Monday, 20 September 2010

The Smoke that Thunders

Sunday morning, chucking it down, squelching in the mud to dig potatoes for roasting. Definitely not a day for tops of mountains, so off we went, water-proofed through the still forest to the gorge at Coed Cymerau.

Carrying cotton bags in case of edible fungi and as per norm, we found lots of tasteless and poisonous ones. But there, in the middle of the dark path, with a flared trunk, seemingly growing out of stone, was a big penny bun. The fungi book said that in terms of taste, this was second only to the truffle. As I write this I’m 30 minutes into a small slice and still alive, so it looks like a gourmet starter to our Sunday roast.

A bit further along were chanterelles, with their forked gills and apricot scent, nudging through the moss, so easy to miss or trample. Next were the hedgehog mushrooms, with unmistakeable undersides, resembling a close cropped, albino hedgehog. And then an enormous cauliflower fungus, enough to feed a family. Bags weighed down, this has to be our most fruitful fungi walk.

Food apart our spirits were raised with the sparkly, shiny greens of mosses, ferns and lichens as we dropped down into the humid gorge. The roar of the water, crashing through the rocks, sending spray high into the canopy. The footbridge over the Goedol, like a mini crossing between Zambia and Zimbabwe, but without the crocodiles below.  Wet Sundays in gorges are great.

See 'the smoke that thunders'.

Huw (with photo by Haydn)
19th September, 2010 

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The fat of the land – fruits and berries

June was good with strawberries cropping at 5 kilos a day, double my weight in the month. We ate them as we picked, served 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. 

Friday, 10 September 2010

Snowdon Litter Pick

Why oh why? Litter anywhere is bad news but on the nation’s favourite mountain it’s shameful. Our beacon of national identity despoiled with crud and crap. How very dare they! The trouble with litter, the more you’ve got, the more you get - like a magnet.

September after a busy summer and at least the Llanberis path is looking a bit tidier thanks to 37 volunteers - organised by the Snowdonia Society, with help from CCW, the national park wardens and a free ride on the mountain railway.

Plastic stirrers for hot drinks at the summit, why not wood? Neither should be thrown but at least the wood will degrade. Dog poop sealed for longevity in knotted poop bags. Bottles, carrier bags, cans and the usual suspects. Boxer shorts and a pair of curtains? A canister marked ‘GRENADE’ turned out to be a smoke bomb to test the wind before landing a helicopter.   
Huge bags of boulders, flown up to the eroded track ready for the footpath gang, stuffed full of all sorts. Extracting a nappy I was grateful for my rubber gloves and ‘handy helper’ – extended claws that together with the orange tabards made our gang look like a mutant species.

'Leave only footprints, take only photos' – here’s the YouTube.


Monday, 6 September 2010

Pride of Bilbao – from Wales for whales

Sunshine, cockles and chips on a bench behind HMS Warrior then a stroll round Victory. Ark Royal, namesake of the flagship that defeated the Spanish armada, moored nearby. Alongside was Dauntless, a strange mix of geometry and paint making the stealth ship invisible to radar. Then there she was, Pride of Bilbao, poking above the warships as she rounded the corner and edged in to dock.

Inside the terminal building we met up with the rest of our party, all of us linked some way to the Snowdonia Mammal Group. With ‘priority’ white boarding cards we were ill prepared for the departure lunge as hordes of colour blind plankton jammed the exit. On board was an odd mix of cheap mini cruise, posh car ferry and nature lovers toting tripods and Swarovski scopes.

Our guides from The Company of Whales briefed us in Cinema 1 with slides of what to see and where. If the whale has 2 blow holes it’s toothless, sieving food through ‘baleen’ plates. A forward blow to the left is the mark of a sperm whale or other whales with a wind over their right shoulder. Pilot whales are dolphins with a fin that look like a Smurf’s hat. Fin whales, the 2nd largest animal on the planet, are seen but their numbers have dropped dramatically over the last couple of years and no-one knows why.

Armed with the theory we climbed onto monkey island, the top deck on the roof of the bridge with spongey floor tiles, softening sound so as not to distract the captain and comfy to sit on. At 118 feet above the sea, that’s 10 double-deckers, our horizon was a huge 23 km. Water, water everywhere but ....

If we saw something we were to point to it as a percentage distance to the horizon - 50% would be 500m away and 90% 2 km away with the final 10% covering a massive 21 km. As for direction, straight ahead (of the ship, not you) was 12 o’clock, 90 degrees left was 9 o’clock and the other side 3 o’clock. Needless to say there was much confusion in our collective and excited minds when that first dolphin popped up.

Rounding the tip of Brittany we practiced our technique on gannets with a diving gannet being of particular note, it could be a signpost to ‘cetaceans’ (whales, dolphins & porpoise) chasing fish.  Pretty soon we were in to the common dolphins. ‘1 o’clock, 50%, right to left’ and there was a gang of 5 racing over and through the water straight into our bow. Their speed and our 20 knots made it a fleeting sight. Some bottlenose, then more common, some with calves swimming like a small shadow of their mums. By the end of the day we estimated 230 dolphins had swum past.

A blow was seen about 60% out and this was judged to be a large ‘rorqual’ – that’s a baleen (toothless) with throat grooves, maybe a fin whale? A few sightings of sunfish, great big dustbin lids that swim on their sides with one eye looking up and a thalidomide looking fin.

Our planned route should have taken us over the continental shelf, into the abyssal plain, with 4,000 metres of water beneath. On previous cruises this area, with its diverse underwater habitat, has produced some of the best sightings but alas our captain was sticking to the 130 metre depths of the shelf, presumably because of the wind.
A possible whale sighting had us all on our feet for what turned out to be even more rare, a leatherback turtle, just managing to paddle out of the way. Looking down from our great height big things seemed small but there was no mistaking this was a large creature, maybe the size of a small car. At one moment it was mainly covered in water and the next it was sliding down the side of a wave, with legs clear to see, and its head tilted up at us as if to say ‘watch where you’re going’. It looked so slow and lonely as it swam towards the west coast of France.

Beautiful sun setting into the Atlantic, a collective countdown with a cheer as it finally slipped below the horizon. Was there really a flash of green as the rays shone through the curve of ocean? Down the steps and back into the body of the ship, a strange reality after the windswept vigil of the day, then deep sleep dreaming of what might be below in the abyss.

Cloudless dawn as we cruised into the port of Bilbao, wind turbines to the right, transporter bridge ahead and to the left a fleet of solitary fishermen bobbing in their boats. A rugged backdrop of Basque mountains.

Our nature guides led us through the backstreets and soon we were on a narrow lane with hairpins climbing a fortified mountain with its strategic views over the bay. Two massive chimney towers, painted in red and white hoops, looked rocket like but I’m sure the hoops had been added to aid bird watchers .... ‘right hand chimney, bottom of 2nd red hoop, ladder on left hand side, peregrine falcon’. Butterflies in the foreground, griffin vultures in the distance and all sorts in between ... a pied flycatcher posing on a branch. Maybe this one was on its way south from Snowdonia?

Midday sun was beating down, the floor of the top deck felt hot enough for cooking. In a refuge of shade we ate our lunch before setting off on the return voyage. This first stretch is home to all sorts of cetaceans, including beaked whales, with depths plunging from the shallows over a range of underwater canyons. The calm waters of the harbour gave way to wind whipped waves and the bad news that the captain had declared it too rough for us to go up to the monkey island. Wherever we watched it was unlikely that we’d spot anything with so much spray. Even yesterday’s common dolphins deserted us, no longer drawn to the bow of the ship like a playground.

Overnight the wind and waves dropped giving OK conditions and by 07:30 we were in position with the ship above Brittany about 4 hours from the Channel Isles. Someone said ‘monkey island’ was where the powder monkeys were based but it more likely takes its name from the agile monkey like sailors that climbed the rigging from this vantage.

Within minutes the blow and fin from a suspected Minke was sighted dead ahead, but it dived, and was gone before most of us saw it. Then a few harbour porpoises, racing past, small and dark – less playful and not so curious as dolphins.

We stayed up top for another 6 hours, straining eyes, clutching at straws, entertained by gannets and rewarded by occasional shearwaters, skuas, terns, petrels and fulmars. First the Jurassic coast of Dorset then the white cliffed Isle of Wight was plain to see – busy shipping lanes and unlikely water for whales. Time to snooze before the long drive back to Snowdonia.

As for the rusting Pride of Bilbao it’s the end of the line. After 18 years and 2 or 3 million miles of cruising P&O is taking her out of service. Hopefully The Company of Whales will offer something similar on another ship and route.