With life unravelling, Nick Livesey sought refuge in Capel Curig. Starting as a grumpy waiter sleeping in his car, he's built a career in the hills he loves, and ten years after that leap of faith he wouldn't be anywhere else. Living in Eryri/Snowdonia is rewarding, he says, but there may be hard times too. Here's his unvarnished account.
One evening in early May I found myself sat above Llyn Hywel in the Rhinogydd mountains pondering my return home to Northamptonshire. A wonderful week of mountain photography was drawing to a close; a week in which I had immersed myself in landscapes that, over a decade earlier, had inspired and empowered me to leave a toxic relationship with illicit self medication. Going back to 'real life' would mean facing up to another relationship which, while not toxic, had been falling apart for a number of months.
As I took my final shot and packed away my gear, the phone rang; it was my then fiancé. In no uncertain terms, I was told that she had had enough of my obsession with mountains, things were beyond repair and I was to move out of the home we shared without delay. I should have seen it coming but, ostrich-like, I plodded along thinking everything would turn out alright it the end. In floods of tears I ended the call and decided there and then that, with nothing to lose, I would somehow build a new life in North Wales.
The reality of moving to the mountains is that unless you've got a decent income you'll experience hard times and find out what you're made of
Less than a week later I handed in my notice at work with immediate effect, packed my car with my laptop, photography equipment and walking/climbing gear and drove to Snowdonia without a job to go to nor a place to live. It was the most rash and ill thought through thing I've ever done but I promised myself that come what may, I would give it a year before deciding on my future. Ten years later, I am still here and intend to see out the rest of my days in an area that has come to define me and give meaning to my life.
After a couple of weeks of moping around, sleeping in my car and occasionally sneaking the odd night in my local mountaineering club hut I was fortunate enough to land a job in the Moel Siabod Cafe where I stayed for seven years, gaining a reputation as the rudest, most bad tempered waiter in North Wales. If anyone reading this has been unlucky enough to experience my woeful customer service skills then I can only apologise, sincerely so. Nevertheless, during my time at the cafe, I came into contact with lots of wonderful people, some of whom I count as close friends and others that have helped me along the way.
With that in mind, it is important for anyone thinking about making a move to the mountains to understand how crucial networking and getting involved with the local and general outdoor community will be to making the move work. It was through word of mouth that I found my first home in Wales, a tatty caravan behind the Bryn Tyrch Inn in Capel Curig. I quickly learned that living in a rural area, however popular it may be with tourists, can be a lonely and isolating experience if you are not prepared to put yourself out there. It is very much a case of you get out of it what you put in.
From my humble beginnings as a grumpy waiter sleeping in my car, I now live in a little white cottage on the slopes of Moel Siabod and make my living as a Mountain Leader and outdoor writer/photographer. I've just began working on my second book, 'The Complete Mountains of North Wales'. Sounds wonderful doesn't it?
Don't get the wrong idea, it doesn't always rain; sometimes it snows
There can't be many among us that have never harboured the dream of chucking it all in and going to live in the hills which monopolise our free time and our thoughts when at work, but does the dream bear any resemblance to the reality? In my experience of 10 years in Capel Curig, the reality is so much more fulfilling than the dream as to be almost unimaginable to the uninitiated. It does, however, come with considerable challenges. But more about those later. Allow me to sell this lifestyle to you, assuming that you are as passionate about the outdoors as I am.
As I write this, I am looking out of my office window; it's a beautiful evening in early summer and across the valley I can see the Gwydir Forest with the high peaks of the Carneddau rising above. We've not had a drop of rain for almost four weeks and the weather is set fair for at least another seven days. Admittedly, it's a sad state of affairs for paddlers but don't worry, they'll get theirs before too long. If I am not working on the hill then I am at home writing to a timetable that suits me so I can hit the hills whenever the mood takes me. My neighbour also works from home and yesterday enjoyed a dawn crossing of Crib Goch before returning to his computer. If he's had a particularly full day he often nips out for a quick ride on the Marin (Gwydir Mawr) or a couple of routes in the pass, drawing from the huge pool of enthusiastic climbers available to us.
Lazy afternoons may find me sitting in the shade of an old oak with only the sheep, highland cows and myriad species of birdlife for company. I gaze at Siabod and the Glyderau, glass of wine in hand and reflect on how, in the Autumn of my life, fate has gifted me such a calm and beautiful existence. I am incredulous; this is a story not often told by folk born into poverty on rough council estates. Occasionally, especially when my grandsons visit, I'll leave the mountains for a short time to enjoy one of the countless beaches that are a short journey from home or mooch around a castle or a stately National Trust pile and its gardens. Are you buying into it yet?
That is but one part of the story. Many are those that chase this dream and loudly exhort others to do the same only to scurry away after their first winter. I have seen them come and I have seen them go. Let's fast forward to November, shall we?
It has been raining for three weeks solid and the top and bottom of my lane is under 18 inches of water. Having given up my car in the first lockdown I am dependent on public transport which runs to Betws y Coed once every two hours. To do my groceries in a very expensive Londis (the nearest supermarket is in Bangor) I have to wade through the deluge and hope that the bus turns up. Sometimes it can't get through the floods in Nant Peris and leaves me waiting for an hour before I decide to embark on the eight mile round trip on foot. Five minutes later the bus thunders past me and I shout obscenities at it.
The cottage is North-facing, damp, dark and the black dog of depression is stalking me. My heating oil has run out and I can't afford to get any more until I have saved enough money. Weeks without hot running water and sneaking into a nearby holiday cottage for a weekly shower between guests. Power cuts are a regular occurrence as storms pound the village and the cottage is struck by lightning several times a year, consigning another router to the dustbin. Don't get the wrong idea, it doesn't always rain; sometimes it snows. During the last wintery spell my roof avalanched, twice, ripping off my guttering. Several months later, the landlord has still to get it fixed and now I think that there's something living in my loft but I'm too squeamish to make an investigation after sharing my bed with a mouse one evening. I can't get out on the hills and I am getting fat because my wine consumption has gone up. I spend days on end not seeing or speaking to anyone. I AM SLOWLY GOING MAD.
Then it happens. It's April and I notice that the days are perceptibly longer, I am wearing one less jumper at night and morning dawns bright with mist fill the valley. Everything suddenly makes sense again. Offers of work start rolling in and I'm able to get some washing on the line which marks an end to wearing damp, mouldy clothes. With the ice, snow and floods gone the Tesco van can manage our steep driveway so I've got access to cheaper food and only need the bus for getting to Pen y Pass, Llanberis or Ogwen for work. Life is good, ridiculously good.
The reality of moving to the mountains is this; unless you've got a decent income you will experience hard times and really find out what you are made of, but as with all things in life, it is about prioritising what is most important to you. Regardless of the challenges I face each winter, I could never return to city life, it would kill me. Give me storms in the mountains over sunshine in a city any day. My life here is one of stark contrasts, deprivation and hardship on the one hand with precious days of fulfillment and beauty on the other. I wouldn't change a thing.