“Zipworld Velocity at Bethesda, Wales”
15 minute read
As much as I love to travel alone and have solo adventures, sometimes I wish for nothing more than to share these experiences with my friends. And every so often that’s exactly what I do.
Earlier this summer I was perusing through my Facebook news feed when a post from one of my friends really caught my eye. It wasn’t a post about dogs that could dance, and nor was it a video about cats that are scared of cucumbers; instead this video was a promo reel that showed a group of very excitable people dressed in red jump suits.
They were stood atop a dramatic hillside overlooking a flooded quarry, and before I knew it they were strapped into big horizontal slings and then sent hurtling at breakneck speeds down a huge zipline. But this wasn’t just any zipline, because this video claimed that it was the fastest zipline in the world!
Oh now you have my attention you tantalising Facebook video!
FASTEST. ZIPLINE. IN. THE. WORLD.
I had to do this!
I kept on watching, intrigued as to where this place was. If it wasn’t too far away then I knew I’d have to go. As the video drew slowly to a close, the following words came up that gave me the green light; Zipworld Velocity in Bethesda, Wales.
That’s it. I had to go!
I decided to post up the suggestion on a group text message with some of my closest friends, and then I sat back and waited for their replies.
Sure enough the responses quickly came flooding in and they were full of enthusiasm. Their thumbs were up, the decision was conclusive, and so just a few weeks later on one beautiful Saturday afternoon in October, Colin, Kev, Mat, Neil and myself were on our way to Wales.
All five of us were in high spirits and the mood was one of pure excitement. We were five fully grown men who were as excited as five young boys who had just been given a new Scalextric set. Actually I’ll rephrase that; we were five fully grown men who were as excited as five fully grown men who had just been given a new Scalextric set. Let’s face it; men never really fully grow up.
But our excited moods suddenly turned to one of pure confusion as we found ourselves drawing closer and closer towards Birmingham city centre. Something didn’t seem right. For those who may be unfamiliar with this part of the world, here is a simple geography lesson. We were departing from Derbyshire which is situated pretty much in the centre of England. Bethesda is to the north, Birmingham is to the south; and so the five of us were dip-shits.
In our over-excited moods we’d decided to put pure faith into the Sat Nav rather than actually looking at a map first and beginning the journey from local knowledge. We just drove and took orders from a plastic box that was stuck to our windscreen. Clearly our virtual navigator (named Karen) was having a bad day, but we should have known better given that she’d been speaking to us in something of a condescending tone. The virtual Karen had an incredible ability to say something as simple as “turn left” but actually make it sound as though she was saying…
Try turning left if it’s not too much trouble for you and your pea-sized brain!
But after a little readjustment to our route we were soon heading north-west and were on our way to Wales.
The scenery in Wales never fails to amaze me, and as we descended upon Snowdonia National Park the views only got more dramatic. The mountainous backdrops were beautiful and towered above us, making the five of us seem tiny in comparison. The conversation in the car had suddenly come to a halt as we all gazed around in wonder. We were transfixed by our surroundings, and the only words to escape our mouths was the occasional “wow”, “whoa”, and “oh man!”
Before we knew it we were arriving in Bethesda and so we decided to put our faith in our Sat Nav one last time. This resulted in us arriving in completely the wrong location and was clearly a last ditch attempt by Karen to upset our plans. What was wrong with her? Was she some kind of embittered woman who had something against five men having fun? I swear that as we finally switched her off I could hear her screaming…
“I’ll get you my pretty…and your little car too!”
Thankfully though, by pure chance we bumped into a gentleman named Paul who was one of the owners of Skip to the Zipwire, the name given to the accommodation that we’d booked for the night. It turned out that we were only just around the corner from our lodgings and so Paul very kindly walked us around to our cottage.
As we all climbed out of the car, I thanked Paul for his help and then he talked us through the basics for our stay and was happy to recommend some places to visit in town. Paul was very considerate not to get under our feet as we unpacked the car and he was happy to leave us to settle in. We thanked him once again and said goodbye, and then we started taking our bags into the house.
It’s always a great moment when you arrive at a new place with friends. There’s the excitement of what the weekend has in store for you, the energy that comes with knowing your adventure is only just beginning, and the intrigue of discovering every part of your new lodgings (in which opening every single draw, cupboard, and doorway is a mandatory requirement).
And this place turned out to be a real winner. Situated within an L-shaped collection of stone-built terraced cottages, Skip to the Zipwire is a two-storey, two-bedroom cottage that sleeps up to a maximum of 7 people. It is deceptively large and decorated beautifully, and from the second I walked inside it instantly felt like home. Part of this homely feeling came from some of the little discreet touches, such as the loaf of fresh bread that was awaiting our arrival. It may not sound like much, but it is the little things like this that can make all the difference, and for what may have cost the owner a couple of pounds, it made us feel like a million dollars.
The living room was incredibly cosy, helped by an L-shaped arrangement of sofas and a real log burner sat within a large fireplace. From here there was a doorway that opened out onto a tiered garden with patio area. Unfortunately it was a little too chilly to spend much time out there on this visit, but in the summer time this would be a perfect place to have a barbeque and a few drinks with friends.
In days gone by we would normally start a trip like this by cracking open a beer straight away, but for some reason we decided it would be really sensible just to have a cup of tea instead. How civilised. But after unpacking our things and eating up all the fresh bread, we decided to man things up a little bit by heading into Bethesda for a few beers.
I don’t really know what I was expecting from Bethesda, but it was Saturday night and we were expecting to find a little bit of life. What we actually found was what resembled a scene from the movie Hot Fuzz, with the only real activity around town being enjoyed by a bunch of teenagers. To be fair though the groups of teenagers looked just as dejected as we did as they sat around on their bikes, looking bored, and playing music from the tiny little speakers of their smart-phones.
Where were all the adults? And more importantly, where were all the places to eat?
This place was quickly proving to be somewhat different than what we’d expected it would be, and it was apparent that we needed to adapt our mindsets. Our options here were limited, but this didn’t seem to matter once we’d found our way into the back room of the Douglas Arms Hotel where we found ourselves having a whale of a time.
It was a very simple set up with the five of us sat around a couple of tables, making conversation, poking fun at each other, and being distracted by nothing whatsoever. Here we were, away from home, away from day-to-day life, our spirits were high, and there was a decent selection of beers to help us along the way (not to mention the extremely impressive whisky shelf). Time became insignificant and all that mattered was the moment. It was priceless, and I could have stayed there all evening had it not been for the fact that we were all becoming ravenous with hunger.
After polishing off our fifth pint, we decided the best option would be to grab some take-away food and take it back to the cottage.
Just as a little side note, despite poking a little fun at the limited options that we faced on our visit, there are facilities available in Bethesda. It is worth noting that it is only a small town and so please visit with this in mind and don’t expect to find an abundance of places to eat. There is a small Tesco Extra store in town and takeaway options are available, but personally I’d opt to take the self-catering approach when visiting again.
Half an hour later we were all sat on the sofas in front of the roaring log burner. It was now dark outside and the orange glow from the flames danced about with the occasional crackling sound to accompany it. Our food was going down a treat, the beers were continuing to flow, and we prepared ourselves in front of the TV to witness Michael Bisping defeat Dan Henderson to retain the title in UFC 204.
This was well and truly a guys weekend away.
The following morning we woke up to find ourselves being blessed with the most stunning weather.
Booking this trip for October had always felt like something of a gamble with British weather being as unpredictable as it is. But as we stepped outside of the cottage on this warm and sunny Sunday morning it felt like we were at the height of summer. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and as we all stood in our t-shirts it felt impossible to believe that winter was just around the corner.
After packing up the car and saying goodbye to our cosy little cottage, we set off on the short five minute drive to Zipworld.
We arrived early, checked in, and then we grabbed a drink and sat outside in the sun, just taking in the moment and shooting the shit with each other.
There were a number of groups milling around us; half of them looked a little anxious and nervous, while the rest were buzzing from the adrenaline that was flowing through their veins. But whatever the mood was, it was quite clear that the most overwhelming emotion at Zipworld was one of pure excitement.
While the sun beat down upon our skin and the conversation flowed as easily as the drinks did the night before, we glanced over towards the quarry where we could see our fellow ‘zippers’ whizzing by overhead. They really did seem to be flying as fast as the promotional video suggested.
This was going to be something quite spectacular.
Before we knew it our time slot had arrived and we were being called up for our ‘pre-flight’ briefing. Now it is at this point where one or two of us (no names mentioned) started to get a little bit nervous. But as we climbed into our big red jumpsuits and adjusted our crash helmets (I mean, safety helmets – let’s not use the word ‘crash’) into place, we all laughed between ourselves and the nerves soon started to disappear.
That is until approximately ten minutes later when we were all stood at the bottom of the steps for The Little Zipper!
This first zipline was designed as a way of easing us in and warming us up for the main event. It was all about getting us used to being strapped in and then plummeting into nothingness while screaming for mercy and praying that we don’t die. You can never prepare too much for that kind of scenario. But The Little Zipper appeared to be anything but little, and we were all quite vocal with our thoughts.
“Little? You call this little?”
“That’s not little. It really is not little.”
“It’s more like The Massive Zipper”
“The Humungous Zipper”
“The Great Big Bloody Bastard of a Zipper!!”
The instructor chuckled at our reaction and then he pointed up towards the sky.
“You see that?” He asked.
“See what? Heaven?”
“No. The top of the quarry.”
I squinted and could just about make it out. It was a long way away. And it was very high.
“Oh yes, I see it.” I said smiling.
“Well that’s where you’re going next.”
The five of us looked at each other, and then we looked back at the grinning instructor.
“How high is that?”
“One thousand five hundred feet.” He responded.
Eventually I spoke.
“Well I suppose it doesn’t sound very high if you say it fast enough.”
We all looked at each other, and then both myself and Colin decided to step up and be the first pairing of our group to be sent down The Little Zipper.
Now it’s at this point where I really do need to give some credit to the instructors here. They were absolutely brilliant at talking us through everything and getting us strapped in and positioned properly. The instructions they gave were really clear and easy to understand and they filled me with confidence straight away.
Both The Little Zipper and The Big Zipper have two lines running parallel with each other. This means that not only are you in for the excitement of the zipline itself, but it also means you get to race against a friend. As Colin and I both hung there in our separate slings we glanced across at each other, let out a nervous little laugh and then swapped playful insults about who would win the race.
Before we knew it the brakes were released and the two of us were sent on our way. And what a feeling! It was incredible. The line itself was completely smooth and the sensation of flying was really exhilarating. I looked down and saw the beautiful greenery of the surroundings whizzing past and I started laughing to myself. This was brilliant, and I didn’t want it to end!
But before I knew it I saw the marker point at which I’d been instructed to hold my arms out to assist the braking.
A few moments later I was being caught at the bottom by a really smiley instructor who showed a genuine interest in asking what I thought of it. Now this is something that a lot of people may take for granted, but this person has to ask this question countless times every single day, and so it’s a real skill to be able to show such sincerity over and over. How many times can they hear “oh man, yeah that was awesome, like, totally amazing” over and over without eventually becoming completely nonchalant. They were totally immersed and bubbly in their response. Well done to this person.
Now I mentioned before that to fly down a zipline in parallel with one of your best friends makes it something of a race, and therefore a competition. Well, I’m not going to tell you who lost. All I’m going to tell you is that I didn’t win. I’ll let you figure the rest out.
The remaining participants zipped their way over to us, two-by-two, and then we were all accompanied over to a truck where we climbed into the back and sat across two rows of benches. We were on our way up to the main event; The Big Zipper!
This part of the afternoon was the quarry tour; a slow and creeping drive which took us all the way up to the summit at 1,500 feet. The vehicle rocked and bounced and twisted and turned, and we all had to hold on tightly to stop us from sliding all over the place; but it was great fun and all part of the experience.
Along the way we were educated about the history of Panrhyn Quarry, which was once the largest slate quarry in the world. We were also given some really interesting facts about The Big Zipper; most notably the record speed to have been achieved on it so far. If memory serves me correctly, the current top speed to have been achieved is 236kmh (146mph)! Incredible! This is obviously subject to a number of aspects such as body weight, body positioning, and weather conditions, including wind speed and wind direction.
We accepted that it would be highly unlikely that we’d achieve such speeds, but that there was every chance of reaching up to 100mph, while flying at 500ft high, for one mile!
Oh be still my heart, for I am excited now!!
About fifteen minutes later the truck pulled to a stop and we all climbed out. A gentle breeze whistled past our ears and we looked out over the quarry, all stood in a silent amazement as we took in the scale of our surroundings. There’s no doubt this place was huge, and in the far distance we could just about make out The Little Zipper. Now that we were up here, at the summit, The Little Zipper did indeed look completely miniscule in comparison. The Big Zipper was a giant, and we were five little Jacks that had just climbed a 1,500 foot beanstalk!
The entire group gathered in a circle as we were given one final briefing, and then we were wished good luck and sent on towards the top of the ziplines.
“Come on Colin” I said.
The two of us sped up so that we could get to the very front of the group. I figured that rather than sit around and think about your turn it would be better to just step up and get thrown down as soon as physically possible.
Before the instructor even managed to finish asking who wanted to go first, I’d already responded by putting my hand up and declaring that Colin and I wanted to have that honour. And we did.
Stepping up onto the large metal grid platform, the instructor once again put on his professional head and eased me into the sling, clipped me into position, and ensured my feet were firmly in place on the foot-bar.
And then the nerves really began to kick in.
Like with any kind of event in life, the most anxious times arise when there is a fear of the unknown and during the anticipation of what could happen. I was now strapped into this sling, unable to move, and I was left dangling over the edge of the quarry. The breeze began to rock me gently from side to side as my body remained locked into the most aerodynamic position that I could manage. Nobody spoke and the only noise came from the occasional crackle and bleep from the instructors CB radio. We’d been made to wait until the wind speed and direction had been calculated, which was necessary in order to give us instructions as to when we should begin braking during our descent.
Still we waited, and still we just hung there, my mind working overtime as I began to think about the unthinkable. I looked down along the zipline and realised just how far a mile actually is, especially when you’re at 1,500 feet!
And then I received my instructions, we got the green light, and I could hear the clicking of the brake being removed.
And then I flew.
The first part of the descent on The Big Zipper took us over the embankment of the hillside where the true extent of our height was not yet apparent. The black and grey slate started to blur as the speed really began to pick up and I could see the edge of the embankment drawing closer. And here it came, true open space, true height, true freedom; and then…
I flew over the edge and then I was out into complete open space, the full extent of the 500 foot drop being exposed below me. I was now over the lake of the flooded quarry, which on this perfect sunny day glistened in a bright and beautiful turquoise. But the overwhelming feeling that came over me was not one of fear, and nor was it one of adrenaline. The initial anxiety had actually subsided and what it was replaced with was a feeling of gratitude and complete peace.
I looked around me and saw the beautiful sight of all that surrounded me; the incredible scenery, the greenery of the hills and the trees, the perfect blue of the sky. It was majestic. It was almost spiritual. And for one short minute I was getting to see the world from a place that I’d never normally get to see it, and I felt truly grateful for having this most amazing experience become a part of my life.
But the moment quickly passed as I began to gather more and more momentum.
The coolness of the air battered my face as I flew faster and faster and my peripheral vision began to blur. My face felt like it was beginning to freeze as the combination of cool air and high speeds attempted to pull my cheeks to the back of my head. My tongue started to flap to the side of my face like a dog that had just stuck its head out of a car window. I was now beginning to drool uncontrollably and tears began to stream from my eyes as the cool air blasted my vision. But I could just about make out the shape of Colin flying past me, suggesting that once again I wouldn’t be the winner of this race. I tried to shout BASTARD in response to his overtaking manoeuvre, but because my face had reached a state of temporary paralysis, I was only to make a BLUUUUUUURGH sound while another globule of drool stretched from my mouth and sprayed itself down the side of my head.
I fought and fought against the speed and the breeze in order to remain in a straight and bullet-like position, conscious that if I were to even so much as move my head then I could begin to fishtail and lose all my momentum. I became more and more rigid and tried my very best to tip my head forwards, as though the tipping of my head would somehow allow me to accelerate and catch up with my nemesis on the opposite zipline. I fought and fought, but it was soon apparent that I was fighting a losing battle. I could see the end of the zipline approaching and my momentum had begun to slow. My descent was over, and Colin had beaten me once again.
After the instructor had finished lowering me down from the zipwire, I walked over to where Colin was stood, smiling. But it wasn’t a smile of triumph, and nor was it a smile that suggested he had wind; this was a smile that spoke silently, and it told me that he felt exactly the same way as I did.
The Velocity experience at Zipworld may evoke a range of different emotions between all the people that visit, but the impact that it left upon me was quite clear. In a number of different ways and for a number of different reasons, I felt grateful. Truly grateful.
The sun was starting to set as the five of us regrouped, and then we shared our different thoughts about what we’d just experienced as we made our way back down the hillside.
Our Zipworld experience was now over, but as we drove away from Bethesda with the sun setting behind us, I knew that it was a day that would stay with me and my friends forever.
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