Skomer

Wales’ second largest island sits a couple of miles off Martin’s Haven on the west coast. Skomer is a 15 minute boat journey from the mainland but with little infrastructure and a limit of around 250 visitors a day it feels like a hundred years away. I first went to visit around 10 years ago but managed to miss the last boat and contented myself with a walk over the headland. Fast forward to yesterday and I secured a place on the small boat and found myself squeezed in with 49 other people for the short, undulating journey back in time to arrive at North Haven. Puffins were flying in all directions as we entered the natural harbour and climbed the endless steep steps up to the briefing point. After a quick run through the rules (‘stick to the paths or you may fall into rabbit burrows’ and the classic ‘the island is flat with no trees or bushes and everyone has binoculars or a long lens, so its best to use the toilets’) we were off.

My mission was to get some photographs of the puffins in flight, preferably with a beak full of fish or eels. At this time of year the young have hatched and are being fed by their parents. There are 10,000 breeding pairs of puffins on Skomer so the chances of catching one or two were good. Of course, I’d done my research (including a visit in May) and I knew where I wanted to be.

The Wick is a natural inlet formed by a geological fault which has left a sheer cliff on one side and a spectacular sloping slab on the other. Along the cliff edge, puffins have made their homes in old rabbit burrows. As I arrived, I could see clouds of birds all milling about. The frantic flapping of Puffins as they tried to avoid the more lazy, soaring gulls and Chough. And on the vertical cliff face, hundreds of Guillemots clinging to their precarious perches, squeezed shoulder to shoulder to take advantage of every inch of ledge.

Puffins fly well, but their take offs and landings are a bit rubbish. I watched several attempt to land gracefully in the sea only to give up at the last minute and either drop into the water or hit the surface at too sharp and angle and partially submerge. Here, with as many eels or fish crammed into their beaks as they could managed, landing was even more random. Some managed a reasonable hover-and-drop while others just crunched in, raising a small cloud of dust. If they were carrying food, they had to be careful as the gulls were trying to mug them.

Photographers lined the path. It was like being in an open air camera shop. But this meant that for the puffins whose burrows were on the other side of the paparazzi, their way was blocked. While the puffins weren’t bothered by our presence, they were too polite to push past us and we had been warned that they would wait patiently until we moved to allow them space to cross the path. Quite soon after I got there, a heavily fish-ladened Puffin landed close to me and after I’d taken a few photos, I put the camera down to watch it. It took a few steps towards me then stopped. I took this to mean that it wanted to cross the path where I was, so I stepped back. It took a few more steps towards me so I stepped back some more.

This turned into a game. Every time I backed off, it would come towards me again. I took more and more steps back and each time, the Puffin advanced to stop at the same distance from me. By now I was beginning to think I was being chased in the slowest, most polite way possible. I walked backwards some more and the Puffin darted off the path. But now, from the way the bird was searching up and down the side of the path it was clear that it wasn’t sure where it’s burrow was. I watched as it waddled back and forth before finally deciding on a particular hole and diving in.

I took hundreds of photos of the Puffins, trying to catch them in flight. Focusing was difficult; I’d been having problems with one camera during my visit in May and so I’d taken a different one this time, Although it should have been better, I think a combination of poor technique on my part (keeping the birds in frame was hard) and a difficult background (the sheer rock face gave little contrast between bird and rock). My focus hit rate was less than 60%. Of those, the ones that had a decent composition brought the overall hit rate down to about 50%. Still, I was pleased with the images that survived my editing.

I finally managed to tear myself away from the Puffins, only occasionally looking back to see what fantastic photo opportunities I was missing. The flora and fauna on the island is many and varied. In May I watched a buzzard terrorising the gulls, who were terrorising the Guillemots. I watched a black rabbit scamper about on the cliff edge, and another rabbit get caught by a gull. I managed to see the short eared owl, who skillfully avoided my camera lens by flying below the level of the undergrowth while hunting for it’s favourite prey, the Skomer vole. This time as I walked along a narrow path bounded by tall ferns, a young rabbit popped out in front of me. It was fully aware of me only a few feet away but wasn’t too concerned. As I got close, it would hop a few feet ahead and continue eating. I was more concerned as it was nearing a bunch out fulls that would certainly attack it if the saw it. In the end I stopped, hoping the bunny would disappear into the undergrowth. It finally did when another visitor popped over the hill in front of us and the rabbit realised it had nowhere else to go.

All the while on the paths I was crossing old and collapsed stone field boundaries. Skomer was home to a farming community between 2-5000 years ago and the remains of several circular huts are preserved in the undergrowth. A standing stone, the Harold Stone, overlooks North Haven and may have been a navigational aid for boats coming to the island. More recently, a single farm occupied most of the island with the main buildings now forming the visitor centre and limited accommodation. The farm was built in the 19th century and ceased working in 1949. In 1954, the roof of the farmhouse was blown down in a great storm and the buildings now house shelters for visitors in bad weather.Nearby a lime kiln survives as another shelter. Limestone was burnt here to provide lime for fertiliser and building mortar.

Day visitors have five hours in the island and although that seems like a long time, it goes in a flash. As Puffins flew overhead to and from their fising grounds, and the inevitable gulls tried to catch them, we boarded the Dale Princess for the short journey back. Between the islands, the tide was swirling and rushing and the boat bounced and twisted through the busy water. From within the crush of passengers crammed in the boat, someone explained that this was very much like deep sea diving off Durban.

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Mumbles

For most people in Swansea, Mumbles head, with it’s lighthouse and distinctive twin tidal islands, is iconic. It can be seen from the whole 5 mile sweep of Swansea Bay and, by design, it’s lighthouse is visible much further away. I’ve written about it before, here.

The first lighthouse was built there in the late 18th century. It had two coal fired lights in open braziers. The island just out into the Bristol Channel and catches every last whisper of wind; keeping an exposed coal fire burning in those conditions was well nigh impossible. So it wasn’t long before the coal fires were replaced by enclosed oil lamps with reflectors to improve visibility. There was a house on the outermost island for the keeper to live in during his (or her – there were wives and daughters here sometimes) duty, which must have been a lonely existence.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was causing mayhem in Europe and to protect the country, coastal forts were built at strategic points. By this time, Swansea was an industrial centre producing copper and other metals and exporting coal. Copper was particularly important strategically as copper coated hulls allowed Nelson’s ships to move more quickly and maneuver more easily. Mumbles Head was the ideal place for a defences and in the early part of the 19th century a stone fort was built which still stands today. Over the years various guns were placed here. Initially, 6lb cannon protected the port and these were replaced by bigger calibres until 68lb cannon with a range of 5 miles were sited on the island.

Eventually, modern 4.7″ guns were emplaced on the island and the 68lb cannon were unceremoniously dumped into the sea. One was recovered in the 70s and is situated in Swansea Marina. During WW2, these guns formed the inspection battery part of the defences of the port of Swansea, which was one of the biggest Bristol Channel ports during the war. Their responsibility was to enforce the requirement for all shipping to stop and be identified before proceeding into the docks and they were manned by regulars of the 299th Coastal Defence Battery, with Home Guard units and women of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRENS).

A pair of 6″ guns formed the defence part of the battery and were sited further back on the mainland, above the Bracelet Bay car park. These heavier guns with their longer range and better visibility would have engaged any enemy shipping trying to enter the bay. Search lights and local defences completed the battery. Further back on Mumbles hill was the 623rd Heavy Anti-Aircraft battery comprising 4 x 5.5″ guns sited to engage enemy aircraft flying in to bomb Swansea.

The whole area was defended from attack by Territorial and Home Guard units in trenches, machine gun emplacements and pill boxes. A mobile 75mm gun was also available to be used where required and there were minefields laid for further protection.

Where Bracelet Bay car park is now were the Nissen huts and other temporary accommodation for the garrison troops. Immediately after the war, these were used for homeless refugees while new houses was built to replace those destroyed in the bombing of Swansea earlier in the war.

The islands are accessible at low tide. A concrete walkway built to improve access for the battery garrison was destroyed after the war when it was found to affect the way the tide interacted with the beach. As you walk out, you can see the remains of the walkway along with railway lines and, as you near the outer island, posts for guide railings. On the outer island, the Napoleonic fort forms part of the current lighthouse structure. Around it there are the remains of the buildings that made up the more modern defences. And engine room to provide power for the searchlights; barracks for the garrison; platforms for the defence of the island from landward attack and the two search light houses.

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A walk on the worm

Rufus had his physiotherapy walk early this morning, around a still and mirror like Broadpool. Apart from the odd car, the silence was broken only by birdsong and the occasional call of a cow to it’s calf.

Back home, it was a quick turnaround for me as I had decided to walk out to Worm’s Head this morning. As Rufus is making his recovery, I am trying to get in some activities that he wouldn’t be able to join me on regardless of his state of health. The walk out to Worm’s Head is over jagged, rocky outcrops and there is scrambling involved as well and no matter how fit Rufus is, there are sections I wouldn’t make him tackle for fear of broken bones.

It was a perfect walking day as I set off from the car park at Rhossili. A coach load of young tourists had just emptied out into the car park and I was determined to get ahead of them in case they were also planning on crossing to the Worm, as getting stuck behind them on any of the rocky crossings would make it even harder going.

At the Coastguard hut, I checked the causeway opening times although I’d already figured out that I had until just before 3pm based on the high tide time. Sure enough, the figures confirmed it was open now and until 2.50pm. I set off down the well worn path of red earth towards the rocks and the start of the causeway.

There is no set path. You pick your own route based on whim. Last time I was here I remember seeing a large anchor seemingly embedded in the rock (although I guess it was partly buried by barnacles and other more modern detritus as it couldn’t have been there long enough to become part of the rocks). Sure enough, there it was  but a lot more prominent than I remembered it.

A few minutes of careful picking between pools, shells, rocks worn smooth by the action of the sea later, I was making my way up onto the welcome grassy slopes of the inner worm. The wind that was blowing was cooling without being cold and the sun was warm on my back. The views back towards Rhossili were already spectacular and would only get better as I went on. I climbed the short incline to the top of the little ridge and walked along with a sharp drop to sea on my right.

I could hear an occasional mournful sound and looking over and down to the rocks below, I saw several grey seals basking in the warm sunshine. Every so often, one would call to no one in particular. It was a haunting sound. In the dark of night it would sound eerie and otherworldly.

I walked on and down to the little causeway between the inner and middle islets. This is a difficult section as the limestone rocks are sharp and there are deep crevices ready to catch and unwary ankle or twist a vulnerable knee. Again, there is no set route and it’s best just to take your time and keep checking every few steps to make sure you’re on track. This is what I did and despite a few twinges from my left knee, I managed to negotiate the rocks and reach the next part of the route. Again, a short climb got me to the top of the middle part of the Worm. On the right as I walked along, a small archway of rock provided a glimpse of the sea to the north. Dropping down to a little natural platform beneath the arch I could see down onto the north shore and more basking seals. As I watched, a small seal dragged itself out of the water onto the basking rock, to the warning grunts from a big seal protecting her pup. All was resolved when the intruder settled on a different part of the rock.

The next obstacle was the sea arch, part of a collapsed sea cave. The route over is solid but narrow in parts and a gusty wind blows through here. It wasn’t too bad today but I’ve heard tell of times when it’s almost been enough to knock you off your feet. I managed the crossing with little trouble and found myself on the final stretch to the head of the Worm.

This becomes a steep but thankfully short scramble. I wasn’t worried by this prospect but the last time I scrambled up rock was at Little Lent Hill on the way to climb Kilimanjaro, 18 months ago. I needn’t have worried and a couple of minutes of ‘three points of contact’ got me to the top. And, of course, it was all worthwhile. the 360 degree views were magnificent.

I set the camera up to take a couple of selfies on the timer and then sat down to enjoy the views. Not long after, I was joined by a couple for whom English was not their first language. Nevertheless, I gave and got a cheery ‘morning’ and after they’d taken the obligatory selfies, they left me to my seclusion again.

It had taken me 90 minutes to reach the end of Worm’s Head and I had plenty of time before the causeway closed. Every year, people are stranded on the headland after leaving it too late and there are deaths as people try to cross when the tide is rising; there is a strong undercurrent that will easily knock you off your feet once the causeway is covered by water.

I strolled back, using the low level paths as the higher ones seemed to be congested with visitors to the headland. The wind was a little stronger as I reached the jagged rocks of the little causeway but for some reason travelling in this direction was easier. I could see a rough route that seemed smoother than the one I used earlier and so it was, although it took me quite close to the sheer drop on the north side of the headland. Then it was a simple walk down to the main causeway and the crossing back to the mainland.

Back on dry land, as it were, I stood and watched a group of people in the sea far below the cliff tops as they threw a frisbee back and forth. What fascinated me were the four  dogs in the water with them charging back and forth trying to get the frisbee. They seemed to be having enormous fun splashing and swimming around, judging by the barking and wagging of tails. On top of the cliffs, the path was filling up as more people spilled out of the car park and walked towards the headland.

I was glad to be going back to the car now there were crowds around as one of the draws of getting out for me is the solitude. I trudged back to the car, ready to jump in and drive off. But on my right was an ice cream van and I succumbed to the temptation of the siren call of the diesel generator keeping the ice cream cold. The perfect end to a walk on the Worm.

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