Once Upon A Time In The West (Of Welsh Wales)
Ken and I were once again in Wales, ostensibly to muck around climbing in the old slate quarries but also to do a bit of mucking around on a certain defunct narrow-gauge railway. We were staying with Ken's friend Dave, who had one of a row of cottages that faced the foothills of Cader Idris.
Everything in the area was made of slate. It was everywhere you looked. Where there wasn't sparse, short-cropped grass there was slate poking out of the earth. Slate boulders littered the countryside, cast-off from the Victorian-era slate industry that had bellied-up catastrophically long before I was born. You couldn't walk far in the hills without coming on at least one ghost village, not much more than a collection of slate walls usually, and you had to watch out when you sat on a wall (dry-stone, slate) that you weren't perched backwards over a bottomless chasm left by the slate miners1. The danger wasn't trivial, since much of the time you would be walking on slate and it rains quite a bit in Wales. Wet slate is about as easy to walk on as wet soap. The only thing that will grip on it is a pair of dry socks and that is because the water gets soaked up from the slate as you step. The men that dug the stuff out of the earth walked in boots with iron cleats in the soles. I can't think that the cleats worked very well. After a week in this town I generally went colourblind, only able to see in shades of grey and green for days after leaving Wales.
Ken was heavily involved with the local narrow gauge railway restoration effort, at the time an extremely unpopular undertaking with almost all the locals in the area. The railway was little more than some decayed buildings and abandoned track bed then. Ken, still at school but already showing signs of being a master carpenter in the making, had persuaded the technology department to dig in and try their hand at coachmaking to see if a collaboration project between our school, the society and a foundry couldn't conjure a period replica railway carriage from the raw materials. To say he was keen on this whole railway thing would be a massive understatement. I just liked the view from the clifftops.
Ken and I had decided to walk into the hills that day. The sun was shining for once and we were looking forward to doing some hiking and climbing.
We set off from the cottage, which was as I say one of a row on the main road that cut west to end up at Aberlefenni or some such place, crossed the road, navigated the ditch on the other side of the road and began the ascent up "the hill". Said hill, following a pattern common in that part of the country, had a slope that put the ground approximately at eye-level when one stood upright on it if memory serves. What can I say? We were young and knew not the meaning of the phrase "coronary infarction".
We were about halfway up the hill, almost to the edge of the first abandoned village when I found it. A cast-iron railwheel, something shy of a foot in diameter with a characteristic and very hard to reproduce curved spoke pattern. Ken identified it as ultra-top desirable and then some in a heartbeat.
"We have to get it back!" he said.
I wasn't keen. We were about 3/4 of an hour up the mountain, still in sight of the main road and the row of cottages we'd started from. We intended to loop around the mountain and would be coming back some distance to our current left. We would, experience said, also be completely knackered after climbing all over the mountain. I remember that the joy of walking downhill to the road was often offset by the need to walk gently uphill along that road for a mile afterwards to get back to the house. Anyway.
We dithered about the wheel for quite a while. It was far too heavy to lug with us. It was far too high up to leave and come back to another day (our itinerary was full of other walking/climbing stuff too and no-one wanted to cancel one of those epic feats of derring-do). These conditions were perfect for creation of an innovative solution to the problem at hand. Unfortunately, it was also at this point that Mr Brain, whom I would later realise would never let a golden opportunity like this pass him by, began to work insidiously for my downfall.
I looked at the wheel. Round, with a flange on one side. It was heavy and would exhibit a considerable bias were one to roll it along the floor. It would, in fact, roll in a huge arc.
I looked at the mountain. Steep (apart from the bit we were currently standing on). Soft, except for the bits of slate sticking out of it. Mostly flat if you ignored the village we were standing in and the boulder-choke around the ditch at the roadside. A plan formed as subliminal trumpets played "Thus Spake Zarathustra" and the sun touched the very edge of a ruined house wall to my back.
"We could roll it down" I said.
Ken did a little dance on the grass and yelled that it would be stupid to risk shattering the wheel on a boulder just because we didn't want to climb up here again tomorrow.
"No! We'll roll the thing thataway! It'll curve right around over there and come to a stop. We'll only need to climb halfway up tomorrow!" I urged.
I imagine my eyes were aglow with my own "brilliance" at this point. Whatever it was, my evangelical powers persuaded Ken that I knew what I was talking about (Ken may actually have been the first person to experience the roller-coaster emotions resulting from that assumption but he should comfort himself that he was by no means the last). I positioned myself and set the wheel rolling. It promptly fell over. I tried again, but the same thing happened. The flange was simply offset too far for the wheel to roll.
Unless. Unless I tipped it radically off-center and rolled it more directly down the hill. From the fevered chambers of Mr Brain 'twas but a moment's work to finally get the damned wheel moving according to the new plan.
A sad mistake
The wheel promptly turned to follow the slope and began to gather speed at an alarming rate. It also, bafflingly, showed no tendency to turn whatsoever, instead adopting an arrow-straight trajectory on the steepest, shortest path to the main road2 and the houses! Azathoth, I could see that already the wheel, less than halfway down the hill, was traveling fast enough to punch a hole straight through the slate walls of the houses down below and also through anyone unreasonable enough to be standing behind them.
I began to gibber and dance in place as the wheel, now with the bit between its teeth and firmly infected with speed madness leapt several feet in the air to clear what must have been an insignificant clod of earth. The energy it represented was considerable, whispered some tattered remnants of Mr Fischer's A-Level Physics class on kinetics. I looked wide-eyed at the ditch. The wheel was on course to run down the ditch, up the other side and launch itself like some cast-iron exocet into the second storey of one of the cottages (although I comforted myself that I couldn't be positive it was Ken's friend's house it was aiming for). Both Ken and I stood with our mouths hanging open in shear terror and disbelief at this totally unpredictable fiasco in the making. Someone was screaming quietly. I think it might have been me.
In a surprisingly short time the wheel ran down the ditch and slammed into the opposite slope whereupon it leapt vertically about twenty feet into the air and about a foot backwards. It crashed down again, laying a fantail of loose slate pebbles in its wake and repeated the process, this time only getting to about twelve feet in altitude. A couple more bounces and it was all over.
I swallowed, pushed my eyeballs back into their sockets and said "There you go, Ken".
Ken, overcome by euphoria at the elegance of my solution to the vexing wheel problem stopped throwing up and playfully tried to kill me with a lump of slate.
1: Slate was mined by cutting into a vertical face of slate cliff, then tunneling down. A slate mine looks like a quarry with a huge (and I do mean huge) pit at the foot of the cliff. Guard rails were usually rotted and gone. It wasn't the sort of place many people came for fun, really.
2: I had not noticed, until that moment, the cars