Peregrinations (part two).

Cwm Coke Works, near Beddau

A couple of weeks ago I drove down to Cardiff with my mate Jonathan to see Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets at St David’s Hall. Nick was one of the founder members of Pink Floyd. A few years ago he put together a band to play music from “the Floyd’s” earlier and arguably most creative years, prior to Dark Side of the Moon. No Roger Waters dirges here, thank you very much! The gig, originally scheduled for spring 2020, was postponed, postponed again, and then again. You had to hope that Nick would still be fit enough to eventually play. That Wednesday, it finally happened, and he was. I don’t think he could be described as the most original or inventive drummer in the world, but he sets a rock-solid foundation for the other musicians around him. At the age of 78, it is astonishing that he is still able to undertake gruelling sequences of one – night stands, and to keep alive some of the most compelling rock music of all time.

I won’t say much more about the music, other than this : both Jonathan and I are of the opinion that the 22-minute long track “Echoes” (on the album Meddle) is one of the most sublime pieces of music ever created. I personally believe it should, and eventually probably will, be considered alongside the great classical music of its era. I had been worried that I wouldn’t be able to cope with experiencing it live. But as we left the venue agreed that the version of Echoes which ended the second set was a bit of a let-down. It was as if the band were wary of reproducing the space and tranquility which so permeates the studio version. Or perhaps they were unable to do so?

But I digress. My next encounter with peregrines, on the way back from Cardiff, was in a very different setting to the previous one; from the sublime to the ridiculous, you could say. I have briefly visited the Cwm Coke Works site twice in recent years. It only finally closed down in 2002, so I must also have seen it in all its working glory on earlier visits to the Valleys. I just wish I had given it the time it deserved as photographic subject matter, because this extensive site is now derelict and rapidly being demolished. Last summer I heard the unmistakeable calls of peregrines there so vowed to re-visit the site during the breeding season if at all possible.

The Coke Works bar and coffee shop, Beddau. (Mural hand-painted by Jenny Ross)

At first it was very quiet. A raven was calling and song birds singing from the woodland which is rapidly regenerating around the site. Then came the sounds of two peregrines in conversation. I spotted one bird circling low around the building in the main picture and shortly later J. picked out the female hunched down in the dirt on an inaccessible part of the site. Later the male brought her some food, and when she stood up you could see two tiny white downy bundles beside her. It is worth mentioning here that at the time Derek Ratcliffe wrote his masterwork The Peregrine Falcon (publ. 1980) it was virtually unknown for the species to nest on man-made structures in the UK : now it is commonplace. I suppose this site gives the birds all the security they need, but it was strange to see such dignified creatures in such delapidated surroundings.

A group of naturalists appeared on the coal tip behind us and I discovered that one member of the party was Carys Romney, who I had also met by chance on a previous visit. She is an ecologist and the leading light behind the Cwm Tips Appreciation Society. She told me about her new venture – a peregrine- and cwm tips-themed bar/coffee shop in the ex-mining village of Beddau a couple of miles away. As you can see from the picture above, there are some fabulous murals there by the artist Jenny Ross, and I can certainly vouch for the quality of the coffee! So why not give the Cokeworks Bar a visit if you find yourself in the area?

NB : I hesitated before posting details of the peregrine site, but it should be noted how well-known and valued the birds are locally; and how they are protected by some very keen site security staff.

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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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