Ilston

This morning, we set off early for Ilston. Rufus has been there once before when his real owner took him. Ilston woods and the little 13th Century church has been a part of my history for around 30 years. I haven’t been to the valley for several years so when I heard Rufus had been, it set an idea in my head ticking away like a little time bomb. With the weather unexpectedly clear this morning, the bomb went off.

I love the village of Ilston. I can remember years ago thinking I’d love to live there and when I parked the care carefully off the road, I still thought the same thing. It was the first country village I really got to know, and it has always been the measure by which I judge other villages. I love the spread in both appearance and spacing of the houses here.

We crossed the bridge and entered the churchyard. St Illtyd’s church dates from the 13th Century but there are records of a church at Ilston from 1119AD. The ‘new’ version may have been built around a monk’s cell. When I was in school, friends and I were making a horror movie around the village. It started off as a proper horror movie but as we realised our limitations, it became a spoof. We shot a lot of footage on super 8mm film, but never completed the film. We had loads of fun doing it, though. Later, when I was in college, I sued to go to the church to photograph it and I always remember printing a black and white photo taken with my (then) new Pentax K1000 and it’s 50mm lens. The print was pin sharp and showed up the detail in the stone work of the tower. I was really pleased with the [performance of the lens and I wish I had that lens now.

Every summer while I was away in London, my mates and I would meet up during the holidays. Gower was a regular venue and Ilston woods featured heavily. They say smell is one of the strongest triggers of memories and as I walked down there today, the smell of wild garlic took me back to the mid 1980s. There were areas that were familiar and places where nature or my failing memory had changed things.

In the mid 90’s I used to hang around with a different set of friends and we used to go wild camping a lot. We spent one memorable night in Ilston woods, near The Gower Inn, and eventually my route today took me through the area. Although I didn’t recognise exactly where we camped, the little bridge that in the night we thought was miles away from our camp site, but which in the morning proved to be a few tens of yards away, was immediately recognisable.

Nearby were the remains of the Old Trinity Well Chapel, the site of the first Baptist Chapel in Wales, founded by John Myles in 1649. Myles (or Miles, it’s not clear what the correct spelling is) was installed by the Parliamentarians as the Cromwellian Minister of Ilston. The previous incumbent ejected him and so Myles founded the Baptist chapel here. When the Baptist practices were ruled illegal in 1663, Myles and his parish left for America, where they founded the town of Swansea in Massachusetts.

At the car park to the Gower Inn, we stopped and I threw stones for Rufus. A flash of blue and orange passed by low over the water and before I could fumble for the camera, the Kingfisher had disappeared back towards Ilston. I contented myself with snapping a yellow wagtail and a robin.  The weather forecast had predicted heavy rain and the sun that lit our path on the way down had disappeared behind a dark cloud so it was time to turn back. We set off and followed the river back towards Ilston.

Now for the first time I noticed just how muddy the path was. It wasn’t possible to go more than a few yards without having to step on, in or through mud and water. It was slippery and made the going harder as I had to be careful not to over balance. I hadn’t noticed on the way down. Rufus made light work of the mud but even he slipped a few times.

We stopped so that Rufus could swim and catch stones and slowly made our way back. There was no rain, and the sun showed itself again a few times. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the Kingfisher again; not surprising as Rufus was crashing ahead for most of the time. Birds sang in the trees and as we made our way through the church yard, a squirrel chanced it’s luck and crossed the path in front of us., The first I knew was a mighty tug on the lead as Rufus made a bid to try and get it, but it scurried up a nearby tree trunk and left us standing, watching.

Back at the car, I let Rufus paddle his paws clean but when I got home, it was obvious from the muddy patch on the towels on the back seat that a shower was required. As I’m typing this, the leg of my jeans is drying from where Rufus was sleeping on it after his shower (it’s a form of revenge – I shower him, he soaks me) and he is finishing off the drying process on the sofa.

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Dawn Chorus

I love the early morning, except when I have to go to work. At all other times, early morning, before people are fully awake, is the best time to take notice of your surroundings without the distractions of traffic and people. If you’re that way inclined, wildlife is more abundant. It’s the best time to photograph insects as they are still trying to warm up in the sun and so are quite sluggish. The dawn chorus welcomes in the day and when the weather is fine, you can’t beat this time of the day.

Today, Rufus and I went out to take advantage of the early morning sun. Off we headed to a relatively new location near Betws Mountain. Despite the sheep, I was able to find an area where I could let Rufus off the lead and we wander slowly through the trees towards the Upper Lliw Reservoir. All around, birds were singing but rather than a cacophony of sound, it was a gentle back drop to the trees, gently swaying in the breeze.

The sun was still low and casting an orange glow on the tree trunks. A curious lamb decided to take a closer look at Rufus (on the lead again) and me but got last minute nerves and bounded off back to its mother. In a small puddle, there were a lot of tadpoles well on their way to becoming frogs, and a number of waterboatmen floated on the surface of the water.

Through a gap in the trees, I spotted what looked like an old picnic table so on the way back we too a diversion through a rough avenue of trees and sure enough, there was a small clearing with three tables. The clearing had seen better days, it was overgrown and boggy in places and the tables were in need of some care too, but we spent a few minutes listening to the sounds of the woods and enjoying the sunshine. Rufus explored the edges of the clearing while I managed to get some snaps of a Mistle Thrush gathering grass for a nest.

Then we tried to find a path out of the clearing and managed to keep reasonably dry as we went back up the hill to the stile and the waiting car. You can’t beat a lovely early summer’s morning.

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Heron

Awake early and with the prospect of wind and rain, I set off for Penllegare woods again in the hope of spotting the elusive Kingfishers. As soon as I saw the river, swollen with yesterday’s heavy rain, I knew they wouldn’t be around. Kingfishers prefer a gentle flow that they can dive into; this would have swept them downstream in an instant. So I headed off along the river bank and was rewarded almost immediately by the presence of a robin, which came towards me and my camera as if it wanted to appear in this blog!

Once again, the birdsong was loud and continuous. I’m useless at identifying birds by their singing but even I recognised the blackbirds, and this was confirmed by the numbers hopping about on the ground searching for food.

But then my attention was caught by a long neck, grey feathers and sleek head and as I looked, the heron leapt into the air and flew off along the river.  I watched it head off over the trees and managed a couple of snapshots as it made off. I love herons and despite seeing quite a few around the area, have rarely managed to get photos of them as they are so shy and cautious.

I carried on into the woods and across a recently restored bridge to walk on the opposite bank of the river for a bit. The Rhododendrons are starting to bloom and I found one tree that had bright red flowers, very much like the ones I saw in Nepal in 2011.

With the first drops of rain, I decided to turn back for the car and I retraced my steps across the bridge and along the side of a small lake. Suddenly, I spotted the familiar shape and colour of the heron again. I was surprised to see it as I thought it would have left the area. I stopped still and it eyed me up from the lakeside. I managed to slowly raise the camera without spooking it, and took a few photos. Then I moved gently so there was a large tree trunk between me and the heron, and slowly crept forward.

As I emerged from behind the tree, I had time for two quick photos before the heron took off but I followed it to see that it had only flown a few yards down the path. So I continued to slowly and quietly make my way along towards it, keeping bushes and trees and other cover between me and it. Had anyone been watching, they would have wondered what I was up to.

And then there it was, eyeing me up as I stood with the camera to my eye. I guessed that the camera partially blocked my face and may have confused the heron, as I was able to creep a little closer. I managed to snap a few more frames before I saw the bird tense up and launch into the air and fly off again, this time high up over the trees opposite where I stood. I decided not to wait around as I didn’t want to disturb the bird any more than I already had.

Still didn’t see any Kingfishers though.

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A walk in the woods

Around 150 years ago, John Dillwyn Llewelyn created a vast landscaped garden at his home in Penllegare, to the west of Swansea. Over the years since his death, the land went to ruin and was forgotten. Now a dedicated bunch of volunteers are working hard to restore the gardens to their former glory.

I walk there a lot and have done for a number of years, so I’ve seen the changes as they’ve been made. Last year, I caught a brief glimpse of Kingfishers on the river and since then I’ve been popping down every now and again to see if I can catch a photo of them.

This morning, before much of the world had woken up, I was walking alongside the upper lake. The work done to clear this part of the garden is immense but I fear the downside is that where the Kingfishers used to catch insects on the river has now been exposed to everyone and his dog, and combined with the activity to clear the area has scared them off. Nevertheless, the walk is lovely and with no one else around, the sounds of a myriad of different birds is great to experience.

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If you go down to the woods today…

…in theory, you would find a bunch of like minded souls on hands and knees pointing cameras at bluebells. That’s what I thought as I’d planned to meet up with some friends and colleagues from work to go hunting for photogenic bluebells. But, typical for me, I got the directions wrong and ended up in a completely different car park. With no phone signal to check where everyone was, I waited a few minutes after our rendezvous time and then headed off to where I thought the bluebells would be.

Merthyr Mawr car park is right next to Candleston Castle, a fortified manor house dating back to the 14th Century. It is in ruins now and is the home to ivy and other creepers. Not far from the castle, I came across a large area of bluebells and set about snapping away.

The danger with Bluebells is that they can end up looking pink or purple in a digital image because they reflect so much infra red light. So it pays to bracket exposure to try some slight under exposure. I added a polarising filter too, although this seemed to make little difference. As I was crouched down n the ground, I went to lean on a small branch only to notice a line of ants marching along it. A closer look revealed a veritable motorway system complete with streams of ant traffic moving in both directions. I went to fit a macro lens on the camera and saw that my camera bag was right in the middle of another ant highway. I looked around for a place to safely deposit the bag but everywhere was crawling with ants. I was reminded of every film where ants attack humans and I was waiting for the inevitable biting and tickling that would signal my being carried off to some underground nest.

But instead, I found a clear space for the bag and took some macro shots of ants carrying food back to the nest. I had to use the ring flash as the light levels were too low under the canopy of trees to allow a decent depth of field and shutter speed fast enough to freeze their movement. I was pleased with what I got.

I explored the woods for a while, sheltering from a couple of short but sharp showers under the trees. Then I slowly made my way back to the car, stopping once again to get some close ups of the bluebells, now looking their best in the sunshine.

Shortly after I left the car park, I got a couple of text messages telling me everyone else had arrived there.

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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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Climbing Kilimanjaro 1: From Swansea to Swahili

The process of getting from my house to Heathrow was more traumatic than getting from Heathrow to Nairobi. A heavy kitbag (a gnat’s whisker under 15kg) plus a bulky back pack (the lead lined whiskers from a tribe of gnats over 5kg) was just hassle, particularly getting through the ticket barriers at Reading. On-line check-in only partially worked as the internal flight to Kilimanjaro International airport didn’t have a working website.

But these minor issues aside, I caught my first glimpse of Kilimanjaro as the internal flight flew between it and Mt Meru. The pilot announced that we were flying some 4000ft below the summit of Kilimanjaro as there were favourable winds at that altitude.

I managed to get through the airport Yellow Fever check (a big worry for me) and suddenly I was with the others in our group on the main highway running between Moshi and Arusha. About an hour later, we were checked in to the Ilboru Safari Lodge and I could relax.

After a briefing about equipment, altitude sickness and the formalities of insurance and passports, we were free to relax in the little round huts that were our rooms. That evening, we had a mix of traditional local foods including beef and fried chicken with vegetables and fresh fruit. After a good night’s sleep beneath a mosquito net (the realities of being in Africa started here), we were up early for a feast of a breakfast and then of in the minibus for the transfer to Kilimanjaro National Park and the registration process. Then, a quick and extremely bumpy bus ride (known locally as the African massage) took us to Lemosho gate and the start of the trekking. Here, we met our guides. Head guide was Passian with his two assistants ‘King’ James and Khalid. We learnt our first Swahili words here too; ‘Pole pole’ (slowly, slowly – the mantra for altitude acclimatisation), ‘twendai’ (let’s go), ‘mwzuri sana’ (I’m very well) and the well worn ‘jambo’ (the equivalent of ‘hi’ and ‘how are you’ tr

We walked through green forest along a rough 4×4 track (my Freelander wouldn’t have coped) before rising up and away from the track on a narrower path. After a lunch stop on the open, we entered the forest again for around 3 hours of gentle uphill walking until we spotted tents through the trees ahead. Big Tree Camp was our first camp site and the one that would introduce us to the routine of camp life.

Porters are only allowed by law to carry a maximum of 25kg and so at every camp site, a check is made on the loads to make sure none are being exploited. The guy in charge of the scales offered to weigh my pack and he laughed when it turned out to be 6.5kg. I was surprised, as I’d expected to carry no more than 5kg most days. I was more surprised when I realised that the weight didn’t include the water I’d been carrying, or my camera, which was still around my neck. I estimated I’d started off with an 9kg pack.

During the night, a troop of Colobus monkeys swept through the camp site, looking for food. In the morning, one large monkey remained on the outskirts of the clearing, watching and waiting for us intruders to leave. White necked ravens sat on rocks also waiting for their chance to scavenge. The reality is that despite the relatively few trekkers that visit every year, we have changed the way the local wildlife act.

Day two was about climbing out of the rain forest. The paths were narrow and deep in the forest to start with. We passed a tree full of Colobus monkeys, jumping from branch to branch just as we aligned cameras. The climbing was steeper today, and the humidity a bit more noticeable out of the breeze. We were led at a reasonable pace by our guide but this was the first proper day of trekking and we all felt it to a certain extent. By lunch time we were leaving the thick forest, with dense undergrowth and tall trees, behind and below. I noticed that the vegetation was getting shorter – now only head height and with far fewer trees to shelter us from the sun. We stopped for lunch at a small level piece of rocky ground half way up the side of Shira Ridge.

After lunch, we set off on the steep looking pathway we’d been eyeing up while eating. As usual, it wasn’t as bad as expected but in the heat and with our backpacks, it was no push over. Eventually, we got to the top and were rewarded with a much flatter path on the Shira Plateau. The Plateau is the remains of the Shira volcano, the oldest of the three volcanoes that make up Kilimanjaro. We were walking in the crater, very much weathered and worn away by millennia of floods, glaciers and wind blown dust.

Before long, Shira camp site came into view in the distance. We spotted the green roof of the Ranger hut first, but then the green tents popped in to view as well and finally, the tall blue toilet tent. It would be a beacon in the days to come. Once again, I was able to weigh my pack and found that it was 7.5kg. With the water I’d drunk, it would be closer to 9kg again.

Shira camp was busy with a number of groups having made it there. We watched as one large circle of porters began singing. It was fun and jolly and raised the spirits. When it was still going on an hour later, it was less fun and more annoying. After two hours, it finally stopped. Our guide promised to make sure our tents were as far away from that group as possible in future.

After dinner, we stood out in the darkness watching lightning light up the back of Kilimanjaro, throwing it in to silhouette. Over to the west, gigantic bolts lit up clouds over the plains down below. All this took place in surreal silence. After the day’s climb, retiring to the sleeping bag was most welcome.

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