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.

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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.

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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.