In the footsteps of Richard Wilson (and Bill Condry)

Cadair Idris and Llyn Cau
Cadair Idris and Llyn Cau

Yesterday I planned an early start to climb Cadair Idris. I woke drowsily. Did I have the energy to “do Cader”? The long drag up  Mynydd Moel was almost vertical, I seemed to remember. The forecast was for sunshine but that is no guarantee of good light. After procrastinating for an hour or so I left the cocoon of my van and felt the cool morning air on my face. I would go for it.

My viewpoint was to be high on the slopes of Mynydd Moel, overlooking the corrie lake of Llyn Cau and the cliffs of Craig Cau which tower vertically over it. The foreground would be gorgeous with heather at this time of year. By the time I arrived the sun would be at right-angles to my angle of vision, allowing my polarising filter to be most effective. I was travelling as light as I possibly could, carrying only enough food, water and spare clothing for the day and my miniscule Panasonic GX7 kit. I left the tripod in the van. Only two hours of climbing lay between me and my destination.

The first half hour took me steeply up rustic stone steps through oak woodland. A mountain torrent tumbled downwards alongside the path. A few years ago I would have done this in one go, pausing only at the gate at the top of the woodland. Yesterday I needed a break every few minutes. At the gate I emerged on to moorland but it was steeper than I remembered. I forked right and crossed the stream. The mountain gradually became more prominent. I had prepared myself mentally for the agony of the final relentless three hundred meters of height gain, so it perhaps wasn’t quite as bad as I had feared. By 10 am I was at my location. Visibility was good but there was no cloud at all to diffuse the sunlight and add texture to the sky.

Over the next two hours I took over thirty images. I’m still new to the GX7 and I sometimes struggled with its controls but it is definitely an improvement on the GX1. The battery lasted just three hours, as it had on its first outing. Pathetic! I found the focal length range of the kit lens (14 – 42 mm or 28 – 84 equivalent) slightly limiting. I’m not a fan of ultra-wide angles but I do like a 24mm lens.  Tiny wispy clouds materialised and disappeared over a couple of minutes, but somehow never quite the right shape or in quite the right place.   Oh, the joys and frustrations of being a landscape photographer! By mid-day, though, I felt confident that I would have something to show for my efforts, and it was with a sense of achievement that I reached the summit of Cadair Idris in time for my picnic lunch. The descent was laborious but uneventful.

Llyn-y-Cau by Richard Wilson, painted in 1774.
Llyn-y-Cau by Richard Wilson, painted in 1774.

That evening I was attending a writing workshop at a bookshop in Machynlleth, where I casually picked up a book – The Mountains of Snowdonia in Art by Peter Bishop. It almost fell open at the page showing the painting Llyn-y-Cau, Cadair Idris, by Richard Wilson (1774),  reproduced above.  To the contemporary viewer it looks astonishingly primitive, but it must have been painted close to the spot I had been earlier in the day.

I recalled that in the book Heart of the Country I had included one of William Condry’s “Guardian Country Diaries” alongside an earlier, and quite different, image I had taken of Craig Cau and Llyn Cau. Bill’s text is extraordinarily perceptive. He had searched for the spot where the artist must have stood to make the painting, but failed to find it. He explains –

“Wilson aimed to represent the scene in only the broadest outlines. For that was the way things were in his day: artists quite happily moved cliffs, woods, waterfalls, even whole mountains a bit to the left or right in order to make the picture more picturesque.”

He goes on –

“If the public has learned to appreciate the wild lonely uplands of the world, it is largely due to painters like Wilson and the travel writers who were his contemporaries. Poor Wilson. His paintings may be worth a fortune now but he died long before his work was widely acclaimed. As someone wrote later: ‘Scarcely half a century has elapsed since death relieved Wilson from the apathy of the critics, the envy of rivals, and the neglect of the tasteless public'”

To my eyes the painting has been cobbled together from three elements. Firstly, the vista from close to my viewpoint; secondly, the grassy dome called Moelfryn, which the artist has placed in front of the lake, although it is actually about half a mile to the south; and thirdly, a large dose of artistic licence. In those days so few people ever visited the Welsh mountains that no-one would have been any the wiser.


A weekend at Cwm Idwal

Pen Yr Ole Wen and Llyn Idwal
Pen Yr Ole Wen and Llyn Idwal

I’ve been in the photographic doldrums for a few weeks now. It seems to happen most years during mid-summer when I’m pretty busy getting stuff out into shops and creative activities tend to take a back seat. But last weekend the forecast seemed promising – sunny intervals rather than wall-to-wall sunshine – and I decided to head up to Snowdonia. I had it in mind to try out my new Panasonic gx7 and maybe do a mountain walk into the Glyderau or on to Snowdon. Early on Saturday morning I headed up into Cwm Idwal with the option of going on to the tops but conditions were really not pleasant. It was windy and cold with plenty of cloud cover. I can’t say that me and the gx7 got on like a house on fire. I hated the menu system on the gx1 and the gx7 does seem better in this respect. But it’s still not an SLR! I got a few decent images when the sun briefly shone. But after using it intermittently for about 3 hours, and taking about fourty shots, I noticed the battery power was practically down to zero. This wasn’t right at all! I spent a while looking for locations to re-visit later on, and then it was back down to the van to wait out the middle hours of the day.

Bog pool, Cwm idwal
Bog pool, Cwm idwal

Cwm Idwal is a National Nature Reserve and location of many of Snowdonia’s rare arctic-alpine plant species. Sheep have been largely excluded for some years now to allow the flora to recover from the accumulated effects of countless nibbling teeth. I was very pleasantly surprised by how extensively the heather has regenerated and it was in full colourful bloom. In some ways mid-August is my favourite time of year for exactly this reason. Swathes of purple calluna are such a sensuous experience; a feast for both the eyes and the lens, and somehow more than that as well. So later on, under full cloud cover, I took my full DSLR kit up into the cwm and spent some time taking close-ups of a boggy pool and its surroundings, just heaving with wild flowers. Then it was over to the spot I had located earlier which gave a view over to Pen Yr Ole Wen. In still conditions this mountainous backdrop would be reflected in the lake. What made my location particularly special was that I could also include a gnarly old mountain ash tree, apparently growing out of bare rock, in the foreground.  Unfortunately the weather was not playing ball. I made a few images, but could see that much more exciting things would be possible in better light. The next morning I was up there again and the following evening as well! Conditions were still and vast hordes of midges appeared, more than I’ve ever known anywhere in Wales.

Monday morning dawned more clear and after a quick whizz round to Llynnau Mymbyr (Capel Curig) I decided to return to Cwm Idwal for one more try at the image I had envisaged two days earlier. I set off full of confidence and with a light step. It’s funny how a 5kg pack feels like 2kg in such a situation but more like 15 at the end of an unsuccessful day. I had reached my spot by 9 a.m. but the sun had not yet come over the ridge of Glyder Fach. Surely it couldn’t be long?  The edge of the mountain’s shadow slowly crept down the heathery rock-face on the left-hand side until all was illuminated. My moment came at 9.50 a.m. A few minutes later I had a selection of shots and the sun had become obstructed by spreading and developing cumulus cloud. It had all gone so well! And only on my fifth visit………

So why does this image work?

Firstly I am so thrilled by the location; the rowan was a real bonus. It is probably one of only two in the Cwm – the result of many years of sheep grazing.

Secondly my angle of vision is exactly at right angles to the sun’s rays and my polariser is at its most effective. Any uneven polarisation is partly masked by what cloud there is. (I also used a 1-stop ND grad to balance the exposure)

Thirdly, the heather is in bloom. Only for a couple of weeks in the year would that be the case.

Fourth, there is no wind to disturb the surface of the lake and a full reflection is visible.

On the other hand, it gives such a benign impression of Llyn Idwal and its surroundings. Conditions would rarely be so amiable. So there’s definitely the place for an alternative interpretation of the location.  I’ll be back.

If anyone is in the mid-Wales area next week I’ll be giving the annual Halstatt Lecture at MOMA Wales, Machynlleth on Wednesday 26th at 1 pm. I’ll be talking about how I became a birder and a photographer, and finally both!

Tickets are £6.00. Phone 01654 703355 for more details.

My exhibition Bird/land is showing there until September 19th. Entry free of charge.

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Some thoughts on the Cwm Dyli pipeline.

Snowdon and Cwm Dyli, showing the pipeline
Snowdon and Cwm Dyli, showing the pipeline

The weather has been almost unremittingly cloudy for the past few weeks but there was one exceptional day recently. A cold front had slowly moved southwards overnight and then stalled, leaving the north Wales peaks beneath blue skies in sparkling sunshine, while further south Aberystwyth remained amid the gloom. In the expectation of a good day I travelled up the previous evening and spent the night in my camper van by the shores of Llyn Dinas, near Beddgelert.

It wasn’t a terribly promising start to the day. There was still a veil of cirrus covering large areas of the sky and enough breeze to prevent a reflection in the waters of the lake. But gradually the clearance came and by mid-morning I had clambered high up on a crag above the layby overlooking Llyn Gwynant. Most visitors to north Wales will know it …… everybody stops there and takes a snap. The light was fabulous by that time and one image taken there will be suitable for a postcard at some stage.

A little higher up the valley there is a roadside viewpoint to the summit of Snowdon constructed at some expense by the National Park Authority. It would be a spectacular natural landscape if the Cwm Dyli pipeline had never been built, but it was, and I have always passed it by. But on this occasion wisps of cloud were extending westwards from the summit of Crib Goch and passing above and below Yr Wyddfa itself. Despite the pipeline I couldn’t miss this opportunity.

Thomas Pennant describes “a very fine cataract” at “the upper end of this romantic valley, Nanthwynant” in the account of his visit in 1770. Now there is also a pipeline. It was built in 1905/6 to carry water from Llyn Llydaw, beneath Yr Wyddfa, to the then new hydro-electric power station at the head of Nant Gwynant. This was the first of its type in the UK,  built primarily to supply power to the slate quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog,  five miles away over the hills. Despite the demise of the slate industry, the power station – by now a listed building – was re-equipped in 1990 and the pipeline renewed. There was a campaign to have it buried but in spite of the spectacular location at the very heart of the National Park, it was unsuccessful.  One cannot help but believe that if the pipeline had been proposed more recently, it would never have got planning permission.

So what does the landscape photographer do? As I had done for many years,  drive on by. But not on such a day as this……. A continual stream of cars was arriving and departing the car park so I climbed up the hillside on the opposite side of the road. As I gained height, the landscape opened up, revealing, unfortunately, another length of  pipeline. Most of the landscape action was in the top half of the frame, and I knew that I would be cropping  the image at the bottom to remove the main section of pipeline. The big dilemma would come later, at the processing stage, when I had to decide whether or not to remove the upper section digitally. I spent a while on the hillside, taking a selection of images with different cloud formations. Then the wind direction changed and the wisps of cloud began to move eastwards from Crib Goch, away from Yr Wyddfa, and the magic was gone. It was time to leave.

Actually, I’m pretty hardline about cloning landscape images. In my opinion landscape images have documentary as well as artistic value. Unless an extraneous item is present only temporarily, it stays. So a crisp packet, a post van or a walker in a red cagoule can go, but a telegraph pole or an electricity pylon stays…….. or a pipeline. There are always going to be grey areas, but it really is stretching the distinction to breaking point to claim, as some people do, that any of the three latter features are also “only temporary.” . When it comes down to removing whole landscape features such as these (or adding them….) in order to make an image more superficially “attractive” it creates a false picture of our surroundings. And as far as I’m concerned, that matters.  For more on image manipulation, see this post.

So I thought I would post the above image online and seek out comments, particularly with reference to the pipeline. It  started a discussion about the pipeline, why it was there and what it was for. The photograph’s documentary element tells us all sorts of things about the landscape and how much we respect it. I was also expecting a barrage of “clone it out” suggestions, but in fact there was only one, and a big majority for “leave it in”, despite the fact that in some ways it spoils the picture.  There was quite a consensus and I must admit that I was relieved. The rise and rise of the cloning tool has not gone as far as I thought it had done.

Just out of interest I thought I’d add an uncropped version of the image which shows the course of the pipeline. I find it disruptive even though it is largely hidden in deep shadow.

Cwm Dyli - uncropped
Cwm Dyli – uncropped


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