Friday, 24 December 2010

Good King Wenceslas in the Vale of Stiniog

Good King Wenceslas ordered oil
In the Vale of Stiniog
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Tankers could not climb the drive
Cos the frost was cruel
Then a poor man came in sight
Towing winter fuel

Click here to see the YouTube film

Monday, 20 December 2010

Beauty and the 30 ton beast

When it comes it’s fresh and exciting. On the hour, as it falls, a ruler is plunged in to measure its depth. Online forecasts are compared and the most severe hoped for. There is envy at news reports that across the mountains has double the dollop.

Prickly bushes of gorse now smooth white glistening domes. Icicles hanging from gutters and rising up reeds. Silence from the valley below, the only vehicle a tractor serving turnips to hungry sheep. Beauty all around and time to play. Snowballs, sledges, snowdecks and puppy diving into drifts. You can almost hear the tune of Ski Sunday.

But what about the drive? Normally I’m laid back about it, a car at the bottom for emergency provisions and a roomy rucksack. But this is a lot of snow, oil supplies are low and Sue’s Dad will eventually want to get home.

If only I could shift the snow before it gets trampled by sheep, goats and walkers. I started from the top using a farmyard broom, which soon clogged up with compacted snow, and a garden spade. This was going to take forever.

Into the shed, I cut out a broad rectangle of plywood, attached it to a T shaped pole, et voila! Hand held snow plough. Charging into the foot deep snow with the weight of it pressing down on the ply. Whoosh! Whoooosh!

Soon have this cleared, or so I thought. I started clearing the whole track and then realised it would be quicker to create just a pair of wheel size tracks. Even so, it was taking a long time.

Now it’s done, and ready for the test pilot to attempt a downhill run, I thought I’d work out why it took so long. Blank Excel sheet, drive 3,168 feet long, 2 tracks, each 2 feet wide and the snow a foot deep = 12,672 cubic feet. Each cubic foot, assuming it’s light and fluffy and taking the most conservative online estimate, 5.2 lbs.

Not a lot per whoosh! But that’s 30 tonnes. What a beast and blisters to show.

Click here to see the beauty
Click here to see the 30 ton beast
It all happens in the Vale of Ffestiniog

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Art in the Vale of Ffestiniog

Last winter on a walk around Llyn Mair I came across two women with paints, brushes and paper sitting attentively in the woods. On greeting them I was promptly shushed to be quiet. A couple of minutes later they deigned to talk to me. Who were they and what were they doing?

For the full story have a look at this entry on the BBC website.

By the way – Noëlle runs art courses in the Vale of Ffestiniog and provides get-away-from-it-all self catering accommodation.

Pengwern Auction – steam by Ffestiniog Railway to Campbell’s Platform

4 VIP passengers were greeted onto the 1st class carriage of the Ffestiniog Railway at Blaenau station and steamed down the line to the private halt, Campbell’s Platform. This was part of an event auctioned to raise funds for the purchase of Y Pengwern, the old pub in Llan Ffestiniog that was used by drovers and which is due to re-open in early 2011 as a community venture.

Included in the group were Rosemary Livingston, the highest bidder, and her husband John plus Mel Goch and his sister Marian. Rosemary had outbid Mel at the auction and kindly invited him along.  

The visit to Plas y Dduallt, the house beneath Campbell’s Platform, was particularly relevant to Mel and Marian as it was where their grandparents had lived for some years in the 1920s or 30s. Their grandfather used to catch the train up the line to work in the quarries at Blaenau.

After a guided tour and hot soup in the old dining hall the visitors enjoyed a screening of The Campbells Came by Rail, a BBC documentary filmed in 1974 describing the restoration of the house and the commute of the eccentric Colonel whose epitaph is a platform on the Ffestiniog Railway. At that time there was no vehicle access up the mountainside to the house so the colonel would park his car a mile away at Tan y Bwlch Station and then ride his engine, ‘The Colonel’, and park it at the platform.

Steam trains courtesy of the Ffestiniog Railway. Guided tour and soup by Huw and Sue – honorary station master and mistress of Campbell’s Platform.

Click here for more information about Y Pengwern
Click here for more information about Campbell's Platform which is in the wonderful Vale of Ffestiniog

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Doctor Who at Portmeirion

Tardis Dr Who PortmeirionThe TARDIS landed at Portmeirion on 3rd December and will be with us in the Vale of Ffestiniog for a month – not just Santa Trains but a TARDIS too! Doctor Who was last here in the long hot summer of 1976. See Tom Baker and his amazing scarf escape the executioner in The Masque of Mandragora filmed on location at Portmeirion.

TARDIS? Time And Relative Dimension In Space.

Friday, 10 December 2010

By Tunnel to the Top - autumn mountains

Each October friends stay with us for a walking weekend and this year’s was one of the best. The same mountains but approached in more exciting ways. After 6 years living on the side of Moelwyn Bach I should know the better options.

We set off alongside the Ffestiniog Railway passing through Dduallt, the only railway loop in Britain, and then to Llyn Tanygrisiau, pausing to explain the ‘rock cannon’. A series of 5” deep holes hand drilled into granite which on special occasions were stuffed with black powder and topped with crushed stones. Black powder in goose quills were the detonators linked by more powder in goose fat – light the touch fuse and stand well back! Across north Wales there are 250 such cannons, some with as many as 160 holes.

At the café end of Llyn Tanygrisiau (great all day breakfast and free parking) the Wrysgan incline rises steeply from the narrow gauge railway and yellow PERYGL warning signs beckon you to the staircase (‘grisiau’) option that tunnels through the mountain to occasional blue sky beyond. Along the way a rusty slate wagon that never made it down and lengths of cable still strong after many years of retirement. With lungs stretched, you pop out of the tunnel into another world on a plateau overlooking Cwmorthin. It’s an impressive, wow-factor, arrival.

On our way up we tiptoed into some of the tunnels and daylight illuminated chambers, the carpet of dried droppings testimony to its popularity as a sheep refuge. Scarily tempting to explore further but, without equipment and a guide, we retreated upwards to the top of Moel yr Hydd. My dictionary says hydd means stag and today the nearest deer are 10 miles south at Coed y Brenin.

The main path to Moelwyn Mawr is up a broad and featureless expanse of grassland so we skirted round the northern side, beneath the scree level, before a scramble onto the ridge that rises steeply from the Croesor direction. Definitely a more exciting way to approach with the added bonus of a pair of choughs doing a noisy flight pass. Our second peak, long views and still no rain.

In the footsteps of Mercurial fell runners that take part in Ras y Moelwyn we picked our way down to and along the ridge of Craigysgafn, overlooking Stwlan Dam, the upper part of Britain’s first pumped storage hydro electric scheme. Like a giant battery soaking up excess electric and releasing it into the grid at peak demand.

Up diagonally to Moelwyn Bach then down to the jumbled up slabs that make up the castle-like false peak when you look from Maentwrog. Slabs make such a good backrest and windbreak – definitely the optimum picnic spot with views including the castle at Harlech, the estuary at Portmeirion and steam trains crossing the Cob at Porthmadog.

Even on this beautiful autumn Friday, the only other people in a whole day on the Moelwyns were children on a guided walk with their teachers. With the magnets of Snowdon to the north and Cadair Idris to the south we enjoy our mountains in peace and quiet. Most often we get a clear view of their peaks in the clouds.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Dating in the Vale of Ffestiniog

There are several ancient houses in the upper reaches of the Vale of Ffestiniog but just how old are they?

A few years ago Plas Pengwern, betweeen Blaenau and Llan, was tree ring dated and the result was autumn 1487. That is the date when the tree was felled and subsequently used to create the main beams of the house.

Seeing as the practice was to work with green oak, that is the date when building began.

Now there is a major project under way called Dating Old Welsh Houses with funding from, amongst others, the Heritage Lottery Fund. The aim is to research and date about 50 houses across north Wales and 5 are in the Vale of Ffestiniog.

S4C recently broadcast a series titled Houses of the Welsh Countryside and in the episode titled Tai Eryri (houses of Snowdonia) they included Bryn Rodyn in Cwm Cynfal. The programme showed the dendrochronology experts at work and the date was concluded to be between 1556 and 1560 although they also discovered some older beams from 1503 which had been recycled into the building.

Recently it was the turn of Plas y Dduallt, beside the Ffestiniog Railway, to be dated. Dan and Matt, experts from the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory, arrived and began to study the wood. Looking at the grain and texture with the help of a torch they seemed happy. ‘Hmmm. Nice rings. Bit of sapwood here.’ Thank goodness for that. Within minutes strips of blue sticky tape were being stuck around the house to mark the sample spots and the various drills and spotlights were brought in from the cars.

Sapwood, the youngest final layers of growth, could have been an issue because of the work done by Colonel Campbell. As part of his 1960s restoration work he’d chamfered just about every beam to make them look more ornate, typically removing most of the sapwood. But fortunately there was still sufficient in tact.

A shower of well seasoned sawdust was falling onto the slate slab floor as the first of six cores was extracted from the dining hall. The thickness of a finger and length from 6 to maybe 15 inches depending on the size of the timber and angle of attack. An ideal sample would begin with sapwood and finish at the centre of the trunk.

The first core was teased out of the drill’s hollow tube and examined. Not only sapwood but masses of rings, the minimum required being 80 to 100. At the sapwood end the rings look straight but by the time you get to the centre you can clearly see the arcs of the rings.

By comparing the ages of the ceiling beams with those in the bedroom above we will be able to rule in or out the theory that the building began life as a hall house, open from the floor to the roof, with a subsequent first floor conversion.

Dan started upstairs on the cruck beams, entering from the side that people would be unlikely to see, with me standing guard the other side. My job to shout on seeing the first puffs of sawdust so that drilling could stop before breaking through. This would avoid the need for sealing the hole with a plug dyed to match the surrounding wood.

Drilling is done with surgical care and precision. One of the challenges is to extract cores from timbers which have cracked or split as the wood has seasoned in place. Having identified faint cracks from the outside the drilling is done to anticipate the point at which the drill will meet the split and the core will snap. This needs removing, before continuing with the rest of the core, and then sticking onto the other piece with a bit of wood glue. Removing the sapwood is another challenge as this is crumbly, the outer zone where beetles and woodworm will have penetrated.

In between the noisy drilling and over cups of tea there was time to chat about the science and projects past. One of Dan’s more unusual projects had been to date some trees planted, according to the plaque, by George Washington. The caretaker was devastated with the result that the trees were post 1799 and could not possibly have been planted by the famous man. The following year he hired another dendrochronology expert and as you’d expect the result was that the tree was a year older than Dan’s calculation.

I mentioned the yew trees in Maentwrog churchyard having an official certificate, issued by the botanist David Bellamy, confirming them to be more than 1,300 years old. Dan didn’t seem too impressed. This is one of those assertions that is a bit difficult to prove by dendrochronology as the cores of ancient yews have generally rotted away. Calculations and estimates are typically made by applying a girth formula.

At the end of the day about 15 cores had been extracted from four rooms. These were carefully plotted on to a plan of the house and recorded onto a record sheet with schematic diagrams of each beam. Back at the lab the cores will be sanded down to reveal clear and easy to read rings for measurement and comparison with growth patterns for the UK. All being well we will know the dates in early 2011.

As the team packed their tools away our 5 month old puppy, who had been watching on with keen interest, ran under the table with a piece of wood in her mouth. Removing it from her teeth I returned the chewed core to Dan and was relieved to learn this piece was not required for analysis. Fetch!

If you’d like to see a short film of how the drilling is done, click here.

If you’d like to know more about the Dating Old Welsh Houses project, click here.

Monday, 6 December 2010

My Feral Goats

When a man from the forestry said he was thinking of culling the goats my body tensed and logic was pushed aside by emotion. I like what he’s doing to the forest behind me, replacing regiments of sterile conifer with a rich mix of broadleaf, but the trouble is, so do the goats. They love the tender shoots and bark of young saplings and it’s not so difficult for them to break through the skimpy, protective tubes.

‘My goats’ are two gangs that live close to our house in the foothills of Moelwyn Bach, overlooking the Vale of Ffestiniog – the above the railway gang and the below the railway gang.

In the latter there were six when I first met them, led by an impressive billy crowned with unwieldy, lyre-shaped horns. At the end of that autumn’s rutting season he had been ousted by a thug with a single, scimitar-shaped horn - if he deigned to look at you his face was twisted by the heavy side.

They come and go as they please within a couple of miles from where they were born. For over two centuries goats have grazed these mountains free-range, escapees from ancient farming stock, discarded with the advent of high volume sheep production. They were the perfect multi-purpose animal providing meat and skin, milk, tallow for candles and hair for judges’ wigs. A mixed flock was considered a good combination with agile goats removing the temptation of lush plants on ledges too perilous for cumbersome sheep.

I took a phone call from my neighbour the farmer – a goat was stuck on a stone wall, could I help him get it down? The goat’s back leg was caught in strands of wire that topped the wall. Its head was on the ground, watching us through the unblinking upside eye, weak from the ordeal and with rusty metal cutting deep into its hoof. We lifted the goat, snipped the wire and carried her down the hill – she must have been trapped for a couple of days and had lost the use of both back legs. Medicine was prescribed and the farmer housed and fed her in a pen and each evening for several weeks the family of goats walked by and called out to her. Eventually she recovered, hopped out and rejoined the gang, maybe not as nimble as before and wearing a red tag on each ear - farmers do these things.

Weeks can go by without seeing my goats then one day they’ll stroll past. Then, working as a team, they will rear up on hind legs to pull down oak branches, releasing them like a spring when their mouths are bulging with leaves. Sometimes I hear them coming, announced by the plaintive whinnies of a straggler trying to catch up, or I get a whiff when I’m downwind of them. They don’t mind me being around but if I get too close the billy leads them off.

They seemed to admire and note our efforts to cultivate the walled garden and I naïvely thought they’d respect our territory. To my dismay I returned one evening to find them munching the runner beans, uprooting strawberry plants and snapping newly planted fruit trees. My instinct was to shake a stick and curse as the adults hopped out and the young kid wriggled through a gap in my porous defences. But I’m not that scary and they were back again the following day so I set to and built a fence on top of the walls. Since then they have left my crops alone.

Each December I take part in the Snowdonia goat census, over several days counting as best we can in snow, cloud and rain. We look for ‘half sheep’; from a distance the black parts of their coats make them look like truncated sheep. If we get close enough we study their horns to sex and age them. They are multiplying fast despite the recent harsh winter and making ever more impact on best endeavours to regenerate ancient woodlands.

Last year I joined in with the Glyderau part of the census and was assigned to the team surveying Cwm Idwal, a sensitive area for the rare arctic alpine plants. Our route took us to the east of Llyn Idwal up a narrow ridge to the summit of Glyder Fawr where, huddled behind pillars of rock as the snow flew past, we munched sandwiches.

By the end of the day we had counted 27 goats, looking as cold and wet as I felt, contributing to the total of 117 for the Glyderau, a modest increase of 12 over the previous year.

My garden is small enough to defend but on a landscape scale fencing is not a viable option. Transportation and contraception are impractical and alas culling by a marksman is the only practical option. But surely not my goats?

The gang below the railway has had a run of bad luck and is down to just six adults plus last year’s kid. The one with red tags in her ears was found at the bottom of a cliff, maybe she never regained full agility, and the eldest female died in childbirth with the first of twin kids beside her. For the time being there is an acceptable balance of nature - thanks in part to my garden fence.

But above the railway the gang has doubled in size with newcomers arriving from across the mountain and the birth of four kids this February. I hope this goes unnoticed by the man from the forestry – I would like to have my cake and eat it too.

Click here to see a film of the above the railway gang

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Gorges in the Vale of Ffestiniog

If it’s too hot for the beach or too wet for the mountain you can’t beat one of the gorge walks in the Vale of Ffestiniog. This excellent YouTube film explains what makes the gorges so special and how to keep them that way. Click here to have a look

Gravity Train

Amongst the statements, invoices and supermarket flyers in my post was a large envelope with a stiff card inside. Across the top, in bold print, it read ‘A Matter of Utmost Gravity’ - this was my invite to ride a gravity train.

We gathered at the engine sheds for an early morning briefing, wearing warm and sombre clothing, in keeping with the elements and the heritage. The ‘professionals’, in the sense that they’d done this before, were in their donkey jackets and bowler hats. They would be in charge of the brakes but would not have looked out of place at a funeral procession.

Our train consisted of 32 slate wagons connected with couplings that each allowed a foot of movement – this was a major element in the safety instructions, to make sure you didn’t get sandwiched in between. On braking, the wagons crash together like a concertina. Forms were signed to say we were willing to risk our lives in pursuit of the thrill – in terms of heritage railway experiences this has to be on the enthusiasts’ bucket list.

There were all sorts on board: in the wagon behind was the railway’s general manager, carefully laying down a large piece of cardboard on which to stretch out, ahead of me was the editor of Steam Railway magazine. Beyond him the director of the Rail Museum in York and someone from the National Slate Museum. Including the brakesmen, we were a crew of 30.

Horses were not available so a coal fired steam engine was to pull us up the track and we set off engulfed in a cloud of atmospheric steam. We spluttered out of the first tunnel – glasses and cameras all steamed up. After a level crossing, a water stop and a couple of token exchanges (signalling), we arrived, an hour later and 11 miles up the line, at the highest point from which we could freewheel.

It looked pretty flat to me but 1 in 80 was steep enough to get us going and within a couple of minutes we were rolling through the 310 yards (283m) of the Moelwyn Tunnel – pleasant without the steam and smuts. Onwards and downwards with the occasional jolt and judder as the head brakesman raised his flag – red for all brakes on, yellow with a number shouted meant the first number of wagons to brake, and green for all brakes off.

As we rounded each bend, approached tunnels or trespassing sheep, the head brakesman was blowing a bugle but I heard none of this above the clatter of the wheels on the tracks.

For safety reasons we were doing up to 15 mph but 30 mph was said to be the speed at which they used to be operated – maybe full of slate they’d hug the line better? Being low to the ground, through cuttings hewn out of rock, there was a sensation of speed a bit like an open top sports car.

As we approached the coast a red signal caused us to stop and lose momentum. We started off once more but with only enough speed to get us a short distance across The Cob – the mile long embankment built by William Madocks which will be 200 years old in 1811.

Another steam engine came to the rescue and shunted us to the end of the line at Harbour Station for a celebratory breakfast. What a journey – the ultimate 11 mile rollercoaster ride.

Click here to see a YouTube film of what it's like on board the gravity train!

Friday, 3 December 2010