It was a fine sunny Sunday at the beginning of February. Just the day for some exercise and fresh air in the Welsh countryside.
We drive as far as Loggerheads and decide to stop off for lunch in the Cafe in the little park by the information shop. It is very busy and there is a queue. We order sandwiches and tea and the bill is £16.40! We should have tried the pub opposite but everywhere is very busy.
When we finally receive our sandwiches, the tea has gone cold, they are not great and we are sorry we did not bring our own. The sandwiches are just dry bread, cheese and chutney with a little pot of red cabbage slaw! A disappointing start to the day but after lunch things improve with a walk.
We take a short walk through the woodland at the base of the limestone cliff which dominates the park, along the fast flowing river Alyn, over a bridge and then back towards the car which is parked in the new overspill car park up the hill from the old one. The trees in the mixed woodland are tall here, their bare winter skeletons reaching up towards the light. We are surprised though at the number of people around and how busy this spot has become over the years.
We long for a quieter spot and drive on further to walk in woodland at a place called Coed Llangwyfan I read about in a booklet we picked up a few weeks ago whilst walking in the woods below Moel Famau.
We drive on towards Ruthin, the only other country pub we pass seems very busy, judging by the number of cars in the car park, then at Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd we branch off to the right along the B5429 towards Llandyrnog.
The drive is a bit further than I thought it would be from the map, I miss one sudden unexpected turning to the left and end up driving down some very narrow country lanes but eventually get back on track. Everywhere there are gatherings of snowdrops their white heads nodding gently on the grass verges, beautiful, the first signs of spring. The sun has eased behind some high cloud now but the day is still bright.
From the village of Llandyrnog we follow the signs to the right and head up into the hills along a narrow road through the forest, eventually pulling into the Coed Llangwyfan car park.
This car park is smaller and much quieter that the one at Loggerheads, quite isolated and almost on the ridge of the Clwydian mountain range.
From here we follow the green walk, which is actually part of the Offa’s Dyke Walk, a two and a half mile circular walk taking in the summit of Pencoddiau and the Iron Age hill fort at the top. Fairly steep at first the uphill path through the forest is quite muddy with all the rain we have had the last few weeks. As we leave the forest the views across the vale of Ruthin are quite spectacular, the sun casting beams of warm light on to the distant hills The path incline of Offa’s Dyke decreases to a gentler slope across the moorland of the open hills leading towards the cairn which marks the summit. A few snow flakes flutter down and some views to the east are a bit hazy with rain showers but generally it is clear.
There are 360º views from the cairn, back along the ridge to the pimpled summit of Moel Famau where a small amount of snow lingers just below the ruins of the monument, then south over the Vale of Clwyd and west towards the mountains of Snowdonia. Further north we can see the Great Orme at Llandudno and then the sweep of wind farms in the Irish Sea across to Blackpool Tower. From here we can follow the line of the Sefton coast past Southport to Crosby and the cathedrals of Liverpool, then the view sweeps across the Wirral peninsula towards Hilbre Island in the mouth of the River Dee.
It is cold and windy but invigorating, just what we needed to blow some of the winter fug away. Just below us, to the north east, three hang gliders are catching the wind and circling gently around, invisibly suspended over the view of the Irish Sea.
We head down a slightly different path back through the tall, silent trees and, once, back at the car, a flask of tea warms us before the drive back down towards the village of Llandyrnog and then on towards Llanbedr. The sun is breaking through the clouds again with the promise of a good sunset.
On the way up to Llandyrnog I had noticed a spot where the field was flooded and a single shapely tree was reflected in the water, thinking it would make a good photograph and I looked out for this spot on the way back. As we arrived an orange sun broke through the clouds casting rays of warm light across the land and reflected in the still water. The lone tree at the fields edge was a strong silhouette against the light making for some good photographs.
A perfect end to a lovely day, heading home, refreshed from the cold air, the scenery and exercise.
The first spots of rain spattered the windscreen as we started to ascend the winding road up through the mountains to Ronda that leaves the busy coastal motorway of the Costa del Sol at San Pedro de Alcantara. T. had collected us from Malaga and we were driving through the darkness headed for our hotel in Ronda and looking forward to a late meal. The headlights picked out tumbled rock faces and overhanging trees as we ascended, the lights of the coastal plain twinkling below us.
Fortunately, by the time we reached Ronda and found our hotel, the rain had eased although the damp streets were very atmospheric, marbled pavements reflecting the ornamental street lights.
Our room in the hotel Don Javier continued the atmospheric theme with subdued lighting, an ornamental brass bedstead and antique,but still working, bedside phone.
Hungry now after our flight and long drive, we walked out in search of a meal and found tasty fish in a busy local restaurant a short distance away. The Spanish tend to eat late and even at eleven in the evening there were families out for a meal with their children.
Next morning the rising sun was sending beams of light through the breaking clouds above the dramatic gorge in the limestone massif that splits the town in two as we walked out after breakfast to explore the old town and enjoy the views of the bridge and the surrounding countryside. The gorge is spanned by the narrow Puente Nuovo, (new bridge) 120 metres above the Rio Guadalevín that flows through the gorge. Strange that it is called the new bridge as it was started in 1751 and took forty two years to complete. High above, taking advantage of rising thermals from the gorge, griffon vultures circled in large sweeping turns across the deep blue of the sky.
Patches of sunlight and shadow made for wonderful dramatic lighting sweeping across the town as we wandered the backstreets and the path at the lip of the precipice that Ronda is perched upon. Near the famous bullring are recently erected plaques in honour of Hemingway and Orson Welles, both of whom visited and wrote about the town, Orson Welles is said to have stated “A man is not from where he was born but where he chooses to die” and requested that his ashes be buried in Ronda. Just across the bridge in the old town is a large tiled mosaic featuring descriptions of the town by many famous writers. This is a big draw for the many groups of tourists who are now starting to arrive in the town.
We walk through the moorish quarter of the town, admiring the narrow streets and tiled buildings, then, as the first drops of rain start to fall, we make our way back to the car and drive north through sunlight and showers towards the town of Sentenil de las Bodegas.
This town of white painted houses is gathered around another river gorge but unusual in that many of the houses are built into and, in some cases, under the rock face. The main street down at the bottom of the gorge features several restaurants overhung by the rock face which stretches across the street, providing shade and, in today’s case, shelter from the rain.
We eat a tasty late lunch of local pork steak and fried potatoes whilst the sky clears and patches of sunlight light up the dramatic situation of the village.
Next we drive south again, bypassing Ronda and heading towards the mountain town of Benaoján where our next stop for the night is at at a country hotel down near a fast flowing river. The Molino Cuatro Paradas is an old mill converted into an hotel built around a central courtyard but still retaining the four watercourses that give it its name. Surprisingly, for such a quiet location, it is run by an English couple who seem to be the only staff but then it is out of season and, apart from ourselves, there is only one other couple staying the night.
We have arrived just in time as, not long after we have checked into our very spacious room with lovely heavy wood furniture and enormous bed, the heavens open and torrential rain bounces on the large terrace outside which overlooks the river. A river which soon is flowing higher and faster than before. Not a day for using the swimming pool a short distance up the hill that we passed on the way in.
We rest and the rain passes on leaving a damp night in which we go out drive around the local villages in search of food, finally settling on a local bar/restaurant not far from the hotel. As we walk back late at night the moon is making an attempt to break through the clouds.
Next morning, the sky is clear, a deep blue, washed clean by the rain of yesterday. The surrounding countryside sparkles, fresh and green in the early morning sunlight. A good sleep and breakfast has prepared us for the long day ahead as we drive up through the clear air along narrow mountain roads past the white villages of Benaoján and Montejaque and through pine forests where many locals are out with baskets collecting mushrooms. The occasional gunshot echoes around the hills as hunters search for deer and wild boar. It is a Sunday and the local cyclists seem to be out in force on the roads as we pass Grazalema and descend slightly towards Villaluenga del Rosario, passing shepherds with flocks of goats and fields of bulls being bred for the bullfight.
This area is famed for its goat cheese and we enter Villaluenga passing the large cheese dairy of Payoyo, supposedly one of the best of the cheeses and made only from the milk of goats in the local area.
The town is quiet and we stroll the narrow streets enjoying the views of the surrounding limestone peaks complete with the circling vultures then head on towards lunch at El Refugio in the village of Benaocaz. Here we sit outside in warm sunshine and are served a leg of goat (each!) for Sunday lunch.
Stuffed we head back to the car and settle down for the two hour drive back to Jeréz, gradually coming down out of the mountains, passing the huge reservoir at Embalse de Guadalcacín, the level of which is quite low as revealed by the many skeletons of trees sticking out of the water. We head on through very green, soft rolling countryside dotted with scrub oak and wild boar country. We are lucky enough to spot two sows trotting quite unconcernedly across a field quite close to the road. The fields are sprouting green at this time of year, the winter crops pushing through make the landscape seem quite English.
The landscape finally gives way to the city of Jerez de la Frontera and we arrive at the apartment for our overnight stay and meeting up with S. for Merienda, the Spanish custom of coffee and cake around six on a Sunday, at a busy cafe nearby.
Later there is dinner and an early night.
Next morning we take an early train to Seville and change at Santa Justa station for the train back to Malaga. The train travels through the high plains to the north of the mountains we passed through yesterday. The summer browns of the Spanish countryside are less evident in November. There are patches of soft bright green everywhere as winter crops spread their first green leaves up through the brown earth, moist after recent rain. The deep blue of the sky has been washed clean to a paler shade of duck egg blue. The whole countryside seems to be waking up after the lazy heat of summer. Rivers have water in them again after the first rains of winter have soaked through the parched earth. The train passes through acres and acres of olive groves, long regimented rows of trees, green against the brown earth, many with nets spread beneath as the olives are harvested.
The skies are populated with more birds in at this time of year, many of them birds of prey that I find it hard to identify against the bright sky. This area of Spain is also in the path of birds migrating south towards Africa for the winter.
After two hours the train begins to descend towards the coastal plain,dropping down from the town of Bobadilla through the magnificent gorge at El Chorro where the walkway is a wooden planked path fixed high on the cliff face and we finally arrive in Malaga to check into our hotel for the next two nights and wander out in search of a late lunch.
The sunlit outside tables of a restaurant in the narrow backstreets of the old town beckon and we enjoy a selection of tapas at the Cafe de L’Abuela near the Picasso Museum and Gallery, including a very tasty dish of broad beans and Iberian ham. We viewed the enthralling Picasso Museum on a previous visit so give it a miss on this occasion.
The shadow of the cathedral falls across our table just as we are about to leave and the air cools but it has been very pleasant in the warm sunlight. At this time of the year the narrow streets are full of shade as the sun is lower in the sky. We head to the open space of the Plaza de la Merced, near Picasso’s birthplace. There is a very lifelike statue of him sitting on a seat in the square under the jacaranda trees. It is hard to escape Picasso in Malaga, all the shops are full of his images as cards, prints, fridge magnets and every possible printable surface.
The small food market nearby is an attraction then we walk down to the harbour to admire the cruise ships moored alongside the attractive walkway and gardens.
An evening swim in the hotel precedes going out to dinner. We eat indoors at La Taberna del Obispo near the cathedral and are not disturbed by the many musicians and singers doing the rounds of the many outside restaurant tables.
A clear blue sky greets us next day and we walk out through the Paseo Parque, where noisy green parakeets fill the air with their squawks and take the steep path up to the Castillo de Gibralfaro, high on the hillside overlooking the city. The castle is much larger than it looks from below and we spend a pleasant couple of hours wandering the castle walls and gardens and enjoying the views across the city and harbour. At this time of year the mountains all around are sharp and clear and we can see the mountains of North Africa as cloud tinged distant blue shapes on the horizon as the sun glistens off a silver burnished sea.
After another tasty lunch of tapas dishes we walk to the furthest arm of the harbour to view the large cruise ship which has been moored there for two days then the lure of El Corté Inglés department store beckons J. before a swim and dinner.
Our final day in Malaga dawns bright and sunny again. We leave our bags at the hotel and browse the big food market, Mercado de Atarazanas, a Moorish building on the outside with a huge stained glass window at one end illustrating the region.
The Alcazaba and gardens provide an enjoyable end to our stay before a late lunch and departure for the airport and our flight home.
The trip has been an extension of summer, the pleasant mild sunshine and clear blue skies a welcome break from the gloom of a November winter at home. I think I actually prefer Spain at this time of the year, the countryside greener, the air sharper and the temperatures just right for walking.
A brisk refreshing winter walk in Snowdonia, North Wales, on a day of sunlight and storm. A cold wind from the north-west was pushing the clouds in against the mountains, leaving a scattering of hail and snow on the slopes above Llanberis. Patches of welcome warming sunlight swept across Llyn Padarn adding a sudden sparkle to the scene.
In the afternoon a steep climb through woodland brings us out onto the grassy promontory and the circular ruins of the 13th century Dolbadarn castle. A couple are having their wedding photographs taken at this exposed spot, patches of sunlight sweep across but, in the distance, a greyish white cloud appears to be speeding along the eastern side of the lake. I take a photograph of the slate covered hillside by the power station that perches at the the edge of Llyn Peris. In sunlight now, but, as we watch, the grey swirling cloud blots out the hillside, we can actually see the hail stones falling against the grey of the cloud and the ground beneath becomes white. We are fortunate, just on the edge of the shower and only have to shelter for a few minutes but, up the Llanberis Pass, the sudden storm seems to gather in intensity, and the grey swirl blocks out the landscape completely.Ten minutes later the pass is visible again but now it is as though someone has splashed white paint over the landscape, the ground covered with a layer of hailstones.We head back to the car and decide to drive up the Llanberis Pass. As we ascend the road becomes slushy with hailstones then near the top the road is covered with compacted ice, the ground all around white and clean, the temperature has dropped suddenly and it is winter at the top by Pen-y-Pass. The road is busy so we decide to turn around and slowly and carefully, for the road is slippy, make our way down the pass back to Llanberis. As we descend the road gradually becomes ice free and down in the valley the sun is shining again.
These images were taken at Crosby beach on the Sefton Coast, just north of Liverpool and site of Antony Gormley’s Another Place installation featuring 100 iron men scattered over a mile and a half of beach. Strong winds over the whole of the northern half of the United Kingdom meant rough seas, captured here as high tide swept in covering many of the sculptures.
I was fortunate that ragged gaps were torn in the fast moving rain laden clouds by the gusting winds, allowing beams of crepuscular light to beam down on the scene, adding interest to the sky and sparkling highlights to the rough seas, turning the solid iron figures into strong silhouettes against the churning waters.
The Aran Islands, they sound exotic, perched off the coast of Ireland, next stop Newfoundland.
All I knew of them was the old black and white film, Man of Aran by Robert Flaherty.
A dramatic soundtrack accompanying grainy images of rock strewn land, high cliffs and storm lashed coasts. Emphasising how hard a life it was for the few inhabitants of this wild unforgiving landscape.
Our friend, J, had promised a trip out to Inishmore, the largest of the three islands.
I wondered if it would be a long, rough boat journey out to this last outpost of civilisation in the storm tossed Atlantic.
Our fast, modern speedboat of a ferry from Rossaveal on the Connemara coast carried around 200 people in smooth comfort swiftly across the flat windless waters of Galway Bay to Kilronan harbour in 45 minutes. The sky was rippled with clouds, pierced with glimpses of sunlight sparkling on the flat water over which Manx Shearwaters skimmed, their beaks just touching the surface.
The pier at Kilronan was busy with touts offering guided mini bus tours of the island or bikes for hire. Me on a bike? Now that is a whole new story in itself!
Back in this journey, the port was busy with people coming and going, boarding minibuses, getting into horse drawn jaunting cars, riding bikes or just like us, walking along carrying heavy bags. Civilisation has reached this bleak last outpost, there is even a Spar Supermarket on the main street.
J had been before, knew the island well. He knew a good place to stay he said where the dinner was prepared by a black American fond of his classical music whilst working in the kitchen. We entered the Tourist Office and the friendly girl at the desk rang through to check if rooms were available. Yes. We were booked into M. Hostel for the night. We could ask about dinner when we arrived there she said.
We set off for the hostel, carrying a case and bags “Just up the road” J said. The weather was calm, hot and sultry, unusual for this part of Ireland. We had been travelling since seven that morning with only a light breakfast and one stop for a cup of coffee en route from Dublin.
Our drive had been a long one, motorway all the way from Dublin to Galway, then, so that we could view part of Connemara, we had headed north towards Cong along a road which cut a straight if somewhat bumpy line across the peat bogs which compose much of this area. It was just before Cong that we had stopped for coffee.
Cong itself was a lovely old village, picturesque and making much of its association with the film “The Quiet Man”. Passing through the village, we continued our drive, heading for Maum near Lough Corrib then turning south towards Rossaveal through the rain soaked and mist covered hills of Connemara. Gradually the rain had eased and the clouds lifted somewhat, there were even patches of blue as we approached the coast.
But, note, it was now two o’clock as we started to walk up the hill in Kilronan, past the Spar and the coffee shop, a long time since our light breakfast. We mentioned stopping for food, our stomachs were complaining, but J was insistent – let us push on and check in – so we did, “It is not far now”.
Half an hour later, hot, sticky, hungry and thirsty, we arrive at our lodgings where we are shown to two spartan rooms, although ours did have the benefit of white net curtains hanging from the ceiling in strips on each side of the bed, all the linen was white and I wondered if it was the honeymoon suite. We pay our money and book the dinner which was being served at eight.
On the way to the hostel we had passed a nice looking bar that also promised food but J said that we might as well head west along the road as he wanted to show us the ancient fort at Dún Aonghasa.
“There is a cafe on the way, not too far along the road.”
We start walking along what in Aran terms is a main road but actually a single lane track, with low stone walls and rough hedgerows of wild fuchsia and montbretia.
I was surprised at the number of people on the island, we were passed by many tourists on bikes, hired from the harbour, and various mini bus tours and horse drawn carriages drove past. One or two empty buses stopped asking if we wanted a lift but we carried on walking. The road undulated and twisted across the island and around every corner we hoped to see the promised cafe.
J tried to keep our mind off our stomachs by pointing out all the interesting features as we passed them by, the horses grazing in the fields profuse with wild flowers, the thatched cottages, the strange standing memorial stones, the low dry stone walls built with gaps in them so the wind can whistle through, the white sands and clear waters near the village of Kilmurvy, the beautifully flower basket bedecked thatched cottage in Kilmurvy that was a cafe. Wait did he say “Cafe”. Now he had our interest!
At four thirty we sat down in glorious warm sunshine outside this flower laden cottage to bowls of delicious soup and sandwiches, the pangs of hunger lessening at last, our energy being restored for the next part of the walk which was uphill to the site of the ancient cliff top fort of Dún Aonghasa.
We pay our entrance fee and start up the rocky path towards the site. It is clear now we have gained some height, that the islands are an offshoot of The Burren, the limestone covered hills of County Clare that line the coast of the mainland some thirty miles to the east. The land up here is covered with the clints and grykes of limestone paving with wild flowers growing in profusion in the cracks, sheltered and warmed by the surrounding rock.
At the summit of the hill and the highest point on the island stands the semi circular remains of the old fort. We are over 300 feet up and the cliffs of Blind Point drop sheer beneath us to the cold clear waters of the Atlantic. The air is still and only a light swell rolls across the surface of the sea but the boom of the surf breaking over the rocks travels up to us quite clearly, the waters foam white where they meet the rocks at the cliff bottom. Even though it is a calm day with no wind the surf is quite high at times. This is the raw Atlantic, next stop America.
There is evidence of human activity on this late Bronze Age hill fort site stretching over two and a half thousand years (ca.1500BC – 1000AD) with the busiest period being around 800BC. The three semicircular enclosures adjoin the cliff edge with the remains of seven houses being found in the inner enclosure. There is a rock platform right at the cliff edge which may have had a ritual or ceremonial function. Around the outer wall is a wide ring of rough stones pointing to the air, known as chevaux de frise, a type of ancient defence system. The site on the cliff edge is very exposed, the best views on the island, along the cliffs on the south side of Inishmore towards the smaller Aran Islands of Inishmaan and Inisheer and hills of The Burren on the mainland. The limestone on the distinctive Black Head gleams silvery white in the sunlight as though covered by a scattering of snow.
I take photographs, the drama of the cliffs stretching into the distance, the sea crashing at their base. From up here you can see pretty well the whole island, sunlight is sweeping across in patches, highlighting white cottages on the hillside opposite, sparkling off the white foam and clear turquoise-green water 300 feet below. I am amused by a group of people lying flat on their stomachs at the cliff edge looking right down to the where the waves are breaking over the rocks at the base of the cliff.
We start our long walk back to the Hostel but it is easier now with our energy restored. The track down from Dún Aonghasa is composed of rough limestone between two dry stone walls, on the way down we see some friendly young bulls, peering over a wall and curious at our passing. “Never trust a bull”, advises our friend.
We retrace our steps, passing the white sandy beach near Kilmurvy with clear green water and a few swimmers, fields of wild flowers, thatched cottages and horses. The island has gone quieter now, few cycles and minibuses on the road. Most day trippers have left, we see the six thirty ferry heading back across the Bay towards Rossaveal, we are now truly Aran islanders for the night.
It must have been seven o’clock by the time we reached the hostel, footsore and weary from the high humidity and heat, it has been 23C and unusually for Aran, the air has been calm. We shower and freshen up before going down to the dining room at eight.
The restaurant area is surprisingly busy, a good mix of nationalities taking advantage of the mainly vegetarian cooking. The chef is a black American who came to the island 30 years ago and never left.
Our meal is served by a student from Northern Italy who came to Aran to learn Irish.
There is a potato and mint soup, followed by a help yourself main course of ham in a cream sauce accompanied by many types of vegetables, potatoes in pesto, lettuce, aubergines and peppers in a spicy sauce, lentils, tomatoes and couscous. All very tasty and filling although J goes back for another full helping. Dessert was a ginger and pear crumble with custard and there was also tea and coffee served.
We wonder how many of the diners are staying at the hostel and make a little bet as to how many will be at breakfast tomorrow.
After dinner we take a walk down the road towards Kilronan, the Connemara hills off to the left across the sound and clearer now with the lower flanks swathed in cloud, the sky has orange and grey hues from the afterglow. At the harbour I take some photographs of the memorial to Chay Blyth and John Ridgeway who made landfall here after their row across the Atlantic in 1966 and also of the still waters of the harbour with reflections of the boats. The light has almost gone but there is a blueish glow to the sky.
As we head back towards the hostel there are the first drops of rain, we fall in with two Americans who are heading back up the road to the hostel also. They were also at dinner and we discuss how good it was.
Upstairs in the little lounge outside our room we count the many different types of moth on the windows and door frames as we sit and have a final cup of tea before bed.
The night seemed filled with ceaseless rain but as grey dawn light filtered through the windows the sound of running water ceased. Our first floor window looked straight out to the north across the the hills of Connemara, wreathed in low cloud again this morning but a band of brighter light filled the sky to the east over The Burren.
Before breakfast we stand outside taking the air which feels cooler and fresher after yesterday’s humidity, washed clean by the overnight rain, chatting to the Sicilian American and his wife whom we met last night. They are involved in teaching peace to various groups and work in Israel and Gaza amongst other places, they seem very well travelled.
We head in for a help yourself breakfast at nine, a cocktail of nationalities. Besides the two Americans there is a young French couple from Arles, so I though I had won the bet about the number at breakfast, having predicted seven, until we were joined by a Dutch girl a little later.
After breakfast we depart the hostel and wander down some of the back lanes before heading down to the harbour to catch the 12.00 ferry back to Rossaveal.
Sailing back there is a grey mist of rain over Black Head. The Burren and Galway Bay have disappeared under a heavy black cloud although the hills of Connemara are still clear. A bright line of light to the south puts the three humps of the Aran Islands in strong silhouette and seems to be headed our way. By the time we get into Rossaveal there are patches of blue and the sun is breaking through.
Our friend redeemed himself after yesterday’s hunger march by arranging a delicious lunch with his niece in Galway. The day is warm and filled with sunshine now, we sit in the garden enjoying our food, relaxing after yesterday’s 17 km walk.
For those interested in the Aran Islands, Tim Robinson has published two superb volumes, The Stones of Aran, Pilgrimage and The Stones of Aran, Labyrinth.