Port Diddly Eye – according to Mrs Malaprop.

We first came to Porth Dinllaen because we’d seen the place on a TV programme and we thought it looked beautiful – particularly the pub on the beach – Ty Coch Inn (the Cock Inn) once rated the best beach pub in the UK, seemed almost too good to be true; set at the end of a sweeping bay from which on a clear day you can see Holyhead on Anglesey from one end, and the peak of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) from the lifeboat station at the other end.

So today we took a walk from the car park in Morfa Nefyn down and along the beach, past the pub and the lifeboat station back to the car park. I haven’t been wearing my field botany hat very much this time, because the weather’s been so awful and we’ve only been able to grab quick walks in the teeth of the gales and rain. However yesterday’s cold and wet northwesterly has disappeared and a ridge of high pressure gave us a couple of hours of sunshine during the morning. And as we walked around the path from the pub to the lifeboat station a little blue flower caught Madame’s eye and she pointed it out to me. It was a bit of a puzzle because it had a borage like flower but the same kind of leaves as a bristly oxtongue. So I stopped and took some photos and brought them back to the cottage to identify. Here’s a photo.

It’s not the least bit rare, but that didn’t diminish the pleasure of finding it at all. It’s an annual bugloss – Anchusa arvensis – the name suggests it’s a field dweller, which it often is. The last one I saw was way down the coast in a field near St Davids; so it also has a taste for seaside and sandy soils. Interestingly I discovered that the French call it oxtongue, langue de boeuf, and the name bugloss comes from a couple of Greek words that mean exactly the same. We’ve already got a bristly ox tongue in the UK so the case for Latin names was never better made!

Anyway I couldn’t have been more pleased if I’d found a ghost orchid. Botanising isn’t just about rarity; for me it’s about getting to know my neighbours by name. Then later I picked up Fred Provenza’s book “Nourishment” which (in chapter 2) talks about the biochemical intelligence of plants and their role in nutrition. Awesome stuff. I began to feel pieces of a puzzle dropping into place in my mind. Field botany, herbal medicine, agriculture, human diet, deficiencies and so much more all in the same mind map for the first time in my experience. Happy daze!

The best of times and the worst of times

But first the blokey propellerhead stuff

I take back all I said about our trip train across Snowdonia. I thought we would be pulled by a diesel but to our (my) great delight the engine that hauled us over 25 miles and 600 feet in vertical gain at Rhyd Ddu was the strangest beast I’ve ever seen – an NG16 Garratt built in Manchester in 1935 for South African Railways and designed for working very similar routes there. It certainly isn’t beautiful in the conventional sense – a bit of a mule in fact, but as tough as old boots. What’s odd about it is that it’s really two engines spliced together and sharing a boiler. If you look at the photo you’ll see a completely unexpected set of pistons and connecting rods at the back, under the tender. The engine was actually in service until 1985. Predictably, when we pulled in to Caernarfon station a large gathering of faintly priapic men – including me – rushed to the front of the train to take photographs. For the truly lost, the engine is described as a 2-6-2+2-6-2T NGG16 Garratt Design, built by Beyer Peacock Ltd. The bit that I loved is that this arrangement – known as a double bogey setup, allows the engine to be twice the power of the more familiar single bogey and it also allows the engine to traverse sharp bends on the mountain terrain by sashaying around the corners. The front and rear bogeys both pivot around the boiler section allowing a snake-like movement

For the human bit, being towed 600 feet up a winding narrow gauge railway line, surrounded by mountains, rivers and lakes, and listening to the sound of the engine working hard and clattering over modern steel bridges; seeing smoke and steam flying past in streamers like shoals of translucent fish – was a profound blast of memories for me – my father was a railwayman for his whole working life.

Coming down from the highest point towards Caernarfon

Madame thinks the reflections of the window on the photo look like the ghostly outline of an industrial landscape. The line was commenced in 1832; just a year after the Bristol riots and at that time much of Snowdonia really was an industrial site. Reform was in the air as the aftershocks of the French revolution reverberated around Europe. The railway company bought its first steam engines in 1856, just three years before Charles Dickens published “A Tale of Two Cities”, whose opening lines popped into my head as I was writing:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities

There’s a reason I love writing these cats cradles of association. Steam engines, railway companies, slate mines, coal and copper extraction and even – very near where we’re staying at the moment – one of the world’s largest manganese mines, back in the day – are all the visible inscription of our human impact on the landscape. The landscape and its artifacts – to put it in posh terms – is a palimpsest; written on, erased and re-used, sometimes over millennia. I was unable to shake off the difficult feeling that even the steam engine that pulled our train, was somehow implicated in our colonial rule over South Africa. Life is complicated – that’s what makes it so interesting and challenging.

The remains of a manganese mine on Rhiw

Anyway – to get back to the day-trip, It was raining in the way that only Wales rains when we arrived at Porthmadog station. The temperature had barely crept above 10C and it was sheeting down in curtains driven by the gale. The railway has a permanent staff, but many of the jobs are filled by volunteers who do a wonderful job, and whose absolute loyalty and commitment manifests itself in a slightly religious attitude; so perhaps I should explain that by saying that there were times when we were checking in, that we felt as if we were entering a much loved Anglican church with the average age of the congregation creeping towards threescore years and ten. I was asked half a dozen times whether we were travelling first class or standard class; a denomination that was confirmed when we climbed aboard and found that the heating wasn’t working. This oh-so British class distinction was amplified by the fact that our standard class carriage was embossed (in gold lettering) third class on the outside, and the bewildering choice of hampers that someone had filled with their idiosyncratic vision of what constituted luxury and what ordinary should be. The net result of all these references to class was to make everyone feel slightly uncomfortable – like a first date confronted by a ten page wine list.

On a mountain, the rain doesn’t hang about for long – and so everywhere we looked there were waterfalls and ad hoc spouts bursting from the hillsides and flowing down increasingly dangerous looking whitewater races. The track was shallowly underwater near the Aberglasyn tunnels and alongside, the Afon Glaslyn was raging. It was if an entire mountain range had sprung a leak. As we reached the top at Rhyd Ddu, the water ceased flowing towards Porthmadog and started afresh making for Caernarfon with equal ferocity. The peaks, of course, were obscured by the rain and mist and so we only caught the merest glimpse of the Snowdon summit. The journey last about two and a half hours each way and by the time we reached Caernarfon we were thoroughly cold. Some of our travelling companions had put their waterproof trousers on to keep warm.

If anything the rain was even worse in Caernarfon and, waterproofed to the teeth, we made a desultory tour of the town centre. Madame unhelpfully suggested I take off the broad brimmed hat I was wearing and use the hood from my waterproof jacket. It was good advice but imperfectly timed because when I pulled the hood over my head, the icy water it contained ran down my neck and inside my shirt. There wasn’t much going on in the town centre – a couple of drug dealers in the square; a solitary prostitute and a lot of tourists huddling in doorways. If charity shops or bookies were your thing you’d have been in heaven.

Does this sound like a bad Tripadvisor review? Well it’s not, because I love Wales and what’s happened in these once great towns and cities is an absolute scandal. Wales was one of the first English colonies and has, for centuries, had the marrow extracted and taken away by the wealthy. Everywhere there are signs in Welsh reading no more second homes – but I would say to the pamphleteers – what if the tourists stayed away? what if the profitable conversion work that keeps builders, electricians and plumbers in work – what if it all ended? what would that do to a local economy that’s on its knees already. What Wales needs is vision and freedom. Freedom for local councils to borrow money and build the thousands of low cost homes that are needed so the young and gifted don’t all have to leave the neighbourhoods they’ve grown up in. Then – by all means restrict second homes and end the tax breaks because there will still be abundant work for the tradespeople. Then give the councils powers and finance to support startups and to develop the kind of tourist related attractions that will bring visitors in.

Caernarfon is the depressing sign of a conservation approach to planning. Just like many of the local farms struggling to survive – what’s needed is not conservation but regeneration. A planning system that values wooden sash windows and slate roofs above apprenticeships and skilled work is on the slippery slope to extinction. Am I sounding like William Cobbett here. He was a rabid old pamphleteer whose book “Rural Rides” has always been a lodestone for me; telling it like it is , or rather was, when it was published in 1853 – there’s a coincidence!

After a fruitless hour in the rain we went back to the station cafe to get warm, and were gradually joined by a throng of sodden passengers all dreading the journey home. Madame overheard one person trying to arrange a taxi. We managed to get back onto the train half an hour before the off and found to our absolute delight that the heating was working – and so the journey home was doubly pleasurable despite the turkish bath atmosphere.

Sadly, though, on the return Madame overheard a depressing conversation between three young women in their twenties discussing their attitude towards the police following the murder of Sarah Everard. It really shows how constricted and intimidated women are in this deeply defective culture. Enough, though. We love these day trips and no matter how uncomfortable the transport and lousy the weather we always come back feeling challenged and energised; and enough material to draw and paint and write for a month.

Meanwhile, back in the real world

A marvellous piece of lettering by Welsh artist Jonah Jones, seen at an exhibition of his work at Oriel Plas Glyn y Weddw, Llanbedrog in March 2019

The good thing about coming away to this beautiful place to walk, read and try to put together all my thoughts in words is space; sheer space to expand into, free from distractions and chores. The bad thing about it could almost be the same sentence. There’s a point at which the way forward becomes so problematic a kind of paralysis sets in. The remedy, in this instance is to accept that the Jacques Ellul book I’ve been struggling with is not going to help, because its source materials and analysis are now sixty years out of date . Magnetic North moves about by a good bit and trying to find your way to the pole (no pun intended) without the right correction isn’t likely to end happily.

What exactly is the real world anyway? I sometimes wonder, since it seems to be a contested area of knowledge at the moment; but anyway I’ve forsworn any philosophy in this brief post and I’ll talk about the weather in the most descriptive and non blaming way I can manage.

The fierce south westerly gales haven’t given over for days and in the cottage the chimney roars, the vents flap and the occasional sheets of rain hammer at the windows. It’s all very cosy until, as we did this morning, you get a power cut. Yesterday’s photos of the beach at Porth Neigwl missed a couple of shots that would have needed a telephoto lens which in our case we have not got because it’s at the bottom of a bog on Mendip. Apparently there are exceptionally rare mason bees in the dunes there, except I’m not sufficiently experienced as an entomologist to recognise them. But on our way back down the narrow road we spotted around 30 curlew feeding on the marsh – enough to gladden anyone’s heart. When I say this place is a birders’ paradise I’m not exaggerating. Something else worth noting is the light. The good citizens of St Ives in Cornwall like to claim that their light is brighter and more clear than anywhere else on earth. Obviously they would say that because it keeps the artists rolling in; but the light here is equally if not more pure and luminous and it’s so much quieter. The south westerlies rattle the cold fronts across, and each time the rain is followed by glorious movements of intense light that bless the landscape, caressing and intensifying the autumn colours and leaving the artist in us joyfully mystified as to how it could ever be expressed.

Tomorrow morning at the crack of eight o’clock we’re off to Porthmadog to catch the wonderful Welsh Highland Railway up through the Snowdon range to Caernarfon and back. Last time we made the trip in brilliant weather but tomorrow’s forecast is makes grim reading with 20mm rain expected and 50 mph gusts of wind. In normal times you can wander about and get a very good Welsh rarebit from the buffet car but because of covid we’ll be locked into our perspex divided carriages and probably see almost nothing except rain and mist for the whole journey. It’s the last trip if the year so expect it will be crowded with steam train enthusiasts who may not have noticed that we’ll be taken across the hills by a diesel locomotive tomorrow. In the absence of any food from the buffet I’ve ordered a couple of hampers – which each contain a small bottle of prosecco, and so we’ll celebrate the autumn like a couple of budget class swells.

I’m sorry there are so many Welsh sounding names in these posts but Wales is a country with its own precious language. Luckily, Welsh is a completely phonetic language and so once you’ve learned the basics it’s pretty straightforward. The stress usually comes in the penultimate syllable. The only one I haven’t used is the proper name for Snowdon which is Yr Wyddfa which looks unapproachable but sounds like uhr-with-va. Welsh is the queen of languages and I’ve always wanted to learn to speak it properly but haven’t had the chance or anyone to practice with. Anyway it’s a courtesy to the people who cherish their language to be able to ask for directions, sounding as if at least you care.

Dead Prime Minister fails to get it up!

Palmerston – later on and run out of steam!

I just couldn’t leave Wales without a piece on our day trip on the Ffestiniog Railway on Tuesday. Last year we travelled the Welsh Highland Railway line from Porthmadog to Caernarfon which climbs through the mountains past Snowdon (or Yr Wyddfa, if you will) and down again to the sea – a magical five and a half hours there and back, with mugs of tea and Welsh rarebit to keep body and soul together. This year with Covid restrictions there are only half journeys available so we opted for the Ffestiniog Railway up to Tan y Bwlch.

anyone who’s ever lived in a commune will recognise the fact that there’s almost always one person whose revelatory vision everyone else is expected to serve

We’ve got history with the railway -well more of a one night stand actually – because when we lived in a self described commune in Bristol we spent a weekend working there as ‘volunteers’. The word volunteers is italicised because anyone who’s ever lived in a commune will recognise the fact that there’s almost always one person whose revelatory vision everyone else is expected to serve. That was John then, and probably still is. The pith helmet and khaki shorts of his childhood were invisible to most people but always rankled with me and so, with the certainty that winter follows spring we clashed. He was born to be a district agent in the great days of the Empire when Palmerston was Prime Minister and I could only aspire (in his mind) to be that insolent little chap – what was his name again? -who served the tea. Funnily enough he brought two of his admirers into a cafe I was in a few years ago and I recognised his booming voice immediately – I was so troubled by it I had to get up and leave.

Anyway this mountain adventure was an entirely ‘voluntary’ weekend event with the usual unspoken three line whip. Most of the commune members were doing office or teaching jobs, so a weekend breaking stones in Wales was probably more attractive to them, but we dutifully went along and even took two friends – Mike and Di – along with us. It was the weekend I first saw – rather heard – a Hydram (hydraulic ram pump) in action. I followed the camp water supply down the steep hillside towards the sound of the pump, each rifle shot crack sending a pulse of water up the pipe. Eventually I found the source in a walled off dam at the end of an old drift mine shaft, and I fell instantly in love with a machine that could raise water at least a hundred feet, free of charge and all day, every day. Sustainability in an elegant lump of cast iron with no more complex engineering than a pressure chamber and a couple of flap valves.

So that was it really. It snowed heavily and the bunkhouse felt like a scene from a Russian gulag. The occupants regarded us with suspicion; several of them were explosives experts who seemed to prefer to make a cutting through the mountain by reducing it to vapour. Others were living in the dream of the completed railway line so completely they were socially unavailable to the present moment and so like all bored twenty somethings we found our own fun and climbed the neighbouring mountain Moelwyn Bach in our wellies – cue major ticking off for irresponsibility, but the view was worth it! Then we rode a truck down the mountain from the end of the line and lost control of it completely, jumping off and watching it roll down the hill. After that no-one spoke to us, can’t blame them really, and mercifully we were never invited again. On our way back down the line on Tuesday we caught sight of the same kind of (refurbished by now) truck.

But that was then! On Tuesday we joined the socially distanced mini throng of travellers, and an elderly guard locked into our sealed compartments: third class with bench seats, to play with the leather window straps while we waited. Our engine – called Palmerston after the previously mentioned Prime Minister of the British Umpah era was steaming copiously at the front – possibly a tad too copiously as it turned out. The Ffestiniog railway was originally built to bring slate down from the quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog. It’s a narrow gauge railway run almost entirely by volunteers and they run it well. The line climbs steeply uphill on its way to the mid point at Tan y Bwlch and the little engine was straining at every valve on the steeper bits. Then half a mile before the station the engine gave up the ghost altogether and we stopped in silence. For a while it was like Adlestrop, just the engine wrapped in a cocoon of steam, a few sheep and the sound of the drizzle. Welsh Mountain drizzle could fill a small lake in five minutes; it’s the only kind that you can actually hear drumming on the windows. Rebellious noises from passengers began to mount and the ancient guard trudged up and down the line trying to explain through the windows without having much of clue himself what was going on.

Eventually they sent a replacement engine to tow us up the last section of the line and Palmerston, humbled, was brought into Tan y Bwlch station three quarters of an hour late. At this point communications seemed to break down entirely with railway volunteers on their mobiles and engineers of all genders poking and pointing. A diesel (if I was making this up it would have been number 666 and called Harold Wilson – but that wouldn’t be true) so a diesel engine came along and shuffled two lots of abandoned carriages around the station until they were in the right order and yet another steam engine came and pulled the first train down the hill while we drank tea from paper cups and took lots of photographs under a temporary canvas canopy. Then they brought yet another engine and we set off back to Porthmadog.

I’m not a steam engine enthusiast in the usual sense. My dad was a railwayman and I was born next to the railway and so the sounds of trains been a part of my whole life – they still are, we can hear the engines passing through Bath Spa station quite clearly. Then there’s the coal to think about. How do you balance the desire to see the back of coal as a fuel with these hundred year old engines, restored and in regular use. I can’t see it attracting many visitors if they put electric motors in the engines and stuck red light bulbs in the fireboxes!

Steam trains have all the features needed to become a true addiction; a uniform, a private language (who knows what a top link man is these days?) and a proper set of exams to pass. Then there’s the sound. I once heard a recording of the foetal sounds that are the soundscape we all inhabited before we were born. You can’t tell me the similarity doesn’t trigger an aching sense of familiarity in the mind. But I remember my dad having to memorise miles of railway line when he went for his guard’s promotion. He would put a woollen blanket on the table and cover it with file cards filled with the esoteric language of the track. But he hated the railway, hated the shifts and the hours and the constant threat of redundancy during the Beeching era. So no, I’m not the least romantic about the railways. But I love Snowdonia and I love those trains – a beautiful paradox.

Plus ça change?

“used to express resigned acknowledgement of the fundamental immutability of human nature and institutions.”

Occasionally I entertain the idea that somehow I’ve matured, evolved – grown up; that I’m not the person I was when I was, say, 25 years old. Madame, I’m sure, would beg to differ but yesterday I picked up and started reading one of my old notebooks and I discovered she’s right. I haven’t evolved at all (but neither has she!).

This entry was written on Tuesday 9th April and I think the year must have been 1973. I was working as a bus driver and groundsman at Clifton College – a job I only got because I omitted to tell them about my qualifications and I merely said I could drive a Transit van. They must have been desperate because they gave me the job and I had two wonderful years living under the radar and learning to drive and maintain tractors, tend and repair grass worn by rugby and cricket and to lay hedges in the winter – best job ever. Oh and I also learned to drive the buses – 1946 Bedford OB’s with wooden seats and crash gearboxes. On my first afternoon I drove all the way from the boathouse on the River Avon to the School, about 5 miles, in second gear because I had no idea how to change up. It was there that I learned to watch badgers and identify the common birds, and there I first began to take botany up a level. I like to think of it as my public school education, and we still live on the banks of the same river.

Anyway, the diary – one of many of which most are now lost – spent twenty five years in a damp garage and so it’s almost unreadable in places, but when I read the section that follows I was astounded how little has changed, aside from the disappearance of so many species. Even the old buses still make regular appearances in 1950 costume dramas on the television.

These following notes are about our walk which took us over Cumberland Basin and over the lock gates, over the river by the railway line, down the footpath that crosses the old Ashton Gate [railway] station and along the cricket field and into Ashton Court, where we walked up the path behind the house and across to the deer park – returning the same way.

The warm spell continued today, and the winds have remained light South Easterly………..We’re beginning to appreciate the warm, light evenings, seizing the chance to walk whenever we can. During the winter our expeditions tend to be rather cursory and confined to weekends, normally Sundays at that! Our progress on these walks is always hilariously slow. I’m determined not to miss anything new growing, so there are protracted arguments and discussions about every plant we see. Still, things are improving slowly. When we lived in Corsham we used to go for walks laden with plant books, tree books and bird books and it might take us all afternoon to get out of sight of the cottage. Now we’ve given up carrying books everywhere so I just have to stop and write descriptions of everything [or make little drawings]. Even then we often have to go back again because the description is inadequate. There’s either no such plant in existence, or there are about fifty all answering the same description. The good moments are like when we went around the Ashton Court nature trail. There was 2 feet of snow the only snow this winter, and suddenly we came across a whole bank of Helleborus viridis. Somehow you feel you’ve discovered something important – a bit rare or unusual. I don’t suppose the plants feel that way about it. Anyway most of our walks are concerned with more mundane things like – are hawthorn and whitethorn the same – or two different trees? Is that a dandelion or a cats ear? or what is that ****** umbellifer? I know they’re all distinct, but somehow ……….

My Journal, 9th April 1973

Nowadays I still carry too many books around, but the mobile phone is brilliant for making records for identification later. Mind you, it’s taken years to figure out what details you need to record. These days too I’m a lot more confident about plants but aside from that, the quotation could as easily have been written last Friday. Walks still take forever and we still argue, in fact nowadays we have to agree in advance whether it’s going to be a walk or a plant walk.

Anyway, back in the kitchen I’ve now almost processed all of the 20lbs of damsons into jam, vodka, pickle and coulis. Tomorrow we’ll start on the third big batch of tomatoes making plain, unadorned passata. After days of confinement due to the rain we spent yesterday having a socially distanced picnic with our family. The grandchildren obviously don’t understand why we’re all keeping our distance, and now they’re going back to school this week and so we all parted sadly because we’ll have to stop meeting for a while. It seemed awful to be promising to meet again at Christmas it’s so far away. One ray of sunshine came late in the day when we discovered we would soon be able to go back up to the Lleyn peninsula and walk to our heart’s content and see the sea and the mountains of Snowdonia once more. We’ll be taking the trailcam with us this time so we can watch birds and mammals even when we’re out walking somewhere else. One of these days we’ll buy a moth trap too and our joy will be complete with 873 macrospecies to argue about!

It’s been a long summer without a single night away from the flat since February and we’re increasingly aware of how stressful it’s been for us and for everyone – and yet we carry serenely on; our passions, interests and compulsions forged in heaven knows what dark familial smithy (I almost wrote dark satanic mill, but our childhoods weren’t that bad!) and hardly even dented by more than seven decades of getting by. There’s so much to be grateful for.