Down by the Riverside

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 At this point the stony riverbed is no more than a metre wide along which the bedrock forms a series of shallow steps over which the water flows in cascades, like a glittering staircase. Above here the river branches out into a network of small streams, any one of which could be called its source. Disturbed by my arrival a grey wagtail bounces away downstream flashing its chrome-yellow underwear.

I have set out this morning to walk down the Afon (River) Lliw, having been given a lift close its source. At this height it is no more than a shallow-v cut into miles of rough and rolling pasture, brushed with the bleached tops of soft rush and mapped by weathered stonewalls. It feels high-up-above here and there is an exhilarating sense of space. A cocksure wheatear flirts his tail from a wall top as I pass. Sheep are scattered across the landscape like confetti and in one place there are cattle – an uncommon sight in the uplands these days. Trees and bushes are non-existent, save one: an ancient and frail looking hawthorn permanently bent by the wind, which still flowers ‘defiantly’. Feeling my age, I note the metaphor and tip my hat to the tree. I have mixed feelings about this landscape: on the one hand there is the grinding attrition of the vegetation from centuries of stock grazing, which is personified by the single derelict hawthorn, and on the other hand the sheer magnificence and freedom of just being here. It is a fine Sunday in May and if I meet anybody else all day it will be a surprise (I didn’t).

Half a mile downstream I come to an abandoned, but tidy, stone house in the middle of nowhere. Barring the two sturdy sycamores at its back (the signature trees of these hill farms), there is no longer anything to anchor it to place. The roof is still good and the front door key is hanging up – on the outside! In the downstairs room is a scatter of wooden shearing stools; a cracked mug on the cast iron range and some rusting tinned food in a cupboard. Upstairs two desiccated swallows lie on the dusty floor – they must have got trapped inside, somehow. Perhaps this house was always a ‘hendre’, a shepherd’s summertime cottage, but it is a vivid reminder of how many more people lived in the uplands 150 years ago. Within sight of here, at Hendre Blaen Lliw, my son’s friend Owen has just moved into what must surely be, at 1500 feet, one of the highest inhabited houses in Wales. A young man on his own with no mains services takes a certain kind of resilience, especially in winter, but I suppose he was born too it as his family farm much of this wild land.

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photo: Tom Kistruck

Below Blaen Lliw the river widens out a bit, and because water levels are low in this dry spell, a layer of blotchy pink stone the colour of drowned flesh has been exposed below the usual boulders dark with moss. A common sandpiper flicks away downstream on stiff wings piping loudly. I’m pleased to find they are still on the river. One or two rowans have begun to appear on the riverbanks and in the top of one, about fifteen feet up, is a tidily refurbished crow’s nest. I contemplate climbing up to see if it contains eggs or young, but think better of it. There is something reassuringly domestic about this homely nest in such a bare, windswept landscape. At the same time it seems an unnervingly exposed place to incubate eggs, and feed chicks. A red kite wheels over the river, crossing the valley with barely a wing beat. We met Stephen (Owen’s father) on the way up and he told us it had been around for several weeks, probably feeding on the afterbirths at lambing time, so providing a useful clean-up service. To my right about a quarter of a mile away the ground rises steeply towards the highest ground. There is heather on these slopes, an indication of less grazing pressure from sheep and a scatter of fifty or so young rowans reinforce the point. Sheep numbers in the upland have been reduced since an historic high in the 1980s and now, on some less accessible slopes and rocky places, the beginnings of new woodlands are springing up.

Where the valley widens out there is a sizeable bog and it is hard going across the lumpy cotton grass – which is just beginning to wave its white flags. Towards the middle are waist high clumps of tussock sedge, a sure sign of the wettest area. Apparently the ‘tussocks’ of these enormous sedges used to be trimmed into hassocks for kneeling on in chapel years ago. A grasshopper warbler is reeling off its drunken song somewhere out in the rushes and nearer at hand a reed bunting is picking out a much more hesitant tune. As the wind sighs across the bog I am filled with gratitude in the solitude of this wild place.

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The weird thing about waterfalls is that you can’t hear them from upstream until you are almost upon them. In this case the Afon Lliw plunges over a shelf of hard rock just above Buarthmeini; seventy feet of crashing, glittering water that orchestrates every other sound.   Set amongst rocky hillsides studded with birch and rowan trees it is wonderful sight. In the south of Britain it would probably have a car park and picnic site; up here there isn’t even a path. Nobody bothers with it.

These birches are the first I have seen since starting out this morning and they provide a song post for my first willow warbler – so neatly pointing up the link between habitat and species. Clambering across the water-scoured rocks at the top of the falls I find bluebells in deep cracks and some violets the texture of purple velvet. There is even a straggling thyme plant clinging on precariously – how does it withstand the river in spate? Getting down the side of the falls is a struggle as the steep, rock strewn ground is knee-high with heather and clumps of moor grass. I experience my only moment of fear all day, this is leg-breaking terrain and there is no phone signal here.

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Below the falls the air is thicker; it is sheltered and intimate compared to the wide-open uplands above, where I had felt like an ant creeping across the landscape. This bit of land beside the river is fenced out, perhaps to protect the sheep from the danger of the falls, and it has become lush. There are hawthorns and hazels and even a young sycamore in the proto-woodland. Marsh marigolds and wood anemones are flowering beneath the trees and a lizard slips away from my boot. A singing blackbird conjures the warmth and security of village lowlands. The absence of nibbling sheep in this sheltered place has released the land, allowing it to move towards its wooded climax.

A hundred yards further down river I stumble upon a ruined farmstead huddled beneath a rocky bluff and screened by ash trees. It is of Lilliput proportions – the house no bigger than a modern lounge. The roof has long gone and ferns and moss soften any sense of absence. The window sockets, chimney and a slate threshold are still intact. Out front are a barn, sheep pens and several small meadows mapped out by crumbling stone walls, some of which are muffled with cushions of silver-grey moss a foot deep, like insulation against history. The whole place is slowly sinking back into the earth from which it arose. Yet 150 years ago there would have been a family here with, no doubt, multiple children crammed into this modest house. Whenever possible life must have been lived out of doors. Oats would have been grown, bread baked, cows milked and cheese made. They would have laughed and quarrelled, hoped and feared like the rest of us. Most of all they would have worked, the endless physical work that is the lot of peasant farmers the world over. A sense of community and interdependence amongst the handful of farms scattered through the valley, coupled to strong traditions and a sense of humour would have helped temper the hard labour. Expectations must have been very different then as most people rarely left the valley and the edge of their familiar world was probably within a ten mile radius of here. With just a little more phone signal I could find out what is happening in Beijing right now. Sitting here on a mossy boulder in this slow moving place that seems totally absurd.

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Shaping the Land

 

 

I met my neighbours by the stone sheep pens; they were bringing the ewes with twins into the fields by the house to keep a close eye on them. A ewe is refusing to budge; one dog cuts off her escape route whilst the other is flat to the ground, moving forward like a crocodile. She turns to face him, stamping her foot defiantly, but gradually backs-up, her lamb close by her side. Dog and ewe are nose to nose, no more than a foot apart. Hywel is calling to the dogs – a stream of words, some soft others harsh, to which they instantly respond. Leaning on his crook, a newborn lamb under one arm, he looks totally at ease – a man in his element.

I have been spending time with these men over the last couple of years trying to understand what it takes to farm this wild and obdurate place. They are patient with my questions, my ignorance of the obvious, pleased that somebody is taking an interest they say. If you look out of the window anywhere in rural Wales you will see the work of such people. Three thousand years ago there would have been a ‘wildwood’: some kind of fluctuating continuum of forest, scrub and wood-pasture; then gradually humans got busy felling, burning, cultivating and grazing with domesticated stock – we began to shape the land. Over time only some of us, farmers, did that work and by the beginning of the last century they had fashioned a diverse ‘cultural landscape’ which was both productive and rich in wild and human life. It was the archetypal countryside for many people: hedged fields, grazing animals, small woods and farmsteads.

This farm is still like that, if a little on the wild side. It is certainly not typical anymore and, in truth, like most hill farms, would not be viable without subsidies. Rough, high and wet it is too demanding for all but the indigenous Welsh Mountain sheep. It is also very beautiful (if that is how you see the world): craggy woods plastered with mosses and lichens, rock strewn ffridd dotted with ancient thorns and crab apples; a hurtling mountain river along one boundary and up above, a wild moorland of heather and bog. Along with their forebears these men and their sheep have shaped it this way from the post-glacial ‘wildwood’.

What has also evolved over the 2000 years of farming is a human culture rich in knowledge, skills, language, custom and mutual understanding. These two men go about their work with such understated ease, seemingly oblivious of their expertise. To see them work is to experience how they belong here; a hand-in-glove fit between people and place. Looking around this farm I am reminded of how much of the wildlife and landscapes we treasure have arisen because of agriculture – mostly as an unintended by-product. Is this place an anachronism or a model for a more intentional future? It is becoming clear that society requires other things, the so called ‘ecological services’, from the land as well as food, including a rich and beautiful countryside – for which it must be willing to pay. Could farmers come to husband wildlife and landscape with as much pride and skill as lamb or beef? It would mean a big shift in attitude for some and acquiring new expertise for many, however it could help ensure the future of a distinctive culture, for which we would all be the richer.

This piece first appeared in Natur Cymru magazine in April 20017

 

 

 

 

Lest We Forget

 

In 1966 the well-known nature writer William Condry wrote the following, about a farm near here :

“ On these slopes you can find meadows and sheep pastures nearly as fragrant and colourful as meadows in the limestone Alps. In the wetter places there are marsh orchids. On the drier fields there is a scattering of frog orchids and also – but it is very rare and hard to find – the small white orchid, which characteristically shares these calcareous pastures with the frog orchid.… But many people would say that the glory of these slopes is the upright vetch (Vicia orobus) that makes splendid patches of purple–pink in some of the fields.”

This is the same place today:

For those not versed in these matters this is a commercial crop of Sitka spruce, which originate from North America. These trees, planted as a monoculture, shut out the light and acidify the soil. Almost nothing grows beneath them. On a recent visit with a group of botanists we found only the common acid loving species you would find on any local roadside, or bit of boggy ground.The beautiful flowers that Bill Condry describes depended on the alkaline soils found on a narrow band of lime-rich rock that runs under theses trees. They also required the unimproved, lightly grazed pastures that were still characteristic of farms 60 years ago. A few years after Condry wrote about Maes Meillion the Forestry Commission bought the land and planted a landscape of spruce. Today this is a profitable crop which will soon be harvested – and then replanted, so repeating a now familiar cycle in the Welsh uplands.

I find it tempting to look for somebody to blame for the loss of these “fragrant and colourful meadows” but in the 1960s places notified for nature conservation were few and far between and their protection virtually unenforceable. The Forestry Commission was being encouraged and financed by government to plant up land in an attempt to make us more self-sufficient in timber. The farmer was probably keen to sell the land for what seemed like a good price then. Perhaps neither he nor the Forestry Commission knew the flower rich meadows were there, and if they did they probably didn’t care – ‘there is always some more somewhere over the hill’. Similar things were happening in farming as old pastures were being ploughed and reseeded, then fertilized and heavily grazed. The upshot is that now none of the wonderful flowery meadows on our band of lime-rich rock are left. Gone and almost forgotten. In the end perhaps nobody was to blame, but unless we remember we can never learn.

Cold Porridge and Barnacles

 Some of the woodlands in this part of Wales are classified as ‘temperate rain forest’, which isn’t some tabloid terminology but part of a formal classification of the planet’s habitats. These forests are globally scarce, found only in high-rainfall temperate regions; characteristically they have an abundance of epiphytic plants – in our case mosses, lichens and ferns.

I have been investigating a local wood which, although dominated by birch and rowan rather than the usual oaks, looks to me like one of these ‘Atlantic’ woodlands – not least because it is smothered from boulder to twig in a luxuriant coating of mosses and lichens. As I don’t know much about either of these I persuaded Dave Lamacraft, who is Plantlife’s lichen expert in Wales, to come and have a look. It was an education.

It turns out that lichenology is a bit like alchemy and is best taken slowly; which suits this place as it is a steep jumble of boulders discreetly draped in moss, just waiting to break your leg. Two things about lichens stand out: many of them are very small and all of them, until recently, were only referred to by Latin names. At least now there are some with English names, which helps a bit. Watching how Dave went about identifying them was fascinating; most have to be examined through a hand lens, which you hold to your eye and then lower to the plant, consequently you spend hours with your nose up against a branch or a boulder. Close up these lichens come in many forms: flaky, cupped, crenulated, fissured and strap-like; some were encrusted, others slapped on like face cream or pats of cold porridge. Some of those we found were easy to identify e.g. the fishbone beard lichen (Usnea filipendula), which hangs down like a hank of grey hair; or the barnacle lichen (Thelotrema lepadinum) whose fruiting bodies do look remarkably like barnacles. But many others were difficult, which is where the alchemy comes in – Dave variously shone an ultra violet light as some species show up a different colour or dabbed them with bleach for the same reason, he even chewed fragments – “if this tastes really horrible I will know which one it is!” More often than not he cut off a tiny piece, carefully folded it in paper, and stowed it in a collecting tin for later identification under the microscope.

There is a group of lichens known as ‘Atlantic’ species, which are characteristic of these high-rainfall west coast woodlands. Due to the scarcity of their habitat they are some of the most treasured of our lichen world and we have a particular duty to care for them. I had a hunch that this wood contained some of these and by the end of the afternoon, much to my delight, Dave had found a good selection of them. He also found several others which are indicators of long continuity, which supports the idea that this is a very old wood, perhaps a direct descendent of the original post-glacial ‘wildwood’.

As we walked back to the car Dave stopped to examine the old hawthorns and birch trees scattered across the pastures on the farm. He was looking for ‘nitrophilous’ species of lichen i.e. those that are indicators of a nitrogen polluted environment. Despite this valley having some of the cleanest air in England and Wales he did find some – just scraps – but they were there, where the rain and wind sweeps in from the west bringing nitrogen dioxide in solution. One of these lichens Xanthoria parietina, a conspicuous chrome-yellow crusty species, is sometimes common along main roads and at service stations just because it thrives on the nitrogen from exhaust fumes. It seems odd that we should have this pollution here when there is so little industry and settlement to the west, where the prevailing winds blow from, but it seems that exhaust fumes from cars and trucks and even offshore shipping are enough to push atmospheric nitrogen over a critical threshold. One consequence of this is that vigorous plants such as hogweed and stinging nettles, which thrive on nitrogen ‘enrichment’, are outcompeting more delicate plants such as violets and primroses, which prefer it nutrient ‘poor’. According to a recent Plantlife report this process is having a profound and detrimental effect on wild flowers and vegetation all across Britain.  It is raining fertilizer – and there are bound to be consequences.

Xanthoria parietina

 

Distant Drum

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 Gritty flakes of snow brush my face and an icy wind sighs through the trees, shivering the ‘lamb’s tails’ on the hazels. Under a leaden sky the countryside seems hard-faced and locked down.

The conditions are certainly reflected in the birds’ behaviour as I scatter seed and fill the feeders; they are frenzied, landing to feed when I’m only a yard away. In weather like this their challenge is to take on enough calories to make it through the next night. Within minutes the lawn is a twitching mass of birds – then abruptly they are gone, spooked by something, or nothing, and the stage is empty. They sit round suspiciously in the trees waiting for the all clear. How that is arrived at is always a mystery to me, but they gradually trickle back. We have a good selection of finches this winter: chaffinches, greenfinches, goldfinches, half a dozen bramblings, some delicate and confiding siskins and even an occasional redpoll. Add those to the tits, robins, dunnocks, plus the jays and magpies that come bounding in, and there are probably 150 birds queuing up each morning. The ethics of feeding birds intensively like this are interesting: it is a long way from natural, although not far from the weed seeds and spilt grain of farming 70 years ago. The feeding birds are undoubtedly targets for a sparrowhawk, which sometimes slaloms over the hedge at lightning speed and makes a kill – for which I feel a degree of responsibility. But then sparrowhawks also need to make it through the night….

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photo: Dave Smith

We were very excited last week to have the first ever hawfinch recorded in the garden. It looked down on the feeding frenzy from a larch tree, preening and fanning its distinctive white tipped tail, but didn’t join in the scrum. Hawfinches are a local and declining species in Britain; they are also shy and rather elusive. Although strikingly patterned their most prominent feature is a massive bill, powerfully adapted for cracking the stones and extracting kernels from cherries, sloes, hawthorns and the like. Looking carefully through the binoculars we could see that ‘our’ bird had a yellow ring on one leg, which meant it had come from the population around Dolgellau, which is about 12 miles west of here. Dedicated fieldwork over many years by Dave Smith and others has revealed this as one of the most important populations of hawfinches in Britain: to date in excess of 800 birds have been caught and ringed to help understand the distribution and dynamics of these fascinating birds. If ever we get a better look at the bird in our garden and can read the ring we should be able to find out where it was hatched, how old it is and if it has turned up anywhere else. We don’t have the mature mixed woodland here that hawfinches are associated with around Dolgellau, but we do have ample sloes and haws on the untrimmed winter hedges, which can sometimes tempt them out into open country.

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Despite the desperation of the birds to survive another winter’s night the plants are beating to a different drum. Demure snowdrop bells are opening every day and the frail early crocuses are reaching for the light. Even up here in the hills plant life is visibly inching forward, regardless of the weather – responding to the ever-increasing daylight. Although there could be plenty of harsh weather yet, spring is coming and nothing will stop that steady pulse – I can feel it in the air each morning. The birds feel it too, once their stomachs are full; greenfinches are wheezing pleasurably and the dunnock’s glassy plainsong sounds from the hedge. I feel myself quickening, like all other life, to the sound of that quiet drumbeat.

 

One More Turning

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Gaia House Retreat Centre, Devon: At 8am the world is almost monochrome and gripped with cold, frost rimming every leaf. Gaunt trees, some decked with mistletoe, rear up in front of me like something from the Deep. The only dabs of colour are orange berries on the withered remains of wild irises dotted along the roadside. The sky is a not-yet-blue colour but yellowing in the East – probably the sun is up on the coast. A too-close blackbird is turning leaves, pausing only to give me the eye. It feels as though life is hanging on, waiting for the earth to turn another couple of degrees, then the blessed warmth will quicken blood and flood through tissue enabling the day long search for sustenance to start in earnest.

 

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A cockerel in the valley sounds tinny and uncertain in the cold air. There is scattered applause from wood pigeons breaking cover. I am touched by a notice the folk on the corner have posted ‘To all who pass by…. wishing you good health, joy and blessings for 2017’.

The frost is not gone from the lawn until midday, despite three hours of weak sunshine. I circle the mottled trunk of the ancient plane tree which, like the aging body of an artist’s model, is slipping slowly into recline. Bunches of daffodil shoots poking two inches above the ground are like speed traps for unwary meditators. There is a flurry of bird calls now: nuthatch, goldfinch, robin, bullfinch and the distant laugh of a green woodpecker.

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West Ogwell church, which is painted cream, otherwise looks plain and dependable; the sort of church that has pinned the English countryside together for centuries. Unused, a little damp and peeling, it still has has beautiful wooden box pews like something out of Thomas Hardy. The churchyard is ringed with horse chestnut, beech, evergreen oak and a cranky old hornbeam that is leaning perilously over the graves. On the headstones are solid English names like Bishop, Taylor and Gilbert. Several low granite enclosures are where nuns from the old convent were buried, sometimes six together without mounds, just discreet names on the curb stone: Sister Gladys, Edna, Maud, Dora and so on – names from my grandmother’s generation – modest women who gave their lives to God.

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The afternoon is fading, Dartmoor reduced to a rusty smudge on the horizon, a couple of ragged tors still visible. By four o’clock the cold and darkness are closing in for the long night, and by eight the fog is as thick as smoke. In the bushes blackbirds are sounding the alarm – these conditions will prise open any weakness.

So to New Year’s Eve and we are sitting around a fire in the woods in companionable silence, a circle of flame-lit faces – some smiling others pensive. Tawny Owls are calling love to one another amongst the trees. We cast our regrets, hopes and aspirations into the flames and the sparks tower up, each one brilliant and brief in the endless stream. I feel in good company with Messrs Taylor and Bishop, Sister Edna and the rest as I enjoy my moment in the light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No People No Significance?

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It was Annie Dillard, the American writer, who said “no people, no significance” meaning, I think, that it is only we who can perceive significance. There is another way to look at it – that human presence in a landscape can add significance for us. I was reflecting on this whilst reading back over some notes I made on Bardsey Island this summer. I pulled out the following from a day in July:

Sitting in the sun against the wall of our cottage I tuned in to what I could hear: melodramatic wailing from seals, all ‘woe is me for I am a lost soul’; a smart male stonechat on the fence opposite has a ‘chack-chack’ call like beach pebbles colliding, interspersed with rusty squeaks – with his orange breast stuck out and feet apart he looks like an amiable grocer passing the time of day; piping oystercatchers – they sound so brainless; the textured throaty bleat of a ewe, just twice, is laden with context for me – Wales, hill-country, home; glassy twittering of meadow pipits along with the soft intimate calls between linnets is the common tongue here, the daily gossip; and behind everything is the surging hiss of the sea and felt-sound of grass shifting in the breeze.

 Nils (my grandson) found a little owl in Nant Valley. It yelled at us from a hole in a gorse bush, then advanced to a nearer fence post and then one nearer still – a ball of fluffed out indignation. Its lemon yellow bill and irises framed large black pupils, which stared relentlessly at us, furious at the intrusion. I presume it had a brood nearby as it continued to harass us until we were 100 m away.

 A runner from the bird observatory passed by with a panic message “Basking shark if you are quick”. I ran and arrived puffing heavily, just in time to get a glimpse through the telescope of two sharp black fins (dorsal and tail) cutting through the water. I thought of them as ‘ominous’ despite other-time images of gentle plankton gulping creatures.

 Ambling back along the track I admired the wayside flowers: cats-ear, bartsia, bell heather in magenta cushions, yarrow, knapweed, silverweed of the purest yellow. Gorse seeds were popping loudly in the heat.

 The moon was rising as we watched, lifting above the shoulder of the mountain. It was huge, a day off full, and silver – a priceless glittering coin. As we turned away we saw the ‘Bardsey bat’ – a lone pipistrelle that has taken up residence recently, probably in one of the buildings.

 In the early hours thee was the mother and father of all light shows in the western sky: sheet lightning bursting out every few seconds from all round the purple sky, sometimes underscored by the precision strikes of forked lightning. The strange thing was that it was largely silent, just the odd roll of thunder – the rain came later. The planet was flexing its muscles and the vastness of it made human concerns seem puny. At dawn the moon was poised low over the sea, butter yellow now with a golden trail stretching from horizon to shore across a flat-calm sea.

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A sense of harmony, between humankind and nature is deeply satisfying to people sensitised to such things; even more satisfying for some than untouched nature. The latter often evokes awe whereas the former comes with a sense of well being. Stone walls, smoke from a chimney or grazing cattle can add something to a landscape. On Bardsey visitors often remark upon this sense of harmony for, although it is a nature reserve, it doesn’t feel quite like one because it is also a place where people live and work, farm, fish for a living and holiday, which means buildings, boats, livestock and so on. There are, of course, all sorts of constraints, frustrations, hard graft and tolerances that go in to making this work – which is a whole other story. Sitting in the sunshine on the terrace of the bird observatory next morning I jotted down some of the factors that help produce this harmony for visitors to the island:

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You are hard pushed to spend any money here.

Children can be safely feral.

Nobody knows the time.

You must walk everywhere – there are no cars.  

No Internet, phone signal, TV or even electric light.

There is nothing to do, but everything to grab your attention.

 This place has a tousled unkempt look, which is a complement to all who care for it. The breeze ruffles the blonde grass and carries the sweet summer fragrance of lady’s bedstraw. The hiss of the sea is the islands tinnitus. Bardsey is much more than the sum of its parts – a mystery that is well worth attending too.

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It seems to me that although these experiences are about bearing witness, ‘recording significance’ Annie Dillard might say, they have at their heart a good deal about people interacting with nature. If I try to imagine Bardsey without the farming, fishing, birdwatchers, holiday folk and the marks they have made over the centuries it seems empty, somehow less significant.