28 March 2016

My autograph book

Prompted by my recent encounter with someone who didn’t know what an autograph book was (though a quick survey of my Facebook friends proved he was very much in the minority!), I went searching for mine, and then took a long delightful meander through time and memories.

My book was a gift from next door neighbour Mrs Brown for my seventh birthday and hers is the nugget of wisdom on the first page. What a lovely lady she was!

The majority of the pages are covered with the usual jottings by friends – some serious, most silly – and pages of signatures that mark the ends of school years. 

There are also some more interesting entries. I remember a running race being held in my home town and being brave enough to ask many of the runners for their autographs, hence these pages showing the names of some of New Zealand’s greatest runners: Peter Snell, Bill Sutcliffe, Arthur Lydiard, Jeff Julian, Murray Halberg and more. This would've been mid 1960s, I think.

I was also fortunate to get the signatures of most members of the New Zealand Empire (now Commonwealth) Games team that competed in Jamaica in 1966. One of my uncles knew the team captain, Don Oliver, so a signature fest was arranged through that connection. I love the signatures here of the fencer and diver.

My book also contains a few signatures snipped and saved from my mother’s autograph book before she tossed it out long ago. The most well known is that of Lord Louis Mountbatten, who visited New Zealand in 1946, so I presume this autograph must date from that time. I don’t remember the circumstances of how mum obtained this, and she’s no longer around to ask. I have no idea who Alan C Baxter was, nor am I sure about Winifred Jordan, though there was a British athlete of this name who competed in the 1940s so she is a possibility.

My favourite entries are the quotations from my former school teachers, seeking to pass on a little life wisdom to their parting student. Many of these sayings I still remember off by heart, and I have very fond memories of these teachers who played a very formative role in my early life. As usual when one takes a trip down memory lane, I can’t help but wonder what happened to these people.

20 March 2016

Cardiff art: the Beastie Benches

Cardiff is blessed with some rather lovely public artworks, none more so than the Beastie Benches, a series of nine carved brick benches that can be found in the Britannia Park and Quay area that runs along two sides of Roath Basin at Cardiff Bay.

These are the work of Welsh sculptor Gwen Heeney, a ceramics expert who specialises in working with brick. Her raw materials, the terracotta bricks, came from Dennis of Ruabon, the very same brick and tile company that supplied the decorative panels for the Bay’s iconic Pierhead building more than a hundred years ago.

The Beastie Benches are aptly named. The Beasts were inspired by the mythical creatures brought to life in ‘The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait’, one of the most well-known of famous Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s poems. It’s a very long poem, too long to reproduce in full in this post, but here’s a link if you fancy a read. 

The poem’s subject matter has been much discussed by critics since Thomas’s early death in 1953 at just 39 years of age. With allusions to literary and scientific works and the Bible, with plays on words and multiple layers of meaning, it may describe Thomas’s own voyage through life, it could be about a series of sexual experiences and their consequences, or it may relate to the search for salvation through the mortification of the flesh.

Heeney has taken lines and phrases from the poem and allowed her imagination to transform these into the mythical creatures that now provide a welcome place to sit on a sunny day. The names of the benches are fascinating enough in themselves: The lured fish under the foam; Sing and howl through sand and anemone; Thrown to the sea in the shell of a girl; Venus lies star-struck in her wound; Bird after dark; and the laughing fish; In the continent of a fossil; Turns the moon-chained and water-wound Metropolis of fishes; and There is nothing left of the sea.

I dare you to sit on one of these and not be inspired to write your own poem or paint a vivid picture. 

The lured fish under the foam

Sing and howl through sand and anemone

Thrown to the sea in the shell of a girl

Venus lies star-struck in her wound

Bird after dark (It seems the bird has been the subject of some after-dark shenanigans!)

and the laughing fish

In the continent of a fossil

Turns the moon-chained and water-wound Metropolis of fishes

There is nothing left of the sea

08 March 2016

It’s a sign: Wales, part one

My previous blogs about signs in different countries around the world have always proved popular so, from my first six months’ living in Wales, here are a few of what this country has to offer.

Which way? I had a map and even I was confused by this one. A number of public footpaths intersect at this point in the leafy greenness of Long Wood, in the Forest Farm Nature Reserve, near Cardiff, which is not really surprising, as these broadleaf woodlands are ancient and people have probably been walking these paths for hundreds, if not thousands of years.   

Sometimes I think urban and state authorities get a little carried away with their signage requirements. The danger sign at left may once have been a good idea but is now in the middle of quite a dense patch of trees and scrub so no one is going to be swimming or paddling anywhere thereabouts. And, though I’ve been across the stream pictured in the photo on the right after several days of heavy rain, the little bridge has still been useable and I’ve never seen the water high enough to be called deep.

One of the many things I like about living in Wales is the Welsh language – not that I know more than a few words, mind you. It’s difficult enough to pronounce the few I do know, never mind learning a new language at my advanced age. But I like to see it being used, and most signs are bilingual. You may think it’s a bit mean asking people not to feed the birds but this is near a wetland reserve where, I assume, they don’t want to encourage a huge influx of scavenging gulls.

How considerate is this? Kudos to the team at Cardiff’s beautiful Bute Park for providing hot thirsty dogs with their very own access steps at several points along the old canal, though I’m thinking most dogs would quite like to just run and jump!

I don’t have a smart phone so I can’t read the QR code on the sign above but that image looks like a snake to me and, though there are only 3 snake species native to Britain and I would quite like to get photographs of them, just the idea of one of them hiding in the long grass is more than enough to warn me off. Signs like this, pointing out the locations of birds, butterflies, orchids, etc are common in the nature reserves here.

I’m not exactly sure what the sign at left is all about. Maybe it’s indicating where the cycle lane begins for north-bound cycling traffic. What I like about it is the Welsh word for north which I thought, at a quick glance, said google!

If you liked these Welsh signs you might also enjoy these: signs in Peru, in Cambodia, in England part one and part two and part threeand in New Zealand.    

06 March 2016

Cardiff walks: Forest Farm Nature Reserve

If you follow Earthstar, my daily nature blog, you’ll see that I delight in the trees, canals and wildlife of Forest Farm Nature Reserve, on Cardiff’s northern boundary. It’s a favourite place to walk and not just for me – you’ll encounter birders and fungi forayers, joggers, power walkers and dog strollers along its leafy trails.

As I don’t drive and depending on how energetic I’m feeling, I either walk from my flat in Roath Park (a 90-minute stroll) or I catch a train to Radyr (bottom left) or to Coryton (centre right of the map). (I have also walked back to Cardiff via the Taff Trail that borders the reserve alongside the River Taff, but that’s a story for another blog post.)

A. From Coryton, I can either walk around or across the large meadow that runs along the top of the site, or follow the path of the old railway track, a continuation of the track that now truncates at Coryton. It can be a bit muddy in winter but is lovely during the summer and autumn.

B. Longwood is an ancient broadleaf woodland, dominated by huge oak, ash and beech trees, and a walk along its top trail affords panoramic views west and south-west towards Radyr. The trail is quite narrow and the hillside below steep, so I also avoid this area when it’s very muddy and slippery, but the trees in this wood are majestic so it’s a beautiful place to wander.

C. A remnant of the Glamorgan Canal runs through Forest Farm. When it opened in 1798, it ran between Cardiff and the iron works at Merthyr Tydfil, carrying supplies in one direction and finished product in the other. It was also used by the coal mining industries in the Taff valley. Nowadays, it’s silted up, has fallen trees draped across its waters, and provides the perfect home and feeding place for a myriad of bird life, including stunning kingfishers.

D. It’s hard to imagine boats or barges ever using this old lock, but it would have been a busy place in the 1800s. As well as the lock itself, there is a separate smaller water channel that runs through this way, which provides pretty reflections in its still waters. Passers-by leave birdseed on the stone walls of the lock, making this a good spot for bird photography, and, as there’s a conveniently sited wooden bench, it’s a lovely spot to sit a while.

E. The waterway that bisects the southern part of the reserve is the Melingriffith feeder, which once provided water to the Melingriffith Tin Plate Works a little further down the Taff. Another pleasant trail runs alongside this stream and, from the trail, you can access the bird hides where you’re almost guaranteed to see the sudden turquoise flash that marks the kingfisher feeding.

F. Along the lower part of the Glamorgan Canal, you’ll see mallards and moorhen a plenty, the occasional heron and little grebe, as well as all the smaller birds that make this lovely woodland their home. And even in winter, when the trees are mostly leafless, it’s a pretty place, with beautiful reflections in the still water.

I’m sure you can see why I love this place so much and I hope I’ve tempted you to take a stroll through Forest Farm if you’re ever in the area. Remember, you can click on the map and photos to see them full screen.