The Palaeontologists of Llandrindod Wells

by The Curious Scribbler

The most remarkable people conceal themselves in the Welsh hills.  Today’s exhibit are Cambridge-educated palaeontologists Joe Botting and Lucy Muir whose home is in Llandrindod Wells.  As independent researchers they work all over the world, currently  in China, the Czech Republic and Morocco and are among the foremost experts on Cambrian fossil communities  – animals which lived at least 500 million years ago.

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It was the Ordovician rocks of central Wales which brought them to Llandrindod Wells, and their research is putting their home town on the map.  To the untrained eye the local stone look pretty unexciting, grey and shaley, and there is absolutely no chance of spotting a dinosaur bone or a nice big ammonite for the mantelpiece.  Most amateurs would be proud enough to find a fossil trilobite, a segmented arthropod of a kind which became extinct 300 million years ago. This creature had a rigid carapace which formed a mould in the sediment and was thus more readily preserved as a fossil.

A trilobite from Llandrinod Wells    (Ogyginus corndensis)

But very close inspection in the right places has revealed an unguessed-at variety of tiny fossils whose soft bodies are preserved as little more that smears between the layers of flaking grey rock.

A tiny starfish just 2mm across.

A palaeoscolecid worm with  microscopically armoured skin that is exquisitely beautiful under high magnification.

An as yet unnamed creature which has tentacles

Joe and Lucy’s discoveries present a picture of an ocean teaming with life 450 million years ago.  Hours and hours of collecting, inspecting shards of rock for any tell tale sign of a fossil must be followed by days of microscopic study, to identify and photograph these tiny traces.  Important publications will follow.  It is for this reason that they have launched a crowdfunding page  to buy a high quality binocular microscope and digital camera set-up to be installed at their home in Llandrindod Wells.

Life is precarious for independent researchers: Joe busks in the summer and Lucy does part time editing to support their modest life needs.  They welcome amateur enthusiasts and have already been pivotal in launching at least one Penglais pupil on his geological career.  In Llandrindod, they run a local amateur fossil group, provide public talks and workshops, visit local primary schools, and run field trips. They are involved in the community orchard, the repair shop, and the Transition Towns Group.  As they say “We even offer our personal space, time and equipment to anyone who has need of it, simply to encourage a love of the natural sciences.”

At the Sign of the Trilobite

The high quality photo microscope would be installed at their premises and will be of equal benefit to other scientists, especially in fields such as  botany, insects, or archaeology, who will be able to use it  free by appointment.  Donations in the first week of the appeal have exceeded £5000 but there is more to go for a first rate piece of kit.  Go to their web page and read all about it!

https://www.gofundme.com/f/a-microscope-for-amateur-science-in-wales

 

 

 

 

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Upfest at Tanybwlch?

by The Curious Scribbler

Tanybwlch beach, looking north to Aberystwyth

Inspired by the video I described in the preceding blog, I walked Tanybwlch beach again yesterday, enjoying the blazing sun and balmy breeze. The sea was almost waveless, clear and the deepest blue, and the shore, as usual, was almost deserted.  I saw a family at the water’s edge, and a couple of people walking their dogs, and I passed one man who was seated watching his three terriers each of which was energetically digging its own hole in the sand.  The sea, cracked only by a single ripple approaching the shore, looked like shot silk.

Three digging dogs

The graffiti artists on the concrete sea wall have been back and have further embellished the design which appeared on the drone video I had watched.  The letters NHS are no longer brutalist boxy letters, now sporting serifs and curliques of a playful nature.  The seated figure, on closer inspection, is a dead-eyed Boris debating whether or whether not to save the NHS.  To the right are a series of weird heads, two gowned and masked blue front-liners, and then a group perhaps the public, some in outline,  one with a covid mask.  There is more wall yet to be painted, I think there is more work to be done there.

Graffiti at Tanybwlch beach

Graffiti at Tanybwlch beach

The right-hand end of the mural, yet to be coloured in?

The whole mural at Tanybwlch beach, possibly yet to be completed

It seems surprising now, that no-one has formerly set about embellishing this long wall.  Here is a canvas comparable with some of the large murals created for the Upfest Festival in Bristol, and like many of those, it is on a topical theme.  I have just noticed that the latest Upfest, which brings together British and international artists, was scheduled to take place this weekend,  30 May- 1 June 2020.   I presume that like everything else, it has been postponed, though this is not confirmed on their website.

This blog has previously reported from Upfest, and I hope to go again.

 

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Tanybwlch – A Historic Video

by The Curious Scribbler

Day 67 of lockdown – the days have become a bit of a blur.  Like a soothing nature programme, the past two months have been generally beautiful, with startlingly clear skies, lovely wildflowers, continuous birdsong.  Too continuous even, I sometimes wish that the monotonous chiffchaffs would give it a rest.

My walks start from my front door, and lead me to Tanybwlch beach, Pendinas, Penparcau and Llanfarian along the footpaths and cycle paths.  I am so fortunate to have such an amazing landscape within easy reach.    Today I found a newly posted video on You Tube  named Aberystwyth in the SKY Tan Y Bwlch which gave me great delight.  Here  is a tranquil 4 minutes of a birds-eye view of my entire domain, shot during lockdown on one of the many still days when the sea barely sucks at the shore, the sun blazes down, and people, so few and far between, are visible here and there.  There are no cars in the Tanybwlch car park (a consequence of the concrete roadblock erected in late March), no contrails in the sky.  We may look back with nostalgia on this creepily empty scene when normal life is resumed.

I am pleased that the photographer has briefly included a child and a dog, (presumably his or her own) enjoying the shore.  Children have been out and about far too little during lockdown.   Joggers and cyclists have made the most of their freedoms, but to spy a child has been a rare sight on my walks.  Hopefully today’s announcement will empower more families to take their children out on our beaches.

At the very end of the film is the briefest glimpse of a huge new graffito on the concrete barrage where the Ystwyth turns northwards.  The brutalist blue capitals contrast with the human depicted on the left, a figure more typical of the ethos of the beach.

A screen grab from the video

It would be very visible from the sea: were anyone out there to view it.

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Footpath is open at Penparcau

By The Curious Scribbler

I am delighted to learn that I am in error, and that last week I quite needlessly climbed over a gate ( as described in yesterday’s blog).   The gate in question was on the footpath across the flank of Pendinas, which emerges at the Cae Job gate to Penparcau.

I had let myself through the gate on Felin y Mor and onto the seaward end of the path, by means of lifting the little latch on the gate with my gloved hand, in accordance with best practice.  At the Cae Job gate I failed to open it, and finding the latch immobilized with a cable tie, I believed it to be locked.  Several readers have today informed me that the cable tie in fact immobilized the catch in the open position!

I am grateful to learn this and hope others will not be discouraged from taking the path.  The purpose of the cable tie, I learn, was to allow the gate to open at a push (or a pull), without need to touch it.  I don’t know why it didn’t then swing open when I began to climb it, but the good news is that the path is not closed.  The route through the fragrant gorse, with its attendant stonechats, chiffchaffs, dunnocks, linnets and wrens is a delight.  Violets,  primroses and stitchwort flank the path, and a thirsty dog can pause at the well beside the ruined remains of the cottage which formerly stood on the long slope towards the sea.

‘The Welsh Primitive’ (active 1830-1853) painted the cottage beside the path, half way up Pendinas.                                                National Library of Wales, Drawing Volume 56.

I find that  a massive 1400 people read yesterday’s Letter from Aberystwyth, when it was flagged up in the You Know You’re from Aberystwyth When group on Facebook, and the comments there were many and varied. Some feel as I do, while others feel that I should stay home and shut up!  A disputed theme concerns the blocking of car parks such as that at Tanybwlch beach.  Last week, the Government clarified that it was acceptable to drive locally to access a suitable place to walk: the guidance being that one should not drive long distances to take a short walk.  It remains the case that at present many people feel intimidated to travel even a mile by car to enable them to walk safely in an agreeable open space.  I am indeed fortunate to have  all this landscape within walking distance from my home.

 

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Enjoyment is frowned upon!

by The Curious Scribbler

The last time I walked the footpath along the flank of Pendinas, from the north end of the cycle path at Tanybwlch towards Penparcau I got a nasty surprise.  Some jobsworth had used a cable tie to immobilize the latch on the gate at the top of Parc Dinas.  It was a hazardous manoeuvre to climb out over the gate with 11 kilograms of dog in my arms, and if I had fallen  I would have doubtless put avoidable pressure on our NHS.   So I wondered what benefit, exactly, the closure of the footpath could have in the fight against coronovirus?  Amendment! see my next blog.

I also wondered about the concrete block which now prevents vehicles from parking at Tanybwlch beach.

Concrete barrier at Tanybwlch beach

This is a large open areas where locals have always walked their dogs.  There is ample space for social distancing.   Indeed even without walking or sitting on the beach itself,  ( both of which activities appear to be seriously frowned upon by the police) the stony bar above Tanybwlch beach is an ideal area for taking exercise.  There are no seats to tempt successive sitters to risk contact with a virus particle left behind.  There are no gates needing to be opened with by a potentially infected hand.  I am reluctantly forced to conclude there is another aspect to the rules of lockdown.  We should not be allowed to enjoy ourselves.

The Coronovirus Briefing on TV has just been followed by a Welsh Government Information Film.  No Gatherings! No Beauty Spots! No Picnics! it thundered, these words obliterated with a big red cross like the no No Dog Shit signs of old.  So that is the problem.  Pendinas is beautiful.   So they locked the gate.

How long will this situation persist?  Obviously this is a question on the nation’s mind, and we have all accepted we are in the second three-week tranche of repression. But I was even more appalled to read in the papers today that Messrs Raab, Hancock, Gove and Sunak think it would be a good plan to relax lockdown for many but to visit these restrictions on the over 70s for a year or more!  .. until a vaccine has been developed.

I recently joined this august age-cohort.  We may be at somewhat greater risk of serious illness ( though now the preferred tag line  “Anyone can get it”  has replaced  public acknowledgement of this fact!).  But if infected, the greater likelihood is that, like the Prince of Wales, we may become unwell and get better in an unspectacular way.

Am I to be shut away for a year or more in order to avoid embarrassing the NHS by getting coronovirus?  We septuagenarians need to rebel.  Before I am roundly reproved for my selfishness, let me say I will be more than happy to commit to refusing to be put on a ventilator if I become seriously ill.  I would either recover, or die more promptly, thus saving the NHS some money.

I think I speak for many when I say that what matters to me is not how many more years I have on the planet, but how many more healthy enjoyable years I get.    And I will continue to climb over locked gates in order to enjoy myself, while social distancing, even in the shadow of the pandemic!

 

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Life on Lockdown

by The Curious Scribbler

My dog and I have enjoyed some splendid walks in the last two weeks, happily all within my authorized orbit, accessible from my own front door.

The spring has been heartbreakingly beautiful and every day brings new delights.  A fortnight ago, the first chiff chaff appeared at Tanybwlch and within days the landscape became alive with them, belting out their monotonous song from tree tops and gorse bushes everywhere I walk.  The wheatears are back in the stones below Alltwen, and stonechats and dunnocks everywhere in the scrub on the flanks of Pendinas.  Woodpeckers drum in the alder trees by the cycle path and on several days there were no less than 35 choughs probing the sloping meadow on the foot on Pendidnas.  I’ve seen kestrel, buzzard and kite overhead and a heron stalking the incipient salt marsh behind Tanybwlch beach. Today I also noticed that two Canada geese have taken up residence in the small pond below Tanybwlch mansion, and look as if they are planning on goslings.  This pond has an island which will protect them from foxes.  It is a historic feature in the landscape, formerly a public watering point on Tanybwlch flats, immortalized in old maps and a watercolour from the early 19th century.

The watering hole below Tanybwlch mansion, now home to a pair of Canada Geese

The wildflowers are equally delightful, carpets of wood anemones in shady patches on the drive, celandines in the roadside banks opening their reflective golden petals in the sun, and a great  drift of primroses on the bank facing the sea near where Lord Ystwyth built his tea cottage at the foot of Alltwen.

Only very occasionally does a jet aeroplane cross the blue vault of the sky, where formerly four of five could be seen simultaneously on any clear day.  At night the consequences are obvious, the stars sharper and brighter, and venus gleaming like an unexpected streetlight over the hill. These are, as people often say to one another,  strange times, but they are not short of natural beauty.

Also strange are the consequences of ‘social distancing’, the regime to which we must all strictly adhere and which has been interpreted fiercely since the new law was hastily put in place.  First, I noticed that people became less inclined to the usual pleasantries, least they be thought to be socializing.  Dog walkers usually say good day to one another, but now other walkers often pass silently, and on a few occasions even turn around to avoid passing me.  Many familiar faces don’t seem to come along these paths at all, perhaps because they formerly drove to commence their walk.  Tanybwlch beach has always been a prime spot for dog walkers but it is now rare to see more than a couple of dogs on the whole length of the strand.

Their place has been taken by cyclists and runners, many clad in bright bespoke costumes signifying their virtuous activity.  Never before has there been such a succession of fit young men pounding along the strand and doing  stretches, squats and press ups near the primrose patch, before pounding back towards the town.  More worryingly though where are all the children?  One day I saw a mother with her three children and a dog walking beside the Ystwyth, and another day I spied a father and his two small daughters with bikes on the cycle path.  These though were rare sightings: far less than one might expect to see when all children are at home.

I do wonder whether we have gone too far with the virtue-signalling around reasons to be out of doors.  Today the police posted a picture of South Beach, Aberysytwyth on Facebook. Taken at 2.20pm it was completely deserted,  not a lone walker, not a dog, nobody at all.  The post congratulates the people of Aberystwyth  on not being there. This, apparently, is how our open spaces should look. Not social distancing but total absence is required.

Heddlu DPPolice photo posted on Facebook

I’m glad I don’t live in the town.  The promenade and the beaches are good places to walk and get some fresh air.  Doing so, once a day, is not in fact a crime, yet possibly those who most need a walk and a breath of air now feel intimidated to do so.

 

 

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Three thousand years of Archaeology

by The Curious Scribbler

I had an enjoyable day at the Morlan Centre in Aberystwyth on Saturday, at the Archaeology Day organized by the Dyfed Archaeological Trust.  The remit of archaeologists today stretches from the very ancient to the extremely recent,  and this was reflected in the range of talks.  The morning started with the archaeology of yesterday while by the afternoon we were taken back three thousand years to the beginning of the first millienium BC.

Alice Pyper had been having fun exploring the archaeology of Llyn y Fan Fach, the glacial lake which now supplies Llanelli with a clean water supply.  It was not always thus: the water system was built by conscientious objectors during the first world war.   Some thirty of them were compelled to live in two drafty huts  at 1200 feet above sea level to work on the project.  Field archaeology involved excavating and recording the footings of these huts. Documentary sources including newspapers and humorous sketches by the objectors fleshed out the story.  This workforce was of Englishmen who had already served time in prison for refusing to fight.  Michael Freeman pointed out that in Wales objectors were less harshly treated, and that most of the thirty conscientious objectors in Ceredigion were not imprisoned and were allowed to keep their jobs.

Also representing the very recent past is the built heritage of the 20th century.  Susan Fielding of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales treated us to photographs of a splendid succession of architectural gems or carbuncles, some listed, others already demolished.  The architects of the Percy Thomas Partnership ( familiar to us here for much of the Penglais Campus) kept cropping up, with Harlech College, Trinity Chapel at Sketty, and the soon-to-be-demolished Broadcasting House at Llandaff, all redolent of the 1960s.   The Prestatyn Holiday Camp ( 1935) and the Rhyl Sun Centre (1980) have both gone, both extravagant expressions of their times, and dear to many people’s holiday reminiscences.


Rhyl Sun Centre by Gillinson Barnett & Partners
Source:Architectural Press/Archive RIBA Collections

The Shire Hall in Mold, dubbed Britain’s leading ugliest building, and the Wrexham Police station are brutalist buildings which will perhaps not be mourned too much.  Still standing, and crying out for a role in a brooding  TV Drama is Ysgol Syr Thomas Jones at Amlwch – one of the very first 1950s comprehensive schools.

Less is sometimes more, and it was strangely gratifying to learn from Clwyd-Powys Archaeologist Paul Belford that we really don’t know whether Offa’s Dyke has a great deal to do with King Offa, when it was built, or quite what it was for!  Opportunities to excavate this world heritage site are few and far between, but one did arise from the actions of a Chirk man who bulldozed 50 yards of it in order to build a stable. ( His ignorance of its historic significance saved him from prosecution in 2014).  Perhaps this vibe for vandalism is in the air around Chirk.  Paul showed us a lidar image of the grounds of Chirk castle.  In the 17th century Landscape Architect William Emes flattened much more than 50 yards of it to create smooth parkland, and submerged a further length of it in an ornamental lake!

Low water levels in 2018 revealed Offa’s Dyke in the lake at Chirk Castle. Picture: The Shropshire Star

Two afternoon sessions concerned the days of the iron age hillfort, a period lasting from at least 1000 years BC.  Hillforts are scattered like measles across the whole of the map of Wales, and with techniques of  aerial photography and lidar more are still being discovered.  Either they are on hilltops with ridge fortifications all the way round, or they are promontory hill forts, situated on the edge of a cliff or at the confluence between two valleys such that fortifications are not needed at the steeper sides.  The archaeologists have been seeking evidence both within the enclosures, where  groups of round houses were situated, and outside them where burials, and farming actvities took place.  Ken Murphy rounded off the day with an account of the iron age chariot burial discovered last autumn in a field not far from a hillfort at an undisclosed location in west Pembrokeshire.  Being buried along with your two wheeled chariot and your horse requires a pretty extensive hole and this type of burial is well known from East Yorkshire. The chariot burial discovered at the evocatively named village of Wetwang, revealed the human skeleton curled  up between the wheels of his chariot, and the horse laid transversely at his head.  The limey soil chemistry in east Yorkshire does not dissolve the bones.

In the Welsh burial bronze fragments of the bit, bridle and horse ornaments testifies to the horse, and an iron sword to the warrior, but their bones are long dissolved.  The iron rims of the wheels and the imprint of the wooden chariot were found.  These items are undergoing conservation at the National Museum of Wales and will then be put on display.

Photo credit: Archaeologists exposing the wheels of the Pembrokeshire chariot.
 Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

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Wild winds at Tanybwlch

by The Curious Scribbler

Tanybwlch beach on Sunday morning

The only people on Tanybwlch beach on Sunday morning were the photographers sheltering amongst the boulders.  Every wave rollicking in from the south west broke over the harbour jetty,  creating a  continuous plume of spray interspersed with great explosions of water hurled high into the air.  Sometimes the green and white column at the end disappeared entirely from view.

Storm waves over the jetty on Sunday 9 February 2020

Explosive waves at Tanybwlch

The incoming waves become trapped in the angle between the beach and the jetty such that big new waves conflict with the backwash from the preceding one, and create a churning mass of white water throwing up outward-bound crests.  It was in this churning cauldron that I spotted my old friend the dragon log, whose progress northward along Tanybwlch beach I have noted over the winter.  More of a sea monster now, it lay crocodile-like in the foam, then turned seaward and seemed to plunge through the incoming waves.

The dragon log trapped to windward of the jetty

The dragon log broaching the waves.

Sometimes the dragon head reared up, then the curved flank dived under the next breaker.

As the tide went out I think the dragon made it out beyond the jetty and has presumably continued its journey northward.  I wonder where it will next make landfall and whether its shapely head has avoided too much of a battering in the sea.

I walked southward along the beach as the tide dropped and the afternoon sun coloured the day.  I was eager to see how the storm had re-arranged the beach, and found a beautiful expanse of coarse sand below and beyond the concrete bar half way along. The heavier gusts here whipped up a sandstorm so that I often had to turn around to protect my face.

The stone sea defences are failing as water rushes up onto the shingle bar

The sea has been crossing the shingle bar, and the most recent sea defences, the big stones placed along the seaward side of the bar have been steadily moving down the beach as the backwash  sweeps out the sand on which they were set.  Water passing over and through the shingle bar has created two huge pools on the farmland which are already visited by oystercatcher and curlew.

The persistence of these pools has waxed and waned over the last three decades as ditches have been dug to drain the land.  However the vegetation of the larger pool below Alltwen has once again been reverting to salt marsh, and Storm Ciara is hastening this advance.

The big pool below Alltwen

A second seawater pool forming on Tanybwlch flats

I look forward to the day when the pool becomes permanent, and the sea breaks through to meet the Ystwyth at its tidal end.  We may be needing a footbridge to complete Nanny Goats Walk before too long.

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By the Wind Sailors on Tanybwlch beach

by The Curious Scribbler

Velella velella on Tanybwlch beach

I walked Tanybwlch beach today in search of velellas, having noticed Chloe Griffith’s post on Facebook last night.  Velella velella, or By the Wind Sailor is an oceanic ‘jellyfish’, but not your usual jellyfish:  instead it belongs to a class called the Hydrozoans, and is a colonial animal made up of several different types of polyps doing different jobs (feeding, defence, or reproduction) .  Under a transparent float hang many tiny stinging polyps, which catch the plankton of the open ocean.  The diagonally placed sail projecting above the water should ensure that the float moves across the wind, and the velellas remain at sea.  It is a unique species,  there is just one kind, and they circulate in all world’s warm or temperate oceans.

Stranded By the Wind Sailors amongst the wrack

I found them, amongst the rolls of wrack and kelp on the lower strand line, but how tiny they were!  Every one I found was just two centimeters long, shorter than a single joint of my finger. Velellas can be 7 cm long, and I have seen them this size in the open ocean, bobbing past at sea.  Our stranding of velellas are mere babies, and judging by the uniformity all started life from the same hatching. Drying in the winter sunshine they look and feel to the touch like fragments of stiff cellophane, with a hint of blue around the underside.

Velella velella on Tanybwlch beach

Velella velella on Tanybwlch beach, showing the projecting sail to catch the wind

It was a lovely morning, and I noted that my friend the dragon log has moved once more along the beach, and, after a period on its side and looking less dragon-like has again righted itself with head aloft.  It remains a pleasure, as I remarked last autumn, to note how very few items of domestic plastic rubbish are to be found among the driftwood and seaweed.

Wrack and kelp on Tanybwlch beach

There is though, a still abundant category of man-made waste,  and that is plastic rope and string.  What is it about fishermen and little bits of string?  Especially common are short pieces about 6 inches in length of green or blue plastic string with frayed cut ends.  In a short distance one can gather a pocketful, either here or at Borth or Ynyslas.

Velella velella on Tanybwlch beach

There must be an explanation.  Do fishermen tie closed their lobster pots and cut the string each time they open them? If this is the explanation why cannot they use biodegradable hemp which would decay after its single use rather than surviving in the ocean, breaking into tinier pieces for ever, and clogging the stomachs of filter feeding marine life?  Or they could take their pieces of string home and put them in the bin?

Our West Wales beaches are far closer to pristine than they were 20 years ago.  If we can identify the reason for the remaining offenders perhaps a small change in behaviour would do the trick.

 

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Dragon on the move

by the Curious Scribbler

The Tanybwlch Dragon has moved several hundred yards along the beach during last Saturday’s high seas.  Once again it has beached itself gazing out to sea, its lower jaw a little more abraded, but its eager expression is now almost as convincing from the left flank as from the right.

Right cheek

Left cheek

Seas have been breaking over the stony strand which separates the beach from the low lying Tanybwlch flats, the location of summer trotting races, and formerly, of the Aberystwyth Show.   Once more a huge pool has formed below Alltwen, beloved of gulls and waders.

The brackish pool on Tanybwlch flats

Over the years there have been a number of efforts to drain this area and return it to pasture, but this seems to be a losing battle and each winter the lake forms again, and as it drains away rushes prosper at the expense of grass.  It is highly likely that we will see the day when the sea breaks through the pebble bar and our walks along this wild beach will be curtailed part way along.

The Dragon has migrated along Tanybwlch beach

The strand line was not as free from human debris as when I commented two weeks ago, but as with the comments from my reader about the Gower, fragments of netting and other fisherman’s waste were far more abundant than household plastic.  The white lumps on the strand line were not polystyrene but cuttlefish bone, and the fluffy froth just natural sea spume.

Cuttlefish on the strandline at Tanybwlch beach

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