We walked out from the house up around the end of Tal y Fan on the edge of the Carneddau, on a frozen day. Ice stood in sheets on the fields, built up layer by layer like a shell over the softer ground. It was a delicate, beautiful day.

Carneddau ponies grazed on thin grass, coats the blazing colour of winter bracken under strong sun. Their hair is thick and soft this time of year, their sides swollen with growing foals inside, while last year’s foals tag along, old enough, but still too young to stray far from their mothers’ sides.

A widening pool in a mountain stream has grown milky as the ice forms.

By the time we were at 500 metres the air was cold enough to make our skin scream. Time for balaclavas and steamed up spectacles. We passed the prehistoric hill fort of Caer Bach, and ancient cairns. We crossed the end of Tal y Fan where it starts to slump down and break up into little hills, harsh upthrusts of rock with their own names. We cut left of the mediaeval Llangelynin Old Church and passed other signs of humanity instead. Stone peat stores falling into ruin, the old abandoned quarry, roofless huts with their walls half gone. The standing stone of Maen Penddu, thrust up near the crossing of hikers’ paths. Someone has scrawled a crucifix on its side, but the stone is far older than Christianity and will probably outlast its churches. This place is a jumble of marks made by humans on a landscape which is indifferent to the tiny blink of our existence.

Days of freezing has left contour lines in the ice around an unfrozen central core.

More Carneddau ponies, a whole herd this time, curious and wary and apparently unconscious of the cold. Streams of water turned to ice. The paths frozen underfoot. We walked along the side of Cefn Maen Amor to the little ruin of Tyddyn Grasod, a crog loft cottage which used to house farmers, quarrymen, setts makers, and paupers. The wind was too strong and the air too cold to stop for lunch, but people still live here, up on the fringes where farmland becomes mountain.

We tracked along the back of Tal y Fan, seeing the delicate hoof prints of the unshod ponies in the frost, and the great marks of domesticated horses alongside. This is a favourite place for riding. We picked our way along the sides of a path slick with ice, and finally stopped to eat at about 550 metres, huddled in the shelter of a rock.

A central line of unfrozen water has contour lines of ice along its sides, where the stream has flowed across the path.

My phone warned me that it was too cold to charge properly. My body was too cold to work properly, and I wanted to be home, with the fire and hot tea. We struggled through a little bog, suddenly off the path, stepping lightly on weather flattened, frosted rushes before suddenly breaking through to peaty water. We reached the pass at the west end of Tal y Fan and stood, looking over to Ynys Môn in the north west, and Dyffryn Conwy in the south east, on the spine between our land and elsewhere. Then we turned for home.

Bubbles of air move under a clear pane of ice, with rushes and snow either side.

The Dog

In front of a dark, rocky headland, the small figure of an old man walks from the sandy beach with an old brown dog.

We met an old man on the beach today. We were walking down onto the Morfa at Conwy and I let my small frug dog off her lead because there weren’t many people about. She made a beeline for an elderly gentleman with snow white hair and a substantial white moustache, walking slowly back to the car park with an equally elderly dog. My dog ran straight up to the other to investigate, so I hurried down because, the frug being the frug, she didn’t listen to me when I told her to come back.

A young frug dog is racing towards the camera along the point where shallow waves meet the sand.

The frug wasn’t bothering the old man and, unusually, she wasn’t barking. She and the old dog just sniffed at each other, exchanging doggish greetings. I reached the man and apologised for my dog. He said he didn’t mind. His dog was having her last walk today. She was sixteen, a lovely chocolate labrador with age showing through all her body. Her muzzle was greyed, her hips were angular, her legs looked awkward with weight loss.

The dog had cancer, and she was having her last walk on the beach before being taken to the vets to be put to sleep. I asked if I could stroke her, and the man told me I could.

‘She loves being stroked,’ he said. ‘And this is her last walk.’

A silhouetted headland stretches across the background from left to right. The sky is mostly cloudy and reflected in the wet sand of the beach. In the foreground a small black rock is perfectly mirrored in the water.

‘I can’t go in with her,’ he said. ‘Because of this covid they won’t let me in, so she’ll have to go in alone. I’ve done this before but I’ve always been able to go in. I’ve always been able to be there.’

I talked with him about what a lovely dog she was, how he was doing the best thing he could for her. How his grief was representative of the love that they’d shared for one another through her life. Without that there wouldn’t be grief. I felt like crying myself, a hard welling in the back of my throat. She was such a sweet, calm dog, with just an occasional attempt at a small bark when my dog got excited. I kept stroking her, and it was obvious she was getting pleasure from this.

A broken fence of wooden bars stretches across pebbly sand, with the sea and walkers in the distance.

He had been breeding chocolate labs for a long time, he said. This was his last one. Sixteen years old, and she was the end of the line. I hoped he might find himself another dog in time, but I didn’t want to say that to him, because he was full of his grief at what he was about to lose.

He moved on in the end, walking slowly on up the beach. He had to gently prompt the dog to move. She met more dogs as they carried on up the sand and shingle slope. He stopped so she could interact with them, and spoke to their owners. Then they both went away.

Wild Horses

Image description: six wild ponies of grey, white, and dark brown stand on a grassy hillside, looking at the photographer.

I sang to the Carneddau ponies today.

I wanted to do a longer walk, up Foel Fras and on to Llwytmor, but it became obvious this wasn’t the day. I didn’t have the time, the daylight, the weather. I started off under blue skies with puffy white clouds, but my body felt sluggish and slow. I was too tired, too sore. We walked up past Pen y Gadair along the track which goes towards Dulyn then veers up the side of the hill towards Foel Fras. I wanted to get to Llwytmor to see where a German plane had crashed in WWII, but it was already almost one as I was slogging up the side of Foel Fras, and it was hard going all the way. I sat down for a little of my lunch, then pushed on. I probably should have eaten it all but it seemed wrong not to eat on the summit. One problem with autism – it can be hard to make yourself stop and properly rest.

Image description: an expanse of tufty mountain grass in the foreground with the rising peaks of the Carneddau mountains further away, and a blue sky with clouds gathering over the hills.

I found out there was another WWII crash on the side of Foel Fras, an Anson Mk.I, in which one man died and four escaped. I thought I’d make for that instead, then up to the top of Foel Fras. If I carried on to Llwytmor I would be exhausted and unsafe, and would probably have to come down in Abergwyngregyn, and call for my husband to pick me up. He’d have to break the county quarantine, go over the border, to get me. I’m not sure exactly where the border runs in the hills, but we know where it lies on the coast, and he’d have to cross it.

So, I slogged on up Foel Fras, tired and hungry and getting cold.

Image description: seven wild ponies of grey, white, and dark brown stand on a grassy hillside, looking at the photographer, with a rickety fence cutting across the left side of the picture.

Then I saw the horses. A whole family group; seven, I think. Greys and whites and a couple of dark brown. One was a teenaged dark brown foal with a white blaze. They were on the other side of the fence from us. They were obviously curious about me and the dogs. They kept coming closer then shying away. Horses have such a lovely curiosity. Cows’ curiosity seems stolid. The horses seem more alive.

I thought they’d feel less threatened if I sat down. I felt reasonably safe because of the fence, even though I knew they could flatten the fence if they wanted to. It was all flimsy old fence posts covered in lichen, and rusty wire. But a barrier is a mental thing as much as anything else. I sat down and the dogs sat down and the horses kept sidling closer, then getting nervous and moving away.

Image description: four wild ponies of grey, white, and dark brown stand on a grassy hillside. A grey-white pony is closest, looking at the photographer intently.

I thought I should sing to them. I’m not sure what the thought process was. I think it was a dual thing. I thought song might calm them, and I thought it might intrigue them. So I started singing the first song that came to mind. ‘In Dublin’s fair city, where the streets are so pretty…’ I sat on the mountainside singing Molly Malone. It’s one of the few songs, along with Christmas carols and other folk songs, that I could pick out without music on my recorder as a child.

They were intrigued. They kept stepping closer. One would come closer, then hesitate, then another would nose through and take its place. The foal stayed safely in the middle, but it took its turn coming forward. There was a grey-white one, in particular, built like a barrel, which was the most curious. It was on the outside of the group, not safe in the middle. It came closest of all.

Image description: seven wild ponies of grey, white, and dark brown running from the photographer over a grassy hillside, on the other side of a rickety fence.

I went through a couple of verses and they just stood and listened, trying to work out what this strange human was doing. Then I stopped singing and they became a little less curious. I stood up, and they lurched away. They move like something organic at these times – like a piece of nature, not beings with individual minds. They skip back like the undertow on a wave, come forward again, skip back again. It’s like watching the tide going out. I stood and I walked on, and they ran back across the hill, a tide running back into the sea, back into their amazing and isolated world. 

The Spaying

Image description: a colour photo of Demi, a young grey and ginger cat with a white front, sitting on purple cloth.

The spaying was necessary after three sets of lockdown kittens, eleven in all. Two of the cats have already been neutered. Demi was the last. Demeter, my baby, who gave birth before she was one year old. My baby, who came to me when she was in labour and made me sit with her all night while she birthed four beautiful kittens. A cat going to the vets to be spayed isn’t a great and momentous event, but it felt that way to me.

The most memorable moments of today were standing in the kitchen knowing Demi was in the vets being spayed, and suddenly having that awful dropping feeling of dread, of fear for her life. Knowing it was just my love for her creating that dread, but afraid it was there for a real reason.

Image description: Demi inside a cat carrier in a car, with her face pressed against the bars of the carrier door and her paw through the bars, curled over the photographer’s hand.

Then waiting in the vets with the powerful scent of something in the air. Diarrhoea, I assumed. A dog, perhaps. The vet coming out into the reception, mask on, apologising for the smell, opening the windows. ‘We’re doing an autopsy,’ she said. Suddenly the smell felt a thousand times worse. ‘Is it the bowels?’ I asked. ‘No, just dead sheep. It’s a sheep,’ she said. And my mind became revulsed. My body wasn’t telling me to retch, but my mind was, the whole time I was waiting there for Demi to come out. I can smell it again now, recounting it, as if it’s here with me. I’ve smelt dead sheep before, but never a smell like that. The stench of real death, the dead insides of a being.

Then, sitting in the car with Demi, her paws coming out through the carrier bars, her wet nose pressing against the bars, pressing into my hand. Her paws wet and warm with sweat. Letting her out while we were parked, while my husband was in the shop, buying me a drink to push away the memory of that awful smell. Her sweetness, her purring, fawning over me, so pleased to be back with me, so loving despite my being the one who took her to this place that gave her pain.

Image description: Demi lying on a grey chair, wearing a cone which obscures her face, feeding her two tabby kittens and one older black kitten.

Then, having her home, and the purring. Letting, against all the rules, her kittens back to her, and the relief I saw in her as she climbed onto her usual chair, her nursing chair, and lay with the kittens, arm protectively over their backs, while they suckled. The resonance of the purring like the sussuration of wind, a reflexive thing that builds on itself in waves. Her happiness at being where she belonged again, with the ones that she loves. 

The Thunderstorm

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.

On the slopes of Tal y Fan, with Pen y Gaer and Pen y Gadair wreathed in cloud. [Image description: a slope of tussocky mountain grass with two mountain peaks in the distance, partly obscured by cloud.]

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.

Suddenly, the mist came down. [Image description: a slope of tussocky mountain grass disappearing in mist.]

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.

The poor dog, soaked and in terror. [Image description: A small light brown frug dog with pink harness and black lead, huddling down and wet on wet grass and small shrub plants.]

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.

All the heather, bright purple in the new light. [Image description: a waterlogged path with heather and bilberry bushes on either side, leading down the mountainside, with higher mountains and low cloud in the distance.]

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.

The summit of Tal y Fan. [Image description: the summit of a mountain with a square stone built trig point on top of it, and low cloud with a small glimpse of the valley beyond.]

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.

The rock cannon; two little holes, at the base of the rock. [Image description: A large fractured grey rock, wet with rain, standing at an angle in grass, with two inch-diameter holes drilled in it close together at the bottom.]

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.]

For contrast, this is the more complicated rock cannon at Cwm Eigiau. [Image description: a close up of a flat grey rock with inch-wide holes drilled in it, one with a wider, shallower round hole about it, and gouged lines connecting the holes.]
The hills seeming to steam in the aftermath of the storm, with sun shafting down in the West. [Image description: a wet lane with an overgrown hedge. Beyond rises the mountain of Tal y Fan with a small amount of mist clinging to the lower slopes. Pylons stride into the distance with sunbeams cutting down across them.]

The Quarry

A slate tip and a tunnel beneath. [Image description: A low tunnel with a solid slate beam holding it up, surrounded by ferns and leading under a tip of various sized chunks of slate, partly covered in moss.]

It was a day for exploring. My husband and I went to the long-abandoned quarry site of Hafod Las, in the Conwy Valley. I was never expecting it to be like it was. Things like ‘disused incline,’ and the outlines of buildings, look very dry on the map. This quarry – a slate and slab quarry – lasted from the mid C19th to the 1930s, which means it’s been abandoned for almost a century.

We started walking up the disused incline, which looked like some kind of ancient hollow-way, except in how straight it was. Everything was dripping with moss. It made me think of the temperate rainforests of the American North-West. Moss thick on everything, carpeting everything. Little pink flowers like stars on the thick cushions of green. Everything beaded with water. Whole trees, leaning over as if tired of their own weight, blanketed in moss.

The Incline. [Image description: a rocky and leaf-mould covered track leading up a hill between fern and moss covered banks and trees.]

This disused incline ran straight up the hill. It must have been used to transport slate in carts from the processing area down to the valley floor. Occasionally you could see rusted cables in the ground, red against the moss and grass. Then we came upon a building, made of thin, solid slabs of grey slate. It was dwarfed by a massive hill of discarded slate slabs, part covered with moss and the little pink star flowers. I squeezed into this building – the entrances were pressed up against a wire fence – and looked around. The walls were all sprouting with little ferns, bigger ferns fanning up from the floor. A trough along the floor was coated in moss.

A wall along the incline. [Image description: mossy trees and ferns along one side of the track, and a high, imposing slate wall on the other, with moss and ferns growing against it.]

We walked on up the incline to find the main building. The incline was punctuated by the winding house, two rickety looking walls rising up on either side. And next to it, this great, high wall built of slate slabs. There were odd shaped entrances along this front wall. There wasn’t so much a back wall as a long stretch of rusting girders. Bits of rusty iron lying around, bits of machines, scraps of wood and turned earth.

Up the last bit of the incline, and we came across levers like the levers in a railway signal box, rusted, sticking out of the ground. They still move, after all this time. There was a wheel flat in the ground, which must be what the cable turned on. More levers, bits of ironwork. A small building just above the wheel, with what looked like a small fireplace in it.

Then we came upon what looked like a cave entrance. On getting closer, we could see daylight. We were seeing right through the hill! It was a dank little tunnel with the slate walls of a blast shelter inside. There was barbed wire looped about at the entrance, as if there had been a fence to keep people out. Stupidly, I went in. We were trying to get further up the hill. Going through the hill seemed like a good idea.

A tree smothered in moss. [Image description: A partly fallen live tree with numerous branches, all covered in moss.]

I imagined coming out on an open space. No. I came out on a narrow ledge, with a drop into a quarried bowl of about fifteen or twenty feet deep. All full of undergrowth, moss, trees. A bird of prey flew up and away, brown and swift. I wondered if we might be able to get down around the edge of this great bowl, but I thought it would be too risky. Then I turned round and stared, horrified, at the exit I’d just come through.

It looked about ready to drop two tons of slate on anyone passing under it. Like a child’s teeth about to come out. These two huge slabs of slate were both cracked away from the main, and ready to fall, directly above the exit to the tunnel. It looked as if it would fall if I breathed on it. I called back to my husband to not to try coming through, sent the dog back through off her lead, then took a deep breath, and went back in myself. I was half afraid if I even brushed it with my rucksack it might loosen it. I tiptoed back through the tunnel and out the other side.

So, I got out with my life. We looked for another way round this obstacle. It looked like there was something of a path up and over. So, I started scrambling up. Thick, rich soil, all the leaf mould turning to soil. A 45° slope. My husband was coming up behind me. The dog and I scrambled up to the top – and saw we were on a ridge about three feet wide, with a drop down the other side. No way through there. So, I sent the dog back down, sent my rucksack down on the end of the dog’s lead, and clambered down myself.

The ‘safer’ tunnel. [Image description: high grey and ochre slate cliffs a small tunnel entrance at the base, and a slender tree growing in front of them.]

We took another path, and found another tunnel. This one looked much safer. Wider, higher, longer. The path through was cobbled. We both went through and came out the other side, turning round to see huge slate cliffs towering above us. Great slabs of slate in grey and ochre. Slate comes in so many colours. It was much more stable looking than the other tunnel, but there were still some slabs on the ground that must have fallen at some point. We stood there a little while, and marvelled. This was a wide platform we’d come out onto, but there was the same drop again at the edge, so we had to go back through the tunnel.

We went back towards the incline again, to try to get up that side. We passed an old man coming down, and exchanged a few friendly words. We came past a little hut still with its roof – made of great slate slabs and covered three inches deep in moss – in the side of the hill. This was the powder store for the quarry, set well away from other buildings, but it looked like a fairy house.

The Powder Store. [Image description: A small stone-built and rendered hut with a slate, moss-covered roof and an empty, dark doorway, surrounded by moss covered walls and forest growth.]

We puffed and heaved on up the hill, coming out into a slightly different ecosystem, it seemed. Less moss, less beading moisture. Fresher air. There was another scary moment as I heard a bee buzzing insistently about my head. I can’t risk being stung again so soon, especially with my heart rate so high. So, I stood very still, and finally it flew away.

We were both heaving and panting at this point, from the effort, and I think from the excitement. The dog always does this. She doesn’t get out of breath from exertion. She gets out of breath from being excited over sheep. These tunnels, I think, were our sheep. Our fitness bands didn’t register any extreme activity. It was the excitement of the moment.

We finally burst out onto one of the gravel forestry roads. It was like a miracle – coming upon civilisation at last! I wanted to sink down onto the road and kiss it. We sat there for a while, panting, getting our breath back. Two Liverpudlian cyclists came past and we showed them the map so they could find their way back down to the village. My husband told me how, once, a woman had been on these forestry tracks – endless, looping gravel roads – with her children, in her car, and couldn’t find her way out. Dark fell, and she called the police because she was so lost. They had to send out the helicopter to locate her and guide officers in.

Sarn Helen. [Image description: A very rocky trackway with mossy and fern-covered banks on either side, leading through woodland.]

We looked at the map a while ourselves, plotting our way back down, and decided to retrace part of a previous walk – down the old Roman road of Sarn Helen, a stony tracked walled with slate covered in yet more moss. So, we walked down the Forestry Commission gravel road, to meet the Roman road, and back to the car.

I need to go back there again.

The Bee Sting

Image description: the author’s hand, with a cannula in the back, resting on a sheet of handwritten notes. A black bic biro on top of the notes. The author is wearing a hospital gown.

This happened a month ago and I’m just about recovered. For a month I have felt as though gravity were twice as strong, as all my bones were lead. It’s taken a while for me to get the wherewithal to post this publicly, instead of just on my private page.

That Saturday was a strange day. I was feeding the chickens and ducks, collecting the eggs, as I do every lunchtime. One of the hens had been laying in the potatoes my parents had planted in the back garden. I had to pass the little goat shed to get there. It hasn’t had goats in it in years, but that’s what we call it. I’d like to have goats in there again. The little goat shed is where the bee things were stored. Most are in a shed further away, but a few are in there. I think dad thought the honey smelling things were all out of there, but they obviously weren’t. So, the bees would still hang around that shed. He’d been doing something with them that morning.

Image description: a photo of the author’s father in white bee suit and veil, standing with a smoker in the yard in front of the shed.

It didn’t even seem like an angry bee. I was just aware of buzzing near my arm. I looked and saw a little bee, a sweet, fuzzy thing, kind of curled up on my arm, just above my elbow. And it stung me, very obliquely, almost, quietly, in a casual kind of way.

I tried not to panic, because it wouldn’t help. I went inside. I went to the toilet because I thought it would be a pain to be in hospital needing to pee. I put my phone charger and earphones in my bag – note; next time, to make sure I have a battery pack. Then I sat down in the recliner chair. We dithered. Next time we won’t dither. I took an antihistamine after K. had run around looking for one. I’d known exactly where they were, but when K. had hayfever the other day my nine year old had ‘helpfully’ brought them to him.

Then I started feeling weird. That’s when K. gave me the epipen. Worse than being stung, in the moment, at least. Being thumped hard in the thigh with a stabby thing which he had to hold pressed against the place where he hit. I owwwed quite loudly. I went out to the car while K. was running around, reclined the passenger seat right back, strapped myself in. I was only wearing t-shirt and underwear, as usual. K. came out to the car with my trousers. No shoes. I can never find my shoes at the best of times.

He started driving me to hospital. We weren’t sure if it would be better to call an ambulance. I phoned 999 on my phone, put it on speaker phone, and K. spoke to the ambulance people. We decided because of where we were it would be faster for him to just drive me to hospital. It’s about 35 minutes normally. K. used his police driver training, batting along the Expressway at 90mph. He was talking to me all the way, making sure I was still with him. My feet itched terribly. The epipen, I think. It made my feet and then my hands itch. But I could feel myself coming back. Before that it had all been fading away.

We got there, and K. ran in for help. Two people came out to get me. They were consternated at my lack of shoes. It puzzled me. I didn’t realise until a good few hours later that they probably didn’t want me to walk on the ground outside. I’m used to being barefoot. It seemed so funny, though, to get there as an emergency, and to have a lack of shoes throw them out. I don’t think I could have walked anyway. All along I think they underestimated my condition, until later. They brought a chair. Because of the Covid issues I had to go in through a side door with no ramp, so I got out and sat on the kerb while they got the chair up.

They had me in a room triaging me. They tried to put a cannula in my arm, and failed – they can never find my veins – so they put it in my hand. Then I could feel myself going. I told them I needed to lie down. I started trying to get onto the floor. They surprised me again, telling me, no, I couldn’t lie down there. So I said pretty plainly, through the haze, that, no, I needed to lie down and I was going to lie on the floor. So I did. I could feel I was going to be sick. They got me a disposable bowl. I was very neat that time. All I’d eaten that day, mushy peas and coffee, straight in the bowl. I hadn’t eaten long before I was stung.

So, I ended up in a recliner chair in a funny little room, on a drip. I’m not sure what happened between my being sick and me ending up there, but I did. Three big squashy pink recliners in an alcove room painted leaf green halfway up the wall. I think, again, this was to do with Covid precautions. I was being kept in a ‘green zone,’ Covid free. (The paint was nothing to do with that, just a coincidence.) The red zones were Covid zones. There was a woman in one of the chairs, maybe in her 60s or 70s, diabetic, on warfarin (however one spells it), who apparently faints when she lies down. She was in pain for some reason. It was good to have company. She kept talking and talking. How she lived alone, how it was a worry. Complaining mildly about the pain where they’d tried to get a line in, complaining about how strong the Hungarian nurse made the tea. I had some sugary tea.

I was fluctuating, feeling fine, then getting shaky and faint, off and on. Still, I think they were underestimating how I was. A doctor came to talk to me, needed to talk to me in private, so I was taken off in a chair to answer his questions. I noticed the paper on the door said that room was in the red zone. Sitting in that chair, trying to talk to him, I felt myself fainting again. Again I was saying I needed to lie down. Again, there was the argument that I couldn’t lie down. Then I was fainting sitting up, vomiting over myself. Then I was on a trolley, everything faded away. When it came back I realised I was in another place. It was weird. I’d had no sensation of moving. I heard them talking about taking me to resus. It was because that was where they had space, basically, because everything was turned around because of Covid. They put me on oxygen, put me on a monitor.

I was there for the rest of my time in the hospital, on the monitor, getting more fluids, various stuff, something to settle my stomach, trying to bring my blood pressure up. My blood pressure is low anyway. People came and went. A nice Arabic doctor. Nurses of various nationalities, Asian, African. I was struck by how much our health service needs these people, how crazy the uproar about immigrants is. There were a lot of male nurses, a guy who was just finishing his studies at Bangor university, another with a Welsh flag head covering. All very nice people.

I amused myself by listening to the other patients. A woman that I couldn’t see in the bay next to me, being talked to about her condition. Later there was a man there. At one point a doctor came in to ask another doctor about how to give and ocular pressure test. The other doctor, both women, didn’t really know. It’s not something they do there much – she should ask ophthalmology. She had a patient with a banging headache and two bulging, red eyes. She had no idea what could be causing it.

At one point someone said it might get a bit noisy. It didn’t get noisy. They brought someone in, a man I didn’t see. I heard a lot of very calm talk, the words ‘charging, clear.’ They shocked him once, which brought him back, I think. At no point was there any fuss, anything but absolute calm.

On the CCTV screen opposite me I could see the ambulance bay. I grew to connect the people coming through the door there with the corresponding sounds just outside the doors of the resus ward, so it must have been just outside. Sometimes there were flashing lights from police cars. Sometimes I saw people being wheeled out of ambulances. Also what I realised later must be people setting up a light show. They lit up the outside of the hospital to celebrate forty years of the place, with some kind of Covid celebration tacked on. The nurse there thought it was all a bit silly, that 40 was an arbitrary number.

An image of the author’s legs in black trousers and feet in blue socks, as she lies on a hospital bed with hospital storage units on the other side of the room.

When I started to feel better they gave me some paper so I could write. I got a good amount of writing done. I was anxious about my phone decharging but it wasn’t the kind of place you could plug things in. I didn’t ask. I got some food at one point, since I was very hungry after being sick. Then I got to the point where I could actually walk without fainting. I got all the way to the toilet and back – triumph! Then a lovely male nurse, after I’d said I had no shoes, brought me a selection – some slip on sandal type things, and two pairs of socks with grips on them. Nurse gave Dobby socks! Not long after I had my socks I had my freedom. I finally got checked out by the doctor – they’d been halfway through doing it when the doctor was called away, so I had to wait again for another to come back. K. came to pick me up, and I came home.

The aftermath has been six days so far. I still feel steamrollered. One day I will feel in tune with gravity again. The bees are going to live in another home.

Three Kittens

Image description: photo of a black and white mother cat’s legs and abdomen, lying on a purple towel, with the lower half of a newborn tabby and white kitten just visible, cradled on the photographer’s hand, which is smudged with blood.

It had been a hard few days when Sputnik gave birth. I’d been suffering autistic shutdown and meltdown with events in the world at large and at home. But on that day, June 4th, Sputnik made me calm and focus. She had been acting strangely all morning, very loving, purring around our legs. She took my husband out to the shed to show him the straw in there, then brought him back in again, and continued purring, crying, rubbing against our legs.

I went to sit in the conservatory to drink my morning coffee. I sat there in towelling bathrobe and t-shirt, in an old recliner chair that had belonged to my grandpa. Then Sputnik came out to find us. She climbed onto my lap and settled down, purring.

I realised quite soon that she was having contractions. I could feel her stomach tightening under my hand, making her whole body respond in quivers. I stroked her and spoke to her. The contractions seemed to come in clusters of three, in relatively quick succession, then ease off, before coming again. When they came she braced her foot against my hand, pushing hard, until the feeling had passed.

I’d just thought we should get some towels; the standard panic response to a mother in labour. At that moment I felt warm heat spreading down my legs. Her waters had broken. The kittens were really coming. She lay there, unconscious, it seemed, of what was about to happen. I could feel the movement of her kittens under my hand, through her fur, through her tightening abdomen.

The first kitten slipped out, a wet little thing. The wet, dark body, tiny claws with curiously splayed, blunted tips, the little whip of the tail. The blunt nose, folded in ears, and closed eyes. Then the afterbirth came, curiously solid and meaty, an organ in its own right. Sputnik curled herself down to eat this. While the blind little kitten nuzzled towards the first teat it could find, she bent her head and sliced through the umbilical cord with razor teeth, then devoured the afterbirth. She set herself to licking her newborn dry, unquestioning of the strangeness of this thing that had occurred. She just knew what to do.

Three kittens came this way, over three hours. Short by human terms, but a long time to sit in a chair under a labouring cat. One little black and white slip of life, one white and tabby, another black and white. My husband came and went, with towels to sop up the amniotic fluid, water for me to drink, and to crouch by the chair to make sure the new kittens didn’t fall as they came into the world.

When all was settled, we finally moved them. I eased myself out of my towelling bathrobe, bundled mother and babies up carefully together, and transplanted them, bathrobe and all, into a clean litter tray cushioned with a folded towel. From there, they went to live on our bed, and there they stayed.

I couldn’t have had a better gift, after days of turmoil, than to share this birth. For three hours all I had to do was soothe Sputnik through her labour pains and welcome her babies into the world. She’s besotted with her new children, and so am I.

 

Image description: photo of a black and white adult cat called Sputnik sitting on a purple sheet against a green garden background.
Image description: photo of three kittens on blue towelling. One black and white kitten trying to sleep, with a black and white and a tabby and white kitten play fighting beside her.