The Talyllyn Railway is a Welsh heritage treasure, once a working line opened in 1865 to haul slate from the quarries of the mid-Wales hinterland to the coast at Tywyn. The narrow gauge line may be only 7 miles long, but you can spend a whole day stopping off at stations en route, exploring Dolgoch Falls, having lunch at the station cafe at Abergynolwyn, or hiking up through the woods to the old Bryn Eglwys quarry. And not only that, you meet lots of happy volunteer drivers and guards along the way, all of them bursting to fill you in with fascinating railway facts.
This week at Lens-Artists, Tina shows us many creative ways to interpret her chosen theme ‘opposites’. I thought I’d choose just one photo – a chance weather moment in Wales – one of those hard-to-credit solar beams piercing a storm-heavy sky. I mean to say, how can that field be so luminously green when the town of Harlech below is so deep in shadow, and the clouds above so full of rain? I even desaturated the image a notch or two. Of course there are other opposites here too: townscape-landscape; manmade-natural; urban-rural.
Snowdonia, North Wales from across the Menai Strait
Wales tends to have a reputation for being short on sunshine and long on rain (washed out family holidays often looming large in people’s memories). And it’s true it does receive a lot of rain from the Atlantic. And yes, it can often be a question of catching it while you can. But then when you do, the combination of mountains, sea and active weather systems can produce some other-worldly effects. The island of Anglesey in December and January puts on some specially good sunlight shows, and what can be more heart and spirit-lifting than winter sun.
The Pilot House, Penmon Point, Anglesey
In Henllys Woods
Aberffraw Beach: January sunset
Lens-Artists: Here comes the sun This week Amy asks to see our sun photos and anything under the sun.
There may be signs of spring here in Shropshire, but the wind is still perishing cold. It’s reminding me of a wind-blown winter’s visit to Llanddwyn Island on Anglesey, where the sea-gale found every chink in one’s protective layers. Even so, it was a fine place to be: racing waves and whipped up grasses.
Our January blew in with sudden squalls and sea gales off the Celtic Sea, and a week’s sojourn on west coast Anglesey. From the sands of Aberffraw and nearby Newborough we could see the mountains of Snowdonia across the Menai Strait, a wood-cut frieze: sometimes steely grey, sometimes indigo; watch as snow dusted the high slopes. The place was blisteringly cold, but enthralling too. And we did have sunshine interludes too.
And the deep-cloud afternoons did give up their gloom just in time for some breath-taking sunsets.
And then, too soon, it was time to leave, and then, as often happens when we drive over the Menai Strait away from Anglesey, the morning light failed. An eclipse of the sun? Some ancient Celtic curse on the land made manifest? In any event, our hundred-mile, mid-day drive home to Much Wenlock proceeded through a depressing dusk, although it did have its moment of mystifying grandeur as we wound through the Llanberis Pass. Can you spot the tiny white farmhouse at the foot of the photo?
And so back home and last week’s walk up on to Wenlock Edge, taking the field paths behind the house. A gentler landscape certainly, and warmer too after a brisk upward hike. Also from our side of the Edge its true drama is quite concealed. We see only fields and treetops, but when you reach the path that runs along the ridge summit, it is only when you peer through the underbrush that you see that the land simply drops off – falling through hundreds of feet of hanging woodland, so steep as to be inaccessible except to birds and small mammals and perhaps an adventurous deer. This impression of no-man’s-land and apparent lack of management by humankind adds to its eeriness. On winter days, too, when the trees are bare, you can glimpse the village of Homer way below, and beyond it the farm fields of the Shropshire Plain.
The path up to Wenlock Edge
Looking back on the town
Over the Edge
On the homeward path with view of the Wrekin
And on the home front, a wintery upstairs garden:
But still a few crab apples left
And in the kitchen: some surviving allotment marigolds and crusty spelt-flour soda bread:
As I may have mentioned, once or several times, the January winds during our recent trip to Anglesey were vicious; not only the fearsome bluster but also the endless fusillade of icy darts that penetrated every ill protected piece of flesh. But they could not be avoided. My sister’s cockapoo needed walks, and coming equipped with built-in woolly suit, she did not give a fig for gales and freezing sea pools. If anything, they spurred her on: much racing and paddling and digging. It was hard not find such energy and all-round canine joy infectious. And then when we reached the beach beyond the dunes and estuary, there were sights like this: Celtic Sea sundowner; next stop Ireland. Tempest or not, how could this be missed. It had been so long since we’d seen and smelled the sea.
We weren’t the only ones to feel excited:
Farrell Safaris are notorious for their cross-country deviations even when kitted out with a fully functioning map. And so it was on our recent Anglesey stay, and with an intended short (couple of miles) drive from Aberffraw to next-door Rhosneigr, that we managed to miss the turn and instead head off to who knew where.
Usually when this happens, Captain Farrell’s first resort is to keep going, perhaps in hopes that, if we do this for long enough, all will come right. Fortunately this time we had savvy niece in the back seat, and she soon had our position pinpointed on her phone. We did indeed need to turn around. And it was while this was going on – i.e. finding a suitable turning space on a narrow country lane, that I spotted the Neolithic burial chamber in the far corner of a farm field.
Can we stop, says me, hoping for a better look over the wall and maybe a long-shot photo (poor light willing).
But once turned about, we soon saw that a proper visit was feasible. There were official signs in Welsh and in English ‘Ty-Newydd Burial Chamber’, a pull-in space on the verge and a stile. Sister, cockapoo and niece were up for a visit, though the wind was brutal and it was starting to rain. In my rush to head the expedition as chief prehistorian I was ensnared in a hawthorn bush and held up proceedings. Meanwhile Captain Farrell gathered himself for unscheduled activity, and manfully brought up the rear.
We then tramped across the muddy field only to find the ancient capstone (a whopping 12 ft by 5ft/3.7 m by 1.5m) had been propped up on two unsightly brick pillars set on a concrete base. And while their solid intervention was doubtless necessary for many reasons, their presence jarred. The dreary light did not help.
So it turned out that the original drive-by view had been more impressively mysterious than the close-quarters’ encounter. Ah well.
The tomb was excavated in 1935 and is considered typical of the funerary monuments built by the first farming people (see also the Barclodiad y Gawres tomb in an earlier post). Finds included a hearth with charcoal remains, some flint flakes, a burned flint arrow head, and a chip from a polished stone axe. But there were also pottery shards of the later Beaker People of the Bronze Age, and signs of a further chamber, which suggest the tomb was used, or re-used over a considerable time-span. The large cairn that once covered the tomb is long gone – ploughed out and/or its stones re-purposed. Instead, small concrete bollards have been set out to indicate its original extent. Useful guidance on the one hand, but like the brick supports, they felt intrusive somehow.
Anyway, we paid our respects to ancient souls who then, like us, must have been alarmingly blasted by the training jets taking off at nearby RAF Valley. The New Year’s holiday was over and ‘business as usual’ resumed. Out of the gale the engines’ roar filled the sky, the earth, the universe, my skull. It was noise so loud as to be physically shattering. I had that strange sense of someone walking over my grave and a horrid glimpse of what it must to be some innocent village dweller in a war zone; to be on the receiving end of the northern hemisphere’s mighty industrial war machine.
Several times during that day the soundtrack for Armageddon rebounded through my bones and being. It happened again in late afternoon as we walked on Aberffraw’s magnificent beach. And I wondered then, as I have done many times recently, what on earth the ancestors would think of us now. We who believe ourselves so very civilised?
A Hawk T1 or T2 (?) caught over Aberffraw estuary. And the photos taken immediately afterwards – first looking towards mainland Wales, and the second across the Celtic Sea towards Ireland:
This week Patti wants to see the kinds of scenes/objects that catch our eye or pique our interest. Please go and view her interesting choices.
This seventeenth century packhorse bridge in the Anglesey village of Aberffraw is quite a landmark and much photographed (on sunny summer days). You can see why it catches the photographer’s eye, but on a bleak and windy January day, I’m thinking it’s the local jackdaw that adds a certain something to the scene.
There was also a jackdaw ‘fly-by’ when I visited the village church, another of Anglesey’s ancient places of worship, St Beuno’s. As with ‘the little church in the sea’ in the previous post, parts of it date from the 12th century.
It was by no means the earliest church in Aberffraw. That was built some five centuries earlier by St. Beuno himself, though no traces of his work remain. As with many early Christian places of worship it was probably a simple thatched and timber-framed structure that would leave few signs of itself. But in their time, both these churches probably served as royal chapels to the Princes (and Princesses) of Gwynedd who in the early Middle Ages held court close by. Their palace likewise left little trace of its existence, having been dismantled and its parts dispersed after England’s King Edward I invaded Wales (1277-1282). Although I did read that it was discovered belatedly that the village council houses had been probably been built over the site. The way things change!
Or in Welsh: Eglwys bach y môr. Dating from the 12th century, it survives the sea storms only with the help of some robust 19th century defences. Erosion has reduced the peninsula on which it was originally built to a tidal island known as Cribinau. You can find it along the Coastal Path just north of Aberffraw (Anglesey).
The church itself is dedicated to the Irish Saint Cwyfan (Kevin) who lived in the 6th century. Whether he ever visited Anglesey is not known, but the island, once the stronghold of the Celtic Druids until the Roman invasion, was certainly a favoured retreat for early Christian hermit-saints.
You can walk across to the island at low tide and the church is still used for weddings and christenings. Come a bright summer’s day, it would be hard to imagine a more momentous setting for such important family rites.
It sits on the westerly headland above Anglesey’s Porth Trecastell Bay, a Neolithic passage grave known as Barclodiad y Gawres (the ‘Giantess’s Apronful’). It was built around 5,000 years ago by local farming people whose only tools were made of stone and wood and bone. It comprises a stone passageway more than twenty feet long, and in the centre a once high-domed chamber with apses, cruciform in plan, the whole covered with a mound of turves. Over the millennia the superstructure weathered and, as happened with most prehistoric remains, many of the stones were robbed and repurposed, doubtless still lodging in field walls, gateways, barns and farmsteads.
But recycling episodes apart, archaeologists excavating in the 1950s were able to discover much about the original monument. Their findings in turn informed the reconstruction of both the mound and tomb entrance that visitors see today. You can also go inside, but only so far. An iron gate has been installed to protect the main chamber, the key to it only available in summer from the Spar shop in nearby Llanfaelog.
Not to be thwarted, I took this photo through the bars.
Bone of frog and shrew and hare and grass snake…
So what did the archaeologists find? First there were the cremated remains of two young males. Then there was the central chamber hearth and within it the bony parts of wrasse (a marine fish), eel, frog, toad, shrew, grass snake, mouse and hare, the lot covered in a layer of limpet shells and pebbles. A potent brew however you look at it. Then there are the carved stones, designs pecked away with a stone chisel: chevrons, spirals and zigzags in a style seen in other Neolithic passage graves across the Celtic Sea in Ireland, or further afield in Brittany and Portugal. Clearly the Neolithic settlers on Anglesey came from voyaging stock.
And then there was the pollen grain evidence discovered beneath the mound. This suggested that far from the largely tree-less landscape we see today, the coastal terrain, when the tomb was built, was well wooded. And so we have a glimpse of another phenomenon: how prehistoric farming folk set about changing the landscape, often dramatically so.
Today, much of Anglesey comprises un-treed arable fields and sheep pasture. The boundary trees and hedges that do survive are blasted into submission by sea-gales, as were we last week when we struggled along the cliff to pay homage to the ancestors.
P.S. Incidental info: Porth Trecastell beach is also known as Cable Bay. In 1902 it was here that one of the island’s Atlantic telegraphic cables was laid, connecting to Ireland in the first instance, and thence to the United States. Needless to say, the connection has long been abandoned. The other cable ran from Porth Crugmor and aeons ago as a child, I remember being taken to see it by my parents. They seemed so sure I would find the visit edifying, excited themselves by this piece of historic submarine communication. I only recall the rusting hawser affair running out along the beach and finding its determined westward progression into the sea and beneath the waves very disturbing.
For more photos outside and inside the tomb: http://www.megalithics.com/wales/barclody/barcmp.htm