Category Archives: Nature

Video: Pheasants in the garden

The pheasants vanished from my garden for the summer, but have been slowly returning for the last month.  At first there was just one, but now there are up to five – four females and an occasional male.  Pheasants are quite mind-numbingly stupid, but of the five that panic and run away every time I open the door to throw down food for them, there’s one that knows that the unlocking of the door is a good sound.  She bounces up a couple of steps in confident anticipation of a shower of peanuts.  When they haven’t been fed (or when they come back later in the day in hope of more goodies) and she sees movement in the kitchen, she comes all the way up the steps and loiters by the door, sometimes just staring at me in a rather unnerving way.  I’m a complete pushover and it works every time, and between the pheasants and the blue tits, my sack of peanuts is emptying rapidly.  Here she is yesterday, looking for an evening peanut shower after the morning one had been demolished and they had gone elsewhere to forage or be fed.

 

Video: Chaos on the goldfinch feeder

I recall that this time last year most of the birds vanished from the garden in October and November, for the reasons explained in an earlier post, returning in force in December.  This year more of them remained in the garden over that period, but it is noticeable how busy it is at the moment.  The goldfinch feeder is particularly in demand and all day today the feathers were flying as they jockeyed for position and chased each other off, some of which is captured on the video below.  A very beautiful display of bright colour on a dull day.  There were nine of them at one stage.

 

Vintage Postcards #6: Dysynni valley and Bird Rock

Amongst all the recent postcards, this is one of my favourites, mainly because it is so relentlessly prosaic.  Straying out of Aberdovey, but not too far, it’s a peaceful view of cattle in the Dysynni valley with Bird Rock unmistakeable in the background, seen from the west near the coast.  Numbered 36502, and dating to 1895 (courtesy of the Francis Frith Collection website for the date) it is characteristic of Francis Frith photographs, offering a slightly unusual take on the usual subject matter.  Unlike other contemporary views of scenery which focus on the romantic this shot is particularly evocotive of the the landscape as I have seen it so often, with Bird Rock looking rather intimidating, and the lugubrious cattle waiting patiently for whatever weather is about to emerge from the clouds.  Cattle stand in water to cool themselves down on hot days (in some states in America where summer temperatures are usually high, cooling ponds are often provided) so although the sky looks rather overcast, it was probably a hot, sunny day.  There is a real sense of timelessness about this photograph.

In a part of the Dysynni valley to further to the east (with Bird Rock this time to the west) and below Castell-y-Bere are fields along the river Dysynni that are still used for pasturing cattle, as well as sheep.  There are some lovely walks along the Dysynni valley, which is well worth exploring.

The card was completely unused. I like the “Post Card” font, which has panache.  I instantly liked the little saying at the top of the reverse side, below, “T.N.T. – Today, Not Tomorrow!”  At first it amused me because it could have been written for me, as procrastionation is probably my worst sin, and I could often do with a bit of explosive to move me in the right direction :-).  But when I looked into it, it turns out to be a wartime slogan introduced by British Minister of Production, Captain Oliver Lyttleton, during September 1942, the thrust of which was that there was a new urgency to the production of war supplies. It gives one pause for thought.  What is interesting here is that, as above, the photograph is listed in the Francis Frith archive as dating to 1895, but it is clear that the early photograph was re-used later for post-1902 postcard production (see below) and in at least one of its more modern iterations carried a 1942 slogan.

Francis Frith is probably the best name, amongst non-specialists of early postcard production.  There is a lot about Frith and his photography business on the Francis Frith Collection website, which is a going concern and preserves an archive of his work.  It is a really fascinating story.  Frith was born into a Quaker family in 1822 in Derbyshire.  He built up a thriving grocery business in Liverpool, which he sold in the 1850s, making him financially independent, in today’s terms a multi-millionaire.  A founder member of the Liverpool Photographic Society, only 14 years after the invention of photography, be began to pursue his hobby on a full-time basis, travelling to the Middle East for fourteen years between 1856 and 1860.  I was very familiar with his Egyptian photographs, having a particular interest in this field, but the Francis Frith Collection website gives a real insight into the scope of Frith’s intersets and abilities.   Marketed by Negretti and Zambra of London, he became rich on the sale of his images as prints and steroscopic views.  After he married and settled down in England, he opened his company F. Frith and Co to “create accurate and unromantic photographs of as many cities, towns and villages of the British Isles as possible and sell copies of the photographs to the public, who were travelling in ever greater numbers and looking for souvenirs of their travels.”  He eventually retired and left the company to his sons, dying in 1898.  His sons built on their father’s legacy, and when in 1902 the Post Office agreed the design for the postcard, with a picture on one side and a divided plain side on the other for message and addresss, the Frith brothers jumped on the bandwagon and became one of the market leaders in postcard production and distribution in the first half of the 20th Century, using the extensive archive of existing photographs.

Digitization of the Frith collection, consisting of over 300,000 images, is ongoing on the other website, with a searchable archive, where 21 other views of Dysynni (and 105 of Aberdovey) can be found.

 

The canalized section of Afon Leri and West Wharf Boatyard, Ceredigion

Afon Leri from the Panorama Walk behind Aberdovey, showing the railway bridge and the boatyard. The road bridge is between the two, but difficult to see in this photograph.

I have been fascinated by Afon Leri ever since I first visited Aberdovey some twenty years ago.  From my living room window it is an unwavering slender scar on the flat landscape to the east of Ynyslas.  From up on the hill its opening is clearly perpendicular to the banks of the Dyfi estuary, and one can see the bridges that carry the road and railway over the river towards Ynyslas, next to a small boatyard.  The river’s course across this topmost corner of Ceredigion is obviously canalized, an engineered artifice, but why?  What was its purpose?

Cors Fochno c.1790, before the route of the Afon Leri was changed. Source: National Library of Wales (where there is a zoomable version of this image)

The Leri rises at Llyn Craig-y-Pistyll below Pumlimon and passes through Talybont, (on the main road between Machynlleth and Aberystwyth) where it meets the Afon Ceulan before flowing behind Borth. The canalized section is 3.35km long and c.35m wide and runs from Ynysfergi in the south to Pont Leri in the north, crossing the low-lying Cors Fochno.  Cors Fochno is a Special Area of Conservation and one of the largest remaining examples of a raised peat bog in Britain, which started to form from c.5500BC.  Afon Leri now opens out into the Dyfi estuary at Pont Dyfi in Ynyslas.   Work on the canalized section had begun by 1790 when the above map was created by T. Lewis, marked as the Pil Newydd.

Excerpt from the above map of Cors Fochno showing the former course of the Afon Leri at far left.  The Leri begins at Borth and meanders along the coastline to the west of Cors Fochno up to the point where it emerges into Cardigan Bay at Aberlery (which means the mouth of the Lery).  Source: The National Library of Wales (where a zoomable version can be found)

In the early 19th Century local landowners and neighbours Pryse Pryse of Gogerddan and Mathew Davies of Cwmcynfelin were incentivized by the General Enclosure Act of 1801 to reclaim land from the bog in order to develop it for pastoral agrarian use.  Land reclamation would require the waterlogged land to be drained.  There was little recorded opposition from parishioners, and royal assent was granted on June 22nd 1813.  The land surveyor Charles Hassall saw the advantages of enclosing the 5106 acres but warned the landowners against contractors who were either duplicitous or ignorant of the task ahead.  His words were almost premonitionary as successive problems plagued the project.  Disagreements between land owners, contractors and commissioners, together with serious and ongoing financial problems, caused major delays.

Charles Hassall’s plan was to divert a number of streams that entered the bog to drain away spring floodwaters and build embankments along the Dyfi estuary to prevent salt-water transgressions.  He recommended an experienced contractor called Anthony Bower, who was employed in 1815.  Bower suggested that using the river Leri to drain water from the land was the most viable solution, but there were problems.  The course of the Leri ran along the far western edge of Cors Fochno and emptied a little further up the coast at Aberlery into Cardigan Bay.  It was insufficiently deep and fast-moving to serve as a drain for the bog, so Bower suggested that the best solution was to deepen, widen and straighten the river.  As Professor Moore-Colyer describes it:  “A sluice was to be constructed at the river mouth from which a main drain would run through the centre of the bog. This would be accompanied by a catchwater drain which would follow the course of the Lerry to the foot of the hills and then along the south-eastern boundary of the bog to join the River Cletwr.  By this means, Bower believed, water from the hills would be prevented from entering the bog while an embankment on the southern side of the Dyfi would preclude the entry of salt-water.”  Sluices and catchwater drains would be employed to control water levels.

In 1815, an alternative proposal was put forward by Griffith Parry of Penmorfa, and which carried an estimated cost of £10,000.  Griffith Parry had trained under the great engineer Andrew Rennie on the construction of the London Docks.   He also favoured diverting the Leri, but from the west end of Ynys Fergi in a straight line to Pont Afon Leri, and he too believed that deepening, widening and straightening the river was the solution, which he thought should be embanked with clay.  In addition, he suggested deepening, widening and embanking surrounding ditches and streams to improve the drainage potential offered by canalizing the Leri.

Gogerddan estate, the seat of Sir Pryse Pryse. Source: Parks&Gardens

Hassall died in 1816 and was replaced by co-commissioners Robert Williams of Bangor and David Joel Jenkins of Lampeter.  Williams was staggered by the estimated total cost of £30,000 proposed by Bowers which, with the widening and deepening of other existing drains, would absorb over 1000 acres, and would create a total landmass with a value of only £20,000.   Bower and Williams fell out over both this and more personal reasons.  For the next two years the parties vied for position, with Jenkins supporting Bower and Williams supporting Parry.  Parry’s plan eventually won out.  Contractors, to be paid £2500.00 in instalments, were appointed.  A final payment of £250.00 was to be withheld until two years after the project was completed, to provide insurance against post-completion problems. Additional costs, including raw materials, were provided by the Aberystwyth Bank after Pryse Pryse of Gogerddan provided security of £6000.00 for the loan,  the balance of the cash was raised by selling land on the peripheries of the marsh for over £2340.00 initially.  However, financial problems and disputes plagued the drainage scheme, particularly in respect of the contractors not building various elements to specification.   Williams resigned and in 1822 Richard Griffiths of Bishop’s Castle, with three successful enclosures under his belt, was appointed in his stead.  After the change in commissioner, the appointment of the surveyor Charles Mickleburgh of Montgomery, a new Act of Parliament in 1824, the chaos of further financial difficulties, escalating debts and a court case, the project was eventually completed by 1847, and a small  harbour was provided for the local shipbuilding industry.  It is difficult to see how the project could ever have seen a return on its investment.

Google map of Afon Leri

The above map from the 1790s, the Google map to the left and the Ordnance Survey map below show the former and present courses of the river. 

A road bridge, Pont Afon Leri,  carries the B4353 over the river at Ynys Tachwedd, connecting Ynyslas with the A487.  A small boatyard is located on the western side of the road bridge.  The Cambrian Coast Line crosses just to its south on a 7-pier railway bridge that was built in 1863.  The river is tidal along the length of the cut, and a footbridge over the Leri where the river meets the Wales Coast Path marks the boundary between the tidal cut and the non-tidal river.

The West Wharf boatyard at Pont Afon Leri has a history dating back to the 19th Century.  Here’s the description from the Coflein website:

Afon Leri from the hill behind Aberdovey, showing the boatyard by the Pont Afon Leri road bridge

Remains of timber-fronted quay on the west side of the entrance of the river Leri constructed by the railway company. The northern end of the quay frontage is degraded and the quay material has been washed out from behind the piling. The section in front of the boatyard has been repaired and remodelled to accommodate a modern boat lift. Sales particulars dating to 1862 reveal that short section of wharf already existed close the road before the coming of the Welsh Coast Railway. The wharf was part of the land holdings belonging to Issac Ll. Williams Esq under the Geneur’rglyn Inclosure Act. The railway company subsequently undertook the development of the wharf to act as a landing point for a new steamer working the Aberdovey ferry. The paddle steamer ELIZABETH started service on 24 October 1863, the day that the railway line between Aberdovey and Llanwyngwril opened on the northern side of the opened. The vessel was to operate every hour and to charge 6d per head for the crossing. Maintaining the service was extremely difficult as the ELIZABTH was frequently stuck fast on the Dyfi sandbanks. On 5 July 1867, George Owen, the Cambrian railway engineer reported that if the railway line to the north side of the Dyfi could not be fully opened soon, then the wharf would need to be piled. The line subsequently opened in August 1867. The ferry’s use of the West Wharf might have ended then, but the railway inspectors required more work to be undertaken on the tunnels. Whilst passengers were taken round by road, goods continued to be shipped across the Dyfi by the tug JAMES CONLEY. The use of the ELIZABETH on the route was abandoned and the vessel sold in 1869. In 1893, it was proposed that that the barges transhipping slate from the Plynlimon and Hafan Tramway would be charged for using the railway company’s West Wharf. Two years later, in May 1895, Mr I Hughes Jones, owner of the East Wharf sawmill proposed the transfer of the business to the other side of the Leri. This was accomplished soon after April 1896 when a new railway siding was opened to service the transferred sawmill. Also in 1896, is appears that the Hafan Sett Quarry (Plynlimon and Hafan Tramway) were still proposing to use the wharf, as they contacted the railway company with regard to installing a level crossing for the tramway. It is likely that the piling for the wharf was extended around this time to facilitate these new developments. The saw mill continued to occupy the wharfside through to the First World War.

Today the boatyard is still a functioning business, offering boat storage, slipway launching and repairs and has a 16-ton slipway hoist.

The Ceredigion Coast Path follows part of the course of the canalized section of the river, and intersects with the Wales Coast Path just east of Borth where the canalized stretch of the river begins, as shown on the above map.  The Ceredigion Coast Path website has more details, and for those wanting to walk the Leri, there’s a good outline of how it can be approached by Ben Fothergill on the UKRGB website.  An official walk across Cors Fochno can be found on the Natural Resources Wales website.

View of the Afon Leri as it approaches the Dyfi estuary. Photograph by Chris Denny (under Creative Commons licence).

Afon Leri from the footbridge where the tidal section of Afon Leri meets the non-tidal section. Photograph by Nigel Brown, used under Creative Commons licence.

Afon Leri in the mist, seen from Aberdovey

 

Main source for this post and a lot more information, particularly about the financial problems, land sold for financing the drainage, and allotments of land to the poor, with my thanks:

Walking from Aberdovey towards Tywyn along the beach

Yesterday’s walk along the beach was extraordinary.  I had intended to park by the cemetery, but by accident parked opposite the row of houses at the foot of the road from the Trefeddian Hotel, crossed the golf course and emerged from the dunes at the Second World War pillbox.   The sun was hazy and incredibly pale, but at the same time reflected off the wet sand, creating some beautiful colour and light combinations.  I walked for far longer than intended, and it nearly became a case of walking into Tywyn and getting a bus or taxi back to my car!  Instead I retraced my steps, and because of the light it was like doing an entirely different walk.  It was lovely to see a pair of oyster catchers, obstinately refusing to do anything other than stand, preening in the sun!  They are in the video at the end of this post.

 

 

The woodland walks at Ynysymaengwyn

Ynysymaengwyn late 18th Century mansion. Source: Commando Veterans Association

I went over to Ynysymaengwyn today to take some photos for the article I’m writing about the history of the Ynysymaengwyn Estate.  Although it is now a caravan and camping site, it used to be the biggest landholding property in the area, dating back to the reign of Elizabeth I.  It is best known for its 18th and 19th Century history, when it owned most of Tywyn and Aberdovey, the fortunes of which were inextricably tied with those of the estate.  A splendid house was built in 1758 by the widow Ann Owen, and this was still standing together with a ballroom wing, a servants’ and administrative, kennels, a dovecote and kennels, as well as a vast kitchen garden in the 1960s.

When the last owner of Ynysymaengwyn signed the buildings and the remaining 40 acres of the estate over to Merioneth council, and it was then handed over to Tywyn Town Council, it fell into increasing disrepair it was decided that the buildings should be disposed of.

Only very few remnants of the buildings remain, but some of the woodland has been preserved as a series of very beautiful short walks.  I’ll write up full details of what is left of the original estate when I post the article, but in the meantime here are a few photos of the walks.  The snowdrops today were absolutely stunning, the walk down the Dynsynni was beautiful with the reeds rustling in the breeze, and the views across the hills from the Dysynni were wonderful.  The birds were all amazingly tame, and even a rabbit hopped across the path in sublime unconcern.

If you would like to visit, and I do sincerely recommend it, the surviving portion of the estate is open to the public as a woodland walk, with access to walks along the wonderful Dysynni river.  Just drive through the gate posts on the A493 and head down the short lane, watching out for a left turn that will take you into the carpark. In the bottom left hand there’s a map that shows you three woodland routes, the longest of which takes 30 minutes, but you can lengthen this by doing a section of the Dynsynni.  Take a bag full of bird seed with you if you like bird life – the wild birds are borderline tame, and all expect to be fed, and yell vociferously if you stand there looking at them and don’t provide sustenance!

Here’s the address:
Ynysymaengwyn Caravan & Camping Park
The Lodge, Ynysymaengwyn
Tywyn, Gwynedd
LL36 9RY
See the website for directions:
https://www.ynysy.co.uk

 

The challenges of grabbing a bite to eat in an Aberdovey garden in the winter

It has been remarkable watching the birds in the garden as they rush around to stock up on calories in this cold weather.  Even the blackbirds have ventured really close to the house to take advantage of a bowl of mealworms.

In a heavy wind, the goldfinches hold on for dear life to collect nyjer seeds, but are not to be deterred, as this one individual demonstrates.

I have no idea why these two blue tits tried, tried again and failed to collect peanuts from this feeder!  Fabulous to watch their quick dashing movements.  I love the bit where one of them decides that if the holes won’t work, he’ll drill through the plastic with his beak!  I went and had a look at the feeder, and although I could see nothing wrong I gave it a good shake and matters seemed to resolve themselves after that, and the peanuts began to be extracted in good order.

And this little visitor, not seen before or since, was quite a character.  I had to move the peanut feeder onto an upturned flower pot because it was quite clear that the mouse was going to carry on taking and collecting peanuts until it had enough to see out the winter!  He knew that they were there but couldn’t reach them.  He reverted to the tray of seeds had been put down for the robin, sparrows, dunnock and the blackbird.

The pheasants have no difficulty helping themselves to a bit of everything.  There were seven of them this morning, two males and five females, which is the greatest number I’ve seen in one go.  I feed them twice a day and they are quite happy to help themselves to whatever the other birds are eating, but in spite of their apparent greed, they are big birds and must need quite a lot of food to sustain themselves.