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All Roads Lead to Machynlleth: A Welsh Adventure (Part 3)

Visiting Staylittle, mid Wales

I’ve spent the last few blog entries writing about everything we saw and did while in mid-Wales, which probably isn’t that surprising—after all, isn’t that the point of going on holiday? Yet none of the things I’ve mentioned were in our original plans for the trip, which simply involved wireless-free resting and relaxation.  To that end we each brought a bag of things to keep us occupied: books and magazines to read, non-wired activities to do, and computers to type on (we may not have had WiFi, but I saw no harm in jotting down notes!). Yet the bags were barely touched; instead, we ended up getting outside and just playing each day by ear. This led to a far more active experience than I had bargained for … and helped me realise several things I was missing in my normal life.

For example, our last full day was also grey and misty and would have been perfect for staying tucked up indoors. However, Helen needed us to swap rooms for the last night as she had other guests arriving, so we were turfed out and had to find a way to kill an hour or so. So we started walking up the lane towards the top of the hill.

Outside of this trip, it had been a while since I’ve walked without a purpose. I’m either out picking up litter or walking home from the office or trying very hard to get from point A to point B as quickly as I can. This walk was very much the opposite. It was meandering. There were pauses to appreciate the view across the valley—even with the low-lying clouds and threat of rain, the landscape was incredible. This activity—not exercise for the sake of it or walking as a form of transportation, but rather getting out and simply enjoying nature—is one such thing I want to incorporate into my routine as it helps clear the cobwebs from the mind.

Cloudy day in Staylittle, mid Wales
Visiting Staylittle, mid Wales

On the descent back to the B&B, we stopped for a moment to take a photo.  I started to move on but noticed MrElaineous wasn’t following. Instead, he had frozen in place with an intense look on his face. I was concerned—was he okay, was this a stroke? But no, he was listening for something—maybe a frog, or perhaps it was a bird—and it couldn’t be heard if we were moving. Only in complete silence was it possible to make out the sound.  “It’s amazing how much noise we make,” he commented as we continued on.  

This highlighted to me the importance of getting away in the first place.  The sheer noise we are surrounded with—whether from being in an office 9:00am-5:00pm, from the telly, from the radio, from telephone calls, from people in general—can be incredibly draining.  Perhaps it’s not for everyone, but speaking for myself as an extreme introvert, finding the opportunity to enjoy stillness and quiet has also moved to the top of my list of things to make time for.

Visiting Satylittle, mid Wales

Once we returned from our walk and settled into the new room, I turned my attention to making a start on these blog entries and beginning to organise my thoughts. Yet before long, it was time to set off for Bwlch Nant Yr Arian Visitor Centre (no, I don’t know how to pronounce it either). Every afternoon they feed red kites, who appear from up to 15 miles away for this chance at an easy meal.  

The red kite is one of the 20th century’s great wildlife success stories. After facing extreme persecution over the centuries, they became extinct in England in the 19th century, with only a handful managing to hold on in the valleys of central Wales. Yet these were carefully managed and now the numbers are rebounding, with efforts in place to reintroduce them in England and Scotland. Several locations run feeding programmes like Bwlch Nant Yr Arian, the goal of which is to supplement (not replace) their normal food and natural behaviour, especially during the winter months.

The birds have gone from “vermin” to visitor attraction, with the Visitor Centre doing everything possible to celebrate the bird of prey. We settled into a spot across the lake from the feeding area thirty minutes before show time and watched as benches, tree trunks, and the bird-watching hide itself began to fill up. The action and anticipation wasn’t limited to the spectators on the ground. The sky whirled with the distinctive silhouettes of red kites as they too waited for 3:00pm to roll around.

Finally someone came out with the food, offcuts of meat and scraps donated by a local butcher. The amount was far less than I was expecting. Having seen documentaries about a similar feeding programme where wheelbarrows of food were provided, just a bagful seemed far more modest. Yet the effect of the food was electric. Once the feeder spread the scraps on the ground and retreated, the kites began to dive in. A few at first, then building in number as each dove in an attempt to retrieve its prize.  Meanwhile, a small group of crows hung out on the outskirts of the feeding area, trying to keep out of the way of the bigger birds of prey while still dashing in to help themselves to a free lunch. Literature at the Visitor Centre said that on a good day up to 150 red kites could be seen. This was a very good day.

I have to say this upfront: this is a very bad video. MrElaineous is making comments about corvids and snapping away with his camera, I keep trying to zoom in and out to capture the red kite action, and it all gets very messy because I wasn’t using a tripod. 

But I think it does accurately capture the excitement of witnessing over 150 birds of prey swooping in for a bite to eat at Bwlch Nant Yr Arian

Red kites at Bwlch Nant Yr Arian Visitor Centre, mid Wales
Red kites at Bwlch Nant Yr Arian Visitor Centre, mid Wales

After the avian feeding frenzy, we continued westward until we hit the sea, arriving in Aberystwyth a few hours before sunset. We weren’t sure what to expect. The noir mysteries read by MrElaineous gave him a very different set of expectations than I had, which was more along the lines of a Welsh Weston-super-Mare.

But I think we were both pleasantly surprised by what we found. We walked along the well-kept promenade (I admired the number of bins) and enjoyed the architecture along the seafront, most of which had been given a facelift after recent winter storms. The further we walked, the more surprises Aberystwyth had in store, including what can only be described as Hogwarts-by-the-Sea: Old College. Its decorations, engravings, and turrets seem completely out of time and place, but one cannot fault the architect for picking a location directly on the seaside with such a fantastic view.

The wonders did not stop there. Just beyond Old College stands the remains of a 12th century Norman castle that has been turned into a park.  After exploring the area, we retraced our steps and returned for our final night in Staylittle. This kept us on our toes as the new room had low beams, but after a few calls of “Mind your head!” we quickly settled in for the evening.

The following morning we said good-bye to Helen and Rock Villa and began to head south. The further we went, the greater the density of people and cars (and litter). In addition to recognising that I needed to get out into nature more often and to find time to savour peace and stillness, I also realised that a few days away was just not long enough. 

Sunset, statue, and seagull in Aberystwyth
Norman Castle, Aberystwyth, Wales

All Roads Lead to Machynlleth: A Welsh Adventure (Part 2)

The second full day in Wales dawned grey, cloudy, and wet. However, having enjoyed two days of sun and blue skies, we really couldn’t complain, especially since we had planned on this being an inside day—we had bats to buy.

A bit of background … a book I am currently reading—How To Have A Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioural Science to Transform Your Working Life—reminded me about the power of mental filters. For example, you have just purchased a new red car, and suddenly you see red cars everywhere you look. It’s not that there are more on the road, but rather they are now salient to you so your brain points them out. The book was using this to make the point that you see what you expect to see, i.e. if you’re expecting it to be a rough day, you will concentrate on everything that goes wrong. Conversely, if you intend to see opportunities wherever you can, you will likely do so.
 
As MrElaineous’ current production of Die Fledermaus (literal German translation: “the flying mouse”, or bat) was coming to an end, he was on the lookout for a bat-themed gift for the directors. This activated my own bat filter and while in a pub on the first night I noticed a bat decorating a brochure for an art studio called the Glassblobbery. It was about 90 minutes away, but MrElaineous agreed that a hand-blown glass bat ornament would be the perfect gift, so plans were made accordingly.

This is how we found ourselves driving through stunning, misty valleys with views of hillsides where you could easily imagine trolls, dragons, and the faerie folk at play. We mainly saw sheep, but you didn’t have to work very hard to picture Frodo, Sam, or Gollum, and place names like Brithdir and Dolgellau turned mid Wales into Middle Earth.

David Pryce-Jones, The Glassblobbery

We were thankfully relying on SatNav rather than my map reading skills, which allowed me to enjoy the journey and meant we got to the Glassblobbery right on schedule. While there, we were able to watch the glassblower, David Pryce-Jones, at work. Seeing him take a rod of glass and turn it into a kingfisher before our eyes was absolutely fascinating. He has his showman’s patter down to perfection after 40 years of working glass, and the whole process was a bit hypnotic as we watched the bird take shape out of seeming nothingness.

We got the bats … and perhaps one or two other things for our own home. We asked for recommendations of things to see and do in the local area and headed off for the first of two suggestions: Rug Chapel. From the outside, it looks like a small, unassuming private chapel. From the inside, it’s a riot of colours and carvings. Built in the 17th century, it is one of only a few chapels left in almost to its original state and not modified much during the Victorian era. It was a useful reminder that the past is often far more colourful than we believe, not the black and white or sepia tone that our imagination tends to give it.

Rug Chapel, Corwen, Wales
Rug Chapel, Corwen, Wales

Robert Charles Michael Vaughan Wynn, 7th Baron Newborough

Micky Wynn courageous in war, a colouful character whose life was Rug. His family dedicates this in his memory.

Robert Charles Michael Vaughan Wynn, 7th Baron Newborough

We stopped in the nearby town of Corwen for a quick look around, but soon turned our attention to David’s second suggestion, the Rhug Estate Farm Shop and Restaurant. The latter in particular caught our eye and we settled in for lunch. With tasty food and a comfortable fire, it’s no wonder it was an incredibly busy place; the organic farm and its herd of bison certainly manage to pull in the punters as well. After a bite to eat, it was back on the road again.

I spent the return trip marvelling again at the scenery and trying to figure out how sheep managed to stay upright on what appeared to be a vertical hillside. My guess? Magnets. After all the travelling, it was most definitely time for a nap upon our return, and we rested up for our last full day in Wales.

All Roads Lead to Machynlleth: A Welsh Adventure (Part 1)

Elaine Massung All Roads Lead to Machynlleth

It was, I’ll admit, not the most auspicious of starts to our WiFi-free Welsh holiday. Autumn colds had been making the rounds of the office, and this plus work stress meant that my immune system decided to pack it in. In turn this caused a chronic infection to flare up, necessitating a trip to the dentist the morning we were due to leave. But with antibiotics in hand and the sun shining, we were able to set off on the three-hour journey to mid-Wales.

Once off the main motorways, we found ourselves immersed in rolling green hillsides dotted with sheep, and began to catch sight of signs with seemingly unpronounceable words in need of a vowel or two. J.R.R. Tolkien was inspired by both the Welsh landscape and language when writing Lord of the Rings, and it was easy to see how both shaped his epic adventure.

Whether due to the incredible sunny weather or the reality of finally getting away, the miles flew by and we were soon in the tiny, wonderfully named hamlet of Staylittle. There were still a few hours of daylight left, and our host, Helen, recommended that we pay a visit to Hafren Forest. Hafren is the Welsh name of the River Severn; measuring 220 miles, it’s the longest river in the UK and its source lies nearby.

We were a bit hesitant: MrElaineous and I are rubbish walkers, not the type to be out in all weathers or terrains. But Hafren was ideal for us. The first half mile was a level, wooden trail that took visitors of all abilities along the River Severn, and beyond that the path was a gentle, easily walkable boundary between river and forest. The sun was setting so we headed back around a mile in, but we made plans to return.

Which we did first thing the next morning, tackling the rather violently named Severn-Break-Its-Neck walk. The walk itself was less scenic than the previous evening, but with the payoff of the eponymous Severn-Break-Its-Neck waterfall that cascaded around us. After sharing a celebratory flask of tea, we headed out to explore the scenery around Clynwedog, a large lake formed when the area was dammed in the 1960s.

Having this second day of beautiful weather made the trip around Clynwedog quite magical. In many ways, it reminded me of the Lake District—well, there is just the one lake, but it is quite large and lovely—yet without the hordes of tourists. As we stopped at incredible viewpoint after incredible viewpoint, we more or less had the place to ourselves (if you don’t count a few hundred nearby sheep, of course). We took in views of the lake itself, the dam, and finished off at the Bryntail Lead Mine, the remains of a 19th century lead processing plant. As someone with an archaeological background, any day I can have a poke around old ruins is a good one in my book!

Visiting Wales

Finally, we headed into the nearest town: Llanidloes. This town variously reminded me of Tetbury, Malmesbury, and Bristol.  A large number of cafes and antique stores hinted at a potential tourist influx at some point, but when we visited it was quiet, a town at the start of its winter season. It boasts an early 17th century market hall that is the only surviving example of its type in Wales, and this adds its own special flair to the centre of town.  

We stopped off at the Great Oak Café, a vegetarian café that gave off a Bristol/Stokes Croft vibe and was a great place to refresh ourselves with more tea and a slice of cake. From there we explored a local used bookstore. As a recovering book collector, I find it difficult to go into such shops because I want to buy everything that catches my eye: Lab Girl – sounds interesting and I vaguely remember reading a positive review of it.  A 19th century leather-bound edition of Charles Dickens’s Christmas stories for only £20? Yes, please! Coffee table books about wildlife … and nature … and architecture … and so on. But I don’t have the space to store them or the time to read them, so I left empty-handed but uplifted after a thorough look around.

Visiting Machynlleth, Wales

The weather was still gorgeous and it was only mid-afternoon, so we decided to take another one of Helen’s recommendations and head over to Machynlleth on the mountain road. The only word I can think of to describe this journey is stunning. The hills in autumn colours, the ever-present sheep, and the distant views made this truly a picturesque drive, with a beautiful new vista around every corner. We stopped at a viewing point dedicated to Wynford Vaughn-Thomas, a Welsh author, broadcaster, and traveller. His effigy points to Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales, and other peaks are highlighted for perusal.

From Machynlleth, we travelled to the Centre for Alternative Technologies.  I had heard about CAT from former co-workers who had studied there and was curious to see the place for myself. It was started 40 years ago in a disused slate quarry to showcase sustainable building practices, and it continues to inspire new generations to rethink how their homes can be more energy efficient and their lifestyles more environmentally friendly. From greywater gardens to sheep’s wool insulation and solar panels to wind generation, there is a lot to take in over the site’s seven acres.

We returned to Machynlleth for a spot of exploration (and maybe a little shopping) before heading back along the mountain road to enjoy a delicious homecooked dinner with Helen. For the remainder of our time in Wales, no matter where we travelled it seemed that every road sign pointed to Machynlleth. I still can’t pronounce it properly, but it felt like the very heart of Wales … and I certainly left a bit of mine in the surrounding forests, fields, and hillsides.

Over the Hills and Far Away

Enjoying a digital detox in mid Wales
INTRO ] [ PART 1 ] [ PART 2 ] [ PART 3 ]
[ As we make the transition from one year to another, it’s a great time to look ahead to new horizons as well as turn around to see how far we have come.

I wrote All Roads Lead to Machynlleth a few years ago in the middle of dealing with stress, burn out, and generally feeling quite overwhelmed by everything I was trying to accomplish. But the 11 lessons I learned from my time away have been invaluable in building up greater resilience, and I would recommend an occasional digital detox to everyone: sometimes you have to unplug in order to recharge — Elaine, January 2019 

Escape. The word has been on my mind for a while. Last year I read an article about “glamping”*, or glamourous camping, and the seed was planted: no internet, no emails, no Facebook. I envisioned reading and writing in a beautiful setting, having the opportunity to photograph and explore a new area, and just getting away from the constant demands that seemed to be coming at me from all across the interwebs.  

Much has already been written elsewhere about how an always connected, always available culture affects employees, and I am fortunate to work for an organisation that does not expect its staff to be online 24/7. Yet my position is one where I get dozens of emails a day. Some are just for information (but still need to be read, digested, and filed where they can be easily found in the future), others require a coherent, timely response at some point, and a few need data to be found or an action to be carried out RIGHT NOW. The latter land in my inbox with the force of a hand grenade, disrupting my other work activities and reshaping my to-do list beyond my control. Regardless of the type of message, the onslaught is relentless and just keeping on top of emails has begun to feel like a Sisyphean task.

Then there are my side projects. I have three—and I am coming to the realisation that with a full-time job this is two too many. All of these rely on the internet: blogs powered by Tumblr for Indian River by Air, Rubbish Walks, and MissElaineous. Hootsuite to post on Twitter and Instagram for each of the sites I run. MailChimp newsletters. And of course the ubiquity of Facebook and its comments and messages. With the connectivity of smartphones, all of these are always present, always lurking somewhere in the background.  

Recently I was at the point where it felt like every email and every Skype message brought with it another thing I had to do, another request for my time, attention, and energy. The things I was doing for fun began to feel like work … and work I didn’t want to do at that. There was no breathing space.**  Instead, I felt like a fly caught and bound by the World Wide Web. I needed to unplug in order to recharge.

I admit there is an irony in using Google to search for WiFi-free locations to escape to, but that’s what I did a few weeks ago when it was all seeming too much. Up popped an article from the Guardian that mentioned Rock Villa B&B in the middle of Wales. It boasted almost non-existent mobile reception and poor WiFi in a tranquil setting. Perfect. I booked it and began to count down the days until leaving.

* I’ve spent a month camping in the regular way and the only way to lure me back is with a proper bed, electricity, running water, and heating.  

** The Oatmeal is usually NSFW (not safe for work) and to be avoided by those of a more sensitive disposition. This comic is no exception but makes a great point about the creative process.

MissElaineous Blog: Escape & Explore & Discover & Enjoy