The Deer Hunter

Cue Cavatina. Have it playing in the background as you read. You can think of me as Robert De Niro as well, if it’s not too great a challenge.

Yesterday. Rufus and I went off to one of our regular locations, the hills above the Upper Lliw reservoir. I always check to see that it is cow and shgeep free and sure enough, all the cows were on a different hill. So I parked up and off we set. We had just got to the man-made ridges where the US army trained during World War 2 when I heard and saw in the distance a pack of dogs, a rider and a quad bike. I managed to get Rufus on the lead and we headed for the high ground, the four foot mound, just before we were engulfed by the dogs. They were hunting dogs, out having exercise I assume, and I was worried about how they would react to Rufus.

Rufus was right next to me and clearly overwhelmed by all the hounds. They were all around us, stinking of dead things and shoving their noses into everything. Rufus was growling and I would have been too, if I hadn’t been trying to calm him down. The hunt master (I assume that was his title) was blowing on his hunting horn but didn’t seem that interested in controlling the pack. Fortunately, the dogs were in a good mood and Rufus was his usual restrained self, so there was no trouble and the pack moved on. All the way back to the car I could hear the hunting horn being blown, a brash, childish sound.

Today, after we’d been for a nice walk around the estate, I left Rufus guarding the house and went off to hunt deer. Margam Park has a herd of wild deer consisting of Fallow, Red and Pere David breeds. They’ve been on the site since Medieval times and there are references to deer there in Roman times, too. October is the rutting season and I’d long planned to try and get some photos of the bucks in action as they battled for top spot in the harem.

Fortunately, I met a jogger who told me where the deer could usually be found. I decided to climb the hill behind the park to get an idea of the layout and sure enough, I spotted a herd of about 15 deer in the fields below, right where the jogger said they’d be. I dropped down the the fields but the deer had disappeared. I’m a novice deer stalker but I understand the principles – stay down wind of them, move slowly and quietly and slowly. It only took a few minutes to spot them in a mud hole and although they had seen me as soon as I had seen them, they didn’t seem spooked, possibly as I was half concealed behind bushes. I was about 200 yards away but I couldn’t get any closer without being in full view so I backed off and headed around a low rise in the ground towards another bush, staying below the brow of the hill and trying to remember where they were in relation to my position.

Eventually, I reached the bush, which turned out to be an overgrown stone monument of some sort. I was now within 100 yards of the herd. They were still aware of me but as I was not moving, they didn’t seem concerned. The big male was more interested in something on the opposite side of them, which was closer to the main part of the park. I used this distraction to make my way a little closer, using another clump of bushes to approach without being seen. Eventually, I was within 70 yards of the group and I got some nice photos.

All this time I was eyeing up the path that would take me back to the park. I’d read that one thing to be wary of was the rutting males, full of testosterone, might decide I was a threat. I was aware of my escape routes, should I need them. But the path would take me closer still to the herd and in full view. I decided that they would probably run away rather than charge me, so I made my way along the gravel track, slowly getting closer in a round about way. I ended up around 50 yards from the herd, and apart from watching with some curiosity, they showed no real concern that I was there.

It was only while putting my camera away again later that I realised I had dropped a lens cap and a body cap somewhere along the way. They’re probably in the trophy cabinet of the male Fallow deer.

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The wrong turn and the wrong river

Breaking news: The Tour de France took a wrong turn! To find out more, read on.

An early start for Fan Nedd was the order of the day, so that we could take advantage of the cooler temperatures. Neither of us are fans of really hot weather, and for walking on the hills, the cooler the better. So we left the house before 8am heading up the Swansea Valley to turn off at Crai and make our way through the winding, narrow lanes up to the little car park at the foot of the hill. But at the turn off to the valley, a bright yellow sign proclaimed that Sarn Helen was closed, with no explanation. I was annoyed, as there were no signs on the main road and we’d driven for about 15 minutes before reaching the first sign. But I was also amused, as the concept of the main Roman road linking north and south Wales being closed was funny. You can imagine the conversation… “Sorry, Julius, it’s closed.”

So we turned around and drove back and by the time I’d reached the main road again, I’d decided to head for Llyn y Fan Fawr. Rufus relaxed in the back and although he’s comfy in there, I don’t like to drive for longer than I have to with him as it can’t be much fun. So after we’d passed several parking spots, helpfully blocked off by single cars, we found our favourite spot and set off.

It was a lovely morning with sun and blue sky and a few fluffy white clouds. The wind kept the temperature down and I wondered if I should have brought my gloves. But I soon warmed up. Rufus relished the open air and bounded off in all directions. We passed, at a respectful distance, several horses and two tiny foals as we made our way along the flanks of Moel Feity up towards the lake. Fan Brecheiniog was looking tempting and by the time we’d reached the lake, I’d decided to head on up. It was still relatively cool and Rufus was looking up for it.

We made slow but steady progress to the bwlch and then plodded up the final steep part to the ridge and the trig point. The views were spectacular in the clear morning air. I had an idea that we should head down into the bwlch and go in search of an aeroplane crash site I’d visited a few years ago. A deHaviland Vampire hit the side of the hill there, killing the pilot and destroying the plane. We set off across the moorland, much tot he annoyance of the birds who tried to distract us. But keeping one eye on the ground for nests and one eye on Rufus (in case he found a nest) we made it down to the little valley between Fan Brecheiniog and Fan Hir.

I remembered the wreckage as being on the side of a little river and so we walked along the bank; me up on the top so I could see ahead and Rufus in the water. After about 15 minutes, there was no wreckage in sight and I was beginning to doubt myself. We stopped at a little pool and while Rufus paddled and chased stones, I sat and ate a snack. It was a lovely little place, sheltered and dry and I made a mental note of it in case we come wild camping in this area.

It was beginning to warm up now so I decided that rather than go looking for the plane, we’d head back and return another day. We set off towards the foot of Fan Hir to make best use of the dry path there and as we reached it, I looked back to see the glinting metal of the plane further down the valley, on the bank of a different river. We’d followed the wrong river (checking the map later there were two parallel streams invisible from each other). It was too far to go to and beat the heat, so we set off for the lake instead.

 

150,000 stones later, we dropped down from the lake and followed the marshy, muddy ground back to the car, passing the two foals with their older relatives enjoying the sunshine. At the car, we were both glad to get in and cool off with the air conditioning.

When we got down to the main road, it was full of cyclists. Fortunately, they were all heading in the opposite direction to me and so they didn’t hold me up. I felt sorry for the motorists on their side of the road as there were groups of cyclists for the next five miles or so. I was convinced that I’d stumbled upon the Tour de France. Cyclists in multi coloured jerseys and with a multitude of different bikes struggled up the hills and freewheeled down again. I didn’t envy them at all. It turns out that this was the Wiggle Dragon Ride 2015 and many of the riders were competing over a 300 mile course. Rather them than me.

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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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Return of the sheep

A crisp and clear morning, the last day of the festive holiday and a hound that knows what he wants. All these meant only one thing; a morning on the hills.

This time last year (expect more of that phrase in the coming weeks) I was into the last phase of training for my trek. One of my favourite routes was up and over Moel Feity before dropping down to the source of the River Tawe. From there, I would climb back up to Llyn y Fan Fawr and on to Fan Brecheiniog. This morning I decided to take the same route, although we would stop short of Fan Brecheiniog itself.

We set off from the car and immediately, my boots were soaked. Yesterday’s rain was still lying on the ground in great puddles, small streams and marsh. We splashed our way around and up the side of Moel Feity, spiralling along sheep paths in the cold wind until we reached the flat top. The wind blew even stronger and colder but it was great to be on a familiar hilltop again.

We crossed westward to the memorial to the crashed US Navy Liberator and spent a few moments tidying up before heading on towards Llyn y Fan Fawr. The top of Moel Feity has a number of tracks, some made by quad bikes, some made by sheep. But we decided to make out own to avoid the worst of the water. But it was an impossible task, so eventually I just accepted that I’d get wet. Rufus loves the water anyway and it never bothers him. He criss crossed my path, checking out the scents and aromas.

We dropped off the hill and down to the young River Tawe, which was flowing healthily this morning. Then it was another climb up to the lake through even more boggy ground until we crested a small mound to find the clear blue water ahead. Rufus was off like a shot and headed straight to the spot we used to stop and rest at during the training last year. The lake was full after the rain and it was only just possible to sit on the rocks.

Little waves covered the surface of the water and as eddy’s of wind spun off the steep side of Fan Brecheiniog, they created moving patterns on the surface of the water. The sun shone on the lake and high above us I could hear the echo of two walkers shouting to each other as they traversed the ridge to Fan Foel.

We spent a short time taking in the view and enjoying the solitude before reluctantly leaving for the dry comfort of the car.

The route down was easier, but wetter, if that was possible. Every tuft of grass seemed to conceal a small pool. As we passed through patches of reeds, I could only tell where Rufus was by the splash of this paws in the water. We crossed the Tawe a little further down the hill and although it was only 18 inches or so wide, it was deep and flowing fast even here. On the opposite bank there were several paths visible in the distance on the side of Moel Fiety. I knew from experience that each contoured around the hill at different heights. But which one to take?

Ultimately, it wouldn’t matter as they all led to the general vicinity of the car. Of course, I picked the only one that faded out after a hundred yards and turned into a marsh. The last mile was splashed and squelched, although Rufus seemed to avoid the worst of it.

We popped over a small ridge to find several wild horses sheltering from the wind. Both Rufus, I and the horses were surprised and for a few moments  we stood and stared at each other. The horses remained calm, Rufus came back to me to see what I wanted him to do and we walked past them with little disturbance.

With the car in sight, we came across a small flock of sheep. Their winter coats made them look much larger than normal and they all looked up as one to see what we were. I put Rufus on the lead and we slowly walked past. When I turned to look at them again, they were all following us. It was an odd thing to see as sheep usually head in the opposite direction to us. But for about a minute, they were content to tag along, almost within touching distance. At any moment, I expected a lunge from them as they sought to steal Rufus’ treats.

But we managed to escape their evil clutches, and got to the car in one piece.

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