The Two Faces of Angle – Part 1

P1100802 - Gun Emplacement, Angle Peninsula
I’ve decided that the latter part of 2017 will be focussed on seeking out new walking routes and challenges. We’re already off to a good start thanks to our exploration of Trefil and the Chartist’s Cave a couple of weeks ago and quickly followed that up with a complete circumnavigation of the Angle peninsula in Pembrokeshire. Now I must admit we have visited Angle once before on a particularly wet and windy winters day but that was in the age before this blog and my renewed interest in photography so doesn’t really count. Thankfully conditions were a lot more favourable this time around and we arrived at West Angle Bay in glorious sunshine. Holidaymakers already filled the beach and small café but it only took a few minutes of walking to find ourselves once more alone and enjoying fantastic views across to Thorn Island.

P1100749 - West Angle Bay

The fort which now dominates this small speck of land was completed in 1854 with the sole aim of deterring any invasion from those pesky Europeans across the channel. It and the other Napoleonic forts evidently did their job and went untroubled, this one being sold in 1947 and converted into a hotel.  By all accounts the accommodation was basic but must have offered its occupants something of a unique experience, particularly on stormy days. Sadly the hotel closed again in the 1990’s and has lain dormant ever since despite changing hands on at least two occasions. The latest sale went through just a month or so ago and with maintenance already being undertaken perhaps the future is starting to look a little brighter for Thorn Island.

Evenings by the Sea

Our next house is going to be in walking distance of the coast. We’re not that far off now but somehow the upper reaches of a tidal estuary just can’t quite cut it against the call of an open ocean. There’s no waves for a start! Such a move will also save us the short evening drive which has become all too familiar of late as we cut loose the memories of work and escape to a place of big seas and even bigger skies. With time often tight it’s typically been the north coast of the Burry Inlet which has provided our fix, more specifically the section between Tywyn Bach and Burry Port itself.  These last few weeks have seen some stunning light there, set off perfectly by a landscape shaped at the hands of countless high tides and gale force winds.

P1100721 - Tywyn Bach

P1100722 - Tywyn Bach

We usually have this place mostly to ourselves bar the occasional fisherman or dog walker, and that suits us fine. It means there’s no distractions between us and the wildlife, be that chattering Sand Martins at their breeding colony or roving flocks of Oystercatchers chasing the tide out only to be pushed back in the face of its relentless rise. A couple of Great-crested Grebes are not uncommon along with the more regular Cormorants, nor Gannets which sometimes venture this far up channel. Regrettably not every visitor males it back out alive and the sad sight of stranded Barrel Jellyfish has become ever more common.

P1030688 - Barrel Jellyfish, Rhossili

At this time of year there’s the added attraction of Sandwich Terns which summer here before moving on. We had pretty good views of a pair just after our return from Mull but that encounter was well and truly knocked into the long grass by a trio of birds which we found fishing literally just beyond the breaking waves. Alerted to their presence thanks to that distinctive call they couldn’t have been entering water more than a couple of foot deep but that didn’t seem to deter them as dive after dive produced a plethora of fish. I just had to try and get something on camera and ended up coming away with this as the best of a bad bunch.

P1100731_2 - Sandwich Tern, Burry Inlet

Of course there’s plenty of commoner species about too including the ubiquitous Gulls of which Black Headed and Herring are most numerous. Crows and Magpies can often be found patrolling the tide line for insects feasting on rotting seaweed whilst the combination of woodland and pasture beyond is home to everything from Whitethroats and Stonechats to, if you’re really lucky, Grasshopper Warblers in full song.

P1100715 - Black Headed Gull

To top it all our return journey just happens to pass the best fish and chip shop is our area and, well, it would be rude not to really, wouldn’t it?

Chris Packham's Fingers in the Sparkle Jar - A Review

I’ve never read a memoir before but Chris Packham’s “Fingers in the Sparkle Jar” seemed as good a place to start as any. After all I’ve been watching Chris on television since I was a child, have met him numerous times in the wild and even attended one of his talks. I felt I knew the man pretty well.

I was wrong.

Turning that first page I went in with no preconceptions bar a vague recollection that the press had thrown a wobbly when the book was first published over a passage where Chris describes eating tadpoles. I remember being perplexed at this and thinking what a shame more people don’t get those same opportunities to experience nature on such a basic level in their early years. Though I have to admit my own preference would probably have been for wild blackberries but each to their own.

Then I stumbled. Expecting a standard “I was born in a council house blah blah blah” narrative I was somewhat taken aback by the fluid prose which seemed to delight in excessive use of adjectives and unusual sentence structure, all told from another person's perspective. In fact the reading experience put me in mind of Bram Stoker’s Dracula which similarly had me re-reading whole passages in an attempt to better grasp their true meaning. Then the whole thing shifted into third person and then jarringly first person, confusing and unsettling me even more. Perhaps that’s the reason why the sudden interjection of Chris’s therapist discussing his suicide attempt in 2003 was quite so hard hitting. It was completely unexpected in both timing and content, a side to this public figure whom I greatly respected that up until that point I’d had no idea even existed.

From that moment the book just clicked. The previously confusing prose painted vivid images in my mind, the switch in tense perfectly used to demonstrate how Chris saw himself and how he thought others perceived him and the constant shift in time a way of weaving interlinked threads together. I found myself so deeply involved that my heart genuinely went out to his suffering, from schoolyard bullies to plain old cruelty. That he was so misunderstood in his youth is clear, his subsequent rise to prominence all the more surprising.

As much as I loved reading of Chris’s exploits in the wild, of his pet Kestrel and nature museum, this book is as much about his struggles to identify with others and to manage his complex personality at a time when Asperger’s was yet to be recognised. In parts heartwarming, others depressing it charts a life from which we should all take a little inspiration. I found some of the most powerful passages to be Chris’s own insights into how he dealt with, and indeed still does deal with, his issues and their causes including this one in particular:

"Happiness, that's it isn't it, that's the big problem.....because it's the same old paradoxical recipe for misery, Over the years I've seen people's cravings for stability yield squalor rather than sparkle, their too-easy contentment gives them none of the excitement of a struggle against the odds, none of the allure of being plagued with uncertainty or teased by the appalling option of giving up. Their so-called happiness has turned out to be a promise of emotional and experiential poverty, and that's' why it, and contentment, must be avoided at all costs."
If there’s a more powerful description of all that’s wrong with the lives we're told to strive for in this world of ours, I’ve yet to read it.

Needless to say I rate “Fingers in the Sparkle Jar” very highly indeed. It was an enthralling read from start to finish that left me questioning and pondering for many days hence. By the end I felt that I understood the place which built the man we see today, but it also left me wanting more, so much more. How for instance did this shy, awkward child lashing out as part of the punk movement find himself a children's TV icon. I only hope there’s another volume in the works.

Disclaimer: all views are my own based on a personal purchase, of my own volition, that I think others may enjoy.

Trefil to the Chartist's Cave

P1100590 - Chartist's Cave, Trefil
There’s something rather appealing about visiting a place that can lay claim to a title. Capitol of, most northerly, most westerly, most inebriated. You get the idea. For our first full day’s walk since returning from Mull we had another such location in mind, this one being the highest village in Wales. Sitting 409 meters above sea level Trefil, as it’s more commonly known, lies right on the boundary of the Brecon Beacons and to be honest hadn’t crossed my consciousness before now other than a glimpsed road sign as we blasted our way out of Wales along the Heads of the Valleys road. So why now? A good question with no more a complex answer than I happened to see a photo of the Chartist’s Cave whilst browsing the web and immediately thought to myself – I have to go there. Out came the OS maps, routes were plotted and on our first free Saturday we found ourselves looking down the broad Sirhowy Valley having just climbed out of Trefil itself.

P1100565 - Trefil

Pembrey Terns

P1100555 - Oystercatchers, Pembrey
I did wonder how long it would take me to start missing Mull and begin searching the property listings once more but even by my standards the afternoon of our return was unexpectedly rapid. The fact is that we had such a fantastic time that initially at least all I could focus on was how soon until we could get back? October’s looking like a potential option and is an attractive time of year too with the island’s Red Deer rut in full swing and all that choking Bracken well and truly dead. Good for walking and photography alike. The long drive home also got us talking about a new project we’d like to take on which should make our future exploration, in particular a tour of the entire Hebrides archipelago, a much easier and more enjoyable affair. For now though that’s all I’m going to say on the subject just in case nothing more comes of it. In the meantime the best way to take our minds off that Mull shaped hole in our hearts was to get back out into the great outdoors which is exactly what we’ve been doing.

First up was a late evening visit to the old Pembrey harbour a couple of weeks ago in order to coincide with both a spring high tide and sunset. Our timing was a little off arriving as we did after the main sandbanks had been inundated but that only made the views across the Burry Inlet all the more impressive. The less said about the sunset the better (it went cloudy).

P1100528 - Pembrey

Even as we watched the water level continued to rise, moving with a surprising turn of pace as it crept first up to the edge of its normal containment before spilling over. Footprints left from the day’s visitors were consumed one after another until the harbour looked fit to bursting, as indeed it was. This of course left very little space for any birds, the majority having been pushed over to Pembrey Burrows and out of sight. There were still gems to be found however which included at least thirteen Mediterranean Gulls loafing out in the Burry but I’d estimate that you could safely triple that number with ease and still not be near their true population. An impressive increase when I think back to even a couple of years ago.

Their stable-mates the Sandwich Terns were much noisier with special mention going to one particular pair which spent a good ten minutes flying in high circles overhead, each clearly not happy at the others presence. Equally vocal were a couple of hundred Oystercatchers huddled together on the eastern point of Pembrey Burrows, their evening roost slightly disturbed by a couple of kayakers wisely biding their time until the waters had ceased their race. Eventually even that position became untenable, consumed entirely and sending the flock skywards. Indecisive they milled around in front of us for a few moments before eventually heading over to Gower. We may not have Eagles down here but we do a fine line in Oyks.

P1100550 - Oystercatchers, Pembrey

P1100555 - Oystercatchers, Pembrey

Four Dunlin were also present briefly along with a small number of Common Gulls but there was no sign of the hoped for Ringed Plovers roosting on the inner breakwater. Probably too much disturbance. Not a problem for the colony of Sea Holly which also grows there and which was looking in fine health on this balmy summer’s eve.

P1100534 - Sea Holly

We finished off with a juvenile Linnet which briefly had us shouting Twite before our location brought us to our senses. It may take a few days to get my birding radar back into Welsh mode.

The Curtain Call - Isle of Mull

P1100526 - Glac Gugairidh, Isle of Mull
Originally written 21/07/2017

And so to the last of my posts from Mull this summer, but what a fortnight it’s been. We’ve experienced everything from glorious sunshine to gale force winds and unrelenting rain, Eagles aplenty not to mention sharing an island with just eight other souls and several thousand sea birds. There’s been Dolphins and Otters, Red Deer and Hares, and my footsteps have been a little more cautious having discovered that we’ve Adders basking all across the valley. Both of us have suffered from a damp foot or two thanks to Mull’s boggy interior but all is forgiven after the fantastic and memorable time we’ve been able to spend out in our kayaks. There’s been no ascent of Ben More but we did make it back up Beinn an Lochain and Carn Moir and finally managed to squeeze in my first ever trip across to Ulva. In fact looking back it’s hard to believe we’ve managed to cram so much in and that probably explains the few aches and pains I’m now carrying. Nothing ten hours in the car can’t fix as we make the long journey back to Wales.

The prospect of that very drive meant I favoured a walk from the house with which to round off our Mull adventure. It only felt right really as we got to say goodbye to some of the sights and wildlife with which we’ve been living side by side these last couple of weeks. If only the weather would have played its part but things could I suppose have been a lot worse than the grey sky and showers which faced us. They did however make for slightly treacherous walking conditions as we rock hopped along the coast, one of north west Mull’s hidden secrets our destination.

P1100517 - Isle of Mull

As we’d seen elsewhere Black Guillemots seem to be doing very well this year with at least another nine individuals out on the water and likely more hidden up in the cliffs. Wheatears were about as well even along the rocky shore though I must admit the sight of a female Pheasant down here did cause us a degree of surprise. Something which was by now almost expected however was the view of a Common Sandpiper’s rear end disappearing off into the distance, one species which no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t get close to this time. Out in the loch a trio of Commic Terns were hunting not far from a small flock of at least ten Kittiwakes who as one would periodically dive down to the water’s surface. An impressive sight for sure.

P1100522 - Still Cave, Isle of Mull

Taking far longer than normal thanks to the slippery conditions we did eventually make it to the still cave. So called thanks to its association with the illegal distilling of alcohol back when these valleys used to be inhabited it now sits abandoned to the birds, a small raised level and a couple of old barrels the only hints to its illicit past.

P1100519 - Still Cave, Isle of Mull

And of those old communities we passed two on our way back out, first Crackaig which we visited on our first walk here two weeks ago and then Glac Gugairidh nestled over the rise just a little higher up the valley. The network of stone walls and well preserved buildings there make this one of the most evocative abandoned villages on Mull. It’s not hard to imagine what it must have been like for people living up here, a hard life of course but one with a great sense of community.

P1100524 - Crackaig, Isle of Mull

P1100525 - Glac Gugairidh, Isle of Mull

P1100526 - Glac Gugairidh, Isle of Mull

Back at our house it was as if all the valley birds had come out to pay their respects. The feeders were packed with two families of Great Tits and a variety of Chaffinches, fledgling Robins and Dunnocks littered the ground whilst juvenile Blackbirds and a very active Willow Warbler were constantly flying back and forth. The ever cautious Rock Doves even dropped in briefly before the sight of one another sent them into a blind panic and heading back the way they’d come. Our resident Song Thrush and pair of Swallows were also about as was the young Rabbit which has spent each evening carefully chewing its way through the daisies and buttercups outside our window as I’ve been writing these blogs. I’ll miss them all but I’m confident they’ll be waiting for us to top up the feeders next time we find ourselves on the glorious, Isle of Mull.
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