Britain on a Shoestring - Operation Find Merlin

(Map of Locations)

(Train & Bus Schedule & Info)

(Sightseeing Schedule & Info)

The Adventure Begins: March of 2013.
The Goal: To find Merlin.
Travel Method: Trains and Buses via 8 Day BritRail Pass.
Planning: One year of compiling train times, bus schedules, hostel contacts, rail maps, and campground bookings in a journal.
Travelers: A trio of college-age females.
Packed: Tent, sleeping bags, first-aid kit, energy bars, rope, hiking boots, cell phone.


Our adventure begins at four o'clock on a cold spring morning, on a train from Birmingham New Street headed straight northwestward into Wales. We, sleep-deprived travelers as we were, snoozed in our seats, waking up some hours later in the brisk and bright morning at Lladudno Junction. Unwilling to wait for the next train, we began walking toward Conwy before being offered a free bus ride by a friendly driver.

The bus approaches the walled castle town via a bridge, the stone walls stretching tall as it trundles over the water.

The castle itself is closed in early mornings and requires a small entry fee, but visitors are free to wander the outside and take the spiral staircase and up onto the crenelated castle walls.

After grabbing food from the Spar, we sat by the water, flinging bits of food for the seagulls and slowly warming as the day properly dawned.  We left before noon - the schedule was packed - and took the train from Lladudno to Blaenau Ffestiniog.

We stood in the freezing wind surrounded by snow-capped mountains, faces red, lips chapped and noses running, squinting at bus schedules and puffing at barely-lit cigarettes. We took refuge in a nearby tea shop, sipping milky, sugary concoctions and warming our hands on the painted china while at the next table over, bushily bearded men spoke contentedly in Welsh.

When the bus came, it took us to Minffordd, from which we walked to Port Meirion, an odd paradise in the middle of the Welsh towns surrounding it.

It was also the iconis filming location for the 1960's TV show The Prisoner, and well worth the somewhat exporbitant entry price.

There was a quick debate about whether or not we had time to visit Dinas Emrys which is where Merlin, according to legend, prophesied about the red and white dragons (representing the British and Saxon forces) battling beneath the castle. But there wasn't enough time, so we took the train right to Abergavenny and then got a taxi from there to Llanthony Priory.

It was pitch dark when we arrived, and we pitched our tent for the first time, put on our warmest clothes, crawled into our sleeping bags, and tried to fall asleep. We  - or more specifically I, since it had been my job to plan - were dumb as fuck. None of our supplies were suited for the extreme cold. We were fine until sometime past midnight when the temperatures dropped below zero and the ground froze solid, the cold creeping up through the tent and into our sleeping bags. At this point, we abandoned all pride, and ended up whimpering and crawling on top of each other.

We awoke early the next morning, surrounded by chickens, crisp air, and snow-capped mountains. Cows mooed on the farm behind us.

We walked into the nearby inn for a fortifying breakfast - carrot and coriander soup has never tasted so unbelievably amazing - and then explored the Priory.

The Priory is some hundreds of years old, and possibly most famous for being the place where Edward the Confessor stopped before continuing on to the castle at which he was murdered.

We freshened up a bit and then called a taxi, after which we took the train to Cardiff.

It is a glorious place for fans of Doctor Who.

We ate at Eddie's Diner, an American themed restaurant where the 'American' Doctor Who episode The Impossible Astronaut was filmed.

We made one stop after, which was Caerphilly Castle.

It was beautiful. It was also the site of the Who episode The Almost People.

We didn't have time for Chepstow Castle but went straight on to Kidwelly, where we stayed for the night, unfortunately arriving too late to visit the nearby Carmarthen and Bryn Myrddin, one of Merlin's alleged birthplaces.

We left early the next morning, wearing slightly nicer clothes than our usual rough sweatpants and messy hats, and took the train straight into Bath. Our first stop was the Fashion Museum, followed by the Roman Baths themselves.

The architecture is unbelievable.

We left, had amazing Indian food on George Street, and then took the train to Salisbury. Stonehenge is only a short drive away - or a walk after taking the bus to Amesbury.

The UK's National Heritage site offers cheap, special after-hours passes that, unlike the usual highly expensive and guided tour where you have to stay behind the ropes at all times, let us inside the stone circle, free to wander as the sun set.

Anyone who says that 'all the atmosphere is gone' from Stonehenge has either never been inside, or is lying to themselves. It's impossible to explain, other than to say that besides the high winds and setting sun there was a feeling none of us could describe. A vibration, maybe, in the ground or in the air.

It was almost impossible to conceive, the idea that we were standing inside something so extremely old.

We stayed for the night with a lovely woman from, and the next morning took the bus back into town. The minimum price for two hours at Thermae Bath Spa was more money than we'd spent thus far, but was more than worth it after days of trekking and freezing. We soaked, steamed, and soaked again until our time was up.

We took the train down toward Avebury, where we didn't have time for much besides an odd lunch at the very pretty Red Lion Pub and a quick jaunt around the stones.

We then spent about five years on the trains, headed straight south to Dorset and the Jurassic Coast. That night we Couchsurfed near Bournemouth with an amazing artist and her wittily hilarious girlfriend. They fed us the most amazing Spanish cooking and we talked late into the night. Although it was unfortunately too dark to see the famous Jurassic Coast, they drove us around the city and showed us the water, the air balloon, and Mary Shelley's grave.

We packed up the next morning, made the painful choice between Durdle Door and Corfe Castle, decided the finnicky and unreliable bus schedule was not worth getting stuck on the coastline for an entire day, and headed to Corfe.

It was bright, sunny, and magical.

It's easily one of my favorite castles I've ever been to, and it proved to be thoroughly climbable.

We spent the afternoon frolicking before grabbing a cup of tea at the local pub and leaving on the next bus.   It was a long journey from there into Cornwall. We spent a few hours on the train before transferring onto two different buses, with just enough time to shop for groceries - bread, vodka, the essentials - and board the next leg of the journey. We paused several times in our journey for the driver to get out and have a communal smoke with the passengers. One woman riding the bus offered him some soup from her thermos. It was definitely the countryside.

We ended up in Camelford as dusk was falling, and called a taxi to take us to our campsite at Trewethett Farm in Trethevy.  Our campsite was on the sea. We pitched our tent overlooking the water, took much-needed showers, and sat in our tent demolishing our bottle of vodka.

We checked in the next morning with some very lovely women at the front desk, who were kind and welcoming. Then we left our bags behind, took our valuables, and with a sturdy map to guide us on our way, walked the Southwest Coast Path to Tintagel.

We found carved Neolithic spirals in the rock and some kind of shrine along the way.

Plus this old mill.

It was a two hour trek, up and down stairs and around hills - easily the hardest thing we had done so far.  It was also one of the most gorgeous things I have ever seen.

The views were completely unbelievable.

Winded and windswept, we stumbled into the restaurant at Tintagel, fortifying ourselves with warm food and cider. Then we climbed onto the castle.

It did not disappoint.

It was, I decided, a bit like Hogwarts - a sprawling magical castle that Muggles like us simply could not see properly.
We stopped to boulster our strength with cream teas, and our last stop was to sit at the water's edge and stare at the caves.
Very tired indeed now, we called a taxi and raced to the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft. It was just closing as we arrived, but the nice woman behind the front desk let us have fifteen minutes. It's an incredible museum. It features both local and international history, and unlike the disappointment one is more likely to run into in Salem, it was filled with a huge amount of very credible information.

Then we walked the two hours back to the campsite, arriving very weary indeed. The owners asked us if we would like to move our tent to one of the empty storage sheds, where they hoped we'd be slightly more protected from the wind, because they were quite worried about us out there all alone. They then also gave us a space heater, and asked if we were quite sure we didn't need anything else before leaving us. We fell asleep on the couches, happy as clams.
The next morning we caught the first bus, then another bus to the train station. We rode to Penzance, at the very tip of the Cornish peninsula, and took the bus to Marazion and St Michael's Mount. That day, we took a boat across at high tide, and feasted on yet more cream teas before making our weary way back. The next morning, we returned at low tide, and walked across the stone pathway to the castle.

We had lunch - and more cream teas! Before heading slowly back toward the train station. This was our last full day in England. The adventure was done.