Thursday, 30 September 2010

Cinderella and the Coastguard

Walking into a Dolgellau cafe I recognised a neighbour from the Vale of Ffestiniog and joined him and his wife with my latte. There was plenty to chat about and eventually the conversation got around to the tale of him losing his shoes the previous day. Taking his granddaughter across the estuary near Portmeirion, at low tide, he had left his shoes, and she her little red wellies, at the high water mark. By the time they came back the water was too deep and the footwear marooned until the next day. But seeing as he was busy, they’d have to wait.

Unbeknown to any of us, about an hour later, the abandoned footwear was discovered by someone who, thinking the items and location a bit suspicious, raised the alarm. The police helicopter was flying and the coastguard were out. Even search and rescue dogs were called into action. All the while my neighbour, the grandfather, was going about his business oblivious to the chaos of his shoes.

Much later, after finishing my chores, I slumped in an armchair to catch the tail end of the 10 o’clock news and second item on Wales was the search for missing persons following the discovery of shoes on the shoreline near Talsarnau. A quick Google for the phone number and a few minutes later I was speaking to the much relieved but annoyed coastguard at Holyhead. I could only be 99.9% certain that the two stories were the same.

In true Cinderella style the police knocked on his door the following morning and the shoes were a perfect fit!


29th September 2010

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Dating Plas y Dduallt

For several years I’ve enjoyed our old house with a few pieces of the jigsaw. Visitors get regaled with a fantastic story built on a couple of facts, some surmising and wishful thinking. Bits about the family whose home it was for 3 centuries. According to parish records they paid 5 hearths in 1662. Evan Llwyd, living 1769, was written off as ‘an idiot’. Were Cromwell’s officers really billeted with the Llwyds during the siege of Harlech? Does the symbol in the window frame ward off evil spirits?

I confidently say the old part was built 1500 or earlier and the extension added in 1630, but how do I prove it? My stories are the stuff of historical fiction, the odd nugget of fact to disguise the guesswork.

But now, enter The Tardis, travelling back in time with Margaret Dunn and the snappily named North West Wales Dendrochronology Project. Fresh back from my induction day in the archives at Dolgellau I’m inspired with a better view of what’s required.

The technology is a pencil of wood, from a cruck beam, sliced down its length to reveal the growth rings which are read into a PC and matched against norms. Sometimes they pinpoint not only the year but the season. Other times, if the tree has grown in rich and easy conditions, the rings are too big, maybe quarter of an inch per year. In such cases the average sized beam will not contain the 80 or so rings that are needed to make a conclusive match.

The date of the tree being felled will mark the start of building, green oak so much easier to work than when seasoned. But I’ll want to know a whole lot more than that.

There are many potential sources of information, more so the closer to the present. Our priority is to capture the oral evidence while it’s still there, then to work back in time through maps, legal documents, census returns, parish registers etc. and then to present it all chronologically from the beginning. Along the way I can foresee many red herrings and lots of dots that might not always join up. But I’m looking forward to it, a bit like someone who’d love to have a second chance to study history, but with the added spice of being a pioneer, working with local facts against a background of national events.

I’ll be viewing the dissolution of the monasteries, civil war, industrial revolution and world wars through the eyes of our home. A bit like looking the wrong way through binoculars but so personal and meaningful.


Monday, 27 September 2010

Cranberries come from?

I had in mind a tree, maybe looking like a rowan. At least a bush as with bilberry. But there they were, seemingly growing out of a cushion of moss in a marsh. I was looking for the caterpillars of marsh fritillaries but the berries stole the show.


Thursday, 23 September 2010

Singin' in the rain

I'm singing in the rain
Just singing in the rain
What a glorious feelin'
I'm happy again
I'm laughing at clouds
So dark up above
The sun's in my heart
And I'm ready for love
Let the stormy clouds chase
Everyone from the place
Come on with the rain
I've a smile on my face
I walk down the lane
With a happy refrain
Just singin'
Singin' in the rain

Some serious mushrooms

Today I went for a walk with my family to the Goedol Gorge. The perfect place to spend a wet and windy miserable day. The tree canopy is so dense, not a single raindrop ever touches you once you're under the trees.

The Goedol Gorge itself was magnificent, it was in full flood and was incredibly noisy. However the wonderful waterfalls were not the highlight of the walk /explore, definitely not. The real highlight was the unbelievable abundance of mushrooms.

Not just any mushrooms, we're talking edible mushrooms. Not just any edible mushroom though, we even found what we think is the penny bun. The Penny Bun is the second tastiest mushroom in the entire world second only to the legendary truffle.

Wait it get's better we also discovered a gigantic Cauliflower fungus bigger than a football, it was unbelievable. Another rare one we spotted was the hedgehog fungus which has soft hedgehog spikes on its underside instead of gills.

Click here to view a video I made part of today The Mushrooms and Fungi of Snowdonia!

Coniferous Basketball

We’ve only got a small bit of flat ground and for a few years this was the football pitch. With a growing son the shop-bought goal soon became too small and had to be replaced by £20 worth of timber and a bit of DIY. To begin with it seemed huge and impossible to defend, but he grew again, and so did his skill. Football with Dad was a pushover.

Football gave way to basketball and the crossbar became the pole onto which the board and bottomless bucket were fixed. The diameter was too tight for the ball and the relentless battering took its toll on the flimsy structure.

16th birthday ... shall we get him a proper job from the web? There are all sorts of expensive options to secure a high up hoop on a board. For the hoop to be 10 feet up, the pole would need to be 13 feet, plus more for foundations. With our stony ground this would be an engineering challenge.

Over the past 6 years a young Christmas tree had expanded into the pitch and parallel plans were being hatched to deal with this. Bingo! Shaved on 1 side, a tall secure pole, and branches behind to catch wayward shots. With a piece of painted ply, and a hoop with string, we certainly look the business.

But will the goal get higher with the growth of the tree?


Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Miracle of Fruit

June was good with strawberries cropping at 5 kilos a day, double my weight in the month. We ate them as we picked, served them with cream or as smoothies over ice cream. Some went into jam, others got pickled in sherry or vodka. Our neighbours had their fill and some were swapped for shiitake mushrooms.

Then came the bilberries and once we’d got the hang of it we could pick 3 to 4 kilos in a session. Purple lips a bit of a giveaway to who’d been eating on the job. All sorts of puddings and perfect for freezing, on a tray, then poured into a bag. First up makes the tea and thaws a bowl of berries on the Aga. We should have enough to purplify our muesli until at least Christmas.

Gales in September and the goats knew to come down the mountain to scoff windfalls beneath the apple trees. Damsons weigh down the branches but blackberries came and went fast – instead of ripening in an Indian summer they moulded in the mist and rain. Bright red berries on the rowan and hawthorn don’t seem to mind.

With only so much space in the pantry and freezer it was time to expand with winemaking into the cellar. Racking was erected along one wall, carefully working round Colonel Campbell’s explosives chest. Advice was taken, books studied, equipment and ingredients purchased and then the first attempt.

Bilberry wine has always sounded appealing, maybe it’s a childhood throwback from Pogles Wood. There were enough berries to make several gallons but, just in case it didn’t work, I stuck to a gallon, keeping the rest of the fruit for mueslis and puddings. For 5 days it bubbled away in a fermenting bin, with a regular stir, then got transferred to a demijohn and into the cellar. There it sits next to the damson wine, blackberry wine and has recently been joined by the strawberry – when I’m in the cellar I love the gurgles of gas popping out of the air locks. The strawberry, with its champagne yeast, is bubbling the fastest.

Hawthorn berries are in the fermenting bin at the moment – the tree at the bottom of the vegetable patch is covered in them and the 3lbs I removed, a small fraction of what’s left for the birds.

What next? A never ending list of recipes to try out: rowanberries, gorse flowers, young oak leaves, etc. but what will it taste like? Fingers crossed the bilberry will be ready and good enough for Christmas Day.


Monday, 13 September 2010

Bleached Pug at Campbell’s Cottage

Following on from Darren’s epic moth vigil in which 180 different species of moth were recorded, we were lucky to have another enthusiast staying at the cottage. His trap glowed bright through the night and an extra 21 species were found, including the Bleached Pug. The moth recorder for Meirionnydd usually requires dissection to confirm a record for this rare species but as our guest was a professor of zoology, he was prepared to take his word for it.


Friday, 10 September 2010

Smoke Box Chicken

The steam train from Porthmadog had just pulled in to the station at Blaenau Ffestiniog. The town was washed in a fine drizzle with clouds hanging low, but the spirits of the engine crew were high as they tucked into a roast dinner, eaten al fresco on the tender. When asked what was on the menu, the reply was ‘Smoke Box Chicken’.

In these days of high energy costs it’s good to see the drivers of the Ffestiniog Railway making full use of their fuel. Burning coal or oil creates the steam that drives the pistons and the surplus heat goes out through the chimney at the front of the engine. On its way it passes through the smoke box.

I tasted a piece of the chicken pulled from the carcass, just right, tender and moist. Thirteen and a half miles uphill in the smoke box was clearly the optimum oven setting.

Was the flavour enhanced by the contents of the smoke box? ‘Not likely. There’s all sorts of noxious fumes in there. That’s why it’s triple-wrapped in foil’ said Mol, the cloth-capped driver. It turns out he’s a bit of a gourmet. One of his favourites is ‘a half leg of lamb, slivers of garlic, rosemary, potatoes and parsnips – give it about an hour of gentle shunting around the yard and then the journey up to Blaenau, and it’s really tasty…’.

He must be the Fat Controller’s favourite driver. Next time a steam train passes by, sniff the aroma and see if you can guess what’s on the menu.


A Matter of Utmost Gravity

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.

YouTube of the Gravity Train at