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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Heavy rain with a chance of getting soaked

The weather forecast said rain and that’s my excuse for having a lie- in. I say lie-in, of course I was up at 5.30am at the request of the boss for a quick sprint out into the drizzle before we both went back for another hour or so of kip.

The plan for today was to get some shopping done and then some chores around the house while the weather was bad. But as is the way with Welsh climate, when I got up for breakfast, the sun was shining. Breakfast and shopping over, there was no sign of rain so we had a brief discussion and Rufus decided we’d better head off to the hills to take advantage of the sun. Of course, as we left the house, it started to rain again but it’s only water so we hopped in the car and set off.

We went back to the river. We were there on Wednesday evening and as we wandered along the river bank, we were buzzed by an RAF Typhoon. This afternoon, there was no activity as we walked along the riverbank up towards Fan Brecheiniog. I had no firm plans for where to go and I thought we’d just wander and see where our noses took us.

Rufus’ nose took him into a deep pool and at first he was happy swimming about. But there was a strong current under the surface and I could see he was being swept off course. There was no real risk of him being swept away as the water left the pool in quite a narrow and shallow waterfall. But he wasn’t happy so I called him over to the bank. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make it to the shallow bit as the current was strong, so he tried to climb a steep part of the bank. Between us, we managed to get him out of the water; I dragged him up and on to me and he kicked out with his back legs. I was drenched! Rufus was happy.

We carried on and with the sun shining and a breeze keeping the temperature comfortable, we headed up the hill towards Llyn y Fan Fawr. After the last day’s rain, the going was extremely soggy but we finally made it to the shore. We haven’t been there for a while and it was nice to see it in the sunlight. We walked around the shore and while I threw stones for Rufus to chase and catch, he splashed about in the shallow water. The level of the lake was much lower than usual even with the heavy rain we had yesterday; I don’t think I’ve seen it that low.

By the time we’d made a complete circuit of the lake, the cloud was heading back over the mountain. As we set off to the car, the rain started; light at first but getting heavier as we went. The only good thing was that I had my back tot he direction of the wind, which was gusting quite strongly. I was resigned to getting a soaking. Rufus was already wet from his dips in the river and the lake so he’d didn’t see the problem. About half way down the hill, the rain stopped and the sun came out again.

Back home, we both sat back on the sofa and there was much snoring!

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Penllergare

I belong to a camera club in work. And this morning, we had arranged for a visit to Penllergare woods, complete with a guided tour around the formal gardens. I’ve been going to the woods for years, first with Rufus before major restoration work had begun, and lately in my quest for a photograph of the Kingfishers. I’ve been interested in the history of the site but today was an opportunity to get some specific information about the places I’d walked. As it turned out, I discovered some new places, too.

We set off from the car park, past the cafe and down to the upper lake via the terraces. These are large steps in the hillside leading down from Penllergare House, the home of the Dillwyn Llewelyns, that were lined with ornamental urns. The view down to the upper lake, slowly being cleared of decades of silt and vegetation, were striking. Our guide explained that when they started clearing away the undergrowth, paths steps and stone lining started appearing and it was a process of discovery to see how the gardens had been laid out. Much of the work is restoration rather than creation and the aim is to have the gardens looking very similar to how they would have in the mid 19th Century.

We gathered around the waterfall for a photo shoot and were shown the new bridge, constructed from stone cut and laid by the project’s stone mason. Holes have been left in the stonework for birds to nest in. A short walk along the river bank brought us back to the top of the terraces, and the bridal way that once led from Cadle to Penllergare House.

Dillwyn Llewelyn was a keen photographer right at the start of photography, and he was related to Fox Talbot. This means that there are many contemporary images of the house and gardens which has helped enormously during the restoration work. He was also an astronomer and the remains of his observatory, where the first photograph of the moon was taken, is being restored as part of the Penllergare project.

A lot more information about the Penllergare site and the trust can be found on their official website.

A (much too) brief stop at the cafe for coffee and an excellent, locally made scone ended the morning. I found the tour fascinating and discovered some new places to explore the next time I visit.

I still didn’t see any Kingfishers, though.

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Run to the Hills

After some shorter walks of late, it was time for Rufus and I to head off to the hills. Neither of us had done much recently; I’ve been choosing woods and commons for our strolls so I can get some photos of the local wildlife, so the bigger hills were out. Instead, I decided to head off the Lly y Fan Fawr, a favourite of Rufus’ and sufficiently challenging to make a nice return to proper walking. As Rufus is getting on a little (don’t tell him I said so), I keep an eye on him to make sure he’s not overdoing things but he’s always been an active and fit hound, and he enjoys the outdoors.

I was disheartened to find sheep everywhere when we parked up. Rufus isn’t interested n sheep unless they run. Sheep are only interested in running when they see us. As a result, I always have Rufus on the lead when we’re near enough that he might chase them. For the first half hour, he was on and off the lead as we encountered sheep hiding in dips, skulking by the river and popping up from behind boulders. But in between, we were able to get some quality stone catching and dredging done. I am clearly improving in my stone throwing skills as Rufus didn’t have to bark once.

As we followed the river up the hill, the sheep disappeared and I was able to let Rufus roam. This is where I wanted to check to see if he was okay and not getting tired. I needn’t have worried. While he isn’t as fast as he used to be, he still has the energy to range across the hillside, occasionally stopping to make sure I’m ok. In fact, I found myself running out of puff and Rufus was coming back to urge me on.

On the way up, I saw a pair of bright purple flowers on their own and standing out against the green of the moorland. Not being a flower expert, I couldn’t identify them but they looked vaguely orchid-like to me. I snapped away until Rufus came to hurry me along.

It was boggy underfoot. No surprise there after our recent rainfall, so I was very quickly soaked. Rufus isn’t bothered by the water so I decided not to be either. After several close shaves, where I nearly disappeared into the bog (well, maybe not quite) the lake appeared ahead and Rufus was off. Fan Brecheiniog was capped by a blanket of cloud, as was the far end of the lake.

We didn’t stay long as a cool breeze was blowing, and without the sun to warm us up it was getting a little cold. Rufus shot off and I let him choose the path going back down. We meandered down the hill, always heading towards the river. Such are Rufus’ priorities. I got even more soaked than I was already but we quickly reached the upper streams that feed into the Tawe. Then we followed the water down, past sheep and waterfalls, towards the car.

On the way back, I spotted an odd looking flower and leaf on the rocks by a waterfall. The leaves looked like little troughs with curled edges and the flower was tiny, blue and four petalled.  I took a few photos and once again, Rufus came along to see what the delay was.

After some more stone catching, I had to put Rufus on the lead to pass another small flock of sheep. These all had pink heads (no drugs, just dye to identify the owners) and it reminded me of a walk here a few years ago where I came across lines of sheep with pink, green or blue dye. They all stayed together in their respective colours, but moved in one long line, following a path across the hill.

Above us, a red kit circled and swooped, probably watching the lambs. In the distance across the road, I could see three more. We reached the car without incident, having walked three miles in just under two hours.

Back home, I managed to identify the two flowers. The purple one was an Irish Marsh Orchid and the little purple one was a Common Butterwort. The Butterwort is carnivorous and traps insects in the curled leaves with a stick coating.

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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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4 hours

A day off these days means a day of hard work. This fortnight, I have to get in at least three 4 hour walks but I intend do fit in as many as I can. So, with Rufus comfortable on the back seat, we set off for Llyn y Fan Fach. It’s a long drive and we were bored by the time we reached the lanes leading to the car park. I hate driving along the single track roads but fortunately, we encountered nothing more than a couple of bold finches before we finally bounced and splashed our way down the track to the car park.

It didn’t take long to get set and head off and we weren’t bothered by the sheep, who scattered out of our way long before we reached them. One hid below the path but Rufus found her. She ran and in a display of self control Rufus just trotted back onto the path and ignored her.

By the time we reached the lake, the visibility had dropped and we were walking in the clouds. After a brief stop for stones and paddling, we set off along what looked like the right path up the side of the mountain. Although I was carrying 13kg today, it didn’t feel too bad. I guess the gym and other training I’m doing is paying off. As we climbed, the visibility dropped, but so did the temperature so the humidity we’d started in disappeared and it felt comfortable. There was a strong wind blowing over the lip of the drop down to the lake.

The climb was fairly constant – ideal for training – and continued until we reached the cairn at Picws Du. We stopped there for snacks and a rest before heading back down. Rufus was happy – we were heading back tot he lake and more paddling opportunities. On the way we passed a lone walker who remarked that we were fools to be on a mountain in these conditions and we both laughed. Later, we passed a group of Duke of Edinburgh award candidates, loaded down with all the gear and up for any challenge.

As we dropped down the clouds lifted and there was a hint of blue sky. At the lake, it was warm and clear and we spent 10 minutes or so splashing about. Then, with a promise to Rufus of a visit to the river, we walked down the track and back to the car.

After dropping the pack off, I took Rufus back up to the river and while he paddled and swam after the stones I threw him, I took some photos of the waterfalls. Tired, we called it a day and drove back down the track. At the end, where it becomes a road again, I was stopped by a farmer who asked if I would wait while her sheep were brought down the lane. To have gone on would have meant getting blocked and disturbing the sheep. So I waited, and we chatted. They were moving their sheep from pastures several miles away to the farm near the lake and this flock were new ewes and lambs, so they didn’t know where they were going. Once the sheep had passed, she thanked me and I drove on. Not 10 minutes later, I was stopped by another farmer, this time herding cows across the road. Again we waited a few minutes and then were able to carry on.

We were glad to get home, to eat and to finally be able to put our feet up. Rufus was flat out asleep on my lap as soon as I’d finished dinner and stayed there for a couple of hours, snoring, dreaming and then squirming to make himself more comfy.

Today we did 11km and climbed more than 600m in around 4 hours.

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Dave and Rufus’ lads week day 6 – The lake below the small mountain

Llyn y Fan Fach (the lake below the small mountain) is one of my favourite locations. It’s hard to find – I used to get lost when trying to drive to it because all the lanes around look the same. Even today, as I was driving towards the mountains, I wasn’t sure I was on the right road until I got to the rough track that leads to the little car park. Llyn y Fan Fawr, it’s companion lake just over the far ridge, is easier to drive to although the walk across rough moorland is a little tougher.

We left the car park at about 8.30 and headed up a rough track to a trout farm and beyond it to a dam and a small rescue shelter. It’s a long and steady slog up to the dam, uphill all the way with no respite. Great training. By the time I got to the shelter, Rufus had gone inside to have a look around so I made my way over tot he dam and waited for him. Water fascinates and calls to Rufus, so it was only a matter of moments before he joined me and we had a happy 10 minutes splashing about in the lake. Llyn y Fan Fach is a glacial lake cupped by the mountains of Bannau Sir Gaer. Rufus barking at my lack of stone throwing skills echoed around the mountains and for several minutes, there were many Rufuses all requiring a stone to be thrown.

The path up onto Bannau Sir Gaer starts from the lake, and climbs steadily until it reaches the high point of Picws Du. We set off and the many sheep in our way parted as we moved. Once again, Rufus showed no interest in them and lead the way. We came upon the first of a series of cairns built to indicate the path and lead walkers away from the treacherous edge which was crumbing in places.

It was a grey old day but I could see Foel Fawr, another of our regular hills, in the distance to the west. To the east, as we reached the top of Picws Du, was Fan Brecheiniog. But that wasn’t for today. Later in my training schedule, I’ll be doing the two lakes in one circular walk.

It was windy at the top, and threatening rain, so we turned around and made our way down to the lake again. The steady downhill path was most welcome and we were down in no time. There was many more echoing barks and stones thrown before we set off past the trout farm and back to the car park. There was time for a paddle int he river and a few photos of the wagtails before the rain set in, and we left for home.

Our route.

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One more mountain to climb

At last, all the elements came together and when Rufus woke me up at 5.30 this morning, we got ready to head off to the hills. The weather forecast said mist but crucially, not rain. So with snacks, water, extra layers, map and compass packed, we set off for the old Trecastle road and our first proper mountain of 2013.

Leaving the car, the mist was down and visibility was probably no more than 50 yards. But we’ve done this walk in worse conditions and so I wasn’t worried. Rufus was happy – he’d be fine in any conditions – and so we set off along the riverside. No stopping for stones this morning. The goal was to get to Llyn y Fan Fawr and see what the morning was like before climbing Fan Brecheiniog. My only concern was that I hadn’t let Rufus get enough exercise over the last couple of weeks and that he might over do things. He tends to run everywhere and probably covers twice the distance I do on any given walk. As this one included several hundred metres of ascent, I wanted to be sure he’d be okay.

Of course I needn’t have worried. He out walked me on the slog up to Llyn y Fan Fawr, he chased stones, dredged them up from the lake bed and leapt after them when I threw them for him to catch. If I hadn’t been carrying the snacks and treats, I think he would have gone off and walked the circumference of the lake while waiting for me to have a breather!

Fan Brecheiniog wasn’t visible in the mist. Neither was the start of the steep path up its side or the far end of the lake. But we set off anyway. It felt great to be back on a proper mountain again. Fan Nedd was good, but the climb is only a few minutes and at the top you can see all the bigger mountains of the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountain, all tempting you to go there instead.

Half way up the initial climb, the wind started blowing and it got steadily stronger and colder. Although the mist wasn’t wetting, it condensed on the left lens of my glasses and made the visibility even worse. But before too long, we were over the worst of the climb and into the bwlch. The wind was stronger, but the slope was more gentle.

It’s a short, flat walk to the second climb and although that one is steep, it is short. In less than 10 minutes we were on the ridge above the lake, walking on flat stones that carry the remnants of what look like metal railing embedded into them. I’ve always wondered where they come from. Then, out of the mist loomed the little shelter and beyond that, the trig point. As Rufus hasn’t been near a steep drop recently, I put him on the lead for a bit until we could walk away from the edge. The wind was behind me now and with clear glasses, I could see the path ahead. In no time, we were at the cairn of stones at the far end of the ridge, at Fan Foel.

It was too cold to stay long at the cairn. I set the camera to take a photo on self timer and Rufus obliged by standing near me. Then we decided to head back down to the water. In the past when we’ve been in mist, Rufus has wandered off as we descend, disappearing for several minutes in search of some elusive scent. It scares me and I worry so I’ve taken to keeping him on the lead for the little section leading down to the first steep descent. Once past that, he was off to do his own thing – he tends to run around, then stop and watch me as I slowly make my way down the crumbling rock, always conscious of my 48 year old knees.

At the lake we took a break to allow my knees to stop burning and to allow Rufus to expend more energy. Stones were thrown, caught and dredged once more before we set off down to the river and the car. Of course, the mist chose this moment to start to lift and before long we were under blue sky, The sun still hid behind cloud, and the mountain was shrouded in mist but it was more pleasant walking. I like to see where I’m going.

At the car, I dried Rufus’ paws off and he jumped into the car. He was flat out on the back seat before I’d started the engine. I think he enjoyed. I certainly did.

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Llyn y Fan Fach

Llyn y Fan Fach means ‘Small lake beneath the hilltop’. Hundreds of years ago, the story goes, a shepherd fell in love with a fairy from beneath the waters of the lake. They married against all odds but he had to promise that he wouldn’t strike her more than three times., Of course, he did and she disappeared beneath the water again, leaving the shepherd to bring up his three sons on his own. The sons became the first of the famous Physicians of Myddfai.

I love this little lake but I’m not so keen on the approach through narrow lanes, then narrower lanes and finally a rough farm track with huge potholes and large protruding rocks. The one good thing is that very few people will come across the little car park by accident and the area will remain unspoilt. Walking up the path, past the fish farm, it was quite noticeable and very welcome that there was a complete lack of litter.

At the dam, we sat and had coffee while Rufus scampered about, dipping his paws in the water despite it being very cold. Last time we were all here, it was blowing a gale and we turned back from the top of Picws Du as icy sleet was blowing in our faces. We ended up taking refuge in the rescue shelter by the dam. This time the weather was much kinder.

After a short break, we carried on up until we reached the top of the mountain. By now the ground was white with frost and the wind had turned decidedly sharp and bitter. The sun was going down to our right but the views from the top were magnificent., The air was clear and the visibility went on for miles.

Then it was time to go and we made short work of the descent. A quick coffee at the dam and before long we were back at the car. The track was just as rough going in the opposite direction.

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