Wales Revisited - Back to the Roots
I remember the first camera I ever used - it was a little Kodak 110 back in the late 70s that I used in the back garden and on holidays, but it wasn't until I left home for university in mid Wales that I really started taking an interest in photography. Although I lived directly on the coast, I think even then most of my images were taken on trips to the mountains and hills. We've been back to South Wales again a lot over the last few years as our son was studying engineering there (see previous posts South Wales Revisited, The Slow Goodbye and Homage to Home II), but it has been at least 15 years since we spent any significant time in Sharon's beloved Snowdonia, or Eryri as they're (correctly) re-branding it now.
We'd come to Beddgelert, home to one of my favourite Welsh stories, not fully sure what to expect either from the ravages of time or the notoriously fickle weather and ended up falling in love with this corner of the British Isles all over again. Sharon had (as always) managed to find us a great base for our five days in Snowdonia, an old terraced cottage on the main road through the village and after arriving we immediately set out to explore the river and the immediate area. Beddgelert had changed very little since we were last here and remains a delightfully unspoilt collection of houses set slightly further back from the tourist hub of Betws-y-Coed and other hiking centres. Although we were directly on the main road, this remained virtually silent at night.
Beddgelert is one of those delightful villages with an overabundance of chapels and pubs. The village derives its name from an ancient tale concerning Prince Llewelyn and his faithful hound Gelert (Bedd-Gelert translates to Gelert's Grave). Rather than retelling the story, I'll leave a photo of the plaque - fittingly carved from Welsh slate - at the supposed burial site.
The main pub in the village is unsurprisingly the Prince Llewelyn, which at the time of writing served one of the best beers I have ever tasted - Cwrw'r Ddraig Aur or Golden Dragon Ale.
The tiny village (population 455) nestles neatly between the hills at the confluence of two rivers, the Glaslyn and the Colwyn with a lovely stone bridge. Oh, and their own artisanal ice cream manufacturer. We may have popped in once or twice...
Fauna and Flora
On our first evening in the village we took a leisurely stroll down the Glaslyn River to see what was what. Very quickly we happened on a chap sitting on a bench studiously regarding a nearby tree through his binoculars. Curious, I asked him what he was looking for and he pointed me to a knot where a little head was poking out. Soon an adult nuthatch fluttered in, fed the nestling and zoomed off again. I'd never had the opportunity to photograph nuthatches so close up and was thrilled to be able to sit there and take a series of photos using the 100-400 mm lens in fantastic light.
The river was also a home - or at least feeding-ground - for a wide range of other birds including dippers, pied-and grey-wagtails and mergansers.
Of course, a trip to Wales wouldn't be complete without sheep - the country has a population of 3.1M people with at least three-times as many sheep. Lambing season was well over and the young animals were mostly weaned and putting on mass, though they weren't wandering too far from their mothers.
When we booked our stay in Eryri a while back it had crossed both of our minds that the bluebells might be flowering, but when we were driving down the last stretch from Caernarfon to Beddgelert and kept seeing flashes of blue flowers in the verges, it took us several miles to realise just what we were seeing. Normally bluebells are a spring woodland flower. Here they appear to grow out on the hillsides as well.
After 33 years living in Germany, there are still a few things I miss about the homeland; British tea (we import almost all of our tea from the UK), cheddar cheese (in the meantime to be found in most well-stocked supermarkets) and bluebells. Oh, and real ale. Sorry Germany, your beer isn't as good as you think it is. It's not bad, but you just can't beat a pint of best.
Of course, if you find a sheep that's willing to pose in a bed of bluebells then you've got the best of both worlds...
Eryri - Snowdonia
I only spent three years living in Aberystwyth as I came to Germany after finishing my BSc, whereas Sharon stayed on to do her PhD, meaning that she spent twice as long. One of her achievements during this time was to climb all of Wales' 183 2,000' peaks and so she knows the area like the back of her hand. It went without saying, therefore, that we'd need to spend at least some of the five days up in the hills. Day two saw us more or less alone on Moel Hebog and we ended the week with a 'quick' trip up Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon). My 5th (6th?) summit and Sharon's 15th or 16th. Walking up from Rhyd Ddu just after 8:00 we met a young couple coming down who had gone up for the sunrise.
This next shot is admittedly nothing special, but it's a 'scouting' image; Beddgelert is half-way point on the Porthmadog to Caernarfon Welsh Highland Steam Railway. Throughout the week I kept my eyes open for a suitable spot to photograph the train (who can say no to a good shot of a steam train?) - bridges, tunnels and the like. Coming down off Snowdon we crossed the railway line just after this curve. Looks like a hit for me. Next time we're in town we'll have to check out the railway timetable and hit this spot again.
Although we were prepared for the crowds, after being more or less alone on Moel Hebog and Moel Y Dyniewyd, even though we were early on the summit we were far from alone. This is a crazy phenomenon, there are so many peaks in Wales (183, as mentioned above) and plenty of room for all, yet seemingly 90% of the footfall seems to hit a few big name summits; Pen-Y-Fan in Bannau Brycheiniog (the Brecon Beacons), Cadair Idris and Yr Wyddfa. I'm not sure what can be done to buck the trend, or whether it should be bucked. At least it leaves the other hills for the rest of us...
The Waters of Wales
I think that Welsh water and Olympus cameras are a match made in heaven with their image stabilisation and built-in electronic ND filters, meaning that you can take slowed-down shots of fast-flowing water without resorting to either a tripod or external filters.
One of the appealing aspects of water photography is that you will never get the same shot twice; what is a gentle stream one day can be a raging torrent the next. The River Llugwy at Betws-Y-Coed in one such water course and the rapids immediately upstream of Pont-Y-Pair bridge can vary from 'mostly harmless' to 'danger of death'. The rivers were showing signs of not having been fed for several weeks while we were there. It would be fun to revisit these spots under different conditions.
Waterfall photos don't always need to take in the whole scene. Sometimes a closeup works beautifully too.
Ynys Môn - Anglesey
I think I must have visited Anglesey at least once before - probably during a holiday on the Llyn Peninsular back in the 70s or 80s; the path down to South Stack lighthouse definitely looked familiar. I certainly didn't visit the island during my time living in Wales.
The cliffs surrounding the island and indeed the island itself is a haven for seabirds; we saw herring gulls, razorbills, guillemots (lots of guillemots) and even a puffin (yeah!). You can hear and smell the bird colonies from the top of the cliffs. We'd spent a couple of hours at Ynys Llynddwyn earlier in the afternoon and decided to head up to South Stack on the recommendation of a local photographer whom I look up to and had hoped to meet while we were in the area, but that was not to be.
Ynys Llanddwyn (The Island of St. Dwynwen's Church is one of those special places where the buildings and the landscape seem inseparable. I've come across a couple of others in my travels; the church of St. John the Baptist at Raisting in Bavaria and the little chapel at Wankerfleck near Füssen. Although I'm a Christian, I'm also a scientist and I don't hold much for mysticism and magic, never put much stock in ley lines and the like. At places of ephemeral beauty like these, my natural materialism wavers.
According to another photographer who I bumped into while on Anglesey, the lighthouse on Ynys Llanddwyn is the most photographed image in all of Wales. Scouting about I found this image utilising the sea pinks as a leading line up to the staircase. Although the scene has been shot thousands of times, I haven't seen this particular take on it.
Although I knew that I'd found a solid composition (above), I'm wasn't happy with the light. Every photographer breaks down the process of photography differently. My take is that there are four basic pillars to the art; (1) Planning and Persistence, (2) Composition, (3) Technical Mastery and (4) Digital Darkroom. This doesn't mean you can't create a good photograph without mastering all of these elements, you can get lucky with the conditions the composition can present itself, the shot can be taken in fully automatic mode on the camera and may require minimal editing. But in order to be a good photographer I would argue that you should be concentrating on all four elements.
Planning and persistence has to do with recognising the limits of an image and identifying which conditions would improve the shot - whether this means waiting for the right weather conditions, time of day, tide state or even planning when to catch the moon rising behind a particular feature. Even though we'd climbed Snowdon that day, I knew that it would probably be a couple of years before I got a chance to retake this image in better light, so after an early dinner I decided to embark on a 3 h round trip back to Anglesey to retake the photos is the evening light. The persistence and planning paid off - I got to the spot well ahead of sunset, which was just as well as it took me quite a few minutes to re-find my composition of the previous afternoon. Spot found, it was a question of waiting for the light. The soft golden side light, the wispy clouds and the warm summer evening told me that I'd absolutely made the right decision to come back - see also the image at the top of the page.
Apart from anything else, there was a lovely group of people on Ynys Llanddwyn as the sun set. A fellow photographer, some dog walkers and a friendly couple of guys part way through a circumnavigation of the island. I'm not naturally the most garrulous of people, but we got chatting and had some lovely conversations that lasted all the way back to the car park in one case. Good to meet you Andy.
What the Future Holds
I have to admit, I spent the whole week in Beddgelert in scout mode for leading a workshop here. I could easily imagine running a 4-5 day workshop here some time in the next couple of years. Coming back in May to catch the bluebells would be a great time to do this. Watch this space!