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! 

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!

 

To follow Tales from Wild Wales please scroll right down to the vottom and click Follow