Flotsam; Barnacles; Pottiputki; Whelm – So Long.

One of the constant themes in the garden here is the ever-changing weather that we can experience in the same month, and from year to year. So no surprise that after one of the sunniest and driest Februarys, March should be turning out to be generally cold wet, and dreary, thus far. It looks like we’d have to go back at least 4 years to find a worse beginning to March. This map shows just how few hours of sunshine we’ve had up to March 14th – there’s been no real improvement since. Still, at least we don’t live in Exeter or Cork.

This has meant a pause in garden visitors, which coincided with a pre-planned short break away on the nearby Pembrokeshire coast.

As is our way we try to find quiet cottages to stay in, and on this occasion were delighted to discover the wonderful place, and owners of Felin Hescwm. We felt a real affinity with Jo and John, who have had their own amazing journey of restoration of decrepit old buildings, and their creation of a unique garden using the very special features of the site, which incorporates a corn mill, mill house, granary store, and pig stye  All listed buildings, and all restored with great sensitivity and an attention to detail and craftsmanship I’ve never experienced before.

What’s more the gardens and environs include many pools, leat, streams, and even a small waterfall which we looked out onto, which all make their way down the narrow river valley, and end up at the delightful small cove and pebbly beach of Aberbach. I was aware when I found the cottage online, that the valley was carpeted at this time of the year with snowdrops and early Narcissus pseudonarcissus, and it made for a magical walk down to the beach beside the stream, despite the frankly chilly, grey, and wet weather we had for much of our stay.

We were so grateful to Jo and john for making our stay so comfortable, and also for kindly allowing me to take a few snowdrops to add to the list of local Welsh-origin snowdrops now growing at Gelli Uchaf, amongst some of their posher cousins.

In just 3 days we experienced a range of views of the pebbly beach, from grey and drizzly, through a brief late afternoon sunny interlude with a few Oystercatchers adding a splash of colour, then snow flurries and finally an angry sea with crashing breakers, on the morning we left. We’ve already booked a return stay.

On our first morning walk across the beach looking for interesting pebbles, a simple pleasure we’ve engaged in over many years, which has helped us to create the beach and wave effect on our slate-capped terrace wall, something caught my eye. A 3D curved crescent of some sort of textured plastic, which had a crop of unusual small shellfish attached. I knew they weren’t tiny mussels, but had no idea exactly what they were. Fiona reckoned immediately that the plastic was probably from a peaked cap, similar to those that I recall first seeing as Breton sailing caps on a family holiday as a child decades ago. I took a few photos, and after some debate, we left the cap on the shore, where it lay above the high tide mark.

The rest of the day involved a trip down to St. David’s to see a couple of art installations we were told were worth visiting. A bonus was seeing the wonderful series of fine drawings inspired by The Psalms, by Welsh artist Jez Thomas, displayed inside the main body of the cathedral.

In addition, we spotted 3 large wooden structures to the South East of the cathedral walls, shaped a bit like skeps. Closer inspection showed that they were indeed built to house honey bee colonies, although they were vast spaces, so I imagine must have housed more conventional hive structures inside the outer wooden layer. Though how one would ever manage to lift the outer layers was a mystery to me.

Ignoring the bilingual signs placed a long way from the hives, I was intrigued to see where the entrances were, and how much activity there was on a chilly morning. The answer was zero, with no sign of dead bees at the hive entrance either. So I was unsure whether they actually contained viable colonies at that time. I’m a little worried that such signs contribute to a societal trend to be anxious about insects, which is wonderfully explored by Professor Dave Goulson in his recent lecture at the National Honey Show – “Silent Earth – Saving our insects”. He features another photo (interestingly another Welsh/English bilingual sign) he was sent, warning about flying insects.

(Later research at home – since there seemed little in the way of an explanation on site – is that they are part of a project called Ancient Connections, exploring the ancient historical links between West Wales and Ireland. More particularly the Welsh artist, Bedwyr William, was inspired by a legend relating to St David and St Aiden and honey bees. Apparently when St Aiden left Wales, after being under the tutelage of St. David, the bees which he’d tended followed him to his ship as he prepared to embark and sail to Ireland to continue his mission.

He returned the bees to St David only for them to follow him once more as he returned to the ship. Again he returned the bees to the monastery. The third time that they followed him, David let Aiden take the bees with him to Ireland where in due course they produced an abundance of honey. 

‘Do the Little Things’ the sculpture and project’s title, is based on the last known words of St. David – “Gwnewch y pethau bychain”.

Bedwyr’s project, funded to the tune of £175,000, includes the installation of 3 similar skeps in Fern’s cathedral, county Wexford. The skep structures are made out of redwood cedar and can be lifted off in layers, allowing local beekeepers to place a conventional hive inside. Apparently, no bees have yet been installed, which accounts for my observed lack of activity! Click here for more. One might have thought that for £175,000 you’d have some on-site explanation other than a QR code, for those of the older population who choose not to carry a smartphone).

Musing on the shellfish-encrusted cap over lunch, I reckoned that if the species weren’t inter-tidal, like a barnacle or limpet, they probably wouldn’t have survived above the high tide mark for any length of time, and I had lurking at the back of my mind the potential for creating something artistic from this structure, inspired by the work of Carol Gzdiak, who’d visited our garden the week before.

After chatting with Carol, we’d arranged a trip down to see her naturalised snowdrops behind the old beautiful old house where she lives in the Tywi valley. It turns out this was, like Jo and John’s story and indeed our own, a saga of an epic house restoration over 3 decades. Bringing back an old property, located in a wonderful rural location from the very brink of destruction. And in so doing, perhaps inevitably, acquiring an intensely strong bond and love for the place that you live in.

However, the bonus was discovering a little about the diverse career path that Carol has followed, involving both teaching creative arts and design as well as making her own very creative jewelry, which not only saw her winning the Gold Medal for Craft & Design at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in 2006 but also led her to breaking away from the conventional ideas of what “precious” materials might mean, to consider using items found in nature.

I’ll include her artist’s statement from a few years ago which I tracked down online, and which seemed to strike a chord with me :

Precious – adj 1. worth a great deal of money 2. highly valued, much loved, or considered to be of great importance 3. rare or unique and therefore to be used wisely or sparingly or treated with care. (Encarta 1999).

My work focuses on ecological issues that draw on the visual and conceptual language of the natural world. The notion of ‘preciousness’ or rather what we perceive as precious, is central. I question the values of contemporary society and our inclination towards self-interest, material worth and ostentation. We become preoccupied with the quest for possession, and in so doing we overlook the simple pleasures of life. It is these simple pleasures, my simple pleasure of walking, foraging and finding treasures, that others maybe fail to see, that allows me to contemplate the modern world in which we live. The natural pieces that I select are specific. Form is paramount; that which is overlooked, odd or indeed unexpected. These pieces may be used in their natural state, protected by glass flasks which in turn suggest extinction or cast in white porcelain to create wearable pieces.
Within my current body of work I specifically chose to echo the forms and language of traditional jewellery by taking the notion of precious in a traditional context and subverting it. Valued gemstones are replaced with natural treasures, the expected velvet lined box is replaced by porcelain and preserved moss. The inclusion of these natural elements hint at a certain fragility. They invite the viewer to embark upon an intimate relationship with the work, a relationship founded on a new form of appreciation, commitment, sentimentality and possession. The pieces invite you to care and in doing so force you to question what is and what we perceive as precious, reinstating nature in its purest form as the most precious of all commodities.”

Carol talked about the impact that Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’ “The Lost Words” book had on her – common words from nature recently removed from the Junior dictionary because of their lack of contemporary usage. She showed us a wonderful creation, a creature made from found natural items, which she’d carefully placed, “stuffed” almost, in an old taxidermy case. She’d used it over the years to interact with young students to reflect on what is ‘precious’ in this world.

Was this the last, only remaining preserved example of its kind? A now-extinct being, only to be appreciated in its museum-like preserved state?

Or a prompt to get out there, and take the time and effort to examine the beautiful and stunning designs to be found in nature all around us? Rather than focusing on the inanimate and virtual worlds that many now seem to inhabit.I duly collected some snowdrops from her garden and pointed out that, quite unusually, there was a little bit of variation in inner segment markings and form amongst her modest population, which is not all that common in my experience. I also mentioned, since she knew of Macfarlane’s work, that a video had just been uploaded of an interview between Macfarlane and my younger brother Mark, who’d taught Macfarlane English at Pembroke. The main part of the video is a really interesting discussion of Mark’s recent book “The Catch” – based on Ted Hughes’s obsession with fishing and its influence on his work, as well as Mark’s detective work in bringing this to light for the first time. And for anyone who’s visited us, (and used our loo!), there’s a lovely section right at the beginning about Mark’s poem “In Translation”, which hangs on the wall behind the loo. There’s no discussion of how the poem came into being ( it was actually my suggested form of non-monetary recompense for a holiday spent by Mark at Gelli in its very early, unrestored state), but it’s a wonderful vignette amongst many in this video, about how poems can lodge in the mind, and capture moments in time.

But back to the washed-up shellfish on Aberbach beach. In the evening, I uploaded some photos of them, and after trawling the internet with no joy to find any similar examples on some excellent comprehensive sites of British species, I sent a couple of images to Kate Smith of the West Wales Biodiversity Information Centre. I was beginning to get excited that they might be something exotic or unusual. I was delighted to hear back from Kate in no time at all with a species name, Lepas anatifera, and her own even more dramatic photo of a large log encrusted with these barnacles which she’d found on a beach in Pembrokeshire.

Lepas anatifera has an extensive distribution in tropical and subtropical seas worldwide. Because it’s frequently attached to objects carried into colder seas by currents, it can also be found well away from its place of origin and in waters too cold for it to breed. It’s a hermaphrodite and starts to breed when it is about 2.5 centimetres long. Fertilisation of the eggs is internal and the eggs are brooded inside the mantle for a week before emerging as microscopic, free-swimming nauplius larvae. After further development, drifting as part of the plankton, these settle onto floating objects. The nauplius larvae don’t look anything like the adult barnacles and have a single eye, which is lost in the adult form.

The origin of the common name for these barnacles is interesting. In the thirteenth century, the word “barnacle” was chosen and first used for a species of goose (Branta leucopsis). This species breeds in the Arctic, but over-winters in the British Isles so its nests and eggs were never seen by people in Britain. At the time, it was thought that the gooseneck barnacles that washed up occasionally on the shore had spontaneously generated from the rotting wood to which they were attached and that the geese might be generated in a similar way. Further support for this idea came from the observation of the tuft of brown cirri, the barnacle’s feeding apparatus, that protrudes from the body of the crustaceans, which looked a bit like the down of an unhatched gosling.

All of these discoveries made me think it merited a poem, which needs much revision, but here goes:



How long have oceans washed your peak?

Where did your journey start?

Whose cap flew off, or fell, was dropped?

Which nameless face exposed?


What fabric clothed this textured curve?

How long before it rotted?

Where were those brooded eggs released?

What did your naupliar eyes review?


How many siblings followed you?

In that teeming plankton soup.

So many swam, so many died,

The lucky few clung on, survived.


For each year lived, one seed held safe,

And shedding eye and simple limbs,

Attached, laid down your five smooth plates.

Grew frilly cirri, sieved the sea.


Your peduncle was firmly fixed,

Now drifting safe, till tides betrayed.

Your yellowed lips evade those red foot bills

Beached high and dry at Aberbach.


But there your storm-flung flotsam journey ends,

Plucked, special token, precious souvenir.

Pelagic gooseneck barnacles.

Fragile reminders, long-drifted here.



All of this gloomy wet March weather does of course have one benefit. The late-season snowdrops are indeed a bit later, and lasting longer than normal with our poor honey bees having very few suitable weather windows to get out and forage. Thank goodness for the Hellebores, which are currently the bees’ preferred flowers, with drooping heads in which they can safely shelter from the rain whilst still gathering nectar and pollen.

However, all this poor weather does mean that it’s been perfect conditions for moving snowdrops in the green, as well as planting out the unsold “specials” in pots. I’ve always done this by hand and trowel, forking up clumps, tugging off a few bulbs and then bending over, making a hole, planting the spilt clump, and backfilling with compost if necessary. Miserable wet weather work with bent knees and back mostly. Worth doing though, since over the years it’s created the extensive displays we now enjoy throughout the garden. After 30 years of doing this, however, I’ve just discovered thanks to a one-line sentence in a feature on the spectacular naturalistic spring bulb displays at Doddington Hall, that there’s another faster and more comfortable way of doing this!

None of our gardening friends seem to have heard of this but on the strength of “he plants about 500 snowdrops an hour in the green using a Pottiputki”  I tracked one down, used it for a couple of days, and can confirm that it’s a delight, and will transform several bulb, seed and maybe even small plant related plantings in the months ahead. After discovering there doesn’t currently seem to be a YouTube showing how it can work with bulbs in the green, I even came out from behind the tripod-supported camera, to make one. Fiona rightly commented that it’s too long, but you get the gist of how the tool works in the first 2 minutes if you can’t be bothered to watch the whole thing. It’s not cheap, but I reckon it’s paid for itself already.

Many of the WHSH local origin G. nivalis, especially from Pembrokeshire, are at their peak now, and I did make a point of checking up on one of my tentatively named WHSH ones called ‘Whelm’. First noted and named in early 2020, when its particularly long ovary, (much longer than the outer segment petal length, when the flowers first emerge), was striking.

Readers may recall something else of note was just starting to garner attention around that time, which I wrote about in my “Overwhelmed?” blog post. Beginning thus on 31/01/2020 –  “Me, or you, by the end of this?”.

Not that this other news story seemed to distract our then Prime Minister from concentrating on celebrating his Brexit achievements as January 2020 drew to a close. 3 years on, and ‘Whelm’ has settled down a bit, and the photos below show how different it is to another form of G. nivalis collected from the same site – all G.nivalis really aren’t the same.

Life indeed seems to be settling down a bit too, although the recent disclosure of Matt Hancock’s What’s App messages exchanged between some of the key players in the formulation of the British pandemic response had me (temporarily), stretching my one news story a day limit/moratorium. Daniel Hannan’s very recent piece on 18/03/2023 mirrors my own thoughts exactly, beginning thus:

It’s their sheer smallness that is so striking. Their banality. Their triteness. I had hoped, reading The Lockdown Files, to find some explanation for the miseries that were inflicted on us in 2020. Perhaps decisions that looked imbecilic to the rest of us might make sense to those in the control room, able to survey information that we could not see. Perhaps there was a grand plan.

But not a bit of it. What we see in the leaked WhatsApp messages are petty, frightened men at the mercy of events. They obsess over tweets and news reports. They fret about how they are coming across.

Again and again, decisions are made for presentational rather than medical reasons. Quarantine could safely be cut from 14 to five days; but the problem, says Matt Hancock, is that this would “imply we’ve been getting it wrong”. “Imply”?

(Almost to the day of this article’s publication, was a detailed speech to parliament on 13/03/2023, of interest to anyone contemplating further Covid boosters. I provide this link – probably only available whilst Mr. Bridgen remains as an MP. He was suspended from the Tory whip for (admittedly very rashly – but heck isn’t that what Twitter is all about) – tweeting a quote, not his own, from an eminent cardiologist who had contacted him about the increasing evidence of the risks of serious side effects from Covid 19 booster jabs. The speech includes a detailed analysis of current government data on the risks, and benefits, of current vaccine boosters. Together with some discussion of the costs. I had personally examined much of this data online when it was published and can concur with the thrust of this detailed message to parliament. Like many MPs, the messenger isn’t a saint. Who is? However isn’t this a topic for proper analysis and debate in parliament, rather than a lemming-like exit of the few MPs present, once Mr. Bridgen stood up to present his information and ask some relevant questions?

But for those considering a further Covid jab in the future, perhaps it would be a good idea to scroll through the arguments for and against and formulate your own sensible risk/benefit analysis based on the government’s own figures. Or just ignore this at your possible peril. Apparently, two-thirds of NHS staff declined the offer of an autumn booster last year. Why might this be, dear reader? Are they more aware from personal experience of the incidence of problems post-booster vaccination, one might ask?

“… Taken from 25 January this year, when the Department of Health and Social Care published data from a presentation given by the UK Health Security Agency to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

The data published split the population into groups by age, and further divided those age groups into those considered healthy and those considered at risk. The numbers needed to vaccinate for each of those subgroups were calculated to prevent first, a single hospitalisation, and secondly, a single serious hospitalisation requiring oxygen or intubation—effectively, intensive care.

The figures are stark. To prevent just one healthy adult aged between 50 and 59 from being hospitalised due to covid, the Government’s own published data states that 43,600 people had to be given an autumn booster jab. With a serious adverse event rate of one in 800 from the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines – (those currently in use in the UK – sic), that means that in the healthy 50 to 59-year-old group, as a result of using the mRNA boosters, 55 people would die or be put into hospital with side effects to prevent one single covid case presenting in hospital.

The same data shows that, for healthy younger people, the number needed to be boosted to prevent a single hospital admission with covid-19 is far higher. Some 92,500 booster jabs were required to be administered to prevent one hospitalisation due to covid in the healthy 40 to 49 age group, which would simultaneously have put 116 people at probability of death or serious adverse reaction into hospital from the jab.“)

At the time of the first cases occurring in the UK, I noted that it was a heck of a job to have to make the tough calls, and few would have wanted to have been in their hot seats. Yet is this really how policy is made these days? Through speedily tapped out, multi-exchanged, smartphone messages?

To take things full circle, the Hancock What’s App exchanges had me reflecting on what I’m going to do at the next general election, probably in 2024. Vote or not vote? And if not, then do I spoil my ballot paper? Again.

Back in 2010, for the first and only time to date for me, I did this. And it was preserved for posterity since I secretly carried my camcorder into the polling booth, which was then in our local tiny village school in Rhydcymerau, to record what I wrote. The school has since closed and we have a postal vote. (I was told just this week, that just doing this – taking a camera into the polling booth, was an offence). Oh well, to quote the excellent Adam Alexander, The Seed Detective, who came for supper before talking to our gardening club this week, “As my mother told me when she was 92: “Adam, if they’re going to treat you like a criminal, you might as well behave like one!”

Although not original, the words I quickly scrawled on my ballot paper seemed appropriate at the time, since it had become clear to me that the voice or opinion of the concerned individual resident and voter had no influence locally.

 The lies and the greed of the leaders of men
 Those cheats who would take us to war again.

A few months later when I showed my finished film, ‘Epiphany In Translation’ which included this ballot spoiling scene, with some nervousness, to a full audience at Llansawel hall, I wasn’t expecting what happened. At the end of the screening, I was approached by a friendly chap who came over to me and said:

“Oh, so it was you! I was at the count in Carmarthen and everyone came over to have a look at your ballot paper. It caused quite a stir!”

Certainly not in the league of significant protests like the courageous Alexei Navalny, whose approved eponymous Canadian-produced film won the Oscar this week for Best Documentary. One to watch, I think.

All my film won was an empty cheap tin can stuck onto a green baize-covered black-painted wood plinth, at the subsequently discredited Swansea Bay Film Festival. I can’t even show you a photograph of this dodgy award – we chucked it out years ago, although not the film I’m glad to say which remains a wonderful record of that year, 2010, in this place.

Still, perhaps it was better to have done something by way of protest rather than nothing at all? Around that time, I had a recording of the song from which the lyrics I wrote came, by The Fureys and Davey Arthur, but their version was only a cover.

So, for a piece of music to conclude this post, I tracked down the Alex Campbell original. I’d never heard of this Scottish folk singer before, who died quite young, contracting throat cancer after a life travelling the world with his guitar and songs. I chose this YouTube version since he’s wearing a cap with a peak that looks quite similar to the one we found at Aberbach.

Which seems a good elliptical point at which to stop writing.