Friday, August 31, 2012

Soar-y-mynydd and Llyne Brianne

The Soar-y-Mynydd chapel is often cited as the most remote in Wales. I'm not sure how that calculation is made, but it is certainly one of the most beautiful and makes for a fine pilgrimage when walking or cycling in the Green Desert of Wales - a Victorian description of the Cambrian Mountains which, in many ways, remains appropriate.

In describing Soar-y-Mynydd as beautiful, I'm defying convention: austere, would be equally apt; forbidding, not out of place. But then beauty comes in different forms. My neighbour is a stonemason who's indifferent to ornate carving but delights in the millimetre accuracy of cathedral pillars. He would like Soar-y-Mynydd, not for its stonework, but its simplicity: the symmetrical arrangement of the boxed pews, the lack of adornment, the sparse use of colour.

I like the windows too, tall with Gothic points inside a rounded arch, no stained glass. They remind me of my junior school, which is perhaps not surprising because the chapel was conjoined to one until it closed in the 1940s. To picture the community then is to imagine a lost world. Last weekend, three cars were parked on the drive; the information board says that in its heyday, sixty horses were regularly tethered on Sundays!

The landscape is transformed too. Down the hill is the Llyn Brianne reservoir, built in the Seventies to provide water for South Wales, it consumed the upper Tywi to near its meeting with the Doethie. Interestingly, I can't find a reference to the name of the valley before it was flooded (the river above it is the Camddwr, but perhaps it was just known as Tywi). An excellent local website says the reservoir is actually a misspelling of a minor tributary, the Nant y Bryniau (literally, the stream in the hills).

Above the waterline are the ubiquitous conifer forests that cover too much of the Cambrian Mountains. To be fair, the planting began long before the dam was constructed, and, of all the mid wales reservoirs, Llyn Brianne seems to blend more sensitively, even delightfully, into the hills. We walked a five-mile section last Sunday and saw redstarts, dragonflies, a tortoiseshell butterfly and a soaring buzzard - no kites at the dam, but they were there at the RSPB reserve below.

I first came to Llyn Brianne a month after moving to Wales, mistaking the mountain road as a potential easy option on a cycle tour. In the twenty years since I must have returned at least once each year, often more. Reflecting last weekend, I realised its become central to my image and understanding of this part of Wales. And it's full of good memories too -  of nights in the Dolgoch hostel, of backpacking with my boys, cycling the Tregaron road - of my friends kayaking the overspill on the dam (an activity now banned).

And of Soar-y-Mynydd too. I have no religious faith, but if I did, I think I'd be 'chapel' not 'church'. So it's good to know the pews are still used - and sometimes even filled. For Soar-y-Mynydd has become an oasis in the desert - parishioners travel miles to attend its services, and evidently, preachers consider it a great honour to be invited. A friend told me they are all firebrands, bible-bashers of the old school. I like the thought of them ranting as the rain hammers the windows and the Avon Camwddwr runs brackish and inextricably towards the dam.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Paintings, jugs and an aversion to art bollocks

I have stopped collecting paintings - not so much for austerity as boredom at what I see in galleries. What's more, I'm not much interested in those I acquired when I was enthused. We moved to a new house two years ago - in that time I've put about four on the walls; the majority in the loft, relegated to the piles of 'stuff' we accumulate over our lifetimes. The other day, I realised it's ten years since I bought a picture of any significance.

I can't wholly explain this aversion -  after all, I still 'think' in visual terms and believe passionately in the importance of art. Part of me feels that paintings have become too 'middle class'. On the face of it a somewhat hypocritical view, as I'm solidly in that social bracket. Nonetheless, I've always recoiled from overt status symbols: big cars, designer suits, aviator watches... At best they are a wanton waste; at worst they make the owner look like a prick.

In truth, owning art (especially original pieces) has always been a status symbol - a sign you're beyond worrying about the everyday essentials. Indeed, it's an oddity that many galleries will tell you they do better in recessions than they do in times of economic plenty.

But my sense is that it's getting out of hand. Recently, in a small Pembrokeshire gallery (one that still sells some of my paintings)  I noticed many of the exhibits were labelled 'POA'. When a customer sheepishly asked the price of a watercolour, the owner replied, Fourteen - and after a pause, Thousand! I wouldn't have paid a hundred.

I'd estimate prices in Pembrokeshire have doubled in five years - which makes me wonder if those canvases in the loft would sell on eBay - almost anything decent is beyond the reach of ordinary folk. What's more, the cost bears little relation to quality - but then money and good taste are seldom bedfellows. And don't get me started on 'limited edition prints', one of the cleverest marketing rip-offs of all time.

I should say there are exceptions. Really good contemporary art can still be found - and the open studio schemes are an excellent way to meet artists and understand what's behind their work. Dorset Art Week is a long-standing and shining example of good practice. I treasure personal items too - pictures by friends and family, objects with a true connection - my shelves are peppered with models made by my children; I have drawers full of their sketchbooks.

And I haven't stopped collecting 'stuff' - I've merely adjusted my sights. I have a growing collection of cheap kitsch which we call the 'ugly shelf' that I'll write about soon. Over the last few years I've also become interested in jugs and jars, especially old ones - the more utilitarian the better. You can buy these anywhere from posh antique dealers to car boot sales - or in the case of France, the excellent brocante stalls which seem to be everywhere.

The flagon pictured at the head of this post is an Alsace cider jar - it is beautiful, and it cost me twenty euros. The jug below was three euros from a brocante warehouse that verges on the surreal (see pictures further below). I like them because they are intrinsically lovely objects - because they delight and inspire me and I had fun discovering them. But also, they remind me that good art is about precisely that - and not the status driven, art bollocks which ultimately ends up littering the loft.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Pembrokeshire secrets - Porthymynawydd Bay

On Thursday we dropped our eldest son at Whitesands where he was spending the day with his girlfriend and her family. He'd given us strict instructions not to 'lurk', which frankly, is understandable given the embarrassment potential that parents have for teenagers -  no doubt made worse by the prospect of us donning bathing costumes.

So instead Jane and I went to Porthmynawydd, one of my favourite beaches and somewhat of a Pembrokeshire secret. Perhaps the term 'secret' is a bit strong, for Porthymynawydd is seldom deserted in summer -  but on a day when the car parks were overflowing, there were less than a dozen people who'd made the one kilometre walk to reach this peaceful haven.

In fact, half the 'crowd' hadn't even done that; instead, they arrived by boats, launching from Solva, about three miles to the west. Some others came on kayaks, paddling from Newgale, a mile or two to the east and no doubt wondering why they'd not known of this place before. You'll understand from this, that Porthmynawydd is within easy reach of the tourist hot spots of West Wales.

And yet it's a world away. The bay is formed by a deep cove and headland (Dinas Fach), sheltering a shallow and soft sanded beach. The high cliffs enclose the horizon, adding to the sense of remoteness - and they still the waves, creating, at high tide, a shallow lagoon that's perfect for swimming and messing about. There are caves and rock pools, diving platforms and crystal clear snorkelling. One chap there on Thursday caught a huge spider crab, bringing it back for inspection before releasing it again.

At high water, the beach, as with most in Pembrokeshire, is all but gone - but no worries, for this gives the best swimming and the cobbles are fine, if a little lumpy, for sunbathing. Once the tide ebbs the shallow ground means the sand is quickly exposed and at low water, it extends almost to the headland. There is seldom any weed, there are no sharp rocks and the position of the cove means there's minimal tidal rip to worry parents. If you're lucky a seal or two may pay a visit, and the rock pools on the cliff shelves are abundant with blennies and anemone.  The only downside is the barnacles which coat the lower rocks - I'd advise sandals or booties for any scrambling.

But that's enough description - for more, you must visit yourself.

Porthymynawydd is more usually known as Pointz Castle, the name of the farm at the start of the access track. Pointz Castle lies two miles west of Newgale on the A487 at grid reference 831237. The track starts just past the farm and there is a good parking spot here. The route is well marked and obvious - just head down and follow the stream to the cove. In fairness, it's a steepish walk back, but like all good things, some effort is required.

Often I've read landscape writers describing this or that 'special place', but not revealing the location, claiming that to do so would risk the invasion of crowds. This seems a little selfish to me, and in most cases overestimates the reach of their work and the impact of recommendations. With the exception of disclosing sensitive wildlife sites which might be abused (remember the days when Red Kite nests were guarded by the military?), I take a more generous view; in any event, that one kilometre walk will always deter the tourist hordes.

Our day ended with the tide ebbing to low. We took a wrong turn on the coast path and ascended the western cliffs, only to have to descend again. From the summit though, I could see over the sweep of St Brides; there were tankers at anchor off Skomer, a heat haze softening the sky, and the cove below us - a sparkling jewel in what is already a golden crown.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Alpine memories

I was twelve when I first saw the Alps. It was the 1970s and my parents had booked a package holiday to Interlaken - and in fairness to them, it proved to be one of the most influential weeks of my childhood.  If I rummaged in the attic my souvenirs would still be there: a faux alpine horn, a pennant of the Cantons and a plastic 'view-cam' with images of the Bernese Oberland.

We never returned to Switzerland, but as soon as I was old enough, I caught the train and spent a month visiting Lucerne, the Jungfrau, Lauterbrunnen, Grindelwald... In the thirty years since I've returned more times than I can easily remember. To my boys 'The Alps' is synonymous with holidays - we don't 'do' Spain or Greece, they say, Dad just does France (or occasionally Austria).

Last week we returned to the Haute Savoir, near Morzine. It was where we came for our boys' first trip. This year there were tentative suggestions of going elsewhere - and at Jane's insistence, we'd spent the previous week in the Lorraine region.  Whilst this was a pleasant change, I was all the while itching to get to the mountains.  Arriving at a fabulous chalet on the outskirts of  St Jean d'Aulps, I felt like I'd come home.

Most British visitors go to the Alps in the winter, to ski in the high resorts; an annual fix of adrenaline and biting blue skies. I've only been once - and even that was a freebie - for I don't like skiing, and I like even less what it does to the landscape, though I'm realistic enough to understand that the idyl of an alpine wilderness is long gone. I'm aware too that one of my great loves is cycling, and that's only possible because of the roads and tunnels and engineering masterpieces that are the summer equivalent of lifts and pistes.   

But for me the Alps has become more than just landscape - it is a place intimately tied to memory, to rights of passage, to moments of joy (and occasionally terror) that are milestones in my life. I have a vivid memory of sitting at the Serlesjoch in Austria, aged twenty one, and calculating that if I could spend an annual fortnight in the mountains I'd rack up more than a year by retirement. At the time I dreamed of extreme mountaineering, and over the years I've done my share - of kayaking too - but precious as these memories are, they are only part of a picture. 

Last week was blistering hot; the evenings thick with thunder. One night the valley was engulfed by a storm and my three boys stood on the terrace, 'conducting' the lightning as if they were Gandalf -  daring each other to brave the hailstones and stand, arm erect until the next bolt hit the ground. They were laughing and drenched to the skin, and Jane joined in too as Dylan screamed and delighted in the game. At the end of the week (typical of us) we made a list of our best moments - this one topped the rankings.

I have a hundred memories like this: of bathing our boys in a plastic Sainsbury's box on that first camping trip; of running through a picnic site to catch a Purple Emperor, oblivious to the onlookers who must have been thinking 'whose that nutter with the net'; of Michael, aged ten, pulling ahead as we cycled the Col de Joux Plan, his blue jersey fading to a speck as he rode beyond my reach.

I spent a large part of this holiday playing the role of 'Daddicus', second in rank and general lackey to 'Commander Dylan', the leading character of my youngest son's 'talking game'.  Playing along is a pre-requisite of getting Dylan (who has, shall we say, a limited appreciation of nature) to go walking in the hills. Why do you like best about the game? I asked, expecting a reply about pirates or aliens (for we face a wide variety of enemies).  Being with you, he replied, and I could have melted.

On Friday we visited the Abbey des Aulps, where Jane and I reflected on our week. It was probably our last family holiday she said, a tear welling up. And as I write this paragraph, Daniel has just left the house to take his driving test; next year he'll be at university - we are back to the Internet, to evenings in separate rooms, to friends and girlfriends... 

We were leaving the Abbey when Dylan ran to the crumbling archway, holding his toy sword aloft. Take a photo he cried, striking his best Commander pose. I remembered how three years earlier in that exact spot, he'd made the very same request. As I look at the pictures side by side I wonder if there'll be time and chance for one more in the series. I know that all things must end, but at times like these, I wish not yet... not quite yet.