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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The Nature of… Jim Crumley

Jim Crumley is a nature writer whose books I’ve referenced before in blog posts, as indeed have others on their blogs. Among Jim’s books a longtime favourite of mine has been his timeless classic A high and lonely place – a eulogy to The Cairngorms and one which prompted this post back in 2014. Both celebratory and unafraid to confront the issues – many of which endure to this day – it is both a good read and a work of reference.

Most recently I’ve read the two connected works in the series The Nature of… and am hopeful that there will be two others to follow. Both books are written with an intimacy and perspective which can only derive from patience and exposure – the latter possibly in more than one sense of the word. Most of all there is that most scarce and precious of commodities – original thought; something which, in these soundbite days, seems as elusive as the native wildcat which he and I would love to know were out there, moving secretively through the forests of Rothiemurchus and Inshriach.

Here’s an example: it’s taken from The Nature of Autumn

“And the first day of autumn is the beginning of everything, the first stirrings of rebirth. The forest fall thickens the land with limitless tons of bits and pieces of trees. The earth is hungry for food: all spring, all summer, it has been thrusting life upwards and outwards, and by the last day of summer, it is tired. Autumn is the earth’s reviver and replenisher… ”

On first reading, this runs counter-intuitive to my programming: unquestioningly I’d accepted that the natural order of the seasons was spring, summer, autumn, winter – emergence, abundance, slow-down, shutdown. Having your perceptions challenged is never a bad thing and, with the benefit of a different perspective, it makes sense to see autumn as very much the opening step in a new cycle – one which incubates during the winter months; dormant but already primed. From the perspective of our most northerly latitudes it makes absolute sense.

Original thinking challenges us and, who knows, perhaps might encourage us to develop it as a skill of our own. How could that ever be a bad thing?

 

The Nature of Autumn and The Nature of Winter, are both written by Jim Crumley and published by Saraband.

 

 

Should aesthetics trump functionality?

I’m assuming it’s still okay to use the word ‘trump’ in the title of a post without attracting some incoherent response from the man on Capitol Hill.

On a short outing in the Severn Valley a few days ago, I was struck by the contrast between some of the structures and apparatus – old and quite new – which we encountered along the way. At the foot crossing in Eymore Wood we paused briefly as former Southern Region pacific 34027 Taw Valley passed through with a longish and busy train. This is the locomotive which has, on occasions, appeared around the country in maroon livery carrying the Hogwarts Express nameplate. Built immediately post WW2 (1946) it still looks the part, although – had it not been rescued from a south Wales scrapyard – it would have had a very short working life, having been withdrawn from service by 1964.

There is a slight uphill incline at this point and it was the kind of cold, crisp day when a bit of exertion generally produces good, photogenic steam.

Between the railway and the nearby river, a couple of Severn Trent reservoirs double up as boating lakes and wildlife retreats – wildfowl mostly but with a growing cormorant population. In combination with the preserved railway, the river itself and the northern edge of the extensive Wyre Forest, which reaches all the way to the opposite bank, it’s an attractive and not over-used area. Unfortunately, it seems to have been considered an appropriate site for a solar farm (Cenin Renewables in conjunction with Severn Trent apparently) – a development which started small and seems to be proliferating over a wide area. This is part of a cluster sited a few metres from the bank of the river…

One of the local councils – Kidderminster Parish – said at the time of the initial development they only found out about Severn Trent’s plans after they were approved because of (quote) “a loophole in planning regulations”. I could go on about the effectiveness and appropriate siting of these panels – that and the still ongoing debate around their dubious longevity and payback – but that would make for a much longer post. For now I’ll leave it that they’re unsightly and in a place where they should never have been considered; a place, incidentally, where if you pitched a tent for a night’s wild camp you’d quite likely be moved on.

About a couple of hundred metres upstream (no more) John Fowler’s elegant and timeless cast-iron arch bridge carries the railway across the Severn. Probably an unfair comparison, but even in the fading light of our return journey it struck us as more enhancement than intrusion…

Earlier in the day I’d taken this shot from the road bridge adjacent to Arley Station. It’s a jumble and just about everything is wrong with it, but I quite like the overall chaotic effect of steam, people, trains and infrastructure…

There are still a few examples of lower quadrant semaphore signalling to be found out on the main lines, including around the Worcester/Droitwich/Malvern area. Upper quadrants (raised signals) are a bit more numerous, particularly around the stations on the Highland Main Line; the GWR always liked to be different.

With the light almost gone, there was just about enough time to capture the bulrushes below. This group are at the edge of one of the two small reservoirs and are often frequented by coots, and occasionally reed warblers. Nature’s designs are often studies in understated elegance; something we could learn from…

Gibraltar point – Wednesday 1st June, 2016

Unremittingly, uncompromisingly hostile, in that way that can typify the north sea coast when the mood takes it. Cloud: grey, unbroken; wind: persistent, strong; sufficiently strong to skim a blinding, sand-blast layer from the surface of the dunes and make walking an uncertain, faltering activity, even for adults. And, just for good measure, it is a north-easterly; sometimes the weather can feel almost personal.

And yet, somehow, a little tern – probably weighing no more than 50 gms (and I admit I had to ‘google’ that) – manages to manoeuvre, hold its position, and even fly against the full force of the wind. The shoreline birds, which are undoubtedly present in numbers at this time of year, are more to be heard than seen, although a few reed buntings manage to make headway from one patch of cover to the next and swallows are airborne – as they always seem to be.

DSCN0749The coastline has an oddly familiar feel about it; probably a consequence of our acquired taste for ‘Scandi noir’. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to round a corner and be met by a contemplative Kurt Wallander.

A new visitor centre has risen from the devastation of the tidal surge in December of 2013. The recently opened building is elevated on stilts as protection against any similar occurrences in future and allows extensive views of the mixed habitat, which extends to saltmarsh, dunes and shoreline. The dunes form part of a constantly regenerating system – new ones already having become established in the wake of the 2013 storm damage.

 

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 The Gibraltar Point Reserve is one of a number managed by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust

Space, the final frontier…

Some of us need space: not all of us obviously, not everyone; just some of us. Those who feel that need most acutely are probably the same ones who are most sensitive to the intrusions which impact on our sense of space.

There are plenty who take the opposite view – the party animals who ‘work’ a room, love a crowd, blossom in heaving, bustling environments, and for whom space is not something they crave. Each to their own, but I’d guess that most walkers do enjoy a bit of elbow room.

I’m not out in the wilds here – I’m going there later, further down the page. Life, as we now live it, seems to deny us space in all sorts of ways: someone determined to drive inches from our rear bumper is an intrusion; others who literally breathe down our necks in supermarket queues are an intrusion; agitated, impatient, crowding in. Whatever the reason the effect is the same – intrusion. And if, like me, you’d prefer a bit of an exclusion zone, then you’d like the intruder to respect that point of view and… well, you know what you’d like them to do.

There’s probably a philosophical debate to be had about what actually constitutes space on earth ; I’m not getting into that –  it would be never-ending. Like space.

Whatever else it may be, it’s undeniably a component of many other things – peace, quiet, solitude, reflection… all of them benefit from a bit of space, a bit of room to breathe.

The one place where we could usually count on finding respite and our own preferred version of space was out in the hills; an environment we mostly had to ourselves – leaving aside the local population of buzzard, raven, polecat, roedeer, adder, whatever… and we didn’t mind sharing with them; they’re mostly non-intrusive and certainly not inclined to get too close. Or even with the other occasional walker(s) who crossed our paths, for they are kindred spirits after all and sensitive to our preferences.

But that space is being eroded; and eroded doesn’t even begin to do justice to what’s happening in parts of the highlands: annexed, commandeered in great swathes, would be nearer the mark. Mostly the intrusions are visual; in a landscape they inevitably would be, although invasive noise is hardly unknown. In the hills, particularly at the summits, horizons are distant and where there is damage in just about every direction, a 360º panorama reveals all of it – turbines, roads, bulldozed tracks, pylons, masts, bunkers and towers with who knows what function…

Horrible, ugly encroachment. A wave of vandalism encouraged and applauded in many cases by so-called environmentalists. I’ve long despaired of the general direction of humanity’s journey, but could we not ruin absolutely everything? Could we not just hang onto a few precious, unspoilt places? Would that be too much to ask?

I’ll nod here – not for the first time recently – to Jim Crumley and his masterwork A High and Lonely Place. Jim, writing about Am Moine Mhor in this instance, talks about not climbing to a summit, but to a space. We all know that feeling, when the path eventually levels out for the final time and you’re as high as you’re going to be on this particular outing: big skies; relief;  a sense of space.

Much as I enjoy a walk I also like to sit, become absorbed into the landscape – inconspicuous, irrelevant in fact. That’s when, if you get lucky, things – the things that belong there – allow you an insight into their lives: the mountain hare, the hen harrier, the red deer stag, the ptarmigan…

Enjoyment of the space – the old ‘far as the eye can see’ saying – is a big part of that. But it’s being systematically ruined and (here’s the real rub) so few people seem to either know or care. Money is being made, and those making most of it are doing a masterly job – a potent cocktail of PR, lobbying, acquisition by stealth. A bloodless coup, symptomatic of the times.

Mid Wales: sparsely populated, spacious, accessible, under constant threat from commercial forestry and worse…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Go quietly and you might spot an adder, a polecat, even a merlin. On an average day, red kite, raven, peregrine and buzzard are never far away. 

Another day, another loss

And another development which defies all logic, rubber-stamped for approval. Which in itself is something of a joke, since the groundwork has been progressing for some time; consent has never been in doubt. I can’t add much that isn’t already better covered by the writer of this this piece

Having a favourite Welsh hill (or range of hills) is no easy choice to make. Mine happen to be The Berwyns – lonely, quiet, at times mysterious; and twelve, maybe fifteen, miles away from where these turbines will be installed.

Still, at least there are some reassurances being sought; and given…

(From the BBC website): “Vale of Clwyd MP Chris Ruane has presented a petition in Parliament asking for reassurances that cables connecting the wind farm to the National Grid at St Asaph would be buried underground.” Okay, well, good luck with that, Chris.

And (also from the BBC website): “The company (RWE) has said it has worked closely with ornithologists and ecologists to produce a habitat management plan, to include restoration of habitats and woodland management.” And would this be an enforceable plan, with no wriggle room and stringent penalties for non-compliance? Just asking…

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The Berwyns – Lonely, quiet, mysterious hills

Anyway, picture standing on the summit of Cadair Berwyn – at 2,720 feet, the highest summit in Wales outwith the national parks and a commanding viewpoint – and looking slightly west of north, towards the coast. You would be looking roughly in the direction of Abergele and, with decent visibility, Clocaenog forest would be in the middle distance. From that vantage point there will be a very clear view of this cluster of turbines.

There are other hills in the area which I know less well (although I’ve walked most of them at least once) and I’m trying to visualise how their views will be impacted. Arenig Fawr and Moel Llyfnant lie to the south west and roughly the same distance away as the Berwyn ridge; these two are just inside the Snowdonia NP boundary and Arenig Fawr tops out at 2,800 feet. My recollection is that it has pretty much unobstructed views of Clocaenog, but it’s been a few years now since I was on that particular top.

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Looking northwest from Cadair Berwyn, towards Snowdon, The Glyders, Tryfan, and Carneddau.

 

A High and Lonely Place

A High and Lonely Place

It’s the title of a book: a good one, by a good writer (Jim Crumley); first published in 1990 and it’s as relevant now as the day it was written, possibly more so. I re-read it a few weeks back, just before a visit to the highlands (although those two things had no deliberate connection) and much of it reads like a present day commentary; you have to remind yourself that it was written a quarter of a century ago, raising concerns which went largely unheeded, much as they still do today.

The high and lonely place of the book’s title is the Cairngorms – the mountains of course, but also the forests and valleys, rivers and marshes, which feed, drain, shelter and, in innumerable other ways, enhance each other and the whole. Some will say, and with valid arguments, that we have better hills and more evocative landscapes. In the end it’s all about opinions: there’s no definitive best mountain, or most magnificent glen, particularly when none of them are the same from one day to the next.

As early in the book as page 22, I came across this passage, where Jim is expressing his anxieties over the future of the remaining forests of Rothiemurchus and Abernethy: “Stand in them, and know that when you do, these same trees were brushed by wolf and Jacobite. Stand in them, feel the past and fear for the future. [Man] has long since passed the day when he could say with any honesty that he never knew”.

All of this was written before the the funicular; before the re-branding of the mountain; before the proliferation of onshore wind; before the ‘need’ never to be without a mobile phone signal.

On one of our outings we crossed the summit plateau of Cairngorm; partly to take in the outlook to the south and also with a view to some reconnaissance for future outings. Scanning around and taking in the views of Derry Cairngorm, Ben Macdui, Cairn Toul, Braeriach (and that’s just a few to be going on with), we were immediately struck by the difference between looking into the heart of the mountains and what you see when you stand near the summit cairns and look outwards. The difference bestowed by national park protection; let’s hope that holds firm when it (inevitably) comes under pressure from speculators and developers.

Low cloud moving across Cairngorm summit. In the distance and just visible, some clearer weather down in Glenmore.

It’s true that Cairngorm itself is an untidy clutter on its northern side: mostly the consequences of ski development. I know there are arguments in favour of skiing as a leisure pursuit; not least the economic benefits in the winter months and, equally importantly, the fact that, for some, it’s an enjoyable activity. There’s no denying though that skiing is greedy for land and creates an awful mess on the hillside when there’s no camouflaging blanket of snow. Of course there are equally instances of spots (Snowdon summit, Ben Nevis as examples) where the accumulated effects of tens of thousands of walkers can leave the place looking far from attractive. The difference on Cairngorm is how quickly, if you choose your path well, you can leave behind the crowds and their debris.

The landscape sometimes pays a heavy price for our recreational activities

On the other hand, it doesn’t take long to escape any evidence of the crowds: a couple of twists in the path, a couple of folds in the landscape, is usually sufficient.

What all this means for us in the longer term is open to conjecture. One definite is that plans for future trips will probably involve walking deeper into the hills, rather than on or around them. More forays into quiet glens – places like Glen Einich – to avoid seeing the things we’d rather not see. In a way, it almost seems like an admission of defeat; albeit one with compensations.
 This was the view from Cairngorm towards Ben Macdui and Loch Etchachan
 
The Spey, assisted by some input from its tributaries, had flooded the Insh marshes and created a wetter than usual wetland habitat. Apparently this is not a typical August scene and certainly one we’d not seen before
 Ruthven Barracks, for a few days at least, gained a moat…
 
A different view of the extensive flooding on both sides of the A9. This was taken from Creag Bheag, a small hill which lies behind Kingussie…
 A roe deer in that peculiar ‘walk forwards, look backwards’ pose, which seems to be a speciality of theirs