Sunday, 9 November 2014
out of the kitchen, up on the mountains
A few weeks ago my boyfriend and I took advantage of the unseasonably warm September to visit the Brecon Beacons. When I was a teenager my Mum got really into mountain climbing for some strange reason, so more than a few weekends me and my equally uncooperative brother found ourselves dragged up some big slope or another. I'd always moan about going; I hated the boring drive there and all I really wanted to do was stay home and faff about on the internet (some things don't change), but once we were actually climbing the views and the air and the great big vastness of it all would have the inevitable effect. I'd be happy. And then when I left for university I found myself longing for the hills, for the sky, for the undeniable happiness that only a mountain can really provide. So when I'd come home for a week or whatever the tables would turn, and it was all of a sudden me dragging the family. So mountain climbing has been a great love of mine for many years, and the Brecon Beacon mountains in South Wales' heart hold a very dear place in mine.
Some time ago on tumblr I came across this quote: "What do you come to the mountain with? What do you leave behind the top?", and I remember it each time I begin an ascent. I don't know where it's from; a quick tumblr search reveals the attribution as "Rakishi to Georgia, in these last notes, 1968", but I don't really know what that means and it seems that google doesn't either - so if any of you can enlighten me, please do. But wherever it's from it's stayed with me, because I do think (however cliche it is) you take things with you when you go to wild places, because they are now so few and far between. So you can take things there that you can't always take everywhere else, and the exertion and sweat and pain of the climb provides a catharsis which finds release in that staggering view from the top. I love being at the top - I love the space, I love the emptiness, I love the great big sky and the great big clouds and all of the great big green. You're so far from everything, you're so high up above it all, and you can leave things there so you travel back down somehow unburdened, somehow lighter, somehow a little less heavy than you were before.
Olly and I climbed up Pen y Fan, which is the biggest of the Brecon Beacons, around 3pm in the afternoon - so the light was starting to die, and there were hardly any other souls around (except sheep). On the way back down he said "stop", so I did, and asked why. "It's so quiet," he said, and it was. It was so, so quiet.
By the time we came down from the mountain it was just starting to get dark, so we drove straight back to Priory Mill Farm. If you're ever in the area I can't recommend this campsite enough - small, walking distance to town, quiet and right beside a river. Our tent may not have been the greatest in the world, but falling asleep to no sound other than rushing water is worth a cold nights sleep. We walked into Brecon - truly a middle of nowhere town, which was really just very very (and I can think of no other word to describe it) Welsh. And if you know what that means then you know what that means, and you'll know of no other way to describe it. And if you don't know what that means then I urge you to find out, because it's no bad thing at all.
Dinner was had, quite surprisingly, in a hole in the wall Ghurka restaurant. And when I say hole in the wall I really do mean hole in the wall, but I think Ghurka food is some of the greatest food on the planet so we gambled anyway. And I'm glad we did; it was gorgeous, all buttery soft naan and gently spiced curry and rice cooked to fluffy perfection. It's called Ghurka Corner Restaurant. Go there.
Back at the site we lit a fire in the dark, made smores (because, well, duh), and I read Nick Groom's The Seasons in the burning glow.
The next day we woke early after what wasn't the most comfortable nights sleep. Lying there in the too-small tent, wide awake at 6.30am on Sunday I had a brief moment of wondering what on Earth we were doing; and then I stepped outside and remembered. A low fine mist clung to the tips of the surrounding tree tops, and the cobwebs in the grass were covered with dew. Nobody was awake, only the birds, and I switched quite suddenly from wondering what I was doing to wondering why I ever do anything else.
Eventually the rest of the world woke up, rising with the sunshine, and after a breakfast in town and some biscuits from the car we packed all our stuff away and headed deeper into the Welsh countryside. The weather had done a total u-turn since the day before - heavy grey clouds transformed into fluffy little white ones, and the bleak pale sky turned a bright and ceaseless blue. We ditched our jackets and drove those wide open country dotted with as many wild horses as trees. I demanded we stop to take pictures only like, three times, which I think is a totally reasonable amount.
We parked up in the village of Ystadfellte, which looks as much something out of Lord of the Rings as it sounds, and walked to Sgwd yr Eira, which is even more so. This was supposed to be our nice easy walk after a tiring Saturday of mountain climbing, but it ended up being quite the opposite. We got spectacularly lost - so much so that at one point we scaled cliff face that was practically vertical, using only our hands and feet and head to grab onto tree roots and rocks where available. But if you're gonna get lost in the pursuit or something, then a waterfall you can walk behind is a pretty nice destination. We'd risen so early that we had the place to ourselves for a brief time before a bunch of people showed up, so we stood alone on slippery rocks behind the rushing crashing water, remembering that weekends like this are why you spend all week in the office. Because you don't live to work, after all; you work to live.
On the drive home we took a detour and travelled back through the Forest of Dean, which is where we're both from (though we didn't meet until I'd spent four years in Scotland and he'd spent two in Australia), and stopped off at a pub called the Cross Keys for late lunch. The Cross Keys is a real favourite of mine - it's super traditional, the landlady is mental but wonderful, the food is delicious and (most importantly) the portions are enormous. Covered in body and exhausted but smiling we ate until our stomachs hurt and, eventually, begrudgingly, returned back to Cheltenham. I love Cheltenham, I really do, but this weekend was the reminder I needed that my heart really belongs outdoors. I love mud on my clothes and I love wind in my hair; I love having aching limbs and a full heart; I love how soft my cheeks feel when they've been out in the cold air all day; I love the views from high up, and I love the mist in the mornings. I love the colours of this country and I love finding great food in strange places. I love it all. That exhilarated exhausted happiness that wild spaces brought me as a teenager remains just as strong now, and I really just love it all. I guess I left things at the top of the mountain that I didn't know needed leaving behind, so, a question for you now. What do you come to the mountain with? What do you leave behind the top?
Go find out.