As Good as it Gets, and Good Timing; Daffodils; Dippers in the Valley Of Flowers.

A day after the novelty of waking with the bedroom suffused with golden light, I hit the keys under grey gloom first thing. Lowering mists, a full rain gauge, and the still cold saturated ground, struggling to recover from yesterday’s sleet. The Google banner yesterday cheerily proclaimed the first day of spring. But there are mixed messages out there in the landscape, a disconnect away from the current media battles over commercial adverts placed beside extremist You Tube Videos.

At least none of this puts the song thrush off its stride. An ever present dawn, noon, and dusk songster in the clear valley air, it’s moved a little closer of late, back to its familiar larch topping post, so that as I nip out for a morning pee, it’s the first true auditory sensation of the day. Though sometimes it faces competition for such a great vantage point…

If it weren’t so chilly I’d linger, dressing gowned, for ages, counting its apparently infinite riff variety.

And maybe glimpse the pair of Red Kites, which I think are sussing out a tall Larch or spruce in our copse beyond the Afon Melinddwr, as a suitable nesting site for this year. We’ve never seen them so much before, and their eerie 3 or 4 note, two tone, rising whistle has been another constant recent background soundtrack. But a post is way overdue, and so I shall tackle it in appropriate staccato soundbite style.

I checked whether I’d used the opening part of the title before, and was relieved to find that I hadn’t, though under “Easter Honey Bunny; Planting For Pollinators; Narcissus Names” , from 29/03/2013, is the remembered text. This had come to mind as this post’s easy anchor, when Fiona brought back the posters for this year’s new annual exhibition at the Welsh Quilt Centre in Lampeter, where she still volunteers, and indeed still organises the volunteers. The famous titular line from Oscar winning obsessive compulsive Melvin, Jack Nicholson, comes into my head … “What if this is as good as it gets?”, as he addresses his waitress muse (Helen Hunt).

Well this is the eighth annual exhibition of Welsh Quilts from Jen Jones’ extraordinary collection, and for me, my favourite so far, in that it highlights the extraordinary visual effects that can be created using just single colour whole cloth fabrics, which are then quilted with the thick springiness that comes from using a sheep’s wool batting, needled into intricate design patterns.

The Quilt Centre’s introduction to the theme of the exhibition says..

EXQUISITE WELSH QUILTS FROM 1921-1939 AT THE WELSH QUILT CENTRE
As Good As It Gets this year’s main exhibition at The Welsh Quilt Centre, is a celebration of magnificent Welsh Quilts made especially for a luxury market. These fine quilts were produced in Wales from 1921 to 1939 during a time of hardship in the socially and economically depressed areas of South and West Wales.

There are 2 other exhibitions as well, one of the entries to Jen’s quilt challenge competition, where many contemporary quilts are hung, and visitors can vote for their favourite. You will never see an exhibition like this anywhere in the world, so in this year, that has been designated by Visit Wales as “The Year Of Legends “, why not plan a trip to Lampeter? Click here for more on the quilt centre. Click here for more on “2017. The Year of Legends”

Yesterday I had the smell of the ocean on my hands. A unique aroma, from the sometimes annual, sometimes twice a year, task of spreading dried seaweed meal around the garden. A 25 kg sack just about does the job, and as your hand becomes damp in the dank conditions, the aroma is beguiling. 25 mm of rain over the following day will have washed it off the foliage, and it can begin releasing all those micro nutrients leached from the landscape over the winter months. I’m convinced it helps with foliage and flower colour vibrancy, and along with wood ash from our stoves, is still the only additional “fertiliser” added up here.

For years I’ve become sceptical about the use of NPK fertilisers. After hearing Ray Woods speak passionately and eloquently at the WWBIC meeting 3 weeks ago, I’m even more concerned about how the landscape and ecology of most of rural Wales is being forever changed to one of “Fisons or Slurry” mono-tonal green. Click here for more on my report from this event.

At the very beginning of the month we escaped for 3 night’s break staying just outside Tenby at the small village of Penally. I’d first come across this name in research on the history of St. Teilo, as part of my ongoing Welsh Historic Snowdrop Hunt. It’s likely that he was born there, and indeed the remains of the old abbey church feature within grounds of the fabulous Penally Abbey hotel, where we enjoyed brilliant hospitality, and consistently excellent food. Going at the fag end of February meant a 3 for 2 deal as well, so it was very good value too. It was the ideal time to concentrate and comment on the first few chapters of a book, my brother is writing. More in due course, perhaps.

Lots of time too combing for pebbles on the local beaches in between squally wet weather, and although we made it into Tenby along the beach in the dry, our luck ran out and we got drenched in its charming narrow, and largely deserted, streets woven with traces of the historic walls of this mediaeval town.

We never knew  before that the mathematical = (equals) sign was invented in Tenby. By one Robert Recorde, (1512-1558) a Welsh physician and mathematician. Click here for more of his biography, and read how he subsequently fell from grace and died in shame and in prison. The town’s museum is a real delight, and here there is a significant exhibition of the artist Augustus John’s work, another of Tenby’s significant sons and an intriguing link for me was that it was John who introduced Dylan Thomas to Caitlin Macnamara (the daughter of Mrs. Macnamara, of the eponymous and well known snowdrop, which is one of our favourite cultivars).

Tenby is also famous for its native species daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus obvallaris, and we did indeed see a few, although sadly the authorities have also planted many big yellow jobs as well. This year our N. obvallaris have excelled.

A walk around Manorbier was another treat, with the coastal path, stunning views across the bay, and the wonderful castle, where the famous chronicler of mediaeval life, Giraldus, or Gerald  of Wales, was born. Click here for some wonderful internal photos of the well preserved castle, which sadly wasn’t open when we visited.

There were even some wonderful late snowdrops in the slightly overgrown section of the nearby church of St. James which has origins dating back to Norman times, like the castle.

In an area of outstanding history and ancient buildings in this part of Pembrokeshire, nearby Carew castle and tidal mill were equally impressive…And even a rare part field of daffodils to add some more colour to the muted landscape at this time of year…

All too soon, we headed home, and, as is the fate of the ageing male after too many morning cups of tea, I needed an emergency pee stop, on our way back over Llanllwni mountain, which was indeed fortuitous timing. As I returned to the car, I spotted a small bird of prey fly towards me into the howling gale. Grabbing the camera, from the back seat I whizzed round only to see it disappear beyond the fenced off old quarry, but then saw that rather than sinking beyond the brow of the hill, it had landed on one of the fence posts ringing the quarry’s easterly limit. There it sat, and began plucking its prey gripped firmly in its talons, whilst all round me skylarks sang.

Oblivious to the slaughter? Or ensuring a great way to go, with such melodies blown down the wind? Was it indeed a skylark it had caught?

There were occasional flurries of feathers or fur, and over a few minutes, as I watched through the maximum zoom, one could appreciate how much effort goes into ingesting your meal, even after you’ve caught it, if all you’ve got to work with is a very sharp beak, and powerful neck. But even this predator wasn’t secure. Every few moments it paused and glanced around. The ever present local Goshawks could indeed take a bird of this size. ( one seen 2 weeks later, whilst we waited in a car park for a meeting.)…

Friends have confirmed that the bird was a male kestrel, which are now apparently quite rare in this part of the world, and haven’t been recorded before on Llanllwni mountain for at least a couple of years. So it was indeed good timing for a stop there.

The snowdrop season is nearly over again for another year, and I must once again record my sincere thanks to all who have helped me this year in my forays near and far… Carol, Roger, Michael, Ruth, Margaret, Tony, Kay, Lizzie, Rachel, Tony, Llinos, Martin, all spring to mind in what has been a bit of a blur. I haven’t managed quite as many trips as last year, but as always the stories have been fascinating, and at least and at last the snowdrops are now all well recorded, and labelled. It looks like next season will begin with some 230 forms for visitors to see. As I mentioned previously, I aim to get snowdrop images (of which I now have many) onto the website this autumn…

One of my last trips this year, was a brief foray into mid Wales to assess whether there are snowdrops in the vicinity of Strata Florida abbey, located just East of Pontrhydfendighaid, in Ceredigion. “Strata Florida” is a Latinisation of the Welsh Ystrad Fflur; “Valley of Flowers”. Since I have already discovered snowdrops in the vicinity of several of the other significant monasteries and nunneries which were active at the same time as Strata Florida, (from about 1150 to 1550) I was hopeful.

How wrong I was. Admittedly it was a poor day with drizzle and overcast skies, and I had the whole site to myself. But it was a complete disappointment. On March 10th, in a very early season for flowers, I couldn’t see a single flower out. Anywhere. In the vicinity.

Apart from a few gracing the serried slate memorial stones, immaculately laid out in the graveyard adjacent to the monastery’s ruins. Facing East.

Click here to see the official website for the site, and see if you can see any flowers in any of the photos, from throughout the seasons.

So a flowerless site, in the valley of the flowers? Why?

I’m inclined to think that the site was actually never a particularly good one for growing many plants. A flat valley bottom, high annual rainfall, and likely frost pocket, would make it a challenging site for anyone with even very green fingers. Bear in mind that these are some of the daffodils in bloom with us in mid March this year…

The site is certainly rich in history, with many great information boards on its pivotal role in the early history of Wales. Many Welsh princes are thought to have been buried there.

But here’s another unexplained (to me, at least) mystery. In part of the site, you’re drawn towards a huge inscribed grey slate slab, the text of which celebrates one of Wales’ most famous early poets. But this slate plaque was erected in 1951. You have to look very hard to see a quoted example of said poet’s work, exhibited to the bottom left of this enormous slate slab.

Is this the most sanitised bit of his poetry? Was it considered too racy to be given pride of place? And how does such passionate poetry fit in with the image of Cistercian celibacy?

No flowers, racy poetry…All enigmas with no answers. No clues from the circling Red Kites, or the pair of Dippers who whizzed through the neighbouring culvert, and dipped or bobbed, with virginal white bib on the far side,as I left the abbey, yet again searching for a pee stop!

Did you know that dippers are the only native bird which actually walks beneath the fast flowing water of upland streams looking for its food? I had no idea.

The official website above describes an aura of magic around this place. I’m afraid I experienced none of this, and sympathised with the sculpture glimpsed on the hill above. Never mind that this was a historic site of significance… get me out of here! Presumably others have felt the same way since, which might be why there is no significant modern development nearby, in spite of the undoubtedly dramatic scenery.

Finally it is with great relief that I feel that my other very big time occupier over the last month – Carmarthenshire Meadows Group – (CMG), which some readers may know I’ve been involved with for some time, is now past its busiest. Last Saturday we held our first public meeting of 2017, at which I showed my film “Soft Rush – A Growing Problem” about our efforts to control soft rush and increase floral diversity in our wet meadows. There was also a great talk from Sinead Lynch, the local officer of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

More significantly, in spite of it being the first decent sunny Saturday of spring, we had a full hall, and a great number of people paid up for annual membership on the day, so the group has at last become a more formalised entity with an exciting programme of events ahead for the rest of the year. A huge joint effort with many folk volunteering hours of work, and discussion to get it to this stage. Click here for more on CMG.

I must end with some photos from the garden – the last 5 weeks have been pretty grey and gloomy, windy and quite wet, and it’s been a struggle to get decent photos of the daffodils, which have been exceptional this year, though a little battered, though even grey clouds can look spectacular… However if you have a look at the separate Welsh daffodils 2017 page, which I’m still working on, you might find a few varieties which appeal – this year they seem to be at least a fortnight ahead of their usual timing, and we managed to have several types out for St.David’s day. A firm favourite amongst the newbies is “Trena”, a Narcissus cyclamineus group cultivar.

Thanks for reading. I hope it’s not been as much of a slog to read, as it has been to get it published – I began this over 10 days ago!

9 thoughts on “As Good as it Gets, and Good Timing; Daffodils; Dippers in the Valley Of Flowers.

  1. Beautiful spring photographs of the garden. The quilts are lovely, the self coloured quilts are so different from patchwork ones. Is 230 different species of snowdrops as good as it gets? It seems to be a vast number to handle. I am glad your Soft Rush film received a good audience on its first showing. Amelia

    • Hello Amelia and thanks for the comment. The quilts are indeed stunning. Such a huge amount of time and skill going into each one, and Welsh quilts like these are pretty much a unique art form. Obviously soft rush won’t be an issue in your part of the world! But here it’s a big issue, probably because of higher rainfall patterns, and like the worst garden plant ( for us think tall hardy Geraniums, it can completely out compete anything else and form a mono- culture, so dealing with it, for anyone trying to restore floral diversity in a meadow is a huge issue.It’s great to finally get a formal membership structure, but I’ve never before been involved with this kind of group planning, and have found the whole experience exhausting!
      Best wishes
      Julian

      • Hopefully once you have got the ball rolling things should be less straining next year. It is a great support to have like-minded people around. Amelia

  2. I haven’t commented before as I have taken time to read and really enjoy your post. No wonder it took you ages to write it there was so much of interest to read! Your photos as usual are really brilliant and your garden looks as beautiful as ever. Our recent visit to Lampeter was cut short by linking it to a garage visit too so the delights of the quilt exhibition will be seen later this month! I visited Strata Florida some years ago on a summer’s day and vowed never to return! I found it quite depressing, however, others enjoyed the visit! Your film was most interesting and valuable to all of us who struggle with soft rush. Great photos of the kestrel – hope it doesn’t catch too many skylarks! We have a marauding sparrow hawk who delights in catching the birds off our bird table in front of our kitchen window just as I’m looking out! Really pleased to read that the Meadow Group is taking off…well done you!

    • Hello Marianne,
      Been down in D and C for 4 nights looking at some of the garden greats down there…fab!! Anyway, thanks for the comment. I’m really interested about your impression of Strata florida…I’ve rarely visited a site so depressing – it might be an archaeologist’s dream, but I wonder whether they’ve ever thought about the irony between the name and the current actual grim flowerless nature of the place. Surely it must have been different when it was a thriving community? The kestrel was a pure fluke, and one of those things I’ll never see again…on the other hand yesterday I did a double take after returning to the front door to find a wobbly elderly pole cat wandering along the cobbles in broad daylight…
      Best wishes
      Julian

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