GRAND VAN TOUR of ENGLAND and WALES
POST#3: Apple Tree Farm to Dolgellau via Llanidloes.
Our log cabin camp.
18TH July 2015
Fortunately it didn’t rain during the night so this morning the camp and our clothes were dry.
During our Encountering the Past travels the most frequently asked question has been ‘what is different between then (1970s) and now’. Overwhelmingly the most obvious difference is more people and cars. More people means expanded infrastructure and more cars equates to congested roads. What were once quiet country lanes have turned into major traffic routes. Riding a bicycle along an English country lane these days is definitely a health hazard as the rider in many instances is forced into the spiky hedgerows if a truck or car wants to pass.
The population of the UK has increased by approximately ten million since 1970, now standing at approximately 65.5 million. Official estimates suggest the UK’s population could hit 70 million by 2027 and a 100 million by the year 2116. It’s hard to imagine what England would be like if the population reaches 100 million.
To cater for the needs of increased population apartments, houses, shopping centres and office blocks are being built; warehouses, barns, mills, defunct schools and churches and large manor houses have been converted to flats, apartments and bedsits; every available space is being consumed for house and parking areas.
Most people we spoke with during our travels in England and Wales believe Britain is becoming a dumping ground for the world’s homeless. This year for the first time migration numbers exceeded the number of births.
Another change we observed was that many corner stores have disappeared. Locals lamented over the fact that their corner store has gone. With the closures many say village community life has all but disappeared. Bev and I made a point of searching for corner stores and after much sleuthing we found three good ones, albeit one was a little strange.
A pantechnicon was originally a small covered removalist van pulled by horses.
Change does not sit well with those who have a yearning for the good old days. Many suggest, although it is politically incorrect to say so, their country is being taken over by foreigners. Bev and I were riding in Epping Forest trying to find our way out to Ilford town and when we asked a walker the way he stated, ‘When you get there you will see a lot of changes’. I asked about the changes and he replied, ‘It would be politically incorrect for me to say’.
The reason I wanted to go to Ilford was my association with Ilford film during the days of film photography. I used that brand of film, paper and processing chemicals and they came from a factory in the town. Ilford High Street these days is lined with mobile phone shops all advertising the cheapest phone plans to telephone India, Pakistan and countries of the Middle East. There was no Ilford museum or old style photographic shop to be found, much to my disappointment.
The Ilford photographic company was founded in 1879. The company is still in operation but has moved to Cheshire. Following is a photograph showing how the photographic world was in the late 19th century.
For travellers such as us the changes in the UK are part of the travel experience. We are seeing cultural evolution taking place in front of our eyes.
Fortunately some things have not changed and the most noticeable for us was country friendliness. A fine example of this affability was when we met Hamish and Marion in the village of Llanidloes just across the Welsh border. I’m not sure why we stopped, maybe it was simply time for a breather but we were glad we did as there was a market in full swing in the high street. Marion and Hamish had a stall selling restored hand tools and general bric-a-brac.
The Marion and Hamish stall had many items that interested me. One was a bucket of six inch flat head nails. I told Hamish if I was at home I would have bought the lot but under the circumstances I couldn’t carry them. I asked could I buy a couple but he gave me two. During our travels over the past three years in Europe we have on many occasions met people who we have warmed to immediately. Marion and Hamish were two such people. I will mount the nails on a block of wood leaning against each other as a symbol of affection.
It is not everyday when travelling that a potential award-winning photographic opportunity presents itself but today at the bottom of Llanidloes (Lan-id-loyce…roll your Ls when you see two together) high street there was one. So impressed with the potential of the photograph I took three exposures with the new Canon 600D SLR acquired in London recently. The first photograph (wide) was taken with zoom lens at 18mm focal length setting, the second at 100mm and the third a 200mm focal length. The camera was hand held with stabilizer on.
There is one difficulty for us when travelling in Wales and that is understanding the written language. Road and warning signs are in both Welsh and English and the English translation bears no resemblance to the Welsh by any stretch of the imagination.
Double ‘Ls’ fare often in Welsh town names. The longest place name in Wales starts with a double ‘L’. The town’s station sign is most likely the most photographed sign in Wales, if not Britain.
Following is a photograph showing another Welsh town starting with a double ‘L’ which in itself is nothing out of the ordinary, but what is intriguing is the name under it: was the Alice Springs golf course named by an Australian?
After Llanidloes it was on to Llanbrynmair then Dolgellau where our friend Elisabeth and her daughter Annabel and son-in-law Martin live. On the way we passed through undulating farmlands then into southern Snowdonia. Following are a few photographs showing the Snowdonia we passed through and the countryside around Dolgellau.
Farming activities in the Snowdonia region are carried out on steep land, and one particular operation, the slashing of bracken fern, is to me a frightfully dangerous operation. The following photographs show what I mean.
I stood and watched the farmer and wondered whether he would turn the tractor around when he reached the top and come down forward but he reversed the tractor and slasher back down the mountain. After expressing my concern to our hosts about tractor activities on the steep Welsh mountains I was informed there are above average farmer deaths due to rollovers as a result of pushing the tractor a little too far.
Bracken fern grows worldwide and is often referred to as a living fossil. In many countries of the world it is spreading and climate change is a contributing factor. In Wales stock management changes have exacerbated the problem, farmers have turned away from aerial spraying and replaced cattle with sheep. Cattle crushed the plant and the damaged plant died as a result of freezing in winter. Bracken is referred to as an opportunistic pioneer plant as it will grow where other plant species will not. It is toxic to cattle, sheep, pigs and horses and is believed to be carcinogenic in humans although for centuries the plant has been eaten on a regular basis. In the past, and even today, it is used for animal bedding and as a winter garden mulch as it reduces the loss of potassium and nitrogen from the soil. In the past it was used for packaging, fuel, thatch and for degreasing woollen cloth.
Our friend Elisabeth’s daughter, Annabel, is a field biologist with a special interest in lichens and bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) and it is not everyday one has the opportunity to wander through a Welsh wild wood with such an expert. Annabel and her husband Martin are both very serious ornithologists and live in a country cottage. Adjacent to the cottage is a walled garden circa 1828 and it was through this wonderful arboretum that Bev, Annabel and I wandered. The term ‘walking encyclopaedia’ could well apply to Annabel. Following are a series of photographs that will fascinate the botanical-minded readers of this blog.
The yellow plant in the foreground is Hypericum maculatum Imperferate St John’s-wort (wort is pronounced wert! ) and the blue flowers are Geranium pratense Meadow Cranesbill.
The above lichen, Lobaria virens, is very sensitive to air pollution (particularly sulphur dioxide) so it is a very good sign that the air is clean here. This species is on a list of plant species used to assess the degree of ecological continuity of a wood. The woodlands around the area have some of the highest scores for ecological continuity of anywhere in Britain.
A few years ago I asked Bev what was one thing she would like to have, other than food and basic necessities, if marooned on a desert island. Her reply was her sewing machine. For me it was my dissecting microscope so I could see the miniscule world. If you are a parent or grandparent get a microscope and introduce the little ones to the microscopic world of lichens. They will never forget the surreal world under foot, on a stone wall or on a tree trunk.
In Annabel and Martin’s garden there were large plants too and one of note is the Rhododendron. Probably imported into Britain from Spain and Portugal in the 18th century these plants are considered an invasive alien that can have detrimental effects on native fauna and flora. However because the arboretum was until recently bordered by a conifer plantation that has now been clear-felled, the ‘Rhodies’ have been allowed to stay as they provide temporary shelter for important lichens, mosses and liverworts. Once the clear-felled plantation area regenerates and provides protection the invasive plants will be removed.
But the giant of them all was the monkey-puzzle tree. Monkey-puzzle trees are a native of Chilean and Argentinean Alps. In Australia during the late 19th century they were often planted in the front yards of newly built houses. The planting was the final touch indicating the house was finished and the family that moved in would flourish like the tree in the front yard. Also having a tree in the front yard was a status symbol as they were rare at the time. Monkey-puzzle trees are now considered endangered as in the country of origin they were harvested for railway sleepers and for general carpentry work. In 2002 wild forest fires killed many of the 1300-year-old trees.
Monkey-puzzles (also known as Chilean pines) were first brought into Britain from Chile about 200 years ago and this would have been one of the early ones as it is so large; it’s only a little smaller in diameter at breast height (dbh) than the largest in Britain, which is at Bicton in Devon. The name derives from its early cultivation in Britain around 1850. The proud owner of a tree was showing it to a group of friends and one remarked ‘It would puzzle a monkey to climb that tree’.
A few years ago a possible relative of the monkey-puzzle tree was found in the Wollemi National Park to the northwest of Sydney. It was duly named the Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis).
Annabel’s husband Martin is now retired but has had a varied career working in wildlife conservation and research, particularly bird research, following his DPhil (PhD) in ornithology from Oxford. He has been wildlife warden of several islands…Cousin Island in the Seychelles and also the Line and Phoenix Islands in the Pacific. In retirement he has concentrated on developing his expertise in wildlife sound recording, as well as timelapse photography of clouds and bird photography.
An ornithologist is a person with a deep scientific interest in birds whereas a ‘birdo’ has a casual interest in birds. A ‘twitcher’ is a person intent on getting as many bird sightings on their list as possible and a ‘bird watcher’ is a person hiding behind dark glasses watching girls on the beach, whereas a ‘bird fancier’ is a person who breeds birds. Bev and I consider ourselves ‘birdos’.
Not all of Wales is mountainous. There are some flat areas and that is where many of the Welsh bike paths are located. One particularly good one is the Mawddach trail, which follows an old railway line on the southern side of a river, the Afon Mawddach, which discharges into the Irish Sea at Barmouth.
To get from the southern side of the estuary to the northern side there is a wooden viaduct said to be the longest in the UK. The viaduct is a shared way between cyclists, walkers and trains.
Since buying our bicycles in Switzerland in 2014 we have ridden along a number of bike trails in Europe but for scenic beauty, ease of riding and history the Mawddach trail takes some beating. The Mawddach trail from Dolgellau to Barmouth is fifteen kilometres long and gets a nine out of ten rating.
The bridge opened in 1867 and it originally had a drawbridge where the swing sections are now located. In 1980 woodworm damage threatened the closure of the viaduct, however it was saved following the introduction of a toll. The toll was removed in 2013.
That’s the end of this post but before I conclude I should explain the reference to Log Cabin Camp in the title. Our friend Elisabeth with whom we stayed lives in a log cabin and it is one of a number surrounding a small man-made lake to which each of the landholders has access. Following are a few images showing this unique arrangement.
Finally a Welsh proverb.
Ah-rav deg my mihnd um-hell
(Go slowly and go far).