Northern Europe is a place rammed full with history, culture and wonderfully beautiful landscapes. I have selected two of my favourite recent trips to share with you.
I love mountain hiking in Britain. I am addicted to the sense of awe and accomplishment which accompanies an ascension. The green, rounded hills of Britain have a particular atmosphere and charm which is not easily captured in popular mountainous regions such as the Alps. I certainly prefer the lush, green, British landscapes to the holiday resorts of the Mediterranean, stewing on a beach in Spain. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m cold, wet, hungry, sleep deprived and generally uncomfortable, if I arrive at the top of a British mountain on a clear day, able to see for miles around. It is particularly exciting when there is a ‘cloud inversion’ and you arrive above the clouds. For those who love the great outdoors, Snowdonia is a pleasant change to the neat fields and hedgerows of the southern English countryside. Windblown hills, foreboding clouds, and rocky outcrops are what characterise Snowdonia. Being a regular hiker, I’m used to long walks and I have on several occasions tried my hand at ‘scrambling’ – light rock climbing without ropes.
There is a mountain in the Ogwen Valley of Snowdonia called Tryfan (3,010ft / 917.5m above sea level). It is well-known in the British outdoor recreational world for being a rather hairy and interesting mountain – fantastic for scrambling with its rugged crag. So one weekend, I grabbed my gear (sturdy walking boots, a map, compass, food, water and medical supplies are essential) and set out with a group of fellow hikers to tackle some lovely wet Welsh adventure. A vehicle is usually necessary for transportation around Snowdonia due to its remoteness, and cheap cabins are available for renting for individuals or groups. Hotels are also available for the more luxury inclined, as well as various pubs and restaurants in the beautiful little towns and villages dotted around the bare landscape.
Tryfan has a very characteristic and rather sinister jagged shape. The gentle valley leading up to the mountain was very misleading – after a while it turns into a particularly harrowing experience for the unaccustomed. There are scarce mountains in the UK which require the scrambler to use their hands as much as on Tryfan. I’ve had to grapple with slippery, dripping wet stone before, but here I had to do this whilst trying to place my feet in tiny footholds which, had I slipped, I probably would have been seriously injured, since there are no ropes. The ledges are very narrow, the mountain edge is extremely close and I almost sliced my hand open on the eerie, jagged rocks. At one point I was following the trail of blood left behind by a fellow climber who had done just that. Seeing their bright red blood splattered over the rocks in front of me didn’t help my nerves. Passing the ‘point of no return’ on a path which passes a gaping abyss was terrifying and I could really feel my pulse racing, my arms trembling and my breath quicken. A little further up, I found myself with two hikers who were staring up at the slippery ledge we were expected to climb, with eyes of fear. One of them decided it was too much, and turned back. After some gentle persuasion from some kind and helpful hikers around us, she decided to continue. The sense of accomplishment after I followed suit was quickly replaced with a sense of dread as I lifted by head to see a huge jagged ridge bearing over us. Thankfully, it wasn’t necessary to climb up it, and my unsettled nerves quickly relaxed. The top of the mountain was incredibly busy, there must have been at least 40 adventure seekers around me when I reached the top. Those hikers with no sense of danger were jumping between two characteristic monoliths called ‘Adam and Eve’. It was a little too much for me, however. While I was ascending Tryfan and pumped full of adrenaline, I felt like I would never in a million years want to do it again. But afterwards, I realised how rewarding it was to have pushed myself beyond my limits, and that I want to attempt more menacing scrambles. I recommend adventure for everyone, particularly bored, cynical students, even if it seems like you can’t handle it. Because you never know when you might surprise yourself (however, always start off slow and gentle, be fully equipped and prepared, be in a group, and keep the risks to a minimum!)
Normandy, on the coast of Northern France, was the base of the D-Day landings – the beginning of ‘Operation Overlord’, the allied invasion of German occupied France, on the 6th June 1944. As well as featuring heavily in hundreds of war films (modern version include ‘Saving Private Ryan’), and computer games such as Call of Duty, for those interested in history, Normandy is home to a great number of fascinating historical sites. Each town along the coast has its own story to tell. Towns such as Caen, Cherbourg, Carentan and Falaise endured many casualties in the Battle of Normandy and liberation of the French. We visited many sites, but I will select a few of my favourites to mention.
This trip was a very emotional one. ‘Point du Hoc’ and next two it, ‘Omaha Beach’ were two of the most emotional sites that I visited. It was here that a large number of allied forces were deployed for the invasion. Point du Hoc refers to the cliffs above the beaches, where a number of German bunkers are situated. Many of the bunkers are very well preserved. They are constructed of concrete and were built to withstand bombardment of shells from the Allied forces back in Britain. Some of them are home to huge guns designed to shoot down allied ships, whereas others are home to machine guns intended to prevent the allied rangers from scaling the cliffs. Standing in these bunkers felt very strange, and was upsetting, due to the horrible circumstances for which they were constructed. Standing inside one of the bunkers of Omaha beach was even more harrowing, as I had seen it in various films. Point du Hoc is littered with various concrete constructions and there are huge craters from the bombardment of allied shells. It is a very popular site and there were many tourists here. The ‘Pegasus Bridge’ was another incredibly interesting site. It was a major objective of one of the British divisions. Soldiers were to land in gliders, secure the bridges without destroying them, and ensure that the Germans could not use them. The entire metal bridge is still there, and it was very important in controlling the German forces.
The cemeteries we visited were also very emotional. The German, British and American cemeteries all have a very distinctive feeling. Whilst the German cemeteries are fairly small and grey, the American cemeteries are huge, home to thousands of pristine white gravestones, neatly arranged. It is located right next to the sea, and is home to a museum (of which there are hundreds spread across Normandy). We even had to go through a security checkpoint with some American soldiers guarding the cemetery to protect it in order to enter. It was interesting reading some of the stories of the soldiers and the whole trip made me think a lot. As I mentioned, Normandy is home to hundreds of museums, with collections of planes, tanks, ships, uniforms and anything else you can imagine from the war. Many of them are modern and very accessible, with plenty of English translations and videos to help.
However, Normandy is not only home to Second World War history. Mont Saint-Michel is a medieval fortified town constructed on a small island just off the mainland. It is extremely impressive and millions of tourists visit it every year. It simply must be seen to be believed. It rises up out of the sea like something out of a fairy tale. Turrets and archery slits are everywhere, and the town inside is extremely well preserved. At the top of the town is an abbey and monastery, whereas at the bottom are huge stone fortified walls. The whole thing is like a giant castle. After ascending the town and seeing the fantastic views of its surroundings, eating an ice cream on the way down was a perfect end to this incredible site.