It was a bit strange when I made the connection between what I was joking about and what I was about to do.
When I was in Copenhagen on my way back from Greenland, I visited the "Danish Museum of Science and Technology".
And one of the exhibits that caught my eye was this helicopter.
It's for medical evacuations. But there's no room for a patient inside the helicopter.
So if there's a medical emergency, like a car crash, and they did send in a helicopter to fly an injured person to the next hospital, then they needed to strap the patient to the outside of the helicopter and fly off.
And when I saw that, I figured that this is probably a good way to give an injured person a heart attack on top of whatever injuries already sustained.
Assume you are involved in an accident. Rescue services are arriving. The emergency doctor checks you and tells you that you are badly hurt. But no worries. The evacuation helicopter is already there. It will fly you to the hospital right now. They just need to tie with some seatbelts to the outside of it and you're ready to go.
I think that for me, that's the point where I'd ask to wait for a proper ambulance car instead...
At the museum, I took the photo above as an example of something that should be comforting, but isn't.
As the Greenland trip was a long one and a there were a lot of things to write about (and the museum visit in Copenhagen was at the end of it), it took me about a month until I finally wrote about the helicopter and how scary it would feel to be strapped to the outside of a flying vehicle.
During that month, I had made a booking for something, so I wrote regarding the medevac helicopter: "On the other hand, given a plan for something to do this summer, it might not be as bad as it looks."
What I referred to was this:
So, essentially, being strapped to the outside of a flying vehicle. For fun.
The advantages were, of course, that I wasn't injured and I had a lot of time to get used to the idea of doing it.
But it was a strange moment when I was writing the text for the website about how scary it would feel to take that helicopter ride. And only then realized that this pretty close to what I had booked as a 'fun thing' to do in summer.
I had known about wing walking (as it is called in the UK) for a while, but it seemed too difficult to manage.
Not the actual wing walking. I was fairly sure I could cope with that.
The main issue was the weight limit.
When I read about (do-it-yourself) wing walking the first time, about a decade ago, they had a weight limit of 77 kg. (And that's the weight as you step on the plane. So we're not talking standing on the scales in your underwear. But fully dressed and ready to stand in, pretty much, a 200 km/h storm for ten minutes. So, depending on your dress sense, you need to have abody weight that's a couple of kilograms lower.)
That is a lot less than I usually weigh.
I did get below that in preparation for going to the South Pole. But that took me about half a year of reduced food plus a lot of exercise. It was well worth it for something 'big' like standing at the South Pole. But for standing on top of a plane for ten minutes, it seemed a lot of effort. (It also didn't work well with my 'yearly schedule'. As I have been dogsledding in early spring for more than a decade now, and it is useful to have at least some 'fat layer' for that, it meant that I could start dieting in April in most years. So if it would take me six months to lose enough weight, I'd be 'flight ready' in October. As all wing walking options are in the UK, October is not a good month to rely on sufficiently good weather to be able to do it. And it would be frustrating to spend half a year working out and not eating much and then not being able to benefit from it.)
When I looked at wing walking a few years later, about 2018 or 2019, I noticed that there was a company that had a weight limit of 85 kg. While that was still below my weight, it meant that there were eight kilograms I wouldn't need to lose. And that brought it into the ream of possibility. If I started losing weight from April onwards, I would be able to fly in late July or early August.
But before I got around to decide to do it, other stuff (like a global pandemic) got in the way. So it wasn't until early 2023 until travel got sufficiently reliable again to consider doing something like this.
And, conveniently, when I looked up things earlier this year, I noticed that there was a wing walking company that had a maximum weight of 89 kg. So about another month of dieting less to worry about!
For a while I considered waiting another year or two, hoping that the weight limit would creep further upwards. And there might be a point where I could step onto the plane and not consider my weight at all.
But then I decided that, yeah, 89 kg would be an attainable goal. And it would even be attainable this year. (Since I had the vacation in Greenland, I still wanted some 'fat layer' in April, so I wouldn't reduce weight before the beginning of May, cutting a month from my schedule. Which might have been a concern with 85 kg limit (I would have postponed that to 2024), but still worked with the 89 kg limit.)
So I thought "Yeah, why not?" and booked a wing walking flight for July.
And once I had fixed the date, I could schedule my 'weight loss programme' towards that.
(It turned out that I could also simply have waited. When I looked something up about wing walking, in mid-June, I noticed that there was now another company with a maximum weight of 92 kg. But at that point it seemed silly to cancel the previous booking and change companies for the sake of being allowed to weigh 3 kg more. But it might be interesting what the weight limit will be in three or five years' time.)
So the wing walking date was set and I had to go to England for that, as the company I would be flying with is near Cirencester in the Cotswolds.
Once that was sorted out, I looked for some other activities (most of them in Wales), to make a proper vacation trip out of it.
The first thing I did was to make some money.
Unfortunately, only in the literal sense.
In any real sense, it did cost me much more money.
To get to the UK, I did fly to Cardiff (properly, on the inside of a plane) and rented a car there to drive to Cirencester.
And the Royal Mint is close to Cardiff, so I stopped there first.
To call the Royal Mint a 'venerable' institution is a bit of an understatement.
Searching for 'venerable institution' brings up places like the British Museum (established in 1759), the golf club at St Andrews (1552), Eton College (1440) or Peterhouse, the oldest college in in Cambridge (1284).
Well, the Royal Mint has a history going back to the London Mint, which was established in (possibly) 886.
According to Wikipedia, it's the tenth-oldest company that is still operating.
While that date seems a bit artificial - it is known from markings on coins that there was a mint in London, but there are no documents about its location or anything else about it - but even when 'only' looking at the date when the mint moved to the Tower of London the 'modern' Royal Mint started in 1279.
And even though that makes the Royal Mint almost 400 years younger than its 'official' founding date implies, it has been around for some time.
It is no longer located in London, but has moved to Llantrisant, near Cardiff, in 1968.
As it has been, as an institution, been around for a long time, there are some particularities to it.
The most important one is that it does issue all British Coins. And only coins.
I don't know much about the details of monetary systems, but it seems to me that most countries have a bank (or a group of banks) that are responsible for issuing (physical) money. In most cases the banks do not make the money themselves - they outsource it to some printing or minting company, but the central bank(s) are the ones responsible for issuing the money, regardless of its form.
In the UK, as the Royal Mint predates banknotes in Europe and, incidentally, the Bank of England (est. 1694) by at least four centuries, it never gave up the right to issue coins to such 'upstart companies'.
So while the Bank of England (and a couple of other banks in the UK) issue banknotes, only the Royal Mint can issue coins.
And if you visit the mint during a working day, they do factory tours, so you can see them making coins.
Although, currently, no UK coinage.
As an established, 'venerable' institution, they have a good reputation, so they are producing coins for a lot of countries (about 60, but maybe a 100, depending on whether you count medals). And they are busy doing that. (Although, obviously, for those countries, they are working as contractors for minting the coins - the formal issuing of the coins is done by the banks in those countries.)
But of UK coins, they have a lot on their shelves, so they don't do any new ones.
At least not for circulation.
They do have a huge amount of 'shelf space' where they store their coin reserves.
And that's full with coins showing Queen Elizabeth II.
To save money, they decided not to melt them all down and re-mint them as King Charles III coins, but use those for the next couple of years, possibly decades, until the reserve has been used up and they are (literally) running short on cash.
And coins are durable - the average lifespan of a coin is about 30 years. So it might take a while until they 'emptied their coffers' and have to start minting new ones.
Also, even though they didn't quite state that (after all, they are the Royal Mint, so it's probably not done to speculate on the life expectancy of your patron), they don't seem to think that by then the coins will show Charles III. It seems more likely that, by the time they run out of Queen Elizabeth II coins, there'll be William's face on it. (Though, possibly, by the time that happens, there might not be any physical money at all.)
So while the Royal Mint did produce a large number of 50p pieces with the king on it to celebrate the coronation, that was pretty much a one-time event and not the start of a continuous run of coin production.
As far as the UK is concerned, the Royal Mint is currently doing only small runs of commemorative coins (although here a 'small run' tends to mean five or ten million), but no new coins for general circulation.
When visiting the Royal Mint, you can, as part of the visit, mint a coin yourself.
So that's when I literally made some money.
A 50 p King Charles III Coronation
Quite possibly one of less than a hundred UK coins made that day.
The interesting thing, of course, is that this is really money. Actual legal tender.
There are some places at tourist spots, where you can insert a coin or a blank piece of metal and press some souvenir token out of it. But that's formally a 'medal'. It's a souvenir. It may be collectible. But it isn't money.
The coins minted at the Royal Mint, however, are real money.
Of course, it's not a capital gain. Minting a 50p coin costs 7.50 £.
In fact, doing that when I did that was financially inefficient.
They do change the coin that can be minted from time to time.
And "Coming Late Summer" the coin to mint will be one dedicated to JRR Tolkien.
Of course, I would have preferred to make a Tolkien coin instead of a coronation coin anyway, but the 'financial advantage' would have been that it is a 2 £ coin. The price for the experience would still have been 7.50 £, so you get a better value out of it.
Side remark: At some point, mostly because the Royal Mint is such an old institution, I had been wondering whether, formally, I had really made some money. It would not be a question in most other countries, where the coins are issued by a central bank, so it doesn't matter who actually made them. But the Royal Mint is the institution issuing the coins and minting money is an act of monetary sovereignty. Now, obviously, that doesn't mean that the king has to stand there and personally mint every coin. That can be clearly delegated to one of his subjects. But, as I am not British, can I, from a formal, legal point, create valid UK coinage? I know that nobody will care, when getting a 50p coin, who pressed the button on the coin press. But as these things are, especially in the UK, are based on ancient traditions and rules dating back centuries ago, I wasn't sure about it. But it turns out that the Royal Mint isn't really the 'Royal' Mint anymore (in the sense that it is formally attached to the ruler), but it's (since 2009) the "Royal Mint Ltd.", a company owned by the treasury. So it's an ordinary company being tasked by the treasury to make and issue coins. And as a normal company, they can have their coins minted by anyone they want. So that turned out to be a lot less interesting than I thought. But it also means that I did make some money that day.
Then it was time to drive to Cirencester, check into the hotel, connect to the internet and nervously press the refresh button.
The company doing the flights has a "Weather Update" web page, where they announce whether they will be flying the next day. And, given that England is not known for its calm, sunny and reliable weather, it's, unfortunately, often showing "Grounded" as the flight status for the next day.
While driving from Cardiff to Cirencester, I had encountered a lot of rain. And it was also windy outside.
So I waited for the update to the weather page (usually done shortly after 3 pm, but it was almost 5 pm when it was finally updated - I'm not sure whether they didn't get around to updating it earlier or whether, based on the forecast, it took them that long to make the final call).
Then came the information I had hoped for - they would be flying the next day.
Of course that didn't mean they would actually be flying, the weather on the day might still be too bad for that. But at least they didn't rule that out completely.
When I drove to the airfield next day, there were still gusty winds, not too bad.
The airfield was, at the same time, a lot more and less than I expected.
As far as the starting and landing facilities were concerned, there weren't any.
The airfield is nothing more than a large grassy meadow.
There's not even a recognizable runway anywhere.
So, to take off, all you need is to point the plane towards the wind and get going. No worries about the wind coming towards the runway in an inconvenient angle.
On the other hand - the airfield is only a field.
But, as an aviation site, it has a history going back to 1916, when the Royal Flying Corps had a pilot training facility there. So, while not more than a field, planes had already been taking off from that site more than a century ago.
While that was only for a short time (the facility closed down four years later), it means that there are still hangars suitable for the biplanes on the premises.
And there's also the old officer's mess, where they now hold the pre-flight briefings.
And that's where I sat on that morning, receiving my safety briefing.
The essential part of the briefing can be summarized quickly: "Don't touch any part of your harness."
Almost everything else is paperwork and calming clients down.
As you are strapped to a metal pole on top of the wings, there's little you can do, so there's nothing much you can do wrong. As long as you stay in your harness, you'll be as safe as you can be. (That's "as safe as you can be" while standing on the top wing of an eighty-year-old airplane, of course. Which might not be the same level of safety as, say, sitting on a sofa at home. Or flying inside a modern plane to Cardiff. But as long as you're in the harness, there's next to nothing you can do to make it more or less safe. So "Don't touch any part of your harness." is as much safety briefing as needed.)
The other (potentially) relevant bit from the briefing is the 'abort' signal. As it's quite noisy on top of the plane (as I lost my earplugs almost immediately after the start, I know what I am talking about), there's no way to talk to the pilot. He wouldn't be able to hear you under his helmet anyway. And if he did, he probably couldn't tell whether you want to stop the flight or, like on a rollercoaster, you like to scream in a scary situation, but you are still enjoying it. So there's a hand/arm sign if you want to go back to the ground as quickly as possible. (And as the flight is more like a rollercoaster ride around the airfield, with lots of turns and circles and eights, you're never that far away from where you started. As they put it "We're never really more than 30 seconds away from a possible landing.")
Most of the usual elements of a regular pre-flight security announcement wouldn't be applicable anyway. You won't need to remember where the nearest exit is. And you would not be able to smoke on the flight in any case, whether formally forbidden or not. And while, at those wind speeds, you could not hold on to a mobile phone anyway, operating electronics is technically not an issue, as they won't have an effect on anything important on the plane. Everything flight related on a Boeing Stearman is operated by wires (and that's not wires in the 'fly by wire' or similar electric conduit, but steel cables physically pulling on things - try to disturb that with a radio signal...). While there is a GPS and radio communication on board, they aren't relevant for the actual flight. The pilot is flying by sight around the airfield, so there's no navigation support needed. And it's their own airfield, there's no tower, they stay in low altitude in a small area, so they don't need to ask for clearance to take-off or land. And, of course, all the stuff about putting your luggage in the overhead bins or putting the seats in an upright position don't apply.
There were three of us going wing walking that morning.
I was the third one to do it, so I got the opportunity to see two flights before I would go onto the plane.
The first to fly had the roughest time.
When she was in the air, there was a light drizzle.
Almost unnoticeable on the ground. But due to the wind speed, it was like "getting stuck with tiny needles all the time" and compared to "flying through a darts contest".
The second flyer was luckier with the weather - no rain and constant winds.
There were even a few patches on blue sky visible.
And then it was my turn to climb up on the wing.
There's a short lecture during the safety briefing on how to climb up to the wing, but as they (literally) point it out step by step when you get on the plane, it's not important to remember that part.
The 'stake to be tied to' turned out to be surprisingly comfortable.
It was well padded and even had a small 'seat' to it.
The harness, on the other hand, looked more like something out of a horror movie.
Especially the clasp looked like one of these things they used in Frankenstein movies to attach the monster (ever unsuccessfully) to the laboratory equipment.
I was quickly attached to the plane and was ready to go.
Or, at least, as ready as I was going to be.
It's somewhat hard to gauge how 'ready' I was for this. It's something that isn't similar to anything else I had done before (which was, of course, the main point in doing it), so I had no idea on whether I'd be fine doing this or whether I would be panicking a minute later and requesting an immediate landing.
But, as far as nervousness went, I had been a lot more anxious about skijoring in Sweden, earlier this year, than I was about standing on top of a plane. (Slept better the previous night as well.)
Getting off the ground didn't take long. Due to the large wing area, biplanes in general don't need high speeds or a long run to lift off.
The plane taxied to one corner of the field, turned around into the wind and in less then ten seconds and fewer than a hundred meters, we were airborne.
My first reaction was "wow, that's really windy".
On these flights, the plane can go as fast as 220 km/h. And although it usually doesn't (220 km is more for going in a straight line, but we were flying primarily in circles), speeds on this flight were around 160 km/h.
Even at this 'slower' speed, the face gets buffeted by the wind a lot.
While the pilot could fly slightly slower, he prefers not to.
Stall speed of a Boeing Stearman is around 100 km/h (probably a bit higher than that with someone standing on top of the wings - it doesn't improve the aerodynamics) and the pilot said before the flight that he didn't want to be anywhere near that speed. It might be ok at 'cruising altitude', but as we were flying at a low altitude, there wouldn't be enough height for any anti-stall maneuvers. So it would be better to avoid stalling. By flying at higher speeds.
While I didn't have any rain during my flight, the wind had gotten stronger compared to the other two flights (which didn't matter) and also gustier (which did).
I did try a couple of times to go into an arms-spread-wide "Look ma, no hands" position, but rarely succeeded.
This was partly because the flight was a bit 'bumpy' at times. So, often, when I tried to ley go of the wire I was holding onto and spread my arms, the plane would 'dip down' a bit and I would reflexively try to hold onto something again.
As far as this web site is concerned, it didn't matter anyway.
When you prepare for the flight, you can tell them where you want cameras placed (and which ones).
There's one attachment point on the left wing of the plane (about a meter to the left of my foot), one attachment point on a pole slightly in front of the right wing and one attachment point at the tail of the plane. I selected action cameras for the tail and the right wing and a 360° camera on the left wing. I also had a small action camera on a 'wrist mount' on my left hand.
But (as it sometimes happens - they specifically tell you that in advance and that there won't be any refunds if that happens, but at least they don't charge you for the videos that fail), the tail camera didn't work properly. So there's no shot from behind, with me standing spread-eagled on the plane.
And from the side, it doesn't look particularly impressive.
So it didn't matter much that I wasn't able to strike a 'perfect pose', as it wouldn't have been on video in any case. And while it was a bit gusty and the plane was bouncing a bit, I had a few 'poser' moments anyway. Short ones, though.
I was somewhat surprised how little I noticed of the flight itself. Most of the time I was thinking about the wind and how steady the plane would stay the next couple of seconds, that I was mostly unaware of where we were and what we were doing.
I had been wondering before the flight how it would feel when the plane was flying a curve and there would be the sheer 'drop' down the wing next to me. Most of the time, however, it was a rather abstract feeling of "Oh, that's where the ground is now. I didn't notice we were banking into a turn again." instead of a panicky feeling of "I'm a hundred meter above the ground and all that's keeping me from falling down are these four strips of cloth and one metal clasp."
For some orientation: The airfield we started from is the green 'field', which is roughly square, but with a small triangular extension, in the image below.
The grey buildings are the hangars and the officer's mess, the small cluster of trees is the 'visitor area' from where the wing walking can be watched from the ground. As already mentioned, there are no designated runways or markers. The only thing that makes it recognizable as an airfield is a 'wind sock', although that can't really be seen on any of the images.
On the penultimate approach towards the airfield, the pilot turned on the smoke machine, to give the people on the ground something visual (that's not too abysmal).
I also tried to give them a little wave as we went by.
Then it was only one more circle around the airfield and we were going in to land.
The nice thing about that is that the plane is going slower, so there's a lot less wind pressure and you can stretch your arms out much more easily.
The downsides are that the tail camera is not working, so there's no cool picture of it (and, seeing the two images above, not being able to see my face would be a definite plus) and, of course, that the flight is almost over.
The landing was much smoother than I had expected. I had braced myself for a bit of a jolt on touchdown, but the landing in Cardiff the previous day had been rougher than this one.
'Thumbs up' on the way to the "terminal building".
All that was left to do was to climb down from the plane, thank everyone and drive back to Cirencester for a massive dinner.
And, of course, figuring out how to get the 'candy floss' look out of my hair again.
As I hadn't been sure how the weather would be on my 'designated wing walking day', I had planned my schedule so that I could have also done the flight on the next day. That would have been a long day, as I wanted to be in the north-west of Wales the next evening, but I could have driven there at night, if I needed to.
Fortunately, the flight happened on the day scheduled, as the next day was a rainy one, so the wing walking flights were grounded.
I could start the drive to Wales early. And I even had time for a stop halfway along the way.
After the flight on a Boeing Stearman, it seemed fitting to visit an aircraft museum.
And there is one at Cosford, near Birmingham.
I hadn't known anything about it (in fact, I only had searched for "technology museum midlands" the previous evening and this seemed to be vaguely along the way), so I was surprised how large it was and how many planes were presented. It is smaller than the air museum in Duxford, but only slightly so (and you can't fly in any of the machines).
As it's an RAF museum, most of the airplanes are military ones.
And, like military planes often do, a lot of them look amazingly ugly.
While part of the reason might be the "a camel is a horse designed by committee" approach, I think that's also because there's no need for a military craft to be elegant or economical. Bolt on a couple of guns and turrets and antennas and secondary cockpits? Sure, why not? It'll screw up the aerodynamics, but you can always attach a bigger engine. Looks? Fuel consumption? Efficiency? Who cares? It's a military plane! It's either for war (where fuel economy or design are the least concerns) or for peace time (where it'll stand in a corner somewhere until it is sold for scrap metal, so fuel economy doesn't matter either).
But there were also a couple of old bi-planes around, which felt appropriate after the previous day.
While they don't look sleek and efficient either, at least they were built at a time where they didn't know any better and needed two wings to create sufficient lift with the engines available.
But besides all the historic planes, the museum had a couple of oddities.
There was an interesting section dedicated to planes that had never been built. Most of them were designed in the late 50's and early 60's and then submitted for potential military contracts to build them.
As most of them never even made it to prototype stage, they were presented as scale models. Some of the looked more like a 'design study' than anything potentially capable of flying. Especially the "Vickers Type 010 Swallow", basically a delta flyer with engines at the tip of the wings. The idea behind it was that there wouldn't be any rudders or flaps, but all flying maneuvers would be achieved by moving the wings and rotating or tilting the engines. It seems a cool idea, but even today, with precision sensors and fast electronics, it is hard to see how this could work. In 1957, there was no way they have pulled it off.
They also had a model of an Armstrong Whitworth AW.171, which took the idea even further with a delta wing featuring rotating engines supposed to allow vertical take-off and landing.
Another odd idea, also from 1957, was the English Electric P.10, which had two sets of wings (like a very sleek biplane), but the space between the wings was full of jet engines (a dozen of them in each wing), so the wings acted, essentially, as very wide jet engines.
All of them looked sleek, futuristic and impractical. Even the exhibition notes state dryly "Although many were not built, they inspired technology shown in television programmes such as Thunderbirds."
While these presented high-tech dreams of airplane design, there were also a few planes on the opposite end of technology: Home-brew, garage planes.
Every couple of year, some company comes out with the idea of a 'flying car', which will be on the market 'really soon now'. And after collecting a lot of funding from investors and enthusiasts, the 'really soon now' lasts years, often decades, and nothing ever comes out of it.
What I didn't know was that the idea of people having a small plane somewhere in their garage and then driving out and quickly flying somewhere, is an old one.
The museum had a number of such tiny planes, usually with detachable or foldable wings, going back to 1929.
Like their modern successors, none of them ever paved the way to " a Model T of the air", as it was hoped back then.
The museum also had, as it's probably mandatory for air museums in the UK, a Spitfire. In fact, they have two 'proper' ones, a Supermarine Spitfire I and a Supermarine Spitfire PR. XIX.
And they have this one:
Which is made from plastic. It is modelled after a model.
There is an 1:72 scale Spitfire kit, made by Airfix with (probably) 26 plastic parts (I'm not quite sure, as there are a number of Spitfire kits from Airfix, but that is the most likely one).
And, for a TV programme, they upscaled the parts from that kit back to original size. And then assembled a full scale model out of these parts.
It looks surprisingly real. It wasn't until I read the sign next to it until I noticed that it wasn't a proper plane.
All it all, it was an interesting museum to visit. Especially as I hadn't intended it to be more than a rest stop on the drive up to Wales.
I headed on to Llanberis, where I would be staying for the night.
There wasn't anything specific that brought me to Llanberis.
I needed some place to stay that was within reasonable driving distance of Tanygrisiau, near Blaenau Ffestiniog (and I've been rarely happier that I can type place name into my navigation system doesn't require spoken input) and that came up on the booking site.
At the same driving distance, I could also have stayed in Portmeirion again (like I did in 2017), but that would have been more expensive, so I went to Llanberis instead.
I didn't know anything about Llanberis, especially not that it is located next to Snowdon, the highest 'mountain' in Wales, or I might have added another day there (and would have regretted it - due to the weather, not even the Snowdon Mountain Railway was operating), but at least I managed to have a look at Dolbadarn Castle. (Mostly by accident. I tried to follow a path behind the hotel I was staying in, to go to the village center to find some place for dinner and passed the castle.)
I had the place to myself. Which might have had something to do with the weather. On a sunny day (if those exist in that area) there's probably a long line of people wanting to walk up the spiral staircase and look at the scenery.
Next morning, I drove to a zipline place nearby.
It hadn't been the reason for driving to Llanberis (in fact, I only noticed that it was nearby after I had booked the hotel in Llanberis), but I didn't need to be in Tanygrisiau until 5 pm. So it gave me something to do for the day.
Or would have.
Mostly, it got me sogging wet.
Near Bethesda (at least a name I could remember - not because I knew anything about the town, but because there's a gaming company with the same name, which, however is named after a different town with the same name) is the supposedly 'fasted zipline in the world'. Again. (There seem to be a few 'fastest ziplines in the world' - the Rocca Massima Zipline, which I had been on in 2021 also claims to be the fastest zipline in the world. But regardless of whether it is 'the fastest' or simply a fast one, it seemed to be worth visiting. I had flown to Italy twice, primarily to ride some ziplines, so driving half an hour to visit this one was an easy choice to make.)
I had booked an early 'flight' on the zipline at 9 am. But when I arrived at the quarry (like old Doctor Who episodes, Welsh ziplines all seem to be located in a quarry) and the reaction on site was "Didn't you get an e-mail? Due to the weather, the zipline will not be operating today."
So I didn't get to ride the 'fasted zipline in the world'. But as that had been a 'time filler' activity, it didn't matter that much. (At least the weather was ok for the wing walking flight - everything else was a minor issue. And for the activity I would be driving to Tanygrisiau for, weather would not matter.)
At least they had the 'quarry karts' going, which are tricycles going down a gravel track from the start of the zipline to a place close to the end of it (although, obviously, in a less direct way).
They were fun to drive and turned out to be surprisingly fast. Usually, when driving something where you are sitting close to the ground, like in a go-kart, it feels faster than it is. In this case, it was the other way round. The speeds seemed moderate (I would have guessed 30 km/h), but on most of the track the speeds were around 50 km/h.
It did help that you get two runs down the quarry track. On the first run, you tend to be careful and brake properly before entering each corner. On the second run, you make use of the fact that there are separate brakes for both back wheels, so can brake only one wheel and turn nicely into the corners.
Another attraction that was (barely) operating was the 'Aero Explorer'.
It's a bit like a cross between a zipline and a rollercoaster.
Like on a zipline, you put on a harness and attached to a trolley (or pulley) above by a rope.
But while the trolley on a zipline runs along a cable (which is, necessarily, a straight line, hence zip-line). the trolley on the 'Aero Explorer' runs along a steel track, which can twist and turn like a rollercoaster track.
They had installed one of those at the site earlier this year and I was lucky to be able to give it a go.
Lucky, because I had booked a later time slot, but was back from the Quarry Karts early and asked whether I could join an earlier group. It turned out that there was one person missing on the next group, so I got into the harness and was ready to go.
The wind had increased a lot in the last half hour or so (and it was obvious why they weren't operating the big zipline) and it also had started to rain (and least the earlier hail had stopped...)
It is a somewhat interesting ride, but there are some inherent problems that are difficult to sort out.
With a regular zipline, the speed of the ride depends mostly on three variables - the weight of the person, the wind and the aerodynamic shape. Many ziplines require the rider to be in a lying position, as that keeps the shape constant. (With ziplines that have the rider in a 'sitting' position, there's a larger variety, depending on whether the rider curls into a tight ball or rides with arms and legs spread out.)
On a windy day, the zipline operators check how fast riders arrive at the bottom and then attach small 'sails' to the subsequent riders, depending on their weight, to control the speed of the ride.
But the zipline rollercoaster goes back and forth, so for the rider, the wind direction changes. And a setting that will get the rider through a passage against the wind can be to fast in the opposite direction. Especially as there aren't any brakes at the end of the ride - only some ramps to run up. (On a large ziplines the brakes can stop riders safely at higher speeds, so the operators can set the 'sails' in a way that ensure that all riders easily make it to the end. If some riders arrive with excess speed, it doesn't matter much. Without brakes, you can't have a huge variety in speed - you don't want to have some riders run into the ground at 30 km/h. So things are set up in a way that even the fastest end speed is comparatively low.)
Ahead of me were a couple of kids (around 6 to 8 years old, I'd guess), that were slim. And when they rode the 'Aero Explorer', they got stuck somewhere in the middle, when they were heading against the wind. They managed to make it to the end by swinging back and forth, but that took some time.
In general, it was difficult to make a controlled run. When it was my turn, they recommended to curl up into a ball as much as possible. But as some of the faster turns (into which I went with the wind) throw you around a fair bit (at some turns, you're going almost horizontal), it wasn't easy to do that. (And it reduced the fun - there are two ropes hanging down from the trolley, so you can grip those and control how much you want to twist around and into which direction you want to look. But these only work when you spread your arms. If you keep your hands close together, you get thrown around almost randomly.)
While the basic idea of the ride is fun, there are too many factors involved to make it reliably a fun experience. It is presumably already an inconsistent experience on a good day, but on a windy, rainy day (not that much of a rarity in northern Wales), it doesn't work well at all.
Maybe it should be an indoor attraction.
But at least I got to ride it.
The weather was getting worse and they closed the attraction after the group I was in. So had I waited for the time slot I had booked for, I wouldn't have been on the ride at all.
In any case, it gave me something to do during the day and there's a cafe on site. So I could sit inside, have a coffee and warm up afterwards.
From there, I drove down Tanygrisiau in time to see the train arriving. (I didn't particularly wanted to be there for the train. I only happened to be there at the same time.)
It's not really a 'practical' railroad line. The train line runs only about 22 km and the train needs more than an hour for that. It is more something for train enthusiasts. Of which the UK has a lot. Which is also evident by the large number of carriages the train is pulling.
I had seen the same train at the same station back in 2017. And back then, I also hadn't been there for either. I had been there for the same reason I was there again - to go into a slate mine.
There is the entrance to an underground slate mine close to Tanygrisiau (technically, it's the entrance to two slate mines, but that over-complicates things). They are doing various 'climbing tours' in that mine, and I had been on one of those tours back then.
Since then, there had been a significant addition to the mine.
And it looked like this:
They had transported a number of wooden huts down to one of the large chambers deep down in the mine. And it was possible to stay there overnight. At the "deepest underground sleep on the planet".
Like the "fastest zipline" that might be open to interpretation, but if it isn't the deepest place where you can spend the night as a normal person, at least it's close.
They claim that it's 420 meters below the surface. And while that's probably true, the question is whether that counts as 420 meters 'down'. It's a bit like a tunnel in the Alps being the 'deepest' tunnel in the world. You enter it at the base of a mountain and it tunnels straight through the mountain. If it passes under the summit of a mountain, does that mean that the tunnel is 2500 meters deep? And if I am in an overnight sleeper train in that tunnel, does that mean that I'm sleeping at a depth of more than 2.5 kilometers?
But even if counting only the how much you descend from the entry point to the 'sleeping huts' down below, it's 200 meters of descent. Which still makes it a deeper place to spend the night than the most obvious contender, the Sala Silver Mine in Sweden, where you descend 155 meters to go to the bedroom ( which I did in 2018).
While the route is not as difficult as the climbing tour I did in that mine six years earlier, it wasn't trivial either.
The most difficult part was a traverse early on, where we needed to pass over a shaft on a wooden beam.
The traverse itself wasn't difficult, but when I tried to step onto it, one foot slipped on the wet slate on the side of the cavern and it took me a moment to find stable footing again.
Except for that misstep, the rest of the way went without problems.
Most of the route was along uneven staircases...
... down slopes they used to pull the mined slate up ...
... around some relics of mining equipment ...
... along water-logged tunnels ...
(Although these look more worrying than they are - the natural ground water level was still more than 50 meters below us at this point. Any excess water will drain once it over a specific rim on one side of the tunnel. So the water level in this tunnel will never get higher. It's still deep enough to go over your knee (and into your boots) if you step into it, so there's a metal pipe under the water to walk on.)
... and, of course, miles of underground corridors ...
... followed by a steep 'ladder', with uneven (or missing) wooden, slate or metal rungs ...
... until we made it into the sleeping chamber.
After a hot (or cold) drink, it was time to choose from the dinner menu.
Dinner was going to be strictly 'expedition style' (i.e. hot water poured over dehydrated food), but at least there was an ample selection of options. (They are different meals, even though the yellow bags make them look all the same.)
While food was being prepared (i.e. the water was heated), there was the opportunity for a short 'history tour' into parts of the mine nearby.
Various things had been left behind when the mine was closed.
They went from big things, like a huge cable drum or a pneumatic drill ...
... to smaller, personal stuff, such as tea kettles or boots.
By the time we were back in the sleeping quarters, dinner was ready.
The level of comfort was unusual.
Often, when you are in remote places, the overall level of comfort is low.
You sit on the ground (or lie on the snow), eat your food directly from the bag and all the light you have is your head torch or a small battery light.
Here, there were some things that were quite basic, while others were almost like 'at home'. And they often weren't the ones you initially assumed.
So, for example, especially after walking around with only the lights from the headlamps, it felt odd that the place had electric power. And WiFi.
And in the eating area, there was a small monitor with the live stream of a camera near the entrance of the mine. So it was always possible to check the weather up there.
And they didn't simply bring a couple of camp beds down here, but brought down the material for complete wooden huts (or garden sheds).
And while the main food was dehydrated expedition food, there was also fresh salad. And a fruit bowl.
Also, toilet arrangements looked at first fairly normal.
The normal looking flush toilet (which, by the way, is a proper ceramic toilet - our guide, Janine, was proud of that, as she was the one who had originally carried it down below without damaging it), is 'ladies only' and 'peeing only'.
(There's a urinal for men in a small metal shed next to the toilet building. The wooden building on the left of the next picture is the toilet building, the sheet metal thing to the left of it is the urinal building.)
If anyone needs to shit, they have to use the gray, plastic 'camping toilet' next the ceramic toilet. First put in a garbage bag, close the lower lid, sit down, do your business. And then take out the bag, tie a knot in it and dump it in a large plastic barrel outside. (Which, later, one of the guides needs to carry out.)
Power and WiFi are strange as well. There's no real problem in putting electrical cables down the mine. The tricky bit here is outside the mine. While the mine entrance is only a kilometer or so from the next village, there is no connection between that and the mine entrance. So the WiFi connection is provided by a satellite connection from an antenna just outside the entrance. And the power comes from a diesel generator standing close to the mine entrance as well.
While the small sleeping huts were nice and cosy, I wasn't staying in any of them.
I had booked a fancier accommodation - the grotto suite.
In the huts, you are isolated from the mine - once you are inside and close the door, you might as well be on an allotment somewhere.
But in the grotto, some of the walls were left as they were, so there's a real feeling of being in a cave.
A rather strange cave, admittedly, with a chandelier and an electric fireplace.
But very obviously underground.
(Although it is not quite as 'real' as it looks. The flat 'slate walls' behind the bed and around the door are only wallpaper. But the uneven rocks on the side and on top are real and massive.)
And, as it doesn't fit well anywhere else: I like the coat hooks on the door, which were made from old carabiners.
In any case. I was happy that I managed to get there.
But it had been a long day, it was getting late and there would be an early breakfast tomorrow.
Time to sleep.
Next morning, after breakfast, came the hardest part of the mine visit - walking the 200 meters that we had descended the previous evening up again.
So one more picture in the large 'sleeping cavern'. And then it was time to return to the surface.
Although there's on thing I would like to point out before that.
The little pool with the blue lights on the side of the cavern.
It's actually a safety feature. But not in the way I had assumed. (It has nothing to do with a water reserve in case of fire.)
When they started building the little 'village' in the cavern, they checked with mining experts and geologists to make sure that the place was safe. And the verdict was that most of it is safe, but some ceiling rocks on one side of the cavern looked potentially unstable. The recommendation was to cordon that part of the cavern off.
As that would have looked a bit odd (and guests might start to wonder about the stability of the rest of the room), they decided to divert some water into the area, throw in a couple of lights and make it a pool.
Not only does it solve the problem of guests not walking there, without specifically telling them not to (and the water temperature in the cave is too low to give anyone the idea of entering the pool), it gives the room a bit of a 'beach village' kind of feel.
But, pool or no pool, it was time to leave.
The route back up is in large parts a different one than the one we took down.
The main overlap was the section where we had to walk on the submerged pipe to get through the flooded part without getting our feet wet.
To get there, it was a bit of a climb along a wall, with only small bits of slate screwed to the wall as steps (and, of course, a safety rope to clip into), before reaching a kind of ladder for the last few steps into the next corridor.
This was also the point that ensured that the water in the upper level would not get any deeper than it was.
Any extra water would flow over this step and drain into the lower level, so this acted like a spillway.
(And there was no risk that the (currently accessible) levels below would fill up. There was a natural outlet at the side of the mountain at that lower level, so even on a very rainy day, the sleeping cavern wouldn't fill with water. Below that however... The slate mine itself goes down for another 200 meters or so. When it was still in operation, the water had to be pumped out continuously. When the mine was shut down, they simply let it 'fill up' back to its natural water level, where it is now.)
As we now had reached the level with the standing water, there was now some more wading and walking on pipes.
After that, it was pretty much a straight uphill walk.
On the way down, we had gone through various corridors, inclines, stairways and chambers. On the way up, we were following the rails of the slate trolleys. Going down, we had used them only once or twice to reach the next level. On the way up, we stayed on those to climb up a number of levels (I think it was four of them, with every level about 30 meters apart - so we walked up for about 120 meters along these paths, which feels about right.) The trolley lines were steep (about 45°) and low (they were made for trolleys, not for humans), but they allowed steady progress. While somewhat dull, compared with the 'scenic route' of the previous day, we made continuous progress. And, slightly out of breath (well, at least I was), we reached the level were the exit was located.
The weather hadn't change much since the previous day.
After all, it was still Wales.
I went for breakfast to the nearby cafe. And then drove down to Cardiff, from where I would be flying home the next afternoon.
My accommodation in Cardiff was slightly unusual.
Not remotely as unusual as sleeping in a grotto down in a slate mine, of course.
But still a bit unexpected.
When I booked the room in Cardiff, I had noticed that belonged to a restaurant at a marina in Cardiff Bay. But I hadn't paid any further attention to it and had assumed it would be a room somewhere above the restaurant (like some pubs offer a few guest rooms). So I was a bit surprised when I arrived there and they took me down to the marina/harbour.
The room turned out to be floating accommodation, a bit like a small house boat.
Neat. Not quite a house boat (it didn't have any means of moving and it also didn't have a kitchen), more like a floating hotel room. But a nice surprise.
I had never been to Cardiff before. As it wasn't raining, I walked around a bit and did some sightseeing.
The 'water tower' in front of the Wales Millennium Centre didn't seem to be working that day.
But I took a picture of it anyway, as it ties in well thematically with the little 'memorial wall' not far from it.
On the way back to my 'room on the water', passed this friendly crocodile.
It is based on the book "The Enormous Crocodile" by Roald Dahl. Dahl lived in Cardiff. There are various references to him around the city (for example, the place where the Wales Millennium Centre is located is named Roald Dahl Plass).
By the time I made it back to my accommodation, it had started to drizzle again.
At least the good thing about the weather in Wales is that you get to see a lot of rainbows...
And that was pretty much the end of the short trip to the UK.
My return on the next day was in the afternoon, so I had looked for something (preferably dry and indoors) to do during the day. So I went go-karting.
There's an indoor go-kart track in Cardiff. And there was a time slot available in the morning.
The track is fun to drive on - it has two levels, with two ramps to connect them. And the driving surface was some sort of laminated wood (or something similar to it), which was interesting to drive on, as it was much easier to drift than it is on the concrete tracks that outdoor go-kart centers have. While it's still not a good idea to drift around corners (drifting loses speed), the negative effect was probably less than on other tracks, but it was also harder to avoid.
What made the whole experience a bit strange were the other drivers.
I didn't expect many people to be on a go-kart track on a Monday morning. And for a while, it seemed like I might be the only driver. But then a bus arrived and about three dozen kids, all around 10-12 years old (and a few adults), emerged from it.
It turned out that a school had booked the go-kart center for the morning, as the destination for a school trip.
So, basically, the morning time slot shouldn't have been open for booking.
The people from the go-kart center asked me whether I wanted to drive anyway or whether I'd prefer to be re-booked for an afternoon session. But as I had a plane to catch in the afternoon, I went for the morning drive.
The whole session was about two hours. We were split into three groups and each group would drive for 15 minutes, then wait for 30 minutes while the other groups were driving, and then go for another 15-minute drive.
There was a (somewhat longish) briefing at the beginning (necessary, since some of the pupils had never driven anything, so basic things like where the brakes and the acceleration pedals are, needed to be covered. But then we got to drive. It was slightly crowded on the track, as a full contingent of 12 drivers were on it for every driving session.
I have to say that, if the future of British sport depends on values such as sportsmanship, fairness and paying attention to the rules, then there's little hope for the Olympics in, let's say, eight years from now...
The first 15 minutes were interesting to observe (not so interesting to drive) - driving faster than walking speed on yellow, overtaking on yellow, not stopping on red, driving, intentionally pushing other karts into the tire barriers. Essentially everyone was emulating Mario Karts.
I think there were only two laps in the whole 15 minutes with a green track status for the whole lap.
I was, however, impressed by the de-briefing. All drivers were asked into the briefing room and the 'track marshal' asked how the participants would rate the session on a scale from one to ten. Answers were generally around nine, with some going up to eleven. (Fortunately nobody asked me...)
Then the track marshal explained that, from his point of view, it was barely a three. And then asked why.
To my surprise, the answers were precise, well phrased and covered all the aspects that I had noticed (and a few things I hadn't seen, like people stepping out of their karts). And on the second run, everyone suddenly behaved.
There were still a couple of yellow flags, but that is normal if you have a full track with kids who aren't used to driving. They didn't take some corners properly and ran into the tire wall, so a track marshal had to come and push them back a bit. But a lot more fairness and proper behaviour. I was duly impressed. (Mostly because I had assumed that, since they had ignored the rules on the first run and the second one would be the last one, there would be no reason to pay attention to the rules then.)
This time, there were only two laps where the track status was not green.
And, admittedly, driving was fun, as there was a lot of overtaking.
Usually, if you go to a go-kart track during normal operating hours, drivers keep some distance and don't interfere much with each other. That's mostly because, if it's not a race day or some special event, the only thing to aim for is a good track time. Position on the track is irrelevant. If there are faster karts, you let them pass. There's no reason to 'block the way' as it hurts your own lap time as much as theirs.
But here the track was packed and there was a wide range of speeds. Some were driving somewhat timidly in the middle of the tracks, while others tried to go too fast on the inside of corners and then spun out towards the other side. So finding a way around all the other karts on the track made it more exciting and it felt a lot more like 'racing' than usual.
What surprised me a bit was that I was the fastest driver that morning.
Ignore the "Best score of the week" heading - it was the first run on a Monday morning, so every best score on that session would automatically be the best of the week.
I hadn't expected that.
My assumption was that everyone at their age would have some experience with racing games, like Mario Kart. While the controls were obviously different and there were no banana peels to throw, they would know the basics. And, generally, given the same go-kart, lighter drivers (them) get lower lap times than heavier drivers (me).
So I was oddly proud of the fact that I was a faster driver than 12-year old kids. (Not a thing to I should be smug about - but still... Also a bit strange that, after standing on top of a flying plane and climbing around and sleeping in an abandoned slate mine, the thing I brag about is this...)
But in any case, I had to go back to my car and drive (a bit more carefully) to the airport and catch my flight back home.
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