Thursday, February 26, 2015

The long road to Donegal

The Poisoned Glen

The choice was a short crossing to Dun Laoghaire from Holyhead or an eight hour trip on a lorry transport vessel from Liverpool. Eighty quid for two passengers, a car and all you can eat from the rolling buffet. Being a dyed in the wool cheapskate I  ignored the protestations from my partner who was rightly concerned about arriving late in Ireland and plumped for the latter. We rolled up at the Liverpool waterfront at a civilised late morning hour and I drove the Skoda up the ramp and parked up . Looking down from the bridge, the red Octavia stood out like a sore thumb. The only car to be seen amongst a sea of lorries and car transporters. Still...think of all that money we were saving and why not begin immediately to avail ourselves of the breakfast bar which even now was being loaded up by the ship’s galley staff with all manner of greasy spoon fare. Guaranteed to satisfy the hungriest trucker whilst knocking about five years off his life and putting about twelve pounds on his waist.

Looking over the smorgasbord of bacon, hash browns, black puddings, sausages, beans and eggs, I remembered someone telling me about the American tourist who went into Frank’s Cafe- a legendary dockers caff close to our embarkation point- and asking if they had a vegetarian option? “ Yes...we do have an option for vegetarians...they can fuck off!!!’ 

By late afternoon, the ship was in sight of Dun Laoghaire but it would be early evening before we could disembark and then we had to get out of Dublin and drive across Ireland to the wilds of Donegal. October with the short days and long nights was perhaps not the best time to organise a climbing trip to the north west of Ireland. I had been planning to explore Donegal for some time now. Seduced by tales of great soaring cliffs and romantic villages set in an area that was still a relative backwater. My old friend the veteran climber, Harold Drasdo was the first climber to explore and make first ascents on Ireland’s biggest cliff above The Poisoned Glen in the early 1950’s with his brother Nev. His activities and reports back to the mainland brought the great and good of the era out to the Glen to see for themselves, including hot shots like Alan Austin and Chris Bonington.

A young Harold Drasdo in Donegal

For myself and climbing partner Martin Davies, it sounded just our cup of tea. Long mountaineering routes on the great buttresses of the Glen and apres crag, we could investigate the bars of the local quaint fishing villages. Perhaps availing ourselves of freshly caught lobster, soda bread kneaded by the fair hands of a local  flame haired colleen and Poteen, distilled locally to a recipe handed down from father to son for centuries.

By the time we rolled off the ship it was after seven. Dublin appeared to be in the middle of a massive transport project. Was it a road or rail system? Whatever it was it was causing massive disruption and gridlocked and with blood pressure rising by the minute, we contemplated arriving at our Irish Youth Hostel destination at some ungodly hour. Driving on unfamiliar roads across Ireland in the dark was the price we paid for not taking the more expensive Holyhead option when we would have reached Dublin midday, enabling us to roll up at the hostel in the late afternoon-early evening.

Stopping at a phone box, I managed to reach the warden who in typically relaxed manner told us ‘no worries..O’ill leave der door open fur ya’. It was one in the morning when we eventually arrived.

Next morning dawned unfair; showery rain interspersed with brief flashes of sunshine. Still, it was enough to make us pack our rucksacks and head off into the peaty outer reaches of the Poisoned Glen. Hoping that by lunchtime we would be strung out on some classic route. An October sun beating down on our backs and a wheel of crows cawring our progress up the pale flanks of the cliff. Sadly it was not to be. We arrived in a soft drizzle with the rock painted  in a glistening sheen. Martin who was suffering with knee problems was not impressed nor enthused enough to tackle even a gentle V Diff. We turned around and headed out.

The cliffs of the Poisoned Glen resemble some of north Wales’s unfrequented backwaters, if the scale is a little bigger. Places like Yr Diffwys on Moel Hebog, The Craig Ysfa cliffs, some of the Mid Wales cliffs for example. In a way, coming here was certainly a bit of a bus-man’s holiday. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of big rambling vegetated cliffs back home!

Using the guidebook Harold Drasdo had gave me, we drove around the area looking for some more accessible crags that we might climb on which might be in condition, but every inland crag was pretty much the same. Dank and vegetated. We’re not having much luck here, still at least there are the quaint fishing villages and the surrounding countryside to explore.

The elegant Mount Errigal near the hostel appeared to have a Wind Farm planted on its flank. At least from memory I think it was Errigal?  Whichever mountain it was, you had to question why the politicians and planners allowed a wind farm to be sited on a unique mountain? However, entering Bunbeg which Harold had described as being a quiet little fishing village in his day-this is going back fifty years- the random spawl rather answered my question regarding planning laws. Here we were- in the middle of the Celtic Tiger boom era- and it appeared the planning laws had been ripped up and house building was being carried out along laissez faire lines.  Everywhere there were ‘Land for Sale’ signs and ugly modern dwellings were being thrown up.

I’d seen this in Northern Scotland where traditional crofts and houses are being jettisoned in favour of modern bungalows and houses. Leaving villages speckled with empty traditional properties alongside new builds.

Coming from Wales which has strict planning laws which seek to protect and preserve the vernacular architecture, it appeared that in rural Ireland, it was every man for himself with the planners and politicians on an extended holiday. Later I was told from friends in Dublin that in many parts of rural Ireland, The planners, politicians, builders and developers all drink in the same bar if you catch my drift!

Bunbeg in the late 1940's...before the Celtic Tiger got its claws into it.

Our three day trip was-from a climbing perspective-a total disaster. We did play a lot of pool and drink a lot of Smethwicks; met some nice people and I did catch old friends in Howth near Dublin on the way home. However, I had to report back to the old Bradford Lad that our trip had sadly come to naught.

Not longer after, I wrote in a similar vein to this piece, about the perceived shortcomings of Donegal climbing compared to the mecca that is North Wales and not surprisingly, provoked the ire of local climbers who understandably, are extremely protective of their local cliffs and traditions.

Looking back it was undoubtedly the wrong time in the year to go with the wrong partner who was not in good nick and who would soon give up climbing because of his knee problems, and certainly, as far as travelling over there was concerned, the wrong embarkation point. I imagine climbing in the Poisoned Glen or on the sea cliffs of Donegal on a fine summer’s day must be a totally different experience. Who knows...I might get back there someday?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

ITV Wales 'The Mountain' : Summit of televisual creativity?

It's Snowdonia Jim...but not as we know it!

I blogged a week or so back about an upcoming documentary on Welsh commercial TV called ‘The Mountain’ which rather all too predictably focused on Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon). As I expected, the first episode was pretty dull fare which offered every cliché in the book. At least the farming lady in Nant Gwynant referred to her land as ‘her office’ and not as farmers are wont to do, refer to it as her ‘factory floor’, and of course mountain rescue guy repeated the mantra,‘we’re all volunteers’ for the hundredth time in a TV programme featuring an MRT.  The Park Ranger enthused about the number of people attracted to a mountain- ‘Trail magazine calls the busiest mountain in the world!’  Somehow this was slotted into a section which referred to the mountain as ‘a Last Wilderness’. A concept of wilderness unfamiliar to most mountain lovers?  He then told us that in some countries, people are forced out of national parks by the state to preserve its ecological integrity. I’m not familiar with any  country enacting a form of ecologically based ethnic cleansing of its inhabitants but perhaps  he’s right and there are some countries which encourage a form of population control in wilderness areas?

In a way this was an extended episode of BBC 1’s Countryfile. Wholesome enthusiasm in spades, nice views, and nothing controversial to rock the boat. It’s hard to imagine that in future episodes the programme makers will tackle subjects like the controversial spate of hydro electric schemes suddenly taking off around the massif; the unnatural ecology of the mountain through intensive sheep grazing; the social impact on local communities strongly reliant on seasonal employment; the continuing  lack of a right to roam on the mountain. (See Dog Day Afternoon)..etc. 

Someone I know on the social media who lives near Snowdon referred to the mountain as a ‘sacrificial lamb’ which serves a positive role in the way it acts as a magnet for those coming into the national park and keeps them away from the quiet, off the beaten track areas of Snowdonia. Particularly in its southern  fringes where you can still ascend certain mountains on a summer’s bank holiday and have them to yourself. Ditto the climbing cliffs of mid-Wales and even northern Snowdonia which rarely see a soul from one year to the next.

I can see that argument for sure. Snowdon as Hyde Park or Coney Island. A ‘Kiss me Quick’ mountain stripped of magic and mystery but serving a useful role as a mountain theme park. 

But back to the TV programme. Despite it being ‘twelve months in the life of Snowdon’ I couldn’t detect any structure in the first episode. I was expecting the programme to start in winter with its focus on the usual snow and ice related topics but it just flitted about without any discernible coherent structure?  What season was this supposed to be or was it supposed to be a ram-jam of talking heads? Was there a theme? Not one that I could detect. 

Oh Well...only five episodes to go and the only way is up I suppose; although it will probably be via the Snowdon railway!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

As seen on TV. bringing mountains to the masses

Wish you weren't here! Yr Wyddfa gets 'raped by affection'!

On UK TV, mountain based programmes are like buses. You wait years for one to come along then three come along at once! A few weeks ago on BBC4 we had Terry Abrahams’ beautifully filmed 'Life of a Mountain'. Centred around the people who live, work or just visit England’s highest mountain, Scafell. Around the same time, the BBC in Scotland were putting out something along the same lines which focused on the Cairngorms.

This had to be one of the most pointless and boring mountain based TV programmes I’ve ever seen. Now, here in Wales we are about to get our own life of a mountain series which uses Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) as its focus of a six part series simply called ‘The Mountain’. A series which we are told.... “ follows a year in the life of Snowdon and  sheds some light on the people who live and work on Britain’s busiest mountain, and help to maintain what is a major tourist attraction’

So...that sounds nothing like the BBC Scotland programme called ‘The Mountain’ which  follows a year in the life of...... or ‘Life of a Mountain’ which follows a year in the life of........

It’s impossible not to be depressed at the lack of imagination shown by those who make these sort of programmes in the way they just can’t look beyond the predictable clichéd criteria which appears to dictate just what it is the commissioning editors demand. It has to be ‘the highest’ or ‘the busiest’. It has to be a mountain that even the most sedentary coach potato has heard of and it has to include a predictable cast of lovable outdoor types, from gnarly shepherds to enthusiastic  MRT bods, cafe owners to wacky charity walkers.

I guess that its entirely understandable that the TV executives who fund these films will be less likely to throw money at a project if it was centred on say Rhobell Fawr or even the Arans , but from an environmental or artistic perspective, the backwaters of our mountain regions offer a far richer palette to paint a realistic picture of a living mountain than by predictably plumping for an mountain equivalent to the Trafford Centre!

All we want now is Julia Bradbury or Ben Fogle to do what TV people generally do in these sort of programmes; that is, try and round up some sheep, abseil down a rock face, work in the kitchen of a mountain hotel where they will set fire to a frying pan; collect litter with a voluntary anorak, be an engine driver on the Snowdon railway, meet a geologist or biologist under a dank cliff, struggle to control a wantaway OS map and comment on the ‘amazing view’ or ‘horrendous rain’.

No...I don’t think the film makers will be descending on Dduallt any time soon!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Dutch energy company casts its spell over Merlin's grave!

Storm clouds over Mwdwl Eithin:Identified as the site of Myrddyn (Merlin's) grave and the location of a soon to be developed 11 turbine wind farm owned by Dutch company Nuon.

And up to that time he was called an ap y lleian and after that he was called Merdyn because he was found in Caer Vrdryn (Caer Fyrddyn). According to ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig', Caer Fyrddyn is so named because it had been built by a ‘myriad of men’-Myrddyn is the Welsh word for myriad.

Myrddyn was subsequently rendered into Latin as Merlin......

Chapter 5: Merlin and Uther Pendragon ‘The Keys to Avalon’ Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd.

The historical figure who has been identified by historians as being the inspiration behind Merlin of Arthurian legend was in modern terms, a shaman or healer. A figure who in those days of future past was seen as someone blessed with magical powers.(Prif dewin Merddin Embrais-Chief Magician Myrddyn Emrys.)... 'Stanza of Graves'. In recent years this real life 6th century figure has seen his place of birth and final place of rest identified by historians using ancient Welsh manuscripts.

Born, it appears, in the area around what is now the attractive little mid Wales border town of Montgomery and buried on the bare heights of Mwdwl Eithin or as it was known as in the past, Cader Dinmael in north east Wales.( Note: there are two Mwdwl Eithins (Mountain of the Gorse) hereabouts within a few miles of each other)  This 1500’ peak is part of the sprawling  Hiraethog uplands which spread across from the Snowdonia National Park in the north to the Vale of Clwyd, The Arenigs and the Berwyns in the south, east and west.
Unfortunately, this beautiful  and sparsely populated area has been identified by politicians and their corporate masters as a perfect area for wind farm development.

Several wind farms have already been built and many more are in the pipeline. It's remarkable how in environmental terms the ‘rush for wind’ is reminiscent of the ‘rush for water’ which in the early sixties, led to the destruction of the village of Capel Celyn and the flooding of an exquisite valley which had inspired artists of international renown.(See The Drowning Season)
As the crow flies, Capel Celyn is no more than six or seven miles from Mwdwl Eithin, however both locations have fallen under the dark spell of human greed and ignorance. You see, the site identified as that of Merlin’s grave is soon to be trashed by bulldozers and heavy plant machinery. Tracks will be gouged out of the earth; massive flat bed lorries will spin and churn their way up the mountainside, laden with massive steel shafts and turbine heads. Borrow pits or quarries will be opened up and power lines, sub stations and service roads will blight the land.

A toxic perfect storm which consists of a greedy absentee landowner who owns a huge swathe of the mountain, the bovine subservience of local politicians under the thumb of the regional and London governments, and the unquenchable greed of a profit driven company-in this case the Dutch company Nuon- which will see ‘Merlin’s Mountain’ dotted with the latest generation of super turbines. 

The nearby German owned Wern Ddu Wind Farm. High on wide ranging visual impact-low on actual energy output.

It’s a damning indictment of western societies how little value we place on our heritage, culture and history and how much emphasis we place on profit. In any civilized society, these places would be cherished and protected, but  sadly, our politicians are simply fixated on the dynamics of our free market economy. In Orwellian terms ‘Profit= good’ , ‘unprofitable amenity (i.e.wilderness)= bad’.
The irony is of course is that these wind farms will produce no local jobs and apart from throwing a few grand at the local community council, they will bring no economic reward for local communities. They will of course bring rich rewards in terms of dividends for the shareholders of these mostly foreign based companies. Little wonder that, drunk on subsidies and with the local, regional and national legislatures and most of the media in their pocket, these hugely profitable companies can blitz their way across the wild places of the UK suffering  only the very occasional planning rejection.

Whether or not you believe the Arthurian legend is based on real life figures and events- and I for one I’m willing to accept that fanciful elements like Excalibur aside, the legend has a basis of truth- the fact remains that the legend is part of our culture and heritage. Politicians and the boardroom chums they serve, really have no moral right to bulldoze our fragile open spaces, either in the blatant pursuit of profit or in the deluded belief that they are actually acting in an ‘green’ and environmentally friendly manner. 

Myrddyn must be turning in his grave!