Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Nablopomo and survival of the (not very) fittest

Dyrham Park, November

Is it really the end of Nablopomo? This is the third year I've completed the challenge to blog every day in November and the month seems to get shorter each time. They say a sign of ageing is that time passes more quickly - it certainly doesn't feel like a year since last December.

My theme, loosely interpreted, was nature and landscape. I'm not sure that helped with the quality of the output, but I at least tried to show that nature writing can go beyond mere description. Many of the posts placed me (or you as a reader) within the story, emphasising the human aspect over hard science or detailed observations. Writing this way has become instinctive, but if I were to analyse it, I'd say it's an attempt to reflect how we respond to the natural world.

Last Sunday I went walking in the Cotswolds with Jane and some friends. We saw a hawk - a peregrine, I'm sure - hunting over a clearing on the wooded ridge. And my immediate reaction was to run over for a better view, leaving the path and my rucksack behind. For a minute or so I was captivated by it's rise and fall on the ridge, the way it held it's tail, the shape of its wings, the anticipation that at any moment it would strike. I didn't spend ages looking it up in a guide, in fact, I only realised it had been a peregrine when that evening I checked what we'd seen against the options. The point I'm clumsily making is that it is the response to the bird that interests and excites me most and I suppose that is what I've tried to write about.

But I'm feeling tired now and not a little 'natured out'. Earlier this week I was saying to my father in law that writing reflects a part of me - but not all of me. It is a mistake, I said, to conflate life writing with autobiography. I have never yet met a writer who is not more complex, and often more flawed than their work might suggest. I am no different - I have an interest in nature and art and philosophy but I'm far from some aesthete who wouldn't contemplate flopping in front of the TV. For the next few weeks I think that's what I'm going to do - and maybe hit the gym as well, because thirty days staring at a screen is not great for the heart rate.

Talking of fitness, I noticed there were quite a few bloggers who didn't stand the pace. Of those who came through, my friends Zoe (mind and language) and Michelle (veg plotting) both gave me encouragement and wrote superbly throughout. My thanks to them and to everyone who commented - it always makes a difference. My apologies if I didn't always return the compliment - just too much to do and not enough November.

So that's all from my Nablopomo offerings - I hope you enjoyed them and they stirred a few thoughts. No doubt next year's challenge will come round sooner than I expect, which will just go to prove that I really am getting old.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cwm Idwal

If I was forced to pick a single place that meant more to me than any other, Cwm Idwal would be a high contender. It is in the Ogwen Valley, a few hundred feet above the main road to Bethesda, on the path to Twll Du, the Devil's Cauldron and Glydyr Fawr mountain. The Cwm is a hanging valley, glacial in origin and now a protected site of natural interest with particularly rare plants including the Snowdon Lilly

It is also of interest to mountaineers - the Idwal Slabs have provided an introduction to thousands of novice climbers and the surrounding cliffs are home to many test pieces, including the aptly named Suicide Wall.  Years ago I climbed these routes and can still picture the individual moves, the precarious belays and the long loose descent into the gully to the side of the rocks.

I remember the day we found a rose wedged in a crack, with a note from a girl whose boyfriend who had died in the Himalayas. It made Jane cry. We were there to go climbing but came back despite the sunshine - somehow, it didn't seem right. And I remember too, the afternoon of our wedding day, when we walked to the Cwm in pouring rain and held each other on the rock where we'd kissed three years previous, and known it was more than an office romance.

We've been back many times since - the photos in this post were taken in September 2002, on our anniversary as it happens. The other year we took our boys and stood on the same rocks as they turned away in embarrassment - yukeee they said!

That's teenagers for you. But then one day they will probably be an old romantic just like their father. And if they are ever inclined to kiss a girl in a magical place, then Cwm Idwal will still be there, waiting and as wonderful as ever.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Collections 16 - Wayside and Woodland

The inside cover of my copy of The Moths of the British Isles - Volume One is an inscription which reads: A small memento for a great achievement. To Mark, August 77 - Mother. I could write a book about the subtleties contained in that sentence but for now, let's just agree it was a strange present for a sixteen year old boy who'd recently passed his O-levels.  Even stranger is that I requested it.

My copy of Volume Two has a library stamp from my secondary school, which probably means I accidentally on purpose 'forgot' to return it - but then I doubt it was missed. After all, there are not many teenagers who care about the classifications of the larentiinae, ennominae and arctiinae families, let alone details of their lifecycle including illustrations of the ova, larval and pupal stages.

But such are the joys of the Wayside and Woodland series - they bridge the gap between hard academic books and more popular guides, satisfying the knowledge cravings of serious nature nerds - be they sixteen or sixty one (which at the time seemed ancient).  Until recently many of the series were considered the definitive field guides, and still today the two volume  Beetles is the most comprehensive pictorial reference available.

Wayside and Woodland books were published by Warne, who also produced the popular Observer's series that were a ubiquitous feature of Sixties and Seventies households. Much of the content of the Observer's nature titles is taken from their weightier cousins, and in a delicious irony, there is now even an Observer's Book of the Wayside and Woodland Series.

The reason, of course, is that they have become collectable - the rarest titles selling for hundreds of pounds, with value determined by condition, presence of a dust jacket... all that guff. For me, the value lies is in the content and occasionally in the past owners who have left their mark.  I have a wonderful copy of Dragonflies that includes the detailed observation records of  Lt. Col. Cowan and his correspondence with the book's author Cynthia Longfield (known in entomological circles as Madame Dragonfly).

I also have copies of, Trees, Freshwater Life, Butterflies, Blossoms (3 volumes), Birds (3 volumes) Caterpillars of British Moths (2 volumes) and Butterflies, Animals, Shell Life, The Seas... and my favourite Practical Entomology. I have more than these but not quite a full collection (Bees,Wasps and Ants is missing, as is Flies and Fungi and the elusive and over priced Beetles) not that it matters, I don't covet a full set so much as I like using them.

It's a pity the Wayside series was discontinued after Warne was bought by Penguin. The series had been in print for decades with the more popular titles subsidising obscurer interests and the whole forming a comprehensive guide to British wildlife. I don't think there is a mainstream publisher with an equivalent ambition and commitment today.

Only last week a friend was commenting on how the days of working class lads collecting bird's eggs had long gone - and that whilst the protection of species is a good thing, he sensed that an interest in nature is becoming an increasingly middle class pursuit. I don't know if that is right - it is almost certainly true of nature writing -  but if so, the absence of affordable and accessible guides is perhaps a contributor.

Thankfully, there are still many copies of the Wayside and Woodland Series available - and if you're not fussy about first editions and cover jackets there is a world of nature that can be enjoyed for only a few pounds. That copy my mother bought me when I was sixteen cost £6.95; you can probably get one on eBay for the same price - and that has to be a bargain.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Julian Meredith - the importance of scale

All images taken from

Although for many years I was a committed a painter it's been a long time since I saw works that made me want to pick up my brushes. Much of the art in commercial galleries seems little more than fancy decoration, and frankly, I've lost interest in looking. My loft is full of paintings that I can't be bothered to hang.

So how refreshing to be metaphorically hit in the solar plexus by the artist Julian Meredith. Giving a talk about his work he said, Reduced scale images are part of the reason why we now ignore images. And I felt that long forgotten rush of adrenaline (yes that's right) as the photographs of his life-size image of a blue whale hit my nervous system.

Meredith's comments about scale are wise. Size is a fundamental quality of any artwork, impacting on its meaning and context, its ability to connect with our senses. We've become used to paintings and sculpture that reduce our experience - and they do so more than just physically. The other week, I went to the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery, possibly the most over-hyped show this century - I don't want to be churlish about his art (oh for a morsel of that talent) but the vast majority of pictures were tiny; even the showpieces could have hung in my hall. Ultimately we 'peered' at the work - mostly over two dozens heads, jostling for a better view.

The whale prints were so large they were made in sections that bordered on the abstract, and as such had an individual quality of that goes beyond the whole. They were woodcuts, and I liked it that he's used an elm that was felled at Alnwick in Northumberland, near where I used to live. The choice of elm - a tree almost entirely lost in the UK - to make an image of one of the rarest and most endangered animals seemed especially apposite. So too, that they were hung at the Natural History Museum as a temporary replacement for the fibreglass model that is one of its iconic exhibits.

In fact the prints were quite small for Meredith. On his various residencies he has created sand sculptures, earth works in chalk and stone (he described the Cerne Giant and Uffington White Horse as two of our greatest works of art), including a 400 white whale near Cardiff. His works are so immense that its possible to become fascinated by how he makes them. But as he so rightly pointed out, (he was almost irritatingly insightful) we should be careful about the value we place on process - it is the image that matters.

That said, everyone at the lecture was taken aback by his descriptions of print making directly from fish and swans - dipping their bodies in ink and pressing directly onto paper. In answer to a questioner he explained that one swan might suffice for eight to twelve images - and no, he didn't kill them himself but used donated specimens.

Julian Meredith is the first visual artist in many years to truly spark my imagination. It's curious that I've always been interested in both very small and very large works of art. By the end of my painting 'career', I was working on postcards and pictures that were fifteen feet long - unsellable images that I would sleep beside, so that on waking, they'd fill my eyes. I'd not thought of them in years, but last week I realised I'd soon have some time on my hands...

Saturday, November 26, 2011

How lives change

This is a photograph of my cottage (the house in the middle) - we don't know exactly when it was taken, but estimate early Twentieth Century, probably sometime before 1920. The lady on the right is my elderly neighbour's aunt and I especially like the chap milking the cow in the background, outside what was then a pub.

The lady with the children lived in the house next door. I was told that all fourteen were her's, but looking at the photo and estimating their ages, it seems improbable - though not impossible. My late neighbour Hirwen lived in a cottage that was across the green from where this photograph was taken - he was one of seventeen children.

My cottage has changed little compared to the lives of those who live there.  I doubt any in the photograph had ever left Pembrokeshire - yet I commute two hundred miles for weekends. When I bought the place it had minimal electrics, no heating or hot water system, no damp course...  the small connecting shed, now a posh extension, had been used as a pig sty.

I was thinking recently about the extent of change in the century before I was born - how unrecognisably different lives became over that time. In the Eighteen Sixties, there were no planes, no cars, not even chain driven bicycles - medical treatment was primitive, no antibiotics, no penicillin, no Welfare State, no nuclear bombs...

And then I was wondering how things might look in fifty years time - a hundred after my birth. I doubt the difference will be so marked. There were no personal computers in the Sixties, no DVD's, no wind farms (I promise not to rant) and our knowledge of say quantum physics was not as it is now  .. but much of what we take for granted was already there, even the space exploration programme had started. I read somewhere that the most significant advances in medical science had been made by the Fifties.

But as is so often the case, my thoughts were human-centric. Because for all our western lifestyles may not alter as fundamentally, the natural world will suffer more devastation than in any equivalent period since the Ice Age. The world's forests will be a fraction of what they were, our seas overfished, many species lost, arctic ice depleted... we know the story.

It isn't all bad - it's easy to romanticise about how life was when looking at sepia photographs. For all it was simpler, less stressful, and more in touch with nature -  it was also hard, cold and at times a hungry existence. Ultimately, I'm glad I was born in 1961 not a hundred years previous - I hope my boys feel the same way when they are fifty.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Counting steps

Today is the deadline for submitting my manuscript. The book will be called Counting Steps - journeys through fatherhood and landscape, it will be published next year. I've spent the entire week revising, shaping, printing and sorting - there are few new words, I'm fiddling now and I know it - in truth, I want to move on.

I was thinking this week of all those mountaineering stories in which the climbers spend years preparing, weeks ascending and minutes on the summit. That's not only to return safely, it's because they've accomplished what they set out to achieve. Often, they speak of an anti-climax. I remember something of the sort when I kayaked in Asia. The greatest pleasure in those trips was the anticipation of going and the satisfaction afterwards. I hope books are like that too.

Ten years ago I was a painter, turning to writing when my sketchbook filled more with words than pictures. The crafts are different but they have similarities: both require truth, a looking inward as well as out, and a willingness to commit. Elements of my book are uncomfortable, and I'm conscious that some of my wider family may be hurt by what I have to say about my father. I hope they'll see the bigger picture, for ultimately it is a book inspired by joy, about the power of love and landscape; the ability to come through.

Yesterday I drafted the introduction - curious, how we end at the beginning - and I was thinking about the title. Why are you counting steps? I asked Daniel on our first backpacking trip. Is it to know how far we've come?  Oh no, he replied, it's in case we have to go back in the dark. I hope that never happens.

Writing is a bittersweet passion. My book is about the people and places I love - and yet I have worked alone, needing silence and space, distance from those I care about most.  But it is they who have dominated my thoughts, given me courage and inspiration - without Jane and my boys, the words would have no meaning.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Welsh Bothies

Nant Rhys

There are eight mountain bothies in Wales. All but one is maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association, which has care of over 100 across the UK - the majority in Scotland.  Bothies are simple shelters, located in wild places, most usually at a distance from other accommodation - typically, they are old farm buildings, shepherds huts, occasionally purpose built emergency shelters like the one on Cheviot.

One of my favourites in Wales is Nant Rhys, about an eight mile walk from Devil's Bridge but accessible by a shorter route if you prefer - it's possible to cycle there too. The old farmhouse has two rooms, each with a wood burning stove, there are some basic sleeping platforms, a few pots and pans, a room upstairs for more to sleep if needed.  Then it gets a bit posh - there's a wood store at the back, a tank for washing water (drinking water from the stream) and a long drop earth toilet with perhaps the finest view of any loo I know.

I went there with my son Daniel. I remember us looking at stars in the blackest sky - the area around Nant Rhys has some of the lowest light pollution south of the Highlands. I keep suggesting we return, take Dylan perhaps, but he's not been so keen since girlfriends came on the scene. I reckon he'll be up for trip next year though, especially now he wants to learn to drive - that feels like an excellent bargaining chip!

Jane can't see the attraction - they're dirty and smelly she says, and I'm not sitting on one of those loos! More than that, she's worried an axe-man will murder us in our sleeping bags. In reality, there is more chance of being assaulted in the city and exactly the same loos have been installed at Skomer Island, by the Wildlife Trust - somehow they're more acceptable.  I'm not suggesting we should disregard safety, and if you're a nervous type I'd not recommend going alone, but there are reasons why volunteers maintain these shelters.

And the chief one is that they are fabulous places to escape to - to get away from all the stuff we accumulate, to seek freedom in the very opposite of what normally ties us down; to connect with things that are simpler and more profound. For me, half the fun is the getting there, the other half is simply being there.

Bothies are free to use, you don't have to be a member of the MBA - all that's asked is that you follow the bothy code and leave it much the same as you found it. You'll need a sleeping bag, a thermal mat, a stove and basic food - don't rely on pans being there - and some sort of lighting, LED's are best and head torches are useful. Personally, I like to take some scotch too, but I guess it's not essential.

For years the precise locations were not generally publicised, but the policy changed a few years ago and grid references are available on the MBA's website. In Wales, there is one in the Brecon Beacons, four in the Elenydd and three in Snowdonia. For those in the North of England, there are ten in the Pennines and Lake District.

If the idea of a bothy is appealing but a bit too basic, you could try the 'five star' version at Claerddu near the Teifi Pools (this bothy is run by a separate trust)  - it has a flush loo, gaslighting and even a stove. A step up again is Black Sail Hostel in the Ennerdale Valley, where they serve meals and good beer - it's the nearest thing to an alpine hut in the UK, but obviously, it's not free. There are plenty of bunkhouses too.

But there's something special about the real thing. When I was last at Nant Rhys I read a comment in the logbook from a chap who went there regularly - he'd written,  I love this place. And I thought, enough said.

Black Sail, Lake District

Penrhos Isaf, North Wales

 The path from Penros Isaf -  only half a mile to the road

 Moel Prysgau, Mid Wales

Mad axe man

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Here's a good car-game for kids that makes a change from, I spy with my little... Instead, ask them to name fifteen of a chosen category - for example, flowers, or maybe football teams or countries. Nothing too difficult you understand, but not too easy either - you'll be surprised at the results.

The interesting thing about this game is how fifteen works as a target - it's large enough to make their initial blurt not sufficient, but not so great that they've no chance of reaching it. Take 'birds' for example -  most youngsters will reel off a few common species and then get stuck at about ten or eleven; eventually, and with a bit of prodding (what did we see in the zoo) they'll remember fifteen. Then it's their turn and they'll ask you for fifteen Pokemon!

Interesting too are the ones that you think are quite simple, but you end up struggling yourself - try, Wild British Mammals for example.  

Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, said my boys a few years ago - there's mouse and fox and rabbit and badger...  and rats and deer (good one) - and sheep (sorry they don't count).  The way we play, sub-species aren't allowed, so you can't, for example, list three types of mice. But it's still pretty easy, isn't it? So far we have six - only nine to go.

What about hares (yes) and cows (not allowed) ... mmmmm....hedgehogs and voles (very good - six to go).. goats? (no)...  mole? (excellent, five left). I'll leave you to see if you can complete the list  - maybe return to this post later.

It's surprisingly difficult to list fifteen wild British mammals - okay, so there's wild boar that have gone feral in the Forest of Dean, ponies on Dartmoor and cattle at Chillingham - but these aren't truly wild in the way we generally use that term. Add them if you like, but you still have some to go.

You could have squirrelwild cat, pine marten, polecat, weasel, shrew, stoat and otter. You're at seventeen if you got those. A bat makes eighteen and then your into seals, porpoises, dolphins and whales - and that's about it. There are few more depending on what you allow - mink perhaps; I've seen lists that include walrus.

There are just over sixty individual species generally regarded as breeding in the UK - much lower than Continental Europe and fairly paltry compared to the 5,500 known on earth. We do best with insects but then they're millions of those worldwide and thousands of new ones classified every year. On the other hand, I was fascinated to learn recently that New Zealand had no mammals until the arrival of man. But I'm going on too long, this was meant to be about the game.

Try fifteens next time you're stuck in the car - with or without kids - and here are a few more categories to have a go at:

Freshwater fish
Animal cartoon characters
Seas and oceans (quite hard)
British Cities (or cities north of...  try it from Leeds upward )
Wines and spirits
Counties of England
Eighties pop bands

Enough, you get the idea... have fun.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Save Birds Marsh Wood

A leaflet has just dropped through my door - it's designed to look as if it came from the council. A community newsletter it says, telling me of an exciting new development of family homes and affordable housing. It has pictures of nearby Birds Marsh Wood, bluebells in spring sunlight - the proposals will improve its ecological value and protect it for continued recreational blah, blah, blah...

And it's all bollocks. Or at least it's not what it purports to be. For the leaflet, carefully worded and printed in council green, is actually from the North Chippenham Consortium - which is actually, Barratt Developments  Persimmon Homes and Heron Land Developments - which are profit seeking companies that don't give a stuff about our local environment and think it's acceptable to con us into thinking otherwise.

Birds Marsh, by the way, is a small unspoilt area of mixed woodland, surrounded by fields and for hundreds of years loved by the locals - it's one of those spots that's very ordinariness is what makes it special. It's also a County Wildlife site and has a friends society to help keep it that way.

Which is interesting because the leaflet says they've been consulted - it just omits that the friends object strenuously. It says too that the development proposes a buffer of green open space to protect the wood - what this actually means is that they will stop building just before they reach the trees, reducing the current buffer by more than two thirds. The consortium claims also to be working with Wiltshire Wildlife Trust  - strange that there's nothing on their website about this.

What chance do we have to make sensible planning decisions, taking reasonable account of wildlife and the natural environment, when we are faced with blatant propaganda? It's not that the proposed development is entirely without its merits - we do need to build homes and I'm generally not a NIMBY in outlook. But I massively object to what are effectively lies by omission - the leaflet reeks of deception, of a lack of true care and of all those values that that will happily see our natural assets diminished if it means their own are increased.

The Consortium concludes by saying, We want to hear what you think. You'll not be surprised that from one blogger at least, they're going to get what they wished for - and very loud and clear, it will be too.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The world as it is

By William Blake.

If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro the narrow chinks of his cavern.  William Blake

In yesterday's post about the senses of birds, I referred to the limits of our perception. It's not the first time I've mentioned this: recently I wrote of 'our essential separateness... from the world as it really is.' And nor is it a unique insight - Blake's quote above, beat me by 200 years.

But isn't understanding reality only a question of time?  Modern science is just three centuries old; given infinite resources, surely we could establish the facts. That's debatable, but for practical purposes it isn't going to happen in the lifetime of our species, never mind our own mortal span. I read the other day there are 125 billion galaxies - getting to know them is going to take more time than we have. And in any event, science alone would never be enough - it's one thing to know a bat uses echo-location, its quite another to actually live that way. Human experience will always be bounded - our eyes, for example, can observe less than one percent of the spectrum of light.

So if empiricism can't cleanse the doors of perception, might we do it conceptually? Unfortunately philosophers were amongst the first to understand the folly of trying. Plato talked of the 'world of Forms', an abstract realm of perfection - in his allegory of the cave he describes our sensory world as  shadows of reality. Bertrand Russell's Problems of Philosophy takes a more contemporary route to the same conclusion - when we look at a chair or a table, Russell explains, we experience it from one perspective and at one particular moment, never the whole in a timeless realm.

But is there any way we can get closer to reality, if not actually touch it?

Throughout history there have been - and I'm off on theory of my own here - perhaps three means of trying. The first is spiritual practice - worship and prayer of any kind is ultimately an attempt to reach beyond our situation. The second is hallucinatory experience, often drug induced - and sometimes, as in Shamanism, combined with with spirituality. I know little about either of these subjects, so I'm not going to say more. The third is art.

My tutor once described art as an attempt to connect with a world beyond us. Paul Cezanne said the role of painting was not to copy the object, but to make real our sensation in paint - in making a true response, he was saying, we create our own concrete reality. Leonardo da Vinci certainly believed his paintings were more perfectly real than the subjects he depicted. Similar claims have been made for poetry, music and literature, each of which can extend our perception beyond the five senses. Through art we perhaps don't open the doors of perception, but we can at least glimpse through the keyhole.

Returning to my opening lines, William Blake's life combined all three manners of trying - a divine believer, a visionary mystic, a poet and painter. He was a philosopher of sorts too - and for all I know  a scientist - I'd bet he tried a bit of alchemy. His life was a personification of the fine line between genius and insanity. But in the extent of his vision, and in that marvellous quote, he perhaps got closer than most to understanding the world as it really is.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A sense of wonder

An underlying theme of the nature symposium I attended last week was a sense of wonder. One speaker introduced the day by reminding us that the word is used in different ways: we wonder about things as in curiosity and enquiry; and we wonder at things, in amazement, awe and disbelief.

Tim Birkhead is a lecturer and scientist who studies avian ecology- he encompassed both these concepts in what to me was the highlight of the meeting. His soon to be published book Bird Sense: What it's like to be a bird explores the extraordinary abilities of birds to perceive the world in ways we can barely imagine.

We've known for a long time that many species can focus at a great distance, picking out detail with a clarity our best lenses can't achieve. We know too that some raptors, Kestrels, for instance, can detect the ultra-violet trails of rodents - experiencing what to us would be a 'new' colour, a concept that has fascinated me since I was a child.  But to learn that some can also visualise magnetism, left me incredulous.

Birkhead explained that in studying migrating birds, scientists found the presence of magnetite in their beaks and brains; this compound of iron oxides allows them to orientate to the earth's magnetic field, a process known as magnetoception. But more recently they have also discovered that some birds synaptically connect the magnetite to one of their eyes (usually the left one), literally seeing the earth's magnetic fields.

When you think about that, it is just astonishing. It makes our human abilities seem so limited, exposing our perceived 'superiority' as the hubris it is. Consider how long it has taken, what effort and technology we have had to develop, in order to simulate what geese can do without thinking.

There was more to wonder at too. I never knew that Kiwis used their acute sense of smell to locate worms with absolute precision. Or that many owls have one ear at two-o-clock on the dial and the other at seven - and are able to locate prey in total darkness with one degree of accuracy vertical and horizontal. I could go on, but it would only baffle us further.

I was curious too about the wider implications. For here science touches on philosophy, by illustrating just how limited our own perceptions and experiences are. Emmanuel Kant declared we can never know the world as it truly is. Birkhead tacitly acknowledged this, and significantly he talked of how scientific knowledge allows us to 'judge' what it's like to have these senses - that's a very different thing to actually experiencing them.

Scientific knowledge is also limited, and Birkhead left us with some of the more mind bending natural phenomena we're yet to understand - how, for example, do migrating flamingos 'know' when it's rained at their target destinations, only starting their thousand mile journeys when enough has fallen? This and many other questions remain beyond us - a source of wonder in every sense of the word.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The emotional landscape

This morning I went to the village of Helpstone, birthplace of John Clare: poet, naturalist, lover of landscape. His grave is in the churchyard, his family cottage restored to a museum. I was there for a meeting of writers and artists, but slipped away to look at what's become of the place that had so inspired him.

There's been a surge of interest in Clare, elevating his status from 'the chap who wrote about birds', to that of a more significant poet whose environmental message is about as contemporary as it gets. Clare dismayed at the loss of species as the enclosure act started a process that would change irreparably the landscape he loved.

I'm no expert on Clare, but I was struck by how prescient his message was. The loss of biodiversity and the broader environmental agenda is universally acknowledged as one of the most important issues facing the world - by comparison, the recent Euro-zone crisis pales into insignificance.

But perhaps less obvious is Clare's emotional connection with the countryside that has become commonplace too. The concept of landscape, as we know it now, was barely conceived at the time he was writing. Yet today, it seems to me, we care deeply for those places that are most familiar and hold personal significance. And there's no objectivity to our passions - there's scarcely a region I've visited where the locals don't claim it be the most beautiful in the country.

I'm no different. The places that matter to me most, and which I regard as most splendid, are those I know best. It's my intimate association with Wales and Northumberland - rather than any objective assessment of their scenery - which shapes my view that they're our finest landscapes. And this emotional connection shows in other ways too.  My loathing of windfarms is unashamedly visceral; an instinctive desire to protect our wild spaces from a desecration that I 'feel' almost as a physical pain.

This afternoon I was hurrying home through Leicestershire, not a county I'd put high on my list, despite three years at university there. But as I passed through Uppingham I stopped by a small pub to read the map, and suddenly realised I'd been there many times before - it was on the route I'd cycle to visit my girlfriend in Peterborough. Driving on I thought about those rides, remembered days when my body was strong, felt the gentle ache of nostalgia... And as I did so, the sun came out (or did I just notice it), the views got wider, the trees more golden - and the landscape changed in a way I think John Clare would have deeply understood.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Voices for nature

John Clare

Today, I'm attending a forum called Voices For Nature, a gathering of writers in Stamford, Lincolnshire. It's organised by New Networks for Nature, a voluntary group concerned to promote the diversity in the natural world and to challenge the low priority it has politically and economically.

That all sounds a bit worthy, but in essence, I support the position. What's more the network brings together writers, scientists, visual artists, musicians, conservationists, academics - and by happy coincidence, some of my very good friends. The guest speakers include Ruth Padel and Richard Hines (remember the film/book Kes) amongst a host of other writers, filmmakers and polymaths.

I often find I make unexpected connections at events like these. The other day I looked again at the brochure and realised Saturday's programme is dedicated to John Clare with the theme of landscape and loss. John Clare, who suffered from mental illness, once escaped from his asylum, making a five day walk to his home, delirious with hunger and exposure. He arrived not far from Stamford.

I know this because a neighbour in Wales described it to me. He's composing an orchestral score inspired by the journey - a huge enterprise that he works on day and night. We recently went for walk together on the coast path, during which he eloquently described the challenge of creating a musical tension that slows down rather than speeds up.

I had known my neighbour for twelve years but not been aware he composed so seriously, and at such a high level. I don't understand the technicalities of what he's attempting, but I relate to the aims. Our mutual enthusiasms helped the conversation flow: an interest in the arts, in Welsh literature, the history of our village. But what cemented our friendship, I think, is a passion to respond to the natural world - he in music and me in words.

That's not always easy to talk about; it can feel a bit arty and highfalutin, which is why it's pleasant to find people who aren't embarrassed by the idea. So I'm going to enjoy the next few days, meeting old friends and making new connections. I've no idea what or where they might be, but as with nature, that's part of the delight.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A running sky

After yesterday's post about phobias, I was talking with my colleague (the one who's frightened of birds), telling her of the starling roost near my house. At least they're at a distance, she said, making those fancy patterns in the sky. So I began to explain that at Plumstone...

She cut me off; couldn't bear to hear more.

But as you don't share her fears, I thought you might like a short extract from my forthcoming book. It's taken from an essay about the roost and I'm describing why Plumstone is so different to other roosts.

I'll let the words say the rest.

If I describe the starlings to friends the response is always similar. There is mention of their flight, the swirling forms; comparisons to kaleidoscopes, oil on water, even Disney’s Fantasia. It seems we are fascinated by their synchronicity; the apparently random yet tightly choreographed swarming, the swoops and falls and joy and delight of it all.
And most have a story to share. We’re aware of starlings gathering in cities, under piers, on marshes and reed beds; one colleague talked of the flocks she’d seen on the American Plains. Starling roosts are a seasonal staple of television shows like Spring Watch and Countryfile. On the Somerset Levels, they are promoted as a tourist attraction.
Yet when I listen to these reports they don’t resonate.  It took me a while to realise why, though the answer should perhaps have been obvious. We tend to view starlings from afar. Indeed any description of the swarming presupposes we are at a remove.
What I so loved about Plumstone was the opposite.
To visit the roost that winter was to be amongst the birds. At Plumstone the starlings fly over your head; on a heavy night, they will literally touch your hair. There will be hundreds by your feet, on the wires and fences, more on the barns and hedges – drinking from pools, chattering on perches, flushed skyward by the raptors. There’s a pair of resident goshawks that make their kills above the wooded break; a peregrine once stooped yards from where I stood, barrel rolling to clasp its prey from below.
Then there’s the stream of chatter and the overpowering stench of guano. Three months of a million plus birds and the copse stinks of sweet lime. If I walked in the trees I could stand under the roost, the sky reduced to starlight by the bursting branches, my boots sticky and my coat peppered with droppings...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Of birds and worms and other beasties

My work colleague Kerrie has a fear of birds. Like the dead reincarnate, she described them today, adding that she'd had to turn away from watching Frozen Planet because she couldn't stand the penguins. Those horrible pecking beaks, brrrr... they're evil. We laughed at the ridiculousness of her phobia, but it's real nonetheless.

Jane doesn't like worms, she goes cold at the thought and won't like the picture above. So, of course, the big boys delight in throwing juicy ones around the garden, while she takes cover in the shed. Meanwhile, Dylan dreams up dishes like worm spaghetti and thinks there's little more amusing than hiding a few in her handbag.

Phobias are common - in the last few days, I've had various comments from followers admitting to a dislike of moths, spiders and the like. They differ from rational fears in that we know they're unfounded. For example, I would be scared if I found a tiger in my bedroom - that's rational because it might eat me!  But I'm not (irrationally) worried that if I went upstairs now, there'd be one lurking in the ensuite.

Thankfully, I don't suffer from nature terrors - unless you count acute embarrassment at the prospect of dancing in public. I'm wary of horses and cattle, but that's not phobic in the true sense. And I wouldn't want to eat slugs, but again, that's not the same as considering birds to be the dead reincarnate. In fact, I often spend time imagining what small animals would be like if they suddenly grew - as a friend said to me recently, imagine a six-foot stoat!

I was about to end this post by asking what your fear or phobia might be. But then I remembered my stroll with Jane last night - we were passing a wooded area of town and she admitted, I wouldn't like to walk here alone. Neither would I, and it put me in mind that the animal I most fear, irrationally or otherwise, is my very own species.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Star party

Moons of Jupiter
I've written before about my youngest son's lack of interest in the natural world. For six years he's been captivated by trains, more recently his attention turned to Star Wars. Yesterday we were walking in Dyrham Park and a herd of deer sauntered past. Look at those, I shouted, pointing toward a stag with heavy antlers. He slashed his stick-cum-light sabre in the general direction. All dead, he announced, victory for Count Dylan!

Last week, his interest in the inter-galactic fantasy had given me an idea. It was a clear night, there was a full moon and Jupiter was displaying well too.  How about a star party? I suggested. That would be fantastic, he replied, adding that he'd bring his blaster!

I used to have star parties with his brothers. They'd wrap up in coats and mufflers, stomping their feet as I set up the scope. And they'd stay outside for hours, becoming quite adept at finding planets, the Pleiades, the Andromeda galaxy or the Orion nebula.  Now they're older and have girlfriends and other interests they might not think it so cool.  But they remember the basics and that's an excellent grounding for a teenager - the stars being the ultimate way to put things in perspective.

I don't understand the physics of astronomy, and can't properly comprehend the scale of it all. But in my own, very amateur way, I can find my way around the sky; I recognise the constellations and I know what should interest a seven year old boy. Technically, a full moon is not a good time to view, but when you're dealing with kids it's impressions that count. And by using a night sky application I knew that Jupiter's moons would be in line too.

It's astonishing what you can see with a reasonable telescope. Mine is an old Russian refractor that weighs a tonne - I remember the guy who sold it to me saying 'It's good if a bit agricultural.' He was right, but the light capture is enough to see the red spot on Jupiter, which in my book is pretty damn cool.

Dylan didn't agree. He was impressed that the moon was 240,000 miles away - but then asked, is that as far as Wales? When we got it in the viewfinder and I pointed out the craters, he asked if it was as big as the Millennium Falcon. And on finding Jupiter and showing him its four twinkling satellites, he said, Do you think they're going to attack?

Our party lasted all of five minutes. After glancing again at Jupiter, he drank his milk, scoffed some cookies and wandered inside. I felt a bit deflated. But then you never know what knowledge they're storing away. For tonight when I put him to bed he asked, you know in Star Wars; when they go to the death star...   Yes, I replied, feigning interest.  Because I was thinking if the moon is far away and Jupiter is ten times further and galaxies are a million times more - then how do they do it? I don't know, I said. But you're getting there slowly, I thought.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Berries, deadly and nice

I wish I knew more about berries. I adore jam, of that I'm certain - but other than the obvious, I never know which berries to pick and which might kill you. It's a pity because they seem to be everywhere this year.

In my garden is a sizeable holly, its berries are toxic though I never knew that until today. Not that I've eaten any, but then it wouldn't occur to me to eat rose-hips either, or the berries of hawthorn and mountain ash - all of which, evidently, you can. Wild honeysuckle is fine too - though some care is needed with modified varieties.

For my fiftieth birthday I was given some Keepers Tipple, a combination of whiskey and whinberry, traditionally made from berries picked on the Blorenge near Abergavveny - very nice it was too. Also in Wales, mountain ash berries were once brewed into an alcoholic liquor called diodgriafel - which perhaps explains why it never caught on.  Elderberries are still used today, and the sloes we collected last week will make for fine gin and jam this Christmas.

But the trouble with collecting more good ones is that I'd get mixed up with the nasties. The berries of the yew (or at least the seeds within) can be deadly, and plants such as bittersweet, spindle and butcher's broom are regarded as highly toxic. So too are ivy, dogwood, lily of the valley and deadly nightshade.

The real the problem, of course, is that I got all that from a book and the Internet. In the field, I'd not know one from the other - or at least not be certain. And even if I was, I'd worry a fox or rat had laced them with Weil's disease.

So I think I'll stick to old favourites - and the winter fruits compote from Sainsbury's. I suppose it leaves more for the birds, and to brighten the woods, as they have done especially this autumn.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

I'm not envious, I'm jealous.

Fin whales off the Welsh Coast - image from Wales online

'What's the difference between envy and jealousy,' my son asked me this week. He had a new girl friend with him (note the separation of those words) and they'd been joking about my pedantry with language.

I played along, explaining that in common usage the two are now interchangeable. But technically, envy is a desire to have something others possess; a regret that it's beyond our reach. Whilst jealously is a fear of loss, a desire to hold on to what we already have - that's why we talk of jealously guarding.  'So you can envy someone's talents,' I explained, 'and still be jealous of their affections.' His new friend smiled and I left them to it.

This is a highly contrived introduction to my watching some nature programmes later in the week. The Frozen Planet was amongst them, but I'm also a late night addict of those documentary repeats on Sky. And the tendency when watching, aside from wondering at the diversity of life (and the photography that captures it), is to be envious of what's elsewhere - to wish we could experience it too: imagine, I said to Jane, the thrill of seeing a humpback whale.

Or a bird of paradise, a rhino charging; a colony of penguins. I watched this week, a piece about birdwing butterflies, laying single eggs on the leaves of particular vines, their caterpillars growing poisonous spikes that deter predators, at least if you're second in line. And all of this was fascinating and awe inspiring - and, frankly, beyond me, at least for the time being.

But on Friday I turned to Autumn Watch, the BBC's flagship of nature at home. This week's show was about the coast, and coincidentally to my envy, it showed Iolo Williams watching fin whales off Ireland, pods of dolphins following his boat. There were whales at Strumble this year too, and sunfish - and basking sharks passing regularly, occasionally turtles. It's good to be reminded of what we have here. But for all the magnificence of the rarer sights, I think it's the birds of which we should be most jealous.

There's a blog that lists local sightings, and on Thursday, four observers recorded.. two woodcock at Porthclais, along with great tits, coal tits, blue tits and blackbird. There were lapland and snow bunting on Skomer, a ring ouzel and a black redstart. At Castlemartin were sparrow hawks and kestrels, 600 lapwing, curlew, snipe, teal, shoveller, 10 choughs, 200 greenfinch, 150 linnets, 100 chaffinch and a few goldfinch. St Davids saw a Merlin in addition to some others above.

And this evening I'm going the three miles to Plumstone, for a clear night's forecast and I've noticed the starling gathering in our fields. At about 5.00pm, if I'm lucky, they'll fly to a small copse of trees on the edge of a nondescript moor. By December they'll be arriving in millions; the road will be white and the woods stinking of lime, and the raptors will be waiting too. It's one of the best sites (and sights) in Wales; something to be jealous of indeed.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sepia chapel

It's impossible to travel any distance in Wales without coming across a chapel. As late as the early twentieth century up to three quarters of the population attended nonconformist congregations; they're in every town and village, encompassing denominations from Methodist to Baptist to Presbyterian.

The chapel above is at Llangloffen, very near to the nature reserve I visited recently. That same day I took a photo to show how it looks now - there's been little change, and I suspect that the farm which stands opposite and out of shot is much the same too. It has a cobbled courtyard, a rookery, a look of run down despair.

But of course, the biggest difference is the people and not just the way they dress. Had I taken my updated shot on a Sunday there might have been half a dozen cars and perhaps twice that in attendees. It's been said that most chapels are waiting for the last of their faithful to die before shutting the doors. Today there are little more than 100 nonconformist ministers in Wales.

I can't complain; I don't attend and its unrealistic to expect the organisations to keep them going. The communities that sustained these chapels, and the values that went with them, have gone or are disappearing. And it's important not to be sentimental too; sepia photographs give a sense of nostalgia but anyone reading the stories of Caradog Evans or Patrick O Brian's first novel, Testimonies, would be warped to say that the society they depict was wholesome. Chapels, like all powerful institutions throughout history, had a dark side.

There are, of course, some iconic ones that are worth preserving. The chapel at Mwnt is an historic monument and the wonderful Soar y Mynydd is the exception that proves the rule about isolation and decline - it remains an active chapel despite the flooding of its catchment to create the Llyn Brianne dam. And I hope the Brynmawr chapel at Betws y Coed manages to keep going - for it was there, twenty years ago, that I married Jane on a day when it rained enough to launch an ark.

But the chapels of Wales are not quite dead yet. Many have been converted to houses, others taken over by Friends of the Friendless Churches; some have become craft centres, art studios - that sort of thing. And some continue as active congregations. On the day I visited Llangloffan there was a funeral taking place in nearby Mathry - the cars had filled the village, the approach roads were lined with pickups, one farmer opened his field for parking.

I heard there were hundreds who couldn't get a seat. I heard too that they'd sung the hymn, Dyma Gariad Fel Y Moroedd,  Here is love, vast as the ocean.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Headlining at Haverfordwest

'Isn't it your gig tomorrow?' a friend asked me this morning. Sort of, I hesitated, though not sure I'd call it a gig - it's more of a talk at the local library. 'That's a gig in my book - what time are you on?' About six pm, I told him. 'So you're headlining!' he replied.

Another writer friend told me she'd been developing her 'writer's cv'. I should do one she said, and put my talk on it too. At first, I resisted, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea - if only as a way of taking stock, and deciding what next? There was more to include than perhaps I'd realised.

I've been writing seriously for ten years and somewhere on my computer, there are hundreds of thousands of words, each of them considered, read aloud, revisited, re-read, re-drafted... I've all but finished my degree; I've had articles published here and there, and I've a book coming out next year. But it's my blog that I always put first when people ask, what is it you write? And it's blogging that I'm passionate about as a means for writers to find an audience - so that's what I'm going to talk about on Friday.

Earlier this week, I wrote comments on laidbackviews and mind and language, about the potential for electronic publishing - and the word I used was 'democratising'. I'm chuffed to bits that someone wants to publish me in a 'proper' book (sorry to keep going on about that) but I'm aware of how lucky I've been, and how many excellent writers never get that chance. The great thing about blogs is that they can work for supposedly real writers as well as those who want to have fun.

I put the word real in italics because I believe that we can all be real writers. It isn't about the audience, or being published in print, or completing a proper novel; it's about one thing - care in the words. No matter what we write, be that about family or politics or instruction manuals for tanks, if we care about the words, we are writers. And I don't see why a well-crafted blogs shouldn't be as highly regarded as, say, magazines and newspapers - or books for that matter.

But I also said that blogs should work for those who just want to have fun. (Didn't Cyndi Lauper sing something like that... bloggers, just want to have fun... okay, bad joke.). Having fun with words and pictures is fine, and it may be that some of those who come to my talk this evening want to do just that. I'd encourage them, because, in the way that doodles can lead to great paintings, it just might be that some of them, given a little time, will start caring about the words too. That explains, when I agreed to do the talk, why I suggested it include a reading and not be a technical lecture on how to set up a blog.

So far, this post has been a slight deviation from my self imposed theme of nature during November's nablpomo - but to give it a tangential connection, I was re-reading James Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia the other day. And in it he argued that the Internet, electronic publishing, and by implication blogs too, are part of a greener future. Virtual entertainment and learning, he claims, cause minimal impact on the environment compared to physical alternatives. So I suppose next time I'm 'headlining' it ought to be on the web, and then there'd be more than the good folk of Haverfordwest who'd get to hear about the bike shed - but in your case, of course, you've already found it.

P.S. If you'd like to hear me talk and read from my blog and forthcoming book, I'm 'headlining'at Haverfordwest Library (Dew Street, 01437 775244) tonight at 6.00pm.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

What not to wear

Perfect outdoor kit for boys

In the comments section of yesterday's post, Lucy asked if I'd write about what to wear and take on a nature adventure. It put me in mind of an article I must have read twenty years ago, by the equipment editor of a climbing magazine. It was his last article before retiring, and he was going to own up: despite all the fancy gear he received,  he mostly went out in the hills wearing a smelly jumper and a pair of old jeans.

And I've always remembered that article because it points to a greater truth: that we don't need hi-tech, lightweight, waterproof and breathable, see-you-home-in-the-dark clothing to enjoy a day outdoors. Not that you'd believe it in places such as Keswick or Hathersage where the shopping has become as important as the landscape. But we're trying to get away from all that, right?  And most of us are heading for a day on the moors, rather than a Scandinavian winter. So with that in mind we can get by without spending a fortune or worrying unduly about the fashion police.

Footwear is always my first consideration, and though I have a pair of very good walking boots, I mostly use lightweight outdoor shoes. My favourites are a pair of Salomon trail boots, which are pricey, but the Hi-Tec company does much cheaper equivalents and it's possible to find very good value on the Internet. Aside from winter mountaineering there are very few places in Britain that you'll truly require dubbed leather boots. I'm actually a big fan of wellies too, and know people who swear by those cheap suede bog trotter boots - I once met a bloke who'd walked the entire Pennine Way in those.

Waterproofs come next, and not a word of a lie, my favourite cost me six euros from a Decathlon store in France. It's a brown Pertex smock that packs the size of a large sandwich; it's featherlight, windproof and even supposedly breathable - and it's cut like a bin bag which means you can slip it over almost anything. They're available in the UK but any pac-a-mac equivalent will do. Of course, I wouldn't use this as my only waterproof on a full day in the hills with a threatening sky - but for most times, when the worst that happens is you get a bit damp before heading to the caff, I'd pack it in preference to coat that cost fifty times more.

For the rest - trousers and tops and all that, go for lightweight and lots of thin layers. Even in winter you're much better off with thermal leggings underneath some cotton trousers, than wearing heavy denim or tracksuits that soak up the damp. You can buy all manner of technical clothing, but you know what, most of it is marketing bollocks - and the rest is common sense.

But surely there's more to it than that? I'm tempted to say not really, but actually, I do have a few tips and tricks too. Sticks are excellent, and for all that retractable walking poles have become overly technified, they do make a difference (though fallen branches are almost as good) - they also make excellent swords for young boys to fight with. Cyclists use body-warmers to ward off wind-chill and they're excellent for walking too - just make sure you find ones with pockets. On the subject of which most people don't have enough and use rucksacks that are far too small - the extra weight of a larger sack is minuscule but if it means you can carry your kid's waterproofs and stuff in a bigger picnic and flask, it makes all the difference to your day. Alpkit Gourdon sacs are cheap, light and very cleverly designed - they're a great online retailer too.

On the subject of kids, I have boys, and they like things like pocket knives, magnifying glasses, matches, i-spy books and notebooks - and I say that, not because I'm a middle-class throwback to the Sixties, it's because they work at engaging their interest. For something more modern, try a fling sock which is possibly the most fun we've had from a present and in a different league to a Frisbee or a worse, a kite... I have this theory that people only fly kites when they're bored. Another tip - keep spare clothes in the car; this is blindingly obvious but even we forget sometimes, and yet it makes such a difference if there's any sort of stream or lake they might fall in - because of course, they will.

For nature watching you need a decent pair of binoculars and those tiny ones won't do - if you want to save weight, buy a monocular (try here) - they are way better for kids too. Most identification guides are too large and complex for practical use in the field so I often use the Collins mini gem series - no, they aren't perfect, but better to have something that might actually be opened. Back at home, I have a comprehensive library of guide books. What I use more than anything is my digital camera which is fantastic for snapping wild flowers, trees, even birds - I'm not looking for composition, just to identify them later.

In the outdoors, as in most areas of life, there's a balance. I don't want to wear tweed and plus-fours, but neither do I want to be one of those prats who've 'all the gear but no idea'. A little fashion is fine, but function is more important. The same goes for equipment - a map, a rucksack and a good picnic; that's enough on most days. Because most important of all is getting out there in the first place.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Collections 16 - memberships

A small selection

I'm not sure that I can accurately describe my 'memberships' as a collection, but when I counted them up the other day it began to feel that way. I like to support organisations that I think are doing some good and if that involves a membership card and a quarterly magazine I am easily swayed. With direct debit payment, they tend to hang around too, so it's possible after writing this post that I'll do some culling.

I didn't join the National Trust until about five years ago - I suppose I thought it was a bit on the aristocratic side, and then there was all that fuss over hunting on its land. But politics aside, the Trust is one of the great protectors of our landscape; I can take or leave the stately homes, the gardens I enjoy in a gentle sort of way, but its the wild places the Trust cares for that I value most. I'd join the National Trust for St David's Head alone - as it is, the Trust owns 600,000 acres of land and 500 miles of coast, in addition to its hundreds of gardens and properties.

The Wildlife Trusts do something similar but with an emphasis on conservation of nature. I'm a member of the South and West Wales Trust which manages 90 wildlife reserves including Skokholm and Skomer Islands, famous for their puffin, seal and shearwater colonies. Not linked, but relevant to wildlife I'm in the Amateur Entomologist Society and the Exotic Entomology Groups too.

The Elenydd Wilderness Hostels Trust was set up to rescue two of Wales' finest hostels - Dolgoch and Tyncornel in the Cambrian Mountains. These are some of my favourite places anywhere; yes, they can be full of grouchy old farts who talk of the golden days of hosteling - but to my mind they're right and I'm unashamedly a supporter. Shame on you Youth Hostels Association for trying to sell them in the first place!

That said, I still pay my YHA subs each year - and recently applied for the 'over 50s Group' - oh, I so enjoyed being able to do that! I could write for ages about the YHA, but its original aim of providing simple accommodation, accessible to all and giving wide access to the countryside, remains highly relevant today - and for all I despair at some of its policies, at heart, I am a supporter.

If I'm not staying in a hostel I could be under canvass with the Camping and Caravanning Club, or pitching in the mountains with the Backpackers Club. There are six mountain bothies in Wales and though membership is not a requirement of using them, the Mountain Bothies Association is a worthwhile body. There are many people I know who don't 'get' the idea of these wild shelters, who jest or shudder at the very idea - but the times I used them, on trips with my eldest son, are days and nights I'll never forget - fabulous places and all thanks to volunteers.

Then there are the local clubs: the boat club, the cycling club, the local gym, the steam railway- I'm even in the bowls club, though only a social member because of its rather good bar. And there are intermittent memberships, such as the Austrian Alpine Club, that I have let lapse but will renew if I go to the Alps next year. I surprised myself when I realised I'd let my Welsh Canoe Association membership lapse too - I was its Chairman for a number of years.

I suppose with all these memberships - and this is only a selection of my outdoor-related ones - there is some overt value that could be attached: free parking, reduced entry prices, shop discounts, that sort of thing. But with the exception of the National Trust, I don't think about this much - and even in that case, it's only to recognise the astonishing value we get from our family membership. This year, I calculated that to pay for individual entries to its properties would have cost us over £500.
And I've just realised that I have a whole list of cyber memberships too, all of them free - blogging ones, writing ones, philosophy ones - and of course, Nablopomo, which, depending on your interest, you can blame or thank for my ramblings this month...

...actually, now I mention rambling, I'd been thinking about the Rambler's Association and their campaign for better access. Enough!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A midway guide to Mid Wales

The Teifi Pools
Almost any guide to Wales will inform you of the better known highlights, most likely illustrated with atmospheric photographs and a suggested walking route. The trouble is, you probably know of them anyway: Crib Goch on Snowdon, Cadair Idris, the Wye Valley walk, Conwy Castle; I could list dozens more and you'd not be surprised.

On the other hand, if the guides were full of remote and secret places where you can bivvy in an open ditch, then that wouldn't be much use either - at least, not for those of us with families, looking for somewhere that's away from the crowds, but not requiring a ten mile yomp. 

What's needed then is something between the two, a guide to the special places that are easily missed, but just as easily discovered. And in twenty years of travelling in Wales, I've developed my own list of favourites - they are geographically biased to the mountains and coast, and some of them require a little effort - but overall, they are relatively easy to access and just that little bit different. My first selection comes from Mid Wales, an area that gets scant attention even in the most comprehensive guidebooks.

Abergwesyn common is owned by the national trust, it lies to the west of the Brecon Beacons, near the town of Llanwrtyd Wells and access is by the mountain road to Tregaron. This is picnic country par excellence: set yourself down by the cascading pools of the Avon Irfon, let the kids go play as you lie back in the sweet soft bracken and look for kites in the best glacial valley in Wales. Afterwards, drive over the devil's staircase, round the Llyn Brianne reservoir, stop at the pub in Rhandirmwyn (good campsite here too) before making your way back to Llanwrtyd. 

Not far from here is the delightful town of Llandeilo - over the last fifteen years, it's gone from rather down at heel to an understated shabby chic. There are enough cafes and boutiques to keep the shopping demons at bay, but it's three castles in a day that I want to suggest. Carreg Cennan is perhaps the most scenic in Wales, a showpiece of Cadw and deservedly so. But the castle at Dinefwr is more overlooked by the guides and especially so is Dryslwn, situated a few miles down the valley on a perfect tump -  entry is free and it's the sort of place to let your kids run wild and tumble down the hill while you enjoy the gentle bends of the Avon Tywi at the end of a classic day out.

Wilder still are the Teifi Pools, high in the Elenydd, fifteen miles east of Aberystwyth, they are surprisingly easy to access. I'd wanted to go there for years and in my case, I backpacked in from Rhayader - it's also possible to take a spectacular mountain bike trail around the Claerwen reservoir. But most people will simply park at the lay-by and walk the few hundred yards to the first of these glacial mountain lakes - though when I say most, you'll meet perhaps half a dozen others on a busy day. Strata Florida Abbey is not far away if you want to add to your day - or drop in for a cup of tea at the Claerddu bothy (pic to left - it's only four hundred yards from the road but you'll need to find it on the map).

Last pick is not strictly in Mid Wales, but I'm going to include it anyway. Henhryd falls is where I took Jane on our first date. It's less well known than those at Ystradfellte, but I like it more - not least because I kissed her behind the screen of water that soaked our hair and she didn't pull away. The falls, one of the highest in Wales, drop into a pool that wouldn't be out of place in Lord of the Rings - great in winter too when the icicles hang from the cave and the hoar frost clings to every branch.

I could list more: the Doethie valley and Twm Shon Catti's cave; the B road from Rhayader to Llangurig, the ancient mines at Cwmystwyth, the Clywedog River and the Staylittle Pass, the dawn Chorus tour at Lake Vyrnwy (see left) ...

But I have to stop somewhere, and I'd hope I've said enough to fire your imagination.