Walking through history

Submerged forest with tree stump - Borth/Ynyslas
Submerged forest with tree stump – Borth/Ynyslas

The recent storms along the west coast of Wales have exposed a large expanse of peat between Borth and Ynyslas, dotted with numerous tree stumps. Depending on the distribution of the sand, this submerged forest is visible there to some extent in most winters, but this year it is something else. Judging by tide lines on groynes, sand to a depth of two feet has been shifted completely from a two-mile long section of beach. It is difficult to conceive of the sheer volume of material involved. Or where it has gone!

The trees have been dated to between 3500 to 5500 years before present and consist of pine, alder, oak and birch. Their root systems tend to extend horizontally – as can easily be seen in situ – and this is typical of fen woodlands with a high water table. It is known that in prehistoric times sea levels rose to inundate this coastal woodland. The submerged forest has been reasonably well documented, so I’ll leave interested parties to investigate further for themselves (for example here ). What seems to be lacking is any mention of human activities associated with it. While most stumps look broken and worn as if naturally created, it can clearly be seen in the top photograph that a tree has been felled at stump level using a saw. Probably not that long ago then…… Elsewhere there are quite clear signs of peat cutting, presumably for fuel (see lower picture). How long ago this was done I would love to know.

Peat cuttings in submerged forest - Borth / Ynyslas
Peat cuttings in submerged forest – Borth / Ynyslas

Photographically speaking I found the submerged forest rather a challenge. I’m getting used to a new L-bracket/tripod head combination at the moment, so what was until recently second nature no longer is. I knew what I wanted – water flowing amongst tree stumps at sunset – but my technique tends to get a bit rusty over the winter. (see this post). I would need exposures of five or ten seconds and only the use of a heavy neutral density filter would achieve this. With just one exception all the exposures on my first vsit suffered badly from camera shake. Time for a rethink! I’ve never bothered with a filter holder but using mutiple filters really does call for one. I was, on occasion, stacking a polariser and a screw-in 10-stop ND, topped off with a 2-stop ND grad held against the rim of a telephoto zoom lens! Not ideal at all. But given that I don’t actually possess a filter holder, on my second and third visits I tried to eliminate all other sources of wobble. Short zoom only, two-second timer, then ten second timer. More wobble. Then I noticed that the lens IS was switched on. Could that be the source of the problem? Hopefully my next visit will be more fruitful.

Camera shake was not a problem on shorter exposures – up to two seconds, for example. My third visit – yesterday – was on a cracking sunny afternoon with little wind to ruffle the pools of water gathered in depressions in the peat, and a pleasant sunset. It took me some time to get to grips with some rather chaotic subject matter, and I don’t think I’m there yet. In some ways I found little arrangements of rounded rocks more photogenic than the tree stumps. One thing I could do nothing about was the fact that at low tide the waves were breaking beyond the forest, lower down the beach. I would need to be there on a falling or rising tide to get the pictures I have in my mind’s eye. Oh, and the sun would be setting. It should be easy!

So it is work in progress at the moment, but there seems to be little likelihood of the submerged forest disappearing in the near future. I’ll be down at the beach again tomorrow afternoon if the sun is shining, and while I’m there I’ll know that I’m walking through history.

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A snapshot from the weather war zone.

It has been an interesting few days down on the sea-front at Aberystwyth recently, as unusually high spring tides and gale force winds coincided to create some extreme conditions. Last Friday morning a huge swell rolling in from the Atlantic, coupled with a gale from the south-west, produced the first spectacular but damaging high tide.

Mountainous seas at Aberystwyth
Mountainous seas at Aberystwyth

Saturday morning was quite surreal – still a massive swell but the wind had dropped out to virtually nothing. During the afternoon people strolled along the prom amongst the debris as if it were a summer’s day. But by Monday, despite a slightly lower tide, the wind was back to gale or severe gale, and boy – did it rain. Aberystwyth has never looked so grim. The local police were out in force by then and access to the promenade was severely restricted. I was told I would be arrested if I walked one stretch of South Parade – on a falling tide – despite the fact that I had already walked it in the opposite direction, quite safely, about half an hour earlier! I eventually realised that the best overall view of the prom would be from an elevated position on Constitution Hill at the northern end, and I was lucky that a brief sunny interval coincided with a rain stoppage while I was there. It’s amazing what a little back-lighting can do!

Aberystwyth Promenade
Aberystwyth Promenade

Of course what is spectacular in a visual sense can mean misery for those directly affected. As far as I’m aware no-one suffered serious damage at Aberystwyth but the prom itself looked like a war zone. Railings, benches, paving slabs and the like uprooted and flung around, and the “beach” moved about ten yards inland as far as the front of the hotels…..! The most obvious casualty was a seaside shelter which slowly subsided after the brick and concrete structure supporting it was washed away over a period of four days and nights.

A Saturday afternoon stroll at Aberystwyth
A Saturday afternoon stroll at Aberystwyth

On a broader scale the gravel pits and RSPB visitor facilities at Snettisham (Norfolk) which I enthused about in earlier posts were very seriously “re-arranged” in the North Sea storm surge earlier in December, and other coastal reserves have, unfortunately, also been badly damaged. Inevitably there’s now much talk about “rebuilding coastal defences” and/or “managed retreat” in this era of global warming. We know that sea levels have fluctuated naturally and widely over the past few thousand years but even this hard-won knowledge is just a snapshot in geological terms. Looked at with this perspective our civilisation really is built on shifting sands.

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