Thursday, March 26, 2015

All that Glitters is Garnet's Gold

The documentary Garnet’s Gold’, re-titled ‘The Lost Gold of the Highlands’ on BBC , was a brilliantly filmed feature surrounding the strange life and times of one Garnet Frost. A late fifty-something Londoner who, never having married or lived with a partner, had stayed with his mum in a state of splendid artistic dishevelment in a comfortable semi in that anonymous London sprawl which John Betjemen referred to as ‘Metroland’.

For reasons not quite explained, Garnet had paid his first visit to the Scottish Highlands twenty years previously and somehow found himself wandering the midge infested bounds of Lock Arkaig where he found himself tumbling down a ravine; coming to rest on the shores of a fast flowing small river which would enter the Loch further down. Lodged in one of the bank side rocks was a curious gnarled staff. It’s possible significance lost on the finder who starving, cold and dehydrated lapsed into a state of semi consciousness; prepared to accept the inevitability of death.

By a million to one chance he was rescued by a passing stalker and his return to civilisation coincided with his discovery of the legend of Prince Charlie’s Gold. During the Jacobite rebellion, funds in the form of gold bullion was brought over from the continent to financially underpin the campaign. However, defeat at Culloden saw the booty carted hither and thither across the Highlands until-legend has it-it was hidden someone near the shores of Loch Arkaig.

The bothy near Lock Arkaig: Walking Highlands 
Before the focus moves oop north, Garnet’s life with his 90 year old mother and friends is developed through talking head interviews and footage showing his predilection for beer, fags, dancing and crooning at the local boozer. As great outdoors activists go, Garnet is just about as far away from the norm as you can get.

Without any discernible means of income, our hero somehow manages to get himself an old Land Rover Discovery, a small boat and a weather balloon with a camera attachment and takes off with two friends for whom the wilds of Scotland are as alien to their suburban comfort zone as the jungles of the Congo!

Staying at the old bothy, Garnet takes off alone into the wild. His apparel refreshingly logo free and looking as if it was bought from an army and navy stores in the 1960's.His face quietly erupting into a midge bitten visage of swollen red skin. His bare legs inviting every tick in the area to climb aboard.
Ed Perkins captures it beautifully with some truly stunning footage; all taken apparently, on a single camera by the director himself.

Certainly well worth checking out. It might even still be on BBC iPlayer as we speak. Available in the UK only.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Mountain Bandit Routes

The term Bandit Run, is generally a term used by paddlers to describe river trips where there are access problems with landowners and anglers and paddlers have to boldly do the run and be damned. Often facing abuse and even physical violence from those on the river bank. The trip down the River Dee (The Welsh one) between Bala and Llangollen is a notorious bandit run which I’ve done once. And a beautiful stretch of river it is and its criminal that it’s not a public right of way. In fact-as I’ve mentioned on a blog before- only 8% of English and Welsh rivers do enjoy open and free public access.

Despite the general public enjoying a greater degree of open access in the mountains and countryside in general, there are still many peaks where access is problematic. Yesterday I walked up the modest peak of Garn Prys; technically an Arenig outlier on the very edge of the Snowdonia national park, this little 1700 peak is a fine hill which stands in isolation from its neighbouring peaks and which has a unique geological make up. A sub strata of an attractive purple slate is overlaid by a strange conglomerate rock which outcrops across the summit. Obviously the result of volcanic upheaval aeons past, this granite like rock suggests a Cornish moor or sea cliff. Unique in Wales in my experience.

Approaching Garn Prys via a bridleway to the south

When I first mentioned a trip up Garn Prys I was told about access problems and angry farmers chasing walkers off the hill. A quick perusal of an OS map confirms that there are no public paths up the hill. I eventually sneaked up on the hill from the west. Walking up Blaen y Cwm to the saddle at Foel Frech; looking around for farmers; cocking my ear for the sound of a quad bike and then legging it until I was out of sight!

Yesterday’s ascent was more leisurely. Following a pleasant bridleway until it reached the road then the aforementioned ritual was re-enacted before another lung busting push to reach a point where I was out of sight. Sure enough, fences had to be climbed as there are no stiles of gates to enable access to the upper reaches.

It still strikes me as a strange state of affairs when there are peaks in Wales-and presumably England-where there is no recognized access and you have to undertake a bandit run to gain the top. It’s certainly not uncommon to find upland areas like this without public rights of way. Looking at a hillwalking site, its log book records a fair few ascents of Garn Prys but the comments suggest total confusion as to routes up the hill, with clambering across farm land and scaling fences pretty common.

It’s certainly an issue which demands the full attention of the Welsh Assembly which has shown a greater willingness to action progressive policies than the Westminster establishment. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Narrowboating: The long and winding water road

Timothy West and Prunella Scales: Raging against the dying of the light.Photo Telegraph

Narrowboats don’t exactly fall into 'the great outdoors' category but for a long time now I’ve had a fascination with the boats themselves and the entire history and culture surrounding what we used to just call barges. Barges themselves are a distinct vessel to the narrowboat, being a broader commercial craft common along main rivers like the Thames. The Narrowboat itself was also at one time a commercial boat, used for hauling everything from timber to coal around the country before the roads killed off the commercial potential. The positive effect of this commercial change however, was the transformation of the humble narrowboat into a recreational craft and a low cost floating home. 

Before the great boom in recreational boating however, the narrowboats fall from favour saw many of our English and Welsh canals fall into disuse and total disrepair. Especially those canals passing through the great towns and cities where the passing of traditional industries which used the canals to transport goods and materials, heralded a transformation which saw the waterways become rubbish filled, weed infested collapsing open sewers!

Thankfully, the canals had its individual champions and visionaries who with the help of volunteers and the cooperation of the British Waterways, dragged these derelict stretches back to life. Amongst those fine upstanding people were the most unlikely of canal volunteers, two of our finest thespians, Timothy West and his wife Prunella Scales.

At the moment Channel 4 is following a series it launched a year ago with a follow up featuring the said actors. I certainly consider it a televisual gem amongst a sea of dross;or should it be a waterway of dross? Apart from the fact that it is beautifully filmed and put together, the programme shows the incredible spirit of two venerable soul mates (Timothy West is 81 and Pru Scales in 83) raging against the dying of the light. Prunella Scales is in the early stages of dementia yet it doesn’t stop her clambering along lock gates and putting her back into heaving them open while her husband takes on the master and commander role on the tiller. Even if he does bounce off the odd passing narrowboat and retaining wall!

By some strange quirk, ITV are also showing a celebrity/narrowboat programme at the moment featuring ex news reporter John Sergeant- ‘Boating around Britain’. Sadly, in contrast to Channel 4’s programme which features two long time narrowboat enthusiasts, The ITV programme falls into the celebrity/travelogue dross category which the channel  appears  to specialize in. John Sergeant is amenable enough, but is so wet and effeminate you can’t imagine he’s ever done anything more taxing than watch cricket. Unlike the grizzled and determined octogenarians on 4, Sergeant gives the impression that he’s a metropolitan fish out of water. Not helped when he emerges on deck in a white bath robe, delicately holding a china tea cup!

Alas, Narrowboating looks like being one of those many interests that I'll never be able to fully experience even if I am prone to tell young people especially,that if I was in their shoes, I'd buy an old narrowboat, do it up and take off into the wide blue yonder.

There’s some great books out there about life on a narrowboat and the vessels place in our history and culture. Amongst these are Tom Rolt’s classic Narrowboat and Paul Gogarty’s canal odyssey, The Water Road.


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Tangled up in Blue

they have it all so do not cry,
their skulls are made of lead.
black patent souls they ride the road 
and leave behind the dead 

Fedrico Garcia Lorca

It was a walk I’d done many times. A pleasant upland trod taking in several little cairned tops no more than 1500’ above sea level. As I approached what would have been the final peak which is marked by a memorial cairn, I was brought up short by the sight of a mature dead fox hanging from his jaw from the stock fencing which defines the grazing fields and forestry plantation. It was a grim sight to behold. The magnificent mature creature had obviously been frantically trying to escape the wire noose and in a desperate act, had been trying to bite through the fence. A small sapling close to the fence, displayed the signs of the struggle with torn bark showing the pale core of the tree.

It was a pitiful sight for most people to witness, not least anyone who counts themselves as an animal lover. It may come as a surprise to most people but the snaring of wild animals is not illegal in the UK. In fact you can buy snares on eBay and You-Tube videos will show you how to make a home made snare and how to set them. You can also watch blood lust videos made by these huntin-shootin cretins to sate their depravity.Thankfully, 95% of the population would be rightly appalled by animal cruelty and shun graphic videos aimed to shock or gratify this minorities’ perverted taste for violence and cruelty.

There’s a well rehearsed mantra which the landowner/gamekeeping/hunting fraternity trots out to justify its medieval practices; that it is all about vermin control. Unfortunately pet dogs, cats and protected species fall under this dark umbrella with many of these animals being snared or poisoned. Yes, foxes have been known to take a lamb but as someone who has kept sheep and who is familiar with the reality of sheep farming I can tell you that the lambing season sees a high mortality rate. Particularly in a cold spring when the fields can be littered with dead lambs and ewes who are particularly vulnerable when they are pregnant or have given birth. Given the smorgasbord on offer, foxes don’t have to go to the trouble of pursuing a healthy live lamb. Given farmers habits of exaggerating their sheep count to gain greater subsidies, I would suggest that this practice would more than financially compensate for any lambs killed by foxes!

Yes, foxes take poultry which again, I have experienced when I kept chickens and ducks but then, how can this justify garroting such a magnificent creature?  Unfortunately, as we saw in the foot and mouth epidemic in 2002, the Westminster governments, particularly those of a Tory hue, are very much in the pocket of the farming/landowning lobby. In that outbreak, the Blair government was prepared to let the tourist industry-which contributes eight times as much to our GDP as agriculture- suffer a catastrophic financial shortfall in order to appease the farming lobby. With the countryside locked down, many shops, hotels and suppliers, went to the wall as the government went out of its way to offer financial compensation to farmers and landowners.

This state of affairs is an example of how out of touch Westminster and the regional governments are with public opinion. A referendum on banning practices like the snaring of wild animals would see a huge 90% + majority in favour of a ban. The cry of course would go up about townies not understanding country ways except, for the fact that a huge number of country dwellers these days are an educated and enlightened constituency who have moved to the country and who are far more familiar with rural ecology, local history and issues like intensive grazing of the uplands and its impact on ecological diversity, than the many so called 'country folk' who remain rooted in their subsidy gorged ignorance.

Yes- snaring, shooting and trapping are part and parcel of country life, but so was ducking witches and hanging miscreants at the cross roads at one time. Barbarism is barbarism however you dress it up and there should be no place for animal cruelty in a civilized society in the 21st century.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Wind farm giant-a global polluter chasing the 'green' buck

Ancient Tumulus: Clocaenog Forest.

Those environmentalist like myself who see the headlong ‘rush for wind’ as a profit driven scam, would not be at all surprised to learn that one of Europe's biggest energy companies, the German giant RWE corporation who are currently trashing Clocaenog Forest to construct a huge 33 turbine wind farm. A development which will have a devastating impact on wildlife, the destabilization of the water table leading to potential flooding and loss of amenity for locals and visitors to the forest-are also one of Europes biggest investors in coal power. 

The website Facing Finance reports that.... “RWE is continuing to invest heavily in coal power plants, currently operating 15 (11 in Germany, 2 in the UK and 2 in the Netherlands). Many of these are more than 40 years old and 11 of them burn lignite, which creates more carbon emission than hard coal. RWE is also building a new coal fired power plant in Hamm, North Rhine Westphalia and another in Eemshaven in the Netherlands. RWE has built two new units for the lignite-fuelled plant in Neurath, Germany in 2014 and is pressing ahead with plans to build another in Niederhaussem close to the German border with Belgium. Lignite is mainly produced in opencast mines, which demands the opening up of large areas. This has a devastating impact on the environment and in many cases whole villages need to be resettled.’

Facing Finance describe themselves as an organisation which ‘calls on investors not to invest in companies profiting from violations of human rights, environmental pollution, corruption or the production of controversial weapons.’

The hugely profitable wind industry fueled by generous publicly funded subsidies, has attracted many investors from the so called ‘dirty energy’ sector. Including those whose business interests include coal, gas and oil. The UK’s Channel 4 News recently uncovered the latest scam which sees those running larger turbines which produce more power, tweeking their turbines so they produce less power to take advantage of the higher subsidies which small turbines attract. Channel 4’s science reporter noted that this wheeze will see the energy companies making an extra £2m per turbine in a twenty year period.  An action which totally confirms that wind turbine construction is not about creating ‘clean energy’ and reducing Co2 emissions but all about creating profits for shareholders and land owners.

Facing Finance report RWE’s energy investments confirms the company as a leading global polluter and contributor of emissions.  Writing that  “ RWE ranks in the global top 10 utilities with the highest carbon emissions and one of the highest in Europe. Other research has classified RWE as number six responsible for emissions attributed to coal and as number 11 with regard to cumulative global industrial emissions between 1751 and 2010, being Germany’s CO2 emitter number 1.

Wind’s a dirty business alright!