Seizing the moment on a currently rare March morning, forecast to be dry and sunny after much rain, cloud and wind during the first fortnight of this highly variable month, Fiona had plotted a circular route centred around the coastal hamlet of Cwmtydu. Click here for a google satellite map of the area. Parking just above St. Tysilio’s church, the walk begins with a marvellous plunge down a steep stepped path into the wooded, fern filled valley of Afon Soden. Halfway down was a new temporary sign indicating that the land on the sunnier, Northern slope of the cwm is being managed to protect and extend potential habitat for the nationally very rare Pearl-bordered fritillary, Boloria euphrosyne, butterfly. We’ll have to return in April or May and see if we can manage to see any.
Climbing back out of the valley, the walk takes you more gradually uphill again, and towards the coastal path. It was while passing through one of the rather overgrown small fields attached to the farm at Caerllan, that I first spotted a lump of white foam on the grass. On a perfect sunny day, and with a chilling strong South Westerly wind, I couldn’t immediately work out why this foam was there. However, in the 5 minutes it took for us to walk down towards the coastal cliffs, over grass very tightly cropped by a group of ponies, the reason became clear. Sea foam was being generated way below on the cove’s beach, where the water of incoming waves was being whipped by the wind into the whitest of froths, which was then plastered onto the surrounding rocks and beach. Occasionally, a strong gust would lift off chunks of foam, break it into smaller pieces, and then blow it up, above the cliffs and inland. Strangely neither of us could recall seeing such a wonderful phenomenon before.
I don’t know whether there is a name for such small pieces of windblown sea foam. Perhaps there should be? Spindrift and spume are both words relating to spray or foam whipped off waves by strong winds. I discovered that Leucothea (Leucothoe, Leukotheo) was, in ancient mythology, a Greek sea goddess of spindrift, click here for more. We have 3 different forms of the evergreen shrub Leukothoe growing in the garden, though I wasn’t previously aware of this connection with the ancient and divine. Possibly so called because of the pendant racemes of whitish flowers that top the glossy leaves in spring. A valuable gap filling addition in our woodland garden, though quietly unspectacular, and one of those plants that suffered here in last year’s drought and heatwave.
But back to the chunks or lumps of windblown foam. There certainly should be a noun to describe them. Chunks, or lumps are heavily inappropriate.
A lighter, spirit-like word would be better. In the absence of anything else, (please enlighten me anyone, if I’m missing something) I propose ffloss, (of sea foam). With a nod to the Welsh language, alliteration, and the text below, and with a necessary hint of lightness and air.
The sight of bursts of windblown ffloss racing inland over close cropped grass and rusty bracken immediately had both Fiona and I thinking of the verse she’d included in the handwritten anthology birthday book of spells and poetry, which she’d made and presented to me, for my 21st birthday.
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.
From Part two of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and just before the perhaps better known:
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
Or even better, writing this on the day that Wales impressively once more won rugby’s Six Nation’s Grand Slam, click below to listen to another great Welshman, Richard Burton, recite the first 3 parts of this iconic poem (with a little help from Robert Hardy).
We reached the cliff above Castell Bach (Little Castle) bay and surveyed the glorious scene. Click here for more history of this ancient site. Very familiar views, and bringing back many happy memories of family seaside trips here when our boys were younger. Though also once the location of a lucky escape when I took my home built Mirror dinghy round from the beach at Cwmtydu, and into the bay for lunch powered by an elderly and temperamental Seagull outboard motor. Finding the wind and waves beginning to pick up, and with the motor refusing to pull start for the return trip, I was forced to row back around the point, with now slightly alarmed, and life jacketed youngsters, as the wind and waves steadily became more threatening.
Do they still remember this decades later, with the same clarity that I recall my first similar trip as a young lad, with dad at the oars of a borrowed bolt-together-in-the- middle small dinghy, with no lifejackets, taking to the sea from the glorious remote and pristine sands of Achmelvich bay in North West Scotland. Dad had been generously leant the dinghy by one of the very few other intrepid caravanners who’d trekked all the way up to the North West of Scotland in the late sixties.
Rowing the 3 older boys out a considerable way to the point where we could see past the two cliff arms enclosing the wide bay, he eventually decided it was time to head back to shore, only to discover that the tide had turned, and what had been an enjoyable leisurely sunny afternoon, became a slog of epic precautions, sweat dripping from his brow, as one of us asked the helpful question,
“Dad, what happens if the bolts come apart?”
However this sowed the seeds for his own Mirror dinghy acquisition the following year, and a decade of sailing and fishing based activities which kept the growing male family active, competitive, and distracted through their teenage years.
This did though instil in me a healthy respect for the potential dangers of the sea ever since.
On this day though, the beach lay predictably empty, the tricky path zigzagging down the steep cliff lathered in foam.
At the margins.
Of Land and Sea and Air.
A spirit sign.
No attempt to hover here.
Unlike this January, when we’d journeyed to remember.
Thick in navy wool, and double socked we’d pressed limbs tight
And sat. Still and quiet in lofty stone clad, chilly silence.
Joined by many; familiar faces few.
Tributes given. Heard. Remembered.
Hymns sung. Strangely William Wilkins’.
For us – two pilgrims in this barren, foreign land.
And right in front, the soprano’s clear rendition:
“I know that my redeemer liveth”.
Then, later, over tea and cake and simple sandwiches,
I struggled with the lightened mood.
And warmth. And gathered throng.
Ripped off my sombre tie, and down the road pulled up
And laid by. And low. And talked.
And as we ate, car cocooned
Beside the busy road, with rushing traffic,
North and South,
A grey and windy Friday afternoon.
Kept us company. Three times she flew
From silhouetted dying oak.
Three times she hovered, East and West,
Above the trashy unkempt verges,
Wings beating, fast, in ripping gusts, immobile
Head rigid, still and fixed. Eyes down, focused.
A Freed Spirit. Unconstrained, and uncontained.
We left the coast via glorious uphill wooded path,
Through ancient wood of sea gnarled Oak,
And Holly and Heather; where silent
Lay the bleached fox skull.
And nearing home, and climbing fast, past the Mynydd’s
Ancient quarry where, three years back,
I’d stopped and pee’d and watched it, posted.
Pluck and Rip and Tear.
Beneath the Buzzard, chunky; butcher,
Arrowing down the cwm and gale.
A Diving Spirit, chestnut breasted.
Did she smile?
Our walk continued with the climb up from Castell Bach bay and down once more into Cwmtydu, and as we neared the gravelly cove, an unfamiliar thin strange cry snagged the wind’s roar. I swung the camera round thinking it might again be the kestrel, Falco tinnunculus, returning, but instead suspected, and later confirmed by the very thin pink tinged beak, that it was a chough, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax.
And shortly after, for comparison, the chunkier form of a raven, Corvus corax, also battling, or was that actually relishing, staying in one piece in the buffeting wind?
And people? None save a couple with friendly collie, chasing a ball on the seething beach. I notice that Castell Bach bay has the grand total of just two, 5 star google reviews, compared with a couple of hundred for Cwmtydu. Walk there and enjoy it, whatever the weather, while you can, and see why this site was chosen around 300 BC by ancient Celts for an early hill fort.
Last September I’d very sensibly opted to make planting of the 1,000 Snake’s-head fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris, bulbs which arrived in the bulb order, my first priority. I think I’d read that the success rate for planting dry fritillary bulbs wasn’t that high, but in any case, it was a case of kicking planting off, with something small and easy, since I was still a little limited in movement, post hernia surgery.
Over the last 10 days I’ve been fascinated to see how they’re now starting to emerge – much earlier than anticipated, but I guess this is in part because of the often observed effect with bulbs planted “dry”, as opposed to “in the green”, of flowering much earlier than normal in the year after planting.
Do you enjoy the view?
Now you’ve settled in this distant land.
Ripped from level flats. Dried. Trapped and plastic netted.
Boxed and Shipped. Twice. Waiting.
Torn and tipped and rattled,
Till grubby gloved finger prods
You into shaley soil, beneath the woven
Green, green, grassy thatch
Of this, now relocated, home.
Resting a while, you shun the winter
Storms. Sheltered, if you can call it that.
With worms and Leather-jacketed grubs, as odd bedfellows.
And everywhere those fragile fungal hair fine strands, which never
Touched you, intimately, in former, sterile poldered soil.
The rain does it. Works its magic spell,
And secretly, hidden, your roots stake
Foreign claim in this strange sloping hillside turf.
And now plumped up, yet still unsure, unsafe, you peep
In ones and twos. Refreshed and hibernated.
Almost invisible, amidst the moss sponged mat.
Does the moon encourage you? Or teeming stars?
Or fleeting sunlight’s warming rays? Or rain? And rain? And rain?
Or Stormcock’s springtime serenades, from dying larch’s crown?
Impossibly fragile, awkward even, you spear up, and through.
Then flop, as if diseased, or poisoned. Your tiny virgin’s skirt
Flirting with muddy worm cast earth, once freed
From clasping tight, that leafy
But where’s the symmetry of Tenby’s best?
You can’t decide how many leafy limbs should grow.
Or how to place them, off your brown stained trunk.
Or should your skirts be twinned. Or white?
Or whether framing devilish horns are fashionable.
So slink. And flopsy leaves splay everywhere,
Deformed and bent, impossibly double. Yet wait!
Your confidence returns, and gaining height,
With ballerina poise you stretch those five, or six, or seven, or nine…
You can’t agree just how many leaves should count.
But curvaceous guttered green,
Thin, and trim, to catch what counts as daylight,
They channel beating rain or dew; the slender stem,
Improbably, still fully bent.
Inverted perfect U.
Dye your stretching cloth with chequered burgundy stain. And
White. And inner green. And then throw caution to March’s
Treacherous tunes, pick up your skirt, raise it aloft,
And hang. Seductively swaying. Loose. And wide.
Will such charms lure bumbling local ladies?
And, fecundity assured, flood late June’s field?
Profligate with papered, embryo’d, and straw tinged, pale confetti,
Spilt from split six-sided barrels now upstanding, tall,
All trace of immature contortion long forgotten.
The rusty sorrel seeds will mingle, quietly, when shed amidst
The clangs and clatter of gay, hay making toil.
Anaesthetised with such sweet vernal fumes,
They’ll lie. Patient, for seduction’s retribution
Once aftermath recovery and cloven hooves return.
Then pressed down hard, into that mossy bed, they slumber.
‘Til winter’s chill stirs change, and starts the ticking clock face.
Now activated, the race for life is primed.
Moisture seeps and swells, and sensing growth,
Your freed radicle explodes.
It’s a particularly exciting time of the year to see what seedlings are emerging.
Not just of those seeds saved and sown in pots, but more particularly those in various areas of the garden where seed has fallen naturally, or been collected and scattered by this flower obsessed gardener.
For the first time it looks like I have decent germination from some Sidalceas, which we always enjoy in the magic terrace garden, and where different forms can probably extend the interest, since the lovely flowers rarely seem to continue for much more than 2 weeks.
The jury is out on my saved Primula sieboldii. I fear that many seed may have germinated in late autumn, and then been killed in the brief but very hard frosts we had in late October. (Although since I wrote this, it does look like a few more seedlings just emerging top left, to join an overwintered one, bottom right). I read, too late for last year on the excellent Barnhaven Primulas website, that they suggest saving the seed, and delaying sowing until November to try to avoid this risk. You can buy seed from them, and their sowing guide seems very clear, so I’ll include the link for anyone thinking of trying this next year. Click here.
I’ll try to post again about these lovely spring plants, which so far seem to be thriving in our very damp conditions, and bulking up nicely.
Some Devil’s-bit Scabious, Succisa pratensis, seeds have possibly germinated from locally collected seed, to supplement those scattered in our lower wet meadow, and which are already beginning to establish there.
But my biggest delight is seeing bulb seedlings, and even a few flowers of Muscari latifolium, popping up around the garden. I’m completely hopeless at recording where I scatter such saved seeds, but the usually single, almost tulip like leaf of this species of Muscari is unmistakable, with its ruddy tinged leaf base, and the attractive Oxbridge two tone blue flower spike, which wows the bees on a sunny day.
As is typical with many bought in bulbs, few of the original several hundred planted in the terrace garden have survived, but sufficient seed is produced, that we might in time be able to create our own genetic pool of plants, which enjoy growing in our particular conditions.
There are so many single leaf seedlings appearing this year, it’s tricky to be certain what many of them are, other likely possibilities being the excellent Narcissus ‘Topolino’, or Camassia quamash (esculenta). But given seedling survival should be brilliant because of the current dearth of slugs, another few years should see this cohort of plants taking over as the parents reach the end of their often frustratingly short lives.
At least that’s the hoped for plan!
Wonderful post Julian with so much to read, see and enjoy. We’ll try to go on your walk as it’;s a new one for us and maybe we’ll be lucky enough to see a chough and a kestrel too! Spring is certainly springing in your garden- it all looks beautiful.
Thanks Marianne, It’s certainly a great walk, and if you choose the right day – not Wed. or Thurs. I think, you can get a coffee and cake half way at the little cafe in Cwmtydu,
Sounds just our sort of walk…thanks Julian.
The information about frit bulbs (bought dry and other genera possibly not persisting when they are brought into the garden from outside) was so helpful to explain my own experience, but best of all, the wonderful poem about the fritillary. Only a gardener and a true poet could write something as lovely as that. I have copied and pasted to enjoy again later. Thanks so much for sharing.
Thanks very much for the kind comment… I always like it when others appreciate my “poems”! Actually the effort of deciding to write something about Fritillaries made me go out several times and look at them in more detail – always worth doing. The rabbits have decapitated a few flowers early on, but since they’re poisonous, I think it was just experimental sampling. I’m probably going to write a bit more about bulb viability…something which nurseries are never good at giving guidance on, but which is really important if one’s to avoid too high failure rates,
Great idea – I look forward to reading it!
Really enjoy your site as you cover so many different aspects of the wild. It encourages me to try harder myself, have a sea eagle using my house as a beacon for its fly over to its nesting site for almost a year but just never bene ready to take a photo. Also a strange one I would appreciate comments on, when I was younger (40 years ago) I observed an almost black stoat sized animal hunting rabbit about two miles away from my house. Last summer sitting in our porch I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye at the open porch door, got up to investigate as it looked like it had come in to the house and in the back of our sofa. Lo and behold a near jet black animal between stoat an weasel size casually came out from under the sofa, moved slowly towards the door, turned and looked at me and then darted off in to the garden, it showed no fear at all. I have seen mink in the flesh and I know for a certainty this wasn’t a mink, has anyone ever heard of a melanistic stoat/weasel?, if not what could this possibly be?.
Thanks for the comment – how special to have a Sea eagle flying over! As to your small animal I’m afraid I can’t really help – I don’t think I’ve ever certainly seen a stoat or weasel. But I guess there’s no reason why you couldn’t get a very dark form. Presumably too small to be a juvenile polecat or pine marten?
Enjoyed your wonderful post, Julian. Sea foam carried by the wind do look like something of the spirit world. Chough and Kestrel are very rare where I live. Our Chough has bright red bill and legs. Fritillaria is one of my Spring favorites. We call them Sneakheads.
Thanks Inese, actually Kestrels now are very rare here apart from near the coast apparently – which is where the choughs are restricted to, so great to see both. I do hope our Fritillaries multiply over time – they’re such wonderful early spring flowers,
I loved the photograph of the kestrel. I have had little success with the Fritillaria meleagris (a single flower this year) but I did not plant many. The Muscari are at last making headway but only since I have dug some up from a friend’s garden. I enjoyed seeing your wild Wales, which I know nothing about. Amelia
We went to another garden at the weekend where Fritillaries had seeded everywhere – even in dense shade beside evergreen tree bases, like Cyclamen, but then this was quite a wet site, and it is wet West Wales. But the owner told me he’d started with seed, grown it in his veg garden in rows,then planted out the small bulbs. Subsequently he’d saved seed and rather than just scattering it, had made spade cuts in turf, and sprinkled seed in – he reckoned, not surprisingly perhaps, that this had given greater success rates. I pass this on, only because we’ll do this this year with any seed, and years ago we had a few Fritillaires, and they were all taken out by slugs early on. Increasingly I think that critical mass with seeding plants is probably really important to properly establish things – I wish I’d worked this out years ago!
I think we’ll be adding more Muscari, since the bees seem to lobe them!
I think it might be easy to under estimate the natural seed loss in some plants. I like the spade cut idea. We have a lot of Muscari here just growing around the roadside so I am more optimistic about its spread now.