Thursday, 22 December 2011

It’s a rock cannon!

In drawing up plans for the £1.3m downhill biking track an archaeologist was employed to steer the contractors away from known artefacts. During construction a previously unknown rock cannon was discovered causing one of the tracks to be re-routed around it. What’s a rock cannon? You could read the book or watch the film.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Coming soon – Blaenau sculptures

Arrival at Blaenau will no longer be just a car park then High Street. Instead a triumphal arch from the platform and thence to 4 sets of steps partitioned by 7 metre tall triangles. Needless to say everything is being made from slate, about 160,000 small rectangles, quarried and split at Llechwedd

First deliveries to Blaenau are expected in February 2012 but here’s a sneak preview of local artist Howard Bowcott and his team busy at work.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Cob 200 – grand finale birds

Throughout the year there have been many events to celebrate the 200th anniversary of William Madocks building The Cob. There has even been an excellentarticle in Natur Cymru, many thanks to Twm Elias.

view from the hide
This weekend, on 17th and 18th December, there will be a bird watching event organised by The Friends of Borth y Gest and The North Wales Wildlife Trust. The Glaslyn estuary is world famous for its winter wading bird visitors.  The Wild Life Trust will provide the experts, binoculars and telescopes.  No expertise necessary - if you would like to come along to learn about our local birds, just turn up between 11am and 3pm. Tea & Coffee available.

The hide is just by the Toll House opposite Boston Lodge with a wonderful view of birds in the water and snowy mountains beyond.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Pedal Power

All sorts of transport have been used in the Vale of Ffestiniog including funicular inclines, gravity trains, ‘Car Gwyllt’ and steam trains. But these days it’s the turn of pedal power, not just the downhill biking, but velorail too.

Boys and their toys
Ceri from Communities First has taken delivery of a velorail vehicle from the south of France which is currently parked in his office. The design will be modified to suit local conditions (maybe a waterproof canopy?) and production will be local involving schools / colleges and no doubt the Ffestiniog Railway.

The velorail will run, initially from Blaenau to Llan Ffestiniog and eventually to Trawsfynydd, on the currently disused track that once ran all the way to Bala. With no freight to and from the old nuclear power station (closed in 1991 and being decommissioned) the line has become a bit overgrown so volunteers have been busy cutting back the buddleia. All being the well the service will be operational sometime in 2012. 

But surely Blaenau can come up with a better name than ‘velorail’?

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Bryn Cader Faner

No walk of the Vale of Ffestiniog would be complete without passing by Bryn Cader Faner or the ‘Crown of Thorns’. On the bronze-age trackway, rising up from the coast south of Harlech, this is the route that pagans would take from Ireland to Stonehenge. Pagans? Maybe the thieves that robbed the burial kist? Or maybe the soldiers that used it as target practice? Either way, perched on the edge of the Rhinog mountains, with sunset views over Cardigan Bay, this has to be the most atmospheric solstice spot in Snowdonia.  

Illuminating the wolf

Gate gone, gaping hole in stone wall, wheel tracks in mud .... surely not off-roaders in Coed y Bleiddiau? Half way down the path to Bronturnor 3 men inched and winched a huge pole, dangling from a rope strung through the trees.

Electricity supply to Tŷ Hovendon, the railway inspector’s house, was cut by a falling tree a couple of years ago. Empty since Bob and Babs Johnson left, people have been wondering what will happen to this beautiful retreat. Does this mean it’s up for sale or renovation?

The old poles could not be used mainly because they were too short with high voltage less than 11 feet above the path at one point.  

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Vintage Steam & Gravity

All the toys were out this weekend for the Ffestiniog Railway’s vintage festival. Much of Wales was mourning the World Cup loss to France but brightly coloured steam trains can be good therapy. Here are some of my favourite bits:

Sunday, 2 October 2011

October in Costa del Stiniog

Winter might be round the corner but the strawberries have been conned into a second crop. Nasturtiums sprouting everywhere and bees legs are jam-packed with pollen. A bottle of San Miguel and a passing steam train on Campbell’s Platform – what more could one ask for?

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Trolls Houses in the Celtic Rainforest

As the equinox approaches summer rains drift into autumn rains ... those springtime fires in the tinder dry undergrowth seem years ago. But it does get very atmospheric in the misty Celtic Rainforest especially when the sun warms the sodden ground. If the showers get too much you can always shelter in a Troll’s House.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Vale of Ffestiniog to top of Snowdon and back

From Plas y Dduallt to the top of Snowdon seemed quite achievable and on 24th July 2011 the conditions were just right. Off we set with provisions and the GPS zeroised. I’d estimated 1 hour to Stwlan, 1 hour to Llyn Adar and a further hour to the start of the Watkin Path. Each leg was under-estimated and it took almost 3.5 hours to cover those 8.8 miles.

Despite being a fine and sunny Sunday at the start of school holidays the path was quiet. A few bathers splashing in the turquoise crystal pools above Hafod y Llan. The view across Llyn Llydaw was superb. For the first time in several years I approached the top free of cloud – on previous occasions it had been a scramble steeply through the mist but this time I was able to follow the more gentle angle to the ridge then turn right to the summit.

French, Welsh, English, German, walkers, train passengers, all shapes, sizes and ages... it was really cosmopolitan and busy, busy. By the time I squeezed my way onto the compass at the top it had been 5 hours and 51 minutes since leaving home 13.2 miles away and an estimated 1,600m altitude gain. 

A drink and some jelly babies before descending the ridge overlooking the Watkin Path towards Y Garn then into Caffi Gwynant (brilliant community cafe) for ice lolly and ‘Powerade’. Heavy legs plodded up the narrow lane then through meadows alongside streams to Llyn Llagi and up to the plateau between Snowdon and home. 

Evening sunshine Cwmorthin
At Rhosydd quarry we turned down into Cwmorthin, adding an extra mile, but avoiding the steepness from Stwlan. Weary legs back home 27.5 miles, 12 hours and 15 minutes since setting off. Fast asleep by 9 pm.

Kayaking Borth y Gest to Maentwrog

Launching from the slippery mud of Borth y Gest we paddled in a wide arc around the receding sandbanks on the corner to Portmeirion. Probably following in the wake of ferrymen from before the Cob (1811) and Pont Briwet (1860). Upstream, with Ynys Giftan on our right and Portmeirion to the left, but where had the Dwyryd gone? It looked as though we could have walked the whole way across without wetting our feet.

Setting off 2 hours and 45 minutes before high tide (based on 8.6m high water at Liverpool) was a good hour too early. We bobbed in the shallows being slowly nudged up the estuary. Had we missed a channel? A couple of times we dragged our kayaks, leaving furrows in the soft sand, to intercept newly formed channels. Fish were wriggling in the shadows, their backs breaking the water – were they sea bass?

Eventually we paddled beneath the grade II listed Briwet which will be converted to pedestrian use when the new £20m road and rail bridge is built. Construction starts this autumn (2011) and will cause motorists to detour 8 miles via Maentwrog for 12 to 18 months.

Salt marsh sheep graze the retreating shoreline. To our left the Gwaith Powdwr nature reserve with the settling shed looking down on us. Reconstructed after an explosion in 1988 in which two people were killed.  A little further on to Tyddyn Isaf, the largest of the slate quays, completed in 1828 at a cost of £289. At either end are 2 magazines for storing incoming black powder.

By now it was high tide at Borth y Gest with perfect paddling conditions up the river, smooth and mirror like. More slate quays and up the S bend scenically crafted by the Oakeleys to improve the view from Plas Tan y Bwlch. Towards the mouth of the Llenerch, which flows down from the lake at Trawsfynydd, paddling suddenly got harder as we battled the surge of water released to generate electricity.

Himalayan Balsam and  Japanese Knotweed galore. Is this going to be with us forever? Occasional jumping fish. Dragonfly. Family of young ducks. Squadron of swallows above. Couple of ponies. By the time Maentwrog church came into view the tide was definitely not helping us with the last couple of hundred metres  a hard paddle over shallow fast flowing waters until a bit exhausted we pulled out the kayaks at the bridge.

11.7 miles, 4 hours and 24 minutes after setting off from Borth y Gest. Next time we’ll probably go downstream on a spring tide.   

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Double Hunslet and Gravity Train

There’s never a dull moment on the Ffestiniog Railway. Today, 23rd July, we saw Linda and Blanche, fresh from the Boston Lodge paint shop, in lined FR Green livery. This is the first time the two ‘ladies’, which date from 1893, have appeared together in pristine matching livery. As if that wasn’t enough excitement for one day we were treated to an exceptionally long gravity train!

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Official opening of The Pengwern

Friday, July the 8th, sees the official reopening of The Pengwern in Llan Ffestiniog.

After the Pengwern Arms Hotel closed its doors, in February 2009, Pengwern Cymunedol was set up as a community enterprise to buy, reopen and develop the pub and hotel. Since the end of March 2011 the community owns and runs The Pengwern. A large number of volunteers have worked to renovate and improve parts of the building so that by now the pub and function room have been reopened.

Representatives of the press and media are welcome to attend the official opening. The S4C programme, Wedi 7, has confirmed that it will broadcast live from the Pengwern on the opening night.

The programme for the evening will start shortly after 6.00pm. The local Welsh Assembly Member, Dafydd Elis Thomas, will perform the opening ceremony at around 7.00pm. Representatives will be present from Gwynedd and Ffestiniog councils and from other agencies which have been supportive of the venture as well as local shareholders, volunteers and supporters of Pengwern Cymunedol.

A variety of local talents will perform during the evening followed by a jamming session with local musicians.

For further details about the Pengwern social enterprise see the Pengwern Cymunedol Information Sheet.

CONTACT Sel Williams   Ffôn:  0776 049 0081

Y Pengwern, Sgwar yr Eglwys, Llan Ffestiniog, Gwynedd. LL41 4PB
E mail:            
Pub Website:  
Pengwern Tel:          01766 762200

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Balmy Barmouth, Blue Lobster and Blenny

50 years ago there were 14 boats fishing for lobsters off Barmouth and, not surprisingly, the population declined. At that concentration it just wasn’t sustainable. Today there’s just the one, skippered by John Johnson, the man who also runs fishing charters on Viking II and supplies tackle from his shop on the high street.

He welcomed me on board to see how, with the help of veteran lobsterman Ray Lewis, he goes about his business. I was lucky to be motoring out of harbour with still water and blue skies – frequent high winds had meant slim pickings for most of May and June.

About a mile out we reached and hooked a marker buoy and winched up a string of 12 pots. 1, 2 and 3 were lobsterless, temporary home to small fish, crabs and jellyfish eggs. Pot number 4 produced the first lobster.

Like a production line, each pot was opened, emptied and baited with a chunk of plaice then stacked in sequence on a bench ready for launching off the stern. Maybe 15 minutes to raise and relay the dozen.

Some pots were empty whilst others were crammed full of life, not just lobsters but edible crabs, spiders, hermits, velvet-backed crabs, butterfish, blennies and whelks to name but a few. The fisheries ruler was used to measure the length of the lobster’s main shell from eye-socket to the start of the long tail. Any less than 87 mm were returned to the sea, about 75%, and many of these were so frustratingly borderline.

After about 3 hours we had 36 decent sized lobsters in the oxygenated tank with their claws held fast by strong rubber bands. Not for fear of humans being bitten but to limit the injuries they would inflict on each other. Some were so brilliant blue whilst others had more of an orange tinge – the difference between those that blend into a background of rock as opposed to shale.

John’s mobile rang and half were sold to the Lobster Pond (01341 281234), the quayside shop for live or cooked lobsters. The others would be buried beneath the waves in one of the chests, ready for the dealer from Bangor, who sources up the coastline from mid Wales. From Bangor they go to Spain where lobsters reach respectable prices.

Before returning to port John switched to fishing prawns in a similar fashion. A string of tubular prawn pots baited with ripe herring. 4 or 5 kilos were harvested and secured in the submarine stash.

Back ashore, slightly lobster pink despite my factor 30, I had much more respect for this noble crustacean. For summer occasions and anniversaries there’s nothing quite like a fresh lobster from Barmouth caught by John or Ray. So much better than frozen supermarket lobsters from Canada.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Woodpeckers in the Vale

Oak trees make perfect homes for woodpeckers. These shy and nervy birds shun publicity, hiding behind trunks, but the whimpering of young chicks gave away the location of this precision drilled nest. Turn on the volume to hear them plead for more food with mum and dad flying in parcels every 5 minutes or so.

I watched on and off for a couple of weeks until one day there was a different pitch and tone coming from inside. A while later the father flew off and the youngster stuck his head out with a plaintive call. It was as if this was the last chick in the nest refusing parental encouragement to fly. Maybe it was complaining about the rain or the cameraman sheltering beneath his umbrella. A day later the nest was empty.

Meanwhile another of the chicks slammed into our kitchen window taking a full 5 minutes to regain its composure. Flying at speed is a tricky business. 

Thanks to The National Trust for this beautiful nature reserve which is lovingly cared for by the wardens of CCW.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Coed y Brenin Waterfalls - a golden moment

My son and his friend took their bikes out of the trailer and while they exhausted themselves I enjoyed the Gain Waterfall Trail. About 2 hours long but best with a little more time to linger and enjoy the spectacle of the waterfalls and savour the atmosphere of Gwynfynydd gold mine.

This is what it looked like at the end of May 2011. 

Saturday, 28 May 2011

On The Lake – Café Trawsfynydd

A new café has opened on the shores of Llyn Trawsfynydd, the largest lake in Wales by land area. There are fantastic views of the lake, mountains beyond and nearby the massive buildings that house the nuclear reactors which stopped generating in 1991.

There’s nothing small and cosy about the café which is built on a similar scale to the reactor buildings. Tall windows run the entire length of the south and west faces making it light and perfect for gazing at the landscape. A sunny day was impressive but I think I may prefer the drama of an inbound storm, sweeping in over the Rhinogydd.

It’s good to see the old ‘Trawsfynydd Sports & Social Club’ get a new lease of life providing a welcome oasis for walkers, bird watchers, anglers and anyone who just wants a cuppa. The Bangers and Mash were great! Keep going and good luck.

Opening hours? Definitely from some time in the morning until some time in the afternoon. Phone number 01766 540400.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Y Pengwern Opens!

51 days after getting the keys this once run down pub is up and running; fuelled by the community and a core of committed volunteers.

This occasion was a test run to which shareholders and helpers were invited to check out the facilities and enjoy free beer. So much has been achieved in such a short time with the minimum of outside help, it’s a great community success.

Volunteer staff wore black shirts with the Pengwern logo. Service was efficient and with a smile.

In the cellar were many barrels including casks of real ale from the Purple Moose Brewery. The half drunk cask of Glaslyn was slowly tipped forward, by a spring lifting the rear end as the weight decreased; in this way, without disturbing sediments, you get 71 saleable pints out of a 72 pint cask.

All being well the public opening will be early June.

A visit to The Coach House in The Vale of Ffestiniog

We came, we saw, we conquered,
At least, that was the plan,
To come and climb a mountain,
All talk of work was banned.

We nearly didn't get here,
Our family of three,
Jo`s navigating skills were questioned,
Well, questionable actually!

Our haven was The Coach House,
Of heaven a little piece,
Amongst the trees, the streams, the hills,
We found soul quenching peace.

We visited the willow wolf,
Howling to the skies,
Watched the looping train,
Listened to birds cries.

Bess, the dog, was in heaven,
The day we chose to climb,
The highest peak in Wales,
And had a whale of a time!

Our adventures continued,
Aboard a 6 man raft,
Crashing through white water,
An adrenalin-full laugh!

We explored pretty Portmeirion,
Harlech beach & Harlech town,
Not one thing about our holiday,
Made us want to frown.

Big thanks to Ray & Marie,
Your beautiful cottage made our stay,
Perfect in every single way,
We hope that we`ll be back some day."

Chris, Jo & Bess - Chichester - Apr 2011

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Forget Galapagos, come to Ffestiniog!

As well as steam trains the Vale of Ffestiniog offers spectacular wildlife and nature. Sea trout and salmon on the Afon Dwyryd and if you’re lucky you might see an otter. 

On either side of the valley Atlantic oakwoods or Celtic rainforest, more scarce than tropical rainforests and every bit as special with magnificent lichens, liverworts and slime molds. Redstarts and pied flycatchers arrived a few weeks ago. Right now the woods are blooming with bluebells and wild goats stepping carefully so as not to squash them.

Abandoned slate mines make perfect roosts for many species of bat such as the ‘lesser horseshoes’. ICI's explosives factory, Gwaith Powdwr, in which 17 million grenades were made is now a nature reserve where later this month you can hear the nightjars. Llechwedd Slate Caverns has nesting choughs.

We might have pine martens but are struggling to prove it. Ospreys returned to the area in 2004 and this year’s chicks recently hatched. Up in the mountains ravens and buzzards patrol the skies with the occasional red kite. Moths galore, last summer a holiday maker recorded 180 different species during his weeklong stay. Along the coast you might see bottlenose dolphins, porpoise, grey seals or maybe even a leatherback turtle – some years ago a turtle the size of a mini was washed up on Harlech beach and now sits in the National Museum of Wales.

Woodpeckers in early June with their nests precision drilled into the oaks.

Forget Galapagos, come to Ffestiniog! This is home to Ivor the Engine and Idris the dragon. What's more we've got a live wolf!

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Y Pengwern in Hotel magazine

Y Pengwern in the news again in this month's edition of the trade magazine Hotel. Must be opening time soon!

Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Pengwern – buy in to this adventure

Volunteers are hard at work cleaning, painting, fixing up The Pengwern. 22 days after taking possession they are on track to open the bar in mid May and this is how things are looking:

I’ve paid over my £100 and am a shareholder which means I’ll be able to turn up at meetings and cast a vote. I’ll also want to call in on a regular basis to check up on my investment!

If you’d like to volunteer or become a shareholder (from £100 to £20,000 = 1 vote) please send an email to

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Ras y Moelwyn 2011

3rd Saturday of April, must be Ras y Moelwyn, the rugged alternative to the London Marathon. From Blaenau through Cwm Cwmorthin, up Moelwyn Mawr, over Craigysgafn, then Moelwyn Bach, Moel yr Hydd and steeply home. Ten and a half miles with 2,800 feet of altitude gain in about 80 minutes – some do take quite a lot longer. This is what it looks like in the middle section on Craigysgafn and below Moelwyn Bach. The speed of the runners blew away the mist!

Diolch Blaenau Amateurs football club and Antur Stiniog.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Springwatch in the Vale of Ffestiniog - 2

My first swallow was on the 4th of April, pied flycatchers on the 9th, redstarts on the 10th – as for the ospreys, they are well ahead of schedule with their 1st egg on the 2nd of April. Pied wagtails have been playing kiss chase at Dduallt station. Outside the kitchen loads of black bees humming around a fragrant shrub. Fresh soil is being pushed up through the mounds above the railway with millions of busy ants below. No kid goats thus far. Our gander watched on yesterday as one of the Indian runners tried to mate with the goose as she sat on her clutch of eggs.

But for me the most amazing sight was an emperor moth – common but impressive! 

Friday, 25 March 2011

Around Snowdonia in 80 Miles

A round or very elliptical trip from Porthmadog to Blaenau, to Beddgelert and Caernarfon then back to Port. This was the 4th such journey to date and was organised by and for the London Area Group of the Ffestiniog Railway. 80 miles, rattling through the mountains. Not mind numbing but something lower down. This is how it looked from Campbell’s Platform as filmed by the honorary stationmaster.  

Monday, 7 March 2011

Springwatch in the Vale of Ffestiniog

Sunday 6th March. In the foothills of Moelwyn Bach, on a sunny afternoon, Haydn was enjoying splashing through puddles on his bike when something caught his eye! A lively adder, woken from its siesta, wriggled away with ‘wheelspin’ as it struggled to find purchase on the long grass. Spring – watch out! 

Friday, 4 March 2011

Ffestiniog in the East!?

Yes, even Moelwyn Bach, just a few miles from Cardigan Bay, is in ‘The Eastern Peaks’.  This is the 3rd volume in the comprehensive quadrilogy describing ‘The Mountains of Snowdonia’.

Moelwyn Bach
The beauty of the series is the depth and choice. Unlike other books, that compromise and short-change you by squeezing into a single volume, this sprawls out like a range describing every significant peak and the many ways of linking them together. Not just a route up and down but full à la carte choice to plan the expedition you want.

What I like is the balance between interesting information and details of navigation. I think John Gillham has got it right.

I live in the top right hand corner of my ordnance survey sheet, within 30 minutes walk I can be on to the next sheet. To get round this I’ve bought a customised version centred on our house.  With ‘The Mountains of Snowdonia’ I live at the intersection of 3 volumes. To get round this I’ve bought the set.

Using volume 2, ‘The Western Peaks’, I tested out the day route covering the southern Rhinogydd. No amount of adjectives can ever bring to life quite how magical it can be but the author does it proud nevertheless. As for the guideline time of 5 hours, I don't think that included much opportunity for savouring the best bits. Bumping into the farmers and their dogs gathering sheep off the ridge between Y Llethyr and Diffwys is an occasion I will remember for ages, with an indignant column of wild goats marching out of the way.

I wish I'd consulted volume 1, ‘The Northern Peaks’, before my last effort on Tryfan. I know now exactly where I went wrong! The panoramic 3D maps, with a touch of artistic licence, make so much sense of the routes.

My home range, the Moelwynion, is covered in volume 3 and, even though I don’t feel I live in the eastern peaks, I am very glad that the Vale of Ffestiniog has been described so thoroughly. The Ffestiniog Railway gets a mention too – it’s a great way to start and even better way to end a long day’s walk, maybe with a bottle of Snowdonia Ale from the Purple Moose Brewery in Porthmadog.

All 4 volumes sit in pride of place on my shelf of walking books whilst others gather dust.

Country Tracks enjoys the Vale of Ffestiniog

Ellie on the rock cannon

BBC’s production team for Country Tracks has been filming in the Vale of Ffestiniog. Basing themselves in Maentwrog they sampled the hospitality of The Oakeley Arms and The Grapes.  The episode will include a Ffestiniog Railway journey from Blaenau taking in the story of Colonel Campbell, William Madocks, the 200 year old Cob and rock cannons. Broadcast date likely to be early summer. 

For more information about the area visit the Vale of Ffestiniog website.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

4 legs good, 2 legs better

The wild goats in Maentwrog nature reserve (Forest of the Wolves) have been enjoying the removal of the double height fence. This has provided an abundance of previously untouchable winter food. After a couple of months of feasting, the brambles are looking in a sorry state and ivy leaves can only be seen above the five foot mark. Maybe this was how the giraffe started off.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Going Underground

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to go underground in the Vale of Ffestiniog, have a look at this YouTube of Cwmorthin. It’s the sort of expedition best enjoyed with an experienced guide – you would n’t want to take a wrong turning or step into space. As for the maps, well they’re 3D of course. 

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Porthmadog’s Local Produce Market

Just the idea of local food (and drink) is nourishment itself. To think of all the hard graft and loving care that goes into growing tasty vegetables, milking and making goats cheese or dressing freshly caught crab. Growing aronia berries and making liqueur. Cultivating shiitake mushrooms and making exotic pâtés.

Porthmadog’s local market is held on the last Saturday of each month and there must have been about 40 different stalls at the end of January.  It was good to see the baker from Blaenau Ffestiniog with his 'Kurdish Pasties' and the chocolatier who makes hand-made temptation in her Llan Ffestiniog farm house.

I made a short YouTube film asking people about their products which can be seen here

Friday, 28 January 2011

Wardens Busy in the Forest of the Wolves

Mother Nature does most of the work but CCW wardens do their bit. Just recently there has been lots going on, including sprucing up of the willow wolf. 10 months old and it had grown a bit straggly so 4 of us set to, weaving the pliable strands back into the structure – what a barbershop quartet we could have made. The chestnut paling fence around the outside will remain in place for the coming year to protect it from goats until it becomes more established.

Speaking of goats ... the snow was heavier and hung around for longer than usual, squashing the undergrowth of bracken. This left young saplings standing proud and with little else to eat, the goats had a nibble or two.

On the positive side the double height fence, enclosing a section of the reserve close to the railway line, has been removed. For over 20 years the area has been free from grazing and the inevitable consequence, a profusion of brambles and ivy, is what the goats are feasting on at the moment.

Stands of trees, generally square in shape, like military formations, were planted 20 years ago and enclosed with wire netting. The fencing has all been removed and so too the Y shape funnel. This funnel was designed as a means for catching goats in the days when the local population was an unsustainable 50+. The idea was to lure the goats into the narrow funnel, with tasty strands of ivy and other delicacies hanging from the fence, then quickly close the door and transport them to Scotland. It didn’t work and now it has gone for recycling.

The ability to exclude sheep is vital to regeneration of the woods and the old perimeter fence posts are being replaced. Instead of those rounded, chemically treated, poles we are being re-fenced with cleaved, sweet chestnut. 

In the really good old days dry stone walls would have been the stockproof barrier. Sustainable and enduring they will last indefinitely, provided there is some maintenance. Sadly one of the most impressive stretches of wall was breached by a fallen tree. My neighbour in the farm below says this stretch, which rises steeply from the mouth of the waterfall, was built by 2 brothers competing against each other.  Thanks to CCW the tree has been chopped and the wall rebuilt by a local master craftsman.

He’s not going to be so local in future, next month he goes West with a renewable 1 year visa to work on America’s stone walls as part of an initiative to re-introduce the craft. He’ll start in Kentucky before moving to Dallas and will employ a US citizen to work with him.

Finally for those who don’t enjoy the indignity of stiles the good news is that kissing gates have been installed on the top path heading out of Coed y Bleiddiau towards Dduallt and below by the waterfall at the hairpin bend. 

If you'd like to see a film of what's been going on, click here.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Resurrection of Mrs Spinks

Artist Eleanor Brooks hired the frail Mrs Spinks as her cleaner in 1966. It was clear from the start that cleaning was not her strength; washed up dishes would be stacked in cupboards, poised ready to eject on the door being opened; the iron would burn through clothes etc. By way of damage limitation Eleanor switched her duties from cleaning to posing as her model. 

As a model Mrs Spinks was like having a cast of thousands. Fidgeting, talking, always changing - her personality altered by some item or trinket picked up in a charity shop.  

After her death in 1975 Eleanor Brooks mounted an exhibition of paintings showing the many faces of Mrs Spinks as well as sculptures and a mock up of the bedsit room in which she lived. A trunk filled with her souvenirs, a cardboard wardrobe with clothes, a lifesize but tiny Mrs Spinks sat in a cardboard armchair, clutching a packet of Players No. 6 and watching a cardboard TV.

Twice a year for 10 years the exhibition was displayed across Britain before being packed away and stored.

Many years on Eleanor Brooks no longer lives in London but Llanfrothen (near Porthmadog) and the exhibition has been resurrected. In its latest incarnation it can be enjoyed in the upstairs gallery of the beautiful Caffi  in Croseor, a tiny village beneath the mountain of Cnicht (the ‘Welsh Matterhorn’) at the end of a narrow lane. Just over the mountains from the Vale of Ffestiniog.

It will be open every weekend between 10:30 and 4:30, from 29th January until closing on 10th April 2011. To bring it to life Eleanor Brooks will be there each Sunday afternoon to show people around and talk about Mrs Spinks.

To get a flavour of the exhibition have a look at this film of Eleanor and Mrs Spinks 

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Winter Spruce for Willow Wolf

‘Wolf!’ he cried. ‘Wolf!’ and there it was, a huge wolf in Coed y Bleiddiau, the ‘forest of the wolves’. Full of life and vigour, with its jaws open, howling up at the sky. Nothing but a skimpy picket fence to hold it back and 400 sets of roots. This was a willow wolf in the Vale of Ffestiniog.

Local legend says here was home to the last wolf in Wales, hence the name of this oak woodland is Coed y Bleiddiau. On the other side of the valley is Cae’r Blaidd or ‘field of the wolf’. Just across the mountains is Beddgelert, the ‘grave of Gelert’, the dog that saved the son of Llewelyn the Great from a wolf attack (or so they say).

Wolves became extinct in England in the early 1600s but lived on in the wilds of Wales for much longer. They were probably still around during the Civil War and there is talk of a Knight’s Grave nearby, maybe he slew the last wolf? Or was he a victim?

This wolf has every chance of living forever, a vigorous type of willow (salix viminalis) planted in March 2010. It’s been sited by the path that runs parallel with the Ffestiniog Railway, in a small clearing, away from overhanging trees which would block the sun and inhibit growth.

10 months on and our wolf was looking a bit shaggy. Instead of taking pruners or shears to it we twisted the new growth back into the framework. We had meant to do this in December but feared the willow would have been frozen brittle and snapped. Click here to see the willow wolf having its winter spruce.

Previous residents of note at the derelict cottage, the other side of the railway track, include St John Philby, father of Kim Philby, the infamous spy. His house guest at the outbreak of WWII was William Joyce who travelled from here via London to Berlin where he became known as Lord Haw-Haw, the propaganda broadcaster, subsequently executed for treason.

The wolf was funded by the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), designed and built by Beryl Smith of Llanidloes ( with a little help from CCW wardens and volunteers. 

Friday, 7 January 2011

Houdini in the Vale of Ffestiniog

Last summer I was saying how much I love the birds and they love me or at least the endless supply of nuts. Grey squirrels that pinch the nuts and break the feeders are not my favourites so I invested in a squirrel proof feeder. For months all went well with attempted break-ins thwarted by the cage. But then along came Houdini .... in he goes, feasts and hopefully one day will be too fat to escape.

While we were away on holiday, a friend, looking after the house, developed a deterrent. Sneak up to the feeder and squirt the squirrel with a jet of water from a squeezy detergent bottle. In his panic he would be unable to exit swiftly and get a drenching. For a few days after, our squirrel would keep his distance, but when he returned he was more vigilant, with an eye on the threat from the kitchen door. We kept our distance and co-existed.

But yesterday I startled Houdini as I walked past. Maybe after 6 months he’d scoffed too many, maybe he went the wrong way, but there he was, stuck fast. I took a photo and instead of joy felt pity. Poor thing, stuck at the haunches. What were my options if he remained stuck? Thick leather gauntlets, padded jacket and chain saw helmet with iron cutters?

I watched for 5 minutes or so as with immense effort he struggled part way back inside the cage, unable to get the shoulders back through. For 10 more minutes or so he lay on his back, looking to the heavens, conserving energy and thinking. A strange sort of Yoga position?

Maybe he was in direct contact with the spirit of Houdini for the next time I looked the cage was empty. Phew!