• Puffins, rocks and a bleeding yew

    Escaped last week to the pleasures of Pembrokeshire with the main aim of visiting Skomer to see puffins for the first time in my life. We were in luck - the ferry was going on the Wednesday. It doesn't always run if the wind comes from the north, making safe passage a bit dodgy, and even on our return crossing with the wind heading round that way it was pretty lively. However, it was all well worth while - 30,000 puffins on Skomer, and as soon as you land the air is thick with them. These fabulous little birds nest in burrows on the cliff tops, mainly at two particular hotspots on the island. Many are quite happy with you only a matter of a few feet away - guess they have just become so used to visitorss. Trying to get that classic image of a bird with a mouthful of sandeels is harder than you'd think as they tend to fly in and dive straight down the burrows to feed their young, but I got one crack at a bird that posed beautifully for a few seconds before disappearing underground. The other speciality of the island is the Manz shearwater, but they tend to be nocturnal, so we didn't catch a glimpse. The flowers on the island are pretty spectacular too - vast swathes of red campion and hummocks of white bladder campion, and (although we'd missed the best of it) thrift.

    We spent some time in one or two of the little coves just marvelling at all the different rock formations - very clear illustrations of strata upheaval and some great colouring. I wish I knew more about geology, but it doesn't diminish the enjoyment. Who needs art when you have rocks like these?

    Heading back home on Thursday we stopped off at St. Brynach's church in Nevern to have a squint at the Bleeding Yew, a tree that I featured a few years back in my Heritage Trees Wales (soon to be reprinted). An avenue of eight trees leads from the gate to the church door and it's the second on the right that is named the Bleeding Yew because of a sticky red blood-like fluid that exudes from the site of a bough cut off in the nineteenth century. This weird phenomenon has attracted various legends and beliefs. Christians believe it weeps for the crucifixion of Christ - the wounds symbolising where He was nailed to the cross. Pagans, on the other hand, see a vision of the Earth Mother, the bleeding redolent of menstruation. Another tale tells of a monk who was hanged for some unknown crime, but protesting his innocence he cried out, 'If you hang me, guiltless as I am, these trees will bleed for me.'

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  • It's been a while...

    Yes, it has been a while since I last dropped anything into the blog, largely because I've been going full tilt finishing my forthcoming book - "Ash" - of which more very soon. The book is done and awaiting transfer to my printer in Italy.

    Meanwhile I took a break from the frenetic goings-on last week. On a day off I wondered into one of the local charity shops & discovered a little book called "In Search of Wales" by H.V. Morton, published in 1932. Morton was one of the most celebrated travel and countryside writers of his day although his style seems quite dated and some of his observations of the quaint country folk he met even a little patronising. However, whether it was Morton or a gifted editor who chose the photographs for his book I know not, but the quality of the few sepia images is something special. The printers even took the trouble to mount the double-page spread images so that the gutter doesn't break them in half. Inspired! I would think that some of the landscapes will have had printed-in skies, but the compositions are excellent and the Cockle Women of Penclawdd picture is a little masterpiece. How come I have never seen this picture before?

    See what you think.

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  • Sidetracked by ice-artscapes

    When I was up in Scotland about three weeks back I was out on the scout for some good early morning ash tree pictures and stepped down to the water's edge of the Dundonnell River and was completely sidetracked by the ice pattern lying over the flowing river beneath. It's a little after the event but I was so blown away by the pictures I found I thought you'd like to see some of them. A bit like cloudscapes I do love the way these images are transient and irrepeatable. It would have been amazing to watch them forming overnight.

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  • Snowed in

    I'm sure lots of people will be posting extreme snowy pictures right now, but this incredible weather (in March if you please) is probably the greatest fall of snow we've seen in the 28 years that we've lived in Stoke Lacy, exascerbated no doubt by the high winds. Since it turns out that the County Council only have one single snow blower we're not expecting to be released any time soon. Bit frustrating as the main road is only some 500 yards away & appears to be running freely. Hunkering down and throwing another log on the woodburner.

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  • Remarkable ash trees further north than Rassal

    I have just returned from a trip to Scotland (beat the snows by a couple of days) to photograph some special ash trees for my forthcoming monograph "Ash", to be published later this year (exact dates to follow).

    For a long time Rassal Ashwood in Wester Ross has been heralded as the most northerly ash stand in Britain - even I gave it this accolade in my "Hidden Trees of Britain", but the owner of an estate in the Dundonnell valley, about another 50 miles further north insists that his ash trees have been overlooked by this claim. I went to investigate.

    Sure enough the valley is well stocked with plenty of fine specimens of ash - admittedly most of the denser concentrations of trees are old plantings along the riverside - probably placed there some 200 years ago, judging by their size, to strengthen the banks with their root systems. Dotted throughout the valley there are many fine ash maidens, but virtually no evidence of coppice or pollard management. Most of these trees are fairly evenly spread through birch/alder woodland, with occasional oaks and the odd beech. Many of the alders show signs of having been coppiced in the diatant past, but it does seem strange that the ashes were allowed to grow on. Perhaps there was another purpose in mind for the timber? One of the biggest ashes that fell a couple of years back was cut up and the rings counted - it had a diameter of about 70-80 cms, but contained over 300 annual rings. I compare this to an ash of very similar size that we felled on our land here in Herefordshire a few years back and that contained 160 rings - quite a difference! It vividly illustrates how variable growth rates can be depending on latitude, soil, aspect and climate (altitude not really applicable in this case). Given the number of deer and sheep in the valley it's pretty amazing that any ash trees were ever able to get away in the first place, but again looking after the livestock might have been another reason for promoting ash, as the leaves have been used for animal fodder since time immemorial. They simply must have had some sort of protection when they were first planted though.

    With the snowclad peaks, dominated by An Teallach, in the background and that low winter sunlight I love so much I was in love with the Dundonnell valley for a couple of very productive days.

    Scotland had a couple of other ash treasures to offer too, but you'll have to wait for the book for these...

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