Porthgain and Conwy Weatherman Walking


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Porthgain and Conwy

Derek Brockway undertakes walks that have a very personal connection to his contributors, in Porthgain, Pembrokeshire, and RSPB Conwy.


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My walks this week have a very personal connection to my guides.

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They've overcome injury and disability

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to get outdoors and be active.

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And they're proof that going for a walk

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can change your life for the better.

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Later, I'll be in RSPB Conwy, a custom-made nature reserve,

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to find out how walking and bird-watching

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can be a great pastime if you're blind or have a form of sight loss.

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But first I'm in Porthgain, walking around the remains

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of its industrial past and taking in some dramatic views.

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My walk today has a maritime theme.

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It follows a spectacular stretch of the Pembrokeshire Coast and my guide

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has sailed all over the world.

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It's also the place where he had a life-changing experience.

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The pretty seaside village of Porthgain

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is a wonderful place to start a walk.

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I've come here to meet my guide,

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master mariner Captain Brian Thomas.

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Morning, Brian. Good to meet you.

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Morning. Pleased to meet you.

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Welcome to Porthgain.

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Thank you. And this place is very special to you.

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It is indeed. My great-grandfather, Josef Williams,

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was a harbour pilot down here many years ago.

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We're going to walk along the coast to Abereiddy and then back.

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We're also going to pass the place

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where something happened that changed your whole life.

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Absolutely. About five years ago I collapsed

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and I was in a coma for 28 days.

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You can tell me a bit more about that later,

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-but for now we're going to walk down to the harbour.

-OK.

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-Shall we go?

-Yes.

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Starting at Porthgain, we follow the Pembrokeshire coastal path south

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along the cliffs past Traeth Llyfn Bay

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until we reach the old quarry called the Blue Lagoon

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and the ruin village of Abereiddy.

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Then it's inland through farmland to Llanrhian,

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before finishing back at Porthgain -

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a walk of about four miles.

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Porthgain is a picture-postcard village now,

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but it grew up because of its slate and granite quarries.

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Well, Brian, lovely place. Nice and quiet.

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But 100 years ago or thereabouts, it was very industrial, wasn't it?

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It was, indeed. Originally, there was a huge slate quarry

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just over the top of the hill there.

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What is this building we can see in front of us? All the red bricks.

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Well, I've actually got a photo to show you.

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You can see up on the top here, you've got a chimney or an exhaust

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and the crushers crushing the stone running down these shoots

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into small trams on the track

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that was positioned on that quay wall there.

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Slate was mined in Porthgain from the 1850s.

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Although, by the end of the 19th century, the granite quarries

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and the brickworks had become much more important.

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So these huge walls were part of the granite works, but what's this here?

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-It looks like a tunnel.

-Yes.

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This is a tunnel about 200 yards long

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leading to the slate quarry over the other side

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and then they could actually transport the slate

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on trams to the quay.

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And if you look over here,

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you've got a granite chute where, like I said earlier,

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the crushers would be positioned up there and then,

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through a series of chutes, would end up in this storage bin

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and then ready to off-load onto a tram and then from the tram

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onto the ship using a steam crane.

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Sounds like an efficient process.

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Oh, yes, yes.

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In 1982, all of the old industrial buildings were bought

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by a local trust, together with the Pembrokeshire National Park,

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to preserve them for future generations.

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I've heard about the industry, but your family was involved

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-in the maritime side of things.

-Oh, very much so.

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As I said, my great-grandfather, Josef Williams,

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was one of the harbour pilots here.

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I've got a photo of him here.

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He looks a tough man.

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He probably went to sea when he was 15,

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and I've actually got his discharge book here.

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I have the last entry in the logbook.

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He sailed from Cardiff...

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..went across to Portland, Oregon...

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..and then sailed back to Falmouth.

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And that was back in 1886.

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1886, yes.

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I was drawn to the sea myself

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and I have my discharge book, my first one.

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There's lots of entries in here so you've been to many, many places.

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Yes. The QE2 is actually in this book.

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I joined the QE2 as a first officer

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and then I was promoted to bridge manager, so

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I really enjoyed that time.

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-So the sea is very much in your blood?

-Yes.

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Through the generations as well.

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Yes. For me now, it's been 27 years.

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From the harbour, we climb up the steps

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onto the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path.

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On either side of the entrance to Porthgain

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are two unusual white towers.

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Great view, Brian, but what's that white thing over there?

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Well, when a ship is approaching from the sea,

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that's a structure that they can take bearings of to get a position.

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So you have one on the north side and one on the south side.

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So taking bearings, of course, you've got the interaction

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of the bearing lines and you know where you are.

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The landscape around here is littered

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with remnants of Porthgain's industrial past.

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So here we have the slate quarry.

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-It's pretty big, isn't it?

-Yes, absolutely.

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When did it all begin?

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Around the 1850s and then continued until the 1890s.

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And then what happened?

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Well, the granite and the brickworks started to take over.

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-And you remember the tunnel we saw earlier?

-Yes.

-Well,

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it's down here and that's where the trams used to leave to the harbour.

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And that goes right through to the other side.

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-Absolutely.

-Fantastic.

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And just along the coast is more evidence

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of Porthgain's quarrying history.

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Well, this doesn't look natural. What happened here?

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Well, this is the granite quarry I was talking about.

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It was taken back to the crushers in Porthgain

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and used for building materials and surfaces for the road.

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It's completely changed the shape of the coast.

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Yes, absolutely. I think the expanse of granite that's been taken out of

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here, it's immense.

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It wouldn't happen today.

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No. Certainly not.

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From the quarry we continue along the coastal path

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under glorious Pembrokeshire skies.

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As a meteorologist, I love looking at the clouds.

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Today we've got cumulus clouds caused by the sun heating the land.

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But, as a sea captain, you must have experienced some horrendous weather.

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Yes, I have.

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Over ten years ago I was unfortunate enough

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to be 200 miles south of New Orleans

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when category five Hurricane Katrina struck.

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What did you do?

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Well, it was a case of warning the crew,

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keeping everybody up-to-date on the progress and telling everybody to

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secure everything in the cabins and the work stations.

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And then sooner or later I had to, through my training,

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get the bow of the ship into the wind and the waves.

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So counting the wave patterns

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I realised, I noticed,

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that every 11th wave, there was a bit of a lull.

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So when that lull came it was a case of hold on and hard-a-port,

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full engine, full bow thruster and then we came round and eventually

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made it before the next wave pattern.

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It was one of the worst in living memory, wasn't it?

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Yes, absolutely. It was terrible.

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That sounds like a pretty hair-raising experience!

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But the Pembrokeshire coast has its dangers as well.

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Well, this is a beautiful little bay. What's it called?

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It's called Traeth Llyfn. And, yes, it's very beautiful.

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However, quite a dangerous place.

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On the southern side you've got an undercurrent

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and there's been a couple of lives lost, unfortunately.

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I remember when I was a teenager, I nearly drowned myself when I was

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surfing, and the undercurrent was keeping and holding me back

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and holding me back and I was drifting out.

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Eventually I caught a wave and I came back in.

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So it's fine to build sandcastles, but keep out of the water?

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That's right.

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Our next port of call is one of the most spectacular spots

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on the whole Pembrokeshire coast.

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This is incredible. What is it?

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It's called The Blue Lagoon

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and it's the original slate quarry, dug by hand.

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All this was dug out by hand? That must have been really hard work.

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And then taken back to Porthgain for slate dressing.

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Now it's more of a tourist attraction

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and you can see that bit of rock was blasted away, for safety, I guess.

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-To let the water in, creating the Blue Lagoon.

-Yes.

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We can see some children over there. What are they doing?

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They're coasteering, and it's a very popular thing.

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They jump off the ruins here...

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..and a few years ago there was a...

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the World Diving Championship was held here.

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-Have you ever had a go?

-Yes, I have.

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What was it like?

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Very exciting.

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Give me a wet suit and I'll try again!

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Rather you than me!

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It's peaceful now but once

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Abereiddy was a bustling community driven by the slate industry.

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That all changed just over 80 years ago.

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These look interesting, Brian. Where are we?

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We're at Abereiddy and this is called The Street.

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These cottages, five of them, housed 50 people.

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Obviously providing labour for the quarry.

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And what happened to them?

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Well, unfortunately, in 1930, there was an epidemic of typhoid

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and a huge storm which forced them to leave.

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It's a tragic story, but by the 1930s,

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the quarrying industry along this part of the coast

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was already on the brink of closure

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and soon the land returned to farming.

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We leave Abereiddy behind and follow the path and land

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towards the village of Llanrhian

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and a place that was a turning point for Brian.

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Brian, we are now in Llanrhian

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and something really significant happened to you here, didn't it?

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It did, indeed. Five years ago, I collapsed around there

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through an immense pain coursing from my head throughout my body.

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And I collapsed backwards and hit my head severely on the road.

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And then what happened?

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I was rushed to Withybush General Hospital,

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initially, and then taken to the neurosurgery unit in Cardiff.

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And I remained in a coma for 28 days.

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And do you remember how you came out of the coma?

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Well, after a very bleak prognosis,

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my sister, bless her, brought with her some music and played a hymn,

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a favourite hymn of my grandfather's, How Great Thou Art,

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and a single tear apparently streamed down my right cheek.

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And from that moment on...

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..I started to recover.

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And thankfully you have now made a full recovery.

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Yes, I have.

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Brian's coma was caused by an undiagnosed blood clot, but his

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recovery was quite remarkable and he was back at sea

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within a couple of years of his injury.

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Now, Porthgain and this beautiful part of the world

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has become even more important to him.

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Well, Brian, here we are back in Porthgain where we started.

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I know you've sailed all over the world

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but this place really means a lot to you, doesn't it?

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Very much so.

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And since my accident,

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I've discovered a passion for writing poetry.

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And one of my poems is called Hiraeth, and if you'd like,

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I'd like to recite the last three lines.

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"Longing, waiting and eager to see what expected feelings bring.

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"Dreaming of home and holding on to those memories

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"That make your heart sing."

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Brian, that's beautiful.

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And thank you so much for taking me on this very special walk

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on the Pembrokeshire coast.

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I can see why you love this part of the country so much.

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It's beautiful.

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My pleasure.

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And if you fancy trying this or another of our walks,

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go to our website -

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It's got detailed route information

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and walking maps for you to print off.

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Or you could download it onto your tablet and take it with you.

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Every day in Wales, five people lose their sight,

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and this can have a massive impact on their lives and confidence,

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especially when it comes to going outdoors.

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Today I'm meeting Nicola Cockburn,

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who's been blind since birth,

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to find out more about what it's like to go for a walk.

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It's a pony's knee.

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Nicky was born with a rare genetic eye condition

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and experiences the world through her other senses

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of sound, smell and touch.

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She grew up in Llandudno,

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and has a passion for bird-watching

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and has been visiting RSPB Conwy for years,

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joining reserve manager Julian Hughes on his nature walks.

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And today they're showing me the sights and sounds of the reserve.

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-Hi, Nicky.

-Oh, hi, Derek, lovely to meet you.

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-And you. Julian, lovely to meet you.

-Hi, Derek. Welcome.

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So Nicky, can you tell me why you've brought me to RSPB Conwy?

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Bird-watching is a really big hobby of mine

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and the bird life here is just fantastic.

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You always see something different every time you come.

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Now, I haven't guided before, so could you help me with a few tips, please?

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Yes. So if you want to come on my right-hand side

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-and if I put my hand through yours, like that.

-OK.

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And, yeah, as long as you can tell me if there's any sort of

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lumps or bumps I need to know about, and not to break my ankle.

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Reckon you can do that?

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-I think so. Shall we get going?

-Let's go for a walk.

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Now, watch out. There is a puddle ahead of us

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so we'll try and avoid that.

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OK.

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We're in North Wales, right next to the A55

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and just a stone's throw from the town of Conwy.

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Leaving the lookouts,

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we pass through the reedbeds and head out into the reserve,

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enjoying a walk through marshland, woodland and estuary mud flats

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before being treated to views over Conwy Castle

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and ending back at the visitors' centre -

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a short stroll of just over one mile.

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Entry to the reserve is free to all RSPB members

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but there is a charge for non-members.

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So we're just coming down towards the lagoons

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and there's massive areas of reedbeds just in front of it

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-which we're going to walk through along a wooden boardwalk.

-OK.

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So Nicky, how am I doing?

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Well, it's early days but very, very good so far.

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At the end of the day I might give you a score out of ten.

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I'm hoping for at least an eight.

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You might get a nine if you do well.

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-I'd be quite happy with a nine.

-OK!

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We're right next to a noisy road but Nicky's fine-tuned hearing

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helps her identify which birds are close by,

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even though we can't see them.

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So there's quite a lot of traffic here today, Derek,

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but I don't know whether you can hear the birds.

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We've got a chiffchaff and sedge warblers.

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-I can hear them, yes.

-That's a chiffchaff.

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Yes, if you listen very carefully, in the reeds you've got

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the sounds of Africa, so reed warblers and sedge warblers

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have only arrived here around the end of April

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and they've come from West Africa.

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And this is a big spot for a lot of migratory birds?

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Yes. The nature reserve here, the wetland here,

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we manage the habitat so that we make it as attractive as possible

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to give a good home for all these kinds of wildlife.

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-We've got nesting oystercatchers on the island.

-Oh, brilliant.

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I'm sure we'll hear them being very noisy a little bit later.

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That's a fantastic sound.

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Well, we'll look forward to that.

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-Great.

-Yep.

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As well as the oystercatchers,

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they've recorded over 200 different species of birds here,

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proving just how successful this reserve has become.

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So we're coming away from the reed bed now

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and we're coming into the slightly more wooded area.

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We planted about 4,000 trees when the reserve was created 20 years ago

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and now they're maturing,

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they're full of insects as it starts to warm up in the springtime.

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We get the insects, we get the birds.

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And lots of bats in the evening, I would imagine.

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Yeah, the bats are amazing actually.

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Each summer we find new species of bats

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we haven't recorded here before.

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Oh, wow. I've been on a bat walk here before

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and they're really good fun.

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The reserve spans across 120 acres

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and was created from 30,000 tonnes of mud left over

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from the building of the Conwy Tunnel.

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Today it's filled with hides,

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lagoons and paths and attracts a wide variety of wildlife,

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making it a great place to reconnect with nature.

0:20:200:20:22

GEESE HONK

0:20:220:20:24

Most experts identify birds by their song, not by sight.

0:20:280:20:32

So, as Nicky explains,

0:20:320:20:34

it's often more about bird listening than bird-watching.

0:20:340:20:39

So, Nicky, tell me,

0:20:390:20:40

when did you first become interested in bird-watching?

0:20:400:20:43

I think it was about when I was three.

0:20:430:20:45

My dad came home one day with two tapes done by David Attenborough

0:20:450:20:49

of birds. One was months of the year

0:20:490:20:52

and the other one was towns,

0:20:520:20:54

gardens and sort of various places you find birds.

0:20:540:20:57

I just listened to them and listened to them

0:20:570:20:59

and when I was going out with Dad,

0:20:590:21:01

gradually I became exposed to the different birds.

0:21:010:21:04

So I learnt a few at a time.

0:21:040:21:06

Then, about ten years ago, I started coming to the RSPB here.

0:21:060:21:10

A lot of sighted people say,

0:21:100:21:11

why do you say "bird-watching"? Because you can't.

0:21:110:21:14

But the thing about bird-watching is you don't have to be able to see.

0:21:140:21:18

The ability to hear is more important for a lot of bird species.

0:21:180:21:23

For instance, we've got the reed warblers and the sedge warblers

0:21:230:21:26

in the reeds, and you can hear them.

0:21:260:21:28

You don't have to be peering along, looking down to see where they are.

0:21:280:21:32

It's something that everybody can enjoy

0:21:320:21:34

and it's such an accessible hobby for everyone.

0:21:340:21:37

And with most of the reserve accessible for all abilities,

0:21:410:21:45

there's no reason not to come and enjoy this Welsh wildlife encounter.

0:21:450:21:49

So we're just going to go through the gate here and,

0:21:500:21:52

on the other side, we have our Carneddau mountain ponies

0:21:520:21:55

and they graze the grassland

0:21:550:21:56

and the reedbeds to make it good for wildlife.

0:21:560:21:58

Will we see any today?

0:21:580:22:00

Hopefully, yes.

0:22:000:22:01

And this will be a good test for you, Derek,

0:22:010:22:03

because where there's ponies, there's poo.

0:22:030:22:05

So more things for you to navigate!

0:22:050:22:07

Well, we don't want to step in any of that, do we?

0:22:070:22:09

No.

0:22:090:22:10

Going for a walk with Nicky is such a different experience.

0:22:120:22:15

I'm much more aware of what's going on around me

0:22:150:22:18

and making sure Nicky knows what's happening, too.

0:22:180:22:21

There's some puddles coming up.

0:22:230:22:25

Oh, squelch! Puddle alert.

0:22:250:22:26

NICKY LAUGHS

0:22:260:22:28

So Nicky, tell me what's involved when you go out for a walk.

0:22:280:22:31

Well, I normally go out for walks with my guide dog, James.

0:22:320:22:36

I have a lovely yellow Labrador who I didn't bring with me today

0:22:360:22:40

because of all the nesting birds.

0:22:400:22:42

But, yeah, I tend to go out with him when I'm out in Cardiff

0:22:420:22:47

so he helps me get round.

0:22:470:22:49

I do get lost, but people are very nice

0:22:490:22:51

and I think they're used to me in my local area now, getting lost.

0:22:510:22:56

As Nicky tells me about the challenges of getting around

0:22:560:23:00

the city centre, it makes me realise

0:23:000:23:02

just how much I take for granted every day.

0:23:020:23:04

Bus drivers tend to be the worst

0:23:040:23:06

because they tend to tell me the stop after my stop

0:23:060:23:09

or I end up going right the way to the other end of the city.

0:23:090:23:13

But I've just learnt now.

0:23:130:23:14

Naughty bus drivers.

0:23:140:23:16

Yes. They're better than they used to be.

0:23:160:23:18

And if you have vision loss

0:23:210:23:22

and would like help visiting the reserve,

0:23:220:23:24

then, with a bit of warning, a volunteer can be on hand

0:23:240:23:27

to help you make the most of your visit.

0:23:270:23:29

And here's some evidence of the ponies.

0:23:330:23:35

-Is there?

-Yeah, it shows they're around here somewhere.

0:23:350:23:38

It would be nice to hear them whinnying or neighing.

0:23:380:23:40

Yes, they do that if they get split up, actually.

0:23:400:23:42

They're really noisy.

0:23:420:23:43

So we're just coming round to the estuary, to the Afon Conwy.

0:23:450:23:49

It rises about 20 miles to the south and runs down through,

0:23:490:23:52

collecting all that water from Snowdonia

0:23:520:23:54

and we can see the Snowdonia mountains in front of us now

0:23:540:23:57

on the other side of the estuary.

0:23:570:23:58

A little bit hazy today, but when it's clear...

0:23:580:24:00

Early in the morning it's as though you could reach out and touch them,

0:24:000:24:03

even though they're about ten miles away.

0:24:030:24:04

It's just a lovely, lovely setting for a nature reserve.

0:24:040:24:07

It's kind of why this place works.

0:24:070:24:09

PONY NICKERS

0:24:090:24:10

-I can hear ponies.

-Yes, there they are.

0:24:110:24:14

These are the Carneddau mountain ponies.

0:24:140:24:15

We've had these on the reserve about 18 months

0:24:150:24:17

and they come down from the Carneddau.

0:24:170:24:19

That's their natural home up in the mountains.

0:24:190:24:21

And they're quite an old breed.

0:24:210:24:22

Genetically, they're unique to north-west Wales

0:24:220:24:24

and they've been around for thousands of years.

0:24:240:24:27

PONIES NICKER AND SNORT

0:24:270:24:28

They're getting a little bit frisky.

0:24:280:24:30

-You can hear them.

-They're quite feisty.

0:24:300:24:32

They are quite feisty. We've got six males down here at the moment and

0:24:320:24:35

they do get a bit uppity with each other in the springtime.

0:24:350:24:38

They're kind of determining who's the top pony.

0:24:380:24:40

-Show-offs, aren't they?

-Are you showing off?

0:24:420:24:45

-NICKY MIMICS BIRD CALL:

-# Oystercatcher! #

0:24:580:25:01

The sound of the oystercatcher really lifts my spirits.

0:25:020:25:05

I love it.

0:25:050:25:06

So Derek, I wondered whether

0:25:060:25:08

you'd like to experience a bit of my world.

0:25:080:25:11

How do you fancy closing your eyes

0:25:110:25:12

and just walking along here

0:25:120:25:14

and whether you find it any different?

0:25:140:25:16

-Are you up for that?

-I think so, yes.

0:25:160:25:19

-Let's give it a go.

-OK, so if I come between you...

0:25:190:25:21

Yes.

0:25:210:25:23

-And you guide me.

-That's it.

0:25:230:25:25

That way.

0:25:250:25:26

OK? So, eyes closed.

0:25:260:25:28

-Yes.

-Right.

0:25:280:25:29

I can immediately notice something has changed

0:25:460:25:49

since you closed your eyes.

0:25:490:25:51

You're walking rather tentatively.

0:25:510:25:54

Do you feel a bit anxious about what's under your feet?

0:25:540:25:58

I'd say I was slightly nervous, yes.

0:26:000:26:02

I mean, I'm glad Julian's here holding on to me

0:26:040:26:07

because I know I won't fall over,

0:26:070:26:09

but I'm just a little bit more cautious about where I'm putting

0:26:090:26:13

my feet. But I'm also more aware of what's going on around me

0:26:130:26:18

in terms of sounds, the birds tweeting,

0:26:180:26:22

the sounds of the traffic I can hear.

0:26:220:26:24

-Do you want to open your eyes, Derek? Take a seat.

-OK.

0:26:320:26:36

Turn back and you'll sit between me and Derek.

0:26:360:26:39

OK? There we are.

0:26:390:26:40

Thank you.

0:26:400:26:42

How did you find that, then, closing your eyes?

0:26:420:26:45

I found it strange, closing my eyes and walking.

0:26:450:26:48

It was quite scary.

0:26:480:26:50

Yeah. I mean, I was born blind

0:26:500:26:52

and I used to always think that I was quite unlucky, really,

0:26:520:26:57

because I'll never see an oystercatcher,

0:26:570:26:59

I'll never see a sunset.

0:26:590:27:01

I've done a lot of things.

0:27:010:27:02

I've scuba dived with sharks,

0:27:020:27:03

I've worked out in Australia, I've skydived.

0:27:030:27:06

So I've had a lot of experiences but they've all been sensory.

0:27:060:27:09

When I was working for a company which helps blind people

0:27:100:27:14

I came into contact with people who used to have quite high-powered jobs

0:27:140:27:19

and they lost their sight and I realised that, actually,

0:27:190:27:23

that must be very isolating.

0:27:230:27:25

Sadly, statistics show that this feeling of isolation

0:27:250:27:28

affects nearly half of all people with sight loss,

0:27:280:27:31

leaving many feeling unable to leave their home

0:27:310:27:34

and cut off from the outside world.

0:27:340:27:36

I suppose what I'd like to say to people is that

0:27:360:27:39

you don't have to let it define you.

0:27:390:27:40

You don't have to say, "My life is over because I've lost my sight"

0:27:400:27:43

because, in a way, it's just begun.

0:27:430:27:45

It sounds weird to say that, but it's true.

0:27:450:27:48

So the message is, Nicky, to anyone that's lost their sight

0:27:480:27:52

is don't give up, stay positive, because there are so many groups

0:27:520:27:56

that can help you to experience this, but in a different way.

0:27:560:28:00

Yes. I mean, don't sit there and wait. Get up and do.

0:28:000:28:03

SHE GIGGLES

0:28:030:28:05

So, Derek, walking back round to the estuary,

0:28:130:28:15

almost back to the visitors' centre,

0:28:150:28:16

it's a lovely evening and we've got these wonderful views across

0:28:160:28:19

the estuary to Conwy Castle.

0:28:190:28:20

This beats my office any day!

0:28:210:28:24

It's a very special place and I'm just glad we could show you round our lovely reserve.

0:28:240:28:28

And if you want to find out more

0:28:280:28:30

about joining a guided walking group,

0:28:300:28:32

then visit the Weatherman Walking website

0:28:320:28:34

for links to organisations that can help.

0:28:340:28:37

Derek's final instalment has a very personal connection to his contributors who have overcome injury and disability to get out and about. He starts in Pembrokeshire, in the quiet fishing village of Porthgain to meet local seaman Captain Brian Thomas, who spent weeks in a coma after collapsing when out walking. They also explore the area's industrial past and soak in the stunning sea views. Finally it's right to the top of Wales, to RSPB Conwy to meet Nicola Cockburn, who's been blind since birth, and find out what's involved when she goes out walking. Derek also hears more about how her passion for birdwatching helps her get the most from going for a walk.