Saturday, 27 November 2010

Runner-up in the Rutting

This solitary male is wandering around the foothills of Moelwyn Bach. He used to be part of the gang but I guess he challenged and lost out in the rutting season. Those enormous horns better for display than fighting.


Snowdeck in Snowdonia

The last Friday in November and the 2nd day of Haydn walking to catch the bus to school with flakes the size of 50ps covering our steps. As we crossed the stile at the top hairpin, the fencing contractors, on their way to a job in the reserve, drove naïvely upwards. A couple of hours later they walked off the mountain leaving their 4x4 with a slight bump from gliding sideways into a stone wall.

After lunch the phone call to say school had closed early – sunshine, fresh snow, a few magic hours of winter wonderland. Upstairs, hidden in the wardrobe, the yet-to-be-wrapped Xmas present called out to be given early.

The snowdeck, ordered online and delivered from the USA, was brought down and tested on the snow. Like a skateboard but instead of wheels beneath, another skate - a short, double-decker snowboard without the foot straps. And away he went with Molly the pup in hot pursuit. See how they got on!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

A Pilgrim’s Way in the Vale of Ffestiniog – 2 churches, 3 pubs and 4 rivers.

The village of Maentwrog is a good place to start, with its name clearly explained by the stone (maen), thrown into the churchyard by the giant, St Twrog. He was cross that the locals were reverting to paganism and, in the 6th century, lobbed a boulder from Moelwyn Bach, the 710m peak across the valley.

Our pagan ancestors revered yew trees and these in turn were embraced by early christianity to help ease the process of conversion. The massive yews in the churchyard have an official certificate, issued by the botanist David Bellamy, confirming them to be more than 1,300 years old.

St Twrog’s church is in good condition, rebuilt and extended at a cost of £3,000 in 1896 by the Oakeley family, whose mansion, Plas Tan y Bwlch, overlooks the village they built for their workforce. It’s said the villagers were asked to refrain from hanging out their washing on a Monday lest the sight of their bloomers spoilt the view for posh guests at the Plas.

During the rebuilding a stone carved ‘Marcus’ disappeared from the walls of the church and some years later reappeared in the doorway of the public bar of The Grapes. This stone originally commemorated the troops of Marcus completing their section of the walls at the Roman fort, Tomen y Mur, just a few miles away at Trawsfynydd.

From the church go down the road, past The Grapes, over the old stone bridge, cross the main road and go through the kissing gate onto the embankment across the fields. This embankment was part of the land improvement undertaken by the Oakeleys in the early 1800s turning marsh into productive farm land. Just a bit downstream, in the tidal reaches of the river Dwyryd, they engineered a beautiful S bend to enhance the view from their dining room window. What power, what style.

At the end of the field turn right onto a narrow lane just opposite Bronturnor, a grand looking house and former rectory built in 1826 for the sum of £957. The stream that flows past the house and into the Dwyryd is the route taken by the Wooden Boulder, a large sphere carved from the trunk of an oak tree by David Nash and washed downstream by successive floods until it got wedged against the bridge. After a helpful lift across the lane by the council it spent many happy years in the Dwyryd, going out and returning on the tide, before vanishing into the Irish Sea in 2003. I have heard reports that it was sighted in 2010 but the location is secret!

As you walk alongside the river watch out for otters and mink and the brown headed goosanders diving for small fish. When the river is in spate, in mid to late summer, this can be a great place to catch salmon and sea trout.

Follow the lane past 2 farmyards (NB loose dogs at the furthest farmyard) and over the beautiful stone bridge with pedestrian passing places. Behind you at the base of the Vale is Plas Dol Moch, a 16th century house acquired by Coventry City Council in the 1960s and run as an outdoor education centre.

After the bridge the river on your right is one of the tributaries, the Cynfal, that brings water steeply down from the wild moors. Cross the main road that runs up to Blaenau Ffestiniog and follow the footpath up the northern side of the Cynfal gorge enjoying the falls, rock pools and vivid greens that come with the high humidity. Huw Llwyd’s Pulpit is a pillar of rock rising out of the waters of the gorge and said to be where the 17th century sorcerer used to stand on the rock to recite poetry, preach sermons and converse with spirits. He claimed he was safe from evil while on the rock because the devil was afraid of water.

Take a left turn out of the gorge and oak woodlands following a path through fields to the village of Llan Ffestiniog where the Llan (church) stands proud and visible from most parts of the Vale. Today’s St Michael’s was built in 1844 and the earliest Church is thought to have been established in the 8th century. Its most famous rector was Edmund Prys (1543-1623), also archdeacon of Meirionnydd, and who is remembered for publishing the psalms in Welsh and the first Welsh book of hymns.

Inside is a stained glass window ‘Dedicated to the women and children who have perished by enemy action by one who has suffered. GRC 1944’. GRC was Geoffrey Clarke who lost his daughter and 2 granddaughters when Flight 777 from Lisbon to London was shot down. Was the plane targeted because of the cigar smoking Alfred Chenhalls and his resemblance to Winston Churchill? Or was it because Leslie Howard, he of ‘Gone With the Wind’ fame, was on board? As to why Llan Ffestiniog was chosen - it was a friend’s recommendation being a place well away from the blitz.

For those in need of bodily refreshment the Pengwern Arms, just across the square, will make a good watering hole. This 300 year old pub closed in 2009 and was recently bought by the locals. It is planned to re-open its doors as a community pub in time for Christmas 2010 or early in the new year.

From Llan Ffestiniog follow the footpath that goes down and north past an imposing house called Plas Meini then take the next left to walk alongside the Teigl, another fast flowing tributary of the Dwyryd. Turn right onto the main road for 100 meters then left into the woods crossing the Goedol (another tributary) and follow the path up to Dduallt Station on the Ffestiniog Railway. It’s not a church but is Mecca to rail enthusiasts, the only railway loop in Britain, the only narrow gauge loop this side of India.

Walking towards the sea the lighthouse at Portmeirion is in view with the river winding its way down the Vale beneath the watchful eyes from Plas Tan y Bwlch. It’s a picture postcard sunset shot in the autumn.

Cross beneath the railway line down to Plas y Dduallt, built in the 15th century for the Lloyds, descendants of Llywelyn the Great. The house at the front with large central windows was added in 1630 and the arrow slits, beneath the balcony, by the eccentric Colonel Campbell in the 1960s. He is most famous for having his own engine, called the Colonel, which he parked in a siding and drove as part of his daily commute to the office. In those days there was no vehicle access to the house. The siding has gone but Campbell’s Platform remains as a private halt for the house and guests at its self-catering cottage.

In the late 1800s there was a thriving Sunday school here. More recently the house was used as a location for an overnight vigil by the Most Haunted team – there was much banging and screaming.
Follow the footpath (not the tarmac drive) into the nature reserve and through Coed y Bleiddiau ‘forest of the wolves’ – ancient woodland where the last wolf in Wales was allegedly slain. Opposite the cottage is a larger than life howling wolf planted with several hundred rods of willow. The paling fence that surrounds it is a temporary measure to protect it from the wild goats, once established the fence will be removed and children will be able to crawl into the belly of the wolf and exit through the long tail.

The cottage itself was built for the railway inspector in the 1870s shortly after the line was converted from gravity to steam power. Over the years it has had many tenants including St John Philby, father of Kim Philby the spy, on a 10 year lease from 1937. Philby’s guest at the outbreak of WWII was William Joyce who travelled from here to Berlin and became the propaganda broadcaster Lord Haw-Haw.

Continue along the path and take the left hand fork into the conifers going downhill towards the coast, past a cottage called Ty Coch, onto the road with The Oakeley Arms on your left hand side. You have crossed 4 rivers, visited 2 churches and potentially this is your 3rd pub stop.


Saturday, 13 November 2010

Drilling for Dates at Plas y Dduallt

I signed up for the Dating Old Welsh Houses project hoping that ours would be dated and was encouraged to make the list of hopefuls. A day before the experts arrived our leader phoned to set expectations – there was a chance the beams might not be suitable for analysis. I promised not to be too upset.

Dan and Matt 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. The sample was labelled MER 1 being the first of the Meirionnydd part of the project.

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.
If you’d like to contact the dendrochronology experts, click here.