Thursday, 17 November 2016

Aberdwyryd - shifting sands

Look on a map and you’ll not find it as a place name but many stories can be told about the mouth of the Dwyryd. My favourite way to approach it is in a Chariots of Fire slow motion run in the waves, northwards along Harlech beach with dunes to the right, Snowdon ahead and the Llŷn arcing towards Ireland.

A feature of our coastline is the 'long shore drift', a process whereby the sand is nudged northwards by the angled direction of the waves, creating sandbars and beautiful estuary mouths.

Looking across the Dwyryd to Portmeirion
The estuary is in constant flux with tides racing in and out revealing the routes of streams and the river flowing from the Vale of Ffestiniog. Across the waters to the north is Portmeirion, most remembered as the location for filming The Prisoner, with the huge bouncing balloon rolling over the mudflats.

In the middle of the estuary slightly upstream, is Ynys Giftan sticking out defiantly. It’s opposite the village of Talsarnau which translates to 'head of the roads' and has been a major route for crossing the Dwyryd for thousands of years. The Ordnance Survey map shows a public right of way from the south but warns of estuary tides. This was not always the easily-accessible side, in 1816 a major storm surge caused the main flow of the river to switch to the north of the island.  

There was a small trackway along the southern tip of the estuary to reach isolated properties but in 1927 it was swept away by a massive tidal wave. A neighbour of mine, who lives a few miles inland at the Crochendy Maentwrog (Pottery), showed me the high water mark carved at waist height onto a slate pillar in his barn. A Welsh Tsunami.

A ferry service carried people from the southern banks of the estuary to Ynys Cyngar above Porthmadog, until the railway came in 1867. The railway crossed the Dwyryd over Pont Briwat, with Briwat being derived from Preifat, and that’s why you had to pay a toll to cross it! But that's all history now as the old wooden bridge had been replaced with a modern, free of charge bridge.

The village of Ynys is aptly named, sitting like an island above the high tide mark surrounded by estuary, sea and the great marsh, but since 1806 the marsh has been drained with a network of ditches flowing out through locks into the estuary at low tide. If you look at the lock outside y Warws (the warehouse) and use your imagination it is easy to see that this was the route taken by boats to supply Harlech Castle. Forget the romantic vision of ocean going ships sailing to the foot of the castle, the goods arrived along y Gamlas, the canal.   
Following on from the drainage a racecourse was established, y Ffridd Rasus, and this is where rich families such as the Oakeleys and the Vaughans would race their horses. The Oakeleys even held polo matches on the beach! Nowadays the site is used for much less glamorous purposes being the landfill and recycling centre for the area.

The high point of Ynys is Llanfihangel y Traethau, the church of St Michael of the Beaches to differentiate it from all the other St Michael’s – back in olden times Michael (Mihangel) was as common as the Jones’s. It is shrouded in yew trees and the walls of the graveyard are rounded, most probably reflecting pre-Christian use. In many cases the transition to Christianity built upon and adapted existing places of worship making the conversion more palatable. Gravestones mark out the resting places for people with remarkable spirit.

One of these is for Richard Hughes, the author of High Wind in Jamaica, first published in 1929. There is also a beautiful stained glass window presented by his children. Richard and his family had a long association with North Wales and for many years lived at Mor Edrin, nowadays a holiday cottage looking north across the estuary and where Richard died in 1976. 

Richard was a keen sailor and loved messing around with boats big and small. On one occasion he helped fit out a slate brig called the Rosetta and subsequently was a member of the six man crew to sail it from Porthmadog to Belfast. The experiences from this voyage feed into the description of the pirate ship in High Wind in Jamaica.

Another gravestone is to the memory of Lord Harlech who was a Cabinet Minister before becoming the British Ambassador to the United States during which time he played a significant role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. He subsequently went on to be the founder of Harlech TV.

Looking at the Moelwyns from Ynys Church
Up until the mid 1800s the estuary was a bustling freight route with 2-man boats rowing slate downstream to meet waiting ships at Borth y Gest. There were about fifty boats and a hundred boatmen plying the waters, loading up at the several quays as far upstream as Maentwrog, going out with one tide and back on the next. Within fifteen years of the Ffestiniog Railway opening, the slate boats became a thing of the past, but an old one has been found pickled in the mud and is awaiting retrieval and restoration.

This idyllic peaceful location also has its memories of war. Tank traps and wire fences can still be made out, this was considered a likely landing point for an invasion from Ireland and was the base for a military camp behind the dunes. Castell Deudraeth, the five star hotel, was the evacuation home for a girls boarding school.

Summer storms in 2007 rearranged the sand to reveal an American fighter plane that crashed in 1942. The plane was towing a target for the rest of the squadron to practice on, but the pilot failed to switch from the reserve to the main fuel supply, and the engines lost power. Landing in two feet of water he survived the crash but a few weeks later was “lost in action” in a raid over North Africa. The plane, a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, has been nicknamed the Maid of Harlech and is incredibly well preserved with minimal corrosion. Within a few months of being revealed the sands moved again and it is once more covered, protected from the elements and souvenir hunters, awaiting rescue for display in the RAF Museum.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Cranberries come from Shrewsbury?

Autumn is here, the leaves are turning and the blanket bog up the mountain has ripe cranberries ready for harvesting.

A while ago I had assumed that cranberries would have come from a bush or a shrub, like bilberries do. But no, they grow on thin trailing vines, with leaves a bit bigger than the size of thyme, resting on mounds of sphagnum moss, with the fruits almost buried by the moss.

Each year we go for the harvest and at first sight there seem to be none. But then you get your eye in, and pretty soon you have a couple of cups full, enough for the sauce for Christmas dinner. Rain-washed berries, sugar, water and 15 minutes of boiling is all it takes to make a jar full and, in a good year, there is maybe enough for one of the neighbours too - living ‘off the fatta the lan’.

This is how and where people would have got their cranberries in the past but these days there are special flooded fields in North America where commercial crops are harvested by huge machines.

Their name in Welsh is ‘llyg aeron’, which translates to shrew berries. Could this be from where Shrewsbury got its name?

New Jersey Cranberries

Codi Cerrig – Raising Stone – Blaenau Ffestiniog’s Slate Heritage

Blaenau’s slate industry is all but gone but its heritage has been preserved to help project its image into the future. So, if you’re visiting Blaenau to experience one of the many adventures, such as the Downhill Biking, or if you’re riding a train or walking the mountains, there is no mistaking Blaenau for anything but the Victorian slate capital of the world.

The town centre has been revamped, with a great deal of European money, and in pride of place are the 4 giant slate splitters’ chisels. Each is made from 15,000 roofing slates laid at an angle of 30- that’s the angle at which the slate beds go into the mountains.

Walking between the giant chisels, each 7 ½ metres tall, you cross the road to the River of Slate. It’s a pavement mosaic with a river running down the middle and on either side are the names of the 350 slate quarries in Wales. Each quarry has its name chiselled into a block of slate which is the same colour as the slate it produced. I never realised there were so many colourful shades of slate.

In this film called Codi Cerrig, the artist Howard Bowcott explains the inspiration behind the designs and their significance.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Champagne at Campbell's - perfect after a long day's walk

Each year we host a walking weekend for a few friends and this year began with an atmospheric explore of Tre’r Ceiri. The name means town of the giants and it’s an iron age hill-fort about 450 metres above sea level on the north coast of the Llŷn peninsula. Within the walls of the fort are the ruins of about 150 houses.

From here we continued along the coast before descending through the remains of the Nant Gwrtheyrn quarry which produced setts used for building roads until the 1940s. These days the workers’ village is a Welsh Language Centre.

Champagne at Campbell's
On the Saturday we set off from the house, through the loop, along the old line of the railway and then up the Wrysgan incline near Tanygrisiau. Inclines were used to lower wagons of dressed slate down the mountain to connect with the railway and from there to the sea at Porthmadog. This incline is particularly steep and at the top end it disappears into the mountain, for the final 30 metres or so until you emerge close to the quarrymens’ barracks.

Having explored the old workings and a couple of chambers we made it to the top of Moel yr Hydd. From here we strode out to Moelwyn Mawr, then across the ridge of Craigysgafn and up our local mountain, Moelwyn Bach.

Instead of returning by the steep side we took the gentle stroll towards the coast and enjoyed tea and cake at Tan y Bwlch station before boarding an up train. At Blaenau there was just enough time to nip into the Co-op to buy the Saturday papers and some milk before catching the last down train of the day. 
Taking a breather at Bryn Cader Faner

As the train slowed coming in to Campbell’s Platform, I could see we were in for a surprise. Sue had set up a table with a white tablecloth on which stood a bottle of Champagne in an ice bucket and six flutes. An ideal setting for a pre-dinner drink.

On the third and final day before our friends headed off down south, we did a ramble in the Rhinogs past lots of stone age relics and finishing with a wild swim in Llyn Eiddew Bach.

A great weekend was had by all.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Campbell's Platform in Country Life

If you flick through this week's Country Life there is an article about little known stations titled Pulling the stops out. It's all about remote request stops, most of which were introduced in the 19th century, unlike Campbell's Platform, which is a comparatively recent innovation.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Cregennan - the best lakes in Wales

The two Cregennan Lakes, between Cadair Idris and the Mawddach, are the best lakes in Wales with plants growing from a depth of over 8 metres beneath the surface. This is double the depth of the average lake due to the clarity of the water, the oxygenation and the lack of nutrients clogging up the natural order of the system.

The land was given to the National Trust by a man who lost both his sons in the first world war. It’s a beautiful scene, but the real magic is beneath the surface with a progression of different plants, such as water lobelia as you move from the shallows, through quillworts, pondweeds, bladderworts and eventually to different types of stonewort. Have a look at the film below to see some dive footage of what it looks like.

A key thing to look at in determining the quality of a lake is the level of nutrients and the level of dissolved oxygen. Excess nutrients come from sewage or agricultural run-off and cause algal blooms which reduce the oxygen levels. In a typical lake in the summer, the waters are divided into cold water at the bottom with very little oxygen and warm water at the top with lots of oxygen. But because of the wind and corresponding wave action at Cregennan, it is constantly mixing up the cold and the warm water. Coupled with the lack of nutrients, this means the entire lake is well oxygenated throughout the year.   

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Pictorial Meadows in Campbell's Kingdom

Wild flowers come and go, mainly in the early part of the summer, but my mix from Pictorial Meadows just keeps on coming. It should still be blooming up till the first frost in November.

I seeded six sections of the veg patch at different times and with varying success. A length on rich soil behind a row of peas was the first to get going, it took off really fast. Was that because it was on a slight slope, angled away from the sun, and did that mean they didn’t go too thirsty?

Other sowings thrived but some were patchy. Seedlings close to stone walls and compost heaps were probably most vulnerable to slug attack. In some areas a mix of seedlings sprouted but only a couple of species went on to survive. Was that because the slugs didn’t like them? Areas that were initially devastated by slugs are still pushing up tiny seedlings and these look like they might survive. Are the slugs sick of the plants?

The seeds had to cope with initial drought and my sporadic watering through a hosepipe from the stream above.

The supplier had stressed the need for weed free beds, which they were when I sowed the seeds. But other seeds have been trespassing or rising out of the seedbank. So what I thought was going to be a low input project has turned into an obsessive, time consuming but satisfying labour of love. Next year I might plant narrower beds so that I can reach across and weed. With the current set up I need to use a scaffolding plank resting on stools – lying face down in a flower bed causes the occasional passer-by to ask if all is ok.

It was the new head gardener at Bodnant who gave me the idea. He had a border on one of those immaculate terraces which was plagued with a particularly pernicious weed; by sowing a mix of annual seeds he’d be able to inspire the visitors and keep the weeds in check ready for planting perennials next year.

If you’d like to have a go you should visit the Pictorial Meadows website. I got a bit carried away with ordering seeds and opted for 500g at a cost of just over £150. I chose the original Pictorial Meadows mix which is said to produce stunning displays until late October / November, starting out with white, blues, pinks and reds, turning to reds, orange and yellow in the autumn. The mix has been carefully balanced for colour and succession of display. Components include: Shirley Poppy, Pavader Rhoeas Californian Poppy, Eschscholzia Californica Cornflower, Centaurea Cyanus Fairy Toadflax, Linaria Maroccana Tickseed Coreopsis Tinctorial Red Orache Atriplex Hortensis and Larkspur. Delphinium Ajacis General Height: 60cm.

So far it’s done what it says it will do on the packet which is not always the case with my gardening attempts! Should I collect the seed at the end of the summer or buy more for next year? Needless to say the supplier strongly recommends buying new so that you get the mix in the right proportions.

Photos struggle to convey the effect, the swaying in the breeze and the buzz of the bees. This YouTube is better but still a poor substitute for the real thing.


Friday, 22 July 2016

Full Steam Ahead BBC2

The first episode of the 6 part series was on BBC2 on Thursday 21st July. The TV crew were filming on the Ffestiniog and at Llechwedd for 3 days in mid February.

Historians Ruth Goodman, Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn bring back to life the golden age of steam and explore how the Victorian railways created modern Britain. In particular they ride the Gravity Train past Campbell's Platform and Tank Curve. If you know the line you can see a few continuity glitches! Here's the preview to that ride on the Gravity Train:

Thursday, 21 July 2016

The Gathering

Mid July and ours is the last farm to gather its sheep off the mountain. The sheep have been enjoying the mountain grass for the last couple of months, since the moment our farmer thought the weather was OK to send them up. But now it’s time to come down for shearing.

We meet outside the farm at 5:00 a.m. The plan is to get up and down before it gets too hot. One by one the gang assembles. It’s a mixture of young and not-so-young, family, other farmers, and me the neighbour. They’ve done this many times over the last three weeks, taking it in turns to help each other, but for me it’s full of fresh excitement.
Just above the mountain wall
The gathering gang seems a bit subdued. One of the older men has stretched himself out on a sack of wool and seems to be asleep. There’s a lot of muttering and cursing about the weather. It’s fine where we are, but clouds are covering the top of the mountain.

Most farm jobs carry on whatever the weather, but cloud on the mountain is a no-no for gathering the sheep. Fluffy grey sheep blend in perfectly with the clouds, making them impossible to see at any distance. You can’t see your colleagues as you sweep the mountain from different directions. You can’t see the dogs to guide and control them. Apart from these complications there is also the safety hazard: there are many cliffs waiting to catch you out.

From where we are by the river, we are right up against the foot of the mountain and can only see the first ridge. Dafydd phones his wife, who has a good view from her kitchen: 'Yes, you can see it now. Hold on. No, it’s gone again. I think it’ll clear soon. ...' Geraint gets into his van and listens to the weather forecast. It’s too general, whilst what’s happening on our mountain right now is a bit too specific. The farmer takes off in his Land Rover and watches from the other side of the valley as we kick our heels in the farmyard. There’s only so much small talk welcome this early. 

 The dogs are getting restless and are let out to stretch their legs. What a canine social event this is. So many tyres from so many farms to be sniffed and cock a leg against. There’s a lot of competition and status amongst the assembled pack, and some need reminding who’s top dog.

At ten o’clock, the farmer comes back from yet another recce. 'Amser paned' … let’s get a cup of tea. Ten of us squeeze into the farmhouse and are made very welcome. Tea, sausage rolls, bread and cake … great, feel fit to tackle a mountain now.

It’s decided that now is the time to go. I climb into the back of a 4x4x4 where the last 4 indicates the number of sheepdogs I have for company. Three of us and the four dogs are taken to the west, whilst the larger group of seven with eleven dogs are dropped off to the east of the mountain.

We climb part-way up a ridge before splitting up. I’m to make my way to the point where the wall comes down from the mountain and ignore the blue-marked sheep – they’ve crossed over the top of the mountain from another farm. I can hear the dogs being worked above me but otherwise it’s peace and quiet. Not many sheep here, just a few wild goats watching on.

I make it to the wall, driving just a couple of sheep ahead. The man above is now in position with his dogs and shouts down. It’s going to be a long wait, as the cloud has come down again whilst the farmer is out of sight scouring the top. Eventually the cloud lifts and we’re on the move again. Sheep that were in twos or threes are now in tens or more, moving cautiously downwards and towards the centre of the mountain.

The rounded mountain in the background is Manod where
the contents of the National Gallery were hidden in WWII
Gathering is never an exact science nor a complete sweep, there’s always one or more that gets away. A shaggy one with the front of her coat hanging down stands defiant in front of two dogs. She stamps her feet and snorts at them, before dashing recklessly diagonally down the mountain in the wrong direction. The dogs follow as the sheep rebounds off a stone wall and carries on relentless. This sheep is too determined and gets left behind; so much for the parable of the lost sheep.

By now the sun has burnt through the early morning clouds and is beating down with a vengeance. The lower we get the hotter we get. Sheep, dogs and shepherds are converging downwards from all directions. Just below me a sheep is trying to hide in the undergrowth, too exhausted to go any further. One of the men carries her on his shoulders - hardly a ‘piggy-back’!

As we descend we move from the cliffs, through boulder fields into the heather belt, the bogs and thence into the bracken. If the sheep kept silent and still, thousands could hide away beneath this tall green camouflage. It’s an exhausting job for dogs to break through the forest of bracken.

Having undergone all kinds of natural hazards, we are just about to cross the Ffestiniog Railway line when an unscheduled train comes past. A couple of minutes later and there would have been either an emergency stop or a few lamb chops.

More or less back at the farm and the dogs take a muddy bath and a few mouthfuls of brackish water. Their work is almost done, whereas the shepherds have many hours of shearing ahead of them.

What sort of future lies ahead for this type of farming? 

A Feast of Strawberries and Bilberries

June was good with strawberries cropping at 5 kilos a day, double my weight in the month. We ate them as we picked, served with cream or as smoothies over ice cream. Some went into jam, others got pickled in sherry or vodka. Our neighbours had their fill and some were swapped for shiitake mushrooms cultivated by a friend.

Then came the bilberries from early July to late August. With the help of bilberry combs from the Ray Mears website, we can pick 3 to 4 kilos in a session. In the good old days, there would have been lots of people picking the bilberries, but it seems we have the whole mountain to ourselves, apart from the choughs and other creatures that share our taste.

Purple lips are a bit of a giveaway as to who’s been eating on the job. Useful in all sorts of puddings and perfect for freezing, on a tray, and then poured into a bag. First up makes the tea and thaws a bowl of berries. We should have enough to purplify our muesli until at least Christmas.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Brythoniad Male Voice Choir

The Brythoniaid is one of the two male voice choirs in Blaenau and Thursday is practice night. Everyone is welcome to watch and listen which is what we did as the choir prepared for its upcoming appearance at Festival No. 6 in Portmeirion.

It was a bit daunting as we sat on the three seats in the middle of the assembly hall in Ysgol y Moelwyn. In front and facing us were the 45 members of the choir; there would have been more but several members are farmers and this is a busy time of year for them. It was almost like being the X Factor panel but without the buzzers.

If you’d like to go along they start singing at 7:30 and continue until about 9:30 with a leg stretch in the middle. Full details of the choir can be found on their website. Below is a recording from their performance for the 2015 Festival No. 6 in which you can see them singing; on an open top double decker London bus, outside Euston Station, on Virgin Trains to Bangor and of course at Portmeirion. Have a look and listen - you won't regret. It's a fabulous rendition of the Pet Shop Boys 'Go West'. 

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Wild Flower Extravaganza

Late June and the coast path around Aberdaron is on fire with flowers of all shapes and colour. 

The sweet scent of trampled white clover, squashed thyme and honeysuckle; smells so blatant that even my insensitive nose could enjoy them.

Back home we compared our photos to those in the Wild Flowers concise guide; Tormentil, Kidney Vetch, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Lady’s Bedstraw. We were unanimous in naming many but opinion was divided on quite a few - should have taken the book with us.

My favourite photo was the ladybird on what I think is Corn Chamomile.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Chicken of the Woods - forager's hors d'oeuvre

There are three oaks near the house that host a bracket fungus called Chicken of the Woods. They fruit every other year in June and are unmistakeable, bright orange beacons.

They grow very large, possibly weighing up to a kilo? But if you leave them too long, they dry out and become too tough to eat.

This particular one is on the farmer's land so I asked permission to help myself to some.

I propped my ladder against the trunk, climbed up and snapped off the lowest bracket. Back in the kitchen I sliced it into strips and fried in butter for 10 to 15 minutes with pepper and a smidgeon of salt. Then a squeeze of lemon.

It was delicious and the texture a bit like chicken breast. An excellent forager's hors d'oeuvre. It's the sort of luxury you'd be prepared to pay an arm and a leg for at Harrod's Food Hall!

Friday, 10 June 2016

Redstart Nest

I heard the alarm call of anxious birds and there was Molly, staring at the stone wall below, where hungry young redstarts were waiting for lunch. The nest is several inches inside the wall.

The male is the brightly coloured one on the left.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Bluebells, Cuckoos and Woodpeckers

Bluebells Maentwrog Nature Reserve 1st June 
We take bluebells so much for granted because we have so many - people from other countries in Europe are amazed with our profusion of bluebells.  They arrive around us a bit later than in the valley below and last well into June.

In Welsh they're called Clychau'r Gog - bells of the cuckoo - because they flower about the same time as the first cuckoo arrives. That's another species that used to be taken for granted but now after a significant population decline they are on the Red List of endangered species. But this part of Wales has a healthy population of them.

Another of my favourites at this time of year is the Greater Spotted Woodpecker. Finding a nest is never too difficult. Just walk into the woods and wait until you hear the call and see the distinctive looping flight of the bird with its heavy head. Then close your eyes and listen for the plaintive cries of young woodpecker chicks calling out for food.

Once the youngsters leave the nest we enjoy seeing them come to the bird table for the first time - all gawky and getting used to that massive beak.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Laburnum Archers - not a new radio soap

A Laburnum Archer
What comes after Chelsea? It’s the North Wales Festival of Gardens with 22 of the region’s gardens putting on a fantastic show including Bodnant of course. As we walked into the garden there was a sign to say the BBC were filming and that we were to inform the staff if we positively did NOT want to be seen on Gardeners’ World.

We called in to see the Laburnum Arch, thinking it might be in full bloom, but it was 7 to 10 days away from that. What was in full bloom was a brightly coloured Laburnum Archer. This new species, identified with a badge on the lapel, was one of the 23 seasonal volunteers recruited to ‘manage’ the 3,000 visitors per day who want to see the arch in June. And that, volunteering, is the theme of the episode of Gardeners' World due to be shown on 3rd June.

Below is a reminder of what the arch looks like during a quiet moment.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Handkerchief Tree blooming at Plas Tan y Bwlch

Handkerchief Tree at Plas Tan y Bwlch
The Pocket Handkerchief Tree (otherwise known as the Dove Tree) Davidia involucrata was first discovered growing wild in China, towards the end of the nineteenth century. Seeds were sent back to the UK by Victorian plant hunter Ernest Wilson in 1901 and when it flowered in Britain for the first time, it caused such a stir that the leading nursery of the day (Veitch’s nursery of Chelsea and Exeter) could not keep up with the demand for plants.

One of the first Pocket Handkerchief Trees to be planted in Britain was at Plas Tan y Bwlch which is one of the (50) Finest Gardens in Wales. Yes, it’s official, it has been listed in the new book published by Tony Russell.

Other local to us gardens that feature in the book are Plas Brondanw and Portmeirion and, slightly further afield, are Bodnant and the intriguing Conwy Valley Maze Garden. The maze was created in 2005 and is said to be the largest garden maze in the world; this sounds well worth a visit.

Tony Russell, author of the book, has recently moved to live in the village of Rhyd and is helping with the project to restore Plas Tan y Bwlch gardens. He is also running courses at The Plas which include guided visits to several of his favourite gardens.