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Bridge over River Conwy, Llanrwst, North Wales

Bridge over River Conwy, Llanrwst, North Wales

by David Bigwood

“Welsh Rarebit, please and a pot of tea.” After all, when in Rome etcetera and when in the tea room of Tu Hwnt I’r Bont (Beyond the Bridge) on the banks of the River Conwy in Llanrwst then Welsh Rarebit — or Welsh Rabbit as it has been called — seemed to be the way to go. However, whether this cheese dish is originally Welsh seems unclear although the Welsh apparently have had a taste for cheese going back many centuries. In fact, in 1542 the first record of cheese being cooked does come from the Principality. My cousin, a one time resident of North Wales, assured me that the dish was tasty and was certainly not rabbit.

Having settled on my lunch it was time to survey my surroundings. I was intrigued to see several marks on a post near our table which showed the river levels reached by various floods. Had I been sitting where I was when the water came in I would have been, depending on which year it was, wet to the knees, soaked to halfway up my chest or having difficulty keeping my head above water.

It was a sobering thought that the Conwy, at present a sleepy, shallow river far below us and well within its appointed course could turn into a raging torrent submerging all in its path when the rains tumble down in the hills at its upper reaches.

But then, the flooding was one of the few things I could remember of my last visit to this historic Welsh town when I was five. The others were of the distinctive bridge across the river and of seeing what I remember as an army lorry with a wheel stuck in a large pothole on the bridge.

It is strange what impresses a child’s mind — a bridge, a lorry, a flood but no remembrances of the different language that everybody seemed to be speaking.

And, they are still speaking it and displaying it and being very rightly proud of it. And, as I found out that night in the bar of the Eagles Hotel which stands grandly on the banks of the River Conwy near the bridge I had remembered, they are also very proud of the history of their town and are actively working to ensure that it is kept alive. I met a group from the local Historical Society and was fired by their enthusiasm to find out more about their town.

I started the following morning by visiting the renovated almshouses that had been established in 1610 by Sir John Wynne of Gwydir as The Jesus Hospital to house 12 men over the age of 65 for the rest of their lives. During its sometimes turbulent existence the building has survived an attempt by the descendants of Sir John to avoid paying for its upkeep, a re-organisation in 1851 as the St Paul’s Almshouses, the re-naming as the Hospital of Sir John Wynne of Gwydir in 1927, the condemnation as unfit for human habitation when the last inmate died in 1976, a hurricane in 1987 which brought down the roof, and a threat of demolition until at last its future was secured when in 1996, its renovation began.

The Sir John Wynne Charity and the Llanrwst Almshouses Trust under guidance from the Llanrwst Town Council and with the help of Lottery Grants began to carefully restore the old building until in April 2002, after six years concentrated effort, the building was opened as a museum to which 10,000 visitors came in the first eighteen months.

Llanrwst, cradled by the surrounding hills that rise from the Conwy Valley, is a market town and has also been a major cultural influence in the area with its clock and harp making. It grew beside a crossing of the River Conwy where the famous bridge, reputedly designed by Inigo Jones to replace an earlier structure, was built in 1636. That it is, after almost 370 years, still carrying modern traffic is a tribute to the designer although the first attempt at constructing it failed as the workers managed to insert the keystone upside down after apparently partaking of the ale in the local hostelry at lunchtime. The bridge collapsed but, with the builders restricted to buttermilk, the second attempt was successful.

The bridge has only a single lane and because of its steepness, drivers cannot see if there is another vehicle on the far side so much reversing takes place. My cousin told me, “The local rule is that whichever vehicle gets its front wheels over the crown of the bridge first has right of way.” It seems to work rather well.

The Romans knew the Conwy Valley as they tramped the hills prospecting for minerals. One of their legacies to us is the spa at Trefriw, a village close to Llanrwst, where the iron laden water that percolates through the hill is packaged and distributed world-wide. I was fascinated by the ageless drip, drip of the water from the stalactites into clear pools during my tour of the spa.

Nearby are the Trefriw Woollen Mills where cloth is woven from the fleece of local sheep. Some is much like Harris Tweed in character and my cousin was loud in her praise of the enduring qualities of this Welsh cloth. A tour of the mills is available.

Other places in or near Llanrwst worth visiting include Gwydir Castle on the Caernarfonshire side of the Conwy, the home of Sir John Wynne, the founder of the almshouses. It dates from the 16th Century and is open to the public and has a magnificent 17th century dining room the carved and gilded panelling of which was restored in 1998 when it was returned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where it had been in storage since being bequeathed to the museum on the death of William Randolph Hearst who had bought the panels at an auction in 1921.

On the same side of the river near the bridge is the 15th century Tu Hwnt I’r Bont where I had my lunch — I do recommend their Welsh Rarebit. This cottage with its winding staircase to the upper storey and dormer windows that look out over the river to the town beyond, was used in its early days as a court house and has also been a private residence before its conversion to a tea room. It is closed between the end of November and Easter.

In the town, near the Almshouses, is the church of St Grwst and its Gwydir Chapel in which is the stone coffin of Llywelyn the Great and many memorabilia of the Wynne family. The church was originally a thatched building built in the 12th century and re-built after its destruction by fire in 1470.

The Wynnes of Gwydir had much influence on the shape of Llanrwst including the building of the Eagles Hotel in which I stayed. The story goes that Sir John did not much like his in-laws so to avoid their staying with him in his castle, he built them this dwelling on the other side of the river.

Llanrwst is ideally suited as a touring base with its proximity to its more famous neighbour, Betws-y-Coed, the coast at Llandudno, Snowdonia, the Ffestiniog Railway and much more. But, do visit the Almshouses Museum and learn about the history of this Welsh market town and admire the enthusiasm of the locals who have rescued a derelict building and turned it into not only a museum but also a meeting place for community groups so that it is a living memorial to the days gone by.

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As the nights get cooler fieldmice try to find a place indoors and mine was the lucky winner for one of these tiny rodents. But, a man’s home is his castle and I was not enamoured of the thought of sharing my castle with this intruder so a trip to the local hardware store was called for.

“Mouse traps?”

“Yes, there’s a display over there.”

I began to realise that my castle was not the only one to face invasion. The display was huge. There were what I would call the traditional old type traps that despatched the mouse efficiently but left you with the cleaning up of the mess, sound devices that were supposed to deter the invaders before they got a foothold, poisons that sounded deadly, which, of course was their job, and a humane trap that enabled you to trap the mouse and relocate it in the morning.

This last one sounded just the job for me after all when I was a Scout I acknowledged that ‘A Scout is a friend to animals’. I’m not sure that included pests that invaded one’s castle but it gave me a way out from being an assassin.

I followed the instructions and put a dab of peanut butter in the trap — up to that point I didn’t know that mice liked peanut butter — and set it up before I went to bed.

2-30am and I woke as the door on the trap clicked shut. Job done, I thought and rolled over to go back to sleep. But, the captive had other ideas and began trying to eat through the plastic door. It was not possible to shut off my loft bedroom from the kitchen down below so I was well aware of the noise drifting up the stairs. I felt a little sorry for the mouse but even sorrier for me as I could not get back to sleep. Eventually my sleep starved brain whispered, “put it outside” so, while apologising to the prisoner I put his cell outside the front door.

And, so to sleep. In the morning I was pleased to see the trap still there — I’m not sure how it would have disappeared — but felt a bit guilty when I realised it had rained during the night but those feelings passed as I realised the cell would be quite waterproof.

I scooped up the trap, hopped into the car and headed off to a suitable paddock where I opened the door, the mouse popped out and, squeaking, ran off into the grass.

Now the job was done. But, would you believe, every now and then during a cool and drizzly day I found myself wondering how ‘my’ mouse was getting on.

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You Never Know What You Might Find

by David Bigwood

“Come on, David, get your Mac on!”

My mother’s words floated back through time as I stood, cup of tea in hand, by the beachside hotel’s window staring at the gloomy scene.

“Come on! You never know what you might find.”

Then it had been the Atlantic sweeping into a North Wales beach, now it was the Pacific pounding the Australian east coast. Then it was a family holiday and holidays meant the beach and never mind the weather. Now it was a short break from work with nobody to urge me out into the storm. Mother knew a thing or two about children, after all, she was a teacher and what better way was there of encouraging children to walk a beach in the rain than to suggest that they may find something exciting?

To a boy, of course, this was a magical invitation to gather widely. I remember dragging a fine specimen of seaweed for several miles to where we were staying as someone had told me that it would help forecast the weather. If it was damp, it would rain and if dry then it would be fine. The trouble was that it quickly began to smell and if it was damp, it was raining!

I half smiled at the memory and carried on viewing the murky scene outside. The only concession to dawn was a lightening of the grey lowering clouds hanging above the rolling white-capped waves in the east. The gale-driven sea surged onto the sandy beach well above the usual high water mark even though there was still an hour or so to high tide. God, it looked bleak.

I turned away and headed for my room. A morning’s reading was on the cards. A comfortable chair in the warm lounge beckoned. As I crossed the foyer heading for the lounge a family group passed me well wrapped up against the weather and I saw my parents, my sister and me all those years ago and I stopped in my tracks.

Why not? If it’s too bad you can always come back, You never know what you might find.

My spirits lifted and in no time I was back in my room swapping my book for my wet weather gear. As I returned to the foyer I admit to having second thoughts — ‘you’re going to regret this’ rang through my head and as I stepped through the doors I almost turned around and headed back into sanctuary.

But, I pulled up the collar of my waterproof jacket and, head down, set off along the beach. Here, seagulls swooped over the breaking surf then climbed and hung almost motionless as they faced into the wind while there groups of their kin stood imperturbably, feathers ruffled, upon the wet sand.

Mother would have called this ideal beachcombing weather. She would have pointed out the clumps of seaweed that had been ripped from the ocean floor and wondered if they hid a message in a bottle perhaps or something that had floated half way around the world. In my boyhood that was all that was needed for me to start hunting.

One day I did unearth a bottle but the message had only come from a holiday maker in the next bay. And the coconut husk which I fondly imagined had come from some South Sea island had, in all probability, been tossed overboard from a ship just off the coast.

That was then when finding odd things was fun but this is now when the sheer joy was the feel of the wind and rain in my face reawakening the love of nature in my soul.

Mother was right, you never know what you might find.

copyright David Bigwood

England: Ancient oak tree in high summer

England: Ancient oak tree in high summer

The raindrops from the sudden sharp summer shower splattered on the spreading and well-leafed canopy of the oak that was my welcome shelter. As I leant back against the solid trunk and idly watched the rain it struck me that I often take trees for granted. As a photographer of the landscape, this seems to be a dreadful admission.

With inactivity came the questions. Is it just because they are there? Because they are a familiar part of the scene? Because they have always been a part of our lives from playing peek-a-boo to climbing in our childhood to relaxing in their shade with a favourite partner as we grow older?

Yes, it’s all of those and more. When we lose a tree the world loses a valuable partner vital to its well-being as many Australian farmers and graziers in my home country have found. There I have seen paddocks with dead trees which had been ring-barked many years ago to clear the area for grazing or crops and, not too far away, other treeless paddocks that have great slashes gouged out of them by the heavy rains that over the years have washed away tonnes of valuable soil. Now, thankfully, the importance of trees has been recognised and millions are being planted in country Australia.

But, in other parts of the world the clearing of vast tracts of trees is still continuing. Even in my native Britain hedgerows and trees have been removed to facilitate the use of the large machinery that is now necessary for farmers to make a living out of the growing of grain crops.

Economics must have its part to play. People have to live and we must be sensible of the world’s need for wood and paper but let us hope that we are becoming more enlightened and understanding of the value that trees play in our lives.

Trees provide shelter and sustenance for all manner of life both great and small. They bind the soil to counter erosion. They breathe life into the air. They give us raw material. They provide wood to burn. They drop their leaves to nurture the very soil in which they grow. And, when they die and fall they continue to provide homes for small animals and insects as they gradually return to the soil from whence they came.

The shower ended and I picked up my camera and headed into the sun searching for the right place to make a photograph of my recent refuge. That’s one more thing that trees give us, a delight for our eyes. Let us stop taking them for granted.

I look at a beach and see a stage. A stage with never-ending, always changing scenes. Dramas are played out until the tide, like a massive moving curtain, descends and writes, ‘The End’.

But, it never is the end for the curtain rises again just as it has since time immemorial and drama resumes its rightful place. The ever continuing tussle between life and death takes centre stage while on stage right and left more mundane plays are acted out as the many creatures that make the sand their home as the tide sits above them, begin their housekeeping. Some, such as the sand bubbler crabs, inadvertently produce transitory artistic works as they toss their waste sand balls onto the beach.

Just as in a theatre, props play a part on our sandy stage. Stuff tossed or lost overboard from boats finally ends up at the high water mark while scattered across the stage lies seaweed ripped from the ocean floor during a violent storm. Here also are fish or seabirds whose lives have run their course from old age or wounds or, worst of all, from the disregard of man who dumps fuel oil into the sea, apparently unmoved by the plight of the birds who become coated with the stuff.

My obsession for walking beaches had begun as a boy on holiday in North Wales. Whatever the weather, my parents did not believe in sitting in the holiday home; this was holiday time which meant the beach and never mind the rain.

And, what better way of encouraging children to walk a beach in the rain than to suggest that they may find something exciting? “You never know what you might find,” said my mother encouragingly. “There might be a message in a bottle from half way round the world. Wouldn’t that be exciting!”

To a boy, of course, this was a magical invitation to gather widely. I remember dragging a fine specimen of seaweed for several miles to where we were staying as someone had told me that it would help forecast the weather. If it was damp, it would rain and if dry then it would be fine. The trouble was that after a couple of days it began to smell and if it was damp, it was raining!

As far as messages in bottles were concerned, the only one I found was from a holiday maker in the next bay. And that coconut husk which I fondly imagined had come from some South Sea island had, in all probability, been tossed overboard from a ship just off the coast.

Would that I had a camera in those days. I would now have a picture of a sea mine, a relic of World War II, which had washed up on a Devon beach instead of just a rusty spine from that lethal weapon (fortunately made safe before I came across it) buried somewhere in my garage in a dusty box.

Now, umpteen decades later, I still thrill to walking a beach albeit on the other side of the world. But now I do not drag seaweed home, nor do I fill a bucket with seashells. I photograph them; my camera my constant companion on my meanderings.

I do make some exceptions, however, and I have on my desk, an unusual stone which appears quite porous and which has a hole right through it, fortuitously, just the right size to hold a pen. And, scattered on various shelves are bits of driftwood worn smooth by the sea’s action.

I like walking a beach whether it is a gentle stroll on a hot sunny day or a bracing walk during a storm. On nature’s stage you never know what you might find.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Of the hundreds of articles I have had published, only a handful were not illustrated with my pictures. Whether the words sold the pictures or the pictures sold the words is impossible to determine but it seems obvious that a package offered to an editor must make his or her job easier if they do not have to seek pictures to illustrate the words. There is, of course, the proviso that the subject of the article is what they want and the words and pictures are up to scratch.
If you are wanting to make some sort of cash return on the investment you have made in your photography, perhaps you should consider adding words to your pictures.

And, if you need help to get started, maybe my e-book will be helpful. It is available for tablet readers, including Kindle, or for reading on your computer at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/371690

To some, autumn signals the beginning of the end. It’s all downhill from here. Short days leading inexorably to even shorter ones. Summer warmth and long days, are disappearing. Gloomy skies are on the horizon. Cold, wet, and even colder days to come.

William Cullen Bryant, the nineteenth century American poet, wrote, ‘The melancholy days have come, the saddest of the year’. One can almost feel him shuddering with distaste as he penned those lines.

But not all feel like Bryant. His compatriot James Whitcomb Riley exulted at the change of season when he wrote, ‘O it sets my heart a clickin’, like the tickin’ of a clock, when the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock’. And, of course, England’s John Keats welcomed the ‘Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ with something akin to open arms.

This ambivalence to the onset of autumn is common for many reasons. Sufferers of hay fever for instance are glad to see the dampening down of their pollen producing tormentors while those who suffer the excruciating itching of chilblains live in dread as the year moves on.

For landscape photographers, it is an exciting part of the year. Summer is all very well but at times our lenses get overpowered by the omnipresent greens of high summer. What a thrill it is to sight the first flaming torch that is a poplar tree in autumn.

To read the full article Click here

The raindrops from the sudden sharp summer shower splattered on the spreading and well-leafed canopy of the oak that was my welcome shelter. As I leant back against the solid trunk and idly watched the rain it struck me that I often take trees for granted. As a photographer of the landscape, this seems to be a dreadful admission.

With inactivity came the questions. Is it just because they are there? Because they are a familiar part of the scene? Because they have always been a part of our lives from playing peek-a-boo to climbing in our childhood to relaxing in their shade with a favourite partner as we grow older?

To read the full article Click here

The only concession to dawn was a lightening of the grey lowering clouds hanging above the rolling white-capped waves in the east.
I pulled up the collar of my spray jacket and, head down, set off along the beach. Here, seagulls swooped over the breaking surf then climbed and hung almost motionless as they faced into the wind while there groups of their kin stood imperturbably, feathers ruffled, upon the wet sand.

Imperturbably that is until, with a joyous rush, Mac, my bit of this and a lot of that dog, raced among them.

This walk was my early morning ritual; a chance to get the cobwebs of the night out of my brain and, hopefully, some ideas into it. As a writer, I rely upon ideas and sometimes, like this morning, they are hard to find. Mostly, I was thinking of a nice hot cup of tea and a chance to warm myself and get dry.

I stopped and turned to face the sea, watching with fascination as the jumble of waves rose before tumbling with a crash and a cloud of spray onto the sand. Mac came running back and, with careless abandon, jumped into the spume that was piling up on the edge of the water.

I turned for home. There would be no ideas out here today.

To read the full article Click here