Friday, August 29, 2008

Staying Local

Weather improved these last few days, though still cloudy. I heard today it was the worst August on record for Pembrokeshire.

Whitesands heaving with tourists the moment the sun came out; families cheek by jowl either side of the slip way. 300 yards toward St David's Head is Porth Melgan, a steep sided cove with aqua-marine water and fins of black rock - one family had the place to themselves.

A couple walked past us as we sat at the headland, they were taken aback by the view - a gentle reminder of how special this place is. Wind picking up the tide in Ramsey Sound but I saw at least one porpoise. No seals today.

Rock pooling at Abbereiddy we catch a dozen small fish, a few miniature shrimps and a blenny. At Blue Lagoon the youngsters were jumping from the old quarry platforms, watched by small crowd. I am sunburned this evening.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Parrog

High tide at the Nevern estuary. Walking the path towards Parrog there is excitement that someone has seen an otter in the reed beds. Few birds of interest - the egret has gone for now. Only one speckled wood and one small white butterfly; a very poor year for butterflies.

The boatclub was full of 'hoorays' wearing sweatshirts, baggy shorts and flip flops. Very few appear to be going sailing. Not sure why I object to them so much - in many ways they are little different from me. Jane says it's a form of class consciousness, which is probably correct, but I sense there is something deeper.

I made a model of an old mine for Dylan's railway - papier mache and poster paint - he seems to like it. Mike plays with him well.

On the internet there is a report of a sunfish and large basking shark sighted at Strumble Head.


Strumble Head. Two birdwatchers at the hide, scopes pointing at open sea; notebooks, flasks and sandwiches by their chairs. Evidently they sit there most days, posting their sightings on the internet each evening. I liked their watchful patience - like fishermen with telescopes.

I spotted some porpoises in the run of the tide - perhaps eight or ten, but hard to tell as I may have counted twice over. They are common here. No sunfish today, but they are seen regularly in the summer. A heron flew out to sea.

Both of the spotters' scopes had a large foam shield (10 x 6 inches) fixed around and to the side of the lens. This allows them to look through the eyepiece with both eyes open. 'No need to squint,' one of them said.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

North Wales

A few days in North Wales; a touch nostalgic as we stayed at Cobden's Hotel where we held our wedding reception. It has new owners and was much run down. Sad.

A good day taking Dylan on the Padarn Lake Railway then walking in the quarries at Deiniolen, watching climbers on the slate slabs and marvelling at the men who had worked the quarries out of the mountain. Deiniolen is similar to the villages in the Rhondda.

In the evening we all walked to Cwm Idwal, the older boys scampering up the rocks, Jane and I remembering our first visit twenty years ago and the kiss by the lakeside. We used to go there often. Once we found a red rose tucked into a crack on the Idwal Slabs, with it a note in a plastic bag, from a girl to her boyfriend who had died in the Himalaya.

On our return we stopped at Machynlleth. I liked its higgeldy piggeldy mix of shops, ranging from organic greengrocers through traditional hardware and gift shops to upmarket boutiques selling household trinkets - a number of charity shops too. Museum of Modern Art Wales (MOMA) was disappointing.

Back at Llandeloy the crows are gathering on the wires.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Grey skies

The rain returned this morning; had to dash to the car, the trees bending further than I've ever seen in August. A few diehards at Newgale campsite, otherwise deserted; waves breaking on the stones, spray covering the road.

The osteopath asked me lots of questions gave my back a rub and charged me forty five quid - nice bloke, interesting books on his shelves. First quack I've seen that said I wouldn't need more treatement.

Friends came in the evening; chatted around the usual middle class worries: pensions, our kids' futures, the cost of housing. The children played in the annexe, unaware of concerns next door.

Only a few rooks today, though a flock of gulls came over early evening.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Clear skies

There were about 100 rooks gathering in the village this evening. They were joined by dozens of seagulls, all of them freewheeling in great arcs over Sunny View, one or two gulls landing on the roofs. The wind was bending the old Scots Pine so some of the rooks took shelter in the fuller trees at the back of the graveyard, but most flew on towards Llochmeyler and Llanrhian. I think I'll try and find their roost later this week. Very wet and windy all day until the sky cleared at night - so many stars it was hard to identify the constellations.

Jane starting to point out the crows.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Flapping about at dawn

Ever since I read Mark Cocker's Crow Country I've been watching crows and rooks. I like the idea that they return to the same place each evening, travelling miles to sit together. And I like knowing relativey useless things about them, such as the way they find small worms by stabbing their tough beaks into soft grass using a sort of hit and hope technique.

There's an old Scots Pine that stands in the churchyard of our village, where the rooks gather in the morning. I can see the tree from my bedroom and sometimes I watch them flapping about at dawn. After a bit of tooing and froing between the tree and the telephone wires they fly off in small groups. Some go west, the majority seem to go north. I counted fifty birds this morning. It's hard to tell which are rooks and which are crows, but I don't worry.

My neighbour tells me - with some glee - that they used to cull the rooks each year. It brought back memories of the photographs in one of our local pubs - of men carrying the dead rooks, caracasses tied at the feet and hanging in bunches. A good cull would take more than a hundred birds.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Which way YHA?

Not a hostel in sight -
actually the magnificent Tyn Y Cornel , rescued from YHA, is just around the corner


Near my house in Pembrokeshire the YHA has refurbished one of its older, more traditional, hostels: Pwll Deri near Strumble Head. It's one of the YHA's headline investments this year and if I'm honest I've not yet seen the results, though I hope to pass by soon. If I'm equally honest I'm a bit of a late returner to YHA, having let my long-term membership lapse in the late nineties.

I rejoined the YHA as my children reached the age when the idea of hostelling began to appeal. It was good to find the Association had a brighter image; even better that it had ditched some of the old rules and restrictions – no entry till 5.00pm, up early for chores and God forbid you might fancy a drink – even the most diehard of traditionalists can't be arsed with all that nonsense. So why is it that despite the fresh new looks and the investment in places like Pwll Deri I still have an uncomfortable feeling that something is going wrong?

I think there's a clue in the section of the YHA's website where the management explains its strategy. Amongst the carefully worded objectives are two statements that need to be read together. The first says it is an objective of the YHA to 'develop great hostels in great locations .... in destinations identified as key to our guests.' The second says the YHA will, 'close and sell sites which are not in key destinations, and reinvest in the remaining network.' So what's wrong with that; sounds like good business sense doesn't it?

The problem is that if you take this approach to its logical conclusion you end up with a network that is limited to major cities (primarily used by international travellers) and a few honey pots in the National Parks (where arguably hostels are least needed because of alternative choices). In the meantime huge areas of the countryside – really important wilderness areas included – become devoid of hostels because they aren't in 'key destinations' or 'identified as key to our guests'.

And if you think this is just a problem in theory, take look at the map of hostels in Mid Wales - if it weren't for the Elenydd Trust, which bought and rescued two hostels that the YHA was intent on selling, there would not be a single hostel in the Cambrian Mountains between Brecon and Dolgellau (maybe Borth if you fancy a long diversion to the seaside). The list of closures in Mid Wales is legion: Bryn Poeth Uchaf, Glascwm, Blaencarron. Ystymtuen. Ystradfellte, Capel y Ffin – it's a shameful indictment of the YHA strategy in action. And it's not just Mid Wales – Northumberland is another good example of an important wilderness area without a decent network of hostels.

One of the most important roles of the YHA (and it was implied in its memberhip promise for years) is to provide a network of cheap accomodation in all areas of important countryside, and especially in those areas that are somewhat off the beaten track. The word network is important here. And it's the provision of a wide and diverse network which, frankly, the YHA's current policy is singularly failing to achieve. Deep down the YHA knows that its network is important I'm certain the reason it has invested in Pwll Deri is because it's a key staging post on the popular Pembrokeshire Coast Path – and yet its current strategy actually commits it to reducing that same network in areas where hostels are most needed.

No doubt someone will tell me it's not economic to run simple hostels in far flung places. Perhaps so, but the poverty of imagination and creative solutions still leaves a lot to be desired. How come the Elenydd trust can do it? Why can't the YHA find more partnership organisations and private franchisees to fill the gaps? But beyond all this, it's important to remember that the YHA is a charity and a membership organisation – it should not be necessary to run it entirely on the lines of economic profit; there ought to be more room for cross-subsidy in important wilderness areas such as those I mentioned. To draw a parallel, if books were published on the basis of what the majority of people considered to be key titles on subjects they identified as key topics - and that any titles outside of these narrow parameters were gradually taken out of print - then what variety and choice would we see in our bookshops? Today's top sellers would survive, but anything less popular, no matter how important and meaningful, wouldn't pass the test – poetry wouldn't get a look in. Is that the strategy we would expect a publishing charity to adopt?

So what's the solution? I don't for a moment think it's easy. But a start might be to add a single sentence to the YHA strategy and mission statement along the lines of: the YHA aims to maintain a comprehensive network of hostels that provides access to the all major areas of open countryside. No doubt that sentence could be improved it took me only a few moments to write – but hopefully you get the idea. I just wish the YHA did too.


P.S. On the website of the Elenydd trust there is a copy of an old article that tells of how £100 was raised for the purchase of a hostel in Blaencarron near Tregarron. The fundraisers were organising a working party to fit out the building. I wonder how they would have felt to learn Bleancarron was sold because it wasn't in a key destination, the proceeds reinvested in hostels in London and Manchester? Shame on you YHA.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy returns

I like returning to familiar places, be it to holiday destinations, restaurants or even the route I walk the dog. Given the choice of somewhere new or an old favourite, most times I opt for the latter. My wife likes to tell the story of how I once cut short an all expenses trip to Kenya to spend a week in the Peak District; friends react with incredulity, the presumption being that I'm missing out on opportunities and the delight of new experiences.

Judged by their terms this is undoubtedly true, but looked at another way they miss the point; for returning to familiar places is not necessarily about sticking to what's comfortable. In fact, it is often by returning that we see things anew, gaining fresh perspectives on what we presumed to know already. Most of all, returning to familiar places allows for a depth of response, especially to landscape and people, which can only come from long association.

Yesterday I walked the cliffs above Porthgain; it is an old industrial village with a quaint mix of industrial archaeology, gentle harbour and steamy pub that makes it a thinking tourist's hot spot. Like Dylan Thomas's' fictional Llareggub it has 'a picturesque sense of the past, lacking in towns that have kept more abreast of the times' - though I sometimes wonder if anyone really believes the sentimental artists impressions on the heritage notice boards.

I quickly climbed the steps by the Pilot House to reach the disused quarries above the western cliffs, the horizon fading as the sea curved to the far end of Wales. It was cold, the fields pale and sheep trodden, only gorse flowers brightening the greyness of stone, sea and sky. Head bowed into the wind I was looking at little more than the path; it was littered with sheep droppings. I smiled as I remembered how my dog used to eat them and how when I shooed her she'd dash into the culvert running parallel to the path.

There is no particular reason to use the culvert in preference to the path, yet a few summers ago it was there I saw my first Grayling butterfly, and returning since I've discovered that on good years Clouded Yellows concentrate on the leeward side. Yesterday, as I neared its end I watched a Chough gliding on the ridge lift above a cave that I once kayaked into on a surge of foaming surf.

I was remembering all this when unexpectedly my elder sons D and M strolled towards me: 'We thought you'd be here,' they said, 'we came to meet you.' As we walked together, peering over the cliffs at a cold December sea, for a while at least, a familiar place was as new and full of wonder as anywhere could be.

This is the eleventh consecutive year I've been in Pembrokeshire at New Year. I wouldn't want to have been anywhere else.