Monday 28 June 2010

Midsummer in Wales

Finally I could rest. I wriggled down into my bivvy bag, breathed deep and slow the mountain air, and tried to sleep. It was well after midnight, and late on this solstice night the darkness was almost complete. The patch of sky framed by my sleeping bag was small, and a lone star glowed small in the centre. Below, the skyline was reduced to a black cut-out against the last glimmer of light on the horizon. Bristly ridge, Tryfan, shapes from my childhood - when climbing meant mountains, and long days moving through them. I hadn't been back in a long time.

 Wild Goats, Glyder Fawr

Starting as the last walkers left the hills, I'd climbed Y Gribin to the high plateau of the Glyders, where a tribe of goats relaxed in the evening sunshine. My plan had been for Castell Y Gwynt, but on a whim I turned west and photographed the sunset amongst the little tors and scattered stones of Glyder Fawr. While the sun still lit the summits I worked on the view I'd pre-visualised - the vista of  Yr Wyddfa to the west. As ever, the elements that make the scene sing can rarely be planned, tonight - a great sea of cloud filling the west but held back by the hills, sending long tendrils of vapour along the valleys to the south.

The Snowdon massif from Glyder Fawr

As the sky glowed gently in the minutes after sunset, I made my favourite photograph of the night, facing east along the broad ridge of the Gyderau. I composed it instinctively, trying to simplify the elements and create a gentle balance between land and sky. There aren't many of the rules of compostion being obeyed here, but I'm happy that it works.

Glyder Fach from Glyder Fawr

A long stumble over Glyder Fach in the gloaming led me, finally, to Llyn y Caseg Ffraith, where I had water for my dinner and a plan for the morning. The dawn came slowly. A crimson bleed on the horizon, high clouds first dark then pastel pink, a cold breeze strengthening. The cloud sea had crept up the valley in the night, and spilled like a tide over the bwlch, burning away in the light of the sun. I was cold in my bivvy, and delayed rising too long. The gentle colours of the pre-dawn were far superior to the blast of light as the sun appeared. The air was clear, too clear, with no haze to soften the light, and no cloud to fill in the shadows.

First light on Tryfan 

I took the long way back to the car by way of Cwm Cneifon, hunting amongst the rocks of Clogwyn Ddu for the Snowdon Lily. It was perhaps a little late, and I found none. It was a treat to see the cliff decked in alpine flowers though - Stonecrops, Roseroot, Starry Saxifrage and Navelwort. As I walked down cloud boiled over the ridge and played with the light, conjuring pillars and gullies from the crags. All was silent, save for the dry ringing of my footsteps in the scree, and a Ring Ouzel's piping song echoing around the Cwm.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Life and Death at Donington


To the north, the fields and farms of the Midlands stretched away to the Ashbourne hills and the start of the Pennines. Closer, the parkland sloped downhill to the deer fence bordering the woods, through which the sparkling reflections of the lowering sun betrayed the River Trent. A little upstream, two swans turned gracefully on the current, silhouetted black on shimmering gold. Water from much of the English Midlands flows gently past this point on its passage to the sea. To the west tributaries fan out to drain the Black Country, the Potteries, and the southern Peak. Just downstream they are joined by the Derwent, bringing both the acid waters from the high moors of the Peak, and the warm, hard waters that rise from the caves and springs of Buxton and Matlock. Together they turn and flow slowly north across the drained fens of Lincolnshire, to a muddy confluence with the Ouse in the broad valley of the Humber.

Running east along the ridge was the broad tree-studded grassland of classic English deer park, on which my companion, Guy, was conducting a bat survey for English Nature. Mentioned in the Domesday book, it has been been parkland as long as records have been kept. Strictly private too, with a concomitant style of gentle management that can disregard concerns of public safety, liability, and tidiness. Here perhaps a third of the great Oaks are classed as 'veterans' - some 250 in all - often huge, always gnarled, and left to grow into a state of majestic decay that would be deemed dangerous elsewhere. It is not a unique site, but certainly significant - the famous ancient pollard Oaks, or 'Dodders', of Windsor Park number barely 100.

The younger trees are typical oaks, with a neatly deer-browsed base supporting the full canopy that the open setting allows. As they settle in to old age - and great age it is, according to the old rhyme 'Three centuries he grows, and three more he stays, Supreme in state, and in three more decays'  - parts of the trunk begin to die, and the tree seems to slowly collapse in on itself. Trunks become great barrels, often hollow, whilst upper limbs typically die first, creating the classic 'stag-headed' Oak - bare, pale branches reaching up from a shrinking canopy. With the gradual decline comes great character. No two veteran trees are alike. Their charisma is impossible to resist, deeply individual but always with the same qualities of stately, regal bearing combined with a deep, aboriginal wildness. I climbed a little way up one, and it unnerved me. The thickened, ancient bark felt light and weak, and poorly bonded to the dry trunk that groaned hollowly beneath. It was as if the tree had gone, leaving only the husk.

Quietly approaching a huge oak with a great almond-shaped cavity high in its trunk, a pale shape resolved blinking amidst the darkness. Before I could raise my binoculars it was out; the sandy back and silent, buoyant flight of a Barn Owl. I smile at the presumption of our name in this ancient setting - trees like this would have been their homes long before barns were even an idea. Its flight takes it past another Oak, this one long dead, its barkless, bleached limbs reaching upwards still into the dusk, frozen in life like a figure struck by lightning. It was from such a tree, perhaps, that Herne, the great hunter and keeper of Windsor forest, hung himself in a tale that was old whilst this tree was young. As the last rays of the sun left its branches a perfect full moon rose pink in the east.

Our transect takes us back to the woods above the river, and a sudden scuffling in the undergrowth. The striped head of a badger nods as he squints at us. He seems unable to convince himself that we are not just deer, and dashes noisily away only to return once, then twice, to stare, snort and rush off again. By the woods the bat detector chirrups constantly - the steady chip-chip-chip of a Noctule, then the staccato rush of a feeding Pipistrelle. Earlier their dashing, twirling flight was visible against the sky, often close enough to touch, but here by the woods the darkness has collected, thickened and now they fly beyond our senses.