Steel yourself for this…………

For a while I have been itching to get down and dirty with some industrial landscapes. I toyed with the idea of a trip down to the south-west of England to photograph the “Cornish Alps” – the china-clay tips and quarries around St Austell, and I still may do that before too long. But then the memory gradually came back to me that there was still an area of heavy industry right here in Wales which may well now be unmatched for visual impact in the whole of the UK. Most evidence of heavy industry in Wales has been tidied way, all of the collieries and most of the steel works closed and demolished. But despite periodic threats of closure,  what might be called the Port Talbot sacrifice zone is still in operation. 

Strangely I still have a warm feeling about the years when coal extraction and steel making were staple industries in many parts of the UK. It probably dates back to my very earliest era of picture taking which came to an end in 1968, with the demise of steam power on British railways. I still regret I never tried to photograph heavy industry in the 1980’s and 90’s in the Welsh valleys, for example, when it was still cheek-by-jowl with otherwise unspoilt countryside. I did visit Port Talbot to photograph the steel works in the mid-1990’s and well remember a very unpleasant encounter with a security guard on the beach – which I hadn’t realised was actually owned by British Steel.  On another visit about ten years ago I had a frightening encounter on a car park, which turned out to be a dogging venue, at night, in my camper van,  So that was two reasons why, photographically speaking, I have never really done the place justice!

My first location was actually the promenade at nearby Aberafan, which has some bizarre life-size concrete wildlife models on it – emperor penguins and a whale. Then I made my way to the south end of the steel works site where a public footpath runs down a track through fields to the beach – all now owned by Tata Steel. Having arrived at the foreshore I stood very prominently there for ten minutes and pointed my camera at things to make sure I could be seen by security if present.  There didn’t seem to be anyone around. I began the walk back along the public footpath but strangely there is no barrier between it and the site itself, so no disincentive at all to keep out…..  I soon found myself amongst coal conveyor belts and huge piles of coal. From somewhere came the evocative (for me) smell of burning coal. 

I pottered around with the camera for almost an hour without interruption. After a while some stubborn cloud moved away and allowed some beautiful late afternoon sunlight to illuminate some of the structures. These were just the type of images I never thought I’d have the opportunity to take, but I didn’t push my luck by intruding too far into the site. Suddenly I got a very strong feeling that my time was up and hurried back to the track. Almost immediately there was a rumble and a clatter as one of the conveyor belts started up; and a small yellow pick-up truck appeared. I had timed my exit perfectly!

The next day I climbed steeply up a hillside overlooking Port Talbot which gave me an overall view of the site beyond it. I took my tripod and full photographic kit this time which gave me a complete range of focal lengths from 24 to 800 mm (full frame equivalent).  The longer focal lengths were the most useful as I was more than a mile from the nearest edge of the extensive steel works site. The top (main) image was taken with my Olympus EM1 mk 2 and the Panasonic 100- 400 zoom set at 350 mm. In full frame terms that’s 700 mm or 14x magnification. These figures are way beyond what could have been obtained with reasonably priced equipment even ten years ago. I have examined the file closely and the quality is really pretty good even at 100%.

One thing that really puzzled me about these images was the white balance. I normally use “auto” and it’s usually fine, but as you can see the main image has a dirty pink / salmon colour cast. At first I corrected this in post-processing but that didn’t look right either. I then noticed a shorter focal length image showing some foreground foliage which looked perfectly normal. I have concluded that the centre of the site in the main picture is suffused with coloured fumes emitted by one of the processes there. You can see this contrast in the third image (@132mm equivalent). Who would live near Port Talbot? The air quality must be dreadful.

But I do think these photographs have a message for all of us. I don’t know what type of steel this plant produces but no matter how environmentally friendly a lifestyle we live, if we use a car, or a saucepan, or a fridge, or a filing cabinet, somewhere in the world a steel works like this was involved in its production.

 

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Homing in.

First of all let me say that I am a very lucky man. I live out in the Welsh countryside, with long views in every direction from the house. The valley to the north is stunningly beautiful, with several stretches of remnant oak woodland, just coming into leaf right now, on its sides. I can take any one of a wide variety of walks direct from my front door, on public footpaths, bridleways or minor roads.  I can use my electric bike to get me a bit further afield and to help iron out the many steep hills in the vicinity.  I have no money worries: my pension payment comes in, regular as clockwork, every four weeks.

This is, of course, a far cry from the experience of those people now confined to rooms and apartments in towns and cities throughout the world. Or delivering food to our shops and supermarkets, driving buses or trains, collecting rubbish and re-cycling, delivering mail, or risking their own lives daily in care homes and hospitals. My heart particularly goes out to those brave and committed men and women saving other people’s lives on the front line, in some cases to the extent of losing their own.

Red kites : attempted talon grappling

When it became clear that I was going to be confined to base for a considerable length of time, I made it my aim to get to know my immediate surroundings as best I could. After a relentless diet of rain and wind over the winter the start of the lockdown coincided with a change to much sunnier conditions. I started to walk some of the local footpaths, and listened out for bird song in the nearby woodlands. Late March is also good time of year to search out woodpeckers while they are still drumming to advertise their territories.   At one time many years ago I thought I could distinguish the drumming of lesser spotted woodpecker from its much more common relative, the greater spotted; but with the former being so uncommon now my memory had become rather rusty. I managed to almost convince myself that I had found a lesser spotted just a few minutes walk from the house. So I spent some time quietly visiting a couple of local woodlands listening for its call – which would conclusively identify it – without success. But what I did find, without really trying, were two red kite nests. In fact it was partly as a result of the kites that I felt I had to give up searching for woodpeckers. By April 7th both pairs were obviously incubating and I just couldn’t continue without disturbing them.

Of course red kites are nowhere near as rare as they used to be. I well remember seeing my first red kite soon after moving to mid-Wales in 1977. I had cycled up a remote valley not far from here and took a photograph (yes, even then) of a bird I assumed was a buzzard. It wasn’t until I got the prints back from Boots (or was it Max Spielmann?) that I saw the forked tail. In fact the valley below this house seems to be a bit of a hotspot for red kites. There is a communal roost in one of the woodlands – I’ve seen fifty birds there at dusk in winter. For much of the year there are birds floating around enjoying the breeze. One of my neighbours – a lady in her eighties – sometimes puts scraps of meat our for them in the field the other side of her garden fence. We are only about five miles from one of the well-known kite feeding stations (Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian) so I suspect some individual birds associate the appearance of people with the arrival of food. At least one  perches on an electric pole at the back of her house and calls in the hope that she will feed it.

On bright days in late winter and early spring the larger birds of prey (kites and buzzards) are very prominent in the air, displaying and socialising with each other.  One recent evening I looked out of the bathroom window to see two kites grab each other’s talons and freefall together, whirling round and round, before releasing and flying away. But then, round about the second week in April, clutches are completed, incubation starts and it normally goes very quiet. You wonder where all the raptors have suddenly gone. But a loose grouping of kites (up to eight together) soared, chased and displayed over the field at the back of the house throughout last week, sometimes joined by buzzards. They seem to like each other’s company.

Probably because they are such a familiar feature of our landscape here in mid-Wales, I have hardly ever tried to photograph red kites. During work on my “Bird/land” exhibition I visited Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian several times but ended up focussing my attention on carrion crows (see this post)! But in my current enforced state of immobility it seemed like a good time to put right this failing; that and a realisation that they are, actually, incredibly beautiful creatures……

So I took my new(ish) Olympus/Panasonic m4/3 kit out “into the field”  – the field at the bottom of our garden, that is. It was actually quite frustrating to have to exit the house via the front door, walk fifteen yards along the road, then open a gate and go through it……how lazy we can get! I began to explore the camera’s various settings and autofocus modes. It has SO many…….far too many for a technophobe like me, to be honest, but by chance or otherwise I have managed some good results.  One particular afternoon the harsh sun was tempered by a veil of high cloud; bright diffused light is perfect for bird photography, and it so happened that my next-door neighbour had just put some scraps of meat out for them! It was an ideal opportunity.

For a red kite I’d guess that grasping another bird’s talons and cartwheeling towards the ground together is just about the ultimate in sociability and the mastery of flight. For me capturing the act would be the pinnacle in red kite photography; but now the peak in pre-breeding season activity has passed, I wonder if it will now have to wait until next year?

 

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A Serial Rogue?

This time last year I posted about re-introducing eagles into Wales, ( which you’ll need to read if you want some background……).  To cut a long story very short, last February, completely out of the blue, and within a couple of days of each other, two such projects were announced. One was being set up by a character named Paul O’Donoghue, at one time a “senior lecturer” at Chester University. More recently he is the figure behind the Wildcat Haven project in Scotland, and the Lynx UK Trust, which made an unsuccessful attempt to re-introduce wild lynx into the Kielder Forest on the English/Scottish border. I concluded by saying that Paul O’Donoghue was a controversial character whose

sudden arrival is bad news for rewilding in Wales in general and for the ERW project in particular. It must be hoped that Dr O’Donoghue will soon return from whence he came.”

More news about Paul O’Donoghue has emerged  in the last few days. Wildcat Haven (basically O’Donoghue and his wife) had set up a business partnership with the company Highland Titles Ltd, selling tiny souvenir plots of land which “entitled” the buyer to style themselves as “Laird, Lord or Lady of Glencoe”.  In a number of blog posts and tweets the Scottish Green MP and land rights campaigner Andy Wightman criticised this relationship. As a result Wildcat Haven sued Wightman for defamation, a claim involving the astonishing sum of £750,000 damages (plus interest).  In a welcome judgement, the case was very recently dismissed.

Meanwhile, the website “Wilder Britain”, set up by O’Donoghue to promote one of his companies (previously known as “Rewilding UK”) and its golden eagle re-introduction project, has mysteriously become unavailable.

Further digging has shown that in 2011/12 Scottish Natural Heritage gave grant funding totalling £5778.00 to the University of Chester’s Biological Science Dept, for research into the (genetic) purity of wildcats in the Cairngorms National Park; no results had been received by SNH more than five years later.

It has been suggested that O’Donoghue uses his websites and social media accounts (LynxUK, Wildcat Haven, Wilder Britain etc) to raise money for projects which never actually see the light of day. If that is the case, I wonder if any of the donors ever get their money back?

In an article about O’Donoghue in its 6th March edition (not the first, by any means), Private Eye tells us that he has recently set up yet another Community Interest Company called “We Rescue Animals” and suggests that we may soon be hearing more from him. It adds that Highland Titles has pulled out of its partnership with Wildcat Haven. Unfortunately the article also confuses “Rewilding UK” (O’Donoghue’s company), with the charity “Rewilding Britain” which launched the Summit to Sea rewilding project based in Machynlleth, mid-Wales. It’s not surprising that such a simple mistake could have been made, but I have written to Lord Gnome to clarify matters.

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You wait for years for an eagle re-introduction project to arrive….

Golden eaglet, Isle of Mull, 1981.

……. and then two come along at the same time!

A good friend and I have often discussed how good it would be to see golden eagles back in Wales. We have often thought that the area above Nant-y-moch reservoir, in the shadow of Pumlumon, would be one of the best sites in Wales for them. It is remote, quite mountainous and very little visited. One imagines there would be a fair few dead sheep to feed on too. In contrast, the number of walkers and climbers around the great crags and summits of north Wales and the Brecon Beacons are such that golden eagles would probably be unable to tolerate the disturbance. But when other conditions are favourable their nests can sometimes be at “walk-in” locations, as I discovered while doing a golden eagle survey on the Isle of Mull many years ago.  So quieter parts of Snowdonia, like the Arenig/Migneint and the Rhinogydd, might be suitable, despite a shortage of cliff or tree nesting sites.

A few months ago I became aware of the Eagle Re-introduction Wales project (ERW). It is based at Cardiff University, and has the backing of the Welsh Wildlife Trusts. It is currently undertaking some pre-feasibility studies to examine whether there would be a niche in Wales for either or both of the UK’s eagle species.  For most of its short life, the ERW project has been carrying out its activities very much ‘under the radar’. It expects that re-introducing eagles into Wales will be controversial and is building the case for it in a methodical and deliberate fashion. That all changed recently when a completely separate golden eagle re-introduction project made its TV debut on Countryfile Winter Diaries.

Presenting the proposal was Dr. Paul O’Donoghue, project leader for “Wilder Britain”. They plan to submit their application for a release licence to Natural Resources Wales in July. Dr O’Donoghue is quoted on the North Wales Live website (18th February) as saying –

If successful, project organisers hope to re-introduce 10 young Golden Eagles as soon as this autumn, though next year is more likely.”

The release will form the model for further releases elsewhere in Wales.  He is obviously very positive about their chances of success. The trouble is, any re-introduction project like this has to satisfy something like fifty-three guidelines set out by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). They just don’t happen overnight.

‘Wilder Britain’ is a Community Interest Company, based in St Asaph, with just one director – Dr. Paul O’Donoghue. It was set up on 25th August 2018, and until January 25th this year was known as  “Rewilding UK”.

As a result of some of his other recent initiatives, Paul O’Donoghue has become quite a controversial character. He is also ‘Chief Scientific Advisor’ to Wildcat Haven (directors Emily O’Donoghue and Douglas Wilson).  This is a fairly well-established project doing good work on wildcat conservation in Scotland; for example catching, neutering and re-releasing feral cats and wildcat/feral cat crosses so that they become unable to reproduce. It is also proposing to re-introduce wildcats from elsewhere in Europe into the Scottish Borders this year2019 . On the other side of the coin Wildcat Haven has also entered into an unpleasant war of words with the “official” wildcat conservation body Scottish Wildcat Action. Wildcat Haven has also sued for defamation a very well-respected Green Party Member of the Scottish Parliament. It is believed that the astonishing sum of £750,000 (+ interest) is involved. The court case is due to be heard later this year.

Then there’s the Lynx UK Trust. Its registered address is also in St. Asaph, and its directors are Paul O’Donoghue and Emily O’Donoghue. The Lynx UK Trust submitted an application to release wild lynx into the Kielder Forest (on the England / Scotland border) early in 2018, and it was turned down in December. The refusal was just about as damning as it could possibly have been. Natural England was concerned, among other things, about the project’s lack of financial security, its reliance on volunteers, its lack of liaison with land- owners and managers, the lack of an environmental impact assessment, and insufficient information on the methodology for “acquisition, release and monitoring of lynx”. They had failed to satisfy some of the most important IUCN guidelines. Despite this refusal the Lynx UK Trust now proposes to re-introduce Lynx at three locations in Scotland ………

It appears that ERW got wind of the Wilder Britain announcement and decided to take pre-emptive action. A press release from project leader Sophie Lee-Williams also dated February 18th appears on the BBC News website. In it she says –

“Wales is home to large expanses of potentially suitable eagle habitat but there are many questions we need to answer about the quality of habitat, and whether it can sustain eagles. The project is in the very early stages of development, and a reintroduction is not likely to happen for some time.”

The two projects couldn’t be more different in their approaches.

So what chance does Wilder Britain stand of getting a release permit this year for golden eagles in Snowdonia? My feeling is very little. So little ecological groundwork has been done. Also on their agenda for Wales is the re-introduction of mountain hares – a worthwhile project in itself but which could take years to undertake.   One of its aims is to provide prey for introduced eagles.  So why not work on this first? Perhaps the mountain hare isn’t sexy enough? While he may be very good at making headlines, in the cold light of day Paul O’Donoghue’s proposals seem to me to amount to little more than an elaborate wishlist. And with the track record he has quickly built up how can the authorities take him seriously?

I would also suggest that his sudden arrival is bad news for rewilding in Wales in general and for the ERW project in particular. It must be hoped that Dr O’Donoghue will soon return from whence he came.

Many thanks to Jonathan Stacey for advice and inspiration.

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Not soon coming to a bookshop near you……….

Not soon coming to a bookshop near you……avocets at Goldcliffe, Gwent

Earlier this year I wrote about a number of disappointments I had had as a photographer during the previous twelve months (see this post). At the time I wasn’t sure if I should be blogging about my failures but they are part and parcel of the life of the freelance and it felt like a reasonable response. Unfortunately there is more disappointment to recount.

Following the sudden rejection of In Search of Wild Wales by the publisher in January, Jon Gower and I discussed finding another outlet for it. After a while he suggested a little known specialist publisher from south Wales, who had put together a very high quality book on the Welsh artist John Selway.  Jon had provided the text. They were keen to go ahead with In Search of Wild Wales. Things were looking up! Jon sent the final version of his text through to me in the middle of October and I read it avidly. Most (about two-thirds) was intelligent, invigorating writing. He had written a beautiful essay – at my request – about avocets, to accompany the above photograph. But the remainder ………. hmmm…….. it just seemed rather flat, somehow, as if someone else had written it.

I think I had better just say at this point that several chapters of the book needed re-writing.  At first he agreed to do it over the winter, but then there was a second email. He had changed his mind overnight and despite profuse apologies, was now withdrawing from the project altogether. “Your very fine images”  he said, “should not be coupled to shoddy, lazy writing”.

Strangely enough I don’t feel angry. I just can’t get my head around it. I still wake up and think “Did that really happen?”

So that’s five publishers and three authors I’ve exhausted trying to get this book off the ground.  A very good friend assured me that I was good enough to write the text myself, or that he could write it for me, but working with a friend on anything can ruin a good relationship. There comes a time when you have to accept that something is just never going to happen.

As a photographer I believe that a book can be image-led but images do have their limitations, no matter how good they are. I’ve always felt that a good text can take a book way beyond the photographs that accompany it. To that end I’ve worked with different authors on five books but in almost every case it wasn’t the real collaboration that I had been hoping for. Ironically the most satisfying in that sense was Wales at Waters Edge  :  author –  Jon Gower!  With that one exception I’ve had a series of bad experiences with authors over the last decade. In some cases they seem to have such sense of superiority over the photographer that the latter is only worthy of illustrating their magnificent, all-knowing and world-shattering text.

One could argue that I should never have worked on this project without having a contract in place. However, there is no chance that the photographs could have been produced within the time frame of a normal book production schedule. Nature is seasonal for one thing. The photographer has to fit in with its rhythms. If you miss a subject one spring, for example, you just have to wait twelve months for another opportunity. And did I mention that I was a perfectionist?

There is no doubt that this has been the most difficult blog post I have ever written. I would love to recount exactly why Jon withdrew from the project, but I have taken the advice of others not to be too specific. In the meantime, I have dragged myself out of the hole that I found myself in and sent a new proposal to Gomer Press for consideration. If successful, it will use some of the images from the book which has finally now bitten the dust. Other than the publisher, no-one else will be involved.

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Photography on the fly.

Fly agaric, near Betws-y-coed

We’re well into autumn now and I recently decided I needed some photographs of that spectacular fungus, the fly agaric. I was up in north Wales for a couple of days, and a mixed forecast suggested I might get some sunny scenic landscape photography done; any cloudy conditions being more suitable for more intimate “autumn colours” and woodland scenes. Yes, I know I’m a traditionalist but at my age what do you expect!

By mid-morning on the first day it was starting to brighten up although a strong southerly wind was blowing. My first destination was a hilltop above Betws-y-coed, with the town deep in the valley below and the main peaks of Eryri in the background. But why not first spend an hour or so looking for fly agarics in the woodland leading to my destination? Two minutes later, right by the path, I had found my first! It was a perfect specimen, I thought, in my excitement, so I got the tripod out and began taking some ground level shots with my telephoto zoom. A passer-by told me that fly agarics were very common this year;  some images he showed me on his phone looked great, and I realised my own specimen was not actually that special – tall and broad, yes; but crimson in colour with flecks of white on the cap? No, not really. I had a look around.

Fly agarics are usually associated with birch trees (and sometimes pine or other species). The fungus has a mutually beneficial relationship with the roots of the tree which helps both species thrive. What I found on my short exploration amazed me. Over an area of perhaps a hundred metres by fifty, I found several dozen fly agarics. Most were already past their best, being flat-capped, or even bowl shaped, with the red colouration having already faded towards orange. But I found one particularly photogenic group among some birch trees and did a bit of “gardening” to expose them. One was already broken off at ground level so I decided to make a feature of it alongside several other complete ones. Things are rarely as simple as you hope for, though, in this case because the sun was now shining brightly, creating areas of high contrast on the woodland floor. Every so often a tiny wispy cloud passed in front of the sun but even this didn’t give me the even lighting I needed for this shot. I wandered around, found more fly agarics, did some tai chi, looked at the sky over and over again, waited and waited some more. Eventually I realised that a better image would also include the mushrooms’ habitat so I swapped to a wide angle, placing them in the foreground with birch trees and bracken taking up the rest of the frame. Contrast was still a problem so I tried two other techniques:

1)  Using a ND grad over the brightest part of the image (at the top), and

2)  Bracketing with the intention of combining two images in Lightroom at the processing stage.

To some extent both worked, but the image (above) was processed using the HDR control in Lightroom. I had to examine individual frames carefully and choose those with the least subject movement for combining: the wind was still strong.

Thirty-six hours later I was back, and within five minutes had found a tiny, perfect little specimen freshly emerged from its protective sheath, looking just like something you might find in a very upmarket cake shop (see above). And it really wasn’t a difficult shot to take; a little gardening to clear dead bracken stems and twigs, tripod, aperture priority, f5.6 for minimal depth of field, and ….success!

Llyn Crafnant

The intervening day was glorious – warm, sunny and cloud-free; perfect for pure enjoyment but not great for the landscape photographer. I spent the night in the van by Llyn Crafnant above Trefriw. I do love the length of these autumn nights. No problem getting a good night’s sleep and no rush to be up before dawn. It was perfectly calm for several hours in the morning and, having found a good spot by the lakeside, I took a long series of images of the head of the valley and its reflection as the sun rose. In the end it was the very last image I took that was my favourite, so perhaps I should have waited longer!

Beyond the head of the valley, completely invisible from within it, lay the great peaks of Eryri – the Carneddau, Tryfan, the Glyderau, Yr Wyddfa and its outliers, and finally Moel Siabod. It was half-an-hour’s walk to a point where they could all be seen. Or so I thought: it actually took something like an hour and by the time I got there the sun was really too high and the sky too blue for successful image-making. But it was a great walk and I will do it again another day. As for the hoped-for view above Betws-y-coed, cloud was covering the peaks on both of my visits. Oh, and I got drenched in a two-hour downpour in woodland near Dolgellau on the way home. Light rain showers, the Met Office forecast said……….

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Repeat until it gets dark……

Porth Ysgo (recent)

In summer 2011 I discovered Porth Ysgo, a tiny cove near Aberdaron at the tip of the Lleyn peninsula. I was working on Wales at Waters Edge, my book about the Welsh coastline. It took me a while but eventually I noticed that the beach was littered with extraordinary rocks. It wasn’t so much their shape – although there were some interesting ones – but their colour; when wet they were pitch black. I used a heavy ND filter to slow down the wave motion and create a frothy foam which contrasted strongly with the solidity of the rocks. One picture appeared in the book and I vowed that one day I would go back.

Porth Ysgo (from Wales at Waters Edge)

Well it took more than six years but I finally made a return visit last week. I met up with my old friend Brian Boothby, a very fine musician and photographer, and it was with a growing sense of excitement that I descended the steep steps down to the beach. Conditions were just about right – a receding tide with a fresh onshore wind.  On this occasion I didn’t mind the cloud cover. I put the camera on the tripod immediately, fitted the ND filter and started shooting long exposures. I very rarely use it otherwise but live-view is brilliant in this situation. It gives an “actual exposure” simulation while the image in the viewfinder is virtually invisible thanks to the heavy filtration.  It all went well for a while until I noticed that I was getting some massively under-exposed images. I checked all the settings but still no joy. Then I realised what the problem was. Having set a two-second self timer to prevent camera shake, I then took my eye away from the viewfinder. Light entering the viewfinder during an exposure of several seconds was affecting the automatic meter reading by about two stops. In other words, it was cutting the exposure to something like a quarter of the correct one. It seems odd that this should be possible. Can someone explain it?

So the solution was simple. Once you have found your location and accepted that it is usually pot luck with long exposures, this type of image is actually quite easy to create:

Use live-view to compose the image.  Set the self-timer. Wait until a likely looking wave begins to enter the frame. Place the thumb over the viewfinder. Press the shutter. Repeat until it gets dark.

In fact, Brian had been exploring and found another tiny cove nearby with more extraordinary black rocks.  This time they were larger, more sculptural, and placed randomly on the shore, almost like surreal chess pieces. There were also some massive square-ish blocks, each the size of a small car, piled on top of each other well above the waterline. But salt spray was filling the air.  I managed a few more long exposures, then began to enjoy the sheer exhilaration of the conditions as darkness began to fall. Who needs photography on an evening like this?

Edit: but it’s always nice to come back with a trophy or two………

 

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Tea and brasso.

Early morning at Boston Lodge.

I first picked up a camera as a schoolboy. My father gave me his old rangefinder after he bought himself his first Praktica.  He had introduced me to trainspotting a few years earlier and 1968 saw the dying days of steam power on main-line railways in Britain. I spent as much time as I could that summer travelling around northern England to see and photograph the last steam engines still in operation.  On the last day of steam – 15th August if I remember correctly – I officially gave up trainspotting and put my Locoshed book away for the last time. With the photographic vision and skills I now have how I wish that I could travel back in time to those days when grimy and unloved steam engines could still be found.

I have since then retained a broad interest in railways, and Wales has an abundance of preserved narrow-gauge lines. In fact, Porthmadog is the hub of quite a narrow-guage steam network with the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland lines terminating there. Last week I decided I was man enough to do some railway photography again: man enough because I needed to overcome my concerns about being seen as a train nerd. So one evening recently I wandered in to the Boston Lodge works/engine shed of the Ffestiniog Railway as one of the last engines of the day was being “put to bed”.  I gingerly approached the railwaymen to enquire about getting access the following morning, and was told that I would need to speak to the Works Supervisor who would be on duty from 7 a.m. I was there at half-past seven, only to find no-one in the office but railwaymen (and women) preparing several engines for the day’s duties. I couldn’t help noticing several people polishing the engines furiously – something that you would never have seen on British Rail in the 1960’s.

Once I did find someone to report in to I was surprised at how relaxed the regime was for visitors – “Oh just sign in, and mind where you’re putting your feet” I was told. Very refreshingly there was no  “elf’n safety” paranoia here. I cautiously began exploring the sheds and sidings. If you’re interested in steam engines you will know this already but the first job in the morning is to light the fire. Once this is done the engine is driven gently out into the open for the fire to take hold and steam pressure to build up, and for more polishing to be done. Everyone had a tin of Brasso to hand, and there was a cupboard full of the stuff inside the shed. Mugs of tea were also well in evidence. In the midst of a downpour, a swallow chased a butterfly in the grime and smoke of the engine shed.

I was casually looking into the cab of one of the engines when the fireman leapt in through the opposite door. Although dressed in grimy dark blue overalls, like most of the men, this was clearly a woman. I asked what the attraction was for her in firing a steam engine – “it’s just something completely different to what I normally do” she said. And what was that? “Oh, I’m a teaching assistant in a school for autistic children”.  She paused for a few seconds. ” Although, come to think of it, compared to some of the volunteers we get here, there isn’t actually that much difference.” Train nerds, you see. I saw her later, at lunchtime, having worked all morning, on her second round trip of the day. Her teeth gleamed white from a face caked in sweat and coal dust. “One of the best fireman on the railway”, said the driver.

Here’s one I prepared earlier – Taking on water at Tan-y-bwlch station

The main attraction at Boston Lodge was, of course, the presence of the engines. The railway staff must have been accustomed to railway photographers, though, because they seemed quite unselfconscious subjects themselves.  It probably helped to have a chat: one driver – in real life an English teacher at a school in Switzerland – was back at the Ffestiniog for his thirty-second year, while another man told me proudly that it was his fourty-ninth year as a fireman. One pointed out an osprey hovering over the Glaslyn river as it hunted for fish to take back to its family a few miles away. I found I was often able to include them and in fact, some human interest really seemed to lift the images. The results were far from traditional “steam engine at 45 degrees”and one could say were more social documentary in nature. I have a feeling there is more to be done on the Ffestiniog.

 

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A silver-studded Saturday

Male silver-studded blues, the Great Orme

I didn’t mention it in my last post but the van broke down on the way back from Pembrokeshire. It had been feeling and sounding particularly rough the whole journey and a few miles south of Aberystwyth it started to become difficult to engage gears. I nursed it back up the long hill to our house in second, and rolled it down to the garage the following day. It is still there, 12 days later; virtually untouched. The garage proprietor still doesn’t know if it is the clutch that has gone or the gearbox; so it’s either going to an expensive repair or a horribly expensive one.

He loaned me his “courtesy car” over the weekend – an X-reg Proton. Quite a comedown, as you can imagine, and you definitely can’t cook or sleep in it. Nevertheless it got me up to Llandudno and back at the weekend, where I was planning to visit the Great Orme. This is a massive limestone headland overlooking Llandudno with long stretches of white or pale grey cliffs facing in all directions. Its grassland is home to many interesting and rare plants and animals, including the silver-studded blue butterfly, which is uncommon nationally but appears in huge numbers on the Orme. The last week in June is supposed to be the time to see them. They were certainly widespread and numerous but not occurring in quite the clouds I had been hoping for /expecting.

It’s a long time since I have done any insect photography and I don’t have any specialist equipment for it. I was relying on my 70 – 200 f4 zoom which has a closest focus of four feet. The silver-studded blue is a tiny butterfly, well under an inch across, so even at maximum magnification an individual was very small in the viewfinder. But on the plus side the lens is very good optically and I knew I would be able to crop down into the image significantly. The butterfly is very skittish when the sun is shining so getting much closer than four feet might have been tricky anyway. So as far is gear was concerned it was a case of swings and roundabouts.

Male (left) and female silver-studded blues

What about the butterfly, though? The Orme silver-studded is a distinct subspecies, (“plebejus argus caernensis”) appearing about a month earlier than those elsewhere in the UK. The males and females are completely different in appearance; the males blue, the females largely brown – but far from dull as the smaller picture shows. In bright sunshine they seem to indulge in a great deal of apparently random flight – a far cry from the graceful and purposeful behaviour of our larger and more familiar species. It can only be down to one thing – sex. The males are desperate to find females, and copulating couples seem to be everywhere. But in more subdued light they tend to stay put, exposing their uppersides to whatever light is available. And during heavy cloud cover they just seem to shrink away into the vegetation and disappear. It is said that they rarely move more than 20 metres away from their place of birth at any time during their lifetimes.

The adult butterflies don’t seem to pose prettily on flowerheads to any great extent; anywhere will do. So the photographer needs patience to obtain that perfect composition. I struggled at first, I must admit. But as thin cloud covered the sun and they became less active, I came across a little congregation of five males on bramble flowers. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for. Even here I managed to take some rubbish. Depth of field was very limited  and it was easy to focus on a butterfly’s body and find the edge of its wing was out of focus. Backgrounds were often untidy. I really, really wanted to do some wide-aperture, out-of-focus-background type images but it was a lost cause. I needed as much D-o-F as possible to get even this tiny butterfly in focus.

The butterfly’s life-cycle is extraordinary: from the moment the eggs hatch until the adults are ready to fly the caterpillars are tended by black ants. The ants carry the caterpillars into their nests and protect and look after them.  Even when the caterpillars emerge to feed the ants accompany them. In return the ants feed on a sugary solution excreted by the caterpillars. The more I learn about nature the more complex and intertwined it all becomes. A web of life, indeed.

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Swings and roundabouts

Fish farm, Penmon: Purchased by National Library of Wales

Over a period of many years the National Library of Wales bought complete sets of prints from each of my books as it was published, or as they were exhibited. They currently have a total of 371 Cibachromes purchased in this way. This came to a sudden end about ten years ago when they took on a new member of staff whose task it was to raise income from items in its Collection. I’m not sure what her background was but this bright spark decided it would be a good idea to sell copies of photographs bought from photographers or donated by them. She obviously had no idea about copyright. I was asked to sign a statement approving this and I refused. I found it astonishing that an institution whose readers had to sign a “personal use only” statement every time they photocopied a page of one of its books should believe it could appropriate photographers work in this way.  It may have been a coincidence but no more of my work was purchased for the following decade. It was just one of the ways in which my income declined over that time.

I’m glad to say the situation seems to have changed. That particular member of staff has apparently retired and I’m now in the process of selling a set of prints from “Wales at Waters Edge” to the Library. Not the whole lot (there are over a hundred) but a selection of twenty made by their Curator of Photography Will Troughton. He has described me as “Wales’ leading environmental photographer” and goes on to say that “his meticulous work has received extensive praise from many quarters”. For months on end it feels as if one is working in a vacuum, so this came as a very pleasant surprise. Environmental photography might sound a bit of a niche but it does suit my work quite well. I’ll quite happily use a building – a castle, lighthouse or cottage – as an aid to composition in my more commercial landscapes (the postcards, for example). But in my personal work I’m usually careful to use human elements within the landscape only when I’m tring to say something about that landscape.  I’m not always sure what exactly I’m trying to say but photographs do not always provide answers; sometimes they can pose questions. In my case the question is often “What exactly is our place within the landscape?” That is also why I have always been so keen on Fay Godwin’s work. It was very pleasing to see from his choice of prints that Will understands what I am trying to do.

Life is full of ups and downs and I have also suffered a major setback recently – although hopefully only a temporary one. Most of my books have been published by Gomer Press, arguably Wales’ premier publisher. However they are clearly now downgrading their publications department and in an attempt at “restructuring” are replacing the number of posts by 50%. All eight current members of staff were asked to re-apply for the four posts now envisaged. All refused and took redundancy payments. Gomer currently thus has no publications department, and any books “in development” but not contracted have been shelved.  However I am still hoping that either Gomer Press or another publisher will take my new book up before too long. Both Jon Gower (the author) and I are well-known and respected in Wales in our respective fields so they should be leaping at the chance!

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