Above the clouds

The plan today was to head out to the hills. Fan Brecheiniog was my goal and I decided that as Rufus had been looking and feeling fit recently, I’d take him along too. It was a beautiful, cloudless morning as we set off and for most of the journey. But, typically, as we reached the little car park at the start of the path, cloud had descended and it looked like a grim and grey walk lay ahead. Visibility was down to a few tens of yards as we set off and I was fully prepared to turn back if it didn’t show any signs of clearing.

It was wet underfoot and we squelched our way along. There was no wind and it wasn’t cold under the insulating layer of cloud. We made good progress and soon reached the river, and crossed it to reach the start of the main slope up to Llyn y Fan Fawr. I’ve walked this route many times before and several times in thick mist, like it was today. I’m confident in being able to find the lake but I usually end up taking a roundabout route if the visibility is poor. Today was no exception; I felt we’d veered off to the south as we climbed the slope. In the past, I’ve missed the lake complete by going too far south and almost bumped into the steep side of Fan Hir. So today, I veered back to the north a little.

In the silence, I could hear the faint sound of a helicopter which quickly got louder until it was clear that it was hovering over Fan Brecheiniog. It made several passes before finally heading off again. I didn’t see it but the idea that it could fly close to the mountain made me hope that as we climbed the mist would clear.

Eventually, I reached the edge of a steep slope where I wasn’t expecting one. Mist blocked the view down the slope but I had an idea we had gone too far south again, so we turned north and followed a clear path. Then I saw Rufus heading down the slope! Before I could stop him, he stopped at the lake edge, which I only noticed by the ripples he made in the water. I had been walking along the lakeside because the mist had made it look like a void. We were no more than 10 feet above the water. Now I knew where we were, I headed back to the path that led to the top of Fan Brecheiniog. In all this mist, I had only been about 20 yards out.

At the end of the lake, I stopped to talk to a guy who had been camping and was just getting ready to go. We chatted for quite a while and he told me he’d seen several people climbing Fan Brecheiniog during the night. Some shift workers had gone up and come down in time to start their morning shift. He’d heard the helicopter too, and had caught a glimpse of it when the mist cleared a little. He thought it was the Coastguard looking for a day walker that hadn’t returned. All the time Rufus wandered about enjoying the opportunity to explore but we were getting cold while we weren’t walking so we said goodbye and headed off to the start of the staircase up to the top.

Rufus seemed fine and keen to go so I decided we would make the effort. We could always turn back at any time. As we climbed slowly up the path, I felt as if the mist was thinning a little but the visibility was still poor. Then, as we started on the final pull to the top, I spotted blue sky above and within seconds, we had burst out of the mist layer and we were looking down on the tops of the clouds.

If you’ve ever flown you’ll know that feeling of being above the clouds in perpetual sunlight. It was a wonderful feeling; all the better for us having made our own way here rather than by plane! The sun was strong but so was the wind on the top of the hill and it got much colder very quickly. But the 360 degree views were stunning. To the north and east, there was nothing but cloud below us. To the south, a hazy mist made the hills leading to the coast fade into the distance. To the west, the views were clear across the Black Mountain and beyond. I stopped to talk to one walker there and we tried to identify all the hilltops we could see.

To the east, Pen y Fan and Corn Du poked their heads just above the clouds and it felt as if you could swim in the cloud between them. We walked on to the cairn at Foel Fawr as we neared the cairn at the end of the ridge, cloud was being blown up the side of the hill and over the path. Small patches of snow remained on the top and they had frozen overnight. We crunched our way through and finally got to the cairn. It was such a different day to the one we had set out in. From a black and white world to one full of colour within an hour, and it did so much to lift my spirits after a long, damp slog through the mud and marsh below.

After a rest and some photos, we reluctantly turned around to make our way back to the car. As I type, there is much snoring coming from a tired hound.

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A walk in the woods

In the quest for the perfect misty woods photo every opportunity has to be taken advantage of. No matter how wet and muddy I’ll end up getting, it will be worth it. Or so Rufus told me this morning when I looked out of the window at the mist and drizzle and contemplated another day indoors. Of course Rufus didn’t actually say that to me. To imply that he can talk would be silly. No, he used his Jedi mind tricks to ensure that I knew that going out to Gelli Hir woods this morning was the right thing to do.

Gelli Hir is an ancient woodland, which means it is has been in existence since the 17th Century, probably longer. In the middle there is a pond which hosts ducks and dragonflies and boasts its own little hide. As you walk from south to north you pass through the oak and willow to one dominated by sycamore and beech. This place is one of my favourite woodland areas, with plenty of birdsong doing its best to drown out the occasional aeroplane from nearby Fairwood airport. In the spring, a carpet of bluebells fills the southern part of the wood. It’s always wet and muddy and all you have to worry about is how wet and muddy this time.

We set of in thick mist and the prospect of some lovely soft mist swirling around the old, twisted trees had me picturing what kind of photos I was aiming for. Too often I am guilty of not really visualising in advance and while sometimes I enjoy the spontaneity, I know I will get better results applying a bit of thought in advance. It’s one of the things I’m trying to get into the habit of doing.

We left the main path almost immediately and stepped into the mud and leafy mulch. It would be more accurate to describe the first 100 yards or so as marshland rather than path and we both splashed and squelched through, all the while getting wetter as water dripped from the leaves. And the atmospheric mist swirling around the trees? Nope! For some reason, there was next to no mist in the woods. We had dropped down slightly from the level of the moor when we left the main road and I hadn’t noticed. Rufus wasn’t worried and he enjoyed the myriad of new scents and aromas as he dashed back and forth, making sure he also sampled all of the mud.

In the distance, cows called to each other and it was eerie in the silent woods. For some reason, there were no birds singing and the mist helped to deaden any other sounds. Apart from the cows, all I could hear were out footsteps and the drips of water from the trees. Everything was a lush green with the recent rain, even in the dull grey light of an overcast morning. But still no mist.

We emerged from the woods back on to the main path and almost immediately reached the pond. A couple of moorhens were surprised to see us and disappeared with much flapping and splashing into the reeds. Two ducks remained calm and aloof and just kept an eye on us as we passed. A little further on, we climbed a small but steep hill and surprised a buzzard. Before I could even reach for my camera, it had spread its wings and flown off between the trees. Shortly afterwards, I started to hear birdsong again.

With little prospect of the beautiful misty woods I’d envisioned, we set off back to the car. Out of the woods, I grabbed a bag and we did a #2minutelitterpick along the road back to the main road. Looking back from the junction, the woods were shrouded in a thick mist. In around 10 minutes, I managed to remove plastic bottles, glass bottles and food wrappers discarded by the side of the road. Most of what I picked up was recyclable. Its a shame that people can’t be bothered to do a simple thing like take their rubbish home with them.

Back home, Rufus was so muddy that a shower was required and no amount of Jedi mid trickery prevented it from happening. We’d done more than two miles through the woods and so while Rufus dried out on the sofa (which involved a lot of snoring), I set off down the road to the local graveyard as I’d had a few ideas about capturing black and white images of the gravestones in the overgrown site.

When I was a kid, my gran lived opposite this graveyard and whenever we stayed with her, which was often, I’d sleep in the room overlooking the graves. It never bothered me and still doesn’t. I find graveyards fascinating; the inscriptions on the headstones are very much of their time and a lot can be read into the style of words and design. This graveyard has become very overgrown in recent months and while it’s a shame that some of the graves have all but disappeared beneath brambles and tall grass, it also makes for interesting photographs.

Many of the graves had collapsed completely, or were not far from doing so. A couple of the taller headstones were leaning so much that I was wary of going too close. Other graves were marked by simple wooden crosses that remained upright and betrayed their age through weathering. I always look for the distinctively simple military headstones and there were only two. One was from 1915, a ‘Serjeant’ Evans of 6th Btn, the Welsh Regiment. (I looked it up and found that the 6th Btn was sent to the Western Front in 1915). The other (Webb) was from 25 years later, in 1940. I couldn’t find out much about him other than the regiment was in the Western Desert at that time. He was 42 when he was killed, so he would have been 17 when Evans was killed and the chances are Webb would have served in WW1 too.

A grey day weather wise, and grey describes how I feel after having researched these two soldiers.

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Broadpool

Rufus and I head off to Broadpool a lot. It’s within 20 minutes of the house (on a good day with little traffic) and it’s a beautiful environment. Occasionally we have to give it a miss if there are cows around and I tend not to stop there if there are horses or sheep as they can easily be spooked and end up on the road. But more often than not we can spend up to an hour wandering around the lake and over the common. The variety of wildlife there is surprising. Apart from the farm animals, we’ve spotted rabbits, ducks and a solitary lapwing. I try and avoid the pool when the heron is there as she gets a lot of visitors and is very nervous. There are swifts and swallows, tree pipits, long tailed tits and geese. I’ve watched a barn owl hunting at the end of the day and recently a kestrel has watched over us as we walk.

Last Sunday it was a beautiful morning and we were at the lake before 8.30. The sun was warm and golden, the sky cloudless and the water mirror smooth. In the distance, cows called as milking time approached. We set off from the car and I let Rufus wander. We were testing Rufuscam which you can read about in this post, and he got some nice photos. All the wildlife photos here are from that morning.

I was happy witch my photos too and you can see them below. But how things change. At around 4pm, I saw a thin sea mist coming in over Mumbles and I thought it would make a great photograph to catch it in the sunset light over Broadpool. So Rufus and I jumped in the car and off we went. By the time we reached the pool, the visibility was down to yards and there was no sign of the sun. We went for a short walk in the gloom, which sucked all the colour from the landscape. Although the photos I took were in black and white anyway, had I used colour the only difference would have been a slight blue cast.

For most of the walk the road was invisible and only the sound of traffic betrayed it’s presence. In the distance, the cows still called, along with sheep and horses. The familiar became unfamiliar. It’s what I like about Broadpool; there’s always something different.

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Kingfisher

With the hound temporarily grounded, I thought I’d pop out to do a little wildlife photography early in the morning. Wildlife doesn’t like Rufus, although as you can read here, Rufus loves wildlife. So If I’m out with him, the wildlife tends to run away and I’m left with photos whose titles are “Branch where the Heron was”, “Very blurred rabbit” and “Deer bums disappearing into the woods”.

One of my goals is to photograph the Kingfishers in Penllegare. I set the challenge last year and although I caught a glimpse of a pair several times, I never managed to get the camera near my eye, let alone a picture. Kingfishers are very nervous – I guess if you were dressed up in bright blue and orange and people kept pointing huge lenses at you, you’d be nervous too. They disappear with a shrill warning cry at the slightest hint of a photographer. So, resigned to a fruitless search with a blurred glimpse of blue and orange and a photograph with the title “Branch on which the Kingfisher perched”, I decided to try my luck once more. Just after dawn, with the birds still loudly celebrating the sunrise, I set off along the path by the lake at Penllegare.

I took some photos of the mist rising from the lake as the sun lit the tops of the trees. Whilst I was distracted by this landscape, a heron took off and flew lazily off towards the lower lake. I hoped this wasn’t a sign of things to come. I walked along the lake, then past the waterfall and down to the River Llan. This part of the river is shaded and there are a number of natural perches for Kingfishers to use while waiting to catch fish. It’s hard to approach this area covertly; I’d have to dress in camouflage gear and crawl.

It was cold out of the sun, and after about 20 minutes, I decided to turn back for the car and head off to Mumbles to try and catch the seals in the bay. I walked quite quickly back along the river and besides the lake. I was taking a few snapshots of the ducks when a movement caught my eye. A blue and orange movement. I looked up to see a small, brightly coloured bird sat on a branch across the lake. Fortunately, I was next to a tree and although it spotted me and flew up into the branches of a bush, it didn’t fly away completely. I slowly moved towards the tree, keeping the trunk between me and the Kingfisher and hoping it hadn’t disappeared.

As I peered around the trunk, camera and 300mm lens in hand, I couldn’t see the Kingfisher. I’d obviously scared it off. I thought it would be worth waiting a few minutes and so I stood motionless next to the tree with the camera hiding most of my face. I used the lens to scan the opposite bank and occasionally looked around in case it had appeared on my side of the lake. It would be somewhat annoying (to say the least) if the Kingfisher was sat next to me and I didn’t check.

After another scan, I looked back and there it was, back in the bushes. It was easy to make out with the naked eye as the colours clashed with the green of the foliage. I raised the camera slowly and started to take photos. The light levels were low as the sun hadn’t risen high enough to illuminate that side of the lake so I was shooting with the sensitivity of the camera dialled up to ISO3200. Even then, the shutter speed was low enough to risk camera shake, and with the sensitivity causing noise in the final image, I didn’t hold out much hope for usable pictures.

At one point, as I was watching with the camera down, the Kingfisher dived into the water and back out again. It was so quick I barely moved the camera. It shifted its perch to a larger branch closer to the water and I got some more images. It was great just watching this beautiful bird and eventually I stopped taking photos and just enjoyed the moment.

Suddenly, something disturbed the Kingfisher and it flew off – towards me. It disappeared behind reeds and grass off to my left and I slowly and silently made my way to where I thought it was. Even though I was anticipating it flying off again, it went so quickly that I was only able to get a couple of snap shots off and all of them show a blurred blue object low over the water.

Next time, I’ll be there with tripod and longer lens.

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How does the sun cut his hair?

Eclipse!

Sorry. Over the last few days, the weather has been good enough and the evenings just long enough for Rufus and I to head out to Cefn Bryn after work for a stroll. Every time, there has been a beautiful sunset. I love sunsets (I love sunrises even more). In many photographic circles, they are considered cliched and unworthy, but I don’t move in those circles and so I keep taking my cliches, and enjoying them too.

At sunset, things start to calm down.  Apart from traffic noise, which isn’t intrusive on Cefn once you are out of sight of the road, it gets quiet, and usually still as the wind drops. The light is less intense, shadows are longer and the orange glow makes things appear warmer than they really are. There has been a haze on the last few evenings which has the effect of softening colours and turning everything into pastel shades. And when the sun finally reaches the horizon, it is a deep red colour.

Staying with the sun, there was an eclipse on the 20th, and where I live the moon covered around 90% of the sun. With the help of a welder’s mask and a variable density filter (thanks Pete), I was able to view and get some photos. It was eerie as the skies slowly darkened and when I went to the window in the office, there was a great mix of people all standing to witness the event using a variety of filters, some of which seemed distinctly dodgy. But more importantly, it brought a load of people of all ages and roles together more effectively than any scheduled meeting.

Outside, it was chilly and the shadows were odd. Being used to sunsets coming from the west, it was odd to see the different direction of light as it faded. I can just imagine what the people from thousands of years ago must have thought when their source of heat and light disappeared. And the relief when it started getting warmer and brighter again.

Today, as a reward for behaving at the vet when he had his vaccinations (he always does, but today he had a couple of compliments on how well behaved he was and how healthy he looked), Rufus had two walks. We started off at Broadpool where we were watched intensely by a solitary Canada Goose, who called over and over again. But Rufus didn’t want to play. Then we headed on up to the River Tawe, where despite my best efforts to fall in the river while jumping across between rocks, we climbed up to the waterfalls on the west side of the valley. Compared to last week, when I could barely move from the sofa, I felt so much better. Add to that the warm sun, which made it feel like a summer’s day, and watching Rufus bounding between and over tufts of grass or paddling in the water, and it was a most enjoyable morning.

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Glove thing

I have a thing about gloves. Not a weird thing that will get me locked up or on some kind of register, or that would make you look twice at me before making an excuse to move several yards away. But I like a good pair of gloves. On the hills in winter, it’s important to have a decent pair of gloves, and a spare pair in case you lose one.

Lose one, you laugh, thinking back to your childhood when to stop that very thing from happening, string was attached to your gloves and fed through your coat so that even if the gloves wriggled off your hands, they dangled from your sleeve! Lose one, you giggle, knowing your gloves are always in your pocket if they’re not on your hands!

I have another thing about gloves. I often manage to lose one. The first time it happened, I was heading up Ben Lawers in a howling wind and in freezing conditions. Struggling with walking poles, doing my jacket up and keeping my hat firmly on my head, I managed to drop a glove on the path and despite several minutes of searching, I never found it. I kept my left hand in my pocket and managed to get to the top of my second Munro (and nearly got blown off the top, only stopping by hanging on to the trig point, but that’s a non-glove related story).

To satisfy my glove thing, I am often to be seen in outdoor clothing shops checking out the glove aisle. Friends laugh but they don’t understand the frequency with which I mislay these vital items of apparel. On all my treks, I have had at least three pairs of gloves (and this doesn’t include the liner gloves for the really, really cold days).

And the point of this blog entry? This morning, somewhere between Mynydd y Gwair and Brynllefrith, I lost a glove. And it was one of the decent ones I have, waterproof and lined but not too bulky. It had been to Everest Base Camp and to the top of Kilimanjaro.  I am not particularly sentimental, but this was a comfy glove that I’d had for a few years, and which I used as a yardstick for new gloves. Now it’s lying lost and alone in the mud on the hills above Swansea.

Tomorrow, I must head back to the outdoor shops to get another pair.

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Here, there and everywhere

If you’ve been following this blog then you may have picked up that I’m trying to capture an image (or many images) of trees in the mist. The forest I’m counting on to provide the goods is Brynllefrith Plantation, and it has featured in the blog several times. This weekend, the weather conditions seemed to be favourable for a nice early morning mist and as a bonus, we’d had some lovely sunrises too. The temptation to catch both was too good to miss.  We dragged ourselves out of bed and fuelled up with coffee, toast and, for Rufus, a ragout of beef and vegetables (he has better taste than I, and expects a different level of cuisine). Then we were out of the door and off to the woods.

Plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy. Ours didn’t. The sun rose behind a grey wall of cloud and only at the very last minute did a small, pinkish patch of sky appear briefly. The mist that should have been delicately entwining the trees didn’t materialise either. Instead, the grey sky produce a flat lighting that was very uncomplimentary. But it was ideal for macro work, so that’s what I started with.

As we walked into the forest along the rough track, cows called to one another from somewhere ahead. But their calls were strange and very unbovine-like. The still air and the tress made them sound alien and immediately reminded me of Jurassic Park. Who knows what dinosaurs really sounded like, but it was easy to imagine being in a world of giant monsters as the cows continued to call out.

The grey skies cleared and between the trees I could see hints of blue which very quickly became larger patches of blue. There was no chance of mist now, so I decided to move on somewhere else and give Rufus a change of scenery. He’s probably getting tired of Brynllefrith.

We ended up in Ferryside and by now the sun was shining and the day had become a lovely, almost summery one. We walked along the narrow stretch of sand that was all that was left as the tide came in. I tried checking on my phone whether the tide was turning but there was no signal. One look at the way the water was getting closer was all I needed and we had to make a rapid retreat back to the car park or risk getting stuck and having to walk along the railway lines, which follow the curve of the estuary.

On Sunday, I was determined to have another go at the mist and sunrise. So slightly later than Saturday, we set off back to Brynllefrith. This time we were rewarded with the latter stages of a beautiful sunrise over Cwm Clydach. There was a vague hint of mist but not enough for what I wanted. I like to pre-visualise photographs as it helps to concentrate the mind. In the past, photographic expeditions have degenerated into snap-shooting sessions with no direction or purpose. The danger with pre-visualisation, though, is that you can miss other opportunities in the quest for the one image.

With no sign of mist, and no likelihood either, we set off to explore the head of the Upper Lliw reservoir that snuggles up to the edge of the forest. It was mirror smooth in the still air of the early morning and although the colours were muted by the clouds, which had appeared after the sunrise, it was tranquil and beautiful. Rufus and I had fine time trying to find a path to the water’s edge without getting too muddy, or cut to pieces by the thorn bushes. Rufus was able to sneak underneath the bushes. I had to crash through them. We both survived and made it back to the car.

By now, the day was warming up as it had yesterday. So rather than head home, we set off for more adventures in the wilds. After a brief stop on Fairwood Common to get some photos of the mist rising in a small river valley, we headed on to Broadpool for a quick circumnavigation of the pool in the now warm mid morning.

Finally, it was back home for a belated breakfast and a snooze on the sofa.

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