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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Krakow

Djen Dobry.

For those with a smattering of Polish, you may have picked up that I’ve just said hello. Or, if the pronunciation is wrong, I may have just insulted your garden!

We flew out to Krakow on Monday for three nights staying in the Hotel Senacki, on Grodzka and not far from the centre of the old town, the Rynek Glowny. I’ve never been to Eastern Europe and Krakow was described as a wonderful example of architecture. As Martin, our Krakow Shuttle driver, took us the 15km from the airport to the city, we seemed to be driving through the countryside of any country. I had seen lots of individual houses with colourful roofs as we came in to land, and they had reminded me of Scandinavian houses. Now, driving past them, I could see that some were built of wood, whilst others were of whitewashed stone. Many looked relatively new and a lot of what I would call luxurious. Between the houses were large flat parcels of land that didn’t seem to be fenced of or belonging to any of them.

Then we entered the suburbs and it could have been any city. But once through the traffic and across the River Wistula, I could see how Krakow differed from other European cities. As the centre of government for Greater Germany in WW2, it had escaped any significant damage and the remarkable architecture had survived intact. We drove down narrow, cobbled back streets until we caught sight of the hotel.

Hotel Senacki was situated opposite the church of St Peter and St Paul on Grodzka, one of the main streets of the old town. It was a small place and the staff were very helpful throughout our stay. Checking in was quick and after asking for a change of room, we had a great view out onto Grodzka and the church opposite.

Over the next two and a half days, we managed to cram in a lot of sightseeing, walking and eating! The fantastic summer weather made the walking most enjoyable, with lovely cool mornings and evenings and warm days. We walked around the old town and into the Market Square, the Rynek Glowny and it became our destination each morning before setting off on our planned trips. Early morning, before the tourists arrived, meant the square was quiet and empty, with only the cafe staff and delivery vans around.

On Monday night, we called in to the church of St Peter and St Paul, where a sextet of strings played a selection of classics from Vivaldi, Bach and Albinoni. It was a lovely experience, although the acoustics meant that some of the melodies were lost in the reverberation of the church.

On the Tuesday, we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, two places that we had both wanted to see but had also felt apprehensive about going to. That visit is worthy of another blog, which I will write when I feel I can. In a long day, we also visited the Wieliczka salt mine before dining in one of the open air restaurants in the Market Square.

The salt mine has been producing salt for more than 700 years and only recently closed down. Visitors descend 380 wooden steps to reach the 1st level some 64m below ground. From there, 2km of passages lead visitors through tunnels and chambers, some dating back to the 16th Century. The mine is a museum and most of the chambers have displays of figures and machinery and some have fantastic carvings made from the salt that was being mined. Particularly spectacular are the three churches built below ground. The largest, the Chapel of St Kinga, is still used for services once a week and weddings are held here, with the reception being hosted in the nearby restaurant. Working in the salt mine was seen to be a privilege, as the salt commanded good prices and the miners were paid well. Conditions in the mine were good. We ended up in the deepest souvenir shop I’ve ever been in, at 134m below ground. From there, we made our way back to the stairs but this time we were able to take a fast and cramped lift back to the surface.

On Wednesday, we walked around the city and visited some of the churches. 98% of Poles are Catholics and the multitude of churches in Krakow reminded me of some of the cities we visited in Italy, where there seemed to be a church around every corner. We’d popped in to the Dominican Church early on Tuesday and noticed several people praying there before heading off to work. It struck me that this was so different to Britain, where people tend to worship as an act once a week, almost out of habit.

We walked into the Market Square and around, heading out to the north in search of the Church of the Reformed Franciscans, where beneath the church, the crypt has a micro climate that has caused the bodies lying there to naturally mummify. Although visitors can access the crypt by request, it wasn’t open when we were there. Instead, we stood and listened to a service going on.

Moving on, we reached St Florian’s Gate, the last remaining part of the old city wall. Krakow was frequently attacked and this wall gave the town some measure of security. To commemorate the attacks, a bugler sounds a call (the hejnal) on the hour from the taller spire of St Mary’s church in the square. The northern tower is taller because it was used as a watchtower and here, legend has it, the watchman was interrupted during his alarm call by an arrow to the throat. The bugle call that now sounds ends abruptly in memory of that event.

Inside St Mary’s church, the dark Gothic décor was striking, and set off with gold detailing. But the main reason we were here was to see the magnificent High Altar. It was started in 1477 and took 12 years to complete. It consists of 12 panels in the Gothic style depicting key events from the story of Christ. After  swift coffee in the square, we c;limbed the old Town Hall tower to get a panoramic view of the Old Town.

Wawel Hill is the location for the old castle of Krakow, and Krakow Cathedral. Legend says that Krakow was founded when a local hero, Krak, defeated a dragon that lived under Wawel Hill. The cave is still there but the dragon is now a sculpture that breathes fire every so often.  When Krakow was the capital of Poland the kings were crowned in the cathedral and lived in the castle. Today, it is open to the public and forms an imposing site overlooking the Vistula. One of the walls of the open courtyard in the castle is said to be one of the world’s sources of spiritual energy. I encountered one of these sites before, on Pen y Fan, and spent some time talking to a man who was completely convinced of this. With all the walking, our energy levels were dropping and no amount of standing next to the walls helped.

Suddenly and far too quickly, it was time to go and everything seemed to happen in a rush. One minute we were having breakfast, the next we were waiting in the departure area and then we were landing at Bristol.

I enjoyed Krakow, and while I wouldn’t want to go back there as a place to stay (I’ve seen everything I wanted to see in the city) I would use it as a centre to travel further.

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Castle Graig

In the late 18th Century, the lower Swansea Valley was one of the centres of copper working in the UK. Great quantities of cheap coal from further up the valley provided the power and the ore was brought in from other parts of the country. Swansea copper lined the hulls of Royal Navy ships, making them faster and more manoeuvrable.

Sir John Morris, who owned much of the industry along the Lower Tawe in the Swansea Valley, had a planned town built for his workers, originally Morris’ Town, which became Morriston. Between 1768 and 1774 he built Europe’s first purpose built, multi-occupancy dwelling place on the hill overlooking the metal works. It was a three storey block of flats with four 4 storey towers at the corners.

Today, the remains of two of the towers survive, the rest having fallen as a result of open cast mining, subsidence and in 1990, high winds. The local youth take the challenge to climb the ruins and leave their marks in the form of graffiti. More than one has ended up in the local hospital.

The ruins have seen great change in the Swansea Valley. The industry is long gone and replaced with a mixture of retail, leisure and housing. Where once smoke obscured the view and pollutants killed vegetation, now the view to the bay is clear and some of the flora is returning. (Time Team excavated a few years ago and found the level of toxins in the ground where the metals works were was still high enough to warrant taking precautions for the diggers.) Mother nature will always win despite or arrogant view that we are the shapers of the world.

Rufus and I were the guests of friends who showed us to the top of Castle Graig, where the ruins stand guard over the valley. The route is not easy to find, which is good because we had the hill to ourselves. Although they are under the care of CADW, the towers are in danger of further decay and even total collapse as they sit precariously close to the edge of a steep drop into the old mine workings.

Next time you’re shopping in Morfa, or taking coffee there, look up to the northern skyline and you’ll see the castle, watching you.

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How things change

Penlle’r Castell sits 1200 feet above sea level on Mynydd y Betws, north of Swansea. It was a 13th Century fortress built to dominate the disputed border between the Lordship of Gower and the Is Cennen and from it’s location the whole of this disputed land can be seen. It is now little more than a few mounds of earth which define the earth ditches that protected a stone building, perhaps a tower, within. It was probably not permanently occupied and a small garrison was all that would have been needed to protect the area and give early warning of incursion by the raiding parties of Is Cennen. It has been linked with William de Braoes, who held land in and around Swansea.

Some 800 years later and I would be fascinated to hear what the garrison soldiers would make of the view northwards towards Carreg Cennen castle and the northern border of Gower today. A new wind farm has been built on the undulating moorland and many giant windmills rise from the mountain like huge white trees. While 13th Century people would probably be familiar with the concept of a windmill, the modern design and sheer scale of these new turbines would be shocking.

Rufus and I had been for a stroll in the nearby forest above the Upper Lliw reservoir. I’ve only been here a few times and I’ve been looking for forest locations as I want to get some photographs of the flora of woods, particularly mushrooms. So today was a bit of an exploratory journey.

Rather than waste the rest of the morning, we took a detour over Mynydd y Betws and parked up at the side of the road at the edge of this wind farm. There had been a lot of controversy over the plans to build here and a local campaign to stop the wind farm lasted a couple of years. I have mixed feelings about this form of energy generation but I generally accept that this is one of the ways forward. In the particular case of Mynydd y Betws I’m not sure that an awful lot of harm has been done. Obviously, I can’t speak for the disturbed wildlife during construction, but wildlife is resilient. While the turbines stand out against the natural environment, they are no worse than some of the awful housing that can be found in rural areas these days.

Photogenically, (one of the reasons I was there today), they are a different challenge. I’m always up for a challenge, so off Rufus and I set from the car to walk the 300 yards or so to the nearest turbine. As we approached, the sound of the whining turbine grew louder and I was surprised to hear the pitch rise and fall as the wind picked up and died down. Closer still and the swishing sound the blades cutting through the air became louder, drowning out the sound of the wind.

Then we were directly underneath the blades. I wondered what Rufus would make of it all, both what he could see and what he could hear (as he is more attuned to high pitched sounds) but he was completely uninterested in any of it, more concerned with the various scents of the animals that survived the construction work. It was a strange sensation for me, with the tips of the blades seemingly inches above my head and combined sound of wind, blade and turbine.

Standing at the turbine site, I looked back up to the skyline and the low mounds of the ruined earthworks of Penlle’r Castell and once again wondered what the occupants would have made of all this modern technology.

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Spooky

It’s not often I’m lost for words but trying to describe the feeling I had when sitting in the pitch dark on the first floor of Margam Castle this evening is one of those times.

We went on a ghost night last night. Traditional Welsh Cawl (a rich lamb stew) at the haunted Prince of Wales pub in Kenfig, followed by a tour of Margam Castle. We’ve been on several ghost tours and walks and they’ve each been great in their own way. Bath was atmospheric, York was well delivered and Dunster was an all round good night.

But last night was different again. It felt more personal when we were in the pub, where the landlord told us about the things that had happened to him during his 9 years running the pub. They were stories of mischief and general good humour. The spirits in the Prince of Wales were friendly and generally non-threatening.

We moved on to Margam Castle. We’ve been there many times during the day but immediately we got out of the car, the place had a completely different feel. It wasn’t completely dark and there the house stood out against the cloudless sky. The stars were clear and bright and we couldn’t have asked for better conditions.

After some history of the house and the family that lived there, we proceeded inside. With all the lights out, the atmosphere was eerie and every sound was magnified with the echo. Our host told stories about the malevolent spirits that occasionally showed themselves and we watched and waited, unsure of what we were going to see (or not see). Despite the lack of sights or sounds, the place was full of atmosphere and I would not have been surprised to either see or hear something myself, or find one of the other people claiming to have seen or heard something. But the spirits were shy tonight.

We went upstairs and sat in the pitch black silence. Now, as the guide spoke, I could make out a faint murmur beneath his voice. But as I realised it was the echo coming back, he mentioned this as a characteristic of the house and it’s central staircase. He told us about the times he’s been setting up and has felt something, and one of his theories is that the presence upstairs is an elemental spirits, that is, more ancient than human beings.

We heard nothing upstairs either, but as the night was drawing to an end, I became aware of a feeling inside me that I cannot describe. If you have ever walked in on the aftermath of an argument, when everyone is quiet and there is a feeling of awkwardness, you can only describe accurately that feeling to people who have experienced it themselves. How do you describe it to someone who has never felt it? That’s why I find it hard to describe how I felt on the upper landing of Margam Castle. I can only say that I was uncomfortable, uneasy and didn’t want to stay there. But I can’t say why.

It was a tremendous evening. We’ve been to Margam many times and it’s always a rewarding visit. But the ghost tour was by far the best visit I’ve had.

Holidays!

I’m off on leave. I should have been clambering all over the Brecon Beacons  but that’s not happening at the moment. So I have to try and find things to do to make the leave worthwhile and that don’t involve creating dents in the sofa where by bottom fits nicely. It’s hard (no, not my bottom, finding things to do). But here goes.

Yesterday was taken up mainly with the bitty, tedious administration stuff that has to be done but doesn’t have to be liked. The car went for a service. I hate spending money and not getting anything for it and with a car service (or MOT) it’s just money that disappears. Rather like petrol and taxes and so on. I took it easy in the afternoon, cleaned, changed the bedding (bored yet?) and took a load of clothes and other bits and bobs down to the local charity shop. The house is looking a little more empty than it was.

Today was much better. An early morning phone call from the female equivalent of Stephen Hawking told me my travel insurance claim has been accepted and will be paid in full within 5 working days. What a bizarre call at 8am. They’ve obviously decided my land line is a mobile phone. Still, nice to know that I’m, not out of pocket for the trip. I only hope the record of my claim accurately shows it to be as a result of an injury, not a condition, so that I can get insurance when I do decide to do the next trek.

Happy with that, I headed off to the River Tywi at Nantgaredig to take photos of the bridge, hopefully with loads of mist, and then on to Dryslwyn and the castle. The bridge was mist free but looking east, some of the trees lining the river had mist as a backdrop. and I spent a few minutes trying different settings to make the most of the conditions. In my mind, I was thinking ‘high key’ and with a few straight shots as bankers, I played around with the exposure to lighten the scene.

Then it was on to the castle, which I could see on a hill top in the distance. At first, it looked as if part of the remaining wall had fallen away but as I got closer I could see that this was a trick of the mist occasionally covering the hilltop. At the care park, I wandered along the river bank for a few minutes, managing to disturb a heron in the process. Throwing all caution to the wind, I made my way up to the top of the hill – and my leg didn’t fall off! Unfortunately, the most was the wrong kind of mist – the type that obscures rather than adds depth – and the photos I’d imagined weren’t to be found.

Instead, I decided to head back home and to call in to the doctors to see if my X-ray results had turned up. They had and although I need to speak to the doctor, the receptionist said they were marked ‘normal’. Probably not mine then as little about me has ever been described as ‘normal’. Nevertheless, this second piece of good news made me reconsider going home to rest up, so I grabbed the camera and headed down to the Botanical Gardens in Singleton Park to get some close-ups of flowers. And I wasn’t disappointed. The dull conditions are ideal for macro as there are fewer shadows and the even lighting brings out detail. There was plenty of colour too, and I spent a pleasant half hour wandering around snapping away.

The day is still young, though, so once I’ve posted this I’ll probably be off to do some strimming in the garden. Not worthy of a blog post in itself, unless something dramatic happens.

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Lets go fly a Kite

Yesterday started off with a nice stroll along the tow path of the local canal. The Tennant canal was completed in 1790 to transport coal from a pit at Glan y Wern near Crymlyn the river Neath, where it was transferred to larger boats. It fell into disuse after only 20 years but was restored and enlarged to carry barges of up to 50 tons in 1818 by George Tennant. I pass it often, crossing by a bridge at Jersey Marine, and I’ve equally often promised myself a visit one day.

Part of the path was closed due to engineering works on the nearby electricity pylons, so I was forced to head north towards Briton Ferry. But on the tow path, it was impossible to work out exactly where I was. And that was great. Minutes before I’d been driving through the suburbs of Swansea and suddenly I was transported nearly 200 years back in time.

As I walked, the landscape changed from a valley, in which acres of reeds grew, to a more industrial one with the remains of storage depots and little engineering sheds, now in ruins. I passed under several bridges, ironic symbols of the canal’s demise as they carried rail and road over the water. I passed horses content to graze and watch me with no concern. Eventually, I got to the motorway bridge, a vast modern construction completely out of place in my little world. Just beyond the modern concrete bridge, a smaller stone bridge contemporary with the canal stood, signifying an early track across. I turned around here as I had other plans for the rest of the day.

I went with friends out to Carreg Cennen castle. The Medieval castle sits on an outcrop of rock and is by far the most impressively set fort I have visited. It reminds me of Dryslwyn’s castle near Carmarthen, but is much grander. The views from the top take in the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountain, with Carmarthenshire off to the west.

We explored the castle, and ventured down into the natural cave that winds its way under the castle courtyard. It was dark and narrow, with a slippery floor but we came prepared with torches and squeezed the stooped our way down to the very end. There we found a natural spring, which would have been a useful water supply for the castle occupants during a siege. Evidence was found here of pre-historic occupation and, more recently, finds of two Roman coins suggests at least a prolonged visit by the Romans.

After a delicious lunch in the cafe, we drove along the northern edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park. We spotted signs for the Red Kite feeding centre and decided to take a look. We were so fortunate, because just as we parked, one of the staff told us we were just in time to see the feeding. For the next 45 minutes we watched from the hide as around 50 Red Kites wheeled and swirled in the air currents, dropping en mass every so often to swoop and pick up the meat that had been left for them. It was a magnificent sight, and even more special for being totally unplanned. Definitely one to return to.

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