The Skirrid, Ysgryd Fawr

I used pictures of bluebells last week partly because they had all vanished around here, just occasional clusters of purple on shaded verges, or north facing woodland slopes. And then we decided to go and climb the first mountain of the year and guess what we found? In late May.

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I’ve got photographs of The Skirrid from various other hills in the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons but I had never actually climbed it. Sitting apart from the other mountain ranges it looks like a shark’s fin cutting through the lowlands as you approach it from Hereford. It isn’t as high or demanding as many other hills and mountains we have climbed, “an evening stroll” was how Dr J described it and because it took us so long to get organised last week we did indeed come down through dusky woods to find the car park almost empty.

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The Skirrid’s west flank, taken from the car on the way home

The most eye catching object from the car park was a perfect view of the nearby Sugar Loaf showing how it got its name. The initially steep climb through woodland was beautiful, plenty of other people going up and down but the trees were alive with birdsong and constant fleeting feathered movement.

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This was taken in the mountains above Tretower Court last April looking towards the Skirrid, in shadow, from the west; the Sugar Loaf is on the right

I made the classic mistake once we were out on the ridge of thinking we were nearly at the summit, only to climb to a false peak and see the ridge rising on before me, it wasn’t too tiring though as stopping to look up at the skylarks singing out of sight was a constant delight. We had our first picnic break in a sheltered dip on the ridge, looking towards White Castle that we visited three years ago.

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The Skirrid from Whitecastle, looking from the east
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Whitecastle from the Skirrid

This is a fairly small hill by Welsh standards, 1594 feet or 486 metres and it really is a pleasant walk, our seven year old bounded ahead and walked twice as far as she needed to and the three year old didn’t demand a carry until the summit had been reached – although as we found two butterflies of different species chasing each other around the trig point the girls amused themselves in racing after them for a good 15 minutes showing that the walk hadn’t exhausted them nearly enough.

At the top a few scattered stones are all that remains of a medieval chapel and below the peak you can make out the bank and ditch of an Iron Age hillfort. The views in all directions are amazing– you can climb Welsh mountains all year and never be sure of the visibility at the top but we spent a lot of time trying to discern which of the mountains to our west we had climbed before and which we still had to look forward to. To the east May Hill, Bredon Hill and the Malverns were all clear, Clee Hill to the north in Shropshire and some further ridge that we couldn’t name for sure. To the south the Bristol Channel and its islands gleamed in the sun, as did Somerset beyond.

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Looking south to the sea

On the way back we took a short sharp descent that curled around the hill’s northern tip and brought us to a valley between the Skirrid itself and the landslip that occurred in the ice age and gave the mountain its Welsh name, Ysgryd, which means split or shattered. We had the second round of sandwiches here and I could easily spend a day reading or writing in the sheltered grove; the ever shifting light under the trees creating myriad shades of green.

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And then we found the bluebells. I had seen a flash of mauve upon the hill as we drove past at a distance, but thought it could have been grey shale catching the afternoon sun. No. It was a carpet of flowers spreading west towards the Sugar Loaf, although as all my photos were taken into the lowering sun I don’t think I did the views justice.

 

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The mountain itself was stunning – it’s shape, the views for miles in all directions, the perfect weather – then we had the bluebells. And then we had a magical Welsh wood. I’ve posted a few pictures of others that have captivated me – and this one was a total surprise. All my previous favourite Welsh woods have been far further from home in North Wales; to find one a little over an hour from home was astonishing. Sadly by now we were all tired and dusk was falling so we mostly kept marching on with me snapping pictures to all sides and not stopping to ohh and ahhh as much as I would like (okay, yes I was already planning how to get there on my own to fully bask in its beauty sometime, sorry family.)

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This was supposed to have been posted last Thursday and I was going to say “next week is half term so there will be no new blog post as I shall hopefully be out enjoying more family days like this.” In fact my determination to get a good chunk of my latest wip completed before the holiday delayed this post, but I am pleased to say that even with typical British Bank Holiday weather, we have indeed had another wonderful – and wet – walk. I should be back soon with more pictures – and hopefully that sounds more like a promise than a threat.

Guess where I’ve been?

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Back to Wales and one of my favourite places – well several favourite places – but after Castell y Bere, Tywyn, Ynys-Hir, Pennal and the once-in-a-lifetime experience of Corris in the sunshine, I got back to Dolgoch Falls. (OK, maybe it’s sunny in Corris more often than I think, but I always picture it in mist and/or rain. Or low cloud. Seeing it in under blazing blue skies was weird.)

Last time I posted this glade I tried to tie it in to my writingwriting and the way different people, or different information can cloud, or illuminate something we thought we knew. This time I think I’ll let the pictures and the beauty of the seasons speak for themselves.

Dolgoch falls on 25 March 2008, 22 April 2017 and 28 August 2012.

That’s winter, spring and summer captured. Just to get autumn and snow…

Seen in a different light

Most things are worth a second glance, whether it’s a person, a place or an object. Looking again can reveal hidden beauty, or unexpected faults – and as I type this I realise how much this applies to re-reading one’s writing! I’m in the process of editing a manuscript and every time I open it I find another mistake, or I find a piece of dialogue or imagery that makes me think “did I really write that?” (and not always in horror.)

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Oops, that’s was a very early diversion down tangent alley. I’ll admit now that this blog post started as an excuse to post two photos of the same spot but it evolved in my mind into being more about how characters in our writing see things on a second glance, or more specifically, how they have interpreted phrases that can have a completely different meaning years later when more information, or life, has been accrued.

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These two phots were taken at Dolgoch Falls in Wales, the first in March and the second in August 4 years later. It wasn’t a conscious duplication, just a perfect spot to capture the twisted ancient woodland that enthralled me the first time I visited – to me, those moss covered trunks and corkscrew branches reaching up from a deep ravine full of thundering water are the perfect embodiment of all secret woodlands described in books like the Hobbit, the Narnia Chronicles, Arthurian Legend and of course Susan Cooper whose Grey King is largely set just a few miles from Dolgoch.

Apart from being shocked by the weird coincidence of standing in the same spot over four years later, what else do those pictures make me – or you – think? I long to capture the scene in Autumn, or in snow. They make me want to go back and explore the gorge and the river further, away from the easily marked footpaths; but I also want to just sit in that glade and look closer at the ivy and holly clad trees, I want to see if the grass is as soft as it looks, if some of those fallen branches are still there, or have they rotted back into the earth? And just which picture do I prefer? Logically the autumn one has more colour and depth and life, but it was the stark silvery grey silhouettes of the trees that first captured me and which draw me now more strongly.

Obviously the second glance, or the reassessing look is a common trope in romance – not just the cliché of how beautiful the spinster looks when she takes off her glasses and lets down her hair. I’m thinking of the fish out of water scene that often occurs, or the “this is going to be uncomfortable but actually we’re really turned on by the end of the evening” scene. How often do characters have to attend a ball or dress function, or a family meal with everyone on best behaviour? Or the boss and secretary end up in a casual situation and realise how different each looks out of the usual business suit. These are all familiar scenes or plots because it is often exactly at such moments that we see someone we had a fixed view of in a completely different light and have to reappraise our opinion of them; not just the surface looks, but a deeper understanding of their character. Modern romances are not simple enough to fall into a “clothes make the man/woman” cliché but a change of scene or situation can tell us a lot about both the character being seen in a new light, and the one doing the seeing.

I’ve blogged before with pictures of the same location in different seasons, that time I was trying to explore the way seemingly inconsequential memories can add depth to a character, how backstory can be given in fleeting glimpses rather than an info dump, or how the different things two characters see in a room can tell us about their background and expectations. Where I was planning to go this time was to reflect on my current manuscript where both protagonist have had their lives shaped by a key phrase – and by the end of the book they have come to see, or rather to hear, the words differently.

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This is of course something we writers try to do a lot, straightforward seeming conversations can be imbued with subtext for the other characters or for the reader who may already be party to a secret that one of the protagonists doesn’t yet know. I personally love it when a secret or something from the past is revealed and I go back to an earlier scene to reread it in the light of the new information and see a character’s reactions in a whole new light. It is again a crucial tool in giving insight into plot, conflict or motivation.

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I hope I handle it less clunkily than I am trying to explain it now. In my manuscript learning more about the background to the situation, or the people who said the words that shaped their lives is only the start of my character’s dilemma. How do they take that knowledge? If someone else’s words have been so important in shaping their lives, how will they now reshape themselves? A second glance, or fresh light on a familiar view can be refreshing, or terrifying if it reveals aspects we had no idea were there. Balancing the expected with the new, the known with the subtly altered is tricky enough in everyday life, let alone when it is with characters we have created and whose worlds we are turning upside down. But it is exhilarating and literally life changing for them.

Those last two pictures were taken on the same day, I came across them last week when I was looking for photos to illustrate the precise shade of green that I had been coughing up for weeks. I remember that mossy wall deep in Coed y Brenin forest and how the stones looked as soft and inviting as pillows. These were simply taken with different exposures or with and without flash, but they show two completely different scenes. In one the wall is as emerald as I remember it and the rest of the wood could be dressed in springtime. In the other the wall no longer catches your eye, it is the autumnal golds and russets that leap out at you, and the fairylike sparkles of rain caught in the camera’s glare. Each tells a different story, which would you rather read?

If a picture says a thousand words…. I apologise for the size of this blog

Or what we did on our holidays and why there was no blog post last week.

(Only after I posted this did I realise that if you click on any picture you get a slide show, useful when viewing on a phone – only if you’re interested of course :))

First days of sun and beach and gin.

The Roman Steps and shoes that gave up after 25 years.

Rain, waterfalls, misty cobwebs and bogs.

Gales and castles.

Burial Chambers, birds, bridges and beaches at dusk.

Goodbye Wales for another year.

Where orchids now grow

The sheared off wall of golden stone loomed out of the trees with no warning, its naked window frames reaching like broken fingers through strangling masses of ivy. A sight as abruptly alarming in this mist wreathed wood as a shark’s fin cutting through the surface of a boating pond.

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The first rule of exploring was that you veered off the main track at every fork or side turning. Most led to padlocked gates or narrowed into woodland paths barely big enough for a fox to follow. The second rule of exploring was that it was always the eldest sister who investigated first and she was already slipping her feet out of the stirrups and handing her reins to her younger sister. She too, however, was quick to dismount. It was easier to control two ponies from the ground and besides, it felt wrong to remain mounted while her sister was going exploring, even if the taste of chocolate in her mouth was suddenly making her feel sick.

“What is it?”

“A church, stupid.”

“Yes, but, why?”

She watched her sister pick her way carefully among gravestones tumbled like discarded dominoes, many were flat on the ground, others leaning precariously against their neighbours, barely any still intact.

She wanted to call out “Is it safe?” But since when had that been a concern for her sister? She looked up again at the end wall of the church, golden Cotswold stone turned wraith-grey in the drizzle and mist that coiled around the ruin in a duel with the choking ivy.

Earlier in the day the sun had made them curse the cheap, heavy waterproof coats they were wearing. The very first side track had led to a small cutting at the side of the path, as if someone had taken a giant ice cream scoop to the crumbling rock of the steep hillside. An old quarry said the younger girl and after loosening the ponies’ girths and taking off their coats she had searched for fossils among the tumbled limestone and primroses. Her sister had tugged old flimsy branches into the clearing, at first with the idea of making jumps for the ponies and then to form a barricade.

“We could come here often and untack the ponies, let them have a proper break while we explore.”

Images of picnics and adventures as in all her favourite pony books fired the younger sister and she joined in gathering armfuls of long brittle grass to leave to dry like hay for a future visit and patted it into comfy cushions on a ledge where they sat and ate their sandwiches, sharing the apple cores with the ponies and devouring Lion Bars.

The next clearing they found was directly on the main track, neatly stacked piles of wood showed it was for logging. The usual arguments ensued as the elder girl moved wood obviously intended for sale into improvised jumps and the younger one tried to measure the ground for a dressage arena. It was just large and flat enough to canter an egg shaped circle. After their own pony had had enough and tried to canter for home, and borrowed, tired old Sam gave up after half a circuit at a trot, they moved on into the denser woods.

The track wound up and down, never following the contour of the hill for long, they manged a few hare-brained canters with the ponies’ hooves squelching through mud or ringing out alarmingly loud where the path became stony. Gradually the track narrowed and a walk was as fast as they could go, the trees crowded in on either side and branches whipped their faces making them duck low over the ponies’ necks. The sun had withdrawn behind ominous clouds and the closer barricade of branches and leaves trapped the steamy air around them and made them sweat while they shivered.

The younger girl had suggested turning back several times. Her sense of direction was better and she knew if they came to a road it would be a long slow ride home, and if they didn’t come to a road they were definitely lost. And then came yet another side track on their right; narrow, twisting, yet very well worn.

Without a word, the elder sister urged her pony to scramble up the bank and then on through smaller scratchy shrubs, and then to a sudden halt.

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The wall in front of them was obviously that of a church. The tall pointed shape, the high arching windows even with no glass in them. One side wall joined it, the opposite one was a tumble of rubble, moss covered stones rolled among the drunken gravestones. There was no roof, and no slates scattered among the debris, roof beams lay crumbled in the interior of the church like the staved in ribs of a crushed animal.

“Your turn.”

While she had stood with their tired ponies she had felt annoyance at having to wait; now she felt no eagerness to explore. “Is here much to see?”

“Go and look.” There was the perennially frustrated voice of an older braver sister.  So she went, picking her way among the crumbling graves, craning her head to see the grey scudding clouds through the tree canopy, somehow looking everywhere but at the gutted church with its blind window frames that seemed instead to be watching her. No wind reached through the dense wood, yet the trees rustled and sighed behind her.

She finally peered through the doorway but couldn’t try to push past the piles of fallen masonry and saplings thrusting their way up the length of the nave. How long would a place have to be empty before plants took root, or pushed through the stone floor that must surely have been there?

Stepping back out into the wood she gulped in the moist air, and tasted smoke; through the trees she saw more walls and heard a dog. A cottage, as dark and dreary as the ruin, carved wooden eaves that belonged on a gingerbread cottage dripped dankly, drab curtains hid the inside, as if the grime covering the windows weren’t enough to shut out the dismal day.

She scurried back to her sister. “We should go.”

“Why?”

“Someone might see us.”

“And?”

“I don’t think we should be here.”

Her sister wanted to explore further but the dog barked again and they heard a door slam and soon were back in their saddles and hurrying to the main track. Without a word the older girl turned left and back home the way they had come, their thirst for exploring and adventure quenched for now, the warmth and comforting smell of damply steaming ponies gradually making everything normal again.

That evening they asked their parents if they knew about the church in the wood. They didn’t and had never walked that way, but the location rang a bell with their father. He searched a local history book and found reference to the grand house in the Ridings, built in the 1820s and pulled down a little over a century later in the 1930s, only the lodge houses and church in the woods being left. Their father remembered a friend from the pub who had talked about it and attended the auctions when the house was dismantled; he had bought some beams from the house to use in his farm’s barns.

A few days letter a very formal letter arrived telling the girls that their permit to ride in the nearby woods did not cover the Ridings. It was a shock. They had been seen by someone, and recognised. They had only recently discovered that they needed a permit for the other woods and knew that very few of their horse riding friends had bothered to apply for one; to now be chastised for their exploring seemed deeply unfair.

They never went back. Not with their ponies. Sometimes the younger sister would think of those armfuls of grass they had so eagerly and optimistically gathered to dry. It would all have blown or mouldered away, or maybe been used as nests by mice or birds.

Many years later they went that way again, with their parents, the jumping clearing had more coppiced wood stacked in it and they walked on, keen to reach the ruined church.

Which wasn’t there.

No stones, no beams, no carved window frame remained. Just a large stone cross on its side in a bank of earth to record the church that had once stood there. The cottage gleamed with fresh paint and a new conservatory and well-tended gardens that reached back into the woods where the graveyard had once been. Not one gravestone remained.

They were following a map, sure not to be caught out for trespassing or being off the beaten track. As they struck out across the fields that had once been the parkland for the vanished  country house the younger girl kept looking back, as if hoping to see one wall of the church still poking through the woods and beckoning her as it had years before.

They’ve walked that way once or twice since; it’s a picturesque if long way to a good country pub. One time the younger sister walked it with just her mother and they found bee orchids growing in the logging clearing. Brambles and saplings were reclaiming the cleared ground, the few piles of cut wood were crumbled and past being of any use except to hedgehogs and woodlice as a home. There wasn’t room to canter a circle now and she fleetingly wondered how many precious plants they had sliced apart with their long dead ponies’ steel shod hooves.

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She persuaded her mother to turn back soon after that, she couldn’t bear to walk past where the church that once frightened and awed her in the mist should have been.  Where long forgotten graves slept silently beneath the whispering branches. They took away all the gravestones, but what about the graves, what about the bodies?

She wishes they had been left to crumble, alone.