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.


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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