Everything and everywhere seems to have a definable stereotype these days. For white girls, it’s Starbucks; for us black guys it’s chicken; for Essex, (my hometown) it’s fake tan and loose morals. Wales, has sheep. Sometimes, it’s so easy to take a stereotype that’s been repeated time after time and acknowledge that as being the absolute truth. When growing up, I assumed Wales was nothing but sheep with some fields thrown in. I didn’t have much else to go on other than Aled Jones. If anything he validated the sheep theory even more. Consumed, such were my thoughts with this exaggeration, that interest in ever visiting the place had dwindled into a non-existence.
The name sounded familiar when my friends suggested we ‘go to Snowdonia’. Initially I was nervous, because I knew mountains would be involved and heights have never treated me well. But my fears were subdued when my friends clarified nothing would be climbed. Ha. I took that too literally. We would still get pretty high. As in, vertically.
I’m not much of a hiker, I’ve grown attached to my cities, but I can’t say no to a voyage where the possibilities of adventure are so prominent that they burst out of every crevice.
Wales had successfully caught my attention.
Disappointment would be left in England.
Our journey would commence from Camberley, Surrey. It was very early in the morning when all seven of us set off in our cars (two between us all) to make our way: 3:45am to be exact. The sky was still dark; the roads were still silent; the rest of the world was still asleep. But we were awake. Well, our eyes were open. Calling it being awake might be a stretch. Collectively, we were operating on around 14 hours of sleep.
But, despite my two hour share, I was determined to make the most of the car journey. It’s common knowledge that the best part of any trip, is the getting there. There would be no exception with this one. We had 223 miles of road between us and the mountains. The muggy backdrop of the drenched M40 failed to dampen the excitement (and sleep) that was buzzing in the car. We were singing, dancing, laughing (sleeping) and eating. The car had literally been transformed into a party bus. Soon though, we had to make a stop at a service station. Something you should know about me, I love anything sweet. Luckily, Starbucks was open and they had one of my favourites: Red Velvet Cake (I had already been hauled away from the Krispy Kreme stand just outside). The cake was gone within seconds, but with it, my energy had been regained.
I knew we had reached Wales when we got to a McDonalds for second breakfast. This McDonalds was in Welsh. As in, everything written on it and around it was Welsh. I couldn’t understand a single word, but that didn’t really matter as the excitement continued to build. We were getting closer to the mountains. The time now was 8am and the world had finally woken up with us. I think we woke up Wales when we drove through a small village with Shaggy – It Wasn’t Me, blaring through the car stereo. Some locals looked at us with confused disgust.
Now we were in Wales, I could warrant getting out my camera. Stupidly, I’d forgot to charge the battery the night before meaning I wasn’t left with as many shots as I would have liked. My iPhone provided most of the shots taken by me. But part of me was reluctant to take out either camera. I was enjoying the forested landscapes and quaint cobbled streets too much. Even through the lens of a car window, Wales looked beautiful.
And then, once we had reached a stopping point, got out of the car, and gazed upon the beauty of the fields with our own eyes, I think we all took a moment to just stand in awe of what had been created by God. For me, it quickly became apparent that Wales embodies two beauties: an obvious one with it’s dramatic mountain landscapes that can’t help but be noticed. And a hidden one where nature just continues as it is, undisturbed by the urban (us). We took the opportunity to take some pictures.
The theme of these images is me and my friends. It’s as if we went all the way to Wales just to take pictures of ourselves against some of the most photogenic backgrounds imaginable. I’ve made remarks that the whole set of pictures almost looks like a behind the scenes expose of a film we were shooting. That wasn’t the case obviously. We are just camera enthusiasts.
We still had a while to go till we got to Snowdonia. What sustained us in our groggy frames were the scenes that Wales provided. Along our journey we stopped at whatever cool looking place looked cool enough and naturally took more pictures.
Our trip continued. We passed through more fields, towns and landscapes before finally getting to our car parking space at the foot of the mountains. I was confused. Before us, lay no clear path. There was no obvious way up.
Maybe I was naive to imagine that we would take one straight, vertical path upwards but regardless, this gave me angst. Giving me even more angst, was the fact that not even 20 minutes into our hike I was already panting for breath. The whole walking part of the trip (which was essentially the whole trip) did not look like it was going well.
But then, at the top of the hill we reached this cave looking thing. Amongst – of course you guessed it – stopping to take more pictures, we just stopped for a little bit to catch our breath. After making that stop there wasn’t another moment of the journey where I felt as exasperated as I did previously. I forget the significance of the cave, but maybe there’s a chance it was actually magic? It’s power being to provide strength to groups of people who walk past it en route to Snowdonia. Alas, it is remembered as another cool looking thing in Wales.
Then, we can came into some danger. Fences exist for a reason. To keep unwanted stuff out, and desired stuff in. We, (them mum, I promise) the unwanted, stepped into the desirable. The desirable being the edge of a freaking cliff. One of us decided to chuck a rock over the edge. It was a good four or five seconds before we heard the impact. That doesn’t sound long, but when you actually time five seconds you get some idea of just how high up we actually were. We weren’t stupid though, no-one stood in front of a rock which was just a few feet in front of the cliff edge.
Our journey continued: higher and higher. The higher we got, the more incredible Wales looked. It’s like when you’re on a plane and you just can’t help but look out the window and see a city from high up in the air. It looks beautiful. You don’t experience landscapes from those kind of angles everyday so you just have to stop and appreciate. One thing which surprised me though was how warm it was. For November, Wales and heights, I was expecting to be hiking in temperatures less than 5℃. Instead, we were hiking in temps of around 10℃. It was still slightly cold, but just not as cold as I thought it would be.
We continued walking for a while. On our way up the mountains, worship songs were on our lips. This wasn’t a church trip, or some kind of Christian self-search expedition, but on our hearts were songs to praise our God. That was one of my favourite memories. Ruined, when I unknowingly stepped into a bush of thorns and screamed. When I scream, it doesn’t correlate with what you’d expect from the black man I am. I sound like a scared little girl. But, it got everyone laughing. I guess that my was lesson for choosing comfortable tracksuits over something more appropriate like jeans. With only my pride bruised, we continued onto what looked like some form of civilisation. In the middle of a bunch of mountains, the last thing I was expecting to see was a street with houses, garages and cars. The people living here must have been so isolated from everyone else. In a sense, that must be nice. But also, that has to be terrifying.
The nice thing about these houses though, was the fact you knew you weren’t going to see anything like them anywhere else. This street of accommodation was not the result of some council initiative or government scheme; these were unique places, surrounded by the most beautiful scenery. I felt as though we shouldn’t be disturbing the natural peace, but then again the thrill of curiosity was leering me to explore every brick and corner. Along the way, for whatever reason, I had picked up a stick.
But even that block of houses does not compare with the thing I truly didn’t expect to see at all. After coming out the street, we were presented with more fields and more mountains in the background. In a fenced off area of one of the fields was a horse and it’s owner. We were eager to see what was beyond the fields so we could discover as much as of the land as possible. The horse’s owner was friendly and must have picked up on the fact we were tourists. She chatted to us and answered our questions. Then she showed us her horse. I hadn’t gotten a proper look before then, but something was endearingly unique about this horse: it’s one eye. She referred to him as ‘Jack the one-eyed horse’. And as his name would suggest, this horse had only one eye.
A one-eyed sheep I would’ve expected, but a one-eyed horse? It was one of those raw and rare moments where something utterly bespoke for whatever reason just happens. That was another favourite of mine.
It was after that encounter with the horse, the group split up. We had different options ahead of us regarding paths: one looked official, the other was intentionally cordoned off and went high. It was private property. I decided that I had enjoyed enough adventure by that point and stuck to the safety of the marked out path, along with three other friends.
I could still see the others in the distance, but that was it, they were in the distance.
Meanwhile, on more reasonable, lower ground, myself and my other three friends continued to walk. Around us lay some ruins of buildings with explicit warnings claiming their structural instability.
But also lingering around us was FOMO. My other group of friends were bravely trekking some cordoned off area slightly higher in the mountains, whilst the rest of us were milling around being cautious. Eventually, it only took one of us to be brave enough to cross over the fence before the rest of us did also. We were rejoined at the top of some new cliff – the location for what would be our last set of group photos. This clifftop was probably the most dramatic and my favourite of all the spots we explored. It was our peak. We would go no higher. Clouds hazed up the background and the uneven rock surface scratching beneath our feet challenged the strength of my £18 Primark boots I had purchased the day before specifically for the trip. Somehow, those boots withstood the rain, the wind, the mud, the rocks and everything else I stood on. But at that moment, halfway up the top of some insane mountain, I wasn’t focussed on the rigidity of my boots. I was undone by the beauty of Wales. I could’ve stood there forever and still not be satisfied.
Pixels on a screen don’t do it justice. The view was genuinely something else. I just loved the way how it felt as if I could look until I die and still not see everything. When conversations started murmuring with the topic of ‘let’s head back’ my heart became heavy. Yes I was cold, I was hungry and I was wet, but leaving meant going back home: no more mountains, no more dazzling heights, no more breathtaking views, no more one eyed horses. Surrey was a reality I wasn’t ready to face again. Fortunately, we found a new way to go back to our car park, so more of Wales could be explored. This new way featured a long, winding set of stairs built upon more of those jagged rocks.
Only our feet could lead us to the safety of ground level. Putting your hands on these rocks, didn’t look like a good idea. Even though it wouldn’t have likely hurt that much, there wasn’t a flat surface to get enough grip. Thanks to my nervous disposition, the fact my hands were unable to grasp a part of the rocks for stability on the way down only meant more shrieking from my mouth every time I slipped. I didn’t fall, but honestly I may as well have done. 10-20 times.
There was a long way down ahead of us. It was the kind of staircase where you think you’ve reached the end, but then get surprised when you notice there’s still more ground left to uncover. But of course, you can’t be disappointed when you have so much left to see.
When we got back to our cars, we reflected on what had been an incredible journey. For me, it felt like we were the only people in the world who had discovered this gem hidden in plain sight. Words and pictures can’t describe everything we saw, but getting home I knew my appetite for adventurous, sightseeing antics had been fully quenched. Perhaps that’s what bought about the shouting worship that occurred in the car. Not even the fact that my mum had found out about this trip – when she wasn’t meant to at all – dampened my mood. I was buzzing. Then, I was sleeping.
Additional photography courtesy of: John, Patrik, Samuele, Jeanne, Daniel, Joan – otherwise known as, my friends.