Del Hughes has a Murderously Good Weekend – Part 2
Day Two dawned bright and clear, with a sun that, even when blocked by thick curtains, was still too intense for my thumping hangover.
It took a lengthy shower, three strong cuppas, and several Co-codamol before I was fit to leave my room – and even then, if my stomach hadn’t been grumbling for scrambled eggs and sausages, I might have gone back to bed.
But the pills soon kicked in, a tasty mound of protein set me right, and two cups of black coffee had me feeling as normal as was possible, given the amount of booze Sid and I had shipped the night before.
Actually, I saw Sid outside the breakfast room, and what a woman she is. Swathed in vibrant scarves, today she was a vision in shades of pink – rather like a bohemian Barbara Cartland.
She was also pink-cheeked and surprisingly perky, and if I hadn’t known better, would’ve thought that nary a drop of the hard stuff had ever passed her lips.
Though, she was getting a tad testy waiting for a table, and I noticed a waitress surreptitiously removing the call bell from reception.
Back in my room, I dug out my tickets and got organised. My day looked like this:
10:15 – Trade Secrets and Twisted Identities
11:30 – Archives for Authors
12:30 – Writing Crime Fiction
14:45 – Historical Noir – Writing in the Past
20:30 – An Evening with Clare Mackintosh and Philip Gwynne Jones
Phew. It was a lot to fit in, but at least it didn’t necessitate too early a start, and for that I was profoundly grateful. So, given that I had around forty-five minutes before Twisted Identities, I celebrated feeling partially human again by wolfing a few slices of Leerdammer, and heading to the prom for a takeout latte and some bracing sea air.
As I lounged, uncomfortably, on a bench overlooking North Beach, I was joined by Sid, and a young man she’d picked up outside Siop Inc, a pop-up bookshop that was hosting signings by some of the festival’s authors.
Apparently, Sid had thought that Lawrence ‘looked rather lost,’ so decided to take him under her, quite considerable, cerise batwings.
Lawrence later told me that he’d been leaving one of the festival’s bilingual events, had bumped into Sid in the doorway, had briefly chatted – which made him wonder if she was ‘quite with it?’ – and decided to escort her to wherever she needed to be. Aw.
Fortuitously, where we all needed to be was the library (Lawrence to The Effects of Crime, and Sid to Is Wales becoming Sexy?), so we set off at a leisurely pace, and arrived with time to spare.
As the day unfolded, and temperatures climbed swiftly from mild to unseasonably roasting, my iPad and I both began to flag.
It was like being back in the tropics of the butterfly house, so I made copious use of my emergency fans, but iPad, with an already sluggish, six-year-old processor, lagged well behind my typing speed.
And just like sat-nav, it eventually gave up the ghost, no doubt knowing that, if it withdrew labour, I’d stow it in my cool shady bag where it could enjoy a restorative reboot.
Which is exactly what happened, and left me recording heaps of helpful advice using a borrowed fountain pen (that leaked), and some scrappy sheets of A4. Eye roll.
Whilst all the sessions were interesting and useful, the most beneficial – speaking as someone who is currently attempting, and spectacularly failing, to plot a coherent whodunnit – was the Writing Crime Fiction Workshop.
Bestselling author, Katherine Stansfield, guided us through two hours of tips on developing our sleuths, upping both the stakes, and the jeopardy, and explained how to write a twist in the tale that would, hopefully, leave readers eager for more. I left feeling buoyed up, bursting with ideas, and raring to revisit my plot.
Murder in the Past was my last session of the day, and by the time the panellists had finished debating various approaches to historically set novels, I was ready to get outside, grab some grub, and explore. And I knew exactly where to start.
See, many years ago, I’d done my teacher training in Aberystwyth. Back then, with no Costa, KFC, or McDonald’s, and half the amount of students, it was a much quieter town than today – and the current one-way system (almost as stressful to negotiate as The Devil’s Staircase), was nothing but a twinkle in a young sadist’s eye.
And during those halcyon months of study, under the gothic arches of the Old College, we’d invariably catch sight of two tiny carriages, crawling up and down Constitution Hill, and vowed to visit the ‘longest electric funicular cliff railway in Britain,’ before beginning our careers at the chalkface.
We never got round to it, distracted by lesson planning, behaviour management, and kids whose raison d’être appeared to be the moderate, low-level persecution of student teachers. So today was the day I would take that train.
And I’m so glad I did, because not only were the views of Aberystwyth, Cardigan Bay, and the surrounding mountains staggeringly beautiful, but I also got a little boost to my self-confidence which, after yesterday’s OAP debacle, was very welcome indeed.
(There was a lovely old gent in the ticket booth who, when filling in my gift aid details and learning that I was a ‘Miss,’ responded with ‘Never! What’s wrong with men today, that a gorgeous girl like you is single?’ Lol! I’m guessing those men have all seen my stick insect photograph!)
Murmuration at dusk
Anyway, I had a lovely sedate ride up the cliff-face, and on reaching the top, found other delights to enjoy, in addition to the vistas; one of the world’s largest Camera Obscuras, a children’s play area, miniature golf course, gift shop, café, and even an indoor games room, for when the weather isn’t as fabulous as toda— Uh-oh! Spoke too soon.
As the sky rapidly darkened to a heavy solid grey, I took the next carriage back down, and my stroll to the hotel was a damp, drizzly affair. But, if you’re ever in Aberystwyth, riding the cliff railway is a definite must-do.
As is catching the daily murmuration spectacular, which occurs at dusk, mainly through the winter months. Of course, this evening’s sunset would clash with listening to a couple of crime-writing behemoths, but with the feeling that last night’s imbibing session was catching up with me, I decided to swerve the social.
Instead, I stopped at Istanbul Kebabs – the lowest-carb takeaway I could find – then ambled along to the pier, and worked my way steadily through a large lamb doner, whilst enjoying this stunning natural phenomenon.
Though the setting sun was hidden by a bank of thick cloud, and though many of the non-resident birds had flown home to warmer climes, it was still as remarkable as I remembered. As one, the starlings swooped and spun, in a brief balletic aerial display, before dipping low beneath the pier, and roosting for the night.
Back at the hotel, I found Sid and Lawrence working their way through the cocktail menu, but since tomorrow meant an early start, I ignored their squiffy solicitations to join them in an espresso martini, settled my – somewhat excessive – bar bill, and took myself off to bed.
After a solid night’s sleep, I was up with the lark, bags packed, and toiletries snaffled. Bidding farewell to Aber, I pointed Geoff south, towards home, but not before one last stop on our road-trip. We took a charming A-road through pastel-painted villages, and just forty minutes later, I was parking up in the seaside town of New Quay.
Bright cottages edged the road that led down to the curving harbour, and fishing boats rocked beneath the sullen sky. The village was a veritable visual treat, and since I’d arrived well in advance of my boat trip, I popped into The Bluebell Deli, grabbed a take-out, and sat on the harbour wall, drinking in the views, and a marvellous macchiato.
Next to me sat a lovely couple, juggling – not literally – newborn twins, and their chunky boxer named Billie. Her eyes had locked on to my complimentary Lotus bicky with an intensity I well recognised – I’m exactly the same whenever I’m near a banoffee pie.
And I’d have given her the treat, but apparently, she, like me, was on a diet. Aw Billie, I feel your pain. Talking to her parents, I learned they had a caravan nearby, and had been visiting this hidden gem for years, ‘because it’s much quieter than other places, and has a really chilled vibe,’ which, based on my thirty minutes experience thus far, I would certainly second.
And then it was time to climb aboard. Giving Billie a final pat, I walked the length of the harbour to where Captain Andy was waiting.
He was a slightly gruff chap, but I guess crusty sea-dogs always have a bit of bark, and when the tour got going, he loosened up and became an animated font of knowledge on everything nautical.
Once we were all present and correct, he launched into a safety lecture, emphasised many times that dolphin spotting was a ‘hit-or-miss affair,’ then retreated to the wheelhouse, and we were away.
I’d booked this trip because I’ve actually never seen a dolphin in real-life, but ever since I was a kid, and saw a film called Day of the Dolphin, I’ve loved those shiny, fat-nosed mammals.
I don’t know if, in reality, they can be taught rudimentary language, but in the film they could, and my seven-year-old self wept buckets at the end when Fa (the star dolphin), was forced to bid goodbye to his human dad (George C. Scott), with a sorrowful, ‘Fa love Pa.’ Sob!
Obviously, I wasn’t expecting to converse with any that might pop up today, but given that the stunning coastline of Cardigan Bay boasts the largest population of bottle-nosed dolphins in Europe, at around two hundred and eighty, I was confident we’d see at least one, despite Andy’s pessimistic heads-up.
As we followed a figure of eight course around the coast, Andy told us all about the flora and fauna, gave us facts about the passing kittiwakes, razorbills, and guillemots, and waxed lyrical about the local whelk factory which clung to the side of a cliff, and frankly looked like one gentle splash would see it consigned to Davy Jones’ Locker.
But he was doing a sterling job, attempting to hold our interest when he clearly knew that everyone there only had eyes for the sea, and those, currently imperceptible, mini-whales. But I did learn a lot.
At over four metres, bottle-nose males are bigger here than in any other location worldwide, mainly due to the excellent feeding conditions.
Like me, they’re not fussy eaters, going for anything that they can swallow, but unlike me, they don’t get fat, just big, which helps keep their bodies insulated. (Yeah, that’s my go-to excuse for over-indulgence too.)
Lone dolphins, adolescents, and both bachelor and maternity pods all favour Cardigan Bay, because it’s shallow, and that offers them protection from the Atlantic swell.
But the sweetest fact I learned was that, because baby dolphins don’t understand that they need to come up for air, their mums have to push them to the surface until they learn how to breathe. So this sheltered spot was the equivalent of a dolphin Early Learning Centre.
Andy’s informative lectures were occasionally interrupted by someone shouting an excitable ‘Dolphin!’ and we’d all crane to follow the pointing fingers – but disappointingly these always turned out to be false alarms, and were either cormorants, oyster catchers, or in the case of my potential sighting, a buoy. Oops.
Heading back to shore, I think we were all feeling a little deflated. Yes, it had been a fascinating trip, but the stars of the show had chosen not to appear. Seemed like this wasn’t going to be the climax to my trip that I’d been hoping for. Sigh.
That is, until Andy suddenly hollered ‘Dolphin!’ and there, cutting through the water, was a silvered adolescent, who dived, then surfaced twice more, before disappearing into the depths.
And then another came scooting through the waves, smiling that dolphin smile, and we all rushed to record these momentous seconds.
(As you can see, my visual mementos of Flipper 1 and 2 aren’t great, and I’m clearly no cinematographer, but in my defence, if the people port side had sat down, I might have got better footage.Pfft!)
Back ashore, I dropped change into a lifeboat bucket, grabbed another takeout, and because the clouds had cleared to reveal scorching sunshine, copped a squat in the terrace gardens that overlook the waterfront and beach.
Here, there was a memorial fence of sorts, festooned with padlocks, their heartfelt messages written in Sharpie, or engraved.
And sitting there, watching as a small pod of dolphins began frolicking in the bay below, I couldn’t think of a nicer spot to sit and reminisce.
So, I’ve fallen in love with mid Wales, and New Quay in particular. I’d live here in a breath; in fact, I was scanning Rightmove before I’d even sipped my cortado.
But some quick mental calculations, and a frank assessment of our (lack of) assets, mean that this is just another pipe dream to add to a growing list. Sigh.
But it’s no wonder Dylan Thomas liked the place – he used some of the buildings, pubs, and people, as inspiration for Under Milk Wood – though these days, it deffo doesn’t suit his humorous Llareggub moniker.
Now, with a bustling community, and buzzing tourist trade, this place is a world away from the New Quay Thomas would have known.
Mind, that ‘fishingboat bobbing sea’ remains the same – and my trip on it was truly the most tremendous end to a wonderful weekend.
SeaMor Dolphin watching trips are bookable at the harbour offices, or online. https://seamor.org/
Aberystwyth Cliff Railway information, schedule and prices can be found on their website.
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