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

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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.

The Chalamain Gap

A place that seems to divide opinion, the Chalamain Gap; the complete spectrum from “ankle snapping nightmare” to “just a few rocks, nae bother”. The natural pessimist in me would invariably incline towards believing the former and dismissing the latter; but the truth was I’d only ever seen the gap from a distance, or in other peoples’ pictures; so we decided to take a look. And that really was all we decided to do…

What we were supposed to be doing was reconnaissance, and trying to establish whether the better option for climbing Braeriach (my most coveted, unclimbed mountain) would be from Whitewell or The Sugar Bowl. Whitewell is a preferred starting point for any number of walks but would be the longer option; The Sugar Bowl route is reckoned to be the more direct, but does incorporate the gap which, as mentioned previously, gets mixed reviews.

By this point the nature of the gap was absolutely clear

By the time we were within a couple of hundred yards of the base of the gap it was pretty obvious what we would be dealing with – a chute filled with boulders of assorted shapes and sizes, interspersed with a similarly diverse variety of holes. There was really no need to walk right up to the base of the gap, but obviously the compulsion to do so was irresistible. Somehow I just knew we would then be climbing up through it but studiously avoided being the one to suggest doing so; not least because one of the party is susceptible to calf strains when over-stretching. I pointed out that we’d done what we’d set out to do, taken a look – a close one at that – and that there was an alternative route down into the Lairig Ghru, by means of a track which passes close to Rothiemurchus Lodge. I felt I had done my best to counsel restraint.

There was really no need or justification for the “closer look”

Or the detailed, boulder by boulder, inspection which followed

We were slow, inelegant, probably comical at times, but in the end we made it up and out and immediately agreed that the views across to Sgoran Dubh Mor had already justified the effort; Lurcher’s Crag looming to our left was a bonus.

Then the views quickly began to more than reward the effort

And then a runner appeared, having climbed out of the Lairig Ghru (which we found to be a steep enough proposition in the descent!) and proceeded to pick a way down through the boulders with all the surefooted poise of one of Tolkien’s elves. Our next move was somewhat less vigorous – working out an improvised circular route which would take us back to the Sugar Bowl via Rothiemurchus and the south side of Loch Morlich.

And the rewards continued…

Time to drop the packs and open out the food…

Walking north from the Lairig Ghru there comes a point in the path where the forest is just beginning to thicken a little (or just beginning to thin out if you’re heading south) with some of the best food stop options to be found anywhere: sheltered; not quite buried in the forest; not quite out of sight of the hills and – if you sit for long enough – the birds will become accustomed to your presence and emboldened by the familiarity.

As for the Chalamain Gap? The consensus seemed to be somewhere between the two extremes: not quite the ordeal some of the reports might suggest – but certainly not to be dismissed as “nae bother” either. None of us expressed any inclination to attempt running through it.

A hill and some weather…

For a few years now we’ve used the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS), particularly when in the highlands. Although the reports are geared towards weather expectations on the summits, they generally give a useful indication of what might also be expected in the valleys and in a much more specific way than, for instance, the generalised BBC summation. To a point we’ve learned to trust them as the best planning guide for a couple of days ahead (and we rarely look further than that). The MWIS website can be found here.

With a 90% prediction that summits east of the A9/Spey valley would be clear of cloud by late morning, we set off for the top of Ben Macdui – climbing into cloud, but trusting the MWIS forecast. I won’t include a route description here – it was a familiar, well-walked one; and one detailed on a number of online sites such as Walkhighlands.co.uk. Just as an aside here, our preferred route-finding combination to have to hand (but still with a full-sheet map in the bag) is a Walkhighlands narrative in combination with our own printed route plan from Routebuddy. We particularly like the feeling of reassurance when the two documents actually seem to correspond.

Mist and optimism came and went as we climbed steadily past Coire an Lochain and onto the level ridge above the Lairig Ghru. Throughout the walk the higher tops – Cairn Gorm, Braeriach, Macdui itself – came into view then disappeared again in a random sequence resembling a high level dance of the veils. Not long after setting off we checked the summit of Cairn Gorm; it was clear of cloud, then, within a minute or so, everything down past the Ptarmigan restaurant was obscured, and shortly afterwards clear again. And that was typical of how the morning progressed.

This wasn’t a summit bagging exercise: the idea of heading for the high point of the immediate area was simply to take in the views – hence the fixation with cloud conditions. Crossing the first boulder field I was beginning to harbour a few doubts about the possibility of unobstructed views, but I kept them to myself; even on the final walk up to the cairn/trig point those doubts persisted.

There are few certainties in life, but one is that if you climb to the top of the highest mountain in the locality you will be exposed to the wind – whichever direction it’s coming from. Temperatures at the summit felt a good few degrees lower than those we’d walked through during the morning’s climb and we soon decided to add a layer before hunkering into one of the improvised stone shelters for a hot drink and some food. It turned out to be a good decision: as we sat there the clouds parted for the final time and patches of blue sky began to appear. As did a female snow bunting, complete with a chick already well-versed in the arts of begging the odd bit of food. We’d also passed a pair of dotterel on the way up – barely noticeable among the boulders.

One consequence of this rather untypical summer was the number of dry watercourses: I doubt we’ve ever seen so many in that part of the highlands; even some substantial lochans were considerably altered from their familiar size and shape – smaller pools dried out completely in some instances. That said, there’s no doubt that there were sections where conditions underfoot were somewhat easier than would usually be the case.

With the tops completely freed of cloud (and the temperature suddenly more agreeable) we were able to take in the views from the summit, wander around the immediate area, and take a few photographs. Most things can be enhanced by a bit of sunshine – even Cairn Toul, Sgòr an Lochain Uaine and particularly Braeriach (which would struggle to look unattractive on the greyest of days); so the sun on our backs and the surrounding hills made for a pleasant, unhurried return to the waiting car.

Not long into our walk down we were all startled by a loud roar from behind us: a Eurofighter (Typhoon) came across the tops to the south, dropped into the Lairig Ghru before executing a full 180º turn and heading back in the direction it had come from. I’m sure it was nowhere near as effortless a manoeuvre as the pilot made it look.

Pictures: Rather than fill the screen with images there is a short slideshow which attempts to show how the day developed. The link can be found below:

Slideshow

Slideshow soundtrack: The music is the instrumental backing track from The Dream Academy’s cover of The Smiths song Please, please, please let me get what I want. If it sounds familiar, that may be because at some time you have seen the film Ferris Bueller’s day off (gallery scene – near the end).

A few days in Ardnamurchan (Part 3)

Two days compressed into a single short selection of pictures: more of the same, which reflects exactly how it was. And more of the same was never too much; not once.

So the random sequence is, in no particular order, of waves breaking on a rocky shoreline, the suck and hiss of the retreating water telling its own story of how unwise it would be to take reckless liberties on slippery rocks. Small boats passing larger ships; a haze blurring the demarcation between sea and sky; a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry seemingly suspended in a fog – hovering between air and water.

Great black-backed gulls; oystercatchers; Manx shearwaters; the ringed plover with eggs (or young) secreted somewhere among the weed and shingle of Kilmory; pink sea thrift somehow apparently growing from the bare bedrock of Ardnamurchan point.

And Kilmory itself, quiet, lonely, a place to tread carefully, a place to revisit…

Days 5 and 6

 

Music: The Gael (Dougie Maclean)