Edward Llwyd would be turning in his grave.

Snowdon Lily, lloydia (gagea) serotina.
Snowdon Lily, lloydia (gagea) serotina.

About ten days ago I headed off for north Wales to search for one our rarest and most iconic wild flowers, the Snowdon Lily. More widely known as lloydia serotina (or just lloydia) after its Welsh discoverer Edward Llwyd, it can be found in early June high up on a few north-east facing crags on Snowdon and surrounding mountains. Llwyd describes his discovery as follows –

A certain rush-leaved bulbous plant having a one-seeded vessel on top of an erect stalk about nine inches high on the high rocks of Snowdon viz: Trigvylchau y Clogwyn du ymhen y Gluder Clogwyn Yr Ardhu Crib y Distilh

although he hadn’t seen it in flower. Bill Condry had taken a party of us to see it many years ago, and according to the National Nature Reserve warden for Snowdon it could still be seen in the same location.

It was a bit of a slog up to the Snowdon’s great north-facing cliffs. Years ago this would have been a stroll but not so now. Nevertheless I had prepared myself mentally for it and I arrived in good condition. A scattering of small white flowers on a steep grassy slope beneath some cliffs deserved investigation but I eventually put two and two together: despite the altitude those small white cups and those wood sorrel leaves were in some way connected! Arriving at the cliffs I found another plant seeker already there. He quickly showed me two flowering plants of lloydia, one at chest level and another with two flowers at about eight feet up. This was very promising. I spent a couple of hours hereabouts, taking a whole series of images. Access to the twin-flowered specimen was a bit tricky, but I felt that a picture of it would be a bit of a prize. Using my standard zoom at 105 mm, and pre-focussing at the closest distance, I ended up with both feet on the cliff, clinging to it with my right hand, and operating the camera with my left at arms length. Heroic stuff, but it was worth the time I spent contemplating the situation first;  the resulting images proved to be the best of the lot.

The hanging gardens in Cwm Idwal
The hanging gardens in Cwm Idwal

Last week I headed north again to Cwm Idwal, where the well-known (to botanists) “Hanging Gardens” can be found on some broken cliffs high above the lake. Here a bizarre collection of woodland and water plant species jostle with arctic-alpines on lushly vegetated and well-watered ledges. It would not be my first visit but I thought I would have a word with the warden first. We had an interesting conversation about arctic alpines and mountain birds, among other things (see also this post) and then he added “In view of the conditions, I’d advise you not to go up there”.

I hung around for an hour or so. There was no sign that the promised heavy downpours were materialising and in fact conditions were slowly improving. I decided to go for it after all. It was a real slog steeply up through the boulder fields to the cliffs, and the hanging gardens proved to be a bit of a disappointment, and not as floriferous as I had remembered them. Early purple orchid could be seen, together with globeflower, water avens and others. Arctic alpines included moss campion and roseroot, but the latter was past its best. I wedged myself against the rock and took some general shots of the cliff face and its waterfall.

I’m no botanist but during my conversation with the warden I thought I’d throw in the word “lloydia” – no more of this Snowdon Lily nonsense! I was disappointed to hear his response – that the species has recently been renamed “gagea serotina”. Apparently the genus “lloydia” is now thought to be identical to the genus “gagea” so all those species currently placed in the former (26 altogether) have been moved to the latter. The name just doesn’t have the same ring to it and if he knew I’m sure Edward Llwyd would be turning in his grave.

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A tale of three images.

Ramsey Island (on left) and the Bishops and Clerks, from Whitesands.
Ramsey Island (on left) and the Bishops and Clerks, from Whitesands.

It has been a while since I last posted but things have been moving apace. Most of February and March was spent getting postcards out into shops in various parts of Wales. It is always difficult to drag oneself out of the semi-hibernation of mid-winter and this year was particularly fraught because Easter was so early.

It has to be admitted that sales of postcards are steadily declining. This is partly because people are using phones and Facebook to contact their friends while they are away but also because the number of potential outlets is declining rapidly. The perils of running a bookshop in the Amazon era are well recognised, but independent retailers of all kinds have been closing and are not being replaced in similar numbers. What is particularly sad is the number of Tourist Information Centres that have closed, will soon close or are under threat of closure. It is happening all over Wales as a result of cuts to local authority funding. It may be our local councils (and National Park authorities) that are having to make the difficult decision to close them but the root cause is central Government.

A selling trip that would until recently have taken two and a half days now takes two or less. But that does mean I have a little more time available for photography on these trips and I was lucky with the weather on some of them. After one particularly busy day in Pembrokeshire I was able to nip down to Whitesands, arriving just after sunset. I started a short high-tide walk along the beach but quickly ran back for the camera. The conditions were just stunning! I only had a few minutes to run off a few exposures and I wasn’t entirely happy with the composition in any of them. But I’ll settle for the above…….

On a trip up to north Wales I spent one night at Pen-y-pass YHA. I normally avoid youth hostels these days but Pen-y-pass is so well situated for an early morning walk in the foothills of Snowdon that in winter I occasionally make an exception. Unfortunately my dorm also contained a snorer so I had a disturbed night’s sleep and was not able to get up at the crack of dawn as I had hoped. But a little later on this was the view of the Snowdon horseshoe from “The Horns”, situated between the PyG and Miners’ paths.

Snowdon summit and Y Lliwedd
Y Lliwedd, Yr Wyddfa and Crib Goch from “The Horns”

I was able to devote the whole of this superb day to photography so then headed off eastwards to photograph the packed masses of waders at their high-tide roost at the Point of Air, near Prestatyn. The only trouble was – there weren’t any. Just a handful of the commonest species. I then spent a couple of hours searching for, and failing to find, my current birding obsession – hawfinches. I won’t broadcast the location because villagers get pretty cheesed off with the behaviour of some birders, but there is a well-known site for this rare and elusive bird in the Conwy valley. So for the second time in one day I assumed I must be driving around in a van with a huge sign, facing upwards, on its roof saying “Bird photographer approaching destination – make a run for it”.

But I had more joy at my final location, the RSPB Conwy reserve at Llandudno Junction. There has been a starling roost there all winter and on my arrival I was pleased to discover they were still around. There was no wind and it looked like there would be a good sunset, so I found a location where I hoped the birds would be silhouetted against a stunning sky. There was even the possibility of a reflection for good measure!  Towards sunset small groups of starlings began to arrive, some time later than they do at Aberystwyth. And they just kept on coming!  Several sparrowhawks made appearances and made hunting dashes into the flock. The starlings created tightly-packed balls and ribbons of birds to try to evade them. It was fabulous to watch but set against part of the sky which was too dark to allow successfully photography.

It really was a very large flock by the time they eventually disappeared together into the reedbed. It was almost dark by that time and they had been displaying for some forty minutes since the first birds arrived.  It was interesting to compare this with their behaviour at  Aberystwyth, where they were going to roost some forty-five minutes earlier. I managed this image as the flock swirled over one the reserve’s shallow lagoons.

Starlings in pre-roost display, RSPB Conwy reserve.
Starlings in pre-roost display, RSPB Conwy reserve.

I don’t know if it be useable anywhere else but on the web.  It was taken at 6.31 pm on March 10th, using pretty extreme settings for this type of subject – 4000 ASA, 1/160th second and f4.

Finally, just before Easter, I installed part of my Bird/land exhibition in the Visitor Centre at RSPB Ynyshir. It will be showing there until May 30th; but for the full Bird/land experience wait until June 25th, when an updated and expanded version will be opening in the Photography Gallery at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Watch this space for more information.

 

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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.

 

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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