Ynys-hir Plus

It’s become something of a joke with me ‘Places you must visit on the A487’. Something of a Welsh scenic highway; from mountain passes to estuaries, wild woods and pasture, seaside towns, cliffs and high moors. The subtitle might read ‘What took you so long?’. In all the years of driving down to Pembrokeshire have only now – two weeks ago – got round to turning off between Machynlleth and Aberystwyth at Eglwys-fach (former parish of that great Anglo-Welsh poet R S Thomas) to visit the RSPB wildlife reserve at Ynys-hir. (Eng: Long Island)

Ynys-hir richly rewards visiting, we quickly discovered, because it is so large and can thus boast diverse habitats. From raised bog and reed beds to estuarine marsh, ancient oak woods, fellside and traditionally managed lowland pasture grazed in part by hardy hill ponies. We combined two of the habitat walks on offer, stopping at two of the reserve’s seven hides to take in sightings of waders, ducks and geese at one and an overview from the other atop the wooded hilltop. The third walk – to the saltmarsh estuary of the Dyfi – we look forward to discovering next time we visit.

Another part of this large reserve is the fern covered hill inland, t’other side of the A487, known as Foel Fawr. We spot Red Kite circling. These magnificent birds are now a common sight in Wales and a great conservation success story. Their numbers were reduced to a mere handful of breeding pairs by the mid 20th Century but thanks to the efforts of concerned bodies and naturalists like Bill Condry they were brought back from the edge of extinction and are now something of a tourist attraction in their own right. Condry and his wife Penny rented a cottage on the estate from 1959 and a decade later became the first resident bird wardens when the RSPB bought the site and opened it to the public. Today rare birds getting the conservation attention are the Ospreys breeding just up the road at the Cors Dyfi site run by the Montgomery Wildlife Trust that I had visited earlier this year. However the RSPB warden confided in us that said fish eating breeding pairs actually prefer to do their hunting here, at Ynys-hir!

We stayed overnight with our friends Geoff and Diane at Penrall’t, their wonderful new and second hand bookshop in Machynlleth. A full time retirement project for this enterprising and hard working couple; they cleverly converted the former butcher’s shop into what has to be the neatest and (for its size) most comprehensively stocked little bookshop in Wales. They’ve recently added to the cultural offer with the addition of a gallery for contemporary photography three doors up which is also situated – you’ve guessed it – on the A487. Another attraction in this short stretch of highway is the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) whose seven interconnected galleries showcase the work of a wide range of Welsh artists and craftspeople. Privately run, with grant aid, this fabulous series of commercial galleries is always a joy to visit and the perfect non-metropolitan venue to make new artistic discoveries.

Roger Cecil: Landscape Study, Watercolour 1964

Kim & I were both struck by the current exhibition of the work of ‘The Secret Artist’ Roger Cecil (1942-2015). Abertillery born, working class, whose talent took him to study at the Royal College of Art in London in 1962. He rejected the road to commercialism and the allures of social mobility, returned to his terraced home in the valleys and dedicated the rest of his life to following his own road, living a reclusive existence, inspired by the land and built environment around him. The result , a remarkable run of paintings that has earned Roger Cecil a well deserved, long overdue reputation, since his passing and ‘discovery’, as the most outstanding abstract impressionist that Wales has produced. A genuine eye opener of a show, curated with compassion and insight. A reminder that, as John Lennon put it, ‘a working class hero is something to be’.

Roger Cecil: untitled 1, oil mixed media on board c.2000


A few more garden jobs getting done. Kim takes her tulip bulbs (courtesy of Sarah Raven) and pots them up, covering the surface with gravel. I pull handfuls of weed from the pond and drain on the edges to allow the tiny insects living in them to slide back into the cold waters. I then add the shrivelled greenery to the compost. Some strands of curly hornwort I spare. Make a few posies of them, tied with lead fastening, and drop to the bottom of the new tank pond to start another oxygenating underwater colony. Hopefully this clear out of weed will allow more spread of surface plants, encourage amphibians to return next year whilst still keeping enough cover to keep the still water sweet, control UV and still give shelter to all the various life forms that call the pond home.

There are some lovely poems out there celebrating aspects of the season. I have a soft spot for Edward Thomas of course so here’s one from him – ‘Digging’. The lino cut is by Cathy Duncan. (Apologies for layout: It won’t configure in lines but just runs the text together. I need to interrogate WordPress somehow to let me configure it properly, as ET wrote it!)

Today I think Only with scents, – scents dead leaves yield, And bracken, and wild carrot’s seed, And the square mustard field; Odours that rise When the spade wounds the root of tree, Rose, currant, raspberry, or goutweed, Rhubarb or celery; The smoke’s smell, too, Flowing from where the bonfire burns The dead, the waste, the dangerous, And all to sweetness turns. It is enough To smell, To crumble the dark earth, While the robin sings over again Sad songs of Autumn mirth.

Back End

Two recent trips to heritage properties swell the fruit store. The nice young man in the shop at Aydon Castle (English Heritage) is happy for me to pick apples and take windfalls in the courtyard garden of that fine medieval fortified manor house. At Cherryburn (National Trust) I’m encouraged likewise to help myself in the Bewick family’s farmhouse garden. Wish I knew the traditional varieties of the tall apple and pear trees growing there. All of the fruit goes to juicing; a fine flavoursome mix it makes, each batch unique. Also bring back cut back lavender flowers which I place in nooks around the kitchen to dry and subtly flavour the air with their fragrance.

A trip to Manchester for a job interview mid week is the perfect excuse to see old friends in Mosely Street….By which I mean half an hour renewing a long acquaintance with the city art gallery’s grandest residents. Amongst others, Holman Hunt’s morally freighted Hireling Shepherd and the social panorama encompassed within Ford Maddox Brown’s epic Work; the sublimely beguiling Hylas and the Nymphs by Woodhouse. A seasonal joy comes of engaging with the odd charm of Millais’ Autumn Leaves. Like the other wonderful pieces it too exudes powerful illustrative qualities; carrying its inner narrative through colouration and composition.

Back in Northumberland all manner of weather rolling in around and over us each day. Dry spells allow some more putting to bed work in the garden. I pick the last of this season’s apples. James Grieve make perfect juicers so we fill a few more bottles. The Arthur Turners make a perfect puree (especially with elderflower cordial, ginger & brown sugar added). Last of the French beans are a rag tag and bobtail but they taste good. Dismantle the sticks and stack them by the railway hut for another year, whilst the helm goes to compost. Kim picks the last of the mini-tomatoes grown in the greenhouse then sets to washing down glass, trays, pots et al. Whitefly is removed and a sparkle re-set. Elsewhere borders and beds are trimmed, leaves swept and grass mowed one last time, with the exception of the lower half where it’s just too wet to cut.


Autumn Hawkbit, Betony, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Common Cat’s Ear, Musk Mallow, Ox Eye Daisy, Ladies Bedstraw, Ragged Robin, White Campion, Self Heal, Poppy, Ribwort Plantain, Wild Carrot, Yarrow…Traditional meadow flowers redolent of summer days, idyllic pastoral settings, vision of a timeless long lost English countryside. Truly lost. A much quoted statistic that tells us some 97% of traditional hay meadows have been lost since the end of WW2. Luckily a corner is at last being turned; nature friendly farmers, numerous charities, growing numbers of local authorities and diverse communities across the country are taking action to establish new meadows and restore old ones. As individuals, in gardens and allotments, we can all do our bit.

My mission this year is to improve what we already have and increase its potential. To that end late August saw me preparing the garden’s mini-meadow for a minor make over. It’s roughly triangular in shape, on a slight north facing slope, approximately 450 square yards in area. Originally sown as lawn with hard wearing rye grass it gradually got infested with couch grass and more dominant weeds. It looks attractive enough in its own way, and we delight to see it wave and glow under the late Summer sun. Earlier in the growing season some of the hardier meadow plants – Fritillary, Buttercup, Meadow Cranesbill – are able to muscle in with a fringe appearance where the mass of meadow meets lawn. A local contractor comes to strim what he jokingly terms ‘The Jungle’ in late August and his lads rake and carry off most of the cuttings down to the bonfire in the field. This year I did another thorough rake of what was left to expose more of the rough surface, hoping to decrease any enrichment of the grassy lumps beneath. I then concentrated my efforts on a roughly one yard strip all around the outside, giving it another a rake before scarifying to expose enough soil (at least 50%) able to receive meadow flower seed. Finally I honed in on the apex, an area with a footprint of a small tent, and painstakingly removed the turf to get 100% soil exposure. Tried to remove as much of the pernicious couche root & other weeds as possible before finally levelling and tilling with the rake.

By September’s end, taking advantage of the warm dry weather, I buckled down to broadcast the 20 odd varieties of meadow flower seed I’d purchased online from a specialist nursery. All of them suitable for acid clay soils; a combined 100 grams worth at a recommended 1.5 grams per square metre. To that I added miniscular white foxglove seeds a friend had harvested from their garden. Mixed the whole lot with sand for ease of spreading and, trying not to worry too much about exactitude, got to work scattering the cast of thousands. I then tamped the tiny seeds further into the soil, walking over them thoroughly in my big boots, in imitation of stock let out to graze after harvest. The seeds must now pass a long winter freeze before they germinate next Spring. By way of token protection I spread a thin irregular cover of sand and leaf mold over the open apex area. Finally, around the scarified edges I plant mini-clusters of Snakeshead fritillary bulbs to reinforce those already established.

Yellow Rattle in Summer: Library Image

No meadow seed mix is complete without Rhinanathus Minor, Yellow Rattle. Both my seed packets had 5% in each but I’d also purchased an extra 50 grams of it and spread that separately in the border strip sections. This key pathfinder plant, being semi-parasitic, will live off and thus weaken the established sward allowing other meadow plants an increased chance to take root and thrive. Yellow Rattle gets its name from the prominent seed pods that blacken and harden with ripeness before freely shedding their contents on harvesting. All traditional hay meadows have this freewheeling pioneer at their floral heart. I live in hope of success, although it may yet take more than one season for the bulk of flowers to establish. I will, of course, report further on progress (or lack of it) in due course!


Common Pipistrelle / Library Image, as credited

Settling down one evening last week we played unwitting hosts to a visitor. A bat had flown in from the garden via the half opened french doors. Our living room is a former hay barn so it had more range than it could have expected in confined quarters. with all other exits barred it took a sudden dive into my neighbouring study (where I sit making these notes tonight) and promptly disappeared without trace. Having sealed the room off that night some time was taken up the next day with me, ably helped by a visiting friend, on step ladders carefully clearing then replacing a great number of books, box files and papers in a vain search for the elusive flying mammal. The only refuge I think it must have found was a run of narrow gaps between exposed stone wall and fitted cupboards. A joiner friend had fitted the cupboard and shelf units two years since, skillfully using his fret saw to accommodate the rough uneven interface between stone and wood. Just enough room, I suspect, for a fold up furry beastie to hang out in safely. Two nights later it appeared out of nowhere and a rather farcical fandango of humans and aerial evacuee took place in living room and then kitchen. With the french doors now fully open it finally swooped low and out into the big wide darkness from whence it had come. Hurray! We’re used to bats regularly flying around the house at nightfall but never, until now, inside it. Almost certainly it’s either a Common or a Soprano Pipistrelle, the most widespread and numerous of the UK’s 17 breeding bat species. Weighing an average 5oz, with 8″ wingspan its aerial hawking of flies, mosquitoes, midges etc can amount to a catch of up to 3,000 insects per animal on a summer’s night! They are almost certainly roosting permanently somewhere on our property; behind soffits, tiles, bargeboards, roofing felt etc. We’re happy to have them in our happy acre but preferably out, not in!