18 June 2017

Laugharne: the pressure is on

I had participated in the Laugharne fieldwork several times before. What I do with the students is take them sampling a salt marsh in the morning, and pick forams in the afternoon. It is a time-consuming activity; it is not unusual for the whole day to take 12 hours. Fourteen hours has happened too. And that every day! But there isn't much pressure on the system. I'm comfortable in my sampling and my taxonomy. But this year is different.

Having been made partially responsible for the fieldwork was a game-changer. Before the fieldwork I was jumped at by thoughts such as "Has the accommodation actually been paid? How will we get the keys to the rental vehicles? Do we have enough notebooks for the students? Have the computers been sorted? Will the student will visual problems (who doesn't answer my emails) be able to do microscope work?" and much more like that. And once there, I have these long days in the lab but it's also up to me to make the schedule every day for the next day and post it up, so the students know what time to show up where. I also have to make sure we have the vehicles to get everyone where they need to be. I also am the logical person to answer students' questions, but I hope they just go to the member of staff most relevant to their inquiry, as I only know about my own field day. And I feel responsible for making sure someone is cooking food every day.

 A few days in it seems like everything is working. This year is relatively easy; the trip is now compulsory for fewer students than in the previous years, and students are not likely to do something that costs £150 (or £90 for those on a small budget) and takes 11 days if they do not have to. Last year we had 35 students; this year only 23. The logistics are a lost easier this way! And all seems to roll on as usual; the various activities are happening as planned, people cook meals, all is well; once the trip has momentum it doesn't need much interference. Good!



15 June 2017

Back to the ladder

Some weeks ago we had returned to an obscure corner of our favourite mine. We had intended to climb one slab that had a fixed rope, and then a slab which didn't; we had brought a ladder to help that aim. In the end we went elsewhere, but we still wanted to climb that slab. We left the ladder for a later date.

That date was now. Miles was otherwise engaged so I wasn't in the dig. Only a few of us gathered at the parking lot. There had been talk of our troublesome former PhD student Rich joining that night, but he would later turn out to have initially driven to the wrong mine and thus showed up too late.

It had been a wet day and the river was swollen. We lugged a drill, bolting kit, and several ropes up. And then down to where we wanted to be. I was the first one up the first slab, and the first thing I did was check if we had a lot of rope left at the traverse we had rigged the previous time. We didn't; only some nine meters! Oh well. We had brought ropes. But there was something else; the pitch we had done even longer ago had now turned into a veritable waterfall. Oh dear!

I went up the ladder to look at the situation. I knew there were bolts there. I tried one with my spanner; the nut came off! All we needed was hangers and maillons. We had brought those! I went back to get the bolting kit. The first bolt I could rig without too much discomfort, but the next one was already within the realm of the waterfall. Oh dear. I just kept going. I didn't want to get wet for no reason! I made things worse by attaching myself to the rope (which I was attaching to my anchor points) in a rather clumsy way and thus getting stuck between a wet rock and a wet hard place. I got there, though. When I reached the top I found a convenient anchor for the rope at the top and threw the other end down; it reached all the way. David first sent another rope up, and then at my request my bag, which had sandwiches and tea in it. I needed a hot drink after this thorough drenching!

David, Jason and Jay came up too. I had a look with David at where the passage at the side went. Only to the next chamber! You could see around the corner, though. Tempting! I tried (largely unsuccessfully) to photograph the chamber, some artefacts, and the waterfall, and tried to stay warm. Jason gave me his jacket; that's the second time he's done that. David first re-rigged the drop down; I just had used one anchor and an alpine butterfly, but he likes his rigs more thorough. He then tried to rig a traverse into the next chamber. I decided to start making my way down, just to get moving and get warm; Jay was thinking the same, but for reasons of not getting home too late. We went ahead. I left my bag as David needed it for transporting the drill.

A small bottle and some det boxes on display

Jay and I came out. We had no idea how far behind us the others were! After a while I told Jay he should just go if he wanted. He did. I had to wait; I was sharing a car with David.

Twenty-five minutes after Jay and I had come out I heard the others. Good! David was carrying out his jacket. He handed it to me; it was more use around my shoulders. We went back to the cars and there I tried to get comfortable. I regretted not having brought dry underwear. And I don't like going commando! I had to accept going home in damp pants. Oh well. An acceptable sacrifice for new ground gained (by us, then; others had clearly been here before). When will I be back? Might not be for a while; I might be back in the dig soon! And that's proper new ground we're gaining there. But these forays in rarely visited terrain are quite exciting too!

13 June 2017

University in dire straits

It is already one and a half years ago I mentioned the university wasn't doing very well financially. It still isn't. It's actually worse now! All Welsh universities seem to be struggling it seems. Some English ones are, too. But the state of Bangor University, of course, is most relevant to me. For the last 1.5 years it hasn't been the case that nobody at all has been hired; we have 1.5 new lecturers in marine biology, and a new data librarian, and maybe some people in posts I don't know much about.  And there's me. That isn't much, though, especially if you think of the number of people who have either retired or chosen to go elsewhere in that period. People are gloomy and prospects are bad! We regularly get emails about that the situation is dire and that we need to save money. We have meetings within SOS as well about it. The media are buzzing with rumours on forced redundancies. But what is really going on?

On Thursday I went to a meeting organised by the three main unions (UCU, Unison, Unite) about the situation. There clearly had been some discussing going on between unions and university management. The unions wanted a guarantee on no forced redundancies, and initially the university seemed to have been willing to give that, but had withdrawn it. So now what? The deputy vice-chancellor in charge of finances would be there to give a presentation, and take some questions. Not all questions; one of the biggest lecture halls the university has (if not the biggest) was packed. People were sitting in the corridors and standing on the sides. There were more questions than he could possibly answer. But he mentioned that so far the university had been putting out fires; what they wanted to do now is make such big savings they would then actually have money to invest in the university again. How? He wasn't very clear about that.

After a while he left. Then the union reps took over. They explained there had not been any specific proposals by the university on how exactly to save that money, but a lot of suggestions had been made. Some savings were no-brainers; the university seems to spend a fortune on conference attendance and business class travel. As researchers always go to conferences on their project budget, one assumes these posts must benefit higher management. They weren't popular with the audience in that lecture hall!

Cutting conference attendance and business-class travel won't be anywhere near enough, though, so what else to do? Fire people? Have a pay cut all over university? Ask everyone to take every 10th day off? And then it gets complicated.

Firing people is not a popular option, of course. But I can imagine it shouldn't be entirely ruled out. I have worked in places where there were people without whom the university would run better than with them. It frustrated me they weren't booted out; I can't now suddenly be entirely against booting people out.

The pay cut would be OK with me. It would have to leave out the lower earners. We academics can generally do with less money, but I'm not sure if the same holds for the cleaners and security officers and whatnot. And if we get a pay cut we want the big earners to get one too! Some people, however, are worried about high-flying academics then going elsewhere and the level of research dropping off. Nobody wants that. 

The 10th day off option would be a bit weird because the work load wouldn't change. I suppose support staff who only work the hours they are paid for would get less work done, and the academics would probably keep working as hard as before but just get paid less. And I think the academics get a lot more than the support staff, so this would be an egalitarian option, but it would still be a bit twisted. What would be the impact of support staff doing 10% less work? Will the academics resent the even more blatant disconnect between the hours worked and the remuneration? And will the best people leave?

What will happen? I don't know. I'll be on fieldwork soon. I suppose I can still get my voice heard as my union (UCU) will undoubtedly keep me informed, and let me know if there will be a vote on something. All I can say now is: watch this space! I hope somehow this can get solved without too much drama. Not likely, but let's keep the faith!





11 June 2017

One Welsh book down!

It took a while but I got there! A year ago, I mentioned I was already halfway in a Welsh book. It took me a year to read the other half. I took that book with me to many places! It's been on a research cruise, in Greenland, and to the Netherlands more than once. Reading in Welsh isn't necessarily fast (although a novel in Welsh went rather swift) but this book was rather dry. I decided to push on, though. The topic was interesting, but it wasn't an unusually well-written book! Unfortunately. I know it also exists in English so I could have just switched, but I didn't.

The book is about a concentration camp in Wales where a lot of the people involved in the Easter Rising were locked up. They didn't have an awful lot to do in there, so they passed the time pretty much doing what would turn out to be starting the IRA. It's called "Y Pair Dadeni"; this means "the cauldron of rebirth" or, as I have it heard more colloquially being referred to, the Magic Cauldron. In this case, the rebirth was that of the Irish nationalist movement. And the Magic Cauldron is a theme from Welsh mythology.



So now what? I didn't have to think long about that; our Welsh course has themed chapters, and we had recently done one on Welsh literature. And there seems to be one book that is generally known as the best one ever written in Welsh: Un nos ola leuad (one moonlit night). Well, let's try that one then! No idea whatsoever what it's about (the title leaves a fair amount to the imagination) but I'll find out. Just that other people like it doesn't mean I will, but I'm sure it will be more pleasing than the previous one!

09 June 2017

Nantlle Ridge

There are some iconic walks around here. One is the Snowdon Horseshoe, which I have not done yet (I have done half several times). A much, much smaller one, but much more quiet, and still quite spectacular, is Nantlle Ridge. Tradition is to do it with two vehicles; doing the ridge both ways is a bit much, you don't want to go back through the valley (you can't avoid the road, and people drive fast there), and you can't really go back around the other side of the valley either. So one puts one car on one side of the valley, and another one on the other, and then you can do it one way on foot and the other by car. But I didn't want to wait until someone else with a car would want to team up, so I decided to go for it with my bike in the back of my car.

I decided on a Saturday, and made sure the bike was already loaded up. On Sunday I got up reasonably early, had breakfast, packed my bag, and set off. I parked near Rhyd Ddu, like I had done when I went for a walk with Monique. I got my bike out and set off. This way I would do more downhill than uphill. Good!

My colour-matched vehicles ready for the adventures


It still took a while to get to the other side of Nantlle,where I wanted to start. I had seen on the map that there is a public footpath that starts at the main road, and it doesn't quite lead to the ridge, but it goes in some semblance of the right direction. There is no official path over the ridge at all, but I knew there would be a non-official one. Good enough for me!

I found the start of the path but there was no sign. It wasn't indicated further on, either. That was not such a problem; I needed to just make sure I would walk uphill to go in the right direction. I stomped through some rough and swampy fields, climbed carefully over some walls and fences, and finally found a track. That was on the map! Now it would get easier. (The starting point of that track was too difficult to get to by bike.) I saw the track would have a junction, and another limb would go in the right direction for a few hundreds of meters. Well, I assumed it would go further. And it did! I needed to skirt an impressive cliff (Clogwyn-y-Cysgod, or Shadow Cliff) and that was easy to find. When I was almost up I stopped for coffee. Sipping the stuff I saw two tiny specs in the bottom of the valley below me make their way up to the head of the valley. And fearlessly climb up! That looked tricky.

I came through a (part old part active) slate quarry along the way


Coffee time!

View from the coffee spot: notice the path snaking steeply up

I went on. When I got to where the specs would come out onto Craig Cwm Silyn (No idea what 'Silyn' means) I saw it wasn't as steep as it had looked from where I had been sitting. It looked inviting! Trip for another day.

 Where the steep path reached the top

Now I was at the top of the ridge it became easy. The top was broad and flat for a while, until I had to do a fairly steep descent to Bwlch Dros-Bern (Pass over whatever "Pern" means) in order to climb back up onto Mynydd Tal-y-Mignedd  (Mountain at the end of the swamps). From here the mountains looked beautifully velvety. At the obelisk at the top I stopped for lunch. Three Londoners passed me; they had started in Pen-y-Pass the day before! They probably came over the top of Snowdon. Quite a hike, and very busy, I guess! I suppose they may have a sad homecoming...


Selfie with the flat landscape of Craig Cwm Silyn

 View into Cwm Pennant

Pretty bog cottom in from of a grim-looking Craig yr Ogof

I went on. Trum y Ddysgl (Ridge of the Dish) was waiting! It was very pretty. I also liked the completely empty valleys I saw on my left. Generally you couldn't even see a path in them. On the right had been Cwm Pennant (for completeness: Corrie at the top of the valley, where I had tried to run), but now my view had passed over the pass and I was seeing the main valley leading to Beddgelert again.

 Looking back on velvety Mynydd-Tal-yMignedd





Mynydd Drws y Coed, with Snowdon in the background


Trum y Ddysgl lead to Mynydd Drws y Coed (The Mountain of the Door of the Woods), from which it was actually a scramble to get down. I didn't expect that anymore! It was fun though. And I got down to y Garn (The Cairn) and I knew I would have to find a path down. I did but lost it again; oh well, I could just walk down the grassy slope. It wasn't so bad! When I was almost down I sat down to enjoy the view and an apple before I would rejoin the path I had taken with Monique. From there it was only minutes back to the car. I got there by 15:30! Not bad.

One of the empty valleys (it doesn't even have a name on the map) with Mynydd Mawr on the other side

I drove down the valley, retrieved my bike, and drove on. Slowly, as you do when passing through Caernarfon in a sunny weekend. I still was home by 16:30. What a day! I can see why that ridge has such a name. It is stunning! And I only came across three clumps of people (the Londoners, some people with a dog who whimpered at me, and a couple) while it was a sunny Sunday in June. Brilliant! I might do that trick with the car and the bike more often.

08 June 2017

More coastal runs

It would be a bit dull if I wrote up every run I did. But lumping a few together should work! I did a few closer to home, for reasons of efficiency. It started with a run close to home; looking at the map I realised that there was a lane between my home and the main road west (in the direction of places like Brynsiencyn and Aberffraw where I have done quite some runs) I hadn't tried yet. I did that first! And it was nice.

 Church in the middle of nowhere

The week after the day started really hot, so I decided to run in the woods. I sometimes go there too when it rains; there are many logging roads and these stay passable in heavy rain, while they have no traffic at all. This time though I ran almost exclusively on the paths. Very nice! And good views, as one of the paths skirts the edge of the woods, which is perched on a rock.

Two days later (it was a bank holiday weekend) I went back to Red Wharf Bay, which had been the start of my first Welsh weekend run, but when I had parked up in the west and gone further west still. Now I parked up much more centrally and ran east. The route went over a peculiar sea wall! Charming. And when I was looking for a convenient place to stop I saw a parking lot. Great! A good place from which to run the next time.

 The funny sea wall running along the eastern end of Red Wharf Bay
 People make some viewing platforms pretty! How nice.

You guessed it. The next time I started at said parking lot and ran further east still. Another nice run! A lot of rural idyll and some good views on Red Wharf Bay itself. And where I turned around you could park a car. I have two runs lined up now (I also have already picked a starting point for when I want to continue my coverage of the coastal path from Porthllechog on a day I want to go running a bit further afield!

Red Wharf Bay in the distance

06 June 2017

Productive night in the dig

After three weeks of not being in the dig, and having to do without a drill one week, I was keen to go in and get some proper work done! I wasn't sure last time how to proceed, but that happens all the time, and I was sure I would think of something.

I did what is quickly turning into a routine; I walked up to the manager's office in my civilian clothes; I would probably get sweaty and disgusting later on anyway, but there's no reason to do that any earlier than necessary. At the manager's office I met Miles, changed, and headed for the entrance.

I was very impatient due to the month of doing no drilling whatsoever in the dig, but Miles was keen to widen the lower bit, so he got the drill first. I had to make up my mind on what to drill anyway. I wiggled my way up and had a look. There was a rock quite in the way, but it would be hard to drill it. Then I wondered if I could move it. And I found out I could! There were two really big rocks that did move at some provocation. One scared me a bit; I didn't want to be below it in case it started to slide out of control, and I didn't want to be above it in case it would block my way out. I managed to carefully move it down a bit until it got itself stuck.

The other rock was smaller and could move. I first removed everything on top of it; I put that ready to chuck down when Miles would be done drilling. Then I carefully moved the big one down. It was very sharp and pointed straight at me, but I managed to move it into position to be chucked down.

While Miles got the accoutrements for his drill holes I chucked all my smaller stuff down. The big one followed later, but it wedged itself several times along the way. In the end I managed to have it thunder into the level! Very nice.

While Miles was placing charges I got the drill. I managed a hole in the big wedged rock, and another one in a rock that was firmly stuck in place, but in the way. We charged these too. Miles figured we should blow them all together; that required some intricate rigging.

We had some tea and coffee while the resin set, and then we managed to blast it all. We had a quick look before time ran out; the results were excellent! We had to go. Miles said he might be back before I am; if so, I will return to a beautiful wide and clean passage! And the next challenge is already in sight. This project stays exciting!