Welsh clouds have hard centres.

“Welsh clouds have hard centres” is a quote by an unknown flying instructor to an unknown trainee fighter pilot during World War 2. When you look at the number of aircraft crash sites from WW2 and since, it’s clearly good advice.

I’ve written before about the sites I’ve visited around the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountain. All of them are situated in bleak, lonely places usually on high ground and inevitably on slopes steep or slight.  Some of these crews were new, completing their operational training on the type of aircraft they would fly into battle. Others were re-training, having survived a tour of operations over enemy territory. A few were returning from operations and got lost in bad weather, or succumbed to battle damage.

Yesterday, I decided to visit a new site for me. Vickers Wellington MF509 was on a training flight from RAF Stratford  on 20 November 1944. The crew of 6 Canadians were carrying out a night navigation exercise when a fault developed with one of the engines. The plane began to descend over the Black Mountain and hit the ground on the western slope of Carreg Goch, a couple of miles west of Craig y Nos. Sadly, the crew were all killed on impact. The engines were salvaged but the rest of the wreckage was left in situ.

I had read about this site several years ago and had always planned on visiting. But the site was in the middle of a difficult limestone landscape and not on any route that I regularly took during training for treks. So I never got round to making the trip.

The initial climb from the main road was short and steep but I quickly gained height and left the trees and farmland behind. I passed a limestone quarry and finally reached the first over many limestone pavements overlooking Glyntawe and Craig y Nos. Now the fun started as I tried to find the best route to the crash site. The main path from here would take me north of where I wanted to go so I decided on some cross country walking, taking a more direct but much less obvious route. I took advantage of sheep trails and open rock to climb quickly onto Castell y Geifr.

This area is full of sink holes and is frequently used by pot-holers exploring the vast cave system of which Dan yr Ogof is a part. I passed several deep holes lined with scaffolding poles and blocked for safety reasons. The going underfoot was tough, with broken limestone hidden just beneath the surface of heather and grass threatening to turn and ankle. I took advantage of exposed flat limestone slabs to make better progress but this meant my route twisted and turned and I had to stop frequently to check the map for progress and to keep heading n the right direction.

As I headed west, off to my right was a large area of peat bog known as Waun Fignen Felen. In prehistoric times, this was a shallow lake surrounded by trees which slowly silted up, providing a habitat for wildlife. 8000 years ago, the climate was warmer and upland areas of Wales were more habitable than now. Traces of human habitation from the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze ages have been found on the margins of the bog, in the form of flint tools and flakes and a small drilled stone bead. Ancient people hunted here, and stayed in the area while the hunting was good.

I continued on, following a particularly sinuous sheep track through thick purple heather and onto the top of Carreg Goch. Slightly sloping slabs of limestone made the final few yards much easier and from the description of the crash site, I expected to find the wreckage on the reverse side. But it wasn’t there. I checked the map and decided that I was a little too north of the co-ordinates and turned south. There was no path, just lots of broken and weathered rocks ready to trip me up. I scrambled and wobbled from rock to rock until I reached a little stream bed, now dried up. I followed that for a while and climbed up onto a rock slab to see where I was. There, on the western slope, was a great pile of silver-grey metal and beside it flew a Canadian flag.

The Vickers Wellington bomber was designed by Barnes Wallace, the genius behind the Dambusters bouncing bomb. In the early years of the war, aluminium to make aeroplanes was scarce and Wallace produced a two engined bomber with a metal frame covered in fabric to minimise the use of aluminium. The airframe had a distinctive geodesic form, a series of struts and bars forming triangles. It was very strong and proved capable of taking a lot of damage without losing its structural strength.

At the crash site, a large amount of the wreckage had been gathered into one place. The largest piece was instantly recognisable as a part of the inner wing. A lot of the metal had been burnt in the fire that followed the crash and had melted out of shape but the wing retained it’s distinctive form. I could see the undercarriage legs and a couple of pieces of armour plating, which had rusted to a deep orange. Down the slope, what appeared to be a long section of part of the fuselage lay in the rocks and around about, other parts of the plane were scattered.

There were a few others at the site when I got there. I got talking to one who said he’d first come to the site 35 years ago and he remembered a large wheel, complete with tyre, lying just down the hill. We went a little way down to see if we could find it. All we saw were more scattered fragments and a short section of metal tubing which could have been from the landing gear. I knew the engines had been removed by the RAF shortly after the crash.

After the others had gone, I spent a few minutes taking in the atmosphere. It was a lovely summers day but I know what these hills can be like on cold, wet and misty winters morning. This crash happened at night it terrible conditions for flying. The crew probably never knew what happened.

I love being in the hills. I love the sense of open space, the remoteness and the spectacular beauty all around. But little parts of our countryside hold sad secrets that clash with this beauty.

The crew:

  • Sgt C. Hamel
  • Sgt J.R.R. Villeneuve
  • F/O W.J. Allison
  • Sgt J.P.E. Burke
  • Sgt J.A.E. Groulx
  • Sgt J.L.U. Du Sablon

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Analogue

I’ve mentioned film and digital photography a few times over the years of this blog and I’m not going to preach the advantages of one over the other. Today’s blog is about my recent adventures in the world of film.

Now I’ve reduced my working hours I have more time to spend on doing the things I want to do. That should include bringing the house up to scratch, tending the garden and nurturing the latest batch of spuds, and it does. But it also means I can take time out to really enjoy my passion for photography. I’ve been taking still photographs for 35 years (and I was making home movies for years before that). Up until recently, I’ve only really had the freedom to spend a day or two just taking photos when I’ve had leave. And often, leave is taken up with other things. But now I’m finally in a financial position to be able to indulge myself (within reason) and I have the time to enjoy that indulgence.

A couple of months ago I decided to make a proper effort to get back into film. I have a few old rolls of black and white film in my fridge and they’ve been there since 2010 so I loaded a roll of Ilford SFX200 into the camera and set off for Swansea Bay. As before, once the film was finished, it went back in the fridge and I determined to develop it myself. In the meantime, I loaded a roll of Ilford XP2 black and white in the camera and went shooting again. XP2 can be developed in the same machines as colour print, which meant that my local Boots store would do it in 1hr for me. Which they did and suddenly I had a CD of images that I was really pleased with.

I went through a couple more old black and white films from the fridge and one I’d bought recently and I ordered developing chemicals from the Internet. Then came the evening I’d set aside to develop my films.

Part of the developing process requires accuracy in following precise measures and timings. The other part, loading the film into the developing spirals, requires skill, dexterity and some patience. The loading is done by feel as the film has to be kept in darkness until the processing is over. I decided to use the old SFX first to practice with as I wasn’t expecting much from this ancient emulsion. I was surprised at how the loading came naturally to me – I guess, like riding a bike, you never forget. The film went smoothly on the spirals and after about 20 minutes of chemicals, count downs and another 15 minutes of washing, my first film for ages had been developed. And it was surprisingly successful, for a film at least 6 years out of date.

I quickly developed the other films and suddenly it was very late at night and I hadn’t noticed. But I had enjoyed myself, which is what photography is all about for me.

Since then I’ve been out more and more with the film camera and really enjoyed the familiar challenges using one poses. I am very aware of the limited number of frames available to me (36 shots on a roll of black and white film) and this means I take more time to consider the photograph I’m about to take. I can’t check the result straight away so I have to be confident I’ve got the image I want before I leave the scene. This slows me down and makes me think before taking the photo. Doing this reminded me of a part of photography that I loved, and still do. Taking the picture is almost an irrelevance compared to setting the photograph up.

These are things I used to do and have confidence in before digital, so it’s only a case of building the confidence back up again. And, of course, this rediscovered workflow will translate back into better, more thoughtful photographs regardless of the medium I use. And that gives me great satisfaction.

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Addicted to waterfalls

I could hear the sighs from the back seat as we drove up the Swansea Valley and along the narrow lane that follows the Tawe almost to it’s source beneath the Black Mountain. Rufus loves a walk on the hills. He’s not so keen when he sees me with tripod and camera as it means long periods of waiting around while I take ‘another’ photo of some waterfall.

He’s only a dog, you may think. Yes, but he’s a dog who knows me so well now that he will do all in his power to prevent me from taking photos using a tripod. Including placing himself in front of the camera in exactly the right place to spoil a careful composition. You think I’m joking. I’ve included two photos here of Rufus making his displeasure known by standing in shot or staring at me. And bear in mind that the waterfall photo, in which he has invaded the bottom right corner, was a 20 second exposure. He remained there, in one spot , for 20 seconds.

The waterfalls we visited today are on the side of the Cerrig Duon valley, above the little stone circle that dominates the lower valley. They are easy enough to get to, once you cross the river over slime covered rocks. It’s a short but steep pull by the side of the gully that the water has worn into the limestone. The hardest part is navigating the steep side down to get to the waterfall itself.

Once there, the waterfalls are usually spectacular and today was no different. Not too much water so that there was definition in the way the water fell over the rocks. The main difficulty in getting a decent image is mastering the high contrast between the sunlit part and the shaded part. At this time of year, with the sun low in the sky, it’s harder still. Today, I made several exposures of each composition, varying the shutter speed each time to give me some files I could blend together to create a tone mapped final image back home.

And all the while, a hairy black Spaniel bounced and splashed and yapped and weaved between the legs of the tripod. I threw sticks for him, I suggested he went off sniffing for dead things in the sunlight grass. But no, he just wanted to hurry me along. And eventually, inevitably, he won. We left the shaded gully and emerged into the bright winter sunshine. The ground was still frozen and rock hard and there was white frost in places. Where water had formed puddles on the surface of boggy patches, it was ice this morning.

Rufus is good at following paths and he made his way down to the river while I was still faffing about, watching red kits wheeling about above the ridge behind us. By the time I had reached the river bank, he was on the opposite side of the water, watching me to see if I would slip and fall into the water. I disappointed him on that point, and we slowly made our way back along the river to the car.

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Above the clouds

The plan today was to head out to the hills. Fan Brecheiniog was my goal and I decided that as Rufus had been looking and feeling fit recently, I’d take him along too. It was a beautiful, cloudless morning as we set off and for most of the journey. But, typically, as we reached the little car park at the start of the path, cloud had descended and it looked like a grim and grey walk lay ahead. Visibility was down to a few tens of yards as we set off and I was fully prepared to turn back if it didn’t show any signs of clearing.

It was wet underfoot and we squelched our way along. There was no wind and it wasn’t cold under the insulating layer of cloud. We made good progress and soon reached the river, and crossed it to reach the start of the main slope up to Llyn y Fan Fawr. I’ve walked this route many times before and several times in thick mist, like it was today. I’m confident in being able to find the lake but I usually end up taking a roundabout route if the visibility is poor. Today was no exception; I felt we’d veered off to the south as we climbed the slope. In the past, I’ve missed the lake complete by going too far south and almost bumped into the steep side of Fan Hir. So today, I veered back to the north a little.

In the silence, I could hear the faint sound of a helicopter which quickly got louder until it was clear that it was hovering over Fan Brecheiniog. It made several passes before finally heading off again. I didn’t see it but the idea that it could fly close to the mountain made me hope that as we climbed the mist would clear.

Eventually, I reached the edge of a steep slope where I wasn’t expecting one. Mist blocked the view down the slope but I had an idea we had gone too far south again, so we turned north and followed a clear path. Then I saw Rufus heading down the slope! Before I could stop him, he stopped at the lake edge, which I only noticed by the ripples he made in the water. I had been walking along the lakeside because the mist had made it look like a void. We were no more than 10 feet above the water. Now I knew where we were, I headed back to the path that led to the top of Fan Brecheiniog. In all this mist, I had only been about 20 yards out.

At the end of the lake, I stopped to talk to a guy who had been camping and was just getting ready to go. We chatted for quite a while and he told me he’d seen several people climbing Fan Brecheiniog during the night. Some shift workers had gone up and come down in time to start their morning shift. He’d heard the helicopter too, and had caught a glimpse of it when the mist cleared a little. He thought it was the Coastguard looking for a day walker that hadn’t returned. All the time Rufus wandered about enjoying the opportunity to explore but we were getting cold while we weren’t walking so we said goodbye and headed off to the start of the staircase up to the top.

Rufus seemed fine and keen to go so I decided we would make the effort. We could always turn back at any time. As we climbed slowly up the path, I felt as if the mist was thinning a little but the visibility was still poor. Then, as we started on the final pull to the top, I spotted blue sky above and within seconds, we had burst out of the mist layer and we were looking down on the tops of the clouds.

If you’ve ever flown you’ll know that feeling of being above the clouds in perpetual sunlight. It was a wonderful feeling; all the better for us having made our own way here rather than by plane! The sun was strong but so was the wind on the top of the hill and it got much colder very quickly. But the 360 degree views were stunning. To the north and east, there was nothing but cloud below us. To the south, a hazy mist made the hills leading to the coast fade into the distance. To the west, the views were clear across the Black Mountain and beyond. I stopped to talk to one walker there and we tried to identify all the hilltops we could see.

To the east, Pen y Fan and Corn Du poked their heads just above the clouds and it felt as if you could swim in the cloud between them. We walked on to the cairn at Foel Fawr as we neared the cairn at the end of the ridge, cloud was being blown up the side of the hill and over the path. Small patches of snow remained on the top and they had frozen overnight. We crunched our way through and finally got to the cairn. It was such a different day to the one we had set out in. From a black and white world to one full of colour within an hour, and it did so much to lift my spirits after a long, damp slog through the mud and marsh below.

After a rest and some photos, we reluctantly turned around to make our way back to the car. As I type, there is much snoring coming from a tired hound.

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Back to the past

Like many, I learned the basics of photography before the digital age. Pause while I put on the sunglasses of nostalgia. With the glasses on, I remember the thrill of unpacking the film from its cardboard and plastic containers, fiddling to load the film without exposing too much leader, and hoping to squeeze an extra frame if I was using black and white, which I would later develop myself.

Only 36 shots on a roll, so I had to make every one count. Even so, with slide film I’d bracket either side of the measured exposure which would often result in only 12 unique photos from every roll. The film speed was given but we all had our favourite adjustments to get the results we wanted. Professionals would buy batches of film manufactured at the same time and expose one roll to test the proper settings for that batch. Colour print film had a wide exposure latitude, forgiving any minor errors in exposure (which is why wedding photographers used it). Slide film, and to a lesser extend black and white film, had to be accurately exposed or compensation applied at the processing stage. It had to be a consistent exposure variation for the whole film so we had to decide in advance. Many, including me, had two camera bodies loaded with different films just in case. My preference was for slide and black and white.

When I started, lenses were all manual focus. Film cameras had a great focusing screen with a split prism that made focusing easy in most situations. As my main interest was landscape, there was no need for lightning fast focusing. Part of the appeal for me was the slow, methodical approach and the actual taking of the photograph was almost secondary.

Then, once the snaps had been taken, there was the delay in seeing the results while the films went off for processing. Sometimes, if I was on holiday, I might have to wait up to two weeks to see the final prints or slides. Black and white film was slightly better as I’d process it myself and this could be done overnight. But then, all I’d have was tiny negatives until I printed off the images I wanted. I got good at assessing photographic potential from these tiny reversed images.

And here is where the nostalgia goggles start to leak reality.

I didn’t always develop the black and white films immediately after taking the photographs. Once I left college and the convenience of darkrooms set up and ready to go, I sometimes waited until I had two or three films to do. And then, I sometimes waited until I had more. It was all about the darkroom. At first, it was in my bedroom and had to be set up and put away every time I wanted to use it. And then I set it up in the garden shed and it was cold, damp and uncomfortable. So I started using less and less black and white, which was actually my favourite medium.

Slides came back from the processor in boxes and to view them properly I had to set up the projector. Which meant loading up the magazine in just the right way so that the projected images were the right way up and the right way around. It took time and was fiddly, so I got a smaller viewer for checking the results. And it was more convenient but no one else saw them.

The prints from print film stayed in their wallets and only occasionally got put in albums. I have some of those albums still on my bookshelf. They look impressive but I can’t remember what’s in them. I have sent for recycling more photos that I can remember.

One day, I bought a digital camera. The quality of the results weren’t the best but they were instant and that appealed to me. This meant I could retake the photo straight away rather than wait until I was next in the area. I could see the pictures on my computer and I could edit them without having to go out to the shed dressing in several layers of warm clothing. I didn’t have to breathe in chemicals and wait for the negatives to dry, all the while hoping no dust got on the wet film.

With the nostalgia goggles fully removed, I confess that I sold up all my film gear and went digital and never looked back. I have no regrets in doing this and I think it rekindled my interest in photography. I made the decision when I saw the results from a 6mp Fuji DSLR and for me, the moment when digital quality surpassed analogue quality was when I got my Nikon D300. Not only can I check the results (and for those who would never stoop to such crass activity are missing one of the main advantages of digital technology), but I can change film type and sensitivity without having to worry about rewinding a partially exposed film (and remembering where to wind it back on to afterwards). A modest memory card costs less than a roll of film plus processing and can be reused. Digital is just better.

So today, I picked up a CD with 36 images scanned onto it by the people that processed the film I dropped off to them about an hour earlier. I’d taken the photos on film that was at least four years out of date, on a camera made in the mid 70s using manual focus lenses probably made in the late 60s. And despite all I’ve said above, I enjoyed using the camera. I’d forgotten about the satisfying clunk as the mechanical shutter thumps down on it’s mounting and I’d forgotten about the big, bright viewfinder than made focusing a pleasure. The camera required me to translate the meter reading into aperture and shutter settings by interpreting three little red LEDs. I had to trust it was accurate but I also had to know roughly what to expect. And I found I did.

The images below are from that film. Some of the colours are odd and there’s a lot of grain. I suspect that’s a combination of out dated film and poor scanning from the shop. They were just test shots I took while out and about so they’re not masterpieces. But I have more film, some of which is new, and I’m sure there’ll be more posts about the old fashioned way of doing photography.

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Second snow

On the odd occasion that I looked out of the office window last week, all I could see was the white capped hills finally visible after weeks of rain, low cloud and darkness. Last week Rufus and I headed up to one of those hills and although we got snowed on, we had a great walk. I found some waterfalls I wanted to photograph and so we planned a return visit. With the weather forecast showing fine weather today, we set off before dawn to get to Foel Fawr before the crowds – it’s very popular with people sledging when there’s snow about.

I watched the temperature drop as we climbed along the hill road until it read -2 centigrade. Fortunately the road was clear of ice, although sheep and ponies had decided to stand on it rather than the snow either side. Eventually, we got to the quarry and a few yards later, the car park. The car park was frozen but as it had been churned up the previous day, there was plenty of grip for the tyres. We set off, carefully at first, but then more confident as the going underfoot became less slippery. Off the car park surface, the snow was thick and we left deep foot prints as we went. With no paths visible, we struck off towards the rocks of the quarry and hoped for the best. Rufus four paw drive meant he sailed over the snow but I found myself boot deep in unfrozen mud and at one point I nearly lost my balance as the marshy ground tried to stop me.

I was finding the going quite tough with the snow and I kept an eye on Rufus to see how he was coping. Better than me! He was bounding and sprinting all over the place, then stopping to sniff at some unmissable aroma. We were following a fox’s track at one point and he stopped so often that I left him behind. It was great to watch him run, bounce, and hop to catch up, with no sign of problems with his knee.

At the waterfall, there was a short but steep climb down and I kept a hand on Rufus’ collar to make sure he didn’t go too fast to stop at the edge. I stopped for 10 minutes at the waterfall but it was a little disappointing, and the treacherous conditions meant I didn’t fancy scrambling down any further to change the view point. Instead, after a few snapshots, we set off back up the hill, much steeper now and harder with the deep and slippery snow. The path we took last week was covered in snow and hidden but I set off in the general direction to climb up to one of the levels of the quarry. The route I took led along the slope and I had to dig the sides of my boots into the snow to stop me slipping down again. Rufus, making the most of his 4 paw drive, saw no problem as he kept level with me but several yards lower on the slope. Then he tried to get up to me.

The snow was so deep between us that every time he took a step, Rufus sank to his tummy in it. He was struggling to make any headway, so I dropped down and gave him a hand. Together we managed to get out of the deepest snow and Rufus was able to follow my footsteps until we got on firm ground again. Then he was off as if nothing had happened. It didn’t take us long to get back the car.

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Trials of Geek and Rufuscam on Fairwood Common

Trials of Geek

I’ve written before about the loneliness of the single cinema goer. Yesterday, I went to see the New Star Wars film, ‘The Force Awakens’. I heartily recommend it to any fans of the original film. But going to see it on my own involved that dreaded interaction with the person behind the counter. who will inevitably form an opinion about me based on the lack of partner/kids/mates in the party.

Yesterday was worse. I chose to go and see the early showing and when I got to the cinema, it was empty apart from one other man. We waited until someone turned up to serve us. He went first and asked for the same showing of the same film. When I got my ticket, the assistant kindly told me that the screen room would be pitch black until the film started. She didn’t give me a knowing wink or a smile but both were implied. I disappeared off to the shops to wait for the film to start.

When I got to my seat, I found that the assistant had given me the seat right next to the guy who had been in front of me buying his ticket, even though the room was only half full of people. Thank goodness the lights were on.

It was a great film, full of what made the original Star Wars film special.

 

Rufuscam on Fairwood Common

This morning we went out early ahead of the predicted storms and torrential rain (which as I type have yet to materialise). I took the little camera Rufus uses and his harness and unleashed him on the woods on Fairwood Common. I was really surprised to see how well he’d come on with his photography. While I was faffing about with settings and framing and whether to use black and white or colour, he was quietly selecting his viewpoints with little fuss.

I took the camera and harness off so that we could throw and chase sticks. There was lots of barking and running around and it was great to see him unhindered by his weaker right knee. The vet told me I have to be careful not to let him twist it, but in everyday use it should be fine. I’m careful not to let him overdo things, and I think his climbing over rocks and boulder days are behind him, but running on even ground seems to do him no harm. As I type, he is snoring in the hall.

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