I didn't have any specific destinations in Lancashire that I wanted to visit.
But I wanted to do some walking in the countryside.
There are some artworks south of Blackburn, Lancashire, located on hills.
These are the 'Panopticons', the result of an international art competition in Lancashire.
There are four of them and the idea seems to have been to create pleasing looking artistic landmarks, which gives the area a distinctive look. Or at least the citizens something to look up to.
For me, the more important part was that there were various walks available to reach them, so I could have a pleasant walk in the countryside on well described paths and end up visiting a work of art.
At least that was the theory.
I went to see three of the four 'Panopticons'. (The fourth one is an old cannon battery in Blackburn itself, which has been 'redecorated' by adding a few pastel coloured stripes on the steps to a viewing platform and named Colourfields. But that one is in town, has not been built initially for art's sake and didn't have a nice walk leading to it, so I skipped it.)
I started with "Halo", near Haslingden, south of Blackburn, Lancashire. (At first it irritated me a bit that every time I read "Blackburn", in my mind it was immediately amended to "Blackburn, Lancashire" as if that was a fixed phrase, until I recognized it as having been preceded by "four thousand holes in" many years ago.)
When starting the walk to "Halo", I noticed a downside to my scheme.
As all the 'Panopticons' were intended to be seen from afar and placed on hills, it meant an uphill walk was needed to get to them.
The other, more expected, downside to walking in the English countryside in October is that you often don't have much of a view of something that is miles away. Or even tens of meters.
But for some strange reason, walking in England is enjoyable.
I was walking there in a slight drizzle, along a muddy path between old stone walls, trying to avoid the larger puddles, being noted and subsequently ignored by horses, cows and sheep on the adjacent fields, occasionally greeting the lone dog walker coming the other way, seeing little of the area around me, and nothing of the art object I was walking to - and liking it.
Getting to "Halo" was, essentially, just reaching the point to turn around and walk back.
Which was a good thing, as when you see it, going away is the first thing you want to do.
During daytime, it looks like a badly designed satellite dish and about as artful.
At night it supposedly is aglow with the light from thousands of blue LEDs, giving, seen from afar, the impression that there is a blue halo floating over the hill.
But that's the problem with it. It is designed to be seen from afar.
From close up it is a rather drab steel construction.
(And I have no idea whether it is actually still lit at night. It was not emitting any light during the day and the wiring looked a bit iffy at some places. It might have only been off during the day, but it might be broken altogether.)
I would love to see the proposal for this artwork - I feel like I can almost predict all the phrases that have been in there to convince local committees that this was a good idea. (Ok, no, I would not love to see any of that paperwork, as it will be thousands of pages and dull, dull, dull.) There probably have been phrases like "harmony with the environment", "combining modern and classical elements", "a beacon for the 21st century", "providing a forward looking perspective based on our common heritage", "environmentally friendly", "zero emission", "low impact", "cost effective" "RSPCA approved" and so on.
A plaque nearby takes pains to explain that this is not powered by the electric network, but that there is a wind turbine nearby, creating all the power the LEDs need. It also points out that the LED are chosen for low UV emission, so not to confuse local insects.
But then again, for me it was a random point in the landscape to walk to, so I didn't that care much.
Next destination was the "Singing Ringing Tree".
I started my walk at Towneley Hall.
The weather had improved a bit, so I could see some of the area while heading for the sculpture.
The walk was, well, diverse.
It was a bit steeper at points than the first one. And at some point I wasn't quite sure whether I still was on the proper path, as it looked more like a rain runoff than a footpath, but I was on the right way. (The British "Right of way" tells you that you are allowed to walk there - it doesn't mean that there's a discernable path.)
The next bit was much wider, drier and easier to walk (though, technically, more dangerous) since it went right across several fairways of a golf course, with helpful signs from which direction to expect golf balls to fly towards you. (And if you expect that there would be little golfing activity on a drizzly, slightly foggy weekday, then you don't understand Brits. Or Golfers.)
Getting closer to the "Singing Ringing Tree" it got foggier again (and muddier, so that after a mis-step and some nice sliding motion, I spontaneously added "go to some shop and buy an extra pair of jeans" to my agenda for the day), so I didn't see it on approach either.
When I got there, a group of schoolchildren was leaving, so I had it to myself for about five minutes (when a double decker bus full of children had arrived).
And that turned out to be a much more interesting experience than the "Halo".
The "Singing Ringing Tree" consists of a number of metal pipes stacked in the shape of a tornado (and I don't know why "Singing Ringing Tree" is a better name than "Howling Metal Tornado", but I assume the art grants committee might have views on that).
On a windswept day, the air blows through the pipes, which act like whistles, and any change of the wind changes the sound.
And while the "Halo" is on a hill, far above it all, to be seen widely, the "Singing Ringing Tree" is probably on a hill, far from it all, to avoid annoying the neighbors.
But standing there in the fog, alone with the metal sculpture as a dark, oddly shaped object against the fog, creating weird, howling noises is somewhat eerie.
As this is something that can be best experienced close up, it is a better walking destination than the "Halo". And, as an artwork in public space, it seems much better suited - it's metal pipes welded together, so it is more robust than an LED installation with a wind generator and less likely to break and fall into disrepair at some point.
It turned also out to be a good "middle point" for walking to the three "Panopticons", as Towneley Hall had a decent tea shop, so I could have a nice piece of cake and some tea before moving on.
The only bit that is missing was some dog rental.
When I was still walking on the grounds of Towneley Hall, I felt that I was the only one around not walking a dog. I felt a bit like an intruder that would soon be exposed and expelled. ("Hey you, over there! Where is your mandatory dog?") So I would have loved to rent a dog from somewhere for this part (although I seem to recall that they were not allowed on the golf course, so I would have had to walk around that).
But then again, I can see that this would not be a sustainable business idea, since everyone but me already had a dog to walk with.
The most disappointing 'Panopticon' of the three was the "Atom".
It looks a bit like a bus shelter for hobbits.
Which might not be completely coincidental.
Tolkien wrote part of the "Lord of the Rings" while staying in Lancashire. So the artist may have intentionally chosen to build an artwork that reminds of Tolkien.
Although, even though the "Atom" is located above a pleasant valley that looks quite suitable for Hobbits, there can not be a relationship between Lancashire and "The Shire" as "The Hobbit" had been written some time before Tolkien went to Stonyhurst College.
In any case, the artwork is called "Atom", not "Hobbit Hole", so probably it is supposed to represent some atomic shell with a nucleus inside.
Or, by now, an impossible, nucleus free atom.
Originally, there was a mirror sphere in the middle of the structure, reflecting ths inside of the "Atom" and the outside world as visible through the openings in the shell.
But that ball was destroyed by somebody.
Not nice, but vandalism happens and needs to be planned for.
But, of course, it wasn't.
Public artwotrks seem to be for opening speeches and an hour in the limelight for artists, politicians and sponsors.
Once everyone had left, there's no glory in maintaining it (as the local TV station won't cover a proper "ten years and it's still not broken" event.
So on the "arts commissioning agency" web site, there's a short note saying "Please note that Atom has been the victim of vandalism and currently the polished steel ball is not in place in the centre of the structure. We very much hope to redress this situation but will need to raise the funds to do so.", which makes it sound like something that happened recently and the ball is "currently" absent. (Which is technically right in the sense that dinosaurs are currently absent from this planet.)
But the steel ball inside has been missing for more than half of a decade now, so the "Atom" had been without its nucleus for about half of its existence.
(Side remark: I tried to find when the sculpture had been erected. While doing so, I found a newspaper article "explaining" he steel ball; "Inside atom sits a large stainless steel sphere - representing the last remaining molecule in this particular atom." The last molecule inside an atom. Sure. Nice to see that the traditional role of "village idiot" is still honoured in England. I was about to remark about the lack of grasp of reality that art critics have, when I noticed that the article was written by the "Chief Sportswriter" of that particular newspaper. Why he was sent to cover art objects in Lancashire and why he thought he should explain their meaning is a bit unclear. )
In any case, even ignoring the missing sphere, the "Atom" is in a sorry state - the "metal-based" paint that was used a surface coating has badly decayed, so that even without the graffiti it is hardly a "beautiful object in the landscape".
That didn't matter, though. I did have a couple of nice walks in the English countryside and that's all I wanted.
And the landscape, as seen from the "Atom", as long as the sculpture wasn't in your field of view, looked pleasant.
Next day I was a bit lazy, so I visited the Lake District, but didn't include any fell walking, but used various modes of transport.
I started with the steam train between Lakeside and Haverthwaite.
It's a short line (five miles or so) and it doesn't serve much of a purpose, so it is mostly for tourist tours. (But then, realistically, any steam train service is mostly for train enthusiasts anyway).
It was a week before Halloween, so the train was (partly) decorated as a "Ghost Train", which was done with reasonable restraint. The last two wagons were decorated for Halloween, while the rest were left in normal condition, so customers had the free choice whether to go for a Halloween experience or avoid that.
Although, regardless where one was sitting, the conductor was made up as a ghost - presumably because they only had one to cover the whole train.
There wasn't much to do in Haverthwaite (I am not even sure there is a Haverthwaite - the station does not seem close to anything), so I enjoyed the train ride and went back to Lakeside immediately.
From there, I took the ship down Lake Windermere to Bowness, had some fish & chips there (if you go to a quintessential "English" place like the Lake District, you might as well tick all the stereotype boxes) and went back to Lakeside.
I was surprised by two things in the Lake District,
It still looks pleasant. It is the tourist destination in northern England and it still has long stretches of shoreline without buildings.
I have been at some Italian lakes and essentially all of the shoreline is built on.
And even farther away from the lakes, the Lake District doesn't seem to have large, sprawling holiday villages, giant hotel blocks or spacious camping sites. Everything still looks, well, low key.
And that despite the other surprising thing.
The number of people.
I was visiting on a dreary weekday in late October. And the train from Haverthwaite to Lakeside was reasonably full. Not packed - there were still empty seats available, but I'd say that about 90% of the seats were taken. And the ship was about a third filled.
So these are the "off season" numbers - which means that on a nice summer weekend during the vacation period, the place must be packed solid with people.
Sometimes, when I visit some place off-season, I am the only visitor around. But nor here.
After getting back to Lakeside, I got into the rental car and drove down to Haverthwaite.
The idea was to be at the train station when the train was away.
When I was at the station earlier that day, waiting for the train to go back to Lakeside, I noticed a couple of owls on perches.
But as the platform was busy with people, there was a large group standing in front of the owls and some of them were holding owls.
So I drove back to that station, assuming that there wouldn't be many people around after the train had left and I would have a better owl-holding opportunity.
The owls belong to an owl sanctuary. Some owl enthusiasts were around, more than willing to talk about owls and let people hold them, hoping for a donation for the sanctuary. (Which is something that impressed me - they might as well have charged for "Take a picture with an owl", but they didn't and relied on people putting money in the box anyway.)
So I got to hold an owl for a while, chatted with someone from the sanctuary and found that it is an odd feeling to move an arm with an owl on it. If you carry something, it usually moves (minus a bit of inertia) the same way.
But owls tend to sit on branches, which might move with the wind, so the owls compensates for that,
So if you swing your arms back and forth and up and down a bit, the owls head tries to stay at the same place, so the way your arm (or, specifically, the arm-owl system) moves is rather strange.
A sort of a living steadycam, I presume, but I didn't dare to ask whether I could try to mount an actioncam on the owl.
The owls are calm about this (and being around people in general). The owls at the station had been bred and raised in captivity for about 40 generations, so they were domesticated and accustomed to humans.
Last stop at the Lake District was a car museum.
It has a good, interesting and sometimes quirky selection of cars.
For example, I didn't know that there had been a Police Edition of the MG roadster. I don't think there is any sensible reason for the police to use an open top car like a roadster, especially not in the UK, but whatever police department had been using them must have had some happy cops. (At least for a few days in summer.)
The one thing that lets the museum down a bit is its own advertisement, which boasts "a collection of 30000 exhibits".
Which doesn't mean that it has 30000 cars, but only that it has lots of things in glass boxes, including tire shaped ashtrays, vintage oilcans, hood decorations, old car lamps and metal car models (including, for some reason, or for no reason at all, a Concorde).
There were also some early motorbikes, although whoever named a bike from German company NSU "Quickly" and put the name proudly above the "Made in Germany" either never looked at the completed design or did express in a wry way that he thought the bike was shoddily made.
There is an interesting side building that houses an exhibition of vehicles used by Malcom and Donald Campbell, who held a number of speed records on ground and water vehicles.
The main exhibition also has some showcases unrelated to cars (or other vehicles), showing production, packaging and sale of blue dye. The site where the museum is now located used to belong to "Reckitt's Blue Dye Works" and this part of the exhibition refers to that.
I didn't manage to see much of Lancaster itself (I mostly went there to find a place to eat), but I managed to have a quick look at Lancaster Castle at night.
From Lancaster, I travelled to Wales for the weekend.
My accommodation there was somewhat quirky.
I had been on that site in 2010, but back then only as a day visitor.
But the village of Portmeirion was planned as and still operates as a hotel / vacation resort, so it is possible to stay there for the weekend.
Arriving there late in the evening feels distinctly odd and unreal.
I had a room in one of the individual buildings - the cliff house (and not in the main hotel building) and there is a parking spot provided for the occupant next to it. So instead of leaving the car in the parking lot outside, you drive through Portmeirion right up to where you are staying.
As I had only experienced Portmeirion on TV and on a day visit, this seemed slightly surreal - as if being allowed to go to Universal Studios at night and drive down the square from Back to the Future / Gremlins / about forty other productions. Or maybe (if you like that sort of thing) drive down Wisteria Lane on the same lot. Or stay in the house that "Psycho" built.
An instantly recognizable location.
And deserted. (Yes, other people were staying there, but few enough that I rarely encountered anyone outside of opening hours.)
And the place is not only famous and inhabitable, but also interesting (in a way that Courthouse Square and Wisteria Lane aren't). There are lots of details, oddities, eccentricities and artistic touches that makes the place not just "a (or 'the') village from a TV series", but more like an outdoor art installation.
And you can spend the night there.
Next morning, on the way to the breakfast down at the hotel, it felt like being allowed to sneak into some museum an hour or two before opening and be trusted to walk alone down the galleries and have the place to yourself.
The only creatures wandering around were a couple of furtive squirrels, which seem to be running all over the place during the night, but hide out of sight when the visitors arrive.
As nice as Portmeirion is as a place to stay, I didn't specifically travel to Wales to visit Portmeirion again.
I was there for "A terrifying adventure in an abandoned mine", as the BBC travel website called it.
Or, in other words, a weather-proof climbing trail.
Inside Snowdonia National Park, there is a roughly circular area of about 4 km diameter that does not belong to the National Park, an area originally used extensively for slate mining and later specifically excluded from the National Park to allow commercial use.
In a part of the old underground slate mine (which is huge, having supposedly over 60 miles of corridors) a company has set up various climbing things - mostly traverses and ziplines, but also a via ferrata to climb up, some old bridges (well, at least the bridge supports across the gap - the boards that had once been across them are gone), slate slabs bolted to an inclined wall to serve as steps and other things to try not to fall down from.
But beyond the climbing stuff they put in (and some of the things still originate from the time where miners had been using them to get around in the mine, even though they are, like the bridges, not quite in the state they were once in), the mine is as it used to be - no stairs, no railings, no electric light.
At the meeting point, you get a climbing harness, two carabiners, one zipline trolley and a helmet with a headlamp. And, if you didn't bring them, a pair of gloves and Wellingtons.
And off you go.
Usually it is a group of ten people (plus two guides).
My tour started around 12:30 and it ended around 19:30, so even with getting everyone geared up and the walk to the entrance to the mine, it is a long time underground, continuously being on the move and doing things. There is a bit of a break at many activities, since ziplines and bridges can only be done by one person at a time, but as the group is small and nobody in the group was noticeably slower than the others, there wasn't much time to relax. So these were busy hours.
My perception of the tour was a bit different from the one presented in the BBC travel article.
Not that there was anything factually wrong with it - I just found different bits a lot more challenging than the writer of the article, while the "star attractions" were sometimes the least exciting ones.
For example, a lot is made in the article of the walk along the wooden ledge.
Which is one of the easiest things to do in the mine.
I found the next part a lot trickier.
Doing the same thing - without the wooden planks.
That didn't mean magically floating in the air, of course.
There are steel rods driven into the cavern wall, which support the wooden planks.
So the second section had only the steel rods coming out of the wall, without any planks on top of them, so traversing the wall meant just standing on these steel spikes.
For me, the hardest single step of the day on the next bit.
The traverse was pretty much the same, but one of the steel rods was missing. The only thing to step on was a small bit of rock protruding from the wall at a 45° angle.
As slate doesn't provide much friction anyway and the rock was wet, it was clear that stepping on it wouldn't work. I would slide off and dangle from the safety line.
The trick here is to lean back into the harness, so the body is not directly above your feet, but offset, so that your feet direct the pressure towards the rock and not downwards. It works well (and there was only a single step like that), but you need to trust in the equipment and the safety line.
The abseil that followed was comparatively dull, as it was a passive abseil. So you get clipped into the rope and get lowered down. The only active part is not to swing into the rock.
And trying not to remember any climbing movie at all. The rope runs over the rock edge. Which is not really risky, but in any movie this automatically means that the rope will break at some point and someone will either plummet to their death or need to save themselves in the last possible moment. Of course, nothing of this will happen. But not thinking about this makes being abseiled a lot more relaxed.
One of the 'big attractions' came pretty soon afterwards - the Goliath Zip Ride.
There are some number associated with it that are supposed to make it sound more exciting - it's 130 meters long and 60 meters high. (Though the last one is dubious - the web page of the operator gives a 130 foot drop, which becomes 60 meters in the BBC article instead of 40 meters.) It is, supposedly the world's deepest underground zip line at 375 meters underground.
Though none of this mattered much (except maybe the length).
As the only light in the cavern are the headlamps, you don't see much of the drop, so it didn't matter much whether there were 5 or 500 meters of black below you. And whether you are 50 meters or 500 meters below the surface doesn't make much of a difference either. And it's a bit of an odd measurement anyway, as the mine starts at the side of a mountain, so, essentially, when you step into the mine and walk a bit into it, you are already a hundred meters 'below the surface', even if you haven't descended a step.
Removing all the impressive sounding numbers, this leaves a small seat, hanging from a cable, which gets lowered towards the end of the cable (so the steepness of the line doesn't affect the speed of the ride at all).
Don't get me wrong - it's fun to do and enjoyable, but not remotely 'challenging' or 'plummeting'.
It's worth having a look at the pictures on the BBC site, though.
(Note: I am not giving a direct link, as the BBC site reacts differently on whether it thinks you are inside the UK or not. It tries to do a redirection between bbc.com and bbc.co.uk, but they seem to be out of sync. Just google for "BBC travel a terrifying adventure in an abandoned mine".
They set up professional lighting for their pictures and they look a lot more impressive than the shots I did with my helmet camera.
The Zip Ride looks really impressive there.
While descending on 'Goliath' my actual view was this.
Looking up to someone else descending looks looked like this.
So it is worth to go to the tour operator's and the BBC web site to get a better look.
The next bit was one of the two parts that were hard for me to do - and which didn't get a mention in the BBC article at all.
Going up again.
At the side of the cavern is a series of 'metal rungs' that lead up again. The look like some giant staples pushed into the wall (the technical name of giant staples seems to be 'stemples').
While it essentially is a giant ladder, it is a bit nasty as the 'stemples' are a fair bit apart, so it's not that easy to step from one to the other. Sometimes you have to grab one a bit higher up and then swing your foot up to the next one. Or you put a bit of weight (but not too much) on a foot against a rock, using that as an intermediate step. And, of course, unclipping and clipping your carabiners into the safety line every couple of steps.
Not actually difficult, but it's obviously all uphill work and I get short of breath walking three floors up on a normal staircase. So I was a bit huffing and puffing when I reached the upper end of the 'via ferrata'.
Next came some 'proper' zip lines (those you zip along on your own, as opposed to zip rides, where someone else controls your zipping).
They turned out to be interesting.
The article described one zip line where you need to have a running start, but that is true for all of them (bar one).
The reason for that is easy - tunnels.
As this had been a slate mine (and not at all designed for anything fun), tunnels came out at the side of a cavern at one side and continued on the other. They used to be connected by bridges (sometimes with rails, sometimes without), so that carts with slate could be moved across. And if you're pushing big iron carts, the last thing you want are slopes, so both tunnel ends were on the same level.
Usually a zip line has its ends at different heights, so gravity helps you to get on the other side. Attaching the other end a bit lower is not a good idea with tunnels, especially in an environment that doesn't have crash pads.
So, with both ends of the cable at the same height, you need to get your speed from something else but gravity - namely running. (Or, if you didn't do enough running, you needed to pull yourself along the cable. Which, fortunately, wasn't that hard, as the cable was essentially level.)
There were a few more of these (I think about five) and they all had their own particularities and were all fun (I really like ziplining...)
There was also one 'regular' zipline (one that went 'downhill'), which had an interesting twist.
The end of the cable wasn't in line with the corridor we were on, but a bit to the lower left. Which meant that the cable passed close to the side of the tunnel exit.
If you started your zip from this end of the cable, you would go two meters and smack into the wall.
So there was a little plank at the end of the tunnel, leading about a meter out over the drop.
You clipped into the line, walked along the plank and then, once you were past the edge, jumped and zipped.
Easily done, but, as the cable went off to the side, when you stood in the tunnel, all you did see was the plank going out into nothing at all. It somewhat felt like being in a pirate move and having to walk the plank. Except for it being dark, underground, lacking waves, ships, sharks and pirates. But besides that, just like it.
Talking of watery environments - further down the mine we reached water level, we did a bit more traversing - but this time not above a deep chasm, but on old, rusted pipes over water. The water wasn't deep, but deeper than our Wellingtons were high, so any misstep would have meant wet feet for the rest of the day.
Then came the physically hardest part - the corkscrew.
Another 20 meter ascent. (The mine built with multiple levels, which are usually about 20 meters apart. So every abseil or climb was roughly 20 meters or a multiple of that.)
The first part of the corkscrew was a walk up a steep slope, which had little slabs of slate (about 3 cm thick) bolted to it as 'steps'. Once at the top, there was a traverse along one side of the cavern along similar slabs. So after being out of breath from walking the equivalent of six flights of rather uneven and tricky stairs, you then walked along the wall, trying to stand with the tips or edges of your Wellingtons (good for wet places, but not necessarily the best climbing boots) small bits of protruding rock.
And then we had to traverse along another wall to get to the next tunnel. That bit was nastier. The same kind of steps, but the wall wasn't straight, but there was an edge protruding at waist height, which meant that you had to walk in a kind of 'C' shape, with feet and hands close to the wall, but your stomach away from it. It is hard enough to walk that way, but you also have to unclip and clip your carabiners into the safety line, so you can't 'hang in there' and walk along the wall, like on the second traverse.
So I was exhausted and out of breath when I reached the next hallway and clipped out of the safety line.
Although - the nice thing of being first in line (directly behind the leading guide) is that you also get to be the first to rest and can see that others struggle up the corkscrew as well.
But that was the last of the difficult bits.
What followed were some bridges (or what's left of them) to walk over.
And some more ziplines along the way.
Then it was time for the final attraction - the 'free fall'.
The concept is simple: You clip into a rope descending from an 'abseiling machine', go to the edge of the platform, take a single step and end up 20 meters below.
It is the last activity on the course before heading back to daylight - or at least out of the mine. Due to the time of the year, it was already dark outside when we got out.
While it seems daunting (and the newspaper articles tend to overplay the scariness of it), it is not as dramatic as it sounds.
Mostly because it isn't really "freefall".
The articles strongly imply that you fall most of the way and only shortly before reaching the ground, the brakes will kick in and stop you from smashing into it.
But it really is a speedy abseil at constant speed - the abseil machine does brake you all the time, so it is more like going down a fast elevator than like a bungee-style 'free fall'.
The most 'terrifying' bit of it was this.
When you are on the platform, the rope from the abseil machine is hanging barely within reach, so you have to lean forward quite a bit over the void to be able to reach it. You are clipped into a security rope at that point, so there's no chance of falling down, but you still don't want to slip off the platform and bang your knee so close to the end of the tour, so it was a worrying moment.
Once I got the rope in my hand and clipped myself into it, the rest was easy. A step forward and a smooth ride down.
It is a cool thing to do and fun, but by far not the dramatic plummet or scary fall the articles make it sound like.
Still, even knowing that, you have to make the one step into the dark void.
Which might, indeed, feel scary, terrifying, daunting or challenging.
Or a fun thing to look forward to.
Which, to my pleasant surprise, it was for me.
Initially, I hadn't been sure about the trip.
A friend sent me a link to the BBC article about two years ago and mentioned: "Isn't that the sort of thing you like to do?"
So when I knew I was going to Northern England, I thought about it and decided rent a car and go to Wales to find out.
But I wasn't quite sure how tough it would be. I had been on one "coasteering" tour in England and that was way beyond my capabilities, so when something in the UK is labelled as "Ultimate" or "Extreme" (well, actually "Xtreme"), and the articles about it include phrases like "Many people who've done it have later said it was one of the toughest days out they've ever had", "...the scariest assault course in the UK...", "will test your nerve even if you're not normally scared of heights" and "We've had army commanders crying their eyes out", then it is hard to tell whether this is all hyperbole or really hard.
Turns out that army commanders seem to be wimps. (Or newspaper travel reporters aren't the most reliable sources.)
Physically it isn't actually that hard.
I was getting out of breath twice, but that was in both cases from the equivalent of walking up six flights of stairs.
If you can do that, you're fine.
Everything else seems to depend on your attitude and psychological factors.
For example, I didn't know how I would react to the unseen depths.
I know that I'm fine on a tree-top and rope courses and always happy on ziplines (even when there is valley more than 200 meters below me), but I didn't know whether not seeing the ground below would make it less scary (as you can't see how deep it is) or more scary (as you can't see how deep it is).
There seems to be a phobia that some swimmers get. They're fine when they are in a pool or close to the beach, but once they get into open water, their mind fills the depths below with all sorts of imaginary terrors.
So I wasn't sure whether there might be something like that in the mine - a depth you can't see being scarier than one that you can see.
But it seems that I am neither particularly afraid of the dark, unseen depths or being below millions of tons of rock.
And if you don't bring any phobias onto the tour, it's an enjoyable thing to do, even if you aren't a particularly sporty type.
After the abseil it, we went up another level (this time on a pile of slate rubble, which was like walking up a staircase and didn't even need any safety lines) and down a few tunnels. And then out of the mine.
Nice day out. Or in. Or below. (Whatever you want to call it.)
So I did it again the next day.
Well, not really. Only sort of something similar in description.
But first another morning walk through Portmeirion from my room down to the hotel for breakfast and then the long way back again.
As it was Sunday and I didn't need to leave before noon anyway, I had a late breakfast, so by the time I walked back, Portmeirion was already open to "non-residents", which is why there are occasionally people visible in the images.
There are lots of little oddities around.
Some of the statues are little more than (weather-resistant) cardboard cut-outs.
Some stone 'reliefs' are just painted on.
Some windows are also just paint jobs (and the little cherub on the side is also just a flat cut-out).
The oriental baldachin is essentially a painted corrugated iron bus shelter.
And this pillow on the wooden bench looks nice, but is probably not that comfortable.
It was two days before Halloween, but the clouds over Wales gave the impression that they were already practicing for the occasion.
Around noon it was time to get into the car and drive back to the area I visited the previous day.
Even though it looked a bit bleak.
For some reason the English countryside manages to look pleasant and comforting, even on a foggy day.
While the landscape in Wales looks stark, unpleasant and foreboding.
But, as this is the UK, that doesn't keep enthusiasts from running steam trains through it.
But I didn't pay much attention to it or the weather, since I was heading underground again.
The company I had been with on the previous day wasn't the only one using an abandoned slate mine for climbing purposes.
And while the previous company had left the mine as much as possible as it was and only added the climbing bits, the company I went to on Sunday built a lot more infrastructure into it.
Essentially it was the difference between an 'expedition cave' and a 'show cave'.
This was clearly 'show cave climbing'.
And bouncing. But I didn't do that.
They didn't go as deep into their mine and only used two large caverns and a smaller one, plus a couple of tunnels in between.
But they put in lights and cameras, installed platforms, bridges, a climbing safety system and trampolines.
In addition to the climbing course, they had also giant trampolines installed in the cave, so that people could bounce on them on various levels in the cavern. The trampolines and the passages between them were fully enclosed in mesh netting, so that it was impossible to fall off or out, allowing visitors to jump around without any need for a harness or other safety gear, except for the requirement to wear a helmet.
But the whole bouncing area was a closed system and separated from the climbing course, even though we sometimes zipped by close to it.
The climbing course was mostly ziplines. The traverses were only to get to the next start of a series of ziplines.
But before going to the main zipline course, there was a 'training area' located in the smaller cavern.
Here we got instructions on using the safety system and proper ziplining.
I wasn't overly fond of the safety system.
The basic idea is that, once you have clipped into the system, you always stay attached to it. You can't accidentally (or intentionally) clip out again until you reach the end of the course.
As I had spent the previously day with two carabiners as a safety system, where it was my responsibility to ensure that at least one was clipped into the safety line, I didn't need such a safety system, but I could see the point of it.
But that system was overly complicated (it used little magnets at every anchor point to allow locking onto the safety cable), hard to use and inherently stupid.
On the training loop I managed to unclip myself a couple of times, as you can open one of the snappers at any time, but only re-attach them at an anchor point. Which is a stupid idea in the first place, since it not only means that you can at any time accidentally unclip yourself with one of the two snappers from the safety line, but if that happens somewhere between anchor points, like on a rope bridge or the rope walk, you can't clip yourself back in again. It is still safe - as you can't unclip the second snapper while the first one is open - but it is stupid. A sensible system should restrict the points where you unclip from the safety line, not the points where you clip into it.
And worse, when I tried to clip the snapper onto the safety wire, I sometimes managed to hit the side of the 'claw' with the cable (instead of the inside) and pressed it shut. So I was not clipped into the safety line, but as the snapper had shut (but not on the cable), I could open the other one and was off the line.
Yes, you can do the same thing with carabiners - unattach both of them - but the whole point of having a safety system is that you should not be able to do that. The advice by the instructor was: "You need to check that you are properly clipped in." Which is good advice, but it shouldn't be needed. With carabiners, you know that you alone are responsible to stay clipped in. But with a system that supposedly keeps you from unclipping, it gets extra dangerous if it doesn't work, since there is a risk that you rely on it without checking.
In any case, I did pay extra attention when clipping in and I didn't have the problem with clipping beside the steel cable at all when I was on the course.
But even if it stays secure, the magnet lock is fiddly and required a fairly precise angle of use, so at some anchor points it took four or five attempts until it finally clicked and clipped. I didn't really mind it here, but would hated it on the day before. To stand on one leg on a tiny protruding piece of rock, barely holding on, trying to move past an anchor point and then requiring five attempts to click back on the safety rope would have been seriously annoying.
And even with everything working as advertised, a system that restricts the points where you can clip on can't be a good idea.
But besides being a bit grumpy about the safety system, the course was fun.
The training zips were a good indication of what's to come.
(And as the cave was lit and we didn't need to have headlamps, the screenshots from the helmet camera show a bit more of the cavern than the ones from the previous day. But as they used primary colours for lighting, it all looks a bit like a 70's disco.)
It is a bit hard to see at first how it works, but, after climbing a ladder, you are standing on a metal platform and there's a similar platform on the other side of the cave. That is a bit lower and has an orange crash pad. There is another platform beside it, which is then the starting point for the next zip.
It's a bit in the dark on the upper bits, but it is easier to see on the lower parts.
In the middle of the picture is an orange crash pad. That is where you land from one of the ziplines (the ziplines themselves are too small to see on this picture). To the right of it is another platform (tinted in blue), but recognizable by the small 'tongue' sticking out, from which you zip to the other side of the cave. There you turn around and zip to the last platform, which is the one with the smaller looking crash pad standing on the ground.
After everyone in the group had completed the training course, we went to the main attraction.
Unlike the tour on the previous tour, this one was 'self-guided', so no guide went with us on the zipline course. (But there were security cameras all over the place, so if someone had been in any trouble, someone would presumably come over to help.)
And the security cameras weren't the only cameras that had been installed.
Anticipating the needs of the modern traveler, they also had installed 'selfie' cameras. One of them was operating like a 'rollercoaster cam' on the first zipline, automatically taking a picture as you are zipping towards it.
The second one was along the first traverse. To make sure that visitors were not looking at the wall when the picture was taken, a big green button was installed on the wall, allowing visitors to operate the camera themselves.
Compared to the ones on the previous day, the traverse was easy - there were either 'stemples' to stand on or small steel platforms, sufficient to rest almost the full foot on it. (Well, and a chain to walk on, which was trickier.) It felt a bit like the "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch. "Metal platforms! For almost a full foot! Luxury! Back in the days we used to be glad if we could even rest full toe on a nail!" "Nails! You posh snobs! If only we would have had nails! We called it a happy day when we had pebbles to stand on." And so on...)
This was clearly designed as a climbing course to be done for fun.
Following the traverse were a series of ziplines, going back and forth between the walls of the cavern. Similar in construction to the one in the small cavern, but as there was more space here, the ziplines were longer and there were more of them.
At the end of the cave were some other climbing elements, such as this hanging bridge (which was directly below the trampoline area), ultimately leading to the far end of the cavern and a long zipline almost back to the place we started from (although a bit lower).
So after the fun of zipping back and forth between the sides of the cavern, there was the big fun of zipping the long way from one end of the cavern to the other.
Going along the course was fun and took about 45 minutes - but the nice thing was that this wasn't all. Some connecting corridors (and some more climbing elements, such as this rope bridge) lead to a second cave, which had roughly the same layout (ziplining back and forth between the side walls and then one long zipline going back to below the starting point).
At the end of the course, we were back where we started - and there was one decision to make.
Either stop or go for one last zipline.
Oddly enough, our group size had dwindled to three at that time.
It's not that we lost someone on the way - everyone made it without problems to the end of the course. But most of the group had decided to call it a day and leave.
The final zipline is fun (it's of medium length, going diagonally across some of the cavern) and fast (it's the steepest they have), but it takes some effort to go there (which why it is an optional extension of the climbing course).
You need to get to the other side of the cavern by either having strong arms and pull yourself along the rugs of a horizontal ladder (named monkey bars) or by having a good sense of balance and going over a high-wire (there is a safety-line, of course, and a hand rope, but it still is likely to swing wildly under your feet when you reach the middle of it). (Or, if you got neither a strong arm nor a sense of balance, you can drop down at the start and pull yourself over on the safety line.)
Once on the other side, there is one last climb up on a 'staircase' made out of small metal platforms sticking out of the rock (like the traverse close to the start of the course, but upwards instead of horizontal). But this one was about one flight of stairs (the web site claims 36 steps), so it was easily done.
Once that was done, all that was left to do was the final, very nice, zip line and it was over.
While I had done two climbing attractions in abandoned slate mines on consecutive days, both were more different than I originally expected. I had been wondering whether the second day would feel like a small scale repeat of the first one, but both were completely different environments and experiences. And it was good to have done both of them. (Although I was glad that I did the more difficult one first.)
While being below ground, the weather had cleared up a bit. So the scenery outside looked like this.
Still not welcoming, but an improvement.
Next morning was may last morning in Portmeirion.
It, rather unexpectedly for the end of October, turned out to be a sunny morning, so I took some more pictures before driving off,
I was flying home the following day, but I didn't directly drive to Manchester (from where I was flying), but put in another stop at the (former) slate mining site.
But this time not to go underground, but for an above-ground activity.
So I was glad that the weather had turned out nicely.
The company that operates the climbing cavern and the underground trampolines also operates a series of three ziplines with 890, 630 and 450 meters length.
What was unusual about these ziplines was that they had installed four cables side by side for each of them, so that up to four people could ride at the same time.
This not only gives the ziplines a higher throughput of riders per hour, but gives the ride also a different 'feel'.
Usually you have no real 'sense of scale' when hanging from a zipline, as it is you and the cable "out there" and nothing else.
Also, it makes for more interesting 'action pictures'.
If you take a picture when ziplining, it doesn't really look much different from a video taken from a hill (except on 360° video, where you can see that there is no hill). With other people in the frame, it looks a lot more dynamic.
The first (and longest) line had the nicest view across the Welsh landscape. And I was glad that the fog that had been there two days earlier had gone.
The second zipline was a bit shorter, but steeper, allowing more speed. At least for lighter people. To avoid riders to arrive at the end with too much speed (and rough braking), there was a little 'parachute' in the back of the suit that got used beyond a certain weight to provide air drag, limiting the top speed.
The green button at the start of the second zipline is a 'selfie' button,
Pressing it starts the recording of a a short video on the starting platform and after starting down the zipline.
In the second picture, I am the person on the far right. The little 'air brake' is clearly visible behind me.
The orange jumpsuits look a bit stupid. When going for the ziplines, it feels like being involved in the world's most ridiculous prison break.
These were the views along the way when zipping down this cable.
While the line is going over an old open-pit mine, the former mine is overgrown now, so it's not looking as ugly as it probably would have a century ago. And there's also a good view of the hills in the distance.
The short walk to the starting point of the last (and final) ride went partly along the zipline, so there was the opportunity to see the next group coming down the line.
The final zipline goes back to the entrance of the (climbing/bouncing) cavern and the car park. Visually, this is the least exciting of the three (well, one of them has to be), as it crosses a more recent open-pit mine and that looks like any quarry (or, from a BBC point of view, like every alien planet).
On the screenshots from the 'selfie' video below, I am the rider on the right side in the first two pictures ("Look, no hands!") and on the far left on the third.
One last look at the next group of people coming down the final zipline and then it was time to get back to the car and drive up to Manchester.
And that's about all there is to tell. The drive to Manchester was uneventful and all I did there was to check into a rather stylish hotel (though not quite as quirky as Portmeirion), look for an Indian restaurant for dinner and fly home the next day.
But there was one final thing...
I am not quite sure whether this was intentional, but the shadow of the towel holder and the towel on the wall of the shower cabin looked a bit like a headless pygmy doing pull-ups. (The sides of the towel were rolled inwards a bit, creating the shadow of the 'legs'.)
I got curious enough about the 'shadow creature' to write to the hotel and check. Turns out that it was just a coincidence and not intentional:
Thank you very much for you email. Finally somebody has noticed our little Albert working out! He has been doing for months and gone unnoticed! What an eye for detail! In all honesty this is an utter coincidence, we have emailed our housekeeping and they had confirmed. May I just say though that we have now sent your picture to all of the departments and it has caused a great deal of joy with everybody so Thank You!
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