A walk in the wild wood

I let Rufus off the lead and stopped to listen. At first, other than his gentle snuffling as he explored the scents I could hear nothing. But as my senses adjusted to my surroundings I started to hear the subtle sounds of the woods. Off to my left there was a rustling as blackbirds foraged through the leaves. Above them, in the skeleton branches their smaller cousins called warnings as we made our way further into the trees. In the distance, a dog barked on a farm.

To my right a stream trickled and whispered over stones and fallen branches. In folklore, streams and waterfalls are supposed to be magical places where the fairies gather, and if you listen hard enough you can hear them calling softly. Listen the next time you’re near a small waterfall, and as long as there is no one else around, you’ll hear them too.

Although there was no wind, there was a lot of movement. Blackbirds taking off stirred the leaves around them into little splashes of yellow, while other leaves dropped to carpet the path in a bright orange or brown layer. Every now and then Rufus would pop out from behind a tree or bush before disappearing again as he found some new smell to investigate. We turned off the main path to walk alongside the stream. Above, the canopy of leaves got thicker as if autumn hadn’t quite made it here yet. Rustling in the branches led to showers of leaves either side of us as we moved; the squirrels were keeping pace with us but remaining out of sight.

Every now and then as we walked, a bright patch of yellow leaves still attached to their trees seemed to glow against the sky, defying the brown decay around them. Green moss coated the tree trunks and ivy climbed up and around where the moss allowed it. The sound of an aeroplane flying high above on its way to Heathrow battered its way into our little world which, until now, had been free of man-made intrusions other than us.

Beneath our feet, the mud thickened and spread out to block out path. So reluctantly, we turned about and made our way back through the trees and out onto a misty Fairwood Common.

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A walk in the woods

In the quest for the perfect misty woods photo every opportunity has to be taken advantage of. No matter how wet and muddy I’ll end up getting, it will be worth it. Or so Rufus told me this morning when I looked out of the window at the mist and drizzle and contemplated another day indoors. Of course Rufus didn’t actually say that to me. To imply that he can talk would be silly. No, he used his Jedi mind tricks to ensure that I knew that going out to Gelli Hir woods this morning was the right thing to do.

Gelli Hir is an ancient woodland, which means it is has been in existence since the 17th Century, probably longer. In the middle there is a pond which hosts ducks and dragonflies and boasts its own little hide. As you walk from south to north you pass through the oak and willow to one dominated by sycamore and beech. This place is one of my favourite woodland areas, with plenty of birdsong doing its best to drown out the occasional aeroplane from nearby Fairwood airport. In the spring, a carpet of bluebells fills the southern part of the wood. It’s always wet and muddy and all you have to worry about is how wet and muddy this time.

We set of in thick mist and the prospect of some lovely soft mist swirling around the old, twisted trees had me picturing what kind of photos I was aiming for. Too often I am guilty of not really visualising in advance and while sometimes I enjoy the spontaneity, I know I will get better results applying a bit of thought in advance. It’s one of the things I’m trying to get into the habit of doing.

We left the main path almost immediately and stepped into the mud and leafy mulch. It would be more accurate to describe the first 100 yards or so as marshland rather than path and we both splashed and squelched through, all the while getting wetter as water dripped from the leaves. And the atmospheric mist swirling around the trees? Nope! For some reason, there was next to no mist in the woods. We had dropped down slightly from the level of the moor when we left the main road and I hadn’t noticed. Rufus wasn’t worried and he enjoyed the myriad of new scents and aromas as he dashed back and forth, making sure he also sampled all of the mud.

In the distance, cows called to each other and it was eerie in the silent woods. For some reason, there were no birds singing and the mist helped to deaden any other sounds. Apart from the cows, all I could hear were out footsteps and the drips of water from the trees. Everything was a lush green with the recent rain, even in the dull grey light of an overcast morning. But still no mist.

We emerged from the woods back on to the main path and almost immediately reached the pond. A couple of moorhens were surprised to see us and disappeared with much flapping and splashing into the reeds. Two ducks remained calm and aloof and just kept an eye on us as we passed. A little further on, we climbed a small but steep hill and surprised a buzzard. Before I could even reach for my camera, it had spread its wings and flown off between the trees. Shortly afterwards, I started to hear birdsong again.

With little prospect of the beautiful misty woods I’d envisioned, we set off back to the car. Out of the woods, I grabbed a bag and we did a #2minutelitterpick along the road back to the main road. Looking back from the junction, the woods were shrouded in a thick mist. In around 10 minutes, I managed to remove plastic bottles, glass bottles and food wrappers discarded by the side of the road. Most of what I picked up was recyclable. Its a shame that people can’t be bothered to do a simple thing like take their rubbish home with them.

Back home, Rufus was so muddy that a shower was required and no amount of Jedi mid trickery prevented it from happening. We’d done more than two miles through the woods and so while Rufus dried out on the sofa (which involved a lot of snoring), I set off down the road to the local graveyard as I’d had a few ideas about capturing black and white images of the gravestones in the overgrown site.

When I was a kid, my gran lived opposite this graveyard and whenever we stayed with her, which was often, I’d sleep in the room overlooking the graves. It never bothered me and still doesn’t. I find graveyards fascinating; the inscriptions on the headstones are very much of their time and a lot can be read into the style of words and design. This graveyard has become very overgrown in recent months and while it’s a shame that some of the graves have all but disappeared beneath brambles and tall grass, it also makes for interesting photographs.

Many of the graves had collapsed completely, or were not far from doing so. A couple of the taller headstones were leaning so much that I was wary of going too close. Other graves were marked by simple wooden crosses that remained upright and betrayed their age through weathering. I always look for the distinctively simple military headstones and there were only two. One was from 1915, a ‘Serjeant’ Evans of 6th Btn, the Welsh Regiment. (I looked it up and found that the 6th Btn was sent to the Western Front in 1915). The other (Webb) was from 25 years later, in 1940. I couldn’t find out much about him other than the regiment was in the Western Desert at that time. He was 42 when he was killed, so he would have been 17 when Evans was killed and the chances are Webb would have served in WW1 too.

A grey day weather wise, and grey describes how I feel after having researched these two soldiers.

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Why we walk the hills

By Dave and Rufus.

There is no sound other than the birds high up in the sky and the gentle breeze making its way through the grass. The early morning sun is shining with a yellow glow, the air is crisp and clear and the remains of last night’s frost crunches under foot. In puddles, ice has formed random and surreal patterns that few will see. It’s warm despite the early hour. The noise of traffic is not invited here.

From the top of Moel Feity, our venue for today, there is a panoramic view of mountains and countryside. in the distance to the north a line of clouds have formed, as if waiting to enter into our arena. But they’re not allowed to spoil the morning. To the west, Fan Brecheiniog looks grey with it’s thin coating of frost yet to be touched by the sun. A small cloud pops over the top and spills down towards Llyn y Fan Fawr like a slow motion waterfall. The twin table tops of Corn Du and Pen y Fan are silhouetted off to the east. Even at this early hour they are probably busy with those keen to be the highest people south of Snowdonia.

We have this hill to ourselves. We can go where ever we want. There are little paths and tracks that the sheep have worn over the years but the sheep are all gathered together further down the valley this morning. We choose to follow the paths or not as the whim takes us.

He’s going to start going on about how time has no meaning next. I know, and I apologise on behalf of my human. Allow him his indulgence.

There is no sign of the passage of time other than the distant clouds and the mist on Fan Brecheiniog. Even the sun is lazy this morning.

There. See. 

We come across the little memorial to the crew of Liberator 38753 and a little later, a small pile of aluminium, some melted, which has been gathered from the crash site. I stop to tidy them both up as I always do when we come here, and we spend a moment or two having a think before moving on.

We walk the hills because of all these things and the things we will see next time. Sometimes its for the challenge, sometimes it’s to get away from the crap and sometimes its to get to the top.

Before he gets too carried away with the artistic dribble, lets talk about the real reason we walk the hills. Dave has this need to prove himself and I have to tag along just to make sure he doesn’t overdo things. I don’t mind; he’s good to me so I return the favour. When I wasn’t well, he stayed with me so he’s a bit out of shape right now. In the past he’s done it to get fit to climb hills in other countries – without me! But I don’t care really because I enjoy walking the hills with Dave.

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Sharing the scone

It just isn’t done. A scone is a beautiful thing, particularly when smothered in butter and/or (don’t judge the calories) thick cream. It’s not for sharing, after all there are other scones. So imagine my unease when, having sat down in the sunshine to eat my scone and drink my coffee, I was approached by two Chaffinches who wanted me to share my scone with them.

“They won’t sell us a scone of our own,” they protested. I fell for it. For 20 minutes, I shared bits of scone with two hungry and grateful chaffinches.

I set off early this morning for Dryslwyn Castle and the plan was to climb to the ruins and then head off to the National Botanic Gardens nearby. Weighed down by a full bag of camera and lenses, I set off from the car park, pausing only to chat to a bird watcher returning to his car. “The Whooper Swans haven’t arrived yet,” he said in answer to met enquiry about whether he’d seen anything interesting. “I’ll try further up the river, but I think they may be late this year.” We parted with a comment about the weather, and I started the short but steep climb to the old castle.

At the top, I could see the rain coming in from the west and a rainbow showed where the rain was already falling. I didn’t linger; taking photos of the castle still bathed in sunlight with my normal camera and the one converted to shoot infra red. In the distance, Paxton’s Tower was also picked out by the sun. This was built shortly after Admiral Nelson’s death at Trafalgar by his friend William Paxton. It was part of the estate that now makes up the Botanic Gardens.

As I left the hilltop, the rain started and I just managed to get to the car before the heavens opened. After the short drive back tot he gardens, I waited in the car until the rains topped. By the time I emerged from the ticket office, the sky was clear and blue and the sun warm on my back. I spent the next hour or so slowly wandering around the site, ending up in the fantastic biodome built on the site of the original manor house. Inside, it was pleasantly warm and the flora were all from parts of the world with Mediterranean climates. As I made my way through African and Australian bushes, a small plane buzzed overhead.

Then to the cafe, housed in the old stable yard. A scone and coffee were on order and I’d seen one of the staff wiping down the seats outside, so I decided to eat out in the sunshine. Before I’d even finished buttering my scone, two chaffinches turned up. While one distracted me by sitting on the back rest of the chair opposite, the other tried to sneak in under the table. I slowly reached for my camera and this seemed to put the sneaky bird off. But in no time, they were both back and jumping on to the table. Maybe the crumbs of cone I’d scattered for them was too tempting. Maybe they were interested in my camera. They were both very tame and for a few moments I thought I might be able to get one to eat from my hand. But a loud child shattering the calm spooked both birds and they disappeared.

It was time to head back and I left plenty of crumbs for my little friends and set off down the path to the gate. On the way, I spotted dragonflies and I managed to act as voyeur as two of them expressed their love for each other while darting about over a little inlet of a larger pond. Having finished, one sped off and the other dropped into the water, only just managed to drag itself out before the wings got too waterlogged. A fine finish to the morning.

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Kingfisher

With the hound temporarily grounded, I thought I’d pop out to do a little wildlife photography early in the morning. Wildlife doesn’t like Rufus, although as you can read here, Rufus loves wildlife. So If I’m out with him, the wildlife tends to run away and I’m left with photos whose titles are “Branch where the Heron was”, “Very blurred rabbit” and “Deer bums disappearing into the woods”.

One of my goals is to photograph the Kingfishers in Penllegare. I set the challenge last year and although I caught a glimpse of a pair several times, I never managed to get the camera near my eye, let alone a picture. Kingfishers are very nervous – I guess if you were dressed up in bright blue and orange and people kept pointing huge lenses at you, you’d be nervous too. They disappear with a shrill warning cry at the slightest hint of a photographer. So, resigned to a fruitless search with a blurred glimpse of blue and orange and a photograph with the title “Branch on which the Kingfisher perched”, I decided to try my luck once more. Just after dawn, with the birds still loudly celebrating the sunrise, I set off along the path by the lake at Penllegare.

I took some photos of the mist rising from the lake as the sun lit the tops of the trees. Whilst I was distracted by this landscape, a heron took off and flew lazily off towards the lower lake. I hoped this wasn’t a sign of things to come. I walked along the lake, then past the waterfall and down to the River Llan. This part of the river is shaded and there are a number of natural perches for Kingfishers to use while waiting to catch fish. It’s hard to approach this area covertly; I’d have to dress in camouflage gear and crawl.

It was cold out of the sun, and after about 20 minutes, I decided to turn back for the car and head off to Mumbles to try and catch the seals in the bay. I walked quite quickly back along the river and besides the lake. I was taking a few snapshots of the ducks when a movement caught my eye. A blue and orange movement. I looked up to see a small, brightly coloured bird sat on a branch across the lake. Fortunately, I was next to a tree and although it spotted me and flew up into the branches of a bush, it didn’t fly away completely. I slowly moved towards the tree, keeping the trunk between me and the Kingfisher and hoping it hadn’t disappeared.

As I peered around the trunk, camera and 300mm lens in hand, I couldn’t see the Kingfisher. I’d obviously scared it off. I thought it would be worth waiting a few minutes and so I stood motionless next to the tree with the camera hiding most of my face. I used the lens to scan the opposite bank and occasionally looked around in case it had appeared on my side of the lake. It would be somewhat annoying (to say the least) if the Kingfisher was sat next to me and I didn’t check.

After another scan, I looked back and there it was, back in the bushes. It was easy to make out with the naked eye as the colours clashed with the green of the foliage. I raised the camera slowly and started to take photos. The light levels were low as the sun hadn’t risen high enough to illuminate that side of the lake so I was shooting with the sensitivity of the camera dialled up to ISO3200. Even then, the shutter speed was low enough to risk camera shake, and with the sensitivity causing noise in the final image, I didn’t hold out much hope for usable pictures.

At one point, as I was watching with the camera down, the Kingfisher dived into the water and back out again. It was so quick I barely moved the camera. It shifted its perch to a larger branch closer to the water and I got some more images. It was great just watching this beautiful bird and eventually I stopped taking photos and just enjoyed the moment.

Suddenly, something disturbed the Kingfisher and it flew off – towards me. It disappeared behind reeds and grass off to my left and I slowly and silently made my way to where I thought it was. Even though I was anticipating it flying off again, it went so quickly that I was only able to get a couple of snap shots off and all of them show a blurred blue object low over the water.

Next time, I’ll be there with tripod and longer lens.

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A walk on the common

Bank Holiday Monday. Sunny but with rain coming in around lunchtime. No surprise there, but what should we do? I had a meeting with Rufus, my outdoor pursuits consultant, and he suggested a walk on the common while the good weather lasted. There may have been some bias in his coming to that decision, but I trust his judgement.

I decided to write a lighter blog after yesterday’s and it seemed a good idea to base it on a typical walk in Gower – one of the ones we do all the time and take for granted. So here it is. You have been warned.

Where we go on Fairwood Common is dictated by the location of the livestock there. Farmers get free grazing on this land and in that past we have encountered one several times who believes the land is his own personal possession. As I like to let Rufus off the lead as much as possible, I always look for the cows and sheep and avoid them. Today the cows, along with some horses and foals, were at the top of the common so we had free range. I parked the car off the road and we set off along an old and overgrown access road built for the airport when it was an RAF fighter station. Near here were a dead badger and a dead fox – I’d seen them before so I kept Rufus on the lead until we’d passed. Further along the road was the corpse of a dead cow, but that had been moved since we were last here. It was safe to let Rufus off the lead now and he went trotting ahead as we weaved through bushes and tree branches, all the while the birds singing from the cover of the branches.

At the perimeter fence, we usually see rabbits beyond in the airport. There weren’t any today; maybe we were a bit late. But Rufus picked up their scent and spent a few minutes trying to squeeze himself through the chain links. Giving up, he padded along the fence heading north along the line of the main runway. Two planes were flying, taking turns to land and take off before circling around again.

This part of the common is littered with the remains of WW2 buildings. Most of them are little more than concrete foundations; some are raised above the level of the ground and one or two have several courses of red brick poking above the marsh. Today, Rufus passed all of these and made for the end of the runway. I let him choose the route as he has an uncanny knack of finding trails and paths.

Fairwood Airport was built as a fighter station at the beginning of WW2. Thousands of tons of ballast and slag from the local steel and copper works were deposited in the marshy area known as Pennard Burch. Time was found to excavate two burial mounds in the area before they were covered by the runways. The airfield was open in 1941 and played host to a number of squadrons and aircraft types. It now hosts one of the Wales Air Ambulance helicopters, which was taking off as we walked, as well as the Swansea Skydiving Club and a number of private planes.

At the far end of the runway, we watched the planes coming and going, including the large aircraft used to take skydivers into the air. A smaller aeroplane had to dodge out of the way as the big plane taxied to our end of the runway. Beneath out feet, the marsh land was in evidence and I though that it was amazing how they were able to build on this type of ground. According to the records, damp and drainage were constant problems throughout the war at this base. Rufus disappeared in the long marsh grass but I was able to follow his progress by the splash and squelch noises he made as he explored. He wasn’t worried by the low flying aeroplanes.

We turned back and went onto firmer ground slightly above the level of the airfield. From here, it’s clear that the airfield is built in a dip in the ground. Not an ideal location, but it is the flattest part of the common and the only suitable place to site the runway. We were walking through the remains of the buildings now and Rufus climbed on to every foundation raft to make sure it was clear of local critters. We made our way further from the perimeter fence to a point that would have had a clear view of the whole airfield. Trees now block the way, but they are recent additions. Years ago, I found the half buried entrance to what I thought was the Battle HQ for RAF Fairwood Common. A recent check of a site map proved me correct. Nearby are the filled in remains of two infantry trenches, and between them is the holdfast for a small gun, possible an anti aircraft weapon.

It was all downhill from here and the car was visible from this part of the common. It’s at this stage that Rufus normally slows down. Not because he’s tired but because he doesn’t want to go home. Today, he was too caught up in the smells of the countryside and he ranged either side of me until I eventually had to put him on the lead when we got close to the road. There was a lot of traffic as people took advantage of the sun to get out into Gower.

Then we were back at the car and our walk was over. We’d done just over two miles in about 80 minutes. No records were in danger of being broken today, but that’s not the point of our walks. It’s all about enjoying and having fun. And that we did.

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Something wickedly aromatic this way comes

I was woken early this morning by a wet nose on my hand, a reminder that there’s a new boss in town now. But when I looked out, there was a lovely mist in the air and I immediately thought of getting out to some woods to try and get photographs of trees in the mist. We’ve been going to the woods above the Upper Lliw reservoir for a while now and I knew with the right conditions I could get the photos I had envisaged.

Rufus managed to eat half his breakfast but I was faffing about so much that I only had a cup of coffee. I knew the mist would soon burn off and so i wanted to get going as quickly as possible. We set off and it didn’t take long to make the journey over the misty hills to the little valley in which the woods nestles. Of course, with my luck, the mist had lifted from that part of the world and so we entered a clear, sunlit plantation with the early morning rapidly warming.

The calls of buzzards echoed through the trees as we made our way along the track towards the reservoir. In the distance, I could hear seagulls calling from the reservoir dam. As I feared, there was no sign of any mist and we reached the shore of the reservoir with only a few speculative photographs taken. The water was still and the seagulls were sat on the wall of the dam. On the opposite hills I could see mist brushing the tops, and I realised that the cloud was coming down again, which would introduce the mist tot he woods.

Off we went, back along the path. This time Rufus took a diversion the continued along near the shore of the reservoir and I followed. A subtle haze filled the woods and I managed to get some photographs that I was happy with. I’m always happy when taking photos at my own pace in such beautiful surroundings and I didn’t really want to stop. But I was conscious that it was getting warmer and both Rufus and I aren’t great in the heat.

Walking back to the car, I caught a whiff of something deeply unpleasant. Rufus has a habit of rolling in unpleasant things and I kept an eye on him in case he dashed off to dive into this one. But he seemed to show no interest, which is very unusual. Then it dawned on me why; because the deeply unpleasant aroma was coming from Rufus. He had already rolled in it while my back was turned (or more likely, my eye was at the viewfinder). Rufus is the master of discovering impossibly awful things to roll in. I don’t know what this was but I tried my very best to keep upwind of him. At the car I tried to wipe the worst of it off but it made very little difference. Needless to say, the back windows were kept open and the air conditions was on full blast in an effort to remove the smell from the car.

 

We took a short detour to see the wind turbines but further up the mountain the mist was much thicker and I only managed to catch a glimpse of the base of one or two, plus the odd blade slowly spinning by. Then it was back to the car and a swift drive home to the shower. A curly and damp but sweet smelling Rufus is currently dozing on the sofa.

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