Wales

On one of my first weekends in London (June 11-13) I went on an Arcadia-sponsored trip to Pembrokeshire, Wales, where my fellow students and I participated in a program run by Preseli Venture. During our two-day trip we went sea kayaking, coasteering (rock climbing/cliff diving), and hiking in the magnificent Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. It was probably one of the most beautiful, exhilarating places I’ve been in my life, and while my camera was dead the whole time again (thanks to that wonderful faulty charger of mine), my memories are vivid …

Friday, June 11th:

I woke up early in the morning, ready to grab the tube at Earl’s Court Station and take it to meet the rest of the Arcadia group at Paddington Station. Packing had been the most nerve-wracking experience the night before. Due to the many water activities that take place while at Preseli Venture, they “strongly advise” that you bring wool sweaters to wear under your wetsuit, multiple pairs of sneakers (since one pair will get soaked cliff jumping), multiple towels, a bathing suit, hiking boots and pants to wear while hiking that aren’t jeans, among other things. Of course, not having known this information before leaving the States, I had none of those “essentials” with me…. so my backpack was an improvised collection of clothing that I hoped would suffice (aka lots of cardigans, leggings, a pair of running shoes and black keds, and jeans – yikes). It (mostly) worked out in the end, but it was a challenge! That morning I walked ten minutes to the tube station with two housemates of mine who were also going on the trip, and we met the 15 or so other students from Arcadia who had been lucky enough to sign up for the excursion. The group was small (about 20 total), a perfect size.  A boy had brought a box of assorted Krispy Kreme doughnuts to share. My friends Miranda, Erin and I shared one covered in chocolate shavings, filled with chocolate mousse filling, each of us taking consecutive bites until it was finished.

During the six-hour train ride to Wales, Erin and I chatted and stared out the window at the idyllic English countryside, a constant shade of green with various villages set into the hillsides, always with red-brown roofs crowded around ancient-looking churches. We changed trains at Swansea, laughing at the Welsh vending machines containing bratwurst- and roast beef-flavored chips, and the multilingual signs proclaiming everything in Welsh first, English second. Welsh is a fascinating language, nothing similar to English and certainly unlike German or Italian, where you might be able to decode words based on their form, spelling, or place in a sentence. I found it utterly incomprehensible and fascinating.

The train through Wales brought us into a country as green as England, but sunnier, abnormally devoid of clouds and full of open blue sky over rolling hills and farmer’s fields. Big squares of land, all different shades of green, were divided by thick hedgerows the size of people and thicker than two or three people put together. Cows and sheep were everywhere, and farmers were plowing their fields, with flocks of white birds following their tractors as they exposed seeds from the earth. I almost felt like I was back in the Midwest again! As we neared Pembrokeshire the hills gave way into glimpses of water, first as little inlets then huge expanses, the water meeting the green hills at the base of massive cliffs topped by decaying stone castles and churches. It’s hard to imagine that such a place exists outside of movies and stories, where images are so often idealized. It’s amazing to imagine people growing up around such places, numbed to the normalcy of it all!

At the train station in Pembrokeshire our group was met by Libby, one of the guides for Preseli Venture, who loaded us into two white trucks that smelled of feet and seawater and drove us careening through the hills to the lodge. Along the way she played a mixtape containing classic American radio hits from the 60’s and 70’s, and Sean (one of our fellow students) belted out a rather impressive version of Elton’s John’s “Your Song.” This was an immediate indication that I was in for an AWESOME weekend.

At the lodge our group was greeted by a couple of male staff members, both young, outdoorsy, loud and fun. Bramble and Ant (yes, those were actually their names) showed us to our rooms, after which we met in the lodge for the first of an amazing series of meals we were to be served that weekend. That evening we ate homemade vegetable lasagna, smothered in cheese and tomato sauce, nearly four inches thick and piping hot, plus the most amazing wheat bread you’ll ever have in your life, eaten to the sounds of constant classic American funk, rock, and pop music and a view of the sun setting over the green hills and coastline in the distance. Truly, truly magical. Groups of us decided to take advantage of the setting sun and, drawn by the view of the beach in the distance, hiked down to the coast. The walk there was fascinating- as we hiked downhill, the fields gave way into forests, with idyllic cottages set into the glens and gurgling brooks passing by. It felt strangely like we were in a rainforest, since the forest was carpeted with massive ferns the size of people, and all around you could hear was the sound of birds, wind and water. We had to walk through a pasture along the way (something we later found out was fairly typical of the area), and we walked within inches of cows and sheep who couldn’t have cared less what we were doing there.

After walking for 10 minutes or so we came to the edge of the forest, where we found a little stone beach stretching into the horizon, surrounded on both sides by huge stone cliffs and hills of green, green, green. The sun was setting into the gray ocean, and shafts of light were piercing out of the sky onto the rocks. We stood there for quite some time, unable to voice what we were feeling, and spent some time climbing the rocks along the shore. When we finally walked back to the lodge, I think we all felt restored.

Saturday:

Saturday morning my roommates Erin, Miranda, Sandy and I woke up before 8AM (early, for us!) to eat a hearty English/Welsh breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, baked beans, toast, fruit, coffee and LOTS of greasy ham and bacon before heading out to the garage to change into our wetsuits and get a crash course on basic kayaking techniques while a separate group went off to cliff dive. Preseli Venture supplied us with wetsuits, booties, windbreakers, helmets, and kayaks, and we set out onto the abnormally calm gray water. We stayed close to the cliffs but came back tired, wet, and smelling like the ocean with the taste of salt in our mouths.

Drying off at the lodge we changed clothing and set off to hike along the 7-mile National Park trail. Green hills dotted with wild flowers ended in cliffs which dropped straight off into the water, and the wind off the sea kept us chilly even as we kept a quick pace down the path. We found ourselves descending a steep, straight path towards the beach, and stopped on a small wooden bridge to take in the magnificence of it all. On our way towards the lodge we walked back through fields of verdent green and laughed at the sheep, many of whom gave up indignant, disapproving looks as we walked by. Home at the lodge, hot chocolate and another hot meal waited for us, and a deep sense of peace found us as we spent the evening together. While the details of our way home the next day seemed less than worth remembering, the experience at Preseli was truly cleansing and set my soul at ease. It was experiences such that one, far away from London and the internship I had come all the way across the Atlantic to participate in, that were my most memorable and significant that summer.

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