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!