Thursday, 18 December 2014

New Year…new challenge..? Just don’t forget your trident!

By Lowri Roberts
Volunteer George Smith will be carving a trident that will be carried around the Welsh Coast.  Can you help?

We can’t supply a chariot or guarantee wall-to-wall sunshine but we can promise that you’ll take in miles of the beautiful Welsh coast equipped with a trident in hand and the knowledge you’re helping Neptune. 

So, what’s all this about we hear you asking? 

As we welcome 2015, we are  embarking on Wales-wide celebrations marking 50 years of the National Trust’s most successful campaign - the Neptune Coastline Campaign.  It’s been at the helm of coastal fundraising since 1965, allowing us to permanently protect over 100 miles of the Welsh coast. 

We’re looking for teams of volunteers to walk different sections of the Wales Coast Path to raise funds for our Coast Campaign. All we ask is that you carry a trident along with you.
Neptune’s trident is being carved specifically for the celebrations by George Smith, a volunteer who works at Glan Faenol near Bangor, Gwynedd. 

“I’ll be using locally sourced timber from the woodland along the shores of the Menai Strait to carve a three-pronged trident,” says George. 

 “I love working with natural materials and like a bit of a challenge. Sculpting such a unique relay baton will be my way of contributing to such a great cause,” adds George, who’s been volunteering here for over 5 years. 

Over the course of 2015, the aim is for the trident to be passed along the entire Welsh coast that takes in 157 miles of land we care for. 

Richard Neale, who’s managing the Welsh Coast Project is urging more people like George to do something special to celebrate our coastline in 2015.

“We are asking people to help us raise funds to enable us to create over 10km of new coastal paths in Wales in 2015.  These will connect the popular Welsh Coast Path with some of the finest wildlife sites that we look after and will include five new wildlife-watching hides and four new self-guided trails.”

If you’re up for the challenge please get in touch with Richard or Lowri before 31st Jan, noting how far you’d like to walk and which section you’d like to undertake.

Do something big in 2015.  Celebrate our Welsh Coast by walking your favourite section with Neptune's Trident.

Posted by Richard Neale
Those happy highways where we went.... The magical garden of Plas yn Rhiw, on the Llyn Penisnula
I always love visiting Plas yn Rhiw, the charming manor and garden that lies in wooded seclusion overlooking the great sweep of Porth Neigwl or Hell’s Mouth Bay on the Llŷn peninsula. I guess that most people who visit this, our most remote Welsh coastal property, fall under its spell within minutes of arriving. 

But to me, a visit has a double significance: I was lucky enough to work here for four years in my youth and, as the Welsh poet T. H. Parry-Williams remarked in Bro, one of his most well-known poems, Mae darnau ohonof ar wasgar hyd y fro. (There are fragments of me scattered about the place).

One of my tasks back then was to walk up through the woods to check the rather rudimentary water-supply in a fenced-off corner of a scrubby two-acre field. There was no reason for the few visitors who found their way to Plas yn Rhiw in those days to follow the mossy stone-walled cart-track through the woods to the field. It was just an ordinary field. Dotted with a few sheep and visited once in a while by the farmer, and me.

I suppose there’s a tendency to think as you get older that things were better in the old days. But the story of this field is a happy exception to that belief. Once it was the source of just spring water, now, thanks to the imagination of my successors, it’s the fount that provides a whole range of benefits to the area.

Two years ago pupils from the local primary school were invited to help plant an orchard here, under the expert eye of our gardener, Llifon Jones. A few weeks later, with 134 trees planted neatly in widely-spaced rows, local apple specialist and tree supplier Ian Sturrock visited and said that, with 32 Welsh varieties, this may be the biggest collection of its type anywhere. 

Inspecting the young apple trees, surrounded by a meadow buzzing with life
I recently met up with Llifon to see how the project was progressing. He told me that he’ll never forget the feeling of finding his first apple, growing on an Afal Enlli, Bardsey Apple. By now they can be collected by the sack-full and apple days are being planned where the community and visitors can press their own juice. They’ve already held a successful training event for local residents to learn how to prune their own trees. 

But it’s not been trouble-free. Llifon’s worst memory of the project came a few months ago when a herd of cattle got into the orchard. “It was such a shock” he said. “Many of the trees had been browsed and I was convinced that they would all die. Amazingly it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because they’ve sprouted new growth and look better than ever!”

Knowing that you get more fruit if you have plenty of bees to pollinate, Llifon approached the local apiarist, John Rhys Jones. The first beehive was placed in the orchard this spring and there are plans to capture swarms of wild bees that by tradition have always nested in the eaves at Plas yn Rhiw. John can then increase the number of hives and eventually supply truly local honey for the shop.

Another, unexpected benefit has been to the wildlife: the meadow has become exceptionally rich in wild flowers, with over a hundred common spotted orchids and numerous species of insect and butterfly thriving amongst the trees. 

After mowing in late summer, sheep will graze the meadow through the autumn – adding yet another benefit to the seemingly never-ending list of uses that this extraordinary field provides.

Plas yn Rhiw holds Snowdrop Days in late January or February.  Visit for more information.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The haunted fishing coves of Llyn

 by Richard Neale
Fishing from the rocks at Porth Ferin c.1967.  Who was the fisherman in the distance?
 I came across an old black and white photo of me the other day, aged about six or seven, fishing with my brother from the rocks at Porth Ferin on the Llŷn peninsula.  Dressed, rather comically in black oil-skins, complete with sou’wester hats, We're holding the wooden frames of hand-lines and next to us sits a bucket to hold the crabs that we’ve caught.  Over my shoulder you can clearly see a small white open fishing boat, some distance offshore, with the silhouette of a figure standing erect at the tiller.

As I pondered on when the photo was taken (probably 1967), it occurred to me that the distant figure was one of the last of a breed of subsistence fishermen who were still working out of the small coves of north Llŷn at that time.  These secluded inlets have provided shelter for small-scale fishing boats since time immemorial.  Over two centuries ago, Edmund Hyde Hall noted that, “The shore…is notched into several small creeks…in all of which ply the vessels engaged in the herring fishery, in pursuit of which they are said to frequently stretch over as far as the Irish coast”.

This provoked an interest in me to find out who the mysterious figure in the photo was, and where he lived.  The answer to both these questions came from a colleague.  Paul Lewis, one of the National Trust’s local Rangers told me that the figure was almost certainly “Owie Cae-Hic”.  In a land of few surnames, many people are universally known by the name of their home or birthplace, and Cae Hic – a simple crogloft cottage – sands on the deep lane that leads down to the isolated rocky cove of Porth Ferin.  Owie spent most of his time down at Y Borth, as he would have called it, repairing his boat, lobster pots and winch engine.

The land around the cove is too steep to take a vehicular track, so his boat had to be winched out of reach of the waves onto the grassy bank with a thumping stationary engine and an ingenious system of pulleys.  I found a photo of Owie taken in 1985 for a project to record the traditional fishermen of Llyn. Looking every bit the archetypal Llŷn smallholder of his time, with a weatherworn face, flat cap, jacket and buttoned-up shirt, he’s proudly holding a huge lobster, the like of which is rarely seen nowadays.
Owie Cae Hic.  Photo from
 So when a recent spell of warm weather inspired me to walk this stretch of coast, I visited several of these little coves, including Porth Ferin.  They remain as beautiful as they ever did but it was sad to see that all but a couple are now deserted, long-since abandoned as the ‘economies of scale’ and modern lifestyle needs made the modest self-sufficient life of the cottage fisherman untenable.  But the ghosts of Owie and his compatriots still haunt these shores.  You approach the coves along the impressions of their cart tracks and their winches, now still and seized with rust, stand as their silent memorials.
Porth Ferin.  Photo from
 Thankfully, some of their clinker-built timber boats have survived and are lovingly maintained – and sailed – by their descendants in the Aberdaron area.  Two of these boats, which were built locally to a unique design, are in the care of the National Trust and await funds for restoration.  We also have worked with the community and local authority to set up the Blas y Môr local seafood festival, which goes from strength to strength.  Although the likes of Owie will no longer be seen in the background of our sea-views, their spirit lives on.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Wales Coast Path Provides an Opening

It must have been about two years ago when I found myself staring at a brick wall in a woodland near Bangor.  There was nothing metaphorical about this eight foot high wall, which defiantly encloses the seven-mile boundary of the once-mighty Faenol Estate.  What made the scene somewhat surreal is that I was looking at a bricked-up doorway which had brought my walk to an abrupt halt. 

John, with the bricked-up doorway in 2012
I was in the company of my colleague John Whitley, who has looked after the 300-acre National Trust part of the estate for the last 20 years.   He was lamenting the fact that the newly-opened Wales Coast Path was not running through this doorway and along the estate’s wonderful coastline, where there was already a good path.  The reason for this was that the neighbouring landowners were not in favour of allowing the path across their land, forcing a rather unsatisfactory inland diversion.  We commented wryly on the irony that a wall once built to “keep pheasants in and peasants out”, was now keeping people in.

Imagine my delight therefore at finding myself standing the other day at that same spot to inspect the doorway again, this time opened up and sporting a fine new gate.  Thankfully, the neighbours’ concerns have been overcome and the path, which now runs through the doorway, is in the process of being opened in sections across the Trust’s land to the village of Y Felinheli.
What a transformation!  The new gate was made by Joe Roberts, Access Policy Officer and part-time blacksmith.
This relatively minor breakthrough is just one in an ongoing process of refinement to the line of the Wales Coast Path, as it gradually finds its ideal coastal alignment.  Of course, there are still a number of industrial, military, agricultural and other impediments (some of which are – paradoxically – gated visitor attractions) to be resolved before the route is continuously coastal, but…all in good time.

As we recently celebrated the path’s second anniversary, and the fact that it has rapidly become one of the wonders of Wales, I pondered on what part the National Trust has to play in its success.  It was after all a Welsh Government initiative, overseen by its environmental advisor, the Countryside Council for Wales, now part of Natural Resources Wales, and maintained by 16 local authorities.  Well, firstly there’s the fact that our 133 coastal properties in Wales – built up gradually over 120 years – were already open to the public, often with good paths in place.  These were the stepping stones that helped make the opening of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path possible back in in 1970.  The success of this initiative more recently led to the creation of coast paths for Ceredigion, Anglesey and Llŷn – each crossing stretches of accessible Trust-owned coast.  These in turn became the stepping stones that enabled the creation of the Wales Coast Path in 2012.  Then there’s the fact that the path has also inspired us to create shorter link paths, allowing walkers to enjoy circular walks based on the coast path, adding significantly to its attraction.  After all, 95% of us who use the path follow it on short sections.
Our 60 miles of accessible coastline in Pembrokeshire helped make Wales' first coastal National Trail possible back in 1970
 But I suggest that the greatest benefit that our national coast path has brought, perhaps even greater than the boost it has bought to the wider Welsh economy (£32m last year), is that it has done much to reinvigorate our more isolated coastal communities. Away from the traditional busy seaside resorts, the beauty of the smaller coastal villages often masks the joint ills of lack of jobs and the flight of youth to the cities.  I wonder if the newly-opened doorway at Glan Faenol does after all have a metaphorical meaning. 

For more information about Joe Roberts' gates, click here

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Welsh Coast's Woodland Wonders

Wind-pruned tree at Gallt y Bwlch. Ancient woods like these are the wildlife 'crown jewels' of Wales.  Print by friend and relative, Tina Neale

What do you see when you think of the Welsh coast?

I bet the first image that comes to your mind is a sandy beach or a bare windswept rocky headland.  These are the places that have the strongest attraction for most of us, with their powerful sense of airy openness and boundless freedom.  

            But I was reminded the other day of the importance of our coastal woods; often tucked into the sheltered, shady nooks and crannies of our coastline.  I was listening to a talk about how rare, rich and often unjustly overlooked this is as a wildlife habitat. I learnt that the special combination of a mild moist microclimate and reflected light from the nearby expanse of water creates communities of plants and animals which are subtly different from ones you find inland.  I noted with some pride that several of these distinctly maritime woodlands are in the care of the National Trust, including the wooded fringes of the Menai Strait, the hanging oak woods of Snowdonia’s Glaslyn and Maentwrog valleys; Ceredigion’s Cwm Soden woods, Pembrokeshire’s Stackpole and Cleddau woodlands to name just a few.

The speaker then mentioned a particularly special wood – adjacent to the National Trust land at Pistyll on the north coast of the Llŷn peninsula – known as Gallt y Bwlch.  He explained that this mysterious wood, unusually rich in hazel, may be a tiny fragment of a sort of Celtic fringe of woodland that clothed the coastal slopes of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall in prehistoric times.  As he put it, “in its structure and species composition Gallt y Bwlch has an affinity with remote woods found on Scotland’s west coast”.  

I was fascinated to hear this, as Gallt y Bwlch, with its tangle of gnarled wind-pruned trees, is one of my favourite places, They’re so bonsai-like that you can sometimes pop your head above the canopy and imagine yourself a giant.  But it’s the fact that this wood features in a family story passed down from my father that makes it doubly special to me.  My great grandfather, Robert Baum used to visit this wood each autumn in the 1940s, after he retired as a foreman at the nearby granite quarry.  The purpose of the visit was to pick hazelnuts to be boxed up and sent to his daughter, my Nain, and her family in Nuneaton.  Into the box he put a nut-cracker, which he had carved in the wood with a penknife.  I imagine that my Nain would feel a stir of hiraeth, as she opened this little reminder of her birthplace in the far west.
My great grandfather, Robert Baum, is in the front row,  3rd from the right.  He used to collect hazelnuts in Gallt y Bwlch, to send to my Nain in Nuneaton
The speaker bought me back with a jolt as he mentioned the need to better protect all our coastal woods.  It seems they are suffering from the same harmful effects as inland native woods.  They are too fragmented, plagued by introduced invasive species and are harmed by nutrient run-off from intensively-farmed land.  We must do more to protect, extend and join up these priceless fragments.  Many of them have survived for at least 400 years, meaning that they are classed as ancient woodlands, the ‘crown jewels’ of our countryside.  This is potentially the richest habitat on land and deserves to make up more of Wales than the current paltry level of just under five per cent.   

The talk has inspired me to pay homage to our coastal woods, and to follow in my great grandfather’s footsteps to Gallt y Bwlch next autumn, making sure that I take my penknife with me.

[Article first appeared in Welsh Coastal Life Magazine.]