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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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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A Dragon on Tanybwlch beach

By The Curious Scribbler

There is a new arrival on Tanybwlch beach, remarkably in the shape of a dragon, looking out to sea.

Dragon’s head likeness

A large tree trunk, felicitously worn by the abrasive boulders has beached itself high on the shore near the south end of the beach during a recent storm, and presented itself to best advantage in this weekend’s winter sunshine.

Tree trunk at Tanybwlch beach

Walking the strand line, I was also impressed by the scarcity of plastic waste.  I wonder whether this is entirely down to the dedicated beach cleaners who regularly patrol our beaches, or whether, (dare one hope?) the rate at which rubbish is discarded into the Irish sea is at last diminishing.

I used to beach clean here regularly a decade ago when we recorded all the items for the Marine Conservation Society records. In those days one did not go far to fill a sack with single-use plastic and hard plastic crates and bits of rope.  Yesterday there were a few bottle tops and fragments of plastic amongst the dried wrack, but the waste was predominantly what it should be: biodegradable seaweed and sticks washed down the rivers in the recent rains.

Driftwood on the strandline

How much easier on the eye than a strandline of coloured waste.  Aberstwyth Beach Buddies and Surfers against Sewage are to be congratulated for their action and campaigning, but so too is everyone who now chooses not to chuck their rubbish into the sea in the first place!  I remember standing on a cross channel ferry in the 1970s and watching aghast as a kitchen hand emerged on the deck below and tipped all the ferry’s catering packaging off the stern to bob away in our wake.  I have no doubt he was following orders. Fifty years later the public all have camera phones and I don’t think many companies would risk being observed.

Driftwood on the strandline at Tanybwlch beach

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Storm Ophelia

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. The stone jetty north of Tanybwlch beach

by The Curious Scribbler

There are few more invigorating spots than Tanybwlch beach during a powerful storm.  There is the rattling cascade of huge pebbles sucked back and hurled again against the shore, the huge grey brown rollers trailing spume, and the explosive crash of the waves against the concrete jetty which protects the harbour from the south.

At high tide yesterday, at 5.30pm Ophelia was at its height, and  the huge waves broke relentlessly along its length, an unbroken sheet of foamy water flowing across the jetty and cascading into relative calm on the other side.  Even more spectacular was the backwash where a huge wave rebounding from the jetty side would travel southward until it collided with the next huge roller coming in.  Then an explosion of disordered water flies high into the grey sky.

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Water streams over the stone jetty

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Waves collide as they rebound from the stone jetty

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Another wave rebounds against a new one

Meanwhile high tide held back the outflow of the Ystwyth, ( which is tidal until the corner where Nanny Goats Walk sets off inland) and the water backed up to flood the grass and  lower path along the riverside.  Standing on the Pen-yr-anchor bridge  the gale hit one with ferocious force, coming directly along the overflowing river, rippled to wavelets by the wind.

Storm Ophelia. The Ystwyth river backs up at high tide

Further south along the curving storm beach the waves rush up, loaded with sand and pebbles, and pour over into the Ystwyth river behind it.  Little wonder that the Tanybwlch flats have not been earmarked for further sea defences by the Environment Agency (now NRW).  At the foot of Alltwen the pasture is returning, not for the first time, to salt marsh and standing water.

There were a dozen or more of us, and several dogs on the top of the strand, teetering in the gusts and watching, filming or photographing the scene.  The green and white pillar on the end regularly disappeared from view.  Incautious cars could be seen driving out onto the wooden jetty on the far side of the harbour,  spray suddenly engulfing them, and a small blue and white motor boat, tethered to the jetty listed and slowly sank under the onslaught.

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Waves break over the stone jetty

I then went to the main Aberystwyth promenade, where the full force of the south wind was less, but the waves crashed satisfyingly on the sea wall, sending a sheet of sand and water over the prom.  Spectacular explosions of spray engulfed the public shelter on Bath rocks,  which was only recently restored after an even more severe pummeling by Storm Frank  in 2014.

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Spray engulfs the Victorian Shelter

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth, water streams over the prom

Further north the waves shot directly skyward in front of Alexandra Hall.  I have seen them burst higher in other storms, but there is a little buttress on the promenade near there which always attracts the dare devils waiting to run back from a soaking from the even more exceptional wave.

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Taking selfies in the storm

It was a bit of a party atmosphere all along the prom, as people walked, dodged the overflowing waves and took photos on their phones.   A person in a motility scooter bowled gaily along the prom with a following wind behind it.  I would have been a bit fearful in so light a vehicle with the wind resistance of its hood.  These are the circumstances when buggies and prams readily escape their owners.

If there is one species entirely unimpressed by the 70mph gusts it is the starling.  Autumn is setting in and the big traditional roost is filling up under the Pier.  Without any apparent difficulty the flocks cruised in at dusk, jinking in perfect synchrony to form strands and ovoids in the sky before diving down to roost on the ironwork under the deck.  They came in smaller groups  of one to two hundred birds, and perhaps dived to safety sooner than on a calm evening.  But while few gulls flew in the wild winds, these little birds carried on as if the evening was entirely unremarkable.

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Huge waves approach  north beach

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Tanybwlch Beach undergoes a radical reshape

Tanybwlch beach is one of those beaches which grades its pebbles.  It forms a generous arc south of the concrete jetty which shelters the harbour at the mouth of the Ystwyth and Rheidol rivers. At the north end the foreshore is an ankle-breaking slope of big round stones up to the dimensions of a small loaf,  and even near low tide mark there are pebbles, not sand.  At the middle of the curve, by contrast,  is a beach of dark sand, winnowed by the steep suck of the waves.  Down near the southern end, below craggy Alltwen the sea only deposits a floating load.  Here one finds lobster pots, fishing floats, the occasional dead dolphin, and great quantities of driftwood and uprooted seaweed. Of sand and pebbles there is very little, they move inexorably northward, leaving the rock pools largely free of sediment.

This is my favourite beach.  Not for swimming,  the shore shelves steeply and the undertow is well known, but for its elemental wildness, its dark grey pebbles, and gritty sand jewelled on close inspection by many shades of tiny smooth pebbles, amber and creamy quartz, jasper, granite, mica, all alien travellers brought by the glaciers which carved their way across this land. Niall Griffiths in his debut Aberystwyth novel Grits was so taken by Tanybwlch beach’s dark brooding grandeur that he described it as a volcanic landscape.  But it is not.  Its jagged outcrops are of the prosaically named Aberystwyth Grits – greywackes to the geologist, layers of muddy silt hardened to stone since their accumulation under Silurian seas.

The wild grandeur of Tanybwlch beach

Along the shingle bar which separates the beach from the low lying meadows beside the Ystwyth runs a rough road.  In Victorian times a small railway ran along it bearing stones from the quarry at Alltwen to their destination in the buildings of the town. In the twentieth century it gave access to the length of this deserted beach, a refuge for rod fishermen encamped along the shore, wild campers, insalubrious assignations, and the occasional impromptu party fuelled by the copious driftwood.  In summer brash tattooed men from the Midlands would roll up, with trailers, power boats or jetskis and launch them from the sandy middle of the bay.  That pastime ceased though, when the northern half of the beach was designated a local nature reserve, and a new barrier prevented vehicular access along the  bar. On balance it was a good decision, but not everyone was instantly won over and several years of barrier vandalism followed the change.  In recent years only keyholders such as the adjoining farmer have driven along the bar, and the life of the beach has become pedestrian, though not necessarily sedate.

The recent storms have wrought an elegant transformation.  Approach the car park at the end of Penyranchor and you will find it closed, for it is impassible due to a liberal scattering of those big round beach stones.  Press on beyond the barrier and there is no road to walk along.  Huge wave force has lifted the sloping pebble beach up over its former crest and deposited it on and beyond the road.  Waves surged over the beach barrier throughout its length, taking a slew of stones down the landward side, running briskly through the old shingle where the ancient prostrate dwarf blackthorn grows, the seawater rejoining the tidal Ystwyth river beyond.  And the consequence is the most elegant re formation.  A sculpted bank of round beach stones rises from the beach and descends, less steeply to the grassy slope descending to the river. Harder walking.  Quite undrivable.  But no one needs to drive through a local nature reserve anyway.

The new beach profile has entirely buried the road along the strand.

Farther to the south the encroachment has been of clean gritty beach sand. Here the sea has tended to break through in the past and the road runs on a barrage of concrete, with low walls on either side, a nice spot to sit and look out to the westering sun, or east to the sharp bend which the Ystwyth takes as it meets the strand.  It’s still a nice place to sit, but its road function now looks remote.  Erosive forces have cleaned away the ground where the concrete ends.  It is now a massive step up onto the concrete road at either end.

P1060941s

The concrete road at the centre of the bay has been excavated at either end by the waves.

As I’ve said, the sea at Tanybwlch removes stuff at the south end of the arc, and moves it, the heavier the further, to the north.  So as one approaches Alltwen there is less sand or pebbles scattered on the foreshore.   Instead the sea has torn away at the turf and the big quarried blocks placed there as sea defences.  Some of these big stones from Hendre quarry have actually been trundled up slope and over onto the former road.

Tanybwlch Beach. Turf and sea defence stones rolled back by the force of the sea

It is here, near the south end that the beach last breached, in a big storm of 1964.  It hasn’t happened yet, but there are no national plans to defend this piece of seashore, and it doubtless will.  The consequence will be most picturesque.  With this (and during many lesser storms) the fields below Plas Tanybwlch become a shallow brackish lake, visited by appreciative gulls and waders.  The strangely rounded hill fort of Pendinas looks well with the blue winter sky reflected at its foot.  The dark bulk of Alltwen also rears elegantly above the foaming rollers to the one side and a still wide pool on the other.

The tranquil winter sunshine falls on a large salty flood below Plas Tanybwlch

Pendinas stands above the new brackish lake on the Tanybwlch flats

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