During our third trip to Wales for a family holiday (this time in Pembrokeshire) the heat wave and drought (as Monty Don of Gardener’s World called it) broke, but not before I’d suffered a 2 hour walk along a coastal path, which the owner of our holiday cottage termed: ‘a pleasant stroll down to the beach’ in his handwritten accommodation guide.
The owner of our holiday cottage called in on us almost as soon as we arrived. This has never happened before, being the owners of our previous houses (Airbnb) lived miles away, thus revealing themselves to be that hated section of the population who own second homes in delightfully rural areas. Not that I hate them; not at all, particularly when they provide such lovely accommodation in such lovely places. This house was not Airbnb and turned out to be the best house so far and the Welsh owner, calling in on us, was a further encouraging sign, it transpiring that he lived a mile up the road and owned a farm directly behind the house. This meant he’d be on call should anything go drastically wrong. He had a quick chat with the husband and then left, never to call again, although I did spot him messing about in a field full of sheep as we passed it by on the coastal walk. We surmised that he also owned an imposing holiday cottage right opposite ours, so he was one of those farmers who have decided to ‘diversify’ and had a right good little earner going if you ask me (which you didn’t) being ours had cost £1360 for the week.
The house was a fairly new build and had walls as thin as paper. Its name was Swn y Gwynt. We ate out one evening at an inn a couple of hundred yards up the road. The lovely Welsh waitress asked if we were on holiday and we said yes, and I added that we were staying at ‘swin eee gwint,’ thinking that was how it was pronounced. She laughed and said ‘you mean ‘soon eee gwint,’ that’s a lovely place.’ This has led me to wonder if I should try to learn Welsh and fathom the reasons why a ‘w’ would ever be pronounced as a double ‘o.’
Swn y Gwynt means ‘Sound of the Wind’ and, in the husband’s case, this was remarkably appropriate. The house had been done out in a sort of fake farmhouse manner (even if it’s owner was a farmer) reproduced by sticking a fake brick chimney breast onto a plain wall; stone tiles (real) in the kitchen and utility room; a massive farmhouse type dresser in the kitchen (made out of what looked like laminated wood); a huge farmhouse type table in the kitchen (again laminate) and cosy, old fashioned armchairs in the lounge. All the furniture had a plastic/laminate look and feel, which was a good idea, easy to clean-wise and it did nothing to detract from the rustic ambience the owner (or more probably his wife) had been going for.
We were all well pleased with the house on arrival and, more importantly, it was the sort of house I had absolutely no qualms about staying in alone. There wasn’t an ounce of spookiness in a single hidden corner. It was a light and airy house, its walls painted in white or calming pastel colours. And all the while you could hear sheep bleating and cows mooing and a cockerel sounding off at any time of day. But the main reason for its singular un-ghostliness was the proliferation of windows.
They were everywhere. A gigantic pair of French doors in the lounge. To the right of them a small window by the TV. To the right of the fireplace another window. Two big windows in the kitchen. The lounge looked straight onto the hallway, front door and another window. This meant I never felt closed in and, every time I was alone in the house, I opened the french doors, and every other window, and felt like I wasn’t in a house at all but a sort of tent made out of bricks.
One drawback was the busy road running along the side of the house. It was amazing how busy this road was and how reckless its drivers. There was a 50 mph speed limit, which even the husband thought was ridiculous for such a narrow country road. But none of the drivers stuck to it as they screamed past, and getting across it amounted to taking your oh so precious life in your hands. There was a Spar and garage just a few yards up the road, where we bought all our food, being the nearest town was miles away and an Inn a couple of hundred yards further on from the Spar.
Son no.1 arrived a couple of days into the holiday with a copy of Stephen King’s The Stand. This is a King book I’ve never read and so I began reading it every time it fell from his hands. Its scenario is an apocalyptic one, involving an engineered strain of the Flu virus which escapes the confines of its laboratory setting and infects 99.4% of the human race, killing all but .6% presumably. The Stand was published in 1978, when King was drinking heavily and on his way to becoming a drug addict, and republished, with 500 more pages, in 1990, making it a massive tome. It’s supposed to scare the pants off us. It’s true that it’s filled with revolting King-type scenes (maybe even more revolting due to the presence of high levels of alcohol in his system) involving expulsions of various body fluids in ever more gruesome ways but I couldn’t help staring off into the distance at times, with a sort of dreamy look on my face, much more suited to the reading of a romantic novel, as I envisaged how lovely it would be if the boffins, locked up in their microbiology holes, could only engineer a deadly virus for which dangerous drivers would provide the perfect host (the reason for this to be explained later) along with a good many other nefarious sections of the population. Indeed, one of King’s themes in this king size whopper of a book would appear to be the drastically unfair nature of our existence, whereby his flu does not discriminate and kills off plenty of good people leaving plenty of the evil lot untouched. The book is also about God and God does not appear to have blessed himself with a conscience.
On our first day, the husband, sons nos 2 and 3 and I set off on our pleasant coastal walk. The owner’s handbook told us to cross the road outside the house where we would see a cattle gate. Inset into this gate was a people gate. We set off at noon beneath a cloudless blue sky and a glowing yellow sun high overhead. Isn’t this lovely thought I. How wonderful that our holiday fell in the middle of a heat wave. The owner had stated that we would walk across two fields, which were always empty, before hitting the coastal path. The gate led us into the first field. There was a well beaten path to its left and we followed this past waist high wild flowers, the field edged by trees and hedges. How pleasant it was spotting a few butterflies fluttering about in the flowers and the birdies flying overhead. The husband took a photo (having your photo taken when you’re 57 is an exercise in disillusionment and horror) before we came to a stile set at the end of the field in one corner. We all clambered over this charming, rustic wooden stile and entered a field which seemed to go on forever. It stretched away from us, a long rectangle of green (there had been no drought in Wales apparently) edged by hedges and the odd overhanging tree. There was no footpath. As we ambled along, feeling the gentle warmth of the sun on our backs and an occasional equally gentle breeze, I noticed there was barbed wire set into the hedges, as though it had grown there. It introduced a jarring note into the idyllic proceedings. The husband then mentioned that there were cows in this field. ‘How do you know,’ I said. ‘We walked down here last night when you stayed in the house,’ he said. ‘Are the cows alright?’ I said. ‘Fine,’ the husband replied. My heart skipped a beat. It did this because the husband’s idea of ‘fine,’ in most cases, usually translates to abject terror in my case.
We carried on walking, the going quite heavy as the ground was very lumpy and the grass was quite high. The husband sneezed his head off due to unremitting hayfever, which hadn’t troubled him to such an extent for years. The field then dropped down in a gentle slope and on the left side stood a bunch of eight cows (a herd I know, but I’ll be referring to them as a bovine bunch.) Two were sitting down, the others were munching grass but one was looking directly at us and not in a very docile cow like manner at all. I rapidly reconnoitred the area, noting if there were any barbed wire free bits of hedging (there weren’t) and how climbable the trees were (they weren’t due to standing behind the hedgerows.) As we got nearer to the bovine brigade my attention was drawn to the fact that these cows lacked udders. ‘I thought you said there were cows in this field,’ I said to the husband. ‘Yeah, cows, harmless’ he replied (cows are not always so harmless thought I.) ‘They’re not cows I said, they’ve no udders, I think they’re bulls!’ and I uttered a squeal. ‘Have you noticed the barbed wire in the hedgerows?’ I continued. ‘We couldn’t get out of here if we tried and we’ve walked too far to get out of the field either way as we’re now bang in the middle.’ Inspecting the ‘cow’s further I came to the conclusion that they were large, older bullocks, being they lacked the enormously bulky size of your average bull. I grabbed onto the husband’s arm and pulled him over to the opposite side of the field to the bullocks, yelling at the sons to do the same. ‘Why did our house owner say these fields were empty!’ I bawled at the top of my overwrought voice. ‘They’re full of bullocks (by this stage my equally overwrought imagination had converted eight bullocks into a gigantic herd); that means they’re male and young and could go on the rampage! ‘You’re wearing a red jumper too,’ the husband smirked and then clutched his stomach unable to control his hilarity. ‘Just keep walking,’ he continued, his voice suddenly irritated with the fact that he’d lumbered himself with a wife constantly prone to attacks of the hysterical vapours. What I actually had on was a maroon cardigan tied around my waist. I removed it and tried to ball it up so the bullocks couldn’t see it.
We continued walking down the field. I kept a constant eye on one heavy set bullock who was also keeping a constant eye on us. Had his expression changed? This was impossible to tell since it turns out that it’s very difficult to determine a bullock’s intentions simply by looking at its face. The bullock leader, as I’d come to think of him, remained standing, his large brown eyes monitoring our procession with perfect equanimity but was there evil intent in those eyes? Was he silently summoning his forces? The two bullocks who’d been lying down got up. The bullocks, who’d been munching grass, stopped munching and they all gradually came together to watch the humans walking down their field. I felt the burning power of eight pairs of bovine eyes on our collective, punily human backs. The bullock leader set off towards us. I gathered speed and practically ran to the end of the field and fairly jumped over the second stile in its corner, which led onto a well maintained dirt track. When the sons and husband caught up the fear still hadn’t disappeared and I imagined all kinds of wild animals suddenly appearing on that dirt track. Wild animals that had no right to be there, such as wolves, or grizzly bears or boa constrictors sliding out of the bushes. The track led us to a winding country lane that took us down into the tiny village of Trefin.
The lane passed a small field on a hill full of static caravans. All their doors were open and washing was hanging from camping type washing lines. Nobody was about. We walked past a few tiny, quaint absolutely gorgeous Welsh cottages, painted white or blue or pink. I looked in at each window, there was nobody inside. We came to a curve in the road bordered on the left by a wide grass verge with about six trees, planted to look like a sort of miniature glade. Behind it was a large, old house mostly hidden by more imposing trees. The effect was lovely and made me think of the sort of place you’d come across if you ever got to Narnia. Again not a living soul was about. We walked on uphill and more houses appeared, some, tiny cottages, some detached and imposing until we reached a point where the road split two ways. Son no.2 tracked the path on his phone and we turned left, then right through a small estate of houses, coming out onto a patchwork of fields. There was absolutely nobody about. This striking lack of other people could have felt eerie and strange, as though Stephen King’s killer flu had paid a visit and wiped out the local inhabitants. But it was a glorious heat wave-type summer’s day and it was a pleasant surprise to have that part of Wales entirely to ourselves.
We trekked on along the coastal path and realised we were now approaching the coast, as some impressively craggy cliffs appeared in the distance. Up ahead there was a set of allotments, very near the cliff edge which we were now approaching. It was one of the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. Located in the middle of nowhere, like something you’d expect to see half way up the Scottish hill to Hogwarts. There were six allotments in all, enclosed within a wire fence, and every one (bar one) was derelict and unattended. There was an upturned garden bench in one. A water butt lying on its side in another. Two rusty garden chairs placed in the middle of a veg patch in another. The neatly laid out veg plots were full of weeds, the grassy areas were a foot high. The sheds had holes in the doors and in their roofs and the wood was rotten. It was the allotment version of a ghost town and in direct contrast to the well-kept nature of its surroundings. But at the end of this row of allotments lay an allotment filled with cabbages, and runner beans growing up wigwam shaped sticks, and various other veg and flowers growing in neat rows. There was no sign of its solitary owner. Above my head I became aware that the sun was beating down fiercely and forced everyone to smother themselves in the sun cream I’d also forced son no.3 to carry in a rucksack. We’d already drunk the selection of drinks we’d packed in there too.
Moving on we came to the coast line and approached the edge of our particular bit of cliff. Very gingerly I inched forward, just enough so I could see the cliffs which curved outwards to our right and left and made myself look down at the sea. One of the reasons that my fear of flying no longer bothers me is that I’ve now seen enough of Britain to know that you don’t need to go abroad to feast your eyes on stunning, magical and breathtaking scenery. The sea below me was azure blue, as they’d call it in the Mediterranean. It was a sea to rival that surrounding any Greek island to be found in Mamma Mia! And it was also absolutely transparently clear. We could see the parts of the enormous black and jagged cliffs, which were underwater, clearly. It was an amazing effect. Behind us lay an enormous patchwork of Welsh fields and hills and behind those the beginnings of the smaller Welsh mountains. There was silence, except for the sound of the waves and the eerie cries of the gulls, lending a sort of hyper-realistic unearthly quality to the place. We moved further down the coast line and came across a stone ruin very near the edge of the cliff. It looked as if it might have been quite a large house once but there were no notices giving any information. We then set off back the way we’d come.
By now I was really feeling the heat. It was about 1.30 pm. It began to occur to me that the husband had had us set off, on what would turn out to be a more than 2 hour walk, in the heat of the midday sun. The exact time when all those NHS websites tell you to stay out of the sun, or else you risk heat stroke and all kinds of other nasty solar things. My head was feeling very, very hot and I didn’t have a hat, so I plonked my cardi on top of it. On we all trudged getting hotter and hotter and with nothing to drink. We trudged through the small town, occasionally stopping to stand underneath the shade of a tree. Then we came to the footpath that led to the two fields and home. The sons decided to take the country road all the way back to the house, thinking that might be quicker. The husband wanted to take the field route. So I followed the husband. By this time I was getting into a bit of a state. The heat was intense. Not your normal British summer kind of heat but the suffocating heat we’d had ever since the start of the heatwave. It felt unrelenting and I began to see the yellow ball of fire in the sky as an enemy specifically out to get me. That lovely pleasant feeling, at the beginning of our walk, had completely gone and my one job now was to get home. But that was still a way to go and there were no shops to buy a drink, no touristy toilets and the place was deserted.
We passed a house as we walked the footpath back to the bullock field. ‘Shall we knock and ask for a drink?’ I asked the husband. ‘No,’ he replied. We climbed the now evil stile, my legs nearly buckling under me with the effort and entered the bullock field. ‘Why did you bring us out in the middle of the day,’ I shouted at the husband. ‘We could die in this heat at our age,’ I continued, my cardi flapping madly about on my head and my trousers now pulled up to the knees to make makeshift shorts. I was a vision of middle-aged insanity. ‘Well, get that jumper off your head for a start,’ the husband called back, ‘it’ll just be heating your head up even more.’ ‘It’s not a jumper,’ I shouted back and took it off, feeling the heat of the sun baking my head like it was a cake in a celestial oven. Every step I took in the bumpy, grassy, evil field felt like such an effort. And then we were nearing the bullocks again. This time they were all standing up and all looking our way. I walked over to the left side of the field, feeling absolutely knackered, whilst the husband stuck to the right and walked straight past the bullocks. ‘The way out is over this side,’ he shouted, ‘so it’s no good being over there.’ ‘Don’t shout,’ I screamed, ‘you’ll alarm the bullocks!’ The bullocks watched, disdainful amusement in their huge eyes (it turns out you can tell what they’re thinking when you’ve gone insane) as I tramped back to their side, tripping over bumps in the ground, getting itchy grass on my bare legs, taking all my courage in both hands to walk directly by them. We reached the second field and I stood in the tiny shade of a tiny tree and told the husband I couldn’t go on. I was hyperventilating; the exertion in the heat made it feel like I was being smothered; I couldn’t breathe, my mouth was bone dry and I was probably going to die. I was 57, far too old to be walking and climbing and clambering in 25 degree heat – what had he been thinking! Didn’t he notice that we were the only people stupid enough to be walking around in the middle of day? Hadn’t we been the only people for miles and miles?
Shortly afterwards we were home and I was lying on a bed, completely red in the face, every item of clothing drenched in sweat. I turned on a fan I’d brought with us, due to the heatwave, and let it blow in my face for about 30 minutes and still my face felt like it was on fire. I then had a freezing cold shower and lay down some more, with the fan inches away from my head saying ‘never again, never again’ silently and madly in my own head. Meanwhile the husband sat in the lounge, gently snoring, without a care in the world.
The other drawback with our beautiful holiday cottage was the beds. The mattresses were rock hard. The husband and I slept in a bedroom downstairs and spent almost every night awake, tossing and turning in our twin beds from hell, snatching the odd kip here and there. There was not an ounce of ‘give’ in either bed. There would have seriously been no difference had we decided to sleep on the floor. But this lack of sleep led to something so spectacular that I still can’t get the images out of my head.
On the second night, after my frantic, lunatic walk, I woke up from a brief period of uncomfortable sleep and decided to pull back the curtains at the tiny window directly behind my bed. Why I did this I can’t say. Every night the house would be plunged into total darkness, being there were no street lights or any other kinds of light in the vicinity. Maybe I’d wanted to let whatever light there was outside in, just to alleviate the total darkness. It must have been about 2 am, but I had no clock in the room. As I pulled one curtain back I noticed some very bright lights hanging low in the field behind the house, just beyond the hedge that bordered our garden. Perhaps the farmer was outside looking at his sheep, I thought, but he wouldn’t be able to carry so many lanterns, or perhaps they were torches? My mind was clearly still somewhat in the land of nod. As I carried on looking I realised that the lights were actually stars, so near the horizon that they looked as though they were hanging just above the field. And there wasn’t just a couple of stars out there, there appeared to be 30 or 40 huge balls of light occupying the one tiny section of sky framed by my window. ‘Were they really stars?’ I thought, but what else could they be?
I got out of bed, as the husband snored on, and went to the window in the small hallway which attached our bedroom to the kitchen. I opened its curtains and saw hundreds of stars in a perfectly black sky, above the garden and the cattle sheds behind it. Stars that were so bright and so glittering and so beautiful it was like I’d never seen a proper star before, but some sort of inferior copy. It was as though they’d come down from space to hang just a few feet away. ‘Wow, wow, wow, unbelievable’ I gasped, in the manner of Kate Bush, over and over again. I woke the husband and we went outside into the garden.
It was like being in one of those planetarium places where they project the universe onto a gigantic curved screen above your head. Only this was so much better. This was unbelievable. This was another plane of existence. I felt I only had to reach out my hand and I would touch a star. There weren’t a couple of hundred stars in that night sky, there were millions. They were all sizes and so close together that there was just a few inches of black sky in between. In the background millions and millions, it seemed, of tiny white specks of light shone and flickered. In front of them countless larger stars glowed white and some yellow, and in front of them hung large gleaming balls of light, spaced in an even line across the sky. The husband took out his phone and pulled up a star map. ‘That’s Jupiter there!’ he exclaimed, pointing at one of the large stars hanging above a cattle shed. ‘What’s that sort of white ribbon going across the entire sky,’ I asked. ‘That’s the Milky Way,’ he replied.
I’d never seen the Milky Way before in my life. It was like a miracle. I turned 360 degrees around, looking up at that miraculous sky, following the huge cloudy galaxy that looked as though someone had smeared a white streak across the sky. I could have stayed outside for hours trying to drink it all in but it started to feel cold and we went back in, determined to look at the night sky every remaining day of our holiday. But every other night was cloudy, so I literally thank my lucky stars that I pulled the curtains on that starry, starry night.
On day three I cut a finger whilst washing up a wine glass. I simply wiped it around with the sponge and a great chunk of glass split away cutting into the skin of my little finger. There was a lot of blood for such a small gash and I called frantically to son no.2 to administer a plaster. The owner had stated that all breakages must be paid for, but I figured this one was on him, being the glass had just fallen apart in my hands and chucked it in the bin. Little did I know that this was an ominous sign of things to come.
There were trips to Fishguard Harbour, a stunningly beautiful harbour set between high hills on either side and, again, amazingly deserted. Surfing at Whitesands bay and a walk up its coastal path; a walk filled with quite a bit of terror thrown in as an added attraction. The path led up the very side of the cliffs and was only bordered by a thick hedgerow. In places the hedge disappeared for a few feet to be replaced by a vertical drop of probably a hundred feet to the sea below. The ‘it’s all worth it’ moment was when we suddenly came across a large herd of horses grazing near the edge of the cliff and wandering about on the pathway and the landscape beyond. ‘Oh, look at the horses!’ I cried at the husband, the joy quickly replaced by sudden fear. ‘Is it ok to walk through a herd of horses?’ I asked him. ‘Yeah, fine,’ was the reply. Suddenly the horses began to neigh and whine and then, as one, they began to race towards us. It happened far too quickly to do anything about it. We stood in a huddle of two as they galloped past us and on up the cliff. ‘What happened?,’ I shouted. And then we heard a woman up ahead calling a name over and over again, accompanied by high pitched whistles. And then we saw the dog, a large dog running in and out of the horses’ legs – a dog this stupid woman had let off its lead. She went by us in her ultra-smart walking gear, not a care in the world that she’d just caused what could have been a dangerous stampede.
Next to the horses was a pathway cut into the cliff side which led down to a tiny, beautiful cove, only a few people milling about on it. And that’s the amazing thing about holidaying in Wales. Nobody seems to want to go to Wales. They all go to Cornwall or abroad I assume. Which means that the mind blowingly gorgeous beaches and the walks, that take you along centuries old, unchanged landscapes, are all blessedly free of great swathes of humanity – that’s a real holiday in my opinion.
On our next to last day I fell out of the back door of the holiday cottage. I have no idea how this happened. I’d washed up in the kitchen, made myself a cup of coffee and headed off through the large utility room to the back door. I remember setting off through the door, eyes looking straight ahead at the family sitting on a stone patio, coffee cup in my right hand, the Stephen King tome in my left. And suddenly I was sinking down onto my right knee, and then I was falling onto my left knee, and then I was falling forward in a weird slow motion, holding the coffee cup up high, because I remembered that we had to pay for anything that got broken. Then I fell forward onto my chest and just managed to prevent my face hitting the ground, still holding the coffee cup up before it flung itself out of my hand and landed on the ground, completely intact. I’ve never fallen as an adult and it was a most peculiar almost shocking sensation. I pulled myself up to a seated position and felt intense pain in my right knee and leg. I inspected the knee. The skin had been taken off on my knee cap and the area was bleeding. There were cries of ‘are you alright?’ and the husband attempted to lift me up. I said ‘I’m ok,’ got up and hobbled into the kitchen. The husband put a wet J cloth onto the knee to clean it and stop the bleeding. When he did it for the second time I realised he was using the cloth I’d washed up with and also used to clean the toilets. ‘What are you doing? You don’t clean a wound with a germ ridden cloth!’ I fairly screamed in his face. ‘Get me the roll of kitchen paper,’ I demanded ‘and a bowl of cold water.’ The screaming put paid to some of the sympathy the husband may have felt for his ailing wife. I spent about 30 minutes applying cold wet kitchen paper to the graze, replacing each bit when it was too bloody and then demanded a packet of frozen peas to stop any bruising or swelling. The husband had to go running to the Spar and came back with the peas. I held it on my knee for ages whilst everyone else left the room, clearly wanting to be out of earshot of their whinging wife/mother. I then placed the biggest sized plaster I could find on it, from the packet I’d brought along for emergencies.
Much later on I could barely move the right leg for pain and both legs came up in large yellow bruises a few days later, along with a yellow bruise on my chest. The frozen peas must have worked though and prevented a lot of black and blue bruising.
The Dangerous Driver
The only drawback about going to Wales is that it take hours to drive there, which involves more abject terror on my part. Our journey there had not been too bad at all, a reasonable level of traffic all the way there – I later learned that the traffic heading to Cornwall had caused 9 hour delays, huge traffic jams and made the news headlines. Our journey home was similarly easy until we were on a main road somewhere past Cardiff. Suddenly a works truck (the husband said, I saw a van) overtook a couple of cars in the opposing lane and came straight at us. He’d either misjudged the whole thing massively, or just didn’t care that he didn’t have the time or the engine speed to overtake the cars in time. He kept on going, never altering his speed and the cars he was trying to overtake didn’t slow down either. The husband gradually slowed down as soon as he saw what was happening, but didn’t want to do an emergency stop in case the car behind us drove into us and so on and so on. Fortunately the car behind us had kept a reasonable distance. He got down to 20 mph and swerved left to mount a high concrete kerb and grass verge, when the truck sped past our car with about an inch to spare and cut in in front of the other cars.
Written down that sounds like nothing doesn’t it? A nothing sort of incident, no big deal. I cried for about 15 minutes afterwards and clutched the door handle even more tightly than I normally do for the rest of the trip home, resulting in an ache in my left arm which took days to go. The incident felt like we came ‘that close’ to death, or serious injury and for what? A driver who lacked the patience to drive along a main road within the speed limit. If the husband had been similarly racing along he’d have had no time to react, or stop in time, and there would have been a head on collision. A third of drivers who kill or injure people on the roads never go to jail. So, I’d be quite happy if some little flu germ out there mutated just enough to develop a peculiar attraction to the maniacs on our roads and mete out its own judgement.
This has been a long, long blog post, influenced in part by the fact that I’m currently trudging through King’s epic cautionary tale, and my holiday certainly had its fair share of horror moments. Whenever I read any author there appears to be a tendency for my writing to take on some of their qualities, and King’s stand out quality is his capacity to go on a bit.