Wales at Waters Edge : a review

The mouth of the Mawddach with the hills of Penllyn in the background. Taken in 2012
The mouth of the Mawddach at high tide,with the hills of Penllyn in the background. Taken in 2012 and now in the Meirionnydd gallery of my website.

My most recent book, Wales at Waters Edge, with text by Jon Gower, was published in May 2012. I’ve only just become aware of this review of it, which appeared four years ago in the Wales Arts Review.

Meirionnydd (the old county of Merionethshire) is one of the most delectable areas of Wales, with its heart perhaps being the sublime estuary of the river Mawddach. I’ve just added a Meirionnydd gallery to my website; you can have a look by clicking here. Enjoy!

You wait around and then you wait around some more.

St David's Head (in the far distance) from Garn Fawr.
St David’s Head (in the far distance) from Garn Fawr.

One evening about ten days ago I headed down to Pembrokeshire. Postcards are still selling well down there and I need to renew a couple of cards for next season. One card in particular had sold out, a view of Strumble Head lighthouse from the mainland. I hoped that the heather would still be in flower so that it could appear in the foreground of the picture. Conditions for my journey down were poor but a clearance to sunshine was forecast for the following morning. I spent the night in my camper van on the car park just below Garn Fawr. This is a rocky 200 metre hilltop, complete with hill fort, on Pen Caer, the peninsula upon which Strumble Head is the northern-most point.

By 8.30 a.m the following day it was indeed clear and sunny. I walked the short distance up to the summit of Garn Fawr. It is a stunning viewpoint with 360 degree views across north Pembrokeshire, notably down the coast to St. David’s Head. It should have been perfect for photography, but it wasn’t. There was a murkiness in the air, possibly a legacy of the previous night’s rain, and the sky was cloudless – blue but uninteresting. After a few minutes I returned to the van. There was no point in even pressing the shutter when I knew that the results would not equal those I had achieved on previous visits. I brewed up some coffee and compared notes  with another campervan driver who had recently arrived. I decided on a different walk nearby, and rather lazily drove the couple of miles to its starting point.

By this time it was about 10.30 am. I normally have a cut-off point of about 10 a.m. in summer, after which I feel that the sun is too high for successful landscapes. It’s all part of a process, of course, but shadows become insignificant and the light tends to become too harsh. But by this time some attractive clouds had begun forming and the air did appear to be sharper. So I decided to head back up to the summit of Garn Fawr instead. I could still walk from my new parking place although it would be a longer and steeper climb.  One might prefer the sun to have been lower but I think you’ll agree from the picture above that it was worth it, though.  And so one single, ten-minute picture-taking session made over a period of five hours was all that was needed for a successful morning’s photography.

Later that day a bank of thick cirrus cloud edged in from the north-west, gradually obscuring the sun. I walked along the coast path to the location for the lighthouse image I had in mind, but it was too late – the sun had gone.  And the heather on the cliff-top was over – no longer the luscious pinky-purple that I love but brown. It was all a bit dispiriting. I returned to the van and buried myself in a book. I would have another go the following day.

Strumble Head lighthouse, Pembrokeshire.
Strumble Head lighthouse, Pembrokeshire.

The next morning I awoke before dawn and turned the radio on, just in time for the 5.30 a.m. weather forecast.  Ever heard it?  I thought not! The forecaster described the same band of cloud and, very unusually, added that there could be a good sunrise.  I hadn’t thought of that! The Pen Caer section of the Pembrokeshire coast runs roughly west > east so the lighthouse might be set against a pink sunrise from my viewpoint. I gulped down a mug of tea and drove down to Strumble Head ; then there was the fifteen-minute walk! The sky was brightening and wispy cirrus pinking up quickly. But I made it. I took a series of images in the hope that one would include the lighthouse beam. A glance at the camera’s monitor was enough to tell me that I’d been successful. What a bonus! There was a real spring in my step as I walked back to the van.

The cirrus that had provided the focus of my sunrise picture proved to be a bit of a downer for the rest of the morning, however. More often than not the sun was behind it, which had the effect of casting a veil over the light on the landscape. It was the end of picture-taking for the day and I was back home by mid-morning. I had been away for 40 hours and during that time had actually had the camera in hand for 20 minutes. And yet I felt it had been a successful trip. Such is the life of the landscape photographer: you wait around and then you wait around some more. And if you’re lucky…….


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A Day at the Seaside – New Quay (Part Two)

Manx shearwaters, Cardigan Bay
Manx shearwaters, Cardigan Bay

Back in summer 1989 the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior (IIRC) made a surprise visit to Aberystwyth. Their intention was to publicise the presence of a resident group of bottlenose dolphins in Cardigan Bay – one of only two in British waters. I had seen dolphins at Tresaith whilst working on the footpath project but didn’t realise their significance. At a packed meeting in the town Greenpeace explained that its constitution prevented them from setting up local activist groups but they wanted local people – i.e. us – to take on that role for them. At the time I was a member of a fairly active Friends of the Earth group in Aberystwyth; many of us were at the meeting and we made an almost immediate decision to jump ship from FoE and Friends of Cardigan Bay was quickly formed. Over the next few years  FoCB activities had a really positive effect on the marine environment, with perhaps our biggest victory being persuading Welsh Water to install a state-of-the-art sewage works at Aberystwyth, rather than building an extra-long pipe. As well as the campaigning aspect we did dolphin photo-id work and winter sea-duck and diver surveys, and produced a membership magazine, tee-shirts and other nick-nicks among other things. Exciting times! I left Friends of Cardigan Bay after about ten years and although it now still exists on paper, with a completely different membership, it is more or less moribund.

Bottlenose dolphins off Mwnt
Bottlenose dolphins off Mwnt

So me and bottlenose dolphins go back a long way and my day-trip from New Quay with the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife people was another trip down memory lane. It is fair to say, however, that the marine wildlife didn’t really play ball. We chugged out north-westwards  until we were several miles off Aberystwyth but for long periods of time virtually nothing was visible. We came across a few rafts of manx shearwaters out in the Bay and I was able to get a couple of decent shots of them as they flew (see above). There was the occasional gannet, a few auks with young, and one storm petrel was seen. It wasn’t until we turned back south and returned closer to the shore, several hours later, that we began to come across dolphins. According to Steve Hartley, the skipper, there were currently a number of family groups regularly seen off the southern Ceredigion coast, and we came across several of them. But it was a rather restrained performance from the dolphins. They did on occasion bowride with the boat and they half-heartedly leaped a couple a couple of times and that was it. The researchers on board were able to do some photo-id and several young animals were identified, but for those hoping for the spectacular – ie everybody – it was just a little bit disappointing.

This was a far cry from the day a group of us us went out from Aberystwyth with the Greenpeace researchers on their first visit, to learn the rudiments of photo-id. Now that was a real dolphin extravaganza. My memories are rather hazy now but countless animals were attracted to the boat and went through the whole repertoire of dolphin behaviour. It was extraordinary. But hey…you win some and you lose some.

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