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Jane Stuart – Writer

Writing about real life Up North: football, ale, food and mental health – with a good dash of humour.

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside…. How could I resist the chance to make a weekender of our fixture at Colwyn Bay?  I had prepared a map detailing all the important places (nine real ale pubs, a recommended chippy, my hotel, the zoo and the football ground) and was Very Excited Indeed about my weekend away, having not had a break since the lights switch on at Blackpool at the end of August.  I was really looking forward to this little break and had been for ages.

When Scott the gaffer said I wasn’t allowed a holiday during the football season it turns out he wasn’t joking.  On Thursday night, when I had broken up for the weekend and was planning to wind down and get into holiday mode, I was working to get a loan signing over the line (bearing in mind I have never been involved in a loan signing before, so this made my head hurt as I am fully aware of the importance of getting this right…and the consequences of getting it wrong).  I also set the ball rolling on international clearance for another player. 

Friday morning came and I got all my admin out of the way before I got out of bed, pinging off emails left, right and centre.  Soon I was singing in the shower and excited about finally relaxing and spending a fun weekend by the seaside.  Just as I was making sure the cats were fed and watered, the phone rang.  It was Scott.  Oh by the way can we get another loan player registered in time for tomorrow?  Scott, I’m literally about to step out the door to go ON HOLIDAY.  Yeah I know, I’m sorry…I was hoping to get these sorted before you went away…  Ok boss, as it’s you…  On terminating the call I noticed I had a missed call from Thailand.  What?  I had no time to worry about that – or my pre-holiday OCD checks – and grabbed my case to head out the door.  The phone rang again.  This time it was Club Secretary John to discuss the loan transfers.  John, I’ll have to call you back as I’m darting to get my bus…. My head was now full of admin and I spent the hour bus journey working on (and stressing about) registrations, suspensions, admission lists and availability of players for the forthcoming County Cup matches.

By the time I had got to Birmingham, frantically grabbed some healthy food for my journey (remember I’m on a diet) and found a seat on the train to Colwyn Bay (there were no seat reservations, of course there weren’t, that would be too EASY), it is fair to say that I wasn’t in a relaxed frame of mind.  I almost swore at Scott (not an irregular occurrence) when he said the signings took precedence over my holiday reading…

In comparison to my hectic morning (and previous day) of frantic phone calls, texts and emails, the busy train carriage – complete with screaming children – was relatively tranquil, and it wasn’t long before I managed to immerse myself in my books (I read two at a time, alternating chapters of each).  I was no longer on a train to Colwyn Bay, but in a refugee camp in Greece and at The Soap Awards.  I completely lost track of time and where I was – all I knew was my train was heading directly to Colwyn Bay, so I didn’t need to worry about that.

ALL CHANGE PLEASE HERE AT CHESTER – ALL CHANGE.  THIS TRAIN IS BEING TAKEN OUT OF SERVICE.  

Hmph.  

My fellow passengers and I were directed to the opposite platform to board our replacement train, which arrived within minutes.  I decided to sit back and enjoy the view for the remainder of the journey, as I knew from a previous visit to Rhyl that the train ran along the coastline.  Immediately I looked up I saw a naked man stepping out of his pants underneath the railway arches, where he had set up camp.  Well I wasn’t expecting that!

I shifted my focus back inside the train and noticed reserved seats for a journey back to Birmingham.  Was I even on the right train?  I hadn’t checked.  Quite relaxed by now, I decided to go with the flow and not pay any attention to where I was until at least two o’clock (it was due to land at five past).  It wasn’t as if I was in a hurry to get there for the match, which wasn’t until the next day anyway.  If I was on the wrong train then que sera sera.  I’d get there eventually.  The station names meant nothing to me as I passed through them, as I was not familiar with North Wales.  I had been to Wrexham a few times and Rhyl once, but that was it.

Just as I was about to start paying attention to my location, John rang with an update on the loan transfers, necessitating some input from me.  By the time the call had ended I was stressed again and the train was now pulling into a station and I had no idea which one it was.  PANIC!  I have spent years – nay decades – actively working to eradicate stress from my life and here I am volunteering for such headaches in my spare time!  After the event I’m always grateful for the experience of learning new parts of the job, but it does cause headaches at the time – especially when under duress to meet deadlines to get players cleared to play in time for a match the next (or same) day.

The following stop was Colwyn Bay and I arrived almost on time.  After making a couple of calls I headed in the direction of my hotel – via the scenic route, of course…

My first stop was The Station, where I was excited to see Coach House Blueberry Bitter on sale.  I found myself ordering a pint of this, now determined to switch to relaxed mode after a morning of stress.  There were some comfy sofas in here but alas they were covered in children so I took a window seat and studied my map of Colwyn Bay (and the Christmas menu).

Now it was just as well I wasn’t reading my map on my walk back down the street, as there stood a man with a dog on a practically invisible lead that was stretching across the path.  Thankfully the man stepped forward to shorten the lead just in time.  I laughed and said it was a good job he’d done that, else I’d have gone flying.  ‘Oh, he’s a right trip hazard, he is!’ said the man.  Hardly surprising really as he had an invisible lead!

On my stroll to the hotel I passed the Bay Hop, which was annotated on my map as follows: POTY (Pub of the Year), micropub, bottleshop, 2-10, Fierce Beer!!!).  You will note I passed this pub, purely because I knew once I entered I would find it very hard to leave.  As I walked on, I noted that the locals were very well insulated, wearing thick bobble hats.  One woman was wearing the biggest pair of woollen mittens and I had to look twice to check she didn’t have an entire lamb on each hand.  But mittens!  How wonderful!

I also passed The Toad (on the prom) only because it was shut.  I crossed to walk on the sea-side of the road in a failed attempt to catch some exhilarating sea air.  Was this failing because I was stressed or was there simply not a ‘proper’ sea breeze here?  I later surmised that, this being a bay, we were perhaps protected from the powerful winds that are experienced in the likes of Blackpool.  I spotted a sign for ‘a secret BBC WWII studio built in Penrhyn Buildings in case of invasion [which] was only discovered in 1969’ and learned that, in 1899, ‘Richard II [was] ambushed at Penmaen Headland by The Earl of Northumberland then imprisoned until his death’.  Well that perked me right up.  I looked out to sea and saw a large black bird (he was too far away for me to identify him) diving for fish.  He was underwater for a good ten seconds at a time on the hunt.  I wished club photographer Pam was already here to zoom in with her camera so we could have identified the bird. When did I become interested in birdwatching? I surprise myself sometimes. I soon found myself surrounded by seagulls and realised they were different gulls to those found in Blackpool.  I had thought they sounded different but had just assumed they were speaking Welsh…. It seemed there was every breed of dog under the sun frolicking on the beach.  And there was a man fishing on the prom, his rods angling for fish in the sea.

On the approach to my hotel (which I now realised was in Rhôs-on-Sea) there was a Puppet Theatre, which excited me greatly.  I felt like I was on a proper holiday now, as I had only ever previously seen these overseas.  I checked the billboard but alas ‘The Princess and the Gooseberry Mandarin’ was on at 3pm so I had missed today’s show and would be at the match during tomorrow’s final performance.

It transpired that my hotel was run by Thai ladies – hence the missed call from ‘Thailand’ on my mobile this morning, which was followed up by an email asking me to confirm my arrival time – and what a lovely place it was too.  My hostess apologised for the cold (it wasn’t cold) and showed me to my room, which had the radiator turned up to maximum and was like a sauna.  As soon as she left, I turned the radiator off, quickly unpacked and headed back out to continue my exploration of The Bay.

I headed up further into Rhôs-on-Sea and called in at the Rhôs Fynach.  This was once a monastery but is now a tavern…with a crazy golf course in the beer garden.  The bar was bustling with a wedding party (it appeared the service was being held upstairs) but I gatecrashed anyway and ordered a half of Telford Porter from the local Conwy Brewery (I’d be visiting them tomorrow).  This was a lovely building and I would have liked to have spent more time here (not least playing crazy golf) – however I had a lot of ground to cover and the points of interest on my map weren’t going to tick themselves off. 

Just down the road (still on the prom) was the Cayley Flyer, where there was a woman at the bar complaining about her coffee.  She was much aggrieved that she had paid £2.50 for an instant coffee with cold milk and demanded another one by way of compensation (because she clearly hated it that much, she wanted another one).  I waited patiently to be served (I was relaxed by now) and finally the barmaid apologised and poured me a half of Flack Manor Wolfie T.  I took a seat in the bay window and enjoyed the dulcet tones of Debbie Gibson singing ‘We Could be Together’, which I don’t think I had heard since the 80s.  Ten minutes or so later, I reluctantly got up to leave – but was hailed by a man from across the pub.  There were only the two of them in there and I was urged to stay and join them.  After initial checks confirmed they were friendly and approachable I grabbed myself another drink (Wickwar Wessex Witchcraft) and took a seat with them.  Julie used to do the Tweeting at Llandudno FC and she told me about her epic trip to Gothenburg for their UEFA Europa League match two years ago. Steve told me his work once took him to Lapland. I asked if he’d met Santa and he said yes of course. I demanded photographic evidence to back this up and sure enough there he was with Santa. After Steve took a photo of my (pub) map of Colwyn I reluctantly departed – only because they planned to eat in the Cayley and I, of course, had important plans for a chippy tea. 

Jaap’s Catch came recommended by Bayside Radio on Twitter – and was also the number two restaurant in the area on Trip Advisor – so I deemed it worth a good hike across to the West End to sample their wares. Well now I have never been in a chippy quite like it! It was basically a hipster chippy (henceforth known as a ‘chipster’). I was served by awfully polite young men who were each dressed up in a shirt and tie. They apologised for the draught and asked if I wanted the door closed. I thought are you kidding, I’ve just walked the best part of a mile and I’m quite toasty and how are you not burning up by the friers wearing those ties? Just how cold-blooded are these people? I took a seat (of course there was table service) and studied my map again to plan the rest of the evening. I know you’re wondering how a chippy tea fits in with my diet (shh about the beer). Well I made it diet-friendly by only eating the fish, not the batter and substituting gravy for mushy peas, thus it was only the small portion of chips that was a bit naughty. I had no complaints about the food at all. Perhaps chipsters are the future of chippies? 

My next and final stop was Bay Hop. Oh I knew I was going to love it here…if only I could stay awake after my feed and all that sea air!  I took a seat with a Wilde Child Hedonistic Existence (and later a VOG Dark Matter) and enjoyed the traditional micropub pastime of listening into the conversations of others. An older man in a wheelchair was giving a young couple advice on their sex life, which I’m not sure the young man was too appreciative of. Still it made for good entertainment. I was really ready for bed now but knew Pam was due to land on the coast soon, so felt I really ought to make an effort to stay out and have at least one drink with her before collapsing into bed. Besides it was only twenty past seven (I’d had a stressful day!). I did manage just the one drink with Pam then headed back to my sauna/hotel for a good night’s sleep. 

Oh did I not want to get out of bed on Saturday morning! I was torn between taking advantage of a rare opportunity for a lie-in and getting back out there and having more adventures. Meanwhile of course I had some more admin to do to get our second loan signing over the line. I resolved that if Scott mentioned international clearance today, I couldn’t be held responsible for my actions. Then I remembered the Welsh Mountain Zoo and messaged Pam to see if she fancied going there before the match. Yes she did, so off we went. As we drove up the mountain we remarked on how glad we were that we hadn’t decided to walk. The road just went up and up. As we stepped out of the car – oh the weather! Oh my! This is what I came here for! The wind was so powerful as it wrapped itself around me and took my breath away. It was raining a bit too – the type of rain that you (I certainly) tend to hardly notice it is so light and fine…but the wind brings it to life as it dances on your face. Boy this was just what I needed to reinvigorate me this morning! It felt so good. How had I even given a thought to staying in bed when there was this outside calling me…?

There were few visitors to the zoo this morning (I guessed the locals were hibernating) and that suited me just fine. We took a good walk up and down the mountain visiting all the animals at our leisure. We could have stayed and watched the penguins and sealions all day. It was mesmerising watching them from the underwater viewing point. Pam was happily snapping away with her camera and I was just happy to be there, entranced by the animals and exhilarated by the weather. We saw the cutest twin baby tamarins, lar gibbons (my favourites – I love how they glide effortlessly from branch to branch), two wallabies having a domestic, failed to spot Jack the Margay but the tiger and bear posed nicely for photos. I enjoyed it all…with the exception of the Mississippi Alligators, which absolutely terrified me. Their stillness was eerie and they were much larger than I had expected. They were in their own room in a heated indoor enclosure, now with only me and Pam for company (breakfast?). There was a wire fence separating us from them but if they reared up they could have reached us. Can alligators stand on their back legs/tails?  I didn’t really want to hang around to find out (I’ve just looked it up and they can…). Pam was happily snapping away, leaning over the fence to get a better shot. I was cowering by the door thinking FOR GOODNESS SAKE WOMAN HURRY UP I NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE!!!  Of course I couldn’t leave her in there alone because I’d have to raise the alarm when the alligator struck, despite the feeling of cold dread in the pit of my stomach and the shards of ice shooting through my veins. Finally after what felt like an hour we moved on but I had the creeps for a long time afterwards. 

So now it was time to head to the match. This was, after all, (ostentatiously) what we were here for. One of the biggest challenges of my diet is being at a football ground, where it is so difficult to eat healthily. Thankfully I had tucked into a hearty but healthy breakfast of toast, fruit and yoghurt, but still now I found myself faced with a platter of sandwiches and pastry-products on the boardroom table. I glanced at the contents dejectedly and picked at the tomatoes in the surrounding garnish. I’d eat properly later. I did my teamsheet bit and made my way to the terrace by the away dugout. En route I was very excited to see a collie dog standing on her hind legs clearly eager for the match to start. Research (via @nonleaguedogs) revealed that this was Peggy Sue, the acting chairman’s dog and Colwyn Bay legend. As ever when I see a dog at a match, I was eager to interview her for the Canine Corner column, but alas my match reporting duties had to take priority. 

When the match was over, so was my diet, as five o’clock is beer o’clock for me. I sat back and chilled while Pam downloaded (uploaded?) the photographs from the match (the zoo photos had been done pre-match). Pam then drove us back to our respective hotels so we could make ourselves a bit more presentable for our night out. For me, this simply involved taking my scarf off (it wasn’t cold), sprucing up my hair a bit and touching up my eyeliner, so I was soon back in the Cayley Flyer, our agreed rendezvous point. While I waited (with my old friend Wolfie T), I earwigged on a blazing drunken row on the next table. Pam arrived soon enough (although not soon enough that she didn’t miss the row – both had stormed out by this point) and I looked to see if Uber had reached Colwyn Bay. Alas it had not – so I suggested we walk to the next pub. It was only a 45 minute walk. That was doable. Yeah so it was raining. Not a problem!  We’re hardy girls, we can cope with a bit of weather. 

Now do you remember the drive to the Mountain Zoo? And how we said we were very glad we weren’t walking up this hilly terrain? Well guess what? The next pub (Pen-y-Bryn) was up that mountain. And a bit further on besides. Google Maps really ought to provide such information on terrain. I tried to keep Pam’s spirits up by saying we were nearly there…and there was definitely a downhill bit coming up…and the rain was easing off…but I could feel the daggers in my back. A good hour later, we finally saw the pub on the horizon – an oasis! But oh my it was (Pam may disagree) worth the hike!

We looked like drowned rats when we approached the bar and ordered some much-needed pints (an award-winning Purple Moose Snowdonia Ale for me and a cider for Pam). The barman stifled his giggles and was very welcoming. This was a lovely warm large pub with a roaring fire. This was exactly what we needed right now. We took a seat and perused the magnificent menu. For me? Cauliflower, sweet potato and chickpea tagine with cous cous (diet-friendly) followed by warm Cherry Amaretto Bakewell with cherry compote and cherry crumble ice cream (not diet-friendly but melt-in-the-mouth lush). Just as I was savouring every mouthful of my exquisite dessert, my phone pinged with a message from Scott, enquiring about our international clearance application. He was so fortunate that message had found me in the throes of ecstasy as opposed to halfway up a mountain and hangry… As Pam tucked into her pan fried venison steak with rabbit and pigeon faggot, fondant potato and bramble gravy followed by bread and butter pudding with apricot sauce and vanilla ice cream, she conceded that this magnificent hostelry might have been worth the arduous walk. Nonetheless, we had zero intention of walking to the next pub, so we asked our attentive waiter to call us a cab. 

The final port of call for the night was MASH, the Conwy Brewery micropub, situated on an industrial park in Llysfaen. This place is famed for having ‘one of the best beer garden views in Wales’ but it was dark now so we didn’t get to enjoy the view. We walked in to some good tunes and a friendly welcome by the lovely landlady. I was excited to see hotpot on sale here, as I had only recently been wondering why more pubs didn’t serve this up. But of course it was only beer on the menu for me now and I selected a Conwy Rampart. Almost immediately we sat down, the other customers departed (I don’t think it was anything personal), taking their music with them. The landlady asked if we had a playlist but we were so surprised by the question we couldn’t produce anything.

Micropubs being hives of conversation between strangers, we got chatting with our landlady. She soon began searching on her phone for things for us to do the following day and recommended the cable cars and copper mine at Great Orme. When it was time for us to leave, she found us a card for her friend from round the corner who had a taxi. We called her up and she was with us within the promised eight minutes and ferried us back to Rhôs-on-Sea, chatting merrily en route as if we had known each other for years. The warmth of the people here on the North Wales coast was the absolute highlight of this weekend for me. The locals really are delightful people and made us feel quite at home. 

We decided to head straight home the following morning, taking with us happy memories of our weekend away. It is so important to make memories so we can relive and savour them and share them with others. But, most importantly, so much pleasure can be derived from living in the moment and really absorbing our surroundings and engaging with people. One of the many wonderful aspects of the beautiful game of ours is the many opportunities it provides to travel to new places and make new friends. Immerse yourself in this and you may just be pleasantly surprised at the outcome. Now it’s time to get plotting the next adventure…

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