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Saturday, 28 July 2018

North Wales, Over Half A Century...

The two primary school teachers who supervised us both looked stern and serious as we were compelled to walk in an orderly double line along the quayside, each one of us having a partner, as we walked in almost military fashion towards what is to be the smallest house in Great Britain.

Of course, being just a boy with still quite a bit of growing up yet to accomplish, the property did not look that impressive. Rather it was big enough for me to enter easily, with plenty of room to spare. So concluded a coach trip to Conway, or as the Welsh spell it, Conwy, whilst staying at a special hostel, purposely built to accommodate city school children for up to two weeks at a time. The hostel was well-situated on the outskirts of Llangollen, another Welsh town crossed by the River Dee and towered over by the ruins of Dinas Bran Castle. 

The ruins of Dinas Bran dominates over Llangollen. 
Castelle Dinas Bran (possible meaning: Crow Castle), or rather what remains of it, sits on the summit of a hill overlooking the town of Llangollen, and therefore looking straight into our bedroom and lounge windows. Even while young, I was rather fascinated by the hilltop structure, and I even asked our teachers about any history of it. But without the Internet, they knew no more about it than this curious lad. At least, throughout the getaway, it was not military-style discipline all the time. After all, we were all children, and the staff were fully aware of this. And so, after a trip out, whether it was to buy candy with the pocket money supplied by our parents, a climb up the hill to play on the manicured lawn which was once the castle's flooring, or after a coach trip to Conwy, we were allowed some time at the swing park located nicely between the hostel and the fast-flowing river.

Of all primary school trips, this one, somewhere between 1960-1962, stands out in memory to this day. I always recall the excitement as we assembled at Paddington Station for the express train to what I believe was Ruabon Station, a few miles out of Llangollen. For the benefit of railway enthusiasts, in those days such a route was served by London Paddington. Nowadays it is served by London Euston. But as my father was so proud with owning and driving his own family car, it came as no surprise that as a child I hardly ever saw the inside of a train. Therefore such a journey made with the school was a unique experience. Other school Summer trips, such as to Swanage a year earlier, was always done by coach.

Whether Castelle Dinas Bran boded good or ill for me I cannot say. But in 1998, I made an effort to cycle all the way to Llangollen from my apartment in Bracknell. I did well as I passed through Henley on Thames, the posh venue for the famous annual Regatta, through Oxford with its magnificent University buildings, then through Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare, then through Birmingham as I headed towards Wolverhampton. It was while on a fast downhill burn-up when the bicycle frame suddenly snapped near the crankshaft, and I found myself wavering along the highway, on a zig-zag course which could have got me killed if another vehicle had gotten involved! Therefore I had no other option but to limp into Wolverhampton for an overnight stay at a pre-booked hotel to spend the night before locking up the crippled mount in the city centre and then finishing the journey by train and bus.

Gutted, utterly gutted, by thankful to God for sparing my life, or even from an ambulance trip to hospital. The break in the frame was a clean one caused by metal fatigue, and I wondered whether I could have had it welded back together at a bicycle shop. But not finding one straightaway, along with the possibly of the appropriate mechanic shaking his head in hopelessness, the cycle trip was therefore abandoned, but I still wanted to get to my final destination. This included passing through the Welsh town of Wrexham, which was actually on the scheduled cycle route.

From Wrexham station I sat alone in the train with my chin touching the floor in self-pity, leading to depression. I tried to convince myself that I did not abandon the ride out of choice or through physical or mental exhaustion, but through mechanical failure. Nevertheless, I felt as though I have failed.

 At the Smallest House to give the scale.

I eventually arrived at Llangollen, and claimed my bed at the backpacker's hostel which was quite a distance from town and even further away from our former school hostel. The place was almost empty of guests, except for one Spanish student who came into the UK to cycle around the country. When he saw me, he took an instant liking to me straight away, and at table, he began to talk to me with an endless torrent of incomprehensible Spanish. By asking him to slow down, I managed to pick out what he was attempting to tell me; that he was studying to be an accountant and was taking a break with a trip to the UK to see the sights on a bicycle. I cannot remember whether he brought his own bicycle here with him or whether he bought or hired a mount after arriving here.

At least he was able to raise my spirits, and gave me new hope. Even if I felt a failure, at least he didn't see me that way. Rather, he saw me as a source of encouragement, not to give up on his tour, even when feeling tired. The next morning he set off on his next leg of his journey on his bicycle while I sauntered into town on foot. As I looked up to Dinas Bran, it appeared at quite a different angle to the one so familiar, but as I walked on, this slowly changed. As I approached the town, feelings of reminiscence began to rise. After such a long time nothing had changed. The town remained the same, with the High Street continuing over the River Dee on a Medieval bridge. After crossing the river, it wasn't far to the start of a modern trail (which wasn't there before) leading up the hill to the ruins of Dinas Bran.

The setting was exactly the same as when I was a junior schoolboy. A sat there alone, meditating on my schooldays. From time to time families arrived and departed, but I remained on the summit for quite a while without any teachers or authority figures keeping an eye. After this, I walked on to find the very school hostel building I stayed at, and the swing park behind it. Sure enough, it was still there, unoccupied at that moment, but getting ready to receive another school group. It's original purpose hadn't changed either. Then I couldn't resist mounting one of the swings, perhaps the very same one I used some 36-38 years earlier. Not long after, I watched two elderly ladies, definitely pensioners, having a whale of a time laughing while swinging on the same swings! Without doubt, that hostel must have been serving its purpose long before I was even born.

Reminiscence! Reminiscence! How effective all this was. And just as well. For after just a few weeks after that failed bicycle ride, I met my future wife Alex.

And it was just this week when Alex and I boarded a fast train to North Wales from London Euston. Although we had to change trains at Chester, the remainder of the journey was uneventful. We arrived at Conwy station on time, which was just a couple of minutes walk to our hotel. 

Which goes to show how much love can overcome the problems a wheelchair can pose, especially laden with luggage. Guards were willingly at hand to help my wife to board and alight from each train using special ramps. Admittingly, we were both looked upon as someone special - or was it with a degree of pity? Either way, it was very helpful to see the work of Jesus Christ in action with these people, whether they were true believers or not.

She wanted to visit Conwy Castle, and I took her there. Fortunately for her, it was the time of day when she was partially mobile and she made an effort, unaided, to climb the spiral stairway in one of the turrets, quite an achievement for her. Then she returned to her wheelchair within the castle itself while I explored the rest of this Medieval fortress. Later, I took her to the Smallest House in Great Britain, which is built into the city wall, and facing the tidal estuary of the Afon Conwy with its many boats and a large sandbank island exposed during low spring tide. Indeed, everything seemed so different from the days of school trips. Even groups of young students in uniform appeared far more casual than what we had to go through, looking far more like a tour group than a school trip.

A short, ten minute train journey from nearby Llandudno Junction station to Llandudno terminus allowed a full day at this lovely Victorian seaside resort of Llandudno. From the pebbly beach I was able to bathe in the sea, as well as mingle in the thick crowds which populated the pier with its line of stalls selling anything between fish-n-chips to trinkets, both cheap and trashy to more expensive ornaments. Alex's wheelchair wasn't the only one there. We saw quite a number of disabled individuals in wheelchairs, some manual, some electric, as we strolled along the pier, and admiring the magnificent layered rock formation of Great Orme.

Great Orme, a mountainous headland which is difficult to believe that it was once an island before the formation of the peninsula on which the resort is now built. From its summit the Isle of Man can be seen, along with the Cumbrian mountains of the Lake District, on any clear day. Unfortunately, because of the wheelchair, we could not make it to its summit.

Great Orme Headland, taken July 2018. 

Then came the day we had to return home. Our train was not due to leave Llandudno Junction until mid-afternoon, and for a direct journey to London Euston without the need to change trains. Therefore, after checking out of our hotel in the morning, we had a few leisurely hours before making our way to the station. Once on board the train, at first all was well. However it was later in the journey when things began to go pear-shaped.

Alex developed a severe back pain which only Oramorph can relieve. Oramorph is actually Morphine, but taken orally rather than intravenously. When we left home a few days earlier, we left home prepared and made sure we were adequately stocked. The medicine we had did relieve the pain, but her back remained stiff, giving her much discomfort. After the train had pulled out of Milton Keynes station, the guard, who looked alarmed at the situation, offered to have the train emergency stop at Watford Junction. We declined the offer, saying that we much prefer to visit a London hospital. And so the train flew through Watford Junction station as scheduled. At London Euston Alex was as if paralysed in her wheelchair. The station staff helped us board a taxi to the nearest hospital, which was just around the corner from the terminus.

At Accident & Emergency, although the doctor visited, there was no treatment necessary. With my help, Alex was already recovering and her back muscles loosened. We agreed on a quick discharge in order to board the last train home from Waterloo Station. After our train was cancelled due to a signalling problem, we eventually arrived home near midnight, several hours later than originally planned.  

In such a condition, would we be able to travel long distance again in the future? Alex insist that we will. But I'm not too sure. To be honest, I'm now afraid to take her anywhere. I guess we have to wait and see.


  1. Dear Frank,
    Thank you as always for sharing your adventures with us. Reading your blog always makes me feel that I too have been part of the journey! It is a unique experience to revisit places of significance in our youth, and to realize that we have changed but they have not, and sometimes as a result of how we have changed, our perspective of the place is quite different even though the landmark remains timeless and ageless. Or, as the French say, "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." (The more things change, the more they stay the same). Thanks for the great post and God bless,

  2. Hi Frank,
    It was lovely to hear of your journey to Wales, as you probably know I am Welsh - only from the South. I particularly loved Alex's ability to climb the spiral staircase, and her positive thoughts about another distant holiday. Ireland is a beautiful place to travel to (that's if you like eight hours on the ferry :-). God bless you and Alex.

  3. I understand your fears, but just think what you both would have missed if you hadn't gone. It was like the bicycle trip. Teh broken bicycle did not ruin yuor trip ofr stop you from going other places. It just forced you to do things a little differently than you planned. The same thing can be true of Alex's health problems.

  4. You and Alex are so blessed to live in England. We visited London in 2010, a trip Iwill always treasure in my revisiting it in my mind, as you help me to do.

  5. For someone who is *just* a window cleaner, you always write so brilliantly and passionately and interestingly. You spin a readable tale out of all your exploits, and have lived such an interesting life. God Himself may have preferred you uneducated so that some spark of passion could burn through you, instead of what can be smugness from those who are wealthy, accomplished and well educated.

    I love North Wales, and I too have many childhood memories from Llandudno, Llangollen and Conwy, and many other towns there as a kid, and recently as an adult. I'm so passionate about North Wales, that I often long to be there, just to taste the sea air and country air.

    I'm sorry to hear Alex is still, at times, very unwell. I'm a believer in healing. Have you had any elders pray over her, or genuine Christian healer pray for her healing? It sounds to me as if she needs specific prayerful healing. It might be good if you both pray about it together and your church pray about it, too.