Dicing with death (part 2)

Conway Mountain (Mynydd-y-dref)

Another recent trip took me up to north Wales. I walked up on to Conway Mountain (Mynydd-y-dref) one morning and found the prospects so promising that in the afternoon I made a repeat visit. I have good memories of Conway Mountain because my parents had a permanent caravan on the coast just below it. As a young teenager I had climbed to the top of the mountain on my own, and although it is only 244 metres high, the view in all directions was a revelation. It was the first landscape “wow” moment of my life, and one of the most powerful ones.

Back to the present : I can honestly say that I have never seen any vegetation anywhere looking so stunningly colourful as it did on that day. As well as bracken on the point of turning, ling heather (calluna) and gorse (to a lesser extent) were in bloom. Bilberry was abundant, its leaves in a full range of shades from bright green to bright red. I suspect that this heathland vegetation mix is so unusually colourful this year because ling has normally finished flowering before bilberry leaves begin to turn in the autumn, and that the latter was brought forward by a couple of months by the drought conditions earlier in the summer.

I spent one evening hour or so at a particular north-facing slope under variable cloud. The sun was coming and going (well, mainly going…..), so when it was out I tried my normal tactic of getting as near as possible to right angles to its rays and using a polariser to saturate the colours. Under cloud I dispensed with the polariser and had a full range of angles to play with. Moderate telephoto focal lengths proved most fruitful, and both portrait and landscape compositions worked. I carefully used a tripod to give myself the greatest possible depth of field and to avoid camera shake.  One problem with these images (perhaps I should say issue…..!) is the white balance. “Auto” is normally pretty good on Canon cameras but in this case the only reference point for the “correct” colour temperature is the heather – and even that is not straightforward. It seems to me that heather is a subtle mixture of various hues, and of course, in sun it looks different to heather without it. So it has been a matter of trial and error trying to get it right.  Several versions of the image above have ended up with heather the colour of lavender which would a definitely be a mistake!

While working away I had been vaguely aware of a small group of people on the summit nearby. I wandered over in their direction and could see three women up there having a very jolly time. We discussed the vegetation and views and then asked them if they were on holiday. “Oh no, we’re local.” one woman said, “We’ve just scattered my late husband’s ashes. He spent such a lot of time up here….”.  I agreed that it was a great place to pass the rest of time but it really a was a bit of a conversation-stopper! So I moved on and carried on with my work. At the same time I began to ponder about the scattering of my own ashes.  Of the location I have no doubt – a white sand beach near Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland. On a number of visits there I have been overwhelmed by emotion and sometimes even thinking about it can bring a lump to my throat.

It was a late finish at Conwy so I spent the night in the van and returned home the next morning.  I was travelling behind a bus just north of Dolgellau when suddenly a buzzard flew from a roadside tree right in to the path of the bus. Its body was flung on to the grass verge, wings flailing. I stopped the van, walked back to the bird, and picked it up. To my surprise it was still alive and there was no obvious sign of injury. Its eyes were bright and it turned its head from side to side; maybe it was just stunned? But then its white eyelids began to subside, and its head slowly slumped towards its chest. It died in my arms. It is now in a friend’s freezer awaiting a visit to the taxidermist.

Why ever did the buzzard fly in front of the bus? There was no sign of prey on the road. Do birds commit suicide?


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