Dolgarrog is a small village, a bit overtaken by Surf Snowdonia with its artificial lake, its endless surf lessons, its glamping and the swarms of sunburnt surf wannabees who shell out big bucks for a chance to ride a wave. Dolgarrog is a very old town, however. Long ago, it is said that the dragon Carrog was killing and eating local livestock. That really pissed-off Dolgarrogians who heisted their pitchforks and set out a dead sheep as bait. When the dragon showed up on cue, they attacked it and killed it, but not before it bit off the leg of one of the farmers who nonetheless survived and became a town hero.
Jimmy Buffet once sat at my kitchen table with his guitar and a glass of French wine and, after I had expressed my own fears over surfing some really big and gnarly waves, gave me a small Jimmy Buffet-style lecture about all of us having to confront our own dragons. This was after our communal surf session on a warm summer night in Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia. And now here I was in the land of dragons – real, imagined and symbolic. I guess I had slayed a few of my own dragons in my day – I had surfed big waves in Hawaii, poorly but heroically perhaps. I somewhat overcame my fear of dying several times in near-death, hold-down situations in large winter Atlantic waves while the north winds were roaring, the seas were thrashing, and the air temperature frooze the saltwater on the rocks ashore.
I envisioned those old Welsh farmers wielding their pitchforks together, bravely attacking Carrog. Standing in my board shorts on the perimeter of the man-made lake, I looked at the breaking wave and it didn’t make much sense to me. It just didn’t look like any wave I had ever ridden. The mechanics looked all wrong. In fact, everything looked wrong about it for someone used to understanding what is going on with the hydrodynamics at my home break of Lawrencetown Point – a point break, yes, where waves line up in an orderly fashion and break left to right from the headland and out into the deeper waters to the east. I just wasn’t sure I would be able to make sense of Snowdonia waves, to catch them or to ride them. I would likely wipe out, be in the way, or get run over by other surfers who knew what they were doing here. I would be trashed, humiliated, discouraged, and leave with a major bruise to my ego that would take weeks to heal.
Did I really want to pay good money for such a privilege? Oh yeah.
Yet, this Frankenstein of a wave was something I definitely did not like. And it was somewhat ugly, to be honest. Let me try to explain.
Running the length of this artificial lake is a pier down the middle. Something like a giant wedged snow-plow races down the middle of the lake on either side of the pier gaining speed as it goes, first one way and then the other. You take off near the mesh fencing by that pier on a six-foot wall of water that just suddenly pops up, grabs you by the ankles and begins to break top to bottom before turning into a mushy frothing four-foot gusher of white water that then carries you to the artificial edge of the lake where you need to fall off backwards before you slam into the somewhat-padded, but grotesquely slippery shoreline. At this point you need to grab onto your board and try to throw you and your board over a walloping bit of backwash and then get out of the way before a surfer who maybe knows what he is doing comes charging back at you from the other direction – the opposite direction where the snow-plow is now proceeding from.
If you are confused by my explanation, well, so am I.
So, the dragons that needed slaying here were my own fears and doubts that I would be able to surf this damned artificial wave. But then it was those very fears and doubts that led me here…if that makes any sense to those of you not fully familiar with the male ego.
As such, from now on all such confrontations would be referred to as “yet another Dolgarrog.” However, for now, it was time to pay my £75 and put on a heavy 5/4 wetsuit, the only type available there for rent. That was way too much neoprene for a hot Welsh day like this. Nonetheless, I watched the silly five-minute video explaining the rules of the pool and then it was time to get wet.
Our Westie dog, Kelty, was not allowed near the lake itself, but Linda could sit with him in the outdoor café area where they both might watch my heroic efforts and/or abysmal failure. Sitting on the edge of the artificial lake myself, I first watched those in the water struggling to catch the waves and then wiping out over and over. That would be me in a few minutes.
And then the time came. I knee-paddled to my position near the fencing of the pier that ran down the middle. My wave would come from behind and I would be moving west to east. I sat and waited, feeling very, very strange. Here it comes. You hear it before you see it and, since you need to sit facing forward, you really don’t have time to turn around and watch it coming.
It sounded like a freight train heading straight towards me.
Paddle, paddle, paddle. The wave arrives, jacks up from flat water to about six feet – a near vertical wall of it. And I miss it. The wave doesn’t care, the bastard. It just keeps on going.
Paddle to the shoreline, get whomped by the head-high backwash, take a deep breath, regroup, watch your counterpart wipe out as he attempts to surf the wave back east to west. Then paddle back into position, line up your dragons, wait for the wave to come at you again. Dig hard, harder and then, aha, at long last, I felt myself dropping down the face. I had never been on such a floaty, bouncy board like this before, so I made it to the bottom of the trough, slipped a bit to the right into the foamy white water and then lost grip of my board, did a nifty drop to my chin on the board and got tossed around by what was left of the mechanical wave. I flopped and floundered in a manner most appropriate for a beach gremmie who didn’t know the first iota about surfing. As I surfaced, opened my jaw for oxygen and tried to get my bearings, the backwash thoroughly rinsed out my mouth and drove chlorinated water effectively up both nostrils before I regained my board and paddled to shore.
The third wave was a nearly perfect imitation of the second wave and the fourth wave reinforced my conclusion that I was not good at figuring out the dynamics of this activity. By the time I wallowed up on the shoreline again, I was hot, tired, frustrated and discouraged. If that cocktail is to your liking, then you’d admit that here was £75 well spent at Surf So-down-on-ya.
But as I paddled out again, I was reminded of the skinny thirteen-year-old lad I once was. I could see him in my mind’s eye, trying hard to simply stay on top of his brand new 9’ 6” Greg Noll slot-bottom surfboard just off Long Beach Island at the New Jersey Shore. Learning to surf was one of the most difficult things I had ever done in my life. But the mantra of surfing, the soundtrack of promised euphoria had been driven into my skull by Jan and Dean (“Two girls for every boy!”) and the Beach Boys (“Catch a wave and you’re sittin’ on top of the world!”) And at that instant as I sidled up to the mesh fence by the pier and awaited the watery freight train that had my number, the skinny boy inside me coached the sixty-seven-year old geezer to take charge and tame that monster.
Alas, I gritted my teeth, paddled like a son of a bitch, pitched forward and down, rose awkwardly to my feet, pulled off a bottom turn and drove right, ducking the offending white water as the wave collapsed around me. And, lucky me, I made the wave. The ride was short but sweet as they say. Linda saw me. She waved. Kelty barked his approval. I took some deep breaths and scrambled into the shallows waiting to prepare for my paddle back.
After that, I surfed a handful of waves successfully, grew tired, wiped out a goodly number of times more just to reminisce about what it felt like to learn to surf for the first time. I ended my session with a reasonable percentage of satisfaction but was quite happy to slip out of my heavy O’Neill neoprene skin and feel the warm Welsh air on my heaving pale chest.
The surfing world was changing, I well knew. Australia had a few wave parks and, in the U.S., Kelly Slater had masterminded the creation of a wave park with a wave machine that manufactured the most perfect tubes of rolling green water that could be imagined. With artificial waves like that, surfing would soon be part of the Olympics. As an arrogant young surfer, I despised any form of surfing competition.
Surfing is an art – it is not a sport.
Oddly enough, in 1995 the Canadian National Surfing Championship, sanctioned by the International Surfing Association, was held in Nova Scotia – just a stone’s throw from my doorstep. At forty-four I was at the top of my game and I had a new rule for myself: if you have a rule that you live by, you should break it and see what happens. So, I broke my rule of never competing in a surf competition. And I won.
I had one good move which in those days was called a floater. Take off, bottom turn, kick to the top of the wave, let it collapse in front of you, lift, go up and then float down over the white water. It was my break – my move. And I got lucky. And I pretty much walked away from competition after that.
And now here in Wales I had surfed my one and only artificial wave and would walk out of Surf Snowdonia with my hair still wet, my dragons tamed – if not slain – and with drier adventures to come with my sun-stricken loving wife and faithful white dog.
My hair was still wet from surfing by the time we reached Conwy. There was a grave here with a curious metal cage-like frame above it that supposedly inspired William Wordsworth to write a rhyming poem called “We Are Seven” about seven children, some who had died and were buried here. His poem begins with an encounter with a little girl:
A Simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
Although it is not a great poem, and somewhat confusing as to which children are dead and which are alive and why there are seven spires on the metal frame, it has a great Wordsworth line or two. A child “feels its life in every limb” – it’s true, and so did I that day as we sat at a stoplight in Conwy waiting for our chance to drive through the single lane in what appeared to be a castle wall. Good exercise, surfing included, does indeed make you feel your life in all four of your limbs if you are lucky enough to have them.
Old Bill Wordsworth really did get around and I was more than a little surprised to turn up in yet another location with notes about “Wordsworth was here.” In 1798, the year of the publication of Lyrical Ballads, he visited his chum Sir George Beaumont at Benarth Hall near here. Perhaps he was out promoting his book like a good author should but, as always, the poetry just kept pouring out of him.
It turns out that what I thought was a castle wall impeding traffic flow was just that, the extended wall of Conwy Castle. The tourist guides suggest that if you can only visit a few castles in Wales, this should be one of them because of the cool suspension bridge and the fact that it looks like a classic sandcastle. Of course, your kids would love that. Although the builders hadn’t the forethought to accommodate automobiles that would one day have to get around it, its 700-year-old walls were handy for keeping out enemies. Oddly enough, these very walls are mentioned in Max Brooks’ post-apocalyptic novel, World War Z, as being effective at keeping zombies out, so perhaps those builders of yore had some foresight that went well beyond the automobile.
I was hoping to find what is supposed to be the smallest house in Britain located here in Conwy. It is reported to be bright red and would have been easy enough to find if we had just gotten out and walked along the quay. I had already missed finding the Nutshell – “Britain’s smallest pub” – while walking Kelty around Bury St. Edmunds and getting royally distracted by the folksingers and the affable drunks, so I guess I’m just not good at finding small things. But I have made a pact with myself to work up a list of smallest things for future trips. After all, in North America, we seem to turn largest things into tourist attractions. In Nova Scotia, we have the world’s largest blueberry, I think, and a strawberry as well, although they are both made of concrete. We also have the largest fiddle and bow in Sydney, on Cape Breton Island. Somewhere there is the world’s largest ball of string, peanut, motorcycle, rocking chair and I can’t forget the Sudbury Nickel which I personally hugged on a book tour of Northern Ontario. The Guinness folks, after centuries of making and drinking dark stout, keep track of more transient edible large things like the world’s largest meatball, pizza, hamburger and French fry.
And exactly who are the creators of the smallest or largest things that want to make their mark in the world by such a quirky challenge?
I couldn’t find the name of the man who lived in his tiny Conwy house, but it turns out he was himself six foot three inches tall. I guess he was tired of everyone thinking he was overly tall, so he decided to live in something alarmingly small. But I would hope he had other reasons.
Had I known more about recent Conwy history, I may not have even stopped at that little green park near the water to walk Kelty and stretch the tightening muscles in my legs. According to the The Daily Post, “People who walk their dogs off leads in Conwy were hit with a whopping 1300 per cent more fines than in any other authority in Wales in 2015-2016.” Conwy has a reputation, I learned, as having the worst dog owners in all of the U.K. Certainly not much to be proud of. In 2015, 512 fines were handed out. A “dog fouling” offence will cost you £100 and a “dog control breach” will cost you £75.
I don’t know if they offer a “two-fer discount” or if the fine is enhanced if your dog is both unleashed and unleashing his business.
The Daily Post turned out to be a treasure trove of important and trivial information and they obviously remained on top of the doggone news, reporting recently about a full-on ban of dogs on North Wales beaches from May to September. While the story seemed reasonable enough to me, it raised the ire of many readers. Someone named Movvi1, for example, commented that he was more offended by parents burying “baby poo” on beaches and he resented that dogs were not allowed – even though, he noted, that his own dog was dead. Munroemike thought the whole damn newspaper was simply “stupid” for running such a banal story that made him “winge.” I really had no idea that dogs in Wales could be so controversial.
Kelty was actually leashed while we were in town and I did clean up after him in the park which is pretty easy in Kelty’s case. Still, I may have been under the watchful eye of what town councillors call “pooper snoopers,” stalwart citizens who report dog crimes like this to the authorities. I wonder if there is some kind of financial compensation or honorary reward for neighbours who turn their neighbours in for such crimes.
And it is probably best that we didn’t linger too long in Conwy with its big castle and tiny house and obsessive doggy laws. Back in December of 2017, Bernadette Clutton and her friend Ed were trying to have a Sunday dinner at the Village Inn pub and wanted to dine in the carvery area with their assistance dog when they were told they couldn’t sit there because of the canine. The pub owners said they were just “trying to balance hygiene with equality,” when they attempted to move them to the bar area. This action didn’t sit well at all with the diners who soon thereafter sued the establishment for discrimination and received £2,000 in damages.
Clearly, Conwy is a most dog-sensitive town, yet I daresay it is still a rather pretty place to visit and a good place to run to once the zombie invasion begins. ~ Story by Lesley Choyce