Above and beyond Elan Valley

The last Sunday in October and – clocks adjusted – we made our way to Rhayader for a few autumn days. The extent of the rain – which had persisted well into the previous night – was apparent from the volume of water overflowing the rim of Caban-Coch dam. Earlier in the day we had been forced into a minor diversion around Leintwardine: the confluence of the rivers Clun and Teme lies just outside the village and the accumulation of water was threatening to overwhelm the historic stone bridge. Flood levels in the low-lying fields suggested that the caution was justified.

A path skirts Caban-Coch on its southern side; spurs from the same path zig-zag their way around Cnwch Wood – fairly quiet at this time of year, but alive with nesting flycatchers and redstarts during the months of spring and early summer. They’ll be somewhere much warmer by now.

Anyway, back to the path. Running slightly west of south it follows the eastern bank of the reservoir, dropping in places almost to the water’s edge when the level is, like today, high enough to overflow the dam. Soon an inlet is reached; the route swings around to the south east and begins to climb steadily, taking you above the remnants of Nant-y-Gro dam, which played a part in the preparations for the WW2 Dambusters raid.

The narrow path skirting the edge of Caban-Coch reservoir

The Garreg-ddu dam and road bridge – much less prominent than is usually the case

The track now begins to bear east, then north east; finally levelling out adjacent to a small area of coniferous woodland. At around 420 metres, this is the highest part of the walk and the views are mostly of the bleak, high moorland so characteristic of this part of mid-Wales. Frequently trackless, invariably arduous, there was a time when this was one of my ‘go to’ places when solitude was needed.

Scanning around with binoculars I managed to pick up the outline of one of the twin summit cairns of Drygarn Fawr – the highest point in the locality, a place as lonely and remote as just about any in Wales, a favourite lunch spot in times past. A few yards further on, a change of angle, and both cairns were visible; they date back to the bronze age and had been restored and maintained in good condition last time I was up there. That was some years ago now and, as is inevitable with so much still to see, it’s possible that there may not be a next time.

The distant summit cairns of Drygarn Fawr: many a good day, many a soaking…

The moorland extending to Drygarn Fawr and beyond – sometimes known as the Abergwesyn Commons – is owned by the National Trust and shares boundaries with the Elan Valley Trust and the RSPB reserve at Carngaffalt. All of which gives cause for optimism for the ongoing stewardship of the area.

The path eventually gives way to a short section of tarmac walking: a farm road at first, followed by a brief stint on a quiet, minor road  – unclassified as far as I can tell – bordered on both sides by the mature woodlands of the RSPB reserve. A gentle downhill return via these woods leads back towards Elan Village, crossing one the many small watercourses which feed into the Afon Elan.

An August day on Bynack More

We’d arrived in Scotland on the back of disrupted preparations and less hill fit than for many a year. A sequence of illness and hospitalisations on both sides of the extended family had simply eaten up the weeks preceding the holiday – to the point where the whole trip had been in doubt right up to the final week. Among many others we have the NHS to thank for the fact that we managed to get away at all.

The break, when it did arrive, was welcome; notwithstanding that we had swapped rehearsal days in the Shropshire Hills for long afternoons and evenings in A&E and RESUS units and were as physically underprepared as we were mentally drained. Having got there, could we walk ourselves fit? Or at least fitter? By the midpoint of the holiday it was time to find out…

The bridge spanning the River Nethy

For anyone walking to Bynack More from the Glenmore Visitor Centre there must be a point somewhere along the route where the walk-in gives way to the climb; we could debate forever the precise location of that transition, but a reasonable suggestion would probably be the footbridge crossing the river Nethy. Routebuddy makes that about five and a half kilometres out from the start point; whether that qualifies as ‘a long walk in’ I have no idea, but in the context of Bynack More it’s just past half-way and once across the bridge there’s soon a sense that you’re now on the hill.

The hills above Strath Nethy, mostly in rolling cloud

The track is nicely engineered, not too wide (and thus not too obtrusive) and climbs steadily towards the shoulder. Blessed with a benign combination of pleasantly warm weather and a gentle breeze our progress was steady and relatively midge-free. The rim of Cairn Gorm’s eastern face – where it looms dark above Strath Nethy – was never free of rolling cloud, which from time to time spilled over the edge and cascaded down the shadowy, forbidding eastern wall of the mountain. The summit of Bynack More itself was intermittently in and out of wispy cloud – suggesting that the cloud base was somewhere below 4,000 feet, which corresponded with the MWIS prediction for the day. Looking back across the pass of Ryvoan, Meall a’ Bhuachaille was consistently free of cloud as we headed across the shoulder towards the short, steep climb towards the summit of Bynack More. We didn’t pass up this opportunity to take in – and photograph – the views to the south and east, which was fortunate – they were soon to become unavailable!

Bynack More and Bynack Beag flirting with the cloud

As the ground began to steepen, one final look back in the direction of Meall a’ Bhuachaille revealed the ‘consistently free’ assessment to be in need of an update, its summit and those of the adjacent hills having been enveloped by a bank of cloud approaching with some speed from the northwest. How quickly things can change…

Fresh cloud rolling in from the north-west

A few seconds after this shot was taken we were – quite literally – in the thick of it

We found a level vantage point a few feet below the exposed summit – a secure spot from where we could assess the nature of the incoming. There wasn’t long to wait: almost immediately we were blanketed in thick cloud – like a clammy duvet and accompanied by that uncanny silence which often seems to be a characteristic of hill fog. Visibility dropped to a few yards and the first spots of rain followed within seconds; in unison we dived into packs for waterproofs, which were barely zipped when the first strong gust of wind brought a volley of stinging hailstones. We laughed, albeit not for long, at this being just another day in mid August, then quickly reminded ourselves that – August or not – this is The Cairngorms and we’re up above three and a half thousand feet in poor visibility. Time to start down…

Low cloud rolling around the rock formations just below the summit

Dropping towards the more level ground, the path was at first defined by a sequence of pools which had quickly formed in the undulations and hollows. Having reacquired the red/brown shale of the main track we were now also below the heavier cloud and able to relax a little. Within half an hour we were walking in warm sunshine and shedding layers as clouds of water vapour and midges began to rise from the heather.

 

 

The birds of The Long Mynd

I think I might be a bird-watcher; not that it matters but I think I might…

I did read sometime ago about the distinction (I nearly said pecking order and thought better of it) between bird-watchers, birders and twitchers. I’d forgotten where, so I took it up with Wiki, and apparently there is a system…

” Bird-watcher: A rather ambiguous term used to describe the person who watches birds for any reason at all, and should not be used to refer to the serious birder…” Okay, that sounds like me.

” Birder: The acceptable term used to describe the person who seriously pursues the hobby of birding…” Confirmation – the seriously bit rules me out.

Twitching: A British term used to mean “the pursuit of a previously located rare bird.The term twitcher, sometimes misapplied as a synonym for birder, is reserved for those who travel long distances to see a rare bird…” Well that’s not me either: my naturally pessimistic “it will be gone by the time I get there” mindset would just make it a non-starter.

Or possibly none of the above: maybe I’m just a walker who sometimes inadvertently spooks the wildlife into breaking cover. If so, I apologise for the lack of stealth and no harm is intended.

There are many things which repeatedly draw us back to the Shropshire Hills and the variety of the birds is certainly among them. As with anywhere it’s possible to cover many miles and see very little, as was indeed the case on a baking hot day a couple of weeks back, when the hills were alive with sweltering DofErs, groaning under the weight of their loads. A day when the Year 11s outnumbered the meadow pipits.

Fast forward a week and the skies are more cloudy, the temperature a few degrees lower, the long hollows (valleys) – Carding Mill aside –  all but deserted. And the birds are back: meadow pipits, skylarks, a male peregrine, followed by a juvenile, ravens (as always), linnets, stonechats perched on top of clumps of gorse. And their close relatives, whinchats – tiny birds who in their brief lives (2/3 years on average) routinely make the annual return journey from southern Africa for our brief northern spring and summer.

This one was pictured a couple of years back, alongside the track which winds up Ashes Hollow…

On our most recent visit, just before the path leading down from Callow hill arrives in Little Stretton, we came across a brood of young swallows, newly-fledged and still very much dependent for food. In the lower picture one of the chicks appears to be trying to eat its parent…

 

 

 

 

Gilfach Nature Reserve, Rhayader

Head out of Rhayader on the A 470 Aberystwyth road and in about 3 miles, at the apex of a long bend and immediately after crossing the Pont Marteg, there is a turn on the right for St Harmon, Pant-y-dwr and – reached before either of those places – Gilfach Nature Reserve. I could tell you about it…

I could tell you about the many trails: like the Wyloer Hill Walk, taking you up onto the high ground on the northern side – a couple of strenuous uphill sections, but unobtrusively way-marked and well worth the effort. Or the Marteg Valley Nature Trail, shadowing the fast-flowing river with its populations of wagtails, dippers, maybe otters, and – at the right times of year – Atlantic Salmon. Or the short Oakwood Walk, in the company of pied flycatchers, their more elusive spotted cousins, redstarts, siskin and many other varieties. Take a few moments to be still, become part of the wood, let the birds find you.

The landscape of Gilfach is as much defined by its history as it is by geology: land worked as far back as the bronze age; a traditional working farm until around 30 years ago; remnants of the former Mid Wales railway line still evident in the form of stone bridges and uprights, and the route of the old track bed now forming part of the network of trails. The former farm buildings have been restored as a visitor centre, without in any way compromising their original character. There are facilities and local information and, as with the parking, honesty boxes for donations and contributions. The reserve is now owned and maintained by The Radnorshire Wildlife Trust.

I could tell you more still, but why listen to me when there are better options? You could be listening to somebody who really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to mid Wales, simply by clicking this link. *  It is indeed “a hidden gem…”

Or pay a visit to Gilfach: an hour or two if that’s all the time you have; better though to make more of a day of it; walk a few of the trails; combine them into a longer outing; choose a spot for a food stop and keep the binoculars close to hand.

* This video is also available to play inside The Byre at the visitor centre

Nuthatch chick – Gilfach

Red kite, low over hillside – Gilfach

Pied flycatcher (male) – Gilfach

Blogging made logical, intuitive and seamless

Anybody hoping for a tutorial or a signpost to some Eureka! solution has already been lured in under false pretences, for which I apologise. The title is more by way of a plaintive cry from the wilderness… or maybe a wish list; unfulfilled but not entirely unreasonable as wish lists go.

At some point – a good few years back now – curiosity drew me into this hitherto unexplored habitat: the world of the outdoor blogger – inhabited although not exactly populous; but growing. And then, having stuck around for quite a while, I wandered off; partly in search of other things, but mostly because I’d grown exasperated with never quite being able to get things to work in the way that I’d hoped.

I’d cut my teeth on Blogger: the options back then seeming to be a straight choice between it and WordPress, with the consensus seemingly pointing towards Blogger as the more gentle of the two learning curves for a novice equipped with only the most rudimentary of IT skills. And so, on 29 November 2009, the first, uncertain fledgling steps were taken…

On the better days I got along okay with Blogger, but when okay is as good as it gets there’s inevitably a temptation to look at alternatives. And I did like the look of some of the things others had done, and were continuing to do, with WordPress. So I took a plunge, switched, and found that there was some truth in those warnings about the respective learning curves of the two systems. But, on balance, I felt more settled with WordPress and slowly began to acquire the relatively modest level of proficiency needed to improve the presentations. It was a kind of contentment – the temporary kind…

The first noticeable issue was a decline in the ease with which it was possible to comment on other peoples’ blogs. As both WordPress and Blogger evolved, access which had hitherto been seamless and straightforward would suddenly become problematic. Comments would be declined or – even more of an irritant – appear to be accepted but then disappear into… well, wherever it is that disembodied comments go to spend eternity. I’m guessing that the constantly changing security protocols were the primary cause for these breakdowns in communication; and messages from other bloggers confirmed that they equally were being driven to exasperation by my blog’s apparent unwillingness to cooperate. The shared frustration was that these are things which we would probably all expect to become easier as technology and connectivity evolve; a reasonable enough assumption considering the ease with which individuals and organisations we’ve never heard of seem able to access our inboxes and browsing histories. And of course blogs: nothing seems to be too much of an obstacle to the spammers when it comes to attaching some random comment to a blog post.

Over the last few months I’ve spent some of the freed-up time looking into creating basic Youtube slideshows and short videos (both relatively straightforward), and then enhancing the quality of the finished product (less straightforward). I’ve fished out the old mini-DV camcorder and shot some footage – birds fledging from garden nest boxes mostly – just for the practice and to remind myself of how the controls work.

And I’ve tried Instagram, about which I have no real complaints other than the square format. But it’s not for me; it’s not really intended for me: I don’t take that many still photographs, almost none with a phone, even fewer that I’d want to share. I think Instagram probably finds its real market in the prolific cameraphone user of a sociable disposition, so that’s all three boxes unticked. But I’ll leave the account open for now; I just don’t expect to be adding to it with any regularity.

Is there a point to any of this? Who knows? It’s taken a while to type and, so far, I haven’t thought of one…

Update

As at 8 February, 2019…

In the two and a half months since the previous entry the rate of progress has hovered somewhere on the scale between insignificant and negligible. Substitute ‘months’ with years and anybody speed-reading this might think it’s got something to do with Brexit and decide to read no further. Who could blame them?

Time – such time as has been available – has been divided between attempts to make better Youtube slideshows and acquire at least a rudimentary grasp of Instagram. How’s that gone? It’s gone exasperatingly; infuriatingly; maddeningly; all manner of ‘inglies’ plus profanely at times.

With Youtube I’d hoped to refine the small amount of knowledge I’d already gained and thereby learn how to generate a more polished finished article – a smoother flow  through the sequence, more seamless transitions between frames, that kind of thing…

I feel as though I’ve hit a wall with that and can only hope that the stasis is temporary; otherwise my quest to carve a niche as a producer of low budget, avant-garde slideshows, watched mostly only by myself may already have stalled.

The Instagram project is even more at the ’embryonic’ stage: I’ve learned how to move photos from computer to phone for uploading; it took me a while – let’s just say more than one session and leave it at that. I’m still struggling to understand why Instagram opted for a square display option when the vast majority of cameras produce a rectangular image, meaning that either everything needs to be cropped square before transferring, or alternatively you leave it to Instagram to crop the image as displayed.

Typing a caption and the hashtag links on an iPhone’s touchscreen is an unpredictable process for this ‘man of a certain age’ and as often as not, regardless of how careful I might have been, there’ll be an annoying error that I’ll only spot once the images have been ‘shared’ (uploaded). The options then are either to live with it – knowing it will remain an irritant (like a poorly joined piece of wallpaper) – or delete the whole thing and try again. First world problems, eh?

To avoid falling foul of intellectual property laws – unlikely given the low volume of traffic, but better to be cautious – I’ve also been browsing libraries of copyright free music to find tracks suitable for use as background to the Youtube slideshows and videos. There’s a huge amount of royalty-free stuff available, but finding what you’re looking for isn’t a quick process; there seems to be a particular fondness for a genre described as ‘ambient’, or “that whiny whale song shite” as Jo is inclined to call it. What can I say – she’s from Tipton!

The first slideshow uploaded onto Youtube since the handful which were embedded in earlier blog posts, consisted of a selection of shots taken in and around Elan Valley in late 2017. As a learning experience it has been useful, but already there’s much about it that I don’t like…

Elan Valley – Autumn 2017

The Instagram site – only a handful of posts so far – can be found here…

Will I stick at it? Not sure right now… time will tell.

 

Moving on…

I’ve decided to abandon the blog: the intention is to leave it online for a while but, after this post, there will only be one further entry which will be – rather neatly – the 150th. There are a number of reasons – the wish to avoid repetition being one – but primary among them is the irritation of dealing with spammers, including the odd ones seeming to emanate from some pretty strange places; ‘odd’ in every sense of the word.

According to the stats captured by WordPress, the filters have eliminated 1,850 spam comments: that’s 1,850 I never even got to see – a number which needs to be added to the many hundreds I’ve had to delete at the point of moderation. I have no idea why I seem to attract so many fruitcakes to a site with relatively low traffic and generally innocuous subject matter, but there it is…

The pattern seems to be that a particular post becomes a focal point for random comments – some in languages which I don’t speak; others offering ‘opportunities’ for which I am neither young enough, nor sufficiently flexible. Closing that post to comments merely seems to have the effect of diverting the traffic to another target; and so it goes on…

As a last aside regarding outdoor matters, we were out on The Long Mynd at the weekend, in the best of autumn weather: the watercourses are slowly replenishing following the dry summer and, for the first time in many months, I elected to wear boots. It turned out to be the right decision but still not one I enjoyed.

Oh, and the golden plover had returned, as they often do about now. But they don’t seem to stay for the whole winter and I have no idea where the next part of their journey takes them.

The plan is to give Instagram a try – more pictures/fewer words. That is what the 150th post will be about. I’ll leave the blog out there, if only as a gateway to the many and excellent other outdoor sites.