Travels with MaryE

Most things I love best are about good light and good timing. That's where the adventures start. Don't be in no hurry here. Here you'll find a little bit about bluegrass music, fox hunting, life on the road, time on the mountain, and a whole lot about other things, too.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Thrill of the Countryside, The Company of Friends

Here are just a few more photos I wanted to share from the last three days I followed local hunts as they exercised their hounds.

This is Cabalva, a home on the River Wye not far from Hay-on-Wye (another wonderful place to visit) and site of one the opening meet for a local hunt. The view across the Wye is spectacular.

Later in the day I spied some friends enjoying the stone walls and the splendid views of this border (as in Welsh-English border) country.

My buddy Phil enjoys a day out on his new steed Louis. And (for Americans) the young gentleman who looks like a lord surveying his manor may be to the manor born, but not to this manor; he sports a top hat which is a fairly unusual sight in these parts; very "old school."

Some folks still like to to follow the hunt on foot and that is the best way of all. I love it, too, but I admit my cameras get a bit cumbersome and I usually choose the easy way -- following in a 4WD vehicle at least part of the day. It provides a nice respite from the wind. Here Ted makes his way up yet another hillside among the reeds.

The Lovely Elan Valley

Last Sunday a friend and I went over to the Elan Valley, one of the "local" tourist traps I suppose, but really a lovely place, especially this time of year when the fall colors add interest to the eye and when there aren't so many cars driving around those narrow roads. It's a lovely spot and one where I enjoy doing some hiking as well. There wasn't time for a hike, but ample time for photos. So here are a few of mine and visit for others (see the Mid Wales section) taken by my friend kmo.

Folks used to get around a lot more slowly than we do these days, so these kinds of roadside markers can be found here and there. Yep, they look like tombstones, and they've stood the test of time. This one informs the traveler that it's 29 miles to Aberystwyth, a coastal Welsh city which is also well worth a visit. God only knows how long it would have taken a traveler 100 years ago to reach Aberystwyth, but it would have been an arduous road over mountains to be sure. What a welcome sight that must have been to see the city glittering by the seaside. There are still many Victorian buildings lining the beach there.

A little further up the road we came to the dams. There are four dams in the Elan Valley, including the relatively recent Claerwen Dam (which we didn't get to visit on Sunday). The two I've photographed were built around 1900, I think. There were so many workers involved (many of whom died for the cause) that Elan Village was created and can still be visited today (sorry, didn't get any photos of that either). Like with so many reservoirs, farms and churches and settlements were flooded in the name of progress (namely, a water supply for distant Birmingham). So here's a few of my photos from the nice afternoon.
Nearby is the charming village of Rhayader, complete with several pubs and inns, B&Bs, village shops and a nice war memorial clock tower in the middle of it all.
Next time you're out this way be sure to pay a visit to the Elan Valley. And if you have some extra time you can take the road out of Elan Valley toward Abergwesyn, another lovely drive.

My Secret Garden

Three or four years ago I managed to spend the summer here in Wales. It was a beautiful summer; folks said the nicest they'd had in years. Lucky me. A year or so before in 2002 I'd managed to clear the area in front of the old farmhouse here -- by hard work and tenacity...nobody had used that space for some 30 years. The briars and brambles and scrub trees had devoured the area (maybe about an acre) until it was nearly impenetrable. Then along comes MaryE. At the time I didn't know many folks around here and I wasn't into following the hunts so I had some time on my hands. So I took up the pruners and the secateurs (?? little hand pruners) and went at that jungle-ish mass of vegetation with a vengeance. This was about in February. I thought of it as my secret garden (still a favorite book) and with that end in mind I worked hard to fulfill a dream. Spring came and with it all the surprises that pop up in a secret garden....snowdrops by the thousands, hyacinths, and my appetite was whetted. They came in after I'd done the dirty work with a JCB (a digger) and took down some unwanted trees that had grown in there over the years of utter neglect...these trees were far beyond the scope of my pruners! I had used a hand saw to take down some things, but this was aggressive gardening at its finest.

When I came back that fall there was still plenty to be done. I got one of those stiff-teethed rakes and began raking what still was really a woods (in front of the house) A big yew tree, probably at least hundreds of years old, stood in front of the house and obscured a lot of what could be a beautiful view. Some of the lower branches were cut off to open the view. Next the hedges were uncovered and trimmed and encouraged to grow (nettles seem to grow best of all in these parts!) Besides wanting a secret garden and having loads of time on my hands and needing a project (other than the book I was supposed to be writing!) was my desire to make the outside world a little closer for an 80-year-old man who lives alone in that big farmhouse. He can't get around much and it just seemed like it would be nice for him to look out the window from his chair and actually see the beautiful hills not so far away.

Now this former "garden" hadn't been tended for about 30 years, as I said, but there were treasures. There were several sturdy rhubarb plants and a couple of nice old hedges that just needed a little help and encouragement. There were some nice bushes, too, and some other plants to be saved. So I hacked and cut away and dragged off the rubbish and burned it. This is about a 300 acre farm, and there always had to be a place to throw trash. In the not-so-distant past there was no such thing as rubbish collection, so people just had a trash heap and eventually some of it broke down, leaving behind the metal bits and glass. Well, this farm's trash heap was in my garden and over the years the glass had spread far and wide. I'm still picking up bits of glass and broken bottles and shards of pottery, rusty nails, bits of barbed wire and hobnailed shoe soles.

So I picked up by hand several 55 gallon drums full of broken glass! The more I picked up the more I found. I burned more rubbish and branches. I picked up more glass. I found a few things that hadn't been broken and they now stand on a shelf in the kitchen, nice old green and blue bottles, some with glass stoppers. I took that metal rake and raked and raked, got up so much trash and branches. And still when it rained (which is does a bit most days here) more glass rose to the surface. Whenever I walked across the garden I always carried something to place the glass in, and felt like walking there was a good workout as I stooped and bent so many times each trip across. It always took me one step closer to the garden of my dreams!

As Pip was able to see out of his window I thought how nice it would be to put a couple of bird feeders there. He's a bit of a curmudgeon and wouldn't admit any interest at all in birds, but nevertheless, I got some feeders and a suet ball and hung there where he could see them if he changed his mind. He also isn't quick to part with money, so I was surprised when he started asking me to pick up some sunflower seeds and suet balls for his birds when I next went to the village! Soon he began telling me of woodpeckers and blue tits and a variety of birds he'd spied there near his windowsill. And there was even a little smile on that old face.

Things progressed in the garden and it began to take shape. I wish I'd kept a log of what I did when, but I began to dig flower beds there, one in front os his window, and one just on the other side of the low hedge, still in his sight from the chair in front of the television. Just behind the new bed is an old apple tree, then a couple of other apple trees, a taller hedge, a field filled (at that time) with sheep (now cattle) and still within easy view a lovely big hill and behind that a ridge of hills.

So I got to spend a summer here in 2003, I think. I decided that over to the left of his view I'd plant a real garden. When I lived in Nashville I'd had a huge garden and with all this space I decided to do it here, too. 'Course the type of things that will grow here are pretty different from the climate in Tennessee, so I had to ask around and see what would be best to grow. A friend came over and helped me lay out the rows and plant the seeds. I put in lots of lettuce and onions, carrots, beets, green beans, and other sort of green leafy vegetables and lots of potatoes. There was still a huge space to fill so in went all kinds of flower seeds. Maybe a quarter of the garden I planted in wildflowers, really my favorite and the results were pretty incredible. Mind, the land hadn't been used in 30 years so it was pretty fertile. So I said all that to say this: here's a photo of what my first garden turned out like. Pretty nice, huh?

Sadly I only spent one summer here, so the garden has gone into some decline, but now the part in front of his window is mostly covered with grass (though still there are many apple trees, bushes, roses, and some perennial beds) which is kept mowed. The hedge is growing well and is kept neatly trimmed. And the cattle graze the field beyond in the shadow of the hills. The birds still feed at the window and it's a lot nicer for a little bit of work.
This photo is just the view out my kitchen window. It inspires me to cook! The weeds have just about taken over the place once again, but I've got the gloves and the pruners ready for some serious work these next days!


Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Lord IS My Shepherd

Now when you're in a place like Wales you get to thinking a lot about sheep and shepherds. These days most shepherds don't live the kind of treacherous and tedious lives they once did (not so many years ago!) but it can still be a lonely kind of occupation, and certainly a cold and wet kind of job much of the year. I'm not sure if the sheep care, really....but for an outsider like me I still think a herd of sheep can be a lovely sight.

I made this photo several years ago when I awoke to find the land under the enchantment of a serious hoarfrost. I pulled on my boots and all the warm clothes I could find and walked up and up and up the lane until I got about as high as I could get around here. Stopped for a breather and spied these sheep huddled up together feeding. It was a lovely sight on a perfect, crispy morning.

The photo on the right is that of a fantastic stained glass window that can be seen in the Elan Valley at the church there by the dam, Nantgwyllt. It's well worth a visit.

Hopefully this winter will bring another hoarfrost; we haven't had one in three years or so. All the branches and grasses and hedges and fences and, well, everything, are painted in a layer of white ice crystals.
When I'm out following the hunt, you might think that sights like this could become dull but in six years I've never found anything but delight in the sight of sheep grazing a hillside with a patchwork of hills and fields, hedges and fern, trees and gorse, as a backdrop.

A Fox on the Run

I took this picture many years ago when I first started coming to Wales. I was standing by the roadside talking with a group of friends and just happened to have my little point-and-shoot Nikon in my hands. As we looked over at this green field, up popped a fox and wasn't he running. It was a truly beautiful sight and I reckon he may be out there running yet.

Who says a fox on the run ain't a beauteous thing? He was a dandy to be sure.

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Hound Exercise

Even hounds need exercise, so about three times a week I join a bunch of friends to ensure that the hounds around here stay fit. Some of us go on horseback, some on foot, and some in 4wd vehicles. Never mind, we have a good time, see some of the prettiest countryside imaginable, see the local flora and fauna, swap tales with the oldtimers over tea and sandwiches, get some fresh air and get to listen to hounds be hounds. You can't beat it, really.

Here's some photos I've snapped this week while out with the English and Welsh fox hounds and their various guardians.

At the end of the day the boys and girls were too tired to walk anymore, so we rounded them up and put them in the back of the Land Rover. Before long they were back in the kennels, fed and watered and bedded down for the night.
Meanwhile, we stood around for awhile at some crossroads of two desolate country lanes and enjoyed talking about the hounds, the weather, and the local news.

The Green Fields of Wales

Sorry for the long break in blogging; been pretty busy moving about from Illinois to upstate New York (nearly 1000 mile drive), then down to New York City where I packed my bags and had a fun visit to B&H Photo (adult version of a toy store - full of all kinds of photography and video equipment). A week ago I boarded at plane at JFK and several hours later found myself walking through London Heathrow. A few more hours and I was snuggled into my bed here in rural Wales twitching as I dreamed of following the hounds on exercise across the beautiful wild moors of Wales.

Now this is my second try at writing this post since I'd written a long post just moments ago which disappeared thanks to an internet glitch (might have something to do with the high winds outside). I can't hope to recreate it since I'm not blessed with a memory these days. But as I look at the big kitchen windows I see lovely oak trees wiggling in the wind and hear songbirds calling to each other. The hedges all around the lanes and fields are tidily trimmed and there are still loads of roses on the bushes in the garden. Everything is blown just about flat to the ground but I still find myself wanting to be outside rather than here in the kitchen where I'm tending to roast pork with homemade gravy, roast potatoes, carrots (caramelized with butter and brown sugar), green beans with lemon and other such things. Lunch is the big meal here on the farm and while I love it I don't get out there and set fence posts and lug around bales of hay or throw around sheep. Seems like I get fat just looking at this food (and I'll admit I don't have the willpower to keep from eating it!)

Since I've been back I've already been out following the hound exercise/drag hunting three times (I go at least three times a week!), meeting old friends and new up on some of the most remote and beautiful hilltops in these parts. I've been walking across lovely moorland toting my two large and heavy cameras (each weighs about 7 pounds, I'll soon be a hunchback), attempting to climb over sheepfencing topped with barbed wire (and always catching my day I nearly ripped them off) and panting as if my lungs would explode. I love it all.

Now that I'm back where I have a pretty good internet connection (with the exception of windy days like today when it's apt to cut out at any moment) I'll start adding photos to these very long and dense blobs of text I tend to ramble on about....(sorry about that) and perhaps it'll be a bit more interesting for you to view.

Looks like this year I won't be able to walk (raise) any hound pups. It's not that I can't get any. It's just that the big old barn where I always keep them (with an inside stable for those cold, wet nights and a cobblestoned outside fenced area for them to enjoy the outdoors with free access to the big garden) badly needs work on the roof. The roof is all slates and I'm afraid all the beams will need replacing as well, so this isn't a small job. To top it off, it has to be done between all the other jobs one does on a farm every day. So looks like the thing I love most about being in Wales is going to be something I can't do this year. Of course I am very sad about it (and you all won't get to see all the cute pup photos this year) but there's nothing to be done about it. Keep your toes crossed that I'm wrong and they get the roof fixed soon so I can have those pups.