In the middle of the Irish Sea (Part one)

Brocken spectre, Mynydd Rhiw

Well, we’ve had some interesting weather recently, haven’t we? Much as I love blue skies, white clouds and clear air, the photographer can find those conditions a bit predictable. That all changed last week when hot and humid conditions moved up from the Continent, even here in Wales.

It so happened that Jane and I had planned our first few days away together for many months, eventually plumping for Aberdaron, at the tip of the Lleyn peninsula (Penllyn) in north Wales. From the house here on a clear day we can see a line of hill-tops  – “the oylands” as a brummie once described them – extending out across Cardigan Bay and culminating in Bardsey Island ( Enlli ), the only actual island of the lot.  But by the time you reach Aberdaron, there is such a different feel to the landscape that it could almost be an island. It is so far down the ever-narrowing peninsula that it is – in effect – in the middle of the Irish Sea. And it has the weather to prove it. 

A break in the cloud from Mynydd Mawr

The journey was hot with intermittent low cloud and fog. We arrived at Mynydd Mawr, at the end of Penllyn beyond Aberdaron, just in time to see Enlli, draped in fog, through a gap in the cloud. It looked amazing.  But within thirty seconds sea fog engulfed the landscape and this wonderful vision disappeared, remaining that way for the next few hours. The fog layer had no great depth, but at 160m altitude we weren’t quite high enough to escape it. It began to get rather frustrating. I phoned Ben Porter, a friend who lives nearby, and he said he was on Mynydd Rhiw, a few miles inland and it was amazing! I should get up there asap! I drove slowly along single-track, hedge-rimmed lanes towards Rhiw in poor visibility; it felt like we were fighting a losing battle against the onset of dusk. 

However we arrived on Mynydd Rhiw just before the sun set over the Irish Sea. We were just above the cloud and a brocken spectre was just visible at the anti-solar point. Other hilltops further inland stood out, from Carn Fadryn and Yr Eifl on the peninsula, round to the great peaks of Eryri.  But they were all fading fast as the cloud layer rose steadily at every point of the compass. It seemed like  a case of “you should have been here earlier” for the second time in one day. 

Mynydd Rhiw turned out to spend a superb spot to spend the night in the camper van. I woke next morning to find the van still enveloped in cloud but a patch of blue sky soon appeared above us. This looked interesting! Grabbing a quick mug of tea, tripod and camera bag, I found a prominent position nearby where the sun – if it appeared again – would project my shadow on to cloud below. These looked perfect conditions for seeing another brocken spectre. This unusual atmospheric phenomenon has appeared in my blog before (see this post) but it is seen so rarely that one feels that one learns a little more about it every time it appears. 

An audience on Mynydd rhiw

A complete brocken spectre consists of a three-dimensional shadow extending literally from one’s feet to the anti-solar point in the cloud where one’s head appears. Around the head a tiny circular “glory” is centred, formed by reflection and refraction of light within cloud droplets. The formation of a rainbow is similar; the difference being in the size difference between raindrops and cloud droplets. To the naked eye it appears that the glory consists of the full spectrum of colours – like a rainbow – with red on the outside and violet on the inside. However, post-processing the image above has revealed that outside the “primary” ring of colours is a secondary ring – each colour band broader than the inner equivalent and the whole thing more diffuse.  I must emphasise here that this is not the result of adding anything to the image “in photoshop” or manipulating it artificially. It must be the equivalent of seeing more colour on a digital image of the aurora borealis than is possible to see with the naked eye (see this post).

Conditions favourable for a brocken spectre also favour the formation of a “fogbow” which has similar dimensions to a rainbow but which consists only of an arc of white light projected onto cloud.  In my experience a fogbow is more often seen because its radius is much greater than that of a brocken spectre but you can be sure that if the former is visible, the latter may not be far away. During the several hours we spent on Mynydd Mawr last Friday a fogbow was almost permanently visible. It is also worth noting that if you are with a companion both your shadows can be seen by both of you but only the one glory centred on one’s own head! The possibilities for philosphical speculation seem endless here!

And finally I have recently seen photographs of rainbows taken close to sunset, where the area within the arc is suffused with red / orange light. The evening brocken spectre (which I didn’t attempt to photograph) appeared to be like this too.

So it was an exciting morning on Mynydd Rhiw and alI before breakfast! 

Still waters and cloud in Eryri.

Near Capel Curig.
Near Capel Curig.

Last week, the sun shone endlessly, and I was finally able to get away from domestic commitments on Thursday afternoon. It was my intention to “do Snowdon” on Friday so I parked up overnight by the Llynnau Mymbyr near Capel Curig. Dawn was frosty and valley fog had formed overnight. The forecast was for a day of unbroken sunshine and light winds. While it would be lovely in the mountains I suspected that conditions would not be that great for atmospheric landscapes. Flexibility is the name of the game in landscape photography so it was over to plan B, which involved an early morning session in Dyffryn Mymbyr as the fog cleared. Sunrise comes so late at this time of year that it was a really leisurely start!

Llyn Mymbyr is one of the classic photographic locations in the National Park. The view from Plas-y-Brenin of the Snowdon Horseshoe reflected in the lake’s still waters is often the photographers’ desire. It is quite iconic in good conditions and when done well. But in valley fog one would be immersed in damp greyness and Snowdon would be quite invisible. It is then more profitable to take the rough and tussocky path between the two sections of the lake and look back towards Plas-y-Brenin. It is one of my very favourite locations in Wales. As the sun rises the fog tends to melt away downstream, allowing more and more of the landscape to emerge. Friday morning was just about as good as it gets, as you can see from the image above.

The sun shone all day on Friday and the Horseshoe looked absolutely stunning during the afternoon from Dyffryn Mymbyr. But I was glad that I had saved my energy for an attempt on Snowdon the following day. Saturday’s forecast seemed much more promising; a broken cloud base of perhaps 500 – 600 metres but with the summits remaining above the cloud. I liked the sound of that!

The next morning the fog was denser and more extensive at Capel Curig but stars could still be seen overhead. By the time I set out from Pen-y-pass about 7 a.m. the first wisps of cloud were forming above Y Lliwedd, and as I made my way up and along the PyG track I barely noticed how quickly it was developing.  I’m nowhere near as fit as I used to be and I don’t mind admitting that it was a bit of a slog to reach Bwlch Glas. At this point one leaves the confines of the great eastern corrie of Yr Wyddfa and can take in the view to the west. An almost complete sea of cloud spread out below me. It was more or less only within the corrie and above the very highest peaks that cloud had not already formed. Blue sky could still be seen over the summit of Snowdon while cloud lapped and drifted around below it.

Brocken Spectre, Snowdon summit.
Brocken Spectre, Snowdon summit.

I grabbed a quick vat of tea from the café and assessed the possibilities. I was a little disappointed about the extent of the cloud but these were ideal conditions for seeing a Brocken Spectre. I walked around the summit area to find the best location and for an hour or so one was visible intermittently as my shadow was projected on to cloud below. The shadow itself was astonishingly three-dimensional as it fell on to countless tiny individual water droplets. The Spectre – or Glory – takes the form of a small circular spectrum of light centred on one’s own head.  It has all the colours of the rainbow, and is, in fact, formed in a similar way, with violet on the inside and red on the outside.  At times, the colours in the Glory just glowed. I have enhanced the colours slightly in the image above but it still retains a close link with reality. And interestingly, if one enhances it further, additional concentric rings of colour can be seen outside the primary spectrum.

For a while it was truly glorious up on the summit. It was warm and there was barely a breath of wind, just enough to cause the cloud to drift slowly around. A continuous stream of people were arriving by mid-morning. Every train brought another few dozen, but on such a day far more were doing it on foot. Conversations could easily be overheard. English seemed to be a minority language! Was that Welsh…..? Er….no, probably Polish. A few fully bearded Muslim men had walked up and even a few veiled Muslim women. But it was apparent that few had actually noticed the Brocken Spectre, even if they were only a few feet away from a good viewing point. Occasionally one could hear the magic words being spoken, and it was a pleasure to join these individuals in the experience.

Well, all good things must come to an end. The cloud base was lifting imperceptively until it was clear of the summit by lunch-time. Beneath the cloud it was dull and hazy so it was time to put the camera away and return to Pen-y-Pass. Still the crowds were flooding upwards, though. Little did they realise what they had missed.