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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Tudor Walls and a Sheep Rescue

In the true tradition of all good stories, I’ll keep you guessing about the title until the end.

Time for a nice long walk today – the weather forecast was looking good and I’d had an idea to drive down to Angle in Pembrokeshire to walk part of the coastal path there. I’ve been there before, but a number of years ago, and I remember it as a beautiful part of the coast. So off we went in the car and just over 90 minutes later, we were parking in the sunny, hot car park of Angle Bay.

It’s been a while since I’ve strapped a back pack on so it felt a little odd. Then I draped the more familiar camera bag and water bottle over me and we were ready to go. Rufus was characteristically unencumbered – something we’ve discussed before and something he’s always successfully argued against. Although there was a strong wind, the sun was out and it was much warmer than I expected. As we left the beach and entered a sheltered field, the wind died down and it became more like a summer’s day. I’m always careful to watch Rufus as he heats up quickly. Today was no exception and I made sure he drank as often as possible.

Rufus is a fussy drinker; when he feels like it, he will drink and drink. But if the slightest scent, aroma, movement or other distraction occurs, it immediately assumes the priority. Today he drank sensibly.

At the top of the field, we were on the cliffs and plenty of signs warned of the crumbling, eroded nature of the rocks. This area was a significant part of the military defences of Milford Haven, a natural deep water harbour and we soon saw the first sign this. Below us on the slope was the remains of a searchlight emplacement. There were gun batteries, observation posts and searchlight houses all along this part of the coast, and on the opposite coast around a mile away. Milford Haven was heavily defended.

The next ruin took us back to Tudor times. In 1539, Henry VIII had a number of block houses built around the coast to protect the strategic ports against attack by the French or Spanish (or both). Here, the remains of a watch tower belonging to his Eastern Block House stands on the edge of the cliff. It won’t last much longer as coastal erosion undercuts it. It was reused during WW1 and WW2 as an observation point, as the brick repaired wall shows. Opposite this post lies Mill Bay, where Henry Tudor landed with a force of French mercenaries in 1485. A couple of weeks later, he had gathered about him an army of men loyal to his cause from Pembrokeshire and beyond, and had met and defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. He became King Henry VII.

We wandered on, passing the WW1&2 gun emplacements for now and walking along the beautiful Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. Swallows swooped and dived above us and gulls hung stationary in updrafts. The sea was a Mediterranean turquoise, breaking against the cliffs with bright white waves. The gorse was in bloom – a carpet of yellow flowers that we walked alongside (neither of us like their needles). We stopped for a drink and a snack at a smaller gun emplacement standing alone, and then dropped down into a gully carved by a small stream and no doubt helped by the endless battering of the sea.

Up on the other side we surprised some sheep, who were content to stare while chewing on their grass as we went by. A little further round the corner, Rufus caught a scent and led me off the path to the cliff edge. As we were so close and the cliffs were dodgy, I had him on the lead. I’m glad I did, because he was staring at the two ears of a small rabbit hiding in a hollow right on the edge of the cliff. Had he been able, Rufus would have run over and I don’t know what state that part of the cliff was in. I raised my camera and zoomed in to the rabbit – which wasn’t a rabbit at all, but a fox cub. I took a few photos and dragged Rufus away so that we didn’t disturb it more than we already had.

A stile stopped us and we turned back. We passed the fox hole but there was no sign of it. Neither were the sheep we’d encountered earlier, but at the top of the gully we saw the last of them trying to get through a wire fence. Unfortunately, it’s curved horn had got caught in the wire and it was struggling to escape. I could see it wouldn’t succeed, and it was beginning to panic with us being there. So I tied Rufus up to a fence post out of sight and went to try and help. The sheep was trying to get away from me and in doing so, tightening the wire. Luckily it wasn’t barbed otherwise there would have been a nasty injury. But I couldn’t leave it there as the horn was curved right around and the wire was well inside the curve.

In order to get enough slack on the wire, the sheep had to move back towards me but it wouldn’t. I accidentally poked it and it rolled towards me. So I poked it again, rather like tickling someone in the ribs, and it squirmed enough that the wire went slack enough and I managed to pull it over the horn. One happy sheep trotted off to it’s sisters and within second had forgotten all about it’s ordeal. I trotted back to Rufus who was working hard to pull the fence post I’d tied him to over.

At the lone gun emplacement, we stopped and had lunch. Rufus was surprised when I produced a bowl of his favourite crunchy food but he didn’t let that stop him devouring the lot. It was nice in the sun and while I sat and enjoyed the view, Rufus walked around the concrete wall of the circular gun pit. He was very happy to have a path all to himself. We took a couple of selfies and headed on to the main coastal gun battery. This was built in the early 20th Century and in it’s history had big guns (9.2″) and small guns (6pdr) and everything in between. By WW1 it was falling out of favour and the big guns were moved elsewhere. Smaller guns were brought in but the site was mainly used for training. Similarly in WW2 the guns were transported to a site near Penarth and the battery was used for training. It was finally decommissioned in 1945, when all the weapons were removed. Strangely, the ammunition wasn’t removed for another three years.

The last leg of the walk was back across two open fields and down to the beach car park. We were buzzed by swallows again and on the opposite side of the beach, a group of students were studying the geology of the bay. Had the tide not been so far out, I would have taken Rufus for a paddle. Instead, he had a long drink and we set off for home.

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Rufus and Dave’s Fortnight of Fun part 8: Chill out

After yesterday’s marathon peak bagging session, we both needed a quieter day. So while Rufus dozed, I went back to the local museum to see their 1914-18 exhibition. It was interesting to see the local aspect of how the Great War had affected lives at home. Panels detailed a number of individual’s experiences of the war, and of course, many of them didn’t survive the conflict. There were also a number of personal exhibits that emphasised the role of the individual rather than the anonymous numbers that appear in the history books. Letters home, written in pencil, sounded hopeful (in the sense that you always try and make light of a bad situation, plus you don’t want to scare your loved ones). But alongside the letter was another from the commanding officer to the parents expressing his sympathy at the loss of their son.

I shared the exhibition with a bunch of schoolkids. I hope they were able to pick up on the reality of what they were seeing. These are the people who need to remember and understand what war is really like so that the likelihood of it happening again is lessened.

When i got home, Rufus persuaded me that a short trip out was required and we ended up at the Tawe. It was a gorgeous evening with deep blue skies and fluffy white clouds. Rufus splashed about tin the river and I managed to get some photos of the sky. At one point, a strange wispy cloud passed over head. We got home a little chilly; Rufus’ paws were cold and so were his ears! I’ve never seen that with him before, so I spent some time warming up his feet before making tea.

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What could have been 2 – what was.

As a brilliant birthday present last year, my friend bought me a flight in an old bi-plane.  I’d had several attempts at booking the flight, all of which had been postponed by the weather. I re-booked for Wednesday and at the last minute changed the date to today. I rang up the company this morning just before I left and was told that the sky had turned a funny shade of blue and it was ideal flying weather. I set off, nervous and excited and eager to get to the airport, in Gloucester. Staverton was an old RAF station that  was home to training flights and played a part in developing air-to-air refueling at the end of WW2. I’d studied Google maps and the place looked like a maze but I drove slowly between the hangars and finally spotted Tiger Airways on the left.

The hangar was full of aerobatic monoplanes and two Stampe SV4Cs with their engines disassembled. Tiger, the half greyhound, welcomed me in to the office where Chris set up the Pre-flight Briefing DVD. Apparently, if I touched anything with yellow tape on it, the plane was likely to plummet to the ground and if I didn’t do the harness up properly, I was likely to plummet to the ground – no parachutes here. If I talked while the air traffic control were talking, I could make us miss something important and if didn’t plummet to the ground, people would shout at me.  Then it was on with a flying jacket and white silk scarf and out to the waiting aircraft – a Stampe SV4C G-AZGE with a complete engine. After filling the tank, I climbed into the front cockpit, nervous and excited. Tizi, the chief instructor pilot, fitted the leather flying helmet and I did a radio check. Chris took photos.

Then, just like the movies, there was a lot of  ‘fuel pumps on, brakes on, carbs primed, contact,’ stuff and on the second attempt and with the aid of a hammer, the engine started. They even said ‘chocs away’ just before we started off. After some contact with air traffic control, we taxied out to the runway and waited for a Cessna to land. It bounced quite high and Tizi laughed as only an experienced pilot is allowed to. Then, with the wind in my face, we bumped down the runway. In a surprisingly short time, we were airborne and climbing away from the airport. The wind buffeted the plane, making it shake and shimmy, but there was no stomach churning turbulence. I actually felt part of the plane rather than sitting in it. We always returned to the same heading and level flight. Tizi tested me out on the controls and then offered me the chance to experience some simple aerobatics. We looped, then we did a loop with a roll. The thought of both made me doubt I wanted to do them, but the reality was that they were exhilarating, fun and not nearly as bad as I was expecting.

Then I had a chance to fly the plane. The control stick was remarkably sensitive and required the lightest of touches from finger and thumb to make the plane bank, climb and descend. It was very simple to maneouver the plane and the bit of the briefing that said ‘it’s easier to fly this plane than to drive a car’ felt true. With Tizi’s guidance, we climbed up over the flooded Severn, over Tewkesbury and then circled gently around to fly over the airfield at around 2000 feet. We watched other aircraft landing and taking off from above. Then we circled again to join the landing circuit. I was just about getting the hang of the tiny movements required to guide the plane as we dropped in behind a Cessna that was ahead of us in the queue to land. Tizi only took over again as we descended and slowed on final approach. The landing was smooth and we taxied back to the hangar.

Sitting in the cockpit waiting to fly, I thought about WW1 pilots and how flimsy their planes were to take into combat. I was feeling nervous at that point and it must have been similar for them. As we taxied, I felt excitement too, but it wasn’t like the flights to and from Lukla. I felt more in control as I could see more and feel the plane – as I said before, it felt as if I was part of it. In the air, it was nothing like flying in a passenger plane. I could see clearly out but the height wasn’t an issue. I guess because I was looking sideways rather than down. Watching the ground above me was odd but not frightening. Diving towards the ground coming out of the loop and roll was disconcerting but not scary.

When I got home, I looked up the history of the plane on the Internet. It was built in 1947 in Belgium and was probably a trainer. But the most fascinating this for me was that in 1976, it was modified to look like a WW1 SE5a fighter and used in the film ‘Aces High’. Look at this link to see the plane itself – scroll down until you see the plane on the ground with the tail number E-940. I sat in the front of that!

What a great experience!

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