Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Under the mirrored surface

There is a place in Pembrokeshire that stole a piece of my heart from my first visit 23 years ago. It was a college day trip to Bosherston Lily Ponds, part of the Stackpole Estate run by The National Trust. As I wandered around its tree lined margins & peered into its crystal depths, another world appeared, one of dappled light & bejewelled fish, of sunbeams & shadows, a beautiful world of mystery & magic. From that moment I have wanted to peer into this sub surface realm of the fishes. I've enjoyed a love affair with Bosherston & its ponds ever since.

For many years now I have visited Bosherston Lily Ponds & meandered my way lazily around its edges peering into its life crammed water & watching its inhabitants. Sometimes its a shoal of tiny inch long Roach fry, thousands of slivers of miniature fish, often a shoal of larger Roach flanked silver blue & red finned perfection. In the shadows where the sunbeams dance with the dark & twisted branches reach for the lake bed like Witches fingers, Perch can be seen in their striped pyjamas or one of Bosherstons more sinister residents, old Esox, hanging motionless but for the gentle waft of pectorals fanning circles in the clear water.

Perch in the shadows wearing striped PJ's.

Old Esox hanging in the dappled light.
I visited the ponds last week with my friend Rhian, an enthusiastic photographer & all round good egg, to hopefully photograph some of the ponds inhabitants. We had both recently purchased Gopro cameras & were eager to try them out.

Lillies were rising from the silt on their journey to reach the sky. Stunning colours reminding me of those fruit salad sweets that I loved as a child, set against a backdrop of hazy Turquoise green.

Lillies on their quest for the sky.

Tiny 8 inch long Tiger striped Pikelets rested among the Lily stalks, patterns so striking & fresh like a snake having just shed its old skin.

A tiny Tiger striped Pikelet.

Another little beauty among a jungle of fruit salad Lillies.

One more just below the mirrored surface.

With a bit of string & some duct tape I was able to attach my camera to the end of an old telescopic landing net handle. This allowed me to lower the camera into otherwise inaccessible places, to get a fishes eye view into their own watery world. Being so small & unobtrusive I could get the camera closer to the fish than I would have been able to if i'd been in the water with them. The downside is the extreme wide angle which has the effect of making the fish appear further away than they actually were & if it was too close to them they appeared distorted & elongated, large Pike ending up looking like clowns. Overall though i'm really impressed with the quality of the images from such a tiny camera.

As we continued our explore of the edges, dipping our cameras in here & there & marvelling at the shoals of Roach & the quality of light ( its an Artist/ Photographers thing ) filtering through the Turquoise depths we came to a spot that looked so inviting for a future painting. A large overhanging tree, sunlight dappling the surface between the branches & a clear rocky lake bed below with jagged sunbeams making lightning strikes ripple along the silt & rock strewn floor.
I could see that the bank was undercut here & would make a perfect backdrop for a potential Pike or Perch painting. I lowered the camera in for a quick 360 degree film before lifting it out again. As I did so I noticed the large dark shape of a big Pike hanging in midwater a few yards out. At about 3 & a half foot long it must have been getting on for about 20lbs in weight.

The dark lair of a big Pike in an undercut bank.

With a fast beating heart the camera was lowered into the water again & I was shaking with the excitement of it. It didn't swim off as I was expecting but manoeuvred slowly towards the camera. The light criss crossed along its Leopard spot flanks, its eyes intense & me in a state of amazement.

I was so excited to capture this.

I was on a high but it was about to get even better. Moving along the bank we noticed a few more Pike, not as big as the one just seen but still beasts into double figures. Once again the camera was lowered into the water & the Pike responded with curiosity rather than fear. My heart made its way to my mouth as the Pike slowly made its way to the camera & at one point actually touched the camera with its Croc like jaws before turning away & fading into the distance. I already knew that I must have got some great footage so I took my camera off & put Rhian's on & handed her control of the landing net handle. The Pike did exactly the same & Rhian was now sharing the same high as me from our close encounter.

Returning to the clearest part of the ponds hardly being able to form words yet both babbling on about what we had just witnessed & the image of the Pike appearing every time I blinked.
The light, softer now, the sun lower & the colours of the Lillies more intense bathed in beautiful hues of pink, orange & olive green set against a cooling faded hazy blue green fog with Lily shadows cast softly as feathers along the silty bottom.
A male Mute Swan which Rhian insisted on naming drifted over & we were presented with another opportunity for some underwater footage. We named him Vesta.

( Swan ) Vesta

An afternoon i'll never forget, one of those red letter days full of close encounters with wonderful wildlife & planting so many seeds of potential paintings. Do have a look at Rhian's photography page on Facebook if you get a chance at Rhian Mai Photography.

I'll leave you with a couple of Perch paintings that I did earlier this year & also apologise for the very long gaps between my blogs. I try & live life at a reasonably slow pace to allow me to enjoy it more, to notice & appreciate the little things.

' In the dappled light, Perch ' Oil painting 48" x 30"

' Stripey Gangsters ' Oil painting 36" x 28"

And just one more for luck, painted last year.

' Marauding Perch ' Oil painting 1 metre square

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Saltmarsh creeks & estuarine mud

While on a recent trip to North Northfolk to deliver some paintings to Birdscapes gallery I had the opportunity to sit beside some lovely Saltmarsh & estuary habitats. I love to spend time in these places & to take it all in, to breathe deeply filling my lungs with that wonderful salty air & to hear the cry of the Curlew or the shrill high notes of piping Redshanks, the watchers of the creeks.
I spent a few hours at Morston Quay perched upon the wooden structures eating fresh seafood bought from a little van in the car park. Crab, Cockles, Whelks, Prawns & Crayfish & a squeeze of Lemon or a dash of malt vinegar. It was bliss. Jill found a spot to read her book & I took out my pen & made a few notes. I'll pepper these jottings with a painting or two, all fitting in with the theme but none of Morston Quay itself. There will be though at some point but I need to go back in better light.

'Snipe flight'.
The tink tink of rigging upon boat masts, the rasping throaty cries of Black Headed gulls, white winged angled shapes cutting through the air like a child's kite, Redshanks piping their song across the Saltmarsh & the trickle of fresh water flowing seaward.
The crackle & fizz of bronzed mud on a receding tide like a thousand glasses of Champagne. Slippery sheets of fallen sky puddle the slip slide silky wet mud. Tracks of birds criss cross the beak probed &  scarred surface where ropes, chains & a general raggle taggle of debris of a Saltmarsh creek lay discarded as if Houdini himself had just completed one of his escapology feats.

Silvered strips & ribbons flow seaward, gently twisting & meandering shallow crystal clear water. The tide yet to turn, slowly filling its more cloudy richness back into the creeks like blood through veins. Slowly it will rise to the timber edged platforms & walkways, mooring posts & jetties. Higgle piggle like a giant game of pick up sticks. Gulls wade disturbing the blue sky reflections, sending out circles, red billed & raucous. Small boats upon the mud at jaunty angles & unsure of themselves like drunks in a bar at closing time. They will sober with the returning tide but for now they lay beached & lifeless.

The aroma of Samphire & salt, of Bladderwrack & wet estuarine mud the consistency of a fine pate. Lost shoes & hats, parted from their owners lay sticking half in half out of the rich wet mud. Just how do you lose a shoe? Crab claws & broken shells scattered about like the remnants of a seafood buffet, Lobster pots ragged & skeletal, drying the sun.

Purple Sea Lavender carpet the top of the marshes, Samphire, short & succulent point to the blue above & Purslane, pale & green grey with oar like leaves grow in abundance here. Impossible to avoid treading upon some of the Samphire but it does have a very pleasing crunchy soft pop like a kind of marine bubble wrap. Tasty too, delicious in fact & one of my favourite vegetables. 
The breeze is full & rounded, a warm breeze yet cooling at the same time, comforting yet fresh. It is heady too with salty Summer undertones with a top note of hot grass & sand blown to my nostrils from the dunes further along the coast. Out at Blakeney point many more plants thrive in this special habitat, too many to mention & so many that I don't know. Two favourites do grow there though among the shingle & the sand. The first is the Yellow Horned Poppy with its paper thin blowsy petals of sunshine yellow & the other Sea Campion, delicate but hardy flowers of pale white with veins of pink so evocative of the Pembrokeshire cliff tops that I love to spend time upon.
Looking along the creek the sun is casting shadows from the marooned boats of the most beautiful blue upon the mud. A really stunning shade that I wish you could buy in a tube. At times of feeling low I could squeeze a little out & be cheered instantly. Colour can be so powerful in the emotions it provokes. Even on a dull day full of cloud & endless grey, the sight of a Kingfisher whizzing along the creeks will always cheer in its dapper impossibly blue jacket. It is one of natures magic spells.

Estuaries & Saltmarsh are so alive with life, positively teeming with it. My love affair with such places will i'm sure continue until my last days but not before i've at least tried to do them some justice with some paint & a canvas or two. Hopefully i'll write another blog soon on another subject close to my heart.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Floating upon a silken sea

Floating upon a silken sea
I must confess that it was way back in the depths of Winter that I last wrote a blog. It is now a month past the longest day & we are still waiting for Summer to properly arrive. Summer this year has been bitty, ragged, unclear of itself, almost as if its lost its confidence as to what its supposed to do. Before we know it, Autumn, that wonderful golden, fungal fruited time of year will be upon us but hopefully a little of Summers warm bright charm will pay a visit before the first Conkers fall from the trees.

In June 2006 my mate Andy & myself went on an overnight Kayaking & camping adventure in an impossibly beautiful part of Pembrokeshire. We've been on others but this one really sticks in the memory as one of the best. Its pouring with rain outside, the sky sodden & grey, it is cold & i've just put the heating on in July. I'm going to transport myself back to a coast of sunshine, cliff tops full of wild flowers & the tranquil turquoise sea of Pembrokeshire. If you want to come along too then please read on.

After part dragging, part carrying our two giant banana like kayaks to the beach, a distance of several hundred yards, we were already knackered. It was hot, the sky was cloudless & serene. Sitting upon the warm pebbles we rested & spied a small wildflower encrusted cliff top peninsula which to our eyes looked like a piece of Heaven had fallen from the sky. It is here that we set up camp.

Cliff tops crowded with flowers.

The view from our camp for the night.

The wild cliff top flowers were growing in such profusion that it was difficult to find a place for our tents but eventually we did. Like two beached Whales our kayaks we left at the back of the beach until the morning. The evening was glorious, the sun golden orange & red as it sank into the sea to meet itself & the promise of tomorrow & pushing off from the shore in our kayaks was all we could talk about. The rocky shoreline & stunning Pembrokeshire cliffs glowed in the radiance of the lowering sun, salmon pinks & shades of coral & the sea, slightly rippled & Turquoise.    


We toasted the sun with a beer & drifted to sleep listening to the gentle caress of the wavelets upon the shore & the distant cries of gulls.

We woke to another stunning day. It was early & already the day was full of sunshine & promise. After a wander over the cliff tops to snap a few pics of our campsite breakfast was cooked, devoured & cleared away. There cannot be a more pleasant experience than cooking in the outdoors, especially on a cliff in Pembrokeshire when you are about to explore the coast in your kayak. The excitement was building & I felt as if I was going to burst.


Our campsite cleared, the only clue to us having been there, some slightly flattened grass that was already springing back to point to the sky once more. We retrieved our kayaks, dragged them down the beach & pointed them at the sea. There is nothing like sitting in a kayak & with a little bit of forward momentum pushing yourself out onto the water. That exact moment that you are no longer in contact with the land but floating for the first time is absolute magic & you feel incredibly free & calm, unless of course you are heading out into the teeth of a force 10 gale. I don't suppose that would feel particularly calm or freeing. On this particular morning the sea was flat calm, the flattest & calmest i've ever seen it. It really was like a mill pond, a mirrored surface made of silk, rich in ozone saltiness & the aroma of hot barnacle encrusted rocks & dried seaweed.

We paddled up the coast exploring the tiny bays & inlets, sea caves & arches. Every couple of minutes wed catch up with each other & just break into smiles as broad as the Kelp that was gently swaying beneath us. The sea was crystal clear, the rocks sank into the depths kissed with emerald & turquoise & scattered with the dancing ragged sunbeams upon their rough Barnacle inhabited surfaces. Below, Wrasse would dart out of the forests of Kelp looking like they had ventured out forgetting they were still wearing their pyjamas & just as quick dart back in, curiosity satisfied. I did that once, went out to the local supermarket in my pyjamas. I only realised when I was getting out of the car so I carried on anyway. I don't think anyone noticed but I guess thats just the kind of town I live in.

Rafts of Razorbills swam & dived around us, their cackling calls echoing off the rocky cliffs & bays. As we rounded rocks, groups of them sat chatting in the bright morning sun, their bellies glowing from the reflected light & the Barnacles, shut as tight as can be hoping to survive until covered once more by the life sustaining sea. Wildlife never seems scared of you if you're in a kayak, it will let you get close. Maybe it doesn't recognise us as Humans, not seeing our usual upright stance but instead only seeing us from the waist up & with the addiction of a kayak skirt maybe its disguise enough.

Grey seals are great fun while exploring in a kayak. They do seem to recognise us as Humans but are still curious. They are sneaky though & will often pop up behind you so its tricky to see them but they can see you. Andy & I discovered a way to combat this. We just paddle backwards & it tricks the Seals into thinking that you are facing the other way. They pop up right in front of you so you can get a good look before they realise they have been fooled & dive back into the depths looking decidedly embarrassed. Luckily we saw Seals on this adventure, great flabby Seals basking in the sun upon bleached rocks looking like Jabba the Hutt but with Labrador faces. Such endearing mammals.

The sea cliffs on that morning in June were magnificent, ethereal & grand, bathed in beautiful morning light, dazzling & bright & to be beneath them on the surface of the sea I will never forget. Looking up into their craggy wildness & tracing them down into the emerald depths disappearing far down where its cool, dark & mysterious.

Paddling back the way we had come some more sea caves were explored, Razorbills passed & still chatting, probably about us & Grey Seals perched upon rocks like those ornaments that you can often buy at the seaside. With paddles sitting horizontally across our kayaks, gently cutting through the silky surface like a knife through butter ( salted of course ) & our hands trailing through the cool salt water we were happy. It had been a wonderful experience & for me personally all the better for sharing it with my mate. Its like watching a sunset. They are always beautiful to watch but to have someone with you to turn to & say "wow! look at that, " makes it even more enjoyable.

I managed to get some great reference for paintings during this short trip but to date I think i've only painted two inspired from it. One of Razorbills sat upon the rocks bathed in light & one of the cliffs with Andy in his kayak, tiny & floating beneath them. This one now hangs on his wall. I'll leave you with those two paintings. We really must get down to the coast again soon & do it all again.

Monday, 9 February 2015

A Dragon's Dawn, a field of spun silk & a house full of fire

An odd title perhaps but all will become clear. Yesterday was full of light, of bright Winter light but first came the Dawn. A Dawn of such intensity in its rich colours as to be almost unreal. I often miss the Dawn & was expecting to miss this one as we had friends over the night before. Much eating & laughing & merriment had taken place, so waking in time to witness the sunrise was not foremost in my mind. The bedroom was bathed in a cool blue light but at the edges of the two skylights the tone was warmer, a little peachy even. Before I turned to open the curtains to peer out I knew it was going to be a good one. I wasn't disappointed. The whole sky was rich & full & bloodied in red, edged in golden yellows & ragged oranges. It was as if a Dragon had belched across the sky. The land below, crisply blue with another of Jack Frosts visits & the lake, a shard of fallen sky hued deep salmon & rose pink. On one of the big Ash trees, two Buzzards sat high, silhouetted against the brightening sunrise. They sat there until the sun broke the lip of the horizon before deciding to go about their Buzzardy business. Birds sang with notes & tones that I hadn't heard since last Spring & Summer. Clues to Spring being just around the corner.

 After breakfast there was the morning after the night before clearing up to do but I enjoyed it, knowing that later we would venture out into the day, into the brightness of it & soak some of its radiance into our very souls.
At 3:30pm Jill & I made our way to the Towy, crossing the King's Bridge out onto the fields & along the river edge. The river meanders lazily through the valley but its awesome power is never in doubt. During the twenty two years that i've lived here I have seen the course of the river change so much, as it snakes its way through the land devouring fields & wooded banks & spitting them out along its course to make new fields & new banks.
In the bright yet warming sunbeams of this Winters day everything looked gorgeous but the best was yet to come. As we strode on, upstream, we admired whatever wildlife presented itself to us. Snipe sprung from the marshy ground, beautiful Teal flushed from small pools at the rivers edge, art deco little ducks, exquisitely painted & one of my favourites & Gooseanders scrabbled across the glassy surface like paddle steamers on speed.
As the sun was slowly sinking, fields full of gossamer silken webs of perhaps a million spiders carpeted the grass like discarded strings from Fairy Harps, translucent & beautiful. Absolutely stunning & rather than words i'll insert here the photos.

Jill sat amongst a field of silken webbed beauty

Jill haloed in the setting sun amongst the discarded strings of Fairy Harps

 Returning the way we came, the sun now lowering quickly, some sheep fat with lambs yet to be born were grouped in a field, naples yellow hued & reflected in the flat marsh pond, watching us & ready to bolt.

Stopping by Yankees' Pool to watch the last rays disappear over Llandeilo I watched some small insects, backlit as they danced upon the air, bouncing as if held by invisible strings. Mesmerising they were, with their little sun dance. At the exact moment that the last ray of the sun fell behind the hill, all the little flies parted & flew into the hawthorn hedge to settle for the night. How many of us I wonder are lucky enough to witness the bedtime of bugs.

Little dancing flies bouncing on the air just before bed.
Time to go & as we walked out onto the field which leads to the Kings Bridge a familiar hello found our ears. Friends from the evening before were also out for a stroll so tales from last night were echoed & the laughter resumed.
Some years ago I lived in a small cottage close to this part of the river & so i've walked across these fields more times than I could possibly imagine. So often when returning home I would see this house ( not mine ), a farmhouse which stands at the foot of a hill & when the sun set it would appear that the house was full of fire as its windows reflected the setting sun. I loved the intensity of it, the rage from within, golden & orange, like the sun had gone for tea. I always wanted to photograph it but never had my camera with me. Not a great photo I know but it gives you an idea.

So that was yesterday. A day of silken webs, of flushed ducks, of a sunrise & a sunset & what we were hoping for was the sight of an Otter. We didn't see one but that didn't matter, it was just great to be out. I'm out on the Towy at sunrise tomorrow with a friend, hoping to photograph some Otters. I'll let you know how we get on.