​Snow time!

I’ve relocated to Betws-y-Coed for my second PGCE placement. The first few weeks of this year have gone so quickly and again, we’ve done a lot as a group. I’ve covered a lot of it in my Back to Uni… post but I didn’t mention Blwch y Plwm mine, Borth-y-Gest nor the snow…

Living in the van is still proving interesting. It now makes a ‘chugging’ noise like a train when it starts up from the cold and I’ve had to remove important papers from the vehicle due to them getting damp… still, it’s cosy at night time. My placement has said I can park up on site when the centre is in use and use the showers and toilets there. So that’s two fewer worries. They even feed me lunch!

I didn’t see much of the snow during uni whilst still in Bangor. I was in Swindon (now dubbed Swindonia) when it hit, then when I returned it had gone… so, a trip back to Swindonia was needed to actually have the opportunity to play in it!

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Terry and I decided to visit one of our favourite places in England just for a couple of hours walking and admiration of our favourite views. The Worcestershire Beacon, the highest point in the Malvern Hills at 425m (1,394ft), you can see three counties from its point. Once used as a signalling beacon, in 1588, it formed part of a chain of warning fires which were lit when the Spanish Armada attempted to invade England as well as being lit for commemorative events, such as coronations of various kings and queens.

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It was a glorious day albeit a tad windy! As you can see, Bailey enjoyed the chill on his face!

Then I blinked and I was back in Bangor! I’ve joined a popular canoe/kayak club as I want to improve my skills in this area and their first yearly trip out was great fun!

The group paddled over Pontcysyllte and Chirk aqueducts in Llangollen and through the Whitehouses and Chirk tunnels before ending at the Poachers Pub for refreshment!

Anybody who has ever been to Llangollen would have seen the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, it is the longest aqueduct in the UK and the highest in the world at 38m (126ft) high (336 yd (307 m) long, 12 ft (3.7 m) wide and 5 ft 3 in (1.60 m) deep). It was fun to paddle across with the drop on the right-hand side!

The group is really fun and involving. I recognised a face when I turned up… turned out it was the woman who interviewed me for my PGCE place! Small world indeed!

In our last week at uni, we got to spend the morning at Borth-y-Gest looking at beach activities for younger students. Terry and I have visited this place several times and each time it gets more beautiful than the last! I just wanted to post some photos here of this wonderful place.

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My first week in placement is over. Centre work is much different from working within a school – it’s not as fast paced but is longer throughout the day. It will take me some time to get used to it. The centre itself is lovely and very well organised. The council supports what they do so they have good equipment, happy staff and regular schools attending (the 2020 calendar is 90% full already!). It’s an amazing place to be a part of and I hope my time spent here is enjoyable; it will be interesting to work with much younger students than I’m used too, I just don’t think I’ll hear much, if anything, disgusting about gross bodily parts, unusual bodily functions and who is ‘doing’ whom from this age range…!

Just Joanne

Exploring North East Wales

So, just finished my second week at my first placement. I’m used to the hustle and bustle of school life but throwing in the added mix of class lists, assignment and lesson content and it suddenly becomes more complex.

I did have a serious moment of wanting to quit and just travel in the van… But that was because of witnessing glorious sunrises and sunsets…

So glad I’m not a vampire…

So aside from school, I’ve tried to get out. Where I am currently staying the Clwydian Range is nearby, in fact I can see them every morning from my van as I drive from Ruthin to Mold. At the highest point is Moel Famau, which in Welsh means ‘bare(moel) and ‘mother(Famau has different variations of the spelling- Fama, in old texts. ), so is sometimes referred to as “Mother’s hill“. On top of this hill is the Jubilee Tower, or what’s left of it. At three stories high it could be seen for miles, but due to being unfinished and a storm, it now only has the base left. It was built to commemorate the golden jubilee of George III in 1810. Some great views from this point.

On a clear day you can see Snowdon to the west (35miles away!), the Irish Sea to the North and Blackpool Tower to the East! Signs at the top point the landmarks out for you.

So, I took a walk up the popular southern route within Bwlch Penbarras, only 1.25miles to the top, which didn’t take long. The route is part of the Offa’s Dyke way and is well maintained- plus there’s a couple of Geocaches on route..

I didn’t want to camp up here, it was the weekend and I imagine it gets very busy with racers so decided to find somewhere else. What I did find was the most stunning sunset I’ve ever seen within the United Kingdom.

The last time I saw a sky this red was in Nepal at about 3,000m high. So beautiful.

In the morning, I decided to take a wander around the trail of Alwen Reservoir. It’s a blue mountain bike route, only 7 miles long, but nice to walk as it passes through coniferous and dedicious forests and over moorland.

After the walk I ventured over to Llyn Brenig to enjoy the free WiFi and all day breakfast (yummy!) whilst looking out over the lake at the fishermen.

When I originally found out I’d be in this area, about an hour away from Snowdonia National Park, let’s just say I was annoyed and disheartened. There didn’t seem to be as many interesting ventures to be had around here than what I’ve experienced in the five weeks in and around Bangor but, not being one to sit and grumble, I’ve been looking around at what I can do/hike/look at/enjoy.

I’ve spent a couple of nights in Llangollen, explored a quarry and walked along the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and decided to walk the hills around the area.

On a suggestion given to me by a friend, I was told to check out the Berwyn Range, to the South West of Llangollen… So, I picked the highest points (may never come back this way…) and walked up Cadair Berwyn and Cadair Bronwen.

There’s an interesting thing about these mountains. In 1974, there was an alleged UFO landing on these mountains but scientific evidence indicated that the event was generated by an earthquake combined with sightings of a bright meteor widely observed over Wales and northern England at the time. The didn’t stol UFOlogists claiming that a UFO crashed and the British Government covered up the military’s recovery of a crashed spaceship…

Lastly, I decided to run in the Run Wales Flintshire 5k event. Starting in Mold, this round route was really enjoyable. I haven’t run for a while but didn’t do too badly I thought, least not for me! A t-shirt and a nice medal later, I was celebrating in Subway with a 6inch meatball marinara sandwich (cheese melted, lettuce and bbq sauce. Hmm).

A fitting end to my second week here. Only one more to go then a couple of days back at uni, then to Swindon, then eight weeks till end of placement. It’s scary how quickly it goes. In the meantime, I hope I win the lottery and can make travel my full time occupation… So much to see and do out there!

Just Joanne

Rhiwbach Slate Quarry Mine

I knew that when I came to North Wales I was going to do some pretty cool stuff and nothing was as cool as going down Rhiwbach Slate Quarry Mine.

The quarry is located to the east of Blaenau Ffestiniog in Wales in Cwm Penmancho. Opening to commercial operations around 1812, it closed (read: “abandoned”) in 1952 and was the last Welsh slate quarry where workers lived in barracks on the site, of which you can see some of the building walls around the site that are still standing. Due to its remote location, the Rhiwbach Tramway was build which connected it to the Ffestiniog Railway so the slate could be taken to Porthmadog and shipped overseas.

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Walking to the quarry mine.
(Btw, I do not own a GoPro, so the pictures underground are not the best quality at all!)

To get to the mine there’s a short ascent through the quarry grounds and woodland.

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Mine entrance into the woods.

The entrance is hidden away within the woodland and is gated. It requires any users to contact the Cave Access Limited directors to obtain the code to enter as they manage certain mine and cave sites across this area, and this particular cave is popular with outdoor groups so it is highly monitored. You enter at level 2 as level 1 is flooded.

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Quarry map.

This mine consists of eight floors and this map is fascinating to read as I’ve never seen them detailed this way. At points, when we were down there, the map was hard to read but, as with any map, it’ll take time to get used to navigating it.

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Cart tracks leading into the mine.

Straight away we were in pitch blackness only a few metres from the mine (small entrance way) and followed along the tracks with our heads almost touching the ceiling. As there is no light, no algae can grow so the water is very clear (unless you churn up some mud) and you can see where you’re stepping.

Then came paddling the inflatable raft boats in the mine… yes, inflatable raft boats in the mine. I kid you not.

This cavern is located directly above another cavern on floor one, which contains over 90 feet of ice cold water, running all the way to the very base of the mine.

As we explored our lecturer, Graham, explained the history of the mine – one particular scary thought-provoking tale was about the young boys having to wait in total darkness at doorways beneath the ground to open and close the doors for the carts to pass through… being in pitch darkness for about 8-9 hours a day must have been frightening for them and for some of the boys, they were tied/chained to the walls so they couldn’t run away!

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The door where young boys used to sit in total darkness.

This traverse was over a pool (maybe collapsed cavern?) of ice cold water, which looked tempting enough to jump in, was exciting! I’ve traversed before, used cow tails etc but never underground! But then, I’ve never been on a boat underground before as well so this was turning out to be a fun trip.

I struggled a bit holding up my weight with my upper body and clipping into the next section but I did it and would happily do it again, it was so much fun!

We explored a lot of the mine caverns and Graham told us a lot about this history of the mine and the people who worked there. I’m glad I had visited the National Slate Museum the day prior, it added more of a realistic perspective of the harshness of the work conditions, why many went on strike at other quarries, the comradery of the miners so they kept going and the emotions they must have felt whilst working in the dark. Even visiting Penryth Castle, with its decorative walls been built using money earned from slaves and the miners, enlightened me to this traditional Welsh trade and why the Welsh are so proud of it.

The quarry is slowly collapsing in on itself, so some steel girders help keep parts up, and ‘dead walls’ – stones piled on top of each other to seal off a cavern entrance were established by the miners as structural support. As this cave attracts a lot of commercial groups, the leaders would probably unofficially report any major structural changes, but annually Cave Leaders do check the mine over. We were told an interesting fact about abandoned mines – I’m not sure if I recall it correctly but if a mine is shut down, then it’ll require the insurance company/owner to hire people at considerable cost to map the mine – however, if a mine is abandoned, then the maps created by the miners are used to form a cave map and updated/amendment if necessary by enthusiasts. Saves the quarry owner spending those pennies… This mine was abandoned so has it’s own abandonment plan.

We came to a second, more complicated traverse. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have any pictures or videos of it (except one of an abseil)!! For this one you had to climb up into a ‘window’, with only a small enough gap to fit three people on, then you traverse maybe 8 feet across, over a drop of about 12feet (and at points you weren’t able to see your feet for placement) before abseiling off the edge of a cliff to the ground below. I enjoyed this one more so than the previous traverse (which I did enjoy!) because not being able to see my feet made it more challenging and abseiling is always a fun thing to do.

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Group member abseiling down the cliff part.

After lunch, it was more exploration and looking at the equipment the miners have left behind before a climb up a waterfall (which wasn’t in full flow due to the dry weather) and out via the ladder system that had been installed.

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Climbing out of the mine via the ladder pitch.

Exiting the mine:

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Looking back to the quarry.

I thoroughly enjoyed doing this. One of our group members is from Yorkshire and has been down many caves so I’m hoping there’ll be future opportunities to go out and explore more whilst I’m up here.

If you fancy giving it a go yourself, you can go down this particular mine with Go Below caving company. They charge about £50. They do things slightly different than we did (we didn’t have a zip line) but there’s so much to explore.

Just Joanne

I’m done.

Throwing down the map and the walking poles, I screamed: “I’m done, F**k this sh*t, I don’t want to do this anymore! I’m done.” And I was.

I went to sit on a small boulder and I just cried. Big, loud sobs. I was done.

For me to have shouting and swearing outbursts is rare (nowadays, I was a very moody teenager…), more so for me to cry uncontrollably. I honestly can not remember the last time something affected me so deeply to cause that reaction, but today did.

It wasn’t something major, just a solid belief in myself that I can not do something that I have been training for since 2016 – hillwalking navigational skills – and the thought that no one else believed I could.

It’s a ridiculous notion, as I’ve navigated myself and groups off mountains in difficult conditions before – so I know I can do it, but why can’t I believe myself? Why the added pressure?

It’s simple really, the Summer Mountain Leader training conditions are constricting, more so on time constricted walkers like me. I don’t want to go out on the hills thinking I need to be out for five hours plus using navigational skills away from the marked paths and ascend a substantial peak etc. just to add numbers to a log book and tick those boxes.

I honestly just want to go out without any of this in the back of my mind. I feel that when you add a condition to an adventure you take away the enjoyment of exploration! I love to explore and just choose a path to follow, scramble up some interesting looking rocks, go and have a look at some sheepfolds (don’t ask, they’re one of my favourite things), say hi to the cows, moo at the sheep and paddle in some streams…

However, these conditions are necessary for a substantial log book an assessor can view. The award is also necessary to be able to take young people out on the hills… so you take the bad to get the good. It’s meant to be a self-reflecting, emotional journey that adds in your development… well, I wasn’t feeling that today.

I do need to trust in myself more.

We recapped on rope work and I was able to find an anchor, rope myself up, rope up the climber and bring them up and down steep ground safely. I was able to abseil down using not one, but three, different abseil techniques. I was able to identify some more wildflowers than previously.

And I was able to walk off the hill without a map and navigate my way back to the original path using the ground as a guide…

Now all I have to do is believe in myself. That’s harder than navigation, that’s for sure.

Update after four days of reflecting on this: I’m not done. I can’t be done and I don’t want to be done. Going to pull up my ‘big girl panties’ and get this sorted!

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Just Joanne

Caving fun!

I am someone that would happily try anything once (and usually is it only once!) and one thing I have never properly tried was caving. Not the walk-down-steps,-admire-the-view-wide-caverns-show-cave type caving, but the you’ll-slip-slide-crawl-and-squeeze-yourself-into-tight-spaces caving.

So, the opportunity arose this weekend with the Phoenix Archer Explorer Scout Unit and I thought “now, rather than never“… as previously, I’ve always said never. The idea of tight spaces, chest compressing squeezing and that no-way-out feeling has never sounded fun to me. Never,never, never.

I blame The Descent as well. That movie gave me nightmares. (I was reassured that nothing more sinister than bats dwelled in this cave. No vampires either. Yay!)

The cave we visited is a popular beginner’s cave called Goatchurch Cavern (ST 47585823) on the edge of Burrington Combe in the limestone of the Mendip Hills, in Somerset, England.

The cave is approximately 750 metres (2,500 ft) long and reaches a depth of 55 m (180 ft) and an interesting passage at it’s “end”, which I will explain later.

This cave has an interesting history, the Victorians, in the early 1900s, tried to turn it into a show cave and as you enter you can see where they started to cut steps into the rock and install iron handrails but abandoned the idea for unknown reasons.

The journey from Swindon is easy and quick, only 1 hour and 20 minutes (traffic depending). When we got there we used the nearby free carpark and geared up in a boiler suit, helmet and waist belt and made our way to the entrance.

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John talking about the cave before the entrance.

There are two entrances to this cave (which is reassuring to the oh-my-what-if-the-entrance-closes-up worrier in me) and we went via the most common (and signposted) main entrance. A quick slide down (I slid but cavers don’t usually at this point. I just like sliding down things) and we were in the first part.

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Sliding down!

The rock here is limestone and, because it’s a popular cave, is highly polished and slippery in places making traction hard at first until you adjust to foot placement (or are on a flat bit).

Our instructors took us down the Giant Stairs, where you have to slide down a bit, avoid sliding down IN A HOLE, turn yourself around and climb down (fun!) – then we went along to the “Bloody Tight/Superman Squeeze” (where you have to put one arm forward to squeeze through the short passage) where you can squeeze through or walk around it (guess what I did…).

Here’s a video of one of our Explorer Scouts squeezing himself out the end bit:

Into the Boulder Chamber area – apparently, pretty much every cave has a ‘boulder chamber’, often a large chamber with large rocks caused by a ceiling collapse; this one was fun to explore (just avoid any holes in the floor!) and look at the interesting rock formations. Cavers have found inscribed marks on the walls… “Three finely cut marks were uncovered, resembling the letter W with a patina darker than in nearby graffiti dated 1704. These have been identified as ritual protection marks, possibly dating from the period 1550 to 1750. The term ritual protection mark was preferred to the description “witch marksWikipedia, 2018 (possibly to stop the witches from dwelling in the caves?)

There was a lot of tighter smaller routes to squeeze down, which I did enjoy as they weren’t constricting and you had to think about your foot and hand placement – definitely a mental challenge. There’s something fun about sliding/pushing yourself down somewhere small and putting all of your limbs on any available surface!

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Going down, down, deeper and down…
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Explorer Scout receiving expert instruction from John on foot placement.

In the complex network of dry passages of this cave, one notable passage is a thin phreatic tube known as ‘The Drainpipe’ right at the “end” of the cave. This is a long tight wriggle through 30 ft (9 m – though some say 12m) of a passageway (after a hairpin bend) that is only practically navigable whilst travelling forwards and ends up in a small blind-ending boulder chamber; the only way out is to turn around and go back through again – all on your hands and knees – easy for little ones, not so for bigger people!

Our Explorers gave it a go, but I wasn’t in the mood to squeeze through this passage, again tight spaces make me nervous. One day I might give it a go… (Nah!)

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Explorers watching and waiting as others came out of the Drainpipe entrance.

The thing about going down in a cave means you have to come up again! By this point, you’re feeling a tad tired so a chocolate break is needed and we enjoyed ours back in the wet chamber (that was dry). Well deserved, and we were going to need the energy for the next bit…

Next up was the “Coffin Lid” – this is a smoothed slope with a low roof above you; you have to grip both sides and, also using your feet, pull/push yourself up against it. It is lovingly named “Coffin Lid” as it does indeed resemble a coffin lid! I’d like to give this one a go again -both going up it and down – it was hard to do but so interesting and fun to shimmy up (James did help me this time, but next time…) Kudos to James for supporting my fat arse on this bit!

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We didn’t get a picture of the coffin lid, so I’ve borrowed one from Twitter.

Back climbing up through the chamber, through the boulder maze, through the maze and out of the entrance – hardwearing on your knees and elbows.

This cave was a good fun couple of hours of exploration, which I imagine, will be even more fun again on the next visit as there are still more areas to explore and things to try either again, or new. I didn’t feel concerned about the darkness; I kept switching off my head torch as I like the dark and, by the time we got to the bottom my fears about blind carnivorous creatures using echolocation to hunt us was gone (there were lots of little kids in the passages, they would have been victims first…)

I only found one (two, if you include the Coffin Lid) major difficult bit for myself, which was through the maze heading up and back out, as my large hips (read: fat arse) made it difficult for me to switch feet on a foothold in a tight space and push myself up – this did take a while! Other than that, I found the sliding parts the best fun, clambering over boulders and going down into the cave was exciting, however, overall I still prefer to have ‘space’ around me (and to be attached to a rope)!

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Muddy fun!

So I’m left with a nice collection of bruises on my knees and elbows (yes, my legs are as pale as a ghost and very light compared to my arms that actually get to see the sun) but I don’t feel sore at all (yet!).

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Pale legs show bruises well.

I’m glad I gave this a go, I have been on previous trips to these caves with Scouts but never ventured beyond the minibus. I would happily go down this cave again and look to do another, though I won’t be rushing out to buy the kit anytime soon… I prefer seeing the sky above me. Although, Swildon’s Hole sounds interesting…

Just Joanne