The R word.

Cofiwch Dryweryn, Llanrhystud

Part One:

In 1965 the Tryweryn valley – north-west of Bala in north Wales – was flooded to create a reservoir to supply water for the city of Liverpool. This was despite a determined and almost unanimous campaign by Welsh M.P.’s and many other Welsh people. Permission for a dam to be built was the result, unusually, of an Act of Parliament being obtained. This avoided the need for local scrutiny through the planning process. Land and properties were obtained by a process of compulsory purchase; the inhabitants of Capel Celyn were forcibly removed and the village submerged. It is not surprising that the whole episode became pivotal in the recent history of Welsh nationalism. “Cofiwch Dryweryn” (Remember Tryweryn) has become shorthand for the English mistreatment of the Welsh nation. The reservoir itself is probably the ugliest in the whole of Wales.

During the run-up to the flooding the Welsh nationalist (and later writer and academic) Meic Stephens drove around Wales scrawling “Cofwich Dryweryn” on various buildings.  One, on a ruined cottage in a prominent position by the A487 near Llanrhystud in Ceredigion, survived. It has become a kind of unofficial national monument, despite being partly demolished and rebuilt several times, most notably earlier this year. Following the most recent vandalisation, copycat graffiti quickly appeared in various locations all over Wales. The vandals proved to be their own worst enemy.

Part Two:

I have previously written about Re-wilding – here, for example.  The idea was really brought into the public domain by George Monbiot, in his book “Feral” – published in 2013. He lived in Machynlleth (mid-Wales) for several years and what he saw and experienced in the area were very important to his way of thinking. He had explored the hill country around the town and saw how badly it had been “sheep-wrecked”, and how even the conservation agencies were complicit in keeping it that way. In “Feral” he went through the economics of sheep farming in great detail, concluding that without the EU subsidies sheep farming was completely uneconomic.  Monbiot said that re-wilding would be a far better use of the land if the farmers were willing to accept it. The farming unions went ballistic! They mistakenly concluded that Monbiot was advocating compulsory re-wilding and that their members would be thrown off their land.

Perhaps if Monbiot had written about sheep farming in the Pennines, for example, where the problems are probably identical, he would have stirred up less bad feeling.  The Welsh language is a pretty sensitive subject round here and its heartland is in the farming community. I can understand the sensitivities involved but when the farming community feel most threatened the language issue always comes up. It’s like the nuclear option.

Re-wilding protest, Machynlleth

Part Three:

Earlier this year the charity Rewilding Britain announced one of their new projects –  Summit to Sea. Based in Machynlleth, the project aims to use re-wilding principles, where appropriate, and agreements with farmers and landowners, to improve biodiversity over a 10,000 hectare area of mid-Wales from the summit of Pumlumon to the coast, and offshore well into the waters of Cardigan Bay.  Its “core area” is the Dyfi estuary, already the location of an extensive National Nature Reserve, an RSPB reserve (Ynyshir), and the Dyfi Osprey Project. Alongside the biodiversity aims, the project proposes to create living landscapes where local communities are able to enjoy sustainable lifestyles. It has proved extremely controversial. The farming unions have come out against it, despite the fact that the project is funded to the tune of £3.4m over the first five years. With the future of farming subsidies in such grave doubt following Brexit, why ever would farmers want to look such a gift horse in the mouth? It just doesn’t make sense.

The problem is the “R-word”. Many mid-Wales sheep farmers seem to believe they have an inalienable right to carry on farming the way they are now doing, largely at the public expense. They refuse to accept that the degraded landscapes and wildlife that surround them are the results of their activities – prompted by government policies – over a period of several decades. They do not see why or how they should possibly change their farming methods to give nature a chance to recover. Some – not all – have seen wildlife as the enemy for so long that it is difficult for them to change their mindset. The idea that re-wilding would be compulsory is still propogated by the farming lobby, despite repeated denials.

So there is now a campaign underway to scrap the Summit to Sea project completely. Stickers, banners, and slogans are appearing all over the area saying “no” to re-wilding. One in Machynlleth rather worryingly also includes the “Cofiwch Dryweryn” slogan. Is it their intention to associate re-wilding in mid-Wales with flooding the Tryweryn valley by Liverpool City Council in the 1960’s? One can’t be sure. But there is one big difference: re-wilding will always be voluntary whereas eviction from the village of Capel Celyn was compulsory.

For more on Summit to Sea click here

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Spirit of the woodland.

Wood warbler near Tre’r ddol, Ceredigion

The wood warbler has always been a special bird for me. I recall an early May morning at Ynyshir reserve when a wood warbler would perch on a the end of low branch and sing its gorgeous song. Its whole body shook with the intensity of its refrain. Unfortunately I wasn’t a bird photographer in those days. In recent years I returned to Ynyshir to photograph the same species and not one was to be seen or heard, in the lower woodlands, anyway. It was rather curious. This spring I tried the Clettwr valley a little closer to home. Yes, I could hear one, but could I actually see it? The answer was no. On my next visit I kept to the minor road bordering the reserve on its steep northern side; the moment I opened the van door I could hear the song and I knew this was the spot I had been looking for.

The wood warbler is superficially similar to both the willow warbler and chiffchaff and was first only conclusively identified by the Reverend Gilbert White in 1768. He distinguished it first by its song, seeing it “shivering a little with its wings when it sings” and later conclusively by the comparison of shot specimens of each species. Its Latin name phylloscopus sibilatrix could be translated as “the whistling leaf-lover”, and this gives a handy summary of its character. The individual I soon located clearly had a territory in a young-ish oak plantation, and it flew from song post to song post amongst the trees, uttering its quicksilver descending trill at each one. Occasionally it would sing an entirely different song – pu, pu, pu, pu, pu – throwing its tiny head back and putting every milligramme of energy that it possessed into its performance, and sounding not unlike a wading bird might in a different environment.

Photographing a tiny subject like this was a tricky matter, however. In a complicated environment like woodland a bird’s surroundings and the background against which it is set can be horribly messy; added to that were the shadows projected by bright sunlight. It was going to be quite a test for my equipment which is not entirely at home with small moving subjects against complex backgrounds. It would be a matter of quantity in the hope of getting quality. I had a session lasting a couple of hours with the wood warbler and then returned  during the evening two days later, to find that the bird had moved on and the little plantation was completely silent.  It was an altogether different place without the wood warbler. He truly was the spirit of the woodland.

I spent the night in the van and woke early to the sound of wood warbler song. He was back! Atmospheric conditions had changed overnight too, and wisps of dry cloud drifted through the trees. Although it was much darker the cloud would reduce the contrast levels within the woodland. It was worth another try.  So I had three hours worth of images altogether, a total of something like 400 to trawl through…… . He may not have been the smartest of his species but the image above illustrates his character very well, I think.

N.B. Michael McCarthy writes very well about his quest for a wood warbler in his lovely book “Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo”

 

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The Great Wall of Aberdyfi (part 2)

Valley fog, Dyfi estuary
Valley fog, Dyfi estuary

Click here for the first part of this post

It was a few minutes’ drive inland to my next location, a hilltop overlooking the Dyfi valley near Derwenlas. I knew from numerous previous visits (see this post) that it would be mid-morning before the sun would be where I wanted it. A heavy shower moved inland on my arrival, creating another fine rainbow. Light was still good half an hour later despite the sun’s relentless rising, and I got the shot I had come for; would it be suitable for a new postcard, I wondered? See the upper picture of the pair below.

A couple of days later I decided to have another go at both the Glandyfi and Derwenlas viewpoints. Still conditions were forecast overnight and hence the formation of valley fog was possible. It was a very different morning to my previous visit. At Derwenlas all was gloomy low cloud but at Glandyfi a river of fog flowed continuously down towards the sea. Over about ninety minutes I took a number of images, but it was when the “river” began thinning and receding inland that I felt the best results were obtained (see above). It was an interesting contrast to the scene two days earlier (see previous post).

Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth
Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth (first visit)
Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth
Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth (second visit)

Then it was back to the Derwenlas viewpoint. It was still like being inside a bundle of cotton wool when I arrived, but after a few minutes the cloud cleared entirely,  revealing the gorgeously-lit Dyfi valley complete with a necklace of cloud draped around the hillside above Machynlleth. If this doesn’t work as a postcard, I’ll eat my hat!

As a postscript I have just sent a cheque for £70 to the charity Rewilding Britain (click for more info). This is a donation per work sold at the Aberystwyth showing of my Bird/land exhibition.

 

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The Great Wall of Glandyfi (part 1)

Rainbow over the Dyfi estuary
Rainbow over the Dyfi estuary

En route to Machynlleth the trunk road from Aberystwyth to north Wales, along with the railway line, is squeezed between the Dyfi estuary and its wooded slopes. Until a few years ago the road was narrow and winding with the occasional gridlock occuring if two large vehicles met there. There’s no doubt that the “Glandyfi Bends” needed improvement to improve journey times. Costs were orginally estimated at £10 million, but there must have been a bottomless purse for this project; a total of £18m was apparently spent altogether. The result is a smoothly curving, two-lane carriageway with excellent visibility. So what did the Highways Authority do? Slap a 40 mph speed limit on the new section of road and extend it all the way back to the village of Eglwysfach. Improve journey times my ****!

Like all trunk road improvements in Wales it is over-designed and over-engineered. There is a one-way lay-by for motorists driving northwards; access from the north or exit to the south is forbidden. On the lay-by there is a lay-by. Would you believe it! Oh yes, there’s a picnic table on a mound. The wall alongside the main road is too high over most of its distance for car drivers or passengers to enjoy the stunning views across the estuary. But the most prominent of all is the retaining wall to hold the hillside back. This massive construction is known locally as the Great Wall of Glandyfi. It can be viewed most conveniently from the north side of the river – in fact it is very hard to miss it for miles around.

There is a silver lining for the photographer, however. There is a narrow walk-way, fenced off for safety, along the top of the wall, which gives fabulous panoramic views across the estuary to the southern hills of the Snowdonia National Park. An access gate is half-heartedly padlocked at the eastern end.  On the last day of September I headed up to Glandyfi on a morning when torrential downpours alternated with strong sunny intervals; ideal conditions for the photographer with good waterproof clothing! On arrival I prepared my gear in the van while it absolutely hammered down outside.  The downpour moved over quickly and a brilliant rainbow appeared over the estuary. I quickly accessed the walk-way, set up the tripod and began taking pictures.

Rainbows are never easy. They are almost always unpredictable and may only last a couple of minutes. It is almost always raining and this plays havoc with one’s equipment. Filters are particularly vulnerable to wetting. As I wiped raindrops from one side of my 2 stop ND grad, a fresh crop appeared on the other side. This was just silly!  Landscape photographers are sometimes advised that a polariser should be used to intensify the colours of a rainbow but I have never found this to be the case. You can easily completely remove a rainbow with a polariser but who would want to? Over a period of five minutes and despite rather feverish picture-taking, I had some rather excellent rainbow images in the can, such as the one above.

Bridge over the River Dyfi
Bridge over the River Dyfi

When planning my landscape photography destinations I always take into account the time of day of the visit and hence where the sun will be. A polariser is always most effective at right-angles to the sun, while that rare thing, a rainbow, always appears opposite the sun.  I can think of one location on the Mawddach estuary where you can use a polariser to your heart’s content but still be open to the possibility of a good rainbow image. The Great Wall of Glandyfi is another. Following the disappearance of  the rainbow I swung around by ninety degrees and captured some images of saltmarsh, the railway bridge over the Dyfi and its accompanying solitary white cottage, in brilliant sunshine. The hills of southern Snowdonia were still in deep darkness and low cloud swept their summits. I used the polariser and the 2 stop ND grad to add to the drama of the scene. I felt that the resulting image worked well in a panoramic format.

It might seem that I was lucky that morning but I had already made several frustrating visits to the area with no worthwhile results. What I was quickly able to do on September 30th was get to the best spot quickly and take advantage of great conditions when they finally did appear. I’d been up there for about two hours – how time flies sometimes – when I heard the sound of chain-saws. Down on the main road maintenance men were removing branches from the vicinity of some electric cables. It soon became apparent, though, that a man with a chainsaw was also clearing branches from the walk-way upon which I was standing, and approaching quite fast. It was time to beat a hasty retreat!

 

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Thoughts from a wet and windy Welsh hilltop.

Aurora Borealis, mid-Wales
Aurora Borealis, mid-Wales

I cannot remember such a long period when the weather has been so discouraging for the outdoor photographer. Days….. weeks!….. on end of cloud, rain and gales – and today is no exception. I’m shocked to discover that I’ve barely taken a decent photograph since the beginning of October.

But I can’t just blame the weather for that. In my last post I wrote how my priority over the summer was to work on images for new postcards. How one needed to visit the popular locations and somehow come up with something new. I eventually realised I was just going through the motions. I really was re-visiting the same old places and taking the same old photographs.

So as much as the weather really has been disastrous it was a partly a conscious decision to lay the camera down and give myself a break. This happened to me big time about twenty years ago. I put down the break-up of a relationship partly or largely to the fact that I saw myself as a photographer first and a human being second. There certainly were other factors but being an outdoor photographer does involve leading a very unpredictable lifestyle. Whatever…..after a few self-imposed months of keeping the business running and no more – certainly no actual photography – I picked up the reins more or less where I had left them. In my experience one’s creative side continues to develop even if putting it into practice actually takes a back seat for a while. After a few months break from photography I’m sure – well, fairly sure -that I’ll return to it with a bunch of new ideas and attitudes.

I hope it does, because I’ve recently had a very positive discussion with a publisher and author about a new book. There’s still plenty to be finalised, particularly the financial side of things, but I’ve come to the conclusion that my sanity is now more important than my bank balance! So even if it doesn’t pay very well, I’ll still do it.

In a post earlier this year I wrote about how I missed an opportunity to photograph the Northern Lights. Since March I have gained a better understanding of why and how a faint aurora – even an invisible one – can actually produce decent photographs. The reason is this : there are two types of sensor in the eye – cones and rods. The cones are colour sensitive, but the rods, which are 1000 times more sensitive than the cones and far more numerous, do not pick up colour. So our eyes do not perceive colour at low light levels. The sensor in our camera is equally sensitive to colour at low or high intensities so it will record what the eye cannot see.

A couple of evenings ago I received an “Aurora Watch” amber alert. To my surprise yet another cloudy day actually improved to an evening of clear periods and showers. There was quite a powerful moon but the northern skyline looked a bit odd.  I couldn’t be sure whether it was a pale glow that I was seeing or some cloud hugging the horizon.  I eventually realised that I would have to take some photographs to be sure if the aurora was present or not.

I set the ISO at 3200 and the meter gave a reading of 8 seconds at f4. When viewed on the camera’s LCD screen the first image immediately showed that there were vertical bands of purple in the clear sky which were completely invisible to the naked eye. I took a few more images to confirm it and then called it a day. On viewing the images this afternoon on the PC monitor it became clear that amongst the cloud on the horizon there had also been a green glow. The very localised orange glow on the horizon is usually visible to the naked eye as pale and colourless but the camera’s sensor has picked up its colour;  it must be street lighting from a nearby village reflected off low-ish cloud. The image has of course been processed, but not to an excessive level – no more than I would expect on a typical landscape.  This had been the real thing and without the camera I would never known!

Technically and artistically it is rather poor. I should have taken more care with placing the tripod and weighing it down, and the telephone pole in the foreground is hardly an attractive feature. But I’m treating it as a learning experience and hopefully there will be an opportunity to do better in the future.

Seasons Greetings to all from a wet and windy Welsh hilltop!

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A case of mistaken identity

The Upper Rheidol Valley, Ceredigion
The Upper Rheidol Valley, Ceredigion

On my way back from a trip to the Teifi Marshes, just in Pembrokeshire, at the weekend, I stopped off at a National Trust property near Aberaeron where I spent some time photographing wild daffodils and snowdrops on the river bank.

At lunch time I bought myself a sandwich at the riverside cafe . Two men sitting at a table caught my eye. I know you, one said, you’re Jeremy Moore, aren’t you? “Erm….yes…..but I’m sorry I don’t recognise you…..” Ah, we both know who you are but you don’t know either of us!” That’s right, I said, somewhat bemused. “It’s the great Jeremy Moore,” the man said, “I’ve got two of your books!”  This was quite a surprise, but not an unwelcome one, as I had been feeling in need of a little boost to my self-esteem. His tongue was so far in his cheek, I suspected, that I was surprised I could understand a word he was saying.

Then he introduced himself. His name was John and he was an anti-windfarm campaigner. He reminded me that he had accosted me in an Aberystwyth cafe one day and been critical of my pro-windfarm stance. For my part I remembered the episode and how annoyed I had been. On Sunday he suggested that I must have changed my mind on the subject of windfarms but in fact I haven’t; I’ve never felt comfortable about wind turbines in the landscape but they don’t send me in to paroxisms of indignation every time one comes into view. We all use electricity. Wind turbines remind us of the uncomfortable fact that it has to come from somewhere, and we don’t like it.

About ten years ago I had an exhibition at MOMA Wales, a lovely little gallery in Machynlleth, Powys. The subject matter was a small area of land high up in the Rheidol valley – ‘wild Wales’ if ever it existed anywhere. The Battle of Hyddgen had taken place there over six hundred years ago. During my research for the exhibition I came across a poem by the great Welsh priest/poet R.S. Thomas, who had felt the weight of the ages while in this place. With the permission of his son, I reproduced the poem and framed it alongside the images in the exhibition. Shortly afterwards the hilltops surrounding Hyddgen had been proposed for a windfarm, the biggest in Wales.

John had taken a group of anti’s up to Hyddgen and recited the poem, which he believed I had written. So not only, in his estimation,  was I a notable anti-windfarm personality but was also poet of great wisdom and insight! No wonder he thought I must have changed my mind.

For the record, the windfarm has not yet been built, partly thanks to a concerted campaign by the anti’s. There is more doubt now than ever that the thing will go ahead, but if it does, we will be able to see part of it from our house. But if I were ever able to bounce a grandchild on my knee and answer the question “Grandad, what did you do about climate change?” I wouldn’t like to have to say “I campaigned against wind turbines in the Welsh hills”.

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