A walk in the wild wood

I let Rufus off the lead and stopped to listen. At first, other than his gentle snuffling as he explored the scents I could hear nothing. But as my senses adjusted to my surroundings I started to hear the subtle sounds of the woods. Off to my left there was a rustling as blackbirds foraged through the leaves. Above them, in the skeleton branches their smaller cousins called warnings as we made our way further into the trees. In the distance, a dog barked on a farm.

To my right a stream trickled and whispered over stones and fallen branches. In folklore, streams and waterfalls are supposed to be magical places where the fairies gather, and if you listen hard enough you can hear them calling softly. Listen the next time you’re near a small waterfall, and as long as there is no one else around, you’ll hear them too.

Although there was no wind, there was a lot of movement. Blackbirds taking off stirred the leaves around them into little splashes of yellow, while other leaves dropped to carpet the path in a bright orange or brown layer. Every now and then Rufus would pop out from behind a tree or bush before disappearing again as he found some new smell to investigate. We turned off the main path to walk alongside the stream. Above, the canopy of leaves got thicker as if autumn hadn’t quite made it here yet. Rustling in the branches led to showers of leaves either side of us as we moved; the squirrels were keeping pace with us but remaining out of sight.

Every now and then as we walked, a bright patch of yellow leaves still attached to their trees seemed to glow against the sky, defying the brown decay around them. Green moss coated the tree trunks and ivy climbed up and around where the moss allowed it. The sound of an aeroplane flying high above on its way to Heathrow battered its way into our little world which, until now, had been free of man-made intrusions other than us.

Beneath our feet, the mud thickened and spread out to block out path. So reluctantly, we turned about and made our way back through the trees and out onto a misty Fairwood Common.

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Mountain and lake – outdoor photography

By Rufus.

As you may be aware if you have read my previous blogs, I am developing as a photographer. (Developing, photography – ha ha! See what I did there?) Dave, my human, has decided that I am well enough to wear my camera harness again and this weekend I was able to get out and work on some ideas for landscape photographs I’ve been thinking about.

Yesterday, I got him to drive me to Garreg Lwyd, the site of an old quarry and one of the places we frequent often. I wanted to test my fitness, but I also knew that of the weather was nice there would be some opportunities for sweeping landscapes and possibly some cloud photos too. It was great to get out for a proper walk after the last few weeks, and I know Dave is in desperate need of the exercise to get him back to his mediocre level of fitness so he can take me for decent walks again. Garreg Lwyd is a mountain with a proper climb but it’s not too strenuous.

It was a gorgeous morning and there were plenty of tell tale scents of rabbits and foxes. We used a slightly different and steeper path but it didn’t take us long to get to the top. I managed to get some nice shots of the few clouds we saw. We walked for quite a while and I felt great and every time I checked on Dave, he seemed to be enjoying himself too.

Today, we went for another walk on the hills. I’d heard Dave mutter something about The Lake and although it’s quite a trek, I felt up to it. I only hoped he would be fit enough, too, and that he wouldn’t over do things. Sure enough, we set off towards Fan Brecheiniog and for a few minutes I wondered if we would end up climbing it. But I think that would have been a little too ambitious for both of us.

The sky was cloudless and the sun warmer than yesterday. I still have my late winter coat on so I welcomed the breeze which blew in now and again, and it was nice to dip my paws in the streams as we crossed them.

At one point I smelt a familiar aroma and went to investigate the dead thing it came from. I’m thinking of a creating a set of photos illustrating the fickle nature of fate and the fleeting moments we have on this planet. A dead cow would be ideal. Imagine my amusement to see Dave huffing and puffing his way up the hill towards me. I think he was jealous I’d had the idea before him. I managed to get one shot before he dragged me away. He has no concept of art.

The water of the lake was most welcome to my hot paws, and we walked around to the northern end where we sat and basked in the sun for a while. I found more bones and tried to set them up for photos, but Dave kept taking them off me. He just doesn’t get it!

On the way back, Dave carried my camera for me (he has his uses) and I roamed across the moorland. It was great to be able to run about. I think I put Dave to shame because I kept having to stop and wait for him to catch up. He tries his best but he is getting on a bit.

I’ve included some of his photos here too, other wise he’d get upset.

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First snow

Up at the crack of dawn this morning – which wasn’t hard as at the moment the sun rises around 8.20. But we were up before that and after a swift breakfast and a glance out of the window to see that all was well with the weather, we were off. With bad weather, I prefer to stay local so we don’t waste time travelling when we should be taking advantage of the dry conditions. Today, though, we headed north as the [prevailing weather was coming from the south. With the suggestion of heavy showers and possibility of thunder, we made our way towards Foel Fawr and Garreg Lwyd. No mountain today, but the hills surrounding the quarry would be ideal for some black and white photography I had in mind.

By the time we’d passed puffing cyclists on the long and winding hill climb of a road, I could see a light dusting of snow at our destination and the temperature gauge in the car was dropping towards the zero centigrade mark. Slush covered the road and for a few minutes I missed my Freelander. By the time we got to the car park, the sleet had started and we spent 10 minutes sitting out the snow shower, watching the black clouds roll over and blot out the last of the blue sky. But there were no rumbles of thunder and as the shower passed, we set off towards the quarry workings.

The ground was white underfoot and the snow thick enough to start to collect in Rufus’ paws. It balls on his pads if I’m not careful but I kept an eye on him and he was having no trouble as he sped off. I was taking my time and taking some photos and he was already bored. I wished I’d brought my walking gear rather than just the camera bag as the morning was turning into a lovely one despite the clouds around. But instead, I decided to use this as a reconnaissance trip for more photography, as there were several waterfalls and outcrops of rock that would make for good subjects in early morning light.

At one point, Rufus got so fed up with waiting for me that he sat between me and the waterfall I was taking pictures of and refused to move until he’d had a treat. So I packed the camera away and we walked on for a bit until the snow started again. It was light at first but got heavier and when I looked up, the tops of the hills had disappeared beneath a low cloud go snow. Not prepared for really bad weather, it was time to turn back. We squelched and squished our way back over bog and little streams until we reached the little car park and the shelter of the car.

I’ve always liked this location but I find it hard to make anything of it photographically. It really does benefit from unusual weather conditions; we’ve been here a number of times when there has been thick snow on the ground, and the lighting conditions make a huge difference. I’m looking forward to getting back there again.

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The Mountain of the Small Cairn and the Graigola Seam

First of all, a warning. There are two photographs of a spider at the end of this blog. Its a small one, and being on this blog, it can’t jump out and get you. Or can it?

An extended walk was long overdue. Both Rufus and I needed to stretch our legs, get rid of the cobwebs and head out into the countryside. So early this morning, we headed north to Brynllefrith and the hills surrounding it. Today, I decided to avoid the plantation itself, figuring that with all the rain we’d had recently, it would be one long, muddy path with added marsh. Instead, we headed north a little way before striking off west on Mynydd y Gwair and on to Mynydd Garn Fach. It was a grey morning when we set off but the cloud was high and there was a chance it might clear.

Underfoot, it was as wet as I had expected and we splashed along a very faint track left by quad bikes. Rufus ranged far and wide and on one pass by me, I noticed he had a passenger. I always keep an eye out for things on his coat, mainly to remove any ticks (although these are hard to spot). But this time, he had a spider on his head. It was a garden spider and it seemed to be quite happy riding along for free. Rufus must have brushed through it’s web on his wanderings. I’m not good with spiders, but I decided to remove this one and somehow I managed to catch it in my hand, where it retracted it’s legs and waited to see what I’d do. After grabbing a quick arachnid portrait, I set it down in a clump of grass.

After that encounter, I became aware of a lot of webs, mainly floating about and which I felt rather than saw. As we went on, they brushed up against my hands and I even found part of a web and a small spider in my hair. There were a lot of flying insects around too, which would account for the webs – an abundance of free food had obviously attracted the arachnid population.

The quad bike track turned into more of a rough path as it merged with St Illtyd’s Walk, a long distance path that stretches from Margam Abbey to Pembrey Country Park. We followed in the saint’s footsteps for a while, crossing the River Lliw (here a mere stream) before climbing the small hill of Mynydd Garn Fach (the mountain of the small cairn). We spiralled our way to the top by taking an anti-clockwise route around to the west and south. There are the remains of old mine workings here and the views from the top of the hill can be spectacular in clear weather. Although it was cloudy, the visibility was good and I could see all the way to Port Talbot and Swansea Bay.

We lingered a while at the top, with a great view of what is left of Brynllefrith and the Upper Lliw reservoir to the east, and Mynydd y Gwair and the distant wind farm to the north. Several years ago the wind farm was planned to be sited on Mynydd Y Gwair and there was a concerted effort by locals to oppose it. They were successful and the hill remains free of turbines. Part of the reason for not building here was the extensive mine workings discovered during the geographic and geological survey done in the area. Birchrock colliery further down the Dulais Valley was the site of several shafts exploiting the Swansea 5ft seam and the Graigola seam, which was accessed via horizontal shafts or adits, some of which can still be seen. There was a substantial risk of subsidence from the old workings, and of landslips where the Graigola seam reached the surface.

We didn’t know about the subsidence risk as we tramped all over the summit of Mynydd Garn Fach and instead we set off back down one of the tracks that lead from a mine adit on the east side of the hill back towards the River Lliw. Fortunately, we didn’t fall down any holes in the ground and made it safely to the waterlogged moorland opposite Brynllefrith. My car came into view while we were still a mile or so away and I noticed another car parked close to it. Wary of such things after my adventures on Fairwood Common, I checked through my telephoto lens but there was no sign of anyone nearby. But as we walked parallel to the woods on my right, I heard banging sounds that could have been from a shotgun. There are foxes in the woods, although I haven’t seen them since the tress were chopped down, so I hoped it wasn’t to do with them. I spotted someone in the woods wearing a red jacket and instinct made me take a picture. Looking at the photo (below) after, I could make out three men and a car with it’s door open. The car would be on a mud filled path so I’m not sure if it was stuck and they were trying to recover it.

As we neared the car, the first big blobs of rain fell and just as we reached the car, the rain started for real. We just managed to avoid a soaking.

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River

Back to the river today. I am drawn to it by the photographic possibilities of so many little waterfalls and streams. Rufus just wants to be in the water, and catch or dredge for stones in it.

The stretch of the Tawe near it’s source, when it is still young and not really sure what it wants to be, is one of my favourite places to go. In the winter, it can be desolate in the snow and mist. In the spring and autumn, it can surprise with beautiful conditions like today, or it can be windswept and bleak. In the summer, it can be packed with tourists or if I’m early and lucky, quiet and still. A stone circle stands above the river, watching over it. In the distance, a standing stone directs people to the circle, and the path that has always existed through this valley.

There is a variety of wildlife on offer. I’ve have seen Red Kites wheeling in the sky and Pied Wagtails flying low along the course of the river. Many years ago I saw a Weasel or Stoat on the river bank but I wasn’t able to get a photograph. In addition to the inevitable sheep and lambs, there are horses and very occasionally, cows. Lizards squirm through the marshy ground near the riverbanks.

Ever since I started bring Rufus up here, he has loved playing in the water. He swims when it’s warm enough but he is mostly content to paddle or jump between stepping stone boulders. He enjoys chasing the stones I throw for him, as I’ve mentioned numerous times before.

I find the whole area very photogenic. I never tire of wandering the riverbanks with a camera and taking on the challenges it suggests. This morning, I took long exposure photos of the river, black and white shots of the valley and some close ups of Rufus (a challenge all of its own as he is rarely still). Then I watched as the wagtails flew around and I tried to capture them in flight, unsuccessfully. Finally, as we reached the car, I took a lovely shot down the valley.

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Just a little bit further

Yesterday was the last decent day, weather-wise, that would fit in with my training plan. I intend to wind down in the last week, concentrating on gym/cardio/aerobic exercise in a controlled environment to minimise the risk of injury. So Rufus and I headed out to Fan Llia. I had an idea that we’d walk Fan Llia and Fan Dringarth and then drop down to the east side of the Ystradefllte reservoir to make our way back to the car.

At the stile, Rufus struggled a little to get over so I gave him a helping hand. I may have helped a little too much, or he may have slipped but the next thing I knew, he was going head over heels to land in the mud on the other side. I jumped over but by the time I’d got to him, he was up, shaking himself down and wagging his tail. I kept an eye on him but there were no limps or winces, and we climbed steadily through mist and wind to the cairn on Fan Llia. There was a little drizzle but also a little sunshine as the clouds blew rapidly across the mountain. By the time we’d reached Fan Dringarth, the cloud was lifting again and there were large patches of blue sky.

Much to Rufus’ surprise (as he knows our normal route north well) I turned west to head down to the Nant y Gasseg and Nant y Gwair streams which join to form the Afon  Dringarth which feeds the reservoir. He was confused for a moment, and then he spotted the river, and there was no stopping him. I had to watch where I was stepping because of half buried rocks but every time I looked up, there was a small black shape bounding towards the water. By the time I reached the river, Rufus was wading and waiting for me. I threw stones stones and a stick for him to chase and he was a happy dog.

This little valley, Cwm Dringarth, has signs of habitation going back hundreds of years if not further. I saw the remains of sheep folds and other rough drystone structures. There were obvious and not so obvious flattened platforms that once formed the base of dwellings for those farming in the valley. It must have been a bleak and hard life in the valley, although it;s likely that the climate was a little better and, of course, the reservoir wasn’t there and so access would have been much easier.

The going along the side of the valley was tough for me as I had to avoid the river itself and negotiate many little streams that had cut deep into the hillside. I seemed to be climbing up and down all the time, while Rufus used the riverbank and riverbed to make smooth progress. Walking on a slope was hard too; my feet were always at an angle and my left leg was slightly lower than my right. Between us, we managed to make our way along the valley, through mud and bog, until we reached the reservoir.

It was fenced off, which was very disappointing for Rufus who looked longingly at the water through the railings. But eventually, he realised a dip was not to be and carried on, only occasionally glancing across to see if there was a convenient gap in the fence. Streams coming down from the hills were in full spate after the rain and they had cut deep channels in the soft earth. Each had places where sheep had created crossings, but slipping and sliding down and back up again was hard going.

Eventually, we reached the dam at the head of the valley, and this was where in the past I’d crossed over to start the long climb back up to the cairn on Fan Llia. This time, the plan was to head on south, climbing more gradually as we went. By now, the blue skies we’d had for a while were beginning to cloud over again and with the prospect of more storms in the afternoon, we were at the right part of the route; nearly at the car.

False summits can be demoralising if you aren’t expecting them. I had an idea that the summit of the ridge ahead wasn’t the final one and I was right, so it wasn’t too disappointing. But as we got to it, the rain started. Light at first, it became heavier as we reached the real summit and started the last stretch down to the car park. Here the going was treacherous, with saturated ground beneath my feet running with water. I know from experience that this is slippery so I was very careful as I made my way down. Looking up, I saw Rufus disappearing into the reeds in the distance. I wasn’t worried but I wondered if he’s get lost and I’d have to call him to the stile. I decided to cross the fence early, at a point where some inconsiderate farmer has chained a gate shut. As I stepped onto the wooden platform leading to the gate, my feet went from under me on the slimy wood. I fell sideways to my left and managed to tear a fingernail off, bend another one back as I landed on my left hand. I lay on the wood and in slow motion, Rufus’ lead (an extending one, with a big plastic reel) flew around and hit my forehead. I may have sworn.

Giving up on the gate, I made my way down to the stile, where Rufus met me and proceeded to show me how crossing a stile should be done. Back home, we were both tired and when I checked the route, I found we’d walked 10km and climbed 400m, which was more than I had estimated. It was a good final workout for me, and judging by the near constant tail wagging during the walk, an enjoyable day for Rufus.

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Late start (by Rufus)

Dave was snoring during the night which was probably why I didn’t have a great night. It was warm, too and despite the windows being open, I found it difficult to get comfy. I expect my appointment with my hair stylist tomorrow will help with that. Anyway, I woke Dave at about 6.30 and then again at around 6.45 and 7am. He finally relented (after I’d climbed up to nudge him several times) at 7.30.

The garden was still there, and apart from several interesting scents (I’ve heard Dave mention a fox and there was a cat in the garden last night), all was present and correct. We breakfasted and then I decided to have a nap on the sofa. When I woke again, Dave was watching rubbish on the TV. He has a tendency to do that if I’m not careful and so I let him know that the garden needed patrolling again, and that we really ought to get out and have some exercise. (His tummy is comfy to lie on but not healthy for him).

He drove me out to the river and although it looked quite cloudy and miserable on the hills, I guessed we’d be heading for lower down today. Dave goes on about his knee but it seems okay to me. Nevertheless, he is taking it easy at the moment. We walked along the river for a while and I was very pleased to see that he has learnt to throw stones quite skilfully now.  He still has the habit of stopping to take photos but I can usually  tell when that is going to happen, and if he gets too carried away I let him know by standing in front of the camera.

We left the river and headed along an old sheep trail that climbed up the side of the hill. Not ideal, as we were moving away from the water, but I could see the river down below, so we were never going to be too far away. The sheep scattered. They don’t like me and quite frankly, I don’t like them as they get in the way and make silly noises. The path was narrow and slippery at points, especially when we were walking over rocks. There was some mud too, but I was careful to avoid that. I don’t like the idea of a shower when we get home.

Eventually, we got to the top of the hill and it was flat going. Dave sped up and once I’d spotted a small stream, so did I. I got there first (I usually do) and was waiting for him for ages. I stood by a waterfall, as I knew he’d get distracted by it and would forget to throw stones for me. But he was very good and remembered. In fact, he was so into throwing stones for me that he didn’t see his camera and tripod fall over, and I had to point it out to him with one of my best stares. He was very good and didn’t swear.

We alternated between stone throwing and picture taking, which is by far the best way to do it. I didn’t have to remind him too often; he is learning fast. We could have stayed there all day (if he’s brought food with him) but before long the clouds started to gather and it looked like we were going to get soaked. So we both decided the best move was to head back towards the car. As we left the stream, the clouds were coming down so where we had been was quickly hidden by mist. It reminded me of yesterday, when I’m sure Dave got lost again.

We stayed out of the mist by descending, fortunately right down to the main river, where Dave sat to rest his weary bones (so he calls them) while he threw stones for me to chase and catch. Then we made our way back to the car, where I let Dave drive while I dozed in the back. I must have done loads as he had to wake me up when we got to the house!

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