Thursday, 24 September 2009

Hangovers, alternative energy and dams

Today I left Eleri's house in Cardiff (South Wales) for Caernarfon (North Wales) with the sat nav reading 176 miles to destination. At the end of my journey my odometer (apparently this what milometers are actually called) said I had done 266 miles. I did get a lot done though, mainly a lot of Wales, and will almost certainly have a drink in the bar downstairs at 8.30pm with fish and chips, go to bed at approximately 9pm and fall asleep at 9.01pm.

So today I have a hangover. My own fault (aren't they always? No matter how hard you try, a hangover can never be blamed on others, annoying) but I hadn't seen Eleri for at least a few weeks so it was important to catch up with wine. How this got onto dancing like Shakira in her new video and making the cat give me high fives I don't quite know, but I do have photographic evidence of the latter (luckily none of the former) if you want to see...

I always knew there were brown signs everywhere and have difficulty not stopping at every one I go by, but when you have a destination you need to get to by the end of the day and there is a brown sign almost every 6 miles one has to be a bit picky, sadly. I drove through Brecon Breacons (managing to keep my steering wheel turning as I passed the exit for Brecon, unbelievably) and Snowdonia National Parks. I was moved to tears on two occasions by just how bloody beautiful Wales is (I don't know whether I would have cried if I didn't have a hangover but I definitely would have been close) and kept having to screech to halts to take pictures which do no justice to the scenery here. Here's a few anyway though...


The first brown signing experience came in the form of a disused railway station come craft centre called (inventively) Erwood Station Craft Centre, which has been turned into a little oasis of craft and workshops, with a tea room, and includes the use of an old railway carriage, waiting rooms and platforms as premises.

I did consider buying a souvenir but the only thing that I really liked (woolly jumpers and stained glass hangings aren't really my thing) were the Welsh Love Spoons, but the irony of me buying one, for myself, was just too much so I didn't.

The next brown sign was a VERY exciting one for me, a red kite feeding station at Rhayader. I followed the brown sign with massive excitement, only to be disappointed that feeding apparently doesn't happen when visitors rock up, but only at certain times every day, 3pm. It was 11 am. It's not an exaggeration to say I was crestfallen.

Next brown signing experience was Bryntail Lead Mine. 

What I love most about following brown signs is that you often have no idea what the place actually is until you get there. The mine turned out to be a mid 19th Century abandoned industrial site left to decay, but with many of the buildings left relatively intact, so you can walk around on the site and (with the help of labels and signs) work out how the mine worked.

What you see just behind what is left of the mine is a gigantic great big dam, which makes the Clywedog reservoir. Stupid I know but standing here I imagined it was about to break at any moment, water would come gushing out at me and sweep me down the valley while I floundered around and eventually drowned wherever I was deposited. I don't know why I think like this but it's also how I think about flying, I know the catastrophe is so unlikely to happen but it could, so I get scared. Another brown sign directs you up to view the dam close up. I wasn't expecting it to be quite so big, and standing just where it begins and imagining 11,000 million gallons of water being held back by it was pretty awe inspiring.

After the dam I wanted to press on, and not really knowing where I was anyway I just obeyed the sat nav's instructions, and stopped when I saw nice views and for sheep which refused to budge when honked at and had to be moved by 1.1 Saxo force.

 My final brown sign of the day was by far the best. It was the Centre for Alternative Energy at Machynlleth, which is really not on route from Cardiff to Caernarfon, in fact it's in the south west corner of Snowdonia, which shows how many detours I had been making and how much the sat nav had to recalculated my route.

I really had no idea what this place would be like, I assumed you could just visit whenever and it wasn't some hippy compound where Swampy-types had set up a commune, so I rocked on up. The girl at reception gave me a bit of a worried look when I went up to the window and said "what's the craic?" It's better to be straight forward and to the point when you're not sure of things in these situations, I find. If you don't know what you're buying a ticket for (which happens often to me) and you don't ask you get given a ticket and then look like even more of an idiot because you're standing with a ticket in your hand not knowing where to go or what you're looking at, I've done this a few times and it just leads to massive embarassment when you have to ask.
She explained that the centre was basically a living experiment, set up 30 years ago to display and educate people about environmentally sound living practices. I hopped into the water powered funicular railway carriage to get up there and got ready to feel bad about how wasteful I was and have a panic attack about the impending doom our world faces.

Once at the top I went to the compost toilet and as you can imagine was relieved to find this sign on the inside of the door...

I picked up an audio guide and all of a sudden calm and peacefulness enshrouded me. The narrator of the tour has the most intelligent amiable voice I have ever heard. He has worked at the centre for a long time and even though you can't see him, as you walk around holding the blue telephone to your ear it's like you're being given a personal guided tour. I loved him. He also reversed my preconceptions about the centre. There is a lot of information about everything they have there, but I felt under no pressure to hear it all, and he emphasises this. I do tend to get burnout after doing more than an hour or so of an exhibition or museum so being able to mill around and choose what you want to see and listen to was brilliant. The displays show everything from how to live a more green life to showcasing how some of the most hi-tech alternative energies work and why they are beneficial, for example demonstrating green ways to insulate homes (growing grass on the roof), harnessing wind and solar energy to make electricity and cutting down on fuel consumption by growing your own vegetables or buying local produce. It is a unique forward thinking centre with the right approach to alternative energies and how we think about the world we live in, they want the visitor to come away inspired to do their bit, not to change the world by living like a Swampy.


After mooching around and listening to my man lull me into a mellow happiness I decided to get a snack from the vegetarian restaurant. Sadly for me they only did big vegetarian meals and didn't do sandwiches. Sweetly though a helpful quiet type emerged from the biodegradable kitchen when she heard my heavy hungry sighs and said she'd make me up a bap. I was relieved. What would I like? Oh anything, you know, cheese and salad, or whatever. I sat down with a cup of tea and received a cheese and beetroot sandwich a couple of minutes later, I think there were some sultanas in there too. It was a confusing though not unpleasant dining experience.

I didn't spend as long as I would have liked there. It so effortlessly fused with it's natural surroundings and made you feel so part of the earth I nearly signed up to live there just for the peace and tranquillity. A definite highlight.

I'm now being bullied into leaving the blog writing to go and have dinner downstairs with Eleri, as I'm staying with her in her pub room that her company are of so kindly paying for. Scrounger? Yes absolutely, and I'm not even ashamed.

I'll fill you in on more as it occurs, of this you can be sure.

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