A celestial-sounding melody echoed around the dark hostel room as rain pattered relentlessly against the window. As the phone from which the sound was coming vibrated against a vinyl floor, sleepy eyes widened to see a square of black glass, peppered with raindrops and the silhouette of the mountains of Snowdonia.
We are in Llanberis, North Wales, at 5.30am one Tuesday in August, 2021.
My friend and I had set our alarms with the intention to take a sunrise kayak trip across Llyn Padarn, a breathtaking, glacially formed lake which stretches two miles in length and twenty nine metres in depth at the foot of a host of rocky peaks, Mount Snowdon being the most famous.
However, a combination of Samsung’s contemporary cock-a-doodle-doo and the prospect of getting completely drenched was enough to make us reconsider the idea we had conjured whilst basking in the heat of the previous afternoon. But, if the last couple of years have taught anyone anything, it’s that you have to do these things when you get the chance. There haven’t been many opportunities to wake up away from home in the past year, and if you postponed all of your plans until the arrival of better weather you’d barely do a thing.
So there we stood, a few minutes later, shivering hands stoically inflating our kayak by the side of the lake. The skies were fading from black to a watery, charcoal grey and there was absolutely nobody else about, beyond a lone swimmer who offered us a chirpy greeting about having the lake to ourselves as she stepped out into the water and started gliding about contentedly.
By the time we were out on the water the sky had turned into a sheet of off-white wool and there was just enough daylight to make out the mountains behind the clouds. We paddled in a southeasterly direction, taking in stunning views of Snowdon behind the thirteenth century ruins of Dolbadarn Castle. To our left were a cluster of features symbolic of Welsh heritage and history: the National Slate Museum, the Llanberis Lake Railway, and the former Miners’ hospital building. With virtually the whole of this impressive body of water to ourselves, and so much around us to see, the early start had gifted us the kind of mentally energising experience which can completely shift internal paradigms and conjure new dreams. I want to do this every morning, and just who exactly says that I can’t?
We savoured this moment for as long as we could though it was only a matter of time before the weather caught up with us. It was a beautiful morning but it was also extremely cold, and the water – whilst calm in its demeanour – had managed to find its way into our shoes and soak our clothes. Teeth were beginning to chatter. Fingers were starting to freeze. Minds were being seduced by the thoughts of warm hot chocolates and cooked breakfasts. It was time to get out, and shiver on the banks for thirty minutes whilst waiting for the kayak to be deflated enough to fold into the boot. Maybe I shouldn’t do this every morning. Or maybe I wear ten fleeces, boxing gloves, and a spacesuit next time!
After what was the quickest turnaround ever back at the hostel to get changed (nothing challenges the concept of time like the prospect of a massive hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows) we were stood on the pavement in the rain forming the queue for the cafe. Each of the tables inside were occupied and we were still in a pandemic, so “budging up” could not be a thing in this instance. I watched through the window and willed the diners to eat up quickly, though my friend had assured me that it would be worth the wait, and she was right.
Behind us in the queue stood a man with his young son, discussing what they were going to eat. The rain was falling faster at this point, and whilst it seemed a sauna in comparison to shivering on the banks a short while earlier, it was still bitterly cold. I kept thinking about swirling my spoon round a receptacle of molten chocolate, and how the marshmallows would melt into a fluffy goo that would ooze down my throat and radiate heat round my icy insides. As transfixed as a dog by a bone I watched a pair of diners finally stand and take their jackets from the back of their seats, and when the waitress simultaneously approached the door we knew our turn had finally come. The newly vacant – and only available – table sat six, and it made no sense for just the two of us to occupy it, so we invited the man and his young son to get out of the rain and join us.
The breakfast exceeded expectation, and neither of us held back. After the early start, the freezing temperatures and all that paddling, we deserved our massive hot chocolates and our morning feasts. Whilst eating we started engaging in a fascinating conversation with the man. He explained how they were traveling around North Wales in a camper van with uncomfortable seating, reliving his childhood holidays and giving his son an experience to remember. He also shared with us his voluntary work rescuing chickens and the values behind it, an incredibly eye opening conversation about an issue I had known very little about before we met. As we chatted and chatted, his son contentedly dined quietly on his toast. The pair of them consumed very little compared to us, and were gone within about thirty minutes, bidding us goodbye and wishing us a nice day as they put on their jackets and walked back out into the rain, back to their van and back to South Wales. My friend and I remarked about what a nice pair of people they were. The inspiring, kind-hearted man. His well behaved young son, who just let us chat, no screaming, no fuss.
We stayed in the cafe nursing our warm mugs for a little longer to bring our fingers back from the dead, then motioned the waitress over to pay for our banquet breakfast. She seemed a little stuck for words:
“Erm, well actually, there’s no need. That man who was at your table. He paid for you.”
“What? All of it?”
“Yes. All of it…he said he enjoyed the -“ (unfortunately we’ll never know exactly what, as her vocals were doing battle against the clattering of cutlery in the background at this point, but it’s fair to guess that dining with us had obviously not been the worst experience in the world).
Now it was our turn to be stuck for a words! But why? We had ordered so much more than them. We didn’t even know their names. We thought back to the moment the man had gone to pay for his bill. He had gone up to the counter, outside of our earshot, obviously not wanting us to know what he was doing. He clearly wasn’t after praise or anything in return; he knew he’d be long gone by the time we found out about his gracious act. He knew that we would never be able to contact him to say thank you, or identify him as a hero.
He was just genuinely, purely and beautifully kind. And after eighteen hard months of this pandemic, during which as a society we have seen some of the worst examples of human behaviour ever and been challenged in ways beyond comprehension, these acts of genuine kindness mean so much more than they ever would before. This was about way more than saving fifteen quid each, it was about just knowing that people like that exist, people who infuse the mantra to “be kind” into the world around them not just by posting those couple of words online to look good but actually by being kind. If I ever happened to meet this man again, I would thank him for that first and foremost, and then I would thank him for the breakfast.
We were still speechless as we returned to the car and looked out over Llyn Padarn again, taking in the same stunning views as the morning but this time appreciating the warmth of the heater and human kindness. Not every stranger we share a table with in life will pay for our meals, in fact the vast majority won’t. The vast majority might even snap at us to move, scrape their cutlery loudly against their plates, constantly curse, or use the last of the ketchup before it’s our turn.
But it’s not always about the vast majority, and a majority is still not everybody. The most inspiring and memorable people you will come across in life won’t always be those you have the most exposure to. They’ll often be the ones you encounter by chance, in tiny cafes in tiny towns on rainy days, strangers who aren’t after reciprocation, strangers who are just peaceful and kind, strangers who will always be strangers but who raised a smile and left an impression that you’re still thinking about several months later as you reflect back upon a year. Strangers who inspire a blog post.
Llanberis, North Wales, at 5.30am one Tuesday in August: the morning nature and kindness breathed optimism into the midst of a pandemic where it had so often seemed scant.