Friday, August 24, 2012

Camping in Wales

*EDIT* Below this post is an update from Kenz. Apparently, she had some things to add to the story...

Kenz had been pushing me to go camping with her for a few months (or years, depending on who you ask). After much deliberation, we had drawn the distinction between camping and camping. My assumption was, when she said she had been camping before, she was referring to car camping.

There's nothing inherently wrong with car camping - it's just different than what I understand camping to be. My experience from summer camp had left me with the idea that camping was what you did during a hike. There were no fires, no big tents, you took what you could carry on your back, used a stove, and did your best to leave no trace when you left. Instead of a barbecue, dinner was rehydrating something like cous cous or pasta. Instead of extravagant snacks, it was peanut butter, pita bread, and GORP. You sat on a log or a stone, rather than some big foldable chair. And you brought the tools necessary to clean your own water.

It's not like I am some skilled, seasoned, outdoor enthusiast. It'd been years since I'd slept in a tent. However, I knew enough to understand that if one goes into a camping trip with the expectation that it'll be the same as car camping, then the likelihood of it being an experience more endured than enjoyed is high.

It was important to me to get the distinction right; most of the problems Kenz and I have are a result of miscommunication. And let's be honest - Kenz is a woman who...ahem...appreciates her comfort.

Patti wanted to bet me that Kenz could last at least two nights on a camping trip. I didn't take the bet, saying, "I only take bets I'm sure I'll win." She tried to bet my mom the same thing, to no avail. Needless to say, Kenz was suffering a lack of respect in this category. She didn't even ask for it; all she wanted to do was go camping.

Leave it to me to make a big deal out of a simple request.

I had told her that if she was serious about it, we'd purchase supplies back in the States because everything's cheaper there. I went to a few different stores, price checked everything that I assumed we'd need, based on my experience growing up. She was responsible for researching the best places to go in the UK.

About a week after we'd returned to London, Kenz told me she'd done some research and found out that 'wilderness camping' was illegal in the UK.

"What? That can't be true. You must be reading the wrong websites. There's no way that camping is illegal," I scoffed.
"Feel free to look for yourself."

As per usual, she was right.

I can't begin to explain why wilderness camping is illegal in the UK. It seems strange at best. I'm sure it has something to do with the national parks system, but I can't be bothered to figure it out. Apparently wilderness camping is 'tolerated' in the Lake District, but we didn't have enough time to travel that far outside London (if we're going that far, we want more than two nights). In fact, we only had one weekend in August that was open. Kenz is headed back to the States next week, and she starts school the day we return (she'll be in Knoxville for all of September; I'll come in for the last two weeks - we're visiting in order to attend my sister, Kara's wedding). By the time she's free next, it'll be verging on 'too cold' for her to camp. If we wanted to get a trip in, it'd have to be this weekend. Otherwise, we'd be waiting until the spring rolled around.

Anything to get away from the construction noise for a weekend.

We were left with one option: rent a plot on a campsite. Neither of us was too thrilled at the idea of having to camp among car campers, but we didn't see any way around it. We decided to search the Internet for campsites that appeared secluded. Despite several friends suggesting Cornwall, we decided to travel to Gwalia Farm in Wales.

At least we look the part, right?

Gwalia Farm is situated just outside a town called Machynlleth. It's the least densely populated area in the UK. The Gwalia website made it seem like we'd be relatively isolated, and there was ample hiking in the surrounding area. We thought that was a good start. We'd set up camp, and then spend most of Saturday hiking around. The train trip was going to be 4.5 hours, which meant Friday was going to be kind of a bust. Either way, we both assumed this would be a good 'warm up' trip. We'd soon find out whether or not we make a good camping team.

The Machynlleth train station

Foreboding weather
Of course, the weather sucked, but we expected as much. We had been checking the weather for days; we knew it wasn't going to be sunny and warm. Knowing that much going in makes a big difference.

We took a cab to the farm. It turned out to be a good decision - even the driver, who grew up in town, got lost on his way. The farm is nine miles from the train station, and our phones hadn't had service for the five miles approaching Machynlleth - it's doubtful that we would've made it had we tried to 'hike' in.

The driver teased my efforts to pronounce Machynlleth
Harry and Olivia are the proprietors of Gwalia Farm. We never met Olivia, but since she's married to Harry, it's safe to bet the both of them are hippies. Old hippies. After knocking on the door and ringing the bell for about three minutes, as the taxi driver waited in the road for us, Harry showed up at the door.

"We're here"
"So where ya gonna show up?"
to the driver, "Yea, yea, they're here. Get their bags out."

I had no idea how to interpret what he said. I'm still not sure whether or not Harry understands generic social interaction, much less customer service.

Harry handed us a map of the property, showed us where we could camp, and didn't care whether we paid him upon arrival or departure. At 5 quid a night, my guess is that he's not depending on campers to subsidize his income.

The center of the farm is their house. Spanning out in a semicircle from the house, in clockwise fashion, is the campsite, the 'lake', the 'pond', their garden, and the barn, complete with chickens, goats, and a duck. The bottom of the semicircle is the road.

We knew it would be rainy, but we didn't really assume just how wet everything would be. The property is in a bowl - everything surrounding the farm is piedmont sized hills - not quite a mountain, but too big to be called just a hill. As a result, everything was wet, mud, and sloppy. Within the first ten minutes, Kenz and I had stepped in mud that went past our boots and down into our socks. Surprisingly, we took it in stride; neither of us complained. We just laughed at ourselves.

Setting up shop

Home for two nights
 As we had feared, we weren't more than 100 feet from the next group of campers. The photos on the website weren't misleading per se. The land that had been set aside for camping was large, granted, but the amount of space within that land that was 'campable' was much smaller. There was a stream running through the site, and tall reeds covering most of the center of the plot. The only habitable places were along the perimeter. Everything in the middle was mud.

I tried to discreetly snap a photo of our neighbors.  
 After setting up shop, we got to collecting firewood and prepping dinner.

Kenz had asked me before we left:
"Are you sure we'll be able to build a fire?"
laughing, indignantly "Of course! All I need is a lighter. I'll take care of everything else. Don't you worry - a fire's the least of my worries. You just make sure we've got enough food."

I'm such an asshole.

My assumption was that the Welsh countryside would be similar to that of, say, Pisgah National Forest. We'd have lots of trees to collect kindling and various other bits and bops for firewood. I mean, how hard can it be to find enough wood to burn? On top of that, I had assumed that there'd be big logs and stones to sit on.

Neither of those assumptions were correct. What little kindling we found was soaked through to the core, same as all of the other 'firewood' we found. And there were no logs to sit on. My butt was wet the whole weekend; Kenz sat on her raincoat.

David Ethier = failure of a human being

Brooding, confused, embarrassed 
Our neighbors - those car campers that we didn't want to be - noticed that we were struggling with the fire, had no chairs, and were just kinda sitting around in the wet grass, must've pitied us. They sent a delegate over to chat us up and invite us over to their (what seemed like) bonfire. They had bought firewood from Harry. They had cases of beer ("we're just gonna be over there, getting boozy"). They had ready-made meals that came packaged on a disposable grill, complete with charcoal briquettes. There were five of them, with three more planning on arriving later that night. We expressed gratitude, and promised to come visit after dinner.

So, there we were, in our high-end outdoor performance gear, all decked out with what we would need to thru-hike the AT, camping next to some folks who drove up, unloaded the car, and proceeded to 'get boozy' for the rest of the night - just outside their tents, one of which looked bigger than our flat. Again, we just laughed at ourselves.

'Dinner' (bean burritos)
We wound up spending the better part of three hours with our neighbors. They were all childhood friends from Shropshire, which is right on the other side of the border. We hung out, talked politics, waited on their other friends, and wound up playing a game called, 'drink while you think'. Obviously, I wasn't drinking alcohol, which meant I was the best at the game. 

In the end, we weren't as isolated as we'd hoped, but at least our neighbors were nice. 

We wound up walking/hiking about five miles on Saturday. All of the trails led through other people's farms - sheep farms. Sheep aren't the most trusting farm animals. If they weren't starting at us suspiciously, they were running from us. 

we gotta get out of here! 

Breathtaking weather, right? I mean, just look at that sky!

Upon our return, we found a mole that had fallen out into the street. Kenz insisted that we 'put him back'.

He was a squeaker! 
Back at the campsite, our neighbors were packing up. Apparently they had had enough in one day. The rest of the campsite, however, was still populated with families. And, by families, I mean loud, screaming children playing games, parents with fire pits, blowtorches for their grills, nerf balls, soccer balls, and real dishes brought from the house.

And sheep.

We hadn't heard the sheep the night before. Maybe the sheep just prefer to bleat on Saturdays. Either way, from our return at 5pm until we finally fell asleep that night, the sheep were harkening the impending apocalypse from what it sounded like. They. did. not. stop.

We caved and bought some firewood from Harry. Yes, the interaction with him was about the same as the day before. He seemed confused that we had returned to his house again. While we were there, though, we played with the goats and annoyed the chickens.

She couldn't contain her excitement

Kenz has a habit of saying, "I love you" to every animal she meets.

I've never know anyone (older than 5) to be this thrilled to pet a barnyard animal. Ever. 

That one duck...who does he think he is?

We relaxed with our books, collected more wet kindling, and had some dinner. Despite being muddy, wet, and somewhat crowded, we were pleased with our first camping trip.

Acquiescence or resignation - either one will work

sleeping mat substituting for a dry spot

Next time I'm bringing a chair.

Thanks for reading! As always, have a good weekend.

Kenz's Side of the Story:

Ok, so if you haven't read David's collection to our camping trip, I suggest you read his account first.  This post is just an extension of his wonderful storytelling, but with my side of the story.  

First of all, let me cover the beginning of "the bet" involving me and a camping trip.  While I was at Kara's bachelorette party, David was hanging out with Moma and Tom.  Upon hearing that I wanted to go camping, Moma tried to bet David that I wouldn't last 2 days.  David not only wouldn't take the bet, but then told me that he only took bets he thought he could win!!!  I may be a stubborn woman who likes my comforts, but COME ON!!!!! REALLY??? 2 days?  Once I got back to Knoxville, I told my mom, Patti, about the absurdity that is my husband and Moma and their ridiculous gambling habits.  My mom immediately went into her own gambling mode and tried to bet both Moma and David that I indeed could last the 2 days....they declined....again.  Ridiculous I know.

Now, about the campsite.  The place we stayed was a BOG...surrounded by wet, soggy grass for pitching our tent.  Right when we got there, David was the only one to step in mud above the ankles, immediately soaking his socks (haha for me, the alleged poor camper, winnnnner!!!).  Mind you, when we were packing for the trip David thought it was absolutely ridiculous that I wanted to pack more than the 1-a-day pair of socks...again, I was victorious.  

Now, some small things to add to prove that I'm just a good a camper as my loving husband:

David forgot to mention that it rained HEAVILY and LOUDLY both nights...David never woke to hear it.  Only my bottom side of the tent got went...again, David didn't notice.  

I used the "earth toilet" which consisted of a dug hole with 2 sawhorses next to it with a toilet seat on top.  David just had to use the flush toilet up at the farmhouse the whole time.
I guess I also have to add, though, that one of the times I didn't use the toilet and decided to just "pop a squat" near our campsite (it was dark by this time and David and I were alone just enjoying our fire with our newly bought wood), I came back with a little visitor in my pants.  It was pretty funny I will admit.  Upon getting back to the campfire, after doing my business, I kept feeling something prickle on my leg (near my crotch unfortunately).  After the 3rd "prickle", I panicked and just starting stripping my pants off right there in the open, with David wondering what in the world had gotten into me.  Upon my disrobement, a large black beetle - the kind with the ridiculous long pinchers coming out of its head like a horror movie - dropped out of my pants.  It was horrible, not gonna lie.  Also, on the note of "doing my business" (y'all who have read my like 2 posts know that I really don't have boundaries when it comes to sharing, so sorry), I found out a new interesting thing about my husband.  He's never seen a girl pee in the woods before.  I found this out when I accidentally made eye contact with him while I was peeing, obviously not quite fully behind the cover of trees. I was surprised to have been found.  So here I am, awkwardly popping a squat, when I make eye contact with my husband who's just staring at me like a newly discovered species of animal!  He was astounded and disgusted all at the same  And yes, David, I just shared that with family.

Just to elaborate on David's mention of our Saturday hike.  On Saturday, we did have a lovely hike.  Our intention had been to walk the 1.5 miles to the local pub and have a proper hot meal...mind you it's 500 feet down over that 1.5 miles (and of course 500 feet UP).  The sun finally decided to show itself somewhat, so we took our time on the way down.  Once we got to the pub, we found out that they were only open for 10 more minutes and the kitchen was closed.  Thankfully, they at least had some cold sandwiches wrapped up though and we got to enjoy those 10 minutes of sitting down.  Hiking off of the pavement involved dodging sheep turd land mines....I never knew sheep shat so much.  I mean it was ridiculous.

I think this is about all for me to add to our WONDERFUL camping trip.  I truly did have a good time.  I think the above should be sufficient to say that had David had the faith in his wife to take the bet, he would have won some money.