That’s ‘cricket’ in Welsh, since the first Ashes test is being held in Cardiff. Assuming the rain holds off long enough for them to play, that is: it’s certainly not very promising in London, but of course it hardly ever rains in Wales.

Come on, England.

Bird of the Year 2008: best performances in a supporting role

I know it’s getting slightly late for yearly round-up posts, but hey-ho.

Best Plant

The wildflowers on the cliff-tops in Wales were quite something: gorse, foxgloves, bluebells, red campion, sea campion, thrift, kidney vetch, burnet rose, dodder, spring squill, centaury, ox-eye daisies, cowslips. It really was spectacular. So it’s really just a matter of picking a species. I was actually tempted by bluebell, because although it is a fairly common flower and I see it regularly, it is so lovely and it was great to see it in such large quantities; especially on Skomer, where much of the island was covered by sweeping fields of bluebells or red campion.


But I thought I’d pick something more typically seasidey, so I think thrift is the obvious choice. That’s a close-up shot above, but it doesn’t give you a sense of the quantities: big cushiony pink piles of it.

Best Insect

Seeing glow-worms was a genuine life-time ambition fulfilled. They’re not as spectacular as some of the species of bioluminescent insect found elsewhere — just a few gentle green glowing dots in the grass on a June evening — but they were still fabulous.

Best Invertebrate (other)

Umm, let me see. I quite enjoyed pottering around looking for rock-pools in Pembrokeshire, though I didn’t find much apart from a few mussels and sea anemones, so let’s go for something I can post a picture of: an unidentified species of red sea-anenome.

Best Fish

It’s hard to think of anything for this one. The best I can come up with is probably the enormous fat brown trout in the Test in Hampshire.

Best Amphibian, Best Reptile

I haven’t been out of the country this year, and that means there are only a total of twelve species that are even possible (three snakes, three lizards, three newts, two toads and a frog), not counting a few breeding populations of introduced species and the occasional vagrant marine turtle. And I didn’t see any of the rarer ones.

But there was one day last June when all the baby frogs apparently decided to leave the pond at once, and the lawn was full of these tiny tiny little froglets. So that was neat. The Flickr set is here.

Best Mammal

I saw a bat hunting for insects in daylight over the lake in the local park at the end of March, so that was a noteworthy sighting. Perhaps it had just emerged from hibernation and was having its first proper meal of the year? I don’t know what kind of date they come out.

But the easy choice for Mammal of the Year was Grey Seal, which breeds in large numbers in Pembrokeshire. It wasn’t seal breeding season when I was there, so they weren’t all over the beach in big numbers and there were no little fluffy white babies, but there were plenty of seals lurking near the islands.

It’s not much of a picture, but just as evidence that I did see at least one seal:

Best Ecosystem

I think you will have seen this coming: I’m going to go for the islands off the coast of Pembrokeshire. Because, you know, seals, shags, choughs, puffins, wild flowers, ravens, peregrine… and most notably, perhaps, the seabird colonies on the cliffs where the guillemots, razorbills and fulmars nest.  These weren’t easy to photograph, because they were on cliffs, so you were either peering down from above, or peering up from a boat. Still, this gives you an idea:

There’s a wider view of some of these cliffs that gives some idea of the scale here, but there’s no point reproducing that photo at 500 pixels wide.

Sitting on a boat and watching a raven come and steal guillemot eggs: how cool is that? The guillemots did try to resist, but the raven just flung them out of the way. It’s not easy being an auk.


The Mabinogion trans. Sioned Davies

I didn’t do my normal thing of looking for appropriate reading materials before going on holiday — I mean, I’d already read How Green Was My Valley and Under Milk Wood, so there didn’t seem to be much point in looking for anything else.*

But when I was running out of reading matter and went to the bookshop in St David’s, I was half-looking for something Welsh and settled on the Mabinogion. I knew the name but nothing else about it; as it turns out, it’s not one work at all; it’s a selection of medieval Welsh stories from several manuscripts. Some of them form connected groups, but it was the C19th translator Lady Charlotte Guest who put this selection of stories together and gave them their usual title.


Many of them are set in the court of King Arthur, and the most conventional seemed just like the equivalent English stories. I’m open to persuasion that, as the translator’s introduction claims, there is some kind of distinctive Welsh character to them; but I can’t bring myself to care very deeply. I tend to find all those medieval romances kind of boring.

Some of the stories are more distinctive, though, and more interesting: most notably the ‘four branches of the Mabinogi’ from which the collection takes its title. I think with most Arthurian stories, even though they feature magic and strange creatures, they operate according to a narrative logic that seems familiar to us, whether because it was in some way the ancestor of the modern novel, or because of the regular bursts of of medieval revivalism that have revisited the material. With the ‘four branches’ that doesn’t seem true: they are odder and untidier. It’s hard to explain; you might have to read them if you’re curious.

They reminded me slightly of the Haida stories translated by Robert Bringhurst, so I wonder if it’s a property of oral storytelling that we just get glimpses of in the remnants of oral culture that survive here and there in manuscript form. Partially perhaps it’s an episodic form: the story teller pulls together various episodes and mini-stories, and the emphasis is different every time, without perhaps the need to tidy it into a neat overall narrative. Or maybe there’s a kind of dynamic that’s created when you’re telling stories to people who already know them. 

This is apparently a very new translation, only in the shops a week or two before I bought it. I can’t possibly assess it as a translation, since I don’t know any Welsh and haven’t read any other editions, but I found it readable and the introduction and notes were helpful, so I give it a thumbs up.

*No, not really. It just didn’t occur to me to think about it until too late, for some reason. Incidentally, How Green Was My Valley was, in a slightly cheesy way, a much better book than I was expecting. I think I ended up leaving my copy in Tokyo, though.

The picture, incidentally, is a bit of cosplay from a fan of the Korean MMORPG called Mabinogi.


One of the few ways that being in Wales is noticeably different to being in England is the presence of Welsh everywhere. Not spoken Welsh — there was some of that, but not much, at least in the part of Wales I was visiting — but written. Every piece of public information — every road sign, every bus timetable — is written in both Welsh and English. And although a lot of smaller businesses just run in English, the bigger organisations like banks and supermarkets are also bilingual. The result is a continual sequence of double-takes as you go to read something and stare blankly for a moment before realising that you’re looking at the wrong bit.

At times this feels more like a political statement than a vital public service: I know that the language is relatively healthy these days — apart from anything else, Welsh is now a useful career skill because of the need to produce translations of everything — but people who are so profoundly monoglot that they need SLOW to be painted on the road in Welsh as well as English must be vanishingly rare.

It is often said, in fact, and it seems plausible, that Welsh is the most heavily subsidised language in the world. That’s not just the cost of all the signage and government literature; there’s also BBC Radio Cymru and S4C, the Welsh language TV channel, for a start.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is a bad thing. Of all the things a government can do with its money, helping keep a language alive seems pretty benign. 

» untitled photo of a Welsh road posted to Flickr by Herr Julian.

Wales photos

I’ve uploaded a set of photos from Welsh trip to Flickr. Here’s one of them, a singing whitethroat:

Singing whitethroat

I somewhat felt the lack of a wide-angle lens, with all that scenery all over the place, and I’ve held back some of the best ones for my photoblog Clouded Drab (there’s a couple already posted), but I hope you can find some you like. Over the next week or so I’ll decide which others to post to Clouded Drab and post the ones which don’t make the cut to Flickr.

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I have returned!

I am back from Wales. Debriefing, holiday book report, lots of photos, and musings on the Welsh language and widescreen television to follow. Possibly. In the meantime, here’s a shot of ox-eye daisies with cliffs and sea in the background.

Not only does it illustrate some of the many pretty flowers to be seen in Pembrokeshire, it’s an example of something emphasised by the presence of a flat horizon in so many of the pictures: my apparently complete inability to hold a camera straight.

» daisies in Pembrokeshire, uploaded to Flickr by me.

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Rain, rain go away

Don’t get me wrong, this place looks beautiful even when it is raining, but I think I’m ready for some more sun now.

I would say it was no more than I expect of Wales — it’s not a coincidence that the principality is famous for sheep rather than, say, vineyards — but in fact I read somewhere that St. David’s Head has more hours of sunshine every year than anywhere else in the country, so perhaps I’m just unlucky.

Still, I had a wet but mostly enjoyable walk today: the flowers are amazing. As well as all the gorse, bluebells, campion and thrift, there were little blue flowers I think might be called squills, and little wild white roses, and milkwort and cuckooflower and scabious and foxgloves and about a hundred others. It really is rather lovely. And I saw nesting ravens, and a couple of choughs, and there were whitethroats singing from every bush.

I also went to the cathedral today. If you use the criterion that a city is a town with a cathedral, St. David’s is the smallest city in the UK. I think it might be going a bit far to describe it as a ‘village’, but in more densely populated parts of the country it would certainly be a very small town. The cathedral is really attractive: lots of good medieval stuff and some unusually attractive Victorian restoration as well.

When they built the nave in [about] the C13th, they didn’t do a particularly good job of it, and standing in the cathedral looking along the nave you can see the north wall is visibly leaning outwards, which is quite disconcerting. So in the C16th they put in some internal buttressing and lowered the ceiling: there’s a beautiful ornately carved wooden Tudor ceiling with huge protruding bosses which you can see is just cutting across the top of the arched window in the west wall. And the exterior of the west wall is covered in the fabulous purple Pembrokeshire stone: I think it must be something like an iron-rich sandstone, but it’s a sort of aubergine colour.

Like most medieval cathedrals in this country, it had some of its best stuff — windows and statues and so on — demolished either during the Reformation or by Cromwell’s men; and no doubt in the middle ages all the interior would have been covered in murals and other decoration. But that’s just par for the course. I don’t know whether it’s ironic or highly appropriate that Christians created so much of the country’s artistic heritage and then it was other Christians who came along a bit later and destroyed most of it.

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I’m in Wales

In a cafe in St David’s to be exact. I spent the last couple of days in the southern part of Pembrokeshire, in a village called Marloes; it’s the kind of place which, in England, would be one street, one pub, one shop and one church; being Wales, it has a pub, a shop, a church and a chapel. Anyway, I went there because of its proximity to an island called Skomer, known for its population of puffins. Puffin was my target species for this trip, really: everything else is just a bonus.

The first day I tried to get out to the island it was beautiful blazing sunshine and the sea was like glass, but the forecast was for the wind to come up in the afternoon, so they weren’t running boats to the island because they didn’t want everyone to get stuck there. Frustrating, but I took the round-island boat trip instead and walked back along the coastal path to the village. And I have to say, it was seriously beautiful: cliffs, blue seas, the cliff-tops covered in flowers.

The next day it was wetter but the wind was from the right direction, so I got onto the island: it’s an amazing place. The whole top of the island is covered in bluebells and campion and thrift, there are gulls nesting everywhere, huge colonies of auks on the cliffsides, and best of all the puffins, which nest in rabbit burrows at the tops of the cliffs. They are fabulously cute and extremely tame, apparently completely impervious to people.  I went to the Galapagos the year before last, and Skomer is as magical a place as any of those islands – or at the very least almost as magical and a hell of a lot easier to get to. It was raining for the first hour or so I was on Skomer and cloudy thereafter, so not great for photography, but actually the soft grey light, lush grass, stone walls and bluebells made a rather lovely combination. Sun would have been even better, but it was beautiful nonetheless.

And as well as puffins: guillemot, razorbill, shag, raven, chough, peregrine, fulmar, kittiwake. It was a lovely day. I’ll show you the photos when I get home :)

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Napowrimo #21: The Seal Voice Choir

If you stand on the beach on Holyhead
and listen attentively,
you may hear, above the sound of surf,
an unearthly harmony.

Upon a tiny rocky islet
out of sight of land
the world’s one and only seal voice choir
are sprawled on a patch of sand;

and sometimes, when the waves are still
and the breeze is off the sea
you can pick out a snatch of Cwm Rhondda
or perhaps Abide With Me.

Fairy rocks

The Times reports today that a property developer in Scotland has had to come up with new plans for a housing estate to accomodate a large rock after locals protested that digging it up would disturb the fairies that lived there. Or possibly because Pictish kings had been crowned on it – their stories seem to be a bit mixed, but they seem to have agreed that moving the rock would be bad juju.

Given my general scepticism about all things New Age and supernatural, you might expect me to be exasperated by this. But no, I think it’s great. One of the things I really liked in Japan was that, when you went walking in the country, any prominent landscape feature – a big rock, a waterfall – would usually have a little shrine on it or by it. The shrines were extremely rudimentary – often just three bits of rock arranged into the rough shape of a torii gate, like a little tiny dolmen about a foot high – but just enough to indicate that the spot was important. This picture gives you some idea of the shrines I’m talking about, although it’s taken at Kamakura, a big temple site, not just some random bit of the Japanese countryside.

In Japan, the shrines would be to kami – Shinto nature spirits – but really, kami, fairies, it’s all the same thing. Now I don’t believe there are actually fairies or spirits living in every prominent rock or ancient tree; but the practice humanises and enriches the landscape. Just the fact that it picks out striking things and says ‘look at me’ gives a focus to the landscape. When we talk about respect for nature, it tends to be in an environmental context; respecting whole ecosystems. There’s a lot to be said for respecting your local big rock.

My uncle had a cottage in Wales. In one of the fields nearby was a standing stone. I’m not talking Stonehenge here; just a long thin rock sticking about two feet out of the ground. For all I know, it was actually put there by a couple of bored locals as a gag, but it doesn’t matter, somehow; the fact that it’s there makes the field a special place in a way no functional building would.

I think a lot of Andy Goldsworthy’s work has the same appeal – it’s the non-destructive, respectful engagement with the landscape, to give it a human aspect without de-naturing it.

Radio Cymru

Languagehat led me to discover Morfablog. I have no idea what any of it is about, but several of the pictures on the front page feature waterproof clothing, which chimes with my experience of Wales.

It reminded me of being at university in Bristol and listening to Radio Cymru. Since Welsh takes quite a lot of words directly from English, it was a bit like the Gary Larson cartoon:

The first panel is titled 'What we say to dogs.' A man is scolding his
dog. The man's word-balloon says this: 'Okay, Ginger! I've had it! You
stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage,
or else!?'

The second panel is titled 'What they hear.' The drawing is exactly
like the first panel, but this time the man's word-balloon says 'Blah
blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah
blah blah blah.'

except it would be things like “blah blah blah blah blah Phil Collins blah blah blah blah supermodel blah blah cannabis blah blah blah blah blah blah television…”

And because of the limited Welsh-language music available, one moment they’d be playing Welsh folk tunes, and the next a Welsh-language cover of Wet Wet Wet. I haven’t been to Wales for ages, actually. I’ve always wanted to go to the Pembrokeshire coast and see choughs.