Coed Gwernafon

A culture is no better than its woods.

—W. H. Auden

It’s mid afternoon and I’m sat in one of my favourite seats, looking west over the valley of Nant Cwmcidyn, the view towards Plynlimon framed with sessile oaks. The heather is in full flower and the bilberries hang heavy, covered in grey bloom and oozing their wine-coloured juices. Despite the recent cold nights, there is little sign of autumn here, other than the occasional brightly coloured russula poking through the moss. The woods, clothed in foliage and wrapped in the sleepy lull of late summer, are bird-less; near silent except for the drone of hoverflies in the canopy.

The seat has seen better days. Exposed to the elements and riddled with brown rot, it is near the end of its useful life. Wasps are everywhere, and a sign at the entrance to the wood warns of a nest close to one of the paths, its location painstakingly marked on an OS map. A light breeze ruffles the oak leaves. A hunting spider, egg sac on its back, darts through the leaf litter.

Somewhere above the woods of Coed Pen-y-banc, a small gap in the cloud opens, exposing towers of white cumulus behind. A weather system blowing steadily in from the south; the threat of more rain on the air. The tail-end of the morning’s downpour trickles to the valley floor through steep gullies lined with ferns and golden saxifrage, eventually joining the Trannon to the east of here, its waters peaty brown and foaming. To the side of the path is a fly agaric—the only one I have ever seen in these woods—its cap faded, the distinctive white flecks washed off by the rain.

The sessile oak woodland that once covered much of this area exists today only in small pockets, generally on the steeper slopes and ravines, and here at Coed Gwernafon, which is owned and managed by the Woodland Trust. More than a hundred ancient woods have been lost in Britain over the past decade alone, despite being some of our most ecologically important habitats and an irreplaceable part of our landscape and cultural history.

I have been a member of the Woodland Trust for a few years now, and I try to make the effort to visit this, my local wood, at least 3 times a year. Later in the autumn, it’s possible to find the beautiful Amanita citrina, the false death cap, under the oaks. But today I like this place simply because it is quiet. There is something meditative about being here, surrounded with the earthy smell of woodland after the rain.

Hafren Forest

“You haven’t seen someone who looks like they could have fallen off a horse?”, a concerned looking guy asks me. The horse had turned up at the car park just before I arrived, its saddle and bridle still attached but with no sign of a rider. I tell him I haven’t. With the police on their way, I promise to keep a look out.

In Coming Down The Wye, Robert Gibbings remarks of Plynlimon that it’s hard to have an accident. A friendly hill, difficult to break one’s neck without effort. As if to prove him wrong, the Severn manages this in poetic fashion a short distance downstream of here, but, for the most part, Plynlimon is a friendly hill. However, its remoteness demands a certain amount of respect and it’s easy to walk all day without meeting another human being. There are places here where you’re unlikely to be found if you do get into trouble.

Once, while exploring a hillside above the Elan Valley, I stood on an old piece of fencing wire buried in the moor grass. The end had eroded over the years into a long rusty spike that went through my shoe and into my foot. As well as the blood, I remember the suffocating silence and a sudden feeling of panic. There can be an almost unnerving emptiness to the area; an indifference to human plight. As I limped back to the roadside, shivering on that hot summer’s day, I realised I had been lucky. The infection set in later that night, requiring a second trip to casualty and an emergency course of antibiotics.

I sometimes think that, over the years, despite their imposition on the landscape and ecological impact, the manmade forests of mid Wales have slowly become a kind of wilderness. Away from the roads there are parts that must rarely, if ever, see a human visitor; simply left for decades to quietly exist. A couple of years back, I made an image of a small stream in the Hafren forest, the banks covered in deep moss and strewn with fallen trees. The area has now been felled, torn up by heavy machinery, and I no longer recognise the spot where I stood. Ironically, this feels like a desecration.

In October 1980, at the height of the big cat scare, armed police staked out a barn near Llangurig after a spate of sheep killings in the area. The “Llangurig beast” was never caught, and, if it ever really existed, its body was never found. Maybe it eventually slunk into the forest to die, and its bones lie somewhere long forgotten, buried in moss and waiting for forestry operations to uncover them.

The days are short at this time of year and the light is starting to fail. I wonder what it was that could cause someone to fall from their horse. Could the animal have bolted after it was startled by something? I put such thoughts to the back of my mind, but my human eyes are struggling in the gloom, and I have no wish to spend more time out here tonight. Winter is coming, and I am planning a night in front of the fire.

Aberedw Hill

The morning of what I would later consider the first real day of summer starts with a clap of thunder, not quite close enough for the fizz and crackle of the lightning but loud enough to rattle the windows. Within seconds, the house comes alive with the sound of rain.

By mid-afternoon, the weather is still making a nuisance of itself as I sit impatiently in the car, waiting for another heavy shower to pass.

A little while back, I stumbled across a Fay Godwin image from The Drovers Roads of Wales: an expansive view across the Wye valley from the bracken-clad slopes of Aberedw Hill. This morning, the map practically falls open there and so I find myself sat in the car a few miles outside of Builth Wells, wondering if I’ve wasted my time and whether the rain is set in for the afternoon. Eventually I decide it’s time to chance it.

The sun makes a reappearance as I pick my way up a green lane running in rivulets. The air is stifling and the trickling runnels flow between stones that still radiate the heat of hours in the sun, a hearthstone warmth despite the downpour. Further up, a track makes its way on to the open hillside, and with it comes a welcome breeze, driving rainstorms across the landscape, pools of light and shadow under the convecting cumulus.

The view starts to open out, a dramatic sweep of the Wye valley. To the south lies Pen y Fan and to the west I can make out the distinctive summit cairns of Drygarn Fawr, which I last visited on Boxing Day last year, in foul weather.

A few years ago, on an afternoon of Constable skies, I filled a watering can from the water butt. As I picked it up, the sloshing weight caught me by surprise and a sky that had seemed so weightless and ethereal took on a new reality. Expanding for miles above me—an impossible mass of water, suspended in air. And I felt small.

My daydream is interrupted by a distant rumble of thunder. The Drygarn cairns are no longer visible, obscured by a dark veil of rain that is now starting to cover the valley. The first big raindrops arrive as I get back to the car, and as the valley descends into gloom, I’m pleased to have got back without a soaking.

Vernal Equinox

As if a single day could lay claim to a transition so elusive, the vernal equinox traditionally marks the first day of spring. By any other measure, spring has been here for a while. I first sensed it on a morning in late February, long before there was any real warmth to the sun and still weeks until the first lambs would appear in the valley fields or frogspawn fill the ruts in the flooded moorland tracks. Within minutes the spring was banished again, washed away in the sleet showers, not to return for another week.

They say that on the equinox it is possible to balance an egg on its point—a seductive kind of nonsense that seems somehow appropriate at this time of year. My parents told me they went out walking yesterday and disturbed a fox out of a tree, the startled animal crashing incongruously out of the branches overhead.

Foxes may climb trees, or an egg balance on its point at other times. Even so, I’m amused and fascinated by the idea that for a brief moment, on that celestial balance point between the dark and light half of the year, there may almost be a place for the whimsical, outlandish or just plain daft.

Some thoughts on copyright

I’ve been watching the debate in the US over the heavy-handed and inappropriate Stop Online Piracy Act, and fully support the actions taken yesterday by Wikipedia and others. Even allowing for what seems to be a certain amount of unsubstantiated rhetoric, the potential consequences of the Act on freedom of speech are alarming, to say the least.

It is, of course, the likes of Hollywood and the music industry who stand to gain from this. The losers will be the rest of us – individuals who create and share content online. SOPA and PIPA are a disproportionate response to the problem of illegal file sharing, their ramifications are far-reaching and they’re likely to be just the beginning. But the truth is that this isn’t a totally one-sided issue. The Bills would never have gained the traction they did if it weren’t for the all-too-common mindset that intellectual property – the result of other people’s hard work – should simply be given away for free.

I spend a lot of time and money creating my images and I hate them being taken and used without permission. But the fact is that as soon as you put them online there is no way to stop this happening. There are ways to make it a little more difficult but nothing will prevent anyone with a bit of technical knowledge and time on their hands. In fact, if you research the subject in any depth you will, like others, quickly come to the conclusion that if you’re that concerned about people stealing your images it’s best not to put them on the web at all. How depressing.

Is this really how we want the web to be? A lawless place where everything is up for grabs and theft is viewed as simply unavoidable?

SOPA is a classic case of the end not justifying the means, but, let’s be honest here, the widespread disregard for intellectual property is partly to blame. Copyright exists for a reason but there seems to be no shortage of people who think that Adobe owes them a free copy of Photoshop, or that hard drives filled with pirated music and films are somehow okay. The last thing we need are tighter controls and more restrictions on the way we live our lives and it dismays me to think that people are playing right into their hands. Rant over.

If you are a British citizen or UK resident you can sign this petition: