Fire, water and slate. A week in Wales

Mawddach Estuary

Gwynedd, August.

An old cottage, walls an arm-depth thick, hidden in the dappled sunlight of a wood at the foot of a mountain.
Gold crests, nuthatches and treecreepers fly over the roof.
Through the windows comes the sound of the river.
It pours under a stone bridge draped in ivy, moss and lichen.


Darkness surrounds us – no moon, no stars, no street lights.
Pages turn, the fire crackles.
A pause: “The baby’s moving again..”


Cadair Idris and heather

A walk.

Me, my fiancee and our soon-to-be baby.
High on a ridge, purple and yellow and humming with bees.
A strong breeze, heather scented.
White clouds scud across a blue sky, over the sheer walls of the Cadair, the rock throne of the Mountain Giant, Idris.

A ruined chapel, its graveyard full of farmers and their families.
Hard, short lives.
Could they look out from their resting places they would see the fields they used to tend, still full of sheep, wagtails and crows.
I like to think they’d smile.


A ride/A swim

Geese flying in formation up the estuary, below them slow brown eddies move inland withe the tide.
The rising water creeps up the mud, pushing curlew towards the bank.

We follow the old railway to the sea on a bicycle made for two.
The end of the line.
The ghosts of Victorian holidays – bathing machines, donkey rides and iced cream.
Buried in the sand, drowned in the sea.
Now a faded town of chips, amusements and hungry gulls.

The Blue Lake, Fairbourne

A climb past the church, up to a slate plateau.
A vast metal flywheel lies at the entrance of a tunnel, we walk up the stream emerging from it.
Light, darkness, light.
A flooded quarry.
A step from a rock, a moment in the warm air, then water.
Cold, cold water; deeper than anyone knows.
Deeper than a fishing line we are told, water as deep as the sea.


A hike/A night in the dark

Blue sky, white clouds, warmth.
A lizard sunning itself on the path scuttles off as we approach.
The distance to Harlech inscribed on an ancient stone marker.
We look up at a dip in the ridge high above us – “Bwlch Y Rhiwgyr, “The Drover’s Pass.”
We would have heard them before we saw them.
Shouts and calls to warn farmers to bring in their livestock or risk losing it in the throng.
Then a half mile of men, horses, cattle, pigs and geese on a three week journey to London.
Three weeks of bogs, moors, forests, thieves and wolves.
Only the ravens calling now.

The summit of Diffwys, we can see for miles.
Snowdon sits on the horizon.
Great banks of waves roll in from the Irish Sea.
Manganese from this mountain’s heart strengthened the steel of the late industrial revolution.
Under the path the tunnels of a forgotten mine lie in silence, their props fallen, their entrances collapsed.
Wild goats roam the old tram ways that lead from it, wary, they disappear as we descend.

Fire in Cefn Cam

Clouds gather as night falls over Cefn Gam slate quarry.
We pitch our tent in the stone skeleton of a ruined oubuilding
These walls, a few broken tracks and the metal belly of an upturned cart, the last of man’s artefacts unclaimed by the moor.
Slates on the waste heap shift under the hooves of sheep, knockings and crunchings out of sight.
We light a fire, dead bracken and heather catch quickly.
We warm our hands on the flames as peat-tinged stream water boils.
After the fire dies and we turn offf the torch, we sleep in pitch black.
Later we hear wind and rain on canvas.

In the damp morning we explore.
Meadow pipits scatter before us, short calls of alarm,  little brown flurries.
Into the quarry.
Rowan trees cling to the side of a green chasm.
Standing on the edge, nerves tingle as we look down.
Water falls down to the pool at the bottom of this great tear in the ground, time passing, drop by drop.

Down to the estuary through the mossy oak woods, a shower soaking us.
Then sun, the wet road steaming in the heat.


The beach.

Standing on the grey, deserted beach, grey cloud meeting grey water.
Wind blowing little waves backwards in the shallows.
A few plover scurry about, their feathers buffeted.

Time to go home.

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A spring run


The River Shep


It’s a cold, bright start to the day and we’re running through a field, a pack of two, following the tracks of the deer that pass this way at night.

Spring is early this year and pollen coats my girlfriend’s top as we brush through the vivid yellow rape, the first bees of the day buzzing around us.

To run in the countryside is to feel a little wild, a little primitive.

Rapid footfall, rapid breaths, rapid heartbeats – bodily reminders of earlier times when we ran to survive – chasing prey or escaping harm.

Now we’re moving through a golf course – two sweating, panting creatures – out of place amongst the greens and ample parking, the good walks spoiled as Twain may or may not have put it.

And then along the banks of the Shep, as clear as glass, a chalk stream full of trout. We follow the light dappled current downstream from the springs it bubbles out of.

A sharp cry, blue lightning over the water. A kingfisher, a halcyon day.

Skylarks call for mates in the fields around us, blackbirds collect mud for their nests, ducks swim in pairs – it’s breeding time.

We run across the main road, the noise of cars and lorries breaking the spell…

.. but only for a while.

Back by the river, marsh marigolds light up the bank near to where the lambs take a break from jumping and skipping to drink.

Spring14 004


Young leaves, green, bright and fresh, bursting all around us.

White blackthorn blossoms drifting like snow on the breeze.

Past the flint church, the pavement’s thin tarmac is being torn open by green shoots – Spring will not be denied.

Off the road onto an old way, overgrown and damp. At the end a meadow, just beginning to dry after a sodden winter – we jump puddles and follow new paths made by feet trying to avoid water.

Back along the river Mel to the playing fields on the edge of the village – children playing football in the sun.

Home again.

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Christmas in Brecon

In the morning: Out side -frozen mist. Inside – children crawling and running.

A brown flood pours down the valley.

Roman legionaries marched along this swollen river soon after Christ died – eager for Welsh copper and gold.

The Beacons lie on the horizon, their tops lit by bright snow.

In the afternoon: A small boy, pushed in a wheelbarrow, races around his garden – startling robins and blackbirds.

Time for a mince pie.

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Walking to the Mine: A hike to Rhosydd Quarry, Snowdonia.

Hamish and his fire

The mist had come in the night.

As we had climbed higher the grey damp had all but swallowed us, transporting us through time. No roads, power lines or houses visible, just us and the path beneath our feet, cut into the side of Moelwyn Mawr a hundred and fifty years ago. It had been made for the pack horses that carried slate from Rhosydd, a remote mine on a high col, to the world below.

Some of the miners walked this route to get to and from this and other quarries in the area.

We were hiking on a saturday, the day they finished their working week; on mornings such as this exhausted men would have been walking past us, heading down for the comfort of home.

These were young men with old bones, lucky to get into their forties, they were killed early by hard work or in accidents: A flickering of the lights, a crash, then darkness. Down the mountain one last time. Church bells in the village.


A brief clearing of the mist, a glimpse of dark looming rock, a halo of of watery sun. Newly confident we climb upwards. But as we go higher mist becomes cloud, curtains of  grey close behind us and again we’re walking in a half-place, a small, dim world with blurred edges that belongs to us only.


Later we stand on the top of Cnict.

The clouds have lifted as the wind has strengthened and we can see for miles; below, the green Croesor Valley, across, the grey Moelwyn Mawr. Far off, the dull brown sea.

The only hiker we’ve met up here on the ridge has disappeared and now we have only a pair of ravens for company. Large black wings extended, balancing on the air rushing above us as we look around.

At a distance the landscape begins to reveal its secrets.

The long, straight path we’d crossed hours earlier – one of a number of abandonned inclines that still descend the huge glacial spur trailing from Moelwn Mawr. Memorials to the ingenuity and longevity of Victorian engineering.

The old track we’d followed on the valley floor – a tramway linking the inclines to the railway to the coast. From there it left on boats, bound for the roofs of nineteenth century London.)

The lakes on the map we were planning to navigate by later –  resevoirs, dammed to supply head pressure for the vast water wheels that drove the quarry machinery.


As night falls we reach Cwm Orthin.

We had spent the day walking on a ghostly transport network for an all but forgotten industry and now we were going to spend a night in its heart – the mine itself.

We wander around the stone skeletons of a barracks, a vast wheel house and a stables. We pass mysterious stone pillars and try to guess their purpose.

Beneath us lies a wet, black, netherworld of tunnels, floods, rotten bridges, broken tracks and rusting machinery. From drips to torrents, water in all its forms is claiming the mine for itself.




The moon rises above the edge of the rock basin we are camping in. It lights up the ruin of Plas Cwmorthin, the house that belonged to the manager of Rhosydd and we forage for firewood in the remains of  his garden, the sound of a waterfall filling our ears.


Hamish and his fire
My friend Hamish lights a fire the old way, with birch bark, flint and twig and we warm ourselves under a cold, starry sky. The flames’ orange glow offsets the ominous presence of  the millions of tonnes of waste slate that is heaped  all around us. It tranfoms our tent and equipment into a camp.

Like other men who were here at other times, we sit, tired out, and talk about our day.




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seven peaks

Guadarrama Mountains, Spain, late October.

Hiking the forest section of the trail to the peak of Penalara, we stopped to watch as a group of vultures rose up on the thermals.

Later I remembered the excellent Wing Beats – a book of Haiku about British birds – and thought I’d have a go.

I followed the traditional English Haiku pattern of 5-7-5 syllables, though I gather that’s a bit old fashioned – the new kids on the block use fewer syllables but more freely.

Any thoughts welcome. And no – “don’t write anymore Haiku” is not the sort of thing i’m after..

warm pine air rising
dark wingtips spread in the blue
shadows far below

*with apologies to the Japanese.

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Singing Seals and Shifting Sands. An Autumn Day on Blakeney Point.

Blakeney Seals 2

Blakeney Point: millions of tonnes of sand and shingle slowly pouring from the sea to form a four mile long spit, moving northwards year by year, century by century.


A little boat full of rain coats, cameras and binoculars.

We leave Morston harbour, a bay sheltered by the Point, its waters calm. As we progress Cormorants and Mergansers float by.

Wind and the cries of gulls, the first spots of rain.

In the distance, long, fat mounds, dark against the sand on a bank, some of them belly-shuffling into the water. We’re approaching some of the seven hundred seals that spend at least part of their year here.

One group of Common Seals comes close to take a look at us, a mass of dark, round eyes following our progress from in between the low waves.

Most remain on shore, relaxing. Some crane their necks to get a better look but most lie on their sides, their “smiles” and whiskers vertical. A quick glance, a scratch with a flipper, all seems ok, no need to stir.

Blakeney Seals

At the edge of the deeper water we see Grey Seals moving through the surf, a few massive bulls splashing around and snorting in the foam. These are the UK’s largest mammals, nearly two metres long and weighing almost 200 kilos.

At the end of the month the cows will start giving birth – their tough little pups born into the rain and wind and sleet of this most exposed of English coasts. North Norfolk faces the polar regions head on and when the winds swing in from the north the beaches rattle with cold.


Later we walk along the Point.

Through the grey above our heads come small flocks of birds, autumn migrants, flying in from Scandinavia, Siberia and Iceland. Some are making land fall after non-stop journeys of thousands of miles.

The Brent Geese have been here for nearly a month, honking and grazing in the marshes, now the Thrushes and Black birds are arriving, a sign that winter is coming.


We walk for miles in an impressionist’s landscape – blocks and slabs of drab shades. Looking north along the spit – two horizontals and three verticals. Below, from right to left, sand, shingle and sea. Above, sky. Muted yellows, greys and blues the only colours on the palette.

We pause to watch agroup of Sanderlings scampering along the strand line.

Off shore, deep under the water, fresh sand and shingle sweep past us, unseen.


Low tide.

We sit among the ripples, dips and humps that a just few hours ago were the sea floor – the water moves fast here. We eat, listening to the wind and watching the small waves lap against the remains of SS Hjordis. It ran aground in 1916 whilst transporting coal, no doubt part of the war effort. Ten men drowned in the currents that had pulled it onto the Point. Over time the sands covered it, erasing the tragedy little by little. But the sands are restless and in recent years they have shifted away, revealing the skeleton once again.

SS Hjordis

There are wrecks up and down Blakeney Point, some hidden, some in view, all testment to the dangers of working at sea.

As we walk away some of the nearby Seals begin to sing their unearthly “song” – a series of long, mournful howls. I can’t help but hear it as a hymn to all the lost souls.

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The birth of a new day, dawn on the East Coast.


Sizewell, Suffolk. 28th September.

There are few things more beautiful than a coastal dawn.

Above the waves, a glow on the horizon. Then a spark of light that becomes a globe of fire, pulling itself free of the sea.  All in a few, precious moments.

Alone on the beach I watched the birth of a new day.


The night before I’d walked through the wind to the sand dunes.

The easterly roared in the trees, obliterating the night sounds except for the crickets in the gorse bushes.

The moon was yet to rise and, though starry, it was dark. Without a torch the path was hard to make out, just a lighter dark, a subtle difference in visual texture. Though I knew the route by heart the ground gave no warnings of its little ups and downs and I stumbled blindly at times.

Above me the Milky Way, a pale river in the ink.

Then a beam of light arcing over the horizon, Southwold lighthouse, some 15 miles to the north, its outline kept firm by the damp air rushing in from the sea.

To the south, the Sizewell nuclear power stations A and B, their alien light reflecting in the pools and ditches I walked past. As I neared the sea the ruins of a chapel were silhouetted against the dome of  reactor B, the 14th century dwarfed by the 20th century.


Melding into the roar of the wind now, the sound of crashing waves. The moisture and the smell of the spray.

Sand and grass, the delicate edge of the solid world. After the dunes just pebbles and the north sea throwing itself against the shore.

I drink whisky, watch and listen.

A shooting star streaking in the direction of one of the lighthouse beams, Space seeking out Earth.

I find a place to sleep out of the wind, though even in the lee of the dunes the grasses thrash around me – I’m glad for my warm sleeping bag.

Waking in the night I open my eyes and find I’m looking directly at the crescent moon.


When I open them again it’s getting light.

I  move up the dunes to watch the dawn unfold.

In this bright new world only myself and the sea-birds – flying along the coast from their roosts  to their feeding grounds. Black processions against the early light.

The sun clears the horizon and I notice the vapour trails from the planes, pale slashes through the reds, oranges and yellows filling the sky.


Having packed, I set off and walk along the sea shore, kicking the foam, full of light, into the breeze.

After a little while I come across a bench, made from an old container driven deep into the stones by god knows who. Given its position on the shingle it must spend some of the day under the waves. I sit on it and enjoy the view, giving silent thanks to the public spirited genius who had the idea.


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