Where the dead things are

A day off. The first Rufus knew was when he came in to wake me up at my usual time and instead of watching me make breakfast after he’d been out in the garden, he watched me go back to bed for an hour’s lie in. Then, when I did finally get up, he was surprised that there was no rush to get ready, and that I was wearing walking trousers. We set off for Ilston woods in frosty conditions. I was hoping for some mist for a photo I’ve had in my mind for some time, of trees disappearing into a light grey morning haze.

There was no mist, but there was frost and mud. We wandered for a while but I just wasn’t getting any inspiration for photographs and Rufus was getting muddier and muddier. I didn’t want to take snapshots so rather than waste the early morning light, we headed back to the car and then on to Oxwich Bay. I haven’t been to Oxwich for ages. The bay sweeps around from the headland towards Three Cliffs. During the war, Oxwich was one of the bays used to practice for the D-Day landings. It was much calmer today.

We wandered through the dunes rather than across the sand. The sun was warm and despite the earlier frost, it soon warmed the day up. Dressed for freezing conditions, I had to remove a layer and roll my sleeves up! There were plenty of shady places for Rufus so I wasn’t too worried about him overheating. I’ve never walked though the dunes here before, and although it was similar to walking around Whiteford, the dunes were closer together here, and there was much more greenery.

Before long, we reached the little unnamed brook that marks the unofficial boundary between Oxwich Burrows and Nicholaston Wood. I headed off to the stream where it flowed in to the sea for Rufus to have a paddle and drink. But when I turned around, he was on the high water mark, rolling around in something aromatic. He has a tendency to find the dead things that are washed up on the shore and today was no exception. Although he knows he’l have to have a shower, which never goes down well, I think he also knew that the shower was out of action at the moment, in need of resealing.

Our stroll back was relaxed and the day felt almost summery with the strong and bright sun in my eyes the whole way. Needless to say, there was much snoring from Rufus after we got home. So I left him sleeping and dashed off to the DIY store to get the things I needed to fix the shower.

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Ilston Valley

With the day to ourselves, Rufus and I both had a short lie in before getting up, still relatively early. The cool of the morning, and the solitude, both appeal to me and I know Rufus appreciates not having to walk, run, bark and generally show me who’s the fitter in the heat of midday. So after a quick breakfast, we were out of the door and off in the car to Ilston Woods.

We went there recently and both enjoyed the walk from the little village down to Parkmill. There is a river for Rufus to cool off in and the chance, however slim, for me to snap a Kingfisher. I’d conveniently forgotten about the mud. So much mud!

We quickly negotiated the little church yard and made our way through the gate into the woods proper. The canopy gave us some shelter from the sun for although it was only 8am, I could feel the warmth in the village. The smell of wild garlic was even stronger than last time, taking me back to the summers of the early 80’s when I was here a lot, taking photos of the church and wild camping amongst the trees. Very little has changed, or so it seems in my mind. The birds were competing between each other to see which ones could sing the loudest. There was a lot of movement as blackbirds and starlings flitted about. For a long time there were not man made sounds.

The river is quite low at this time of year, despite some recent heavy downpours, and in places it ran completely dry. I seem to remember reading somewhere that there was a swallow hole and of r part of its course, the water runs underground. Closer to Parkmill there was a health flow on the surface and this is where I saw the Kingfisher last time. There was no sign of it today, though. We must have been making too much noise.

At the southern end of the valley is the Gower Inn, where I celebrated my 18th birthday and, a few years later, passing my degree. We lingered a while by the river here before setting off back towards Ilston and the car. I try to vary the route a little and we inevitably take a wrong turning now and again. Today, I managed to follow the muddiest path back – even worse than the one we started off on.

Back at the car, we both paddled a little in the river to clean muddy paws before setting off home. It is Rufus’ mission in life to get the back of may car as dirty as he can and so as much as I try to clean him off before he gets in, he manages to keep some mud hidden from me!

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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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